If you’re Premier Jim Prentice and his recently enlarged caucus, the answer to the headline is a resounding “YES!” And so to kick off what should be a year full of promise-making and promise-breaking, I’ve gathered together a list of promises made and already (or about to be) broken by Prentice and his government.
After promising an increase of more than two percent to post-secondary institutions during the 2012 election, Alison Redford reneged and delivered $147 million in budget cuts—a decrease of more than seven percent. Institutions across the province were forced to cut programs, staff and student spaces. By the time the leadership campaign to replace Redford rolled around, more than half of the funding had been restored and Prentice, at a candidates’ forum in Edmonton, pledged to restore the remainder. While he hasn’t delivered on that, he did deliver massive market-modifier tuition increases a few days before Christmas—a thing he hadn’t promised.
Alberta Health Services board
Former Minister of Health Fred Horne fired the entire AHS board last year following a standoff over bonuses for senior executives. Perhaps because the board was subsequently vindicated, Prentice vowed during the PC leadership race to reinstate it if he won. Speaking to the Calgary Herald’s editorial board in September, he reiterated his view that the health system had been “overcentralized” and again promised to bring back an independent board to manage the $18-billion health system. He didn’t. Instead, he appointed former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel as minister of health and, later, Carl Amrhein, previously the University of Alberta’s provost, as administrator of AHS. While it remains unclear how Mandel’s background as a property developer and Amrhein’s multiple degrees in geography and experience as a university administrator are going to fix a broken health-care system, what is clear is that this is a promise made and broken.
Human Rights Act amendment
In 2010, the provincial government passed Bill 44, which amended the Human Rights Act to allow parents to pull their kids out of class if and when sexuality, sexual orientation or religion are discussed. Acknowledging long-standing criticisms that the legislation undermined efforts to teach tolerance and inclusion, Redford had promised she would eliminate the clause during her leadership bid in 2011. Oddly, she never managed to get around to it before her resignation three years later.
During the PC leadership campaign this past summer, candidate Ric McIver expressed his wholehearted support of the clause. For this and a couple of pretty good other reasons, McIver was lambasted for his social-conservative views. Much less focus was placed on Prentice, who echoed McIver’s support for the clause, although somewhat less passionately. In fact, shortly after being sworn in as Premier, Prentice told CBC Radio that he had no intention of revisiting the Act, telling the host he views it as his job to ensure the rights of Albertans are balanced.
Which brings us to Bill 10
After first promising that he would allow his caucus to have a free vote on Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s Bill 202, which would grant any student who wanted to start a Gay-Straight Alliance in their school the right to do so, Prentice announced his government would introduce its own legislation, through Bill 10. Some people were duped into thinking the bill, though flawed, was a step in the right direction because it would remove that contentious section 11.1 from the Alberta Human Rights Act; that thing Prentice promised he wouldn’t do. After much public outcry, the Premier announced he was putting the bill on “pause.” Mission accomplished: the Human Rights Act remains intact. So this is a promise the Prentice kept, but not in a good way.
Patronage, cronyism and entitlement
Throughout the leadership campaign, Prentice promised to do away with the patronage and cronyism that had tainted the party in the past, and he was also very critical of the pay and severance packages offered to political staffers under Redford. Yet, within days of winning the leadership, he put both of his campaign co-chairs and others who had supported his campaign on the public payroll. Moreover, Global News recently reported that the annual total compensation paid to Prentice’s office staff is estimated at $4 345 270, only slightly less than the $4 396 000 budgeted by Redford.
During the 2011 PC leadership race and the 2012 election, Redford pledged to implement full-day kindergarten by the fall of 2013. The province estimated at the time the program would cost approximately $200 million. Oil prices were more than $100 a barrel in the fall of 2013, but full-day kindergarten wasn’t implemented then and it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen now as oil prices dip below $50 a barrel. Gordon Dirks, Minister of Education, told the Calgary Herald in a year-end interview that “straightened financial circumstances” would make funding all-day kindergarten “a challenge.”
Eyebrows were raised and ethics complaints were filed when Prentice and his unelected ministers Dirks and Mandel used their government roles to make spending announcements during the by-election campaigns they were contesting last October. Among these announcements was a promise to build 75 new schools. This was on top of the 50 new schools and 70 school modernizations that Redford had promised in 2013.
The throne speech on November 17 reiterated the promise of 75 additional schools and boasted that the 230 announced projects would be completed by 2018, making this “the largest school construction project in Canadian history.” Oil prices that day were $75. In Edmonton, a new replacement school for three public schools in the northeast had been slated to open in September 2016 and has already been delayed until 2017.
This was one of Prentice’s more bizarre promises in that it would probably be illegal. During the leadership campaign he promised to implement term limits for MLAs. He said he felt MLAs should be limited to three terms and premiers to two. After much guffawing from pundits across the land, Prentice stopped talking about term limits in terms of promises, telling reporters it will be an “operative philosophy” rather than a rule. Um, OK.
Redford rankled the feathers of a lot of rural folk with a package of laws that restricted property rights. Declaring during the leadership campaign that he was “passionate” about property rights, Prentice vowed to set things right. And while Bill 1, his first piece of legislation, did repeal Bill 19, critics note that Bill 19 was the least controversial and most benign of the package. Remaining on the books is Bill 24, which deals with underground property rights; Bill 36, which gives cabinet the power to deny people access to the courts and compensation; and Bill 2, which eliminated a landowner’s statutory right to a hearing and the right to notification when government approves an energy project on private property.
In September, Prentice pledged to triple the number of Disaster Recovery Program staff who were still dealing with claims from the 2013 floods in southern Alberta. He said that by increasing staff from six to 18, all outstanding claims would be cleared by the end of 2014. At the time, according to the province’s press release, 8000 of 10 500 DRP claims had been closed with 677 files under appeal: 120 in Calgary and 338 in High River. According to a Municipal Affairs spokesperson, all appeals have now been settled and 80 percent of the claims have been closed. Considering just over 76 percent had been closed when the announcement was made in September, this is progress. Progress, yes, but still a broken promise.
Climate change strategy
“We will meet the challenge of demonstrating real environmental leadership through meaningful action,” Prentice pledged in November’s speech from the throne. In interviews following the speech, he promised to deliver a new climate-change framework before the fall sitting of the legislature ended in mid-December.
“Albertans want us to excel. They will see far-sighted policy that looks 25 years ahead that deals with carbon emissions, but also deals with other important aspects of protecting the environment,” Prentice said.
Well, that was then and this is now. Why should we expect anything different from a government that has been promising since 2008 to deliver a climate-change framework? In fact, the auditor general recently blasted the government for failing to meet emissions targets, failing to monitor results and failing to publish even one single document detailing the plan’s progress. And so Prentice again made the promise, and he even put a date on it. Then, just after China and the US signed a climate-change deal, Prentice announced that more work is needed and we wouldn’t be able to see the strategy until the new year.
Fixed-ish election date law
After promising during the 2011 leadership race to implement a fixed-election date law, specifically that her government would hold an election in March 2012 and every four years after that, Redford passed a watered-down version during the fall sitting that year. The fixed-election date law on the books calls for an election in March, April or May of 2016. In recent media interviews, however, Prentice has refused to rule out a snap election this spring. Does it still count as a broken promise if the Premier breaks a previous premier’s province? Yes. Yes, it does.
More long-term care beds
With more than 1000 seniors on waiting lists for senior-care facilities, most people could understand the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees’ President Guy Smith’s cynicism when Mandel announced, during the October by-election campaign that the government would reopen 464 care spaces. “Albertans deserve to know why Alberta Health Services closed them in the first place,” Smith said in a press release.
The AHS Annual Report shows the government closed almost 200 long-term care beds last year alone. We haven’t heard much from Kerry Towle, the former Opposition Health Critic, since she crossed the floor to the governing party, but she was very good at her previous job so I’ll give the last word on this pseudo promise to her: “Focusing only on creating supportive living spaces fails to seriously address the crisis facing our health-care system,” Towle said when she still held the position. “It is more of the same failed approach tried by former Health Minister Fred Horne and is a disappointing sign that the new management is starting to look a lot like the old management. They’ll close beds today, reopen them tomorrow, and expect Albertans to believe we’re somehow ahead.”
2015 promises to be an exciting year for political watchers, while for people who rely on government services, it promises to be as rough a ride as we saw when Ralph Klein took an axe to the provincial government in 1993. So let’s take a cup o’ kindness yet. You know, for auld lang syne.