Alberta’s Entrepreneurial Spirit Will Get Us Through This, Not a PST

Small Business February opened with a list of academics and former politicians calling for a provincial sales tax (PST) in Alberta. In an editorial, they declared that with significant royalty hikes off the table that the only option left is another round of massive tax hike on Albertans.

At no point in their proposal did they propose addressing Alberta’s chronic spending problem – a significant lapse.

It will take a greater imagination to get Alberta back on track than simply raising another raft of taxes on Albertans already suffering.

It is true that Alberta faces massive budgetary shortfalls. The NDP inherited a deficit of $6.1 billion from the previous government. Despite raising business taxes by 20 per cent and marginal personal income tax rates by as much 50 per cent, not to mention a slate of other tax increases, the NDP managed to increase the deficit even further through massive spending increases. The 2016 deficit is anticipated to only increase from the $9.1 billion number rolled out in the fall.

These spending increases took place in an environment in which Alberta’s government was already spending $8 billion more per year than British Columbia, which is a high-cost jurisdiction. In short, Alberta’s already bloated government has become even more bloated, just when we can least afford it.

There will always be more good causes to spend public money on. There is no end to how much money can be spent on good things, but there is a point at which spending begins to generate diminishing returns.

For example, Alberta spends more per capita than any province in Canada on healthcare, yet by most measures our healthcare outcomes are below the national average. If money were the solution, Alberta would have the best healthcare in the world.

Our government has been comfortable to merely throw more money at problems since the mid-2000s; but that was during a time of high oil & natural gas prices, and when Alberta had no debt and a huge rainy-day fund to fall back on. Oil and gas prices have since plummeted, we are significantly indebted once again, $17 billion in contingency savings is gone, yet spending has not been corrected.

When the NDP introduced a raft of new and higher taxes in June, they also increased spending by an even greater sum. When the NDP imposed a new $3-billion carbon tax on Albertans, they committed to spending the vast majority of it.

Taxes have gone up, spending has gone up, and the deficit has gone up.

Advocates for a PST may be well intentioned, but I am sceptical that the revenue generated by it would go to anything but lead to another expansion of provincial government spending.

Alberta does have a revenue problem: it misspends far too much of its revenue and has proven that more of it is never enough.

Wildrose is the only party committed to a real reduction in government expenditures with a focus on front-line service delivery, to bring Alberta closer in line to the national average.

Albertans need their government to take real action to get spending under control, stimulate economic growth, and thus create jobs. Still higher taxes will not do any of these things.

But discipline, innovation and the Alberta’s entrepreneurial spirit will.

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Royalty Review Was Much Ado About Nothing

Royalty Review Panel Members, Source: Calgary Herald

Royalty Review Panel Members, Source: Calgary Herald

The good news: The NDP’s eight-month long royalty review changed pretty much nothing.

The bad news: The NDP put Alberta’s oil and gas industry through a eight-month royalty review that created massive uncertainty for investors, and likely cost jobs.

For the last two decades, the NDP have matter-of-factly declared that oil and gas companies were robbing Albertans blind by not paying their fair share of royalties. Royalties being a complicated series of regulations, it was easy for the NDP to promise that if they only raised royalty rates, Alberta could spend until the cows came home.

That was a nice sound bite in an election platform; that is, until the NDP got elected. The NDP launched their royalty review panel in June, continuing to declare that it would net them even more revenue, despite our energy sector facing one of its biggest declines in decades. NDP rhetoric made clear that in their world view, the energy sector was a bottomless money pit of money that government need only dip its net into a little deeper.

Ed Stelmach tried that in 2007 and triggered a massive capital flight to other jurisdictions, but that lesson of history didn’t matter to some.

To allay the fears of investors, the NDP smartly included on their review panel several respected industry experts like Dave Mowat and Peter Tertzakian. The inclusion of these experts went some way to calm the investment community, but it also made it less likely that a hard-core ideological royalty regime would be imposed.

Investors have nonetheless moved investment away from Alberta. While low oil prices have had a depressing effect on oil well drilling globally, the royalty review – coupled with a massive new carbon tax – have driven already limited capital investment to other, more stable and competitive jurisdictions like Saskatchewan.

The announcement of the royalty review’s conclusions on Jan. 29 came as a huge relief to industry. The government would make a few tinkering changes, but overall, the status quo would prevail.

For investors, oilfield workers, ancillary industries and every Albertan who lives a better life with a strong energy industry, this came as good news.

The royalty review was akin to a mechanic popping the hood of the car and spending a few hours talking about the need for a new engine, only to fill the washer fluid and say ‘you’re good to go’.

In this case, the car inspection cost Alberta taxpayers $3 million and months of economic uncertainty.

The NDP had however been relying on billions of dollars in new revenues to flow from higher royalties, with Finance Minister Joe Ceci promising increases as recently as his October 2015 budget speech.

The NDP’s budget predicts a 16 per cent increase in revenues to balance the budget in 2019, but in the last three years of that budget, provides zero details on how it will achieve that.

It’s fair to assume that the NDP had been banking on its royalty review to bail them out. Without the revenue bonanza that they believed was coming, how will they now close that budget hole?

In October, the projected consolidated deficit stood at $9.1 billion, using oil price assumptions that were far too optimistic, even then. Since October oil prices have continued to decline, compounding the problem.

The NDP inherited a $6.1 billion deficit from the former government and no one blames them for the price of oil, but their plans to continue increasing spending without any realistic source of revenue to pay for it is their responsibility.

Alberta’s largest job creator has been subjected to an eight-month royalty review that in the end found that they were in fact paying their fair share after being demonized. The review only caused huge investor uncertainty for eight months, cost good paying jobs, and poked another massive, multi-billion dollar hole in the NDP’s budget plans.

Still, Albertans should be grateful that smart individuals on the royalty review panel stood their ground and ensured that the final report was based on evidence, and not ideology. It could have been worse.

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Alberta Needs to Stand Up For Itself

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre (Credit: Le Devoir)

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre (Credit: Le Devoir)

Last week, Montreal mayor Denis Coderre stood with scores of other municipal politicians demanding that the Energy East pipeline project be stopped in its tracks. Like a medieval petty lord demanding a toll for transporting goods across his territory, Coderre has claimed that his municipality can now override federal jurisdiction in blocking national infrastructure under the guise of ‘social license’.

If Coderre’s opposition to the pipeline had anything to do with protecting the St. Lawrence River, he wouldn’t have dumped 8 billion litres of untreated sewage into it just a few months ago. It is quite simply about petty provincialism and extortion.

This is not how a first world country works. Before confederation, a lumber producer in Ontario (Upper Canada) would face myriad trade barriers in getting his products even to Nova Scotia. The colonial governments of Upper and Lower Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick came together to found our confederation largely for the purposes of free trade; that is, that Canadian provinces could move products across each others borders without impediment.

Under our constitution, the provinces are invested with significant independence over areas of their own jurisdiction, but inter-provincial trade falls clearly under the federal government’s powers.

In 2015, politicians in British Columbia – and especially Quebec – are attempting to rewrite this important part of the constitution not through formal amendment, but extortion.

Since just 2007, Quebec has received $73.9 billion in Equalization transfer payments, paid for in large part by Alberta taxpayers and our energy industry.

The myopic demands of Coderre make plain that he is happy to accept Alberta’s oil money, but not Alberta’s oil.

Canada imports $26 billion worth of oil from foreign producers every year, most of it from cruel dictatorships with little to no environmental standards whatsoever.

Energy East would move unprocessed oil from Alberta – which lacks further refining capacity – to Quebec and New Brunswick, which have excess refining capacity. This would allow Eastern Canada to buy its oil right here at home, provide badly needed jobs in Atlantic Canada, and provide desperately needed access to international markets for Western Canada.

This is a nation-building project on par with the Canadian Pacific Railway and the TransCanada Highway. The biggest difference is that it won’t cost a penny of taxpayers’ money.

The proposed pipeline largely exists already, and merely requires upgrading to convert it from gas to oil. That upgrading would make the pipeline even safer than it already is as it passes through Montreal.

Alberta has world-leading environmental standards that are just not recognized by Hollywood activists and hard-left political parties at home. Alberta’s environmental problem has been one mostly of image, not substance.

Piling onto an energy industry already battered by low global oil prices and an unnecessary royalty review, Alberta’s NDP imposed a massive new $3 billion a year carbon tax, with the promise that it would buy Alberta ‘social license’ for pipelines.

It hasn’t.

When Ontario’s auto industry’s last ran into trouble, the federal government bailed them out to the tune of $3.5 billion. With Quebec’s Bombardier in trouble, the provincial government recently bailed it out with $1 billion, and is demanding another $1 billion from the federal government.

Alberta does not want or need bailouts. Alberta does need increased transfer payments or to collect Equalization. What we need are partners. Partners that will help create jobs and grow the economy for all Canadians.

Good Canadians want each other to succeed and we don’t define our success relative to the failure of others. We should continue to be helpful, contributing members of the Canadian family, but if leaders in some parts of our country act as Coderre has done, then we must stand up for ourselves.

It is the federal government’s constitutional responsibility to ensure that national infrastructure projects – like pipelines – are allowed to be built if the National Energy Board agrees that they meet the criteria laid out in legislation.

Dialogue and cooperation is the best path forward, but Alberta must stop giving credence to the petty lords of confederation who subvert the constitution that this country was built on.

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New Years Resolutions to the People of Strathmore-Brooks

o-NEW-YEARS-RESOLUTIONS-facebookAs 2015 comes to a close and 2016 dawns, many Albertans are scribbling down a few New Years resolutions: lose weight or learn a second language, things like that. But while you may be reviewing the promises that you made to yourself in 2015, I am reviewing the promises that I made to you in 2015.

I’ve gone back through all of the articles that I wrote in the Brooks Bulletin, Strathmore Times, Strathmore Standard and Bassano Times to recount as many of those promise as I can fit in this article and report on them to you.

Now, my only disclaimer here is that as an opposition MLA, I can only push the government on policies, and cannot force the NDP government to do anything due to their majority.

Financial Accountability: On March 16th, I committed to fixing the PC accounting system that allows the government to keep billions in spending from being reported in the annual deficit. This allowed the former government to spend most of the $17 billion Sustainability Fund and take on $14 billion in new debt without reporting on it as a deficit.

I personally met with the Finance Minister to push for a restoration of accountable finances. He made clear to me that the old system suited him just fine and that no changes would be made.

I continued to push for this however in the legislature. I introduced amendments to the NDP’s new budgetary framework that would have fixed some of the government’s accounting practices. Unfortunately, the NDP voted each of these amendments down.

Recall Legislation: On March 17th I committed that I would push to give voters ‘recall’ legislation to hold your MLA accountable between elections. This legislation would allow citizens to collect enough signatures to force a by-election in a particular constituency if they felt that their MLA no longer represented them.

Our neighbouring Wildrose MLA for Chesteremere-Rockyview, Leela Aheer, introduced Bill 206, the Voter Recall Act as a private members bill in November. Unfortunately, Wildrose was the only party who spoke in favour of the bill and the NDP recessed the house before it could come to a vote.

Get Big Money out of Politics: On March 23rd I promised you that I would fight to get the influence of big money out of politics. For too long, corporations and unions would make the right donations to political parties and have those favours returned in the form of subsidies, contracts and other forms of special treatment.

In June, the NDP introduced a bill that would ban corporate and union donations. The Wildrose, Liberals and Alberta Party all supported it, however my colleagues and I argued that the bill still left several major loopholes open.

Cut Spending Before Raising Taxes: On March 25th I promised that I would never raise taxes on everyday Albertans without first doing everything possible to ensure that your money was being spent wisely. This followed the former government’s budget that raised taxes on the average Alberta family by $2,400 without any significant reduction in government expenditures.

Well as you know, we have an NDP government in power, and raising taxes, debt and spending at the same time is what they do. The NDP kept many of the PC tax hikes, and added plenty of their own on top of that including a $3 billion carbon tax, a 20% increase in business taxes and a 50% increase in personal income taxes on some earners.

I’ve spent many hours arguing against doing this in the legislature, but in the end, the parties favouring higher taxes outvoted us.

Health and Seniors Care: On April 20th I committed to make seniors care and health care infrastructure a top local priority if elected. I’ve reached across the aisle to try and work with the NDP with mixed results, but some progress.

We received final commitment from the government in the fall budget for the provincial portion of funding for the Bassano Project, which will help to provide a broad range of seniors care servicing the entire Brooks and Newell region. Final sign-off from Alberta Health Services (AHS) is still outstanding, but I am confident that it will come soon.

I’ve been repeatedly pushing the government privately in letters, and publicly in the legislature to finally move forward on the desperately needed upgrade to Strathmore’s busy emergency room. While no progress is assured yet, we are beginning to see glimmers of hope. More information will hopefully be coming soon.

As well, I have been working with the Brooks and Region Health Foundation to secure the government’s portion of the funding for a Brooks Dialysis Centre.

I’ve made several visits to most of our seniors homes in the constituency to speak directly to those receiving and delivering services on the front line. While many are happy with the care they receive, some are not, and I am taking those concerns directly to management. I will continue to closely monitor the state of seniors care in our constituency.

Stand Up for Rural Alberta: On April 20th I promised that I and the Wildrose would make rural Alberta a priority and that we would stand up for it when pushed around by the government.

When the NDP introduced Bill 6 and tried to ram it down the throats of farmers and ranchers without any consultation, my colleagues and I did everything in our power to slow it down. We filibustered the bill from the morning sitting of the legislature until the early hours of the next day’s morning to try and force the NDP to send the bill to a committee to listen to farmers before passing it into legislation.

In the end, the NDP invoked debate closure, which effectively shuts the legislature down and automatically passed the bill without further debate. Still, we managed to force major amendments to the bill, which removed some of its most extreme and objectionable parts.

Resolutions for 2016

Space does not permit me to go through every promise I made to you in 2015, but I have done my best to stay true to the trust that you placed in me last year. It has truly been an honour to represent you in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, and I will work as hard as I possible can to do that as best as possible in 2016.

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How Far We’ve Come

Smith and Prentice. Source: Brock Harrison

Smith and Prentice. Source: Brock Harrison

One year ago today, nine former Wildrose MLAs crossed the floor to sit on the government benches.

One year ago today, virtually every pundit and political scientist in Alberta wrote Wildrose off for dead, and with reasonable justification.

One year ago today, the wheels of history began to turn in a direction that would lead directly to an NDP government and where we are today.

With 72 seats in the legislature and facing a pitiful rump of an opposition, the consensus was former Premier Jim Prentice was poised almost certainly to continue the previous government’s 44 year reign. Wildrose was decapitated, leaderless and its very existence appeared to most to be at an end.

Just days after the floor crossing, I attended the Wildrose Christmas “party” in the Highwood Constituency, until then represented by those members’ party leader. I didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a room full of shell-shocked party members – who despite the incredible betrayal they had just suffered – almost unanimously rejected following  their  former leader. That night, I knew that the party still had some fight in it, and that if it could be rallied, that it would be a force more motivated than it ever had been before.

I asked myself a simple question: “If the Wildrose didn’t exist, would we have to invent it?” The answer was simple for me.

In the confusion of what should have been a happy Christmas season, Heather Forsyth stepped up to the the plate as our interim leader on December 22, 2014. In a crowded basement in Calgary, she spoke for the 442,000 Albertans who had just had their votes stolen from them.

Heather Forsyth, Source: CBC

Heather Forsyth, Source: CBC

Friends and I gathered over the holidays to map out a path forward.

For us, the very future of conservatism as a political force in Alberta was at stake. Facing these odds, it felt like the weight of the world was on us.

There was considerable pressure placed on Wildrose candidates, members and supporters to give up the fight in exchange for a comfortable place at the table.

A commitment to conservative principles and ideas was undermined in an undemocratic  move made by insiders and not Albertans.

But even as we tried to pick ourselves up off the mat, it became obvious that we were careening towards an early election that we were not anywhere close to ready for.

Brian Jean and Derek Fildebrandt campaigning in Strathmore: Credit Strathmore Standard

Brian Jean and Derek Fildebrandt campaigning in Strathmore: Credit Strathmore Standard

Despite losing his son, Brian Jean won our leadership race and led Wildrose into an election just a week and a half after taking over the party.

The budget raised 59 new or higher taxes, costing the average household $2,400 a year. I joked at the time that it was Alberta’s first NDP budget. Until Notley’s budget a few months later, it constituted the single largest tax increase in Alberta’s history. Believing Wildrose to be dead, it was a miscalculated left-turn to blunt the NDP. In the end, the budget was viewed by people across the political spectrum as yet another cynical power play.

Still, Wildrose could not entirely overcome the bone-deep damage done by the floor-crossings in time. Many voters still saw the defectors as “Wildrose” floor-crossers, and had a difficult time distinguishing between between those MLAs, and the Wildrose Party itself. It was difficult for many to believe that the Wildrose was capible of challenging for government after such revent events.

While the NDP formed a majority government, Wildrose finished with 21 seats – forming the largest official opposition in a generation.

With the previous government relegated to a distant third place and nearly extinct as a political force in rural and small-town Alberta, Wildrose is now focusing on growing in major urban centres as a critical part of forming government in 2019. Our victory in Calgary-Foothills was a major step forward in this. But while the Wildrose may be the strongest conservative party in the race, there still remain good conservatives who were PCs during the last election.

The new Wildrose Caucus Comes to the Legislature

The new Wildrose Caucus Comes to the Legislature

Thoughts have begun to turn towards how conservatives – broadly speaking – can form government in 2019. Just this week, PC MLA Mike Ellis and I held a Christmas Pub Night, open to members of both parties to get to know one another. Roughly 200 people came out to just talk to each other and see if there are enough common values and principles.

But just as there were politicians who refused to join a consolidated conservative movement federally, I expect that some of the old elements of the PC party would not be a good fit in such a project in Alberta. Further, those who so badly breached the trust of Albertans in last December’s events have a long road back in regaining any trust, and would be well advised to let the conversation take place in their absence at this time if they want it to succeed.

As emotional, bruising and often hurtful as the events of the last year have been, I believe that it’s time to have an honest and frank discussion about the future of the conservative movement in Alberta.

Many conservative Wildrosers and conservative PCs did find common ground at Monday night’s get-together, but it’s a long road ahead that must be driven by the grassroots, and not MLAs or party elites.

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Bill 6 Shows Albertans Can Fight Back

Young constituents from Strathmore-Brooks at the Bassano town hall meeting

Young constituents from Strathmore-Brooks at the Bassano town hall meeting

The recent pushback from Albertans against their government over Bill 6 shows that even against the odds, the people of our province have the ability to stand up for themselves when their backs are up against the wall.

People make mistakes, and governments are made up of people, so governments are bound to make mistakes. What matters is how we deal with and learn from those mistakes. Ralph Klein was famous for regularly making mistakes, but even more so for his genuine apologies.

By contrast, the NDP made a colossal mistake with Bill 6, but just ploughed ahead with it, critics be damned.

The original form of Bill 6 would have allowed OH&S bureaucrats to come onto people’s private, residential property without a warrant to ensure that everything met government regulations. The original Bill 6 would have required that unpaid farm kids would have to be insured under the Workers Compensation Board.

Farmers and ranchers immediately began to ask serious questions of the government and express worry that the bill was being rushed through the legislature without any consultation. These farmers and ranchers were immediately brushed off by the premier as extremists who were opposed to farm safety.

Right after the bill was tabled in the legislature, virtually every provincial media outlet endorsed Bill 6 before reading it; after all, who was opposed to farm safety?

Almost immediately, my offices in Strathmore, Brooks and in Edmonton were all swamped by emails and phone calls from constituents who wanted me to fight Bill 6 on their behalf. It became quickly apparent that Bill 6 did much more than was advertised by the government.

The Wildrose Caucus and I quickly understood that even if the bill was popular with the media and (for the time being) in the big cities, it was the right thing to fight it.

We were not opposed to legislation that improved farm safety, but we were opposed to any bill that had not consulted with the people it affected most: farmers and ranchers.

Farmers came out to rallies in Lethbridge, Red Deer, Medicine Hat and Edmonton by the thousands. They had a simple message to the government: “Listen!”

The NDP scrambled to hold a few last minute “town-hall” meetings where a minister or bureaucrat would explain how the legislation would have to be complied with. They were not intended to be a forum of farmers and ranchers to tell the government what the legislation should look like.

The NDP initially refused to hold any town halls whatsoever in our constituency of Strathmore-Brooks, despite being one of the most agriculture intensive constituencies in the entire country.

Between 500 and 600 constituents came out to the Bassano town hall meeting to discuss Bill 6 with me and several other Wildrose MLAs who also attended. To his credit, the Minister of Agriculture, Oneil Carlier also attended. The message from constituents to the minister was clear: “Kill Bill 6.”

Albertans in Calgary and Edmonton began to stand with us against an attack on the family farm, and the refusal of the government to listen to reason.

Unlike many in our government, the majority of Albertans know and appreciate the cultural values of farm life and the history of this province are tightly weaved together.

Once the NDP made clear that it would not put the legislation on hold until the spring in order to consult, my Wildrose colleagues and I decided to fight the bill with every tool at our disposal. In short, that meant that we debated the bill exhaustively, often going well into the early hours of the morning in the legislature, and providing proactive amendments to have the bill sent back to committee.

Despite condemning the practice as extremely undemocratic while they were in opposition, the NDP quickly invoked “debate closure,” which more a less just shuts down the legislature and automatically passes the bill. We did everything legal within our means to delay the bill, but in the end, the NDP rammed it through.

Political pressure on the NDP was strong enough however to force them to concede some amendments, but not to slow the bill down and consult with farmers and ranchers first. Still, those amendments did significantly water down the bill from its original form. Namely: the bill will no longer require family members from having mandatory WCB coverage, and the bill no longer allows OH&S bureaucrats into your home to conduct inspections without a warrant.

There are still huge problems with the bill, and if Albertans elect a Wildrose government in the future, I am committed to thoroughly reviewing the legislation. But in the end, Albertans pushed back against their government, and to some degree, won.

I truly hope that the premier and the NDP have learned a lesson about consulting with Albertans first and when to put the brakes on something that isn’t well thought out first; but if they have not, you can count on the Wildrose to remind them again.

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Bill 6 Should Consult Farmers First

Farmers rally against Bill 6 in Edmonton

Farmers rally against Bill 6 in Edmonton

The NDP government recently introduced Bill 6, dealing with safety and labour issues on farms. The bill has in a very short period of time attracted considerable attention from concerned farmers and ranchers.

My offices in Strathmore, Brooks and Edmonton have been flooded by hundreds of calls and emails from farmers and ranchers who have not been consulted about the bill. My Facebook page has had dozens and dozens of posts on it from people in Wheatland County and Newell County trying to make their voices heard, but who are being ignored by the government as they try to ram Bill 6 through the legislature without consulting them first.

On the surface, Bill 6 tries to update our farm safety regulations – something that is welcome, especially for larger operations – but does so in a way entirely ignorant of agriculture, rural traditions and the reality of the family farm. It amends or repeals no less than seven codes, acts, and regulations, and represents a basic change to how farmers are allowed to do business.

Nobody objects to farm safety – least of all the men and women who run them – but Bill 6 has consequences that go well beyond safety.

The bill removes the distinction between family farms and other businesses. It treats a small family farm the same as a large corporate-owned farm, or even a factory assembly line. This means that farmers must follow government guidelines before they allow their children to do any work on the farms or in their homes.  It also means that government OHS inspectors will be able to enter farmyards and homes without notice, and search and seize property without a warrant.

The bill also deals with labour issues, allowing for the unionization of farms without the owner’s consent, as if a farm were a large factory. The agriculture minister’s background as a paid union organizer raises serious questions about the real intent of Bill 6.

The addition of mandatory WCB coverage is effectively a 2-3% tax on most payrolls. These changes come on top of a new, $3 billion carbon tax, which is sure to have a negative effect on farmers who will pay more, especially to get products to market.

The worst part however, is that these changes are being rammed through the legislature without consulting farmers first.  A token show is being made of public consultations after Bill 6 was written and tabled in the legislature.

These ‘town halls’ are more ‘town-tells,’ where bureaucrats have been sent to explain the legislation to farmers and ranchers, but not to solicit real feedback from them about what the legislation should actually look like. Further, only a handful of these ‘town halls’ are being held across the entire province, with seating limited far below the demand to attend them.

Here in Strathmore-Brooks, my phones have been ringing off the wall from farmers and ranchers who just want to be listened to and consulted, but the NDP has refused to hold a single session in our constituency despite being one of the most agriculture-intensive constituencies in Canada.

As such, I’ve booked the Bassano Elk’s Lodge for Saturday, December 5th at 2:00 pm for an emergency Bill 6 town hall meeting. I encourage all farmers, ranchers and other constituents affected by Bill 6 to come out and tell me what you want me to advocate for in Edmonton. This is your chance to gather together and tell me what parts of Bill 6 are reasonable and acceptable, and what parts need to be improved.

The Wildrose Opposition represents most of rural Alberta, and a large number of our caucus members are farmers and ranchers. We get rural Alberta. That’s why we haven’t done the easy thing and rubber-stamped this bill despite its near universal endorsement from provincial media outlets and labour union groups when it was introduced.

You sent me to the legislature to represent you to Edmonton, and not Edmonton to you. To do that effectively, please join me on December 5th in Bassano and tell me what message I should carry back with me.

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Progress for Health & Seniors Care in Strathmore-Brooks

Strathmore Hospital: Credit CBCIt’s important to give credit where credit is due. The NDP government’s October 27th budget contained in it plenty of bad news: record spending, record debt and higher taxes. Despite the bad economic and fiscal news, it does contain in it some good news that shouldn’t be ignored.

During the spring provincial election, I committed to you that I would champion local health and seniors care infrastructure as our most important local issues in Strathmore-Brooks. This includes a badly needed upgrade to the busy Strathmore Hospital’s emergency room, support efforts to raise money to build a dialysis centre in Brooks, and push for the approval of the Bassano Project.

One day after the budget was tabled, the government announced that the Bassano project would be approved. This is very good news for the people of Strathmore-Brooks.

The Bassano Project is a plan led by the Newell Foundation intended to integrate independent living, supportive living, long-term care, primary care and acute care.

It is a non-profit arrangement that required two things from the Alberta government: 1) Approval of the Affordable Supportive Living Initiative (ASLI) grant, and 2) Go-ahead from the province that the Bassano Project can be seamlessly integrated with the Bassano Health Centre.

As of now, the ASLI grant has been approved. This has long been promised by the government, and thankfully followed through on.

The only major obstacle that remains for the project to go forward is approval from the province for integration with the Bassano Health Centre.

In the Legislature on November 28th, I thanked the Minister of Health for approving the ASLI grant, and pressed her to give the go-ahead for the integration of the health centre with the Bassano Project. Unfortunately, politics can get in the way of even a relatively non-political issue, and we didn’t get much in the way of an answer from the minister.

This is not to say that the government will not approve the integration (I expect that it will in the end), but this is something that we will need to continue pressing on for the time being.

Concurrently, the Brooks and District Health Foundation (BDHF) is working hard to raise money to build a much needed dialysis centre in Brooks.

Right now, patients requiring dialysis treatment in the Brooks region have to travel all the way to Medicine Hat. For many patients, that can mean three trips or more to Medicine Hat in a week. Needless to say, this is extremely disruptive for anyone trying to live a normal life.

Brooks has now grown to the point where it has the population (and unfortunately the patients) necessary to warrant its own treatment centre; but rather than rely solely on the government, the BDHF have taken the lead themselves. They estimate that the project will cost $3.5 million; $3 million for infrastructure and $500,000 for equipment. The BDHF have set as their target to raise $1.5 million (43%) towards the project.

In September, the BHDF raised roughly $50,000 at their sold out Fashion Frenzy Gala. Hundreds of people from Brooks and the surrounding area came out to support this community initiative.

To date, the BHDF has raised $125,000. We have a long way to go yet, but we will meet that $1.5 million goal. I will continue to push the Government of Alberta to meet its funding requirement for this project.

I also had the opportunity to visit most of the seniors care facilities in both Strathmore and Brooks recently. I spoke to the staff, patients and their families. The reviews have been mixed, with some patients quite happy with the care they are receiving, and others not. Some of the concerns that I heard repeatedly from patients and residents, I discussed directly with staff and management.

I will continue to meet regularly with our seniors in care, listen to their concerns, and advocate on their behalf.

Strathmore’s overcrowded emergency room – one of the busiest in rural Alberta – also continues to be a priority for me. Thus far, we have received no commitment to expanding the emergency room, despite the government pledging $4.5 billion for the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, which would make it the single most expensive hospital in the world. It is a disturbing trend in the new government towards centralization in AHS, and away from local healthcare delivery and decision-making.

In this budget, let’s give credit where credit is due; but let’s also hold the government to account where it falls short.

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Budget Takes us from Bad to Worse

fildebrandt and jeanAlberta’s NDP finally introduced their long-awaited first budget on October 27th. It won’t come as any surprise to readers that as a fiscally conservative Wildrose MLA, I’m not a big fan of it, but there are many reasons that Albertans should be concerned.

Before the budget was even introduced, Alberta was left a significant deficit and a massive spending problem by previous governments; but rather than make things better, the NDP government is doubling down on old policies.

As a province, we have already run 8 consecutive deficits resulting in the near liquidation of the $17 billion rainy-day Sustainability Fund, and currently we have run up $14 billion in debt.

Budget 2015 will accelerate Alberta’s fiscal decline by taking on at least $47.4 billion in debt by 2019 under the most optimistic economic scenario. Without explaining how, the budget projects an economic boom in 2018 and 2019 to balance the budget in 2020. Without a steep increase in oil prices and this unforeseen boom, we will remain in deficit for further yet.

To borrow even more money, the government will yet again raise Alberta’s fluid ‘debt ceiling’ for the second time in three years.’ I fear that this will become a regular occurrence, as governments bend their own rules whenever they come close to breaking them. The change in borrowing rules will also allow deficit financing for the government’s day-to-day operations, something that hasn’t happened since Getty was premier.

A large portion of higher spending will be to pay interest on the spiking debt. This will soon be about $1.3 billion a year in interest payments. This is the equivalent of the combined departments of Aboriginal Affairs, Status of Women, Service Alberta, Seniors, Jobs, Skills and Labour, and the Legislative Assembly. Put another way, the Alberta could run six entire departments for free if we were not paying interest on the debt.

Beyond just interest on the debt, the budget contains in it no plan to pay back any of the principal. Without such a plan, we are at a serious risk of a credit downgrade as a province. That would mean that every dollar that our government borrows for itself and municipalities would cost even more.

Of the $9.7 billion deficit, $6.1 billion is the fault of new spending. This is despite $2.7 billion in new taxes. In fact, 80% of every new dollar collected in higher taxes on Albertans and Alberta businesses will go straight into higher pay and benefits for government employees.

That isn’t to say that all spending in the budget is wasteful or even bad. For example, the budget finally follows through on key pieces of infrastructure that every party is in favour of.

But at $50 billion a year and growing, our budget is not an efficient one. We are still spending more than $2,000 a year per capita on government operations than BC’s government does.

Record levels of spending – paid for with record levels of debt – will merely leave the bill for future taxpayers to pay.

Albertans do not want to go through the pain that they went through the last time our debt chickens came home to roost in the 90’s. Putting today’s bills on the credit card will only assure that that day will come sooner rather than later.

As your Official Opposition, the Wildrose caucus is standing up for Albertans every day in the legislature for responsible government and fiscal prudence.

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The Conscience of a Canadian Conservative on October 20th

2015 election map2015 Election MapYou can pick your friends. You can’t pick your family. You can pick your government, but mostly you’re struck with what several million others have picked for you.

As it happens – I and the vast majority of Albertans – are stuck with what others picked for us. That’s the way democracy works.

While I have deep concerns about the capacity of Prime Minister-elect Trudeau and his Liberals, it is not the end of the world to be on the losing side, as many partisans feel during or after elections. As a mature democracy, we are capable of surviving a restoration of the Trudeau dynasty, however painful it may be.

And while no political party ever volunteers for it, losing an election can on occasion be a positive and regenerating process. The Conservative Party of Canada could benefit from such a process.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has left his mark on Canadian history and will be remembered as a giant. He united two dilapidated warring conservative factions facing oblivion into a single party that ended Liberal hegemony. He steadily increased the vote share of the Conservatives in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011.

Beyond electoral success, he did many things for Canada. He ended the Wheat Board’s oppressive monopoly over Western Canadian grain farmers. He scrapped the Long Gun Registry and the per-vote subsidy to political parties. He passed the Accountability Act following the Liberal Sponsorship Scandal. He wrestled the federal government’s deficit to the ground, and he cut taxes on the middle class and job creators.

There is much to be proud of, but it wasn’t an unblemished record.

While the Liberals, NDP and Bloc certainly deserved much of the blame for the corporate auto bailout and the plunge back into deficit in 2008-09, the Conservatives adopted these ideas as their own and arguably went further than was politically required by the opposition. This left federal spending out of control for several years and resulted in significant unnecessary increases to the national debt.

While taxes were cut, not all tax changes were necessarily positive. The Income Tax Act is now 3,314 pages long and riddled with dozens upon dozens of exemptions. These countless exemptions narrowly target tax relief, making it difficult to provide broad-based tax relief.

The Equalization program continues to suck money out of Alberta to reward the Ontario Liberal government for driving that once proud economy into the ground.

While the Conservatives never had a scandal that held a candle to the Sponsorship Scandal, they have had their ethical breaches, a la Mike Duffy. While no prime minister has ever taken Senate reform more seriously than Stephen Harper, many of the appointments made to the Red Chamber have been as poor as those made by Liberal prime ministers before him.

On balance, Stephen Harper has been a successful prime minister, but it is hard not to feel that the last four years contained more than a few missed opportunities.

An important lesson from this election is that if your opponents are going to hate you, then your supporters need to back you with equal vigor. Thatcher and Reagan were similarly hated by the left in their own countries, but their supporters saw and felt a real sense of mission in what they were doing.

Many Harper Haters have driven themselves into a mad frenzy in their vitriolic hatred of the man.

Canadian conservatives may overwhelmingly support the Conservative Party, but they no longer do so with the same enthusiasm that they once did. The zeal and mission that possessed the Conservatives to storm Ottawa in 2004, 2006 and 2008 waned by 2011. It waned further in 2015.

The Conservatives appear to have relied on the self-evident insufficiency of Trudeau and Mulcair to bring a default victory to them. The Conservatives gave Canadians many reasons to vote against Trudeau, but failed to provide Canadians a compelling reason to vote for the Conservatives.

I have a hard time understanding what the Conservatives were seeking in a new mandate, other than to deprive Justin Trudeau of his first real job.

I am worried about what a Trudeau Restoration means for Canada – and especially for Alberta.  But clearly Conservatives – and especially conservatives – need to reflect and learn from Monday’s defeat.

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