Announcement to create an Opioid Emergency Response Commission

Edmonton, AB (May 31, 2017): Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann released the following statement in response to the creation of an Opioid Emergency Response Commission:

“This announcement is a clear admission that the government’s piecemeal response to the opioid crisis has not been sufficient.

“There has been a dramatic increase in opioid-related deaths in Alberta over the last four years, claiming close to two lives per day. Thirteen deaths are being prevented daily by life-saving interventions.

“If this is not an emergency, I do not know what is. Yet the government still refuses to send a formal message to the public about the seriousness of this crisis by declaring a state of emergency.

“The minister repeatedly said it was not necessary because the government already had enough resources to deal with this crisis. Now, she claims this new plan will give her expanded powers, but it is unclear what they are, if they will be enough, and how this is superior to declaring a state of emergency.

“Instead of releasing a clear, comprehensive strategic plan with clearly defined targets, timelines, and accountability measures, the NDP chose to pass the buck to an advisory panel that will provide the minister with political cover.

“While the commission is comprised of accomplished experts, all of whom are standouts in their fields, surely the government has already consulted with these experts in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

“This is another level of bureaucracy that reports to the minister instead of guiding action on the frontlines, which is what the re-establishment of a chief mental health and addictions officer and the declaration of a state of emergency would do.

“At the very least, we should have received an update on the recommendations of the Valuing Mental Health Report submitted 16 months ago, several of which directly address this issue.”

Dr. Swann Debates Bill 17 – Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act (Committee of the Whole) – 31 May 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Wednesday, May 31, 2017.

Bill 17 – Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act (Committee of the Whole)

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. I’m very pleased to stand and speak to an amendment to the Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act, Bill 17, and will circulate the amendment.

The Acting Chair: This will be referred to as amendment A5. Please proceed.

Dr. Swann: Thanks very much, Mr. Chair. Well, I’m pleased with almost all aspects of this act, but this is one of the issues that I think either the minister has overlooked or has been subject to strong lobbying by the agriculture coalition, by some of the large landowners and industrial agriculture operations.

I would hope that we might consider paying overtime to people who work overtime. It’s a basic principle of employment. It oper-ates in all other industries. Indeed, we made significant progress with Bill 6 in getting some basic health and safety rights and workers’ compensation and recognized farm workers as equal to all other workers in this country. I applaud the government for finally bringing that good legislation in. I therefore was a bit shocked to see exemptions for overtime for farm workers, when exploitation has been the history of farm workers for a hundred years, and clearly it’s going to continue in some, not all, workplaces where there is unethical or exploitive leadership. By exempting farm workers from this overtime pay, it’s a clear indication that the agriculture coalition has had a lot of influence in the working groups. In fact, I know they’ve dominated some of the working groups and softened the right to equal treatment in the workplace for paid farm workers.

The opportunity here is to recognize that these rights under both our Constitution in Canada and as part of the charter of human rights, which gives all workers the right to a safe workplace, to compensation for injury . . . [interjection] Who’s whistling?

Mr. Cooper: Sorry.

Dr. Swann: I don’t need that. Thanks. I’m having enough of a time concentrating.

. . . the opportunity to recognize these rights and not treat them as second-class employees. It’s disappointing, and it’s certainly unjust. It’s saying that some workers are more equal than others.

Now, I recognize that farm work is different, that ranch work is different, and that it indeed may be reasonable to expect farm workers to work a 10-hour day and not expect overtime, but when we get beyond 10 hours in a day or over 60 hours in a week, surely we could recognize overtime as we do in other workplaces. I doubt that there’s a single person in this Legislature that would not expect to be paid a fair overtime wage when it got to over 10 hours in a day or 60 hours in a week. I really doubt that any of us would feel fairly treated if the boss said: sorry; you’re going to just have to work overtime and accept regular pay. That opens the door to exploitation. It opens the door to increased injuries and accidents when people are fatigued. When they feel unjustly treated, they’re going to be rankling and stressed and not feeling good about themselves or their workplace, and that is not good for anybody.

It’s understandable that change is challenging in the ag sector. Paid farm workers are already exempt from time-off provisions under this bill. They don’t get the same time-off provisions in a week or in a month. They’re exempt from that. Surely, then, we could recognize significant overtime, beyond 10 hours a day and beyond 60 hours a week. That seems pretty fundamental, especially to a government that talks about equal pay for equal work and human rights in the workplace. They certainly have championed that for unionized workers, and I know they believe that all citizens should have the right to form unions. These are some fundamental rights that we fought and died for over generations here, and we’re now finally dragging the agriculture sector into the 21st century on these issues. Giving them second-class status as far as hours of work and overtime is disappointing, and I hope that the minister can find a way to acknowledge in this bill that something has to be addressed in terms of overtime, even if not the usual over eight hours of work in a day or 44 hours in a week. Let’s at least compromise a bit and extend the right of agriculture operations to only start paying overtime after 10 hours in a day and 60 hours in a week. That’s not a big sacrifice to the industry.

I’ve made my pitch, Mr. Chair, and I think that all fair-minded people will see the wisdom of this not only in terms of health and safety but in fairness and just treatment of paid farm workers. I’m not talking about family members. I’m not talking about extended family members. I’m only talking about those who are hired to do a job as they would be hired to do a job in any other sector of society and have a reasonable expectation that if they’re pushed beyond 10, 12, 14 hours a day, which I know many farms require at certain times of the year, they should be paid reasonably and, if not equitably with other jurisdictions, at least get some recognition that overtime requires extra recognition.

Thanks, Mr. Chair.

Dr. Swann in Question Period on Opioid Emergency Response Commission – 31 May 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Opioid Emergency Response Commission

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Today the government announced what they call their aggressive opioid plan, which can be summed up as more piecemeal action, including the creation of a new advisory opioid commission. Not only is this an admission that the government’s response has not been sufficient, but after four years of increasing opiate deaths, instead of giving us a clear evidence-based plan – to the minister: now that you’ve got the advisers, how long before we see a public strategic plan with specific targets and timelines?

The Speaker: The Associate Minister of Health.

Ms Payne: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I’m incredibly proud of the group that’s been brought together to form the opioid emergency response commission, which includes harm reduction program advocates, parent advocates, law enforcement, and representation from indigenous communities. The commission has scheduled two meetings for the upcoming month, and I look forward to their recommendations in the very near future. I’m going to allow the experts that we’ve assembled to bring together their recommen-dations rather than try and presuppose their outcomes.

Dr. Swann: All good people, Mr. Speaker. A little late to the table. The minister has repeatedly told us that it was not necessary to declare a public health emergency because the government already had enough power and resources to deal with the crisis. We disagreed. Now she’s claiming that the new plan will expand her powers but can’t say what the new powers are or what will change. To the minister: specifically, what new powers does the minister have to stem the tide?

The Speaker: The associate minister.

Ms Payne: Thank you, Mr. Speaker and to the member for the question. You know, instead of trying to use powers that were meant for an infectious disease outbreak, our government has crafted new, aggressive emergency tools that will move forward and address the actual crisis in front of us, which is a public health crisis. It a question of how we react and respond to people who are living with a chronic health condition. This is an important issue, and as a government we think it’s very important that every single Albertan who is struggling with substance use is treated with respect and dignity and has access to the treatment and the supports they need as quickly as possible.
Dr. Swann: Mr. Speaker, the people on the front lines are looking for answers, not rhetoric. Whether or not these additional powers are sufficient remains to be seen, but what is clear is that these powers are for the minister, and the commission itself reports to the minister instead of to a public health expert, a mental health and addictions expert. To the minister: how can Albertans have confidence that you will do what’s necessary, especially since it’s taken a year and a half just to get the advisory panel in place?

The Speaker: The Associate Minister of Health.

Ms Payne: Thanks, Mr. Speaker and to the member for the question. The commission will be directing aggressive action focused on six key areas, including harm reduction, treatment, prevention, en-forcement, collaboration as well as data collection and monitoring. The commission will be providing recommendations directly to my office around how we can best use the tools and the $30 million in new budget dollars for 2017 to have the best impacts quickly within our communities, and then the commission is going to be respon-sible for implementing those actions. I fully trust the members of this commission to do an excellent job. We have a very talented group assembled.

Dr. Swann Debates Bill 206 – Child, Youth and Family Enhancement (Adoption Advertising) Amendment Act, 2017 (Second Reading) – 29 May 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Monday, May 29, 2017.

Bill 206 – Child, Youth and Family Enhancement (Adoption Advertising) Amendment Act, 2017 (Second Reading)

Dr. Swann: Thanks very much, Mr. Speaker. An important bill to be sure, Bill 206, the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement (Adoption Advertising) Amendment Act, 2017. I appreciate all of the comments of those in the House who have had personal experience with it. While I have not had personal experience in that sense, I certainly, through my two daughters, have had two international adoptions, one from east Africa, Uganda, which I participated in very actively, and the other through my other daughter, who adopted two from Haiti: certainly, lengthy processes and challenging to deal with the other governments on these issues.

I think, like others who have spoken, that there’s a tremendous need for more openness and access not only for the birth parents to feel like they can connect with the adoptive parents but also for the adoptive parents to be able to be more public about their desire to connect with the birth parents. This bill proposes to amend the act to allow licensed adoption agencies in Alberta to publicize the profiles of prospective adoptive parents, bringing Alberta in line with B.C., Ontario, and the Yukon.

Presently Alberta couples seeking open adoptions are not allowed to create public profiles of themselves on websites such as Conversely, profiles of children that are up for adoption are featured on television and Alberta human services’ website, leading critics to charge that there is an inconsistency in the law. I think that’s part of what this worthy bill is trying to amend. I won’t take a long time to comment on it, but under the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act there is an incon-sistency that needs to be addressed. There’s really no reason why prospective adoptive parents should not be permitted to advertise online as long as proper safeguards are in place.

In this context, I guess, my daughter has advised me – and she’s head of Christian Adoption in Canada – that without going through an agency, there is a risk of misrepresentation of adoptive parents, a need to ensure that they not have access directly to the birth parents. A lot of birth parents considering putting a child up for adoption are doing their research and communications online today – and that’s fine; it makes sense – but without a home visit and without proper counselling for the birth parent, it’s really open to abuse. Those are the concerns, I’m sure, that we are all wanting to see addressed. There’s a reason why there are so many regulations and oversights, and there’s a reason why birth parents get counselling to be clear on the full implications of what they’re doing, the emotional as well as the legal implications of what they’re doing. It behooves us to do this carefully, to make sure that we are protecting the interests, particularly, of the child and the birth parents.

I mentioned counselling for the birth parent or parents to make sure they’re clear and have some ability to go through a grieving process in a mature and responsible way, ensuring that there’s no money or other incentives being exchanged for the placement of a child, ensuring that a proper home study is done so that the adoptive parents are found to be legitimate, capable, that the setting is appropriate and healthy, and that, by all means, information is shared through a reputable agency. The birth parent then can work through the agency to get the full contact information. I guess the concern is that there need to be appropriate checks and balances, and I think we’ll be dealing with those perhaps and some suggested amendments, then, as we get through to other stages of the bill.

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker.

Dr. Swann in Question Period on Health Information Reporting – 25 May 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Thursday, May 25, 2017

Health Information Reporting

Dr. Swann: This afternoon the Auditor General is set to release a report called Better Healthcare for Albertans, which analyzes the root causes of the government’s lack of progress in specific parts of the health care system. One way to gauge the system is to look at the AHS quarterly performance reports. However, the last quarter of 2016 came out in April 2017, and this quarter’s performance is still not on the AHS website. The PCs often delayed, changed, or stopped reporting altogether when it failed to meet targets. I had hoped that the NDP would do better. To the Minister of Health: where is the report, and why the delays?

The Speaker: The hon. Minister of Health.

Ms Hoffman: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. I appreciate the question from the hon. member. I haven’t seen the report yet, but I will certainly follow up with AHS immediately and follow up with the House and with the public as soon as possible.

Dr. Swann: Well, last week, Mr. Speaker, the Métis Nation of Alberta released three new health reports detailing higher rates of injury, tobacco-related disease, and problems with Métis people accessing the health system. However, as Keith Gerein’s article points out, these studies are based on outdated information, inclu-ding one report that doesn’t have data more recent than 2009-10. Again to the Minister: given the importance of these issues what are you doing to improve the quality and availability of Métis health information to address specific concerns raised in the report?

The Speaker: The hon. Minister of Health.

Ms Hoffman: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. Our govern-ment has committed to rebuilding the relationship with the indig-enous peoples of this land. In February of 2017 our government signed a 10-year framework agreement with the Métis Nation of Alberta, and we are very proud of that. This commitment includes working with indigenous communities, including the $300,000 that we used to develop these reports, and also providing analytical support to the community. We’re proud to work with them and not do things to them.

Dr. Swann: Mr. Speaker, late Friday afternoon, just ahead of a long weekend, Alberta Health posted the first-quarter opioid death reports, showing a 61 per cent increase over the same quarter in 2016, without so much as a comment from the minister, much less a thoughtful analysis of what’s working and what’s not working in our approach. Surely we deserve a higher degree of reporting and transparency. Will the minister commit today to establishing a predictable, monthly reporting to the public and some analysis of how the program is working? If not, why not?

Ms Hoffman: Thank you very much for the question. Mr. Speaker, we had a choice. As soon as the data was available, we chose to release it rather than holding on to that data and waiting through the whole weekend. We thought it was important to be open and public with that data, so we made it available as soon as we possibly could. In terms of availability I was actually at a press conference that afternoon where we were talking about work that we’re doing to help with truth and reconciliation as well as with missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. I’m very happy to answer questions, and if the member has some that he’d like to pose, I would be happy to continue to enter into this dialogue. We’ve been doing extensive work, and we want to be open with our data. That’s why we made it available as soon as possible.

Dr. Swann Member Statement on Opioid Use – 25 May 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Thursday, May 25, 2017.

Member Statement – Opioid Use

The opioid death crisis is unprecedented, ripping apart families of all socioeconomic groups, including First Nations. The continual and dramatic increases in opioid deaths since 2013 are extremely saddening given that they are all preventable. While we see increased investment, it’s not clear that mental health experts are leading, what the overall strategy is, or how current efforts are being evaluated since there has been no public analysis and reporting. Last year we had 363 deaths due to fentanyl. In the first three months of this year 113 Albertans lost their lives, a 61 per cent increase in deaths over the same period of 2016.

We’re starting to see the same disturbing trends here as in B.C., without basic analysis of why we continue to lose ground even after four years, nor have we chosen to call this a public health emergency to mobilize all related resources. This is a mistake. B.C.’s declaration of a public health emergency led to resources being mobilized through the Health ministry across all government departments and between all stakeholders in a co-ordinated plan, with monthly reporting on what is working and what is not. Alberta struggles to report quarterly on fentanyl and other opioid deaths. B.C. embraced an early harm-reduction measure, including safe injection sites. We have yet to see a safe injection site in Alberta.

Naloxone kits are undoubtedly saving lives. The associate minister yesterday admitted there were 1,130 life-saving doses of naloxone given in the first three months of this year. That’s 13 near deaths every day in Alberta. Clearly, we are not getting ahead of this devastation.

Wait times have improved for opioid replacement therapy, but outside of Edmonton and Calgary people seeking help continue to wait too long.

Numbers are not enough. There is a troubling lack of analysis of what changes are needed and where for an accurate picture of this epidemic. Strong new leadership from a mental health and addic-tions expert is needed, who can focus and oversee an evidence-based, co-ordinated plan and overcome the silos. This terribly stigmatized illness needs a new approach, and now is the time for the government to admit that its approach is not working.

This is the most important preventable public health crisis of our time. The lives of our children depend on it.

Statement on Auditor General’s Better Healthcare for Albertans Report

Edmonton, AB (May 25, 2017): Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann released the following statement in response to the Auditor General’s report on Better Healthcare for Albertans:

“I applaud the Office of the Auditor General for conducting this insightful and timely analysis of the root causes behind lack of progress towards the effective integration of health care in Alberta. It speaks volumes about the value of a truly independent officer of the Legislative Assembly and its ability to investigate and report directly to Albertans.

“The report clearly highlights a need to better co-ordinate our primary, acute and continuing care systems to ensure improved access to care and communication among care providers, smoother navigation through the system, and better overall health outcomes.

“We need to reduce barriers to care, involve people in their healthcare decisions, and make sure the right level and quality of care is being provided in the right place, by the right health professional at the right time.

“It is clear that much more work still needs to be done promoting wellness, injury and disease prevention, and chronic disease management. Albertans need multidisciplinary teams that are interconnected, patient-focused and follow a single, consistent care plan.

“The report also explicitly states spending more money on healthcare is not the solution. This undoubtedly means that there must be more accountability for the administrative and financial performance of our system, including physician compensation, billing, ordering of lab and diagnostic tests.

“There is also the opportunity for innovation, better integration of clinical information systems, and use of health data analytics to inform decision-making and ensure we have the best performing public healthcare system possible.

“I share the optimism of this report. Change is not only possible, it is absolutely necessary. It is incumbent on the government of the day to embrace change, commit to honest and transparent reporting of system performance, and depoliticize healthcare funding, infrastructure projects and service delivery.

“Operating in silos has proven to be ineffective. We must work together. Alberta Health, AHS, and the all of the healthcare associations and colleges must seek to improve their communication, co-ordination and co-operation.

“Elected representatives, government officials, healthcare providers, and patients all have an important part to play in ensuring improved access, quality and sustainability of the system and making Better Healthcare for Albertans a reality.”

Dr. Swann Debates Bill 16 – An Act to Cap Regulated Electricity Rates (Second Reading) – 24 May 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Wednesday, May 24, 2017.

Bill 16 – An Act to Cap Regulated Electricity Rates (Second Reading)

Dr. Swann: Thanks, Mr. Speaker. I’m pleased to speak to Bill 16, An Act to Cap Regulated Electricity Rates. I think it’s important to call it what it is. A cap suggests that there’s a limit. Indeed, the government is putting a limit on what people will pay in the short term, but clearly they’re hiding the real price of electricity from consumers when it goes over 6.8 cents.

When it goes over 6.8 cents to produce, somebody’s going to have to pay it. So why not be honest with people? Why not send them the true price of electricity so that we will all change behaviour if we need to? We will start to look at more efficient appliances. We will start to look at different ways of using our electricity and, potentially, make the changes they say that we’re needing to make instead of hiding it and passing it on through taxes and through, I guess, whatever’s left of the carbon levy, although it’s been relegated to so many different areas, I’m not sure how that will go.

Frankly, Madam Speaker, it’s disingenuous to pretend that we’re actually going to protect people. If we really are trying to protect vulnerable people from high electricity prices, help them financially, those who need the help, but don’t fail to give Albertans the true cost of our electricity. That, I think, troubles me as much as anything because we’re already racking up other debts, but here we’re hiding a debt instead of being honest with people about where we’re going with this.

Since 2001 Albertans have been able to choose to receive their electricity either from a retailer that’s regulated by the AUC or from a competitive retailer. The regulated rate option was established to provide a default option for consumers who decide not to choose a competitive retail product. To be clear, the regulated rate option does not ensure a single low rate; rather, rates change from month to month depending on the real price of power.

In 2006 the regulated rate regulation was changed to encourage customers to switch to competitive retail products and foster devel-opment of the competitive retail market. But retail statistics from the Alberta Market Surveillance Administrator indicated that as of last year about half of residential customers had switched to competitive contracts and half remained on the regulated rate option. That means that despite the availability of the product from competitive retailers, consumers did not choose that option. Fair enough. However, the problem with the current regulated rate option is that it actually leads to higher electricity costs for consumers.

When the electricity market was deregulated, the promise that was made was one of low energy costs and reduced price volatility. However, the deregulated market clearly did not deliver that in all cases. Something definitely needs to be done. In fact, over the many years that I’ve served here as MLA, one of the most frequent concerns of constituents was the high cost and volatility of energy bills. Clearly, the default option for electricity needs to be afford-able and protect consumers, but it also has to send an honest price to people so that they can change their ways.

I support the government’s efforts to create a market for renew-ables and diversify our electricity generation. However, simply putting a cap on the regulated rate option is not the answer. It could potentially, I believe it will, cause serious problems down the line, as prices inevitably increase with all of our expensive new infrastructure. Consumers should always have a price reference based on the actual costs in order to make efficient and effective consumption and investment choices. If energy costs are deemed to be too high, vulnerable folks can be reimbursed with rebates and subsidies, but we should never mask the true price signal. Otherwise, we could end up moving much closer to Ontario’s reality.

A price cap will not reduce the cost of electricity. It merely defers payment to another pocket, to our children, to our grandchildren. It will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the viability of the competitive market. It basically sends the wrong message to real competition and incentives for people to build new stuff and to try and get into the game of producing electricity and getting some income in a business. As I said, it won’t change behaviour and it won’t change purchasing if we stifle the real price.

Funding the RRO from carbon revenue is the worst possible policy that the NDP government could have picked. The RRO retailers will continue to get what they always got, which is quite high revenue, but rather than reforming the RRO, which is what I suggested in Motion 502, the government took the political way out, hiding the real price from Albertans. The four-year time frame of the regulated rate option cap appears to be more about political expediency than fixing the system. The only change that happens is that the NDP government removes the risk of a price spike during the next election. I think that’s disingenuous.

The important question is: what is the NDP’s real motivation? It must be contemplating other changes such as turning back the PPAs to the owners, converting the coal plants to gas, which would significantly increase prices in the next four years. It has to because making these changes will be expensive. Fair enough. But let’s start paying it now and not pass it on to our children and our grand-children and take it out of a new tax. We’re going to have to start paying some of these extra expenses.

Specific recommendations that I think I’ve made before in relation to the regulated rate option. Number one, preserve and enhance the integrity and operation of some competitive retail. Most economists believe that competition rather than regulation has the best chance of achieving economic efficiency. I’m one of those. A competitive market will force down prices and encourage inno-vation and change behaviour.

Alberta has embarked on a program to restructure the electricity market by setting an objective of 30 per cent of renewable energy by 2030 and implementing a capacity market. I applaud that. A highly competitive retail market will help ensure that the benefits of changes in the wholesale market will be transferred to retail customers.

The second recommendation: preserve the ability of consumers to choose the retail service that best meets their needs. Don’t treat Albertans like ignoramuses. It’s very unlikely that a single product or service can meet the needs of all consumers, so let people choose what is best for them. It’s because of their interests, needs, and preferences that we have new businesses in Alberta who can meet some of the unique needs of every person.

Funding the RRO from the carbon revenue: I’ve said that already.

Electricity is no different from any other product. For example, some consumers prefer fixed prices and are willing to pay a pre-mium to eliminate volatility, some prefer variable prices to obtain the lowest costs, and some consumers simply don’t care and are price takers. That’s their choice. Consumer choice is a key feature of Alberta since it was regulated in 2001, albeit not as well as it could have been managed. I’ve made some suggestions about how the regulated rate option, in particular, could save people $12 a month if we did a flow-through option instead of the current approach.

It’s worth noting that consumers already have the ability to protect themselves from volatility and can choose a retail product that best serves their needs. The implications of the government’s strategy is that it eliminates the incentive for consumers to make any decision or to make any changes. That’s not really what we want. It makes consumers who don’t choose a competitive retail product for whatever reason into free riders. In other words, the regulated rate option people will get subsidized by the carbon tax if the price goes over 6.8 cents. The rest of us will be paying for those on the regulated rate option. Guess what people are going to choose? It unfairly penalizes consumers who have made the effort to educate themselves and try for more efficient, competitive retail options.

The third recommendation: drop the requirement that consumers should know the price of energy in advance of consumption. The RRO is based on the presumption that consumers should know in advance the price of energy before it’s consumed. While this is an important principle for virtually all other consumer products, it is not for the purposes of electricity prices. Electricity is an essential good that consumers cannot function without. I know of no consu-mers who can monitor the RRO price prior to consumption. As a result, consumers tend to be price inelastic and consume electricity regardless of price. Consumers tend to respond more to price trends and price spikes when making decisions about the purchase, management, and consumption of their energy.

The fourth recommendation: the RRO should be renamed the default rate option. The name of the RRO is a misnomer. RRO is not a regulated price in the traditional sense. Default rate is a more appropriate description and reflects exactly what it is, a rate that applies when consumers decide not to choose a competitive option.

The fifth recommendation: the default rate should be based on the pool price. As I spoke about in Motion 502, the pool price is the actual cost of power and ultimately is the price paid by consumers. All other prices are derivatives of the pool price. Because the pool price is the cost of power, it will tend to be the lowest price over time.

While other prices may be lower from time to time, particularly the forward price, the long-term tendency is for the pool price to be the lowest price because it represents the actual cost of power. The price differential between the pool price and the forward price fluctuates and is based on the time value of money and other factors related to varying perspectives amongst buyers and sellers concer-ning the future price. The spot power floating rate likely includes adjustments for its consumer load profile and other costs related to the risk of supplying the floating rate, and the RRO rate includes the risk and return premium that increases the cost of power.

There are many reasons supporting the use of the pool price as the default rate, but three reasons stand out. Number one, the pool price will tend to be the lowest cost over time. Number two, the pool price will serve as a benchmark. It will allow consumers to accurately compare the cost of energy products among different retailers. Number three, the pool price is the closest thing we have to a price signal that will guide consumers in terms of making effective energy efficiency decisions and policy-makers in terms of resource allocation in the Alberta energy economy.

The number one issue related to the use of the pool price as the default rate is the fact that it is the most volatile price. As I said, if it’s too volatile and vulnerable people need to be supported, then let’s support the vulnerable people. Let’s not compromise the whole system on the basis that volatility might compromise our most vulnerable.

Government has implemented two structural changes in the electricity market that will have a profound impact on reducing future pool price volatility. This will happen because the transition to renewable energy will likely be financed by capacity payments to cover the fixed cost of generation. As the reliance on capacity payments grows, it will change the composition of the pool price into a weighting of capacity payment plus energy costs. In effect, the pool price will be self-stabilizing and will substantially con-tribute to the realization of the government’s pricing objective.

One possibility that could accelerate the transition to a capacity market is the recent proposal by ATCO and TransAlta to convert coal-fired generating plants to natural gas. If adopted, this proposal would accelerate the phase-out of coal plants, thus achieving our transition to a low-carbon economy sooner than anticipated, but the method of financing this transition is still unknown. Using capacity payments for this has the benefit of providing a way to facilitate project financing that is acceptable to financial lenders. In addition, this will benefit consumers in terms of helping to stabilize the pool price.

The proposal is not without its challenges, however. For example, how will the capacity payment be determined in an environment where a fair competitive price might not be available in this particular instance? The capacity market will take time to develop. In the short term there are, fortunately, several very effective and low-cost ways of mitigating the volatility inherent in a pool price. Two of these methods are price caps and fixed prices.

A final comment on the use of the pool price flow through as the default rate is the significant reduction in regulation burden. The regulatory process surrounding the review and approval of the RRO is complicated and time consuming. It requires significant commit-ment by stakeholders, consumers, retailers, and regulators in terms of money and staff. Adoption of the pool price as the default rate will eliminate all of that requirement.

Madam Speaker, I am once again appealing to this government to reconsider eliminating all price signals to our people. It may not be a perfect system that we have, but let’s retain some element of the price signals so that people actually get real, honest feedback on how their use of energy is costing them and costing the environment in that sense. You don’t have to eliminate the deregulation comp-letely. You have the best of both worlds right now. By putting a price cap and not taking advantage of a different way of calculating the regulated rate option, I don’t think you’re getting what you want. I haven’t been able to get that through, but I hope the govern-ment is listening and will consider those options further.

Thank you, Madam Speaker.


Dr. Swann Debates Bill 14 – An Act to Support Orphan Well Rehabilitation (Committee of the Whole) – 23 May 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Tuesday, May 23, 2017.

Bill 14 – An Act to Support Orphan Well Rehabilitation (Committee of the Whole)

Dr. Swann: Thanks very much, Mr. Chair. I’m pleased to speak in committee on Bill 14, An Act to Support Orphan Well Rehabil-itation, clearly a win-win, with the federal government offering to front the interest, at least, on a significant loan to industry. At the same time we’re going to create jobs and clean up some important liabilities for all Albertans, particularly our children and grand-children, with the Orphan Well Association. Presently the orphan well fund can only be used to pay for suspension, abandonment, and related reclamation costs in respect of orphan well facilities and sites.

The bill also proposes to authorize the President of Treasury Board and Minister of Finance to make loans. In its current form the Oil and Gas Conservation Act does not specifically allow that. This is obviously enabling legislation that will potentially be a win-win for employment, our economy, and these important delayed and deferred cleanup costs, that hold a potentially fairly large liability for future generations. The government is making the changes to allow a $235 million loan to the Orphan Well Associ-ation, to allow the fund to repay the loan.

As has been stated, there are 83,000 inactive wells and 69,000 abandoned. In March of this year the Orphan Well Association had an inventory of 2,000 orphan wells to go through closure activities. It managed only 185 wells last year with an annual budget of $30 million. It’s scheduled to increase to $60 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year. This will entirely be covered by industry levies.

I have only a few questions that don’t appear to be clear in the current bill. It authorizes the loan money to the Orphan Well Association but doesn’t specify a loan ceiling or a repayment schedule apart from the 10-year, full repayment. It’s not clear how that’s to be shared, especially with companies that are perhaps struggling financially, and whether, in fact, at the end of the day, we will see the big companies stepping up with their share and the smaller companies again deferring and declining. Those are some specific details, but it seems to me that Albertans deserve to know how and in what manner the loans will be repaid, and we have a right to know at the start just what those terms of repayment are in the interest of protecting taxpayers from undue risk. They should be written into the bill.

This loan should also be a one-time deal, and it should reflect that, that this is not a pattern for future decades. While Premier Notley insisted that the $235 million loan doesn’t replace the orphan levy or the polluter-pay principle . . .

The Acting Chair: Hon. member, refrain from using names.

Dr. Swann: Sorry?

The Acting Chair: Refrain from using names. You used the Premier’s name.

Dr. Swann: Oh, thank you. Yes.

Bill 14 is worded in such a way that the door is being left wide open for government to make future loans. That needs to be addressed, too, I think. In terms of honouring the polluter-pay principle, we need to ensure that is clear, that this is not setting a pattern for future defaults, I guess, by the industry.

Bill 14 is also not prescriptive about what any loans to the orphan wells can be used for. I guess, if the price of oil happened to jump by double, I would wonder whether some of this money already given could then be used for other purposes besides the purposes of abandonment and reclamation. Without it being more specific, I wonder if we are again not quite holding them sufficiently to account.

Finally, I think there is a reason to call for this bill to have a review process, to within one to two years report back to Albertans to let us know how this fund is being used and how effectively it is accomplishing the goals it set out to do. It’s part of due diligence, accountability. It also, in my view, should be written into the bill, certainly, before any future lending is given. It seems to me that within the next one to two years it would be good to know what’s working and how well it’s working.

Those are some of the concerns in an otherwise laudable bill, that, as I say, is a win-win for Albertans, for our environment, and for our workplace. Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Dr. Swann Debates Bill 205 – Advocate for Persons with Disabilities Act, 2017 (Committee of the Whole) – 23 May 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Tuesday, May 23, 2017.

Bill 205 – Advocate for Persons with Disabilities Act, 2017 (Committee of the Whole)

The Chair: We are currently debating amendment A1. Are there any further speakers to this amendment? The hon. Member for Calgary-Mountain View.

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Madam Chair. I would like to propose an amendment, and I have spoken to both the minister and the Member for Calgary-North West about the concerns with the current proposed amendment from the government.

The Chair: Hon. member, can I just clarify? Are you proposing a subamendment to amendment A1?

Dr. Swann: Yes.

The Chair: Okay.

Dr. Swann: My understanding is that unless the government withdraws its amendment, this would not be . . .

The Chair: Just clarifying that it’s a subamendment, to get the terminology right.

Dr. Swann: Okay.

The Chair: Go ahead.

Dr. Swann: Well, I have the appropriate number of copies, Madam Chair. My understanding is that – yeah. Well, I’ll propose it as is. It seeks to establish the advocate for persons with disabilities as an officer of the Legislature instead of an advocate within the ministry.

The Chair: Hon. member, if you could give me a second until we have the original here at the table so we can make sure we’ve got . . .

Dr. Swann: Sure.

The Chair: Hon. member, I’ve been advised that this is not in a subamendment format. It’s an actual amendment, so we have to deal with amendment A1 first before we can get to your proposed amendment. It’s not in order to move it right at the moment. We have to finish up with amendment A1.

Dr. Swann: Could I speak, then, to the amendment and why I think . . .

The Chair: You could speak to amendment A1 if you wish, but you can’t move another amendment while we’ve got A1 on the floor.

Dr. Swann: Well, I guess my argument, then, would be that I would request that the minister withdraw his amendment to allow the debate to happen on this amendment because otherwise there won’t be a debate on the independence of the advocate. That would be my argument, Madam Chair. Could I proceed?

The Chair: Go ahead if you want to speak to the amendment, and you can, you know, make your case, as it may be. Absolutely.

Dr. Swann: Thank you. I understand that the establishment of an advocate for persons with disabilities under the ministry is being proposed. I am suggesting that the advocate be independent of the ministry and that the advocate be an independent officer of the Legislature.

The amendment obviously cannot be introduced at this time because there is an amendment on the floor which would preclude the opportunity to have this debate. It raises the whole question of informing the government of amendments when they have the ability to stop that amendment by anticipating the proposal of an amendment.

Let me first say that I fully support the establishment of an advocate for persons with disabilities. It’s laudable. It’s essential. Unfortunately, in this case it is not going to be as effective or create the accountability that I think we all want in an advocate. Having been an MLA for over a decade, I can tell you that there have always been constituents seeking navigation and system change within the AISH and the PDD systems. Bill 205 proposes the creation of an advocate’s office similar to the Health, Seniors, and Mental Health Patient advocates, all of whom report to the minister and whose funding is determined by the minister. In the past this has led to advocates being unable to fulfill their mandates due to lack of resources or impingement on their freedom to express concerns because they are employed by the ministry.

That’s why after almost a decade the Child and Youth Advocate became independent, because it was clear that the advocate was not able to say the tough things that the minister didn’t want to hear. It took a tremendous amount of leadership and political will from the public and child advocates to get that advocate independent. Indeed, in the 2014-15 annual report of the mental health advocate, it was stated explicitly:

The past year posed challenges to fulfill our . . . mandate in a timely manner . . . largely due to the loss of a position and the subsequent reassignment of duties, along with the Government of Alberta’s restraint measures. It had a direct impact on the number of Albertans we served and the inability to perform formal investigations.

Bill 205 is silent on anything related to an independent advocate because it’s not the model the government has opted for. The bill merely states that the government or Lieutenant Governor in Council may appoint an advocate and that the minister may make funds available for an advocate and his or her staff.

There’s nothing saying that an advocate who is an officer of the Legislature necessarily has to have a larger budget than one who is not, but that tends to be the case. The question, I guess, would be: will a larger budget allocated to an advocate reduce the funding for that ministry? And, as some have said in the PDD community, would that affect their own income as caregivers of people with disabilities? That seems to be a fear out there. In fact, the reverse would be true. If the advocate was independent, there would be no impact of budgetary decisions in the ministry because the budget for the advocate would be created by the Legislature generally. The fear that has been expressed by front-line workers, that their salaries might be impacted by establishing a budget for the advocate, is unfounded in this context.

In a lot of ways this discounts our advocates, who are only as effective as the government allows within the ministry. The government appears to want the advocate to fulfill a very specific role, mostly assisting and advising AISH and PDD clients, but one that does not include challenging government to improve the management culture and the management system of PDD and AISH.

I envision the advocate as having an expanded role similar to that of the Child and Youth Advocate, not necessarily with a big budget but at least starting off with the independence and accountability that I think everyone wants, including those with disabilities. My current move with this amendment would have the support of groups like the Disability Action Hall and Inclusion Alberta, who are also proposing the creation of an independent advocate.

I think it’s disingenuous to attach independence to a high, big budget. It doesn’t have to be. What it needs is accountability and transparency, which I think can be as much as the government and the legislative committee decide is appropriate based on the budget of the day. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. Putting our money where our mouth is, whether it’s a million-dollar budget or a $14 million budget, I think, is really what this question is about. Besides, an independent officer will have a budget then set by the all-party committee, based on, again, the current need and the financial realities that the government is facing, in an open and transparent manner.

The argument over money misses the point, and that is that to be truly effective, the advocate needs to be independent of the ministry. The question, then, is whether this is the appearance of more accountability for the PDD community or if it’s a real commitment to listening and advocating for some of the concerns of this long-beleaguered community. It needs a different reporting structure and greater accountability, which is what we will get with an independent advocate. The advocate will also have the ability to exercise judgment on what areas need investigation and improvement. I view both of these aspects as desirable, and I expect the government of today to do so as well.

I certainly hope the government will do the right thing and consider establishing the advocate for persons with disabilities as an independent officer of the Legislature. After all, that is what Albertans, the PDD community, families, and caregivers expect.

I think, in passing, that there still is a strong need for consultation with the community. I know the member has done some consultation through her office. This is now a significant bill affecting thousands and thousands of Albertans, and it’s clear to me that if the government is serious, they should withdraw the amendment currently on the table and allow this whole question of independence to be debated. I leave that to the government.

Thank you, Madam Chair.