Dr. Swann Debates Bill 1 – An Act to Reduce School Fees (Committee of the Whole) – 6 April 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Wednesday, April 6, 2017.

Bill 2 – An Act to Reduce School Fees (Committee of the Whole)

The Deputy Chair: Are there any comments, questions, or amendments to be offered with respect to this bill? The hon. Member for Calgary-Mountain View.

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Madam Chair. I have an amendment that I’ll circulate, and I will proceed when I hear from you.

The Deputy Chair: I just need the original, Member, and then you can go ahead.

Dr. Swann: My amendment reads as follows. I move that Bill 1, An Act to Reduce School Fees, be amended by striking out section 4.

Let me start by saying that I support the intent of the bill and what the bill does to make life more affordable for parents, guardians, and students in school. In fact, the Alberta Liberals believe the government should go even further by eliminating school fees altogether. However, I recognize that the government has chosen to take a step in that direction by reducing school fees.

I’d like also to point out that the government needs to find a more sustainable way to continue to reduce school fees other than, quote, finding efficiencies. There needs to be a funding plan that will continue to reduce fees over the long term, especially as our population grows and our education system becomes more costly. I expect the government may have an idea about where it wants to find these funds, and I will speak more about that in a moment.

When Bill 1 was announced, a government news release indicated: “If the bill is passed, Alberta parents will no longer have to pay school fees for instructional supplies or materials or for eligible students taking the bus to their designated schools.” This was great news and well received by many if not all Albertans. But when people started to take a closer look, it turned out that the term “Alberta parents” did not mean that all parents will no longer have to pay school fees. In particular, those who have students in charter schools can expect to get a different treatment altogether. Why is that?

Well, let’s take a look at what a charter school is. According to the government of Alberta’s Charter Schools Handbook:

A charter school is a public school that provides a basic education in a different or enhanced way to improve student learning.

. . . In general, charter schools complement the educational services provided in the local public system. They represent an opportunity for successful educational practices to be recognized and adopted by other public schools for the benefit of more Albertans. Although types of charter schools vary . . . they do have the following common characteristics.

Access – Charter schools cannot deny access [to any particular individual or group] . . .

Choice – A charter school will provide enhanced or innovative delivery of public education to students. This means that parents and students have increased opportunity to choose an education that best serves [their child’s] needs.

Curriculum – The curriculum delivered by charter schools will be structured around a basic education as defined by Alberta Education and described in the Programs of Study. Generally, education programs must meet the conditions outlined in section 39 of the School Act. This allows students to transfer to or from any public school with a minimum of disruption and to obtain a high school diploma . . .

Funding – Charter schools are eligible for the same provincial funding per student as any other public school . . .

Tuition Fees – Charter schools shall not charge tuition fees. However, they may charge parents for fees for instructional supplies or materials, as may all schools in the public education system.

It seems pretty clear to me, Madam Chair, from the government’s own description that charter schools are, in fact, public schools. Again I ask: why the special treatment? Why are they not receiving a reduction in school fees?

I received a letter from the Association of Alberta Public Charter Schools in which they write:

As full-fledged members of the public school community, we find the decision to exclude us from Bill 1 An Act to Reduce School Fees quite concerning.

. . . This is an excerpt from this letter:

“In publications and the Minister’s letter to parents . . .

And this is from the government side.

. . . we read, ‘Our government understands that times are tough for Alberta families and is working to make education more affordable. We believe that all students deserve access to a quality education in an Alberta school, and we are committed to reducing financial barriers such as school fees.’

Given this laudable and strong statement of support for Alberta families during tough times, we [in the charter school community] believe it may have been an oversight not to include those families who choose a public charter school for their child(ren)’s learning environment.”

Now, here is where I would disagree. I don’t believe this is an oversight at all. The association is likely being diplomatic in their language to the minister. It’s quite clear to me that the government is intentionally singling out charter schools for different treatment. My question is: why? Why is it not being transparent about its intentions? It appears to me the government wants to draw a line in the sand with regard to funding. On one side are the public schools; on the other are private schools. Clearly, in this bill the government is lumping charter schools together with private schools.

Now, if anyone was curious about the motivations, they would need look no further than Public Interest Alberta’s media release of February 23, 2017, in which they with 13 other organizations said, “[We] urge the provincial government to phase out the public funding of private schools . . . over three years and reallocate the money to fulfill its education-related campaign promises.” I think this is exactly the scenario the government is setting up with this bill, and if it is, they should be honest about it and not do it covertly through regulations. They should come right out with it and tell charter schools, their students, and parents that the government is going to reduce fees for everyone else, gradually raise fees for charter schools so that parents can get accustomed to paying more, and then slowly defund charter schools.

To be clear, Alberta Liberals believe public funds should go to support public education. Furthermore, we believe accredited private schools either need to be incorporated into the public system and be subject to all the same requirements or not receive public funding.

But charter schools are not private schools; they are public schools. In fact, many of these charter schools serve marginalized, low-income, and less abled students. They’re providing an essential support for some of the most vulnerable people in the province. For example, Almadina School Society serves the lowest income families in Calgary. The Boyle Street Education Centre in Edmonton is the same. The Centre for Academic and Personal Excellence Institute serves special needs in Medicine Hat. These charter schools and others like them play a valuable role in society and Alberta education. They are not cherry-picking students. They are filling a need, a need that has been recognized and accepted by the government.

Limited resources. If the government has acknowledged that – and they have – then limited resources should surely be directed to the lowest socioeconomic status schools, whether charter or other public. If we’re going to cherry-pick, let’s cherry-pick those who are most vulnerable financially. This is a move to help families with affordability and access to education. Do not discriminate against those who are most vulnerable. It’s against your principles. Do they not deserve the same treatment, especially given their vulnerability, many of them? Do the parents of their students not deserve the same reduction? When people see noncharter public schools not getting breaks, what does that do to enrolment?

The minister appears to be establishing one set of rules for those with school boards and a completely different set of rules for the charter schools. The Association of Alberta Public Charter Schools doesn’t think this is right, and I don’t believe that the government is being transparent on this matter. If the government wants to eliminate funding for charter schools, say so. Otherwise, the government should treat them like all other public schools and include them in the reduction of school fees.

This is why I’m proposing an amendment to strike out that section of Bill 1 and leave the original wording in the School Act. This would keep charter schools together with public schools, and any changes to the fees they can charge would be applied consistently across all public schools and to all parents, as was promised when the bill was announced.

Thank you, Madam Chair.


Dr. Swann Debates Motions Other than Government Motions: Electricity Rates – 3 April 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Monday, April 3, 2017

Motions Other than Government Motions: Electricity Rates

Dr. Swann: 502. Dr. Swann moved:

Be it resolved that the Legislative Assembly urge the government to amend the regulated rate option regulation, Alta. reg. 262/2005, by replacing the regulated rate option with a new default rate for electricity that is to be calculated using a weighted average of the wholesale price of electricity.

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I’m pleased to rise and move Motion 502. Since becoming an MLA, one of my most frequent concerns, as raised by my constituents, is the high cost and volatility of electricity bills. The system did not seem to be delivering on the promise of low energy costs and reduced price volatility that was made when the market was deregulated. This NDP government is planning a series of measures in an attempt to deal with this. However, like other policies, I find they are ideologically based and are failing to take into consideration some of the price and volatility issues that Albertans are concerned about.

Albertans need a practical solution based on evidence, so I’ve decided to research this issue in depth. Motion 502 is the culmination of substantial consultation over two years with stakeholders in Alberta’s electricity energy market. In particular, I’d like to thank Nick Jansen, an academic researcher, and Rob Spragins, who previously served as Alberta’s Utilities Consumer Advocate. Both were instrumental in researching, drafting, and encouraging me to bring this motion forward today. I’d also like to thank my constituents and other Albertans who over the years took the time to write to me about these concerns.

Before going further into the rationale for the motion, perhaps it would be helpful to review the history of the deregulated energy market and the regulated rate option, the RRO. Since 2001 Albertans have been able to choose to receive their electricity either from a retailer that is regulated by the Alberta Utilities Commission, the AUC, or from a competitive retailer, in which case they would sign a contract for a set price for electricity such as a fixed price for a defined time period.

The regulated rate option was established to provide a default option for consumers who decide not to choose a competitive retail product. The regulated rate option does not ensure a single low rate. Rather, rates change from month to month, depending on the price of power. In 2006 the regulated rate option was changed to encourage customers to switch from the regulated rate option to a competitive retail product and to foster the development of the competitive retail energy market. Section 11 of the regulated rate option regulation determines this rate based on the weighted average of forward contracts to a 120-day period prior to the month of consumption. This is called forward pricing.

The problem with using this method, as experience has clearly shown, is that it actually leads to higher electricity costs for consumers. In addition, now that the competitive market has been in operation for 11 years, it’s time to revise this policy to something more in line with current market conditions. Something needs to be done in order to ensure that the default option for electricity is affordable, protects consumers, encourages industry participation, and reinforces proper market functioning.

My motion to change the regulated rate option calculation to use the weighted average monthly pool prices instead of the forward market for four months is aimed at doing just that. Motion 502 reads as follows:

Be it resolved that the Legislative Assembly urge the government to amend the regulated rate option regulation, Alta. reg. 262/2005, by replacing the regulated rate option with a new default rate for electricity that is to be calculated using a weighted average of the wholesale price of electricity.

Not unlike the electricity market itself, I understand how this motion may seem complicated at first glance. It was to me. But what it essentially seeks to do is to replace the current formula for calculating the regulated rate option with a new one that is based on the actual price of power.

There are numerous benefits to using the weighted average pool price. First of all, it’s consistent with the original intent of the deregulated electricity market. Our electricity market was founded on the notion that markets provide consumers with choice and that truly competitive markets will result in lower prices than the regulated markets.

Under my proposed changes consumers would continue to have choice through competitive markets. Unlike attempts to reregulate the market, it preserves the integrity of the competitive retail market and may even make it more competitive. It also allows the equitable allocation of risk and reward to the stakeholders: the investors, the retailers, and the consumers. All can win. Furthermore, it achieves a significant reduction in the complexity and the cost associated with the regulatory approval of regulated rate option rates by the Alberta Utilities Commission.

Customers would also receive savings by receiving the flow-through weighted average wholesale rate. These savings will help to offset the increases in the cost of electricity distribution and transmission service, the power purchase agreement liability, and the high cost of living in Alberta. They could potentially be used for expenditures on energy efficiency upgrades, energy services, and helping to grow future-ready industries, clean tech.

Strategically it is also a good time to implement a change in the regulated rate option due to the current low level of pool prices relative to historic levels. These low pricing levels are expected to continue for the next three to four years, primarily because of the overcapacity of our generating supply. Any of the negative impacts of this proposal on vulnerable consumers could be readily offset through subsidies and rebates, as we’ve heard the government is prepared to do.

In addition to providing choice, strengthening the retail market, and passing on savings to consumers, the weighted average of monthly pool prices offers the most effective price signal possible. This means that the price paid by consumers will be the actual cost of power. Consumers may not understand that there is a significant cost premium built into the current regulated rate option which advances the price over four months. This new method of regulated rate option calculation will establish a price reference point by standardizing the default cost across Alberta. It would also facilitate comparability of nonenergy costs such as the distribution, administration, and return margins amongst different regulated retailers throughout Alberta. Consumers could then use this information to conduct a proper cost-benefit analysis of competitive retail options.

While I support the government’s efforts to create a market for renewables and diversify our province’s electricity generation very much, simply putting a price cap on the regulated rate option is not the answer. In fact, it could potentially cause serious problems down the line and discourage new investment. Consumers should always have a price reference based on the actual cost of electricity in order to make the most efficient and effective energy consumption and investment choices. If energy costs are deemed to be too high, the government has the option to utilize rebates and subsidies for those that need it, not across the board to all Albertans. It should never mask the price signal that would encourage people to do the right thing as far as finding energy efficiency and using less. Otherwise, we may end up in a situation like Ontario.

The price cap will not reduce the cost of electricity for consumers; it merely defers payment to a later date and to our future generations. If we don’t pay our way now, somebody is going to have to pay it later. Also, it will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the viability of a competitive retail market by eliminating the incentive for consumers to sign the fixed-price contracts. It also has the potential to distort the price signal, which may cause consumers to make poor decisions regarding their energy purchases and investment.

More importantly, a price cap will actually increase the cost of power to regulated rate option customers. If the market price of energy exceeds 6.8 cents a kilowatt hour, the cap, retailers will be purchasing supply at a higher price and selling it at a lower price. The difference will still need to be paid by consumers. This difference would likely be put in a deferral account and repaid over a period of time. Regulated rate option retailers will incur a financing charge, which will result in an increase to the cost of the regulated rate option. Consumers will be under the false illusion that total energy costs are lower as a result of the price cap when, in fact, they will be higher due to the cost of financing the deferral account, another extra expense in electricity.

Another possible issue associated with a price cap is the possibility of unintended consequences. The regulated rate option price is extremely complicated and is probably only understood by a handful of people in Alberta. Because of the variability of pool prices and forward prices, there is a risk that the deferral account could run out of control, which could significantly increase the cost of the regulated rate option to consumers. If the government plans on using a price cap, it would make sense for it to adopt my proposal to change the regulated rate calculation as this would significantly reduce the deferral account risk and would help to achieve the government’s ultimate goal, which is to protect consumers.

With that, Mr. Speaker, I will take my seat and listen intently to what will undoubtedly be a shockingly current debate which will electrify the Assembly with positive and negative charges.

….

The Speaker: Are there any other members who wish to speak to Motion 502? Seeing and hearing none, I will allow the Member for Calgary-Mountain View to close debate.

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Well, thank you to all members for giving their views on this, a complex issue, to be sure. While I disagree fundamentally with the government on this and their unwillingness to allow some market mechanisms, some clear price signals – by all means, rebate and support people who can’t afford particular price spikes. I think they’re in fact undermining the very basis by which this is trying to provide not more stability – there will be some volatility – but lower prices overall. That’s what the graph showed over the last 10 years. Albertans actually spent up to a billion dollars more over 10 years than they would have if they were on this altered regulated rate option.

There’s been quite a bit of reaction since I proposed this back in January. There are concerns that this change will do little to protect consumers from volatility. This is where the motion works well with the other potential solutions. It ensures that consumers are paying the actual price of power, which is what new investors want to see. Consumers will still have the option to choose other retail products that can better manage price volatility. However, the Retail Market Review Committee report of 2012 which surveyed Alberta consumers found that the majority of Albertans were comfortable with price volatility as long as they got the lowest price. This regulated rate option would provide them with the lowest price by about $10 to $15 a month. That’s why the main objective in my motion is to reduce the overall cost to consumers.

Using the weighted average wholesale price of electricity will result in lower overall prices and significant savings over the long term. Any of the negative impacts on energy producers, retailers, or vulnerable consumers can be offset through subsidies or rebates to those who need them. We don’t need to be giving everybody in Alberta a free ride on electricity, only those who really need it, which I thought would have appealed to this government.

Others have said that the amount of savings would be insignificant. That’s unfair to consumers. The implication is that savings of between $600 and $800 over the next four to five years is trivial. I’m sorry; the evidence speaks otherwise. The motion proposes a simple change that would be implemented over four to six months and would immediately start to generate savings for consumers.

Some have also called into question the potential for future price savings. Historic evidence indicates that there is a strong likelihood that there will be a positive differential between forward and pool prices. The Alberta Market Surveillance Administrator examined the historic relationship between the last forward price for a given month and the average price for that month between 2008 and 2016 and concluded, quote, forward prices still remain above pool prices in most months.

It’s also been mentioned that customers already have an option by choosing a flow-through contract. This is true. However, these contracts constitute a relatively small portion of competitive retail contracts, which are primarily fixed-price contracts. The Market Surveillance Administrator retail statistics indicate that as of September 2016 46 per cent of residential customers had switched to competitive contracts, but most, 54 per cent, remained on the default, regulated rate option. So despite the availability of a flow-through product from competitive retailers, consumers have not chosen it. In fact, the majority of Albertans still are on the regulated rate option default product. My proposal would eliminate the flow-through contract option. However, it could potentially increase the demand for fixed-price contracts, and competitive retailers could see an increase in fixed-price contracts that would offset lost revenue and profits from the flow-through regulated rate option.

One of the key issues will be the impact of my proposal on the forward market. The forward market is used by some sellers of energy to hedge the price of electricity. A significant volume of forward contracts is related to the regulated rate option. Changing the regulated rate option calculation to the weighted average pool price might jeopardize the integrity of the forward market, causing it to lose its effectiveness as a mechanism for price hedging. However, energy buyers and sellers don’t require the forward market for hedging, which can still be accomplished through negotiation.

Finally, the current regulated rate option regulation forces retailers to purchase contracts in the forward market. A long-standing concern has been that sellers can game the market and arbitrarily push up prices. My proposal would eliminate that.

In conclusion, Motion 502 is an evidence-based solution that strikes the right balance between protecting consumers and improving the functioning of our electricity market. For these reasons and many more, I will be voting in favour of this motion.


Dr. Swann Debates Bill 203 – Alberta Standard Time Act (Second Reading) – 3 April 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Monday, April 3, 2017.

Bill 203 – Alberta Standard Time Act (Second Reading)

Dr. Swann: Well, thank you very much, Madam Speaker, and thank you to the member for raising this issue, that seems to have captured a lot of attention in Alberta, though not in my constituency. Calgary-Mountain View seems to be fairly quiet about this issue. I assume that, like many, they are enjoying the long evenings that come with daylight saving time and time with children and time with family activities afterwards.

The bill proposes to shift and be consistent with Saskatchewan Central Time year-round, ending the practice of putting clocks forward by one hour in the spring and turning them back an hour in the fall. This would preserve the province’s long summer evenings but would result in much later sunrises and darker mornings in the winter and would put us out of sync with the west coast by two hours instead of one hour. It stipulates that Alberta standard time will be the only time used or observed in Alberta.

We actually had a resolution before our spring policy convention with the Alberta Liberal Party, and it was narrowly defeated, to say in brief. What I may say is that because of the mixed response and the, really, lack of interest in my constituency about changing the daylight saving time, we will probably oppose the bill and suggest that we push this to committee for a full discussion there and more consultation with Albertans.

There are values, I gather, that daylight saving time actually consumes more energy in Alberta, more electricity, more fossil fuels, and that, to me, should suggest that we may want to change it. But on the other hand, there is more daylight time, and people are more active, so they’re healthier and doing more things outdoors, and there’s good family time and stress relief time. So I’m kind of torn myself. I think I could probably live with either. I’ve lived with daylight saving time for many years, and I could probably live without it, but it’s not a big enough issue in my constituency to get too concerned about.

There is some evidence that heart attacks and strokes and car accidents in some ways go along with daylight saving time, and there are these pros and cons. But if we switched, I guess, the other reflection we’ve had in our caucus is that we would want it synchronized, as it is today, with many of the northwest United States, which are also on this, even the southwest United States: Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Idaho, and Colorado.

It’s a mixed bag. I guess what I would say from this side is that without a referral or a hoist, I don’t think we could support it as it is. Thank you, Madam Speaker.

 


Dr. Swann Debates Bill 2 – An Act to Remove Barriers for Survivors of Sexual and Domestic Violence (Committee of the Whole) – 22 March 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Wednesday, March 22, 2017.

Bill 2 – An Act to Remove Barriers for Survivors of Sexual and Domestic Violence (Committee of the Whole)

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Madam Chair. I look forward to tabling an amendment that I’ve raised privately with the minister and I hope will be favourable to just adding the scope to the bill and clarity to the bill.

The Chair: This will be known as amendment A1. Go ahead, hon. member.

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Madam Chair. I very much support the intent of this bill. I am slightly concerned that its protections may not be afforded to all survivors due to a technicality. Bill 2, An Act to Remove Barriers for Survivors of Sexual and Domestic Violence, currently covers survivors who are either a minor, in an intimate relationship with or dependent on the perpetrator at the time that the sexual misconduct or nonsexual assault occurred. It is the term “dependency” that concerns me.

A relationship with dependency might not be an accurate description of incidents where the survivor and the perpetrators are co-workers with the same level of seniority such as the recent high-profile case of female police officers who were affected in the Calgary Police Service after enduring years of harassment from colleagues. It’s not clear if dependency applies to harassment or exploitation of an adult student by a university professor or a postsecondary instructor. It’s unfortunate that the specific mention of co-workers was left out as it would give confidence, I think, and encourage people to come forward. Even though it may be implied, it’s not explicit.

The bill cannot be amended at this time to include references to co-workers since that would involve altering the legislation, which is not under current consideration.

Consequently, I would like to propose an amendment aimed at reducing the bill’s ambiguity by inserting an additional category of protection. I have the appropriate number of copies as circulated, and my amendment reads as follows. I move that Bill 2, An Act to Remove Barriers for Survivors of Sexual and Domestic Violence, be amended in section 3 in the proposed section 3.1(1) as follows: in clause (b) by striking out “or” at the end of subclause (ii), by adding “or” at the end of subclause (iii), and by adding the follow-ing after subclause (iii):

(iv) the person who committed the misconduct was in a position of trust or authority in relation to the person with the claim.

The second part, (b), in clause (c) by striking out “or” at the end of subclause (ii), by adding “or” at the end of subclause (iii), and by adding the following subclause (iv):

(iv) the person who committed the assault or battery was in a position of trust or authority in relation to the person with the claim.

Essentially, the amendment seeks to amend Bill 2 to ensure that its protections apply to a broader category of survivors; namely, that the person who committed the misconduct was in the position of trust or authority in relation to the person with the claim. A “position of trust or authority” is admittedly a general term, and that’s exactly the point. My amendment seeks to ensure these limitations apply to a broader category of survivors.

Unfortunately, short of rewriting the entire proposed section 3.1, which I’m sure the government members would not support, my amendment cannot capture everything in terms of eliminating the limitation period for sexual harassment claims. Instead, it builds on the bill’s original wording but doesn’t radically alter it. Since the sexual misconduct section deals primarily with power differentials, this proposed bill is in line with the government’s intent. Regrettably, it will not include situations where workplace sexual harassment occurs among relative equals, such as the situation in Calgary that I mentioned.

Again, I hope the government would consider bringing forward further legislation that would deal explicitly with workplace sexual harassment, but for now the government may wish to argue that what my amendment seeks to accomplish is already covered by subclause (iii), which deals with situations of dependency, as in financial, emotional, physical, or otherwise. However, this is far from certain in cases of workplace dynamics or adult educational settings, and I think we owe it to survivors to be as inclusive as possible.

I call on my colleagues to support the amendment to ensure that more survivors feel included under these important protections and will more readily come forward.

Thank you, Madam Chair.


Dr. Swann Debates Government Motions: Provincial Fiscal Policies – 22 March 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Government Motions: Provincial Fiscal Policies

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Madam Speaker. I’m pleased to speak to the 2017-18 budget. I think a lot of what we are expressing in this House is degrees of comfort with debt and degrees of comfort with borrowing and degrees of comfort with protecting public services and infrastructure. What we have seen in the past at least 20 years, since I started paying attention, is a PC government that has not kept up with either infrastructure or human services needs. In fact, it has allowed those things to slip on the basis of balancing a bottom line that doesn’t recognize environmental deficits, human deficits in access to services, care, housing and health care, and doesn’t recognize that liabilities related to infrastructure don’t go away if you don’t spend the money.

During good times and bad we faced the same challenge in the previous 20 years at least, where we were not keeping up with some of those key elements of a civil society. We’re now facing a true challenge for all of us, and I think a lot of what we’re debating here is how quickly we should be moving on some of these deficits and how much we should be borrowing and indeed how we should be paying for it. The latter I’ll leave to the end, but I think that’s a crucial one that we still haven’t come to grips with in a lot of respects.

If we have a difference of opinion on this side in the Liberal caucus, it’s primarily around the pacing of change in this province and the lack of connection to what’s happening on the ground and a recognition that small business is continuing to suffer. There’s a recognition also that some of these new, dramatic changes, all of which I think had to be brought into place, including the carbon levy – how we can balance those things out in a thoughtful way and try to reduce the impact on everything from small business to nonprofit organizations and various services and generally low-income earners that are going to be adversely impacted by the knock-on effect of all the changes at once that are increasing the cost of living? Obviously, we can’t wait for oil prices, and this is the perfect time for borrowing for infrastructure. This is a stimulus for our economy, and it’s going to keep people employed. The question is how much and how we’re going to pay it off.

Clearly, if we’re looking at trying to both minimize our impact on future generations and budget appropriately, health care has to be a primary focus for our attention. It is by far the biggest expenditure of government, and it has grown by up to 8 per cent per year for the last decade, again leaving us in a position where the expectations are there, public expectations and professional expectations, that it’s going to continue and that they’re always going to have exactly what they need. The Minister of Health is in a very difficult position trying to balance the needs of people and the professional demands and the infrastructure demands, the technology demands, the growth of all these new technologies.

[The Deputy Speaker in the chair]

But she has to make tough decisions, and I think some of the positive decisions that she’s made are around the amending agreement with physicians, some of the drug cost issues that we’ve managed over the last few years to bring under some control. But there are a number of areas – and I’m a constant thorn in her side about prevention and early intervention and health promotion – which continue to get less and less relative to the population and cost-of-living increases.

We are gradually getting into the position where we are faced with a sickness care system. This is not a health care system anymore; it’s a sickness care system. We spend virtually all of our money on managing people after they get sick and break down when there are tremendous studies showing evidence of reducing the incidence of mental illness, addictions, injuries, reducing the incidence of lifestyle diseases, heart disease, and cancer by working with families, especially high-risk families, those that often consume most of the health care system. In fact, as some of you may know, it’s about 5 per cent of the population that consumes 50 per cent of our health resources because of their chronic, long-term, complicated illnesses. Many of those are seniors, but many of them simply are born with poor-functioning bodies and they need a lot of medical care in and out of hospital. If we focused more attention on some of those folks and managed them better, we would also reduce substantially some of the costs that we’re dealing with.

It’s disappointing not to see more significant changes in the health care system where we could substantially reduce, not tomorrow but in the years to come, the impacts on emergency departments, on EMS services, certainly on hospitalizations. Alternate level of care beds is one that we’ve often talked about, spending somewhat over $75 million a year on people that shouldn’t be in hospital at all and that could be saved by getting them into long-term care. To their credit, they’re building some new long-term care beds, but we’re way behind the curve on that and wasting a tremendous amount of money and increasing the suffering of people because they’re not where they want to be and they’re not in the best place, in a hospital where they can get other infections and are often neglected at the preference of other people who are sicker.

The lack of an integrated plan for mental health. I’ve harangued the government on this for some time, and it’s been brought to maybe a peak with the opiate crisis. We see so many different organizations doing their own thing without an integration across them all to serve people with the social services they need, the housing, understanding and communications between police and health services and social services and even the education depart-ments and First Nations, that need to have much more thoughtful and open communication. These people come in and out and in and out and in and out, and we know what they need, but we’re simply not providing them with the integrated, co-ordinated care that they need.

I’ve raised this week the office of the mental health advocate, who is there to deal with people who feel that they’ve been harmed by the health system, harmed by the mental health treatment they’ve received, and need an advocate for them, just as the children’s advocate speaks out on issues of children in care who have not been adequately treated. With a staff of 40 he is addressing the serious issues of children in care and trying to address some of the deficits in their care. Well, the mental health advocate has two staff and has had the same number of staff since 1990.

How is it possible that we have left this advocate to wither and those patients who have just given up on the mental health system because they’ve never been able to get accountability from either doctors who have not properly managed them or institutions that have not recognized their rights or other services within the mental health system that have violated them in one way or another? With only a single formal review last year and no formal review of a mental health complaint in 2015, you have to know that there’s a serious problem there. That is not about budget saving. That’s about violating basic rights of human beings.

While I’m talking about kind of the relationship between and a more integrated approach, some of you may know about the drug courts. Drug courts keep people with mental illness, addictions out of jail.

An Hon. Member: Right place.

Dr. Swann: Yeah. Right place, right time, right people.

Calgary can manage 25 people in the drug courts. There are hundreds of people that would benefit from being diverted from jail into the community for appropriate services, rehabilitation, treatment and get them on track to lead a productive life. Instead, they’re being sent to jail, which is the very worst place for people with mental illness and addiction. So the drug court needs to be substantially strengthened with finances, and that would reduce the cost on the policing system, EMS, emergency. Again, a tremendous cost savings if we can move on with that.

We have taken a position on this side that the ideal in terms of plasma for this country would be to have our own sustainable supply of blood. So far in the 50-odd years – maybe it’s longer – that we’ve had a blood service here, we have not been able to get to the point where we can manage more than 20 per cent of our own supply of plasma, so we’re having to import it, recognizing that much of the imported blood has been from paid donors. My position is that the ideal would be to have all voluntary donors, all Canadian-made plasma and plasma products. It doesn’t look like that’s possible in the near term, maybe not at all, when you think about the fact that only 5 to 7 per cent of Canadians donate blood, and we need four times that much to sustain blood plus plasma products.

I’ve come to the position and our caucus has come to the position that, while it would be ideal, we have to start to recognize the health care system itself, the public funding for health cannot cover every possible service and product and support. In this case I’m willing to say, especially since we’re importing paid plasma to the tune of 80 per cent today, that it’s time for us to recognize that we will not get that in my lifetime. We need to start moving towards alternatives, ensuring that we have the best testing, the best, safest system possible and make sure that the people that we’re working with have been properly screened before they’re providing their donation.

The vaccination programs are still much below what they should be. We’ve heard from a number of the public health divisions that they’re struggling with children getting only up to 60 or 70 per cent of their childhood vaccinations. We need to make those easier to get and more accessible for people. That also would reduce costs on the heath care system, obviously.

I very much support the lowering of school fees and the recog-nition that in some cases families are not able to feed their kids appropriately because they are spending money on school fees. That’s not an effective and appropriate issue. We can again find both savings and improved outcomes, but it’s not clear to me whether we’re borrowing for these savings. I think the challenge for us in this lowering of school fees is to recognize that there are all kinds of things that we should do, that we could do, and that we must do at some time, but piling this on top of so much other borrowing would not be, in my view, sustainable until we see a plan to repay.

I think that’s part of what all of us are asking for on this side. Everything is possible with a credit card. The question is: how much are we going to start paying for ourselves? How much are we going to pass on to future generations? Will we have a heritage fund in the future? We’re already down to what has been there for the last 30 years, about $15 billion to $16 billion. Thirty years. This is really a sad state to be in. Recognizing that oil prices have been low in the last few years, when are we going to get back to saving some of our nonrenewable resource revenue?

We do support the carbon levy, but we’re not supportive of the way it’s being implemented. It hasn’t been clear how it’s going to be disbursed. It hasn’t been clear on what the limits are. There have been all kinds of promises for this carbon levy that would appear to exceed by far the $3 billion that we’re expecting to bring in. Again, it’s going to stimulate different lifestyles. I think consumers and producers need to pay for our carbon emissions. There’s no ques-tion that all of us are responsible for the carbon and the climate change problem. The question, I guess, is how we manage it. Preferably, in our view, the carbon levy should be revenue neutral for Albertans so they can continue to stimulate the economy with their own revenue.

Now, to be fair, the government is giving rebates to 66 per cent of Albertans. In some cases it’s a little bit hard to know where that’s going, especially given that it’s all based on last year’s tax, and people may not be here following last year. But with all due respect, it’s a reasonable – in fact, I think it’s too generous.

Thank you, Madam Speaker.


Dr. Swann Debates Government Motions: Member for Calgary-Hays – 21 March 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Government Motions: Member for Calgary-Hays

Dr. Swann: Thanks very much, Mr. Speaker. Well, it’s an interest-ing question, one that I think we’ve been wrestling with for some time. I compare it, to some extent, to the issues that I would face, for example, as a physician – my wife is a physician – if I were to rise in the House and try to influence this House in relation to negotiations with physicians. I think I’m aware enough and I think I’m mature enough to recognize that there might be a perceived problem there.

We as a Legislature have identified and appointed officers of this Legislature to be watchdogs over us to ensure that we follow due process, that we recognize conflicts of interest, and that in many cases if there are issues to be passed on, we pass them on to a fellow party member, a caucus member, to address the issue rather than place ourselves in a conflict of interest. I’ve looked at a little bit of the literature. A similar occurrence has occurred in B.C. It was referred to the courts in B.C., and the B.C. courts sent it back to the Legislature, saying: this is a matter for the Legislature to decide.

I think it’s fairly straightforward that when there’s a pecuniary interest, when someone in our own family or ourselves are going to benefit from pressing on a certain issue, there is a conflict of interest. I think we do a disservice to this Legislature if we don’t honour the appointments that we’ve made to those official independent officers – independent officers – who try to, you know, keep this august body accountable and ethical and act in the public interest to even in this mild way say: this is not an appropriate action in this particular case.

I don’t doubt that the member was not aware and did not think about the possibility, but I will be supporting this motion, Mr. Speaker.

The Speaker: Any questions for the hon. member under 29(2)(a)? The hon. Member for Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills.

Mr. Hanson: Yes. I’d just like to clarify that the hon. member understands that the member wasn’t voting on a motion, wasn’t voting on a bill, that he was simply asking a question in the House.

Dr. Swann: I think it was very clear from Hansard that he was trying to influence the decision on the bill. That’s the position that the Ethics Commissioner took, that he was trying to influence, through his influence as the leader of the party and through his particular position in this House, the decision of the government. Whether it was in the form of a question or it was actually in the form of an assertion, it was clear to many of us.

I defer to the Ethics Commissioner. I actually believe that she is acting in good conscience and acting on behalf of all of us to try and make sure that our reputation in the public is not tainted, that our reputation is upheld as honourable members that are acting strictly in the interests of the public. I stand by what I understood to be the Hansard remarks and the good office of the Ethics Commissioner, who I think is acting in the best interests of all of us in the final analysis.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The Speaker: Under 29(2)(a), hon. member?

Mr. Rodney: Yes, please, and thanks. I appreciate that the member has spent almost exactly the same amount of time as I have in this House, and it’s the first time both you and I have had anything like this in front of us, so I’d ask the hon. member: since the constitutional question has been raised and the Justice minister has been served, why do you think it’s appropriate that this would be raised at this point? Would it not be prudent for rulings of other bodies to be decided so that this is done in the correct order? Why would it not be adjourned until after the court decides on a constitutional matter? Do you think the Legislature does not have jurisdiction to interpret the Constitution or decide about the scope of its own privilege? That’s for the courts. What are your comments on this topic, again, that will affect every member not only in this Chamber but in other Legislatures, the Parliament in Ottawa, and the Commonwealth beyond?

Dr. Swann: Well, I think this is the essential question that we’re wrestling with, and none of us have dealt with this before. I guess what I’m saying is that based on what I have read and what I have seen in B.C., the B.C. court punted it right back to the Legislature, saying: “These are your rules. You should be able to interpret your rules, and you should honour the commitments that you’ve made through your appointed, independent officers.” I’m no expert on constitutional law. That’s why we have an Ethics Commissioner. That’s why we have courts, and ultimately I guess the courts can still overrule this decision readily if they choose to. I don’t think we prejudice the court in any way. We vote, and we make our decisions here. If the courts decide that we are in error, then so be it, but the evidence from B.C. is that they want nothing to do with conflicts of interest related to the Legislature.


Dr. Swann Debates Bill 2 – An Act to Remove Barriers for Survivors of Sexual and Domestic Violence – 16 March 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Thursday, March 16, 2017.

Bill 2 – An Act to Remove Barriers for Survivors of Sexual and Domestic Violence

Dr. Swann: Just a few comments, Madam Speaker. Thank you. I very much appreciate this bill, long overdue. The statute of limitations has obviously been arbitrary and inappropriate in a number of cases. Child abuse, clearly, has been relieved of that statute of limitations, and this is certainly another area that should be relieved of it.

I would say that in the medical profession one of the gaps, I think, in our training for physicians is to ask every woman, especially women that come into emergency rooms, if they feel safe at home. There’s kind of a reluctance, it seems, to go there, and it would open up the door in a lot of cases for women who are reluctant to speak or who feel in danger but are unwilling to actually share the true cause of their bruise or their injury or their indication of threat. That’s an important initiative that’s gone through emergency rooms across Alberta. I hope it’s being followed. Even our EMS colleagues could probably be helping by raising that question if it is unclear how an injury occurred and simply asking the woman or the man, if he’s been abused, whether he or she feels safe at home.

The other issue that I will be raising later in the Legislature is whether this bill actually covers harassment. It doesn’t appear to cover workplace harassment, and I hope I’ll be bringing forward an amendment at some point to ask that that be included. I’m thinking obviously, or perhaps not obviously, of the Calgary Police Service concerns around women in the workplace and harassment. Many of them could not make their appeal to the Human Rights Commission because they were longer than two years since the incident. In fact, it’s my understanding that none of them were within the two-year statute of limitations. So I would like to make sure that this bill covers harassment in the workplace.

Thank you, Madam Speaker.


Dr. Swann Debates Bill 2 – An Act to Remove Barriers for Survivors of Sexual and Domestic Violence – 15 March 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Wednesday, March 15, 2017.

Bill 2 – An Act to Remove Barriers for Survivors of Sexual and Domestic Violence

Dr. Swann: Dr. Swann: Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and thank you, hon. member, for sharing your story. It’s very important for all of us, especially those in the public systems that are supposed to be caring for people going through these challenging times. I think of the justice system, I also think of the social services system, and I also think of the health care system, where people are supposed to be prepared and trained and able to meaningfully help in the transition back to health and recovery, posttraumatic support, whatever. Tell us about your experience with the public services in Alberta and how they have met or not met your needs, if you chose to use them.

 


Dr. Swann Debates Appropriation (Interim Supply) Act, 2017 – 15 March 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Dr. Swann: Dr. Swann: Thank you, Madam Speaker. Well, I do feel that I should stand and speak as an opposition member who recognizes the importance of some of the new policy that’s been brought forward and the recognition, too, that in these challenging times it’s been important to look at new ways of sustaining some of the services that people need more significantly than they have in the past.

I’ve repeatedly raised questions with the government, both privately and publicly, that there needs to be a rigorous independent review of some of what we’re doing in our public services. I think there are significant savings that can be made and efficiencies that can be gained. But apart from that, we recognize that we’re in a significant deficit and debt situation in this province. I would like to think that as mature legislators we would be willing to have an adult conversation about revenue, and that includes the PST.

Are we going to pass this all on to our children, or are we going to start paying our share now of getting this debt under control? To talk about a PST, a 2 per cent increase, for example – that would take us back to what we were paying for many years under the federal GST. A harmonized PST would take us to 7 per cent, which we paid long ago, and if we’re serious about trying to address intergenerational equity and not dump a whole bunch more burden and debt and increased cost of living onto our children and our grandchildren, we have to start talking about a PST. There is just no other option.

I hesitate to say that. Politically, nobody wants to say the word. When we are charged with some of the most important decisions for the future of the province, if we can’t talk about it here, where can we talk about it? Out in the media it’s often used as a whip to whip parties that talk in terms of a responsible stewardship for the future. The reality is that over decades we have built up a massive infrastructure debt and deficit. Since the Klein cuts of the ’90s we have a social deficit that has not been addressed. We have an environmental debt that we are now starting to address in terms of stronger legislation around environment and regulations around the environment.

Whether or not it’s all as efficiently spent as we would all like it to be – and we admonish the government to look assiduously at every budget in the public sector and hold the line on new contracts. At the same time we have to as responsible adults have an adult conversation about revenue and about a reasonable tax. We’re still the lowest taxed jurisdiction in the country, and we are adding very significant burdens onto future generations without even addressing the question of a PST. I find that really discouraging, frankly. I would hope that we can have an honest conversation about it, regardless of the fact that they may not be doing optimal manage-ment. We are going to be faced with a big debt in 2019. Let’s talk about how we’re going to at least start to make for some intergenerational equity and start paying some of our way.

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

The Deputy Speaker: Any questions or comments under 29(2)(a)? Go ahead.

Mr. Barnes: Thank you, Madam Speaker. If I could, please, I’d just like to take a second and ask the hon. member a couple of things. The CBC a week or two ago again clearly pointed out Alberta’s spending problem. The fact that our province spends $2,700 more per year per capita than any other province – and as we’ve seen our wait times slip and we’ve seen our infrastructure problems, I would challenge you to explain where we get the value for that extra money.

Then when it comes to the PST, I often wonder: what does the Alberta advantage mean to the average family? Alberta in a good year gets $8 billion, $9 billion, or $10 billion in royalties. Of course, no question that in the last couple of years it’s been substantially lower, I think even in the $2 billion to $3 billion or $4 billion vicinity, but, hon. member, I don’t think any other province comes anywhere close to that. Most provinces hardly get anything, if any. We make more in royalties than other provinces receive in PST. How does that correlate, in your thinking, with what the Alberta advantage would be for the people that live in Alberta?

Thank you.

Dr. Swann: Well, Madam Speaker, we’re talking about apples and oranges. Most people in this province recognize that we have not saved our oil money for 30 years. Why is that? Why have we not saved it over 30 years? Under Peter Lougheed we were receiving 29 per cent royalties. In the last 15 years it’s been about 7 to 9 per cent royalties, so either we’re not bringing in enough money or we’re not saving it in an appropriate fashion or both.

That doesn’t address the question of the reality that we have been building debt and deficit for the last 25 years in this province. If we want the services, the schools, the hospitals, the roads, and the standard of living that we enjoy here, the real question, with respect, is: are you going to pass this on to your children, or are you going to start paying your share now? That’s the question I think we have to ask.

When you get into power, we’ll be asking you the same question. Can you maintain services and infrastructure with the budget you suggested? Impossible. Nobody believes that you’re credible in talking about a balanced budget by 2017. It’s just not credible. The numbers don’t add up unless you make massive cuts to the services and the supports and the schools and the hospitals and the roads. It just doesn’t add up, so let’s get real about leaving a massive debt to our children and grandchildren: $40 billion, $50 billon, $60 billion is not going to be paid off in a few years. Let’s face it.

 


Dr. Swann Debates Supplementary Supply Estimates 2016-17, No. 2 head: General Revenue Fund – 9 March 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Thursday, March 9, 2017

Dr. Swann: I’m obviously very interested in the minister’s earlier comments and would appreciate at some point any reference in the supplementary estimates to the opioid crisis and whether any of the new funding was required for some of the extra demands that clearly have been on the system and how that is being disbursed.

I’m also a bit curious about the amended agreement with the AMA and how that’s resulted in increased costs. I had thought that it was resulting in savings, especially in relation to primary care. Maybe we could have some clarification around that. I guess it relates to the specialist remuneration as well.

In relation to the increased seniors’ drug benefit and nongroup drug benefits and brand name drugs how is that relating to our generic policy? Is it the fact that physicians aren’t prioritizing generics or pharmacists are not providing generics? Why are we spending more on brand name drugs when we have made such an effort and spent heavily on promoting the generics?

The $15 million for the pharmaceutical innovation and management program, I guess, raises the question now that pharmacists can do a whole bunch of things that they couldn’t do before. They can now diagnose. They can now prescribe as well as dispense. I met with the pharmaceutical college and the association to talk about how they’re supervising this second set of professionals who are fee-for-service billing. We have already identified that physician billing as a fee-for-service system is not optimal. It is rewarding volume. It’s not rewarding quality of care, continuity of care. We now have another group of professionals who are able to bill up to $125 for a drug review per year for people.

So as we do on physician billing, we have to have a way of overseeing and ensuring that those who are outliers, who are perhaps billing more than usual or not adding substantial value – we have to have a way of monitoring that use and ensuring that it’s within guidelines and appropriate.

Finally, the $19 million for continuing care beds due to contractual obligations: I assume that’s salary, incremental salary stuff, operational costs. Perhaps you could comment on those.

Thank you.

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Madam Chair. The minister has, I think, philosophically embraced prevention and health promotion in a lot of respects, but this year we saw cuts to injury prevention. We saw no increase that I was able to detect in the prevention programs beyond injury, some of the lifestyle issues, the health promotion programs. Indeed, maybe she wouldn’t be able to comment on it just yet but next time.

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Madam Chair. I’ll have some questions for environment and First Nations. Let me begin by congratulating the environment minister on her leadership on climate change. I’ve said before – and I think it needs to be said – that this is the first meaningful and bold initiative we’ve seen since I was elected, and we’re starting to see some of the benefits in terms of people recognizing their own impact on the environment.

I am curious, though, to see why there is no supplementary estimate for the new park. Is that because nothing has been done this past year and it’s going to be in a future budget, or is it under other categories?

I’m not clear either on the $5.4 million for surface rights compensation grants. Oh, those are related to the unpaid oil and gas rental industry. I guess I’d missed that.

I’d be interested to hear how the flood hazard identification program is getting on and what progress is being made, how close we are to understanding the full flood mapping. Again, if you could comment with respect to water on the groundwater mapping that was to have been – well, it was started under the previous government, and I thought we were moving forward pretty close to completion or should have been by now. Is any of this relating to groundwater mapping in the province?

Dr. Swann: With respect to the groundwater mapping how much progress are we making there? There are serious concerns about understanding better our groundwater.

Ms Phillips: Absolutely, hon. member. We’re looking at the groundwater and surface water management framework in the lower Athabasca regional plan, for example. That was a piece of work that had been sitting for some time under the previous government, and we’re moving that along under the lower Athabasca regional plan. There are frameworks that contain within them triggers and thresholds so that we can better appreciate the cumulative effects. I’d be happy to follow up in greater detail in writing on where those processes are at and, once those management frameworks are complete, what changes they reflect in terms of how we manage cumulative effects on the landscape.

Dr. Swann: Just quickly to the First Nations minister: what impacts has the opiate crisis had on your department, and what in your budget reflects the concerns around the opiate crisis?

The Deputy Chair: The Minister of Indigenous Relations.

Mr. Feehan: Thank you very much. There is no particular request for a change in our supplementary income during this time with regard to the opiate crisis because that particular issue is being handled directly through Health, through the Associate Minister of Health, and as well through our Solicitor General. All of those programs are aligned and assigned through those two ministries, not through IR particularly, because they’re the ministries that actually do the hiring of individuals who will do the work. In our ministry we are spending time working with the communities, of course, on relationships, building and working with both the reserve communities and the neighbouring communities. We already have a full contingent of people who are assigned to each reserve and who are working with that, so it becomes a particular focus of their work but doesn’t change the number of people that are required. Therefore, no supplementary estimate is required at this time.

Dr. Swann: Thank you.

Thank you, Madam Chair.