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.