Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Wednesday, March 8, 2017.
Consideration of Her Honour the Lieutenant Governor’s Speech
Dr. Swann: Thank you. My honour and privilege to speak to the throne speech, a very fine speech, to be sure, as all throne speeches are. I haven’t heard a bad one in 11 years. The question is: what follows, and what’s the action on the ground?
I acknowledge we’re here on Treaty 6 land. Our First Nation brothers and sisters clearly need to be heard and seen and be part of the activities of this Legislature more than they have been. I acknowledge a government that, perhaps for the first time since I’ve been here, recognizes First Nations and the importance that they have and the relationship with them as critical to our success, all of our success, going forward.
This is probably my last Speech from the Throne as leader. Who knows? It’s possible. I won’t be the interim leader for a third time.
An Hon. Member: We’ve heard that before.
Mr. Cooper: It’s the swan song.
Dr. Swann: I hope to have many farewells over the next few years.
I want to acknowledge International Women’s Day and in that context the Calgary Police Service’s troubles over harassment. I’ve been working or trying to work with the Calgary Police Service to establish two things: one, independent hearing officers in our police forces so that the hearing officers for complaints are not past police people but independent, legally trained people. The chief has said that he’s interested in this and is going to look at the possibility and feels that it’s an important area. Other police forces should be looking at this, as far as I’m concerned.
The second is amendments to our Human Rights Act. Under the Human Rights Act the Human Rights Commission can only hear complaints within a year of them occurring. For many of these women who have been harassed, it’s been years, and they haven’t felt that they could come forward. We need to extend that period. Just as the minister is doing with respect to sexual assault, sexual harassment should also be included in extending the timelines, and I’ll be coming forward with a suggested amendment there.
But the other part of the Human Rights Act that needs to be amended is for the Human Rights Commission to be able to independently investigate systemic concerns like what is going on in the police force today. It’s something like 28 women who’ve now come forward in Calgary in addition to the others that have come forward. It’s clear that none of them felt free to make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission, and therefore the Human Rights Commission can’t act. It can’t investigate without a complaint. Well, if we amend the Human Rights Act – and in special circumstances only. We don’t want them going willy-nilly into organizations and pulling down people. But I think it’s important that the Human Rights Commission be empowered. In situations like this, where there’s clear evidence of wrongdoing and it’s being hidden, they need to have the power to go in and launch investigations.
Yes, the speech was excellent, and I acknowledge that many of the issues that were raised were important. We all, I think, could agree on most of the statements that were made. I was disappointed with only one sentence which related to the ongoing crisis with opiates in this province ravaging our families and increasing by the month, even in our remand and jails. Last year there were eight deaths in remand and our provincial jails and 27 near deaths in our remand and jails. The near deaths were reversed by naloxone – great – but if the naloxone or the guard wasn’t there, that could have been a potential 35 deaths due to overdose, raising a lot of questions about what is happening, how the drugs are getting in, how well they’re being managed by the staff, whether there is access to professional health care workers in there, how they deal with people who are coming off drugs as they come into jails. We need a public inquiry there, as far as I’m concerned, and I’ll be again raising that with the minister, which I raised in the fall as well.
I want to acknowledge the bold new direction this government has taken. It’s the first serious commitment I’ve seen since I got into the Legislature to reduce inequity and poverty – the first serious commitment to reducing inequity and poverty – and the first serious commitment I’ve seen to climate change. You know, I got into politics because of climate change and the lack of action, and I want to acknowledge this government for being bold and moving the yardstick down the field, if you will. Most Canadians believe that climate change is real, and they want to protect future generations from the scourges of extreme weather events, new infectious diseases, droughts and floods, and the increased impact on the global community with refugees and the massive immigration that we’re going to be facing. Someone has said that what we’ve seen from Syria so far is a small indication of what we’re really going to be seeing in the next two decades if we don’t get some degree of control over all three: conflict, poverty, and climate change.
The Stern report – some of you may remember it, from 2006, 11 years ago – said that we can spend 2 per cent of our GDP on climate change now, or we can spend 20 per cent of our global GDP in 30 to 40 years. That’s what we’re faced with, and this government has taken that on actively if not aggressively.
Infrastructure: surely worth investing and borrowing for at this stage and protecting our employment here, with interest rates being favourable. These echo the Liberal platform, which I’m very pleased to have influenced this government on over many years of advocating.
Parks. By the way, I meant to mention parks in the environment portfolio. Happy to see the commitment to protecting our wildlands, our eastern slopes. It needs to go much further, and there need to be, as with everything, authentic consultations. I’m glad to see the off-highway vehicle people being listened to. They’re a strong lobby. They’re going to be very, very active, very challenging to the protection that is needed in the eastern slopes. Science is the basis for evaluating linear disturbance. We need to make sure we’re protecting our waterways, primarily, and our habitat. We can co-exist in some areas with off-highway vehicles, but there are certain areas where we cannot. Our eastern slopes have to be very carefully examined, which I applaud.
The electricity agenda moved ahead without sufficient research, in my view, and with a lack of awareness of unwanted side effects, negative effects, from some of the changes. I will be tabling a motion next week, with the help of the former Utilities Consumer Advocate, offering a regulated rate option that we believe would save Albertans up to a hundred dollars a year, and that amounts to, you know, significant dollars over the course of the next 10 years. We calculated that close to a billion dollars could have been saved in the last 10 years if we had used this form of calculating the regulated rate option over the current one.
There needs to be – and I’m pleased to see it – a stronger emphasis on mental health and addictions in this province. I was pleased that the Premier included me in the review last year. I still haven’t seen an update on where that is. There were 32 recommendations. Six were acted on within a week, but we haven’t heard any follow-up on the other important recommendations, that relate not only to the lack of integrated mental health services in this province but also now to the opiate crisis, that appears to be out of control. That is all I can say. Whether we call it an emergency or not doesn’t matter, but we need to mobilize resources. We need to co-ordinate the departments of Justice and Solicitor General, Education, homelessness, First Nations, and Health. If we don’t get all those departments working together, we are not going to get ahead of this terrible and costly tragedy that’s going on.
Bill 6 was a wonderful, welcome initiative, again, by this government. They’ve been part of recognizing basic human rights for the people that feed us every day: the right to a safe working place, the right to compensation, not being booted down the road because they can’t perform their functions after an injury. I’m not saying that all farms and ranchers were not ethical and good employers, but some were not, and all workers deserve a standard of safe conditions and compensation when they get injured.
I’m pleased to see a couple of reports come out this week from the working groups. I’m waiting now for the other three. I hope they will not be delayed too long, and I hope they will not be watered down by the very strong push-back from the ag coalition, who only came on the scene since Bill 6 came in. Formerly it was the Alberta Federation of Agriculture that spoke for the agriculture community and agriculture and the ranching and farming industries. Somehow the ag coalition jumped on the bandwagon against a lot of the positive elements of Bill 6 and undermined any belief in the rural community that this is actually going to be good for both owners and farm workers.
It’s going to improve both the image of the agricultural and farming sector, and it’s going to obviously improve, hopefully, long-overdue child labour standards, which we still don’t have in this province for farm workers. There are no child labour standards. Especially in the context of the Mexican Mennonites, I’ve seen and heard lots of stories about some of the ways that they have been misused and abused, not only by working in situations that are not safe, but because their families needed the income, they allowed them to skip school to go and work in some of these somewhat dangerous areas.
So that is an ongoing satisfaction to me, and I’ll be watching for progress reports and holding the government to making strong decisions there.
Health innovation is happening, but it’s much too slow and much too piecemeal. We need to address the waste and inefficiency in our major public service health care, consuming more dollars per capita than any other provincial budget and getting poorer results in spite of it. It’s not about money. It’s about better management, and I hope that the minister is going to be bolder in looking at the ways that the systems are top heavy. They’re focused on treatment and high tech, and they’re not addressing early intervention/prevention programs in the community that would make such a difference.
Primary care family physician teams are not working well together. They’re not working consistently on some of the most important issues plaguing our population, including mental health, addictions issues, child poverty, child behaviour and learning problems. If we don’t get primary care networks to work more effectively and efficiently and clearly fit into the rest of the system with the other players in social services, in education, and with the other departments that are important to health, including the poverty work that needs to be done, we’re going to see a continued escalation in costs that we’re not going to be able to afford without sacrificing many other things that are needed.
I’m happy to see the commitment to high-quality, affordable child care and, obviously, given the financial situation recognize that we can’t do everything we would want to do at this time. I’m pleased to be part of the panel reviewing child deaths in care, and I hope that we’ll soon focus on the early determinants of child health and family health. This is clearly an area where we are missing the boat.
Since 1994, when Ralph Klein cut social services, we now have 20 per cent fewer social services supports than the national average. It has never caught up. As a result, we have families in distress, families unable to meet their basic needs, families that are in a cycle of poverty and violence and unable to succeed in school. The vicious cycle continues. I think we have Ralph Klein to thank for that, but successive Conservative governments have not addressed the issues of basic social supports for people.
I’m pleased to see First Nations and Métis appearing to be more of a priority. Clean drinking water clearly needs to be addressed. Both provincial and federal governments have to step up and make sure that we can guarantee every person in this population clean drinking water. We need regular progress reports on that. I hear a smattering from time to time: oh, this reservation, this organization now has clean drinking water, and another one is going on a boil water order. Well, lets make it a systematic and consistent progress report that we get with, again, joint federal and provincial response.
Change is difficult. I think we recognize that. It disrupts people and organizations in their lives, in their work. Essential as it is, the pace of change I think has to be examined by this government. The pace of change in some areas has been beyond what many people can tolerate. Particularly the business community has been giving me an earful. I think that if you want to be successful in the next election, you need to listen to the legitimate concerns of the business community and understand that all the wealth that we are distributing here comes from business.
Oh dear. Is it possible I’ve run out of time?
The Speaker: Thank you, hon. member. The hon. Member for Lethbridge-East.
Ms Fitzpatrick: Thank you very much for your thoughtful response. I do want to go back to your comment about the opioid crisis. I want to go back there because you and I have had many conversations over this and my over 30 years of experience in corrections. Certainly, I would have to say that staff in every institution in the country, in the remand centres are vigilant in terms of stopping drugs coming into that institution. They do everything that they can to stop it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop. My question to you – well, I need to back up. Those drugs come into the country, come into the city, come into the province. In fact, Lethbridge police had a huge drug bust of over a million dollars just a couple of weeks ago. Somebody is fronting that money for those drugs to come in. Can you give me a suggestion of an achievable objective to stop it there? Certainly, from my experience that’s where it needs to stop.
Dr. Swann: Thanks very much for the question. I would leave that to the federal and provincial authorities, who know much more about screening packages and substances and finding these.
I would flip that to recognition that maybe we don’t have enough discussion at this time about the revenue as well as the spending. We’ve been very focused on the spending in this government, and I think we need to have an adult conversation about the revenue side as well, recognizing that, again, all the revenue that we distribute comes from business and, yes, some federal transfers, some fines, some land sales, and taxes. I see a real need to examine what is happening on the spending side, though, as I mentioned, in public services through independent reviews, I would hope, of all the public sectors. Independent reviews. I haven’t seen or heard any of the ministries doing independent reviews and examining with real action following the failure of certain aspects of our delivery services.
We cannot expect carbon taxes, royalties, fines, and federal transfers to meet the burgeoning debt load, which ultimately will fall to our children. We have to examine other options. We have to look at other sources of revenue. That includes a PST; I’m sorry. We used to have a 7 per cent national GST. Now it’s at 5 per cent.
A 2 per cent PST would simply take us back to where we were before. We need to have an adult conversation about a PST in conjunction with a very rigorous examination of what we’re spending in the public sector and how we can bring that under control.
I know of all kinds of examples of waste in the health system. That’s the system I know best, but I’m sure that there are areas in every branch of government that, because they haven’t had an independent review, are not able to make serious and strategic, maybe surgical, decisions about where we can find efficiencies. I would be willing to entertain a discussion about a PST if we’re seriously exploring and publicizing the changes that we’re making in our public sector through independent analysis of where we could make significant improvements and efficiencies, better management styles, strategies, people who are not doing effective work within their job portfolio. Those kinds of changes have to be much more rigorously done.
I think that if we don’t address the growing and burgeoning tax level, we are going to be passing on to future generations a tremendous boondoggle. We’ve heard already about the $2 billion that we can anticipate in interest payments coming up. So I would welcome and I think this Legislature should welcome an adult conversation about where we’re going to get the revenue to continue as well as finding the efficiencies in our spending.
Getting back to the original question that the Member for Lethbridge-East asked, I think that if we’re not screening appropriately for drugs going into the correction centres, if we’re not equipping the staff appropriately to do thoughtful engagement with people who may be coming off drugs or who may be addicted or who may be at risk and are desperate to do anything to get a fix because of the pain they’re in, then we need to do something else.