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What UCP cabinet minister mandate letters say about the government's agenda
Kind of like Aunt Martha’s fruitcake. It keeps coming back at you year after year.
Over the summer months, while most Albertans were focusing on navigating wildfire smoke and intense heat, the provincial government released a steady stream of mandate letters from Premier Danielle Smith to her cabinet ministers. The mandate letters are meant to provide direction from the Premier to the Ministers on where the departments they are responsible for fit in the government’s agenda.
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Publicly releasing ministerial mandate letters provides a certain level of transparency on the surface but the stream of press releases, as conservative thinker Ken Boessenkool mused last year, “turns an important governing process into a communications and stakeholder exercise.”
As far as I can find, the Alberta government only started publicly releasing ministerial mandate letters in the mid-2000s during the premiership of Ed Stelmach. But, even then, the letters still generated the equivalent of political eye rolling from critics in the opposition benches.
Former Liberal MLA Rick Miller, one of the most honourable people I had the privilege of working with with at the Legislature, described ministerial mandate letters as “kind of like Aunt Martha’s fruitcake. It keeps coming back at you year after year.”
Because it’s so normal in Alberta, I was a little shocked to read this week that making these letters public isn’t the norm in some other provinces. Premier Doug Ford’s government fought tooth and nail to keep its ministerial mandate letters from being publicly released.
But, aside from mostly being a communications and stakeholder relations exercise in Alberta, the ministerial mandate letters do give us a glimpse of insight into the direction the government plans to take on certain issues.
Minister of Finance mandate letter
Smith said during the spring election campaign that a re-elected United Conservative Party government’s first piece of legislation would be an amendment to the Alberta Taxpayer Protection Act. So it’s no surprise that her letter to Finance Minister Nate Horner tasked him “to ensure no future government can increase personal or business income tax rates without approval from Albertans in a referendum.”
Similar to Alberta’s old anti-deficit legislation, this could be easily be rescinded when it is no longer convenient for a government.
Also included in Horner’s letter is the UCP campaign promise to create “a new eight per cent tax bracket on income under $60,000...”
Straight out of the Fair Deal Panel report, withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan and creating an Alberta Pension Plan is also in the Finance Minister’s letter. Smith tasked Horner with “consulting with Albertans on its findings to determine whether a referendum should be held to establish an Alberta Pension Plan.”
Leaving the CPP is a very controversial and probably risky path for retirees that Smith said she did not want to talk about until after the election was over. In response to this move, Public Interest Alberta has launched a Save Our CPP campaign.
Smith’s letter to Horner also tasked him with reviewing the mandate of ATB Financial, the bank created and owned by the Alberta government since the 1930s, and make recommendations on how it can “strengthen the institution’s financial position to ensure it remains viable and contributes to Alberta’s unique provincial economy in the long term.”
Minister of Health mandate letter
In her letter to Health Minister Adriana LaGrange, Smith directed the minster to “enhance local decision-making authority” in the health care system. The centralization of public health care administration into Alberta Health Services has been a longstanding issue for Smith and her former Wildrose Party, who felt too much control over the system was being held in Edmonton.
While there are certainly areas where more local decision making makes sense, the COVID-19 pandemic proved that a larger and more robust centralized health care authority was better equipped to respond to province-wide crises.
Also in the health minister’s mandate is to identify strategies to attract and retain health care workers to rural Alberta.
Minister of Education mandate letter
In her letter to Minister of Education Demetrios Nicolaides, Smith tasked him with “[e]nsuring Alberta's educational funding model continues to promote parental choice in education” and shortening the education requirements of certificated teachers.
Both of these points caught the eye of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. ATA President Jason Schilling cautioned against fast-tracking certification for new teachers and emphasized the importance of maintaining the integrity of the teaching profession.
Minister of Jobs, Economy and Trade mandate letter
Minister of Jobs, Economy and Trade Matt Jones is tasked with “introducing a one-time “Alberta is Calling” attraction bonus of at least $1,200 to workers in skilled trades and professions where there are labour shortages in Alberta, including health care, child care and trades.”
Also in Jones’ letter is “[c]onsulting with Alberta private sector unions on ways to reduce red tape in aspects of Bill 32 that made it unduly onerous for unions to make charitable donations.” It’s notable that public sector unions are purposely excluded from this directive.
Minister of Transportation and Economic Corridors mandate letter
It’s hard to imagine this actually happening, but Minister of Transportation and Economic Corridors Devin Dreeshen has been tasked with “examining the feasibility of a province-led Metrolinx-like model for commuter rail service using heavy rail on the Canadian Pacific rail line from Airdrie to Okotoks and the Edmonton International Airport to downtown Edmonton.”
Commuter rail is something that many Albertans have been yearning for since most of VIA Rail’s passenger services were discontinued in the province in the 1980s. It’s usually an idea that is dismissed by the provincial government as too expensive or unfeasible, but a provincially-initiated commuter rail system makes sense.
Minster of Justice mandate letter
Smith’s letter to Minister of Justice Mickey Amery tasked him with reviewing the Public Health Emergencies Governance Review Panel's findings. The secretive COVID-19 review led by Preston Manning attracted criticism when it was revealed that the former politician was being paid $253,000 to chair the committee and that he had already authored his own bizarre fictional inquiry report in June 2022. The Manning committee’s interim report was not made public.
Amery’s letter also includes instructions to review the Elections Act, the Local Authorities Election Act, Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act and other relevant election-related legislation and make “recommendations that ensure election results are publicly available on a more timely basis on voting day.”
The delay in voting results in last May’s election night was a major inconvenience for live television broadcasts and the pundit guests who were put in the awkward position of having to repeat fairly uninteresting circular conversations throughout the evening.
The priority of elections legislation should probably be for the votes to be counted correctly rather than be tied to a TV broadcast schedule.
While it might not be top of mind for politicos today, next year marks the earliest that the next electoral boundaries redistribution commission can be named. The commission would redraw the riding boundaries for the next provincial election.
The membership of the commission is something the government should consider reforming, including abandoning the current bi-partisan appointee process in favour of a non-partisan commission process similar to what exists in federal electoral boundaries commissions (I can guarantee I will write more about this soon).
Defending Alberta from federal interference
If there is a common thread through many of the mandate letters it is defending Alberta from federal interference, a key theme of the UCP’s re-election campaign and of Smith’s premiership:
Minister of Energy and Minerals Brian Jean is tasked with: “defending Alberta’s energy interests against federal overreach and developing strategic alliances with other provinces to deal with energy-related issues.”
Minister of Environment and Protected Areas Rebecca Schulz is tasked with: “defending Alberta’s energy interests against federal overreach and developing strategic alliances with other provinces to deal with environment-related issues.”
Minister of Jobs, Economy and Trade Matt Jones is tasked with: “defending Alberta's interests with the federal government in negotiations, implementation and management of international trade agreements.”
Here are links to all the ministerial mandate letters:
Minister of Advanced Education, Minister of Affordability and Utilities, Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation, Minister of Arts, Culture and Status of Women, Minister of Children and Family Services, Minister of Education, Minister of Energy and Minerals, Minister of Environment and Protected Areas, Minister of Forestry and Parks, Minister of Health, Minister of Immigration and Multiculturalism, Minister of Indigenous Relations, Minister of Infrastructure, Minister of Jobs, Economy and Trade, Minister of Justice, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Minister of Municipal Affairs, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Services, Minister of Seniors, Community and Social Services, Minister of Services Alberta and Red Tape Reduction, Minister of Technology and Innovation, Minister of Tourism and Sport, Minister of Transportation and Economic Corridors, and President of Treasury Board and Minister of Finance.
Live from Calgary… it’s Bruce McAllister
Fresh from his run as the host of the UCP War Room, a series of nightly videos produced by the UCP election campaign, Bruce McAllister is now the host of the Premier’s Office Alberta Update video series.
McAllister, a news anchor-turned-Wildrose Party MLA and now executive director of the Premier’s McDougall Centre office in Calgary, apparently has time in his schedule for this new communications venture. The first episode features, unsurprisingly, an interview with Premier Danielle Smith. The video is posted on Smith’s YouTube channel, not the Alberta government’s official channel.
That's the news. Good night, and have a pleasant tomorrow.
A few more things…
The Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton is hosting a musical tribute to former politician Gene Zwozdesky. Zwozdesky was a MLA from 1993 to 2015, serving in the Liberal opposition benches, as a Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, and at the end of his career as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. He died in 2017. The event is being held in support of the Gene Zwozdesky Centre at Norwood Project.
Edmonton-Griesbach MP Blake Desjarlais will be nominated to run for the federal NDP in the next election at a September 23, 2023 meeting. Guest speakers at the nomination meeting at the Bellevue Community Hall will include federal party leader Jagmeet Singh and Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood MLA Janis Irwin.
A few big political staff announcements: Director of Policy and Legislative Services Amy Nugent is leaving the NDP Caucus to become the new Associate Director of Marine Climate Action with Oceans North. Western Standard reporter Arthur Green is now the press secretary for Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Mike Ellis.
Red Deer Catholic School trustee Monique LaGrange, who attracted national attention after posting an internet meme comparing children waving Pride flags to children waving Nazi flags, was the guest speaker at a potluck dinner organized by central Alberta conservative activists at the Bentley Community Hall this week. The potluck dinner series has also featured guest speakers such as former independent candidate Tim Hoven and Calgary mayoral candidate Zane Novak, and has been attended by candidates running for executive positions at the upcoming UCP AGM.
Ties that Bind, a political drama set during the Social Credit era of Alberta politics, is set to debut at the Calgary International Film Festival on September 27.