The Late Returns
Regular readers of this column probably noted that it was missing last week and may be wondering why. The reason is my own fault, as I was eagerly awaiting the new Alberta Cabinet appointments to inform you all with the latest news about what this meant for you and me.
Unfortunately, I forgot to tell our editor about this and so missed the deadline to submit my article. Which means that here we are a week later and it’s old news by now. Still, I’ve never let that stop me before.
Is There Justice?
As you probably know, if you take an interest in these things, Alberta had its regular re-election (http://results.electionsalberta.ab.ca/ProvincialResults.htm) of the PC party recently. Given that the PC party has been in power since I was born, this comes as no surprise to me.
This one didn’t quite go as planned, however. Plagued by what was essentially a non-campaign and coasting on their laurels, the PCs lost some of the momentum they’ve had in previous elections, which translated to a loss of 13 seats in the legislature.
While the PCs maintain a comfortable majority, having 61 of 83 seats, this is a serious indictment of the government’s post-debt policies. Considering that this government was able to boast about finalizing payments on the debt, and with an employment rate and economic growth rate that is the best in Canada, for the incumbent government to lose seats is a sign that anybody who’s actually watching the government is concerned.
With this loss of seats comes a Cabinet shuffle (http://www.gov.ab.ca/home/index.cfm?Page=939), as one of the cabinet ministers was not re-elected. The Premier has taken his cue from the election to make some changes in “business as usual”
For you and I, probably the most interesting of these changes are those that happened to the Learning Ministry. The Honourable Dr. Lyle Oberg is no longer here, instead moving to Infrastructure and Transportation, where I am sure he will do his level best to fill pot-holes across the province with the same stuff he used to foist off as being beneficial to post-secondary education. No doubt we’ll see a comprehensive transportation plan across the province and perhaps the formation of a Provincial Infrastructure Board to have oversight of road development everywhere.
In fact, one could say that Dr. Oberg was responsible for the demise of Alberta Learning. He certainly oversaw its dismantling, as now instead of one united Ministry of Learning we have two ministries: the Ministry of Education, which deals with kindergarten to grade 12, and the Ministry of Advanced Education which deals with post-secondary issues.
Having a more specialized ministry to deal strictly with post-secondary issues makes a lot of sense when you consider how diverse it is. The idea of unifying required schooling with post-secondary was never something that seemed it would take off, and indeed it hasn’t. For our new Advanced Education Ministry, we have been given the Honourable David Hancock (http://www.assembly.ab.ca/adr/adr_template.aspx?type=mla_bio&rnumber=42) as the Advanced Education Minister.
Mr. Hancock was formerly Alberta’s Minister of Justice, and from all reports he’s one of the better MLAs available. He is responsible for, among other things, the Alberta Inter-dependant Couples Act. This Act is essentially a way to give non-traditional couples access to the legal rights of marriage without having to give them the ability to legally marry. Personally, I think it’s a ludicrous distinction to be making, but given the electorate base the PC party has to work with, they may have had little choice.
Some other interesting points are that Mr. Hancock was also on the two most influential committees in the legislature–the Treasury Committee and the Agenda and Priorities Committee–and remains on the Agenda and Priorities committee this time around. In addition, he’s also picked up the vice-chair position of the Employment and Education policy committee. He was leader of the commission that drafted Alberta’s 20 year strategic plan (http://www.gov.ab.ca/home/documents/strategic_plan.pdf). In other words, this is a person that the government seems to look to for guidance, which means if he has any ideas for post-secondary education, chances are good that they’ll be heard.
Unfortunately, his ideas are for post-secondary education are still unknown. If you read his campaign statements (http://www.hancock.ab.ca/issues/issues.asp?ID=4), he claims that “We need to make education affordable so cost is not a barrier to access, and we need to expand the student capacity in our colleges, universities and technical schools to meet the growing demand and to ensure prospective students aren’t turned away for lack of space.” This sounds promising, until you read the rest of his statement which basically touts how well things are going already.
Similarly, in the 20 year plan, his comments on post-secondary education are limited to the standard: “Government’s job is to make sure that opportunities for post-secondary learning are accessible and affordable. That will mean increased investment to expand learning opportunities to create more spaces at Alberta’s universities, colleges, and technical institutes.” To me, this sounds like the BC strategy. More and bigger buildings, not smarter investments in distance education, lowering tuitions, or improving the student loan systems.
Mr. Hancock also seems to be a very large proponent of the “Do It Yourself” methodology, having noted it several times in the 20 year plan, and actively promoting it in the Justice System by developing an advanced mediation system so that people would not have to use the courts.
Unfortunately, while “Do It Yourself” is a fine ideal for university, in the end it’s not practical unless you’re willing to go the route of DeVry. As for students, anybody on student loans will be able to tell you that a “Do It Yourself” strategy just wouldn’t work–education is simply too expensive for most people to afford on their own.
My hope is that Mr. Hancock will re-examine the student loans system and realize that while the yearly amounts have been increasing to keep pace with tuition inflation, the over-all lifetime amount has not. For Alberta students, it would also be good if student finance could recognize the uniqueness of AU, and grant funding for the full six months of a course. In an ideal world, it would be wonderful for Mr. Hancock to realize how distance education can solve so many of the problems of access to post-secondary education and devote money to developing better systems of doing so and giving institutions the ability to deliver them.
My fear is that we’ll see a system much like British Columbia’s, where the money is put into buildings instead of education, where grants will be taken away in favor of increased loans, and where universities will be expected to generate larger operating revenues for themselves by commercializing research.
In either event, one thing we can rely on is that the appointment of Mr. Hancock to this ministry means that some changes are definitely in store. It’s just a matter of seeing which way they go.
Bush Blew By Because of Byrd
A lot of people think the recent visit of President Bush to Canada was because he wants help in Iraq, or Canada’s agreement to join in an Anti-Ballistic Missile defense system (because terrorists are well-known for their use of ballistic missiles), or simply to try and make it seem like he’s not a religious crusader in an arrogant imperialist’s clothing. But I expect the real reason is a lot more pressing for President Bush, and it isn’t one that the media has given a lot of attention.
The WTO has recently approved the final part necessary to allow Canada to retaliate for the application of the Byrd Amendment (http://webapps.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/minpub/Publication.asp?publication_id=381800&language=E). For those of you who don’t follow this column, the Byrd Amendment basically allows the United States to take any duties they impose under WTO for product dumping under the free trade act, and give them directly to the corporations affected–In essence giving those corporations a double-boost. They’ve been doing it for years, and the rest of the world has been protesting for years. Finally we’ve reached the point where action can be taken.
The government of Canada now wants us to make a choice–we can choose to apply retaliatory duties to any imports from the US that we desire, or we can choose to suspend any injury tests if we feel they are dumping their products on us. The latter means that Canadian companies do not need to show that products being exported from the US are actually hurting their business to have duties applied. You can choose to comment, if you like, and tell the government which way you think they should go, or which products you think should have duties applied to them.
For Bush, this could be devastating, as we are the United States’ largest trading partner and should his electoral base be hurt by our retaliation, the Republicans will see the results in their next election of Congressional and Senatorial seats in two years.
Personally, I’m going to tell the government that we should apply tariffs to all US agricultural products, to compensate for their supposedly legal subsidies in that area. That this would happen to target the mid-western states the most, the areas where Bush received the majority of his votes from, is simply a coincidence.