Alberta Premier Danielle Smith sent a clear message to many of her cabinet ministers on Wednesday.
In mandate letters to six ministers, she made it clear her first priority is addressing affordability and inflation in Alberta.
“Our cabinet faces an extraordinary task: to deliver on a clear and bold mandate in a limited period of time,” Smith wrote in all six of the letters.
They were sent to the ministers of education, affordability and utilities, culture, municipal affairs, children’s services, and seniors, community and social services.
“Albertans are counting on us, and they rightfully expect their government to address the challenges they are facing with our full attention and action.”
All of the letters asked the ministers to keep the inflation and affordability crisis top of mind, focus on job creation and strengthening the economy, and address the health-care system challenges to improve ambulance service, emergency room services and clear surgical backlogs.
Smith also said she expects her “cabinet to remain united and determined in the face of a federal government that no longer treats its partners in Confederation as equals.”
Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams said the letters appear to be part of a plan to pivot, turning attention to the issues impacting most Albertans: affordability, health care and education.
“I think the challenge for her now is to persuade Albertans that she is hearing and responding effectively to those concerns,” Williams said.
“The hearing part is easy. The responding effectively is the challenge.”
Williams said Alberta is a prosperous province and Smith has a lot of money at her disposal to deal with some challenges in areas such as health care and education.
“In significant ways, she does have financial tools at her disposal to try to address some of the concerns and problems that Albertans are facing. But that said, these are — particular when we’re talking about about affordability, inflation and health care — those are extremely complex.”
Williams noted some of the challenges the province faces aren’t unique to Alberta — inflation, health-care concerns and staffing shortages are affecting jurisdictions around the world.
“It’s not obvious that any of the things she said so far are going to be effective in actually dealing with the challenges that we’re seeing,” she said.
“These are bigger, more complex problems. And even if some of the measures do go some distance toward addressing some of the concerns, there’s a lot there to deal with.”
The letters also asked specific things of each minister.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was asked to expand mental-health supports and look at the need for more educational assistants and schools.
She was asked to look at transforming career education programming to be more responsive “to the needs of our current and future workforce” and work with the Ministry of Health to determine if there’s a need to expand support for qualified professionals such as speech language pathologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists and psychologists.
LaGrange was tasked with working with the infrastructure minister on developing a proposal to significantly increase the number of schools in growing communities and look at strategies to address the cost of transportation and ride times.
LaGrange was told to also continue to support parental choice in the education system.
Alberta Premier Smith sends letter to Ottawa about making Alberta more affordable
Culture Minister Jason Luan was asked to work with the Ministry of Infrastructure on a strategy to invest in cultural and heritage sites and develop a building naming policy, work with children’s services on affordable access to sport and recreation opportunities, and work with Parliamentary Secretary for the Status of Women Tanya Fir on women’s participation in the economy — particularly in STEM fields — and focus on a strategy to support victims of domestic violence.
Municipal Affairs Minister Rebecca Schulz was asked to strengthen relationships with municipal leaders, improving the delivery of predictable funding through the Local Government Fiscal Framework and review the feasibility of changes to the Education Property Tax to help municipalities retain more funding.
Schulz was also asked to review the structure and effectiveness of the Calgary and Edmonton Metropolitan Region Boards to ensure they are effectively serving their residents and to consult the energy industry and the Rural Municipalities of Alberta on how to address issues with the Linear Property Tax and unpaid municipal tax bills.
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Children’s Services Minister Mickey Amery is tasked with ensuring a more efficient adoption process for Albertans, and more transparency and accountability for unlicensed day homes — as well as exploring incentives for more to become licensed.
The minister was asked to review the foster care system, looking at reducing the number of moves and minimizing disruption for kids in care, and make it easier for foster parents to adopt children.
Amery was told to work on the implementation of Bill C-92 — which provides Indigenous communities with jurisdiction over child care.
He was also told to work with Minister of Affordability and Utilities Matt Jones on ensuring the equitable inclusion and incentivization of both private and not-for-profit child care operators, and reducing unnecessary red tape and administrative costs for all providers.
Rebates to make your home more efficient
Jones was asked to work with several ministries and lead the work on preparing and implementing a package of inflation relief measures aimed to address affordability and cost of living concerns for things like child care and powering Albertans’ homes.
“We’re looking to save them as much as possible. There’s a few ways that we’re doing that,” Jones said on Wednesday.
“We’re trying to become efficient as a government, and over the last three years, we certainly got our costs in order and that’s why we’re in a position now to come forward with significant relief at a time when Albertans and their families need it the most.”
But what that relief will be is still unclear, with the minister saying more information will come in December.
While Albertans wait for that assistance, experts like Williams say those on programs like Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) shouldn’t have to.
AISH supports about 70,000 Albertans with permanent medical issues that prevent them from earning a living with a basic benefit of $1,685 per month, according to the province.
Smith also issued a letter to the Minister of Seniors, Community and Social Services Jeremy Nixon, asking him to adjust income supports for those on AISH, as well as senior’s benefits, for inflation moving forward.
The former NDP government tied the value of those benefits to the cost of living in Alberta in 2018.
After the 2019 provincial election, the UCP suspended that policy, saying the government couldn’t afford the increased costs while running budget deficits.
NDP critic Marie Renaud called for an apology from the UCP, including Nixon, for de-indexing the programs.
“The past three years have been extremely difficult for disabled Albertans and the most vulnerable in our society,” she said in a statement.
The NDP called on the government to provide clear details on what their plan is for AISH, income supports and the seniors benefit, and a timeline for implementation.
Williams also noted the letter didn’t provide clarity or timelines for people in desperate need.
“They need to have that re-indexed — they’re really hurting and struggling at this stage of the game,” she said
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense why a government with lots of money wanting to address these concerns is taking as long as it is at responding to those.”
Williams noted Smith is up against a learning curve as she takes over government.
“There’s a pretty dramatic contrast between what she’s doing and what (former premier) Jason Kenney did at a similar stage in his premiership. He had a bit more lead time, I grant.”
As Alberta creeps closer to the spring general election, experts say people should see more announcements like the ones in Wednesday’s letters — an effort to win over voters.
“I think clear plans and timely delivery is going to make a big difference in terms of the impressions Albertans have of her competence,” Williams said.
Nixon was also asked to develop a strategy to strengthen Alberta’s network of food banks, work with health ministry on a strategy to expand seniors lodges and seniors facilities, address affordable housing, work with the minister of mental health and addiction to align his department’s policies with a recovery-oriented system of care and work with the social services sector to address workforce challenges with respect to social sector worker wages.
The province said additional mandate letters will be issued over the next week in three remaining tranches, addressing things such as health care and skilled labour.
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