by Rebekah Benoit
It’s been an interesting ride for PC MLA Mike Allen. As the PC party prepares to meet and vote on who should represent the party in the next election, Allen says he’s learned many valuable lessons during his first term, and is ready to roll up his sleeves and join the fight again.
Allen says that he’s proud of what he’s accomplished in his first term as MLA, and wants to continue what he has started. “We’ve had a very busy and active term. Since 2012, it’s been unprecedented,” Allen says. “Both Don Scott and I have worked very hard to get results, and it’s important to continue that momentum.”
“My first term was spent learning the job and establishing those relationships. Pretty much anyone entering into the realm of the political spectrum starts fresh, not just here but anywhere in the province,” Allen adds. “In Wood Buffalo, it’s critical that we continue getting ready for the next phase of development. The price of oil is going to bounce back, and we’re going to face another economic upswing, and there are going to be a lot of critical projects to fight for.”
Arguably the biggest feather in Allen’s cap in terms of his work in office is the twinning of Highway 63. Before Allen took office, the project had stalled and seemed doomed to become snarled in cost overruns and construction delays. With the support of the community, Allen fought hard in the legislature to ensure the twinning became a reality.
“It took a great deal of work, but we rallied a lot of support for the twinning of Highway 63. We had 100 per cent support of caucus in getting the funding through,” Allen says. “There were some controversial things we had to go through, but everyone recognized that this was a critical infrastructure project, not just for Wood Buffalo but for the province.”
The smooth twin ribbons of asphalt, snaking their way through the boreal forest between Fort McMurray and Grasslands, is tangible proof of Allen’s determination to see the project through, and he says he’s confident the twinning will finish on time and on budget.
After sitting as an independent for a year, Allen was voted back into the PC caucus in July of this year. He says that the period represents one of the lowest times of his life, but also served as a valuable learning experience.
“When that situation occurred, I went into a very deep low, one of the lowest parts of my life. If it wasn’t for close friends and family, I would have abandoned [politics] altogether,” Allen admits. “But a significant portion of my constituents reached out to me and asked me continue, and I can tell you that the last year has been incredibly encouraging.”
Even when sitting as an independent, Allen’s natural acumen for politics was evident. In April, Allen became the first independent MLA to pass a motion in the house since 1989. The motion, which sought stiffer penalties for speeding on Highway 63, passed unanimously, a moment which gave Allen a confidence boost about his future in provincial politics.
Allen is seeking the PC nomination in the upcoming party vote on March 7. He’s facing competition from Catholic school board trustee Tracy Czuy-McKinnon, who announced her intention to seek the nomination last week. Allen says that, if defeated, he will throw his support behind Czuy-McKinnon, who is a friend of Allen’s.
Allen says he hopes to win the nomination and continue on with the important work of the region, work he says will be all the more vital as the province struggles with fiscal hardship in the face of low oil prices. Allen remains optimistic for Fort McMurray’s future even as oilsands players are curtailing capital budget spending and announcing layoffs.
“Our message has been pretty consistent – this ain’t our first rodeo,” Allen says, referring to the booms and busts that have regularly swept the energy sector for decades. “We’ve been through this many times. Oilsands players have billions in the ground – they see this as more of a blip.”
“I think we’ll see a slowdown in terms of deferrals of new developments and projects, but existing projects that are ongoing will continue,” he continues, referencing Suncor’s Fort Hills project which the oilsands company has announced will continue as planned, despite falling oil revenues. “It’s not necessarily business as usual, but the plants will continue to operate, and in many ways this is an opportunity.”
Allen sees the slowdown as a potential opportunity for Wood Buffalo to play catch up with delayed infrastructure projects. “Never waste a good slow down,” he says. “We have opportunities to get projects done at a significantly lower cost than we would in a superheated economy.”
If he wins the nomination, Allen says there are plenty of critical projects to fight for, including the long-awaited continuing care centre for seniors.
“It’s been an extremely frustrating process – there’s been a lot of political rhetoric behind it, and I question the motivations behind some of the people in the community who opposed it,” Allen says.
Allen also plans to advocate for better health care in the region. “Our number one priority right after [the continuing care centre] is health care and how we improve access to it,” Allen says. “We need another clinic in Timberlea, and we need to attract more doctors.”
Among the medical professionals Allen hopes to help bring to Wood Buffalo are those who specialize in pregnancy and obstetrics.
“We’re looking at all the options we can. Wherever the pressure points are, that’s what I’ll be fighting for,” he says.
The party vote will be held on March 7. Allen says he’s ready for the outcome, positive or negative. “Going into this nomination, I’m very confident. I’ve got a lot of backing and support,” he says. “But if I were to be unsuccessful, I would certainly throw my support behind Tracy [Czuy-McKinnon].”