by Rebekah Benoit
MLA and Minister for Advanced Education Don Scott is facing competition in the upcoming election, scheduled for May 5. After securing the leadership of the Wild Rose party on March 28, Jean announced that he would run in the Fort McMurray-Conklin riding against Conservative incumbent Scott.
Scott says he isn’t worried. “I never focus on the opposition,” he says confidently. “I focus on the plan we’re bringing forward. It’s a great plan for Alberta.”
Scott says the Conservatives’ plan for Alberta’s future, under the leadership of premier Jim Prentice, promises to break the province’s dependence on the price of oil and reduce government waste, while continuing to invest in hospitals, schools and roads. After a budget that has proven unpopular with many Albertans, the party is hoping to regain the trust of voters with a plan Scott says “makes sense for our region, and makes sense for Alberta.”
Scott points to the twinning of Highway 63, which will reach 70 per cent completion this summer, along with investments in six Wood Buffalo schools and the long-awaited construction of the continuing care centre at Parsons Creek as examples of how his government has invested in the region.
“We’ve also purchased Willow Square from the federal government under the leadership of our current premier. The previous MP couldn’t get this deal done in 10 years,” Scott says, referring to Jean’s previous tenure as Member of Parliament for Fort McMurray. “Our premier was in office less than 10 days and he got it done.”
Scott says a key component of the Conservative plan for the province is the promise to end Alberta’s dependence on oil.
“We need a diversified economy. We can’t have an economy solely reliant on a single commodity,” Scott says. “For our region, oil will come back. Prices are going to come back – every economist I’ve talked with has said it will take time, but prices will rebound. We’re extremely resilient in this region but we need to make sure we’re diversified enough that we’re not impacted every time oil goes up and down.”
Scott points to small business as one area of the economy the government will focus on to help diversify the region. “In Fort McMurray we have a tremendous small business community, and they recognize that the plan our government is putting forward is a very strong one for small business,” he says.
Diversification will also include investment in the petrochemical industry, which Scott says is a perfect fit for the Wood Buffalo region.
“This is a natural area for Fort McMurray. Petrochemicals have a natural tie to the oil industry,” Scott says. “The challenge is to make sure corporate taxes stay the same. Otherwise, we’re going to lose this industry to other parts of the world.”
Scott takes aim at the Wild Rose promise to increase corporate taxes, calling the measure a “job-killing plan.”
“We [Conservatives] already know this, but I think the other parties need to hear it,” Scott says. “For every 1 per cent corporate tax is increased, you lose approximately 9,000 jobs. Any change in the corporate tax will lead to a change in investment [in the province]. What the other parties are considering has the potential to drive us straight into a recession.”
Scott says the government’s plan will “trim the fat” in various government departments, but says that frontline staff will be protected in both health care and education. “It has to be a responsible plan. We don’t want to push Alberta into a recession; we want to make sure we’re doing this the responsible way,” Scott says.
He points to the province’s education budget as just such an example, which saw a small funding increase of $125 million and directed school boards to find efficiencies in non-teaching staff while protecting teachers’ jobs. “We’ve protected the front lines in education. We’re continuing to invest in new schools in the region,” Scott says.
The government’s relationship with the province’s public employees and their unions has seen further tension with talk that the Tories will potentially re-open contracts and roll back wages. Scott says there are no plans to take such drastic measures, but adds that there will need to be “discussions” with unions in the coming months about wages. “I believe discussions will be commencing after the election with all public service employees. Going forward we need to make sure we’re using tax dollars responsibly and there needs to be discussion about how that’s going to take shape,” Scott says. “We spend more than any other province on public sector [wages] and there will be discussions about that.”
Much has been made in recent months and years over the province’s management of health care, which has seen the number of management positions balloon at the same time that wait times have increased and emergency rooms have been stretched to capacity. Scott admits that health care delivery has not been ideal, but promises reforms that will be dramatic improvements.
“We’re going to freeze salaries for managers and tighten controls on severance, as well as reducing sick leave costs by $190 million annually,” Scott says, adding that the government will eliminate a total of 1,695 administrative positions within Alberta Health Services, mostly through attrition. “We spend more per person on health programs than the rest of Canada, but we acknowledge we haven’t always gotten the best results for those investments. We have very dedicated doctors, nurses and caregivers doing their best for patients, but health care isn’t always timely.”
“I do think in our region, we have exceptional health care delivery,” Scott adds.
“We’re under new management,” he says. “We’ve got a long-term vision, a real plan for the future of Alberta, a plan that people can see the nuts and bolts of when they look at it. It makes sense for Alberta, and it makes sense for our region.”
He adds, “This is easily the best province to live in, and it’s going to stay that way.”