Thursday, January 7, 2016

Brunch with MLA Pat Stier

Livingstone-Macleod MLA Pat Stier (C. Davis photo)
Chris Davis - The following interview with Livingstone Macleod MLA Pat Stier was conducted last month, December 2015. Stier is the Wildrose shadow minister for Municipal Affairs, currently serving his second term. Stier was in town to participate in a meeting of area municipalities hosted by Alberta Minister of Education and Minister of Culture and Tourism David Eggen.

Castle tourism initiatives

The recent announcement of an expansion to the Castle Wildland Provincial Park and the creation of a Castle Provincial Park is expected to create a major boost to the area's tourism industry.  Stier said Eggen told him he was coming to southwestern Alberta "to talk about the Castle, and some of the other initiatives in regards to tourism. He said he'd like to know if I would like to join in on the meeting with the counselors and the people he was meeting with. I said I would be pleased to join."

Stier and Eggen met with approximately 20 people, "Talking about the new initiatives that his department are going to look at in terms of developing a proper park system in cooperation with environment and park departments. We wanted to hear from the local elected officials on what their concerns there might be, and what tips they may have. I'm finally out of the House, and able to travel again through the constituency."

Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act

One of the biggest issues of the fall sitting of the 29th Legislature was the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act (Bill 6).

"You know I think they were surprised by the amount of concerns that were raised by the Bill 6 situation and how they didn't consult. And I think with all due respect, similarly with the announcement about the Castle. None of the municipalities were informed, none of the elected officials were informed, so they seem to have a propensity of doing it in this manner and they really caught on the chin with Bill 6."

"We are so thankful and humbled by all the thousands of communications we've received from all across Alberta on this matter because that really gets down to lifestyle and the business of farming and ranching and what has been a tradition since this country was settled. Most of our communities got started because of ranching and farming initiatives. So it gets raked down to the core values of people, how they work and how they live."

"Various operations from the small mom and pop operations, to the larger feedlot operations have been looking after safety concerns and looking after insurance liabilities up until this point in time." Stier said many people approached him about their concerns. "They were sort of the people assisting us out in the field, so to speak. We were the ones working in the house to trying to get their message across."

"Most people in the farming and ranch community are darned careful with everything. They don't go about things haphazardly. They're looking after animals and that teaches you how to do things in a very cautious manner."

Stier said earlier in the process there was a website regarding Bill 6 that included frequently asked questions and a management plan. "It included in there many questions with answers regarding how family members and others working on a farm would have to be covered under this new legislation, including children. This kind of information was suddenly, after everyone raised their concerns about it was removed from the web sites."

Stier said Premier Rachel Notley and various ministers have since said that was not the intent of the bill. "You could not write that kind of sets of questions and answers without having that as your intent. So we believe that they were not exactly telling the full truth in those responses. We believe that they actually had intended to do that, and we were going to hold them to task on that."

"They've backed off on these rules applying to family farms and what they've actually come down to now, in our understanding, is there not going to apply these occupational health and safety rules nor the WCB to operations where there's just family workers and family members involved. That is a large degree of relief for some people. " Stier feels pubic pressure to reexamine the Bill 6 made a big difference.

Bill 6 passed on December 10.  Stier said he was still concerned about how it will be implements.  "Most of those rules are being managed by regulation, and regulations don't come to the House for debate, governments can make and alter regulations at will, and we have seen this before."

Ideological differences between the Wildrose and the NDP

The NDP government and the Wildrose party are polar opposites. "It's such a whole different ideologically based system," said Stier.  He said he was concerned with the decisions the governmenr is making and the pace at which changes are being introduced. "We're looking at a government that wants to have a 20% increase in corporate taxes, a 50% increase in minimum wage, they want to do a royalty review, they want to do all kinds of different things including the carbon tax. All within the space of six months, all at the same time when our economy is suffering and really hurting. Our major industry is basically in the tank, the commodity prices for oil and gas is the lowest we've seen in years and years and years."

Land Stewardship Act / Surface Rights Act

"The Land Stewardship Act is an ongoing one (concern) that was passed by the PCs years ago," said Stier.  "The Wildrose has been fighting it for years and years. It has not been in the House this year."

"Bill 36 basically talked about regional planning, and how a lot of these new rules they were now going to put forward remove a lot of the decision-making away from local municipalities, and how in the case of those people who may have had permits..."

"The government could come along, if they chose they could just totally cancel those leases and agreements. I did about a 9 minute speech on the different portions of Bill 36 that should be repealed because those draconian rules say that if persons had leases and permits and all kinds of things in place the government could come along and cancel those without the right of going to court and without the right of compensation. We've been fighting this for years. And in fact that the members of the former NDP opposition, who are now government, spoke many times agreeing with us on that, I brought it to the attention of the House, and they've actually agreed with us that they would be supportive of getting rid of those as well. So we're looking forward to seeing, perhaps, new legislation, and we're going to propose new legislation ourselves if we don't see it coming right away to various crucial sections." The Surface Rights Act also concerns Stier. "There's a lot of landowners who are having situations with abandoned wells and equipment lying around. Now with the oil and gas business being in the tank, there's a lot of these situations where these companies declare bankruptcy, and they have no recourse is because of a flaw in the Surface Rights Act.

Fort Macleod council turmoil

I asked Stier if he had any comment on the turmoil between Fort Macleod's council and their Mayor Rene Gendre. Gendre was sanctioned by the council in June 2014, with sanctions renewed by Council on January 26 and July 13, 2015. The legality of those sanctions were confirmed by Court of Queen's Bench Justice K.D. Nixon in October 2015. "There has been,since the election two years ago, quite a lot of dysfunction in the council to say the least," said Stier. "I'm hoping that after all this is resolved we can move on from that and see the council carry on with business as necessary and as normal again."

Regional concerns

Stier regularly attends the Mayors and Reeves meeting of southwestern Alberta and other functions and is acquainted with members of both Pincher Creek councils. “There's a lot of great people there. They are very, very popular people and they are big contributors to all those different events that I attend. They're very well versed on the issues and I think they're very effective."

Stier is a member of the Highway 3 Association along with council members, MLAs, and Ministers who represent various affected southwest Alberta communities. According to Stier, Coleman and the Crowsnest Pass have been identified as the two biggest Highway 3 bottlenecks. "We're going to be managing this transportation corridor better.... because we don't want to be reactive we want to be proactive." Stier said the Highway 3 discussions include possible bypasses at Fort Macleod, Nanton. Claresholm, and north of Lethbridge.  Twinning Highway 3 is a continued goal, as is paving Highway 774 to Castle Mountain Resort to facilitate the anticipated increase in Castle related tourism.

"The Building Canada Fund from the feds is something that we're trying to underline to the provincial people to keep pursuing.... to help with financing these major projects, because Highway 3 is part of the national transportation corridor and national highway system.”

Carbon tax and future power generation in Alberta

According to an Alberta Government document, the proposed Carbon Competitiveness Regulation will "broaden the carbon pricing signal in Alberta to cover approximately 90% of the province’s emissions, up from less than 50% today".  According to a Wildrose press release, "When fully implemented, the carbon tax will cost families almost $1,000 more a year with no relief for many middle class Albertans. Reports estimate only $250 million of the $3 billion tax will be returned directly to Albertans."
"Basically, the idea is it's supposed to be revenue neutral according to a lot of analysts, although it's not revenue neutral," said Stier.  "The idea that the Notley government seems to be promoting is that they're going to hit you and I, and everybody in the province, with higher fees for carbon related fuels. In other words, gasoline, natural gas for heating...  They want to hit everyone up with higher fuel costs for our vehicles, they want hit everyone up with higher fuel costs to heat our homes. They think that this is going to reduce emissions."

"People in Alberta are in a more lightly populated area. They need to go a lot of places, and sometimes a lot of distance for their needs."

"People need to heat their homes. This is not going to benefit Albertans in any way shape or form, except, and this is only if they change their format, (if they) return most of those funds back to the people who have to pay them."  Stier said that many municipalities own and operate large equipment and large storage buildings. "Municipalities are going to have to increase taxes to recover those costs."

"Let's be honest, this is just another tax."

"It's going to cumulatively really have a negative impact on our economy."

"Even though companies and people may not mean to do it, they start to withdraw from spending, and that is the biggest economic problem we have, where the psychological impact comes along and really start to propel the downturn."

Later in our conversation we talked about the possible future of power generation in Alberta.  "Hydroelectricity for the past century and a half has been the best way to generate power.," said Stier.  "The second one is nuclear. Nuclear has got some cost to it. There has been some negative activity about that from people who are worried."

"In the next decade we are going to see a lot of these ideas coming forward about how to address the climate change situation. We hope the government will take the right approach, a pragmatic approach, and they will look at all that different alternatives very carefully before they step in and do something too drastic, like trying to put up 29,000 turbines in limited areas in Alberta... They are inefficient unless they're in the right place.  They don't work unless they have huge government subsidy."

"We can't afford any mistakes."

Minimum wage

Alberta’s hourly minimum wage increased on October 1, 2015 to $11.20 for most employees, and is expected to climb to $15.00 by 2018. According to a Wildrose press release, " Independent analysis from across Canada shows this type of dramatic increase will hurt jobs, growth and economic prosperity, and force small business owners to raise prices, restrict growth and reduce staff levels."
"There has to be a system, of recognition for skill sets and experience for a business to survive on the margins they have," said Stier. "If you raise the bottom to high you have to kick up the rest, comparatively speaking, in relative terms. So when you have a business with very narrow margins to begin with, any added increase in overhead will pretty well will put that business into jeopardy, and that's what we're talking about here."

"There's a difference between being profitable and just making a living and making ends meet."

"What we have here is not only a government that has been telling all small businesses that they have to pay more in corporate taxes, and telling all small businesses they have to pay more in wages. They are living on a very tough balancing scale of trying to make a living and trying to stay afloat."

Wildrose/PC merger possibility

The possibility of a Wildrose/PC merger made headlines last month. Coincidentally, it was the subject of former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith's newstalk770 show as I was driving to the interview with Stier.

"Their leader (Ric McIver) has been very open about it. He has more or less expressed what we've been bantering about the last few months since we've been elected. Now that we've been working hand in hand a lot with our PC MLA associates in the house as coworkers on the opposition side it has brought to our attention, and to the people, (that) we do need to look at how we can move forward in the next two or three years to perhaps changing governments again. We were all under the same roof and banner in the early 2000s."

Stier talked about policies that created the schism on the right, included the royalty framework for oil and gas, and land use policies. "Those two factors alone caused the split off of a lot of us that weren't comfortable with what was going on with the Conservative party then. We have since that time maintained communications but we've been on different bends on key issues. We have recognized, with the new government that we've got, we have a look at how that government can be defeated in the next election. One of the ways may be to talk to our conservative cousins and see if there's room for us to have some mutual interests."

"Our leaders have said their arms are open to talk, and that's what's already happening."

"When it all comes down to it, it's up to the members what they want to do. It's not up to us as MLAs, it's not up to the leaders, it's up to what the members want. And I think that's where it's really going to make a difference."

"We will probably get a better understanding as conversations are held."

Wildrose Party

The Wildrose Party contested their first election in 2008, winning no seats in the legislature. In the 2012 election the party won 17 seats out of 87, enough to qualify as the official opposition. The defection of then leader Danielle Smith and several other Wildrose MLAs to the PCs could have been a fatal blow to the Wildrose, after they were reduced to five MLAs, but in the 2015 election they won 21 seats, making them again the official opposition.  Stier won the Livingstone-Macleod seat in both the 2012 and 2015 elections.  I asked how things have changed since he was a "newbie" in the legislature.

"I think what we're seeing here is during my first term, we gained the reputation of one of the most efficient oppositions that had been seen at the provincial level in some time. That being said, there were some corrections I think that were made at that time, for the better, because of us. And now with the new opposition that we've formed after the election, with 22 members (including one elected in a by-election), we are again a very big factor in how government is run. I think we have given the current government, who had some, I'll call it radical ideologies and experimental policies, we have been effectively trying to get some sort of control over what they've been doing. We've let them know on several occasions what the people say about that, what we feel about that." He likened the House and its oval shape to a hockey arena, complete with offense and defense. "We will be aggressively criticizing government when we think they are doing wrong. Two or three of the ministers seem to want to take an adversarial approach, and we will respond back in kind. That's the way most offense defense games take place."

"Team one was 17 people who had been elected in a new party with relatively little experience except for the two or three who had been in the House before. Team one had to learn quickly how to adapt to that situation and become an effective opposition and that took some time. Team two has five more members. We are 22 people versus the 17 that we had, and there are people that are new to the house. We have some very skilled people in various portfolios now. And of course, with more we can spread the work out more and each one can focus more. It's a different crew, it's a different makeup of skills, and there's actually more people there with interesting backgrounds for those portfolios.  For example our education critic (Mark Smith) has years and years in education himself. Our finance critic (Derek Fildebrandt) has years and years in government finance,  He has spoken and written articles about it for years as well."

"We have a new dynamic and we have some very qualified people who I think are well matched in some of their portfolios. It took awhile for us as a new team to gel over the last six months. We have actually only sat in the house for 32 days, total. It was a very busy summer and period of time for all of us. With team one we had essentially three years to prepare, and a lot of the candidates who eventually got elected had known each other for some time. This is a bit of a different situation and we've made the best of it. I think with skill sets we have we've actually been very successful."

"Even though it's only been a very few short days, we had one of the most controversial issues to deal with."

"Cumulatively speaking we've seen so many negative things about this government in such a short time*. One has to wonder how long until the bolts to start falling off their wagon. Certainly, we remind them each and every day of their errors, and we will continue to do that. That's our job. We will certainly carry on researching and investigating and FOIPing to discover the kinds of things that often governments don't want to talk about that, they are doing wrong, and will point those out too. We want to govern, we will be working with everyone we can to go in that direction. Unless this government starts to discontinue some of these ideological approaches... I can't see this government having a very comfortable* time in the next two and a half to three years prior to the next election."

*corrected for accuracy.

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