Public institutions in Alberta all behave a bit like an abused spouse
Troy Media – by Alvin Finkel
In January came the news that Elections Alberta was investigating 10 Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta constituency associations that were allegedly receiving donations from municipalities.
Within days, the Wildrose Alliance reported that documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation revealed that the University of Lethbridge provided $15,075 between 2004 and 2007 to Conservative Party coffers by paying for participation by university employees or governing board members in premiers’ dinners, golf tournaments, “Meet the Minister” dinners, and PC party policy conferences.
Today the CBC reports that my employer, Athabasca University, was similarly funding the governing party from 2006 to 2008.
The tip of the iceberg
These revelations are no doubt the tip of the iceberg. It’s all very reminiscent of the federal Liberal sponsorship scandal under former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, in which monies allegedly granted for sponsorship of major public events mysteriously found their way into the coffers of the Quebec wing of the federal Liberal party.
It is, unsurprisingly, illegal for politicians to be taking money from public institutions such as municipalities, school boards, and universities and colleges. Public institutions are supposed to serve the public, not serve as slot machines to raise revenue for the governing party or any other party.
Why then do those who run public institutions join with the officers of PC constituency associations to break the law and the public’s trust by misdirecting taxpayer money to a political party?
The answer lies in the chronic underfunding of public institutions by the provincial government, particularly since the (former Premier Ralph) Klein era. Municipalities desperate for long-term-care facilities, school boards worried about crumbling schools, universities unable to get by as their government grants increase by less than inflation or not at all: they all behave a bit like an abused spouse who, feeling trapped in a relationship, tries to appease the abuser, hoping for better treatment.
They hesitate to make public statements about their plight, since they see direct and indirect evidence that this provincial government punishes institutions that speak up. Not knowing what else they can do, they try to bribe the governing party in the vain hope that it will treat them better.
Meanwhile, the doctors of Alberta, whom most of us would have thought would be too powerful to be forced into silence by a government, are now saying via the Alberta Medical Association that a large percentage of them have been victims of intimidation when they have tried to speak up on behalf of patients.
So we end up, in this very rich province , with a government that insists on keeping its revenue stream far below what the province’s people can afford and want, with crumbling infrastructure and corruption in Alberta.
Clearly, the governing PCs have to go so that this culture of entitlement on the part of the governing party can be stopped in its tracks. But the election of the Wildrose Alliance would be a rather dim-witted response to austerity-induced corruption. With plans for vicious cuts to the provincial government’s already too modest spending, Wildrose will create even more of a collapse in the ability of public institutions to carry out their duties and an even greater resultant likelihood of bribery of the governing party.
How to stop the corruption
We need three things to stop the corruption:
1 Establish clear standards and schedules for maintaining and improving our infrastructure and our necessary public institutions, from school and universities to hospitals and medical clinics.
2. Divorce the decision-making when applying those standards from those who set them. Grants commissions, composed of non-partisan civil servants, should be deciding how funds for public institutions get awarded.
3. Create a revenue stream for government that fulfils obligations for the first two needs.
None of this will come from the PC’s Alison Redford. She is committed to not raising taxes or royalties of any kind for three years. And it won’t come from Wildrose’s Danielle Smith, who wants to shrink the size of government dramatically. It will have to come from the centre-left parties which are, unfortunately, running against each other in winnable constituencies in this election.
That’s why changealberta. ca is in the process of determining which progressive party has the best chance of winning various seats and helping increase the number of progressive voices in the legislature.
Alvin Finkel is professor of History at Athabasca University. He is co-chair of changealberta.ca, an Alberta strategic voting website.