Fall session opens as Redford, Smith spar over Alberta debt

 By Keith Gerein, Edmonton Journal October 28, 2013

EDMONTON – Promises by all parties to play nicer in the Alberta legislature proved tough to keep Monday as the first day of the fall session got underway.

Opposition leaders opened question period by blasting the PC government on health care waiting times, big city charters, and delays in school construction, but the biggest fireworks came when Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith challenged Premier Alison Redford on the province’s growing debt to pay for infrastructure.

Smith introduced the topic by making fun of a statement Redford made earlier this month when she said debt equalled “hope” for Albertans.

“Let’s take some of the premier’s other quotes and sub in ‘hope’ for ‘debt’ and see if that makes sense,” Smith said. “Alberta does not have hope, and we will not incur hope. We cannot come out the current fiscal situation with hope.

“So to the premier, if debt is hope, when can we expect to once again be hope free?”

Redford said she stood by her comments, insisting that province’s plan to borrow money will mean needed schools, health facilities and roads get built faster.

“The one thing Albertans told us in the last election was to keep building,” Redford said, suggesting the decisions of past Conservative governments to go debt free resulted in an infrastructure deficit.

“We didn’t have enough schools, didn’t have enough hospitals, we were not investing in communities, and that is what we are doing today.”

Smith also slammed the government on health care waiting times, after a Fraser Institute report indicated Albertans are enduring longer delays for surgeries and diagnostic tests. The report said there is now an average wait of more than 23 weeks between the time Alberta patients get their first referral to when they actually receive treatment. That leaves Alberta fifth among the 10 provinces, but behind the national average of 18 weeks.

While Smith characterized the report as further proof the province has failed to give patients timely access to care, Health Minister Fred Horne said the system has been seeing improvement. He said the government measures itself by statistics from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, which has indicated Alberta is progressing on lowering waiting times for hip and knee replacements, cataract surgeries and bypass procedures.

Earlier Monday, Redford outlined what she called the province’s “ambitious agenda” in a 20-minute speech to about 550 guests at an Edmonton Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

The speech touched on themes of flood recovery and the need to continue building for a province that continues to grow in population. The speech also included not-so-subtle jabs at the Wildrose, which she criticized for having a “build-nothing” approach.

Alberta NDP leader Brian Mason criticized Redford’s choice of venue for her speech.

“There’s no throne speech but she comes and gives the throne speech at the chamber of commerce and the symbolism of that could not be more clear: she is accountable to the business community, but not to the people,” he said.

In the legislature, Mason’s NDP colleague David Eggen tried to initiate an emergency debate on problems in the home-care sector, but Speaker Gene Zwozdesky ruled against it.

With files from Mariam Ibrahim

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