Alta. campaign features promises, accusations
The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, February 6, 2008 10:40AM EST
Premier Ed Stelmach announced in Edmonton that if voters give his Progressive Conservative Party a mandate on March 3, they will smash the bottlenecks leading to long wait times in the health-care system.
He said the Tories will create training spaces for 225 more doctors a year, graduate 350 more nurses a year by 2012, add 220 more licensed practical nurses and recruit foreign-trained practitioners.
"We increased at least 45 spaces in each university over the last, I believe, two years. And this is increasing the number of spaces in the two universities," Stelmach said at the University of Alberta Hospital.
But Dr. Trevor Theman, registrar of the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons, said the Tories' goals are not attainable right now.
"We don't really have the clinical teachers or the clinical experience available for these kind of numbers," Theman said in an interview. "It's space and people. It's resources, largely human resources, actually."
Theman said the number of doctors entering both the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary will rise to 150 next year - a total increase of 50.
Tory campaign staffer Paul Stanway later conceded that most of the new doctors would come from other countries, not Alberta's universities.
Health Minister Dave Hancock also confirmed that the bulk of the new doctors would come from other nations, while the total number of new medical graduates will increase by only a few dozen.
"So doctors who come from some other place who are not qualified to practise here...that's a piece that needs to be added to our traditional education system," said Hancock.
But the health minister also concedes that it will be a challenge to get enough clinical teachers to upgrade the qualifications of foreign doctors while at the same time educating new medical students.
"Always we've had the issue...to get the educators," he said. "That's always been a limit moving forward."
In Calgary, Alberta Liberal Leader Kevin Taft promised swift action to protect the city's water supply, fix traffic snarls, build roads, expand rapid transit, end homelessness, build more affordable houses, hammer up schools and hire more police officers.
"The Alberta Liberals aren't satisfied with random acts of government," said Taft, who made the announcement from the observation deck of the Calgary Tower. "We don't think voters, city councillors, students, or anyone else should have to wait for elections to get the services and funding they need."
Calgary is seen as a the battleground in the campaign. The city has been Tory-blue bedrock since the party won power in 1971, but has been bleeding away supporters of late.
The Liberals managed to break through by taking three of the 23 seats in the 2004 general election and then captured leader Ralph Klein's Calgary Elbow riding in a subsequent byelection.
Polls have suggested Calgarians have not cottoned to Stelmach, a rural politician from northern Alberta, who beat out the city's favourite son Jim Dinning in the Tory leadership race.
Taft also promised to rejig the oil royalties structure to protect jobs and give conventional gas producers a break in tough economic times while at the same time boosting the taxpayer take in royalties by 20 per cent.
The oilsands issue is expected to be the focus of the campaign.
High oil prices and oilsands production have brought jobs, unprecedented growth and billions of dollars in surplus budget funds but also rising homelessness and crime and traffic tie-ups to go with skyrocketing rents and house prices and worker shortages.
Stelmach is running on a platform that his party is the best to continue managing the lifeblood resource.
But his Tories were stung last year by reports from the a royalty review panel and from the provincial auditor general that stated inaction and ineptitude by politicians and energy bureaucrats led to the government collecting billions of dollars less than what it should have from oil companies.
The panel said taxpayers were being shortchanged about $2 billion a year in royalties and Stelmach has since promised to up the province's take by $1.4 billion.
Campaigning in Edmonton, NDP Leader Brian Mason released a recent e-mail from royalty panel chairman Bill Hunter that states the panel was not shown critical department reports that evaluated the oilsands resource.
"This was due to the secrecy of the government, which withheld the documents from the government as well as from the Alberta people," Mason said.
Should the NDP win power, it will re-open the royalty deal, he said.
The Tories, now in their 37th consecutive year in power, are campaigning for an 11th mandate and the first under Stelmach. They had 60 seats in the 83-seat legislature at dissolution.
The Liberals have 16 seats, most of them in Edmonton. The NDP's four seats are all in the Alberta capital.
Of the remaining three seats, one is held by Paul Hinman of the right-leaning Wildrose-Alliance, one by Independent Dan Backs, and the third is vacant.
Polls have suggested the Tories still have a comfortable lead but that as many as one voter in three hasn't decided or won't say who they will vote for.
Undecided voters have proven to be poison for the Tories. In the 2004 election, they lost ground in Edmonton and Calgary after an estimated 200,000 disillusioned party supporters stayed home on voting day.