The province’s recent announcement of a modernization for St. Patrick’s Elementary School and W.R. Myers High School as part of a smorgasbord of infrastructure dollars probably came as a welcome surprise for both school divisions.
The package deal from the provincial government calls for 55 new or expanded schools and 20 modernized schools, as well as boosts to infrastructure and maintenance funding to help many hard-pressed school divisions cope with the expanding needs of a province experiencing unprecedented growth.
There is no dispute that new school infrastructure is a vital need that had to be addressed sooner rather than later. However, the timing of the announcement is highly suspect and gives off the odiferous scent of old-school political cronyism.
The province isn’t in the midst of a general election, but there are some highly important by-elections ongoing in critical ridings. This includes Calgary-Elbow (disgraced premier Alison Redford’s former riding) where the currently un-elected Minister of Education, Gordon Dirks, is looking to secure legitimacy for a position handed to him by Premier Jim Prentice (himself currently un-elected).
If handing a cabinet position to an individual that isn’t even an elected MLA wasn’t unusual enough, opening up the spending floodgates during a series of by-elections as though it is raining public dollars in Edmonton doesn’t tend to reinforce the idea that things have changed much in the PC party since the ascension of Jim Prentice — despite constant pronouncements to the contrary.
While it is hardly new to see big spending announcements in the lead up to or during election campaigns, the fact that Prentice is swooping in with some eye-popping dollars for education infrastructure in the midst of his hand-picked minister’s by-election campaign has the air of desperation about it for the poll-sagging PCs.
One suspects that a by-election loss by one of Prentice’s proteges will not be tolerated by the newly-anointed party leader and nominal premier. It goes without saying there would be a substantial amount of egg to be found on his face, and that of his new cabinet, should even one minister lose a by-election battle, or the new premier himself go down to an embarrassing by-election defeat.
Pulling out every conceivable stop to prevent such an eventuality apparently goes along with the territory. Questions, on the other hand, will still need to be asked about where these fabulous new dollars will be coming from. The last time most Albertans checked, their supposedly-rich province has been awash in deficit and debt for more annual budgets than most would care to remember. Despite what some governments appear to believe, buckets of cash do not grow on trees.
If the PCs were forced to shuttle their new leader around the province from by-election defeat to by-election defeat in the fruitless pursuit of an MLA seat, this would hardly be the image and supposed new vision they would wish to present to the electorate in the lead up to a coming election.
For now, the people of Taber and other communities across the province would appear to be the beneficiaries of Gordon Dirks’ by-election campaign. Some will no doubt care little about how and why the money comes their way for new or improved schools, as long as the province ponies up the dough.
At the same time, citizens of Taber and area must remember they are just as much citizens of the province as they are citizens of a municipality. Will the children that benefit today from improved school infrastructure be saddled with the provincial debt of tomorrow?
That jury will continue be out for the conceivable future.