Virus response to be reviewed
Auditor general to examine UCP’S ‘spending and program outcomes’
EDMONTON Auditor general Doug Wylie confirmed Wednesday he will review the Alberta government’s response to COVID-19 as the legislature met for an emergency debate on the pandemic.
In a statement, Wylie said he has received inquiries from the public and MLAS and that his office’s examinations will focus on accountability “for government spending and program outcomes, value for investments made and on lessons learned by government for responding to similar crises in future.”
“Like other auditors general across the country, we are paying close attention to the government’s response to the pandemic crisis,” Wylie said. “As it involves a significant investment by the government of Alberta, and has had a significant impact on the lives of all Albertans, it is something we will examine.”
Initial findings will be reported to the legislative assembly in the fall.
Wylie’s news came as MLAS returned to the legislature.
Although much of the day was spent debating the COVID-19 response, the UCP introduced Bill 7, the Responsible Energy Amendment Act. Transportation Minister Ric Mciver said the bill would give the government the authority to cap the amount of time it takes the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) to review applications.
“This legislation will provide greater clarity and stability to our investment climate, which in turn will help attract much-needed new investment and further our province’s economic recovery efforts,” Mciver said.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley questioned Premier Jason Kenney about the recent AER decision to suspend a wide array of environmental monitoring requirements due to COVID-19 concerns, suggesting it shows a “safety double standard.”
Kenney reiterated that the regulator makes decisions independently and said water monitoring is “completely unaffected” by the changes announced May 20. But according to the AER, all groundwater sampling is temporarily suspended except for what is “necessary to protect human health and ecological receptors.”
The government moved Bill 1, an anti-protest bill, through second reading, with opposition from the NDP.
In question period, Kenney said Alberta does not intend to renew the state of public health emergency, declared March 17, when it expires on June 15. He said he will then release the Fair Deal Panel report, which was due March 31.
“The government remains single-mindedly focused on the public health crisis and that twin economic crisis that we are facing,” Kenney said. “As we begin to return to a normal pace of dealing with a broader range of issues in this place, we think it would be absolutely appropriate and necessary to release the report.”
The Fair Deal Panel was announced in November and looked at nine ideas, including holding a referendum on equalization, establishing a provincial police force and withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan, to give the province more leverage with the federal government.
During the emergency debate, Notley pushed Kenney on national paid sick leave after the premiers of Manitoba, British Columbia and Yukon on Tuesday endorsed a federal plan to negotiate with the provinces and territories on 10 days of paid sick leave a year as part of the country’s pandemic recovery.
Notley said it could be 12 to 18 months before there is a vaccine for COVID -19 and people who are working lower-wage jobs “cannot afford to lose two weeks of work every time they get a cold.”
Kenney did not directly answer the question, instead pointing to the one-time emergency isolation support funding the province provided at the beginning of the pandemic and changes to the provincial labour code that prevented people from being fired if they had to stay home.
Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping said in question period the government is assessing the federal government’s proposal and will issue a response “in the coming weeks.”
Meanwhile, Kenney said Finance Minister Travis Toews will present an outline of the province’s economic recovery strategy in June, followed by a comprehensive fiscal update in August and then a full budget in February 2021.
Officials have said this year’s deficit is projected to be $20 billion.
Notley pointed out the legislative assembly is not scheduled to sit past July 23 and called for a way for MLAS to debate and discuss the document. Kenney said they could present it in front of a committee of the legislature or recall the assembly for a limited period in August.
In question period, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the UCP government’s response to recommendations from the Ernst and Young report released Feb. 3 has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and set a new deadline of Aug. 13. The report had 57 recommendations to save the government $1.9 billion per year in health costs, including selling some longterm care homes and leasing space to private pharmacies in health facilities.