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Redford loses key education battle as election call looms

Alberta Premier Alison Redford speaks in Ottawa, on November 17, 2011. When Redford delivers her first budget in 2012, it won't be balanced, but she says it also won't be one her rivals can run on.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP/Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Political gamesmanship may have cost Alberta Premier Alison Redford one of her key platform pieces as an election looms: a sweeping education bill that died after her party ran out of time in the House on Thursday.

It means she could go into an election campaign without a law that was years in the making, one backed by major stakeholders like teachers and school boards. The bill allows for local decision making, beefs up laws around bullying and pulls together outdated, pre-Internet legislation. Ms. Redford inherited it as she sought to cast herself as a health-and-education premier.

The education bill, however, riled up a small number of people, leading to a death threat against the Education Minister and pushing it into the pre-election spotlight.

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Ms. Redford's Progressive Conservatives, who hold a majority, didn't invoke closure on the bill but criticized their chief rival, the Wildrose Party, for tabling amendments this week that delayed its passing. However, the PCs then cancelled a legislative session Wednesday evening and returned Thursday afternoon with four amendments to the bill – another delay.

Wildrose (with four MLAs, to the PCs' 66) balked, saying it had no time to consider the new amendments, and refused unanimous consent to extend the session past 4:30 p.m. local time. Time ran out and the bill didn't pass.

Both sides emerged pointing fingers at the other.

"That was a quick and expedient way of killing a bill. Unfortunate, as I said," a "disappointed" Education Minister, Thomas Lukaszuk said. His department failed to include its last-minute amendments in the original bill after years of consultation. The changes were simple, he said.

"This is political sausage making at its worst," retorted Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson. "We were ready to go on the bill in question, but you can't just bring a whole bunch of amendments."

Ms. Redford now has two options: call an election, as is expected, on Monday without her education bill and head to polls April 23, or return on the next scheduled legislative sitting day – April 2 – to push the bill through, and call an election soon after for a vote in May.

She gave no hints of her plan, but her frustrated House Leader, Human Services Minister Dave Hancock, said the bill isn't entirely dead. "Well, we'll get re-elected, come back and have to deal with the education act another day," he said.

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The backdrop to the battle, however, was the outcry caused by misinformation about the bill, and the fact Ms. Redford has staked her political identity on health and education.

The bill attracted some complaints. It continues funding for private and charter schools, to the dismay of supporters of the public system. It also references the principles of the Alberta Human Rights Act, leading home-school parents, many of them devout Christians, to rally at the legislature earlier in the week (with signs reading "parents have the divine right," for instance). About 500 people attended the rally, mostly parents with their children.

They fear the new act will infringe on their right to educate kids as they wish by forcing them to teach evolution and equality, such as gay rights. It doesn't, according to government and opposition MLAs, because it doesn't change the Human Rights Act. Nonetheless, homeschoolers – who make up a fraction of the system in the baby-booming province of 3.7-million – made the bill a flashpoint.

"The whole thing is posturing. It's a surreal kind of scenario actually," said New Democratic MLA Rachel Notley, an attorney. "It doesn't mean that suddenly there's a new avenue to the human-rights code."

Nonetheless, Ms. Redford's government has tread carefully before an election and wanted to appease every group – even homeschoolers, some of whom have sent legislators and journalists vitriolic complaints about the law. In one case, Mr. Lukaszuk received a death threat.

As the home-school advocates drew attention, other groups (such as Catholic school trustees) came forward at the eleventh hour with other wishes. Ms. Redford's party was, as such, scrambling to appease concerns on the eve of an election, and ran out of time.

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"They see an opportunity to get their last piece in … unfortunately we couldn't get it all accommodated," Mr. Hancock said.

Once the act is passed, the government then has to sort out regulations for its implementation. The government had originally hoped to do that in time for the fall, 2013, school year. A delay in passage may mean the changes won't be ready until the following year.

Both the Alberta Teachers Association and Alberta School Board Association endorse the act and hope it's in effect soon.

"We believe this school act is an enabling act that allows us to meet the needs of our kids better than we did with the old act. That's our bottom line," ASBA president Jacquie Hansen said. "...With everything that Lukaszuk tried to bring forward, at the end of the day it obviously wasn't enough, and that's disappointing for the rest of us."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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