BARRHEAD — United Conservative Party (UCP) incumbent Glenn van Dijken fielded questions related to the cost of living, education, rural economic development and funding cuts to wildfire preparedness programs during the all-candidates forum hosted May 15 at the Barrhead Senior’s Drop-in Centre.
The event, which was hosted by the Barrhead Chamber of Commerce, Barrhead Public Library and Barrhead Leader, was originally supposed to feature both van Dijken and the NDP candidate, Landen Tischer. However, Tischer notified organizers prior to the event that he would be unable to attend.
Speaking to a crowd of about 90 people over the course of about half an hour, van Dijken starting things off by acknowledging this election was taking place in the middle of wildfire season, and the province was doing all it could to ensure people’s safety.
“Of course, our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by this wildfire season,” he said.
van Dijken then recalled how, following the election of the NDP government in 2015, he hoped the new government would be pragmatic in their decision-making without unduly hindering industry.
“But I soon came to realize that decisions made on NDP ideology were going to be made for the term that the NDP were in control,” he said. “It was to my great dismay that we saw many job-killing policies come forward.”
Then the UCP came to power in 2019, and after four years, van Dijken said the economy is back as strong as ever and many new people are flooding into Alberta.
“I believe that our record speaks for itself. I believe that ensuring that we have a strong economy allows us to actually do the things that we need to do as government. Without a strong economy, a lot of the other stuff falls by the wayside.”
Cost of living
The first question posed to van Dijken was whether the UCP planned to make any long-term impact on the cost of living beyond one-time payments, grants to food banks and temporary reductions on power/heating bills.
van Dijken said it was not the government being generous, but rather the UCP being able to offer relief to individuals thanks to a strong economy.
“These are not band-aid solutions. These are solutions that come from being in a position to actually help. If we had not done the hard work of ensuring our economy was rebuilt, we would not have been able to answer that call.”
Going forward, van Dijken said the best solution to help with high inflation was to ensure they keep more money in their pocket, which is why the UCP is proposing a new income tax bracket for individuals earning $60,000 or lower.
That roughly converts into $760 per person in tax relief, or $1,500 per family, for those earning over $60,000, while those earning less than that will see a 20 per cent reduction in provincial tax.
Framing it as an issue related to rural economic development, the next question posed to van Dijken concerned the replacement of lost jobs from the Alberta Distance Learning Centre (ADLC), which closed at the end of the 2020-2021 school year after a reduction in provincial funding, and whether there were plans to utilize the building.
van Dijken said that in terms of rural economic development, the UCP was hoping to lure more private investment to Alberta and “grow the wealth that we are able to have here.”
In regard to Barrhead-specific opportunities, van Dijken said one area targeted for potential growth is agriculture, in terms of both production and processing.
The best way to grow production is through an irrigation strategy, and Alberta has been working with the Canadian Infrastructure Bank to increase the number of irrigation acres by 230,000 acres.
On the processing side, van Dijken said he is working with the County of Barrhead to try and get further investment in the industrial park east of town.
Noting that the UCP had recently introduced an Agri-Processing Tax Credit, van Dijken said that would be an important part of trying to bring in an agri-food processor there.
Non-profits and solar
van Dijken was next asked about what steps he would take to advocate on behalf of non-profit organizations in terms of improved funding and less red tape.
He briefly segued into a complaint about the carbon levy, which he argued was hurting non-profit organizations along with making the economy less competitive.
van Dijken then stated the government has reformed administrative processes to ensure service providers and their clients spend less time on paperwork.
When asked next about solar energy, van Dijken said the UCP’s policy is to push forward on renewable energy projects “when they make good business sense,” noting that he had been working on trying to develop a wind power project near Swan hills for probably five years now.
“Our party is not opposed to moving in the direction of increasing renewable energy for electricity generation. But it has to make sense,” he said.
Kindergarten and education
During the forum, van Dijken fielded a couple of questions related to early childhood programming and education.
First, he was asked about his position on fully funding and integrating full-day Kindergarten and early childhood programming for all Alberta families.
On that, van Dijken said his position in most areas of governance is to listen to stakeholders and try to understand what their needs are.
He added that parents are in the best position to understand what their kids’ needs are, so he would defer to hearing from parents if this is something they see as valuable.
Next, van Dijken was asked if he would commit to restoring funding for public education to at least the national average.
Based on data from Statistics Canada, the Alberta Teachers Association had recently revealed that Alberta ranks last in per-student funding when compared to other provinces.
van Dijken’s response was that the vast majority of education funding already ends up in public schools and funding on education is higher than it’s ever been.
However, he said Alberta also emphasizes choice in education, adding that it is an important part of what he believed to be an “accountability mechanism” within the school system.
Finally, van Dijken commented that the UCP had also seen school division reserves rise during the pandemic, and they believed some of that money could be used for education.
When asked about how to address shortages of firefighters due to funding cuts, van Dijken said he rejected the premise of the question, noting that there was no shortage of firefighters to combat wildfires.
He acknowledged the UCP had ended the Wildland Firefighter Rappel Program in 2019, but insisted the wildfire management team in place is a very qualified group of individuals handling the province’s wildfire response.
van Dijken said the province will spend what is necessary to try and get wildfires under control, noting they have $1.5 billion in contingency funding for this situation.
However, he noted that sometimes “there is no way to get it under control” and they would have to simply let some wildfires burn out, assuming the weather did not shift significantly in their favour.
Finally, van Dijken received a couple of health care-related questions, the first concerning assistance for those travelling to medical appointments.
van Dijken replied various service providers have programs available to assist those who have to travel to medical appointments, adding a lot of that need is being answered through organizations like FCSS.
He was also asked about a lack of practicum placements for professions struggling to fill vital roles, with the questioner pointing out that Alberta Health Services has no placement opportunities for students.
van Dijken spoke briefly about the UCP’s investment in new physician seats at the universities in Edmonton and Calgary, as well as new funding for 100 medical residency positions.
In his final comments, van Dijken said the UCP’s plan is to focus on ensuring opportunities are for sale and continuing to build the economy while not getting in the way of industry.
“We will continue to look at ways of lowering taxation, and by lowering taxation, growing our economy,” he said.
He noted that the NDP government had seen 13 consecutive quarters of population migration out of the province, adding that they had been very destructive for the energy industry.
“At the end of the day, we are in a position to be leading the world in technology and innovation," he said.