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The lessons of the learning commission - Wednesday, October 08, 2003 at 12:34

The lessons of the learning commission
By NEIL WAUGH -- Edmonton Sun

The trouble with Ralph Klein these days is that he talks a good game, but has the frustrating habit of doing the opposite of whatever he's saying.

Certainly the premier was at it last weekend.

"I don't think we're in trouble," Klein said after the crushing defeat of the Ontario Tories over some of the same issues that his government can't seem to shake.

The party's slip in the polls may indicate that not as many folks are buying his message as they used to. And the sudden emergence of the inert Alberta Alliance in the polls is further proof that the Tories are no longer appealing to their core right-wing support.

"We will be in trouble if we don't keep in front of the parade," Klein sighed. "And if we don't keep our ear to the ground and respond to the legitimate concerns."

Then he invoked the names of Martha and Henry - the mythical severely normal Alberta couple for whom Klein used to shape his policies. Clearly, Martha and Henry were not on the PCs agenda in April 2002 when the Tories tragically and hilariously caved in to another powerful special interest group, Larry Booi's belligerent Alberta Teachers' Association.

Not only did the Tories meekly agree to binding arbitration and the 14% wage hike that inevitably occurred to settle the teachers' strike, but they also acquiesced to Booi's demand for a learning commission to assess what ails Alberta's education system. There was no great public outcry for a new and improved education system back then and there isn't now. But once the politicians start marching, there's no stopping them.

Yesterday, Learning Minister Lyle Oberg admitted he hasn't actually read the boondoggle, which cost over $1 million to research and will cost many billions more to implement. But he knows what's coming when the document is rolled out later today.

"I believe the Devil is in the details," winced Oberg, who tried to be a fiscally responsible tough guy before the legs were cut out from under him by Human Resources Minister Clint Dunford and other Red Tories in Klein's cabinet. Oberg was forced to accept not only the binding arbitration but the final capitulation of the learning report.

"There are fairly extensive monetary implications in the report," Oberg confessed.

Really? Who'd-a thunk it? That's inevitable when you turn loose a bunch of entrenched special interests and sympathetic commission members who bear no responsibility for their actions.

The learning commission report ended up taking on a life of its own, to the point that the premier appears hell-bent on making it a key plank in his 2005 election campaign.

"We aren't going on a spending spree," the premier insisted. "We're going to make reasonable, sound investments in education for the right reasons."

So, when is a spending spree not a spending spree? You'll have to ask Ralph. Because in the very next breath he presented the best argument he could against the claims of the chronic letter writers that the system is somehow chronically underfunded.

"We've increased education funding by 60% for the last six or seven years," the premier said.

Most of the money ends up flowing right into the bank accounts of teachers.

Ironically, Klein made these statements following the official sod-turning of the delayed Alberta Heart Institute - one of the bobbles from the 2001 election campaign that was put back on the shelf, after the government's last spending spree hit the ditch when energy revenues dropped drastically that summer, even before the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Meanwhile, the premier was playing musical chairs with his deputy ministers yesterday in a rather desperate attempt to get ahead of a parade that is marching off in a dangerous political direction - sky-high and often erroneous power bills.

The new power bill ombudsman may help a little. But for an issue that's been around for over two years, like auto insurance and gas prices, it's been far too long coming.