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If the era of cuts returns to Alberta post-secondaries, what's Stephen Mandel going to say?

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Stephen Mandel & Jim Prentice

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With a five per cent cut to post secondary education institutions rumoured to be looming as part of Premier Jim Prentice's share-the-pain solution to the recent drop in oil prices, one wonders what Thomas Lukaszuk will have to say to Stephen Mandel in the privacy of the Tory caucus room.

Alert readers will recall that back in April 2013, Mandel, then the mayor of Edmonton, excoriated Lukaszuk, the Progressive Conservative MLA for Edmonton-Castle Down and then the minister of advanced education, for the massive cuts to post-secondary education announced by the Redford Government the month before in response to the so-called "Bitumen Bubble," which soon popped harmlessly.

In early March 2013, then-premier Alison Redford had announced that overall spending within the Advanced Education Ministry would immediately drop 3.6 per cent and be cut another 6.8 per cent in the next year. Later, in response to a public outcry, the government gave about $50-million back, about a third of the cuts.

Now, according to what is being whispered in government circles, the government plans to go after another five per cent from the so-called MUSH Sector -- municipalities, universities, schools and hospitals.

The stated reason this time is the "oil price trough," which, much public drumbeating to the contrary, is also likely to be short-lived. The federal Conservative Government obviously believes this is so, else it would not have delayed its budget while it awaits a rebound. The real reason, of course, is the desire of Conservative politicians like Prentice never to let a good crisis go to waste to advance the cause of neoliberalism.

Back in 2013, speaking at his pretentiously titled "State of the City Address" at the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, Mandel ripped into Tory ministers from the city for betraying Edmonton’s interests, comparing their actions unfavourably to the relationship of their PC counterparts in Calgary to that city.

"These institutions are too important to the city of Edmonton, and we need to defend them and I’m disappointed that the government doesn’t see the importance of those institutions to the city of Edmonton as well," Mandel said. "We also would expect a minister of the crown, and/or MLAs that represent this city would also stand up for the city’s interest."

Mandel's reaction to premier Redford's post-secondary cuts and the obedient support for them by Edmonton Tory MLAs won many accolades from Edmonton-area citizens and supporters of public post-secondary education.

For his part, the mayor's principal target, Lukaszuk, famously responded: "I don't know who pissed into his cornflakes, and you can quote me on that. I guess the mayor was in one of his moods and feels that Edmonton was somehow hard done by."

Now, while the shoe is not exactly on the other foot, things have certainly changed: Mandel is the minister of health in another Tory government run by a Calgary MLA, Jim Prentice. The plain-spoken Lukaszuk announced last Friday he intends to run again as a PC candidate, despite being banished from cabinet by Prentice.

Well, we can hardly expect a campaigning PC candidate to go nuclear on a minister in his own government, so don't suppose we’ll hear very much from Lukaszuk on this. But Mandel’s remarks will remain remarkably appropriate if they are directed back at him by the rest of us in the event big post-secondary cuts really do happen all over again and he doesn’t speak up about them, passionately and relentlessly.

"The U of A alone achieves $12.3 billion in impact every single year -- five per cent of our total provincial GDP -- just one institution," he told the Chamber back in 2013. "Edmonton is Alberta's education leader. And this is of no less significance to our city than the energy industry is to downtown Calgary -- and we all know how much political clout that carries."

"Our post-secondary institutions are fundamental to Edmonton and of tremendous value to Alberta. We should expect nothing less than passionate, relentless defence of this sector from our provincial representatives who should know better than to just stand by." (Emphasis added.)

I wonder if we can expect a passionate, relentless defence from the Member for Edmonton-Whitemud in the event the Prentice Government follows through on these reports now that he has a comfortable seat in Prentice's cabinet? After all, 2013 was then and 2015 is now.

Let's give the last word to Mandel, since it seems startlingly apropos: "When I think about our post-secondary sector, I worry short-term thinking will win. It is sometimes the easy political path, but it is not real leadership."


This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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