By Steve Coyne
As a former professor at the University of Calgary, Dr. David Swann may have the prescription to help students and the province. The newly elected Liberal MLA for Calgary Mountain View and the party’s new environmental critic, Swann hopes to advance a unique set of priorities in the legislature. The 2004 election saw Swann and two other Alberta Liberals win traditionally conservative Calgary ridings. Swann spoke with the Gauntlet about his plans as a legislator, activist and citizen.
PSE and Bill 1
“It’s a lot of money,” Swann said of Bill 1, which promises $4.5 billion for post-secondary education. “But I guess the question is where it’s going to be spent and whether there’s a sustainability component to it. I think all of us got a very strong message in this election: that post-secondary education, which is the future of the province, has been sadly neglected for a decade.”
Swann draws from his own experience teaching medicine at the U of C.
“What’s clear is that there’s a huge maintenance deficit, a capital fund deficit to create more spaces. But the big one that I have experienced as a professor up there is the operating deficit,” stressed Swann. “For 10 years professors have been cut back and cut back and students have paid more and more to try to fill that deficit.”
However, Swann argued funding is not the whole story.
“I think the university could be much more than it is,” he said. “It needs to be liberated from any kind of restraints on its full expression and its full potential for research and dialogue, which have been stifled for too long by the conservative ideas of business emphasis. We’re all less than fully human when these ideologies take over control of what is supposed to be the one major free-thinking institution in our society.”
Swann is particularly passionate about two global issues: the environment and Iraq. Including three trips to Iraq as a medical doctor, Swann has come to believe the world is a profoundly interconnected place.
“Whatever we do locally is having an impact internationally, whether it’s oil prices or the cost of bananas,” Swann said. “Some people are winning and some people are losing.”
In 2002, in a move widely linked to government interference and called by NDP leader Brian Mason “a naked abuse of government power,” Swann was fired from his position as a public health officer. Weeks earlier he had publicly voiced his support of the Kyoto Accord, on the basis of scientific research connecting health problems with emissions, which he has suggested kill up to 10,000 Canadians per year.
“I think there’s a lot of evidence that we can meet or even exceed the targets of Kyoto,” said Swann. He pointed to the profitability of companies like British Petroleum and Shell which set and met Kyoto targets, and criticized opposition from corporations as lacking vision.
Swann advocates increased citizen participation in civic society.
“I don’t want to put all the responsibility for Kyoto on industry or government,” he said. “It’s about you and I. I rode my bike over here and I believe it’s a small but important step I can do everyday to demonstrate my commitment to the environment.”
As part of a citizen’s group, Swann has taken steps to bring humanitarian aid to Iraq. “[The group] partnered with Jurf and raised $35,000-$40,000. We helped build a school, a medical clinic and refurbish a water treatment centre.
“[The group] became so discouraged by what our government was able to accomplish in Iraq, that it was time for ordinary citizens to take action,” said Swann.
Moving into Public Office
“It’s been very exciting,” Swann said. “There has been a tremendous amount to learn about the protocols and the processes in the legislature, and to feel comfortable in the legislature when you’re kind of pitted against each other.”
He added a larger and broader Alberta Liberal caucus has new challenges to face and vulnerabilities to find in the Conservative government.
Swann believes his party has an uphill battle to fight in some respects, noting most Albertans are unaware the provincial Conservative party runs the largest public relations bureau in Canada, costing taxpayers $100 million annually. This works out to more than $30 for each Albertan.
Playing down the legislative aspect of his office, Swann emphasized his commitment to learning the concerns of his constituents. He promised to make himself as accessible as possible, and is assembling constituency groups to provide advice.
“That’s democracy to me, people who are working on their homework,” he said. “Because I can’t take responsibility for everything.”
He said he was particularly interested in providing a voice for students.
“We had a youth coffeehouse last week, and about 15 people came out. We talked about everything from poverty to environmental issues.”
Swann intends for these to be regular, and the next coffeehouse session for Apr. 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the House Coffee Sanctuary.