In one day, the ground shifts in Alberta politics in ways unexpected, sometimes uplifting, sometimes troubling

On March 23, Lewis Cardinal became the first nominated federal NDP candidate in Canada for the expected 2015 election. (Photo by Dave Cournoyer, used with permission.) Yesterday he stepped aside in the face of undisclosed health problems. Below: Wildrose Finance Critic Rob Anderson.

What a strange day it was yesterday, at times uplifting, at times profoundly depressing, and at times just disorienting.

In the morning, Alberta suddenly dropped most aspects of its official homophobia. This less formal kind will continue to longer for a spell, of course, but as an issue for most Albertans it’s done like the family’s dinner.

At mid-day, the Opposition Wildrose Party – supposedly to the right of the governing Tories – announced that if it’s elected, it will end the Progressive Conservative government’s war on public sector workers and their unions by repealing Canada’s most anti-union legislation.

And at the end of the day we learned that Lewis Cardinal, one of the best NDP candidates in recent memory, was after years of hard work withdrawing from the race to become Member of Parliament for the Edmonton-Centre riding because of an undisclosed health issue.

Who would have thought even a few days ago that any of these things were on the radar?

While one can’t shake the feeling they were dragged to it, kicking and screaming, in the morning Premier pro tem Dave Hancock’s Legislative caucus voted in favour of changes to provincial laws that would remove the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The rule changes will also allow transgendered Albertans to change their birth certificates without having to prove they’d had gender-reassignment surgery. All three opposition parties, including the Wildrose, embarrassed by some of its own supporters’ homophobia in 2012, were already there.

The highly political preamble to the Marriage Act, containing the restrictive definition and a meaningless grumble about this history of marriage and the foundation of society, was introduced by the government of Ralph Klein in 2000 when the issue of same-sex marriage convulsed the province.

For a couple of years now, like pretty well everywhere else in North America, no one much really cared about this any more but for a few religious extremists and angry ninnies, a disproportionate number of whom seem to have time on their hands and access to social media. For the rest of us, “live and let live” and “get on with it” are the watchwords as Alberta reaches a consensus we have other priorities more worthy of our attention than meddling in people’s personal lives.

It will be harder for the PCs to change Bill 44, a holdover from the premiership of Ed Stelmach that tries to use the Human Rights Commission as a hammer to whack teachers who dare to teach about sexuality in the classroom. But this too will come.

No sooner had that been reported than the Wildrose Party released a statement on Bill 9, Finance Minister and would-be premier Doug Horner’s odious public service pension legislation that signals the end of the progressive coalition that saved the short-lived premiership of Alison Redford in the 2012 general election.

The statement, attributed in the Wildrose news release to Finance Critic Rob Anderson, broke new ground for the party’s leadership and indicated a willingness to try to build bridges to groups they had previously eyed warily.

“As usual, the PC government’s standard operating procedure on labour relations issues is that of bullying instead of good faith negotiations,” Mr. Anderson stated.

“Wildrose has long supported the view that contracts and agreements must be respected,” he went on. “That includes the pension arrangements promised to current public sector workers and pensioners who chose their careers in the public sector based, at least in part, on the promise of the current public pension arrangement.”

“Although we feel some reforms to the current system may be needed to ensure the long term sustainability of public pensions, we believe that any such changes need to be negotiated openly and respectfully with union leadership, and that any substantial changes should only be applied to workers who have yet to be hired, rather than those already employed or retired.”

Significantly, Mr. Anderson ended by promising not just to repeal Bill 9, but to dismantle the unconstitutional Bills 45 and 46, the first of which makes even talking about illegal strikes by public servants illegal, and the second which attempted to force the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees to accept a wage freeze by circumventing the collective bargaining process. That act is in abeyance for the moment thanks to a court injunction won by AUPE while it appeals the constitutionality of the bill.

“Wildrose is committed to repealing Bill 9 if elected in 2016, along with Bills 45 and 46 which also unjustly ignore the legal rights of our public sector employees,” Mr. Anderson concluded.

This didn’t just come about without relationship building between the Wildrose leadership and that of AUPE, as first reported in this space.

Naturally, there are many in the union movement whose distrust of the Wildrose Party will make them suspicious of this promise – but it is clear and unequivocal enough, it is said here, that it would be hard for the party to back away from.

Progressive voters will have plenty to complain about if there is soon a Wildrose government in Alberta, but this position at least suggests that for the moment the party doesn’t intend to engage in open warfare with working people and public employees as the Redford-Hancock Government is doing.

Finally, around 6:30 p.m., media and bloggers were emailed the simple statement from Mr. Cardinal, who was such a promising and hardworking candidate.

“I would like to take this time to express deep appreciation to so many supporters and volunteers who have helped me in the federal riding of Edmonton Centre. Their commitment and energy demonstrates the passion for political change that is growing in Edmonton Centre and throughout our city,” Mr. Cardinal wrote.

“I have decided that due to personal and health reasons to step down as the nominated Federal candidate for the Edmonton Centre NDP. This decision was a very difficult one for me to make, but I know that a strong candidate will step forward to build the future that Edmonton Centre needs and deserves.

“I know the desire for change in Edmonton Centre is strong, and that the people here will continue to fight for the things we hold close to our hearts and the future we all wish to see.”

Less than a month ago, on March 26, Mr. Cardinal was nominated with great hope as the New Democratic Party’s first candidate for the next federal election. He had been campaigning in the riding for more than a year after a strong showing in the 2011 federal election. His announcement yesterday is very troubling, and not the first significant health setback to afflict the NDP in recent years.

The NDP will now have to scramble to find a candidate in a riding where a wide-open race was expected with Conservative MP Laurie Hawn retiring and a history of also electing Liberal members.

If yesterday proved anything it’s that the adage attributed to Britain’s Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in the 1970s, that a week is a long time in politics, considerably understates the matter. A single day can be a long time!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Wildrose tells Craig Chandler to get lost; Tories might be smart to do the same

Craig B. Chandler in a portrait snatched from his Facebook Page. Below: Wildrose Opposition Leader Danielle Smith’s brisk communication to Mr. Chandler.

GRANDE PRAIRIE

If Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party leaders were smart, they’d quickly find a way to send the same message to Craig B. Chandler he just got from Opposition Leader Danielle Smith.

On April 10, Ms. Smith, concerned Mr. Chandler was suggesting he was just the guy to bridge the gap between her Wildrose Party and the foundering Tories, Tweeted to him: “Your views & how you express them are wrong for Wildrose and Alberta. I would never let you be a candidate for #wrp.”

So, tell us Ms. Smith, what do you really think about Mr. Chandler?

For the moment, at least, the current generation of Alberta PCs hasn’t found the intestinal fortitude to deal with Mr. Chandler, so the “businessman, pundit, and political and religious activist,” as he is described on his Wikipedia page, is continuing to seek the PC nomination in the Calgary Shaw riding.

His announcement last week got a surprising amount of media attention, presumably because of his controversial history on the fringes of the social conservative right plus the fact journalists somehow got the idea Mr. Chandler was going to announce a bid for the leadership of the PC Party.

Mr. Chandler has a long and well-established history of activities with fringe political parties, frequent and unsuccessful bids for political office, and controversy surrounding his vociferously expressed anti-gay-rights views.

Mr. Chandler, who migrated to Alberta from Ontario in 1995, also thinks Christians are the victims of persecution in modern-day Canada and has demanded that newcomers to the province vote conservative or go home. He used to answer his telephone by barking “Happy Capitalism!”

If Mr. Chandler had launched a leadership campaign, as he did once before, it would have gone a long way to eliminating the few tatters of credibility and respectability still clinging to the Redford-Hancock Government.

If the PCs want to avoid embarrassment and send Mr. Chandler packing, there’s a precedent. In 2007, a horrified then-premier Ed Stelmach gave him the bum’s rush after he somehow got the nomination in the Calgary Edgemont riding.

Indeed, in his latest candidacy announcement, Mr. Chandler’s handout made reference to Mr. Stelmach’s decision, and went on to say that “as a result of this denial Craig Chandler helped found the Wildrose Party which is now the opposition party in Alberta.” The Wildrose Party says Mr. Chandler had nothing to do with its establishment.

Regardless of that dispute, which they can settle themselves, the reasons Mr. Stelmach skidded Mr. Chandler as a candidate were the same as the things that had Ms. Smith’s hair standing on end last week.

Mr. Chandler, by the way, responded to losing his nomination in the 2008 general election by running as an independent candidate against the man the Tories found to replace him, Jonathan Denis, who is now the attorney general and a rumoured leadership candidate himself.

Remember, the Wildrose Party has already quite possibly lost one election because of statements made in a similar vein to some of Mr. Chandler’s commentary by a loose-cannon candidate. Once bitten, twice shy, they are obviously not going back for another dip in the Lake of Fire if they can avoid it.

If it’s any comfort, it’s not just gay rights the intemperate Mr. Chandler has issues with. He once called your blogger a “modern day Nazi who attacks anyone of faith” for criticizing some of TV host Ezra Levant’s comments on a secular topic. Go figure!

It is reasonable to conclude that Mr. Chandler is electoral poison to any party he has anything to do with. The Tories are going to have to skid him again sooner or later. It’s said here Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock would be smart to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood right now, just as Ms. Smith did, before the guy becomes the PCs’ Pastor Alan Hunsperger!

If they wait, it’s only going to get worse.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Redford-Hancock Government moves ahead with plan to gut public sector pensions

Alberta Environment Minister Robin Campbell, right, in one of the rather undistinguished jackets that are causing such a brouhaha in the provincial Legislature this week. Meanwhile, Finance Minister Doug Horner, below, is moving to attack the pensions of 300,000 Alberta public employees and no one is paying much attention. Below him, NDP Leader Brian Mason, who opposes his plans, and former prime ministerial chief of staff Nigel Wright. But you’ll have to read to the bottom if you want to know what Mr. Wright has to do with this story.

Alberta Finance Minister Doug Horner gave notice yesterday that the government is about to introduce bills allowing him to go ahead and gut the retirement security of provincial public employees.

Bill 9, the Public Sector Pension Plans Amendment Act, and Bill 10, the Employment Pension (Private Sector) Plans Amendment Act, will be proof, if any more was needed, that the Progressive Conservative Government’s current survival plan does not include trying to rebuild the progressive coalition that pulled its fat from the fryer in April 2012.

If everything Mr. Horner has said up to now is true, the public sector bill is likely to significantly reduce the pensions paid to UNA members and other public employees over time, and quite possibly induce a run on the pension plans before then as it sinks into recently hired and new members’ heads what a lousy deal they’ll be getting for the same cost paid by current members.

Also based on past statements, the government hopes to leave unions representing some of the plans’ members holding the bag for the chaos that will inevitably ensue, an unlikely scenario.

In a news release yesterday, the Alberta NDP said the party’s legislative caucus will focus on the government’s attack on public service pensions for the rest of the legislative session.

With only four members, the New Democrats have little chance of stopping the carnage, even with the help of other Opposition parties. But the NDP release contained a nice jab at the Opposition Wildrose Party, which may or may not be farther to the right than the Redford-Hancock Tories.

“This is an incredibly important issue that affects hundreds of thousands of Albertans,” NDP Leader Brian Mason stated. “While other parties focus on jackets and junkets, we are focusing our efforts on real issues that affect real Albertans.”

Both the Wildrose Party and the media have been concentrating their efforts the past couple of days on stories about former premier Alison Redford’s many flights on government aircraft with her friends and relations, especially her pre-teen daughter, and on the government’s plans to spend $9,475 to dress government MLAs and their friends in unfashionable promotional jackets.

These stories don’t add up to much compared to the attack on the retirement security 300,000 working Albertans and their families, Mr. Mason seemed to be saying – a tactic that recognizes the NDP and Wildrose Party will be fighting it out for many seats in the Edmonton area in the next general election.

On Monday, in a related development, Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock said the province’s non-union employees will have to live with the same wage package the government has tried without much success to impose on members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

In February, AUPE managed to prevent the government from forcing its members to swallow that bitter pill when it sought and got a Court of Queen’s Bench injunction blocking the use of Bill 46, the so-called Public Service Salary Restraint Act. The injunction was to remain in effect until the union’s appeal of the bill on constitutional grounds is complete, a process that could take years. The scathing injunction ruling by Mr. Justice Denny Thomas stated flatly “that Alberta did not meet its obligation to bargain in good faith.”

The Redford Government had intended to use Bill 46 to impose a contract and wage freeze on the 22,000 direct employees of the province represented by AUPE, and also likely as the template for other public sector bargaining units in health care and education. Now the Redford-Hancock Government continues to claim it believes the law is constitutional and that it can win on appeal. It is also appealing the injunction.

Mr. Hancock’s comment to the Edmonton Journal’s reporter, however, suggested he knows otherwise. “Hancock said the deal given to non-union staff may be re-evaluated in the future if the AUPE secures a better deal for union employees,” journalist Miriam Ibrahim wrote.

In other words, once the courts have had the opportunity to rule on Bill 46, the government knows perfectly well it is going to have to settle its dispute with AUPE through binding arbitration, as set out in the current law as an alternative to the right to strike.

It knows just as well that no independent arbitrator will allow it to force AUPE to take the deal it had intended to impose.

So Mr. Hancock knows, it is said here, that his government is just hosing away taxpayers’ money for political advantage. If he says otherwise, he is not being entirely forthright with you.

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No surprises as PCs release leadership race rules

Also yesterday, the PC Party released the timeline for the ongoing leadership contest required by the firing of Ms. Redford by her caucus last month.

Candidate nominations will open on May 15 – at which point cabinet ministers like Doug Horner and Thomas Lukaszuk will have to make a call or get out of the booth. All paperwork such as nomination forms and proof of party membership must be submitted by May 30.

Candidates must pay a $20,000 fee when picking up their nomination package and $30,000 more when handing it in. Aug. 15 will be the last day to withdraw from the race. Nothing was said about what will happen if a candidate withdraws and then discovers the party has already spent his or her fee on, say, communications advice.

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Tories decide to throw Mama from the plane

Finally, word came yesterday that in their desperation to pin decades of entitlement on the former premier in order to survive the coming election, the PCs have opted to throw Mama from the plane by allowing the Auditor General to investigate Ms. Redford’s many flights aboard government aircraft with her young daughter.

This was fine with her ministers when it was happening, but it is deeply disturbing to them now. So the AG will poke around until July and either exonerate Ms. Redford, in which case the government will tell the rest of us to get over it, or not exonerate her, which will allow the government to point to what a fine job it has done of blaming the former premier for what until a month ago was standard operating procedure.

In similar news, the RCMP said yesterday there would be no charges against Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff, for paying $90,000 of suspended Senator Mike Duffy’s living expenses, which it turns out was merely a really nice gesture.

Nothing to see here, folks. Move along please.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

The ‘Self Preservation Society’ wants Jim Prentice for ‘The Alberta Job’ – but can he forgo his ambition to be PM?

“The Alberta Job.” Will the original “Self Preservation Society” get to keep the Tory gold? Is Jim Prentice – above, not exactly as illustrated – the man to help them do it? Read on to find out why we’ll probably never find out. Below: The actual Jim Prentice. Below him: Possible, rumoured, putative PC leadership candidate Stephen Mandel.

The question Jim Prentice really needs to ask himself is this: “Do I really want to ride that bus all the way to the bottom of the cliff and be sitting in it when it bursts into flames?”

The question the lawyer, banking boss and sometime federal Conservative politician will actually ask himself will likely be a little more polished, and a little more complicated. To wit: “Can becoming leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party help my ambition to become the prime minister of Canada?”

But in the end – since the metaphorical bus in the first question represents the Alberta PC Party, the original Self Preservation Society, the cliff it’s teetering on represents the election that is going to have to be called sooner or later, and the gold in the back represents the gold in the back – the questions are actually pretty much the same.

If Mr. Prentice is the person he appears to be, the answer to either question is likely to be a resounding No!

With an excellent and extensive political resume, and the opinion widely held in Alberta political circles that there’s no one in the current Alberta PC caucus and cabinet likely to be able to fend off a challenge to Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Party whenever an election gets called, it’s natural that die-hard PCs see Mr. Prentice as a potential saviour of their party after the disaster of the Redford-Hancock Government.

The other potential savior that gets some Tory hearts going pitty-pat these days is former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel. But notwithstanding Mr. Mandel’s great collection of bow ties, it seems as if it’s Mr. Prentice that has them mopping their brows and fanning themselves.

Mr. Prentice is available, sort of, having quit his job as Member of Parliament for Calgary Centre North and resigned from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Cabinet, in which he had held a number of important posts, back in November 2010.

And he can probably afford the $50,000 entry fee, seeing as since January 2011 he’s been employed as senior executive VP and vice-chairperson of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. And heaven knows, they need the money!

Sounds like he’s dipped his toes in the leadership lake a couple of times too, just to see how warm the water is, as he’s been known to do once or twice before in similar circumstances.

But you’ll notice that, notwithstanding the understandable buzz from desperate Alberta Tories dreaming of a way to hang onto power one more time, Mr. Prentice doesn’t seem to have made any announcements, or said anything much of consequence at all. This, presumably, is because he’s still mulling over his chances and what they mean to his ultimate ambition – to wit, the prime ministership of Canada.

As I see it, there are three things that could happen if Mr. Prentice throws his hat in the Progressive Conservative leadership ring and tries to get “The Alberta Job”:

  1. He could lose to one of the other candidates – which would be a disaster for his hopes of becoming PM.
  2. He could win the nomination and then lose the election – which would be a disaster for his hopes of becoming PM.
  3. He could win the nomination and somehow win the election – which would be a disaster for his hopes of becoming PM.

The problem with Point 3 from Mr. Prentice’s perspective, for those of you who haven’t been paying attention since 1896, when the 69-day ministry of Charles Tupper came to an end, is that Sir Charles was the last provincial premier ever to become prime minister of Canada.

And it’s likely to stay that way. After all, why would Canadians elect a provincial premier as national leader – a surefire guarantee, in the public mind, of a leader who won’t consider the needs of the entire country.

Someday, I suppose, we may elect a PM who was a premier first, but it won’t be any time soon, and it will most likely be a short-lived accident like Sir Charles Tupper.

Ergo, unless he’s given up on his prime ministerial ambitions, Mr. Prentice would be nuts to run to be premier of Alberta.

Also, he’d have to give up his current job as a big shot with CIBC, which almost certainly includes a pretty comfortable bi-weekly pay packet and some nice additional perks.

On the other hand, perhaps Mr. Prentice has concluded, like me, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will never willingly let go. Yeah, I know, the Ottawa Press Gallery has been in a frenzy for a year about how Mr. Harper is depressed, Mr. Harper has no friends left, Mr. Harper will quit any minute now…

But it’s said here that reading this kind of stuff every day would make it pretty hard for a man of Mr. Prentice’s inclinations to take a chance on the Alberta Job.

Still, if you’re a desperate Alberta Tory, you can dream of just such a miracle.

And if you’re the Bull Goose Strategist for the Wildrose Party – whoever that is now that Tom Flanagan spends his days writing judgmental books about the prime minister we have at the moment – you can have nightmares about it.

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Who knew? The loons of the Right were right for once!

If you Google the terms “Lorne Gunter” and “Nanny State,” you will discover that this particular combination has been posted to the Internet more than 4,400 times.

Mostly, the Sun Media columnist seems to have been complaining about things done by the Alberta government, such as banning the use of cellular phones while driving, but other governments appear to be guilty of trying to create a nanny state too in Mr. Gunter’s relentlessly consistent worldview.

It gets more interesting. Replace “Lorne Gunter” with “Monte Solberg,” another Sun Media columnist of similar views, and you will Google 21,200 articles. After that, it just gets better: Ezra Levant: 47,500 articles using “Nanny State.” Brian Lilley: 72,300. Michael Coren: 203,000!

OK, we already knew these guys were drinking from the same bathtub. Still, it turns out they were right. Really!

At any rate, CBC Edmonton investigative journalist Charles Rusnell reported yesterday that when Alison Redford was still premier of Alberta, and before that when she was minister of justice, she not only took her daughter on 50 flights aboard the government airplane, but on at least one occasion she brought the nanny along too.

So it turns out Alberta really is a “nanny state”! Leastways, the nanny really was aboard the state plane. Who knew?

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Advice to progressives: Don’t airbrush Jim Flaherty’s record out of sympathy for his family

The late Jim Flaherty tries on the traditional new shoes just before delivering his 2012 federal budget. Below, some of Mr. Flaherty’s friends and colleagues: former Ontario premier Mike Harris, in whose government he also served; Prime Minister Stephen Harper; Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

Decent people naturally feel sympathy with the loved ones of any person taken unexpectedly from life, as just-retired federal Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was last week.

We are naturally more inclined to experience such feelings of vicarious loss when the person who has died is charming and engaging – as Mr. Flaherty was said by those who knew him to be. This is especially so if we worked closely with that person, as all members of all parties in Parliament did with Mr. Flaherty in the course of their work. This presumably accounts for the tears shed by NDP Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair on learning of Mr. Flaherty’s death.

But this should not lead us into the temptation to paper over the faults of the departed one, as a great many progressive Canadians have been doing these past few days with the memory of Mr. Flaherty. This temptation is particularly great given our Western cultural superstition about “speaking ill of the dead.”

As the Canadian Press Stylebook wisely advises writers of journalistic obituaries, “the portraits should be exact, with no attempt to brush out wrinkles and warts. Resist the tendency to canonize the departed; very few are true saints.”

The Canadian media has failed spectacularly in this regard in the way it has reported Mr. Flaherty’s death. At any rate, among the accounts that I read, only the Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom, writing with courage and grace, dealt with the reality of Mr. Flaherty’s policy record.

“There is no evidence that I know of to suggest that his motives were anything but public-spirited,” Mr. Walkom wrote. “But he was also an integral part of a government determined to smash or cripple much of what makes Canada a livable country. His death is a reminder that good people can do bad things for the best of motives.”

Mr. Walkom’s column focused on only some of the serial attacks on Canadian values and institutions led by the Harper Government, near the centre of which Mr. Flaherty always stood until only a few days before his death. To wit, mentioned in Mr. Walkom’s account: the piece by piece dismantling of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the erosion of Canadians’ retirement and employment security, and the subversion of our country’s public health care system, all of which continue apace.

In these, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper carries on the destructive ideological wrecking started by the Ontario government led by Conservative Premier Mike Harris from the mid-Nineties through the early Zeroes. Not surprisingly, Mr. Flaherty also stood at the centre of the misnamed and destructive “Common Sense Revolution,” serving at various times as minister of labour, attorney general, finance minister and deputy premier.

Indeed, in his central role in the Harper government, a case can be made that Mr. Flaherty looked so good because so many of the current crop of Reform Party Conservatives are such trolls.

Obviously, Mr. Flaherty’s personal charm outshone that of the prime minister, which is not so much of an accomplishment on its own, enabling him to serve up Mr. Harper’s policy poison with a smile.

Perhaps this did not get Mr. Flaherty very far when he finally raised a warning flag on Mr. Harper’s income-splitting scheme. But, again, such cautious crossing of the uncrossable Mr. Harper hardly merits the Victoria Cross, as several media reports of the past few days have suggested. If, indeed, there was any difference between the two at all.

The important thing to remember when it comes to comparisons between the charmless Mr. Harper and the charming Mr. Flaherty is that their fundamental economic beliefs and the policies they supported were the same – often immoral, destructive and elitist.

It is possible that without his association with Mr. Harper, Mr. Flaherty might not have employed less vicious political tactics. But again, his choice of friends and political allies is evocative, even if we live in an era when guilt by association is frowned upon.

Not only was he a great and permanent ally of Prime Minister Harper, but he was a staunch and committed defender of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, about whom no more need be said. The fact Mr. Ford was a family friend was a good reason for Mr. Flaherty’s sympathy and personal support; it was no excuse for the defence of Mr. Ford’s scandalous misrule.

Moreover, in the context of the game played by all Parliamentarians of all parties, there was an element a good-cop-bad-cop strategy to the public positions taken by Mr. Flaherty versus those of the PM and some of his more odious supporters.

The families of all Canadians deserve the same certainty and security as Mr. Flaherty’s family now has. People who work to keep them from having it ought not to be portrayed as heroes, especially by those of us who are not parliamentary insiders.

This is not speaking ill of the dead. It is only speaking the unvarnished and necessary truth.

Mr. Flaherty’s state funeral is scheduled to take place Wednesday in Toronto.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Rob Anders loses by a nose in Signal Hill as Cowtown Cons make the best of a bad choice

Lost by a nose … but what a nose! A 22-year-old Rob Anders in 1994, heckling an Oklahoma politician. Below: Calgary Signal Hill nomination victor Ron Liepert; Mr. Anders as he looks today.

There was blood in the water of the Bow River as it flowed through Cowtown last night.

After a while, it became clear the metaphorical blood had been shed by the ever-embarrassing Rob Anders, who at a mere 42 years of age had served an excruciating six terms as the Reform, Alliance and Conservative Member of Parliament for the Calgary West riding, which will soon cease to exist.

This, however, was not immediately obvious. After more than an hour and a half of waiting for ballot counters in the new Calgary Signal-Hill electoral district to figure out whether Mr. Anders or challenger Ron Liepert had won the hard-fought Tory nomination, the Calgary Herald posted a story saying they both had!

It was soon apparent Southern Alberta’s Website of Record had published a draft version containing two alternative leads, causing a few minutes of confusion before the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., whose employees were victims last week of massive cuts by the federal Conservative government whose nomination Messrs. Anders and Liepert were fighting over, came to the rescue of political news junkies and confirmed the former provincial cabinet minister’s victory.

The CBC reported that about 2,400 of the riding’s 3,250 eligible Tories voted, but said the party refused to release the final tallies. Tweets earlier in the evening had claimed the two were separated by only five votes.

Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop, and myriad Twitterists took advantage of the hour and half of silence to get up to all kinds of mischief, posting old Youtube videos of Mr. Anders in a Pinocchio nose being humiliated while heckling an American politician and dozing off in the House of Commons, and making jokes about how it takes time to fix a good election.

But in the event, it appears the election wasn’t fixed at all – notwithstanding endorsements of Mr. Anders by the likes of Employment Minister Jason Kenney and Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself. In retrospect, the PM’s endorsement seemed half-hearted at best, so this may be a rare case of the rats being chased off a sinking ship.

Leastways, the contest obviously wasn’t fixed in Mr. Anders’ favour. So Mr. Liepert, a 64-year-old former AM radio disk jockey and Progressive Conservative minster from the cabinets of Alberta premiers Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford, was eventually declared the victor, leading one Tweeter to crow that party members in Signal Hill had chosen “the lesser of two weasels.”

This may not be a bad summation, actually.

Appropriately born on April Fools’ Day, Mr. Anders’ foibles are almost as well known as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s.

In 1994, he travelled south to act as a “professional heckler” for a Republican candidate in Oklahoma. (He was labeled a “foreign political saboteur” for his trouble by CNN.) He later assailed Ralph Klein as a “cocktail Conservative,” too soft on Ottawa and not nearly far enough to the right.

As Calgary West MP, he voted with the Bloc Québécois to support a proposition that Quebeckers should be able to form a nation any time they darn well felt like it and could withdraw from any federal initiative. His was the only non-Bloc MP vote for the proposition. He also famously called Nelson Mandela a Communist and a terrorist and was the only legislator to vote against giving the South African liberator honourary Canadian citizenship.

Mr. Anders once boasted about how women throw themselves at his feet, explaining that as a consequence he’d taken a vow of chastity. (Just the same, he explained to a astonished and appalled reporter, he had “gone as far as kissing and kind of ‘massaging,’ if you will.”)

In 2012, he was captured on TV falling asleep on TV in the House of Commons. The same year, he accused NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair of hastening Jack Layton’s death.

As for Mr. Liepert, while hardly able to reach Mr. Anders’ sub-orbital levels of idiocy, he was nevertheless the perennial bull in the china shop of Alberta provincial politics.

As a short-tempered minister given the Education portfolio by Mr. Stelmach, he soon roused Alberta’s teachers, hitherto practically a branch of the Progressive Conservative Party, to a state of open rebellion.

Later, as minister of health and wellness, he launched Alberta’s catastrophic experiment in health-care centralization, pushed seniors’ care toward a high-cost private model, watched a crisis in the province’s emergency rooms boil over, and brought in Stephen Duckett, the egotistical and undiplomatic Australian PhD economist, to lead Alberta Health Services into a black hole, where it remains.

Mr. Liepert became so unpopular as health minister seniors would boo spontaneously when he walked into a room. Mr. Stelmach eventually had to shuffle him off to the energy ministry to get him out of harm’s way.

To the astonishment of everyone who hadn’t been paying attention to their political history, upon taking power, former premier Alison Redford jumped Mr. Liepert up to the finance portfolio, his provincial swansong before what obviously turned out to be an insufficiently engaging retirement.

His history with Ms. Redford? He managed her unsuccessful 2004 campaign to … wait for it … try to topple Mr. Anders in Calgary West.

As a result, no love was lost between the two, and Mr. Anders in particular ran a sleazy campaign, claiming Mr. Liepert was backed by “temporary Tories” from Liberal and NDP ranks, portraying the old privatizer as a tax and spend liberal and employing misleading phone calls to attack his opponent.

The conventional Alberta wisdom is now that Mr. Liepert will go on to automatically win the next general election for the Harper Tories and that Mr. Anders has had his last dance, but one wonders.

Even with redrawn boundaries, the sinking of Rob Anders is a political event of sufficient force to register on the Richter scale. Could it be that Mr. Anders’ accusation was true and Mr. Liepert’s ten-minute Tories will return to their own parties while his own gun nut and fundamentalist Christian supporters stay home on election day?

Or, even better, that Mr. Anders might run as an independent to bleed off the vote of the sizeable Conservative lunatic fringe in the riding.

These seem like improbable scenarios to this former Calgary resident, but hope springs eternal on the dusty plains of Alberta. After all, a Liberal very nearly knocked off Calgary Centre MP Joan Crockatt in November 2012, and may have a better chance to do so next time.

Mr. Anders could also get the nod from his friends in the party to seek another Calgary riding’s nomination, thereby surviving to make a fool of himself another day.

Nevertheless, the defeat of Mr. Anders by Mr. Liepert last night marks the end of an era in Alberta.

That is, except for the fact he will continue to serve as the MP for Calgary West until an election is called, leaving plenty of time for new embarrassments.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Alberta Tories on public service pensions: ‘We lied. So what are you gonna do about it?’

As Tory leadership candidates Thomas Lukaszuk, standing, and Doug Horner look on, Alberta Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock tries out the barrel in which the next leader of the Progressive Conservative Party will lead their caucus over the falls. Actual Tory premiers and would-be premiers may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: International Affairs Minister Cal Dallas and Alberta Tory dynasty founder Peter Lougheed.

They may have skidded their most disastrous leader, but the brain trust now running Alberta’s foundering Progressive Conservative Government has made it abundantly clear they intend to press ahead with their scheme to demolish the progressive coalition that saved their political bacon in 2012.

Obviously, they have concluded this will improve their chances of re-election whenever they decide to call an election, an event that for cynical tactical reasons will likely take place outside the “fixed election period” they legislated in late 2011.

Well, good luck to them with that!

The mechanism for this demolition project is the government’s determination to carry on with its plans to gut the modest public service pensions that are the retirement security of some 300,000 Albertans and their families, a fact explained surprisingly bluntly in the Legislature Thursday by Intergovernmental Relations Minister Cal Dallas.

The Tories’ rationale is interesting, appearing to be: Why? Because we can.

Also interesting was Mr. Dallas’s tacit admission to the Legislature that the government under premier Alison Redford and Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock lied to Albertans about the reasons for the pension cuts – which are clearly designed to achieve the seemingly hopeless aim of wooing back the substantial numbers of right-wing voters who have abandoned the government for the Wildrose Party.

Speaking for conveniently absent Finance Minister Doug Horner, whose ministerial responsibility it was to make this announcement, Mr. Dallas put it very clearly: “The current unfunded liabilities will be paid down over a period of 12 years.”

In other words, Mr. Dallas was tacitly admitting to MLAs that the unfunded liability the government has up to now claimed was the principal reason its planned cuts were required will in fact disappear very soon under funding arrangements already put in place by employees and employers – just as the unions involved have said all along.

The new principal reason for the cuts is apparently that the government wants to save money at the expense of the retirement security it promised its front-line workers – especially if they happen to be modestly paid women. A fair summary of the government’s revised position, then, as explained by Mr. Dallas, would be: We lied. So what are you gonna do about it?

Well, not collectively bargain improvements to compensate for the takeaway, that’s for sure, since the government has all but ended the practice of legal collective bargaining for public employees in this province.

Moreover, Mr. Dallas said, the legislation will include a moratorium on even talking about fixing that problem until 2021 – at which point, he fantasized, management of the plans will be turned over to the unions so that they can take the blame for the retirement-security disaster that will most likely follow. Good luck getting that to happen too!

Nor will employees and retirees affected by this scheme be likely to strike illegally, openly advocate striking illegally, talk theoretically about striking illegally, write blogs discussing striking illegally, or even think about striking illegally since the government has with totalitarian efficiency outlawed all of those activities too – except perhaps the last one.

Eventually, one expects, the courts will deal efficiently enough with this unconstitutional nonsense – but not without several years of delays the Tories clearly hope can they can spin out through legal foot dragging and obstruction of Albertans’ fundamental rights.

In the mean time, I suppose, vicious compliance, retirements and the movement of many skilled health care workers to other jurisdictions will be the orders of the day. Political and financial fallout from a run on the various public sector plans as members try to find ways to bail out is also a strong possibility.

Obviously, all this will be popular in certain quarters here in Alberta – at least until it sinks in that it means no one can trust any Progressive Conservative government to honour any contract or any constitutionally protected right.

But how helpful this will turn out to be for the Redford-Hancock Government is not so clear when, as noted above, the voters it is most likely to appeal to with such a policy have already loaded up the truck and moved to Wildrose Country.

Perhaps the Tories think progressive voters and public employees can once again be stampeded into voting for them by fear mongering about Wildrose social values.

This seems increasingly unlikely given the magnitude of the betrayal, and the fact most of their own caucus has just been exposed as unwilling to take even a modest and risk-free stand against institutionalized bigotry in our province’s schools.

Since both Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk and Mr. Horner are advocates of this attack on pensions and both are leading candidates for the party leadership, campaigning not-quite openly so they can retain the publicity opportunities afforded by their cabinet posts, there is no way this can be blamed after the fact on Ms. Redford alone. It must continue to be a party responsibility.

Historians will argue for a long time about what group or factor bought an end to the Tory dynasty that was founded by Peter Lougheed in 1971.

As is often the case, each group will advance explanations that promote their own interests. Economic conservatives will argue the Tories were no longer financially responsible enough, social conservatives will claim their social attitudes were too godless and liberal, and progressives who were fooled into voting for Ms. Redford in 2012 will conclude it was because the government broke its promises and abandoned them. Indeed, many of these progressive voters will think: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Perhaps in the end there will be something to all these interpretations.

The key to Tory success hitherto in Alberta has been that the PCs were a big-tent centre-right party with something for almost everyone, and nothing too offensive for anyone.

By sawing off the third leg of the three-legged stool they’ve sat upon for 43 years, they have now became a party that offers nothing to anyone and has something to offend everyone.

All the Redford-Hancock Government has left is the charming notion Alberta without Progressive Conservatives at the helm is unimaginable – just as Alberta without Social Credit seemed unimaginable in 1970.

When they get the opportunity, I expect Alberta voters of all ideological stripes will draw the Tories a clear diagram that illustrates why they should have been more imaginative. It cannot happen too soon.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

What happens now that we know there really is a cancer cluster in Fort Chip? Nothing?

Greenpeace Canada info-graphic showing connections among the far-right Conservative Party of Canada activists behind the so-called Ethical Oil Institute. Below: Dr. James Talbot; Dr. John O’Connor; Ezra Levant.

Alberta’s chief medical officer has now confirmed that statistics released a couple of weeks ago indicate there really is a cancer cluster in Fort Chipewyan, a predominantly native community about 280 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

Fort Chip, as it is often known, has long been a subject of controversy about the health impacts of bitumen sands development because – possibly coincidentally, and possibly not – it is not far downstream and downwind of the largest Bitumen Sands mining and processing operations in Alberta.

Nevertheless, the Edmonton Journal reported earlier this week, the government has no plans to try to identify the possible causes of the cluster of serious diseases, which includes unusually high rates of bile duct cancer, plus some others.

So, what does this tell us?

Well, before we get to that, a caveat: I am just a layperson who notices things, often sees connections with other things, notes them down and writes about them. I am not a medical professional, a statistician or a clairvoyant. So readers are entitled to take my conclusions with as large a grain of salt as they wish. I am, as they say, just saying…

Still, now that we’ve got that out of the way, what does this week’s news suggest?

First of all, it suggests Dr. John O’Connor, the physician who famously practiced medicine in native communities in the region, was onto something when he reported back in the mid-2000s that … wait for it … there was a cluster of unusual cancers among residents of Fort Chipewyan.

For saying this – regardless of why he reached his conclusions – Dr. O’Connor has been attacked in the vilest and most damaging terms imaginable, and very nearly lost his ability to practice his profession as a result.

Both the federal and provincial governments harshly criticized Dr. O’Connor for daring to suggest the Bitumen-extraction industry might have been the cause of the serious health problems he observed among residents of Fort Chip and nearby communities – including, as he then observed and has now been confirmed, an unusually high rate of bile duct cancer.

Not only did the provincial government dispute Dr. O’Connor’s conclusions, in 2007 Health Canada physicians laid four complaints of professional misconduct against him with the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons. These included accusations he blocked access to his patients’ medical files, claims of billing irregularities, and the charge, redolent of totalitarian states, that he caused mistrust of government in Fort Chipewyan and “undue alarm” among residents of the community.

The accusations nearly resulted in Dr. O’Connor losing his license to practice medicine, and hence his livelihood. Eventually, according to the Edmonton Journal, he was cleared of all the charges against him.

This, however, has never stopped Sun News Network TV commentator and “Ethical Oil” propagandist Ezra Levant from using what we might call his national on-air bullying pulpit to launch a stream of vilification at Dr. O’Connor, calling him “a liar,” accusing him of “breaching professional ethics,” and saying “he just made it up.”

Now, Mr. Levant doesn’t have much credibility, in part because he attacks so many people in the same way – pretty much anyone who disagrees with him, in fact. Nevertheless, he has a devoted following and many of his acolytes no doubt believe his claims about Dr. O’Connor. His accusations are influential enough, it is said here, to make others with similar observations afraid to speak their minds.

Indeed, Dr. Margaret Sears, an Ontario expert in toxicology and health, told the Edmonton Journal doctors in the region were afraid of the negative consequences to their careers if they spoke out, or even were asked to treat patients who thought their might be a connection between their symptoms and nearby bitumen production.

She was not referring specifically to Mr. Levant’s on-air jeremiads, but it is not unreasonable to conclude just such an outcome was in fact the intention of the broadcaster’s on-air bullying. For, as has been noted in this space before, Mr. Levant is closely tied to both the petroleum industry in Alberta, through his so-called “Ethical Oil Institute,” and with the petro-government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In a useful piece of work published earlier this week, Greenpeace Canada charted the connections among Mr. Levant’s so-called institute, the Harper Conservative Party, provincial versions of the same party and their energy industry patrons.

Greenpeace made headlines by calling for Elections Canada to investigate Ethical Oil for “colluding with the Conservative Party in order to get around rules that limit donations to political parties.”

Such a probe is of course unlikely because Elections Canada is already under attack from the Harper Conservatives for protecting the democratic rights of Canadians too effectively. But with that story in the news, mainstream media took notice when Greenpeace identified the frequent “mirrored messaging” between Ethical Oil and the CPC and the “multiple crossovers” among Harper Government staffers and Ethical Oil.

“Greenpeace argues election financing laws are breached even if a third party – in this case Ethical Oil – does not directly transfer money to a political party,” the CBC reported. “Greenpeace is urging the commissioner of elections to find that if Ethical Oil spends funds it raises on activities supporting a political party’s agenda, and has been set up by someone involved in the political party, then political donation limits have been contravened.”

“Our laws still ban oil companies from directly or indirectly funding political parties, so we hope that Ethical Oil and the Conservative Party will cooperate with the Commissioner in an investigation to clear this up,” Greenpeace said in its news release – no doubt rhetorically, given the uncooperative history of the CPC on such matters.

An effective info-graphic created by Greenpeace illustrates the connections among the CPC, Ethical Oil and their mutual operatives, including Mr. Levant, on this propaganda campaign.

Which brings us back to the Fort Chip cancer cluster.

“If anybody crunches the numbers for Fort Chipewyan, no matter how they are massaged, they wouldn’t show anything but a cancer cluster,” the Journal quoted University of Calgary professor John Dennis as saying this week. “It’s a huge red flag,” said the researcher, who conducted a review of the previous study at the government’s behest.

Dr. James Talbot, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, told the same newspaper, in its reporter’s words, that “updated figures for bile-duct cancer in the northern community fit the definition of a cluster, as does the rate of cervical cancer. The lung-cancer rate comes very close.”

Of course, there could be many causes for the disease cluster – including lifestyle choices in an impoverished community. But it’s an interesting series of events just the same, isn’t it?

  • A physician has his character viciously attacked by a right-wing broadcaster linked to the Conservative federal government and the oil industry for suggesting there was a cluster of diseases in a community in a bitumen-extraction region.
  • A petroleum industry advocacy organization run by the same broadcaster is accused of breaching election laws to help the same government remain in power. Whether or not the group’s activities actually broke the law, the same group of right-wing activists are demonstrably involved in both campaigns.
  • Another study by other doctors shows the physician’s observations all those years ago were likely right, and yet a provincial government run by followers of the same ideology refuses to launch an investigation to find out what’s really causing the health problems.

Whatever can it all mean?

Could someone be afraid of the answers a credible study might reveal?

Did someone ask: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent doc?”

Is there an effort to keep a lid of science that might impact petroleum industry profits?

I’m not saying. I’m just asking.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

If Albertans can’t trust actuary’s conclusions, why did AHS hire the same firm? Hint: it’s not the firm you can’t trust

The Alberta Health Services computing division, figuring out how much they spend on consultants this quarter, hard at work. Actual Alberta health bureaucrats may not appear exactly as illustrated.

LETHBRIDGE

It was interesting, surely, to read the Wildrose Party’s revelation yesterday that Alberta Health Services had spent close to a quarter of a billion dollars on consultants for such services as communications advice, executive coaching and fine arts expertise in a mere 18 months in 2012 and 2013.

But it was revealing, too, in a small way, to take a peek at whom some of the favoured consultants were on the list kindly provided by the Opposition party’s research department.

Among the $248.8 million doled out to private companies by the massive province-wide public health provider for about 500 contracts – many of which, of course, are bound to be for completely legitimate work, even if it would have been better done by AHS staff – was this interesting tidbit: George & Bell Consulting of Vancouver, to advise how to manage a cancer-prevention legacy fund.

Hmmmm… Let it be said right now that George & Bell is a completely legitimate actuarial firm, widely respected in its specialized area of expertise. Moreover, no one at Alberta Diary will complain about the propriety of this contract.

On the other hand, alert readers may recall that George & Bell – the very same firm – has been in the news lately, its good name treated dismissively by senior spokespeople of the same Progressive Conservative government that created and runs AHS.

These powerful folks were unhappy with the results of a study done by the same firm saying there was no need for the Redford-Hancock Government to trash 300,000 public employees’ and pensioners’ retirement plans to shore up its flagging support on the right.

This, of course, was because George & Bell was the firm to which a coalition of public service unions went for an assessment of the sustainability of Alberta’s public service pension funds – which the government in general and Finance Minister Doug Horner in particular were loudly proclaiming required “reform” to ensure their “sustainability.”

The pension coalition chose Vancouver-based George & Bell because it is an independent, professional firm with a good reputation – in other words, respected by all and beholden to no one. The firm’s study of Alberta’s public-sector pension plans demonstrated that they are healthy and well on their way to fully-funded status thanks to the efforts of plan members and employers – without any need for the change in benefits sought by the government for political reasons.

The results of the study flew in the face of arguments used by Mr. Horner, Mr. Hancock and other members of the Redford-Horner Government to justify the plan to roll back the modest pensions paid to Alberta’s public service pensioners.

Various government spokespeople tried to suggest that George & Bell’s conclusions couldn’t be trusted because the company was doing the study at the behest, and the $20,000 expense, of the union group.

In one story, Mr. Horner accused George & Bell of sticking its (presumably collective) head in the sand. A sheet of talking points misleadingly entitled “Myths and Facts” – Facts and Myths would be more like it – that the government has circulated to Alberta civil servants tries to blow off the study as sloppy piece of work that looked at an inadequate number of scenarios.

This is all baloney, of course, but just the kind of thing you’d expect when the government tried to reduce a fact-based argument over policy to a he-said-she-said scrap, the better to discredit the other side.

Not surprisingly, the government then ignored a union suggestion that the parties agree to another firm and commission another study – which would have cost the province about $10,000, small potatoes compared to the $3 million spent by the same people on public relations advice.

As an aside, that money may not have been spent well if the consultants suggested the approach taken yesterday by AHS’s communications staff to media questions about the Wildrose release: they hunkered down, refused to answer media calls and posted a stream of defensive Tweets. Tweets! Trust me, this is not considered a best practice in the PR field!

So this raises the obvious question: if George & Bell’s methodology is so inferior, pray, why are Alberta Health Services and its masters in the Redford-Hancock Government using the same firm for the same kind of purposes?

The answer is pretty simple and obvious. The problem isn’t the conclusions reached by George & Bell, it’s the ones reached by Doug Horner, Dave Hancock and, of course, Alison Redford.

The appearance this morning of this post – written late at night in a couple of airport waiting rooms – is proof of the obsessive need of its author to publish something on Alberta Diary every day.

Municipal Affairs Minister Ken Hughes quits Alberta cabinet – presumably to run for PC leadership

Half-confirmed Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Ken Hughes, on the night in 2011 Alison Redford won the party’s leadership. Well, that was then and this is now, as the appalled looking unidentified passerby seemed to have sensed. Below: Doug Horner. Anyone else?

Alberta’s Municipal Affairs Minister quit his cabinet post yesterday, by the sound of it because he intends to run for the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party.

If that’s the reason for Ken Hughes unexpectedly showing up in one of the back rows of the Legislature’s latest seating chart – he didn’t give a lot of notice that he’d asked to be moved there – it will surely come as a huge relief to the PC Party executive.

Mr. Hughes, who was also former premier Alison Redford’s Energy Minister for a spell after he got elected to the Legislature in 2012, may not be the most scintillating or charismatic guy you’ll ever meet, but at least he seems capable of doing the premier’s job in a pedestrian sort of way.

So if that’s what this is actually about, after a week of old party warhorses publicly saying “hell no, I won’t go,” it can no longer be said that no one who can actually do the job is interested in it.

It’s said here it was a little odd Mr. Hughes didn’t just say he’s running, instead promising to make another announcement about something soon and referring everyone to an evocatively named website that tells about how he “has demonstrated personal strength of character,” “has a frugal approach to money,” and “has an ability to dream big and then deliver.” (Examples please!)

Presumably in an effort to establish some outsider cred, the site also says the former Southern Alberta Member of Parliament is “someone who has not spent most of their last 15 years in and around politics,” which if you ask me is a bit of a stretch, if not an outright howler.

It’s true that as the Chair of the Board of Alberta Health Services from 2008 to 2011, Mr. Hughes wasn’t actually an elected politician. But since premier Ed Stelmach did away with regional health authorities in 2008, it’s hard to imagine a more political job in this province – or a job that anyone could land without being politically connected.

Well, that was back in the days when Alberta Health Services still had an independent governing board, before Redford Government Health Minister Fred Horne went and fired them all for paying insufficient attention to his orders. It’s safe to say that if Mr. Hughes hadn’t resigned that position in 2011 to run for Ms. Redford’s party, AHS would still be governed by its board.

More likely, though, this was just a way to squeeze two news hits out of an essentially dull story weirdly scheduled on a day when the national media had bigger fish to fry. To wit: the widely predicted defeat of the Parti Quebecois government in Quebec.

Either that or Mr. Hughes hasn’t quite raised the $50,000 he’s going to need to get his name on the ballot and has a few more calls to make.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, as is well known, several other cabinet ministers have been dropping hints about being interested in the leadership race without actually doing anything that Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock has decreed would require them to give up their cabinet posts.

This list includes Finance Minister Doug Horner, Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, Justice Minister Jonathan Denis and Energy Minister Diana McQueen.

Of this group, Mr. Hughes and Mr. Horner are probably the most likely candidates, based on their experience and diplomatic skills. Although, for his part, Mr. Horner is also still doing the dance of a thousand fans – hinting at plenty but not actually revealing very much.

Regardless of whom is chosen, it still seems quite possible it will turn out to be a fairly short-term gig, although with the hope of a more permanent position afterward as leader of the opposition. So perhaps we shouldn’t rule out Mr. Lukaszuk, who seems to have no friends in his own party but does have the sort of aggressive personality usually associated with the opposition benches.

There’s a school of thought – nicely articulated by Old Warhorse Jim Dinning in his recent I’m-not-a-candidate announcement – that the only way the party can survive is by choosing a real outsider. So far, though, while several names have been mentioned, none has actually put up his or her hand and volunteered.

Rumoured outsiders have included former Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel, who at nearly 69 seems a little long in the tooth to start a new career; banker and former Conservative Parliamentarian Jim Prentice, who those in the know say is more interested in a timely return to the greener pastures of the Ottawa Valley; and current Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, whose putative candidacy, presumably, is merely somebody’s fevered pipedream.

Regardless, if more candidates don’t come forward soon, the party may have to adopt a “negative option leadership candidacy” policy or resign itself to an extremely boring runoff between Mr. Hughes and Mr. Horner, with a bow-tied Mr. Lukaszuk taking annoying potshots from the peanut galleries.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.