Never mind Alison Redford: Finance Minister Doug Horner, unfortunately, needs to resign

Ed Stelmach, Alison Redford and Doug Horner together on the stage on the night of Ms. Redford’s election as PC Party leader in October 2011. Below: Mr. Horner, Ms. Redford and Mr. Stelmach.

If the Parliamentary convention called ministerial responsibility still has meaning in Alberta or Canada, Finance Minister Doug Horner must resign.

Everyone in political Alberta has been focusing on another question: what should happen to former premier Alison Redford in the wake of the many recent revelations about her controversial conduct in office?

This serves a political purpose for those with a partisan axe to grind, but as long as she is not found guilty of a criminal offence – and as stated in this space yesterday, that is extremely unlikely to happen – she has in fact already done the right thing in terms of Parliamentary tradition and convention.

That is to say, when it was demonstrated that she and members of her departmental staff had not done their jobs properly, she resigned from cabinet.

If she sticks around or runs for re-election, it is up to the voters – not the courts or the other members of the Legislature – to deal with her. Her Progressive Conservative caucus can kick her out if they like, but that is private party business.

Granted, the circumstances of Ms. Redford’s resignation from cabinet amounted to a palace coup – or, as it has been termed here, a Sky-Palace coup – but, nevertheless, she has done the thing that is required of Parliamentary convention, defined here to mean, as my favourite political science textbook puts it, “a constitutional rule based on implicit political agreement and enforced in the political arena rather than by the courts.”

So now, despite the interesting puzzle of why she acted as she did, the more important question has to do with Mr. Horner, who by all accounts is both an honourable person and a highly capable senior minister.

The trouble is – as I am sure he well knows – the convention of ministerial responsibility demands that he now resign from cabinet, although not from his seat in the Legislature.

“According to the doctrine,” says that well-thumbed Canadian politics textbook of mine, The Canadian Regime by Patrick Malcolmson and Richard Meyers, “the minister who heads each department must be accountable to the House of Commons (or the provincial Legislature) for the conduct of each and every civil servant working in that department.”

And Mr. Horner, while not responsible for the appalling and inexplicable behaviour of Ms. Redford’s Premier’s Office staff, was the minister in charge of the government’s small fleet of aircraft.

As we now know, thanks to the CBC’s unauthorized report of Auditor General Merwan Saher’s report on Ms. Redford’s travel practices, someone made a practice of booking fake passengers on planes on which the premier planned to fly, to keep everyone but Ms. Redford’s personal staff off the aircraft. (Why they didn’t just use the sensible system of priorities that was standard operating procedure under her predecessor, in which premier Ed Stelmach had the ex officio power to bump whomever he pleased, because he was the premier after all, is a mystery.)

While the “ghost riders” scheme, by the sound of the news reports, seems to have originated with Ms. Redford’s staff, it’s hard to see how it could have happened without the collusion of officials under Mr. Horner’s purview.

Now, this may seem unfair, because it is unlikely that Mr. Horner personally knew much about this practice. But, under the ministerial responsibility convention, that does not matter.

“On the most basic level, (ministerial responsibility) means that ministers may be asked in the House to investigate allegations of incompetence or impropriety in their departments and take appropriate measures,” explain Professors Malcolmson and Meyers.

“If the incompetence or impropriety is substantial and may be attributed to poor management, however, the stakes become much higher,” they write. “Under the doctrine of ministerial responsibility the minister must take personal responsibility for major problems of mismanagement.” (Emphasis added.)

“In more serious cases of mismanagement, this means the minister must resign.”

This is undeniably a serious case of mismanagement. Indeed, in the political arena, the fate of the whole PC government may rest upon it.

But in the Legislature, it means the minister must resign.

If Mr. Horner won’t resign, Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock has the responsibility to fire him.

This is undoubtedly not the way that Mr. Horner would like to end a long and distinguished career in public service. Moreover, if his party is not re-elected, he is not likely to be able just to step back into a cabinet position, as the tradition also permits.

And, no, it’s not entirely just. But those are the rules of the game.

If Mr. Horner won’t do what Parliamentary tradition demands, that too will have an impact on how history views his many accomplishments.

So, unfortunately, Mr. Horner needs to resign.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Is there any benefit for Albertans in a criminal prosecution of Alison Redford? Not really

Alison Redford, in days past, somewhere in the skies over Alberta. OK, I never said I was a master of Photoshop! Below: Disgraced Canadian Senator Mike Duffy, Alberta Tory leadership frontrunner Jim Prentice, leadership candidate and former deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk.

Will Alberta benefit from a police investigation of Alison Redford’s use of the government’s small fleet of passenger aircraft?

Not really.

Here’s why: Notwithstanding the hyperbole from a number of elected officials of more than one political persuasion, not to mention the opinions of numerous columnists, bloggers and Twitterers, a trial, let alone a conviction, is extremely unlikely.

For all the ethical murkiness of the behaviour exhibited by Ms. Redford and unidentified members of her staff, not to mention some of her caucus mates as well, it’s not at all clear any laws were broken.

Maybe Ms. Redford shouldn’t have taken her daughter along on the government plane, but there’s no way the police or the Crown Prosecution Service are going to conclude that was a criminal breach of trust.

And certainly her staff shouldn’t have put the name of fictional “ghost riders” on the flight manifests as a sneaky way to ensure privacy for the premier and her political aides on certain flights. There have been some denials, but there seems to be no question this actually happened, as reported the day before yesterday by the CBC.

But was that a criminal breach of trust, whether or not Ms. Redford knew about it, as she says she didn’t? Fat chance.

There are so many obstacles to a successful prosecution here about the only thing this topic is good for is a question on some future law school examination.

The commentators screaming for Ms. Redford’s head on a platter – including those of the right-wing, tax-hating persuasion employed by Sun News Network and like organizations – may have missed it, but police and Crown prosecution time and resources cost tax money.

Is it really a good use of our tax dollars to have the police pursue a political case that stands no chance of resulting in charges, let alone a conviction?

A typical right-wing opinion about this case was expressed yesterday in the Edmonton Sun by columnist Lorne Gunter, who argued that if Disgraced Canadian Senator Mike Duffy “can be charged for padding his expense account to claim his Ottawa home as a secondary residence and to pay for a trip to the funeral of a personal contact, then what Redford did seems far worse.”

No, what DCS Duffy is accused of is far worse – and, significantly, Mr. Gunter omits to mention the most serious charge in the PMO-Senate Scandal, the allegation Mr. Duffy accepted a bribe, the offering of which the RCMP has bizarrely concluded wasn’t a criminal matter.

Sorry, but taking your kid on an airplane that was already flying somewhere – even numerous times – isn’t an offence of the same magnitude as taking a bribe to execute your public duties in a particular way or submitting fraudulent expense claims with the intention of pocketing the cash.

This is true even if the accusations against Mr. Duffy happen to be an embarrassment to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whom Mr. Gunter admires. But Mr. Gunter is right about one thing. Truly, some of Ms. Redford’s activities and those of her staff and caucus stink.

What stinks about them, though, is the instinct to deceive on the part of Ms. Redford’s office when a perfectly legitimate argument could have been made that the premier and her staff needed to be unaccompanied on those flights so they could discuss political questions frankly and openly.

Well, we’re all having our fun with this – and to that accusation, I plead guilty too – but we also need to keep in mind that a criminal investigation by the police may in fact be the best possible outcome from the perspective of Ms. Redford’s Progressive Conservative Party.

It would give them at last the opportunity to kick her out of caucus and argue that they’ve dealt firmly and appropriately with the single bad apple in their ranks. This is what Tory leadership frontrunner and former Redford friend Jim Prentice seemed to be suggesting was an appropriate response yesterday. Likewise, her former deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk, who is seeking the same job.

It would also allow former members of cabinet like Ric McIver, the third leadership candidate, and Finance Minister Doug Horner, both of whom surely had at least an inkling of what was going on, to claim the many problems Albertans are starting to see with the PC Party’s leadership cadre were the work of that one bad person, now thankfully gone.

And it would provide the perfect excuse for the lot of them to zip their lips and say they can’t comment on an active police investigation that’s conveniently likely to go on for months – thereby avoiding the need to answer questions about the ethical problems endemic to their party.

As an aside, one other likely effect of this affair will be the loss of the government’s small air fleet, which in fact serves a useful purpose for the taxpayers of Alberta.

For flight within Alberta, government aircraft save time for legitimate government work and allow for double tasking by the premier and his or her staff – exactly what Ms. Redford and her political advisors were apparently trying to do when someone cooked up this stupid Fakes on a Plane scheme.

With government aircraft in a province the size of Alberta, officials can fly in and out of some of the smallest airports, work between meetings and avoid having to be paid while they line up for commercial flights. Notwithstanding Ms. Redford’s unconscionable misuse of the planes, how are we taxpayers going to be better off if they are sold and the work contracted out to the high-cost private sector?

I suspect voters in their current justly disillusioned mood won’t be sympathetic to this view, but it remains a fact it’s not a bad use of our tax dollars, just like it’s a fact a doomed criminal prosecution of the former premier is not a good use of our taxes – no matter how much it secretly pleases her former caucus colleagues, who never much liked her anyway.

No, Ms. Redford’s crimes are political in nature – although not in the sense that phrase is normally used in totalitarian states. That is, they are known to the public, possibly immoral, but highly unlikely to be deemed illegal by a court.

They – and more importantly those of her party – can only be punished in a political forum. And the only meaningful way to do that is to fight an election over them.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Flights of folly: Air Redford’s airborne ghost riders will be the death of Alberta’s Tories

De Plane! De Plane! Tattoo calls out from the tower to announce the arrival of the premier’s plane at Calgary International Airport. Actual members of former Premier Alison Redford’s staff may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Ms. Redford; Alberta Auditor General Merwan Saher. 

Those ghost riders on Alison Redford’s government flights aren’t going to go away. They will be the death of the party she led to government in 2012.

As Tattoo used to cry from the bell tower in the creepy Fantasy Island TV series: “De plane! De plane!”

Yesterday the CBC revealed that when she was premier, Ms. Redford’s office staff made a practice of ensuring she not only got to ride the government’s planes hither and yon, but that she rode them in regal privacy.

They did this by booking seats seats for fake passengers who kept low-level civil servants and déclassé backbench MLAs off the government flights she planned to take. The ghost riders would cancel their reservations at the last moment.

The revelation by CBC Edmonton’s investigative reporters was based on a report by Alberta Auditor General Merwan Saher, which wasn’t supposed to be made public for at least a couple of more weeks.

Public knowledge of this shabby little scheme is just another blow in what’s getting to be a very long list of outrages, entitlements, embarrassments and deceptions tied to Ms. Redford and her personal staff. So when the history of the fall of the mighty Alberta Tory dynasty established in 1971 by Peter Lougheed is written, Ms. Redford’s name and political ineptitude is bound to figure prominently in the tale.

By yesterday afternoon, Ms. Redford had been disavowed by all three Tory party leadership candidates. Opposition calls for an RCMP investigation of her conduct were apparently being taken seriously by the ambitious trio – although they surely must know the dangers in that course of action, having the examples of the Gomery Commission and PMO-Senate Scandal investigation before them. Indeed, how is it possible at least some members of the Redford cabinet didn’t know about the practices described in yesterday’s CBC report?

Nowadays, whenever you think the Progressive Conservative Party might be able to lurch back to its feet, it’s run over by another steamroller.

Only on Monday, the Opposition revealed the Tories’ vaunted three-year pay freeze for senior government executives – every one of them part of the Tory human infrastructure that has ruled Alberta since 1971 – was secretly ditched by Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock’s cabinet last week. While that was still in the headlines yesterday morning, the latest Air Redford flight scandal broke.

As public outrage over Ms. Redford’s lavish foreign travel expenses reached fever pitch last March, she agreed under pressure to let the Auditor General take a look at her travel practices.

If the report was supposed to remain a secret until the Tory brain trust had a chance to get their talking points in order, things didn’t work out that way. The CBC got a copy from someone and published the revealing details of how the scam kept unwanted passengers off the government’s planes when the premier was aboard.

They quoted Mr. Saher’s report thusly: “We were told by [the premier's] office staff and multiple staff from the Department of Treasury Board and Finance that for certain flights the remaining seats available on the plane were blocked to restrict access to Premier Redford on the aircraft.”

The report is not crystal clear, but it sounds as if the premier’s staff used the names of actual employees to block the seats. It would be very interesting to know if those people knew they were supposed to be flying on certain days, and, if they did, why no one said anything about it.

If the ghost riders used the names of real people from the Finance and Treasury Board departments, it would also be interesting to know what the relevant minister has to say about what he knew. Alas, Doug Horner has not been available to comment.

The ghost passengers were booked a couple of weeks in advance, the CBC reported. Their travel plans were cancelled at the last moment by the premier’s staff. With that, apparently Ms. Redford and her daughter, and her daughter’s friends, and her daughter’s nanny – well, she and her political staff, anyway – got to fly in blessed privacy, with no gossipy low-level civil servants or annoying backbenchers nearby.

According to the AG’s report and subsequent news stories, both the former premier and her chief of staff deny knowing anything about it. That may well be, although at this point it hardly matters.

If she knew nothing, it’s astonishing Ms. Redford never wondered why her flights were often so quiet. If her chief of staff was ignorant of the practice, which we must assume to be the case, he obviously wasn’t paying enough attention. It seems highly unlikely that a responsible officer of the Legislature would have reported the practice if he wasn’t certain it actually went on.

The CBC story outlines other problems with Ms. Redford’s use of the government air fleet: using government airplanes when commercial flights would have done nicely, insufficient documentation of why the planes were used, more than 50 flights with her daughter riding free, and reasons given for aircraft use that didn’t hold up under examination.

But the grubby little deception described by the CBC to allow the premier and her entourage to fly in privacy is what will resonate with a disgusted public.

Of the dozens of people who must have known, a group that surely included several in cabinet as well as senior officials, no one spoke up. What does this tell us?

The malaise in the Redford Government ran much deeper than just an one entitled premier and her personal staff.

And, while Ms. Redford’s caucus may have toppled her in the sky-palace coup in March and run her personal staff out of town on a rail, as the “leading by example” episode illustrates, little else seems to have changed here on Fantasy Island.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

So much for ‘leading by example’ – Alberta Tories’ 3-year pay freeze for top civil service executives melts like ice cream on a hot day

Ice cream on a hot day – melts almost as fast as an Alberta Tory management wage freeze! Actual PC promises of “leading by example” may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Finance Minister Doug Horner, nowhere to be seen yesterday; leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk, bemoaning the decision last night.

Senior Alberta government managers had to be rejoicing yesterday – and presumably resolving to update their lapsed memberships in the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party.

Leastways, word leaked out yesterday to us in the Hoi Polloi that the government’s three-year freeze on civil service executive salaries, which began amid great fanfare on April Fools Day 2013, had ended after being in effect for only a single year.

No need to trouble our pretty little heads about it, though. Unlike the government of premier Alison Redford, which crowed about the freeze as an example of “leading by example” back on Feb. 19, 2013, the government of Premier Dave Hancock snuck it through a cabinet meeting last week and didn’t say anything at all.

We citizens only found out because someone in the Opposition did and alerted the media.

“Alberta is dealing with rapidly falling resource revenues and it means we’re making some tough decisions,” said Finance Minister Doug Horner back in 2013, proudly adding, “Our government is leading by example.”

Well, so much for symbolism!

Yesterday, Mr. Horner didn’t say anything at all about the policy’s quiet reversal. He was conveniently out of town.

But the reality is that already well-paid civil service execs would be receiving a pay raise of 2 per cent, retroactive to April 1, 2014, then another 2.25 per cent on April 1 next year, and 2.5 per cent more on April 1, 2016.

Wildrose Opposition finance critic Rob Anderson gleefully pointed out in a release that this meant 2011 Tory leadership front-runner Gary Mar, lately the government’s generously compensated Hong Kong-based “envoy” to Asia, would be getting a raise of close to $19,000 over the next three years, raising his $275,000 base salary to $294,000.

NDP Finance Critic Deron Bilous noted that last year Mr. Horner used the supposed three-year freeze on senior managers’ salaries to try “to justify rolling back the wages of Alberta families all over the province. … Now the PCs have decided that Tory insiders like Gary Mar can’t possibly be asked to live with frozen wages.

“Meanwhile, we’re still hearing that there is no money to properly fund legal aid, Alberta’s doctors and teachers still have frozen wages, and we continue to have hospitals that spring a leak every time it rains,” he added.

Both Opposition parties picked the example of Mr. Mar because his appointment in 2011 was controversial and didn’t quite pass the sniff test for most voters. In fact, most deputy ministers will be receiving exactly the same raise, while most of their assistants will pocket about $15,000 more per year over the same period.

Deputy Health Minister Janet Davidson, the highest paid civil servant at close to $650,000 a year, will presumably be taking home an extra $45,000 or so for her efforts.

If the percentages sound familiar, there’s a reason. They echo the pay raises won by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees’ modestly paid civil service members after the Redford Government’s draconian plans to legislate “zero-per-cent increases” broke up on the rocks of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench – which, by declaring an injunction against enforcement of the “Public Service Salary Restraint Act” in January, effectively forced the government back to the bargaining table.

But even before that, the Tory caucus – badly shaken by the public’s horror at a number of things Ms. Redford was up to, including her plans to have taxpayers build her a luxurious private apartment atop an Edmonton government building adjacent to the Legislature – deposed the premier in a sky-palace coup.

The caucus then put Mr. Hancock in charge, pro tempore, and he began the process of selecting a permanent replacement for the catastrophic Ms. Redford – a race that former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice is widely expected to win.

Mr. Prentice, who is the overwhelming choice of caucus, clearly wanted the party’s problems with its public sector unions gone by the time the imperial laurels were placed around his head – ergo, the deal with AUPE.

The irony of the Hancock Government responding to this by giving its top dogs the same increase their staff members won the hard way is profound. As AUPE President Guy Smith sniffed yesterday, the government’s bargaining team has “now taken the same wage deal they fought to keep from their own front-line staff.”

And if the opposition parties and government employees union were unhappy, I imagine the province’s physicians and teachers – who were hammered into taking a pay freeze by the government – are furious.

Even PC leadership candidates were complaining. Thomas Lukaszuk, the one I managed to catch up with in person yesterday, lamented that “I wish the government of literally today would not make promises that would bind future administrations.”

He called for an end to the practice of tying civil service executive salaries of those of their counterparts in business. Their salaries “need to be in line, not with the private sector, but with other institutions. … Today’s decision will make that difficult.”

Surely the Hancock Government insiders who made this decision knew the optics were appalling – and that if it found out the public would understand we’re not talking about some lowly unionized clerk getting another 2 per cent this year on top of her $32,000 salary.

But with the arrogance of a party that’s been in power for nearly 43 years, they obviously concluded they could slip it through in the dog days of summer – the top-dog days of summer, as it turns out – without anybody noticing. By the sound of it yesterday, they hadn’t even spun any talking points.

Mr. Prentice – without a seat in the Legislature, let alone a place at the caucus table – is scheduled to take over on Sept. 6. But he’s got to be wondering if the mighty Tory ship of state can stay afloat long enough for him to get his hands on the tiller!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

What the Fraser Institute’s numbers actually show, minus the spin: Alberta has a revenue problem, not a spending problem

The Fraser Institute: peddling conclusions that don’t match the evidence and have enough holes to store captured carbon. Actual Fraser Institute “fellows” may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: A piece of Swiss cheese, which may actually resemble the claims in a Fraser Institute press release, metaphorically speaking.

If the Fraser Institute told the whole truth, or if the mainstream media did its job, here’s the what the first sentence of the Edmonton Journal’s story about the institute’s most recent “report” could have said:

“Alberta’s finances are in better shape than other energy-producing provinces and states, says a report released Thursday by the Fraser Institute…”

Instead, the Journal, having been led successfully down the garden path by the Fraser Institute’s undeniably skillful press-release writers, stated the opposite:

“Alberta’s finances are in worse shape than other energy-producing provinces and states, says a report released Thursday by the Fraser Institute…”

How did the Fraser Institute transform good news (by its own ideological lights) into bad, thereby justifying its predictable demand for less government spending? Through the application of the methodology the “institute” always uses to bend facts to its never-changing conclusions.

I don’t know if they’ve trademarked this approach, but they really ought to. Let’s call it the “Fraser Forumula.” ™

Because one thing you can say for the Vancouver-based market-fundamentalist propaganda shop – it is no more an “institute” than a lawnmower repair shop is a “hospital” – is that the facts contained in its reports are usually accurate.

Yes, you heard that right. The Fraser Institute doesn’t make up facts. It just twists their meaning – often with spectacular insouciance – and then tells the media they mean whatever it feels like saying.

Fraser Facts are also properly footnoted, if you happen to bother to read the report and check the reasoning – which the mainstream media rarely, if ever, does. Which is what justifies the insouciance, I guess.

So the Fraser Formula ™ works something like this:

  1. Cherry pick the facts you use as “evidence”
  2. If the evidence still won’t show what you want it to, ignore it
  3. If necessary, state the opposite conclusion to what the evidence shows

Fraser Institute conclusions, of course, tend to stick close to the “holey trinity” of neoliberal economics: governments are spending too much money, taxes are too high, and too much regulation is imposed on corporations.

And so we see on page 35 of the latest report – about midway through its 66 pages, a statistic the media never fails to omit, as if the number of pages gives a report’s conclusions additional weight – just how well Alberta is doing according to the measure of government spending relative to the other jurisdictions picked by the researchers.

Figure 15b tells the story quite nicely: Of the 10 jurisdictions cherry-picked by the Fraser Institute – every one of them conveniently in North America, as previously noted – Alberta’s average government expenditure to Gross Domestic Product ratio in the period examined is the third lowest.

Only Colorado and Texas spend less as a measure of GDP. Alberta is in a virtual statistical tie with Louisiana – and that’s with public health care up here in Canada!

Now, whether we ought to be spending even less than Louisiana is another matter entirely. The Fraser Institute obviously thinks so. Many of the readers of this blog may not. But the point is that, by the Fraser Institute’s own lights, Alberta is doing better than seven of the nine jurisdictions the group claims are proper comparators for energy-rich states and provinces.

And, as the report’s authors state, then blithely forget about: “this … measure is the most commonly used when gauging the size of government as it better captures the ability of a jurisdiction to finance government spending as well as indicating the broader impact of government spending.”

Naturally, the Fraser Institute prefers a measure considered less meaningful by economists – average per capita spending. But even by that measure, though, Alberta is not doing too badly – better than three of the cherry picked jurisdictions (spending less than half as much as Alaska) and not significantly different four others. Again, Colorado and Texas are the low-spending outliers. (This is illustrated in Figure 15a, on the same page, by the way.)

So it’s not the facts cited by the Fraser Institute that led the Journal and other media operations to the conclusion Alberta was doing worse than other (mostly Republican governed) jurisdictions, it was the press release … in other words, the spin.

Even here, the release writer couches his or her words carefully, so as not to be accused of misstating facts: “… When compared to other energy-producing provinces and states, Alberta loses its lustre.” (Emphasis added.)

Never mind the statistics, there are enough holes in the Fraser Institute’s sloppy interpretations of almost any issue to store captured carbon! But there’s something almost admirable about the sheer chutzpah of it.

As the figures cited in the fine print by the Fraser Institute clearly show, our government spending is too low, not too high. In other words, as a few voices in the wilderness have been crying out for several years now, when it comes to the Deadly D-word – Deficit – Alberta has a revenue problem, not a spending problem.

Naturally, the conclusion reached by the Fraser Institute, and echoed by the press, is the opposite: “Increased government spending – not a dearth of revenues – has saddled Alberta with budget deficits…”

There’s even more in this piece of work, but 800 words is enough for one night. Perhaps we’ll return to this report one more time and talk about what the Fraser Institute has to say about North Dakota – unless, of course, they issue another deceptive press release first.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

A meditation on the parlous state of the prime ministerial belfry: is he batty, or what?

Psychological-political portrait of Prime Minister Stephen Harper by Edmonton artist William Prettie. (Used with permission.) Below: The young Vladimir Putin; the young Stephen Harper.

When I ponder our prime minister’s mental state nowadays, my mind spontaneously offers up a rude phrase about the things bats leave behind in belfries.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has got a national election looming; he’s none too popular in certain essential parts of the country and not quite popular enough just now in others; Disgraced Canadian Senator Mike Duffy is facing a criminal trial and apparently wants the PM on the witness stand; it’s attracting public notice that his government uses tax policy as an ideological bludgeon; and the economy is easing toward the crapper everywhere except out here in Alberta, where our disproportionate economic success depends on laying waste to the environment.

So it should be easy for everyone to understand why he might call up the Globe and Mail and ask for space for a little heart-to-heart with the nation.

And what does he want to talk about? Vladimir Putin?

I’m not making this up, people! Click here and read it for yourself. The world’s problems? They’re all caused by Mr. Putin! Who knew?

I don’t know about you, but I always took a certain comfort in the notion Mr. Harper was a cynical master of manipulation, a politician for whom no wedge was too harmful or divisive to be shunned. This is bad, of course, and both immoral and dangerous, but it contains the comforting kernel of thought that no one as bright as Mr. Harper is could actually fail to see the glaring contradictions in the stuff he says. This always offered the faint hope he didn’t actually believe everything he was saying, and therefore might be philosophical if voters indicated they disagreed.

Naturally one hoped his petulant and furious reaction to the complicated situation unfolding in Ukraine reflected only the availability of another potential wedge issue here in Canada. That is, a chance to capture the Ukrainian-Canadian vote. Perhaps, one hoped, it didn’t reveal his actual thoughts on the unstable and dangerous crisis in which there are plenty of nasty players and victims on all sides.

However, after reading Mr. Harper’s little magnum opus about how Mr. Putin is all bad, and the current Ukrainian government – neo-Nazi enforcers, foreign fascist mercenaries, the illegal coup that brought it to power and everything else – is nothing but good, I’m not so sure.

His diatribe doesn’t seem to bear a precise relationship to the facts on the ground in the borderlands of Russia, let us say, but it did sound like something the man actually believes, and may well have written himself!

The most astonishing part, though, is what Sherlock Holmes might have called the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. That is, the glaring omission in Mr. Harper’s 866-word diatribe of any mention of what’s happening in the other great conflict playing out on our planet at this moment. To wit: Israel’s assault on Gaza.

About the first, he has everything to say. About the second, nothing. That is the curious incident – and a remarkable inconsistency given the seeming similarities of the two tragedies, and the fact many innocents are suffering and dying because of both.

According to Mr. Harper’s fulminations, by looking out for its undeniable national interest and making noises about protecting the large Russian community in Eastern Ukraine, Mr. Putin’s government is aggressively and recklessly “threatening the peace and security of eastern and central Europe.” He must be punished, he must be punished now, and Canada is resolved to punish him!

Surely, Israel too views its massive air and artillery bombardment of Gaza in response to missiles fired from that tiny enclave as being in its undeniable national interest and protecting its people everywhere, and not necessarily just passport holders. Moreover, all political parties in the Canadian government apparently agree that, as Mr. Harper’s PMO put it a week ago, “Canada remains steadfastly in support of Israel’s right to defend itself as long as the terrorist attacks by Hamas continue.”

The ferocity of Israel’s response, however, apparently leaves Mr. Harper utterly unmoved.

Mr. Harper’s sermon on Ukraine showed him to be particularly furious that the Russian government, “remains in violation of international law for its illegal occupation of Crimea.”

Again, it’s hard here not to see the parallel to the situation in the Middle East. Whatever you may think of international law and the United Nations – apparently not much, if you’re Mr. Harper’s foreign affairs minister – it is undeniable that Israel has for many years defied both. By contrast, this in no way troubles the current Canadian government.

So why is an illegal occupation of Russian speaking Crimea by Eastern Europe’s greatest military power an outrage, while an illegal and much more violent occupation by the Middle East’s predominant military power so perfectly reasonable in the eyes of the PM that it doesn’t even require his or our notice?

Look, I understand that there are persuasive arguments to be made that the situations are quite different. What’s bizarre is that in the face of such a seeming inconsistency the PM feels no need to make them – or, indeed, that he chose this topic at all for his little fireside chat with the Globe’s reliably Conservative readership.

Mr. Harper is focused on one thing, and one thing only: “Mr. Putin’s Russia increasingly autocratic at home and dangerously aggressive abroad.” Rather like Mr. Harper’s Canada, one is tempted to note, in that regard.

OK, when you’re assailed politically on the home front, it makes a sort of irresponsible sense to try to unite the country around a foreign enemy. But who believes now that Mr. Harper hasn’t started to believe everything he says?

Truly, one has to wonder if the cognitive dissonance of it all is going to make the man spontaneously combust! Or, if there’s no danger of that, then if there really is something other than bells in that belfry of his.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

You could drive one of those tar sands heavy haulers through the gaping holes in the latest Fraser Institute ‘study’ of Alberta’s finances

A worker in Fort McMurray prepares to drive this truck through the holes in the Fraser Institute’s “report,” which claims Alberta’s finances are in worse shape than those of places like Texas, North Dakota and Louisiana. Below: The Norwegian oil port of Stavanger, which, according to the Fraser Institute, doesn’t exist!

Alberta should adopt a sales tax, according to the latest press release from the Fraser Institute.

But don’t worry, the latest piece of far-right puffery from the market-fundamentalist “think tank” – which prefers to refer to this bumpf as a “study” or a “report” – only advocates a consumption tax like those in Texas and Wyoming so that income and business taxes can be eliminated for the very rich people who bankroll the legal charity to the tune of $11 million a year.

Both of those known-to-be-enlightened states have eliminated income taxes and taxes on businesses in favour of sales taxes, the Fraser Institute says, so we Albertans should hurry up and do the same thing.

Just thought I’d start with this point because there’s bound to be plenty of uncritical media coverage of the Fraser Institute’s “findings” in the morning that fails to mention it.

Indeed, the Edmonton Journal was first out the gate with just such a report, complete with the predicted omission. It did, however, gloomily proclaim that “Alberta’s finances are in worse shape than other energy-producing provinces and states,” while quoting Progressive Conservative spokespeople who meekly accepted many of the Fraser Institute’s dubious claims while maintaining they’ve already done much of what the group demanded.

The Fraser Institute’s media statement about its conclusions emphasized, however, that Alberta’s recent deficits were not caused by “lack of revenues” – a point that is contentious to say the least given that Alberta taxpayers, as the province’s resource royalty review stated, in 2007, “do not receive their fair share from energy development and they have not, in fact, been receiving their fair share for some time.”

The government of premier Ed Stelmach timorously implemented some of the independent government panel’s recommendations, and then ran screaming from what it had done in 2010 when resource companies threatened a capital strike and began seriously funding the market-fundamentalist Wildrose Party, which was named after Alberta’s popular licence plate slogan.

That retreat got Alberta back in the race to the bottom advocated by groups like the Fraser Institute. Speaking of which, in fairness to the organization, its “study” released yesterday barely deals with the important question of resource royalties, which is only mentioned once, in passing, in its 66 pages. Nor is this the effort’s only significant oversight.

Quite naturally given that omission, this latest pronouncement from the group reaches conclusions other than that a modest increase in oil revenues might be part of the solution to the province’s budgeting conundrum. No, no, it’s all about too much spending!

So, the Fraserites argued: “Had the government simply maintained spending rates based on inflation and population growth, Alberta would have enjoyed successive balanced budgets,” thus passing over the huge infrastructure deficit left by the regime of premier Ralph Klein, not to mention the need for a growing province to plan for continued population growth.

Also strangely – or, perhaps not so strangely given what has already been noted – the Fraser Institute compared Alberta only with nine other North American jurisdictions said by the group’s propagandists to be “energy rich.”

So the Fraserites conveniently only looked at Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland in Canada, and Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming south of the Medicine Line.

None of the jurisdictions cherry-picked for comparison have resource extraction development on the scale of Alberta’s. Several have their extraction industries concentrated in sectors like offshore drilling that are far less labour intensive than Bitumen Sands extraction.

Moreover, the Fraser Institute’s North American focus is highly convenient – and obviously quite intentional – because it effectively allows the authors to concentrate on low-tax jurisdictions with mostly smaller energy sectors in which many other economic factors are at play. This lets their “research” jostle the pinball machine in favour of the group’s predetermined conclusions.

But the Fraser Institute document also ignores North American jurisdictions that do not meet its not-so-mysterious criteria. To wit: California, No. 3 among U.S. states in current proved onshore oil reserves, after only Alaska (No. 2) and Texas (No.1) in this category. Also missed by the Fraserites, New Mexico (No. 6).

Moreover, according to a USA Today summary of U.S. states’ oil reserves published last year, in addition to proved onshore oil reserves in 2011 of more than three billion barrels, shale deposits in the southwest part of the state could mean California will soon surpass Texas in oil production.

So why these peculiar and glaring North American omissions? Most likely because both states’ governments are in the hands of the Democratic Party, which is ideologically impure from the Fraser Institute’s perspective.

Of the seven states considered for this comparison by the Fraser institute, all are controlled by the Republican Party, now dominated by the market-fundamentalist right, but for Colorado

Simply ignoring higher-tax, higher-royalty jurisdictions like Norway, the United Kingdom and elsewhere allows the Fraser Institute’s “researchers” to avoid having to confront the obvious – that as long as oil prices are high, corporations will extract the stuff, regardless of the tax rate or structure.

In other words, a modest increase in royalties in Alberta, just like a modest increase in taxes and a fair progressive income tax system, would not harm the economy and might do a lot of good. They are simply policy choices, which the Fraser Institute doesn’t like because the people they work for don’t like them – their oft-repeated claims to produce independent, peer-reviewed research notwithstanding.

Look, one can’t blame oil companies and other corporations for financing the kind of drivel put out by the Fraser Institute – which is certainly not an “institute,” by the way, and is not “non-partisan” either, as it claims, just because the political activities it engages in constantly and in violation of Canada Revenue Agency rules are not declared in either its press releases or its tax returns.

By the way, this lack of accurate information in its tax data is apparently not a problem for the CRA, which nowadays only goes after charities that say things in opposition to the Harper Government’s preferred policies.

In fact, it’s hard to get all that worked up about this nonsense. The Fraser Institute is not a serious research organization. Indeed, it is not a serious organization al all, except in the sense it pursues its market-fundamentalist propaganda mission quite seriously.

But we need to keep in mind that all the Fraser Institute produces is market-fundamentalist propaganda, and we are dangerously deluded when we to treat it as if it were serious economic research, as the mainstream media habitually does for reasons of its own.

NOTE: This story has been updated with information on U.S. jurisdictions left out of the Fraser Institute’s “research.” This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Anti-gay pastor, denied by Ric McIver, endorses the PC leadership candidate anyway for his ‘traditional Alberta values’

Pastor Artur Pawlowski and members of his flock march uninvited in 2012 at the head of the Calgary Stampede Parade, also known as the March for Mammon. Pastor Pawlowski, who holds extreme views about homosexuality, also has his own parade, which he calls the March for Jesus. Below: Ric McIver, whom Pastor Pawlowski yesterday endorsed as PC leader, at the pastor’s parade; and the pastor with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The Calgary pastor who believes gays aren’t merely being duped by Satan, but are practically on the demonic payroll, endorsed Tory leadership candidate Ric McIver yesterday.

Artur Pawlowski of Calgary’s so-called Street Church, a well-known nuisance violator of civic noise bylaws and leader of the annual March for Jesus attended several times in his political career by Mr. McIver, yesterday told the Calgary Herald the candidate is the best man to preserve “traditional Alberta values.”

Never mind that Mr. McIver disavowed his connection with the Pastor Pawlowski’s beliefs at least thrice, if not quite his relationship with the pastor himself, after his 2014 appearance in the preacher’s annual “March for Jesus.”

No sooner had Mr. McIver allowed himself to be photographed at the June 15 parade than his political opponents were Tweeting links to the Street Church’s contentious views about participants in the city’s Pride Parade – “that they are not ashamed to declare the name of their master (Satan).”

Mr. McIver hid out for a few days, and then gingerly backed away from the Street Church’s views, declaring that “if chosen premier, I do and will continue to defend equality rights for all Albertans as defined in the Charter, including sexual orientation.” Eventually, he issued a statement calling Pastor Pawlowski’s opinions “ugly” and “nasty.”

Pastor Pawlowski didn’t shed any tears about that disavowal, though. He went straight to the media and explained that “Albertans would be stupid not to vote for that man.”

Anyway, no roosters crowed before or after Mr. McIver’s disavowal of the pastor and at least some of his doctrines – thanks at least in part to Provincial Court Judge Catherine Skene’s 2012 ruling that the Cowtown bylaw prohibiting Calgarians from keeping chickens in their back yards is constitutional. (That’s enough obscure Bible references — Ed.)

The pastor told the Herald that real Albertans were disappointed by Mr. McIver’s disavowal, but they understood why he had to do it. “We have, in the Bible, very similar circumstances,” he said, referencing the same chicken story noted above.

He had some unkind words for both of Mr. McIver’s opponents – frontrunner and former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice and former deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk, slamming the former for being too inclusive in his campaign staff and the latter for not living up to the pastor’s fiscal views.

The important question now, though, is whether Pastor Pawlowski’s endorsement and the votes of his flock will help or hinder Mr. McIver’s leadership bid.

As argued here, posts passim, they could actually boost Mr. McIver’s leadership campaign, since the Calgary-Hays MLA has now almost cornered what’s left of the extreme social conservative vote left among the PC Party’s supporters.

It’s even possible, if unlikely, that they could push him over the top. And they will certainly make the winner and future premier of Alberta – most likely Mr. Prentice – think twice about not putting Mr. McIver into his cabinet to shore up the province’s hard-core Christianist vote.

But if Mr. McIver did win, his association with Pastor Pawlowski’s flock would destroy him and the Progressive Conservative Party.

They may also sink the chances of any other candidate who wins, because between them, Mr. McIver and Pastor Pawlowski have torpedoed two years of concerted efforts by PC strategists to brand the Wildrose Party as a bunch of homophobic nuts for remarks discovered in a blog by a candidate in the 2012 election campaign.

Since both conservative parties stand for pretty much the same thing on most other issues, they have frittered away about the only significant advantage held by the PCs.

Thus endeth the lesson.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Tory candidate Ric McIver to voters: No to green light speed enforcement; yes to booze sales at 4 a.m.; maybe to chain gangs

Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue at 4 a.m., as imagined by Ric McIver, would-be Tory leader and premier. Actual Alberta street scenes are unlikely ever to be as described with regard to the availability of taxicabs. Below: Mr. McIver, candidates Jim Prentice and Thomas Lukaszuk.

Well, no one can say that Ric McIver hasn’t set himself apart from the other two candidates for the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party leadership.

While frontrunner Jim Prentice and tail gunner Thomas Lukaszuk have each offered five largely meaningless anodyne platitudes as their priorities, Mr. McIver has been right out there with some fairly definitive ideas.

Not good ideas, mind you. And they’d be bound to be highly controversial if anyone except me thought he had any chance of winning. So if I’m right, and everyone else is wrong, this could end up making a lot of people very unhappy.

I’m not talking, by the way, about Mr. McIver’s March for Jesus faux pas, in which he claimed not to have noticed the extremely homophobic views of a religious group whose annual Calgary parade he’s made a practice of marching in, an association that might actually help him sell memberships.

And I’m not talking about his placement – if we believe in guilt by association, at any rate – at the embarrassingly socially conservative end of the conservative movement.

Rather, this is about his views on speed enforcement, liquor sales and the treatment of inmates in (and out of) Alberta’s provincial jails.

Last Friday, Mr. McIver announced that, as far as he’s concerned, speed-on-green-light radar cameras are nothing but tax-collection devices.

“‘Speed-on-green’ cameras don’t control speed,” the former infrastructure minister said in his “justice policy,” released Friday. “A Ric McIver government will ban the use of speed-on-green cameras in Alberta.”

I’m not sure I understand his logic when he says speeding is bad and needs to be enforced, but it’s OK if you happen to be speeding through an intersection. He cites statistics from Calgary that, as far as I can see, neither support his case nor indicate anything other than the fact more people speed through green lights than drive through red lights – which ought not to be a revelation.

I can tell you this: Speed-on-green lights have made the highway that runs through my Edmonton bedroom suburb significantly safer, and it would be unfortunate if the province banned a safety measure that apparently works. What about local democracy?

Mr. McIver also thinks it would be just dandy if patrons in Alberta’s bars were able to drink for two more hours, until 4 a.m., before they drive home. Not, of course, that he will say that they should be driving, but it’s a certainty that some of them will – with their judgment and their driving abilities that much more impaired.

Mr. McIver’s argument is that if everyone has to go home at 2 a.m., as they technically do now, there aren’t enough cabs and some folks are tempted to drive drunk, whereas if they have to go home at 4 a.m., they’ll have plenty of time to share the available cabs around. There’s a flaw with this plan, since it assumes lots of die-hard drinkers will leave the bar between 2 and 4 a.m. instead of just sticking around and getting boiled as owls, as somebody is bound to learn hard way in the wee hours if Mr. McIver has his way.

It’s an interesting observation that when Alison Redford became premier 2011, the first thing she tried to do was make it harder to drive drunk, and if Mr. McIver becomes premier the first thing he wants to do is make it easier to get a drink at an hour when the temptation to drive will prove irresistible to many.

As an aside, it’s a wonderment to me how social conservatives like Mr. McIver and the Wildrose Party activists who are anxious to control what we smoke and whom we marry take such exception to regulating the nexus of booze and automobiles. I must be missing something.

Getting back to Mr. McIver’s ideas about justice, as stated last Friday, the candidate offered a vague idea about putting prisoners in provincial jails to work – outside jails. At first glance, this sounded suspiciously like former Ralph Klein minister Steve West’s Mississippi-style highway-cleanup chain gangs, a national embarrassment that has thankfully disappeared from Alberta’s highways.

But Mr. McIver says the inmates would be asked to volunteer for this duty – which, presumably, they would do if they wanted more fresh air or planned to escape and needed to be close to a place suitable for helicopter landings. It wasn’t clear where they would work, but it occurs to me that if they could bake donuts and run a cash register, this might be the solution to Ottawa’s currently controversial Temporary Foreign Workers Program.

I wonder how the Chamber of Commerce would react to an Alberta Temporary Incarcerated Workers Program? You don’t have to pay them anything, but heaven only knows what they might do to the burgers when you aren’t looking!

Meanwhile as for Messrs. Prentice and Lukaszuk, there’s not much to separate their five policy points. They say they stand for:

  • Sound conservative principles (Prentice) and fiscally conservative principles (Lukaszuk)
  • Ending entitlements and restoring trust (Prentice) and open, trustworthy government (Lukaszuk)
  • Planning for our economic future (Lukaszuk) and maximizing the value of our natural resources and respecting property rights (Prentice)
  • Increasing access to basic health and education services (Lukaszuk) and ensuring Alberta leads the way on health care and education training (Prentice)
  • Being an environmental leader (Prentice)
  • Encouraging new ideas (Lukaszuk)

In fairness, Mr. Prentice is a little more specific in gatherings with his supporters – I’ve heard him promise no end to the flat tax, no changes to Alberta’s petroleum royalty structure, “choice” in education (i.e., more tax funding for private schools) and “pipelines in every direction” at recent meetings.

But I doubt either Mr. McIver or Mr. Lukaszuk would disagree with him on any of that stuff.

Apparently they’ve all fallen in love with LRT lines too, although you have to wonder how long that’ll last once they start competing seriously with the fiscal conservatives in the Wildrose Party.

On the grounds it’s a good thing to actually know where your leaders stand out there on the fringes, kudos to Mr. McIver. I guess.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Russia must be stopped! And Peter Goldring’s just the man to do it! We’ll fight to the last Frenchman and German!

After we’ve won the war with Russia, a beachhead in the Caribbean! Edmonton MP Peter Goldring as illustrated by Press Progress. Below: Rob Ford, Louis Riel, Ann of Green Gables and last year’s military licence plate, which is presumably the same as this year’s military licence plate.

Whenever you think it’s safe to start ridiculing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford again, Peter Goldring opens his mouth, proving that this province remains Canada’s Home Sweet Alabamberta of egregious political bufoonery.

Mr. Goldring, 69, is the Member of Parliament for Edmonton East and the source many of the more entertaining if inconsequential political stories in Alberta. Yesterday he was back in the thick of it, using the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine as an excuse to demand Canada declare war on Russia.

Well, in fairness, all Mr. Goldring was really calling for was “total economic warfare,” but that, he added, should only be “the first precursor to much more strident efforts” – which will be fought, presumably, to the very last German, Frenchman and Italian.

Thoroughly in tune with the sprit of the era, Mr. Goldring also demanded the West start a religious war by establishing a competing Patriarchy for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to compete with one inside Russia’s borders. Maybe later we can argue about whether it should be Canada’s state church.

Mr. Goldring has long had a lively interest in foreign policy, and indeed is best known as the country’s most enthusiastic advocate of bringing the Caribbean’s Turks and Caicos Islands into Confederation, an idea that for some reason has failed generate much enthusiasm elsewhere in Ottawa’s halls of power throughout his 17-year Parliamentary career.

He argued that the Turks and Caicos would be just like Prince Edward Island – only, you know, farther away, and without potatoes, Anne Shirley or Green Gables.

But Mr. Goldring’s latest effort should find considerably more sympathy in the bellicose PMO of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as the Top Tory Banana attempts with his friends at Post Media and the Sun News Network to revive the Cold War.

Last December, Mr. Goldring engaged in a little “freelance diplomacy,” visiting Kiev on his own dime to whip up the crowds in support for the rebels who later toppled the former Ukrainian government in last spring’s coup. Later, the Harper Government sent him back to Ukraine in May and June to make impartial observations about the current Ukrainian government’s election.

On the Home Front, Mr. Goldring is also well known for his view that this homelessness stuff is vastly overstated. “You don’t want to look at it coldly, but they’re really not in desperate need until they’re holding that eviction notice in their hand,” he explained in 2012.

In 2009, he railed against what he called the effort to “unhang” Louis Riel, whom he dismissed as a villain.

While he has spent most of his career in Parliament as an MP for the Conservative-Reform-Alliance Party, Mr. Goldring spent all of 2012 and bits of 2011 and 2013 in the doghouse after he was accused of refusing to provide a breath sample to a police officer who pulled him over on his way home from a dinner at the Ukrainian Hall. In June 2013, he was acquitted of that change and welcomed back in to the Conservative fold.

Mr. Goldring has long been a fervent opponent of roadside Breathalyzer tests on what he calls civil liberties grounds. During his spell in political Coventry, he described himself as a Civil Liberties MP.

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Alberta honours troops with new licence plate

IMPORTANT BLOGGER’S NOTE: As a public service, to save taxpayers money and government information officers time, I have updated last year’s Redford Government news release on Alberta’s new licence plates honouring the military to serve as today’s announcement by the Hancock Government of Alberta’s new licence plates honouring the military. Changes are shown in italic type. Remember, people, it’s not plagiarism if you’re plagiarizing yourself – a rule firmly adhered to on this blog:

The Redford Hancock government is giving Albertans another way to support the brave men and women of the Canadian Forces with the launch of a new licence plate.

The plates, which bear the Yellow Ribbon and the Support our Troops slogan, will be available for pre-order early next later this year. The new plates will cost Albertans $150. This includes the regular registration fees as well as expenses for production and delivery. Revenue beyond these costs will go directly to the Support our Troops campaign to assist members of the Forces and their families in Alberta.

Manmeet S. Bhullar Heather Klimchuk, Minister of Service Alberta Culture, will make the announcement at K-Days in Edmonton today.

Under the Building Alberta Plan Jim Prentice’s Keeping Alberta Strong Plan, our government is investing in families and communities, living within our means, and opening new markets for Alberta’s resources to ensure we’re able to fund the services Albertans told us matter most to them without the words “Wild Rose Country” appearing anywhere on anything. We will continue to deliver the responsible change Albertans voted for. Uh, never mind that last bit.

The first half of this post also appears on Rabble.ca.