Alberta Diary is closed, but, like Gen. MacArthur, we (I) shall return … in 10 days

Yeah, we’re closed, but we don’t plan to be closed for long. Below: Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Below him: Alberta Diary’s crack research staff scouring the Internets, looking for blog ideas and royalty-free illustrations to go with them. This may come as a surprise to readers, but actual Alberta Diary researchers may not appear exactly as illustrated.

I had a friend who travelled to Portugal many years ago. Or maybe it was Brazil. Whatever, she brought back a poster torn from a lamppost that proclaimed (in Portuguese, I presume), “Fear Not! O Globo is back on the stands!”

Here in Canada, we hadn’t been aware O Globo was missing, from the stands or anywhere else, but there you go. (Maybe it was this O Globo. Maybe it was another one. Maybe it was a strike, a press breakdown of a sudden liquidity crisis that made it disappear, however temporarily, from the stands. Who knows about any of these things?) Apparently folks had missed it, though, and the poster – large and crude as it was – certainly should have reassured them.

Well, fear not, dear readers – God willin’ and the crick don’t rise – Alberta Diary will be back on the stands again, metaphorically speaking, in about 10 days. So we’re closed, but we don’t plan to be closed forever. And as Gen. Douglas MacArthur famously told a crowd of confused Australians, “I shall return!” 

By the way, the general refused the request of the U.S. Government to amend that to “we shall return.” He had, after all, a clear perception of his own place in the world, and even if his compatriots refused to share it, others would for a spell.

Now, I have to say, this is not the ideal moment in Alberta political history for a political blogger to take either a vacation or a business trip, but when has been in the past couple of years?

It does mean Alberta Diary – being a one-man operation and all – will not be around to cover the outcome of the Oct. 27, four-by-election mini-election. Predictions? You’ll have to watch for those on Twitter, turn to Daveberta.ca, or, heaven forfend, read the mainstream media.

As soon as I’m back, I’ll explain it all.

Hasta luego, compañeros!

No change! No change! Jim Prentice’s ‘new management’ is offering the same old Tory stuff

New management … same old owner. It’s all about marketing. Below: Jim Prentice and Fred Horne, advocating the same health care policies.

Sustained, uninterrupted privatization of health care, a senior official dumped for daring to speak out about political interference in her supposedly independent work, thousands of dollars in illegal donations to the good ole Tory Dynasty now led by Premier Jim Prentice …

All this and a Speaker who doesn’t understand or care about his impartial role in the Legislature. … Plus a national mission to build pipelines to all points of the compass!

This is new management? Sure sounds a lot like the old Alberta Conservative management to me!

Now, it cannot be denied that Mr. Prentice dramatically and publicly repudiated some of the more bizarre activities that went on during the strange interregnum when Alison Redford and her advisors briefly grabbed power from the Tory Old Boys’ Club, a spell during which the entire place seemed to descend into political la-la land.

So give the man his due: He gave the bum’s rush to a few cabinet ministers he saw as too close to Ms. Redford, announced plans to sell off the planes Ms. Redford misused (even though that’s not really a sound economic decision), and the notorious Skypalace will now have a half-million-dollar-plus boardroom table instead of two similarly priced powder rooms reminiscent of the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C.

But really, the cost of abandoning policies and legislation is low when they appear to the public either to be prima facie evidence of corruption or are self-evidently doomed to be overturned by the courts.

So Alberta’s “new management,” to use the premier’s own phrase, really appears to be substantially unchanged when you look at the policies and behaviour that really matters. That stuff, even amid the supposed disavowal of everything that happened during the Redford Era, continues pretty much unchanged and unabated.

Consider the Sonic Boom – that is, the privatization of more and more of Alberta’s essential medical lab operations into the hands of a multinational company based on another continent: How is this anything but a continuation of the policies of the now-reviled former health minister Fred Horne, whom Mr. Prentice tossed over the side for being too closely associated with the Redford regime?

Alert readers will recall that Duncan Campbell, momentarily the CEO of Alberta Health Services during Mr. Horne’s watch, swiftly departed that role after he mistakenly Tweeted last year that AHS would not seek private-sector bids for a $3-billion medical testing lab in Edmonton when physicians and other staff members protested.

Mr. Campbell was swiftly overruled on that one by Mr. Horne himself, who at the time was for all intents and purposes acting as the de facto CEO of AHS. Nothing had changed in the government’s plan to privatize lab services, Mr. Horne snapped, closing the book on that episode as well as Mr. Campbell’s term as CEO, although we were told at the time there was no connection.

Likewise, what is the significance of Health Minister Stephen Mandel’s and Premier Prentice’s own cautious bafflegab about continuing care versus long-term care but more of Mr. Horne’s unstinting effort, as well as that of his portfolio predecessor Ron Liepert, to privatize and marketize seniors’ care as if this were about the kind of hotel you could afford to holiday in and not the kind of place in which you would be forced to spin out your “golden years”?

“No plan! No plan!” those 2006 Albertans for Change “attack ads” whispered. They got that wrong. When it came to health care, and especially seniors’ care, there was a plan all right. The same plan’s in effect today under Messrs. Prentice and Mandel. Exactly the same plan!

Turning to personnel matters, we have now learned Mr. Prentice’s new management team – the weakest PC cabinet in 43 years, in former NDP leader Brian Mason’s piquant phrase – won’t be renewing the contract of Alberta Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Anny Sauvageau. The apparent reason? Internal documents obtained by the CBC revealed Dr. Sauvageau had dared to express her concerns about political and bureaucratic interference by provincial government representatives in the operations of her office.

In her correspondence, Dr. Sauvageau said she feared the interference could affect the public’s trust in the integrity of the death-investigation system, specifically in cases like the deaths of children in provincial care, which had been a huge embarrassment to successive Tory governments.

So how is this different from Mr. Horne firing the entire AHS board last year when they refused to knuckle under to his scheme to deny contractual bonus payments and dismissal payouts to health executives that had become controversial with the public? It turns out, as we now know, that the board got the law right, even if they misunderstood the political consequences of failing to kowtow to Mr. Horne.

And how is it different from the firing of the medical officer of health for the Palliser Health Authority in southeastern Alberta in 2002 when he made the mistake of talking publicly about the harmful health impacts of burning fossil fuels?

Ralph Klein’s government wasn’t going to let a guy hang around who was prepared to declare his support for the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

That story at least had a happy ending: the health official in question was Dr. David Swann, who was soon elected to the Legislature as a Liberal MLA, where he did yeoman service for the people of Alberta. Dr. Swann plans to retire after the next general election.

So again we see, on issues that matter, we just get the same-old-same-old from the Prentice government.

And how about those illegal donations? According to the Opposition Wildrose Party – granted, doing a little creative news recycling – the PCs were paid more than $100,000 in illegal donations between 2004 and 2010.

In 2010, the Legislature voted to change Alberta’s election financing law, banning political donations from publicly financed institutions. But MLAs prevented Elections Alberta from revealing improper donations made before 2009! Say what?

Now we have a pretty good idea, thanks to this timely reminder from the Wildrose Party, why that particular provision was put in place.

So far, there’s been no apparent effort by the government to do anything about this, notwithstanding Mr. Prentice’s assurance that everything is different now.

It’s hard not to think that Liberal Leader Raj Sherman had it right when he described the PC problem with illegal donations as “systemic.” The Tories should “return that money,” he told the Calgary Herald. Well, good luck with that.

Mr. Mason put it well last year. When it comes to dealing with the Tories in Alberta, he said, “If you don’t pay, you don’t play.”

So what’s changed?

Yes, there’s been a management facelift. And the expensive Skypalace is an expensive boardroom now.

But where the rubber hits the road? No change! No change!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

New Democrats yesterday were ready for Rachel – can Albertans reach the same conclusion?

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, about to be interviewed by the media, moments after her victory speech in Edmonton yesterday. Below: Three scenes from yesterday’s NDP leadership convention, one of Ms. Notley’s buttons, her father, Grant Notley.

Rachel Notley’s campaign buttons asked: “Are you Ready for Rachel?”

There was never much doubt Alberta’s New Democrats were ready for Rachel, and they proved it yesterday by overwhelmingly choosing the scion of this province’s second-most-famous political dynasty as leader of their party in voting at Edmonton’s Sutton Place Hotel.

This has been clear since former leader Brian Mason announced his intention to retire after a decade as leader last April while the ruling Progressive Conservatives unraveled before our eyes, and certainly since Ms. Notley, 50, the MLA for Edmonton-Strathcona since 2008, officially joined the race on June 16.

Just the same, Ms. Notley’s leadership team rolled the dice when they opted for a campaign strategy that, from the get-go, shot the new leader’s message way out beyond the party faithful and aimed it straight at middle-of-the-road Alberta voters who are not part of the traditional NDP universe in this province.

I’d go so far as to say it was pretty bold for her campaign team to eschew the natural temptation to campaign to the party’s various bands of true believers – the granola crunchers, the die-hard trade unionists, the remaining raging reds, the Dogmatically Perfectionist Church of the NDP, and so on – and then sneak back to the centre later.

Instead, she boldly led a tightly disciplined campaign aimed at a broad mainstream coalition of mildly progressive voters – the kind of people to whom Alison Redford successfully appealed in 2011 and 2012, and then turned on in 2013 and 2014 – with a message that we can do better in Alberta with a political party that really means it when it says it speaks to our values.

There’s a fine line between being confident about the right way to lead the Alberta NDP from the margins to the mainstream and arrogantly assuming you can ignore the cliques and clubs within your own party to get there.

Ms. Notley’s campaign executed this feat deftly, never straying from the message that mainstream Alberta voters need to hear if they’re going to turn to a party that’s always been on the margins outside the province’s Capital Region without alienating groups within the party that value ideological purity above any chance of victory.

So the efforts by Edmonton-Calder MLA David Eggen and University of Alberta staff union leader Rod Loyola to “niche market” to some of those groups within the NDP fell flat. Ms. Notley won on the first ballot with more than 70 per cent of the votes cast.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call this balancing act masterful and its messaging pitch-perfect.

Now, however, the hard work starts. Ms. Notley must take the NDP’s message to a bigger audience for whom the name Notley means little, citizens who have no memory of the role her father, Grant Notley, first elected in 1971 as MLA for Spirit River-Fairview, for 11 years the only New Democrat in the Legislature, and leader of the Opposition from 1982 until his death two years later in a small airplane crash 30 years ago today, played in building the party.

Grant Notley’s work made possible the high-water mark of the Alberta NDP, when in 1986 it won 16 seats. For this he is revered by the province’s social democrats.

Rachel Notley’s well-known skills as a lawyer and Parliamentarian may not count for much with these voters, especially in southern Alberta where the party barely registers on the political scales. As federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has proved, being a Parliamentarian of the first rank and a probing cross examiner in Question Period may not count for much with bored and disconnected voters attuned to the U.S.-style media campaigns conservative parties have perfected.

So it will be a tough sell for Ms. Notley to get the NDP to the point it can be more than just a niche party rooted in one region.

She will have to turn her agile mind to finding ways to really unite the province’s progressive voters – a much larger group than their representation in the Legislature would suggest if recent polls are to be believed – under one orange banner.

However, it is said here, she just might be the person to do it, and this might just be the moment.

The governing PCs, notwithstanding their new leader, are deservedly viewed by voters with deep suspicion as corrupt, entitled and arrogant. The official Opposition party espouses the same bankrupt market-fundamentalist ideology. The Liberals, once the Opposition, seem to be suffering their own collapse. And the Alberta Party is barely on the radar.

The media – to judge from some of their breathless commentary yesterday – have already fallen in love. “She’s smart, experienced and charismatic,” enthused Edmonton  Journal political columnist Graham Thomson last night – quite accurately, as it happens.

She’s already on a first-name basis, as it were, with a goodly segment of the population – like Ralph … but also Alison.

So, it would seem, the planets may be in alignment for Ms. Notley not just to breathe new life into the Alberta NDP as Mr. Mason asked but, as she put it in her victory speech, to make history. “This time,” she said, “let’s not forget history, let’s not repeat history, let’s make history!”

The balance of power in 2016? The opposition? What next?

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

As soon as the NDP picks a new leader today, the party’s focus should turn to Edmonton-Whitemud – here’s why

Your blogger with Edmonton-Whitemud NDP candidate Dr. Bob Turner. Yeah, I support the NDP. Live with it! Below: Retiring NDP Leader Brian Mason, Health Minister Stephen Mandel, Alberta Liberal candidate Donna Wilson and NDP leadership frontrunner Rachel Notley.

After today, when the Alberta New Democratic Party has at long last chosen a leader to replace the retiring Brian Mason, she (or he) needs immediately to turn her (or his) attention to the Oct. 27 Edmonton-Whitemud by-election.

That’s because, if the buzz from some conservative-leaning campaigners is to be believed, there’s a sense on the doorsteps of the suburban Edmonton riding that if the opposition to unelected Health Minister Stephen Mandel is coalescing around anyone, it’s coalescing around the NDP’s candidate, Dr. Bob Turner.

Indeed, it’s even possible some Wildrose supporters could cast a strategic by-election ballot for Dr. Turner, an Edmonton oncologist and medical school professor who has exhibited unexpected passion about health care issues on the campaign trail. If they do, their theory would have to be it’s more important to see the Jim Prentice Tories beaten than to gather a few more votes for one of their party’s weaker candidates in this go-round, businessman Tim Grover.

I utter this hopeful thought aloud with a certain trepidation because I still think Mr. Mandel has the edge in that particular constituency, and because I know I will be roundly assailed by the Alberta Liberal Party’s increasingly cranky supporters, who are bound to point out, quite rightly, that I am known to be a card-carrying New Democrat.

Well, so be it, I talk to everyone, usually in a pretty friendly fashion, and I hear what I hear. I recognize it could be wrong.

Still, this is not a completely implausible scenario. First, Dr. Turner, as noted, has turned out to be a surprisingly effective campaigner – ready to loose newsworthily fiery darts at both the pre-Prentice Progressive Conservatives’ horrible health care record and the Mr. Mandel’s already apparent deficiencies as unelected health minister.

Mr. Mandel was also Edmonton mayor recently enough to have some constituents remember his role in civic decisions they didn’t like.

Second, at least one poll – the ThinkHQ survey last cited here on Thursday – shows the NDP, PCs and Wildrose all within 1 per cent of one another in the Edmonton region (at 25, 26 and 27 per cent respectively) with the Liberals trailing distantly at 16 per cent.

Well, Edmonton-Whitemud is certainly in Edmonton although not a part that has normally been friendly to anyone but Tories – but these are not normal times.

The other opinion poll cited by celebrity poll analyst Eric Grenier was done by Lethbridge College and shows the PCs with a more comfortable lead – 32.7 per cent to the NDP’s 23.5 and 22.4 for the Wildrose, with the Liberals again trailing far behind at 10.2.

Under such circumstances, it is not completely improbable to imagine the progressive vote at least gathering around a credible NDP candidate.

Perhaps as a sign of their desperation, the Alberta Liberals have published a preposterous press release claiming to show evidence candidate Donna Wilson, an RN and PhD nursing professor, is running ahead of all the other parties’ candidates in the riding.

Alas, for Dr. Wilson, who is a fine person and like Dr. Turner would make a terrific MLA, not only was this statistic the result of a push poll, but we can prove it because the Liberals published the wording of their doorstep question: “Will you vote for Liberal Candidate Dr. Donna Wilson, another candidate, or are you unsure or undecided?”

Faced with no named alternatives and a pleasant Liberal campaigner at their front door, most Canadians – who are unfailingly polite if they’re anything – will take the hint and provide the answer that’s desired. Doesn’t mean they’ll vote that way, though.

This silly poll identified about a third of decided voters in the riding as Liberal supporters, fewer than 20 per cent backing all other candidates, and close to fifty per cent undecided. Taken together, this is merely fantasy. The predictive value of this naïve enterprise is essentially zero.

As an aside, if you’re going to have fun with polls, you need to imitate those successful political campaigns that come out with a plausible sounding opinion survey not long before election day that puts your candidate unexpectedly within striking distance of victory – like Naheed Nenshi in the Calgary mayoral race in 2010, Alison Redford in the PC leadership race in 2011 and now Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark in the Calgary-Elbow by-election, in Ms. Redford’s old riding.

What did all three candidates have in common? The assistance, as Daveberta.ca author Dave Cournoyer pointed out, of strategist Stephen Carter.

Calgary-Elbow and Edmonton-Whitemud are only two of the by-elections taking place during the Oct. 27 mini-election, as the four races are inevitably being seen. The other two are in Calgary Foothills, where Premier Prentice himself is seeking a seat, and Calgary-West. All four seats are traditionally safe for the Conservatives.

Getting back to the Capital Region where we started and the NDP is showing some strength, tomorrow isn’t too soon for the new NDP leader to rally the party’s troops around Dr. Turner and send them out to the doorsteps of Edmonton-Whitemud.

That said, it’s not much of a feat of prognostication to predict that’s exactly what the Knee-Dippers will do – it’s on the leadership convention’s schedule for tomorrow, no matter who wins the race.

In this, as in all other matters where democracy is involved, there’s no absolute certainty about who will win – but it’s predicted here the winner will be Edmonton-Strathcona MLA Rachel Notley, who has been the front-runner from the get-go. The other candidates are Edmonton-Calder MLA David Eggen and union leader Rod Loyola.

As for Mr. Mason, whatever he was, the first sentence of this post notwithstanding, it was never retiring! Least of all now that he’s giving up the leadership and feels free to say exactly what he thinks.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Alberta sitrep: Return of the Bitumen Bubble, sort of, rains on otherwise cheerful Prentice parade

A little rain fell on Premier Jim Prentice’s parade yesterday, but the tune the was playing was still pretty cheerful. Below: union members tune up to celebrate the demise of Bill 46 yesterday by singing Solidarity Forever this morning.

Just when you think you’re finding your way out of the woods, there’s that damned Bitumen Bubble again.

This time, it’s crude oil prices that are declining – or, as they say in journalese, the official language of the Internet, “plummeting.”

This is handy for conservatives once they’re elected and want to cut the crap out of public services they promised to protect, but not so good in the lead-up to an election during the phase when conservative governments of all stripes go into a tax-and-spend-liberal-spree mode and shower dollars on electors.

The special problem facing newly selected Progressive Conservative Premier Jim Prentice out here on the western edge of the Great Aspen Parklands is that his principal opponent in the upcoming Oct. 27 mini-election, in which he hopes to get his own place in the Legislature and a couple more for his two unelected cabinet members, is another conservative party

Before Oct. 27 and certainly before the next general election, the Wildrose Party under would-be premier Danielle Smith will scream if the budget isn’t balanced, and large numbers of cherry picking voters will grow surly and disagreeable if it is, leastways if that means their particular enthusiasms aren’t fully funded.

Imagine how much easier things would be for Mr. Prentice’s PCs if the official Opposition party were the NDP! Well, New Democrats will be working on that this weekend in Edmonton, but in the meantime the premier is just going to have to figure out a way to live with the cranky deficit scolds from the Wildrose opposition who don’t have the disadvantage of having to actually run the place at the same time as they’re trying to live down fired premier Alison Redford’s gruesome reputation.

It’s always astonishing to me that conservative politicians – who supposedly have the inside track on thinking like business people – can’t figure out that commodity prices are cyclical. In other words, this week’s oil-prices-are-too-low crisis can turn over night in to an oil-prices-are-too-high crisis, and Mr. Prentice most certainly hopes it does.

Meanwhile, a new public opinion poll by ThinkHQ Public Affairs suggests Mr. Prentice’s PCs are enjoying a bit of a honeymoon bounce – although not necessarily where they need it the most for the four upcoming by-elections, three of which are in Calgary and one here in Edmonton.

ThinkHQ President Marc Henry’s take Tuesday on these numbers was that “Tory fortunes have turned sharply positive” and, moreover, “the momentum shift is in the Tories’ favour.”

ThreeHundredEight.com author Eric Grenier’s analysis of the same numbers yesterday, however, was that while the poll shows the Prentice PCs are closer to the Wildrose popularity numbers than they’ve been for a while, the Wildrose is doing well enough in Calgary it will be hard for the government to win all four seats.

So, from the PC perspective, this close to four crucial and highly symbolic by-elections was probably not the right moment for the media to start chanting gloom and doom about oil prices at the shocking thought of oil descending to a mere $82 per barrel.

Meanwhile, also yesterday, without any fanfare whatsoever, the government quietly issued a proclamation repealing the Redford Government’s draconian Bill 46. That law – technically known as the Public Service Salary Restraint Act – would have enabled the government to order the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees back to work with a truly crappy contract had not the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench intervened last February and granted the union an injunction blocking the law’s application.

The court’s scathing ruling – which excoriated the Redford government for bargaining in bad faith and other labour relations sins – blew the government’s entire strategy for dealing with its public service unions to smithereens.

In a way, the repeal of Bill 46 is meaningless – a negotiated deal with AUPE after the injunction was issued having effectively rendered it moot.

Nevertheless, it can hardly have been unintended that one of the few remaining relics of Ms. Redford’s bizarre anti-labour legislative agenda was tossed over the side the day before AUPE’s 38th annual convention was scheduled to start. That meeting will commence at 9 this morning with 800 or so AUPE members belting out Solidarity Forever.

Mr. Prentice’s hope, it is said here, must have been that the symbolism of this will remind unionized public employees of the dangers of voting for an even more conservative party than the PCs.

However, still remaining on the law books, sort of, is the odious Bill 45 – the Public Sector Services Continuation Act, which effectively banned free speech by all Albertans if they happened to feel like advocating a public service strike.

This bill was given Royal Assent on the same day as Bill 46 – Dec. 11, 2013, another December day that shall live in infamy – but was never proclaimed by the chicken-hearted Redford Tories, presumably to make it harder for the courts to get their hands on its self-evidently unconstitutional restrictions on free expression.

With Bill 46 on the floor where it belongs, one hopes Mr. Prentice will soon drop his party’s other remaining legislative shoe as well.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Alberta may be under ‘new management,’ but we’re getting the same old bait ’n’ switch tactics in health care!

Premier Jim Prentice and Health Minister Stephen Mandel, both PC candidates in the Oct. 27 four-seat mini-election, at yesterday’s “Bed Blocker” news conference in Edmonton. Below: NDP candidate Dr. Bob Turner and Liberal Candidate Dr. Donna Wilson, RN, both running against Mr. Mandel, ex-mayor; Seniors Minister Jeff Johnson; and AHS CEO Vickie Kaminski.

Unelected Premier Jim Prentice and his appointed Health Minister Stephen Mandel held a news conference in Edmonton yesterday afternoon to demonstrate they’re doing something decisive about Alberta’s embarrassing “bed blocker” problem and, no doubt, aid both their by-election campaigns on Oct. 27.

“Bed blocker” is an uncomplimentary term for patients who belong in long-term care, but end up in acute-care beds because there’s nowhere else suitable to put them. It implies that they are somehow at fault for their plight, when in fact it’s successive Progressive Conservative governments that have been closing long-term care beds and encouraging their replacement with expensive private-sector alternatives generally referred to as “continuing care” or “assisted living spaces.”

This has been going on since Ralph Klein was premier. Now, however, we have another politically embarrassing health care meltdown at a rather delicate moment for Mr. Prentice’s PC “new management.”

And it’s not exactly a secret that the government’s determined emphasis on assisted living and cuts in long-term care beds has contributed directly to the huge backlog in hospital acute care wards, which in turn has increased wait times in Emergency Wards.

An embarrassing story in the Calgary Herald over the long weekend illustrated how this process works, and included new Alberta Health Services CEO Vickie Kaminski musing about how keeping the elderly poor from being admitted to acute care hospitals might be the answer.

She asked: “Is there a role that we can be to be able to provide better treatment options in the emergency departments so that they don’t just get admitted?”

Perhaps the government had a moment of clarity and realized how that sentiment might go over with the public if the message started to sink in.

That would explain the timing of yesterday’s news conference, which had a large supporting cast including Ms. Kaminski herself, recently demoted Seniors Minister Jeff Johnson and Alberta Medical Association President Richard Johnston. The Greek chorus was provided by the Wildrose Party’s seniors’ critic, Kerry Towle, and the Alberta New Democrats’ and Liberals’ candidates in Edmonton-Whitemud, Professors Bob Turner, MD, and Donna Wilson, RN, PhD.

But the message from the premier and health minister to the gathered media – which turned out in considerable numbers at the newser in the lecture theatre of the Royal Alexandra Hospital, notwithstanding a weekend Ebola scare in Edmonton – was less than clear, and short on details.

The PC candidates for Calgary-Foothills (Mr. Prentice) and Edmonton-Whitemud (Mr. Mandel) solemnly informed the media that the government would “open 464 continuing care spaces that are currently unfunded or unstaffed through the reallocation of existing resources.” (Emphasis added.)

Why that particular number was not fully explained. Presumably, it’s what they managed to come up with on short notice.

They also vowed at some indeterminate future date to “assist” some of the 700 patients said to be in acute care who really ought to be in long-term care “through $60 million in targeted Affordable Supportive Living Initiative funds,” and to reserve about 20 per cent of the beds freed up for exclusive use by Emergency Departments.

“We’re taking concrete steps to relieve pressure on Alberta’s hospitals by considering the flow of the overall system and effecting changes to help those who most need continuing care options,” Mr. Prentice said in his news release. (Emphasis added again.)

I’m afraid I’m not at all certain precisely what the premier had in mind with the bit about the flow of the overall system, other than, “calm down, people, everything is taken care of. Don’t forget to vote on Oct. 27.”

Regardless, the important thing was that this sounded decisive enough. Plus, Mr. Prentice made the point of telling reporters they were looking at a “hands on” health minister in Mr. Mandel, the kind of decisive guy who can get stuff done in a big fat hurry. (I thought the previous incumbent, Fred Horne, was pretty hands on too and decisive, especially when it came to dealing with Alberta Health Services Board members who were insufficiently co-operative. But there you go.)

On closer examination, however, Messrs. Prentice and Mandel seemed to be playing the same old bait ’n’ switch game of confusing “continuing care” (a murky term that could mean anything, private or public) with “long-term care” (a specific term set out in legislation and regulation that means a defined level of care).

The differences can be very important with registered nurses on staff, essential supplies and medicines, physician services, physiotherapy and transportation all provided in long-term care, and either unregulated or sold as high-cost extras to residents in other levels of care included under the mushy term “continuing care.”

In other words, on the basis of what was actually said between the lines of yesterday’s news conference, the Prentice Government remains as committed as was the Redford Government, the Stelmach Government and the Klein government to the privatization of seniors’ care.

Since committing to continuing-care beds is exactly what got us into the current mess in the first place, it’s hard to see how these changes are going to make things better.

The government’s news release, in Mr. Prentice’s preferred technocratic style, provided us with an impressive chart outlining how many beds will be opened, approximately when, and in what parts of the province.

But it seems almost certain that the government remains committed to making them the wrong kind of beds.

So at the end of the news conference, when the premier raced off to another engagement and Mr. Mandel hung around to skillfully field reporters’ questions, it wasn’t entirely clear underneath which walnut shell the bean was resting.

And it may be working, at least if the reports are true there’s a new public opinion survey out there suggesting Mr. Prentice and the hitherto troubled PCs are enjoying a nice honeymoon bounce with the public, polling only a point or two behind the Wildrose Party.

We’ll have a better idea of what this really means on Oct. 27, when we learn the results of the by-elections in Edmonton-Whitemud and Calgary-Foothills, as well as in Calgary-West and Calgary-Elbow, disgraced premier Alison Redford’s old riding where Mr. Prentice’s appointed Education Minister Gordon Dirks is running.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Plot summary for a zombie policy apocalypse: Return of the Living Bed Blockers, Nightmare on Alberta Avenue, Part IV

Even though we know the prescription for curing the “bed blocker” problem, it’s unlikely Alberta can escape the revenge of the conservative zombie policy makers, shown above. Actual Progressive Conservative and Wildrose policy makers may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Zombie policy enablers Jim Prentice and Danielle Smith; ER physician Dr. Paul Parks.

The “Bed Blockers” are back. Health Minister Stephen Mandel (unelected) used the term, so it’s official.

Actually, it’s a lot like a horror movie that never ends out here in Alberta. Just when you think it’s safe to settle down on Elm Street and get the kids ready for a little Halloween fun, the Bed Blockers come lurching down the street.

It happens every time we get a new conservative premier here on the Western edge of the Great Plains, which seems to be every couple of years nowadays.

First we’re promised the problem will be exorcised. Then we vote for the new conservative exorcist. Then there’s a yet another crisis in acute care. Then Dr. Paul Parks, the Emergency Room physician from the appropriately named city of Medicine Hat (always played by the same guy), is interviewed in one of Alberta’s better newspapers, or writes an op-ed. He explains to us, again, that the problem is a lack of long-term care beds for people who require hospitalization but don’t need acute care.

Then the new premier recognizes the problem – he may even tell a moving story about how it’s affected his, or her, family personally – and promises to do something about it, to wit, somehow creating more long-term care beds to free up acute care beds, which will ease the crunch in Emergency Rooms, etc.

Then he, or she, gets into office and does the opposite, reducing the number of long-term care beds in the public system, encouraging a bigger role for the always expensive and inefficient private sector. Next thing you know we’re back on the edge of a “catastrophic collapse” and blaming the “bed blockers” – who had absolutely nothing to do with creating the problem.

It happened under premier Ralph Klein. The same thing happened under premier Ed Stelmach. Then it happened under premier Alison Redford. Now it’s happening under premier (still unelected) Jim Prentice. So not only have we seen this lousy movie before, we’ve seen it over and over, and we’re still seeing it.

Inevitably, the recognition of the problem is accompanied by calls for more expensive and time-consuming studies to find a solution – which, as noted, is pretty apparent. This increases the sense of crisis – and public willingness to try increasingly radical “solutions.”

Do you sense a pattern here?

Well, I’ve got news for you, people: conservatives cannot fix this problem.

And that means conservatives of any stripe, including Wildrose conservatives, Progressive Conservatives, neoliberal conservatives, and plain old unreconstituted Tories.

Whether or not Alberta voters are prepared to admit this – and the chances are very slim that they are – this is axiomatic.

The reason for it is plain on its face. The era of genuinely progressive conservative thinking that recognized the absolutely essential role of government is over and every stream of modern conservatism (including, alas, those that have infected some of our progressive parties as well) is simply delusional on the topic of the alleged benefits of privatization in health care.

If this debate were about empirical facts, the conversation would be over.

But it’s about ideology, bordering on faith, bordering on religion – so no amount of evidence is about to change the belief in privatization that drives the long-term care policies of both the Jim Prentice Conservatives and the Danielle Smith Wildrose Party.

I doubt there’s much difference with the Liberals under Raj Sherman, either, or for that matter the New Democrats under whoever wins the leadership of that party next Saturday, probably Rachel Notley, although my (obviously partisan but sincerely held) belief is that the New Democrats remain the best spokespeople for public health care.

Whoever emerges victorious in the next general election, and we all have to concede that it’s almost certain to be either the Prentice Tories or the Smith Wildrosers, will continue to try to solve the “bed blocker” problem with “market-based solutions.”

Whether they actually believe in the efficacy of privatization as policy – and I’m prepared to concede that some of them sincerely do – or they’re just doing it to please some of their most generous donors doesn’t really matter. The policy will return and the results won’t change.

Dr. Paul Parks will continue to write op-en articles explaining the looming catastrophe.

The disaster will lurch from bad to worse. The policy you get may be undead on arrival, but every time it turns up it’ll do real harm.

We are just, as they say, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

And if we keep electing zombie policy makers, we’re going to keep getting zombie policies.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Happy Thanksgiving! Would the Tories praising our health care system please stop trying to privatize it!

Edmonton’s Misericordia Hospital waaay back in the day. Below: The modern Mis, the one in Edmonton’s west end that after 45 years is falling apart. Alberta Health Minister Stephen Mandel.

Happy Thanksgiving! With a case of a “potential contagious illness” in an unidentified Edmonton hospital last night, I guess we can be thankful we have a public health care system, even if it faces a serious funding crisis and is housed in crumbling facilities.

This, at any rate, is the party line from Conservative federal and provincial politicians as they keep to keep us from panicking about the emergence of, um, potential contagious illnesses like, you know, Ebola, in Canada.

This party line is summed up almost perfectly in the words of a senior health region manager in British Columbia: “The spread that we’re seeing in Africa is probably caused by their health system characteristics. They don’t have a well-funded public health care system like we do.”

So would somebody please explain why both federal and local conservatives of various stripes are working so hard to undermine and underfund our public health care system? Am I missing something?

The feds, of course, have made it clear they aren’t about to agree to another 10-year health accord, like the one Liberal prime minister Paul Martin signed onto in 2004 and which expired last spring. Instead, they imposed a formula under which, after 2017, health care funding increases will be restricted to around 3 per cent a year, the better to let inflation whittle away at universally accessible public health.

The Harper Conservatives are also working hard to resist pressure for a money-saving, health-preserving national pharmacare plan because … well, because the God of the Almighty Market, and Milton Friedman his angel, forbid it.

Meanwhile, here in Alberta, the provincial government is trying to sound as if it’s whistling an upbeat new tune on government services now that Jim Prentice is unelected premier, but if you listen carefully, it sure seems as if unelected Health Minister Stephen Mandel is still droning out the same old Tory health care privatization mantra.

On Saturday – just before news of the Edmonton Ebo… um, potential contagious illness case, broke – Mr. Mandel told an Edmonton journalist it would be “irresponsible” for the province to build a replacement for the capital city’s deplorable, crumbling Misericordia Hospital without the province undertaking an “actuarial study” to figure out where new health care facilities need to be built.

Say what? “Actuarial: Relating to statistical calculation, especially of life expectancy.”

Well, maybe he just used the wrong word. We all do from time to time. Maybe what Mr. Mandel had in mind was an “actual study,” which would be an interesting degree of candour in the case of health care policy making in this province – where studies, from time to time, are ginned up to justify increasing privatization of health care services, and then sometimes dropped if they turn into a political hot potatoes.

Don Mazankowski, Dave Broda, c’mon down!

As for the life expectancy of the Misericordia Hospital itself, now located across the street from the massive West Edmonton Mall in the city’s west end, the 45-year-old facility appears to have exceeded it. At any rate, it is famous for flooding when it rains, hot and cold spots worthy of a haunted hotel, infestations of flies evocative of the same movie genre, frequently jammed elevators, and a hole in the floor of its obstetrical unit notorious for being frequently awash with bodily fluids.

When he made his interesting statements, Mr. Mandel – who faces a by-election in nearby Edmonton-Whitemud on Oct. 27 that will either cement or finish his career in provincial politics – was reacting to a public rally organized on Thursday by the provincial NDP outside the hospital, at which participants demanded a new one.

“I think it’s a bit irresponsible to say let’s just build because something has to be built,” Mr. Mandel was quoted as saying in a local newspaper.

So he conceded, at least, that something needs to be built to replace the west end hospital – which, to complicate matters, is part of the public health care system but technically run by the Roman Catholic Church.

However, he went on, “let’s not make a mistake by just deciding it’s the best thing in the world to build a hospital” – which was the moment my personal privatization alarm started to silently vibrate.

By the time he’d said “there’s lots of interesting and very eclectic and dynamic ideas to build things that are going to be what’s great for our citizens, and that’s what we should look at,” the lights had started flashing and the buzzer was audibly going off.

According to the newspaper report, “outpatient services” and “bed systems” were among the things Mr. Mandel thought Albertans should be rethinking, instead of building big old-fashioned hospitals like the massive one just opened in south Calgary that’s now Alberta Health Services’ main centre in case a certain potential contagious illness turns up in Southern Alberta.

But the klaxon really started screaming when Mr. Mandel said that, “historically, hospitals were the centre of everything. Now, if you look at hospitals, people are doing so many more day surgeries. How do we do that in a different way, a more efficient way?

You know, like the privately owned Health Resources Centre that provided hip and knee surgeries in Calgary… Oh, wait. Didn’t it go broke in 2010?

And where do we send someone who hops off a plane from West Africa with a potential contagious illness and turns up feeling poorly at the West Edmonton Mall? To an eclectic and dynamic little private clinic?

Yeah, we should be thankful we’ve got a great public health care system. Future generations won’t thank us if we let the privatizers get their hands on any more of it than they already have.

As for Mr. Mandel, at the moment he has no democratic mandate, which is why he’s seeking one on Oct. 27.

So a good place for voters who live in Edmonton-Whitemud to start might be to ask him if what he has in mind with all those potential eclectic little facilities is in fact privatization.

If it is, or even sounds as if it might be, it shouldn’t take a political actuarial study to indicate the appropriate response on Oct. 27!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

On those Wildrose attack ads: they can hardly say Jim Prentice has ‘no plan’

The harshest of the three Wildrose Attack ads. Just let Youtube play, and you can see the Wildrose Party’s other two current attack ads plus its single positive spot. Below: A screen shot from one of the spectacularly ineffective 2006 No Plan ads attacking then premier Ed Stelmach. The full ads, unfortunately, have been removed from Youtube. A scene from another of the 2014 Wildrose ads.

I’m not at all certain the Wildrose Party’s TV ads attacking the governing Progressive Conservative candidates in the upcoming Alberta “mini-election” are going to work as intended.

The three negative TV ads depict Premier Jim Prentice – who himself is seeking a legislative seat in one of the four by-elections scheduled for Oct. 27 – as being indistinguishable from disgraced former premier Alison Redford.

“Jim Prentice isn’t change,” says a sarcastic female voice-over in one of the ads, “he’s just more of the same.” All three 30-second spots repeat that same key message and use all the gimmicks associated with U.S.-style TV attack ads – grainy photos, caustic delivery and crude animations.

Now, look, I’m actually qualified to commentate on this issue. I am a student of political advertising, having had a hand in one of the largest political advertising disasters in Canadian political history.

I speak, of course, of the 2006 “No Plan!” ads about Ed Stelmach, which were supposed to persuade more voters to support one of the progressive parties in this province, but by turning off progressive voters or motivating conservative ones, or both, had the opposite effect.

I know who was in the committee room when the decisions were made, but I’m the only one who will admit to having been there. Let’s just leave it that way: I’ll remain silent to protect the guilty. The 2006 ads – which seem pretty tame now but were viewed as extremely nasty at the time – used many of the same techniques as the new Wildrose ads. I’m not bragging about it – I’m just saying

The point is, an experience like this that had the opposite effect to what was intended tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully on what might actually work – and what might not.

And, as an aside, I can tell you with absolute confidence that negative political advertising does indeed work. It’s true: Albertans truly believe they don’t like attack ads. But they respond to them just the same – if they’re done right, an important proviso.

Which brings us back to the Wildrose TV spots. They’re pretty funny. They’re memorable. I particularly enjoyed the way the ad makers caught Ms. Redford’s mouth flapping open and shut. But their key message is so obviously off base they may well provoke an unintended opposite reaction on the part of many viewers.

Yes, Jim Prentice represents the same political philosophy – anti worker, pro big business, infatuated with markets, unimpressed by human values, beholden to the oil industry – as Alison Redford.

But anyone who thinks Mr. Prentice is cut from the same piece of cloth as Ms. Redford is simply not paying attention. Of course, the ads’ makers are counting on it that plenty of Albertans aren’t. But I’m not so sure that’s the case any more.

How do these ads get it wrong when they say Mr. Prentice and Ms. Redford are as alike as Tweedledee and Tweedledum? For one thing, in Mr. Prentice, we are looking at a far more skilled politician than Ms. Redford, who possessed a kind of reverse Midas touch that turned everything she touched into … not gold.

For another, Mr. Prentice is courting a different segment of the Tory Universe than Ms. Redford settled on after her initial, highly deceptive leadership campaign and first election.

After being elected by nervous progressive voters spooked by the thought of a Wildrose government in April 2012, Ms. Redford turned her attentions to winning back the right-wing voters the PCs had lost to the Wildrose. The increasingly radical right-wing policies her government delivered were rightly perceived as a betrayal of the moderate voters who saved her bacon.

Mr. Prentice seems determined to move his party rapidly back to the centre, as premier Ed Stelmach had tried to do before he got sick of being dissed by the organized right in business, the media and his own party.

So in the fall of 2014, no one can say Mr. Prentice has no plan!

I grant you, as the Wildrose would like to suggest, Mr. Prentice could just be trying to trick the same group of voters the same way. But that won’t necessarily help the Wildrose Party since those voters – progressives – are unlikely to vote Wildrose no matter what.

It is also true that Wildrose strategy since the days Tom Flanagan was setting the party’s course has been to encourage progressive voters just to return to their party homes instead of strategically voting PC, but all four October by-elections strike me as a straight fight between the PC and Wildrose candidates.

Mr. Prentice seems wildly different from Ms. Redford because he is so much better at playing the political game. To put it in oil industry terms, Ms. Redford’s political skills were crude; Mr. Prentice’s are much more refined.

Which means, if you ask me, that the three Wildrose attack ads unintentionally tend to reinforce the message that Mr. Prentice is in fact very different, not the same at all.

What’s more, the natural reaction of progressive voters – who might otherwise be inveigled into voting Wildrose in a by-election just for toots and giggles – is that it is Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, in fact, who is cut from the same far-right piece of cloth as Ms. Redford.

Count on the PCs to hammer hard on this idea in the TV ads that they’re bound to produce for this mini-election. Here’s betting the Tories’ ads will encourage the idea that while they’re maybe a little bit progressive, there’s nothing even remotely progressive about the Wildrose crowd.

The reality that really matters now, but may not even make it onto the radar, is that when it comes to ideology and likely policy, it’s Mr. Prentice and Ms. Smith who are as alike as peas in a pod.

The most effective Wildrose ad, which Mr. Prentice’s PCs will find it much harder to refute, is the fourth one, a positive spot that shows an approachable Ms. Smith telling voters “we’re ready for form a government you can be proud of.”

Four by-elections, of course, won’t let the Wildrose Party do that, no matter how they turn out, but the statement clearly illustrates the problem Mr. Prentice has been left by Ms. Redford, and therefore just how important these by-elections are to each of the province’s matched set of ideologically conservative parties.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Despite statements by former premier and health minister, AHS has dropped its objection to paying full severance to fired CFO Allaudin Merali

Fred Horne and Alison Redford, back in the day. (CBC photo.) Below: Former Alberta Health Services senior vice-president and CFO Allaudin Merali; former Capital Health Region CEO Sheila Weatherill.

Alberta Health Services has thrown in the towel on a key point of the legal dispute with Allaudin Merali and offered to pay its fired executive vice-president and chief financial officer the full severance agreed to in his contract.

“AHS has acknowledged that it will pay the severance required by the Employment Contract once the Plaintiff has complied with the obligations imposed on him by the Employment Contract,” AHS says in its statement of defence filed in response to Mr. Merali’s $6.1-million March 14 lawsuit  alleging breach of contract and defamation. Mr. Merali’s unpaid severance is reported to be in excess of $500,000.

However, Mr. Merali’s lawsuit continues at this time. In addition to his argument he is entitled to the severance pay set out in his contract, the point AHS has now accepted, Mr. Merali is seeking damages for what his statement of claim described in part as “the utmost bad faith in conspiring to induce breach of employment contract,” plus compensation for loss of income, as well as damages from former health minister Fred Horne for defamation.

Mr. Merali was fired on Aug. 1 2012, hours before the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. was scheduled to broadcast a report that the senior executive had filed high expense claims while employed in a similar senior position by the Capital Health Region between January 2005 and August 2008.

The statement of defence for Alberta Health Services says “AHS has communicated to the Plaintiff that AHS is prepared to pay the severance contemplated by the Employment Contract on the following conditions:

“As contemplated by paragraph 28 of the Employment Contract, the Plaintiff is required to provide a Release in a form satisfactory to AHS in exchange for the severance payment …

“The Plaintiff is required to provide AHS with details of any alternate employment obtained during the 12 months following the termination of his employment so that AHS may make the appropriate adjustment to the severance in accordance with paragraph 30 of the Employment Contract. …

“AHS will pay interest on the severance payments in accordance with the Judgment Interest Act …”

At the time the AHS statement of defence was filed, it went on, “the Plaintiff has not provided the Release … nor the information about alternate employment … “

The statement of defence also said that by April 2014, “AHS determined that the termination of the Plaintiff’s employment was properly characterized as a termination without cause.”

This is not exactly new information. The AHS statement of defence was filed with the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in Edmonton on May 2, 2014, where it could be viewed by anyone for a $10 fee.

Still it will come as a surprise to most Albertans, especially those who recall the very strong language used by both Mr. Horne and former premier Alison Redford once Mr. Merali’s expense claims had become a topic of controversy.

The firing of Mr. Merali and the things Ms. Redford and Mr. Horne said about him, took place despite the fact Mr. Merali’s expenses, submitted to the CHR in 2008 and 2009, appear to have been within the rules of that organization at the time and to have been approved by the Capital Health CEO, Sheila Weatherill. They also appeared to have had nothing to do with Mr. Merali’s employment as CFO of AHS, the post from which he was fired.

Nevertheless, on Aug. 6, 2012 – less than a week after the CBC story appeared and Mr. Merali was fired – a Government of Alberta news release was published over Mr. Horne’s name stating in a headline, “No severance to be paid to AHS executive.”

The same day, AHS also indicated Mr. Merali would not be paid the severance in his contract. This was widely reported by media.

The government news release quoted Mr. Horne as stating, “like all Albertans, I was outraged to learn of these events,” which he also referred to as “unacceptable expense claims” and “unacceptable practices.”

In a media conference that day, Mr. Horne said “I am outraged as is the government by what has been revealed here … I am dumbfounded.”

That remark became the basis of Mr. Merali’s defamation argument. According to his statement of claim: “The Defamatory Statement … was intended by the Minister, and was understood by all recipients thereof, to mean the Plaintiff was untrustworthy, dishonest, underhanded and unethical. … The Defamatory Statement was false and made by the Minister with malice and with the deliberate intention of discrediting the financial and personal reputation of the Plaintiff.”

The statement of claim also alleged: “The Minister’s further purpose was to make the Plaintiff the scapegoat for the government and to deflect adverse public criticism from himself, from other members of the government, and from others in AHS who had continued to be employed in various capacities, including those close to then politicians whose expenses were questioned at the same time.”

Mr. Horne’s legal counsel filed a separate statement of defence, also on May 2, in which “the Minister denies each and every allegation contained in the Statement of Claim” and “in answer to the whole of the Statement of Claim, at all material times the Minister acted with good faith and without malice in the course of discharging his Ministerial duties and responsibilities.”

Mr. Merali’s reply to the defence filings, made on May 27, states that from Aug. 1, 2012, to May 14, 2014, “AHS continuously and publicly denied its obligation to pay severance to the Plaintiff, thereby intending it to be understood that the Plaintiff had been guilty of conduct justifying termination for just cause.”

The May 2 AHS communication, this document also argues, was “made on conditions which AHS well knew could not be reasonably accepted by the Plaintiff.”

None of these statements by the various parties have been tested in a court of law.

On the topic of whether the government would pay Mr. Merali’s contractual severance, Ms. Redford’s commentary in the media was very clear:

“We are not going to voluntarily do anything with respect to his severance,” Ms. Redford, herself a lawyer, told a columnist for the Calgary Sun on May 20, 2013. “We are not going to simply sit back and take a look at what he may or may not feel he’s entitled to without resisting that. It’s not acceptable.

“Simply because someone alleges they’re entitled to something doesn’t mean we have to agree they are and we’re not going to agree,” Ms. Redford stated.

No court dates were included in the Court of Queen’s Bench public file on Mr. Merali’s lawsuit. But then, given the state of affairs today in Alberta, a court appearance may no longer be required to settle this matter.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.