The Amazing Race, Alberta Political Edition: can the Tories find their missing mojo?

Opposition party members prepare to run against the Progressive Conservative candidates, uncertain why they are being made to race with sacks on their feet while the Tories aren’t. Actual Alberta politicians may not appear exactly as illustrated. New faces below: The NDP’s Jennifer Burgess; the Tories’ Mike Ellis.

Premier Jim Prentice called a news conference yesterday morning in Calgary and announced, as widely expected, that he and his two likewise-unelected cabinet ministers will run in by-elections to be held within the shortest time frame legally possible.

Unexpected was that Mr. Prentice himself would run for the Progressive Conservative Party in the Calgary-Foothills riding in Cowtown’s northwest, not Calgary-Mackay-Nose Hill in the same general part of town, where most of the educated speculation had him running.

Also unexpected was the fact that four by-elections would be held. In addition to a by-election in Edmonton-Whitemud (vacated by former premier pro tem Dave Hancock) for Health Minister Stephen Mandel, and in Calgary-Elbow (dramatically vacated in March by former premier Alison Redford) where Education Minister Gordon Dirks will run.

The fourth race will be in Calgary-West (just opened by the voluntary departure of former municipal affairs minister Ken Hughes). Calgary-West will be contested for the PCs by former police officer Mike Ellis, presumably no relation to the Arthur Ellis, notwithstanding the gravity of the Tories’ present troubles.

All four ridings have a history of being safe Tory seats – which means they are as safe as any Tory seat can be in Alberta nowadays.

Getting back to the race in Calgary-Foothills, MLA Len Webber made way for the premier. Mr. Webber had conveniently been nominated over the weekend to contest the federal Calgary-Confederation seat for the Conservative Party of Canada.

The goal of the tight campaign time window is obviously to help Mr. Prentice’s campaign in particular by keeping the opposition parties off balance as long as possible and giving them as little time to campaign as legally possible. The election will take place so quickly it will make our little heads spin – on Oct. 27.

The tight time frame also amplifies the advantages Mr. Prentice holds as head of the government, albeit as a leader who is still unelected.

Progressive Conservative strategists obviously hope ballots will have been counted long before anyone remembers that the premier was only chosen by 23,000 PC Party members and the honeymoon effect from his first few weeks in office lingers.

Notwithstanding public disillusionment with Ms. Redford’s catastrophic tenure, the Opposition parties will have to hustle to get credible candidates knocking on doors before Mr. Prentice’s campaign has all but wound up.

The Wildrose Opposition will name their antidote to Mr. Prentice this morning, and they need to have a high-profile challenger if their effort is to succeed. Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith was right to try to keep a lid on expectations Friday when she introduced the party’s candidate in Edmonton-Whitemud.

The New Democrats planned to run communications consultant Jennifer Burgess against Mr. Prentice in whichever riding he chose – but the Tories’ last-minute riding choice kept her from being able to get an early start on door knocking.

It goes without saying that if Mr. Prentice loses, it will be a disaster for the 43-year-old PC dynasty, so you can expect the party to throw everything it’s got in its commodious political tickle trunk at the campaign in Calgary-Foothills.

This will inevitably lead to some speculation this is a mini test election, a practice run for the big show whenever Mr. Prentice gets around to calling a general election – possibly even during the silly fixed-election-period in the spring of 2016 legislated by the Redford Government.

I see it more as an entertaining reality show for political nuts – the Amazing Race, Alberta Political Edition. Contestants from the government side will run all over Calgary and Edmonton, looking for what’s left of the PCs’ reputation as Alberta’s Natural Governing Party, which has been missing since the middle of 2012.

Perhaps it’ll turn up in an envelope near somewhere in the Hamptons!

 

Candidates List

Known candidates in the four by-elections announced by Premier Jim Prentice yesterday:

Calgary-Foothills

Progressive Conservatives: Jim Prentice, premier

Wildrose Party: TBA today

NDP: Jennifer Burgess, communications consultant

Alberta Liberals: TBA tomorrow

Alberta Party: Michelle Glavine, teacher

Greens: Polly Knowlton Cockett, environmental educator

 

Calgary-Elbow

Progressive Conservatives: Gordon Dirks, education minister

Wildrose Party: John Fletcher, armed forces officer

NDP: Stephanie McLean, lawyer

Alberta Liberals: Susan Wright, lawyer and blogger

Alberta Party: Greg Clark, party leader

 

Calgary-West

Progressive Conservatives: Mike Ellis, former police officer

Wildrose Party: TBA

NDP: Brian Malkinson

Alberta Liberals: TBA

Alberta Party: Troy Millington, IT consultant

 

Edmonton-Whitemud

Progressive Conservatives: Stephen Mandel, health minister

Wildrose Party: Tim Grover, business owner

NDP: Bob Turner, cancer physician

Alberta Liberals: TBA

Alberta Party: William Munsey, berry farmer, blogger and party president

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Time for Tories to place a bet: Jim Prentice reaches a crucial moment in a high-stakes game

Prentice… James Prentice… Alberta’s premier eyes the opposition as the time grows near to decide whether to hold ’em, fold ’em, or just run. No way he can walk away now! Actual PC politicians dealt a lousy hand may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: The real Mr. Prentice; Calgary-Nose Hill-Mackay MLA Neil Brown

As Kenny Rogers famously sang, “You gotta to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run…”

Sometime today, we’ve been assured, we’ll be told where in Calgary Premier Jim Prentice will run for a seat in the Alberta Legislature. It’s not quite as clear we’ll be told when.

If no date is set, that’s a hold, and it’s a sign of a bad hand getting worse.

Back in August, before he won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party, Mr. Prentice promised the Edmonton Journal editorial board that if he were chosen as leader he would call a by-election immediately. On Sept. 6, party members duly picked Mr. Prentice as the best man to put the bad memories of Alison Redford’s misrule as far behind them as possible.

Since being sworn in on Sept. 15, he’s spent two exciting weeks reversing many of Ms. Redford’s policies – leaving the province shaken, if not stirred.

He also appointed a couple of unelected cabinet ministers as a symbol of the claim – a bit of a reach, actually – that Alberta is “under new management.”

Certainly the PC caucus is under new management. No one can dispute that. But with the exceptions of Mr. Prentice himself, Health Minister Stephen Mandel and Education Minister Gordon Dirks, the management of the province looks pretty much like the familiar old Tories Albertans have seemingly grown tired of having around.

Still, Mr. Prentice’s changes of the past couple of weeks have been pretty bold, so there may be enough good will resulting among Albertans for voters in whatever riding he picks to give him a chance.

Still, it’s a pretty high stakes game he’s playing – it would be a devastating blow both to the premier and his party if he failed to get a seat in the Legislature, and it would hardly be a good sign if Mr. Mandel or Mr. Dirks suffered the same fate.

From Mr. Prentice’s perspective, it might be even worse if he faltered while, say, Mr. Mandel, the former mayor of Edmonton with a certain following in the Capital Region, managed to win.

The outcome of the three by-elections – Mr. Mandel’s in solidly Tory Edmonton-Whitemud, Mr. Dirks’ in Ms. Redford’s disillusioned Calgary-Elbow riding, and Mr. Prentice’s mysteriously still to be announced but likely in Calgary-Nose Hill-Mackay where MLA Neil Brown has kindly offered to give up his seat, may well reveal the fate of the entire 43-year-old PC Dynasty.

So it’s possible that Tory insiders – poring over the auguries over the weekend – were getting cold feet about letting Mr. Prentice stick to his vow to run right away and damn the torpedoes.

That may explain why, just yesterday, Mr. Prentice’s hometown Herald began to cast some doubt on whether the premier would actually call a by-election right away or just indicate which riding he intends to run in one of these days.

If he fails to announce both a date and a riding, Mr. Prentice’s credibility will suffer mightily – but not as mightily as it would if he went on to lose a by-election.

The opposition parties, fearful Mr. Prentice may be about to snatch another PC victory from what days ago seemed to be certain defeat, are in no mood to give the new and unelected premier the traditional easy ride.

On the other hand, it’s not unheard of for a premier to lead from outside the Legislature for a spell.

Timing, as they say, is everything.

Whether Mr. Prentice opts to hold ’em or run today will tell us a lot about how confident the PC back room is that he can deliver what he promised during the leadership campaign.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

The best candidates aren’t necessarily the best candidates in important Edmonton-Whitemud by-election

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith introduces her party’s Edmonton-Whitemud candidate, Tim, Grover, at a news conference in the riding yesterday. Below: NDP Candidate Dr. Bob Turner, Mr. Grover again, and former Edmonton mayor, unelected health minister and PC candidate Stephen Mandel.

In the race to knock off an unelected health minister whose main qualification is that he’s a former elected mayor, it’s a commentary on the state of Alberta that a distinguished hematologist, oncologist and medical school teacher stands far less of a chance of pulling off an upset than a young entrepreneur whose businesses are not even named in his campaign materials.

Well, welcome to politics in suburban Alberta!

The Cross Cancer Institute doctor, you see, is Bob Turner, candidate for the centre-left New Democratic Party. The young businessman is Tim Grover, candidate for the right-wing Wildrose Party. Judging from the turnout of professional journalists at their announcement news conferences in the Edmonton-Whitemud riding at lunchtime yesterday, the mainstream media agrees with this assessment of the two candidates’ relative chances.

Whatever else this is, it’s reality, Alberta style.

The former Edmonton mayor who is now serving as unelected Premier Jim Prentice’s unelected health minister is Stephen Mandel. With his past and present high profile, he is the man to beat in in the by-election set for … well, soon. Mr. Prentice hasn’t actually trusted us with that information yet, nor which riding he intends to run in himself.

But we’re going to need to know it all by next Wednesday if the premier and his two unelected cabinet members are to be able to sit in the Legislature when the next session starts in mid-November. The other is former Evangelical pastor and Saskatchewan cabinet minister Gordon Dirks, who will run in Calgary-Elbow, the riding once represented by disgraced premier Alison Redford.

Given the recent record of the Progressive Conservative Party – whether or not the elevation of Mr. Prentice to the premiership by a few thousand Progressive Conservative Party members amounts to putting Alberta under “new management,” as he claims – all three of them richly deserve to lose. But don’t hold your breath.

Given the record of the PC Party in Edmonton-Whitemud, Mr. Mandel’s chances of winning are excellent. Citizens there have reliably voted PC for most of the last 43 years and it has been represented by two Tory Premiers – Don Getty and, until just the other day, Dave Hancock.

But, as both New Democrats and Wildrosers were quick to point out yesterday, Mr. Getty lost the seat to Liberal Percy Wickman in 1989. The seat was held in 1993 by another Liberal, business professor Mike Percy, who is now Mr. Prentice’s chief of staff, a turn of events that proves … something.

As for Mr. Hancock, he may or may not have been unhappy when he retired from politics two weeks ago. Leastways, interestingly, Mr. Hancock’s former constituency office was closed right down and then snapped up by the Wildrose Party as its campaign office.

Whatever that may mean, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith took care at yesterday’s newser not to raise the party faithful’s hopes so much that a not-entirely unexpected loss in Whitemud would set them on their heels, admitting a victory there will be an uphill battle for her party even as she urged voters to “send the PCs a message.”

Indeed, Mr. Grover’s candidacy may reflect that reality – his is not exactly a household name in Alberta. He is a well-spoken and presentable young man, but he is best known as the Get Out the Vote chair of Edmonton mayoral candidate Karen Leibovici’s unsuccessful campaign last year. In fairness, that campaign’s failure to get out it’s vote should probably be laid at the feet of Ms. Leibovici, not Mr. Grover.

Nevertheless, it’s mildly surprising that the Wildrose Party – lacking a standard-bearer with “Percy” in his name – couldn’t find a higher-profile candidate for this important battle than Mr. Grover.

The party said in its official handouts only that Mr. Grover has opened and sold five small businesses over the past several years. According to his Linkedin account, these included an online grocery shopping service, a teashop and a business consultancy.

As for the NDP’s Dr. Turner, you certainly can’t say he’s not qualified to talk about Mr. Mandel’s portfolio. But if Mr. Grover faces an uphill fight, Dr. Turner’s struggle is probably more akin to climbing Mount Everest.

Still, he told the reporters who showed up at his news conference, sometimes people succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds in his work, which is fighting against cancer. “I see the political process in the same light. If you don’t try, you’re not going to beat ’em.”

William Munsey, a Saskatoon-berry farmer from the village of New Sarepta and president of the Alberta Party, announced last week he will contest the riding for his party, which has no seats in the Legislature. The Alberta Liberals have not yet named a candidate.

If Dr. Turner can get significantly more votes for the NDP than the Liberal and Alberta Party standard bearers, he will render an important service to the New Democrats even if he doesn’t come close to defeating Mr. Mandel.

Such an outcome would make a powerful point that, in the Edmonton area at least, where the NDP enjoys significant support in several ridings, progressive voters really only have one choice if they want representation in the Legislature.

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Apparently we’re not ‘building Alberta’ any more!

What driver in these parts hasn’t seen the road signs naming former premier Alison Redford and declaring that we’re “Building Alberta” hereabouts? What Twitter user can forget #BuildingAlberta, the annoying hashtag that used to be affixed to every Government of Alberta Tweet?

Well, we’re building Alberta no more. Premier Prentice has seen to that! Leastways, on Thursday, he mercifully pulled the plug on the irritating and silly campaign.

Alas, something new and equally brainless is almost certain to be along soon from the fertile imaginations of the social media boffins in the government’s Public Affairs Bureau. #NotBuildingAlbertaJustNow? #MakingAlbertaSafeForToriesAgain?

Readers are invited to submit new slogans for the Prentice Government’s Twitter hashtags and other essential public communications to Alberta Diary.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice repudiates controversial Redford Era triple-entry financial bookkeeping scheme

Alberta Health Minister Stephen Mandel and Premier Jim Prentice, neither elected just yet. Below: Former finance minister Doug Horner, current Education Minister Gordon Dirks, also unelected, and Emperor Augustus. Notice the similarity of the emperor to Mr. Mandel.

Well, nuts to you, Doug Horner!

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice continued his (almost) clean sweep of Redford Era Progressive Conservative Government policies yesterday, whisking away the former party leadership’s weird system of triple-entry bookkeeping that was introduced last year by Mr. Horner in his role as Alison Redford’s finance minister.

As of yesterday, it’s safe to say that the confusing financial reporting scheme touted so enthusiastically by Mr. Horner has become more roadkill of Alberta history, and Mr. Horner himself is clearly collateral damage, gravely politically wounded if not quite dead yet.

Mr. Prentice issued a news release late yesterday morning outlining an “Accountability Act” that will be introduced in the fall session of the Legislature as a key part of the premier’s new broom policy of total de-Refordization.

This followed announcements the day before declaring there would be a review of rural health care, which is in excellent condition compared to the health services situation in Alberta’s major cities, and a move away from the Family Care Clinics promised by Ms. Redford to Primary Care Networks, which are likely to be easier for physicians to control.

That announcement, with unintended symbolism, was made at the well-equipped modern rural hospital in Olds, located just 16 kilometres from another well-equipped modern rural hospital in Didsbury.

At Mr. Prentice’s side was still unelected Health Minister Stephen Mandel, the former mayor of Edmonton, who blundered into a discussion of how extended Emergency Room waits are caused by elderly “bed blockers” – immediately prompting protests from health care workers who reminded him those bed blockers are human beings with little choice in the matter.

But if the health care announcement was an imperfect success, the return to consolidated budgeting yesterday is a powerful symbol. As the Opposition parties will have to sadly agree, it is also sound policy.

Since Mr. Horner’s innovation was universally loathed by left and right, ordinary citizens and high altitude politicos, not to mention the province’s auditor general, this change is likely to be quite popular as well.

As for the other five points in Mr. Prentice’s six-point accountability plan, voters will probably like them at first blush too, but I can’t help thinking they and like policies will eventually sting Mr. Prentice’s government.

Really, by implementing tougher conflict of interest and lobbying rules, making officials wait longer before they can take jobs elsewhere, eliminating “sweetheart severance packages” (the premier’s term, not mine) and eliminating all sole-source contracts, no matter how insignificant, isn’t Mr. Prentice admitting his entire elected caucus is a bunch of clowns who can’t be trusted to play unsupervised?

Really, if Alberta had a truth-in-legislation law, this bill would have to be called the “Ensuring Everything Is Locked Up Tight or Nailed Down so the PC Caucus Can’t Walk Off With the Family Silver Act, 2014.”

In many cases, these are the same people who will be running again for the new, completely different, vastly improved and totally reformed (supposedly) PC government of Mr. Prentice. Is it just me, or is this a potential problem?

Indeed, the sense that the premier thinks his own caucus is made up almost entirely of untrustworthy nincompoops is made more powerful by the government’s communications about its next moves.

Government press releases nowadays emanate solely from El Maximo Lider – Jim Prentice, himself. Typically they begin, “Premier Jim Prentice today announced…” Seemingly the only other trusted figures in his government are Mr. Mandel and Education Minister Gordon Dirks, who also, lest anyone has already forgotten, has not yet been elected.

It’s mildly reassuring, I suppose, that we were informed yesterday afternoon that Messrs. Mandel and Dirks have been nominated to run in by-elections, the dates for which have not yet been set, the former in Edmonton-Whitemud and the latter in Calgary-Elbow, Ms. Redford’s old riding.

Still, they’re not elected yet. So what is this? Rome under the second triumvirate?

Extremely alert readers and those who are also extremely old may recall that the Second Triumvirate marked the end of the Roman Republic, which was not necessarily a good thing, depending on one’s view of the relative merits of republican and imperial government.

I guess the real question here – to stretch an obscure historical analogy like a rubber band – is who will play the role of Octavian (whom most readers will recall as Emperor Augustus) in the Alberta government, Mr. Prenticeor Mr. Mandel?

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Brian Gallant has a thin resume? Stephen Harper hasn’t held a real job since he quit the mailroom in ’79 or whenever!

New Brunswick Premier-designate Brian Gallant, grabbed from his campaign website. Below: Cranky old National Post opinion thingy Kelly McParland, age undetermined; Justin Trudeau, 42, getting off an airplane with some old guy, 62; Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair, 59.

As the present now will later be past

The order is rapidly fadin’

And the first one now will later be last

For the times they are a-changin’ …

— Bob Dylan (age 73)

If anyone has the right to be bitter about bright young Liberal leaders with good looks, great hair and supposedly thin resumes like those of New Brunswick premier-elect Brian Gallant and You-Know-Who, I guess it ought to be the not-quite-sixty-something Thomas Mulcair.

The highly accomplished Mr. Mulcair, after all – who is credited by no less an authority than former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (age 75) with being the best Opposition leader in Canada since John Diefenbaker, which is no mean praise for those of us old enough to remember The Chief – is seemingly being eclipsed by this trend as much as any politician.

But Mr. Mulcair, who will be 60 in exactly one month, just keeps beavering away in the hope and expectation that hard work, persistence and a razor-sharp inquisitorial style in Question Period will pay off in the end.

Maybe it’s because he used to be a Liberal and therefore knows something us non-former-Grits do not. More likely it’s just that you’ve got to be an optimist to be a New Democrat, as we Alberta Knee-Dippers have been proving all the way back to the Calgary Manifesto of 1932.

Instead, it seems that it is the Conservatives, still enjoying the perquisites of power, who are reacting with fury, hatred, panic and vitriol to the phenomenon of appealing young Liberal leaders doing well at the polls and the polling stations. The Liberal they’re most infuriated with, of course, despite yesterday’s foot stomping and breath holding about Mr. Gallant’s election victory, is federal Leader Justin Trudeau (who will be 43 on Christmas Day).

Consider the bitter screed in yesterday’s National Post, the publication founded by permanent Canadian resident Conrad Black (age 70), by columnist and commentary editor Kelly McParland. (I could find no age for Mr. McParland – perhaps that’s information he guards closely, as is his right – but judging from his on-line photographs he must be almost as old a wheeze as me. Either that, or he really should make some lifestyle changes.)

Regardless, Mr. McParland’s diatribe sounded for all the world like that of an angry old man infuriated that the same old obfuscatory Tory tricks are not working any more. He raged against New Brunswick and Ontario voters’ lack of seriousness – read willingness to vote Conservative. (“Canadians want to quit worrying and be happy.”)

He screeched at them for their coolness toward Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the old sourpuss (seemingly 65 although only 55) of 24 Sussex Drive. (“They don’t want to hear about restraint or challenges or the need to persevere. They want a vacation. They want to be young again.”)

And Mr. Gallant’s relatively young age, seemingly, almost moved him to a paroxysm of frustration. (“You don’t know whether to shake his hand or buy him a new scooter.”)

Sticking loyally to the Harper PMO’s main talking point, Mr. McParland assailed the resumes of both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Gallant: “At 32, Brian Gallant, the premier-elect, could be Justin Trudeau’s younger brother. To say his resume is ‘slim’ would be an understatement. He spent a short stint as a lawyer in Moncton, but otherwise has been running for office since he was 24.”

OK, let’s make just one point about that: Other than being on Reach for the Top and being a professional politician since the age of 26, unless you also count being a member of the Young Liberals’ Club in high school, Prime Minister Harper’s resume makes Mr. Gallant’s seem hefty.

He got a job in the mailroom at his dad’s company in 1978, for crying out loud. How long he stuck around seems to have been excised from his online resumes. After that, he got a couple of economics degrees from the University of Calgary’s Political Creation Science Department, best known as the market fundamentalist Canadian equivalent of Oral Roberts University. And when he wasn’t running for office, he worked as an agitator for extremist market fundamentalist Astro-Turf groups. That’s it!

This is not to say that Mr. Harper’s political accomplishments are either inconsequential or came easily. Of course not.

But for the life of me, I cannot see how they are any different from the political accomplishments of successful young politicians like Mr. Trudeau or Mr. Gallant – who will be the youngest premier in Canadian history, by a month, when he is sworn into office.

By contrast to the PM, Mr. Gallant managed to get through law school, which I would suggest is considerably more of an accomplishment than getting a “Calgary School” BA and MA from ideological friends and fellow travellers in the faculty.

By contrast to both, Mr. Trudeau, who has Bachelors degrees in literature and education from two different universities, has worked as a teacher, for heaven’s sake, which is as real a job as you can get. If the Conservative Party wishes to demean him as a “drama teacher,” he can be confident that most Canadians don’t seem to be buying it, and for good reason.

That’s the Conservative way, though, isn’t it? If you can’t get anywhere with the facts, make up new facts. And if that doesn’t work, start spewing hatred and abuse.

Speaking of which, at least Mr. McParland’s sour whinging sounds pretty level-headed compared to commentator, if that’s the word, Ezra Levant’s increasingly bizarre and obsessive rants on the so-called Sun News Network on the topic of Mr. Trudeau’s parents. It’s actually kind of sad to see someone come unstuck in public as Mr. Levant, circa 42, appears to be doing.

Meanwhile, if cranky old Canadians like Mr. McParland and some of the other columnists he supervises at the National Pest just can’t stand the idea of a politician who looks young and has nice hair, they should think about voting for Mr. Mulcair. He may be old and cranky too, but he’s also smart, accomplished and better spoken than any other federal party leader.

One way or another, eventually the Pest’s opinion providers are going to have to reconcile themselves to the fact that the times, they are a-changin’.

They certainly shouldn’t be fooled into thinking Mr. Harper’s resume is weighty enough not to float away on the first gentle puff of breeze.

It’s as thin as a single sheet of paper! The man hasn’t held a real job since he left the mailroom in 1979 or whenever the heck it was!

This post by David Climenhaga (age 62) is also found on Rabble.ca.

Calgary’s new ‘Band-Aid’ schools: just the thing for a government suffering the death of a thousand cuts

Temporary structures like the army huts in the background, built in 1939 and ’40, were still in use when this shot was taken at the just-formed University of Victoria circa 1963, and a few of them are still in use today. Below: Alberta Premier Jim Prentice, Wildrose education critic Jeff Wilson and Liberal education critic Kent Hehr.

So we can probably all see how this one is going to roll out: Premier Jim Prentice announced four new “starter” public schools in under-served Calgary suburbs today. That’s just Calgary.

Today or tomorrow, if he likes, he can announce four more in Edmonton, a couple more the next day in Red Deer or Lethbridge, and so on, just to keep the good news rolling, day after cheerful day, at least until the next session of the Legislature begins.

At such a rate, Alberta would soon be approaching press release production unseen since the record-breaking levels reached by the Stelmach Government back between 2006 and 2011. Back then, it seemed as if the so-called Public Affairs Bureau, the world’s largest publicly owned advertising agency, used to churn out five and six news releases every day.

The Prentice Government is calling the new schools “Starter Schools,” seeing as they will be slapped up as temporary structures on sites where the government promises permanent schools will be built later. They are, however, bound to come to be known as “Band-Aid Schools,” after what their critics are inevitably already calling them, especially if they last as long as I suspect some of them may.

“This is a Band-Aid,” huffed MLA Jeff Wilson, pinch-hitting as Wildrose education critic, predictably and accurately enough. The Alberta Liberals’ education critic, Kent Hehr, called the new schools “a Band-Aid solution for the infrastructure crisis facing Alberta’s schools.” The New Democrats probably said the same thing, but I must’ve missed that press release.

In the mean time, budget hawks take note, the new schools may not be of the very best quality – possibly only a step up from the kind of temporary trailers used in Tarpatch bush camps north of Fort McMurray – but they won’t cost very much either. So at least on this point, and at least until after the next general election, Mr. Prentice can have cake and eat it too. He will be building public schools. He won’t be overspending on them.

The cost of the schools named in the Calgary announcement will be about $30 million. And, seriously, what would the opposition parties have said if Mr. Prentice had added another $2-billion or so – which happens to be the sum already budgeted by the Redford Government for new schools – to the provincial budget?

Each Band-Aid School will house about 250 students in 10 modular buildings. They won’t have a gym or a library, or, presumably, a music room.

But they can also be bolted together very quickly – say, in time to be on display in a neighbourhood near you for the next general election.

Notwithstanding Mr. Wilson’s assessment that “this is a failure,” that is not at all clear from a political point of view. There’s a purpose for Band-Aids, and the suburban Calgary neighbourhoods that will get these structures sound like the right kind of places with an urgent need for schools now, permanent details to be worked out later.

What’s more, from the perspective of a government that’s been suffering the death of a thousand cuts, Band-Aids may be just what it needs right now!

The real question will be how temporary the schools in fact turn out to be.

They will become a political liability at some point if the better-quality permanent facilities don’t get built as pledged with gyms, libraries and music rooms. But my guess is parents in the neighbourhoods where they are planned – pretty solid Tory territory historically for the most part – will be happy to have anything close to home in the short to medium term.

That’s almost certainly time enough to get the government through the next election. Call that cynical if you will, it will hardly matter to the PCs if it works.

But temporary buildings can turn out to be useful for longer than anyone expects.

The University of Victoria – where I did my undergraduate studies – was built on the site of an old Canadian Army camp in Gordon Head and made use of many “temporary” army huts that had been slapped together soon after the Second World War started in 1939 and 1940.

After 75 years, several of them are still in use. Presumably the last of them will be phased out in, oh, another 25 years or so.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Be careful what you ask for! Jim Prentice walks away with the Wildrose political play book

Premier Jim Prentice. Below: Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith and former party strategist Tom Flanagan, this time on the button.

As the expression goes: be careful what you ask for! You might just get it.

There is irony – perhaps even bitter irony – in what newly minted Alberta Premier Jim Prentice managed to do to the Wildrose Opposition last week and will likely continue to do to them this week as well.

As he attempts to right the leaky Progressive Conservative ship of state, which nearly sank during the inept captaincy of fired premier Alison Redford, he has not only emphatically abandoned a whole gamut of policies once implemented by the Redford Government, he has done what the federal Liberals have done repeatedly to the New Democratic Party.

To wit: in a spectacular act of political plagiarism, he seems to be adopting the entire Wildrose policy book, not to mention those of the NDP and the Alberta Liberals – returning to consolidated budgeting, selling off the government’s fleet of aircraft, keeping the Michener Centre open, and so on.

Yet there is little Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith and her MLAs can do but pray someone is paying attention as they stand helplessly by and protest, “Hey! That was our idea!”

If the federal Liberal model holds, the Wildrose Party’s strategists have to understand that voters who are fooled by this brazen sleight of hand will never get it until after the election, when they will complain bitterly that they’ve been had if the government fails to follow through. The next time it comes along, however, they can be counted upon to take the bait again.

That’s got to be a sobering prospect to Wildrose strategists who once thought they had the perfect foil in premier Ed Stelmach, and then realized they had an even better one in Ms. Redford. Mr. Prentice does not seem to be so co-operative.

Indeed, since the Wildrose Party is helped by some very smart strategists with close ties to the federal Conservative Party, they are sure to understand that, despite their recent promising poll numbers, their grasp on certain victory began to loosen the moment Ms. Redford was forced to resign.

It’s all very well to say, as they undoubtedly tell themselves, that copying the Wildrose policy book at the start of the campaign kills the PCs’ best election talking point: that the Prentice Tories are somehow different from their principal opposition. But it has to frighten them that this technique has never bothered anyone, except the hapless New Democrats who were its most usual victims, when perpetrated by Liberals.

What Daveberta.ca author Dave Cournoyer calls the “de-Redfordization” process begun by Mr. Prentice has indeed resulted in a dramatic and remarkable turnaround in only a week. I frankly didn’t believe Mr. Prentice when he said, back on Sept. 9, that “after two weeks with me as the premier, there will be no doubts in anyone’s minds that this a time of renewal and a time of change. Put your seat belts on.” Well, he’s proved me wrong, at least as far as the change part goes, and in only one week!

He may by now have pretty much run out of Redford policies to reverse – except for the anti-union bills 45 and 46, one of which has never been enacted and the other of which has been rendered moot by the contract reached in collective bargaining with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

But this week he will start to make promises that that Ms. Redford made and broke – with a considerably greater degree of credibility than the former premier given his performance in his first week. The rumour mill suggests he will start today by announcing plans to build numerous new schools.

Here too Mr. Prentice may steal from the Opposition play book, and the Opposition will have no effective comeback but to state the obvious and be ignored. Because, alas for them as for generations of federal New Democrats, there is no enforceable copyright on political and policy ideas.

Then, before we know it, we will be into a new session and Mr. Prentice will have the opportunity to introduce some new legislation – perhaps again stealing from the opposition parties with a comprehensive travel policy for MLAs and ministers, limits on severance for senior staff and strict per diems instead of unlimited expenses. Maybe he’ll even toss something symbolic to the LGTBQ community.

So where does that leave the government and its opposition? Well, I would say the analysis Saturday by former Wildrose chief strategist Tom Flanagan – who has now been thoroughly rehabilitated by the conservative media that spurned him last year – is close to flawless.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, Dr. Flanagan accurately described the Tories wobbly coalition and how it works – and how the loss of most conservative voters in Alberta doesn’t necessarily mean it will collapse if centre-left voters can be persuaded to back them one more time.

Dr. Flanagan is largely right too about the inherent contradiction in the whole rickety structure – that it can only deliver both balanced budgets and new spending if the notoriously fickle energy sector fluctuates in the right direction.

But there’s every reason to believe that’s exactly what’s going to happen. With winter approaching in Europe and the Wildrosers’ federal cousins doing what they can to exacerbate the sense of crisis on that continent, and with ISIS-ISIL-IS waging a vicious and frightening post-nation-state war across great swaths of the Middle East, the auguries suggest energy prices are unlikely to fall in the winter of 2014 or the spring of 2015.

If that is so, the conditions for yet another Tory win may be in place, and Albertans will find themselves living with Peter Lougheed’s political legacy for nigh on half a century!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Rob Anders, Canada’s Worst MP, has been handed his great big hat a second time

Calgary West MP Rob Anders waves farewell from the back of a pickup truck, a type of vehicle that along with firearms was numbered among his most loved things. Below: Nomination victor Martin Shields; Mr. Anders in one of his favourite poses, with a great big pistol, and asleep in the House of Commons.

Leaving so soon, Mr. Anders? Here’s your hat.

Long before Canadians had the Ford Brothers to humiliate them around the globe, there was Rob Anders, the hardy perennial of the Canadian loony right – elected six times over 17 years by the inattentive voters of Calgary West.

But last night, Mr. Anders, renowned across the land and throughout the world as “Canada’s Worst MP” and the man who dismissed Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist,” was rejected by Conservative Party members in the rural Bow River riding, which covers a vast tract of land east and south of Calgary.

It was the second time in the last six months Mr. Anders, born on April Fools Day 1972,  has suffered that fate in a nomination vote the hands of local Tories, who are seemingly as fed up with his antics as the rest of us.

Mr. Anders’ double defeat is a huge loss to the Canadian blogosphere, which will miss his comedic value; both opposition parties, to whom he was a useful symbol of Conservative lunacy; and the country’s most extreme gun nuts and social conservatives, who were apparently his only remaining supporters.

Conservative Party members in the new Bow River electoral district elected Martin Shields, mayor of the Town of Brooks, site of the massive meat-packing plant at the centre of Canada’s largest meat products recall in 2013 and one of the larger communities in the huge and sparsely populated area.

Back in April, Mr. Anders was sent packing by the urban voters of another new riding created in the last redistribution of Alberta’s federal electoral districts, Calgary Signal Hill. They chose instead Ron Liepert, the former Alberta health minister, a politician almost as controversial as Mr. Anders himself.

Given that the new Calgary Signal Hill riding occupied much of the same territory as the old Calgary West district, it’s not at all certain Mr. Anders would not have been skidded by his own party even without redistribution. He was increasingly recognized as an embarrassment serious enough to pose a threat to the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

That said, it is probably a mistake to over-analyze Mr. Anders’ defeat in a geographical area where the local Conservative Party candidate, no matter how bizarre, is normally a shoo-in in the next general election.

So perhaps it was not Mr. Anders’ bizarre behaviour – falling sleep on camera in the House of Commons, suggesting NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair caused the death of former leader Jack Layton, striking butchy poses with his latest firearms, voting against honorary citizenship for Mr. Mandela and, in his youth, working as a professional heckler in the United States – so much as his lack of local connections that caused his electoral demise this time.

Mr. Shields was a well-known mayor in one of the riding’s main rural communities. The two other candidates – one from a semi-suburban community east of Calgary and the other from a rural area – did not have his support base. As for Mr. Anders, despite his enthusiasm for guns and pickup trucks and his formidable talent as a campaigner, was seen as a carpet-bagger, and a weird one to boot.

Most of the interest in Mr. Anders second, desperate bid for a nomination came from outside the riding.

Now that he has been handed his great big hat a second time, one would expect Mr. Anders just to take his generous Parliamentary pension and go quietly away. Don’t count on it.

That, alas, is probably too much to hope. He will remain the MP for Calgary West until the next federal election, plenty of opportunity to embarrass the nation. And he will likely turn up shortly as a spokesperson for one or another far-right think tank, lobby, crowd-funding agency or “charitable” foundation. Manning Centre, c’mon on down!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice plucks the low-hanging fruit – now for the hard stuff…

If getting rid of SAM wasn’t that easy, imagine what the green eggs and ham are going to be like! Above, Premier Jim Prentice with the licence plate Alberta won’t be dumping after all. (CBC photo) Below: The typical Progressive Conservative, not necessarily exactly as illustrated.

It’s one thing to let a couple of pieces of ill-considered and unpopular legislation die on the order paper.

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice did that yesterday with Bills 9 and 10, two bad ideas cooked up by the brainiacs in Alison Redford’s inner circle to make the anti-public-service and financial services lobbies happy by attacking the retirement security of modestly paid working people in the name of sustainability.

Likewise, it’s one thing to toss a bit of mindless but expensive symbolism over the side, which Mr. Prentice also did later yesterday when he mercifully pulled the plug on the Dave Hancock Government’s brain-dead $15-million-plus notion of eliminating the “Wild Rose Country” slogan on Alberta automotive licence plates because of, well … you know who.

Ditto replacing Old Tory hacks in comfortable trade-office sinecures at home and abroad with New Tory hacks in the same places, which Mr. Prentice announced the day before.

Mr. Prentice’s strategy for showing that there’s a real difference between his government and the two or three with the same name that went before it is not unexpected, and it is not inept.

It wouldn’t be surprising if he sent a bad idea from the Redford-Hancock era out with the trash every day until the new session of the Legislature starts on Nov. 17. God knows, there were enough of them!

As strategies go for political parties caught in a tight spot of their own making, this isn’t a bad one. Mr. Prentice seems to like American legislative symbolism, so maybe he’s got something like John F. Kennedy’s First One Hundred Days in office in mind. JFK hit the ground running, even if it was really FDR who coined the phrase.

But for this strategy to work, it’s said here, the premier is going to have to do more than pick off the low-hanging fruit. If he’s going to persuade Albertans he’s delivering meaningful change, he’s going to have to deliver meaningful change.

Here are a couple of ideas, one he can do now, one he can do when the Legislature resumes sitting:

First, call for an investigation into the voting irregularities in the PC leadership race that give him his job.

This is the kind of thing PC parties past just swept under the rug. Who can forget party president Bill Smith vowing to get to the bottom of who gave the party voters list to the Calgary Herald to pass on to a pollster? Once Ms. Redford was in power, commitment to that idea evaporated in seconds.

It’s what party officials did instinctively this time too.

But Mr. Prentice wants us to believe that was then and this is now. He could do so persuasively by taking the allegations of a party volunteer seriously that she was required to give multiple voter PINs to an Edmonton MLA instead of just blowing it off like Alberta Tories of yore.

Heaven knows, his victory was decisive enough it’s not as if he would be putting his job at risk. Au contraire!

Here, I’ll even write a line from his press release for him, free of charge: “‘The days when the end justifies the means in Alberta politics are over,’ Mr. Prentice said. ‘Anyone caught stuffing a ballot box in any circumstances will find themselves out of my caucus.’”

This would be a powerful warning to his caucus – and an equally powerful message to voters – that unethical behaviour will no longer be tolerated. For real.

Second, when the Legislature resumes sitting, it is time to repeal Bills 45 and 46, the blatantly unconstitutional legislation that was at the core of what passed for the Redford Government’s labour relations strategy.

Bill 45 is a disgrace and an insult to all Albertans, openly outlawing public speech by anyone in support of a strike by public employees. It is doomed in the courts, and any effort by the province to defend it will only throw good money after bad.

Bill 46, which was designed to allow the government to circumvent collective bargaining with its own civil servants, has already been excoriated by the courts.

In granting the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees an injunction against the bill, Mr. Justice Denny Thomas suggested the government had never bargained in good faith, as its own laws require, but had merely sat at the bargaining table as “camouflage for a different agenda.”

Bill 46 is now moot, because AUPE has signed an agreement with the government, but it is nevertheless a powerful symbol of Ms. Redford’s disdain for the rights of Albertans and the arrogance of her misrule. Bill 45 was given Royal Assent but never proclaimed, a dodge likely designed to make it a little harder to challenge in court.

Formally repealing these laws in the Legislature – an “act of contrition,” as a friend of mine puts it, that would require the Tory caucus to publicly change course on legislation they never should have supported – would help heal the profound distrust for the party in the public sector. This would not only make it easier for Mr. Prentice to implement his promises of fiscal restraint and structural change to health care and education, but is the only way to attract enough progressive voters back to his party to give it any chance at survival.

These things would be harder to do than just tossing out an ugly licence plate. For starters, they would prompt real resistance in Tory ranks.

But if Mr. Prentice wants to persuade Albertans he’s making real change, he’ll have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. So far, he’s just talking.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Ex-leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk vows to pen tell-all book on Alison Redford’s rule

Your blogger with budding author Thomas Lukaszuk, back during the former deputy premier’s campaign to lead the PC Party. Below: Former PC premier Alison Redford; current PC Premier Jim Prentice.

I’ve gotta say, I’m really looking forward to my free copy of Thomas Lukaszuk’s tell-all book about how he tried to save the Redford Government but the premier just wouldn’t let him. A great review is almost guaranteed!

Seriously, I’m assuming this literary endeavor means Mr. Lukaszuk has decided he doesn’t have much of a career in the government of Premier Jim Prentice. At any rate, it seems unlikely he will after the publication of A Burning Bridge Too Far, Mistakes Were Made, Hair Care Tips for Men, or whatever it is he decides to call his forthcoming volume.

As alert readers of this blog will recall, even those with very short memories, Mr. Lukaszuk was fired-premier Alison Redford’s deputy premier and confrontational point man on big fights with public service unions and bigger cuts to post-secondary education. He also served as MLA for the Edmonton-Castle Downs riding under premiers Ralph Klein, Ed Stelmach and Dave Hancock.

Later, when he ran against Mr. Prentice for the leadership of what was left of the Progressive Conservative government after Ms. Redford got finished with it, he recast himself as a representative of the party’s progressive wing and suggested that the funding cuts, which hit Edmonton’s University of Alberta particularly hard, weren’t his idea.

When Mr. Prentice was sworn in as unelected premier earlier this week, he appointed challenger Ric McIver to cabinet, notwithstanding the attack ads the Calgary MLA ran in the last days of the leadership campaign, but he pointedly assigned Mr. Lukaszuk to the party’s distant back benches despite the fact he’d run a vigorous and entertaining campaign.

The Canadian Press reported this morning that Mr. Lukaszuk, who came to Canada from Poland as a child, is about to write a “behind the scenes” book on his years in the Tory Government, especially under the leadership of Ms. Redford. No publication date has been set.

“Lukaszuk says there is a lot to the Redford era people don’t know about, including the Tory politicians who tried to stand up and fight her spending scandals,” said the CP’s earnest reporter. Those people who tried to fight her scandalous behaviour, presumably, will include Mr. Lukaszuk.

The CP story also dropped hints we’ll learn more from Mr. Lukaszuk about how Ms. Redford “spent lavishly on herself, bullied subordinates and threw temper tantrums.” This is bound to be highly entertaining.

Presumably Mr. Lukaszuk will pass more lightly over the statements by civil servants’ union president Guy Smith that his confrontational approach resulted in “a huge amount of mistrust and lack of respect.” A ruling by a superior court early this year in the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees’ successful effort to get an injunction against Bill 46, which Mr. Lukaszuk had championed although it was technically introduced by then finance minister Doug Horner, tended to give credence to Mr. Smith’s interpretation of events.

With his political career now on the skids, Mr. Lukaszuk obviously decided a literary turn was just the thing to revive his fortunes. While he represents a northwest Edmonton riding in the Legislature, Mr. Lukaszuk resides in the bedroom suburb of St. Albert, which is represented by Independent former Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber.

Mr. Rathgeber has recently written a book of his own – Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada – an effort that has received constant coverage in the local free weekly newspapers, notwithstanding a less-than-well-known publisher. So Mr. Lukaszuk would have had an example of the next step he could take showing up in his mailbox every couple of days.

To those who suggest that Mr. Lukaszuk’s writing style – which so far as we know up to now has been restricted to frequent and often cantankerous Tweets – may leave something to be desired, I say nonsense. At any rate, he has a trained journalist, likely a capable ghostwriter and editor, in his own household.

Readers are invited to submit suggested titles for Mr. Lukaszuk’s future doorstopper to Alberta Diary.

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Ordinary Albertans deserve the credit for killing Bills 9 and 10

The neoliberal attack on fair pensions is guaranteed to continue, but working people in Alberta can nevertheless celebrate a victory with the Prentice Government’s decision today to  climb down from the Redford Government’s unwarranted attack on both public and private sector pensions.

Have no doubt, this change happened because of determined political action by affected citizens – workers with modest pensions and their family members – who ensured their MLAs knew what they thought of the attack on their retirement savings and what the likely consequences would be in the next general election.

In normal times, this might not have had much impact in Alberta. But these are not normal times, and the consequences were potentially quite severe for MLAs in Premier Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservative Party who won narrowly in 2012 in many ridings throughout the province.

The fact a steady stream of working people had been visiting their constituency offices to express their anger and dismay at Bill 9, the Public Sector Pension Plans Amendment Act, and Bill 10, the Employment Pension (Private Sector) Plans Amendment Act, was a major contributing factor in the unprecedented decision of the PC caucus to fire premier Alison Redford in March.

There is no doubt as well that it played a big part in Mr. Prentice’s decision to cashier former finance minister Doug Horner from cabinet after the central role he played in the push to turn public sector pensions from defined benefit to “target benefit” plans, and allow private corporations to convert pension plans at will into “defined contribution” plans in which retired employees must bear all the risks.

A terse press release from the government yesterday morning noted that Bills 9 and 10 would die on the order paper when the current sitting of the Legislature was prorogued. The release noted that a new session will begin with a Throne Speech on Nov. 17.

Most observers were pretty certain that would happen anyway. What was really interesting was that the news release also promised “Bills 9 and 10 will not be introduced under the Prentice Government.”

Count on it that certain self-styled commentators on tax issues – some of whom may have an interest in running for other conservative political parties – to respond with a certain amount of anger, even hysteria, to this announcement.

Assume as well that the corporate-financed organized right will continue its campaign against secure retirements for all working people. I expect we can stand by for announcements and “studies” from the likes of the Fraser Institute and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation momentarily.

In the mean time, though, ordinary Albertans can congratulate themselves on a job well done. And small business people in the communities where they live – if they’re actually paying attention – should be grateful that the money will continue to be spent locally, instead of shipped offshore to corporate tax shelters.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.