A look back to 2010: Cuba loves Chevrolets and GM needs sales – what’s wrong with this picture?

An ancient Jeep, probably with a transplanted Lada engine, drops passengers at Revolution Square four years ago in Havana. With Uber starting up, we finally have the same service here in Edmonton! The sign says: “51 years of struggle and victories.” Below: an old Chevrolet still in service on a Havana street, and scenes of Havana’s crumbling housing. Oh, wait! The last one’s in Detroit.

With all the excitement in Alberta these past few days, it’s been easy to forget there’s a bigger world out there and things have been happening in it. Now, it is not normal here to rerun old posts, indeed, it’s never happened before in the seven years Alberta Diary has been published. As regular readers may suspect, it’s just not that difficult for the author to churn out 1,000 words or so on the topic of the day. Still, given U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision finally after more than half a century to end the embargo of Cuba, it seemed timely to reprint this post from Dec. 24, 2010:


Charles Erwin Wilson, president of America’s largest automaker through World War II, was more than half right when he remarked, “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

So, how dumb are our American cousins, anyway?

Here in Cuba, a country of 11 million souls, every one of whom appears to love Chevrolets, any new car you see nowadays is likely a Peugeot or a Geely. Meanwhile, the streets of this proud little island are a-hustle with vintage Chevies – not to mention Mercuries, Plymouths, Packards and Ramblers lovingly maintained with Bondo, duct tape and Russian knock-off parts. They’re kept running, the Cubans boast, by the world’s best mechanics.

This isn’t the doing of either the country’s Communist government or wily French and Chinese auto salesmen. It’s the Americans shooting themselves in both feet, year after year for more than half a century, as they punish the cheeky Cubans for setting too independent an example to the Third World. It’s certainly no objection to Communism, as the hypocritical Americans have little trouble dealing with China or Vietnam.

This punishment takes the form of an embargo – an act of war. The half-century-long war against Cuba hurts ordinary Cubans without question. They struggle on a shoestring, with a little help from their Canadian and European friends – plus the Russians, who are back in droves, mostly as tourists, though more than a few have that Spetsnaz look.

So antique cars, motorcycle sidecars, battered buses and trucks doing service as public transit are the order of the day for ordinary Cubans on the move – not to mention horse-drawn wagons and shoe leather as an obvious fuel shortage bites. Tourists ride in Chinese-made buses.

One could argue the effects of the embargo have not been all bad. Despite their proximity to Florida, the embargo has insulated the Cubans from many of the worst features of American culture. It has also vastly strengthened the government of the Brothers Castro, although this has allowed Cubans to excel in unexpected areas.

Nowadays, American taxpayers may be looking as shopworn as the average Cuban, but even as their government bailed out fat-cat bankers with trillions of dollars, there was no way poor and working Americans had access to the equivalent of Cuba’s excellent systems of public education or health care. It makes one wonder what Cubans could have achieved without the cruel and stupid embargo.

But the embargo has also hurt Americans. Not so far away in Detroit, another crumbling city, the former Big Three automakers are still in business thanks only to bailouts by hard-pressed taxpayers.

Journalists who cover the U.S. automakers began years ago to call these companies “the Detroit Three,” in recognition of the fact non-American carmakers like Toyota, Fiat and Volkswagen are now bigger. In 2009, all GM was so close to collapse it couldn’t function without, in effect, state ownership. You know, like Cuba. And despite the enthusiasm of stock touts, its condition remains fragile.

Access to a market of 11 million people who love GM products and paste Chevrolet bowtie logos on decrepit Ladas and Skodas might not save the Detroit Three, but it sure as heck wouldn’t hurt!

Fully opening this market to American business would also help the Canadian industrial heartland. After all, GM’s most productive and reliable assembly plants are in Ontario. Some are mothballed, and thousands of workers have lost jobs, because of GM’s troubles.

We have an expression in English to describe behaviour like the U.S. embargo of Cuba. It’s called “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” If the Americans were smart, they’d stop. Instead, under President Barack Obama’s disappointing leadership, things seem to have gotten worse.

Ordinary Cubans, of course, crave an end to this pointless cruelty. Perhaps, though, they should be careful what they wish for. Someday they may find new Chevrolets and new friends aren’t as reliable as the old ones!

This post originally appeared as David Climenhaga’s column in the Dec. 24, 2010, edition of the Saint City News, a weekly newspaper in St. Albert, Alberta, that no longer exists. It appeared the same day in this blog, with some interesting comments, and on Rabble.

Tory resistance to Wildrose interlopers? Don’t believe it! Here’s why Danielle Smith will soon get her cabinet post

Preston Manning joins the sales team for the new, new, newly united Wildrosey Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. Actual beloved godfathers of the conservative movement may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: The real Mr. Manning smiling benevolently, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice in a Joe-Clark-like moment, former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith when she was still pretending she thought the Prentice PCs were evil, and former federal Liberal Conservative cabinet minister David Emerson.

Don’t worry, Danielle Smith will soon be deputy premier of Alberta or occupy a similarly influential post.

Likewise, Rob Anderson will be finance minister or something similar, if not by next week, as soon as Christmas and New Year are out of the way. Perhaps one or two of the other Wildrose Party defectors will join the cabinet of Premier Jim Prentice as well.

Nothing is absolutely certain, of course, especially when all the important business of Canada’s “most ethical and transparent government” is conducted behind locked doors as far as possible from the prying eyes and ears of taxpaying citizens and smart aleck bloggers. Mr. Prentice certainly doesn’t phone me up and tell me what his plans are.

Still, the man himself is already dropping hints, and when you think about it, this is the only future narrative that makes any sense.

A deal was made in Edmonton in a dark and secret place, and the terms of that deal are going to have to be kept or the wronged party could do serious damage.

And this wasn’t just some handshake agreement with a smooth-talking sales guy either. As befits a group of people whose promises aren’t necessarily made to be kept forever, there was a detailed written document, some of which at least we have seen. Somewhere there may even be a signed copy with all the fine print.

Preston Manning, the godfather of the Canadian right, not only came down from on high in Calgary to bless the union, but played a role in brokering the secret deal. He’s now using his soothing persona to evangelize on its behalf.

So you can also count on it that there was a quid pro quo, with the imprimatur of Mr. Manning himself and the solemn agreement of both parties, plus a certain amount of strategic leaking to well-placed reporters just in case. What the media reported thereafter was that Ms. Smith and Mr. Anderson have portfolios waiting for them.

Right now, while they work their way through the (perhaps to them surprisingly) intense public reaction to the unprecedented and breathtakingly cynical deal for the opposition to quit en masse and join the government party, both groups have the power to make trouble for the other if the deal goes south, and neither has anything to gain from that happening.

Remember, Ms. Smith is now not powerless in caucus. She has a rump of at least 10 supporters there, former members of her former party, and probably more.

Finally, the closed-door deal – from which you, Ms. and Mr. Voter, were completely excluded – has to include cabinet posts for key Wildrosers or, to be blunt about it, they simply wouldn’t have come across. 

So the logical conclusion is that Ms. Smith’s cabinet appointment and the others are a done deal, and the deal will be completed sooner than later.

If I were one of Mr. Prentice’s more vulnerable current cabinet members – say, like Finance Minister Robin Campbell, Minister of Licence Plates Stephen Khan or Tourism Minister Maureen Kubinec – I’d be quite worried about this. Cabinet must remain small to present the right image during the short-lived austerity opportunity provided by temporarily low oil prices, so a couple of loyal Tories will have to go over the side, and those three are all candidates for the high jump.

As for Mr. Prentice’s claim during Wednesday’s news conference that any such appointments had been delayed because of resistance in his own caucus, this hardly seems credible.

At the moment – at least until the full integration of Ms. Smith and the rest of the Mudville Nine into the caucus – Mr. Prentice is a premier in complete and total control.

He may have been presented during his leadership campaign as a candidate gently akin to former prime minister Joe Clark, to whom he bears an occasional passing resemblance, but he turns out to be a leader more in the style of current Prime Minister Stephen Harper. So the PC caucus will do what he tells them, when he tells them, with very little backchat.

No, the problem is the blowback in Southern Alberta from the jaw-dropping cynicism and outrageous careerism of an opposition party folding its tent to join a government of convenience with a 43-year-old behemoth that’s hardly had a good idea since Don Getty took over in 1985. This is as the Wildrosers themselves regularly reminded us until just days ago, it must be remembered.

The dealmakers may also need a little time to solve the problem of recalcitrant Wildrose Party executives determined to hang onto the party’s bank account, and furious members cutting up their membership cards with chainsaws and posting recall petitions on social media.

No doubt Mr. Manning will help with those problems, pouring some grandfatherly unguent on the troubled waters, as may a couple of the MLAs left in the five-member Wildrump Opposition party who for practical tactical reasons of their own need to delay their departure for Tory Nirvana for a spell.

Meanwhile, the key participants in this carefully staged production all sound a little like David Emerson, the Liberal cabinet minister from the Vancouver-Kingsway riding who in 2006 switched teams to Mr. Harper’s victorious Conservatives two weeks after the federal election didn’t turn out as he hoped.

Like this week’s Wildrose defection, that deal too was hatched in secret.

Soon afterward, Mr. Emerson claimed to be “flabbergasted” that anyone would have been upset, telling the CBC: “I am pursuing the very agenda that I got involved to pursue when I was in the Liberal Party supporting Paul Martin. I’m continuing to pursue it.” What could be more reasonable?

Or, as Ms. Smith put it on Wednesday afternoon, “if you look at our statement of principles, our aligned values, it’s very clear that the lion’s share of Wildrose policy is contained in those shared values.”

This may take a few days to blow over, but, when it does, count on it, Ms. Smith will get her influential cabinet post.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Danielle Smith’s conduct and the mass Wildrose defection must be seen as character issues

Former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith with her new boss, Premier Jim Prentice, at yesterday’s news conference announcing the defection of the nine Wildrose caucus members to the Progressive Conservative Party. (Photo by Dave Cournoyer, used with permission.) Below: Another shot of the pair in an informal moment at the start of the news conference.

It’s a character issue.

Certainly the recent conduct of the leadership of the Wildrose Party, which this afternoon culminated with the desertion of most of its key elected officials to Premier Jim Prentice’s ruling Progressive Conservative caucus leaving their loyalists and supporters in the lurch, has to be considered as an issue of character.

The ability of Parliamentarians to cross the floor is essential to the operation of our Canadian system of Responsible Government, and so not every floor-crosser ought to be be described as behaving badly.

But when more than half a caucus, elected and supported by voters who put their faith in the idea their party offered something different and better, decamps and joins their former enemy, it is hard to summon up excuses, or indeed anything but contempt, on their behalf.

In addition, when you consider key events in the career of former Alberta Opposition leader Danielle Smith, it’s also difficult to conclude that issues of character have not been in play before.

Indeed, at a number of key moments in her career, Ms. Smith has left a trail of devastation in her wake that, at the very least, suggests a lack of empathy for co-workers, rivals and now her own supporters.

Her abandonment of her own Wildrose Party because the road ahead seemed to be a hard one – and possibly also to get a post in Mr. Prentice’s cabinet – suggests what we might euphemistically call a “lack of moral fibre.”

Moreover, while we should generally give the benefit of the doubt and assume a lone floor-crosser acted out of genuine principle, that is harder to do when a legislator has crossed twice in opposite directions, as Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson did yesterday.

That is why, of course, Sir Winston Churchill’s observation about his own floor crossing strikes most of us as hilarious: “Anyone can rat,” he famously said. “It takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.”

When Ms. Smith and Mr. Anderson changed parties in the company of seven other members of the Wildrose caucus whom they had obviously persuaded to come along, it failed to pass the ethical sniff test, notwithstanding the doctrinal similarity of the two parties. That’s because “there is no difference” is most definitely what Wildrose supporters and donors were being told as the plotting proceeded apace in secrecy.

When I first met Ms. Smith, she had just joined the Calgary Herald. This was at a time labour relations there were in a downward spiral and an ugly strike was looming. The newspaper’s proprietor in Central Canada brought in a publisher with a reputation as a union buster during this time, and Ms. Smith was one of several employees hired not long before the strike began on Nov. 8, 1999. I was the vice-president of the journalists’ union, so, yes, I have an interest in this ancient history.

Whatever her motivations for coming on staff, Ms. Smith crossed picket lines and worked throughout the strike.

Now, I will admit that I do not agree with Jack London’s prescription for strikebreakers. There are many reasons some of my colleagues crossed their co-workers’ picket lines, some of them even saw themselves as acting on principle. More were frightened, suffering from loss of income, under pressure from family members or a host of similar reasons. One, nearing retirement, had been told by someone in a senior job he would lose his pension. Only a few acted out of hard-nosed self-interest.

To me, though, for someone to come in from outside to play that role in a long-standing labour dispute, no matter how misguided the unionized employees may have been and even though it is completely legal to cross picket lines in the province of Alberta, does not speak well of a person’s character. I’ll respect your right to disagree.

Ms. Smith had come to the attention of the Herald’s management partly as a result of her activities as an elected trustee on the Calgary Public Board of Education. She was also known, I am sure, as a former Fraser Institute apparatchik with the right ideological credentials and temperament for the new owners of the Herald and other papers in the then-Southam newspaper chain.

This was a period after the 1998 civic election when the CBOE became so dysfunctional that the minister of education used his legal power to dismiss the trustees and put an administrator in change until the next scheduled election.

Ms. Smith alone can hardly be blamed for this situation. The board’s notorious troubles seemed to have arisen after the 1998 civic vote from an ideological rift between trustees committed to public education as traditionally funded and supported and a couple of right-wing trustees more sympathetic to market fundamentalist nostrums – one of whom was Ms. Smith.

Whatever it was, Ms. Smith’s role in drawing private notes that had been exchanged by trustees with whom she disagreed to the attention of the public, even if only by responding to media requests for comments, is troubling.

In 2009, Daveberta.ca author Dave Cournoyer published a revealing look back at this situation. Click on the links to read each edition: Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV.

It seemed ironic in light of this history when Ms. Smith accused MLA Joe Anglin a few weeks ago of secretly recording proceedings of the Wildrose caucus, an accusation for which she has never provided evidence.

And now there is the still-unfinished business of the demise of the Wildrose Party legislative caucus, which came to a climax yesterday when Ms. Smith, Mr. Anderson and seven other Wildrose MLAs struck a deal with Mr. Prentice’s PCs and were allowed to join the government caucus.

If this was a legitimate matter of high principle, why was it carried out in secrecy?

As Ms. Smith yesterday tacitly admitted, the plotting was hidden for weeks from the Wildrose Party’s financial backers, mostly small donors who believed in the party’s purported principles and probably could have found something else on which to spend their limited funds. It was also a secret from voters generally, many of whom until hours ago were still seriously considering casting their ballots for the Wildrose Party.

Notwithstanding his PC party’s history of entitlement and arrogance, one can at least see sound political reasons for the conduct of Premier Prentice and his closest advisors. It is much harder to perceive the actions of the Wildrose floor-crossers as anything but self-interested, despite the protagonists’ mutual efforts at yesterday’s news conference to characterize Ms. Smith’s efforts as honourable and courageous.

Certainly Ms. Smith has left – as she must have known she would – bitterness, anger and a sense of betrayal in her wake. I am sure there are longstanding friendships that will be severed forever as a result of her conduct, as well as many citizens who will be permanently disillusioned about our democracy.

Mind you, I suppose, from the point of view of the Prentice PCs and their opposite numbers in the Harper Government whence the premier sprang, this state of affairs is entirely satisfactory. After all, when unsupportive voters grow cynical about the meaning of their vote and contribution, they stay home, and vote suppression is a key part all North American conservative parties’ key election strategies.

So when we consider Ms. Smith, we are inevitably reminded of the aphorism of Ian Fleming, author of the original James Bond novels: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”

This is not, of course, the way Ms. Smith’s change of parties was being presented at yesterday’s joint news conference. Premier Prentice praised her “considerable personal courage.” For her own part, Ms. Smith insisted, “these are the values I fought for through different jobs I’ve had the past 20 years.”

Just the same, given her history, Mr. Prentice would be wise to ensure she is closely supervised, and not to push aside too many loyal Tories aside to make way for Wildrose newcomers in cabinet, lest this adventure, too, should end in tears.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Say it ain’t so, Danielle! Bulk of Wildrose caucus commits ritual political suicide

Looking grim, as befits leaders of a unification government during a grave economic and pipeline crisis, former Wildroser Danielle Smith and Premier Jim Prentice gamely spin the astonishing mass political suicide of Ms. Smith’s former party this afternoon at Government House. If you missed the crisis, no doubt you’ll be instructed in the details soon.

Say it ain’t so, Danielle?

Well, the Wildrose Party committed ritual political suicide today, defecting in even greater numbers to the Progressive Conservative caucus of Premier Jim Prentice than anticipated by the Edmonton rumour machine.

At the end of the day, not only had party leader Danielle Smith and House leader Rob Anderson abandoned their foundering Wildrose Party, so had seven other MLAs.

A chipper looking Mr. Prentice and an apparently tired Ms. Smith finally appeared at Edmonton’s Government House just after 4 p.m., gamely trying to spin this astonishing surrender as a “unification” to a room packed with about 50 uncharacteristically skeptical and cranky Alberta journalists.

Well, the journos had been waiting all day – unlike dilettante bloggers who have the luxury of only showing up only minutes before the action starts. Still, it’s hard to believe that this unification hooey will go over any better with the public than with the press.

At any rate, that was their story, and they were stickin’ to it: “The caucuses have agreed to unite under a set of aligned values and principles,” Ms. Smith said, sticking closely to the script and tightly inside the joint message box.

This, of course, was baloney on the face of it. Nine members of the Wildrose caucus chose to accept Mr. Prentice’s terms and join the PCs. Five did not, and will try to soldier on as the Wildrump Party. That is not a merger, unification or anything of the sort, as we will see when they start to fight over the Wildrose Party’s well-stuffed bank account.

The details of today’s events are in the daily press, of course, but from an amateur political observer’s perspective, a few themes from coming PC charm offensive began to coalesce, and a few other interesting tidbits emerged.

The principal arguments for the mass defection will be, first, that since everyone now realizes Mr. Prentice symbolizes conservative perfection, there was no longer a need for another conservative political party – no matter what the Wildrose Party’s own donors, supporters and members imagine.

“I don’t want to take down this premier,” Ms. Smith asserted urgently. “I want this premier to succeed!”

Second, of course, was the application of the Shock Doctrine in its pure form. Oil prices are low and therefore we must be disciplined. The discipline, it went literally without being said, will not be felt by the rich or the energy industry in the form of higher taxes or royalties. (“In this time of economic uncertainty … our province needs united leadership and shared purpose in tackling the challenges ahead:” Prentice.)

Knowing that this will be unpersuasive to many Albertans, and that yesterday’s “unification” will offend the good sense and values of large numbers of voters, however, the newly unified PCs also began to float the narrative that the Wildrose Party was really too full of knuckle-dragging social conservatives for a sensitive and liberal soul like Ms. Smith.

Look for more of this in the weeks ahead, although I don’t know how this is supposed to go over with die-hard Wildrosers the Tories would also like to woo.

And let’s not forget Ms. Smith’s hilarious claim she saw the need in the entrails of the Calgary-Elbow by-election for the two conservative caucuses to unite lest they become the victims of sneaky progressive vote splitting by the Alberta Party. The Alberta Party? Wait for this one to appear among the PC talking points soon too.

Rumours that the quid pro quo of the deal would be cabinet posts for some of the most prominent defectors will have to wait to be resolved. Mr. Prentice stoutly resisted questions from reporters about whether, or when, he would appoint Wildrose defectors to his cabinet. Not sure what this means: Mr. Prentice dictated terms? Or the PC caucus needs to be whipped into line?

That business, like everything else in this affair, will be conducted away from the curious gaze of taxpayers and voters according to the premier’s own timetable.

“I have made no decision related to cabinet,” he repeated, sticking manfully to his message box. “That’s not part of what we are discussing today.”

Finally, it was conceded openly by the principal characters, that this scheme has been in the works at least for several weeks, possibly longer – while Wildrose Party members and the public were kept in the dark. Together now … unified, as it were … they will bring unto us “the most ethical and transparent government in Canada.”


Today’s Wildrose Defectors to PCs

Danielle Smith (Highwood)

Rob Anderson (Airdrie)

Gary Bikman (Cardston-Taber-Warner)

Rod Fox (Lacombe-Panoka)

Jason Hale (Strathmore-Brooks)

Bruce McAllister (Chestermere-Rocky View)

Blake Pederson (Medicine Hat)

Bruce Rowe (Olds-Didsbury- Three Hills)

Jeff Wilson (Calgary Shaw)

Previous Wildrose Defectors PCs

Kerry Towle (Innisfail-Sylvan Lake)

Ian Donovan (Little Bow)

Previous Wildrose Member, Now Independent

Joe Anglin (Rimbey-Rockey Mountain House-Sundre)

Wildrose Loyalists

Drew Barnes (Cypress-Medicine Hat)

Rick Strankman (Drumheller-Stettler)

Heather Forsyth (Calgary-Fish Creek)

Shayne Saskiw (Lac la Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills)

Pat Stier (Livingstone-Macleod)

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Hatched in secret, today’s expected mass Wildrose defection to PC benches brings party to a pathetic end

The captain of the RMS Wildrose and her officers slip quietly away from their sinking ship in the darkness. Actual Wildrose leaders may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith and Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson. Both are expected to be rewarded for abandoning ship with cabinet posts in PC Premier Jim Prentice’s government.

As of today – even before we are certain of everything that has happened in the last 48 hours or what will happen in the next 48 – we can be confident of this: the Wildrose Party is finished.

I do not mean it’s washed up in some metaphorical sense, or that the party is simply unlikely to win the next election.

No, I mean that thanks to the deal cooked up between the leadership of Opposition Leader Danielle Smith’s party and Premier Jim Prentice’s unreformed Progressive Conservatives, whatever the details are, the Wildrose phenomenon is done like dinner. 

Even if it has a half-life in the Legislature as the rural Wildrump Party, it will be as electoral zombies, the living dead.

Even if by some miracle Mr. Prentice’s PC caucus grew some principles and told the Wildrose surrender party to go to blazes, the remaining shattered caucus would have not a shred of credibility.

No one will now want to be associated for long with a name that will become a synonym for perfidy and surrender, undignified and unsavoury. Any holdouts of the Wildrose Legislative caucus who decline to make the humiliating walk to bow before Mr. Prentice’s throne would do better to rename themselves Social Credit!

Indeed, the only reason left for them to hold out now is to fight over the party’s substantial war chest – raised in significant part from small donations given by the party’s now-scorned true believers.

In an act of cowardice and duplicity that is genuinely shocking – and these strong words are completely fair and reasonable under the circumstances – the principal leaders of the party have abandoned their followers and their principles as well, if they ever really had any.

According to media reports, Ms. Smith is expected today to lead most of her pathetic caucus to Mr. Prentice’s PC benches in the Legislature. This is a development unprecedented in Canadian Parliamentary history. Rumours say she will be rewarded with the meaningless bauble of the deputy premiership, and Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson with another cabinet post.

For those of us with a healthy skepticism about what motivates the principal figures of the Canadian right, the self-interested self-immolation of Alberta’s Wildrose Opposition over the past few days is nevertheless both astonishing and genuinely contemptible.

Carried out in secret, without a whisper of what they planned to their own supporters, the Wildrose captain and her leadership elite silently slipped into the lifeboats and rowed stealthily away from their sinking ship. Their presumptive goal: to put their own careers and wellbeing ahead of the sacrifice and effort of their adherents.

Together with the Progressive Conservatives they claimed to despise, who until a few days ago they described as the archfiend incarnate, they will now create, in the words of their articles of unilateral surrender to Premier Jim Prentice, the most ethical and transparent government in Canada.”

Oh please! It is to laugh aloud. Or, for their naïve supporters, to cry tears of bitterness and shock, as many of them were doing yesterday on Twitter and other social media sites.

They’ll get over it, the persuasive Mr. Prentice presumably told the Wildrose leaders as he wooed them. I am not so sure. Their supporters’ sense of betrayal, if you ask me, is entirely warranted, and will run deep.

Whatever new expanded PC party emerges once the dust has settled in a day or two will be dedicated to two principles only: preserving the entitlement of its insiders, who will now include Ms. Smith and Mr. Anderson, and ensuring that Alberta’s bitumen flows unvexed to the sea.

The PCs’ strategy at least is understandable – and more in character – but they too hardly come off smelling like a rose. As was pointed out by many ordinary Albertans of all political stripes on social media yesterday, the PCs aimed their last campaign at the electorate’s mushy middle, promising mild progressivism in contrast to the Wildrosers’ frightening social conservatism.

And then they did this! Well, seriously, what did you expect? Except for Mr. Prentice and his ministers of health and education, these are exactly the same people who cheered Alison Redford through the last three bizarre years.

They fooled you once, so shame on them. No need to say anything more about that!

Surely the cynicism and contempt of Albertans for the Wildrose will run deeper than for the eternal Tories, if only because they pretended to be something a little different – and they fooled us for a spell, even some of us who didn’t support their market fundamentalist program.

No one said politics is easy. But history is rife with the names of people who accomplished something by sticking to their principles, and continuing to fight when the odds said their goals seemed impossible.

As the oft-quoted American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead so famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Well, if we imagined those at the front of the Wildrose Party comprised a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens, we have now been set straight. Danielle Smith, it’s said here, could have changed Alberta. But even if she becomes the deputy premier for a spell, she will sink into well-deserved obscurity before the decade is over.

What happened? No jam! The wind went out of Ms. Smith’s sails when she and her advisors realized it wouldn’t be all that easy. Anyone could run a successful campaign against Alison Redford. Jim Prentice was a tougher customer.

So when they hit a speed bump and won none of the Oct. 27 by-elections, the party shattered into a thousand pieces of glass.

In fact, their supporters were tougher than their leaders and could have made a good showing in the next election. But I guess winning by increments built up through hard work in opposition didn’t meet the schedule preferred by Ms. Smith and Mr. Anderson.

What happens next remains to be seen. Someone will form the opposition. Maybe the Liberals for a spell; maybe the Wildrump, if there are enough of them. There will be a fight over the money and someone will win it. Ms. Smith will smile and get to make a few announcements. Mr. Prentice will plead poverty and call an early election before the RCMP reminds us of all the things Ms. Redford got up to. This being Alberta, it’ll probably work.

You know what? I often complain that my Alberta New Democrats have very little to show for their stick-to-itiveness and principles beyond “moral victories.”

But I’d sure as hell rather have an Alberta NDP-style moral victory than suffer a collapse of principles and moral fibre the way the Wildrose Party just has!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Friends close; enemies closer? Rumours abound Wildrose is about to return to PC mothership

Say it ain’t so, Danielle! Your blogger with … Progressive Conservative Deputy Premier? … Danielle Smith. Below: Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Tout le monde political Alberta was abuzz last night with rumours the entire Wildrose caucus is on the verge of walking over and joining Premier Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives, perhaps as soon as today.

The Wildrosers will be briefed at today’s caucus meeting, then the Provincial Government of Petroleum Unity will be formed, or so goes the universal rumour.

This makes so little sense that, this being Alberta, it’s probably true. Certainly it will be close to unprecedented in the annals of Canadian politics for an entire opposition party just to surrender and join the government holus-bolus, but there you go.

Certainly it would effectively bring to an end one of the most entertaining and interesting periods in Alberta political history.

Perhaps there will be a few holdouts, perhaps not. If this happens, the Wildrose Party’s furthest right true believers will feel abandoned and furious, but what do they matter? They haven’t been part of the Wildrose brain trust’s political calculus for a while now, as its members felt increasingly anxious to return to the comforts of governing, whatever that took.

An anonymous blogger of some variety of small-c conservative bent reported Opposition Leader Danielle Smith is leading the charge, begging her caucus to come with her to the PC benches.

Perhaps Premier Prentice will reward Ms. Smith for her past hard work and good sense with the post of deputy premier – don’t look at me, that’s part of the rumour too!

Calgary Sun Columnist Rick Bell reported in tiny paragraphs that he has seen a copy of the “reunification document.” He quotes it as saying: “In this time of declining oil prices and economic uncertainty it is imperative we come together as conservatives.”

The Calgary Herald said Wildrose movers and shakers like Ms. Smith, Rob Anderson and party president David Yager are refusing to comment and not returning their phone calls – always a sure sign something is up.

Remember, when the kid cried out to Shoeless Joe Jackson, accused of throwing the World Series, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” Joe had nothing to say in reply.

Say it ain’t so, Danielle!

Speaking of Joes, it seems to have been Independent MLA Joe Anglin, a former Wildroser, who tipped Albertans to the fact something was brewing.

As they say over at the mainstream media, “more to come…”

For the moment, just remember this about politics in Alberta: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Prentice Government takes Alberta from boom to bust in one weekend, breaking all records

Premier Jim Prentice points the way for public spending in Alberta now that our boom has gone bust again. Oil prices, ya know… But read the Reaper’s grim lips: “No new taxes!” Actual Alberta premiers may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Finance Minister Robin Campbell, Infrastructure Minister Manmeet Bhullar and Labour Minister Ric McIver, three of the Seven Horsepersons of the Alberta Fiscal Apocalypse

Guess what, we’re broke again out here in The Richest Place on Earth!

Yesterday, citing the spectacular recent drop in oil prices, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice pulled his Grim Reaper’s hood over his head, took up his scythe and headed out to, in the words of his government’s press release, “take action to control spending.”

Target No. 1 of his newly formed seven-minister “Budget 2015 committee,” according to the press release: “Public sector compensation.”

Mr. Prentice, Finance Minister and former trade unionist Robin Campbell, Health Minister Stephen Mandel, Municipal Affairs Minister Diana McQueen, Energy Minister Frank Oberle, Infrastructure Minister Manmeet Bhullar and Labour Minister Ric McIver will be sharpening their metaphorical knives and trying to figure out ways to enact disgraced former premier Alison Redford’s policies without sounding like they’re implementing Ms. Redford’s policies, I guess.

What Mr. Prentice thinks this means for the “blue-ribbon” committee of boardroom bigshots he cheerfully announced on Friday to improve the flagging morale and “shockingly” high turnover in the Alberta civil service is not immediately clear.

If I were any of the four execs so optimistically named by the premier just one business day earlier, I think I’d say thanks very much but I’ll stay home and paint the baseboards. After all, there’s nothing for them to do now except look foolish, thanks to the upcoming efforts of the Seven Horsepersons of the Alberta Fiscal Apocalypse (SHAFA).

Even by Alberta’s ridiculous recent standards, going from boom to bust in one weekend has to be something of an accomplishment!

Notwithstanding yesterday’s grim talk, Albertans need not worry overmuch. Soon enough we’ll all be rich again, here in the brokest place on earth.

That’s because we don’t just have a boom-and-bust resource-based economy hereabouts. We’ve got a boom-and-bust government. Indeed, we’ve had one for most of the past half century. Mr. Prentice is just the latest figurehead at the helm.

Critics often say this is because the Progressive Conservative government is fat, profligate, entitled and above all incompetent. There’s enough truth to that to make it dangerous, although you ought not to hold your breath waiting for Alberta voters to catch on. Their tendency not to do so, of course, is what Mr. Prentice is counting on.

But the real issue is because this boom-to-bust-and-back cycle works for the government. 

Thanks to our junkie-like resource dependency, based on too-low royalties used to underwrite our unprogressive tax system, we flit from crisis to complacency and back with a tick in the price of a barrel of oil, from prosperity to panic at the whim of a currency trader’s keyboard. The last few weeks provide just one more example.

But the province’s wealthiest citizens and the energy industry – in possession of a bigger picture than the rest of us – are happy enough right now to keep cash flowing into PC Party coffers.

That wasn’t necessarily the case back when Ed Stelmach was the Progressive Conservative premier and made a half-hearted attempt to squeeze a little more value for Albertans out of our non-renewable resources. Some energy companies were not remotely happy, and, arguably, that led directly to the formation and rise of the Wildrose Party, Danielle Smith Edition.

Now, under Mr. Prentice, the energy industry can expect to get everything it wants and, unsurprisingly, the Wildrose Party seems to have fallen on hard times. Such hard times, indeed, that rumours are circulating the Wildrose caucus is about to merge back into the PCs.

If you want to start cutting public services, as a neoliberal party like the PCs on principle wants to do, it’s quite handy if there’s always another financial crisis right around the corner to assist the process. There’s just nothing like a crisis to justify the application of a little economic shock therapy, no matter how ineffective or unwarranted.

That, it is said here, is the fundamental reason for the past few years the economic news in Alberta always reads like the opening of a Charles Dickens novel: “…It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

In 1987, we were so unexpectedly broke that Premier Don Getty had to stop putting money in the so-called Heritage Fund, which is small enough to have precious little to do with our province’s future heritage. Indeed, nothing’s gone in ever since, so, as Dave Cournoyer pointed out in an excellent blog post last week, Alberta has managed to save $17.5 billion while Norway has put away $905 billion.

I suppose that money went somewhere, but that’ll have to be a topic for another day.

Back in 2009, two years after he tried and failed to increase royalties, we were “meeting the challenge of tough times” under Mr. Stelmach, who was astounded by the downturn caused by the 2007-8 financial crisis. Who could have known?

Then we had another boom.

Two years ago, premier Redford was scaling back her leadership campaign promises because, wouldn’t you know it, there was an unexpected “Bitumen Bubble” – a PR term cooked up by her brain trust for the difference between the price fetched by Alberta’s dirty bitumen and sweet Texas crude. Or something along those lines. Whatever, there would be an $8-billion shortfall! Who could have predicted it?

Then we had another boom.

Now we have Premier Prentice telling us we’re in a “price trough” and everyone will have to go back to being poor again. There will be a $7-billion shortfall! And what a surprise it is! Who knew?

As Mr. Cournoyer explained, part of this is just good old-fashioned expectations management. Another part is part is out-and-out propaganda. For example, that projected $7-billion shortfall Mr. Prentice told us about last week? According to the sharp-eyed blogger, Alberta was only projected to collect $7.5 billion in total energy royalty revenues in the 2014-15 financial year.

Was Mr. Prentice seriously telling us that essentially all of our resource revenues had disappeared? Oh, don’t worry your pretty little heads – just tighten your pretty little belts – it’s way more complicated than that.

The main point being this entire $7-billion prediction rests on an assumption that is almost certainly not true, that the current low price of oil will stay right there right through to the end of the 2016 fiscal year. It could happen. It’s certainly prudent for our government to be aware of the worst-case scenario. But it is unlikely to happen.

Still, it almost seems as if, thanks to the PC way of doing business, Alberta is now in a permanent two-year boom-bust cycle timed to achieve electoral goals. That is, of course, unless Mr. Prentice hasn’t actually instituted a two-day boom-bust cycle, in which case our heads really will start to spin.

Now, you might think it makes sense to plan for the worst-case scenario by charging fair royalties instead of the lowest on the planet, and returning to a progressive taxation system so that the people who benefit the most from society, and cost it the most, pay their fair share.

Don’t look for that under Mr. Prentice, however, or for that matter any PC or Wildrose leader.

Anyway, sometime quite soon we’ll need to be rich again. The Prentice PCs – like the Harper Conservatives – are already floating balloons about an early election, perhaps in case an old PC scandal decides to make a return engagement. We’ll need some spending money for an election to take place. So look for the economy to perk up before too long.

In the mean time, pity the poor civil service. The sum of Friday’s and yesterday’s Siamese twin press releases seems for Alberta civil servants to be “the beatings will continue until morale improves!”

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Oh Buffster where art thou? Jim Prentice names nothing but bosses to his ‘blue ribbon’ panel on worker morale

Dan MacLennan – known as Buff, or the Buffster, to his friends – with Premier Ralph Klein, back in the day when Alberta’s leaders didn’t just talk to the Big Kahunas from the executive suite. Below: Ex Syncrude CEO Jim Carter, former Edmonton Journal Publisher Linda Hughes, Maclab Enterprises Chair Marc de La Bruyère and Queen’s University Professor Françoise Morissette.

Premier Jim Prentice, former chartered bank vice-president, has created a “blue ribbon” advisory panel of big bosses from public and private sector executive suites to do something about sagging morale and high turnover in the Alberta public service.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Mr. Prentice started the month by naming his Big Three Agents of Change – or, as they’re known around here, the “Three Amigos.” They are:

  • Ian Brodie, University of Western Ontario business professor and first chief of staff to that well-known friend of the working man, Prime Minister Stephen Harper
  • Oryssia Lennie, former deputy minister of this and that in the Alberta and federal mandarinates
  • Richard Dicerni, Alberta’s top civil servant and another veteran of the mandarinate in Ottawa, Queen’s Park and now here on the northern bank of the North Saskatchewan

In case that level of attention wasn’t enough to get Alberta’s civil service underlings to stop feeling like they’re under-valued, under-staffed, underpaid and constantly under assault, on Friday the premier named even more big cheeses from the executive suite to the job of probing the mysteries of low morale and “shockingly” high turnover among the rank and file of the public service.

The latest batch of top-floor experts on what motivates shop-floor sluggos?

  • Jim Carter, retired president and CEO of Syncrude, with annual revenue in the order of $3.5 billion
  • Marc de La Bruyère, rental housing conglomerate Maclab Enterprises chair and trustee of a chichi U.S. prep school
  • Françoise Morissette, a Queen’s University business professor and adjunct business school prof at the University of Alberta
  • Linda Hughes, retired Edmonton Journal publisher and current corporate newspaper chain board member

In other words, what are technically known as “the suits,” or maybe “the usual suspects.” One or two of them may have had a real job for longer than the premier’s summer sojourns in coal mining way back when, but they’re far, far from it now.

And we all know there’s nothing like the plush carpets and heated toilet seats of the private or public sector executive floor, not to mention the Spartan prestige of the faculty club, to isolate a person from the rigours of the workplace and the financial challenges faced by the folks who toil on the front lines of the civil service or in like careers.

So I doubt that it’s just me who sees the irony – not to mention the utter foolishness – of bragging about a panel of professional mandarins and coruscating executives from the last century’s flagging industries being asked to create the public service of the future!

Just a thought, Mr. Premier, but if you’re thinking about a bigger role for the private sector going forward – which as a good neoliberal, you doubtless are – the newspaper industry may not be the right avatar of success to be looking at just now, if you know what I mean.

OK, enough sarcasm. What to do? Leastways, what should you do if you don’t want to be remembered for a bon mot like “let them eat cake.”

Well, duh! Consult the people who actually do the work, and by that I don’t mean a brief tour of the shop floor by execs in lab coats and cordovan shoes.

Ralph Klein did this back in 2005 when he had Mr. Prentice’s job, asking Dan “Buff” MacLennan, then the president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and a veteran Correctional Officer, to serve on a panel looking into how to stop young people from using crystal meth.

Ed Stelmach and his health minister Ron Liepert did the same thing, asking the Buffster to serve on the Minister’s Advisory Committee on Health led by Fred Horne, who was later health minister himself. The committee reported in the fall of 2010.

And, Mr. Premier, your health minister, Stephen Mandel, went to the same guy to serve on the Edmonton Mayor’s Task Force on Community Safety.

The latter two efforts took place after Mr. MacLennan had left AUPE to work for the private sector, but in each case the fact that he’d done a difficult job on the front lines of law enforcement and earned the respect of two premiers as a tough negotiator for tens thousands of civil service and health care employees lent credibility to the work being done and assured impacted workers they had a voice at the table.

In case Mr. Prentice didn’t notice, AUPE is the union that represents about 80 per cent of the 27,000 nervous and increasingly distrustful civil servants whose jobs and lives are about to be fiddled with by his “blue ribbon” panel of suits from the top floor.

Mr. MacLennan, of course, is not the only working person with brains and insights that might be tapped for such a panel.

But I wonder if it even occurred to the premier to ask someone who the people being probed knew and trusted to join this effort? Naw, didn’t happen, did it? That’s one thing about being the VP of a chartered bank and a Harper cabinet minister – you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Hoi Polloi! Except maybe just before an election.

And when you never see them or think of them, it’s hard to remember they’re even there, dutifully paying the bills.

Well, it’s never too late to pick up the phone and call someone who has spent their career on the front lines, actually doing work.

If the premier can’t be bothered to do so, and decides to add underrepresented to the list above, I’m sure he’ll forgive the poor working stiffs in the Alberta public service if they view efforts of his panel of Big Kahunas with a certain degree of justified skepticism.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Government communications staff learn only this week of huge shakeup set for Monday at Public Affairs Bureau

Worried Public Affairs Bureau staffers wait for more information on the shakeup affecting their jobs, which takes place Monday. Actual government of Alberta communications specialists may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: PAB Deputy Chief Martin Kennedy and top agent of change Richard Dicerni.

The Alberta government’s long-controversial Public Affairs Bureau is hours away from a significant restructuring by the Prentice Government.

The massive structural change, which will reduce the PAB to a shadow of its former self and scatter most communications staffers throughout government departments, takes effect on Monday.

All but about 40 of the 200-plus employees of the monolithic centralized communications group – long controversial in Alberta because of its size, power, $23-million budget and the perception it has become thoroughly politicized – will now report to deputy ministers in the departments to which they are assigned.

The core PAB staffers at “the centre,” as Deputy Chief Martin Kennedy confirmed to me while shovelling his front walk rather late last night, will co-ordinate interdepartmental communications efforts and help hire new communications staffers for the departments.

Mr. Kennedy described the change as an adoption of the decentralized departmental communications model used by Ottawa and the Ontario provincial government, in which communications directors and their staffs report to the department’s deputy minister.

PAB employees were only informed of the changes in an emailed memorandum from Mr. Kennedy on Wednesday, with a follow-up email yesterday that outlined some of the senior personnel changes. Alberta Diary has obtained a copy of the first memorandum.

The major restructuring of government communications to a more traditional reporting model may reflect Premier Jim Prentice’s approach to administration, but the impetus for change appears to have been driven by the premier’s new Deputy Minister of Executive Council, Richard Dicerni, one of the three “agents of change” hired by the premier to shake up the Alberta civil service.

The “Three Amigos” seem not to have waited very long to start making dramatic changes – the big ones at the PAB came just days after the government’s Bill 10 fiasco, as the legislature was getting ready to shut down and right before the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, when the media can be counted on to be inattentive.

The changes seem to have gobsmacked PAB employees and sparked speculation in the ranks that the restructuring was inspired by the PR disaster that accompanied the government’s decision to replace Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s private member’s bill on gay-straight alliances with the government’s Bill 10, which doesn’t require schools to permit students form the clubs.

However, Mr. Kennedy, who became the PAB’s top executive (notwithstanding his title of “Deputy Chief”) only last April, said the shakeup was being planned well before the flames fanned by Bill 10 engulfed the Legislature.

Wednesday’s memorandum informed employees that “the new structure aligns resources and reporting relationships to support departmental accountability, while continuing to support the delivery of high-quality, co-ordinated, and cost-effective communications services that help the government communicate effectively with Albertans.”

The main organizational changes, the memorandum said, will include:

“Communications branches will be aligned to ministries and report to deputy ministers. Communications directors, assistant directors and communications branch staff will become department employees rather than PAB employees.” (Emphasis added.)

“The role of Communication Director will focus on accountability to the deputy minister and providing communications leadership to the ministry. It will also reflect a clear expectation for continued participation in cross-government communications co-ordination activities, including established processes such as weekly directors’ meetings and government-wide communication calendars, and implementation of government-wide communications policies.

“The PAB will continue to co-ordinate communications across government. We will continue to support department communications branches with cross-government communications planning, government-wide communications policies and strategies on key initiatives, and central services including media planning, news services, digital communications, advertising, corporate products, research, writing, planning and recruitment support.

“Accountabilities within the PAB executive team will be re-organized to reflect changes in PAB structure and focus. To support implementation of the cross-government internal communications strategy, one executive role will transfer to Corporate Human Resources. …”

Mr. Kennedy said in the memo and confirmed to me that the new structure will be put into operation immediately on Monday, Dec. 15. “Documentation of the changes is expected to be completed by mid-January,” the memo to staff said.

“The Public Affairs Bureau and department communications branches will continue to work together, as a team, to support the communication needs of government,” the email said. “I recognize that these are significant changes for an organization with a long history and record of exemplary service in government. Organizational change can be challenging for everyone involved.

“We will work to implement the new reporting structure of government communications as quickly and sensitively as possible. I invite you to speak to your director or an executive team member, or to contact me personally if you have questions or would like to discuss the changes.

“Although our reporting relationships and structure are changing, as government communications staff we will continue to work closely with each other. Thank you for your service to Albertans. I look forward to continuing our work together.”

The PAB has long been mocked in this space as the world largest advertising agency, and not a very good one at that. Whatever it has become, it doesn’t seem like that’s what it is any more. So while not much may happen in reality about the government’s tight control of its messaging, the restructuring will remove an irritant that has become a burr under the saddle of successive PC governments.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Did you hear the one about the health minister’s Twitter followers? Neither did they!

Alberta Health Minister and bowtie enthusiast Stephen Mandel. A lot of his Twitter followers aren’t real people. Below: NDP Leader Rachel Notley. She doesn’t have as many Twitter followers, but a much higher percentage are real people. But then, what do you expect from New Democrats?

Warning: People you meet on the Internet could turn out to be anyone! Or nobody

Kids, are you sure that fellow you decided to follow on Twitter, the nice man who says he’s a bowtie enthusiast and loves Edmonton, is really … the minister of health?

And even if this Stephen Mandel guy actually turns out to be Alberta’s health minister, are you sure his 20,000 followers on Twitter are for real?

Well, you can take it from the experts here at Alberta Diary that Mr. Mandel really is our province’s minister of health, in large part, though apparently not completely, by merit of the fact he got elected as MLA for the riding of Edmonton-Whitemud back in October.

But as for his Twitter followers … not so much, maybe.

In the Twitterverse, 20,000 is a lot of followers – even if you used to be the mayor of Edmonton and have been using the social media application since the fall of 2010, as Mr. Mandel has. By comparison, Premier Jim Prentice only had 13,700 followers as of yesterday, NDP Leader Rachel Notley had 9,371 and Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman had 8,773.

Among Alberta politicians, only Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith seems to have more than Mr. Mandel – a very respectable 23,500.

But a very large percentage of Mr. Mandel’s followers seem to be, not to be too harsh about it, unreal … Some of them, indeed, may be as fake as the passengers on a government of Alberta flight manifest, circa 2013!

Leastways, many of them have names but no faces, no backdrop, no followers, no Tweets and none whatsoever of the other signs of social media reality that are sought out and analyzed by the bright sparks who invented the web application at TwitterAudit.com.

According to TwitterAudit, only 58 per cent of Mr. Mandel’s people are, uh, people … And that, of course, means that 42 per cent of them – or 8,400 – are not!

Among Alberta political leaders, this compares to 67 per cent of followers who were rated real for Ms. Smith, 84 per cent for Premier Prentice, 85 per cent for Dr. Sherman and a confidence-building 92 per cent for Ms. Notley.

And, by the way, according to TwitterAudit, I’m doing even better than Ms. Notley with 93 per cent of the 3,597 good people and bots who follow @djclimenhaga certified as living, breathing human beings. (What I really want to know is who, or what, are the 263 alleged fakes who follow me?)

Look, this isn’t a big deal. People buy lists. People buy lists for people like Mr. Mandel. I’m sure Mr. Mandel didn’t buy the list himself.

Lists like these, of course, sometimes have fake names on them. Quite a few, as it turns out in the case of Mr. Mandel.

But kids, just remember, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Especially when it comes from Alberta’s minister of health!