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 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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Dear Scotland: Do whatever you think is best … but remember, the Globe and Mail never has your interests at heart

A typical Western Canadian scene: snapped in Edmonton, Alberta, in 2014.

The Scotch, as we used to say when I was growing up in B.C., pretty much built Western Canada, leastways the European superstructure of buildings, roads and railways that lies atop the land of the first inhabitants. You need only see the names assigned the points of land, the streets, buildings and high places out here to realize how profound was the influence of Scots.

Where I grew up on Canada’s West Coast, names like Dunedin, Inverness and Holyrood, Douglas, Tolmie, Dunsmuir and Finlayson, were part of the local scene, familiar and unquestioned as our home. I’m ashamed to say that as lads growing up there, we had not much sense we stood upon the ancestral lands of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation, although we knew who the Nootka were. We had a strong sense we occupied something not at all unlike Scotland in the New World.

This gave rise to my childhood theory, burnished into adulthood, that Scotland is to Western Canada as Portugal is to Brazil. We may have come from all over, but after a generation or two – or maybe just a few years for some of us – we became Scots without even realizing it. Leastways, whether we started out as Ukrainians, German Anabaptists, Chinese, Norwegians or Somalis, after a spell hereabouts we absorbed the worldview for which both Western Canada and Scotland are known: energy, discipline, skepticism, frugality, and above all the desire to build things that last. Our skin prickles where we hear the skirl of bagpipes on the breeze.

So it’s natural, I think, that lots of people hereabouts, many of them with un-Scottish names, are watching today’s events in Scotland not just with intense interest, but, like many Scots themselves, with mixed emotions. There may not be much to this in 2014, but it still feels out here as if our destiny is somehow tied to Scotland’s.

Now, I wouldn’t be so bold as to advise the Scots how to vote in their independence referendum today. Scotland and the Scots will be there tomorrow and the day after that, come what may.

But I will say this: when “friends” like the Globe and Mail’s editorial board write you smarmy “Dear Scotland” letters reminding you Canada’s first prime minister was born a Scot, as was the “Greatest Canadian,” the premier who gave us the gift of medicare, and they do it the better to urge you to say no to independence, it does not mean they have your interests at heart.

There’s a reason, indeed, that in most circumstances the Globe would not mention the name of Tommy Douglas without curling its metaphorical lip, let alone with such pride or approval!

It’s not that the Globe and Mail is always wrong. Like a broken clock, it can be right a couple of times a day. It’s just that when the globalists, market fundamentalists and corporate toadies on the “National Newspaper’s” editorial board start to advise you on what’s in your best interests, you can be quite certain it’s not your interests they have at heart. The Globe’s motives are clouded – and they are not the same as yours!

Indeed, this is not just good advice for Scots to remember, but for Canadians too. And in all kinds of circumstances!

Try federalism, their Dear Scotland letter implores. You too can be as atomized, unequal and played off against one another for corporate gain as Canada’s provinces! “That’s federalism. That’s how strong subnational and national governments can coexist.”

“So, dear cousins from beyond the seas,” the Globe went on, “here is our advice and our plea: Stay in the United Kingdom. … Make changes happen, but within the U.K.”

As noted, this may turn out to be sound advice. But the Globe’s reason for giving it is almost certainly so that you can continue to be dominated by neoliberal fundamentalists in the City of London, and in other capitals, some of them closer to us here in Western Canada.

And so, dear cousins from beyond the sea, here is my advice: Do what you will!

If you choose independence, it will not be as catastrophic as the No campaign wants you to imagine. If you decide you’re better together, it will not be as rosy as the U.K.’s political leaders promise. Most such promises and warnings are subject to the same caveats. If you remain in the union, your national spirit will not be crushed. If you make the break, your economy will survive.

Life will go on. You can make up your own minds while the rest of us respectfully shut up. Just be brave, as Scotland ought, whatever you decide.

And never trust advice given by the Globe and Mail!

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Unelected and unknown education minister looms as first major blunder of Jim Prentice’s New Tory Government

Still on track? Jim Prentice’s New Tory Government experiences its first full day of governing. Below: Unelected Education Minister Gordon Dirks; ill-defined intergovernmental advisor Doug Horner.

The appointment of Gordon Dirks as unelected minister of education by Premier Jim Prentice on his first day in office has the potential to become the first serious political blunder of Alberta’s New Tory Government.

Mr. Prentice obviously intended the appointment of Mr. Dirks, a former Saskatchewan cabinet minister and Calgary public school trustee, to be a powerful symbol of dramatic change in the troubled 43-year-old Progressive Conservative dynasty he now leads.

If no one knew much about Mr. Dirks, aged 67, that was clearly intended to demonstrate Mr. Prentice’s government is really committed to a different course, and that traditional supporters of many stripes can feel comfortable returning to the once-big PC tent.

But Mr. Dirks’ association with an evangelical Christian denomination known for both political conservatism and deeply social conservative positions on homosexuality and women’s reproductive rights has aroused profound and legitimate concern among a broad range of Albertans.

Moreover, Mr. Dirks’ association with private Christian educational institutions creates similarly legitimate fears about what his views as education minister may be on public funds for private religious education, including money for groups that hold extremist religious and social views.

This is the point at which the fact he is almost a complete unknown to most Albertans becomes a serious problem for the Prentice Government.

Obviously, just having been associated with a religious educational institution is no guarantee of either conservative or liberal social and economic views. Full disclosure: I taught a course as a sessional for more than a decade in a private Christian university. My role there was entirely compatible with my own religious beliefs. Readers of this blog know that association hardly turned me into a raving market fundamentalist or arch social conservative.

The problem with Mr. Dirks for most of us is that we just don’t know enough about him to judge what his personal views and likely behaviour in the education portfolio might be. Which, of course, is where Mr. Prentice’s serious political blunder comes in.

As a result, many people assume the worst. Under the circumstances, this is an entirely reasonable thing to do until Mr. Dirks or the government that appointed him can show otherwise.

The limited and unverified information circulating on social media suggests that he does, in fact, hold social conservative views that are far outside the Alberta mainstream.

As a Calgary school trustee, Mr. Dirks appeared to observers to have had no problem with anti-choice groups like the Pregnancy Care Centre and Birth Right teaching Career and Life Management courses in public schools.

As a pastor at Calgary’s Centre Street Church he played a leadership role in an organization that took strong positions against women’s reproductive rights and equality for LGTBQ citizens.

Only Mr. Dirks and the government that appointed him can make his actual views on these important issues clear.

In fairness, Mr. Dirks met yesterday with representatives of the province’s LGBTQ community to try to ease representatives’ concerns. But this problem is bigger than one meeting can solve for the government now.

It doesn’t help – and, indeed, raises suspicions – that the Prentice government’s most avid political supporters have launched a hysterical counterattack on people who express such concerns.

In a particularly intemperate rant, Calgary Herald Editorial Page Editor Licia Corbella described Albertans who have indicated reservations about Mr. Dirks’ still largely undefined views as “anti-Christian bigots.”

Ms. Corbella’s preposterous screed suggests she may have missed it, but in fact there are deep doctrinal differences within Christianity – one or two of them serious enough for people to have fought wars over not so long ago. Many Christians are just as worried about Mr. Dirks’ views on reproductive choice, gay rights and education funding as the purported anti-Christian bigots targeted by Ms. Corbella’s fulminations.

Politically, this suits the Opposition parties well. The NDP has attacked, improving its street credibility with voters opposed to social conservative views. The market fundamentalist Wildrose Party can be expected to sit quietly by, letting the Tories destroy the chances fearful progressive voters can be persuaded one more time to return to the former Natural Governing Party out of fear of the Wildrose Party’s supposed social conservatism.

As someone who is now in public life, the only chance Mr. Dirks has is to be crystal clear on where he really stands on the right of women to reproductive choice, public funding for religious schools, participation in CALM instruction by anti-choice groups, and full lights for LGBTQ citizens.

Given the buzz in Alberta about his views, there is no way he can fly under the radar on this. When the by-election is scheduled, there is no way voters should let him.

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Doug Horner barely escapes political ‘capital punishment’

Former finance minister Doug Horner has had a brush with capital punishment, Alberta style.

One of Premier Prentice’s first acts was to tell the veteran PC minister there was no place for him in the New Tory cabinet. Alas, the long-time PC insider had become a reminder of the many disasters wrought by former premier Alison Redford, whom Mr. Horner served with such exemplary loyalty.

In response, Mr. Prentice instructed Mr. Horner that he must become an ill-defined senior advisor on intramural trade and intergovernmental relations, which is political-speak for “out of sight, out of mind.”

At least Mr. Horner was spared full-time banishment to the nation’s capital on the banks of the Rideau River, as former premier Alison Redford sent defeated front-runner Gary Mar into a comfortable exile in Hong Kong as Alberta’s plenipotentiary of petroleum.

It was the unhappy Montrealer Marc Lalonde, prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s principal secretary and utility cabinet minister, who first observed that Ottawa is proof Canada continues to have capital punishment.

It is not entirely clear how Mr. Horner will replace the current incumbent in the post, an Ottawa resident, from his redoubt in central Alberta’s Spruce-Grove-St. Albert riding. One presumes will have to spend plenty of time in the environs of the former Bytown and get there flying steerage in an Air Canada jet with the rest of us poor citizens.

Perhaps, in the absence of a comfortable government aircraft, he can telecommute. His former cabinet colleague Thomas Lukaszuk may be able to advise him on a good cellular data plan.

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Privatization of Alberta’s air fleet will cost citizens more money and change nothing

A typical government airplane explained. The politics and financing are more complicated. Below: Jim Prentice.

Privatization of the Alberta government’s four-plane air fleet, announced this morning by unelected Premier Jim Prentice at his first official news conference, makes plenty of political sense, but will end up costing citizens more and change nothing.

This is always the pattern with the privatization of public services. Now, in addition to having to pay for airplane services for the top dogs of the provincial government, we taxpayers will have to build in a margin to cover corporate profits, plus higher private-sector insurance and borrowing costs.

The people who run the company that gets the government’s business will make out like bandits. Employees – quite possibly including pilots – will see their compensation and benefits diminished. And the public will know nothing, because the details will all be hidden behind an anti-accountability cloaking device known as “corporate confidentiality.”

In fact, we only know what we know about the abuses of the Redford Government because it was a public service they were abusing.

Can anyone doubt for a moment that once the dust from Alison Redford’s catastrophic premiership has settled, the top level of Alberta’s political elite – whichever party happens to be in power – won’t go back to using the charter air fleet in exactly the same way as the Redford, Stelmach and Klein governments used the government’s own planes?

For a spell, ministers and other officials will symbolically fly commercial. Will that last? We’ll see about that. In the mean time, the use of charter flights will have to continue and grow, because Air Canada and Westjet are not about to add scheduled flights to places like Manyberries, Zama City and Spirit River. There are many such places in Alberta where our politicians have legitimate business.

Likewise, the need for private flights restricted to the premier and his or her staff will not go away, especially as elections approach.

That said, in Mr. Prentice’s defence, given the excesses of the Redford Government, the purely political need to sell off the planes must have been irresistible. This is why it was predicted in this space on July 31.

This is despite the fact the four small aircraft served a useful purpose for the citizens of Alberta.

For flights within Alberta, government aircraft save time for legitimate government work and allow for double tasking by the premier and his or her staff – exactly what Ms. Redford and her political advisors were apparently trying to do when some idiot cooked up their stupid Fakes on a Plane scheme in which made-up passengers were block booked and then cancelled at the last moment so the ex-premier and her aides could fly in privacy.

With government aircraft in a province the size of Alberta, officials can fly in and out of some of the smallest airports, work between meetings and avoid having to be paid while they line up for commercial flights.

Despite Ms. Redford’s unconscionable misuse of the planes, Albertans should ponder whether we will really be better off once the aircraft are sold and the work contracted out to the high-cost private sector.

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Strap on your seat belts? Jim Prentice’s cabinet is more like a drive down memory lane

Jim Prentice prepares to be sworn in yesterday. Below: Health Minister Stephen Mandel and social media gadfly Olav Rokne. 

Things were going to change in Alberta so much once his capable hands were on the steering wheel, Jim Prentice warned us, that we’d better make sure we’d strapped on our seatbelts!

Well, he might have given us a mild scare as he motored through the political equivalent of a yellow light yesterday afternoon by appointing a couple of unelected, well-off, older, gentlemen to his cabinet.

These two fellows may or may not turn out to be a matched set of wingnuts but, either way, they have no mandate to serve for long in important portfolios.

So when the dust had settled after Mr. Prentice’s and their swearings in yesterday, in many ways the cabinet looked pretty much as it did before the Big Buildup.

Yes, some big names have been dropped – indeed, the entire 4H Club of Dave Hancock, Fred Horne, Doug Horner and Ken Hughes, who in many ways epitomized the last generation of Alberta’s Tory elite, is now gone.

But lots of MLAs tainted with the ruined Redford brand were visible in the ranks of Mr. Prentice’s cabinet too – it’s just, as NDP leader Brian Mason pithily explained, instead of using experienced MLAs too closely associated in the public’s mind with Ms. Redford’s misrule, “Prentice has appointed inexperienced, weak ministers, who were just as closely tied to Redford, though not as publicly involved in PC scandals.”

“Diana McQueen, a rural MLA has been named as minister of Municipal Affairs?” Mr. Mason asked. “It’s hard to see how big city concerns will be addressed by her.”

It’s also a worry, he added, that Mr. Prentice would appoint former rival Ric McIver as labour minister, “a man whose history suggests he does not respect the public sector and hardworking Albertans.” Well, at least Mr. McIver promised during his campaign to keep the government’s paws off public service pensions.

From the premier’s perspective, notwithstanding the barbs they traded during the recent leadership campaign, he clearly hopes Mr. McIver will shore up the party’s ties to its social conservative base.

The appointment of lightweight Calgary MLA Kyle “Leaky” Fawcett, meanwhile, as environment minister hardly suggests that the environment is going to be a high priority for Mr. Prentice’s pipeline-obsessed government.

A couple of smiley new faces were also added to Mr. Prentice’s cabinet: Maureen Kubinec, from the rural area north of Edmonton, as minister of culture, and Edmonton MLA David Dorward, an Edmonton MLA, as junior minister of aboriginal relations.

But of the 20 members of the new premier’s new cabinet, 15 are veterans of the cabinets of premiers Alison Redford and Dave Hancock. Sixteen are male.

I don’t know about you, but 75 or 80 per cent of the same-old-same-old hardly sounds like epochal change to me. It’s hard to say what Martha and Henry, the late Ralph Klein’s prototypical Albertans, are going to make of this. Probably not much. Here’s a bet they won’t even notice, let alone be all shook up.

Under new management? Not so much, maybe.

That three members of the new cabinet if you count Mr. Prentice himself have not been elected, is highly unusual – and pretty much stretches as far as it will go the Parliamentary convention that a few such people may serve in cabinet for a brief spell, as long as they are elected to the Legislature within an undefined but reasonably short period.

All three will have to be elected soon to have any legitimacy – and that’s bound to be attempted in a by-election because the PC Party, with or without Mr. Prentice at the helm, could neither survive nor afford a general election just now. When the inevitable by-elections come, don’t expect Alberta’s Opposition parties to pay much attention to the quaint custom of giving a free ride to the leader of the government.

As for the unelected pair picked by the new premier, all I can say is I’m not sure I would have chosen the same two if it had been me wearing the premier’s handmade cordovan loafers.

Stephen Mandel – who served four terms on Edmonton City Council, including three as a popular mayor – certainly enjoys a high profile and a degree of support among voters in the Edmonton region. But he is no follower, probably is incapable of taking orders from anyone, including Mr. Prentice, and has burnt just about every Conservative bridge between the North Saskatchewan and the Ottawa River.

As for making Mr. Mandel minister of health, while this huge responsibility obviously reflects Mr. Prentice’s high confidence in the man, seemingly the entire health care community was shaking its head in bewilderment yesterday. Seriously, what does Mr. Mandel know about health care? You could argue, if you were so inclined, that his lack of a health care background a good thing. At the very least, hiring a guy who spent years trying to centralize Greater Edmonton to decentralize health care is an interesting strategy.

Mr. Mandel may look to some like an inspired choice today, but the danger is real he will turn into a loose cannon on deck when the guns start to fire at the privateers aboard the frigate Wildrose.

In the mean time, it is Gordon Edwin Dirks – former school principal, school trustee, Evangelical pastor, Bible college administrator and cabinet minister in the scandal-plagued Saskatchewan government of Conservative Grant Devine – whose appointment as education minister provided the biggest WTF moment in yesterday’s cabinet announcement.

Gordon Edwin Who? Gordon Edwin What?

Olav Rokne, a social media gadfly in Edmonton, pointed yesterday to the troubling views on homosexuality held by Mr. Dirks’ church: “He had more than three million unelected Albertans to choose from. Why did Jim Prentice pick Gordon Dirks? He couldn’t find someone as qualified who hasn’t espoused anti-gay views in the past?”

What can we conclude from all this?

Above all that if Premier Prentice wants to persuade Albertans that things have really changed, he will have to do more than shuffle the lounge chairs on cabinet deck of the Titanic. Policy changes will be required, and suggestions are bound to be forthcoming soon, in this space as well as elsewhere.

Sorry, though. If you want real change, you’re going to have to vote to change the government.


List of Prentice Cabinet Ministers 

Jim Prentice – Premier, Aboriginal Relations, Intergovernmental Affairs; No seat in Legislature

Robin Campbell – Finance; Yellowhead West

Frank Oberle – Energy; Peace River

Stephen Mandel – Health; No seat in Legislature

Gordon Dirks – Education, No Seat in Legislature

Diana McQueen – Municipal Affairs; Drayton Valley-Devon

Jonathan Denis – Justice; Calgary-Acadia

Heather Klimchuk – Human Services; Edmonton-Glenora

Verlyn Olson – Agriculture; Wetaskiwin-Camrose

Wayne Drysdale – Transport; Grande Prairie-Wapiti

Maureen Kubinec –Culture and Tourism; Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock

Stephen Khan – Service Alberta; St. Albert

Ric McIver – Jobs, Skills, Labour and Training; Calgary-Hays

Manmeet Bhullar – Infrastructure; Calgary-Greenway

Kyle Fawcett – Environment and Sustainable Resource Development; Calgary-Klein

Jeff Johnson – Seniors; Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater

Don Scott –Innovation and Advanced Education; Fort McMurray-Conklin

Teresa Woo-Paw – Asia-Pacific Relations (Associate); Calgary-Northern Hills

Naresh Bhardwaj – Persons with Developmental Disabilities (Associate); Edmonton-Ellerslie

David Dorward – Aboriginal Relations (Associate); Edmonton-Gold Bar

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Outgoing Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock: 17 years of going along to get along

Another fine mess? No, no, it was a Bitumen Bubble that caused it! Really! Dave Hancock, left, shown explaining cuts to post-secondary education, imposed by Alison Redford, right, back when the bitumen was bubbling. Actual Redford Government officials may not have appeared exactly as illustrated. Below: The real Mr. Hancock, who leaves Alberta politics after 17 years later today.

As I flew back into Alberta airspace the day before yesterday, it seemed as if tout le monde political Alberta was bidding the fondest of farewells to departing Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock, who announced on Friday he would not only be quitting as first minister today, but stepping down as the MLA for Edmonton-Whitemud as well.

This clears the decks for Jim Prentice, who by the time many of you read this will have been sworn in as premier of Alberta, albeit one not yet a member of the Legislature.

It makes way for Mr. Prentice to step into the top job, of course, plus it opens up a riding in which one of the new premier’s promised star candidates can highlight the government’s potential for the real change as he tries to revivify the moribund Progressive Conservative dynasty.

After all, the unelected Mr. Prentice can only appoint unelected cabinet ministers for so long before Parliamentary pundits start to pontificate and the public grows restive and suspicious they’re being had.

Well, Mr. Hancock was always accommodating to a fault when it came to the wishes of his party’s leaders, although in this case it’s likely what he wanted too. Everyone expects a swift judicial appointment to reward the outgoing premier pro tem before any other government has the opportunity to meddle with it.

I actually used up my cell phone data allocation for the latest billing period sitting in Victoria airport reading the tsunami of anodyne platitudes about how much we’re going to miss Mr. Hancock from such unlikely sources as opposition politicians and union leaders, not to mention journalists who really ought to know better.

Indeed, the whole thing had the tone of a funeral oration – but it is not that, luckily for Mr. Hancock, and there’s no superstition or convention against speaking ill of the recently resigned. So forgive me, then, for stating what ought to be obvious:

Mr. Hancock – who really struck one as a person who understood what was the honourable, smart and decent thing to do in most circumstances – typically stood by uncritically while the PC government to which he was so loyal behaved unconscionably.

He handled every portfolio he was given competently enough, although it’s safe to say he’ll not be remembered for a single outstanding policy.

Here was a man who never stepped up and exercised his undoubted authority as the party’s respected elder statesman to urge either premier Ed Stelmach or premier Alison Redford to slow down when they were driving their governments, in their respective ways, into the proverbial guardrail.

He was one of the few people who could have said, “Enough is enough. This needs to stop now.” Instead, he fulfilled the role of enabler in chief, especially to Ms. Redford.

Here was was an Edmonton MLA the government could roll out to explain and defend any bill or policy that hurt Edmonton. An unconstitutional attack on the government’s own employees? There was nary a word of anything but justification from Mr. Hancock.

So while his job may have been to put out fires, and he was pretty good at it, we also need to remember – ungracious as it may seem to do so at the moment he steps off the stage – he was a key part of the team that lit them.

Tom Lukaszuk got to wear the Redford Government’s massive “Bitumen Bubble” cuts to post-secondary education, which hurt Edmonton’s University of Alberta more than any other institution. Mr. Hancock, who knew better, stood by and said nothing.

At the end of his political career, the whole thing looks like not much more than a long exercise in damage control, publicly justifying the worst excesses of his party’s leaders and cabinet. There was never a plan so bad, a policy so excessive, that Mr. Hancock wouldn’t stand up and defend it.

Well, there’s something to be said for being a good soldier, I guess, but when it comes to writing hagiographies, it doesn’t really provide very promising material.

It should be no surprise Mr. Hancock is on the way out. Regardless of his wishes or his judicial ambitions, if Mr. Prentice’s government really is going to offer a fresh start, a man like Mr. Hancock has no place in it.

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Political business in great waters: When they that go down to the sea in ships are up to no good!

Prime Minister and First Lord of the Admiralty Stephen Harper. For all we know, actual Canadian prime ministers do appear in silk stockings and tri-corner hats exactly as illustrated. You know, in private. Below: The unlucky Sir John Franklin.

O Eternal Lord God, who alone rulest the raging of the sea; who has compassed the waters with bounds until day and night come to an end; be pleased to receive into Thy almighty and most gracious protection the persons of us Thy servants, and the Fleet in which we serve. Preserve us from the dangers of the sea, and from the violence of the enemy— The Navy Prayer, Book of Common Prayer, 1662


And preserve us all from belligerent clowns who would exploit ships of all kinds and the brave mariners that sail them to score the basest of political points.

Canadian ships are in the news these days – put there, apparently, by the Harper Government as part of its intensifying campaign for reelection, its cynical stratagems advanced without thought for consequences, to Canada or the world.

As is so often the case with the buffoonery of the Harper Regime – which always seems to operate, with just enough justification to be disheartening, on the assumption we are all imbeciles possessing neither memory nor a sense of irony – these latest maritime developments are both troubling and unintentionally hilarious.

So, first, there is the matter of HMCS Toronto, the apparently* corroded and ill-maintained Canadian frigate allegedly “buzzed” by a couple of geriatric Soviet-era SU-24 military aircraft in the Black Sea, leading to much huffing and blowing by Conservative Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, who called the Russian flight “unnecessarily provocative” and said it risked “escalating tensions even further.”

Never mind that the 40-year-old Russian jets seem only to have flown by in the general vicinity of the Canadian warship – leastways, apparently no one was able to procure any video that suggests they were even visible from Toronto’s bridge, odd since surely every able seaperson aboard must have an unauthorized iPhone in his or her pocket!

This lack of evidence, unsurprisingly, hasn’t stopped the proliferation of the unlikely story the Russians were picking on the Canadian ship because the Harper government has been so strident in its recent condemnation of President Vladimir Putin’s so-far quite successful ripostes to Western machinations in Ukraine.

Never mind that Mr. Nicholson is the same Canadian defence minister who was blustering triumphantly just four months ago about how Canadian fighters similarly buzzed propeller-driven Russian bombers outside Canadian airspace. That considerably closer encounter was also accompanied by self-serving theorizing about the Russian strategy of approaching Canadian airspace with ancient Bear bombers, relics from an even earlier Soviet period than that of the aged Su-24s glimpsed momentarily from HMCS Toronto on the Black Sea horizon.

For the hilarious part, to take this posturing seriously it is necessary to forget that the Black Sea, strategically speaking, is a Russian lake, where hostile or threatening incursions are bound to be viewed in Moscow with profound concern. In other words, the appearance of Canadian, U.S. and French warships in those waters is about as “unnecessarily provocative” as you can get, even if your actual objective is to “risk escalating tensions even further.”

Mr. Nicholson, unsurprisingly, groused about how the Black Sea is international waters, which is true enough. But let me ask you this, what do you think our American neighbours would do if a Russian cruiser, a Chinese frigate and a couple of destroyers, all armed with God only knows what, cruised cheerfully via Cuba into the international waters of the Gulf of Mexico?

I’m guessing a couple of U.S. aircraft considerably newer than the SU-24s would quickly make their presence known in an unmistakable way to such an unnecessary provocation in that particular large American lake!

Then there is the matter of the wreck of HMS Erebus, or perhaps it is the evocatively named HMS Terror, underneath the Arctic Sea where, even now, a nefarious Russian submarine bent on challenging our sovereignty could be lurking – although it would have to be a small sub, because the long-missing sailing ship appears to be only 11 metres beneath the surface.

Why we’re spending money discovering and recovering a 168-year-old wreck from the floor of Queen Maud Gulf when we’re allegedly in need of another painfully pleasurable dose of austerity would be a puzzlement if the political strategy of the Harper Government were not so obvious.

Desperate to be seen to be doing something – and preferably something that won’t be as expensive as actually building and maintaining a harbour or other infrastructure – to preserve Canada’s Artic sovereignty, the Harper Government has hit upon the historical oddity of the reappearance of the doomed ship from Sir John Franklin’s effort to find an unfrozen Northwest Passage, which began in 1845.

Indeed, His Nibs, Prime Minister Stephen Harper scrambled to mount the podium himself to make the rather tendentious claim, given the relatively southern location of the wreck, that discovery of the ship strengthens Canada’s claims to the Arctic. Well, perhaps it also allowed him to bask enjoyably in the reflected glory of the imperialism of old as he advocates for the New Imperialism of unregulated capital. One is almost surprised, given all this, that Mr. Harper didn’t don the garb of a 19th Century sea captain for the occasion!

Which leads us to the unintended hilarity in this maritime news story. Mr. Harper was quick to pour loads of dough into his pet science project and to tout the “commitment, dedication and the perseverance of the many partners and explorers involved.”

It is ironic, of course, that the same government actively pursues a policy of science denial and science suppression, especially when the science in question runs counter to the quasi-religious ideological nostrums of the Harper Government.

Indeed, global warming – denied and disparaged by the Harperites – may have contributed to the discovery after all these years of the unlucky Royal Navy vessel.

Well, at least the Harperites can argue they’re helping solve the problem of too much ice in the Northwest Passage, which seems to have been the undoing of Commander Franklin’s ill-fated expedition.

This seems an appropriately nautical note on which to end my short sojourn adjacent to salt water, which was required by some urgent family business on Vancouver Island. I will not have a regular Internet connection for the next couple of days, and will return to commentary on the state of Alberta politics next week in Edmonton. This post also appears on

* Or so it looks in several recent news pictures. Perhaps the Canadian Navy, royal or otherwise, has in the Harper Era forgotten the useful naval dictum: “If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t move, move it. If it won’t move, paint it.”