Albertans have a right to ask questions about the integrity and preservation of their government’s records

Alberta Tories contemplate their departure from the Legislature. Actual Progressive Conservative Government officials may not leave office in exactly the manner illustrated. Below: But if they do, is this the fate of their secrets? Below that: the late premier Ralph Klein and privatization advocate and cabinet minister Steve West.

There’s a whiff of panic in the air nowadays in some of the most politicized corners of the Alberta government.

Of course, every government that has been in power for more than a few years, regardless of its ideology or party name, has secrets it would rather not reveal.

But with the sense Alberta’s government very well could change hands after the next general election, Progressive Conservative politicians and some of the senior bureaucrats who are an essential part of the nearly 44-year-old PC Dynasty have to be asking themselves what they are going to do about it.

This is an important question for we citizens who want to know what happened within our government during their long watch, not to mention who care about our history.

When it comes to their commitment to transparency, not all the signs are promising.

In a 2012 study of Canadian access-to-information laws by the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy, Alberta was tied for last place with the Alberta-dominated federal Conservative government and the government of New Brunswick. That is, according to the CLD, we and the others have the weakest legal frameworks in Confederation for protecting the right of citizens to information about their government.

That rating put Alberta 55th in the world, by the way, behind Colombia and Mongolia and barely ahead of Angola and Thailand.

Way back in 2003, the Parkland Institute attempted to compare Alberta’s highway maintenance system, which had been privatized a few years before by the PC Government of premier Ralph Klein, with the government-run program that preceded it.

This proved to be impossible. Constant reorganization of the departments responsible for the program allowed the government to claim records could not be found. Confidentiality agreements with private contractors provided another convenient excuse for withholding comparative information. In the end, there was no choice but to take on faith the claims of Ralph Klein and Steve West, the minister the premier favoured to lead his attacks on public services. Dr. West, a veterinarian from Vermilion, later also served as Mr. Klein’s chief of staff for a spell.

A decade later, the Parkland Institute reported last year, there had been no improvement in the ability of citizens to access information about Government of Alberta operations.

Indeed, with the introduction of Finance Minister Doug Horner’s unorthodox, confusing and much criticized budget reporting techniques, understanding what this government is up to has grown even more difficult.

Until very recently, however, the Progressive Conservative Party and the senior reaches of the civil service have at least mostly felt comfortable with the notion they would remain in power forever.

Since then, though, Albertans have been buffeted by spectacular revelations about lavish spending by senior health care officials, donations to the PC Party by a raft of publicly financed institutions, routine use of the provincial air fleet by the premier’s office and a secret project to build the premier a luxurious residence high atop a government building in downtown Edmonton. The latter, we were told, had been cancelled at a small cost. Then we learned it had never been cancelled.

Surely, under these circumstances, Albertans are entitled to wonder what else they don’t know.

They’re also entitled to worry they will never know many important facts, if senior elected and unelected officials of this government – never all that committed to transparency – take measures to ensure their secrets remain hidden forever.

As things stand, Albertans know far less than they ought to know about:

  • Electricity deregulation
  • Liquor sales privatization
  • School and highway P3s
  • Flood cleanup and mitigation costs in Southern Alberta
  • Payouts for cashiered political aides
  • The operation of the most politicized provincial departments, such as Finance, Justice, Municipal Affairs and Education

As the British historian Antony Beevor observed: “Few things reveal more about political leaders and their systems than the manner of their downfall.”

So it is not unreasonable to ask the three candidates for the leadership of the PC party, in these circumstances, if they will commit to ensuring the integrity and preservation of government records keeping during a transfer of government.

Albertans shouldn’t have to worry about a fleet of shredder trucks descending on the Legislature between now and election day!

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Justin Trudeau in Edmonton: dismiss this guy as a flake or a lightweight at your peril

Liberal Party of Canada Leader Justin Trudeau energized a crowd of Liberals and the curious last night in Edmonton. Below: His father, Pierre Trudeau, circa 1968; the chip off the old block.

I’m pretty sure it was in the spring of 1968 that I heard Pierre Trudeau speak in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park. I think it was March ’68, as a matter of fact, right before the convention that made him leader of the Liberal Party and prime minister of Canada.

I can tell you this for sure, it was a beautiful day, the sun was warm, there was a nice breeze off the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the daffodils were in bloom, and the presence of the still-youngish Mr. Trudeau (he was not quite 50 and the minister of justice at that time) generated a heck of a lot of excitement.

Seems to me there were about 1,000 people there that day – the single Internet account I could find was imprecise about such details, including the exact date. The crowd was abuzz. Mr. Trudeau spoke for about half an hour. It was exciting. I can’t recall much of what he said, but it isn’t really important anyway. It was boilerplate campaign stuff.

The mood was the thing: Upbeat. Hopeful. It was memorable.

Fast forward to yesterday evening and Justin Trudeau, 42, was in Edmonton. And to my mind there were a lot of things in common with that afternoon in Victoria, lo those many years ago.

Maybe I just caught a taste of the Kool-Aid. Maybe I’m just getting old and remembering my youth through rose-coloured spectacles. But I can tell you this, it was a beautiful evening last night, the sun was warm and some marigolds or something were blooming nearby. Edmonton’s River Valley was nice, although I’m afraid it didn’t quite come up to the standards of the Juan de Fuca Strait and the Olympic Mountains.

But there were about 1,000 people there. Justin Trudeau spoke for about half an hour. People seemed to find it pretty exciting. Nowadays, of course, we have an Internet record of what he said, but it isn’t really that important anyway. It was boilerplate campaign stuff.

The mood was the thing: Upbeat. Hopeful. It was memorable.

I’m telling you people, if it hadn’t been for the boring interlude when the rally organizers tried to get their most fervent supporters to break a silly record by making phone calls to voters in other cities, a lame idea that momentarily took the wind out of the rally’s sails, the feeling was much the same.

Yes, there was more than a whiff of old-style Trudeaumania in the air, just like in ’68.

As I’ve said before, whether you’re a New Democrat or a Conservative like most of the people who run things in this province, if you think you can just blow this guy off as a flake or a lightweight you’re sadly deluded. He’s got some ideas, he’s got charisma, and so he’s got people listening to what he has to say.

There are differences: We’ve got a mean spirited, tired old government in Ottawa that has discovered from its fellow travellers in the United States how to wedge the electorate and go negative to great effect. It’s prepared to do things to stay in power that real Conservatives like Bob Stanfield or Joe Clark would never have contemplated.

The Liberals in ’68 were just renewing a franchise that had gone a little stale.

Oh, and we all have cell phones with cameras in them now.

So you can say that was then and this is now if you like.

Still, 2014 is starting to feel to me a bit like 1968. Maybe more than a bit. It sure did for a little while last night, anyway.

No, this is not the Fringe Festival! Premier’s line on airplanes and Sky Palace descends into the theatre of the absurd

A not-so-grim Finance Minister Doug Horner (he’s not quitting!) and an unhappy Premier Dave Hancock, right, put the best face on their new rules for use of government aircraft at their news conference yesterday. Below: A relaxed NDP Leader Brian Mason, just back from holiday himself, and the Premier Hancock we’re more used to seeing, free of the distressing confines of the Legislative media bunker.

Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock, not looking particularly rested despite just having returned from five weeks in sunny Italy, accompanied by a much more chipper Finance Minister Doug Horner, tried to slam the hangar door on the Air Redford Scandal yesterday.

No such luck. Alas for both of them and their foundering Progressive Conservative Government, that flight’s already left the tarmac. It’s approaching cruising altitude now and won’t be disappearing from the radar any time soon. Both of them know it.

In the gloomy recesses of the bunker-like Legislature media centre, a flunky handed out a press release containing a few insignificant policy changes for the use of government aircraft, none of which is likely to do much to moderate the mood of an angry electorate impatient with the misuse of government aircraft.

Conduct periodic air transportation services program evaluations? Clarify aircraft use policies? Report the cost of using government aircraft? I don’t think so!

The public’s going to react to those ideas, as a relaxed NDP Leader Brian Mason, himself just back from vacation, observed immediately after the early afternoon government news conference, as being “a day late and a dollar short.”

About the only thing that might help the government on this disastrous file at this point would be for Mr. Horner to do what Parliamentary tradition requires and resign his portfolio. But as Mr. Horner made clear, he has no intention of doing that and “I have not reconsidered the decision.”

He looked pretty feisty when he said that too, as if there had indeed been some discussion of that very idea behind the closed doors of the Tory caucus, perhaps with the premier taking a different position. And who wouldn’t have loved to be a fly on the wall at that meeting?

The premier does have the power to fire a minister, of course, but the distressed looking Mr. Hancock, barely looking up from his speaking notes, stuck to his now familiar strategy of humbly apologizing to the people of Alberta for the government’s manifest failings, and then insisting no one has done anything wrong except former premier Alison Redford.

Hold Mr. Horner responsible for misuse of the government air fleet – seeing as everyone agrees he was the minister responsible for the use of the government aircraft? No, no, said Mr. Hancock, oversight was provided by all ministers. “So the responsibility is ours when a question arises about the use of the planes.”

Everyone’s. In other words, no one’s.

Journos at the presser didn’t actually start to snicker out loud at the premier’s absurdist answers, though, until an impertinent reporter raised the matter of the Sky Palace residence once planned for Ms. Redford, and the competing and exclusive claims of two former infrastructure ministers, one of whom is now running for the party’s leadership, that they each deserve the sole credit for stopping the plan.

Well, which is it? Asked the reporter. Candidate Ric McIver, or his predecessor and successor, Wayne Drysdale? Uh, Mr. Hancock responded, never mind the contradiction … they’re both right!

This is an especially interesting answer in light of the subsequent revelation that work on the Sky Palace never really stopped at all – the bedrooms were merely repurposed as boardrooms.

That was when, as Mr. Mason later observed, the premier began to lead us into “an inter-dimensional relativistic way of looking at the truth.” Saying that two contradictory accounts of what happened are both true, he explained, “indicates the existence of some sort of parallel universe!”

It’s for stuff like this we’ll all miss Mr. Mason when he’s retired!

This government is bleeding in the water and even the normally docile Press Gallery sharks are starting to circle a little closer. One day soon, one of them is actually going to ask a tough question, like why the heck Mr. Hancock wouldn’t fire Mr. Horner from cabinet if the Finance Minister won’t resign.

Even Mr. Hancock, apparently the last defender of the Tory faith, seems to recognize the dire level to which his party has sunk – at least if his fidgety and gloomy demeanour yesterday is any guide.

What a change had come over him when 20 minutes later, the government’s troubles momentarily forgotten, as he dumped icy water over Mr. Mason’s head to raise money for charity.

In the halls of power, I’m afraid, that upbeat and smiling Mr. Hancock we all remember will be gone forever.

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A few harmless slaps were landed, but last night’s PC leadership debate in Edmonton was no donnybrook

The Three Tory Amigos just before last night’s Edmonton debate. Below: Mr. Lukaszuk, who your blogger says was the debate winner, frontrunner Jim Prentice, and the challenger with the best chance, Ric McIver.

If last night’s Alberta Progressive Conservative Leadership debate in a North Edmonton Ukrainian community hall shows anything, it’s that candidates Ric McIver and Thomas Lukaszuk were slightly better brawlers than leadership frontrunner Jim Prentice.

But you’d expect the two challengers to pile onto the favoured candidate at an event like this – the only forum in the entire leadership campaign not carefully scripted by the PC Party brass and caucus members, who overwhelmingly favour Mr. Prentice’s candidacy.

It was also the only forum to permit a few moments of actual three-way debate among the candidates for Alison Redford’s tarnished crown, an aspect helped by the able moderation of CBC announcer Kim Trynacity.

Anyway, you’d expect Mr. Prentice to tread carefully, especially around the two issues that provided some difficulty for him yesterday – his recent announcement his campaign would be giving away party memberships, instead of selling them as is the party tradition, and his ideas about how Alberta Health Services should be run.

So I’m not sure how much can be deduced about how each of the Tory trio are doing from the few moments of fun the forum provided to the crowd of about 100 people, about half apparently members of the Edmonton Ukrainian community. (A small sleight of hand was managed by the event’s organizers, who moved the debate from a huge room, where the crowd would have looked pathetic, into quite a small one, which seemed impressively packed.)

To turn to the inevitable boxing metaphor, local homeboy Lukaszuk landed a couple of punches, Mr. McIver landed one, but the frontrunner escaped with no obvious bruising. There were no knockouts.

I’d have to respectfully disagree with one professional journalist who said the debate featured “a rowdy shouting match.” Voices were raised, but not for long. Decorum was maintained. As for the heckling heard by another reporter, it was mostly one guy, and he divided his attention between Mr. Prentice and Mr. McIver. I know this because he was sitting right behind me.

On the whole, I’d say all three candidates did OK, although I’d give the contest to Mr. Lukaszuk on points, if only for the best line of the evening, in which he mockingly encouraged “all Albertans to pick up a free membership from Jim and vote for me.”

He followed that up with a clever but harmless tap at Mr. McIver: “This province doesn’t need a Mr. Vague or a Dr. No” – the latter being a reference to Mr. McIver’s nickname as an austerity advocate on Calgary city council and the former a pretty fair description of Mr. Prentice’s approach to most issues.

Cut through the verbiage, though, and there was very little to separate any of the candidates on genuinely important issues other than how to run AHS.

None of them favour changing the oil and gas royalty structure (although Mr. Lukaszuk advocates more value added processing in Alberta), all of them say they want to make peace with Alberta teachers, and all of them advocate some degree of fiscal conservatism.

Not surprisingly, given the venue, all of them think warm thoughts about Ukraine, which Mr. McIver, with an unintended geographical tribute to former U.S. vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, described as our “good neighbour.”

On his call to restore board governance to the AHS and his justifications for giving away memberships when, after all, the party’s rules allow it, Mr. Prentice reminded me for all the world of a earnest Joe Clark trying to explain a complicated point to an inattentive listener.

Interestingly, the loudest cheer of the evening went to Mr. Lukaszuk’s argument the federal Temporary Foreign Workers Program needs to be replaced by real immigrants who get to stay in Canada – but this too was a point of which all three candidates are really in agreement.

The reality is that while a fine time was had by most of the people who bothered to turn out, this contest is going to be decided by membership sales and committed voters – which likely means it’s a fight between Mr. Prentice, with the support of the party establishment, and Mr. McIver, who is emphasizing political niche marketing to committed groups.

This leaves Mr. Lukaszuk without much to show but two thumbs up from Alberta Diary for his modest debating victory last night.

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A return to civility? An end to Internet anonymity? Please! The leaders of all Parliamentary parties need protection now

Political discourse in Canada, as seen by the National Post, that well known champion of common courtesy. Below: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

The National Post is shocked, just shocked, at the tone of the public commentary responding to the threatening break-in at Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau’s Ottawa home while his wife and small children slept.

“Canadian political dialogue is devolving into a mosh pit where even the vilest personal attacks are more or less routine,” lamented political columnist Michael Den Tandt in the Post yesterday, apparently in response to some of the ferocious debate that reports of the frightening incident sparked in the comment sections of various media outfits.

This is true enough, although a mosh pit is for too benign a metaphor for what has become routine political discourse in this country, thanks in large part to the rise of what’s known here as the Online Tory Rage Machine.

These boiler rooms full of angry Conservative Party agitators respond instantly to any issue with furious online denunciations of anyone who disagrees with the enthusiasms of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, no matter how mild the disagreement.

Fret about the death toll in Gaza, get ready to be called a friend of terrorists, if not an outright terrorist yourself. Express some worries about sabre-rattling in Ukraine, and you’ll be told you’re in bed with Vladimir Putin. Express doubts about the war on drugs, be prepared to be accused of drug use yourself, or maybe selling the stuff. And just try talking about moderate firearms regulations and then watch with astonishment the threatening tone the response to your remarks quickly takes on.

For, oh, the past eight years or so, it’s been relentless – and, with the active and enthusiastic encouragement of the Harper government. And it is semi-official – who can forget the famous Craigslist ad of 2011, when this stuff was really getting off the ground, seeking social media writers to “make up facts” and use “sarcasm and personal insults” to “score points” and “stir outrage.”

No one has ever persuasively denied this was legitimate, although recruitment of operatives seems to have moved to more secure channels, perhaps the back rooms of various right-wing centres for “building democracy.”

This routine abuse of the CPC’s doubters, let alone its actual opponents, has even crept into legitimate media, through the agency of the prime minister’s favourite TV station, the semi-official Sun News Network.

Hell, thanks to Sun News, the Two Minute Hate is practically a Canadian institution now, except that it seldom runs for less than eight or 10 minutes.

And that’s not to mention the Harper Government’s approach to political advertising, which as we know nowadays tends to target on the mostly imagined failings of Mr. Trudeau, with an occasional halfhearted sideswipe at Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair.  The fact it doesn’t seem to be working just arouses them to new heights of vituperation.

Not that I’m jumping to any conclusions, but it’s not hard to imagine the possibility that one of the many violent fruitcakes of the right was motivated by this stream of invective to decide they had to … do something.

This has served a purpose for the government. For one thing, keeping the tone of political debate ugly, and fostering the sense that all politicians are corrupt, is a well-understood technique of the political right in North America. It has the tendency to suppress the vote by people who might otherwise be motivated to do something about the state of affairs at the ballot box.

For another, it does in fact have a chilling effect on legitimate democratic discourse and the expression of views not approved by the official right.

Mr. Den Tandt, in the traditional enabling manner of the mainstream media, tries to paint this as something equally contributed to by intemperate supporters of both sides. “As quickly as Trudeau haters popped up to dine out on the break-in, Stephen Harper-haters piled on with their own equally anile attacks,” he wrote, and, I admit, I had to look up “anile” to realize it is sexist as well as largely incorrect.

Although, in fairness, I have noticed in the past few months that traditionally mild-mannered Canadian progressive commentators are holding themselves back much less than in the past – a sleeping dog, perhaps, than the political right may yet regret having awakened. Or perhaps not, since the goal of the strategy was always to debase political discourse.

And so we come to Mr. Den Tandt’s proposed solutions: an end to Internet anonymity and a return to “time-tested standards of common courtesy and decency.”

Well, I understand they’ve been trying something like the former idea in Russia. But good luck with getting any of that to happen in Canada, where, among other things, it would immediately put the Online Tory Rage Machine out of business.

We’re well past all that, I’m afraid. What needs to happen now is for the Mounties to assign protection to the leaders of all Parliamentary parties, and their families. Even the one with only one member. Right now.

That’s going to cost us a few bucks. We’re told we had to pay $47 million from April 1, 2009, to Jan. 31, 2011, to protect Mr. Harper and his family.

Well, so be it. The alternative is much, much worse.

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Sure you can run in my riding! With friends like Neil Brown, does Jim Prentice need enemies?

Neil Brown interviewed by a reporter – Darcy Henton of the Calgary Herald, not Matt Dykstra of the Edmonton Sun – on the day the Tory caucus gave Alison Redford her “work plan.” Not long after that they skidded her. Below: PC leadership candidate Jim Prentice.

With friends like Neil Brown, does Jim Prentice need enemies?

Dr. Brown, QC, is a lawyer and PhD biologist, so while he is not actually a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon, he is presumably a fairly smart guy.

Mr. Prentice is a lawyer, corporate lobbyist, former bank vice-president and former federal cabinet minister with a record of success in that role, so he’s presumably a pretty smart guy too.

The latter is a candidate for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, a job that will automatically bring with it the premiership of the province of Alberta … at least for a little while.

The former is a member of the Alberta Legislature for the same Alberta PC Party and is in possession of something Mr. Prentice needs, but maybe doesn’t want just yet, thank you very much. To wit: a seat in the Alberta Legislature.

So I can’t imagine that Mr. Prentice was really all that pleased to read on the Edmonton Sun’s website yesterday that Dr. Brown is offering up his seat in Calgary for the heir apparent to the leadership of the PC Party. The offer is sure to be in the paper this morning.

“If Jim approached me and said he wanted to run in my riding, it would be a slam dunk for me,” Dr. Brown told the Sun’s Legislative reporter, Matt Dykstra.

Now, it’s not entirely clear who called whom, or why. Perhaps Dr. Brown was looking for a way out of the panic-stricken snakepit the PC caucus has become under the misrule of former premier Alison Redford and since. More likely Mr. Dykstra was calling all the known Prentice endorsers in the caucus and asking the same question, just to see whether anyone was silly enough to bite. Or maybe Mr. Dykstra wanted to talk to Dr. Brown in particular because his provincial riding shares territory with Mr. Prentice’s former federal constituency.

At any rate, the story made it clear Dr. Brown and Mr. Prentice have not actually discussed the idea. No surprise there!

Regardless, you can count on it that an offer like this is not what Mr. Prentice wants to hear just now.

For one thing, he may still be the acknowledged frontrunner in the race to replace Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock, but his success is far from a sure thing – and seems less so now that PC membership sales are apparently flagging badly. So right from the get-go, any talk about Mr. Prentice running in Dr. Brown’s Calgary-Mackay-Nose Hill Riding is wildly premature.

For another, it’s not entirely clear Mr. Prentice could win in Calgary, or anywhere else – at least without the boost of an overwhelming leadership vote victory. Indeed, right now there may be no safe riding anywhere in Alberta for a provincial PC leader.

In Calgary itself, there seems to be plenty of support for candidate Ric McIver, and for Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith. But for Mr. Prentice? Maybe not so much. Which is why, of course, the campaign-sponsored rumours of late have had him running in an Edmonton riding when the general election rolls around.

If he wins the leadership, Mr. Prentice may very well want to lead the party from the sidelines for a spell, rather than engage in a suicidal by-election while the memory of Alison Redford is fresh in voters’ memories. Such things are do-able in our Parliamentary system.

So what he doesn’t need just now is the well-meaning likes of Dr. Brown saying that stepping aside to make way for a potentially fatal by-election would be “a no brainer,” and moreover that “I’m sure there are probably other MLAs in Calgary who would to the same thing for him.” I’ll bet there are at that!

Spokespeople for the Wildrose Opposition, which is strong in Calgary as noted, will be delighted, I am sure, to loudly urge Mr. Prentice to take Dr. Brown up on his offer, and as soon as possible.

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Have the PCs sold only 23,700 memberships? If so, it’s bad news for frontrunner Jim Prentice no matter how you slice it!

Jim Prentice tries to figure out what to do about his incredible shrinking party. Actual potential Progressive Conservative leaders may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: the real Mr. Prentice, plus candidates Ric McIver and Thomas Lukaszuk.

An intriguing rumour – impossible for an outsider to verify – did the rounds of Alberta political circles yesterday. To wit: That the Progressive Conservative Party has sold fewer than 24,000 memberships since the 2014 leadership race began.

If the three candidates have managed to sell only 23,700 memberships, this is not very good news for a party that hopes somehow to cling to its role as Alberta’s Natural Governing Party for another generation.

No matter how you slice it, it is particularly bad news for former banker, lobbyist and federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice, who is generally acknowledged to be the frontrunner in the contest, with the support of almost the entire elected PC caucus.

Even if Mr. Prentice manages to win, a victory on a pathetically low turnout like this is not going to do much to cement his credentials with wavering voters as a steady and inspiring leader. And remember, however many memberships are sold, the number of members who actually bother to vote is bound to be be considerably lower.

But to make things more scary for Mr. Prentice’s team, the lower the vote goes, the greater the chances are that he can be knocked off – most likely by second-place candidate Ric McIver, the MLA for Calgary Hayes and formerly the infrastructure minister in cashiered premier Alison Redford’s cabinet.

If it’s close enough on Sept. 6 that the vote must go to a second ballot on Sept. 20, and if candidate Thomas Lukaszuk, MLA for Edmonton-Castle Downs and Ms. Redford’s former deputy premier and labour minister, throws his support to Mr. McIver, Mr. Prentice could be done for.

I’m betting that Mr. McIver has sold almost has many memberships as Mr. Prentice up to now, a situation that with a low turnout could result in yet another surprise defeat of the establishment candidate in a Tory leadership race – exactly the circumstances that brought the catastrophic Ms. Redford to the leadership in 2011.

Mr. McIver now appears to be turning to niche marketing to target pockets of potential supporters – for example, religious social conservatives, with whom he has been associated in the past, public employees with public-sector pension plans, whom he told Wednesday would see their pensions left alone under his leadership, and supporters of the soon-to-close Michener Centre for developmentally disabled adults in Red Deer, which he promised to keep open yesterday.

Each of those policies could be worth a couple of thousand votes or more to Mr. McIver, easily enough to turn the tide for him in a tight vote.

This puts Mr. Prentice’s unexpected announcement Wednesday that he would give away free Tory Party memberships to anyone who wanted them in a more understandable context.

Notwithstanding Mr. Prentice’s claims that this is standard operating procedure in party leadership votes, giving away memberships on this scale is really unprecedented. But Mr. Prentice needs the vote not to be embarrassingly low if he wins, and he may require the vote not to be embarrassingly low in order to win. If he has to suffer the humiliation of appearing to buy votes, so be it – desperate times call for desperate measures!

Now, the situation may not be quite as grim for the Tories in general and Mr. Prentice in particular as an extremely low number like 23,700 makes it sound.

Members if the PC Legislative Caucus are poised to hand in the memberships they have sold over the past few weeks, and that will likely mean another 5,000 or so memberships for the party. Since almost everyone in the caucus is on the record as a Prentice supporter, in theory all these should be Prentice votes. If they actually vote, that is.

Still, with less than three weeks left in which memberships may be sold, it remains highly possible, perhaps even likely, that the party will limp to its first leadership vote with only 30,000 legitimate memberships and a few thousand more undependable Prentice freebies.

That’s a far cry from the 100,000-membership benchmark Mr. Prentice set for his supporters back in June, not to mention the 144,000 members who voted in 2006 in the leadership race that chose Ed Stelmach as premier.

The PC leadership race is finally starting to get interesting – though hardly for reasons that can bring any joy to Alberta’s remaining Tory supporters.

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The boss has gone crazy! He’s giving away PC Party memberships! And this time, it’s no joke!

Tory leadership frontrunner Jim Prentice: Yeah! That’s it! I’ll give away memberships! Below: Candidates Ric McIver and Thomas Lukaszuk.

Holy Cow! Not only does Alberta Tory leadership frontrunner Jim Prentice admit his campaign has been giving away free memberships, but he says the idea’s OK with him and he intends to keep on doing it!

Here’s what Mr. Prentice told the Calgary Herald a day after his leadership campaign was busted handing out free membership cards to would-be supporters: “There will be free memberships.”

Seriously? I confess I didn’t think it was possible for the Progressive Conservative leadership campaign season to get any stranger than it has, and that’s when it did with this startling revelation.

Mr. Prentice – a former federal cabinet minister, well-connected corporate lobbyist and banking executive – phoned up the Calgary Herald yesterday told its reporter that, yeah, everybody does it, so why not him too? (Children, do you remember what your Mama told you you when you tried that argument on her?)

“My perspective on all of this is we want as many people taking part in the democratic process as possible,” Mr. Prentice advised the no doubt dumbfounded Herald reporter, according to the story the publication rushed into print last night. “They need to have a membership card to vote and what I want to see is as many Albertans as possible taking part.”

Well, what could be more democratic than that? I’ll buy the votes, and you cast ’em!

And while this may or may not be a common practice in some leadership races, it’s not true that everyone’s doing it in this particular race, if only because candidates Ric McIver’s and Thomas Lukaszuk’s campaigns don’t have the money.

In fact, Mr. McIver, a Calgary MLA and former minister in fired-premier Alison Redford’s cabinet, was quick off the mark, accusing the frontrunner of buying votes for $10 each. Mr. Lukaszuk, an Edmonton MLA and former Redford minister, was a little less inflammatory, telling the paper he intends to continue selling memberships and hopes the others do too.

Even the party’s spokesperson, executive director Kelley Charlebois, obviously found the practice a little hinky. “The party doesn’t condone the activity,” he told the Herald. “I certainly personally don’t believe it is a successful way to go, but it’s not breaking any rules.” (Emphasis added.)

Mr. Prentice is the candidate with the deepest pockets, thanks to his support in corporate circles. So does that mean it’s finally become acceptable practice to do what, hitherto, only tinfoil-hat-wearing lefties like me have been claiming goes on? That is to say, just using corporate dough straight up to buy votes outright!

About the least you can say is that if Mr. Prentice wins the race, as is widely expected, the outcome will be tainted in the minds of many Albertans.

It also blows to smithereens Mr. Prentice’s benchmark, set back in June when he opened his Edmonton campaign office, of 100,000 new memberships. So what if there are 100,000 new memberships? The obvious question for a cynical public will be how many of them were bought directly by the Prentice campaign, and not paid for by real supporters.

And it sure sounds as if all three candidates together haven’t sold anything like the number of membership they need to make it look as if the Tories are still the Natural Governing Party of Alberta. Indeed, I’m starting to think my prediction of 45,000 memberships sold by the race’s end was wildly optimistic.

This also raises some interesting questions for those of us who don’t support the PCs, and never will.

Do we phone up the Prentice campaign and ask for our free membership – and then vote for the candidate that has the best position on, say, public service pensions? As of yesterday, that would be Mr. McIver, so be careful!

Do we sign up 20,000 leftward leaning Albertans and colonize the party, or at least tell its leadership candidates what they have to do? You’ll recall that progressive voters were accused of doing just that when Alison Redford was elected, although her subsequent policies should have laid that notion to rest.

It’s hard to imagine that this sudden and unexpected revelation – when claiming the giveaways were just a mistake by a junior staffer might have made much more sense – is going to help Mr. Prentice’s campaign, which up to now was coasting to an easy victory.

So here’s a conspiracy theory for you – just wait a sec while I put on that tinfoil hat … Is it possible Mr. Prentice wants to lose, and this is the only way he can think of to do it now that it’s too late to pull out of the race?

This bizarre announcement does, in all seriousness, change the dynamics of the race, possibly considerably. And every day another news story breaks about former premier Redford’s spending habits, the leadership of the PC Party becomes less of a prize.

Maybe this was the only thing Mr. Prentice could think of to get out of Dodge before the new sheriff rides into town?

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Whiny e-pistle notwithstanding, Finance Minister Doug Horner a candidate for high jump

Finance Minister Doug Horner on his Alberta politics Most Wanted card. Below: The real Mr. Horner; Hamilton Burger, “incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial!” Sgt. Shultz: “I see nothing!

If you want evidence the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party is done like dinner – with or without former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice sitting at the head of the table – look no further than the recent statements of Finance Minister Doug Horner.

Mr. Horner had the opportunity to do the right thing, shoulder the blame as the minister responsible for Alison Redford’s misuse of government aircraft and bow to doctrine of ministerial responsibility by resigning his portfolio in Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock’s cabinet.

Albertans would have been dumbfounded and Mr. Horner’s enemies confounded. All the more so because, as others have rightly pointed out, so few Canadian cabinet ministers do the right thing and obey the rules of the important ministerial responsibility Parliamentary convention when they’re supposed to.

We would all have been scratching our heads and asking, “Why the hell didn’t we make that man our premier?” He might even have had a chance to become the leader of the Opposition and, perhaps after a spell on the west side of the House, an Alberta premier with a mandate to govern. He’s only 53, after all. History would have viewed him with a beneficent smile, even if he never returned to politics.

Instead, he sent a defiant email to his Tory caucus – where, obviously, the knives are out for him too, just as they were a few weeks ago for Alison Redford – saying he won’t be bullied into resigning by the opposition and media. Leaked copies of Mr. Horner’s whiny and self-justifying e-pistle were soon circulating on social media, quickly leading to speculation the government is in disarray.

His message in a nutshell, like Sgt. Shultz on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes: “I saw nothing!” (You can read the whole sorry thing here.)

And for what? A few weeks more of a cabinet minister’s pay – because, sure as heck, there’s not much chance Jim Prentice or whichever of the other two wins the race to become Alberta’s final PC premier, will allow Mr. Horner into his cabinet. Not unless he has an urge for assisted political suicide, anyway.

For the opportunity to spend a few days more associating with the leftovers and dead-enders from Ms. Redford’s cabinet who make up Mr. Hancock’s ministry? I’m astonished the Opposition parties haven’t started handing out “most wanted” playing cards with the faces of Redford cabinet ministers on them in preparation for the post-election de-Toryfication campaign!

The right-wing commentariat – possibly sensing a behind-the-scenes deal between the men – is gleefully calling on Mr. Prentice to toss Mr. Horner over the side the instant he assumes the reins of power. And in this case, who can blame them?

Look no farther that Mr. Horner’s attitude if you seek evidence that the legendary sense of entitlement of the PC Party still exists, despite the shocks that have been administered to its insiders in recent weeks. In spite of moments of lucidity, these people find it very hard to believe their time may be over, and this quaint faith in the permanence and rightness of their mandate clouds their judgment, as it seems to have clouded the normally clear-sighted Mr. Horner’s.

In March, terrified at their plummeting polls and growing hostility among voters who traditionally supported them because of the seemingly unending scandals about Ms. Redford’s use of government aircraft, first-class foreign travel, vanity building project atop a government building and a general sense of entitlement, the caucus fired the then-premier and replaced her with the hapless Mr. Hancock while a permanent replacement was sought.

The sacrifice of Ms. Redford, however, appears not to have eased the fury of Alberta’s voters one bit. Now the caucus seems to be turning on the finance minister, whose ministry was responsible for the government air fleet that Ms. Redford appears to have used as her personal taxi service.

Meanwhile, the three PC leadership candidates are squabbling over whether they should have a TV debate! After all, they say, the winner of the race will be the next premier of Alberta. But hardly anyone outside the chattering classes gives a hoot. We all sense we’re almost finished with these guys, and the sooner the better.

They can have a TV debate if they want, the public seems to be thinking. The event will be incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial, as prosecutor Hamilton Burger used to shout at TV’s Perry Mason. (No relation to Brian.) They can’t even give away PC party memberships any more!

Mr. Horner is a smart guy. He has been an unusually competent cabinet minister. But after his refusal to take responsibility for the blunders perpetrated on his watch, history is unlikely to view him much more kindly than the rest of Ms. Redford’s cabinet. And the probability is high he will be the next victim of the terror that his gripped the still barely governing PC caucus.

Barring another “Miracle on the Prairies” – which at this point would be … miraculous – about the only questions remaining are when and how he’ll be forced to walk the plank.

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A picture of Tories gone gray: How much will Albertans spend on oil portraits of Alison Redford and Dave Hancock?

Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock’s official portrait imagined. Actual Legislative Building paintings may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Ed Stelmach as seen by Tunde Vari; Ralph Klein by Xin Yu Zheng; your blogger by Ryn Climenhaga.

“I love scandals about other people, but scandals about myself don’t interest me. They have not got the charm of novelty.”Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891

Unlike our neighbours in British Columbia, where since Oscar Wilde was alive a modest photograph has been sufficient to honour each of the province’s 35 premiers, Alberta’s premiers are memorialized with a large and elaborate portrait, painted in oils.

The paintings from No. 1 (Alexander Rutherford) to No. 13 (unlucky Ed Stelmach) now hang on the northeast wall of the third floor of the Legislature in Edmonton.

Alberta’s premiers each pick their own artist – which can be controversial, as when Premier No. 12 Ralph Klein’s pick, Calgary-based Xin Yu Zheng, broke with tradition and painted Mr. Klein with a huge dream catcher in the background and the mountains (which are not visible from Edmonton) out the window of his Legislature office.

By contrast, the last similar brouhaha in British Columbia was when B.C. Premier No. 26, New Democrat Dave Barrett, circa 1973, was assailed for choosing a portrait that was, quelle horreur, in colour, hitherto an unheard-of innovation in that province!

Getting back to paintings in the Alberta Legislature, there’s room for only two more in the area devoted to public hangings of this sort – and guess who they’ll depict!

The subjects will be, of course, No. 14, the catastrophic and wildly unpopular Alison Redford, and No. 15, the current premier pro tempore, Dave Hancock.

Indeed, one of my sources tells me an artist is already at work at on the painting of No. 15, Mr. Hancock. Presumably a painting of Ms. Redford is under way as well, although the way things are going they may decide to hang it in the Legislative sub-basement, while upstairs the actual Ms. Redford shows no signs of aging. The Speaker himself seems to know where the next two portraits will hang.

In normal times, this would not even cause a breath of controversy. But in light of the spending scandals associated with Ms. Redford’s unhappy premiership, the cost of having a portrait painted in oils by a professional artist of a premier who was in office less than three years, let alone of one who will have been in office for less than six months when he departs, is bound to spark yet another uproar.

That may explain why the government of Alberta was unhelpful yesterday when I attempted to get it on the record that the two portraits are being painted, and find out what they will cost.

The Speaker’s Office referred me to the Public Affairs Bureau, which referred me to the Premier’s Office, which referred me back to the PAB and eventually to a person with a name, whose telephone voicemail message box was full. Oh well

As for trying to estimate the cost of a painting of this nature, that proved surprisingly elusive – apparently Alberta’s professional journalists have not thought to ask they money question when recent portraits of premiers like Messrs. Klein and Stelmach were unveiled with cheerful press releases and receptions in the Legislature.

Just saying, but there probably won’t be a similar event with cheese and bubbly when the portrait of Ms. Redford is unveiled.

Alas, artist Tunde Vari, who painted Mr. Stelmach’s legislative portrait, lists no prices on her home page.

Xin Yu Zheng’s personal website lists a few prices – $12,000 for a 2002 portrait in oil of 118 by 108 centimetres, similar in size to Mr. Klein’s picture. Mr. Klein’s, for which no price was listed, was completed from photographs in 2007.

So, this not outrageous compared to the cost of a Sky Palace or a trip with an aide to South Africa, but certainly enough to annoy a lot of citizens in the case of a premier who spent considerably less time in office than Mr. Klein, and was considerably less popular while she was there.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Ms. Redford and Mr. Hancock, both of whom view themselves with considerable esteem, have chosen artists who charge a higher rate for a commission than that speculated upon here. The only way to find that out, I suppose, will be for some enterprising journalist to file a FOIP request.

After all, as Oscar Wilde also observed in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” And who knows who Ms. Redford may have been tempted to commission!

However, in the mean time, I’ve got a modest proposal that will continue to support the arts in Alberta, but not unduly outrage citizens.

Let’s continue to commission painted portraits of Alberta premiers who manage to remain in office for three or more years.

Premiers like Ms. Redford, who don’t quite pass that threshold, should get a nice photographic portrait by an Alberta studio artist.

And premiers like Mr. Hancock, who are in office for less than six months, can take a selfie with their cell phone.

Sound fair?

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