Archive for February, 2008

If only… A roadmap to credibility for the Alberta NDP

It’s hardly news that Brian Mason and the New Democratic Party are not going to form the government of Alberta after Election Day.

But nowhere is it written that New Democrats can never be the government of Alberta, as unlikely as that may seem at this particular moment in history.

Who would have thought two years ago that Barack Obama would be a credible candidate for president of the United States? Who would have predicted in 1978 that the Soviet Union would disappear from the earth by 1992? Who would have imagined on Election Night 1984 that in less than a decade Brian Mulroney’s mighty majority would be reduced to a rump of two?

As Harold Wilson famously observed: “A week is a long time in politics.”

Likewise, it is not news in the midst of this strangely listless provincial election campaign that a lot of Albertans would like change, if only they could figure out what change they would like.

We’re not the same old Tories, say the same old Tories, determined to have it both ways. “Ed Stelmach: Change that works.” All the other parties, of course, promise change, change, change and nothing but change. Albertans haven’t heard so much loose talk about change since Ralph Klein emptied his pockets at the men’s shelter!

As for the electorate, if the last published polls are to be believed, it’s feeling undecided. It wants change. It’s worried about change. It can’t make up its mind what kind of change it would like.

The Liberals and the New Democrats could almost certainly give Albertans a dose of the change they desire if only they could work together. After all, their platforms are not all that different. Together, they represent a spectrum of opinion that is probably held by a majority of Albertans. Moreover – if the proverbial man (or woman) in the street is anything to go by – most Albertans would like the No. 2 and 3 parties to work together for the good of the province.

Indeed, it seems to some that a historical moment is upon us when, thanks to a weak Conservative premier, change really could happen … if only.

The bad news, folks (unless you’re a Conservative, of course), is that if only isn’t going to happen between now and March 3.

The Liberals think they can achieve a breakthrough on their own, if only they can find the right narrative to tell. The New Democrats see Liberal success as death to their hopes – and thus many of them would rather work to bring down the Liberals in ridings where New Democrats have no hope than to allow the change that Albertans crave.

Ironically, and sadly, they’re both likely wrong.

A route to power on March 3, for the Liberals, would have been through a co-operative relationship with the NDP – you scratch our back in St. Albert, we’ll scratch yours in Edmonton Calder. In power, the Liberals would have had an opportunity to consolidate their hold, and maybe even reign for 37 years

But the only possible route to power for the New Democrats, who don’t have a ghost of a chance on March 3, is also through co-operation with the Liberals. This is what brought the NDP to power in Ontario under Bob Rae in 1990.

Talk about your stunning upsets! Ontarians wanted change. They were sick of Grits and Tories, Tories and Grits. But they never would have given Bob Rae a chance if the NDP hadn’t first proved they could play with the big kids.

In 1985, the NDP did just that. They signed the famous “Liberal-NDP Accord” that led to a successful collaboration – though not quite a coalition – that resulted in success for the Liberals in the form of another election victory and success for the New Democrats in the form of the credibility they needed to be considered as a potential government by Ontario voters.

Sometimes it takes time – and not a little faith – to see a gamble succeed. The Liberal-NDP Accord must have seemed like a disaster to many Ontario New Democrats in 1987 when the Accord ended and the Liberals won a landslide.

But it was not a disaster. Three years later, when the seemingly popular Liberals arrogantly miscalculated and called a snap election that Ontarians didn’t want, the New Democrats (even to their leader’s surprise) formed a majority government.

I’ll say it again. The New Democrats triumphed in Ontario in 1990 because they proved in 1985 that they could play with the big kids. Sure, Ontario voters rewarded the Liberals in 1987 for what they saw as a success (driven, as it happened, by popular New Democratic policies). But when the Liberals stumbled in 1990, voters were confident enough to give the New Democrats their chance.

That Bob Rae’s NDP later also fumbled the ball doesn’t matter here. The point is that Alberta New Democrats now lack the credibility their party needs with voters in all but five or six Alberta ridings.

They will never be credible if they focus their attacks on the other opposition party.

The NDP would benefit even if they tried for an understanding with the Liberals and were rebuffed. At least then they could say, “Well, we tried to give you want you wanted.” And who knows? Alberta voters just might give them a chance. This is the birthplace of the CCF, after all. The Reform Party, mysteriously, once appealed to many NDP voters.

If only…

So, who pays for those NCC ads?

Aww, gee! Still no answer from the National Citizen’s Coalition.

I sent them an email the other day when I was wondering about their expensive advertisements, which say unions shouldn’t be allowed to use their money to buy expensive advertisements.

The day before, I’d heard the NCC’s president, a fellow from Toronto named Peter Coleman, bloviating on a local right-wing talk-radio station (which makes a fortune spewing poison over airwaves owned by us all, with nary a whimper of protest from the CRTC).

The NCC has a history of defending the right of folks to buy advertisements critical of governments they dislike. But Mr. Coleman made it clear they draw the line when it comes to unions buying ads to criticize governments the NCC does approve of. Say, like those “No plan” TV ads that have been zinging Premier Ed Stelmach lately. Indeed, when Mr. Coleman spoke, the airwaves were thick with sentiments like “forced union dues… time workers had a choice… without your consent…” Blah-blah

OK, I thought, so what’s good for the goose

So I dropped a line to the NCC. Where could I get a copy of the NCC’s membership list? I wondered. Does the NCC receive money from corporations? If so, which ones? Do any of these donors include publicly traded corporations?

I also wondered how the NCC selects its leaders, people like Mr. Coleman. If individual members of the NCC are dissatisfied with his leadership, I wondered, is there anything they can do about it?

I thanked them politely in advance for their quick responses to my questions. Funnily enough, though, they haven’t answered yet. Who knows? Maybe they picked up something in my tone.

The reason I mention this is because I’m a union member. And, as it happens, I don’t mind one bit my union putting some money into advertisements critical of the Alberta government – I guess that’s because, in my opinion, there’s plenty to criticize this government for.

But even if I disagree with something my union’s leaders do, I have an option that the members of the NCC don’t have. I can vote against them in the next union election. (In the case of the union of which I’m now a member, I get a direct vote. In some others, members like me get to vote for convention delegates, who in turn vote for the leadership. But regardless of the democratic model, it’s a democracy. I have a democratic say in the operation of my union. Any union I’ve been associated with takes democracy pretty seriously.)

Here’s another difference between me and a typical member of the NCC: I know who my fellow members are, and I know who pays the bills (that’d be us, the dues-paying members), and I know what our money is used for.

Here’s a little secret. I knew the answer to my first question when I asked the NCC. You see, I know I can’t get a copy of the NCC’s membership list. Because it’s a little secret too.

Actually, the NCC’s membership list is a pretty big secret. That’s because they don’t want you to know who is bankrolling their campaigns – all of which purport to look out for the interests of the little guy, and all of which, funnily enough, actually benefit the interests of the wealthiest, most powerful people in our society. And, I suppose, they also don’t want you to know because the people doing the bankrolling don’t want you to think about what they’re up to.

As I said here the other day, I’ll take the opinions of people like the NCC seriously on the day public corporations start putting their political donations to a vote of their shareholders.

In the mean time, since the NCC opines in its mysteriously funded ads that my union dues “are supposed to support collective bargaining,” I view political action by my union an essential part of how it represents me at the bargaining table.

That’s because unions can’t bargain effectively without fair labour laws, and we’ll never have fair labour laws without governments committed to the rights of working people, and we’ll never have a government committed to the rights of working people if we don’t elect it, and we won’t elect it without educating voters.

Critical ads? They’ve got my vote, thanks very much!

Moreover, unlike the NCC’s ads, there is absolutely no secret about who is paying for the Albertans for Change ads.

As for the NCC, I’ll let you know what they have to say when they get back to me.

Stelmach is the New Strom? Some silly thoughts on what’s new

Remember “Bowls is the new Rock ’n’ Roll”? Well…

Fifty is the new thirty. Seventy is the new fifty. Karate is the new ballroom dancing. Beer is the new sparkling wine. Liberal is the new conservative. Small is the new big. Random is the new order. Ugly is the new cute. Email is the new telephone. Facebook is the new email. The Internet is the new newsprint. Iran is the new Iraq. Yoga is the new jazzercise. Google is the new Yahoo. Saigon is the new Ho Chi Minh City. Small is the new big. GM is the new Chrysler. Black is the new black. Television is the new reality. Play is the new work. Work is the new play. Cat is the new dog. Strauss is the new Trotsky. Hot is the new cool. Tats are the new lipstick. Crazy is the new normal. Al Qaeda is the new Soviet Union. Subaru is the new Saab. Pants are the new trousers. Alpha is the new omega. Vista is the new beta. Bad is the new good. Green is the new brown. AIDS is the new consumption. Geely is the new Hyundai. Derivatives are the new porkbellies. China is the new America. Links are the new poetry. George 43 is the new George III. Awake is the new asleep. Alberta is the new Arkansas. This is the new that. Fraud is the new Black. Climate change is the new wages of sin. CJSR is the new CKUA. Fake is the new real. Edmonton is the new Novosibirsk. Thursday is the new Friday. Automatic is the new revolver. Casual is the new business. Tata is the new Jaguar. Pakistan is the new Afghanistan. Em dash is the new comma. Wine is the new beer. Youtube is the new tube. Joomla is the new Mambo. Pie is the new pudding. Pink is the new red. Green is the new Red. Acid is the new advertising. Bipolar is the new moody. Apple is the new Microsoft. Barack is the new Hillary. South Korea is the new Hong Kong. Hydrogen is the new oil. The location field is the new command line. Escalade is the new Hummer. Amy is the new Janice. Vancouver is the new Singapore. Awake is the new asleep. Fake is the new real. Staying in the new going out. Canada is the new Estonia. Glam is the new metal. Stelmach is the new Strom. Chic is the new freak. Cubicle is the new office. Craig is the new Bond. Tactical is the new strategic. Art is the new religion. Servus Place is the new Ryugyong Hotel. Stupid is the new awesome. The New Testament is the new Old Testament. Failure is the new success. Fat is the new skinny. Media is the new mafia. America is the new Russia. Mika is the new Mercury. Carbon emissions are the new sugar. Home is the new cubicle. America is the new Russia. Pink is the new navy blue. Fantasy is the new reality. X is the new Y. UVic the new Queens. Afghanistan is the new Vietnam. Tofu is the new toast. Fluorescent is the new incandescent. Twelve is the new eleven. Dorky is the new endearing. Russia is the new China. Oil is the new blubber. Explorer is the new Netscape. Viral is the new marketing. Arkansas is the new Texas. Steve is the new Dief. Vietnam is the new Hong Kong. Apart is the new together. Blogs are the new broadsides. Rubber is the new cotton. Simplicity is the new complicated. Pluto is the new asteroid. Mustard is the new chartreuse. Taking is the new giving. Charming is the new creepy. New is the new old. Less is the new less. Trudeau is the new Trudeau. And big hair is the new big hair.

Oh, all right! I was wrong. Premier Ed called an election

Your blogger, today, with future premier? Could happen…

Sitting in the Legislature’s public gallery this afternoon, it was pretty evident even before Ed Stelmach’s brief tête-à-tête with the Lieutenant Governor (or, as Ed would have it, the Loo-tenant Governor) that I was going to have to eat some crow. Might as well get it over with right now!

No spring election? Well, at this late hour, the Premier could hardly look like a man with no plan – indeed, if you believe his press releases, he’s got nothing but plans nowadays – so he called one.

I didn’t have a chance to speak with him personally, although ordinary blokes can speak with premiers at these things, but I’m sure he’s confident of victory. So, of course, are Kevin Taft and Brian Mason, and, yes, Paul Hinman too. Even the Legislature’s lone independent MLA, pathetically stuck off in a corner rather desperately pounding his lonely desk in hopes of attracting the attention of the government, would probably try to sound confident if he were cornered. But that’s one thing you’ll learn if you ever cover an election for the media: everyone is confident of victory until the meaning of life is made clear all over again on election night. (The really believe it, too – you see, they have to really believe!)

The people who write about them, meanwhile exude confidence. As I whispered to the fellow beside me in the Gallery, if I were still a journalist, I’d predict with absolute confidence what was going to happen on election night. And when the opposite came true? I’d explain with the same utter confidence why I’d really been right all along – just a little off on the numbers is all. (Or the date, eh?)

What’s going to happen on March 3? The conventional wisdom is the Conservatives will win again, with a reduced majority. (That’s what Ralph Klein said tonight from Mount Olympus, or Mount Royal at any rate, and that’s about as conventional as wisdom gets in Alberta.)

Me, I still think the mood in Alberta is changing – and is for change. The opposition could still pull off a big surprise, if only they could stop acting like they always act. (If the New England Patriots can be beaten, after all, so can the Oilcan Tories!)

But the Liberals would have to reveal their plan. (So far, no soap.) The New Democrats would have to stop trying to beat the Liberals at any cost even if it means another four years of disdainful Tory rule. (No sign of change there, either, if recent events are any guide.) And the Wildrose-Alliance loony right would have to get together and push their vote to around 10 per cent. (Hmmmm…)

Well, we’ll see – on March 3!

P3s? Make that P$4PS!

A letter writer in Wednesday’s Gazette argues that Servus Place should have been built as a P3 partnership. Without any question, however, City Council was right not to go down that dubious road.

The term P3 is clever shorthand for the phrase “public private partnerships.” I say “clever,” because like a lot of ideas promoted by the ideological right and its media echo chamber, this makes the deal sound better than it is, summing up the “message” the promoters of P3s want to get across, rather than the reality.

Sounds great, eh? The public sector and the private sector form a partnership that’s to everyone’s benefit! A great way to build roads, schools, hospitals, bridges, dams and the like…. Woo-hoo! You get the picture. And with a provincial election apparently just over the horizon, you can expect to hear a lot more about P3s!

The only problem, of course, is that the concept is basically a load of baloney, virtually guaranteed to cost taxpayers a lot more and funnel their money into the pockets of connected players in the private sector. In a nutshell, notwithstanding 25 years of continuous propaganda, this is because public employees do this job better and for less money than the private sector can.

As a corollary: P3s are nothing but a taxpayer-supported subsidy for private businesses.

I figure these things should be called P$4PS – we could pronounce this pee-yes-for-pee-yes and it would stand for “public money for private subsidies.”

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives defines P3s as “a form of privatization in which a private company (or consortium) takes over the design, building, operation, and in many cases financing, of public infrastructure projects (hospitals, bridges, etc).”

The CCPA notes that P3s, which have become very popular with the Alberta government, “ are quite different from direct public procurement, where government finances a capital infrastructure project (using either existing tax dollars or by borrowing), contracts with one or more companies to design and build it, and hires public employees to maintain and operate the physical structure once it is complete.”

A 2006 study by the CCPA on P3s in B.C., called “Value for Money?,” concluded, among many other things, that P3s are “less cost-effective, timely and transparent than traditional government procurement.”

The key problem is that higher costs are built right into the P3 process.

For starters, this is because it costs the private sector more to borrowing money than it costs governments. This, in turn, is because interest rates are almost always higher for private-sector borrowers.

Another factor is the profit motive. As the CCPA puts it, “private companies do not embark on P3 projects as a goodwill gesture, they do so to generate profits.” Unlike a government project, the cost of the profit has to be built in – ergo, right from the get-go, there must be higher costs for taxpayers.

Yet another factor is the procurement process, which is usually more complicated than when public employees do the job. Complicated bidding processes involving multiple partners result in long delays and higher costs for both private and government partners, the CCPA points out. Again, taxpayers end up paying the freight.

In addition, notwithstanding the endless propaganda telling us that the private sector is always more efficient, private-sector employees frequently don’t have the expertise or experience of their government counterparts. Where do they go for advice and help? They call up civil servants who have done it all before and ask them, naturally! (This real cost to taxpayers never shows up on any P3’s books.)

Moreover, since the alleged efficiency of the private sector originates from competition, there’s less advantage when there are few or no competing bids, yet this is often exactly what happens with large, complex, expensive-to-bid-on P3s.

The “accounting” used to justify P3 projects often ignores factors such as the cost of pre-contract delays, public employee expertise and inflated bids by small groups of private sector contractors, not to mention questionable assessments of the true cost of future payments to contractors. In other words, it’s often not really accounting, but once again mere propaganda.

According to the CCPA report, a British Chartered Accountants’ association found that public bodies in the U.K. were paying 30 per cent more on construction costs to ensure that hospitals built by P3s where finished on time!

Then there’s the matter of risk. P3 proponents claim the private sector is bearing the risk associated with any major project. But where is the benefit to taxpayers in this? If the project goes south and the P3 contractor is threatened with bankruptcy, who pays to complete the project, and often to shore up the P3 company? The taxpayer of course!

In other words, the risk really resides squarely where Big Business thinks it belongs: in the pockets of individual taxpayers like you and me.

If the project does not go under, of course, the private sector charges taxpayers a healthy premium for taking the “risk.”

Finally, there’s the question of “transparency,” meaning honest public accounting so that the voters can be confident they are getting a good deal. Typically, P3 contractors and the governments that subsidize them hide behind the “confidentiality” needs of private sector companies and their business dealings.

When the Edmonton-based Parkland Institute tried to assess the real cost of highway maintenance privatization in Alberta in 2003, insufficient hard facts were available. Either records had been eliminated or lost during departmental reorganizations, or the government refused to reveal the details because of “confidentiality” agreements with corporations.

“Albertans may never be able to determine if the provincial government’s move to outsource the maintenance of Alberta’s primary highways eight years ago has resulted in lower costs or improved quality,” the Parkland Institute concluded.

To quote the CCPA again, “P3s are stimulating private sector activity by diverting public funds into overpriced projects. If government is paying more for something than it is worth, it raises the question of whether the new industry is adding to the public interest.”

The fact is, if we had the benefit of truly transparent accounting, we would see clearly that P3s are almost never in the public interest.

As a matter of government policy, it’s OK sometimes to subsidize a private company, for example to advance the strategic goals of our country or province in an industrial sector. But let’s not lie to taxpayers out what we’re doing.

P3s are a subsidy to industry and nothing more. If we were interested only in developing public capital projects at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers, we would never use the P$4PS model.