Archive for July, 2008

Saint City News column: ‘Good can come from herbicide uproar if council acts’

This column appeared in today’s edition of the Saint City News.

Green is the new orthodoxy. Or so it would seem…

Nowadays, politicians of all stripes are scrambling to persuade us that they’re greener than the next elected guy. We even have the ludicrous sight of Premier Ed Stelmach trotting out his green credentials in multiple press releases as the government of Alberta enables oil giants to strip-mine northern parklands for a pittance in royalty fees. (“Energy Minister to showcase Alberta’s commitment to responsible energy development at World Petroleum Congress in Spain,” headlined a typical recent news release. Guess who’s going to end up paying to fix the environmental damage done by this “responsible energy development”? More to the point, guess who isn’t?)

This rule seems to hold true at every level of government. Even as we doggedly pursue policies that degrade the environment, our governments pollute the air with green blather.

We had an example right here in St. Albert in the past few days that, if it weren’t rather sad, would be amusing.

First, though, let’s dig into the City of St. Albert website. Eventually, we’ll come to a page that provides a cheerful little 12-step program “to get your lawn off drugs.” Actually, it contains some pretty good advice: “Tolerate some weeds,” for example. As for those you can’t tolerate, get down on your hands and knees and pull them out by hand. (It’s good for the soul, I’m told. Not – as my gardener wife will tell you – that I have any personal experience with weed pulling.)

But what’s good for the governed goose, apparently, is not good enough for the governing gander. Leastways, when the City of St. Albert encountered a weed problem of its own, it didn’t pause to think about how to get its collective lawn off drugs. City staff got right out there with something called Tri-Kill and soaked those annoying weeds on boulevards, school yards, parks, and riversides all over town.

What’s Tri-Kill, you ask? It’s a weed-killer that contains 2,4-D – that is, 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic Acid – which is not particularly nice stuff from an environmental standpoint. According to the Sierra Club website, 2,4-D contains dioxins, which are known to be harmful to humans, especially children, wild animals, pets, groundwater, non-targeted plants and so on. Pesticides and herbicides generally are associated with brain, prostate and kidney cancer, childhood leukemia, birth defects, low birth weights and fetal death.

So, naturally, when the spraying started, lots of St. Albertans were furious. It was outrageous, they said, that this toxic stuff should have been misted all around the town without even enough warning to close the windows, with inadequate signage in treated areas, and at a time of year when kids are outside playing in the city’s parks.

Not a few people found it ironic that our municipality has the cheek to preach to us about getting our lawns off drugs but doesn’t even pause to consider taking its own advice.

Nevertheless, perhaps some good can come of this. More than a few St. Albertans informed city councillors that they weren’t impressed, and council seems to be taken aback by the intensity of feeling. Maybe this is the prod that finally makes St. Albert adopt a bylaw restricting the use of pesticides and herbicides to eliminating pests that actually threaten human health.

A total of 135 communities in Canada have adopted such bylaws. Not one of them is in Alberta.

But for St. Albert to be the first community in our environmentally backward province to do so will require political courage, not just environmental hot air. After all, the first step in a real 12-step program is admitting that you have a problem.

Note: Herbicide use was not the only environmental issue to have St. Albertans fuming over the past few days. City officials got an earful from unhappy residents shocked at the removal of hybrid poplars, many healthy, that lined the McKenney Avenue median between Mission Avenue and Laydon Drive. Some of the trees were sick, but many were not and did not need to be removed. What remains, looks like heck. It is to be hoped that the public reaction to this clear-cutting will get the city to take a more measured approach to the surviving McKenney median trees between Laydon and Morgan Crescent. City officials promise that the stumps will be removed and new trees planted.

The Alarmidex is … alarming!

Alarming headline!

First of all, before we begin, we’d like to pause to bring you a little weather update. Alarming weather conditions throughout the area should cause you to be alarmed. The tornado watch is continued. Funnel clouds have been spotted near St. Albert. Conditions are favourable for the development of plenty more funnel clouds, even weak tornadoes, maybe even somewhat strong ones! Funnel clouds form out of large cumulus clouds or weak thunderstorms. Normally they don’t have the energy to reach the ground, but watch your asses, citizens! One or two of these funnels may briefly touch down and become destructive over a very small area. They may be accompanied by hail the size of fat, ripe, green peas, shucked. Treat all funnel clouds and tornadoes seriously and avoid them when possible. Should one develop overhead, immediately move to Saudi Arabia. No, wait. Don’t do that. But take shelter until it dissipates. Remember these funnel clouds will normally appear with little or no warning, like a bolt out of the blue. A bolt aimed at your head! Monitor the situation closely. Please continue to monitor your local media or weatheradio for further updates. This means you!

Are you alarmed yet? You should be. It gets worse. It’s very alarming! The Globe and Mail just reported that the outlook for the Canadian economy grew darker yesterday, just like the skies over St. Albert, this very minute! Oil prices are going up, up, up and the Canadian economy is therefore doomed. No, wait. That was last week. Oil prices are going down, down, down and therefore the Canadian economy is doomed. Got that? Interest rates are going up…. No, they’re going down too. Whatever. It’s bad. We’ve got metrics, too. We can prove it. Back to the Globe: “Buckling under the pressure of the biggest one-day dollar decline in the price of oil since 1991 and widespread worry about the health of U.S. and Canadian banks, the Toronto Stock Exchange’s S&P TSX composite index slumped almost 400 points to close at its lowest since the end of March.” Holy cow! 400 points! The S&P TSX! More coverage on page 13. (Geddit?)

The minute hand of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Giant Chock Full o’ Doom Clock has been moved three minutes closer to midnight for a reason that escapes me at the moment. The Humidex has also moved up. The Humidex was developed by Canadian meteorologists, the same ones who bring you Alberta’s hail and tornado warnings. It’s used to make it feel even hotter when it’s already really hot. See, if the temperature is 30 degrees Celsius, and the dew point is 15, the Humidex is 34. That 34 doesn’t actually correspond to anything, but it makes it feel like it’s … 34 degrees Celsius. Hotter than, like, hot! (Don’t believe me? Look it up.) Because of global warming, the average temperature will keep going up and up and up. As the water evaporates, the Humidex will keep going up too, making it seem even hotter, hotter than hell. Then all the steam will vent off into space, I guess, at which point it’ll be even hotter, but it won’t feel as hot, because there will be no Humidex. We won’t care, because we’ll all be dead. Then the sun will burn out. Then the temperatures will fall, and the wind will blow, and with the wind, there’ll be wind chill. But … never mind.

We interrupt our program explaining wind chill, which makes it feel even colder than it really is, to report that big damn cumulous clouds and funnel clouds and strange knobby little clouds that defy description have all been spotted in the region of Medicine Hat, Redcliff, Dunmore, Irvine, Seven Persons, Bow Island, Purple Something, Burdett (where there used to be quite a nice little beer parlour), Malev, Skiff, Legend, Etzikom, Orion and Manyberries (home of the Manyberesians). Some of the funnels have touched down – and more than briefly, too – tipping over a granary and a pigsty. (Jesus gee-whillickers, those pigs were terrified!) Go immediately to the root cellar! Watch out for circulating green-faced women on bicycles. Golf-ball sized hail is possible. This stuff would really hurt like hell if it hit you! Continue to monitor your local media or weatheradio for further updates. This means you, dammit!

It gets worse guys. General Motors is finished. Sorry, if you worked 30 years in an auto plant, you’ll not be getting your pension after all. (And don’t expect one from the government, either. While we distracted you with the weather reports we drowned the CPP in Grover Norquist’s bathtub. Ha-ha to you!) All those GM dealers are gonzo, too. You’ll never get that Pontiac fixed unless you can figure out a way to put Toyota parts in it. It all happened because of the unions. Plus the fact the brass at GM couldn’t figure out the price of oil was going up, of course, and that the stock market is crashing because the price of oil went down at the same time as it was going up. The NASDAQ has plunged eight billion points to negative 53, and the seasonally adjusted temperature has gone up to 53 degrees Fahrenheit every day of the year because we’re all using too much oil, which accounts for the price going up at the pump, plus the shortage of refining capacity of course, plus the decline in world oil prices… Where were we? Oh yeah…

We interrupt this business news report with reports of hail-producing clouds, cyclical winds including hurricanes, typhoons and tornadoes (every one of which has a highly destructive and dangerous-to-fly British-designed fighter aircraft, all of whose manufacturers are now going broke or who have gone broke because of fluctuations in the price of oil, named after it), plus twisters, shakers, blasters and jaw-breakers in the areas of Red Deer, Pine Lake, Delbourne, Three Hills, Two Hills, One Hill, Hill Cumorah, Hills Bros., Hills Gog and Magog, Elnora, Delburn, Donald, Nixon, Richard, Niton Corners, Nitroglycerine and New Sarepta. Hail the size of softballs, lacrosse balls, mallard ducks, and volleyballs could come smashing down at any moment. On you! Remember that bomb shelter you built back in ‘56 when the Soviet Union was still a going concern and use to store root vegetables? Go there immediately! (Don’t eat any of the root vegetables you stored down there, though. Botulism can grow in the deposits of dirt on their sides. This is really dangerous. Also, don’t run if you’re carrying scissors. Do you hear me? Please, I beg you, take batteries with you for your radio so you can continue to monitor your local media or weatheradio for further updates.

Speaking of botulism on root vegetables. Remember SARS? Just the other day my doc was saying that there’s sure to be a flu epidemic that’ll kill damn near every one of us. He said: “Cough. It’s just a matter of time. Cough again please. Hmmm… It’ll bring Western civilization to its knees – which would please those damn terr’ists, wouldn’t it? Cough again. Harder. OK. We’re done with that, thank God.” (Where is the Terr’r Index today, anyway? Orange? Red? Ultraviolet?) It’ll start in the chickens in Vietnam, he said, spread to human chicken growers and their kids, show up at General Vo Nguyen Giap Consolidated High School, at the German-Vietnamese Club where every Saturday night they dance the Chicken Dance, crawl onto a jetliner (built by Boeing, which is in trouble because of rising oil prices) and, after that, it’ll just be like watching a 50s horror movie, only with an Internet connection, so you can watch on Youtube whenever you feel like it. (Speaking of the Internet, do you know that, right now, your kids are using the World Wide Web to figure out ways to make bombs? And that viruses are crawling right up the wires and through the airport cards into your hard drives? Worms? Twisters? Trojan horses? Gumballs? Worse, Trojans without horses!) Where was I? Oh yeah, 50s horror movies. Ho Chi Minh City succumbs to Vietnamese chicken flu… Then Hong Kong… Then Macau… Los Angeles… Vancouver… Golden… Edmonton… Gibbons… Legal… Morinville… Bruderheim… Guess who’s next, St. Albert!

Oh, and speaking of Morinville, we interrupt this horrifying spread-of-the-new-chicken-plague-helped-along-by-global-warming-and- falling-oil-prices broadcast to bring you news that funnel clouds have touched down near Fairview, Spirit River, Dunvegan, Grimshaw, Hardisty, Peace River, Marie Reine, St. Isadore, Codesa, Lac Cardinal and Reno (or is that Hino? That where they make those weird lookin’ trucks? The type on this damn map’s too small!). Hail the size of Volkswagens – and not Golfs nor Rabbits neither – and even small Chevrolets, except that there aren’t going to be any more Chevrolets owing to the demise of GM, and you couldn’t get any parts for them any way, is going to start falling on you at any moment. Pieces big enough to go right through the containment vessel of a nuclear power plant, just like the one they want to build at … oh holy shit! … at Lac Cardinal!!!! Just turn off your local media or weatheradio. There is no hope. There is no point monitoring…

This just in! Minor Planet No. 3034, approximately the size of the island in Toronto Harbour, the one right across the from the TSX, which has just plunged 400 points owing to the fall in the price of oil, may soon plunge itself – into the earth. Prices at the pumps will not be affected, and indeed can be expected to rise past $1.47 per litre by Saturday, a Canadian record, which would wreck the economy, even if it didn’t depend on building eight-cylinder pickup trucks that no one will buy because of the rising price of gas… Anyway, like I said, it’s going to hit the earth. (The asteroid, that is, not the Chevrolet truck.) There’s gonna be a bigger smack than the one that killed all the dinosaurs. It’ll all shake out possibly sometime around the end of August this year, if the Rapture doesn’t come first. The Bulletin of the Hysterical Astrophysicists has moved the big hand of the Celestial Doomsday Applausometer 32 seconds closer to the Big Clap. (Not to be confused with the Big Bang, which may precede it.) The Consumer Price Index is up 37 per cent as a result. Everything will cost more, even such well-known hail comparators as golf balls and Volkswagen Golfs. Hail the size of a well-kept 1972 Chrysler Park Avenue with cloth seats, only rounder and waaaaaay colder, could fall in the region of St. Paul, Lundburg, Elk Point, Bonnyville, Cold Lake, Grand Centre, Petty Centre, Centreville, Centretown, St. Vincent and all the other places along the St. Vincent-St. Paul corridor. UFOs have been spotted in the vicinity of the Cold Lake air base, as well as in St. Paul, of course. The Dow has plunged a record 3,476 points and the Nikkei, the DAX, the FAX and the CLAX are all expected to follow it down tomorrow. The SAX will go so low it’ll hit E flat! It’ll be so bad the MAX will be renamed the MIN!

Hi! Would you be interested in locking in your natural gas rates for five years? No, huh?

This is alarming. Very alarming. The Alarmidex – a new index that combines all known alarming indexes and makes them seem even more alarming – has surpassed 1,000 for the first time in history. What’s that scary buzzing sound? Being alarmed is bad for you. It’s associated with hypertension, heart disease, erectile dysfunction so bad blue pills and elk fuzz will do nothing for it, ringing and buzzing in the ears, floaters in the eyes, creaking knees and cancer of the …. Never mind. It’s too alarming. It’s making me tired. I’m going to have a little nap. Did anyone set the alarm?

Saint City News column: ‘Liberals need new leader, new name, new plan’

A shorter version of this column ran in yesterday’s edition of the Saint City News. In this on-line version, I have added a few footnotes. After you’ve read the column, don’t forget to scroll down, look at the pictures, then vote in the “barber poll” at right.

Last week, Kevin Taft, the best premier Alberta never had, announced he is stepping down as leader of the Alberta Liberal Party. Taft’s decision was inevitable in the wake of the catastrophic March 3 election, in which his caucus was reduced from 16 members to nine despite many indicators before Election Day that Albertans were ready for change. [1]

For Liberals, this is bad news and good news. Bad news because Taft will never have the chance to lead Alberta, a job at which he would have excelled if only his party could have formed a government. Good news because his decision denotes recognition that the former professor was too pedantic, too fair minded, too uncharismatic ever to lead his party to victory, even over a premier as breathtakingly uninspiring as Ed Stelmach.

For Liberals in St. Albert, it is certainly good news, as it increases the chances they can seize back the right to represent this volatile riding four or five years hence. This will be particularly so if our Conservative MLA spends his time tilting at such electoral windmills as fixed voting dates. [2]

If they are to succeed, however, Alberta Liberals will have their work cut out for them. For no matter whom they choose as leader, they face a tough strategic conundrum.

Voting Conservative is default behaviour for most Albertans who bother to vote. Not voting at all is the default position for even more – a disgraceful 1.3 million eligible voters in the last provincial election. [3] This means any opposition party that wants to succeed must do something compelling enough to get both groups’ attention.

By now it should be clear that the NDP has decided it’s not the party to do that. It’s a principled, honourable and thoroughly marginalized organization that’s staked out its territory on the ideological fringe. As NDPers made abundantly clear at their mid-June convention, that’s their story and they’re stickin’ to it. [4]

But for Liberals to succeed, they must simultaneously achieve two contradictory goals: First, they must persuade significant numbers of NDP and Green voters, many of whom despise Grits even more than Tories, to vote strategically for a Liberal. Second, they need to convince enough soft supporters of the government that change is both beneficial and non-threatening. It wouldn’t hurt if they could also get some of those 1.3 million non-voters off their duffs!

Trouble is, what’s likely to excite voters in Group 1 may turn off voters in Group 2, and vice-versa.

So what are the Liberals to do? They need to start with three things: a new leader, a new name and a new plan.

Now, it’s a given they’ll have a new leader. But simply shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic isn’t going to do the trick. Liberals need a leader who is charismatic and articulate – a contrast, in short, to the rudderless Stelmach. Alas, there’s no one now in the Liberal caucus who can play that role.

This is the Digital Age, and if the Liberals can’t find a charismatic leader who sparkles on TV (hello there, Dave Bronconnier! [5]) they remain doomed. Dave Taylor and Laurie Blakeman are fine people and good MLAs, but if Liberals choose either, get ready for a 25th straight defeat.

As for the name, sorry, but it’s got to go. It’s beyond obvious that the Liberal brand is simply no good in Alberta. That’s too bad. It’s a nice name. But in Alberta it’s about as popular as a crate of rancid tuna. This isn’t going to change. A glib “New Liberal” moniker [6] – a la New Labour or, one supposes, New Democrat – isn’t going to help either. Alberta Liberals need to get over it and pick a completely new name – preferably one that symbolically welcomes New Democrats and Greens.

Look at the neighbours, folks! The only way for Social Credit to get back to power in B.C. was a reverse takeover of the Liberal brand. The only way for the Conservatives to come back in Saskatchewan was to re-brand themselves the Saskatchewan Party.

As for a new plan, almost any plan would suffice. Heaven knows, the government doesn’t have one – unless spending ever more and taking trips at taxpayers’ expense counts as planning. No matter how many times Ed Stelmach repeats the P-word in press releases, Albertans know in their hearts those reviled Albertans for Change ads had it right: “No Plan!” [7] But you’ve got to tell voters what your plan is. Repeating “It’s time,” as Taft did, was obviously not enough.

The Liberals’ great strength is what the other parties hate and fear about them. They’re pragmatic. They usually put people first. They weigh ideas on their merits, not their ideological purity, emphasizing public good over private gain. A plan that makes this clear is the key to bringing new finances, and new votes, to the Liberals.

New leader, new name, new plan: maybe, just maybe, they add up to a new government!

[1] It’s not just Dr. Taft’s fault, of course. The decline in the Liberals’ electoral fortunes has been fairly steady since their high point under the leadership of Laurence Decore. Consider these statistics:

Total votes for the Alberta Liberal Party, 1993 to 2008:

1993 – 392,899
1997 – 309,784
2001 – 276,854
2004 – 261,471
2008 – 250,862

(Source: newliberal.ca)

Total seats for the Alberta Liberal Party, 1993 to 2008:

1993 – 32
1997 – 18
2001 – 7
2004 – 16
2008 – 9

(Source: newliberal.ca)

[2] Click here to read MLA Ken Allred’s electoral non-starter.

[3] Total popular vote in the March 2008 election: 951,451. For more statistical information on the election, see the Wikipedia entry on the subject. According to the Calgary Herald (“Election plagued with problems, by Jason Fekete, July 1, 2008), nearly 60 per cent of Alberta eligible voters did not vote, the worst electoral turnout in Canadian history.

[4] Click here to read my comments on the New Democrats plan for the next election.

[5] Click here to visit Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier’s Web site.

[6] Click here to read more about the “New Liberal” idea.

[7] Alas, you can’t relive the horrible “No Plan!” moment. Someone has removed the ad from Youtube.com. Pity!