Archive for November, 2008

Mr. Harper’s worst nightmare: He’s Baaaaaak!

Jean Chretien, as Conservatives are seeing him today:
“Heeeere’s Jeany!”

Just when the Conservatives thought it was safe to go back in the water, Jean Chretien resurfaces. I must say, it brought a smile to my face yesterday to see the wily old pro was back on the prowl, confounding the Harperites’ vile politics and frustrating their knavish tricks. I wish he’d never left.

But then, I’ve been fond of Mr. Chretien for a long time. The sponsorship scandal notwithstanding, the country’s rarely been in better hands than during his long Oscar & Felix routine with Paul Martin. It seemed like we went from strength to strength with the Odd Couple at the helm.

Even if you hated the guy’s politics, it was hard to dislike a prime minister who personally throttled annoying protesters and bonked murderously inclined burglars with the prime ministerial statuary while his RCMP guards snoozed peacefully outside.

Moreover, Mr. Chretien was personally very nice to me, the one time I had the honour of interviewing him. He dismissed the big shot reporters from Ottawa by telling them he could talk to them any time but he only got to be interviewed by Dave this once. Yeah, I know it was all baloney, but it made me feel like I was 10 feet tall anyway. I doubt it’s a gesture Stephen Harper would attempt, let alone could pull off.

The Harperites no doubt thought they were being pretty sneaky and sharp when they came up with their bombproof scheme to grab all the political goodies, beat up public employees and unload public assets at fire-sale prices to their cronies under cover of an international financial crisis. I’ll bet they laughed when the opposition accused them of “playing politics” with the nation’s finances.

But that was then and this is now. That was before Mr. Chretien decided it was finally time to come to the rescue. Now the opposition parties are talking about forming a Parliamentary coalition to defeat the government and take action against the financial meltdown the Conservatives were so bizarrely ignoring. Such an outcome would have the majority of Canadians sighing with relief.

Now it’s an ashen-faced Mr. Harper who’s whinging about “backroom deals” and disrespect for democracy.

Oh well. As Mr. Harper of all people should know, politics is a blood sport. That’s the way our Parliamentary system works. Crafty old Mr. Chretien is one of the champs. Here’s hoping he sticks around for a little while!

Saint City News column: No Henday exit at 137th? MLAs need to to get to work

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

No exit to St. Albert? Say what?

The government of Alberta is building a ring road around Edmonton — and in a big fat hurry, too, by the look of it — but they don’t think putting in exit ramps at one of the few St. Albert intersections is part of the job?

They’ve got $1.4 billion to give to their P3 “partner,” but they can’t spare $5 to $10 million for an intersection at the flyover at 137th and Ray Gibbon drive because … wait for it … they think that should be the responsibility of residents and businesses in the highest-taxed municipality in Alberta.

I beg your pardon?

I’ve got a message for our two Conservative MLAs, backbencher Ken Allred and Advanced Education Minister Doug Horner.

Boys: being an MLA is like being a fireman. Mostly, you don’t have to do all that much for the big bucks. But when the bell rings, your job gets important real fast. You put on your boots and slide down the pole.

Well, fellows, the bell is ringing. This outrageous decision by the province — which we know about thanks to a scoop in an Edmonton daily newspaper — is a serious problem for our community.

Left unfixed, it’ll hurt St. Albert’s efforts to attract new businesses, which we desperately need to keep our taxes down. It will add to already serious traffic congestion and the air pollution that goes with it. And it’ll be unattractive — especially since the Alberta government’s P3 contractor plans to leave a mess of derelict ramps to nowhere.

Fixed — if St. Albert taxpayers have to foot the bill — it will be a financial and political disaster. It will hurt the hardest-hit residential taxpayers in the province. It will endanger the career of any politician that tries to use city funds to deal with it.

It is, in other words, an unmitigated disaster caused by lousy, inconsiderate planning by a government that without its oil and gas windfall wouldn’t have the business acumen to manage a hotdog stand. At the risk of whining, it’s also unfair. Our west-side exit will be the only off-ramp on the Henday that won’t be finished at provincial expense.

So, gentlemen, back in March, St. Albert voters gave you responsibility for representing us in the Alberta Legislature. In the St. Albert riding, Mr. Allred, voters decided they weren’t getting value for their money by having a member of the Opposition as their representative. They chose you instead.

Well, now it’s time to do your jobs. That means speaking up loud and clear for your constituents. This ridiculous plan is an insult to every taxpayer in St. Albert. You need to take the message to the caucus and the cabinet table that St. Albertans expect and deserve the same treatment as everyone else around that wretched ring road. You need to make it unmistakably clear that when you stuff a major road down a community’s throat — and as I recall the Henday wasn’t all that popular among residents of south-side St. Albert — it’s your responsibility to finish the job.

If you speak out and don’t succeed, we’ll probably forgive you. If you sit on your hands, it’ll be pretty clear to everyone that where the rubber hits the road you’re about as useful as a windshield wiper on a submarine! Indeed, if you say nothing, a good case could be made that we’d be better off with a member of the Opposition in the Legislature, who at least could be counted on to speak up on our behalf.

This is an easy one, guys. The issue is simple. The solution is obvious and affordable. It’s time to do your jobs!

Rodeo? Rodeo!? Earth to Kevin: Are you there?

What’s with Kevin Taft all of a sudden? I always thought the Opposition leader was pretty much on the ball. He’s had some fairly sharp things to say about health care and the fragile state of democracy in Alberta. OK, his last election campaign strategy was a little lame. But what the heck, everybody miscalculates now and again…

Then came his call in the Legislature on Nov. 6 for rodeo to be made Alberta’s provincial sport.

Excuse me? Rodeo? Rodeo isn’t a sport. It’s institutionalized animal cruelty.

Hello! Kevin! Soccer is a sport. Swimming is a sport. Croquet is a sport. Even tossing cowchips is a sport. But asking that rodeo be declared Alberta’s official provincial sport is evidence that the 10-gallon hat you were wearing actually only held about seven and an eighth!

Thank heaven that Recreation Minister Lindsay Blackett had the good sense to torpedo this dumb idea before anyone outside the rat-free zone heard about it. I just hate it when I agree with a Tory over a Lib or a Knee-Dip. Makes me feel like I’ve been in Alberta too long. But what can you do?

What’s next from Kevin, one wondered at the time? A demand that the province subsidize a NASCAR racetrack? A national memorial to trailer parks hit by tornadoes?

Well, in the event, as Monty Python used to say, it was something completely different. Kevin’s in the local daily this morning decrying overspending by the Alberta government on … something. Never mind that this is a moment in economic history when our governments need to spend to keep the economy afloat – and to make their employees feel their jobs are secure so that they’ll spend too.

Oh, nooooo! If Stephen Harper’s going to act like Herbert Hoover, says Kevin, then by god so should Ed Stelmach. This ship may be sinking, but at least it’ll go under with a nicely balanced budget.

Of course, by complaining that Alberta spends more per capita than other provinces and whinging about “fat, bloated government,” Taft plays right into the hands of the Tory wrecking crew. I’m sure they’ll be delighted to have the Opposition on board for their next depredation.

So where’s the plan? At the very least, if the Opposition leader is going to call for cuts, he should have some suggestions about where the cuts might be made. As I am forever reminding my journalism students: The specific is always better than the general.

No such luck. Taft has no plan, at least none that he’s willing to share with us. He makes Ed “I’m not going to hit the panic button” Stelmach sound sensible. (There I go again.) No wonder Albertans say, “Yeah, we’re sick of the Tories, but who else is there?”

Well, presumably the ballots for Taft’s replacement are in the mail. So what is with Kevin? Maybe it’s the effect of the breeze from the door. Here, Kevin, can we get you your hat?

Time for a government of national salvation to oust deeply cynical Conservatives

Can the leopard change his spots? As the good book says, “Then may ye also do good that are accustomed to do evil.”

Stephen Harper’s promises of goodwill and amity in the new Parliament lasted how long? Forty-four days.

That’s how long it took Harper’s Republicanized Conservatives to see an opportunity to provoke the opposition parties to defeat the government with its odious “fiscal update” and maybe, just maybe, snatch the majority they were sensibly denied by Canadians on Oct. 14.

The country neither wants nor can afford another election? Doesn’t matter to Harper’s Conservatives. Canada desperately needs fiscal stimulus to stave off a deep recession and protect the livelihoods of tens of thousands of families? Harper couldn’t care less. The opposition parties were prepared to give the Conservatives a majority in all but arithmetic? Harper says to hell with that!

The Harper Conservatives are a deeply cynical and divisive party that will do anything – no matter how harmful to our country – to procure a majority. And God help us if they succeed. Then the wrecking crew will lay waste to the place.

In the face of the Conservatives’ second attempt in less than three months to engineer an unneeded election before the Liberals can choose an effective leader, it is imperative that the three opposition parties form a coalition to save the national economy.

If the Liberals, the New Democrats and the Bloc defeat the government, this weird coalition would be the only alternative to holding a destructive second election – which would be like deciding to invite the kids over for a party while the house is on fire!

What does the “fiscal update” offer us? Cutbacks and attacks on government workers at a moment when money should be pouring into jobs and stimulus for a troubled economy; a meaningless and unconstitutional ban on strikes; a fire sale of publicly owned assets to Harper’s corporate cronies at the moment prices are sure to be lowest; soaring unemployment; institutionalized pay inequity; and campaign finance “reform” designed to make our political system less equitable and less democratic. Yeah, sounds like a Conservative dream!

Cobbling together an opposition coalition will be extremely difficult, as Harper well knows, which is why his promises of co-operation flew out the window even faster than his promise of legislated fixed election dates.

But contemplating the cost of failing to do so is sobering.

Under the circumstances, the opposition parties could hardly call it a government of national unity. But maybe they could call it a coalition of national salvation!

NOTE: Thanks to alert reader “Penlan” for spotting and correcting an error.

Saint City News column: Alberta taxpayers deserve access to information about energy royalties

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

Mind your own business, Alberta!

This seems to be the message behind Ed Stelmach’s plan to amend the Mines and Minerals Act to make it impossible for citizens to so much as ask nicely for information about how the province calculates royalties paid by energy extraction corporations.

Never mind that it is our business – after all, we own the oil and gas. If you think that, Premier Stelmach and Energy Minister Mel Knight have this to say to you: Trust us. And if that’s not good enough, well then, shut up and get lost!

A warning flag on this idea was raised last week by Frank Work, Alberta’s independent Information and Privacy Commissioner. Work is no wild-eyed radical. He’s a former corporate lawyer and sometime World Bank employee, for heaven’s sake!

He was appointed by the Conservatives, but he obviously takes his independence and impartiality seriously. He wrote a letter to Knight warning against changing the act to make royalty information a state secret for five years.

By overriding the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act, Work explained, the proposed amendments to the Mines and Minerals Act would deprive Albertans of the right to access information about resources they own. He advised Knight that the FOIP Act provides the tools needed to protect legitimately confidential business information, which the government claims is the reason for the proposed amendment.

Work also told Knight the proposed change breaks the government’s promise of openness and accountability.

One can almost imagine the Premier mumbling in response, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome commissioner?”

No doubt the Stelmach government is still smarting from the brouhaha in October 2007 that forced it to modestly increase Alberta’s ludicrously low royalty rates. That one started with a report by another turbulent watchdog, Auditor General Fred Dunn. You’ll recall that Dunn concluded the process of collecting royalties should be more transparent and accountable to taxpayers. That controversy also prompted plenty of grumbling by the oil industry, and as everyone in Ed Stelmach’s Alberta knows, when Big Oil ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!

The defences put forward by members of Stelmach’s caucus are laughable. Here’s Doug Horner, MLA for Spruce Grove-Sturgeon-St. Albert: “Industry needs to have certainty so they’ll be comfortable giving us the information that we need.”

Excuse me? And they’ll do what if they feel uncomfortable? Refuse to pay their taxes? Gee, I wonder if this deal is available to those of us uncomfortable with the things we have to tell Revenue Canada?

St. Albert MLA Ken Allred, God bless him, was quoted in the local media saying he hadn’t read the legislation but was sure there’s a good reason for it. Just a thought, but maybe he should give it a read before he votes!

The energy companies, not surprisingly, are all for it. Indeed, from their perspective, the less known by the owners of the resources they profit from, the better.

In light of the government’s discomfort last year with revelations about its inadequate royalty regime, and in the absence of a clear explanation of why this legislation is good for Albertans, it’s not unreasonable for taxpayers to conclude that there is in fact a bad reason for the amendment.

At any rate, slamming the lid on information about royalty calculations, not to mention taking away the right to ask, suggests this government intends to keep us from getting our fair share of the resources we own.

Frank Work urged the government to reconsider this gag law. The Opposition has promised to introduce amendments eliminating the provision.

Let’s hope the government sees the light and remembers that justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.

Oh crap! Alarmidex hits 1,329!!!!! Your blogger is $8.9M poorer!

Oh crap! Now it’s very, very, very alarming! What’s happening is alarming, that is. The Alarmidex is up again! Way, way up! Folks, it’s time for an Alarmidex update:

The Alarmidex ™, as you’ll recall, is an index of all the alarming things that alarm us all. It makes things that are alarming even more alarming, until we’re so alarmed it’s … alarming!

First, though, the Alarmidex has been improved! In addition to the all the other alarming things it alarms us about, the Alarmidex now includes a calculation of the number of exclamation points on the Internet! (!!!!!) Wow, does this ever make things more alarming! Is that alarming, or what?

In July, pushed by soaring oil prices, the Alarmidex surpassed 1,000 for the first time in the history of the index. Yesterday, dragged by falling oil prices, the Alarmidex rose to 1,327. Can you imagine how alarming this is?

Land a Goshen! The Edmonton Journal explains it all in one headline this morning: OIL PRICE PLUNGE LEAVES ALBERTA $6.5B POORER!!! (Sobering news on horizon!!!) Even worse, there is a personal aspect to this catastrophe! I failed to win the lottery last Saturday! I was counting on it, dammit! LOTTERY LOSS LEAVES DAVID CLIMENHAGA $8.9M POORER!!!! (Sobering news on the horizon … no new car, fatboy!)

Holy cow! We’d better privatize something! Sell off some freakin’ assets! Good God, man, don’t you realize this means we’d better blow up another hospital!

Goodness gracious, last summer oil prices were getting so high we needed to set up a P3, sell off more assets cheap, get rid of some regulations and, yeah, maybe blow up a hospital. Where the hell is Steve West when you need him? “Steve! Steve! Iris just isn’t up to it! Don’t you know your province needs you!”

Good lord! Oil’s down to $55! My oil stocks are falling! My portfolio’s already taken a 90% hit from rising oil prices! They’re closing an oilsands upgrader – well, they would be closing it if they’d built it, but now they’re not going to build it, so, like, same thing! It’s time to cut taxes to rich people, can’t you see. No one’s saving anything! Time for prudent spending – not for us, you idiot! For you! We need your money for carbon capture!

And if oil prices go up next summer? Watch out, buddy! We’re going to need to look at a 5% pay cut – for YOU! Plus school vouchers!

Oh shit! Oil’s down to $54 and I don’t even know what a gigajoule is! (I don’t even know how to spell it! Better cut some childcare funding!) The Alarmidex just went up again! Now it’s at 1,329!

The Fraser Institute is a great Canadian institution!

The Liberals are doomed? Don’t bet on it

Done like baked Alaska? Not the Canadian left, a
representative of which is shown here
with someone whose
political prospects are
not as bright. Photo found on the ‘Net.

OK, we know what happened. But what happens next?

Don’t count on the professional political punditocracy to explain anything. As a class, they can’t even match economists for accuracy, let alone weather forecasters.

Right now their record’s about as solid as the palm reader who told me in my callow youth I was certain to have three wives and seven children. (At the moment, with decrepitude if not retirement staring me in the face, I’m holding at one of the former and two of the latter.)

South of the border, just weeks ago the commentariat had us all persuaded that the Republicans were forever. There was, as Margaret Thatcher used to say, No Alternative.

You see, they explained, Americans were just too conservative. There were just too many “red” states. (Sorry about those quotation marks, folks, but where I come from “Red” just doesn’t mean “supports free markets.”) Anyway, Karl Rove had it all worked out how to keep the Republicans in power at least until the Rapture, possibly longer. And if he couldn’t do it, those magic voting machines would do the trick.

Oh, and if the Democrats were so foolish as to run an African American or a woman, let alone one who was a real “liberal,” they’d be done like baked Alaska, forgotten in Sarah Palin’s oven.

Well, that was then and this is now.

Barack Obama is president elect, busy picking a cabinet. And the commentariat? They’re doing what the punditocracy always does: explaining everything in tones of spurious authority without so much as a hint that just hours ago they were all out to lunch.

Indeed, one well-known New York Times commentator is now predicting the Republicans won’t reclaim the White House for another quarter century, if ever.

I mention this only because it bears on what the same sorts of people are saying up here on the chilly side of the Medicine Line.

The received wisdom of the Canadian punditocracy seems to be that no matter whom the Liberals choose as leader in the wake of the Dion Debacle, Stephen Harper is forever.

You see, they explain, Harper’s Conservatives dominate the entire rightward half of the Canadian political spectrum. The centre and the left will never unite. Grits, Greens and Knee-Dips will never vote strategically again. Harper has broken the Liberal monopoly on the ethic vote. The Liberal franchise is fatally shrunken. Bob Rae or Michael Ignatieff? They’re no Barack Obama… Yadda yadda.

In other words, they’d like us to believe that Stephen Harper stands astride us, a colossus.

Yeah, right. A colossus just like George Bush!

It’s all hooey. It’s baloney just like it was baloney to say Americans were too racist to look after their own interests and elect the best man if he happened to be African American, or for that matter if he happened to be a woman.

It’s baloney inspired by what the punditocracy would like to believe – and would like us to believe. They’ve got a bazillion and one reasons the Conservatives can never be defeated because they want us to think that defeating them is a hopeless cause. If we’re inclined to vote against the Conservatives and their wrecking-crew policies, so much the better if we just give up and stay home on election day.

Many of them do it because they got where they are by being committed to right-wing ideology. Plenty more do it because their bosses tell them to, and pundits don’t get paid to be independent minded.

Hand in hand with the myth the Conservatives are forever is the notion that most voters are really very conservative, cheerfully right wing in their outlook.

We’re told this constantly too, also for good reason. When so-called conservatives are still clinging to power, as they are here in Canada, it justifies the view there’s no point hoping for change, let alone working for it. Just shut up, stay home and pay your private health insurance premiums.

When political parties flirt with progressive leaders, the commentariat advises them not to because the right-wing electorate would never stand for it. When the electorate has the good sense to turf the right-wingers out of office, this myth provides an excuse for the right to seize back the agenda and argue that the new leaders don’t really have a mandate to do what they were elected to do.

Too often it works. But the truth is that Canadian and American voters are both generally well to the left of their leaders.

They get it about how financial deregulation caused the current economic catastrophe. They get it that “free markets” – fee markets, more like – cost more and don’t deliver decent service, let alone true economic freedom. They get it about what business would do to the environment if it could only get away with it.

In Canada – well, outside Alberta, anyway – voters mostly get it that Harper’s Conservatives are still committed to the gospel of the wrecking crew – given half a chance, they’ll decentralize our country, sell its assets for a song to their pals in business and deregulate everything that stands in the way of unbridled greed. Voters get it that the only thing holding the Conservatives in check is their minority status in Parliament. Which is why, of course, despite the ineptness of Dion’s leadership they wouldn’t give the Conservatives a majority.

All of which is why, notwithstanding the conventional wisdom and herd instinct of the pundits, either Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae has a real chance to become prime minister.

Up until the day it happens, of course, the pundits will explain to us why it never will. Once the Liberals under Iggy or Bob have recaptured Parliament, just as certainly the pundits will explain why they knew all along it was all foreordained.

In fact, you can count on it. If the pundits say it’s so, it’s not. If they say it’s not, it is. If they switch, they’re still wrong.

This is even true of the prediction about the Republicans. I’m sorry to report that there will be a Republican back in the White House in less than 25 years. History happens – even if it isn’t going to happen any more to Sarah Palin.

One thing’s pretty sure though, and you can take it from me: The Whigs are finished.

Saint City News column: Council should take second look at power line move

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

Never look a gift horse in the mouth, says one old proverb.

But that may be precisely what city council has done by voting not to follow through on the commitment of a previous St. Albert council to move the AltaLink transmission line near Big Lake away from a flight path used by migratory birds.

It’s pretty clear the province would like the line moved. The provincial government ponied up $300,000 for the project, which along with a commitment for $450,000 from AltaLink and $350,000 to $450,000 from St. Albert, could have got the job done.

Our provincial government may have a far-from-perfect environmental record and no difficulty getting re-elected regardless, but it’s savvy enough to recognize that an unsightly 138-kilovolt power line known to be a deadly hazard to avian life is just not the thing to have running right through a showpiece bird-watching facility.

And the province is sure to be putting quite a bit more than $300,000 into the Lois Hole Park interpretive centre, which could have been located in South Riel Park next to the Hole family’s planned new retail and greenhouse complex.

The province is almost certainly unhappy with council’s decision to drop the 2006 commitment to move the line. At the same time, it and AltaLink are extremely unlikely to fork over the $6 to $8 million required to bury the line. Indeed, council’s motion to ask the province and AltaLink to pay the full freight to put the line underground, passed 4-3 on Oct. 20, looks like a ploy to kybosh the project.

So expect the provincial government to respond by putting its new Lois Hole interpretive centre somewhere else in the park, well outside the city limits of St. Albert. There’s now plenty of dry land within park boundaries on the Edmonton side.

Council will have saved taxpayers up to $450,000 up front – an understandable wish in what is sure to be a politically difficult budgeting process. But they will have cost us a world-class environmental interpretive centre, plus the chances that go with it for sustainable jobs, tax revenue and enviro-tourism income. In addition, they will have dealt a blow to the hopes of one of our city’s most successful businesses.

This doesn’t sound like a good trade off. Council had a bird in the hand – to borrow another old proverb – with the agreement to move the transmission line for a modest price tag. Now it’s got none in hand, and none in the bush either.

What should council do now? A good starting place would be to ask the city administration to produce a report on the true likelihood of the province being willing to spend $6 million or more to bury the line. A call by a city official to either of our Conservative MLAs – backbencher Ken Allred or Minister of Advanced Education and Technology Doug Horner – should be enough to make it crystal clear that this particular bird is not going to fly.

With that reality in writing, council would have an opportunity to reconsider and accept the strong recommendation of its own Environmental Advisory Committee to honour the previous commitment to move the line.

If they do, they can rightly sell it to voters as the most cost-effective decision under the circumstances. If the interpretive centre gets built in Riel Park as a result, they will have improved the city’s tax position over the long term.

Come the next election in 2010, they will have a real accomplishment to point to with pride in the face of inevitable criticism over tax rates. To quote one final proverb: Fortune favours the brave!