Archive for January, 2009

Saint City News column: What were they thinking? What were we thinking?

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

What were they thinking?

What were Premier Ed Stelmach and Treasury Board President Lloyd Snelgrove thinking, that is, when they shot off their mouths within hours of one another, musing about a return of the Tory good old days, when Ralph Klein kicked the slats out of public employees, rolled back their wages five per cent and sent thousands packing?

As astonished commentators began observing within moments of their twin pronouncements hitting the media on Jan. 15, that was then and this is now.

That is, while the judgment of history is likely to be that Klein’s radical deficit-fighting cuts in the mid-1990s did little good for Alberta, the state of the world economy at the time was such that the harm they did was restricted to their direct victims in the public service and the province’s health care system.

But even hinting at laying off thousands of government workers or rolling back their pay in the midst of the current worldwide economic meltdown, let alone actually doing such a thing, is like playing with matches beside a leaking gas line.

Stateside, banks are collapsing, corporate bailouts are in the billions and the new president is talking about trillion-dollar deficits lasting decades. Abroad, whole countries seem to be imploding – or, like Iceland, slipping beneath the North Atlantic. Here at home, our Conservative federal government is desperately seeking schemes to get us all spending like normal consumers again.

Around the world, economists are advising governments to spend, spend, spend – never mind the deficits – to get us the heck out of an impending depression.

So what do our leaders here in the Conservative heartland do? With two neatly timed fell swoops, the most powerful men in the Alberta cabinet start by scaring the beejeepers out of more than 100,000 Alberta public employees! “We may go back to the same strategies we used in the early 1990s,” mused Mr. Stelmach. Concessions, cuts and worse must be considered, said Mr. Snelgrove.

Since then, the premier’s reassurances have hardly been reassuring. Example: “I never used the word cuts.”

If you think a government employee, teacher, nurse or jail guard is now going to go out and buy a new car or a flat-screen TV without some pretty serious soul searching, think again.

Never mind that just weeks ago Mr. Stelmach was telling us to stay calm, everything was hunky-dory, the financial crisis notwithstanding. That was before the price of a barrel of crude hit $38 on the way down. Now, fast enough to give you whiplash, they’re looking at a return to chasing medical professionals out of the province, reducing the civil service to near collapse, and blowing up hospitals? Please!

These pronouncements seemed so bizarre that mainstream journalists rushed to make excuses. It was just poor-mouthing on the eve of a federal-provincial conference, said some, a strategy to get federal bailout loot to come this way after a decade of bragging about how rich we are and how we don’t want to share. Others speculated it was a way to soften up hard-line Conservative supporters before scuttling Alberta’s silly ban on deficits, another relic of the Klein era.

Others were less kindly, taking the story where surely the premier doesn’t want it to go. Some suggested it was panic pure and simple. Some called it knee-jerk viciousness: when in doubt, kick a public servant. A few Albertans wondered aloud where all the oil money from the past decade had gone.

Worst of all, many Albertans laughed. The headline in a local daily didn’t say folks were trembling with terror before the mighty government, it read: TALK OF CUTS DRAWS SCORN. Scorn!

Never mind what they were thinking, a lot of Albertans seem to be saying. What were we thinking when we elected these guys?

Saint City News column: Tale of ‘Alberta Party’ intrigue muddies Liberal waters

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

Former Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft has a keen mind, strong principles and a charisma deficit. Despite his obvious strengths, Albertans never cottoned to him. They liked Ralph Klein and Ed Stelmach better. A lot better.

Who can know their reasons? Maybe they just didn’t want to be governed by a premier who was called Doctor?

So, after the last election, Professor Taft (at right) recognized the obvious and stepped aside as leader of the Opposition. Now the Alberta Liberals have chosen a new leader, David Swann.

Dr. Swann has a keen mind, strong principles and a charisma deficit. Plus, he’s entitled to be called Doctor.

Is there anything wrong with this picture? It’s hard to say for sure, of course. If we could figure out what makes some politicians succeed and others flop and put it in a bottle, we could make a billion dollars! Still, even if it’s early days yet, this doesn’t sound promising.

Dr. Swann (at left) is a physician and environmentalist whose claim to political fame was being fired as medical officer of health for the Palliser Health Region for publicly supporting the Kyoto Accord. But since the Calgary MLA was selected as the Liberals’ leader on Dec. 13, he appears to have slipped beneath the waves without a ripple.

This leaves the rest of us to wonder what the Liberals could have been thinking.

As it turns out, though, there’s plenty going on beneath the waves.

If the mainstream media has paid little heed, the blogosphere – that place on the Internet where anyone is a journalist who says he is – has been abuzz with talk of intrigue and revolution out of which a new centrist Alberta political party may emerge to challenge Premier Stelmach’s Conservatives.

The story so far: About a dozen fed-up Alberta Liberal stalwarts have reached the conclusion the Liberal brand will never sell in Alberta. They’re also mad that Dr. Swann’s green friends joined the party and pushed him over the top at the expense of the establishment choice, Calgary MLA Dave Taylor.

So they’ve been plotting the creation of a new party along the lines of the Saskatchewan Party. That would make it the Alberta Party, I guess.

According to this yarn, there have even been nibbles by Conservative MLAs – disenchanted supporters, presumably, of Jim Dinning, who was also said to have been his party establishment’s choice.

In this scenario, Swann Liberals would become Greens, Greens would likely become Liberals, Taft Liberals bolstered by a couple of disillusioned Dinning Tories would become the Alberta Party. The NDP would remain the NDP – secure in its phone booth. The entire Opposition would remain irrelevant.

So, just when he should be preparing to re-brand the moribund Liberals and eliminate their $400,000-plus debt, Dr. Swann faces the unenviable task of getting his caucus under control before centrifugal force sends MLAs flying off into the solar system!

It’s enough to make Alberta politicians cast envious eyes south of the border. Brutal, expensive and exhausting though it may be, one thing about the American primary system of choosing presidential candidates is that by the time there’s an election, everyone with a pulse knows the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. Weak candidates are culled quickly.

But that’s not how our Canadian system works. Here, party members choose the leader and the electorate takes potluck. Sometimes it can throw up remarkably talented politicians — Pierre Trudeau or Stephen Harper — who might not have stood a chance if voters actually knew what they believed.

More often, it gives us leaders who are uninspired and uninspiring. A couple of names spring to mind right here in Alberta.

We’ll soon know which category Dr. Swann belongs in. Very soon, by the sound of it.

What Canadians really think about the Gaza invasion – the dog that didn’t bark?

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

— “Silver Blaze,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I submit that growing numbers of Canadians are deeply troubled by the continuing Israeli siege, air bombardment and invasion of the Gaza Strip and its deadly impact on the Palestinian civil population.

There is very little evidence of this. But that, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, is the curious thing.

If we comb the pages of the Canadian mainstream media, or sources connected to the current Canadian government, of course, we see overwhelming evidence of unstinting support for Israel’s actions. Indeed, within a few minutes of a story on the human catastrophe in Gaza being posted on the Toronto Star or Globe and Mail Websites, dozens of comments containing all pro-Israel talking points will appear.

If we comb the Internet, of course, we can find Canadian voices opposed to Israel’s actions, or merely concerned about the human cost of the scale of the attacks and their seemingly disproportionate impact on civilians – women, children and the aged. But they are not much in evidence in the mainstream press. Where they do appear, given the editorial approach taken to letters to the editor and the like, it would appear the two “sides” in Canada have roughly equal numbers of supporters.

Again, I submit to you that this is not so. I believe the sense of profound disquiet with the actions taken by Israel – and the enthusiastic support it receives from the governments of the United States and Canada and the mainstream North American media – is growing, and growing quickly.

Principally, of course, my evidence is the people I talk to – because other than letters to the editor and Website comments, there isn’t much more to go on.

But why is it – and here is where the dog fails to bark – that there is virtually no polling of the Canadian population to find out what they think about the humanitarian disaster in Gaza? Aren’t we polled on virtually every topic under the sun?

I don’t know about you, but I am polled regularly by major polling companies. Maybe it’s the St. Albert neighbourhood I live in. But, during the federal election campaign, I was fielding calls from what appeared to be legitimate pollsters at least once a week, sometimes more frequently. One of them even asked me – twice – if I would join a special on-line panel. I’ve also been asked numerous times about my product preferences, of course.

But no one has ever asked me, or anyone I know, about what I think of what Israel is up to in Gaza, or my federal government’s unquestioning support for it. Nor have I ever read a news story about such a poll.

Just to be certain, yesterday I called account representatives from two major national polling firms with which I have dealt in the past five years. Although the Canadian public’s views of this situation are a legitimate topic for public opinion research, neither was aware of such a poll having been taken at any time in Canada in the last couple of months.

Why wouldn’t a major media company commission a poll on this topic? Why wouldn’t our government – so enamoured of direct democracy in other areas – want to know what Canadians really feel about this important subject? Especially in the light of the fact so many Canadian citizens were caught in the crossfire when Israel attacked southern Lebanon in 2006, arousing considerable controversy in this country at the time.

I wonder.

One recent poll from the United States suggests that Americans are more divided on this topic than we had been previously led to believe. The Rasmussen poll reported on Dec. 31, concluded Americans “are closely divided over whether the Jewish state should be taking military action against militants in the Gaza Strip.”

“Forty-four per cent (44%) say Israel should have taken military action against the Palestinians, but 41% say it should have tried to find a diplomatic solution to the problems there,” says a story on the polling firm’s Website. Interestingly, it goes on, “a majority of Democrats (55%) say Israel should have tried to find a diplomatic solution first.”

I suspect the numbers of citizens who do not support Israel’s military actions are much larger in this country than in the United States. I believe that significant numbers of Canadians believe what is happening in Gaza is a humanitarian disaster that calls for even-handed and forceful diplomacy, not cheerleading for one side, by the Canadian government.

You can say it ain’t so, but without honest numbers neither of us can prove anything.

Obviously, it’s high time for some scientific polling of Canadian public opinion on this politically sensitive but important issue. If there is none, you have to wonder why.

Saint City News column: It’s not too late for city council to do the right thing

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

St. Albert city council’s raises took effect yesterday, but it’s still not too late for council to do the right thing and just say “No Thanks!”

Saying no to a significant pay increase would be very tough. But given the present state of affairs in St. Albert and elsewhere, city council should put this on their next agenda and vote to reject their raise.

I’ll explain. First though, we need to recognize that politicians do important work and deserve to be fairly compensated for it. Nevertheless, sometimes in a democracy we need our elected leaders to lead. This includes being prepared to make sacrifices for the good of the community.

Because of the recent international economic meltdown, we have reached such a moment here in St. Albert. This situation requires our mayor and council to show some leadership and not accept raises that under the circumstances are clearly excessive.

A 13-per-cent pay increase to $84,742 in a single year for the mayor is simply too much at a moment when virtually every government on the planet is facing spending cutbacks and staring recession in the eye. A 24-per-cent increase to $29,560 for our six councilors seems over the top.

This is not to say our mayor and councilors don’t deserve raises. They’re working hard to serve our community and, on balance, doing a pretty good job. Their efforts to bring our taxes under control have been noted with relief – although they will have an impact on community services.

In addition, at $23,766 per year for councilors and $74,983 for the full-time mayor, 2008 council compensation had fallen well behind the pay of councilors in comparable Alberta communities. And at $44,523 for the year, the additional cost is relatively small as a percentage of the city’s total budget.

None of this really matters, however. Sometimes all that separates a good idea from a bad one is time and a change in the weather. A boat trip across the bay may be just the thing until the wind comes up. A fair raise for a deserving city council is a fine idea until the price of oil – the foundation of our region’s economy and our province’s budget – plunges more than $100 in less than six months.

Six months ago, unions in Alberta were negotiating substantial raises with ease. As council’s pay increases were being worked out, three-and four-year contracts with annual raises of about 5 per cent were being signed regularly.

No more! In the past few weeks, when labour and management negotiators sit down to bargain, employers are saying they just can’t afford what seemed like a good idea last summer. Why not? Because, they explain, circumstances have changed.

Unfortunately, circumstances have changed for St. Albert City Council too.

St. Albert is scheduled to negotiate a new contract soon with its unionized employees. What do you think city officials will be telling them on our behalf?

And what do you think the union bargaining team will say in response if they know our mayor just received a 13-per-cent pay hike and our councilors voted themselves 24-per-cent raises?

The decline of the North American economy has been swift and frightening. In Alberta, workers are again facing the prospect of layoffs. More trouble looms.

This is bound to filter down to St. Albert’s economy, reducing anticipated tax revenues and income from city services. There’s no way such a scenario is good news for St. Albert’s residential taxpayers.

Under these circumstances, our city councillors need to defer at least part of their pay increase until the Alberta economy bounces back. That’s too bad, because they deserve more. We recognize they would be making a genuine sacrifice.

But that’s leadership!

Oh my God! Olivia, Jack top British baby names!

The BBC reports, and I’m not making this up, that the two top baby names in Britain this year were … wait for it … Olivia and Jack.

Should this worry the Stephens and Michaels of this world, or what?

Oliver and Ruby came in second in the British boys’ and girls’ categories, the BBC reported. (Thank God it was never Olivia and Oliver. There are just some things the English-speaking world couldn’t bear!)

According to the Beeb, Jack has been the top boys’ name in Britain for 14 years, but Olivia knocked off Grace for the top spot in 2006.

Meanwhile, the government of Alberta claims that the top baby name for boys in this province has been Ethan since 2001. Hmmmm… Ethan?

Furthermore, the province reports that Ava was the top girls’ baby name in 2007 and 2006, replacing Emma, which held the No. 1 spot for the three years before that.

OK. Maybe. But, seriously, you have to wonder. Have you ever met anyone named Ava? The next-door neighbours’ new grandson? He isn’t Ethan. … He’s Jack!

Could the province be covering up for political reasons? I mean, what would Canadians think if Alberta’s supposedly unanimously retrogressively preservative voters were naming their children after Federal NDP Leader Jack Layton and his wife, MP Olivia Chow? Well?

In an exclusive interview with St. Albert Diary (really! if you count email, anyway), Layton observed yesterday: “Olivia and I guess that our parents, at the time on opposite sides of the planet (Hong Kong and Montreal) were a few decades ahead of the curve.”

Well, the 2008 Alberta name stats aren’t out yet.

What do you want to bet the top Alberta baby names for 2008 are … Olivia & Jack!

If not 2008, then, 2009. Happy New Year!

[Thanks to Tiny Perfect Blog for the idea.]