Archive for April, 2009

¡Hola, Canada! There’s no flu like the swine flu

Found on the Internet: Worried about swine flu? Don’t try this!

There’s no room for swine flu updates on the home page of the Government of Canada’s all new, happy-happy, all-Conservative-all-the-time Web site.

Links to the bad news – if indeed it actually is bad news – about Montezuma’s latest revenge were pretty well crowded out of the government site’s front page this morning by happy talk about Stephen Harper’s successes summiting with other Americans and shoring up institutions to loan money to other Americans. Indeed, early this morning, what links there were weren’t working at all, presumably because of the level of traffic from panicked Canadians facing of the prospect of seeing their Mexican holiday tickets go south while they continue to shiver up here in the still-frozen north. Then again, maybe the government Web site had … a virus! (Mercifully, the pages reappeared later in the day.)

In fact, all signs to date suggest the strain of influenza we’re contemplating quarantining the entire world to contain is about as serious as a bad cold. Colds are pandemic, too, of course. It’s just that we don’t have the World Health Organization, which presumably has budget issues of its own, screaming bloody apocalypse every time someone sneezes in Sumatra because they’ve come down with a viral cold. Wait for a bulletin from the WHO, though, now that I’ve made the suggestion.

Regardless, the federal government obviously wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass to score a few political points by letting you know, Canada, that they stand on guard for thee. Since we’re in the middle of an international influenza freak-out, they got their two bits worth of swine flu hysteria in with a warning to us all to stay the heck away from Mexico, whether or not we bought flight insurance.

With the Government of Canada Web site on the blink, Canadians were forced to go to the mainstream media for the latest swine flu booga-booga. It hardly mattered. These days (unlike the bad old businesslike days when Paul Martin’s Liberals were in power), Ottawa’s on-line effort looks and sounds pretty much like a CanWest newspaper site – without the contests just yet, of course. This is no surprise, actually, as the moribund neocon newspaper chain and the flagging neocon Harper government represent pretty much the same special interests.

Using a typical media report, if you wanted to know what the government really thought, you needed to scroll all the way to the bottom. For example, consider the Globe and Mail’s lengthy story this morning about how we’re all gonna die: “The Mexican seasonal worker program, which brings farm labourers to Canada, is to go ahead, but those workers will be subject to a pre-departure medical exam,” the Globe correspondent added as a mere afterthought.

Oh, wait. I get it. We’d better not go to Mexico lest we contract the avian-human-swine bug and bring it home, but poor Mexican workers are welcome here because … well, because the farmers want ’em, and with Canadian Conservatives, what farmers want, farmers always get!

Health threat from Mexico? No problemo, unless it happens to be carrying a Canadian passport!

Think about it, if the hype were right about the swine flu and infected foreign workers (there are certain to be some who are infected) send the germ on its way to thousands or even millions of Canadians, you could be sure quite a few folks would die. On the other hand, if Canucks were hired to work in Canadian fields, even with a recession on, the next thing you know they’d be demanding decent pay, safe working conditions and, God forbid, unions! What next?

Well, if a few Canadians have to die to keep the unions out, so be it. If the swine flu flap was anything more than pure hysteria, I’d put that down to the Harper government’s core position. Come to think of it…

But with sick Mexicans happily toiling in Canadian strawberry fields, the government can get back to concentrating on what’s really important. To wit: busting Canadian autoworkers’ butts for having the cheek to have stupid bosses. Maybe Finance Minister Jim Flaherty should demand another 15 per cent off the autoworkers paycheques because of the swine flu threat. Gotta be competitive, dontcha know! Those Third World autoworkers don’t even get sick time!

Anyway, the Globe-Government assures us, we needn’t bother our pretty little heads, because foreign workers flying north to Canadian fields are going to have to fill in a pre-departure medical questionnaire. It’ll be exhaustive, I’m sure. And impoverished workers from south of the Rio Grande will be certain to check off the appropriate boxes if they’ve got the sniffles or a sore throat.

Saint City News column: Health minister’s de-listing dance ill serves Albertans

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

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting sick and tired of Health Minister Ron Leipert’s “Dance of the Thousand Veils.”

For months, Mr. Liepert has been promising to “fix” Alberta’s health care system – which ain’t necessarily broke – by “de-listing” certain unnamed medical treatments. De-listing in plain English, of course, means your public health insurance won’t pay for the treatment any more, so if you want it you’ll have to pay for it yourself.

From the start, Mr. Liepert (at right) and others in the provincial government have been refusing to say just what they propose to de-list. They tease us with a glimpse of what they have in mind, but as soon as the public squawks, the veil snaps back.

If this sounds familiar, you’re right. Ralph Klein danced the same unsavoury burlesque back in the days of the so-called “Third Way.” Granted, Mr. Liepert’s been slightly cagier – refusing to hint that the Alberta government will violate the Canada Health Act – but the effect is much the same.

It’s pretty obvious why Alberta’s Tories continue to play this game. Everyone in this province knows the hard-right elements of the Conservative caucus would love to privatize Alberta’s health care system along American lines. And everyone in Alberta knows that even the government’s own supporters would never stand for such a terrible idea.

Furthermore, the Conservatives’ natural allies in the Harper government in Ottawa know that piecemeal privatization of health care in Alberta would ruin forever their chances of forming a majority in Parliament. Under NAFTA, changes made here impact other provinces. Voters in Ontario and Quebec won’t stand for it. So you can bet the phone lines from Parliament Hill burn up every time Mr. Liepert drops one of his de-listing hints.

What’s also apparent is that Albertans are prepared to listen quietly to almost any amount of talk about de-listing as long as nothing gets de-listed. But the moment the Tories drop the veil and give us an actual fact, Albertans scream bloody murder.

Even dropping coverage for sex-change operations – a procedure about which most Albertans are deeply skeptical and that currently affects only 47 individuals province-wide – caused widespread anger when it was announced on April 7. St. Albertans were bemused by the spectacle of our normally silent MLA rushing to the aid of transsexuals in distress.

Ken Allred seemed sincere, and rather courageous, in his support for this community. However, as more than one of my neighbours mused: That’s all very well, but what about the money for Ray Gibbon Drive?

Strong reactions like this may account for the government’s policy confusion over de-listing. One minute they’re going to make the decisions in caucus because they’re political anyway. The next, they’re setting up an “expert panel” to do it for them.

Well, whatever. Maybe they’re just keeping the dream of big private-health-care profits alive in the increasingly faint hope Mr. Harper will be able to form a majority in Ottawa and finally gut the Canada Health Act.

One obvious problem with this strategy is that it only works until you actually implement policy. Another is that if it’s going to have to a meaningful impact on the cost of health care, it’s bound to affect a lot of people. But the fundamental problem is that it’s just not honest.

This big majority government didn’t campaign on de-listing health services. If it had, it wouldn’t be a big majority. Albertans deserve a government that has the courage to tell us what it plans. When it does, I’m confident we’ll let it know what we think.

Mr. Liepert: This dance is getting old. It’s time to drop the veils!

Invitation To Flip. Inclination To Flop. Grownups resume control

Everyone go back to sleep!

I’m pleased to report the Government of Alberta has taken my advice, almost word for word, on how to deal with the British beach brouhaha.

Yesterday, I wrote in this blog: “…the appropriate response was as follows: ‘We screwed up. We’re sorry. We’ll fix it immediately.’”

Today, the Government of Alberta said: “We screwed up. … We’re sorry. The picture has been removed from the cycle of standalone images.”

Great! I’ll be sending in my bill for my share of the $25-million branding campaign budget at once. I’m thinking about buying a nice new union-made Ford with the proceeds.

Why did the government flip-flop after the braniacs in the Propaganda Affairs Bureau so manfully insisted yesterday that the image was all part of a great big plan, and that they were smarter than everyone else in the province?

Well, it doesn’t take a PhD in political science to figure out what happened next: Government MLAs from ridings with beaches all over Alberta picked up the phone and started yelling at the PAB’s boss, the premier of Alberta.

Once the grownups woke up and resumed control, sanity prevailed – though not soon enough to prevent serious damage being done to this government’s tattered reputation.

The premier may want to give some thought to the quality of public relations advice he is receiving. Does he really want Monte Python’s Knights of the Holy Grail running his communications effort? Cue the coconuts!

That’s their story and they’re stickin’ to it: They chose that photo

Anyone can make a mistake.

Anyone who has worked in the graphic arts, as I have, knows that using the wrong photo is an easy one to make. I’ve seen it happen more than once, usually because a piece of royalty-free stock photography is used to demonstrate a concept, then is forgotten when it’s time to replace it with a custom shot.

Big deal.

When a journalist discovered the day before yesterday that someone working for Alberta’s controversial $25-million branding campaign had used a picture of a British beach with the English Channel in the background, it should have been a tempest in a teapot, if that.

OK, it was mildly embarrassing that the words atop the picture said: “Alberta, Freedom to Create, Spirit to Achieve.” But the appropriate response was as follows: “We screwed up. We’re sorry. We’ll fix it immediately.”

Everyone would have gone right back to sleep.

But that was before Premier Ed Stelmach’s communications brain trust got to work.

Make like Ralph Klein and tell the obvious truth? Not these brainiacs! “This slide represents Albertans’ concern for the future of the world,” said one senior manager in the government’s public affairs bureau in a letter quoted by the Edmonton Journal.

Yeah, right!

“There’s no attempt to make people think that this is Alberta,” Tom Olsen, the premier’s press secretary, told the Journal. “That picture just fit the mood and tone of what we were trying to do.”

Hours after the premier’s communications A-Team had become the laughing stock of Alberta for these transparent howlers, officials in the Propaganda Bureau were saying, in effect, that’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.

Everyone else, it seems, was thinking up hilarious alternatives to the expensive branding campaign’s lame slogan. (My favourite: “Alberta. Spirit to Achieve. Freedom to Deceive.”) The whole thing was taking on the tone of a Pathological Liars Anonymous skit on Saturday Night Live. (“Yeah, that’s it!”)

Hours after the Journal hit the streets, a senior propaganda official of my aquaintance, who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, was having none of my helpful PR hints: “Thanks for the advice, but the truth is the truth – we knew the origins of the pic and thought it worked with the voice over.”

The trouble with this, of course, is that it’s not only hard to believe, it reveals a much deeper level of incompetence and stupidity than a mere misplaced photo.

Put yourself in their shoes: whether or not you thought it was a good idea, if the province’s principal daily newspaper has an expose on the front page calling your effort at branding a blunder and a fraud, then it was a mistake!

You wouldn’t be lying – even as you ground your teeth at the injustice of it all – if you called it an error and promised to fix it in jig time. While you were at it, you might want to check if there were any more scenes of dubious provenance in there.

Not these guys.

I don’t know if it worries you that these are the same clowns who are telling us they’ve got all the answers to fix our health care system – a slightly more complex enterprise than an advertising campaign – but it sure as hell frightens me.

Danielle Smith to lead Wildrose Alliance? Remember where you read it first!

Your blogger, badly in need of a trim, proves he’ll have his picture taken with pretty much anyone by posing with Danielle Smith, whom he claims will be the next leader of the loony-right Wildrose Alliance Party. We’ll see about that soon enough!

Who will become the leader of the loony-right Wildrose Alliance Party now that former Cardston-Taber-Warner MLA Paul Hinman has conceded the obvious and announced he’ll fold his tent and head back to Mormon Country?

To many city folks, the Wildrose Alliance may seem too much like a goofball rural Taliban to be taken very seriously.

True enough, I suppose, but this remains an important question because with a capable leader, the far-right party has the potential to really throw a wrench into the machinery of Premier Ed Stelmach’s government, which looks all-powerful but is adrift in a crisis, bereft of ideas.

What if the WAP had a leader capable of splitting off 10 to 15 per cent of the conservative vote in even a couple of swingy ridings? All of a sudden, things could get real interesting around here!

This week, the soft-spoken Mr. Hinman (pictured at right) started dropping carefully gender-neutral hints that the WAP does indeed have just such a person waiting in the wings, entrance stage right. A leadership contest is scheduled for June.

And who would this person be? Mr. Hinman won’t say, other than to note he or she is not a sitting Tory MLA.

Well, remember where you heard it first, but based on a chirp or two from a well-positioned little birdie, I say the next leader of the Wildrose Alliance is none other than Danielle Smith, currently the Alberta director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

Now, Ms. Smith is an interesting character. She’s had a career that’s been colourful at times, with at least one spectacular bump.

In her only previous successful brush with politics, as a Calgary school trustee, she was justly renowned for her contribution to the antics of the Calgary Board of Education, which culminated in 1999 with the Alberta government firing the entire board because it had become “completely dysfunctional.”

A sometime functionary of the Fraser “Institute,” a right-wing propaganda mill, she quickly followed her spell in politics by resurfacing as an editorial writer at the Calgary Herald. There, she blithely assailed the teaching profession and other liberal hotbeds in reactionary screeds, many of them penned on the wrong side of a legal picket line. She later popped up at the CFIB, another purveyor of “free enterprise” snake oil.

These things alone virtually guarantee Ms. Smith will be written off by some as Alberta’s answer to former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, with whom she shares several qualities, including being nice looking, well dressed and far enough to the right to give Genghis Khan the jitters.

But this would be to sell Ms. Smith short. She is also well spoken with a knack for a memorable turn of phrase, a quick study unlikely to repeat mistakes, blessed with an abundant supply of energy, and, notwithstanding her antediluvian views on how society should be organized, in possession of a superficially appealing public image.

In other words, Ms. Smith is already a coruscating star in the Conservative firmament, poised to rise even higher if she takes up the reins of the hitherto marginal WAP.

Add to all this the fact that unlike the major opposition parties on the left, the WAP has money.

It’s been successfully raking in very respectable sums from cranky Calgary oil bazillionaires who are still steamed at Mr. Stelmach for daring to even think about charging anything more than a paltry token royalty on Alberta’s petrochemicals.

Mr. Hinman played that card successfully before the last election, as the sole voice in the Legislature in favour of just giving the stuff to the oil barons in return for a pat on the head and a couple of jobs. That wasn’t enough to save him in Mr. Stelmach’s surprising sweep in March 2008, but he may nevertheless have set the stage quite nicely for Ms. Smith.

If my little birdie tweets the truth, Ms. Smith poses a threat to Alberta’s lacklustre cadre of politicians on both the right and left.

The danger is particularly grave to the uncharismatic Mr. Stelmach and his achingly stale caucus and cabinet.

As for the opposition, she may present an opportunity, a threat or an irrelevancy – depending on how much Conservative support she can manage to bleed off.

But whatever you think of her views, don’t count her out. One thing’s for sure, if Danielle Smith becomes the WAP’s new leader, she’ll add an interesting and unpredictable edge to Alberta politics.

Say hello, again, to Rob Anders, Canada’s most embarrassing MP

Calgary West MP Rob Anders, right, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Said the latter of the former: “Rob is a true Reformer and a true Conservative. He has been a faithful supporter of mine and I am grateful for his work.”

He called Nelson Mandela a terrorist and a communist. He was the only parliamentarian to vote against making Mandela an honorary Canadian citizen. He suggested South Africans were better off under apartheid.

He traveled south to act as a “professional heckler” for a Republican candidate in Oklahoma. (He was labeled a “foreign political saboteur” for this by CNN.)

He assailed Ralph Klein as a “cocktail Conservative,” soft on Ottawa and not nearly far enough to the right.

He refused half a million dollars worth of grants for students who live in his riding on the grounds they would unfairly interfere in his beloved free market.

He voted with the Bloc Québécois to support a proposition that said Quebeckers could form a nation any time they darn well felt like it and could withdraw from any federal initiative. His was the only non-Bloc vote for the proposition.

He boasts about how women throw themselves at his feet, explaining that as a consequence he’s taken a vow of chastity. (Just the same, he once explained to a no-doubt astonished and appalled reporter, he had “gone as far as kissing and kind of ‘massaging,’ if you will.”)

Say hello to Rob Anders, 37, Member of Parliament for Calgary West, Canada’s most embarrassing parliamentarian. (A columnist for the normally lickspittle Calgary Herald once dismissed him as “Canada’s worst MP.” Maybe, but we’re reserving judgment on that one.)

Even good Harper Conservatives roll their eyes and look for an exit to sidle through when the topic of Mr. Anders comes up. Indeed, he has a sort of unifying quality, uniting everyone – hard right Conservatives, parlour pinks, citizens of Calgary and Canadians coast to coast – in cringing embarrassment.

Other than the far-right crowd that bankrolls his campaigns, only two groups seem to have much time for the guy: supporters of opposition political parties, for whom he is an excellent caricature of everything that seems vile and un-Canadian about the Harper Conservatives, and the voters in Calgary West, to whom his appeal remains a mystery.

Mr. Anders got his start as part of the so-called Reform Party Snack Pack, back in the day when Conservatives were still Tories and today’s Conservatives were bent on “Reform.” The term was a play on the lean and hungry Liberal “Rat Pack” of the Mulroney era – as well as a cute observation that, whatever the three young Albertans were, it wasn’t lean and hungry.

Despite lightweight intellectual credentials that hardly matched their girth, this group of Alberta MPs – which also included Jason Kenney, now Canada’s Censor in Chief, and Rahim Jaffer, recently sent packing by Edmonton New Democrat Linda Duncan – were treated with breathless credulity by the mainstream media when they were first sent to Ottawa in 1997 by inattentive Alberta voters.

Notwithstanding Mr. Anders’ five electoral successes, every year or so about this time, embarrassed Conservative voters in his riding launch an effort to skid him. Another such attempt is now under way.

This time, it would seem, his opponents have enjoyed some success. Supporters of challenger Donna Kennedy-Glans, at least, managed in March to knock off Mr. Anders’ backers on the riding’s constituency board, setting up a potential nomination challenge. Mr. Anders responded with a letter to constituency association members, the contents of which were revealed by the media yesterday, suggesting “now is not the time to open up a long, bitter, drawn out nomination battle.”

Well, good luck to Mr. Anders’ foes. He may seem like a clown to most Canadians, but he is a veteran campaigner with a history of winning elections.

As perhaps the MP farthest to the right in Mr. Harper’s caucus, he has well-heeled supporters with deep pockets whose interests he serves. Embarrassing or not, Mr. Harper himself seems to support him. In the prime minister’s own words: “Rob is a true Reformer and a true Conservative. He has been a faithful supporter of mine and I am grateful for his work.”

Mr. Anders has other, secret supporters, too, of course. Anyone who hopes to see a government led by Michael Ignatieff in Ottawa soon wishes Mr. Anders success in this latest fight. So does anyone who delights in seeing Calgary voters make the “New West” look like a monkey.

‘Free’ trade with Colombia? Let’s just say no

Why do you want to climb Mt. Everest? “Because it’s there.”
— George Herbert Leigh Mallory, mountain climber

Why would Canada sign a “free trade agreement” with Colombia? Because it’s there.

But of all countries in South America, why Colombia, with its wretched human rights record, its ongoing murders of trade unionists and human rights activists? Because it’s there. It’s not as if Venezuela is going to sign a corporate-rights agreement with North America, now, is it?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper works hard these days to project a gentler, more liberal image. He knows very well why Canadians don’t feel comfortable with him and his hard-edged, far-right views. So he tries to make sure that for the time being we Canadians don’t see much of the steel behind the doughboy.

But the truth is in the details, and from time to time the curtain is briefly whisked away. Despite the best efforts of the mainstream media, we caught a glimpse of the truth when Censor-in-Chief Jason Kenney banned George Galloway on the preposterous claim the law-abiding British Parliamentarian is a terrorist supporter. We had another glimpse in the recent shabby treatment of former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

We get a clearer look at Mr. Harper’s true agenda with the enabling legislation for the so-called free-trade deal – which is about corporate dominance of the Colombian people, not free trade – introduced as Bill C23 on March 23 and now wending its way through Parliament. It’s also about shoring up the far-right government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in an increasingly social democratic South America, of course.

We also get a glimpse of the true agenda of the Liberals under Michael Ignatieff, who unlike the New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois are likely to go along with the prime minister and support the deal.

Interestingly, while Harper persists with this relic from the Bush Administration’s foreign agenda, the U.S. Democrats under President Barack Obama are growing increasingly wary of the deal on the grounds Columbia’s human rights record is just too grim. The Obama Administration has delayed ratifying the deal for this reason.

How bad is Colombia’s human rights record? It’s the worst in the Western Hemisphere. According to Amnesty International, nearly 500 workers have been killed by paramilitary death squads since President Uribe came to power in 2002. More than four million people have been displaced by the violence. Teachers, jail guards, health care workers, agricultural workers, and trade unionists have all been targeted for assassination. A total of 46 union members were murdered last year, 39 the year before. About 20 per cent of the country’s Congress – members of President Uribe’s inner circle – have been accused of collaborating with the death squads. The country’s government is infected with a deep anti-union bias – murderously deep.

In other words, these are not nice people we propose to sit down and sup with.

But won’t signing a trade agreement improve the rights of ordinary Colombians, as our prime minister suggests? Not likely. This deal is all about enforcing corporate rights to make a profit and destroy the environment while doing so. Human beings who try to stand in the way of Canadian resource companies bent of environmental degradation, for example, will be mowed down – literally in the case of Colombia. The chances are real the pact will make Colombian human rights conditions worse, not better.

Deals like this also make things worse in Canada, of course – which is no doubt part of the reason behind the prime minister’s hurry to get this lousy deal through Parliament. They give corporations the same rights to appeal local democracy here as there, even if the methods used are less brutal. They give ammunition to those who would argue that, in a globalized world, we have no choice but to join the race to the bottom.

There is no need for the rush, of course. It’s not as if Colombia is a significant Canadian trading partner. Less than 1 per cent of our goods now head that way, and 80 per cent of Colombia’s imports already enter Canada duty free. Harper’s hurry, obviously, is more evidence that this deal is about his party’s right-wing ideology, not about the needs of either country.

With the Harper Conservatives and Ignatieff Liberals acting very much as if they are a governing coalition, passage of Bill C23 looks more and more like a juggernaut. Still, there is always hope. Canadians concerned about this law can sign the Canadian Labour Congress petition against it, and they can sign NDP MP Peter Julian’s petition.

We can and should write our Members of Parliament. There is always hope, with Liberal MPs at least, that people of good will can be swayed to vote against this deal.

After Parliament’s Easter break, Bill C23 will be debated for 21 days. Time is short to stop it. It needs to be stopped.

Never mind Brian Mulroney – is Stephen Harper a Conservative?

Is Prime Minister Stephen Harper even a Conservative?

We’ve opined in this space before that there’s no way the man can be called a “Tory.” The last Tory prime minister of Canada was Brian Mulroney, or maybe Kim Campbell if you count historical irrelevancies.

But, judged on his actions, can Mr. Harper even be called a “Conservative,” the words on the party card in his wallet notwithstanding?

These musings are prompted, of course, by Mr. Harper’s recent shabby treatment of Mr. Mulroney, whose record as prime minister remains controversial and whose reputation is troubled because of murky and unproven allegations of impropriety in his business dealings.

The wee hours of Good Friday bring a report that Mr. Harper, plotting last week from abroad, was in on the scheme to leak the claim Mr. Mulroney had asked to have his name removed from the Conservative Party’s rolls.

For his part, Mr. Mulroney denies it. Moreover, according to his spokesperson, “it was the understanding of those who were at the founding convention of the Conservative Party that all former leaders, except Joe Clark who declined, would be conferred lifetime memberships. And if the decision had subsequently been changed, someone should have shown the courtesy to Mulroney to advise him.”

Mr. Harper and the neoconservative crowd now running the Conservative Party of Canada, presumably want to get themselves as far as possible from his predecessor before the commencement of the inquiry into Mr. Mulroney’s dealings with German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber. No doubt they also want to lay to rest the very public squabble in their caucus about the way Mr. Mulroney is being treated.

The Toronto Star this morning quoted an unidentified person said to be close to Mr. Mulroney stating that Mr. Harper “knew and he agreed to” the claim Mr. Mulroney was a Conservative no more. “They thought they could differentiate between old Conservatives and new Conservatives, Progressive Conservatives and the Conservative Party of Canada,” the Star quotes its source as saying. “Of course it’s a ridiculous notion.”

The source’s accusation about Mr. Harper’s conduct rings true, even if we disagree with his or her dismissal of the view there is no difference “between old Conservatives and new Conservatives.”

For, whether or not Mr. Mulroney is a member in good standing of the Conservative Party, there can be no question that there are big differences between the great Canadian party led by John A. Macdonald, John Diefenbaker, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney and the Republican-style neoconservatives in Mr. Harper’s clique.

This is not to say that radical American-style neo-conservatism isn’t a view that deserves its own Canadian political party. There have always been Canadians who despised their own country and looked to the ideology of the great imperial power of their day for inspiration. It is merely to say that there is very little historical or philosophical connection between Mr. Harper’s “American Party of Canada” and the fiercely Canadian Tories of yore.

The neoconservatives under M. Harper seized their opportunity in 2003 and hijacked the then-Progressive Conservatives for their own ends. It was a moment, ironically, that the Progressive Conservative Party was at its weakest, the result of public perceptions of some of Mr. Mulroney’s policies. Future historians my judge Mr. Mulroney more kindly, of course, but the sentiment of the moment created the opportunity for Mr. Harper’s profoundly un-conservative neocons.

Since then, Mr. Harper’s forces have set about purging the traditional Conservative remnants within the party and their remaining influence. However, while their intent clearly remains to implement the discredited right-wing radical ideology of the Bush Republicans, they have retained the Conservative “brand” in hopes of holding on to the sentimental Tory vote among moderate Canadian electors. Many Alberta voters, one suspects, are among those fooled.

As such, the betrayal and final purge of Mr. Mulroney during his darkest hour is highly symbolic and from a Harperite perspective entirely appropriate.

In the media, the question for the moment remains: “Is Mr. Mulroney a Conservative?” The question we Canadians should really be asking is a little different: “Is Mr. Harper a Conservative?”

Saint City News column: Environmental protection’s a big priority in Alberta – or is it?

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

Oilsands giant Suncor Energy Inc. has been slapped with the largest fine in Alberta history, so, obviously, environmental malfeasance is taken pretty seriously around here. Right?

That’s certainly the impression the government of Alberta would like you to have, and most news media are happy to go along and spin it that way.

On April 2, Suncor was fined $675,000 in Fort McMurray Provincial Court for not installing pollution control equipment at its nearby Firebag bitumen recovery plant, and for not getting around to telling Alberta Environment about it.

The same day, in the same courtroom, Suncor was fined another $175,000 for not properly supervising a sub-contractor that dumped inadequately treated wastewater into the Athabasca River. The two fines added up to $850,000, the media solemnly reported.

Suncor quickly pleaded guilty to both offenses, said it was very, very sorry and no doubt crossed its fingers and hoped the story would swiftly fade away – as indeed it seems to be doing. The company likely felt better about the fact its fines would go to what the province called “creative sentencing projects” that will benefit the energy-extraction industry.

Just in case anyone missed the point, Alberta Environment put out a press release about it. To their credit, they didn’t crow, and called the release a mere “information bulletin,” presumably to distinguish it from the 21 nearly identical releases the government has issued in the past 45 days on the topic of housing subsidies. (I didn’t make that up. I counted!)

But before we get too excited, let’s put these fines in context. In 2008, Suncor had annual revenue of $30.1 billion. (Revenue is a better guide than profit in this calculation, because it is a measure of how big the company is. Still, Suncor is no piker when it comes to profit, either, reporting net earnings of more than $2 billion in the same period.)

Let’s see now, as a percentage of Suncor’s revenue, this fine would be equivalent to a fine of $1.12 paid by a family with an income before expenses of $50,000 for, say, sailing past a red-light camera in their van. (That is, 0.002 per cent of gross income.)

I dare say quite a few of us wouldn’t bother slamming on the brakes at St. Albert Trail and McKenney if the bill was only $1.12 when the camera flashed!

Contrasting the treatment of corporations charged with environmental offenses with justice meted out to individuals in similar situations is also interesting. In 2007, the Alberta government boasted that a Montana man had been fined $24,900 and banned for life from hunting in Alberta for guiding without a licence. You could argue this was just another example of someone failing to fill out the paperwork, as some have defended Suncor.

In context, these figures indicate how seriously we really take environmental offenses here in Alberta, as well as the kinds of offenses we take seriously.

As a percentage of revenue, the big-sounding fines levied on Suncor are not much more than a trivial cost of doing business, if the company chooses. Let’s take them at their word and assume they won’t act that way.

Just the same, let’s keep things in perspective about just how meaningful these “record” fines really are.

Ed Stelmach’s government and General Motors – both too big to fail

Yesterday’s Alberta Budget Speech was all good vibes and questionable numbers. Everything sounded groovy until you got outside and read the fine print. Out in the sunlight on the Legislature steps, alas, the numbers came up about $2 billion shy of reality. It’s almost as if there’s no plan – just a wing and a prayer that things’ll get better soon.

Well, they’d better. Because with numbers like these, something’s gotta give!

What do you think that something will be? It certainly won’t be capital projects, because that’s where friends of this government go to get really rich. Naw, it’ll be the public sector unions – nurses, teachers, civil servants, hospital workers and the like – to whom these Tories always go to find their missing billions.

We’ve sat through this movie before, and it wasn’t very good.

The real news wasn’t in the speech, read out in the Legislature where the members of Premier Ed Stelmach’s massive majority put on their sunshiny faces, sat in neat rows and pounded their desks. Out there, God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world – or, at least, this corner of it, where we’re such prudent planners that the budget should be back in the black by 2012-13 even if Wall Street sinks into the muck.

No, it was in the super-double-secret lockdown/lockup in camera “news conference,” to which only the official – read tame – media were allowed to come. No bloggers! It was there that Treasury Board President Lloyd Snelgrove (pictured at right) – who is trying to fill the big hobnailed boots left by his predecessor as Vermilion’s MLA, Steve West – let slip what Premier Stelmach’s backwoods hickocracy really plans, and revealed more than a little about their understanding of depression economics.

I’m quoting from the Calgary Herald’s account of this private event here, since, of course, as a mere taxpayer I wasn’t invited. “Snelgrove said he hasn’t had discussions with the provincial unions about what actions would be necessary, but noted autoworkers in Ontario have offered up concessions.” (Emphasis added.)

“’There is no question when half of our expenditures are salary-related, that they have to be a big part in the go-forward if the financial situation worldwide and in Alberta continues to deteriorate,’ Snelgrove said.” (In the sweet go-forward?)

Mr. Snelgrove must have forgotten that part in his briefing notes where it explained how everything here in Alberta is just hunky-dory, at least relative to everywhere else in the world. I could have sworn I heard that bit several times in the Budget Speech.

But here’s Mr. Snelgrove, behind closed doors, explaining to reporters from the Tory-friendly media, how the government of Alberta is just like the management of General Motors!

You know, the clowns who couldn’t tell that demand for gas guzzlers was going to fall, even though retail gasoline prices kept rising, who built automobiles so bad they sent American customers screaming for the nearest Toyota dealership, and who, when they found themselves up the proverbial creek without the proverbial paddle, blamed it all on their unions then jetted up to Washington to ask for more cash.

Isn’t that exactly what Mr. Snelgrove is suggesting between the lines about his colleagues in the government Alberta? The point, in case he missed it, is that the autoworkers offered up concessions because they had to keep their employer from going broke.

Is Mr. Snelgrove suggesting Alberta needs a federal bailout? Is it 1936 again? Or is he just reverting to typical small-town Alberta Tory form?

It’s enough to make a good Albertan wonder: where’s that darn city slicker Jim Dinning now that we need him?

I figure the Chamber of Commerce should take note of Mr. Snelgrove’s latest musings, and perhaps have a word with him. After all, I’m sure he’s persuaded most of the 500,000 or so employees in this province who work for the Crown not to buy anything bigger than a week’s groceries for at least a year. “Autoworkers” is one analogy that will probably cost the Edmonton economy a few million dollars this long weekend alone.

Which all goes to show that if the Premier, Mr. Snelgrove and the rest of them think the government of Alberta is a lot like the management of GM, they may not be that far off the marque after all!

Which brings us back to the former World’s Largest Automaker, led by hapless Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner.

Mr. Wagoner was sent packing by Barack Obama because the U.S. president couldn’t afford to be seen giving bags of bailout cash to a nincompoop too dumb to figure out the optics of flying to Capitol Hill in a private jet to ask for more dough for a car company!

Never mind Jim Dinning? Where’s Mr. Obama when we need him to fire the government of Alberta?

Of course, Canada’s a sovereign country and Premier Stelmach’s government is a sovereign jurisdiction within our beloved Canadian federation. No way a U.S. President could fire the leader of a foreign country.


And anyway, the Alberta Tory caucus has this in common with GM as well: They’re both too big to fail.