Archive for May, 2009

A Tale of Two Colours, Red and Green: Is a libel suit the answer?

Your blogger is shown yukking it up about old times with former B.C. premier Dave Barrett. Alas, there is no photo of me with W.A.C. Bennett, whose drugs I used to deliver. Lest St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber get his knickers in a twist and demand a mandatory prison term, the drugs in question were a completely legal, a rather vile pink stomach remedy prepared by Tucker’s Pharmacy, which I had the honour to serve as bicycle delivery boy. Let the record show, Mr. Bennett was a lousy tipper.

Does anyone other than me remember Dave Barrett suing W.A.C. Bennett for libel in 1972?

For that matter, does anyone other than me remember Dave Barrett and W.A.C. Bennett?

Messrs. Bennett and Barrett – both persons of my acquaintance, as it happens – were each premier of British Columbia for a time in 1972. The latter, a New Democrat, replaced the former, a Social Creditor, that year, to most everyone’s astonishment. And while Mr. Barrett’s time in power was short, it was fun while it lasted. But, never mind, I digress.

It’s just that I could have sworn that on the way to that fateful election in 1972, Mr. Barrett went to the Supreme Court of British Columbia seeking a libel writ, which he proceeded to drop upon then-Premier Bennett (at right), who had been smearing him as a Red.

This tactic had worked very nicely for Mr. Bennett against the NDP in 1969, but Mr. Barrett’s action put a stop to that, thank you very much! (Or so I do recall. Mr. Google is uncharacteristically silent on this topic. He has more to say about the Cathars and the Illuminati, for heaven’s sake!)

At any rate, with Mr. Barrett’s defamation action pending, Mr. Bennett had nothing more to say about Mr. Barrett’s supposed Red tendencies, and the election campaign culminated in that unexpected NDP majority.

These events came to my mind today when I read about NDP Leader Brian Mason’s attempts in the Alberta Legislature Tuesday to stop Premier Ed Stelmach from telling fibs about him by smearing him as a Green.

Mr. Stelmach keeps insisting that Mr. Mason and the New Democrats would like to close down the Alberta tarsands. This might get the Green set’s hearts beating faster, if only it were true. Alas, the facts are otherwise – as Mr. Mason insisted in the House that Mr. Stelmach knows well.

What Mr. Mason (at left) actually said – back in the bad old days of the Second Great Boom, before we pissed it all away again – was that there should be a moratorium on new tarsands development until such time as the Alberta economy had had a chance to catch its breath. That would be like now.

Now, you may question the wisdom of making such a comment in the run-up to a provincial general election fuelled on petro-bucks. Mr. Mason, no doubt, felt safe enough saying it, because one Peter Lougheed, a former Conservative premier of Alberta, had said much the same thing just days before. Nevertheless, it is pretty obviously not what Mr. Stelmach says that Mr. Mason said.

Mr. Mason called Mr. Stelmach a liar, which in a Canadian Legislature is a parliamentary no-no. Mr. Speaker (who in his private life is known as Mr. Kowalski, but never mind) begged Mr. Mason five times to stop.

Mr. Mason eventually relented and mumbled a withdrawal – not so much to mollify the Speaker, one suspects, as to appease his colleague Rachel Notley, who must have been sorely displeased at the thought of having to do the work of the entire Alberta Opposition for two weeks, rather than just half of it.

The Premier, we can assume, will now go back to regularly and happily smearing Mr. Mason as a Green.

If this continues come the next election campaign, however, I suggest that Mr. Mason take a page from Mr. Barrett’s successful playbook and visit the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench to sue Mr. Stelmach for defamation. Leastways, he should if he can goad Mr. Stelmach into uttering this comment outside the House.

He would have to prove, of course, that it was as much of a defamation to call someone a Green in Alberta in the 21st century as it was to call someone a Red in British Columbia in the 20th. But surely that is not too much of a stretch!

And who can imagine what interesting effect this might have on the next provincial election? An NDP majority, perhaps? Well, whatever. It beats letting them just go on about you!

Saint City News column: Bizarre reports add to grim prognosis for Alberta health system

Premier Ed Stelmach, left, and Health Minister Ron Liepert, right, advise Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett, centre, on Alberta’s health budgeting process. Actual officials may not be exactly as illustrated.

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

Albertans concerned about the future of health care can be forgiven for wondering, “What the H-E-double-hockey-sticks is going on?”

We know that under the leadership of former premier Ralph Klein, the government’s approach to solving complex problems was to throw the cards in the air and see where they landed.

Some people even argue that this worked, sort of – in the case of retail liquor stores and… Uh, liquor stores are all I can come up with right now.

It certainly didn’t work very well when it came to a complex file like health care. We had public hospitals blown up or abandoned, state-of-the-art heart surgery suites sold for a song to private interests, and the famous “Third Way,” which flopped as soon as Albertans realized it was really only the Second (that is, American) Way all over again.

The only thing that saved the Klein government from fiscal embarrassment was the fact oil revenues kept rolling in.

Apparently, this remains the preferred approach under the government of Premier Ed Stelmach. Alas, energy revenues aren’t rolling in quite like they used to. But even for an era of diminished expectations, recent news reports about health care do not suggest a government with a carefully thought-out plan. Instead, over the past few weeks, there has been an unrelenting stream of apparent goof-ups, disturbing leaks and troubling announcements.

A newspaper reports surgeries will be cut 15 per cent at an Edmonton hospital on orders of Alberta Health Services, the province’s new public health care super-board, so the budget can be met. Cancer patients will have to wait longer for life-saving surgery. “Elective” surgeries – hip replacements and cataract removals – may be impacted more. The government assures us everything is fine.

Another report, based on a leak, describes a list of rural hospitals and care centres to be closed or downgraded. The government insists it’s an old list and tells us not to worry. Yet.

Then we learn that physicians at the Stollery Children’s Hospital are practicing emergency medicine in a tent, for heaven’s sake! A long-planned expansion has been put on hold. It’s the budget again. Critically ill children are being flown to Calgary.

It keeps piling up: The $200-million-plus Mazankowski Heart Institute remains idle; seniors boo the health minister when he appears on a stage in St. Albert; Alberta Health Services plans to fire 100 managers; the government says there are too many nurses – after years of telling us there weren’t enough.

You have to wonder, what’s next?

The government insists there’s no money and health spending must be brought under control. Remember, though, these are the same people who last year stopped collecting health premiums, costing the system $1 billion in annual revenue. This is the same government that’s posted nearly $27 billion in surpluses since 2000. I wonder where that money went?

There’s a cynical theory the Conservatives are engineering a fake crisis to help achieve their dream of privatizing health care. Others shake their heads and dismiss these shenanigans as mere fiscal incompetence. At the very least, the situation hardly suggests a government in control of its public relations.

Whenever we hear another health care horror story, a lot of Albertans squawk about how they weren’t advised of the government’s plans before the previous election. True enough, I suppose, but this excuse is getting old.

Does it really matter if the cause is incompetence or malice? It’s time for Alberta voters to recognize that Mr. Stelmach’s government is doing serious harm to our health care system.

It’s often said Albertans keep electing Conservatives because, well, who else is there? But maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe the right question is: Who could be worse?

Hey Alberta! Still worrying about ‘Mexican flu’? Just don’t!

Mexican food: Perfectly safe if served with well-done Alberta pork and liberally sprinkled with BBQ sauce.

Memorandum:

To: Alberta Swine Flu Response Team

From: Premier’s Communications Braintrust

Re: Responding to Public Concerns

Good morning team! Now that the number of queries from the good people of Alberta about the H1N1 “Mexican Flu” outbreak seems to have died down (pardon me, subsided substantially), I think we should take a moment to review the responses we have used successfully to date as a guide to what we should say should this disease reappear in the future.

It is the view of the Premier’s Communications Braintrust (PCB) that we are on the right track and that our answers so far have been highly effective. We see no reason to change the general approach we are taking, although of course we may need to “move with the times” as the situation develops.

Note that we must at all costs avoid use of the term “swine flu,” as we have been requested to do so by the Swine Operations Wellbeing Society of Alberta (SOWS).

SITUATION: First cases recorded in Mexico.
RESPONSE: It’s only in Mexico. There’s nothing to worry about in Alberta.

S: Some fatalities have been recorded in Mexico.
R: It’s only in Mexico. There’s nothing to worry about in Alberta.

S: Disease spreads to Texas and California.
R: It’s only in Mexico, Texas and California. Moreover, it’s only actually killing people in Mexico. There’s nothing to worry about in Alberta.

S. Cases reported throughout the United States, in British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia.
R: Quit worrying already. It’s only in Mexico, the United States, British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia. It’s only killing people in Mexico … well, OK, and Mexicans elsewhere, of course. But there’s nothing to worry about here in Alberta.

S: First case reported in Alberta.
R: Don’t worry about it! Didn’t we tell you? It’s only a mild flu! There’s nothing to worry about.

S: Government of Canada won’t stop Mexican farm workers from coming to Canada.
R: It’s important to help the Canadian farm industry. Anyway, they have to have a checkup before they can get on the plane. Plus, most of them are going to pick blueberries in Nova Scotia. It’s only a mild flu. There’ nothing to worry about. Quit worrying!

S: More Mexican flu cases break out in Alberta.
R: We TOLD you, it’s only a mild flu. There’s nothing to worry about! Don’t trouble your pretty little heads.

S: A young girl is hospitalized in Edmonton with Mexican flu.
R: There’s NOTHING to worry about! So just shut up! Something was wrong with her, anyway. She was weak or something. A pre-existing condition, OK? We’d tell you if there was something to worry about. We’re not telling you anything. So there’s nothing to worry about. Have you got that?

S: Cases reported in Spain, Britain, Holland and Russia.
R: There’s nothing to worry about. Those Spaniards share faulty genes with the Mexicans. The rest of them all drink too much. Everything’s hunky-dory here in Alberta. Quit worrying!

S: Alberta swine herd comes down with Mexican flu.
R: There’s nothing to worry about if the meat is well done. For god’s sake, we’re talking science, not superstition! What the hell do you think this is? A class on evolution? Pork should be cooked all the way through, anyway. Didn’t you learn anything from your Mama? What the hell is wrong with you people? Quit worrying. … and for heaven’s sake, keep eating Alberta pork!

S: Elderly woman in northern Alberta contracts Mexican flu.
R: Don’t worry about it. She’d been on holiday in Mexico. Anyway, it only kills Mexicans. It’s a mild flu for everyone else. There’s absolutely nothing to worry about.

S: Turns out the Edmonton girl went to school. Parents want to know what school.
R: Just shut up! We won’t tell you! We don’t have to tell you! You’re too stupid to know anyway. You’d just panic. Well, DON’T panic! There’s nothing to worry about. Oh, and plus we can’t tell you because of the privacy legislation. Yeah! That’s IT! So we’re not telling you. We don’t have to tell you. You don’t need to know. It’s against the law for you to know. If you don’t quit worrying you’ll make yourself sick … but NOT with Mexican flu. Don’t you know anything? Just do as we say and DON’T worry!

S: Elderly woman who was hospitalized earlier dies from Mexican flu.
R: She was old. She was sick. She went to Mexico. Or if she didn’t, she might have been Mexican. Or Spanish or something. Maybe Portuguese. Whatever. If you’d gone to Mexico you would have gotten sick too. Why can’t you people just holiday in Alberta? We’ve spent $25 million dollars branding this place with great pictures of beautiful beaches and cute kids running on them and you want to go to Mexico, to flippin’ England, for heaven’s sake! What is wrong with you? There’s nothing to worry about. So don’t worry, already.

S: Opposition politicians press for Edmonton parents to be informed which school sick girl went to.
R: Shut UP! SHUT up! That’s for us to know and you to find out! Anyway, she’s getting better. It was a mild flu. It was nothing to worry about and just like we said, YOU panicked! There’s still nothing to worry about. Even the Mexicans aren’t worried any more. Don’t you read the newspaper? So quit worrying! Quit! Worrying!

S: China bans imports of Alberta pork.
R: Oh my Gawd! Oh my GAWD! They’ve banned PORK! This is really awful! This is TERRIFYING! Pork producers could suffer! It’s unscientific! Don’t they know that BBQ sauce kills flu germs? It’s a trade barrier! We’ll sue! I mean it! Call the WTO! Alert the World Bank! NO FAIR! Get Harper on the line! Ask him when the hell he’s going to do something for Alberta! NO FAIR! Alert the media! EEEEEEEEK! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEK!

Stevens out. Danielle Smith in?

OK, it’s blog-certified semi-official – completely official if you count a late-in-the-day report by the moribund Canadian Press: Danielle Smith is going to run for the leadership of the far-right Wildrose Alliance Party.

Since her likely leadership bid was first reported on this blog on April 22, Ms. Smith has confirmed in several more sympathetic spots on the dark side of the blogosphere that she is indeed seriously considering the idea.

“The leadership of the Wildrose Alliance is very enticing for me,” Smith told a right-wing blogger a few days after stepping aside as Alberta director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, an organization that produces press releases. She said much the same thing to the Canadian Press – Canada’s national news service, which unfortunately no longer numbers many Canadian newspapers among its subscribers, which may be why you missed the story.

But is she really? An alternate theory around from the start has held that Ms. Smith’s Wildrose Alliance talk was just that, hot air, designed to present her as a right-wing competitor to Premier Ed Stelmach, the better to negotiate a cabinet post in Mr. Stelmach’s Conservative government. With the Stelmach cabinet far past its best-before date, Ms. Smith could offer a little charisma and a nice chic wardrobe in return for not posing a real threat from the right. All she’d need to qualify would be a comfortable Calgary seat in the Legislature.

Today comes the intriguing news that Deputy Premier Ron Stevens, the Minister for International and Intergovernmental Relations and MLA for Calgary-Glenmore, is pulling the plug, effective immediately. Mr. Stevens plans to “pursue other career options,” a laudatory government news release informed us earlier today.

Hmmm. Does this mean a nice spot in what used to be known in simpler times as Baghdad on the Bow has been opened up for Ms. Smith? Or do negotiations continue? The next few days should tell the story.

Recovering health care costs: More unintended consequences?

This week, the Government of Alberta announced the Crown Right of Recovery Act, Bill 48, which it touted as a law that would allow the province to go after tobacco companies for the public health care costs of people made sick by smoking.

But in addition to the “wrongful acts of tobacco manufacturers,” this act would also allow the government to try to recover the health care costs of victims of crime by going after the convicted criminals, and to recover the costs of negligence “such as medical malpractice or slips and falls.”

If you think this is a good idea, I say you should be careful what you wish for.

As with much of this government’s hurried, ill-thought-out legislation, Bill 48 is a sea of potential unintended consequences. At least, that is, if they are unintended.

Let’s put aside the question of cigarette manufacturers for a moment, shall we? Anyway, the government has been careful in its statements to make it clear they won’t necessarily go after Big Tobacco. Bet on it that we’ll get bogged down in what constitutes a “wrongful act” by corporations that will be sure to have their high-priced lawyers tell us they’re just selling a product made legal and heavily taxed by the government.

As for going after real criminals to recover the costs off their crimes, well good luck with that. Mostly they’re in a life of crime because they’re stupid (or drug addled, or both) and broke. (Otherwise they’d be manufacturing cigarettes, wouldn’t they?) Good luck squeezing blood from that stone.

The criminals the government really has in mind here, of course, are people who drive while drunk, leaving mayhem in their wake. Health Minister Ron Liepert stated that quite clearly in radio interviews.

But the ultimate goal of this part of the legislation, I would suggest, is really to transfer the costs of such tragedies from corporate auto insurers to taxpayers. I say taxpayers, not drunk drivers, because nine times out of ten, the drivers from which the government tries to recover health care costs will be like their brethren in other fields of crime – stones with no blood to give up.

Just watch as this government sets up a program to pay these costs to the health system, then spends years and tens of thousands of dollars trying to recover the money from the drivers who caused the mayhem. (A similar program already exists to cover damage caused by uninsured drivers.) In the process, a few marginal and indigent individuals who could have been reformed will be destroyed and big insurance companies will have had their bottom lines padded even more. The gain to society? Negligible.

Now, consider the impact of making the health system’s costs of “slips and falls” recoverable. What happens to your retirement fund if someone delivering an unwanted flyer trips on your steps and alleges negligence? You might have been able to defend yourself against a frivolous suit filed by a marginal person you didn’t want on your property in the first place. But what will you do when the government of Alberta comes after you for the cost of that person’s knee surgery?

You will be right and truly … well, you know what you’ll be! And who will benefit from this part of the legislation? The only people I can think of – other than the government’s pals in the private-sector insurance industry again, of course – are the builders of sturdy fences with locks on them. You’ll want to put your mailbox outside your new fence!

Finally, the government will now have the ability to go after physicians for the costs of alleged incidents of malpractice. Well, guess what that’s going to do! Malpractice insurance rates, already high, will have to rise further. Physicians, no doubt, will want to be compensated even more to recover those costs. In other words, the cost of health care will increase as a result of this legislation.

Mr. Liepert or one of his Conservative successors will no doubt use that as an argument to try to privatize more health services. We can’t afford these rising costs, dontcha know!

In the end, I predict, not much good and quite a bit of bad will come from this legislation. And the tobacco companies? They’ll wiggle off the hook as they always do in Alberta.

Saint City News column: Strange bedfellows – PM’s only hope is to cozy up to NDP and Bloc


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

The DNA of victory is embedded deep in the bone and sinew of the Liberal Party of Canada.

This is not good news if you happen to be a true believer of either the left or the right.

Not so many weeks ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared to be prepared to do or say anything to stave off a desperate coalition of convenience in Parliament between the then-faltering Liberals and the New Democratic Party, aided and abetted from the sidelines by the Bloc Quebecois.

But that was the result of a confluence of unexpected events. First, the Liberals were led by the hapless Stephane Dion, a man who just couldn’t connect with Canadians. Mr. Dion saw one last chance to make history before his party corrected the mistake it had made by choosing him. At that very moment, the prime minister blundered badly, proposing a budget with a political funding formula that posed an existential threat to the Bloc and New Democrats.

The result propelled the three opposition parties momentarily into each other’s arms. Mr. Harper’s Conservative government was only saved by the intervention of Liberal-appointed Governor General Michaëlle Jean.

At the time, Mr. Harper desperately assailed the coalition as an undemocratic devil’s brew of socialists and separatists, something his Conservative Party would never countenance. From the perspective of his personal political survival, that was probably the right thing to do. But with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we can now see that the long-term welfare of his party might have been better served if he’d let the sure-to-be-shaky coalition rule for a spell.

Without the coalition to kick around, the Liberal instinct for self-preservation swiftly reasserted itself. Mr. Dion was immediately sidelined, replaced by the much more sure-footed Michael Ignatieff. Talk of working with the NDP ceased forthwith.

As soon as Mr. Ignatieff took charge, he got to work rebuilding the broad coalition of moderate right and left that has been a hallmark of Liberal success for generations – a coalition that does not include NDP leader Jack Layton or Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe.

Mr. Ignatieff clearly recognized that if the Liberals could retake the centre, they could retake the country. He was soon stitching together a tent big enough to hold the Canadian centre more comfortably than either the Conservative or New Democratic parties, both of which are much more closely tied to the ideologies of right and left.

The latest polls indicate his strategy is working. Liberals are now outpolling Mr. Harper’s Conservatives nation-wide. The margin was 36 to 33 per cent in a recent survey. In other words, Mr. Ignatieff probably has enough support to become prime minister, if only he can figure out a way to make an election happen.

There, from Mr. Ignatieff’s perspective, lies the rub. With only 77 members in the 308-member House of Commons, all the positive polls in Canada won’t give him enough votes to bring down Mr. Harper’s government.

From Mr. Harper’s point of view, the situation is ironic in the extreme. Notwithstanding his rhetoric last winter, the only way he can now hang onto power is by climbing into bed with social democrats and separatists! Talk about sleeping with the enemy!

It’s hard to imagine a more gruesome threesome, but if Mr. Harper wants to live to fight another day, he’s going to have to cozy up to Mr. Layton and Mr. Duceppe, exactly what he assailed Mr. Dion for doing.

Come the election, it’s pretty easy to imagine what the Liberals under Mr. Ignatieff will make of that. But then, as the old saw goes, politics makes strange bedfellows.

Ron Liepert in St. Albert: The boos are the news

When Ron Liepert stands up to be introduced, the crowd boos him.

That’s the real news.

Leastways, that was the news in St. Albert tonight, just after 7:30 p.m. at the Arden Theatre, when Alberta’s minister of health stood up to speak at his caucus-mate MLA Ken Allred’s town hall forum on seniors’ health care.

But I’ll bet it happens all over Alberta, whenever Mr. Liepert gets up on his hind legs in a public place.

Heaven knows, there was precious little of the kind of conventional news they teach professional journalists to look for. You know, hard facts, announcements and such, that can be hammered into a “summary news lead” so you can phone up the opposition and say, “Well now, what do you think about that?”

OK, there was other news. The other news is that the Arden was packed to the rafters – swine flu threat or no swine flu threat – with mostly grey heads. A lot of them were there to heckle Mr. Liepert, and listen impatiently to Seniors Minister Mary Anne Jablonski and Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Raj Sherman, a medical doctor who is Mr. Liepert’s parliamentary assistant.

That’s because Alberta seniors are as mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more. Trouble is, one gets the sense that many of them are not at all certain what “it” is, or exactly what they’re going to do to not have to take it any more.

There were certainly moments of weirdness, like Ms. Jablonski’s new hair, which was spookily reminiscent of disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich’s ’do – although her new glasses are cool. Or Dr. Sherman’s rambling remarks, in which he unhelpfully advised us all to eat right, move around and reduce our stress, bragged about how much money medical doctors make, and blamed all our troubles on the Seventies. (“In the Seventies, we ate a lot, drank a lot and did a lot of drugs.” Speak for yourself, Doc! How old did you say you were?)

What you didn’t hear was anything much that’s new or enlightening. When it comes to health care “reform,” Alberta’s Conservative government has its story and it’s stickin’ to it. As Mr. Liepert put it: “We need to put a program into place that’s affordable, and that’s sustainable in the future.” He didn’t make it sound like a lot of consultation would affect his plans for how to achieve that goal.

So the members of the audience shuffled their feet and waited for the opportunity to have their questions read out.

Trouble was, some of them weren’t too happy with the questions that were chosen. “You haven’t asked any of the pointed questions,” a determined heckler shouted at Chamber of Commerce President Lynda Moffat, former city councilor Neil Korotash and Liberal activist Pauline McCormick, who had the tough job of picking questions from the dozens submitted. “You’re choosing the innocuous questions!’

This sparked an exchange with Mr. Liepert – “Aw, let ’er talk…” “…Why are you picking on seniors?” Cheers. “We have the best seniors’ programs in the country.” Catcalls.

For his part, Mr. Liepert is pugnacious, and doesn’t mind slinging a few back and forth with hecklers. This can be entertaining, but it doesn’t cast a lot of illumination on the problem.

The questions themselves, and the generally cranky tone of the meeting, illustrated something important for the politics of health care in Alberta: People know that something has gone wrong with their health care system, they don’t believe Mr. Liepert and the other elected officials in the Conservative caucus have a workable plan to fix it, but they haven’t quite figured out what the problem is.

So while there were several questions about the cost of pharmaceuticals that must be borne by seniors (and others, of course), and the formula devised by Mr. Liepert’s minions for how much seniors have to pay, nothing was said about how to fix the problem.

A problem it is, because what we have in Canada today is a system of public health care that ends the moment you walk out the door of a doctor’s office or a hospital.

As economist and former St. Albert mayor Dick Plain pointed out after the meeting, the Canada Health Act was devised in an era when facilities and salaries comprised the bulk of health care costs. Today, drug costs are increasingly the problem with Canada’s health system. And the system will stay broken until a way can be found to spread the risk and share the cost of pharmaceuticals – just as we do with the part of the health care system that works.

This is potentially big trouble for Alberta’s Conservative government, because if you can count on seniors to do anything, it’s to get out and vote.

But, you know, there’s an opportunity in this for Mr. Liepert. Someone needs to take the bull by the horns, sit the country’s health ministers down and do some Ron Liepert-style plain speaking about how we’ve got to fix the part of our health care system that is most broken – the cost of drugs.

If he was willing to take on that challenge, and the result was a national pharmacare plan, I’ll bet people would cheer whenever Mr. Liepert walked into a room.

Tempest in a teapot: Bill 44 does not give parents the right to exclude kids from evolution classes

The most embarrassing part of the controversy surrounding Alberta’s Bill 44, the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Amendment Act, 2009, lies not with the wording of the act itself but with Premier Ed Stelmach’s mind-bogglingly dumb pronouncement that it might allow parents to pull their children from a classroom if evolution was about to be taught.

In fact, it is not at all clear that this is so. The most controversial portion of the act states that “…(a) board as defined in the School Act shall provide notice to a parent of guardian of a student where courses of study, educational programs or instructional materials, or instruction or exercises, prescribed under that Act include subject matter that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation.” (Emphasis added.) The section then goes on to explain parents’ options if they disapprove of the material being taught – namely, that their kids may leave the classroom or do something else in the classroom until the topic in question has been dealt with.

Notwithstanding cheap comparisons with the Arkansas curriculum (about which I’ll bet none of us actually knows anything much) these past few days, I very much doubt it was the intention of the drafters of this legislation to include the topic of evolution under the general heading of “religion.” (Indeed, one might be able to make a better case it belongs under “sexuality,” but that’s a reach no one is very likely to try.)

Note that the act emphatically does not state that this parental right extends to “subject matter that deals explicitly with science.” Arguably, where a few Alberta cave dwellers like it or not, evolution is science and not a matter of religion, and the act doesn’t allow parents to exclude their children from science classes.

The problem really started with the premier’s comment, which was foolish and ignorant – ignorant of the law, at any rate, if not ignorant of some people’s idea of religion.

Religious fundamentalists – regardless of which religion they choose to be fundamental about – can always be depended upon to try to extend their religious views into secular matters. The debate, if that’s the word, about evolution, intelligent design and the like is an example that plagues our society here in the West.

Thanks to the premier’s foolish remark, it will be hard to do so, but Alberta’s educational authorities should refuse to even consider objections to the mention of evolution under the heading of religion, any more than they would consider, say, a discussion of blood transfusions a religious matter even if it offended members of certain Christian sects.

If Mr. Stelmach would just shut up, I suspect we could get to that sensible point reasonably quickly.

It is interesting to note that there is nothing really new about this provision, at least insofar as the teaching of religion goes. The School Act has contained similar provisions since 1988, to wit: “Where a teacher or other person providing religious or patriotic instruction receives a written request signed by a parent of a student that the student be excluded from religious or patriotic instruction or exercises, or both, the teacher or other person shall permit the student (a) to leave the classroom or place where the instruction or exercises are taking place for the duration of the instruction or exercises, or (b) to remain in the classroom or place without taking part in the instruction or exercises.”

Has anyone heard of this provision of the School Act being a problem, or being widely used or abused? (Indeed, one wonders if in our Americanized post-911 Canada, it would even be possible to pass a provision today allowing parents to opt their children out of patriotic instruction!)

Bill 44 extends this parental right to school subjects concerning sexuality and sexual orientation. Arguably, doing so in a piece of legislation other than the School Act is sloppy, confusing and bad law, but it is not nearly as sexy as an issue as maligning the good name of the Arkansas Department of Education.

Indeed, probably the worst thing about this legislation is the requirement for school boards to inform parents in writing about everything they plan to teach that deals explicitly with religion.

Since, as we all know, the religiously minded interpret everything as dealing explicitly with religion (what you wear, where you plant things, how you cut your hair, how you speak to your parents, how you care for your livestock, what you eat and drink, just to give a few examples from the Judeo-Christian traditions), this has the potential to create a major problem for school boards.

Moreover, by placing this in human rights legislation, instead of in the School Act where it belongs, the door has been opened to expensive Human Rights Commission proceedings if parents feel their religious rights have been violated because a teacher mentioned, say, a recipe for pork roast, the age of a rock, or talked about working on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

Since any problem like this affecting a governmental body inevitably results in higher taxes, this portion of Bill 44 should be amended at once to reflect the more sensible complaints-based approach taken in the School Act.

As for the rest, it’s a tempest in a teapot.

Happy May Day: swine flu is a labour issue

May Day March: Edmonton event may not be exactly as illustrated.

Today is the International Day of the Worker, but I’ll spare you the usual labour folderol.

Most of us are too busy holding down two or three non-union jobs in Alberta’s new, improved, globalized economy to spend much time pondering what the labour movement could do for us. What’s more, we’re avoiding crowds to keep from being infected with the swine flu – our very own “Aporkalypse Now” nightmare.

For both these reasons, North American May Day parades today are certain to be sparsely attended. Most of us will stay at home tonight, and maybe watch a video of Norma Rae or F.I.S.T. – if it still plays after we’ve smeared it with Purell disinfectant sanitizer (“kills 99% of germs”).

Just remember this as you lay your head on the pillow, inventorying your influenza symptoms: Swine flu is a labour issue!

Don’t feel too comforted that our Conservative federal and provincial governments say they are briskly taking measures to stop the spread of this disease.

As noted recently in this space, as far as the government of Canada is concerned, the needs of businesses take precedence over the health and safety of Canadians. They’re happy to shut down flights to Mexican resorts and advise us all to wash our hands with regularity. However, they’re not about to slow the airborne flow of low-wage Mexican guest workers north to protect the wealthy owners of Canadian corporate farm-factories from the threat of unionism.

Lacking even the prospect of a reinvigorated Liberal Party, our wretched provincial government will do anything it can to sabotage effective labour laws that would make it easy for Alberta workers to take time off when they are ill, protecting themselves and their co-workers.

Our governments may not have noticed, but viruses are pretty small, well equipped to slip past even Customs officers vigilant enough to spot the naughty ideas inside George Galloway’s head. Simple measures like allowing farm workers to join unions and passing labour laws that would protect working people who are sick and need to stay home would do more to slow the spread of swine flu than shutting down all the world’s tourist flights to Mexico.

If you think this is just labour hyperbole, consider the Toronto Star’s report this morning that the swine flu might better be called the “NAFTA Flu.”

The viral mutation that started this whole panic seems to have originated next to a filthy U.S.-owned corporate pig farm in Mexico made possible by the lax environmental regulations, lousy labour laws and lack of enforceable community planning regulations encouraged by the North American Free Trade Agreement and similar corporate bills of rights.

Then again, if you’re skeptical about that one, maybe Swine Flu Ground Zero was in the United States. That’s the Wall Street Journal’s theory. Same trade deal; different swine.

When we sign these deals we are not just attacking the rights of working people abroad and weakening the ability of governments at home to democratically control the worst excesses of corporations. We are creating breeding grounds for pandemics – things that can hurt us and our families in direct and measurable ways.

Similarly, when we privatize the jobs of people who work in hospitals, we not only reduce their wages and degrade their working conditions, we make the spread of deadly epidemics more likely. Ironically, we seldom save money through these measures – we merely transfer our tax dollars into the pockets of wealthy contractors.

So, back in 2003, the head of Taiwan’s Centre for Disease Control stated that contracting out of hospital cleaning, laundry and nursing aide services contributed to that country’s deadly outbreak of SARS because contract employees’ work could not be effectively monitored or controlled by hospital managers.

Su Ih-jen warned that outsourcing the work of nursing attendants and housekeeping staff stripped health facilities of the ability to control the movements of workers who could spread the disease. He described a SARS outbreak in a large municipal hospital in Taipei where physicians and nurses employed by the hospital were not infected, but contract employees who were not given proper disease-prevention attire “roamed freely in hospitals and contracted the disease.”

Then there’s the matter of the global “pandemic” of workplace deaths and injuries – more than 1.3 million deaths a year world wide, 12,000 of them children. Nothing can inoculate us more effectively against that tragic toll than access to union membership.

Fair labour laws at home and abroad protect us all – and not just on the job.

In the bluntest possible terms, that is why swine flu is a labour issue.

Advice to CanWest: Kill ‘the Pest’ and save the rest

A satisfied National Pest founder Tubby Black, in happier times, steams past a delighted Tom Olsen, today Premier Ed Stelmach’s press secretary, on the wrong side of the picket line during the Calgary Herald strike. Plus ca change; plus ca la meme chose.

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.

— Proverbs 16:18

The National Post – described by the Reuters news service in a dispatch this morning as the “flagship” daily of the CanWest newspaper chain – will cease to publish a Monday edition for the next nine weeks in a desperate and doomed effort to stay afloat.

Flagship? Plague ship more like!

The National Post is the rot at the core of the former Southam newspaper chain’s financial troubles, at the heart of the sinking company’s $4-billion debt and the $1.4 billion it lost in the last three months for which it reported. The Post should be closed for the sake of the remaining viable community dailies in the chain, papers like the Edmonton Journal that, despite many faults, still do good work.

There will be no such luck for the few sluggos still toiling below decks at CanWest, of course. That there won’t is proof enough that, just as the Good Book tells us, Solomon was a wise man: Pride goeth before destruction.

The Post was Conrad Black’s prideful baby, created “in happier times” as a personal hobbyhorse for the millionaire publisher and international neocon blowhard, who now deservedly languishes in a Florida jailhouse. It largely succeeded in its goal to remake Canadian journalism through the relentless application of right-wing snake oil and outright propaganda, sad to say.

But the cost was high. From Day One it was a bloodsucking leech on the other papers in the Southam chain, hoovering financial resources and local scoops into its esurient maw. We were all served cake in the pressroom of the Calgary Herald the night the first edition appeared – a few of us suspected even then there was hemlock in the sweet vanilla icing!

It is a true irony that by sucking the life out of the other Southam papers, the Post sowed the seeds of its own destruction, now coming to a rotten fruition. Ironic, because its very raison d’etre was to spread the false gospel of the omnipotent free market. It is failing because there is only a limited market for such tripe. Conrad and his acolytes would no doubt have it this is because Canadians are fools with insufficient faith in the wonders of the market. The reality, of course, is that most of us can count – if only on our fingers and toes – and are confident to trust the evidence of our eyes and noses.

Of course, the Post’s owners blame the recession – also an ironic creature of the far-right policy nostrums they encouraged – but that is only the poisoned icing on their cake.

The Post was Izzy Asper’s prideful stepchild, likely the principal reason he cast his eyes on the Southam papers in the first place, continuing the degradation of the renamed CanWest empire to its present pathetic state, brought low by bloggers on the Internet, most of whom couldn’t spell CAT if you spotted them the C and the T!

This is an irony, too, for it wasn’t the quality of the bloggers’ efforts so much as the sophomoric bloviations of the Post’s influential stenographers that drove Canadian readers to the Internet. There was no market for this trash.

And the Post, I suspect, will be straw that breaks the financial camel’s back for the elder Asper’s heirs, who will continue to publish its drivel even as “the Pest” constitutes a deadly menace to their remaining viable enterprises.

As noted, the owners cite the recession for their troubles and publish long screeds promising the newspaper business will be around 100 years from now. Perhaps this is so, but not for any of the foundering newspapers in the death grip of the National Post!

So, pridefully, the Post will for now stop publishing one day a week, and so begin the death of a thousand cuts. This move, Reuters reported, aims to trim expenses, but there can’t be much left to trim with 560 experienced hands throughout the chain forced over the side in recent months.

Other CanWest papers are said to be considering similar extreme measures to save a few pennies. It is only a matter of time before one of them becomes an all-Internet effort for the few months it takes for extreme unction to be administered. But all this amounts to cutting away the healthy bits to save the malignancy.

No one wants to read the Post. It can hardly be given away in airports and hotel corridors. The real answer for CanWest is to swallow its pride and close it. They could use the millions saved to publish better community daily newspapers, for which there is still hope.