Archive for September, 2009

Those ten turncoat Tories: smoke, or smoke-type material?

A smoke-making machine. Really!

Once they’d had a moment to catch their breath, after leaving it to the bloggers over the weekend, the paid reporters of the mainstream media decided today they loved last Friday’s story about the 10 putative Tory defectors.

It was all over the airwaves. Even loony-right Calgary bingo caller Dave Rutherford bloviated at length on the topic, reading long passages verbatim from Paul McLoughlin’s Alberta Scan newsletter with the sort of solemnity normally associated with Sabbath readings of the Old Testament. (Well, you’ve got to do something to fill the dead air between the right-wing rants and the ads for weight-loss clinics, right?)

All this attention got me thinking about something John F. Kennedy, a guy who knew a thing or two about politics, had to say about situations like this. “Where there’s smoke,” said JFK, “sometimes there’s a smoke-making machine.”

Does this all smell like the product of a smoke-making machine to you too?

Consider who stands to gain by spreading around a story that 10 Tories, fed up with Premier Ed Stelmach, are about to make the long walk to the Opposition benches, if only Danielle Smith is elected leader of the super-right Wildrose Alliance Party:

  • Powerless backbench Conservatives themselves, of course, whether or not they’re associated in any way with this alleged cabal, since for a few weeks they’ll have a little more clout with the premier and his embarrassingly rusticated inner circle of motorcycle crankheads and bean farmers. Maybe Ed will even return some of their phone calls.
  • Ms. Smith, too, benefits, at least until the WRAP’s leadership convention on Oct. 17. After all, the way the story goes is that the only way the disgruntled Tories walk is if Ms. Smith is elected. If that other guy, the Red Deer chiropractor whose name escapes everyone in Alberta at the moment, snatches the crown, too bad, so sad, no mutiny.
  • The Calgary oil guys who, recession or no recession, had loadsadough to spend and decided Ms. Smith had a friendly enough face to fool some of the people enough of the time to get away with pushing their Enron-north business agenda in the Legislature.
  • The two traditional Opposition parties, their leaders, and all the other “usual suspects” who are opposed to some or all of Mr. Stelmach’s agenda at any given moment. Right now, of course, that list would be considerably longer than the combined phone books of Edmonton and Calgary.
  • Mr. Stelmach’s opponents within the Conservative Party – likely including one-time Tory front-runner Jim Dinning and Sustainable Resource Development Minister Ted Morton, at right, both of whom surely still harbour first-ministerial ambitions. Anybody heard from Rod Love lately?
  • Ralph Klein himself, who sooner or later may be inclined to come down from Mount Royal and take over from his dad to do a passable imitation of Jean Chrétien yukking it up at his replacement from the 17th tee.
  • Oh, and did I mention the media, who will actually have an interesting political story for the first time since Ralph threw pennies at the poor?

Now consider who stands to lose if it turned out there were something to this story. Other than Mr. Stelmach and his increasingly hysterical team of political advisors, I mean.

  • Uh, Stephen Duckett? No doubt about it, if someone else becomes premier in the next 18 months, whether they come from the left or the right of the bumbler in chief, they’ll likely see some political gain in sending the CEO of the increasingly chaotic Alberta Health Services packing back to Australia.
  • The 10 treasonous Tories themselves – because Ms. Smith is no Peter Lougheed and it’ll take more than a little oil money to make her premier, even for a little while.
  • Umm, that’s about it…

So what would these Tory turncoats do when they wanted to come back to the Conservatives, as is almost certain to happen? Well, to quote another well-known politician who knew a thing or two about crossing the floor of the House, Winston Churchill had this to say about that: “Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.”

I don’t think these guys are that ingenious, but I suspect their saving grace is that most of them know it.

Usually the right explanation for any puzzle is the simplest one, and as complicated as a smoke-making machine may be, the simplest explanation for this story is not that 10 Conservatives are about to join the Wildrose Alliance.

So as much as I hate to agree with Paul Stanway, the premier’s chief spokesthingy, he was probably right when he said of this story: “Somebody is dreaming in Technicolor.”

Fasten your seatbelts, hang onto your hats: blog buzz touts mass Conservative defection to Wildrose Alliance

Is Alberta on the verge of a political shakeup so big it registers on the Richter scale?

According to an Alberta political blog published by the Edmonton Journal, newsletter publisher Paul McLoughlin has predicted just such an earthshaking event if candidate Danielle Smith wins the leadership of the Wildrose Alliance Party on Oct. 17.

The Journal blog says McLoughlin’s weekly Alberta Scan reports that if Ms. Smith wins the leadership contest, up to 10 of Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative caucus members will immediately cross the floor of the Legislature to join the upstart far-right party.

By hitching their wagons to the former Calgary journalist and Fraser Institute propagandist’s star, they would be hoping to catch the political wave of Alberta’s future and cash in on some oil-soaked campaign funds. At the same time, they could shed their neglected status as Conservative backbenchers, where they are treated with genial contempt by the premier’s rustic inner circle.

On the face of it, this prediction seems outlandish, even bizarre. But Mr. McLoughlin is no nutty blogger making bizarre predictions for the fun of it. He is a well-connected Legislative insider whose respected and expensive newsletter usually gets it right.

Don’t go looking for Alberta Scan on the Internet, by the way. You won’t find it there. McLoughlin’s strategy isn’t to give away his insights to Web surfers like you and me. He prefers to fly below the radar, charging a steep fee as befits the value of insider insights from a seasoned observer of Alberta politics, and markets his publication to people and groups with deep pockets and a need to know.

Subscribers to Alberta Scan are said to swear a secret blood oath – possibly involving the removal of essential body parts or permanent banishment to Saskatchewan – not to reveal the contents of his newsletter to people who haven’t paid for it. For this reason, it was a shocker to see reference to it show up yesterday on both the Journal and MacLean’s Magazine Websites. (I guess that tells us where the “mainstream media” gets its news nowadays.)

If McLoughlin’s prediction comes true, a number of dominoes themselves heavy enough to rattle crockery and crack plaster would then fall.

First, consider the likely result on Ed Stelmach’s leadership review at the Conservative annual meeting in November in Red Deer.

Stelmach’s unsteady hand was already annoying his backbenchers and unsettling his usually loyal electorate. If his caucus were to suffer a rift as wide as the Grand Canyon as a result of his confused performance, taking the mighty Progressive Conservative caucus from juggernaut to smoking ruin in less than two years, the results would surely be catastrophic for the premier.

The Conservative Party would have to look to the Calgary diehards and dead-enders surrounding former leadership contender Jim Dinning, hated and feared by Stelmach’s rural hickocracy, to save their bacon.

Stelmach’s frankly incompetent political advisors would, presumably, melt to a puddle of water like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Next, Dr. David Swann would no longer be the Leader of the official Opposition in the Alberta Legislature. For the moment, Calgary-Glenmore MLA-elect Paul Hinman would play that important role – a no doubt satisfactory development for a guy who in the spring of 2008 was swept away by Mr. Stelmach’s seemingly all-powerful electoral broom.

But that was then and this is now. With the help of a conveniently large supply of corporate petro-donations, Mr. Hinman sailed back into the Legislature on Sept. 14 in the provincial riding that shares space with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s federal electoral district.

As soon as the telegenic and articulate Ms. Smith could find herself a Legislative seat, of course, she would assume that high-profile role – a position that could very well catapult her to the premiership.

With the Liberals reduced in standing from ineffectual to hapless, the two-member New Democratic Party caucus would be downgraded to pathetic, or at least fourth place.

Of course, Alberta New Democrats are a hardy lot, and could be expected to get on with business in the face of what, to them, would be an almost meaningless setback.

For the Liberals, the results would be more serious. Dr. Swann’s leadership is almost as uninspiring as the premier’s, and his nine-member caucus appears to be as divided as the Conservatives. Some prominent Liberal MLAs from Calgary didn’t even bother to campaign for Avalon Roberts, the party’s standard-bearer in the southern oil city once fondly known as Baghdad on the Bow. Possibly as a result, Ms. Roberts was edged out by Mr. Hinman.

In the event of Mr. McLoughlin’s startling prediction coming true, it would not be beyond the pale to see members of the Liberal caucus defecting to the government, others trying to form a new “Alberta” party and still others sticking it out with Dr. Swann’s tattered green fringe.

The effects on strategic voting in Alberta, too, might be interesting. We could easily see Liberals and New Democrats holding their noses and voting for a Conservative party led by Mr. Dinning to stave off the frightening prospect of a loony right-wing Wildrose government in Alberta.

Before we get too excited about this, however, we need to remember that Mr. Stelmach’s previously powerless backbenchers will likely try to exercise their newfound influence within the Conservative caucus first. Leastways, they will if they’re smart.

Indeed, it’s possible that the premier’s already morbidly obese cabinet may have to grow even more to keep his party from flying off into outer space.

Moreover, the Wildrosies might very well yet shoot themselves in both feet by rejecting Ms. Smith in favour of Three Hills chiropractor Mark Dryholm, a former vice-president of the fruitcake right Progressive Group for Independent Business.

This outcome is not impossible in light of the deep sexism of Alberta social conservatives and Ms. Smith’s own blunder in letting Mr. Hinman run in Calgary back when that by-election didn’t look like a sure thing. Mr. Stelmach, presumably, is praying for that outcome.

Still, the mind boggles!

Later may be too late: the time to save our hospital is now

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

Plans by the provincial government to close beds at St. Albert’s Sturgeon Community Hospital need to be viewed with the utmost gravity by citizens of this community and their elected representatives.

St. Albertans must make it unmistakably clear starting now that we will not tolerate degradation of health services in our community, let alone the loss of our hospital.

We should all be deeply concerned when we hear that the province, acting through its Alberta Health Services surrogate, intends to close 50 beds in St. Albert, Devon, Redwater and Leduc in return for an airy-fairy promise to replace them eventually with something called “community care options.”

This is part of a much larger scheme by AHS, which clearly takes its marching orders from Premier Ed Stelmach and Health Minister Ron Liepert, to close needed acute care beds in major urban centres while protecting them in rural health facilities in the government’s political heartland.

While AHS plans to shake up health care in Alberta are rarely spelled out in concrete detail, we have to assume the bulk of beds lost at these four facilities will come from our 167-bed hospital because it is the largest of the four and is located in the most urban community.

We need to take this seriously because bed closings at the level proposed by AHS can threaten the viability of smaller hospitals like the Sturgeon. We need to speak up now because a clear message from citizens to politicians, early in the game, can help ensure such a health care disaster doesn’t happen to our community. Elected officials at every level need to know voters are paying attention and will exact a political price if they don’t defend our interests.

Don’t assume something as drastic as a hospital closing “could never happen here.”

There are sound reasons to believe it could. AHS assurances to the contrary are worthless. This is an organization whose plans shift constantly. A year ago they were adding to the Sturgeon Hospital and planning a redevelopment of Alberta Hospital Edmonton. Today they plan bed closings at both. Tomorrow… Who knows?

Moreover, Alberta Conservatives have done this before. Remember the Grace Hospital in Calgary? It was closed in 1996 to make way for private-sector friends of then-premier Ralph Klein to operate a for-profit surgical clinic.

Other factors increasing the danger to our hospital include the amalgamation of Alberta’s nine health regions into the AHS, which has left the health system in chaos and driven costs ever higher.

Don’t forget, in August 2008 the combined deficits of all health regions were eliminated by the province with a $97-million payment. Mr. Liepert promised big savings. Instead, just over a year later, we have a deficit more than 13 times bigger and still growing!

Take this expensive, centralized bureaucracy, unresponsive to local needs or wishes, and hire someone from another continent to run it.

Add a government that would have trouble planning a keg party in a brewery and ask it to figure out how to deal with a revenue shortfall caused by the recession and a downtick in natural gas prices.

Throw in an embarrassing by-election loss to a right-wing challenger, panic-stricken political advisors in the premier’s office and a looming leadership review for their boss in November.

The result: all the ingredients of a perfect recipe for a health care catastrophe in Alberta.

The only response our premier can think of is: “Cut everything” – except his $2-billion carbon capture boondoggle and huge cabinet, of course.

These are just the kinds of circumstances in which frightening decisions, including closing local hospitals, are made. It’s up to us, the citizens of St. Albert, to make sure it doesn’t happen here.

Aging in Alberta: fleecing in the right place

If you can’t afford to age in the right place, I guess you can age in the wrong place.

Thanks to an anonymous leaker, we now know what Ed Stelmach’s government has in mind when it promises elderly Albertans “aging in the right place.”

What they really mean is “fleecing in the right place.”

The leaker mailed the New Democratic Party’s tiny caucus in the Alberta Legislature a complete copy of a confidential consultant’s report – which was prepared for the government’s Seniors and Community Supports Department after private meetings between top government officials and “stakeholders,” presumably meaning representatives of the seniors care “industry.”

But for one representative of the tame Council on Aging, “special interests” – you know, like the public, seniors themselves or the people who work in these places – seem not to have been invited. The actual make-up of this committee is nine senior government bureaucrats, six from the Seniors Ministry; two nursing home operators; one “caregiver representative” who is also listed as a project co-ordinator with Capital Care; and the supposed senior’s rep. One of the bureaucrats, from the Health Department, has the interesting title “Senior Manager, Continuing Care Policy, Health System Transformation.” Transformation?

The Knee-Dips, apparently, got wind of this document a while ago and filed a Freedom of Information request, which in this province should be known as a Freedom from Information request. What eventually turned up was so heavily redacted as to be useless.

Thankfully for us mere citizens of Alberta, lo and behold the whole thing turned up a few days later in the traditional plain brown-paper envelope in a New Democratic caucus in-basket.

What the leaked document revealed is that the government plans to shut down affordable publicly supported long-term care facilities for seniors, which come under our public health care system, and replace them with costly beds in for-profit seniors’ homes – the kind of places where the elderly are charged hundreds of dollars a month extra for assistance going to the bathroom or having more than one bath a week.

This amounts to massive financial redistribution scheme in which the hard-earned savings of elderly Albertans of ordinary means, which otherwise would be wastefully inherited by their feckless children, will now go where they belong – into the pockets of wealthy corporate nursing home operators. Each one of these, no doubt, is a heavy donor to the governing party.

Some of the things said in the leaked document make this pretty clear. It argues, for example, that the government needs to “reinforce the responsibility of residents to pay for their accommodation costs.” And if they can’t afford it? Screw ’em! Let ’em stay with their kids, or move into the streets with the mentally ill.

Alberta also needs “to establish a more market-driven approach to encourage the investment community to enter this sector,” the report stated. Wow! Great news! Maybe they’ll do as good a job as they did of managing the banking industry! You know who got to pay for that one.

The goal of the government’s policies, according the report, should be to cut the number of long-term care beds to 20 per cent of the total health beds available for seniors, a reduction from the present 40 per cent. Click here if you want to read this depressing document yourself.

According to the Edmonton Journal, NDP Leader Brian Mason said that would be equivalent to closing up to 9,000 publicly run long-term care beds out of the 14,500 currently funded in the province.

Since the Stelmach Conservatives promised to add 600 long-term care beds during the last election campaign, Mason called this the worst deception he’s seen by a government in his years in politics.

The government’s first instinct was to rush into qualified, partial denial mode. The Seniors Minister, the hapless Mary Anne Jablonski of Red Deer, ducked and weaved unconvincingly, insisting the document was only a draft.

This seems a bit lame, seeing as it says exactly what has been widely understood by both supporters and opponents to be the government’s policy literally for months.

At any rate, she told the Journal in the same story quoted above, “it is not government policy. … I’m not looking at closing any long-term care beds.”

Then came this sinister addendum: “That’s not my department. That would be Health and Wellness’s department.”

Ah, Health and Wellness. You know, the department that closes beds.

Health and Wellness Minister Ron Liepert was uncharacteristically silent. So I guess we can likely take that as confirmation that the document’s not a draft.

At any rate, brouhaha over the government’s plans to close long-term care beds provided Alberta Health Services’ Australian Supremo Stephen Duckett with a welcome respite from the daily attacks on his plans to close mental health beds, close acute care beds, and, no doubt now that the nights are turning cold, close flower beds.

You’ll be glad to know that management at AHS have been using their time well, engaging in mature dialogue with their in-house opponents.

The United Nurses of Alberta reported this afternoon that AHS has taken to blocking UNA’s Website from its computers in Edmonton and other workplaces. “The message that comes up is ‘inappropriate content.’”

Well, that’ll show those nurses!

What’s more, the nurses reported, an AHS management memo today demanded that nurses and other employees at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton take all their breaks, unless “approved in advance…”

Four days earlier, Mr. Duckett was complaining to the Calgary Sun that nurses hardly worked because of all their “morning tea breaks and afternoon tea breaks and coffee breaks and everything else.”

You know, folks, you just can’t make this stuff up!

Stop whinging, Mr. Duckett! Get yourself a Canadian passport!

For Albertans, Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett’s Australian origins are not a problem, but his lack of a Canadian passport may be.

Australian Stephen Duckett of Australia, the Australian president and CEO of Alberta Health Services, hails from Australia, home of the Australians.

Sorry about that. That was small of me. But, boy, did it ever feel good!

Mr. Duckett was whinging in a recent edition of his blog about how people – the media especially, and bloggers especially especially – just won’t leave him alone for being an Australian. (Whinging, by the way, is an Australianism that means moaning and complaining.)

“I am constantly surprised,” Mr. Duckett grizzled, “at the number of comments made in the media (especially by bloggers) about the fact that I am an Australian and that a Canadian should fill this job.” (Grizzled: another Australianism that apparently also means moaning and complaining.)

Mr. Duckett even went so far as to accuse us Albertans of “continuing xenophobia associated with my appointment.”

Xenophobia? Please!

Mr. Duckett tries to make it seem as if the quite proper concern his appointment has provoked in many corners of Alberta is a reflection of some kind of anti-Australian animus.

This accusation is plainly a furphy (which Mr. Duckett defined in his blog as “another Australianism, meaning an erroneous or improvable story”) designed to divert attention from the quite proper concern by Albertans at the appointment of a non-Canadian with little stake in our province or country to a post where he can do great damage to a popular and valuable institution.

Next thing you know, Mr. Duckett will be accusing us of anti-English prejudice as well. We can expect something like this as soon as word gets around about his latest appointment – one Alison Tonge of Britain’s heavily “marketised” National Health System – as “Executive Vice-President, Strategy and Performance.” (“Marketized is a Briticism meaning, as far as any Canadian can tell, “privatized.”)

More such announcements of Mr. Duckett’s handpicked team of executives from abroad and at home will no doubt be forthcoming shortly.

Ms. Tonge, Mr. Duckett explained in a memorandum to AHS staff last week, “will bring a wealth of knowledge, expertise and public sector experience from a different health care system. … Her extensive knowledge and experience in England will mean that she can challenge us from a totally different perspective and bring a fresh set of eyes and ideas to help us improve the access, quality and sustainability of our health system.”

What can we expect from this “totally different perspective”? Well, here’s what’s going in England, as Allyson Pollock of the Centre for International Public Health Policy at the University of Edinburgh described it last spring in the Guardian: “The government has marketised the NHS, replacing an integrated public service with a market run by ‘purchasers’ and commercially oriented providers under the same ‘light touch’ regulatory system we have become familiar with in the banking sector.”

For Ms. Tonge’s part, according to Mr. Duckett’s memo, she is “really looking forward to joining AHS and working with key leaders in driving forward this exciting agenda.” What exiting agenda would that be? The “opportunity to shape world class care for Alberta.”

This will come as news to those in the former Capital Health Region who thought they had already built a world-class system based on world-class institutions such as Alberta Hospital Edmonton.

Of course, given the ideology and modus operandi of Premier Ed Stelmach’s government, many Albertans naturally could be forgiven if they thought, “world-class privatization, more like!” It would be fair to say that many suspect Mr. Duckett has been brought here with the job of dismantling our health care system, the better to pave the way for wide-open privatization.

Mr. Duckett’s actions since his arrival from the antipodes have done little to comfort those who entertain such fears. So far, indeed, he seems to be sticking pretty close the international privatization playbook – starting with the engineered funding “crisis” that is traditionally followed by deep cuts to which “there is no alternative.”

Getting rid of local health executives experienced in the public system and replacing them with foreign “experts” imported from heavily privatized jurisdictions fits nicely into this pattern.

Indeed, who better to engage in an unpopular crusade to dismantle our public health care for the benefit of a privileged few than a person with a foreign passport and a comfortable homeland to return to once his or her pockets are filled with bonus money from Ed Stelmach’s grateful government?

Mr. Duckett certainly added to this concern by spending a significant portion the Sept. 7 blog cited above going on about “an obsession in the media with my salary, the nature of my contract, and the nature of my potential performance bonus.”

Of course, this issue is no mere obsession – an interpretation that trivializes what Albertans are really concerned about.

Knowledge of the bonus package paid to the CEO of Alberta Health Services and hence the behaviour it rewards helps us figure out what Mr. Duckett has really been brought here from abroad to do. Now that we have seen some the details of Mr. Duckett’s package, with its rewards for eliminating jobs and cutting costs willy-nilly, we cannot feel particularly reassured.

Where Mr. Duckett bought his ticket to Alberta, of course, is not relevant because Mr. Duckett hails from Australia – although stating that fact is a convenient and accurate shorthand for commentators wishing to make his status as an outsider clear.

It is relevant because he is not from here. As someone from away, he can do what he wishes and not have to live with the consequences.

For that reason, and with sincere respect to his undoubted qualifications, he was not an appropriate choice for his job.

If Mr. Duckett would like us Albertans to be “very open and welcoming to migrants,” as indeed we are, he could start by becoming one!

The process begins with an application for Canadian citizenship.

When we have some evidence he intends to stick around, perhaps we can have some more confidence in his intentions.

Council’s long-term investment plan guaranteed to flop

The City of St. Albert has been getting lousy returns on its (that is, our) investments.

This does not exactly come as news, of course. Everybody’s been getting lousy returns on investments. What is it that the banks are risibly offering on their so-called “high interest savings accounts” these days? One per cent, 1.5 per cent?

This is happening because interest rates and returns on other investments are at historic lows. And what always happens when interest rates are at historic lows? Answer: After a while they increase. This is because economies are cyclical. It shouldn’t take John Maynard Keynes to explain this to you.

Hold that thought for a minute.

So, what does our City Council want to do about this situation? Well, according to the local press, Council has hatched a scheme to “put more money away for longer periods of time.” Indeed, they’re talking about tying some of it up for 10 years so that they can get a marginally higher rate of return than the banks give right now on short-term deposits.

Excuse me? Am I missing something here that everyone else is picking up on? Or is something wrong with this picture?

Why would you lock up your money at the lowest possible rate for the longest possible time at a moment when interest rates are bound to increase? Won’t that guarantee you get the worst possible return on your investment?

How can I be so confident that interest rates will increase? Well, there is the fact that they always do, of course. But just read the financial pages on the Internet and you will see the growing recognition south of the Medicine Line that it’s not a sustainable economic policy for the Federal Reserve Board to keep key interest rates close to zero.

As the New York Times reported late last month, “at some point next year, the Fed may well need to raise interest rates — possibly rapidly and sharply, given how far it cut them last year — and in the process raise the cost of things like credit cards, mortgages and business loans.”

Moreover, this will likely happen sooner than later. Indeed, it may be happening already.

So why has our Council chosen this moment to hatch a plan to lock in our money at the lowest possible rate?

It’s hard to say, but I can’t shake the suspicion that, like a lot of politicians in these parts these days, they’re panicking.

The economic news is generally bad. Nothing much anybody does seems to please voters, who are in a cranky and irascible mood. And there’s a municipal election looming on the horizon in October 2010. Councillors may feel they have to be seen to be doing something.

Rudyard Kipling
observed that the man who keeps his head when all about are losing theirs can have the earth and everything that’s in it. Our Councillors need to keep theirs! Locking our money up for years at historically low rates is not the something they should be doing.

Jaffer & Schadenfreude: not attractive, but satisfactory nonetheless

Rahim Jaffer, right, in happier times with Edmonton-area Conservative MP Laurie Hawn. In the background, a Conservative economic policy advisor.

Schadenfreude is never very attractive. But, as the song suggests, it’s irresistible!

This is especially so when it’s combined with a sense of well-deserved comeuppance, the thought of just deserts served cold after a full course of hypocrisy.

Go ahead, admit it! Schadenfreude is what you felt when you first heard yesterday about Rahim Jaffer’s legal troubles.

This isn’t because we wish for anyone to be chewed up by the grim machinery of the so-called War on Drugs – on the contrary, it is because we wish that no one would be. Nevertheless, when you heard that cocaine possession charges were pending against the Conservative politician from Edmonton who smeared Jack Layton as if the NDP leader were encouraging young people to smoke dope, I’ll bet you couldn’t resist thinking “Gotcha!”

Yes, sometimes you just know, there is a god.

The ironic facts of the case speak for themselves:

The Ontario Provincial Police said yesterday they had stopped the former Member of Parliament for Edmonton-Strathcona on Sept. 11 when they observed his SUV racing through the village of Palgrave in the Caledon region of Ontario. He leaves nearby with his wife, MP Helena Guergis, Conservative MP for Simcoe-Grey and Minister of State (Status of Women) in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Cabinet.

After he was pulled over, Mr. Jaffer was charged with drunk driving and possession of cocaine, the Toronto Star reported.

Now, these facts on their own would be merely pathetic. But, as the Star explained, a few days before last October’s federal election, “Jaffer’s campaign approved radio ads chiding NDP Leader Jack Layton for comments years earlier that Jaffer cast as broad support for marijuana use. The spots said, in part: ‘Edmontonians understand how difficult it is to make sure our children make the right choices, especially on serious issues like drug use. The Conservative Party supports drug-free schools and getting tough with drug dealers who sell illegal drugs to children. Don’t let our schools go up in smoke. On October 14th vote Conservative.’”

One might wonder if Edmonton-Strathcona in the vicinity of the University of Alberta was the quite right place to cynically play the drugs card, as Conservative politicians so often do to keep voters’ minds away from issues that actually affect them more, such as health care and the environment.

Still, in other parts of the riding, I suspect, a whiff of these sleazy ads lingers when voters think of the NDP.

In the event, though, a large-enough percentage of voters in the riding “got it” that outside the cartoon world of social conservatives it is possible to be opposed to the destructive, expensive and counterproductive “War on Drugs” without being in favour of the use of drugs.

Or perhaps voters there just had other priorities. At any rate, they had the good sense to kick out Mr. Jaffer, who was known by some as “Canada’s laziest MP,” and replace him with hardworking New Democrat Linda Duncan.

Now, perhaps you are one who is inclined to think that self-righteous social conservatives more often talk the talk than walk the walk when it comes to the “family values” they tout. In fairness to the Conservatives, of course, the offending radio ads said nothing about getting tough on dealers who sell illegal drugs to Conservative MPs. Still, it’s hard to shake the sense that for a lot of social conservative politicians, the rules are for us, but not for them.

Nevertheless, we need to remember that in our system of law, Mr. Jaffer is considered innocent until he has been proven guilty or been bullied into accepting a plea bargain. As a well-off guy with connections in the government, of course, the latter outcome is unlikely for him.

Mr. Jaffer is scheduled to appear in criminal court in Orangeville on Saturday to answer the charges.

Why are we closing beds when health debts were paid off in August 2008?

Calgary General Hospital imploding way back when… It’s déjà vu all over again as Alberta health care is imploded a second time, this time without the dynamite.

In a cost-cutting effort, Edmonton and Calgary will lose 350 acute-care hospital beds over the next three years as well as the 150 already about to be closed at Alberta Hospital Edmonton, the Edmonton Journal reported last night.

As we watch with growing concern the frightening developments in Alberta’s health care system over the next few days, we need to keep in mind that everything now happening here in Alberta comes straight out of the international privatization playbook.

The game plan of the right-wing privatizers and the governments whose elections they finance calls first for an engineered funding “crisis,” followed by deep cuts to which “there is no alternative.”

Of course, to many citizens, the idea that our government would manufacture a bogus crisis to deceive us in order to achieve a fundamentally political goal is a hard pill to swallow. Still, it should be clear to most by now that Alberta Health Services would like us to have the impression the present situation is the result of years of improvidence by Alberta’s prodigal health system, which must now be disciplined with a dose of private sector medicine, bad tasting but good for us.

Indeed, Alberta Health Services faces a “significant budget challenge,” health care supremo Stephen Duckett reminded us in his latest blog, published yesterday. “We must position ourselves so that we go into the next financial year with the savings strategies in place or at least locked in for implementation in the first few months of the financial year,” Mr. Duckett wrote. “This has been an incredibly difficult task, to put it mildly.”

With the tireless marketing of this meme in mind, I would like to ask readers to cast their minds back to Aug. 27, 2008, well before Mr. Duckett had left Australia’s sunny shores to help us find our way out of this alleged financial morass.

On that date, reporter Emily Senger of the Edmonton Journal reported these interesting facts: “The new Alberta Health Services superboard will begin its budget year debt-free thanks to a $97-million bailout from the province plus an additional $80 million to cover startup costs.”

This story appeared under the hopeful headline, $97M cash injection cures Alta. health board deficits.”

Ms. Senger’s story quoted Health Minister Ron Liepert as follows: “We felt very strongly that it was important to get the new health board off on the right foot…”

The story went on: “The $97 million will pay down any existing deficits among the nine former health boards. Capital Health had previously estimated its deficit at $20 million to $30 million, while the Calgary Health Region had said its red ink approached $100 million. The other $80 million announced by Liepert will cover ‘transitional funding’ as the health regions are replaced by a single board. It will pay for severance packages and operational startup costs, such as merging different IT systems into a single network, Liepert said. He said he could not say whether the government would recoup the $80 million in future savings, but noted that having fewer chief executive officers would save money.”

Click here to read the entire story. My, what a hopeful time that was!

Remember those facts when you consider the cause and nature of the $1.3-billion Alberta Health Services deficit that now, we are told, requires multi-million-dollar payouts to departing executives, plus the closing of mental health beds, acute care beds and God knows what other kinds of beds in the days and weeks ahead.

If Alberta Health Services started business “on the right foot,” debt free in August 2008 after elimination of a considerably smaller deficit, it would seem the current huge deficit was run up as a result of the clumsy and needless amalgamation of our nine regionally responsive health regions, which appears to have occurred for political and not practical reasons.

Remember this when the same characters who created this giant deficit tell us they now know the only possible solutions to Alberta’s health care funding woes.

Lessons aplenty – right and wrong – can be drawn from Calgary-Glenmore vote

What Premier Ed should do: Edge to the left and lose that hat. With his advisors in full panic mode, neither is likely.

Whenever something unexpected happens, some people draw the wrong conclusion and do the worst thing imaginable.

We all know someone who has done just this in matters of love, industrial relations or water safety with spectacularly disastrous results.

Looking at yesterday’s by-election victory by Wildrose Alliance Party candidate Paul Hinman (pictured at right) in Calgary-Glenmore, there are both correct and dangerously mistaken conclusions for each of the major players that can be drawn from the events as they unfolded.

In almost every case, I believe, these players are likely to reach a conclusion diametrically opposite to the one that would help them the most. In other words, several people are about to shoot themselves in both feet.

Herewith, my predictions of what will happen next:

What Premier Ed Stelmach and the Conservatives should do: To mitigate the obvious threat from the petro-funded extreme right as represented by the urban-focused Wildrose Alliance Party, Mr. Stelmach needs to move the Conservatives to the centre. This way, with his traditional Conservative rural base secure, he could clearly differentiate his Conservatives from the dangerously radical Wildrose Alliance, picking up strategic votes from worried Liberals during a general election.

What Premier Ed Stelmach and the Conservatives will do: More, likely, though, Mr. Stelmach will make the classic error of trying to stifle the opposition he faces within his own party by tracking the party to the right. This provides some opportunities for Sustainable Resource Development Minister Ted Morton, who represents the Conservative party’s own loony right. It is even better news for the Wildrose Alliance. Conservative voters – even some in rural areas – will conclude that they might as well vote for entertaining change if they’re going to get the same policies anyway. If you doubt this analysis, consider that Mr. Stelmach had set out on this course by mid-afternoon today, telling a news conference bizarrely located in the successful Wildrose candidate’s former Southern Alberta riding: “Given that the vote seemed to really move to the right tells me that we’re looking at a more conservative approach to our budgeting processes.”

What Liberal leader David Swann should do: If ever there was proof that the Liberal brand just won’t sell in Alberta, Southern Alberta anyway, this was it. The Liberals are everything middle-of-the-road Albertans are looking for – small-c economic conservatives who recognize the value of public services in some parts of the economy, such as health care. They’re dragged down by their association with the federal Liberals and by the traditional Liberal brand. Obviously, it’s time for a name change. Oh yeah, and one other thing: when you’re fighting a crucial by-election, all the members of your caucus should be there, campaigning – leastways, unless they’re on their deathbeds.

What Liberal Leader David Swann will do: Well, his current approach obviously isn’t working, so why change anything? Expect Dr. Swann to conclude that his party has already had this debate and it was just too divisive. He’ll be more worried about the 20 per cent of Albertans who can be counted on to vote for the Liberal brand come what may. Nothing will change. Liberal marginalization and decline will continue. Some Liberals may even strategically park their votes with Mr. Stelmach’s Conservatives in a general election as a slightly safer hedge against victory by the Wildrose Alliance. Look for some Liberal MLAs to grumble, but don’t count on much else happening.

What NDP Leader Brian Mason should do: The Knee-Dips didn’t even register in Calgary! Did their votes flee to the Liberals, or as a protest to the Wildrose Alliance? Or do they even have any votes? Nobody really knows. They couldn’t even garner more votes than two completely unknown independent candidates! If there were ever a time that it was clear the NDP should negotiate a strategic alliance with the Liberals, this is it. With two strong right-wing parties splitting their vote in many ridings, both the opposition parties of the centre – and Alberta – could benefit from this strategy. If nothing else, the NDP should stop wasting energy and resources by contesting unwinnable ridings.

What NDP Leader Brian Mason will do: Well, we already know the answer to this one, don’t we? The New Democrats voted at their last convention, just last weekend, to fight the good fight in every riding, no matter what, dissipating resources, money and good will. With Mr. Mason’s stirring encouragement, they voted a resounding no to even talking with the Liberals.

What Wildrose leadership front-runner Danielle Smith should do: Ms. Smith should have the courage of her convictions, and roll the dice now and then. Fortune, as they say, favours the brave. If she’d sought the nomination for the riding, she’d be a shoo-in for the Wildrose leadership today, and an MLA-elect with a nice anticipated salary to boot. What a story that would have been! Instead, she did the safe thing and let departing leader Paul Hinman take the fall … only he didn’t fall. Lucky for her it’s too late for him to re-seek the leadership he doesn’t want anyway.

What Wildrose leadership front-runner Danielle Smith will do: I predict Ms. Smith will retreat into her shell, becoming more cautious, not less. This is good news – at least in the short term – for the loony right’s loony right. Expect her challengers in the Wildrose Alliance Party to be whispering that it takes a man to win in Alberta. Of course, if their subversion succeeds, it’ll be good news for Mr. Stelmach and the other party leaders, because it was the excitement generated by Ms. Smith (plus tons of oil money) that made Mr. Hinman’s protest-vote victory possible.

What your blogger should do: I too should have the courage of my convictions! You know, I called this election right – but only in an email to a friend. My call was bang on, as a matter of fact, but for the fact I predicted that the New Democrats would get 7 per cent of the vote. Would I ever look good today if I’d had the courage to put it in this blog. But I second-guessed my guess and chickened out.

What your blogger will do: OK, I’m not a major player, but unlike the others, I will change. At least until I spectacularly muck up in public.

Wildrose win in Calgary-Glenmore a whoops moment for almost everyone

Blurry screenshot from Liberal video shows Wildrose Alliance candidate Paul Hinman illegally campaigning Monday in front of a polling station. No matter, this is Alberta! There are no rules. Click here to watch the video.

Victorious Wildrose Alliance Party candidate Paul Hinman told a reporter this evening that his victory in the Calgary-Glenmore riding should send Premier Ed Stelmach a message.

I’ll say it should!

There’s a message there for the premier, all right. How about this wording: your government is doing almost everything wrong, it bungles every file it touches, Albertans are itching to be rid of you, their teeth grate every time they hear your voice on the radio! Even conservative Albertans in safe rural ridings aren’t all that enthralled with you. Maybe especially Conservative Albertans.

For the moment, at least, Mr. Stelmach looks like the George W. Bush of Alberta politics. And that’s really not a compliment.

Yeah, yeah, I know… it’s just a by-election, and it’s in Calgary. That’s what the premier and all the premier’s men will all be saying in the morning. But is that really enough to explain away what happened Monday in Cowtown?

After all, Conservative candidate Diane Colley-Urquhart didn’t just lose, she lost pretty decisively, all things considered. Tomorrow’s Tory talking points would hold more water if Ms. Colley-Urquhart had come in a respectable second, instead of an inexplicable third.

The allegedly popular Calgary alderman is said to be a former folk singer – perhaps she should now consider transitioning into the blues? Oh well, at least she still has a seat on council to keep warm.

It’s not just Mr. Stelmach, of course, for whom there is a message in this election result.

Consider the hapless Liberals, whose strategy, pretty obviously, was to let Mr. Hinman and Ms. Colley-Urquhart “split the right-wing vote,” then scoop up the victory.


Tomorrow’s main Liberal talking point, of course, will be that candidate Avalon Roberts did very well, all things considered. But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, and, really, if the Liberals can’t beat a candidate for a government as unpopular as Mr. Stelmach’s, maybe they really should think about a name change.

Consider the NDP, which captured barely 1 per cent of the vote – one day after the party convention passed a resolution to contest every riding, no matter how faint their candidate’s chances of winning, even if it means a mildly less progressive Liberal is edged out by … someone else.

Thankfully, in this case at least, the Knee-Dips’ pathetic impact was so marginal that even all their votes wouldn’t have pushed the Ms. Roberts past Mr. Hinman. This reduces the sting, if it doesn’t quite eliminate the slap, of reality.

NDP candidate Eric Carpendale was saved from total ignominy only by managing to edge out two independent candidates named Skowronski and Grochowski, who if they don’t operate a restaurant in Winnipeg should contemplate opening one as soon as possible.

Finally, consider would-be Wildrose Alliance leader and excitement generator Danielle Smith. Whoops again! She obviously calculated a few months ago that the riding couldn’t be won and stood aside to let Mr. Hinman take the fall.

Does this upset the balance of the new right-wing party’s leadership contest in mid-October? Probably not, but I’ll bet Ms. Smith would rather be having her back slapped for ascending to a seat in the Legislature at the Wildrose Convention on Oct. 17 than having to slap Mr. Hinman’s. Had she rolled the dice, her election as leader would have been unquestioned.

The mild-mannered Mr. Hinman, of course, is entitled to be extremely pleased with himself. He made history tonight. He has the satisfaction of going back to the Legislature after losing his seat down in Mormon Country in March 2008. Even so, there was even a whoops moment for Mr. Hinman, caught on video illegally campaigning with Ms. Smith on the steps of a polling station. This will do little to sour his victory, of course, because as we all know, Elections Alberta is a toothless old hound.

Voters in Calgary-Glenmore are also entitled to be pleased with themselves – as voters should be any time they knock off a government candidate in a by-election. But it hardly needs to be said that many of them won’t be smiling if Wildrose Alliance ever forms a nutty far-right government in this province.

The guys who are really grinning, of course, are the big-money boys from the oil industry who bankrolled Mr. Hinman’s successful campaign.

They know that Mr. Stelmach will be moving ever farther to the right – to shore up his Conservative bastion in rural Alberta and to get them and their buddies in the oilpatch off his case. Expect oil royalties to go even lower – oh, wait, they can’t really, can they? Well, something like that.

Yes, this is one of those weird moments when it seems like it would be a good time for everyone to sit down and have a serious rethink.

Don’t bet on that happening, though. After all, this is Alberta.

Elections Alberta poll results, as of 11:30 p.m. Monday:

Paul Hinman, WAP, 4,052 votes, 37% of votes cast
Avalon Roberts, Liberal, 3,776 votes, 34%
Diane Colley-Urquhart, PC, 2,863 votes, 26%
Eric Carpendale, NDP, 148 votes, 1%
Len Skowronski, Independent, 118 votes, 1%
Tony Grochowski Independent, 71 votes, 1%