Archive for October, 2009

No heroic measures, please: It’s past time for the National Post to die

The National Pest: Time to fade to black, speaking of which, below, Tubby Black in happier times.

CanWest Global Communications Corp., teetering over the abyss itself, told an Ontario court today that if it wasn’t allowed immediately to shift the ownership of the money-hemorrhaging National Post to a subsidiary, the moribund right-wing vanity rag would have to die.

The details of the proposed deal are meaningless – merely a matter of moving the National Post bean under different corporate walnut shells speedily enough that even the lightning-quick Canadian business press can’t keep up. (This is an exercise unlikely to cause CanWest’s executives any wrist strain, sad to say.)

If shareholders suffer, that’s not our concern. It’s the market, stupid. Investors should have known better! Nor should anyone have urged the judge to do this or that. That would be contempt of court and, anyway, we could be confident the courts would judge the case on the law and the facts.

In the event, the judge today granted CanWest’s request.

If CanWest had possessed an ounce of sense, of course, they’d have allowed the 11-year-old propaganda sheet founded by Florida felon Conrad Black to die long ago. It’s way past its due date.

The National Post was created in 1998 to advance the far-right agenda of Mr. Black, who in fairness was not a felon at the time. Its raison d’etre, its sole purpose really, was to advance the Gospel According to Conrad, the now-long-discredited fairytale that the market is all, the market is perfect, the market is God, the market’s holy name be praised… (It’s still doing it, apparently, although Mr. Black’s views seem to have grown crankier with time served.)

What an irony, then, that the Post has been a colossal money loser from Day 1! The reason for this is pretty simple, of course. There’s no market for the sunny market nostrums of Tubby Black and his journalistic acolytes.

Mr. Black, I am sure, knew this. He is said to be an extremely intelligent man, if too clever by half. He must have recognized that ordinary Canadians had too much common sense to fall for his pifflesheet’s preposterous claims and questionable arithmetic. I suppose that’s part of why he disliked Canada and Canadians so much – at least until his U.S. role models turned on him and decided to pack him off to jail for his corporate misdeeds.

But he also knew that there was a market of sorts for this nonsense among the Canadian political classes, and so I am sure he viewed the money poured into the bottomless pit of the National Post as a worthy investment to advance his self-serving agenda.

Still, now that details are emerging thanks to CanWest’s court filing, it’s startling to learn just how bottomless the Post pit has been. It’s never made money. According to a story in the Globe and Mail this morning, the Post “has suffered an unbroken string of losses since its inception.”

Indeed, in just one year, 2001, the Globe reported, the Post lost $60 million! It owes $139 million to CanWest. And for this the brainiacs at CanWest paid Mr. Black $3.2 billion? One wonders what possessed them!

Don’t these so-called business people understand the concept of a “sunk cost”? If this had been a liberal newspaper, its owners would have shut it down and slunk away into the darkness years ago. On the other hand, had it been a liberal paper, it might not have been such an unmitigated disaster.

The tragedy of the Post, of course, is not that it has been a pathetic money-loser from the get-go, read by no one but the occupants of hotel rooms and weary people waiting in airports, who are handed their copies for free. Such losses are standard operating procedure for the wealthy right – propaganda costs big bucks, and if stupid investors can be persuaded to pay for it, so much the better.

The tragic bit is that combined with laws that encouraged the concentration of media ownership in Canada, the Post’s losses have dragged down valuable community daily newspapers like the Edmonton Journal.

Why do you think the still-profitable Journal, which historically has done an excellent job as paper of record for our community, has been shedding veteran journalists right and left to the detriment of local coverage? In significant part it’s because CanWest needs the dough to keep the wretched Post afloat. This same sad story has been repeated in communities across Canada.

The National Post is a cancer that has nearly killed the practice of good community journalism in Canada. Combined with the absence of laws restricting concentration of media ownership, the effect has been profoundly detrimental to freedom of expression. Indeed, were it not for the Internet, there would be barely any meaningful freedom of expression in this country.

Now, thanks to today’s court ruling, the National Post – appropriately lampooned in journalistic circles as the Pest – can continue to leech a while longer from CanWest’s remaining newspapers, which are pretty well all the major dailies in Western Canada.

So quit with the heroic measures, already! It’s time for CanWest, or someone, to put the National Post out of its misery – and ours! It would be a public service. It would also be a sound business decision.

Manuregate: Watch your ass, bus drivers! There’s no list, and you’re not on it!

Premier Ed Stelmach, left, with members of his inner cabinet, loaded for bus drivers. Say, fellas, wipe off those boots before you come in, would ya? Below, NDP leader Brian Mason. Actual politicians may not be exactly as illustrated.

This is Alberta, and you’d not only better watch what you don’t say, you’d better be careful about who you don’t say it to!

Right now, for example, NDP Leader Brian Mason is in a heap o’ trouble, owing to what he didn’t say to Premier Ed Stelmach.

What he didn’t say to Ole Farmer Ed was that the premier and his ministerial cronies need to scrape the manure off their boots before they clomp all over the cabinet room.

So you can see how that started what we know today as the “Manuregate Scandal.”

See, Premier Ed was right peeved about the slur on his beloved Farm Community that Little Bus Driver Brian didn’t make, so he shot right back at Brian for being a bus driver, which he was once, actually.

Mason, you and all the other bus drivers with your crappy grey polyester uniforms (which aren’t half as nice as my $2,000 blue Armani suit, the one I wore on TV) had better watch your big fat bus driver asses! There’s no list of bus drivers, and you’re not on it!

Plus, if you can’t trust Nurse Fritzie, who can you trust?

But I’m sorry I said you were a bus driver. Even though you are. I’m sorry to all the other bus drivers, I mean. Not you, though. I apologize, alright. But, really, what the hell did you expect? After all, you said I have cow poop all over my boots, you little twerp! Or you didn’t. What’s the difference, anyway?

Ed, as it turns out, is the bull elephant of Canadian politicians, only shorter and not so majestic: he never forgets a slight, even if you didn’t make it.

So when Mr. Mason didn’t say the Preem had manure all over his boots and what’s more didn’t say he was tracking it all over the nice thick carpets down at the Legislature, Mr. Stelmach didn’t forget it. Ever. He wouldn’t have forgotten even if he wasn’t uber-cranky because he’s so deep in pollster manure that he has to be defended by the likes of Ted Morton and Jim Dinning. I mean, Cripes on a crutch! That must sting. What’s next? Letters of support from Danielle Smith?

So who the hell did say Eddie had manure on his clodhoppers? Well that’s just it. It was a reporter. And not just any reporter! It was a reporter that Mason talked to! And what did Mason actually say – I warn you, this is pretty shocking… cover your children’s ears. He said, and I’m sorry I had to repeat this: “I think there’s a real question now about whether Mr. Stelmach understands big cities. … Alberta is a modern, very urban, sophisticated province and I don’t think that’s reflected in the makeup of this government.”

Holy, er, shit! This is strong stuff, I know, but if you don’t believe me, you can see it for yourself, published by the Canadian Press on Dec. 28, 2006.

Then that CP reporter went and got inspired by that offensive stuff and wrote this: “Alberta’s new cabinet is so rural and so grassroots you can almost smell the manure on their boots.”

Also, there was Dave Taylor, the Liberal, at least then he was, and another damn reporter, or something similar…. He was sitting in the same room as Mason when he said… “Mr. Speaker. … Again to the Premier, and I promise that if he doesn’t make fun of my old career, I won’t make fun of his although, I suppose, both can involve shovelling some manure.”

So there you have it. The explanation for Manuregate! And why Mason’s at the centre of it. Clear as … mud.

Hey! There’s no two-year pay freeze, and you’re not going to have to take it!

Big news for Soviet Alberta: central planning still doesn’t work!

Konstantin Chernenko contemplates the future of central planning, bottled water and Bulgarian spirits. Why is he doing it in Greek code? Well, because my Mac won’t do Russian. Below, Chernenko in healthier times, Harry Strom, Ed Stelmach and Danielle Smith.

Nothing reminds me quite so much of Alberta nowadays as the Soviet Union, circa 1980.

No, this is not a politically incorrect Stalin metaphor, or even a cheap Brezhnev analogy. I’m thinking more along the lines of Konstantin Chernenko, the Soviet Union’s answer to Harry Strom.

I thought this thought again this morning as I listened over the car radio to Premier Ed Stelmach’s astonishing confession of incompetence delivering H1N1 inoculations to Albertans. “We’re doing the best we can,” he complained through the ether. “Remember, we’re running a health system at the same time!”

Seeing this statement in black and white print really doesn’t do it justice. Lost in translation, but clear over CKUA’s rickety broadcast towers, was the petulant first-ministerial whine that translated as, “it’s not my fault!”

Was the premier really saying the government’s All-Union Institute of Health Materials and Services – whoops, I mean Alberta Health Services – is not capable of running its hospitals and performing routine tasks while engaging in a mass immunization program of an essentially healthy population?

So it would seem. This is not a reassuring thought in the event we ever have to face an actual public health catastrophe!

Now, Alberta as a moribund late Soviet state has been a thought that’s been with me off and on since I moved back here in the 1980s, not long after complications from cirrhosis of the liver had brought an end to the short, unfortunate rule of Comrade Chernenko, as a matter of fact.

I mean, the place is a one party state. Every four years or so, the small portion of the population that can manage to rouse itself from its stupor trudges out and casts a ballot for the representative of the prevailing ideology. The press all says the exactly same thing. Industry is really dirty, and there’s truly totalitarian disregard for both the environment and the citizens who would protect it.

What’s more, Party apparatchiks are everywhere – you’ll be dealing with one if you want a license for your dog, let alone a building permit or a government contract. And, under Ed Stelmach, while the dominant ideology uses a slightly different terminology, the central planning orthodoxy remains essentially the same.

Soviet Alberta, in its most symbolic manifestation, is rendered incarnate in the form of Alberta Health Services, the massive centralized bureaucracy that manages all health issues, orders each swab and doles out every dose of Tamiflu, assigns every orderly and cancels elective surgeries in Black Diamond and Oyen from its nondescript headquarters bunker in the capital city.

One keeps waiting for an announcement of another success in fulfilling the objectives of the latest five-year plan.

Now, when this behemoth was created, the argument was put forward that it would save money by eliminating redundant administrative services. Alas, if there was one thing the real Soviet Union illustrated, it was that central planning really doesn’t work very well.

It turns out that if you just have one toilet paper factory for the entire state, a plan that might look pretty good on paper after a thorough study of usage over the past half century, things can get ugly real fast if you don’t pay attention to local trends – say, a washed out bridge on the only uncontaminated road into Chelyabinsk or a mass outbreak of intestinal distress at the end of the rail line in Vladivostok.

It turns out to be pretty much the same thing with health services in Alberta, which may be why those promised cost savings never materialized and centralization resulted instead in a billion-dollar-plus AHS deficit. It may even be why Alberta Health Services has trouble operating immunization clinics in Calgary and Olds at the same time.

This is no slam on public health insurance – merely an argument that public enterprises like any other kind work best when local conditions are kept in mind and decision makers are accountable to the people whose lives their policies affect.

Come to think of it, we didn’t have a bad system here in Alberta not so long ago, with locally run public health authorities that were overseen by boards made up of local people.

Alas, Mr. Stelmach and his inner circle hated that. Whatever their real plans for our health system were, local boards were certain to resist their worst ideas. It is generally acknowledged everywhere but in government propaganda and the media, which are pretty much the same thing, that the regional health authorities were shut down for political rather than practical reasons.

Which brings us to Mr. Stelmach’s worst nightmare – the smiling face of Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith.

Lately Ms. Smith has been advocating pushing health services back to the local level.

One fears that what she really has in mind is not a well-regulated, locally responsive public system but the lunatic chaos of the wide-open market.

Still, what an irony that the discredited central-planning orthodoxy of the Stelmach Tories could make such a vision appear alluring!

Saint City News column: Despite his troubles, don’t underestimate Ed Stelmach

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

Former premier Ralph Klein mischievously opined recently that to survive politically Premier Ed Stelmach needs an approval rating above 70 per cent at the Progressive Conservative leadership review Nov. 7 in Red Deer.

Another news item told how Klein’s dear old dad was so impressed by Danielle Smith he joined the Wildrose Alliance. Now she’s the leader of the upstart party widely touted as a supposedly credible challenger to Stelmach.

“Ed Stelmach, you haven’t even begun to imagine what’s about to hit you,” a triumphant Smith told 400 or so supporters after winning the Wildrose leadership Oct. 17.

For his part, Stelmach had a lousy summer and fall. Determined opposition to his policies in education and health care, an embarrassing by-election loss to Smith’s Alliance and sinking public opinion polls were followed by a faltering performance when he tried to explain it all on television. Even his symbolic pay cut turned into an embarrassment when it turned out it was based on creative arithmetic.

Enemies within his own party are reported to be circling, ready to chop him down to size in Red Deer. Four to 10 of his caucus members are rumoured to be ready to bolt for the Wildrose ranks.

So here’s a prediction: When the votes are counted in Red Deer, Stelmach will have an approval rating better than 90 per cent. He will emerge stronger than ever.

Why? Because Stelmach is tougher than he looks. He may be the compromise who rode up the middle to become premier in 2006, but once in power, he surrounded himself with determined loyalists who won’t see him undermined without a serious fight.

What’s more, premiers have tremendous power in our Parliamentary system – including the power to fire caucus members. Fort McMurray MLA Guy Boutilier learned this the hard way when he crossed swords with the premier.

And face it, government is government, with positions, perks and promotions. Opposition is only opposition, no matter how fetching the leader. In the end, the only MLA likely to scoot to the Alliance is one miserable Liberal soured on that party’s leader.

Meanwhile, back in Red Deer, count on Stelmach’s allies to ensure loyal proxies are lined up to vote the right way in place of any delegate who fails to show. Expect many Tories fed up with their leader to approve his performance anyway “for the good of the party” in the face of the Wildrose challenge.

Longer term, the corporations that finance both the Conservatives and the Alliance will not tolerate a rift on the right that could let a centre-left coalition form a government. They’ve made their point about Stelmach’s effort to raise hydrocarbon royalties. Soon they’ll demand reconciliation.

Finally, Alberta’s rural ridings remain solidly Conservative, strongly behind Farmer Ed. The Wildrose Alliance may make inroads in conservative urban ridings, especially in Calgary, but it’s doubtful they can budge Stelmach in the countryside.

By the way, don’t put much stock in the myth that new Alberta political movements every so often emerge from the right to sweep tired old governments away. It’s a false reading of history.

In every case, the great upheavals in Alberta politics came from the left – and the governments that came to power moved back to the right over time. When elected, the United Farmers of Alberta were to the left of the Liberals, the Social Credit movement was far to the left of the UFA, and Peter Lougheed’s Conservatives were to the left of Social Credit.

Fanciful interpretations of history, media love affairs with new faces and idle speculation don’t change this fact: the political graveyard of Alberta is littered with the bones of politicians who underestimated Ed Stelmach.

Liberals’ surprising ‘Fiscal Conservatives’ ad hits hard, tells profound truth

Above: the Liberals’ hard-hitting video ad. Below: Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann – possibly not exactly as illustrated.

I was surprised by the Liberals’ new “Fiscal Conservatives” ad because I’d gotten used to thinking of Liberal Leader David Swann as a nice guy who weirdly reminded me of Abraham Lincoln. And, you know, nice guys finish last, and all that…

The highly entertaining Fiscal Conservatives bit is a YouTube video right now, being spread virally, but it obviously has a great future as a TV advertisement.

It speaks a profound truth that should have been uttered aloud long ago. To wit: that when they get into power, so-called fiscal conservatives can be counted on to spend money like drunken sailors, leaving holes in the drywall and cigar burns in the carpet when they finally move out.

“Fiscal Conservatives” do it on purpose, of course. They spend our money as they do not just to enrich their corporate friends, but to leave the government in a position where it can no longer afford the social programs that separate decent civilized societies from the rest. Once they’ve left the government broke and gasping with their spendthrift ways, it’s so much easier to “drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” as American fiscal conservative Grover Norquist famously said. This makes it easier to keep the rich rich and the rest of us in our places, and that’ll have to do for an explanation tonight.

Then they have the unmitigated gall to blame it on “tax and spend Liberals.”

They get away with this partly because their friends own the media, but also because politicians of the Liberal and social democratic persuasion have typically been too polite to fight back with the appropriate vigour.

Enough consensus seeking, already! It hasn’t worked for thirty years, so why not quit fooling ourselves?

So it was a real pleasure, as well as quite a surprise, to see that Alberta’s Liberals under Dr. Swann had something to say about this obvious truth. I particularly enjoyed seeing our three Alberta stooges – Stephen Harper, Ed Stelmach and Danielle Smith – in the company they deserved, that is, that of each other.

Expect the spend-and-spend conservative crowd to go absolutely nuts over the clip’s statement that Alberta’s deficit is $10 billion. They’ll say this is a stretch from the $6.9 billion Premier Stelmach’s government claims it is. But we all know the government’s number is likely bogus. By the time the dust settles, the 2009 deficit will be closer to $10 billion than $7-billion, even if you don’t count the $1.3-billion-and-growing deficit the premier’s privatizers over at Alberta Health Services are busy running up.

Now, the last time I met Dr. Swann, I kept expecting him to put on a top hat and read the Emancipation Proclamation. He’s a serious, honest, very tall guy – it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine him walking 10 miles to return a penny. But fighting hard to uphold liberal values?

Hey, come to think of it, that guy he reminds me of was prepared to fight pretty darn hard to uphold what nowadays we’d call liberal values.

One TV ad won’t win this war. But it’s a start!

The rift on the right can be good news for progressive Albertans

The election of Danielle Smith as leader of the far-right Wildrose Alliance Party today creates a historic opportunity for Albertans to have a government that will truly represent their economic and democratic aspirations.

And, no, I do not mean government by the Wildrose Alliance led by Ms. Smith. That would constitute a travesty, perhaps even a tragedy, hardly an opportunity.

I mean a government that would provide the moderate, centre-left policies that poll after poll after poll shows are desired by a majority of Canadians, including Albertans – at least when you separate the question of policy from that of party label.

Because Ms. Smith will without any doubt divide the right-wing vote in Alberta – split it wide open, more like – her rise must be seen as a sign of historic opportunity for supporters of such sensible, progressive, centre-left policies as truly public health care, responsible energy royalties, a healthy environment, fair public auto insurance, affordable public education and universally accessible continuing care for seniors.

We can achieve these sensible, laudable, affordable and popular policy goals, however, only if we can form a government.

We can only exploit the rift on the right to form a centre-left government if we can set aside enough of our differences to work together to exploit the historic opportunity Ms. Smith’s selection by the party of the extreme right embodies.

We need to do something now because the opportunity will be short lived.

Voter support for the Wildrose Alliance is certain to soften as Albertans realize market fundamentalists like Ms. Smith will not protect their health-care system any more enthusiastically than the market fundamentalists in Mr. Stelmach’s cabinet. That some seem to believe so now is testimony to how skilled Ms. Smith has been at keeping her true beliefs under the radar and what a poor job the mainstream media does of reporting anything other than a mere horserace.

Do not expect the people who finance Alberta’s right-wing parties – be they our unprogressive Conservatives under Premier Ed Stelmach or the more market fundamentalist faction represented by Ms. Smith – to permit this division of the right to persist for long.

They are tolerating it for the moment because they see a short-term opportunity to push Alberta’s government even farther right at a time when people all over the world crave an end to the disastrous right-wing policies that both the Wildrose Alliance and the Conservatives represent.

They believe they can get away with it because the centre-left in Alberta is poorly led, fractured and deeply committed to its divisions. There is no way an entity like the Wildrose Alliance could get corporate support in, say, British Columbia or Manitoba, where viable and credible parties exist on the left.

Sad to say, their assessment of the leadership of Alberta’s centre-left parties may well be correct.

But I see reason to hope that the supporters of those parties can get through to their leadership because the situation is so different now than it was even a few weeks ago.

This may not be obvious for a little time. The next big news hit is likely to be that some far-right Liberal has bolted for the Alliance – not much of a loss to the Liberals and little gain to the right, if you ask me. A few Conservatives disillusioned with Premier Stelmach’s weak performance may follow.

The media will be unable to resist playing this as an unstoppable Wildrose juggernaut. Mr. Stelmach and his inner circle, I expect, will panic and respond by trying to match the Alliance policy for policy – moving away from the positions of the centre he really needs to adopt to protect his mandate.

The more significant story will be the political opportunities for the moderate left created by the competition for far-right votes that I predict Ms. Smith’s election will encourage.

In the recent past, facing an unshakeable Conservative monolith, die-hard supporters of both the Liberals and the New Democrats could argue that even though their policies are quite similar they owed it to their bases to stick with their damaged brands and fight each other with a fury they never spent on the government. If this didn’t do much for the people of Alberta, it was not such a big deal because their position seemed so hopeless.

The rift on the right changes that. Whatever else you may think of Ms. Smith, she is a game changer in Alberta politics!

It is unrealistic to hope a united party of the centre-left with policies we can all live with, a new undamaged name and a popular leader can be cobbled together before the next general election. (Personally, I could live with “the Alberta Party” led by Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier, but never mind that for the moment.)

But we can work out a modus operandi to defeat both a government whose incompetence is dragging Alberta down and hold off a right-wing threat that would do even more damage.

To do that, we will need to put the idea of public service ahead of our partisan goals.

We need to communicate our support for this change to our leaders in the Liberals and the New Democrats.

Here’s to hope!

Today will tell if Danielle Smith right-wing enough for the Wildrose Alliance

By tonight, for one of the Wildrose Alliance Party’s two candidates, it’ll all be over but the wailing and the gnashing of teeth.

Judging from the unscientific little self-selecting poll I’ve run on this site for the past few days, most of my readers think the one in the corner with the crying towel will be Mark Dryholm.

The poll asked: “The right-wing Wildrose Alliance Party picks a leader on Oct. 17. Which of the two candidates will it be?” When the poll shut down at 1 a.m. this morning, 41 readers had responded – 32 of them predicting the winner would be Danielle Smith, a brave nine placing their bets on Mr. Dryholm.

My money’s with the majority, of course. No slur on Mr. Dryholm, whoever the heck he is, but Ms. Smith has impeccable far-right credentials as a Fraser Institute apparatchik, is politically experienced if not all that successfully, appealingly telegenic, well-spoken, and knows how to keep her more outrageous views under the radar.

In other words, she can win – seats, if not the government. So why the heck wouldn’t they choose her?

Well… That question got me thinking: What if Ms. Smith isn’t far enough to the right for the denizens of Wildrose country? In other words: Does choosing Danielle Smith make too much sense?

After all, most of the people who read this blog are unreconstituted Knee-Dips – the comments show that clearly enough. Maybe your typical Alberta New Democrat – who to survive needs to be as hardy as our beautiful provincial flower, the lovely and fragrant wild rose – just can’t imagine the reasoning process of his or her counterpart over at the Wildrose Alliance.

What if we’re predicting their judgment based on our perception of things like mass appeal, electability and charisma – not what really matters to the pure laine Prairie right, to wit, paleo-ideological purity?

Because while Ms. Smith’s economic views are pretty clearly far enough to the right to satisfy any oil company executive’s craving for fundamentalist market voodoo, she strikes me as being pretty much a wet on so-called social conservative issues.

Can the loony Alberta right abide a candidate that from their perspective is soft on gays, stem cell research, affirmative action and not nearly enthusiastic enough about “fambly values”? I mean, really, shouldn’t she be standing by her man instead of running for office?

I guess today when the ballots are counted will tell how deep the social conservative instinct runs in the lizard brain of the Wildrose Alliance – or at least how pragmatic the party’s supporters are capable of being.

Ms. Smith may have the edge, for all the reasons floated above. But don’t rule out the possibility that the right of the right could snatch back their party from the citified economic conservatives who have made their play through Ms. Smith.

If that happens and they elect Mr. Dryholm, there will be rejoicing tonight at Castle Stelmach, where Premier Ed’s men will doubtless serve up a fatted calf in celebration. In a little time, the Alliance’s corporate donations will dry up. The Alberta Liberals and New Democrats, as relieved as Mr. Stelmach, will bumble separately on. Alberta will go back to sleep.

On the other hand, if Ms. Smith wins, there will be sheer panic in the House of Stelmach, puzzlement and despair in the Camps of the Opposition … and the first grumblings of discontent over at the Progressive Group for Independent Business.

Egg on his face two days in a row – Ed Stelmach’s best plays keep flopping

How big was that pay cut, really?

Ed Stelmach: King of the half-baked half measure.

With Wednesday’s long-awaited video message on The Way Forward generating nothing but stinky reviews, and critics from all points of the political compass merrily pointing out that the premier who was calling for big sacrifices from everyone else had not long ago awarded himself a 34-per cent-raise, someone in the premier’s inner circle obviously decided that the moment for a grand gesture had come.

Now, it seems to me that in such circumstances there are two politically salable responses.

1. You announce that times have changed. Leadership requires sacrifice. And you’re giving the whole damn raise back. You’ll think about taking another one when you’ve patched the leaks in the Ship of State and pumped out her bilges. What’s more, everyone else in cabinet is taking the same cut, and anyone who complains can expect a cowboy boot right in the heiny.

2. You announce that leaders deserve to be paid big salaries and you’re a leader, so the whiners and carpers can go to blazes. You’re keeping the money because you’re the best and Albertans deserve the best. This is what they do in the corporate world and the corporate world knows best. So shut up!

Either way you look like a leader. Either way, someone will complain. But so what – a leader’s gotta do what a leader’s gotta do! Either way, even people who disagree with you will respect you for saying what you think out loud. (“When in doubt,” Mark Twain famously advised, “tell the truth. … It will confound your enemies and astound your friends!”)
This, I suspect, was the real secret to Ralph Klein’s success. And Jean Chrétien’s, and Peter Lougheed’s and many others we think of instinctively as leaders.

So what did Mr. Stelmach’s brain trust come up with when they read the horrible reviews – read my St. Albert neighbour Don Sinclair’s here – and sketched out their next big move on a napkin from the Legislature coffee shop yesterday morning? (And, worse, what did our dithery premier go along with?)

“Premier Ed Stelmach announced that he and his senior executive team are taking pay cuts effective immediately,” blared the press release. … So far, so good.

“Premier Stelmach has taken a 15 per cent pay cut to his Premier’s allowance (a cut of $12,196), while Ministers are reducing their cabinet pay by 10 per cent (a cut of $6,391 per Minister),” the thing went on. (Emphasis added.) A couple of senior toffs in the ruling circle also took a similar symbolic trim.

The trouble is, as everyone from the big public service unions to the Taxpayers’ Federation pointed out within minutes, this wasn’t quite the bold sacrifice the premier’s press thingy was making it out to be.

Indeed, when one considered that there was no cut to the premier’s base pay, that 10 per cent cut became a trim of not much more than 5 per cent, and cabinet members took an imperceptible dip of about 3 per cent. And, face it, seeing as Mr. Stelmach had just boosted himself up to Canada’s Highest Paid Premier, this little trim wasn’t going to interfere with his ability to put diesel in the motor home next summer.

After this “reality check,” the Communications Brain Trust’s stirring oratory in its press release – “it is important that my government lead by example,” yadda yadda – sounded pretty lame-o. Or sneaky and deceptive, as the Taxpayer’s Federation had it, mischievously suggesting pay cuts now for all MLAs.

After the “cut,” it was swiftly pointed out, the premier was still receiving a 26-per-cent pay increase over the day he took up the reins, and his cabinet ministers were still enjoying a 25-per-cent pay raise.

Some sacrifice! Some leadership!

So for the second day, the premier’s best PR play left him with egg on his face, looking both shifty and weak.

Well, that’s where half measures will get you. (Unless, of course, your name is W. L. Mackenzie King, but that’s a story for another day.)

And that’s why Ed Stelmach can’t win for losing!

The Way Forward: short on style, short on substance … great gothic moments, though

Count Ed: One! Two! Three! … years to a surplus. At right below, how the premier’s videographer sees him.

I loved the gothic interiors. And there were moments when the premier didn’t do a half bad Price Vlad. But was this really what Ed Stelmach’s political advisors had in mind as they plotted out the video to resuscitate their boss’s flagging career?

If this was supposed to be some sort of political Hail Mary Pass, months in the making, it fell a little short.

Had Mr. Stelmach been riding high in the polls, with the laurels of success still upon his brow, tonight’s Way Forward message to the people of Alberta might have seemed adequate. Barely.

For a politician who is widely perceived – fairly or not – to be in a deep pit of his own digging, this message did not make the grade. It fell short on style. It fell short on substance.

From the undertaker’s suit and distracting blue tie with its enormous knot to Mr. Stelmach’s promises to make us all to live within our means whether we like it or not and buy Confederate reconstruction bonds while we’re at it, there was very little here to inspire confidence or rally the troops.

Despite the premier’s apparent attempt to head the loony right off at the pass, no one will be crying at Wildrose Alliance HQ tonight.

Mr. Stelmach wants public employees to accept a wage freeze – no plan, though, for cabinet to give back the 30-per-cent-plus raises they voted themselves last year. As for his promise of a surplus in three years, well, one would bloody well think so! The Conference Board predicts natural gas prices will be back up to record levels in … about three years. Oil is sure to follow.

There were precious few additional details, though I’m sure more than a few Albertans heaved sighs of relief that what was spelled out wasn’t worse – yet, anyway.

The video itself, with its herky-jerky editing and acres of royalty-free B-roll showing Alberta hay bales from low altitude was, in a word, lame. It is astonishing that a group with such deep pockets and so many resources would offer up a message so insipid and amateurish.

If this was the best the premier’s communications team could come up with at a moment when Alberta’s voters seem to have grown tired of their boss, and the party faithful are growing restive, well, Mr. Stelmach may be in worse trouble than we’d imagined.

He could certainly use some new advisors.

How to repair a ruined reputation: Don’t look for answers tonight on CTV

PR first aid advice for Premier Stelmach: First, lose the hat! Below right, one of the premier’s public relations advisors.

Given what we’ve seen from his ham-handed communications brain trust so far, it’s hard to imagine that Ed Stelmach’s television message tonight will do much to burnish the premier’s tarnished reputation.

Having little else to do as I wait at home for a crew of tradesmen to turn up and repair my front door this morning, I’ve been Googling public-relations advice on how to fix a ruined reputation before it goes down in flames. (My time might have been better spent figuring out how to repair a ruined door, but never mind.)

It can be done, the PR pros all say – but then they would, wouldn’t they? After all, they’re selling this elixir!

Be contrite, they all advise. Own up to your part in the disaster. Admit your shortcomings. If necessary, make a full confession. Ask for forgiveness. Show some emotion. (Oh yeah, and pull all the medicine bottles off the shelves – right flippin’ now! – even the ones that don’t have deadly carbon-capture gas in them!)

Yeah, right! How likely do you think it is that this premier will try that approach?

I know, I know. It worked for Ralph Klein and even a bit for Bill Clinton. (Although, in the latter case, I think a lot of folks just felt sorry for Bill because they recognized that look in his wife’s eyes.) Who couldn’t turn around and vote for Ralph after he admitted that he drank too much and promised never to throw change at homeless people ever again? Other than me, I mean.

We all know not to expect anything like this from Premier Stelmach. I’m betting – along with pretty much everyone else in the province – that he’ll admit nothing, blame the economy and assure us all that he’s got a plan. (And all the while, all over Alberta, TV viewers will be hearing a subliminal voice whispering… No plan! … No plan!)

Mr. Ed’s plan will involve more of the same, except maybe with a symbolic victim or two to stand in as scapegoats for a good swift official kick in the hind end. (“Anybody got the number for the Federation of Labour? Greenpeace?”)

Will Mr. Stelmach reverse course on care for the mentally ill? On carbon capture? On Bill 44? On anything? Don’t bet on it.

Plus, he’ll show us “The Way Forward” in that patented robotic delivery that will have Albertans across the province diving for their TV remotes and heading to Fox country.

The Way Forward? What is this, Winston Churchill? Never in the field of oil resources has so much been given to so few for so little? Well, Mr. Stelmach’s PR braniacs have been working on this for weeks, so if it’s all for naught, they’ll have no recourse but to … round up the usual suspects.

Columnist Don Braid reported this morning in the Calgary Herald that the Conservatives’ private polls “aren’t much better” than the two that aroused my skepticism yesterday.

If that’s true, don’t expect tonight’s performance to arrest the slide.

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The premier’s message will play at 6:40 p.m. tonight on CTV, 7 p.m. on Access. It will also be available on line at for those whose spouses and children won’t give up the TV remote.