Archive for December, 2009

In December, Canadians have snow, hockey, Christmas … and the annual shutdown of democracy

Canadian democracy: Going out of business … again.

All you need to know to understand Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s latest plan to prorogue Parliament is that from the neoconservative perspective, democracy is convenient window dressing, but not a very meaningful phenomenon.

At the moment it becomes inconvenient – when, for example, your opponents might vote non-confidence in your government (December 2008) or inconveniently investigate government attitudes toward Afghan prisoners (December 2009) – you simply yank the curtains shut and end the show.

If they still won’t co-operate? Well, I suppose you could suspend the Constitution, as neocons (or neo-liberals, as neocons are called in countries where soccer is called football) have done in several places with varying degrees of violence.

In other words, by announcing he plans to prorogue Parliament until “after the Olympics” (a convenient, if meaningless, excuse), Prime Minister Harper is saying the exercise of democracy has become inconvenient again. That this always seems to happen in Canada in December may just be one of those things, like the stock market perpetually crashing in October.

Don’t doubt for a minute that Alberta’s neocon government wouldn’t do the same thing in similar circumstances if we didn’t keep returning them to power with majorities so massive that resistance, if not futile, is at least meaningless.

And with the help of the mainstream media, alas, you can count on significant numbers of Albertans now reaching the conclusion that closing down Parliament is “democratic,” while allowing it to fulfill its democratic mandate is somehow not. (And by the way, where are those conservative voices in the mainstream media who used to complain so vociferously about our Parliamentary democracy being an “elected dictatorship” under prime ministers like Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien? Now that we really are dealing with an elected dictatorship, has the cat got their tongue!)

After all, when the prime minister conspired with the governor general last December to thwart the will of Parliament, thousands of Albertans concluded that this was a grand expression of democracy, while the short-lived coalition, which truly expressed the democratic will of our democratically elected Parliament, was the opposite.

If anything, this bizarre phenomenon is evidence of a need to again teach democratic theory in Alberta high schools…

Regardless of this aside, what the prime minister has proposed today is obviously an affront to democracy – though hardly a shocking one, as opposition spokespeople allege, given this prime minister’s history and predilections.

If nothing else, the stall will give Mr. Harper an opportunity to appoint more “unelected senators” to that undemocratic upper house he purports to so despise.

The governor general, of course, should refuse his request to prorogue the House. Given her performance last year in a more serious democratic crisis, however, don’t count on it.

When profit and propaganda are in conflict it’s time to ‘fence in’ the news

New York Post: Good luck getting anyone to pay for this on-line! Below: Jesus Christ and a bear.

A story in yesterday’s New York Times tells the tale of how desperate mainstream newspaper publishers plan to try to wring a profit from the Internet.

They’re going to put “fences” around their media sites, and charge fees to those who want to come inside and read. The charge, as it were, is being led by Rupert Murdoch, the notorious Australian publisher of many newspaper titles, all of them far to the right and few of them much good from a journalistic standpoint.

Many newspapers are considering this, including the New York Times, the Times’s reporters solemnly intoned, because “media companies of all stripes built their business models on the assumption that advertising would continue to pour into their coffers. But with advertising in a tailspin, they now must shrink, shut down or find some way to shift more of the cost burden to consumers … who have so blissfully become accustomed to Web content that costs nothing.”

Well, good luck to them.

Unmentioned in the article is the fact the New York Times tried this once before, asking readers for more than a year to pay to read its well-written editorials and columns. It didn’t work then and it’s unlikely to work now for similar reasons.

Alas for the Times, many readers (like me) refuse to pay to read anything on the Internet, no matter how good. We pay quite enough for our Internet service, thank you very much, and there’s plenty else to read for free. And the Times’ fences, as it turned out, weren’t all that hard to climb over, courtesy of helpful bloggers who would reprint key articles and blog search engines such as Technorati that helped readers find them.

Internet users, it turned out, were not unlike those Canadian journalists of yore, of whom a colleague of mine used to say: “Most reporters wouldn’t pay a nickel to see Jesus Christ wrestle a bear!”

No doubt Mr. Murdoch has charged his technical boffins with electrifying his fences so that they will be harder to overcome, and perhaps he will succeed. But really, do you think anyone would pay to read the wretched New York Post on-line when they won’t pay for the vastly superior New York Times?

The more interesting question, however, is not how much a chance of success this dubious scheme stands, but the impact it will have on the Western mainstream media’s role in “manufacturing consent,” to borrow American philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky’s euphonious phrase.

For the Internet – and its ability to rapidly spread neo-liberal propaganda masquerading as objective news – has been a tremendous asset to the great and continuing endeavour of manufacturing consent at home and abroad for neo-liberal economic policies and the military projects that drive them when persuasion fails to work.

Pioneered by Mr. Murdoch, the very person who would now erect fences around his news sites, mass media was by the 1990s openly producing outright propaganda to advance neo-liberal causes.

Whereas conservative mainstream newspapers of the 1960s through the mid-18980s could be depended upon to at least provide a variety of alternative opinions from time to time, that had pretty well ended by the 1990s and the beginning of the Internet era.

Fox News (owned by Mr. Murdoch), George Bush’s senseless occupation of Iraq (promoted by Mr. Murdoch), the candidacy of Sarah Palin (still pushed by Mr. Murdoch) and like things followed. Never, in this era, as Naomi Klein pointed out in The Shock Doctrine, would the connection between neo-liberal economics and the massive human rights abuses necessary for the implementation of the neo-liberal project be mentioned, let alone discussed.

The World Wide Web enhanced and amplified this propaganda work enormously. Unfortunately for right-wing publishers like Mr. Murdoch, it also ruined the business model that had made newspapers, no matter how poor their product, hugely profitable for more than a century.

Now, ideologically motivated newspapers like Mr. Murdoch’s are going to have to severely limit their effectiveness as propaganda tools for their proprietors’ causes in order to eke out a diminishing profit.

This creates an interesting contradiction, not to mention providing a possible proof of the existence of God!

Unfortunately for the would-be fence builders, there will still be plenty to read on the Internet without free access to Mr. Murdoch’s newspapers and their propagandistic ilk, or even the New York Times, which dreams of being the only news site left standing when the dust of the Internet earthquake has finally subsided.

As the Times’s reporters explained: “…for most general-interest news, any paid site would be competing with alternative versions of the same articles, delivered by multiple free news sources.”

They close by quoting a digital media consultant: “One of the problems is newspapers fired so many journalists and turned them loose to start so many blogs … They should have executed them. They wouldn’t have had competition. But they foolishly let them out alive.”

If this were Chile, they probably wouldn’t have let us out alive! But it isn’t, thank God. Too bad for them.

Alberta Diary: a new name for a new year

Directly above: iconic St. Albert. Above that: iconic Alberta.

A reader writes: “Congratulations on your new, more appropriate name. I wonder about your choice of image for the new name’s background. Are you succumbing to nostalgia?”

Last things first: Of course I’m succumbing to nostalgia. Not succumbing, I’ve succumbed! … and in more ways than Curmudgeon-at-Large can imagine. That said, grain elevators seem to me to be the perfect icon for the Prairies, what they once were, are now, and ever shall be, once the oil runs out. And, if the oil takes a long time running out, they are a nice symbol of a truly sustainable economy we could have amidst the environmental wreckage now being bequeathed to us and our children.

As for the name, well, I’ve been planning this change for a time for the obvious reason Curmudgeon points out. I’d thought that the New Year – the beginning of 2010 – would be a great time to put it into effect. But as often happens in human affairs, I was pushed ahead a little by circumstance. To wit: When I wrote and inquired, the man behind the Progressive Bloggers roll was prepared to make the change to his listing right now, and I figured I’d best follow suit, pronto.

My intention when I began writing this blog in December 2007 was to write a lot about municipal political affairs in St. Albert. While I have done that from time to time, and likely still will (the temptation right now to weigh in on speed limits is strong), the focus clearly has been on provincial affairs. From the standpoint of attracting readers, as well as truth in advertising, a name that explains this reality makes more sense than one that doesn’t. And so, St. Albert Diary becomes Alberta Diary.

Because this blog is hosted by Blogger.com, it can still be found at davidclimenhaga.blogspot.com. This will continue as long as I use the Blogger application. In addition, it can be found at davidclimenhaga.ca.

However, within a few days I also hope to have it display at albertadiary.ca. In time, I may use davidclimenhaga.ca for something else – say, some sort of political venture. But for the time being, I hope, all three will point readers to this blog.

Thankfully, my typing fingers were dependable, and it was albertadiary I managed to register, not albertadairy – as I feared for a few moments. Someone else owns that – an Alberta dairy farmer, one can only hope!

So, welcome to Alberta Diary, and, in a few days, welcome to 2010.

Merry Christmas: the Harper Tories reveal their true ‘Common Sense’ colours

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty gets ready to put a smile on Canada’s face by playing the privatization card. Federal politicians may not be exactly as illustrated. Below, that old Ontario joker Mike Harris.

Merry Christmas! Remember neocon Ontario premier Mike Harris and his catastrophic “Common Sense” Revolution? Ontario is still trying to dig its way out of that ideological train wreck.

Jim Flaherty was elected to the Ontario Legislature in 1995 and after 1997 served in a number of posts in Mr. Harris’s cabinet, ending up as finance minister and deputy premier. As such, he must be given credit for being one of the principal architects of Mr. Harris’s cut-everything, deregulate-everything, privatize-everything approach to government that reached its logical nadir in the Walkerton mass poisoning of 2000, Canada’s Bhopal.

Today, Mr. Flaherty is the Member of Parliament for Whitby-Oshawa and finance minister in neocon Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet.

Faced with the stubborn refusal of Canadians to give him a majority that would set loose his neocon wrecking crew, Prime Minister Harper has been trying hard to fly under the radar on his fundamentalist economic beliefs.

But the federal Conservatives’ private polling must be looking up, judging from Mr. Flaherty’s pre-Christmas promise to start axing government programs and selling off public assets. Either that, or Mr. Flaherty’s remarks, reported Dec. 23 in the Toronto Star, were just an ideological oopsie.

Whatever, one thing you can say about neocons like Messrs. Flaherty, Harris and Harper is that they’re consistent. If times are good and the economy is booming, they argue funding cuts, deregulation and privatization are needed. If times are bad and the economy is the dumps, they can be depended upon to call for funding cuts, deregulation and privatization. If it’s pretty well established that the cause of the country’s economic problems was funding cuts, deregulation and privatization, well, guess what, they’re sure to tell you more funding cuts, deregulation and privatization are the answer!

If we face the prospect of a deficit, God forbid the remedy proposed should be a modest increase in corporate taxes. Nope, it’s always funding cuts, deregulation and privatization. Plus lower corporate taxes, of course.

They’re like a doctor who prescribes brandy for every ailment – including alcohol poisoning!

Whatever the reason, Mr. Flaherty told the Star in a year-end interview that what 2010 holds for Canadians is funding cuts, deregulation and privatization. Have to fight that growing deficit, you see.

Indeed, deficit fighting has been the neocon excuse of choice to justify cutting fair and effective public services for more than 30 years. It’s mostly been smoke and mirrors, used to excuse eliminating programs neocons want to dump anyway for ideological reasons. For, as history proves, no one can run up a deficit like a “fiscal conservative”! (Harperite spending, for example, has grown at a rate of 7 per cent a year since 2006.)

What gets cut? “Programs for human rights, women’s issues, museums, youth employment,” to quote the Star’s partial catalogue of Mr. Flaherty’s first crack as federal finance minister at trimming Canadian spending. What doesn’t? “Public private partnerships,” which would better be known as outright subsidies to business, tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy and the corporations they own, and military spending.

So now Mr. Flaherty is looking for more programs to chop, he explained, as well as publicly financed assets to sell off for a song to the government’s cronies. Why? Well, you see, we need to restrain spending growth, he said, and trotted out the usual neocon folderol.

“I’ve done it before,” he bragged. “I did it in Ontario.”

Personally, I’m sort of relieved to see it put that bluntly by the finance minister. What’s the difference between the Harris Conservatives and the Harper Conservatives? … That’s right! Just as Mr. Flaherty implies, there is no difference.

He’s done it before. He intends to do it again. He’s proud of it.

Merry [BLANK]in’ Christmas, Canada. And Happy [BLANK]in’ New Year too!

Merry Christmas from the Supreme Court of Canada – sort of

Freedom of Expression: Some features illustrated may not be available in Canada.

The Supreme Court of Canada has given a nice little Christmas present to Canadians concerned about freedom of expression. But the emphasis must be placed on the word little.

In a ruling yesterday, the court created a new defence against defamation suits that it termed “responsible communication.” This defence can protect defendants in defamation suits who have made factual errors in their reports or commentary as long as they can prove they took reasonable precautions to ensure their story was factually correct and that they can show publication of the story serves the public interest.

This will be added to the traditional defences of truth (i.e., you can prove in court what you said is true, often more easily said than done), various forms of privilege (you had a right to say it because, for example, you were under oath or were speaking in a Legislature), fair comment (it’s a comment, it’s fair, and it’s based truth you can prove in court), and consent (he said I could say it).

In a related ruling, the court explicitly extended protections enjoyed by the press and other traditional media to bloggers and other “new media” practitioners.

So far, so good. But while this is a minor improvement from the previous deplorable situation, it doesn’t solve the fundamental problems with defamation law in Canada, the principal purpose of which – no matter what you have been taught or what you imagine – is today to suppress legitimate criticism of powerful people and institutions.

What you’ve been told, of course, is that defamation law is there to protect the reputations of people who have been held up to ridicule or contempt by something someone has written or said that is untrue or unfair. Alas, this is not the way things really work.

This is, first, because the tort of libel on which all Canadian defamation acts are based (the protection of reputations being a provincial matter) is such a tangled skein, biased against defendants and illogical in its requirements. This means it is not really accessible to ordinary people whose reputations actually need protecting so that they can earn a living.

Rather, thanks mainly to the high cost of pursuing an action in this esoteric corner of the law, it has become the almost exclusive preserve of well-off and litigious individuals who wish to suppress legitimate criticism of their views and activities.

Second, it is because of the concept of legal personhood, which allows wealthy corporations to abuse defamation laws – created to defend the reputations of natural human beings, however imperfectly – by hiding behind the fiction they are persons too, if only in a legal sense.

This feature of the law has been hideously misused by powerful corporations to attack anyone who dares to criticize them. It happens much more frequently than you might imagine, but is rarely reported in legal journals because it is usually not necessary for these corporate bullies to actually go to court to destroy the constitutional rights of Canadian citizens. Ordinary people, after all, can’t afford to battle frivolous suits by corporations with bottomless pockets and in-house legal departments. So mostly the victims of these corporate assaults swallow their pride, surrender and quietly give up their constitutional right to free speech.

So while the Supreme Court’s ruling improves things a little, it will mainly help employees of commercial media companies with deep pockets of their own. This, of course, is why the commercial media are celebrating this ruling as if it were much more significant than it really is.

Its meaning for bloggers will remain largely theoretical, because most bloggers will remain unable to afford the costly defence necessary to battle a defamation suit by a determined plaintiff.

Unchanged by the Court’s ruling are these serious impediments to free expression:

  • The tactical playing field of the law of defamation remains heavily tilted against defendants and in favour of plaintiffs. For example, the onus remains on the defendant to disprove the plaintiff’s claims of damage, no matter how preposterous.
  • Powerful corporations continue to be able to use this law as a bludgeon to crush ordinary citizens who dare to criticize their actions, no matter how legitimately.
  • The cost of a credible defence against a defamation suit remains onerous, forcing most plaintiffs of ordinary means to forget about their supposed right to free speech.
  • The cost of an effective offense is high too, restricting the use of this tort to the powerful and well-off, who mainly use it to suppress criticism, and denying it to ordinary people, who actually have an economic need to protect their reputations.
  • The size of defamation awards remains wildly out of proportion with the true value of a human being’s reputation, let alone a wealthy corporation’s. This potential cost to defendants, of course, is another impediment to free speech.

In other words, nothing has changed to make defamation law a less effective tool for people who wish to use it to frustrate your constitutionally protected right to free expression.

This is a far cry from the United States, where in 1964 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there is in that country “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

This meant, the U.S. Court ruled, that even unintentionally false statements about public figures must be protected if freedom of expression is to have the “breathing space” it requires to survive.

Over time, moreover, the notion of public figures has come to be defined very broadly in the United States. So U.S. citizens may strongly criticize not just public officials, but corporate leaders, religious figures and athletes as well.

The U.S. Supreme Court was profoundly correct in it’s opinion that a broad measure of this nature was necessary to protect the free expression required in a democracy. American citizens – and, arguably, the rest of the world – have benefited enormously by its intellectually courageous and groundbreaking decision in 1973.

Whether through legislation or court decisions, breathing space for free expression similar to that which exists in the United States must remain the goal for Canadians concerned about their fundamental democratic rights.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court of Canada ruling is a step in the right direction, but it is only a tiny step.

Governing ‘gormlessly’ – the principal problem’s the premier

Ahoy, there! This is Captain Stelmach speaking. No need to panic. Everyone keep calm and remain in your staterooms. All will be well. Can someone hum a couple of bars of Nearer My God to Thee? Below: The Alberta Conservative legislative caucus, circa 2013.

It’s a small but significant benchmark in the steady decline of our province’s once unshakeable Tory dynasty that in barely two weeks two conservative columnists in the Alberta press have referred to the government as “gormless.”

One online dictionary defines gormless as “lacking in vitality or intelligence; stupid, dull, or clumsy.” Another is harsher, simply stating: “stupid.” I‘m assuming that any dictionary that defines words on paper between covers, if such things still exist, would say much the same thing.

One cannot shake the feeling that “gormless” and “Stelmach” are two words that will soon fit together as naturally in the journalistic lexicon as, say, “shark infested” and “waters” or “military” and “precision.”

So, in this morning’s Calgary Herald, columnist Don Braid wondered: “How gormless is the premier to let two ministers take actions (or even worse, to approve those actions) when they directly contradict his speeches?”

Back on Dec. 13, Lorne Gunter observed in the Edmonton Journal: “But the Alliance can at least count on the Tories to continue their bullheaded, clumsy and gormless race to the bottom.” (Emphasis added in both cases.)

Indeed, the Google search engine today returned 2,580 items for the search terms “gormless Alberta Tories” In fairness, though, some of these linked to columns comparing the Stelmach Conservatives favourably with the province’s equally gormless Liberal Opposition and most are mere coincidences. Still, one suspects this number will soon increase, and that a majority of the references will be to Mr. Stelmach’s government.

This is a lot to read into a mere two occurrences of a silly word liked by journalists, of course, but it is nevertheless a symptom of something more profound that is happening in Alberta.

You simply can’t talk to anyone in this province – and I mean anyone other than a few political functionaries in Mr. Stelmach’s inner circle and Journal columnist Graham Thomson – who can stand the man, at least on a non-personal level. (I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel some empathy for a guy who is so clearly and so cluelessly struggling to keep his head above the water.)

It is simply astounding how far, and how fast, the Conservatives have fallen under Mr. Stelmach’s bumbling leadership.

No one should be blamed except the man himself and the members of his inner circle – that is, people he chose. The Alberta Conservatives remain a party with access to a deep talent pool and broad popular support for their general policy platform. They have years of experience winning elections, and access to many people who understand how this difficult trick is performed.

As readers know, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’ve never voted Conservative in Alberta and, God help me, I never will. Nevertheless, the seeming collapse of Conservative support is a concern because of what may rush in to fill the vacuum it creates.

Speaking of which, the Conservatives’ problem is not the attraction of the Wildrose Alliance or the undeniable superficial appeal of its leader. Nor is the Conservatives’ challenge what the media has to say. Indeed, whatever they may be saying just now, guys like Mr. Gunter and Mr. Braid, by inclination and training, live and breathe to support Conservative governments.

Nor will the problem be solved by a Cabinet shuffle. Although, with the government’s polling numbers at the bottom of a well shaft where the sun never shines, you can bet on one happening anyway in January.

When it happens, Health Minister Ron Liepert will be moved to Energy, where he can make new enemies among the oil companies that are bankrolling Danielle Smith’s far-right Alliance. The widely respected Fred Horne, now chairing the committee on figuring out how the hell to solve the Alberta Hospital Edmonton political nightmare, will be given the health portfolio. Energy Minister Mel Knight will be canned. Remember, where you heard it first! (Click here for more cabinet shuffle predictions.)

Nope, the problem is Mr. Stelmach.

If the Conservatives are going to survive, as a party let alone as a government, they are going to have to skid him. It really is as simple as that.

The trouble is, they had their chance last month and they were too clever by half to seize it. Now what are they going to do?

Not this again! Alberta’s wild political swings have so far all come from the left, not the right

William Aberhart preaches his left-wing philosophy over the airwaves.

This is what happens when bloggers go on vacation: The gutter press makes ridiculous statements and no one is around to correct them.

So on Dec. 12, only a day after I had jetted off to the sunny south, the Edmonton Journal editorialized thusly: “Alberta has a curious political history. The previous governing dynasties — United Farmers of Alberta and Social Credit — were crushed by a fledgling parties that emerged from the political right.” (Emphasis was added; the grammatical error, however, was provided by the authors.)

This statement is designed to lead us to the following conclusion: “A victory by the Wildrose in 2012 would make it three for three.”

Well, no, actually. As I have said here before, this is a false reading of history. In addition, it mis-counts the number of times this has happened.

The principal problem with the Journal’s “factual” statement, simply stated, is that in every case, the fledgling political movements that sprouted suddenly to form new Alberta governments emerged from the left of the governing party. Over time, in government (as governments tend to do), they moved to the right.

By any reasonable standard or definition, when the Social Credit League (its adherents then denied being part of a mere political party) under William Aberhart defeated the United Farmers of Alberta government in 1935, it was far to the left of the UFA.

I’m not going to get into a lengthy discourse on Social Credit’s oddball economic theories here, and I recognize that many Socred economic nostrums defy pigeonholing as being of the left or right. However, suffice it to say that complete state control of the banking system, redistribution of commonly owned wealth through the use of “social credit” prosperity certificates, the establishment of a state bank (Alberta Treasury Branches) to intervene in the economy on behalf of the people, and general emphasis on economic democracy are not hallmarks of right-wing political movements.

After Mr. Aberhart had departed from the political stage, it is true, Social Credit became just another small-c conservative party under Ernest Manning and Harry Strom. Which, in turn, leads us to the Journal’s next mistaken claim.

Arguably, notwithstanding their “conservative” nomenclature, Peter Lougheed’s Conservatives were well to the left of Social Credit when they took power in 1971. Again, building hospitals in communities province-wide, taking over airlines to keep jobs in Alberta and investing heavily in domestic industries are not hallmarks of far-right regimes. Moreover, it is hardly correct to call the Alberta Conservatives a “fledgling” party. Petty jurisdictional legalities notwithstanding, they were effectively part of a strong national party with a long history and effective campaign machinery in place.

It’s worth noting as well that this phenomenon has in fact already occurred three times in Alberta history, not twice as the Journal editorial states. Leastways, when they were unexpectedly elected in 1921, the UFA, based in the philosophy of the co-operative movement, was also well to the left of the governing Liberals.

In an interesting historical tidbit, in 1934 and 1935, some local UFA chapters openly supported Social Credit candidates. And in 1970, some Social Credit constituency associations are said to have openly supported Mr. Lougheed’s Conservatives.

None of this is to say that unquestionably right-wing the Wildrose Alliance Party will not form a government. Nor does it say that Albertans don’t sometimes elect political movements that seemingly come from nowhere. But it is rank myth making – baloney, in other words – to state that hitherto these political movements emerged from the right. They did not. They all entered, stage left.

According to the Journal’s logic, the most likely party to form the next Alberta government is the NDP.

Well, we’ll see about that. But it would surely be a more significant historical benchmark than the supposed popularity of the Wildrose Alliance’s right-wing philosophy if some PC constituency associations signed on holus-bolus with the Alliance.

We await that development!

Meantime, if I were a charter member of the tinfoil hat brigade, I might suspect the Journal’s editorialists of intentionally trying to mislead us to trick us into voting for the Wildrose Alliance. Alas, I suspect no such thing.

I do think that the Journal’s editorialists should consult their history books – or at least conduct a cursory Google search – before repeating bits of folk wisdom that bear no relationship to historical fact.

Doing so would be as easy as A+B. (Social Credit joke.)

If the press won’t do even this, it may be time for Albertans to call for a return of the Accurate News and Information Act!

It’s not too late for Alberta’s Liberals and NDP, but it may be soon

Your blogger, thinking deep thoughts about Alberta politics without the distraction of any news from Alberta.

This column was published in Friday’s edition of the Saint City News. It was written before the Dec. 11 Angus Reid poll was published, and even a few days before the Renew Party arrived on the scene. I filed early because I was planning to head out for a few days of sunshine along the beaches of the Sea of Cortez, which that substantial English part of my genetic makeup believes should really be known as the Sea of Drake, or better yet the Sea of Cavendish. I said nothing of this, of course, to the locals. I’m not sure I would have written it any differently if I had heard about the launch of Renew – I don’t think it really changes that much, for the moment at least. Since my departure, I suppose, much has happened here in Alberta. I see, for example, that the Renew Website is now up and running – I will have more to say about that later. However, I was a good boy and went the entire time without looking at the Internet, other than to check my emails for emergency communications from home. No iPhone. No laptop. No news sites. No news. Refreshing! (Not!)

In the face of the lame performance by Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative government, the Wildrose Alliance under Danielle Smith would have a real chance of forming the government of Alberta if a general election were held any time soon. Sad to say, the Liberals and New Democrats would not.

This is not because Alberta voters are by nature or inclination particularly “conservative” or right wing, as is certain to become the self-serving mythology among leaders and supporters of the two parties of the centre-left if the Alliance bests them in the next election.

Rather, it is because Ms. Smith and the Alliance are pursuing a strategy that really can establish their credibility as an alternative government at a time many Albertans crave an end to Mr. Stelmach’s blundering regime. The Liberals and New Democrats are not.

Consider the Alliance’s approach to energy policy. This is an area that could pose a real liability for a party like the Alliance, perceived by many as being too close to the energy industry. But by creating a “task force” to publicly consult “industry leaders, academics, researchers and other experts who can help us develop a sound, integrated and sensible energy policy” they are acting as if they already are the government. This is a powerful image compared with the accident-prone Stelmach government as it careens from crisis to crisis.

Meanwhile, the Liberals and New Democrats – to quote Spiro Agnew channeling Nixon speechwriter William Safire – seem like nattering nabobs of negativism, endlessly attacking the government on many issues but proposing few meaningful alternatives.

The Alliance is also cleverly using task force imagery to go after the pay and perks enjoyed by Members of the Legislative Assembly, an issue on which the Liberals and NDP are almost as vulnerable as the government simply by merit of having been in the Legislature so long.

The Alberta New Democrats, of course, are a pure opposition party, with limited but enduring appeal based on the idea they are the “party of conscience.” Without being part of a broader coalition, they are unlikely ever to form a government. But their market niche will remain relatively secure.

For the Liberals, however, it’s disastrous that Leader David Swann can’t seem to set out the policies he would pursue as premier in a way that resonates with Albertans. Merely listing the many faults of Mr. Stelmach’s Conservatives on the Liberal Website or producing cute YouTube videos that slam the Wildrose Alliance leader as another deficit-creating fiscal conservative won’t cut it.

If the Liberals are to succeed, they need to articulate a vision of their own that not only makes sense to Albertans, but appears achievable in a real province. That is where the Wildrose Alliance is now building credibility.

This is happening in the face of a pretty obvious opportunity for the Liberals, and the NDP too if they can find a way to work together.

After all, it would be hard for Mr. Stelmach to appeal to both the Alliance’s extremist base and to the majority of essentially moderate Albertans. He’s counting on Dr. Swann and NDP Leader Brian Mason being unable to figure out how to appeal to the moderate centre while he outflanks the Alliance from the right before the election he’s promised in 2012.

By now, everyone in Alberta knows Ed Stelmach has no plan. The trouble is, an awful lot of Albertans suspect David Swann and Brian Mason don’t have one either. That’s the main reason they’re looking hopefully at Danielle Smith.

It’s not too late for the Liberals and New Democrats to change this, but it will be soon.

It’s time for the NDP to grab a slice of the electoral pie, and city voters are the key

Going Rouge! If the urban strategy won’t work, there’s always Sarah!

So how can the New Democratic Party get its fair share of Alberta’s increasingly fragmented political pie?

Simple: It needs to recast itself as the Urban Party of Alberta.

By saying this, I am not suggesting that the NDP actually start calling itself the UPA. But I am suggesting that the NDP should pay attention to urban issues like no other party.

And no other party’s likely to, given the lay of the political land in this particular province.

You’d think this would be pretty easy to do: As things stand, there’s zero possibility of the NDP making gains in the rural parts of this province. That’s just the way it is, and it ain’t gonna change. The NDP speaks mainly to urban concerns anyway.

There’s a huge urban gap in the Alberta political structure, That is, notwithstanding the plethora of brave new startup parties, at this moment there seems to be no political party that is prepared to really speak out for Alberta’s roundly abused urban taxpayers.

So, on the face of it, recasting the New Democrats as the party of Alberta’s beleaguered urban taxpayers would seem like an obvious fit – good for the NDP, consistent with the key points of its philosophy, and good for the province’s city dwellers too.

But to do this, the Alberta NDP’s leadership would have to fundamentally rethink a strategy based on a much-loved fantasy – that somehow, some day, when the planets are all magically in alignment, enough old CCF voters would crawl out of the woodpile to finally swing things the way that God and Tommy Douglas intended.

Well, folks, it’s just not going to happen that way. Most of the CCF’s supporters have gone to their heavenly reward, God bless them, and most of us surviving Dipper-symps were there for the funeral. That’s no surprise, of course, since in so many cases they were our parents. Those of us still here on earth are just going to have to slug it out in the Alberta political landscape of the 21st Century. And that’s a place that doesn’t much resemble the stubbly ground of Saskatchewan in 1944.

Above all, it’s a place dominated by low-population rural ridings whose mostly older residents are going to vote for their beloved tax-and-spend Conservatives, no matter what, as long as the urban loot keeps flowing their way. … Simmer down, everybody! Somebody had to say it!

So what would an NDP urban agenda look like?

It would need to speak forthrightly about things that really matter to urban voters. The usual anodyne platitudes, like those trotted out in the Renew Party’s non-platform platform, would not do, if only because they sound like the nonsense spouted by everyone else.

This would require a little courage to do. However, if you ask me, Albertans just might be ready for a little honest-to-goodness social democracy. And, anyway, the NDP’s current strategy can hardly be described as a screaming success.

Here are five urban issues that could work for the NDP:

Public Transit. An NDP urban agenda would have to speak to public transit. Everyone knows how the tax dollars flow to rural areas for irrigation projects, first-class rural highways, Cadillac health care facilities and a host of other costly benefits. Meanwhile, we need decent, efficient, safe, fast public transit in our cities. Huge economic and environmental benefits would accrue. But while public transit saves a bundle down the line, it costs a fortune up front. The NDP should really fight for public transit, not just pay it unenthusiastic lip service like all those identical right-wing parties.

Social Services. When Tories cut social services and close needed mental hospitals, who pays? Urban taxpayers, that’s who! We pay more for policing, more for health care, more for basic services required simply to keep our fellow humans from freezing to death. We pay in crime, in run-down neighbourhoods, in foregone business opportunities and in lost acute-care medical beds. Rural-based, rural-focused parties like the Conservatives don’t really give a hoot. By speaking up for urban social services and an end to downloading the costs of base services for society’s most desperate onto our cities, the NDP would be speaking up for urban taxpayers, safer cities and a better life. They’d also be speaking up for the socially disadvantaged, of course, which is also as it should be.

Child Care. Yes, child care. It’s bloody well time for child care! It’s not that we can’t afford it. We can’t afford not to have it. This is an urban issue if ever there was one. This is a prosperity issue – as a method of stimulating the economy, child care dollars are worth about five times as much as infrastructure spending. (And infrastructure spending, in turn, is better than boondoggles like carbon capture.) It’s not only an employment issue, it’s also a women’s issue – a real women’s issue, more significant, if you’ll forgive an elderly male for saying so, than the NDP’s current focus on dragooned female candidates. It’s not only a women’s issue, it’s a young people’s issue. The Conservatives in Ottawa will never do anything about this. So why not the Alberta NDP? All the other parties will say we can’t afford it – you know, all the other parties that stand for low petroleum royalties, multi-billion-dollar boondoggles and generous donations to the upkeep of rural electoral districts.

Public Health Care. Decent hospitals and sufficient doctors for our needs are an urban issue. Mental health facilities that work, where they’re needed – like Alberta Hospital Edmonton. Public health centres and emergency treatment facilities belong in every part of our urban communities. Proper publicly run seniors’ facilities also belong within our urban communities. And how about health regions based in our cities? The Capital Health Region was doing innovative, effective things to bring quality public health care to our metropolitan area. The Stelmach Tories purposely wrecked it to achieve a narrow political goal and appeal to its rural base. Public health care, and a health region run by people from our own world-class city, and others like it in other Alberta cities, is a worthy political goal for the NDP.

Public Education. It goes without saying that spending money on public education benefits the province in the long term, and pays immediate dividends in terms of quality of life in our communities. It also eases the impact of unemployment, especially for young people, and helps urban working families. What a concept – create vast advantages for society over the long term by helping young people now! Caps on tuition, adequate funding for institutions, and schools where we need them – which is not necessarily in Manyberries – is a terrific urban issue. And remember, if we can pay for carbon capture and million-dollar buyouts for health care execs who have fallen into political disfavour, we can afford decent schools.

The NDP should speak to each of these issues. The NDP should describe these for what they are – city issues. And the NDP should paint itself as what it is anyway, whether it likes it or not: the only political party in Alberta that looks out for, or cares about, the issues that matter to urban residents.

And you know what? You wouldn’t even have to badmouth the rural areas. But seeing as they’re not going to vote NDP anyway, no matter what, you don’t really need to put a hell of a lot of effort into developing a rural platform for them.

Alberta’s city taxpayers get screwed. Street crime, potholes, declining snow clearing service and our fourth-rate public transit system are all glaring examples. No Alberta party likely to form a government any time soon will sacrifice rural votes to serve the people who really provide the energy and enterprise and creativity that make this province worth living in.

The NDP can speak for those of us who live in Alberta’s cities, and improve its electoral chances as part of the deal.

And what else are they going to do? Ask Sarah Palin to endorse Brian Mason?

The Renewbies: the Liberals rebooted – anything else?

Here it is another day and still no information on the Renew Party’s Website. I renewed the page and nothing happened… (Weak joke.) No surprise there, of course. After all, the Renewers promised us we’ll get nothing but that picture of a dried up Prairie lake until RenewAlberta.ca re-launches on Dec. 14.

A twittery tweet displayed on the Edmonton Journal Web page this evening promises “progressive pints” at Original Joe’s restaurant in Garneau, 8404 – 109th Street, Edmonton. (What? The New Democrats are buying? Weak progressive joke.)

The Renewbies were a little more forthcoming at the Reboot Alberta gabfest in Red Deer last weekend, handing out a leaflet that described their nascent party as “centrists, firm believers in the free market who recognize that government can play a constructive role in shaping our society.”

The leaflet asks: Why Renew Alberta? The answer, is says: “The PCs have squandered another oil boom, mismanaged Alberta’s finances and eroded public services without any clear vision for the future.” (Can’t argue with that observation.) “The Alberta Liberal Party is very much out of touch with Albertans, and as a result continues to be ineffective.” (True too, as far as it goes.) “The Alberta NDP and the Wildrose Alliance are prisoners of their respective ideologies which are both outside the comfort zones of most Albertans.” (True enough to be dangerous, in my estimation.)

And so, conclude the Renewbies, “We believe that a new party is the only way to obtain a government that is fiscally, socially and democratically responsible.” This idea too, of course, may turn out to be outside the comfort zone of most Albertans. We shall see soon enough, I guess.

So what’s their platform? Well, the brochure says they don’t really have one yet, but it goes on to make these points, which I am going to quote here at length, in bold italic, in the interests of keeping the public informed, seeing as no one else seems to have bothered:

Propserity – We believe that private enterprise and entrepreneurship are the keys to our economic success. Through investments in education and the cultivation of a cooperative relationship with business, government should foster and environment in which the initiatives of Albertans can succeed for the benefit of all.

Fiscal responsibility – We believe a foremost responsibility of government is to use public dollars as effectively and efficiently as possible. This is best accomplished through long-term planning, common sense and open, frank conversations about the province’s needs and the means we have to meet them.

Social responsibility – We believe every Albertan deserves the opportunity to succeed. Our government should aspire to provide excellent public education, public health care, and infrastructure, as well as a compassionate helping hand in times of need. We believe this can be accomplished through responsible investments, planning and a willingness to innovate.

Sustainability – We believe that sustainability must be a core value of our government. Rethinking unsustainable practices, making strategic investments in research and technology, and developing creative policy that emphasizes rewards over punishments will protect and enhance our environment for future generations.

Democracy – We believe that public business should be conducted in public. Open and honest debate is not something that should be discouraged; rather, it is a source of solutions to the challenges that we face. Our government should foster debate, actively engage citizens and make itself accountable to the people it governs.

Quality of life – Improving Albertan’s (sic) quality of life is the end to which we strive, and to which all of the above positions are oriented. In addition to what’s mentioned above, we believe quality of life is built on our communities. Through support of recreation, sport, culture and respect for municipalities, government can help us build strong, vibrant communities which will continue to attract new citizens and ensure current citizens will never leave.

My comment: Pretty anodyne, as well as indistinguishably close to the position of the Official Liberals except for that bit about ensuring current citizens will never leave. (I didn’t like the sound of that. I wonder if I should get the hell out before they close the borders?)

Is there enough here to succeed? Not yet.

If these Provisional Liberals are going to succeed to any degree, they’re going to have to perform a similar neat trick to that pulled off by the Wildrose Alliance. To wit: They’ll need an appealing new leader who is easy to distinguish from all the tired old political faces of which Albertans are growing so sick. And they’ll need policies that appeal to the old party’s natural supporters but are different enough to set them apart.

I have a feeling we’ll know soon enough if they can manage either of those feats.