Archive for January, 2010

Important question: What are we paying the Supreme Court’s judges for?

The Supremes: their ruling in the Khadr case suggests there is no rule of law in Canada. Below: Former child soldier Omar Khadr.

Yesterday’s Orwellian Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Omar Khadr case embodies perfectly the zeitgeist of Canada under the thumb of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Never mind the details of the case itself. Young Mr. Khadr’s benighted family history, the lousy friends his father kept, his murderous intent or lack of it, the misadventure that befell him when his path crossed that of the American military at a dark and lawless moment in U.S. history, his tender age when these events unfolded, the refusal of Mr. Harper’s government to help him despite his Canadian citizenship: all this is back story.

The issue here is the rule of law and whether or not we still enjoy it in this country.

The Supreme Court’s bizarre and troubling decision yesterday would suggest that, notwithstanding 24 pages of nice legal distinctions, as a practical matter we do not.

Let us not delve too deeply into the details of this case, then, which only serve to distract us. Those who want to do so may read the excellent and detailed coverage in the on-line editions of the Toronto Star or the Globe and Mail, or read the ruling itself.

Instead, let us consider the fundamental issue. To wit: The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It stands above all other laws and establishes the fundamental principles of our political regime and delineates the limits of the power of our government.

Thus, under the Constitution Act, 1982, which includes our beloved Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there are things our government simply may not do. Under Section 4 (1), for example, no House of Commons or provincial or territorial legislative assembly “shall continue for longer than five years from the date fixed for the return of the writs at a general election of its members.” (Note that even the notorious Notwithstanding Clause, Section 33 of the Charter, does not apply to this inalienable right.)

So in the case of Mr. Khadr, held prisoner in the legal black hole of the United States’ deliberately extra-constitutional internment camp in Guantanamo, Cuba, all nine judges of the top Canadian court agreed that his fundamental human rights have been violated and continue to be violated, by both Canadian and U.S. government authorities.

Now, under our constitutional regime and the very concept of the rule of law, the government is required to take action when the nation’s top court has determined it has violated someone’s rights. This is why two lower courts ordered the government to attempt to repatriate this Canadian citizen.

But what did the Supreme Court of Canada have to say about this? In the words of the Toronto Star report: “…The high court said that while the actions of the executive – the Harper government – are ‘not exempt from constitutional scrutiny,’ it would not be ‘appropriate for the court to give direction as to the diplomatic steps necessary to address the breaches of Mr. Khadr’s Charter rights.’” (Emphasis added.)

The only sensible way to interpret this is that the Harper government is, in fact, exempt from constitutional scrutiny! At least, it is when it finds constitutional scrutiny inconvenient. Worse, apparently the entire Supreme Court agrees with this! Any other interpretation, one fears, obviously would be double-plus untrue.

The Supreme Court has spoken: The government has exceeded its powers, it has violated the rights of a citizen. This wrong must be set right … except, of course, in the case of the Harper government, it need not be. After all, it would not be appropriate for the court to give directions. War is Peace. Hate is Love. Slavery is Freedom.

Not so surprising, then, that the Harper government quickly declared victory and indicated that it will not be so quick to attempt to repatriate Mr. Khadr, even though the court says it should. After all, the law, which under the notion of the rule of law applies to everyone, according to a reasonable interpretation of what the Supreme Court has said, does not apply to them.

Ergo, there is no rule of law.

Is this a rogue decision, or does it indeed express the new Canadian zeitgeist? Well, our Constitution (which also guarantees a system of government similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom, not that of the United States) decrees that the Ministry must resign if it loses the confidence of the House.

But when the House had clearly lost confidence in the Ministry, and had indicated its intention to vote non-confidence, it was swiftly and conveniently prorogued before it could so vote. Problem solved. As in the case of the unsavoury Khadr family, the general populace seems not unduly alarmed.

There is a Constitution, and there are laws – but they do not appear to apply to our governors, at least when the governors are Harperite neocons and at least when it suits them.

Thus we see yesterday’s ruling of the Supreme Court mirrored in the political spirit of the nation.

So what happens, if at the end of the constitutionally mandatory five-year period cited above, the defeat of the Harper government seems inevitable? Is the five-year requirement set aside until such time as the Conservatives, so called, can win again?

Impossible? Absurd, you say? Could never happen here? Why not, if the government is exempt from constitutional scrutiny?

Remember, our Constitution is the supreme law of the land. If the nine justices of the Supreme Court of Canada will not – or cannot – make the government obey that law, what is it that we are paying them for?

More turncoats key to Wildrose Alliance recovery of momentum … but not before budget day

The Wildrose Alliance plan for the Tory caucus. Below: Nancy MacBeth.

Momentum is everything in politics. The Wildrose Alliance Party had it at the start of January. For the moment, the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Ed Stelmach has it.

Having to get your communications house publicly in order and reverse course on hugely unpopular policy choices may not be the kind of momentum most governments prefer, but it beats standing still and taking fatal potshots.

With the Alberta Legislature about to get back to business – however briefly – with a Throne Speech Feb. 4 and the government hoping to maintain its momentum with its Budget Speech on Feb. 9, you can count on the Wildrose Alliance to make some quick moves to try to throw Mr. Stelmach off his game.

Since the Alliance has an able leader and savvy behind-the-scenes political advisors from Reform Party/unprogressive Conservative circles who are desperately bored with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s necessarily cautious approach on the federal scene, we can expect some interesting strategies as they try to regain an ideological sandbox in which to play.

So how will the Alliance try to recover its momentum?

With more floor crossers, of course, but not just yet.

For one thing, the party obviously needs to leave its turncoats in place within the Conservative caucus until the government has briefed its MLAs on its financial plans and presented its Budget Speech on Feb. 9. That leaves the Alliance in a position to get the information it needs to make the most effective possible response to the budget.

If Mr. Stelmach and his advisors really had their wits about them, they’d brown-envelope some budget hints over to the New Democrats – who unlike the Alliance will pose no serious threat come election day – and let them steal the Wildrose thunder on reaction to the budget.

But that kind of subtlety is too deep for Mr. Stelmach’s inner circle, and so the details of the government’s financial plans after Feb. 9 will probably remain buttoned up tightly – which suits the Wildrose turncoats as much as it suits their erstwhile Conservative colleagues.

So the first Wildrose move will be a forceful response to the budget, made more effective by the fact the party will know in advance the details as well as the government strategies for selling them.

Next on the Wildrose agenda will be the demand that, with a three-member caucus in the Legislature, they be given party status and a generous “leader’s allowance,” the same deal the government gives the two-member New Democrat caucus.

This is a smart play, if pretty obvious. Under the rules of the House, a party really needs four members to qualify for official status and the leader’s allowance – which is enough to pay three or four researchers for a year.

Under Ralph Klein, however, the Conservatives habitually gave it to the NDP anyway, even when they fell below the four-member quota, the better to assist them in taking votes from the Liberals on election day. Mr. Stelmach has continued that practice.

Now, with a three-member Wildrose caucus in the House, a strategic edge to the government looks like a strategic liability. The Alliance is bound to demand the same treatment as the NDP and will kick up a huge fuss about the alleged injustice of the Conservative refusal to fund its apparent chief rival. This is a win-win for the Alliance, of course. They win if they get the money. They win if they don’t. As a bonus, they make the New Democrats squirm.

The Alliance could qualify for party status any time they like, of course, by calling over some more of their Tory traitors – but why do that when they can generate more heat and light just by crying unfair?

For its part, regardless of the size to which the Wildrose caucus grows, Mr. Stelmach’s Conservatives will return to the Ralph Klein playbook for a response. They’ll argue that since the Alliance’s leader isn’t in the House, there will be no leader’s allowance, just as Mr. Klein did to Liberal leader and sometime Tory Nancy MacBeth in days of yore.

This makes Wildrose leader Danielle Smith’s decision not to run in the Calgary-Glenmore by-election last September more obviously the blunder it was. Certainly Mr. Stelmach’s Tories are unlikely to give her another chance to get into the House until the next general election.

The Wildrose response to that, naturally, will be to play it for all its worth, then march their next batch of floor crossers over to the opposition benches when the furor has finally started to die down. That will generate another huge bout of publicity and keep the momentum on the Wildrose side.

If they have enough turncoats to leave a few more in place, they can unsettle the government even further by working to split Mr. Stelmach’s caucus between Red Tories who see their salvation in moving the party to the centre and the remaining market fundamentalists who want to try to outflank the Alliance on the right.

This strategy will likely give the Alliance the edge in political momentum for a time, possibly several months. Eventually, though, it’s bound to run out of steam, if only because the turncoats in the Tory caucus will have left or been smoked out.

If the Conservatives keep their wits about them, especially if they choose a competent new leader and move back toward the middle as they have on heath policy, they can overcome these next likely Wildrose plays with ease and emerge from the next election with a renewed mandate.

If they lose their cool and let the Alliance rattle them, especially if they stick with Mr. Stelmach’s foolish strategy of moving right to meet the threat from the right, they may drive a few electable Red Tories to Renew Alberta while their core constituency concludes, “What the hell, let’s vote for the real thing!”

My Order of Canada still includes Steve Fonyo

Steve Fonyo, disabled runner, in happier times. Below: Conrad Moffat Black, centre, arguably departing from generally recognized standards of public behaviour during the Calgary Herald strike; Steve Fonyo, more recently; Terry Fox.

Never let it be said that Stephen Fonyo Jr., who was stripped of his Order of Canada last Dec. 10, did not render a useful service to his country for which he continues to deserve respect, warts and all.

Bigger scoundrels than the troubled, occasionally violent, often pathetic, tragicomic, one-legged long-distance runner remain members of that tarnished order.

In a brisk news release yesterday, Governor General Michaëlle Jean, who apparently had found a few moments from her busy schedule proroguing Parliament to prevent democratic debate inconvenient to our prime minister, announced that according to the rules of the Order, Mr. Fonyo had been given the bum’s rush last month for having been convicted of a criminal offense.

Indeed, the release implied without quite stating, that Mr. Fonyo, now 44, had been found to be a thoroughgoing rounder for departing “from generally recognized standards of public behaviour.”

Well, yes, Mr. Fonyo, who when he was 12 lost a leg to cancer, had since he was made an Officer of the Order in 1985 recorded a history of bad behaviour that included assault, aggravated assault, theft, fraud, drunk driving and driving without a license.

But don’t forget as well that Mr. Fonyo ran across Canada in 1984 on one good leg and one artificial one – following and completing the route of the saintly, cranky and doomed Terry Fox – and in the process raised $13 million for cancer research.

This was no small feat for an ordinary man with a serious disability and Mr. Fonyo – bad judgment, substance abuse and all – deserved his Order of Canada. What’s more, given at least one of the ne’er-do-wells who remain members in good standing of that order, he deserves to be one still.

I speak, of course, of Conrad Moffat Black, Baron Black of Crossharbour, citizen of the United Kingdom and frequent reviler of his native Canada, its citizens and their to-him unfortunate tendency toward decency, fairness and common sense in economic matters.

In July 2007, Mr. Black was, in the words of the Governor General’s news release about Mr. Fonyo, “convicted of a criminal offense” in a courtroom in Chicago. Indeed, like Mr. Fonyo, he was convicted of more than one. He resides, as of this date, in the Federal Correctional Complex near Coleman, Fla.

Moreover, it would be a fair comment based on the conduct of his business affairs in both the United States and Canada (including his practice of labour relations in the province of Alberta) to observe that Mr. Black deviated “from generally recognized standards of public behaviour.”

Nevertheless, the still-well-connected Mr. Black remains on the list of members of the Order of Canada, windily honoured on the Governor General’s Website as “a distinguished Toronto entrepreneur and publisher … a man of diverse achievements within the realms of Canadian commerce, education, literature and the arts.”

For her part, the Governor General has maintained a dignified silence on the suitability of Mr. Black for membership in the order since his conviction.

So, you might wonder, how can a felon convicted of mail fraud and obstruction of justice in a neighbouring democracy who famously renounced his Canadian citizenship remain part of the Order of Canada while a petty criminal with an addiction problem who nevertheless rendered a significant service to his country cannot?

A clue may be found in the Governor General’s recent statement: “The termination of Mr. Fonyo’s membership in the Order of Canada,” this document explained, “is related to his multiple criminal convictions, for which there are no outstanding appeals.” (Emphasis added.)

Ah, appeals. Of course, the conviction of the unappealing Mr. Black remains constantly under appeal. In fact, the United States Supreme Court heard Mr. Black’s appeal two days before Mr. Fonyo was kicked out of the Order. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on that matter next June or July.

No one in the Canadian mainstream media seems to have tried to speak with Mr. Fonyo about this. Perhaps they were otherwise occupied editing one of Mr. Black’s most excellent columns on the future of the Royal family in Canada or U.S. President Barack Obama’s many shortcomings. Or maybe they were simply too busy exchanging emails with the talkative felon.

Regardless of the reason, as a result of this oversight we can only imagine how Mr. Fonyo feels about his expulsion from the Order. Quite beaten down, one imagines. Possibly without friends, or hope. And, of course, most likely unable to afford an appeal.

It’s not the economy, stupid! It’s the premier…

The Alberta Conservatives have a problem, and the problem has a name: Ed Stelmach. Below: Wall and Campbell.

Premier Ed Stelmach and his political advisors would like you to believe that the economy is at the root of all the troubles faced by the Progressive Conservative party of Alberta.

If this is so, tell it to Brad Wall … or Gordon Campbell!

The premiers of Saskatchewan and British Columbia share the same corner of the country, the same corner of the world, the same ideological views, and essentially the same economy as Premier Stelmach, yet they don’t attract the near universal opprobrium faced by their colleague in Alberta.

Despite having powerful and well-organized political opponents on the left, neither Mr. Wall’s Saskatchewan Party nor Mr. Campbell’s Liberal Party (both of which occupy essentially the same place in the political spectrum as Mr. Stelmach’s Conservatives) face the deep distrust or rapid decline in popularity experienced by the government of Alberta. Indeed, Saskatchewan voters in particular seem to be in love with Mr. Wall right now.

It’s a lucky thing for them, too, seeing as there’s a functional NDP opposition in both provinces that voters recognize as a potential alternative government, if not the government in waiting just now.

If the troubles of Premier Stelmach and his Conservatives were simply a voter reaction to a slackening economy, one would think that Messrs. Campbell and Wall, and indeed all other Canadian premiers, would face similar difficulties. Yet pretty well everyone else, with the sole exception of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, a Liberal, is doing just fine in the polls, thank you very much.

Nor did a slackening economy particularly trouble the Alberta Conservatives in the first months of Mr. Stelmach’s leadership, before it began to sink into the Alberta electorate’s consciousness just what kind of a leader Mr. Stelmach is.

The Great Recession is generally agreed by economists to have begun toward the end of 2007, gathering intensity in the fall of 2008. This certainly had no harmful effect on the fortunes of the Conservatives under Mr. Stelmach in March 2008, when they won a landslide in the provincial general election.

A variety of polls generally remained positive for Mr. Stelmach through most of the rest of 2008, even as the economy turned south. Indeed, the troubles experienced by Mr. Stelmach’s government have seemed to intensify as the economic picture showed signs of brightening.

So, pretty clearly, notwithstanding the arguments of Mr. Stelmach’s inner circle that it’s “not our fault,” the economy in isolation can’t be blamed for the premier’s difficulties in public perceptions, or for his party’s seeming declining fortunes in the polls.

If it’s not the economy, the most obvious suspects for the premier’s difficulties are the government’s mishandling of the health care file under former health minister Ron Liepert, ably assisted in this enterprise by Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett, and the premier’s own apparent inability to lead effectively.

Electorates can sniff out uncertainty and confusion in a leader like a dog can scent fear. Tough talk and fear of flip-flops don’t much help. This is Mr. Stelmach’s principal problem now – the electorate has moved to the conclusion he is not up to the job, and there is not much he can do to convince them otherwise. For good or ill, the Great Unwashed has made up its collective mind, and Mr. Stelmach is no longer receiving the benefit of the doubt.

While we don’t yet have the polls to back up this conjecture with scientific evidence, it seems likely that even the replacement of the rash and inflexible Mr. Liepert with the clearly much more politically adept Gene Zwozdesky as health minister is not going to solve the Conservatives’ principal political problem. That’s because that problem has a name, and its name is Ed Stelmach.

Alberta’s Conservative party has deep roots among the provincial electorate and a strong infrastructure of well-connected loyalists in every riding. It has plenty of talent within its Legislative caucus and outside.

Despite the remarkable rise of the Wildrose Alliance party under Danielle Smith, it seems likely that with the right leader, the Conservatives could sweep the Alliance from the board everywhere outside the Calgary region, and maybe there too.

Who is the right leader? Almost anyone except Ed Stelmach! Does anyone seriously think that Ms. Smith could successfully challenge a Conservative Party led by, say, Deputy Premier Doug Horner or someone from outside the Legislative caucus like Jim Dinning?

Last fall, the Conservative party gathered in convention in Red Deer and decided that the best thing for everyone was for Mr. Stelmach’s leadership not to be challenged. Even the ghosts of landslides past, like Peter Lougheed himself, materialized one last time out of the mist to tell the party faithful to stick with Mr. Stelmach.

But that was then and this is now. Ms. Smith must get down on her knees every night and pray that the Conservatives stick with that foolish and misconceived plan.

Because it is increasingly obvious to everyone else that if the Conservative slide is to be reversed and the Tories are to return to their accustomed role as Alberta’s Natural Governing Party, Mr. Stelmach is going to have to go.

Remembering the ‘Firewall Letter’ – a look at the origins of Wildrose Alliance policy

Actual Alberta Provincial Police officers. Really! Are they returning soon to a roadblock near you, like this one near Trochu? More APP oficers below.

Charter schools and union busting are both standard planks of the market fundamentalist platform, so it should come as no surprise that a new ideological party like the Wildrose Alliance would adopt such policies as it tried to attract supporters on the right fringe of the political spectrum.

Likewise, opposition to women’s reproductive rights and sensitivity to “parent rights” over school curriculum animate so-called “social conservatives,” so it is natural that a new right-wing party seeking to build support would also stake out positions on these issues.

But why, for heaven’s sake, would the Wildrose Alliance advocate withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan, a notion certain to cause grave disquiet among many potential supporters at or near retirement age, even those with strong right-wing views?

And why would the Alliance call for replacing the RCMP with a provincial police force when the Mounties enjoy such broad respect and support among the very voters the party needs most to attract?

The answers to these and other Alliance policy mysteries are found in the once-famous “Firewall Letter,” sent in 2001 to then Alberta premier Ralph Klein by Stephen Harper, Ted Morton and four other influential Alberta independentistes.

The Firewall Letter, so nicknamed because it advised Mr. Klein “to build firewalls around Alberta,” is not much spoken of any more. It was published in Conrad Black’s far-right vanity publication, the National Post, on Jan. 27, 2001. However, with Mr. Harper now occupying an important federal post, his darkly sovereignist view of the national government’s “aggressive and hostile” intentions has pretty much disappeared down the corporate media memory hole.

As the ninth anniversary of its publication approaches, however, it is worth remembering that, although sensibly ignored by the pragmatic Mr. Klein, this document was influential in the rise of the post-Progressive-Conservative neocon alliance in Canada, and its spirit clearly lives on among the supporters of the Wildrose Alliance.

The Firewall Letter specifically called for:

  • Dumping the RCMP as Alberta’s provincial police force when its contract with the province expires in 2012. The letter said this was because Mr. Harper et al. did not approve of the force being “misused as a laboratory for experiments in social engineering.” (Services in two languages?)
  • Getting out of the Canada Pension Plan, a la Quebec.
  • Separately collecting Alberta’s income tax, also in the manner of Quebec, instead of having it collected with the federal income tax, which simplifies the paperwork for Alberta taxpayers.
  • Dropping out of the national health care system to pursue Alberta’s own course not subject to the controls of the Canada Health Act. “If we lose, we can afford the financial penalties that Ottawa may try to impose under the Canada Health Act,” the letter said. (Ah, those oil revenues!)
  • Using provincial referenda in the manner of Quebec’s sovereignty referendum to force Senate reform onto the national constitutional agenda.
  • Reducing Alberta’s contributions through transfer payments to other provinces.

This fairly radical sovereignist project, which the letter argued was within Alberta’s existing constitutional powers, would, the authors claimed, unleash the private sector, increase individual freedom, improve public education and bring Albertans in closer touch with their provincial government.

Reflections of five of these six of these policies can be found in the Wildrose policy summary displayed on the party’s Website, albeit sometimes in circumspect language:

  • “Expand the role of sheriffs to handle Provincial justice issues.” That is, to replace the RCMP as the provincial police.
  • “Withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan and create an Alberta Pension Plan.”
  • “Collect the Alberta personal income tax.” (Without further elaboration, this must mystify some readers, who no doubt imagined that their income taxes had in fact been collected!)
  • “Hold elections for Alberta Senators at the same time as Provincial Elections.”
  • “Fight for Alberta’s deserved share of federal tax dollars through a more equitable distribution of federal transfer payments and contracts.”

The disappearance of any mention of plans to escape the bonds of the Canada Health Act is likely a reflection of political pragmatism of the Alliance’s new leader, former Calgary journalist Danielle Smith, as she seeks to broaden the party’s appeal to mainstream voters.

Ms. Smith is savvy enough to realize both that the principles of the Canada Health Act are popular among Alberta voters, and that to a significant degree she and her party have been surfing on the unpopularity of recent Alberta government health policies. Indeed, she must know that the Conservative health policies now so offensive to Alberta voters, and hence so advantageous to her, in fact embody the spirit of the Firewall Letter and the neocon political movements like the Wildrose Alliance that it spawned.

If this supposition is correct, that Ms. Smith has succeeded speaks to her skill as a politician and leader. But she will face greater challenges.

The Wildrose strategy seems to call for the party to portray itself as “moderate” and “centre right,” a term frequently used by Ms. Smith, as it drives up the middle to displace a Conservative government maneuvered into foolishly trying to outflank the Alliance on the right.

To succeed at this gambit, Ms. Smith will require all her rhetorical and political skills to divert public attention from the radical program that inspired her party’s creation and which still animates many of its supporters.

That may mean dropping all reference to some of these planks at a planned party policy conference, although it is reasonable to assume they may be reintroduced as policy later on should the party be elected.

Ms. Smith can also count on the mainstream media to assist with such political legerdemain, just as it has misdirected the audience while Prime Minister Harper made his ideological history disappear in a puff of smoke.

We can expect the media again to help draw voters’ attention to the horserace between the Alliance and the Conservatives while it continues to ignore these important questions of policy.

Stelmach’s about to learn that CKUA really is ‘radio worth fighting for’

CKUA: Radio so good it even appeals to guys with pipes in ascots! Below: Find it at 93.7 in Calgary, 94.9 in Edmonton. Below that: Alberta’s worst official logo.

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

Advice for Premier Ed Stelmach: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

We’re not talking about cabinet here, but the day before that Jan. 13 cabinet shuffle, Service Alberta Minister Heather Klimchuk’s department slipped Mr. Stelmach a political potato hot enough to scorch the premier’s fingers.

Mr. Stelmach’s latest political predicament comes from a decision to fix something that wasn’t broken – the Alberta Emergency Public Warning System. The problem with this little improvement project is that for completely unexplained reasons, Service Alberta decided to cut the culturally significant CKUA radio network out of the deal.

CKUA, which built the system 17 years ago in the wake of the catastrophic Edmonton tornado and has run it ever since to international plaudits, wasn’t even short-listed. Service Alberta gave the contract to an Ontario company nobody has ever heard of, Black Coral Inc. of Ottawa.

This is a political minefield because CKUA is a genuine cultural gem, supported with love and tens of thousands of individual cash donations from Alberta’s sizeable – and vocal – arts community. CKUA’s support cuts across all political lines and comprises one of the few voter groups not already infuriated at our fumble-prone premier.

Because CKUA depended on the government’s $711,000 annual payment for running the emergency system for about 15 per cent of its yearly revenue, the decision is the biggest blow to the network since Ralph Klein privatized it in 1997 and left it in the hands of a group of cronies who nearly destroyed it.

CKUA’s dedicated listeners created a non-profit community foundation and worked a near-miracle to get the network back on the air. Subscribers and others, who donate close to $3 million a year to keep their beloved station broadcasting, are justly proud of their accomplishment. They are likely to be just as protective of their creation – which long ago they dubbed “radio worth fighting for.”

What is it about CKUA that inspires such loyalty? It’d pretty simple, really. It’s about the only place in Canada other than obscure college radio stations where you can hear music that’s not the homogenized, soul-dead, corporate sludge repeated endlessly on every commercial radio station on this continent. Dozens of well-known Canadian artists – from Ann Vriend to Corb Lund to k.d. lang – wouldn’t be who they are today without CKUA.

What’s more, CKUA has real disk jockeys who know what they’re talking about and create their own playlists, instead of taking orders from corporate headquarters in Toronto or Los Angeles. They play blues, bluegrass, R & B, Celtic, country, classical, jazz, reggae, hip-hop, funk, rock, world music and much more you can’t hear anywhere else.

The story got lost in the days following the cabinet shuffle and it didn’t seem to matter that no government spokesperson could be bothered even to call the media back with an explanation. That’s changing now. This is one potato that’s heating up.

The question members of Alberta’s fuming cultural community are sure to ask their MLAs is, “What will you do now to support this essential cultural service?”

There is no good political answer to this question. If the premier won’t fork over the dough, he’s sure to hear about it from the arts community. If he does, he’ll alienate his fiscal conservative base.

Ironically, in the days before the shuffle, Ms. Klimchuk was one of the ministers frequently named as likely to be dumped from cabinet for underperformance. By the time the premier is done hearing the province’s culturati sing the blues – in four-part harmony – he’ll likely wish he’d let her go.

Likewise, Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett, another under-performer who nevertheless made it back into cabinet, may wish he’d been written out of the score!

With Gene Zwozdesky at the helm, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Stephen Duckett

In less than a week, Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky has Alberta Health Services singing from a new songbook! Below: Stephen Duckett. Below him: Dr. Johnson … or is that Ralph Klein?

After a week like this week, and a day like today, it’s hard to imagine how Alberta Health Services Chief Executive Officer Stephen Duckett could continue in his post.

What’s more, after a week like this week, and a day like today, it’s hard to imagine how newly minted Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky could have ever earned a reputation as a guy who couldn’t make up his mind about what to do in a crisis!

It may be too soon to write off Mr. Duckett, of course. He could yet hunker down and collect his hefty salary for a while as he figures what to do next. But it would be difficult for any brash and confident chief executive, hired from abroad to make big changes and told he had a free hand to do whatever he deemed fit, to be overruled so dramatically and so thoroughly by a new boss only hours into the job.

Indeed, as much as one disapproves of the direction that Mr. Duckett was taking Alberta Health Services, the 90,000-employee government agency responsible for running public health services in this province, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for the man.

He was, after all, given a broad and powerful mandate by his previous boss, former health minister Ron Liepert, to shake things up in Alberta health care. And shake them up he did.

Soon after the start of Mr. Duckett’s tenure less than a year ago, it seemed to many Albertans as if his job were to push public health care in Alberta as far as possible under the Canada Health Act into the private-sector corner, while the politicians sat back and let him take the heat.

But if that was the plan then, it sure as heck is not the plan now. Now Mr. Duckett has had the rug pulled right out from underneath him. Mr. Zwozdesky is firmly in control. The big changes are to many of Mr. Duckett’s dramatic cost-cutting plans.

Today, obviously, Mr. Zwozdesky is the one with the mandate.

Mr. Zwozdesky, the supposedly indecisive nice guy, was named health minister on Jan. 13. Less than a week after the meek had inherited the earth, he put the kybosh on Mr. Duckett’s wildly unpopular scheme to close 246 acute mental health care beds at Alberta Hospital Edmonton. Only 100 geriatric patients would be moved to a new facility in West Edmonton – a plan, by the way, that continues to generate plenty of heat and light.

Mr. Zwozdesky did it nicely enough, as one might expect, with lots of protestations he was completely confident in Mr. Duckett’s leadership. But his actions told another story.

After nearly six months of protest, opponents of Mr. Duckett’s plans for AHE could hardly believe their eyes and ears – although, with good reason, they continued to suspect the province might still nurse long-term plans to shutter the world-class psychiatric facility.

Today, Mr. Zwozdesky reversed another unpopular decision of Mr. Duckett’s, to close 300 acute-care medical beds in Edmonton and Calgary over three years.

“The plan needs to be reviewed to make sure it’s right for Albertans,” the Edmonton Journal reported Zwozdesky as saying. If there was any doubt about who is the boss, he advised the media he had spoken with Mr. Duckett and AHS Chair Ken Hughes and told them what’s what. “I’ve told them to put a halt to any plans to close acute care beds at this time,” the Journal quoted Zwozdesky. “We have a budget coming up. I am hopeful that we’ll be able to have a little bit of room there….”

Also today, Mr. Zwozdesky even suggested to a right-wing Calgary radio talk jock that he might consider reviving plans to redevelop the Alberta Hospital campus in northeast Edmonton. Mr. Duckett had pulled the plug on the redevelopment back on Aug. 14.

The reason for these dramatic reversals is pretty clear. Mr. Duckett’s radical plans were simply not playing in Ponoka.

Whatever Mr. Liepert’s original idea was, Premier Ed Stelmach was soon taking serious heat for Mr. Duckett’s decisions.

Indeed, the heat was serious enough it made sober observers of the Alberta political scene wonder if Mr. Stelmach’s Progressive Conservative government could even manage to be re-elected come the next election.

After nearly 40 years of Conservative rule, that was a pretty clear indicator of just how badly Messrs. Duckett and Liepert’s health strategies were going over with Martha and Henry in the kitchens and parlours of Alberta.

As Dr. Johnson observed: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

With his mind concentrated wonderfully, Mr. Stelmach moved Mr. Liepert to the energy ministry, causing NDP Leader Brian Mason to observe: “Same bull. Different china shop.” The premier sent in the suddenly decisive Mr. Zwozdesky to take control of Mr. Duckett and Alberta Health Services.

Surely Mr. Duckett – whom Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simon recently described as “proud and prickly” – is now calculating the cost to his pride and his pocketbook of a return ticket to Australia.

The Top 10 reasons to worry about the Wildrose Alliance Party – the Top 11, actually

How Wildrose Alliance policies get explained in Alberta.

So, what do the Wildrose Alliance Party and its leader Danielle Smith actually stand for?

This is a good question that nobody seems to be asking – much to Ms. Smith’s delight, it is reasonable to surmise.

Blogger Dave Cournoyer was bang on when he stated Monday that the Alberta media have given Ms. Smith a free ride. “Little of the incredible media attention received by Ms. Smith has focused on her party’s policy or even her political stances,” Cournoyer accurately observed in a post Jan. 18 on his blog.

The few softball questions she has been tossed, he noted, she has easily deflected “by telling the media to wait until her party’s upcoming policy conference or hiding behind the label of libertarianism.”

This inattention by the Alberta media really is inexcusable, disgraceful even. Alberta’s media seem prepared to cover this important story only as a breathless celebrity rave and the political equivalent of a car chase.

The darkest details of Wildrose Alliance policy, of course, are an occult matter, known only to the oil industry bagmen who finance the organization. But it is not that hard to get an inkling of where the party stands on a number of key issues simply by reading the “Wildrose Alliance Policies” page on the party’s Website.

The policies listed on that page range from intriguing to ridiculous, naïve and impractical to outright frightening. Many are buried in the coded language of the extreme right – designed to mean one thing to casual readers and another to insiders, who know what the phrasing really implies.

So, for example, on education policy, the party’s platform is a mixture of ideas that are sensible, intriguing, meaningless, ideological, potentially unconstitutional, dangerously ideological and disguised by coded language:

  • Sensible – full funding for arts and music education
  • Intriguing – providing financial incentives to health and education students willing to work in remote areas
  • Meaningless – “work to reduce absenteeism and truancy”
  • Ideological – “encourage entrepreneurial courses”
  • Potentially unconstitutional – a blanket ban on strikes by teachers and school workers
  • Dangerously ideological – holding teachers’ responsible for students’ performance, well known as recipe for such perverse incentives as pushing weak students to drop out to keep school scores high
  • Coded – “support ‘School Choice’ Legislation”

This last point, of course, is a message to the Wildrose party’s base that Ms. Smith and the party brass support school voucher programs, a system that blossomed in the United States as a mechanism for continuing racial segregation, conveniently justified on “market” grounds.

It is beloved by the market fundamentalists of the far right as a way to weaken public education – and, of course, reduce the power of the teachers’ unions they hate – and to direct public money into the pockets of people who can afford the most expensive private schools.

The school voucher scheme is a particular bee in Ms. Smith’s bonnet, so it is no surprise to find it in the Wildrose platform. It is bound, upon examination, to be rejected by the majority of Alberta taxpayers, so it is no surprise to find it referred to in a code that disguises the intent of the policy referred to.

Here are 10 other dangerous Wildrose policies that should be of concern to Albertans and that, for heaven’s sake, should be the topic of questions by anyone who claims to be a “journalist”:

10) “Implement a timely and effective Social Assistance to work program.” Does this mean “work for welfare”? Until informed otherwise, we’d better assume it does.

9) “Expand the role of sheriffs to handle Provincial justice issues.” Does this mean getting rid of the RCMP and creating a provincial police force? Sure sounds like it.

8) “Provide health care funding that will follow the service to the health care provider and approved facility of choice” – this is code for privatization of services, a guaranteed precursor to add-on fees and a two-tier health care system.

7) “Provide less expensive and more patient-friendly alternatives to hospital care” – the streets? Your kids have to take care of you?

6) “Deliver an annual individual statement of benefits to each resident of Alberta” – this would cost money, tie up health care staff and do no good. It’s goal? Who knows? Maybe to explain to Albertans “how much their health care costs”? Sounds like another precursor to privatization.

5) “Implement legislation protecting the ‘conscience rights’ of healthcare professionals” – is this code for restricting the right of women to abortions?

4) “Oppose unfair and industry specific taxation from the federal government” – in other words, fight for more tax breaks for the oil industry, which is, after all, the chief funder of the Wildrose Alliance.

3) “Allow competition to the Workers Compensation Board” – code for handing over the functions of Workers Compensation to private insurance companies. If you think WCB is bad now, just wait for this idea to become reality!

2) “Allow individual workers the choice to determine their membership in labour organizations” – this is code for so-called “right to work” legislation, which, as Martin Luther King observed, “provides no ‘rights’ and no ‘works.’ Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining…” ’Nuf said.

And the No. 1 reason to worry about a Wildrose government in Alberta, straight from the policy pages of their Website?

1)Withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan…” There’s a qualifier, but don’t believe it. If you want to know what it is, go read it yourself!

Indeed, reading it yourself would be a good idea for any Albertan, since you’re unlikely to get much help from the media.

There’s plenty more to worry about in this packet of policies – and those are just the public ones. There are more to puzzle over too. There is even the occasional good idea.

But one thing’s for sure. No Albertan should consider voting for this party without knowing what it is they really stand for.

Government climbdown a victory, but it doesn’t signal end of fight to save Alberta Hospital

Some of the thousands of Albertans who protested the government’s plans to close beds at Alberta Hospital Edmonton. Below, Mr. T of the A Team and Mr. H of the I Team.

The provincial government’s halfhearted climbdown this afternoon from its plans to close 246 beds at Alberta Hospital Edmonton represents a partial victory for defenders of effective public mental health services and a partial defeat for the health-care privatizers in the government of Premier Ed Stelmach.

But no one should imagine for a moment that this fight is over or that the world-class mental health services provided by Alberta Hospital Edmonton are safe.

The relentless assault on public health care in all its forms will likely soon resume, on this and other fronts, and the supposed benefits of the “community-care” model of (not) delivering mental health services to the people who need them will continue to be a focus of those who would undermine our public health care system.

Still, the thousands of Albertans who spoke up on behalf of Alberta Hospital, its patients and its dedicated staff, who wrote letters to editors and politicians, and who attended town hall meetings and public rallies should be very proud of what they have achieved, even if the respite is likely only to be temporary.

It was not so many weeks ago, remember, that the Stelmach government and its proxies in Alberta Health Services were vowing that its plan to move all but forensic patients to “community settings” would go ahead no matter what the police, the unions, the psychiatrists, the families of the mentally ill or the public said or thought.

Today, with a new health minister directing AHS, the government backed away from half that pledge, stating in a news release that “AHS will withdraw proposals to transfer 146 beds from the acute psychiatry and rehabilitation psychiatry programs at Alberta Hospital Edmonton to other facilities.”

While the government said it was taking the advice of its so-called “Implementation Team,” a committee set up by the premier to cool down a firestorm of public anger that the plan to close so may beds and services at Alberta Hospital sparked in August, the reality is clear it was sustained public pressure that brought about this change.

“Implementation Team” may have stated the original purpose of the committee just a little too clearly, so the AHS/Alberta government news release weirdly dubbed it “the I-Team,” a name that conjured up memories of Mr. T. The I-Team, the release said, recommended that AHS push ahead with plans to close geriatric services at Alberta Hospital and move them to a site adjacent to Misericordia Hospital, across the street from West Edmonton Mall.

This move will cost a lot – AHS estimates a price tag of $3 to $5 million for renovations alone, plus the cost and disruption of the move itself. It will also result in the loss of 150 long-term care beds, which presumably will have to be built somewhere else for a sum that can only be estimated – say, $43.4 million, the cost of the building being taken over. This is strange behaviour for an organization that constantly pleads extreme poverty.

Moreover, it is hard to imagine the move will achieve much in terms of the quality or variety of clinical services provided, although it may have long-term ideological advantages to the AHS privatization agenda in that it will spin off operation of this program to Covenant Health, owned by the Roman Catholic Church instead of the provincial government.

At a crowded news conference at the AHS executive offices in Edmonton today, “I-Team” Chair Fred Horne, ever the good sport despite having not been entrusted with a cabinet post in Premier Stelmach’s Feb. 13 shuffle, repeatedly lauded the work of the geriatric program’s staff at AHS. This did raise an interesting question: “If things are so great, how come they’re being fixed?”

(One can look to the Proverbs of Solomon, a work that should be familiar to the directors of Covenant Health, for one possible answer: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” Having stirred up a hornet’s nest of public fury, the government had to go ahead and do something just to prove it’s still in charge!)

Reading between the lines of today’s AHS press release and the elusive comments of various officials at the news conference, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that closing Alberta Hospital remains on the government’s back burner.

The various committee members, MLAs and AHS officials at the table – plus the disembodied voice of AHS supremo Stephen Duckett commentating telephonically from afar – skated assiduously around the questions of a CBC reporter who asked repeatedly, with diminishing patience, if the AHE redevelopment plan had any future now that those 146 beds will remain open.

Readers who have been following this story will recall that on Aug. 14, when AHS sprang its mental-health-bed-closing plan on unsuspecting Albertans, the health care “superboard” stated in a news release that a decision had been made “not to proceed with the redevelopment of the Alberta Hospital Edmonton site,” which until then had been on a list of planned government projects.

The many Albertans who protested against last summer’s disturbing announcement should assume that Alberta Hospital Edmonton and its services are not truly safe until the province has recommitted itself to redeveloping the site as a psychiatric hospital.

Until then, keep you powder dry!

Latest polls suggest Canada is going through the Albertalizer ™

Mel Hurtig, where are you now that we need you? (Photo by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward.) Below: Premier Ed Stelmach (may not be exactly as illustrated).

Has Canada gone through the Albertalizer ™?

We’re not just talking here about the malign influence of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and all those Conservative heavyweights he brought with him from Alberta, not to mention the creepy little “Calgary School” political scientists and market fundamentalist economists that swim along in their wake.

It’s just that what has seemed like the normal state of Alberta politics for a spell now is starting to look like the new normal for our newly Albertalized federation as well.

To wit: Out here in Alberta, ever since Ralph Klein threw his pocket change at the homeless before stumbling back to his limousine, we just can’t stand our leaders. The only thing is, we’re so underwhelmed by the opposition that wants to replace them that we can hardly give them the time of day either. As a result, cranky as we are, we haven’t been able to bestir ourselves to vote for change. Indeed, in the case of more than half of us, we couldn’t manage to bestir ourselves to vote, period.

This has been especially true since Premier Ed Stelmach replaced King Ralph, who could always manage to fool a sizeable proportion of the population because he had the spooky ability to reverse course suddenly and then act like nothing had happened. (Are voters burning you in effigy because they don’t like you blowing up their hospitals? What hospitals? We’re pouring money into health care… If this didn’t work, Mr. Klein would show a little public contrition – that’s it, I’m off the bottle forever! – and instruct his limo driver not to go near the men’s shelter when he’d been overindulging.)

Alas, Premier Stelmach utterly lacks the former King of Alberta’s flexibility. He is Alberta’s answer to George W. Bush in the sense that he just can’t ever admit to having done anything wrong, no matter how obviously he’s flubbed it. What’s more, he’s so stubborn he won’t bend, no matter how hard the political wind is blowing. As a result, to quote Keith Spicer on a related topic, out here in the New West nowadays “there’s a fury in the land” against the premier.

Indeed, it’s at a point now where if you drove through Edmonton with a homemade “F**K STELMACH” bumper sticker on your beater, you could expect honks of support, upraised thumbs and maybe a free carwash or two instead of the traditional threatening letter from the Mounties!

So, take look at the latest national opinion polls and what do you see? Exactly the same phenomenon developing across the entire federation as the Albertalization of Canada puts a new unsmiley face on the national polity.

Canadians have always distrusted Stephen Harper. Now his annual habit of closing down Parliament whenever democracy threatens to break out is edging them toward the feelings typical Albertans harbour toward their premier. That is, anger, extreme distrust and open cynicism – but with very little benefit for the traditional opposition.

According to a Strategic Counsel poll reported last week by the Toronto Star, Mr. Harper’s unprogressive Conservatives have sunk dramatically in public popularity since last year. According to the national polling firm, this leaves the Conservatives roughly in a tie with Michael Ignatieff’s Liberal Party – 31 per cent for the Conservatives, 30 per cent for the Liberals and 18 per cent for the NDP.

Last October, the same company’s research indicated the Conservatives were polling at 41 per cent, with the Libs at 28 and the Knee-Dips at 14.

Here we clearly see the Albertalizer effect at work in Canadian politics. We’re moving from distrusting our prime minister to disliking the man outright. But does this translate into meaningful improvement for the opposition arties? Nope. Not a chance! While the PM’s party plummeted a surely significant 10 points, the Liberals managed to edge up a statistically insignificant 2 per cent. The NDP did a little better, but not a heck of a lot.

If this isn’t full-blown Albertalization, what is? Next thing we know, Canadians will despise Mr. Harper with the fury Albertans direct at the hapless Mr. Stelmach. But if the pattern holds, the opposition parties will barely benefit.

God help us all, though, if some bright spark has a wild idea and founds the Mapleleaf Alliance!

Speaking of which, does anyone remember Mel Hurtig? Hey, Mel… where are you now that we need you?