Archive for February, 2010

Perfesser Dave explains where it’s at with health care reform in Alberta

Ted Morton: Outstanding in his field, or something, gazing into the distance while he thinks about reforming health care … some day. He is not wearing Italian shoes, which are too easy to reform when you stand in mud. Below: Perfesser Dave.

Help me out here, Perfesser Dave. I’m just totally confused. Premier Stelmach’s Conservatives said they were going to change the way we Albertans get our health care, but they also said they weren’t going to change anything, then they said the system was broke and had to be changed, and now they say it isn’t broke any more, seeing as they’ve given it so much money, and nothing has to change. Is this the end of it? Please illuminate my fuzzification!

Perfesser Dave: That’s a good question, Questioner. The government has given up trying to change the health care system because the voters don’t want them to change it. Period. But just because the government has given up on changing Alberta’s public health care system doesn’t mean they’ve given up on changing Alberta’s public health care system.

Question: What! They said they weren’t going to change anything and we could all go back to sleep! Now you say they’re going to change everything again? Where the heck do you get this stuff! Do you just make it up?

Perfesser Dave: No, I don’t just make it up. You can’t make up stuff like this! I get it from the community press.

Questioner: From the community press?

Perfesser Dave: Righty-ho! Governments never tell the truth to what is known in Alberta as The Media, but they do tell the truth to reporters from the community press, you know, little weekly newspapers published by cranky publishers who can be depended upon to tell their readers to vote Conservative.

Question: Well, I have two questions about that: Why would they tell reporters from the community press…

Perfesser Dave: Because they don’t know they’re there…

Question: Don’t know they’re there? How can they not know they’re there?

Perfesser Dave: Maybe because they wear the same dumb gimme caps as all the other voters in the riding… but also because half the time they’re sitting on the Member’s re-election committee, so they’re easy to forget.

Question: OK, I guess, but then what happens?

Perfesser Dave: Then they blurt out what they really think and it ends up in the community press. The only thing that saves them is that nobody, you know, like, outside the community, actually reads the community press. So it doesn’t matter. Your other question?

Question: My other question? What other … Oh yeah! So how is the community press different from The Media if they tell all their readers to vote Conservative? Don’t they all do that?

Perfesser Dave: Good point, Questioner. But unlike The Media, there’s a possibility they might go tell their readers to vote for the Wildrose Alliance Party, and their Conservative MLAs know it.

Question: Oh…. I get it! So the readers might vote for the Wildrose Alliance because their community paper tells them to!

Perfesser Dave: Well, not exactly. Nobody does what the paper tells them to do any more. They just do it on their own. But their MLAs think they might do it because the community press told them too, instead of because they just felt like it, and you can’t be too careful, so they invite the community press to things to keep them on side, and then they forget they’re there because they don’t look like city reporters, and sometimes the stuff they say ends up in the paper.

Question: OK, so you read a community paper and found out the Conservatives were going to muck up health care again, right?

Perfesser Dave: Exactly! Except that nowadays they don’t call it mucking up. They call it “reforming.” But it means the same thing. So, you’re right. Ted Morton, you know, that pale young finance minister we have who always dresses so nice? He went out to a field north of Edmonton and told a bunch of guys that he hasn’t given up on messing with the health care system. One of them was from the community press. The muck in those fields! Must’ve played hell with Ted’s nice Italian loafers…

Question: Yuk! So what exactly did he say?

Perfesser Dave: Well, Mr. Morton explained that just because the government surrendered and retreated on health care in his last budget doesn’t mean they’re going to surrender and retreat on health care any time soon.

Question: Awww, Perfesser Dave! I still don’t get it! I was just starting to understand, and now I’m confused again.

Perfesser Dave: That’s because you live in a city.

Question: What’s where I live got to do with it?

Perfesser Dave: In Alberta? A heck of a lot! But don’t worry about it. Country accounting is just different from city accounting. So while he was out in that field by Morinville, Mr. Morton explained that while the whole health system had a deficit of $1.3 million, the government just happened to find $1.3 million down in the basement of the Legislature or something. So it paid off all the health system’s debts, so now the system isn’t broke any more. But that doesn’t mean the system won’t be broke again soon, and if it is, everything will have to be cut back again. So, just because the government listened to the voters sure as heck doesn’t mean the government is listening to the voters again any time soon. You don’t want to do that except when you have to! Here’s what he actually said: “This does not mean that we’re surrendering or retreating on health care reform. It means that we’re putting the money there that we think we need to put there to get the job done.”

Question: Well what the heck does that mean?

Perfesser Dave: It means they want to get the job done, and so they put the money there, and then they’re going to get back to dreaming about wrecking health care in Alberta.

Question: But then how will they get the health care job done?

Perfesser Dave: Health care? Who said anything about health care? That’s not the job he’s talking about!

Question: Awwwwww!

Perfesser Dave: Quit yowling! It’s not that complicated. The job he’s talking about is making sure the Wildrose Alliance doesn’t get elected.

Question: So because they surrendered means they didn’t surrender? I’m so confused…

Perfesser Dave: Exactly! It’s just like those Talibans. The more they attack, the more it means they’re losing….

Question: Awwwwww!

Perfesser Dave: Oh never mind. I shouldn’t have mentioned that. They’ll change the health care system after the Wildrose Alliance doesn’t get elected. The Conservatives will, I mean, not the Taliban.

Question: But if people don’t want the health care system changed, and they know that, then they will vote for the Wildrose Alliance!

Perfesser Dave: Well, so what if they do? The Wildrose Alliance hasn’t surrendered either and they plan to wreck health care too.

Question: Well, then why…. Awwwwww! Then if they don’t want health care wrecked, why would anyone vote for the Wildrose Alliance?

Perfesser Dave: Questioner, I’m afraid we just don’t understand that yet. It might have something to do with the water in the Sturgeon River. We’re applying for a research grant from “Alberta Innovates … Politics That Don’t Make Sense…

Question: “Alberta Innovates … Politics That Don’t Make Sense”…? Say what?

Perfesser Dave: You’ve got to say it in a deeper voice: “ALBERTA INNOVATES….” Oh, never mind, you’d have to ask Doug Horner about that one. He wasn’t around when Mr. Morton was out in his riding reforming his shoes and getting ready to wreck health care again.

Question: So they’ll never give up? And we’ll never get rid of them?

Perfesser Dave: Not as long as the job needs to get done.

Question: Well, how long will that be?

Perfesser Dave: Until they put in Internet voting so nobody can ever win an election but them.

Question: Awwwwwww!

NOTE: Perfesser Dave has been sent to Labour Camp for writing stuff like this. This is not as bad as it sounds, but it means he may not be able to post helpful explanations like this one as often as he’d like for a few days. If you can’t live without commentary about Alberta politics, well, go read Daveberta….

Independent MLA pay committee poses zero risk for premier

Too long under the dome? Below: Liberal Pastoor and members of the well-drilled Conservative team, Mitzel, McQueen, Quest and Brown.

Premier Ed Stelmach’s supposed concession to the Opposition this week to strike an independent committee to “study” MLA pay carries no risk for his government.

What’s more, Mr. Stelmach’s Conservative caucus clearly has an agenda for this committee – one that we can be sure he hopes will insulate MLAs from ever again being criticized for treating themselves too well whenever they get an increase in pay and perks.

Everyone in the Legislature – not to mention too many of the rest of us – swallowed the high-pay-for-politicians Kool-Aid so long ago that the antidote for this poison will never work. So it’s not as if the pay-review committee’s members, whoever they end up being, are likely to roll back the excessive pay of Members of the Legislative Assembly.

Indeed, the premier’s agreement to go along with Opposition calls for this committee to be established was both shrewd and easy. It takes the wind out of the sails of the Opposition parties, all of which had hoped to exploit public discontent about generous pay and benefits for big shots, and it allows the controversial issue to be moved semi-permanently off the front burner.

Raise it again, and the government will advise you to wait for the report of the committee. That’ll be, oh, a year or two away. Like, maybe, after the next election.

At the same time, the decision leaves MLAs’ high pay and perks in place, which should please everyone with a chair inside the Legislative Chamber.

Only legislative insiders who have been under the dome too long without coming up for air could find this decision even mildly surprising. What’s surprising is that Conservatives rejected it in the first place when New Democrat Leader Brian Mason proposed it last December to the Legislature’s Member Services Committee. That, surely, was just pure bone-headed stubbornness by a gang of Tory backbenchers who have never before been called upon to exercise their political brain cells. Now the more politically astute heads in the premier’s office have prevailed and the issue is dead for the time being.

To claim, as did Opposition Liberal Leader David Swann, that this development is the result of Mr. Stelmach “feeling the heat” from voters over mismanagement, overspending, yadda yadda, is an optimistic overstatement. Oh, voters are unhappy enough about this, though there’s darned little they can do about it and they know it. But most of the heat experienced by the premier was caused by his own caucus members’ lack of political finesse. Mr. Stelmach merely adopted a time-honoured technique for turning down the heat.

The usual argument trotted out to justify high salaries for politicians is that we need to pay rates similar to the salaries paid to executives by big business or people of similar quality will not make themselves available for careers in public life.

We heard this dubious claim repeated in the Legislature Monday during debate on Lethbridge-East Liberal MLA Bridget Pastoor’s motion to establish the independent commission.

“While I recognize there’s some angst regarding the present compensation,” said Leonard Mitzel, the Conservative MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat, “it’s important that it is adequate to ensure that existing and prospective MLAs are fairly paid for what they do. After all, Albertans deserve to have confidence knowing that they are receiving high-quality representation for their tax dollars.” (Emphasis added – here, and in every other quote in this post.)

High quality? You could’ve fooled most of us. But, what the hey? Any old port in a storm! The same argument is often used to justify extremely high salaries and bonuses for senior civil servants and others in public life.

It is baloney on all counts, of course. As if, for heaven’s sake, the captains of industry and business had done anything to justify their fantastic salaries except exhibit stupidity, cupidity, shortsightedness and a refusal to accept any limitations on their greed. Indeed, if we could use lower salaries to discourage some of these clowns from seeking public office, we would be doing ourselves and our children a favour!

This is not an argument for pauperizing public officials. But good people – indeed, the best people – will always come forward to serve society for fair compensation out of a sense of public service and patriotism.

Extremely high executive-style salaries and outlandish retirement packages only serve to isolate our MLAs and MPs from the concerns of the people they purport to represent. They also provide more justification for election campaigns so expensive they can only be financed by the powerful and wealthy beneficiaries of the insane market fundamentalist policies we have disastrously pursued for 40 years or more in this country.

Which brings us back to Mr. Stelmach’s agenda. Mr. Mitzel said something else that, on its own, is not that remarkable, but which is interesting in context. Talking of the makeup of the committee, which he argued should be as broad as possible, Mr. Mitzel said, “I believe that if we reflect this diversity correctly, the commission’s report will provide Albertans with the opportunity to examine and reflect on its findings.”

Now, here’s what some other Tories who spoke on this motion had to say:

“If this committee were formed, it is important that the commission should reflect the broad diversity of Albertans,” said Diana McQueen, MLA for Drayton Valley-Calmar.

“The commission itself would need to represent the diverse views and interests of all our constituents, of all Albertans,” said Dave Quest, MLA for Strathcona. “… I think to get it right that it would become a very large committee.”

“The composition of an independent body should include not only professionals, experts in compensation, members of the business community, but probably also ordinary members of the public at large,” pitched in Calgary-Nose Hill MLA Neil Brown, who also tossed into the debate the idea that all MLAs should get a defined benefits pension plan – you know, like the ones they’re intent on taking away from ordinary working people!

Notwithstanding that point, do you see a pattern here? When they talk about diversity, they don’t mean people speaking different languages! They mean a huge, cumbersome, many-splendored committee that’ll take forever to report and, when it eventually does, can be blamed for whatever the MLAs are paid. Indeed, if there are enough representatives from enough groups, its conclusions can be passed off as the result of democratic consultation with … you!

So, bet on it, Mr. Stelmach will be looking for a Wildrose Party representative, a union representative, a seniors representative … you get the picture.

Some concession! The remarks of Tory caucus members, duly recorded in Hansard, show well-drilled Conservative s MLAs marching in lockstep as usual toward a preordained objective.

Don’t worry, there’s no danger that this committee will abandon the high-pay orthodoxy of our era for such quaint notions as common sense or public service.

Just for sport, we citizens should demand that the committee’s mandate include the consideration of lower salaries and fewer perks for our MLAs.

While we’re at it, maybe we could suggest a retroactive cap on retirement payments that would limit departing MLAs’ final payouts to, say, half a million dollars – and would require them to resign before the end of this session if they wanted to cash in on them.

Don’t hold your breath! Oh, and don’t volunteer to sit on this committee.

Pulp fiction: The Economist holds forth on Alberta politics and gets it wrong

The Economist magazine (which may not be exactly as illustrated) provides wistful right-wing drivel about Alberta for credulous capitalists around the globe. Below: How the Economist, oddly enough, sees both Danielle Smith and Ed Stelmach!

What is it about us Canadians that when we get mentioned – usually insultingly – in the British gutter press, the entire national media picks up on it and chatters about it for hours, even days? How very naff!

Usually it’s just the Daily Mirror expressing its outrage that some mayor from Northern Ontario has placed his unwashed paw in the small of Her Britannic Majesty’s back as he guides her up the stairs to the town’s Centennial lookout by the old pit mine or, worse, some unschooled Prairie reporter has asked her an impertinent question.

Last week, however, Albertan airwaves were abuzz with reports that the excruciatingly right-wing Economist magazine, a pretentious publication for people who wish they were rich, had sent a reporter to Alberta to write about the inevitable ascent to power of Danielle Smith and her Wildrose Alliance Party.

Oh my Gawd! the radio waves fluttered, we’ve been mentioned in the Economist! Nous sommes arrivés! The conclusion of the local media seemed to be that, if it was written in the Economist, it must therefore be true.

Alas, as a famous song said of another book alleged to contain inerrant truth, “it ain’t necessarily so.” The Economist, after all, is the publication that lent the concept of “pulp fiction” to business news coverage.

Under the heading “A Canadian conservative split, a wild rose blooms, a prairie echo of the tea party,” the Feb. 18 edition of the Economist offered its credulous international readership the following dubious claims:

  1. That the Wildrose Alliance under Danielle Smith “leads the opinion polls.”
  2. That Albertans’ political and economic views “often align more closely with American Republicans (of the tea party persuasion).”
  3. That Mr. Stelmach’s government is “tacking to the right.”
  4. That Premier Ed Stelmach may soon be dumped by his own party.

Keen observers of Alberta politics will agree that these conclusions are questionable at best, and mostly errant nonsense.

As readers of this blog know, the Wildrose Alliance cannot be said to “lead the polls” until there are polls to support this contention. So far there has only been one that puts the Alliance in the lead, and it is not a poll that inspires much confidence. However, if the Economist’s writer based her research on reading the Alberta press, perhaps we can forgive her for reaching this mistaken conclusion. After all, they repeat this myth constantly and apparently without remorse.

In reality, we will have to wait for the next reliable poll to know what is going on. Several pollsters are likely in the field right now sampling opinion. The smart money is that, just like all the other polls but one, any new poll will show the Conservatives still in the lead among the province’s voters.

Speaking of public opinion polls, there is no sound evidence that Albertans’ views align with the lunatic tea party fringe of the U.S. Republican party. Indeed, all evidence based on sound public opinion research suggests the opposite. And that, of course, is why the Stelmach government eased itself to the left in its Feb. 9 budget.

Given its policies on health care – which the Economist tries unconvincingly to paper over – the claim the Conservatives are tacking to the right is preposterous. The best the Economist’s scribbler could have argued is that the Tories are tacking in two directions a the same time, something governments can do that is best not attempted in a sailboat!

As for the likelihood of Mr. Stelmach being dumped by his own party, well, one supposes our British friends must have concluded that if it could happen to Margaret Thatcher, it could happen to anyone. Well, cry me a river! From the standpoint of the Alberta Conservatives, this might well be a good idea. But we shall see how likely it is to actually come about. Don’t bet cash money on it!

While the article does contain some factual material, it is cast mainly in a supporting role for such right-wing wishful thinking.

It is mildly exciting in an ex-colonial kind of way that a prominent British magazine has seen fit to draft a misleading and shallow article about the parlous state of Alberta politics. But let us not take this kind of nonsense too seriously, as some do.

One would hope that the Economist’s readers do not make actual business decisions based on this kind of drivel.

The Economist article, which is not available to mere plebs like us on-line, is reproduced below:

+ + +

From the Economist:

When the Progressive Conservatives won power in Alberta, Richard Nixon was still in the White House and Britain had only just abandoned shillings. Under various leaders, they have ruled continuously for almost four decades. Alberta, the home of oil, gas and cattle, has become the bedrock of Canadian conservatism. Yet now the Progressive Conservatives face a rebellion on the prairies—from the right, rather than the left.

Ed Stelmach, Alberta’s premier since 2006, won 72 of the 83 seats in the legislature at an election just two years ago. Now he is Canada’s least popular premier, with an approval rating in a recent poll of 14%. The recession has not helped. It has driven up unemployment in a province accustomed to the good life during a prolonged commodity boom, and caused Alberta’s finances to fall into the red for the first time in 15 years. The premier has antagonised the oil and gas industry, first with a bungled attempt to raise royalties and then by his lacklustre defence of the province’s tar sands from attacks on their carbon emissions by greens at home and abroad.

An election does not have to be called until 2012. But Mr Stelmach may be dumped by his own party before then. That is because it feels threatened by the Wildrose Alliance, a more conservative fringe party. This has only three seats in the legislature but leads the opinion polls. It is also setting the political agenda in Alberta.

Danielle Smith, the alliance’s young leader, criticises Mr Stelmach’s government for spending too freely and “blowing through” the province’s savings. Her calls for smaller government are popular with Albertans, whose views often align more closely with American Republicans (of the tea-party persuasion) than with eastern Canadians. Many also like Ms Smith’s unabashed defence of exploiting the tar sands (she argues that it is not clear that human activity causes climate change). Her suggestion that Alberta emulate Quebec and wrest control of a host of joint programmes, such as immigration, income-tax collection, the public pension plan and the police force, plays to a belief that Alberta is being short-changed in Ottawa.

Facing this conservative wind, the provincial government is tacking to the right. Mr Stelmach named Ted Morton, a fiscal and social conservative, as finance minister in a cabinet shuffle last month. The 2010 budget, unveiled on February 9th, involves a spending increase and a deficit, but it came wrapped up in promises of restraint and future balanced budgets.

Most of Ms Smith’s positions hark back to an open letter in 2001 by a group of Calgary intellectuals whose number included Mr Morton. Known as the “firewall letter”, it urged Ralph Klein, then the premier, to build barriers to keep the federal government from encroaching on provincial jurisdiction. As a leading contender for the Conservative leadership if Mr Stelmach jumps or is pushed, Mr Morton may get a chance to implement these ideas. One of the other signatories was Stephen Harper. Since he is now prime minister of Canada, he may be rather less keen to see firewalls going up.

Another day, another political party: Fragmentation of Alberta’s political right grows wackier by the minute

What, no oil pumps? The Alberta Party starts pumping anyway. Below: Alberta Party co-leaders Chima Nkemdirim and Edwin Erickson. Sounds like it was Edwin who had the presence of mind of register the name.

Well, OK!

The right-wing Wildrose Alliance may have the most engaging and interesting political leader Alberta has seen for a spell, but Renew Alberta definitely has the best name.

Best name, you say? What’s so great about Renew Alberta – I mean, talk about Zzzzzzzsville!

Ah, but that’s just it. Zzzzzzzzz no more, Renew Alberta is not Renew Alberta anymore, it’s … wait for it … the Alberta Party.

Whatever else we will learn about the new, amalgamated Alberta Party in the days ahead – and that could be almost anything by the sound of it – it has a name that’s hard to forget, and that’s half the battle in this era of instant marketing. Just ask Brad Wall, premier of Saskatchewan and leader of the so-called Saskatchewan Party. (In the case of Saskatchewan, of course, that party would still be called the Conservatives had it not been for a case of Devine intervention, as it were. But, je digress.)

Renew Alberta seemed to be an attempt by a group of disgruntled Red Tories and fed-up rightward-leaning Liberals to create a centre-right alternative to the bumbling Conservatives of Premier Ed Stelmach and the uncomfortably far-right Wildrose Alliance. Former Conservative and influential blogger Ken Chapman has been a leading light in this approach to Alberta politics, which sponsored a much-publicized conference in Red Deer last November called Reboot Alberta.

It was no secret from the start of the Reboot/Renew process that Renew Alberta wanted to call itself the Alberta Party.

The problem was that excellent name was owned by someone else – someone with not much chance of getting elected no matter what they called themselves.

The Alberta Party seems to have sprung from the same muddy spring as the Wildrose Alliance, the Alberta Alliance, the version of the Social Credit party that was revived in the early 1990s, the Western Canada Concept, the Heritage Party of Alberta, the Representative Party of Alberta, the Confederation of Regions and other fragments of the fruitcake right. However, unlike the others, it also comes with a touch of Green in the form of leader Edwin Erickson, a former deputy leader of the now defunct Alberta Green Party.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the party’s murky beginnings, it had that great name, so the Red Tories of Reboot Alberta and the current leaders of the Alberta Party sat down together, broke bread and what emerged was, in the words of an email sent to Renew Alberta supporters yesterday morning, a merged political party that, unlike Renew, was already a registered party.

Well, they do say politics is the art of the possible! Still, one would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at those particular negotiations!

Says the Renew email: “The Alberta Party and Renew Alberta were both heading toward the same destination: a government that is fiscally, socially and democratically responsible; a viable, moderate political option that our province has been lacking for far too long. Once we realized that we had similar ideas on how to build a new party, it became obvious we would be stronger if we worked together.”

Good one!

For his part, Mr. Chapman claims “the membership and motivation behind the Alberta Party has become much more centrist in its outlook and political philosophy.”

Whatever the core philosophy and leaders of the new merged Alberta Party turn out to be, it seems most likely it will be dominated by Red Tory/Blue Liberal supporters from the Reboot/Renew Camp.

If that is the case, we can expect it to adopt the classic electoral strategy of the Liberal Party of Canada – campaign to the left, govern to the right.

In addition, if the Rebooters, dominate, we can also expect many of the current Alberta Party’s core followers to quickly grow disillusioned with the new structure and hive off on their own with an even fringier fringe party. This, after all, is the great tradition of the Alberta far-right. Maybe they can call it the Wild Rose True Blue But Also Green Major Douglas Social Credit Western Canada Heritage Representative Confederation of Regions Concept Party of Alberta (WRTBBAGMDFSCWCHRCRCPA, I think).

This leaves the interesting question of who will lead the renewed Alberta Party. Presumably it won’t be Mr. Erickson, leader of the un-rebooted Alberta Party, Version 1.0. After all, he is a little-known figure seemingly unlikely to have much appeal to the province’s increasingly urban and diverse electorate.

A betting man would put money on Chima Nkemdirim, co-chair of Renew Alberta, a well-spoken young Calgary lawyer who has acted hitherto as Renew’s principal spokesperson.

Mr. Nkemdirim may turn out to be as engaging a presence as Danielle Smith of the Wildrose Alliance. Or maybe not, that remains to be seen. But he is certainly more likely to appeal to the 21st Century Alberta electorate than the likes of Mr. Erickson, or for that matter Premier Ed Stelmach!

Like the emergence of the Wildrose Alliance, rebirth of the new Alberta Party (NAP?) has interesting implications for all the parties with seats in the Legislature.

Will some Liberal MLAs, as has been suggested, break ranks to give this new party a Legislative caucus, just as far-right Tories have bolted for the Wildrose Alliance? Will further fragmentation of the right help or hurt the New Democratic Party? Will the emergence of this new party take votes from the Liberals, the Wildrose Alliance or the Conservatives? Or all three? Or none of the above? What will its impact, if any, be on prospects of the governing Conservatives? Without a party of their own, where will Alberta’s many Greens decide to place their votes?

This is a time of great ferment in Alberta politics. The creation of a fourth right wing party – fifth if you count, oh never mind… – moves Alberta beyond the sublime and much closer to the ridiculous!

NOTE: Some others who have posted interesting and informative blogs on this topic in the past few hours include Jane Morgan, Alberta Altruist, Calgary Grit and Daveberta.

Morton’s budget moves the goalpost to the Tories’ advantage

The latest Alberta Conservative budget strategy comes right out of the playbook of former prime minister Jean Chrétien, below: find out where the voters are, and go there. Below Jean, Carl von Clausewitz.

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

Premier Ed Stelmach, Finance Minister Ted Morton and their political advisors have moved the goalposts of Alberta’s political game with their Feb. 9 provincial budget.

A month ago, the Progressive Conservative government looked weak, confused and on its way to the proverbial dustbin of history. Albertans were increasingly unhappy with the government’s performance in many policy areas, most particularly health care. Their discontent was reflected in sagging public opinion poll results. Premier Stelmach looked bewildered.

The Wildrose Alliance, a new political party attacking the government from the right, appeared to have captured the imagination of tens of thousands of Albertans. It didn’t seem unreasonable to imagine the Alliance could soon win a general election.

No more! Today, the government looks strong and very much in control. The Alliance, which was riding a great wave of public dissatisfaction, woke up on Feb. 10 to a public that was relieved and quietly pleased with the government’s new approach to managing the affairs of the province.

Where a few days before, the Alliance had the Conservatives on the run with dramatic floor crossings by disaffected government MLAs, all of a sudden those among the next wave of Tory turncoats were said to be privately reconsidering their plans to join the Wildrose revolution.

What changed? Nothing less than the Conservatives’ core strategy. In a nutshell, the government figured out where the voters were, and went there.

Instead of trying to outflank the Wildrose Alliance by going ever farther to the right, which had appeared to be the Conservative strategy right up until budget day, they moved back to the centre, the ground occupied by most Albertans.

In practical terms, this meant significantly increased funding for public health care, no dramatic slashing of most other public programs as advocated by the Alliance and its market fundamentalist echo chamber in the media and academia, and a commitment not to make dramatic changes to programs Albertans like.

This was done suddenly, with many hints in advance the government was moving the opposite direction. Well, as observed by Carl von Clausewitz, the great 19th Century Prussian theorist of war, surprise plays a greater role in strategy than tactics.

This budget was certainly a surprise. Overnight, the Wildrose Alliance is left standing all alone, isolated in right field, mumbling their market fundamentalist mantra.

Alberta Conservatives may not be completely comfortable with the analogy, but their leaders’ gambit came right out of the playbook of former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien, a politician who knew unerringly where the voters were and sought them out. Whether Albertans approved of Mr. Chrétien’s policies, they will recall he led his party to three majority governments and defined Canadian politics for a generation.

It will take all the opposition parties more than a little time to recover from their Feb. 9 surprise.

For the Liberals and New Democrats, it means Conservative-Wildrose vote splitting will likely take place in fewer ridings than they had hoped.

For Wildrose strategists, the problem is more severe. If they stay where they are, they will lose the mainstream. If they move toward the centre, their foes will whisper, “hidden agenda.” Their strategists’ most likely riposte will be to try to restore the flow of turncoats – tougher now than before. A favourable pre-budget poll might help.

What pushed the Tories back to the centre? No doubt a series of angry town hall meetings on health care frightened party moderates enough to speak out in caucus. But, ironically, the Wildrose strategy may also have been too successful. Every floor crosser, real or imagined, strengthened the hand of the moderates in caucus.

As a result, for the moment, the status quo, and possibly sanity, prevails.

Is Alberta broke? Quick, Doug, better ask Ottawa to put us in trusteeship!

Hey! What’s the problem? In California they’re slashing university budgets by 25 per cent! Conan the Advanced Education Minister, above, channels the governor of California. Below, the California Republican candidate to the U.S. Senate, Carly Fiorina. Alberta politicians may not be exactly as illustrated. By the look of it, the same likely goes for the California ones.

Whoa! Is Alberta broke?

Serious question, folks.

Alberta’s universities and technical schools are reeling at the apparently unexpected news that they face spending cuts of five-per-cent or more in 2010 because of the Feb. 9 provincial budget.

In the budget, the province fought the political fire that was breaking out all over in health care by diverting cash from other ministries, including education. Now that it’s starting to sink in that this will result in cuts to staff, cuts to faculty, cuts to places for students, cuts to financial support for students and cuts to educational opportunities in Alberta, people are starting to scream.

Who knows, given a little time, maybe this one will build up as much steam as health care did before Feb. 9? After all, a $20-million cut (on top of another $20-million cut) at the University of Alberta is not chickenfeed. Those of us who have children at the U of A are entitled to be worried, and should be. Of course, the Stelmach government is counting on fewer Albertans having a relative in a post-secondary educational institution than in a hospital.

Doug Horner, the minister of advanced education and deputy premier, sounded just like Ralph Klein as he defended these crippling cuts in post-secondary education funding. Alert readers will recall that Mr. Klein’s approach to reasoned policy reform was to throw the entire deck into the air and see where all the cards landed. As far as he was concerned, future generations could pick the cards up and figure out where to put them.

So here’s Mr. Horner in this morning’s Edmonton Journal explaining how the universities and colleges should sort out their funding shortfall: “Can we do 10 per cent more … with the same dollars? Now is the time we need to start talking about that?”

Uh, no, one would have thought the time to have started talking about it was when the cuts were planned. But then, in fairness to Mr. Horner, they were probably scratched out on a napkin at Martini’s a night or two before the budget went to press. (As the Tories said of the recession, who could have known?)

Then Mr. Horner went on to observe, in the words of the Journal reporter, that “some institutions, such as the University of California’s Berkeley campus, are getting 25-per-cent cuts.”

Berkley? In case you missed it, California is broke. The world’s eighth largest economy is on life support, paying its remaining public employees in IOUs instead of U.S. currency, characterized by the New York Times as “the new Mississippi,” and teetering on the brink of defaulting on its bonds.

Last week, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina suggested that the Pauper State (formerly the Golden State) should consider declaring bankruptcy. (She was apparently not aware that states can’t declare bankruptcy under federal U.S. bankruptcy law, demonstrating that trademark fiscal conservative grasp of fine economic details.)

It is in that context that the University of California Berkley is facing 25-per-cent budget cuts.

So, does Mr. Horner’s comparison mean that Alberta is broke too? Have our oil and gas royalties dried up entirely? Are we about to default on our bonds as well?

Well, gee, if the deputy premier of Alberta thinks the plight of the province’s leading university is just a milder version of the financial situation at the University of California, maybe the folks lining up to buy those 3.3-per-cent “Alberta Capital Bonds” should be thinking twice about that particular investment.

If our financial plight is comparable to California’s, maybe Mr. Horner or his boss should be placing a call to the federal government to put Alberta in trusteeship.

At the very least, maybe they should (quelle horreur!) be considering a return to a progressive income tax that would raise another $5.5 billion without anyone except the government’s ultra-rich friends feeling any pain.

Or maybe he’s just giving us a line of baloney. Maybe he’s just back to the same old Alberta Tory trick of making it up as you go along and then saying the first thing that pops into your head when someone calls you on it.

Maybe Alberta isn’t like California at all. Maybe we’re actually can afford to finance higher education in this province, but we’re just cutting it because … who knows? Maybe because we don’t want too many educated voters.

It doesn’t really matter who provides it, as long as it’s publicly funded’ – right?

“Assisted living” – if you can’t afford it, you won’t get much assistance, regardless of your needs. You’re as likely to find an elevator in a tent!

Do you think public health care is safe in Alberta now that the government of Ed Stelmach has changed its tune and has significantly increased the budget for health services?

Getting you to think that is certainly the idea. Indeed, it’s obviously the hope of Mr. Stelmach, Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, their colleagues in cabinet and caucus, their political advisors and all their friends and relations. Judging from media coverage since the Feb. 9 budget and the views of the proverbial person in the street, they seem to have succeeded, at least for the time being.

But listen carefully to what they have to say and you can hear the whisper of the same old same old. That is, the same old same old privatization song, the same old same old roadmap to a two-tier health-care system.

For example, just this morning, Premier Stelmach, Mr. Zwozdesky and Stephen Duckett, the CEO of Alberta Health Services, the Alberta government’s public health services arm, were all quoted as saying – in the Edmonton Journal’s summary – that “it doesn’t matter to people how the care is delivered, as long as it’s publicly funded and done well.”

Later this morning, Mr. Zwozdesky said it again in almost exactly the same words on a right-wing talk radio program broadcast from Calgary. If the results are good and the price is right, the health minister told his radio listeners, “it shouldn’t matter where it gets done.”

What you’re hearing is a talking point – the Alberta government’s No. 1 health care talking point by the (frequent) sound of it.

You need to listen carefully because talking points like these don’t actually say what they sound like they’re saying. You’ll notice that these government officials never use the term “public health care,” which is what they want you to think they mean.

They’re not actually saying public health care because they don’t really mean public health care. They talk incessantly about publicly funded health care – that is, health care that taxpayers pay for, but with money that ends up in the pockets of private companies – because “publicly funded” is conservative code for “privately delivered.”

As Alberta’s New Democratic Party put it a few days ago in their “What People Want” report on health services in Alberta, “by specifying ‘publicly funded,’ the government is creating a market for the private profit-based delivery of health services. Private delivery means reduced accountability. It also means taxpayer dollars are used to pay shareholder dividends.”

Ultimately, this idea also opens the door to two-tier health care, to for-profit use of the same facilities, no matter what promises are made about the arrangement in its early days.

Now, the NDP rendered a useful service to the people of Alberta – indeed, of the entire English-speaking world – by cataloguing a few of the common deceptive phrases used by advocates of privatization of health services to mask their intentions.

The bad news, in a sense, is that this short but helpful English-Market Fundamentalist phrasebook was authored by the NDP, since by nature it is a partisan document and will therefore tend to be dismissed out of hand by many outside the normal Knee-Dip constituency.

This is a pity, because the report does contain some sound, commonsense ideas for the protection and improvement of public health care, here and elsewhere, as well as its invaluable guide to deceptive health debate terminology.

Given the frequency of our encounters yesterday with the little “publicly funded” deception, some of the other misleading terms explained by the Knee-Dippers’ manual are also worth noting down for future reference. Here are three more to watch for:

Choice. Choice, of course, doesn’t mean choice. Actually, it means the opposite. With choice, as you grow old, you will have the choice of living in lots of different places with lots of different services – all of which will come at a huge cost to you, and none of which you will be able to afford. In Alberta, there’s a shortage of government funded long-term care for seniors, and the government aims to make that shortage worse. That way, you can go and live in an expensive, privately run “assisted living” facility, where there’s a fee for everything. As the NDP says, “a senior requiring long-term care that is inaccessible has no choice.” If you can’t afford choice, of course, you can choose to live in a cardboard box.

Aging in Place. The Alberta government has a strategy that will encourage “aging in the right place.” If you can only afford to live in that aforementioned cardboard box, well, that’s the right place for you, pal. As the Knee-Dips explain, “the term is meant to sound empowering, but refers to facilities that charge out of pocket for the full range of elder care.” This achieves one of the key goals of the market fundamentalist agenda: transferring wealth from the middle class to the extremely wealthy. Remember, money that goes into the pockets of well-heeled nursing home operators is money that won’t be inherited by the children of middle class Albertans. The Conservatives, and their ideologically identical opponents in the Wildrose Alliance, thinks that’s exactly the way it should be.

Community based. Remember how Alberta Hospital Edmonton was going to be replaced by community-based care? Community based case means care delivered outside hospitals. In the case of the mentally ill, that often means the streets (see cardboard boxes above). In the case of the elderly, community based means care delivered at great cost to the people who require it and their families. The NDP cites such examples as private for-profit clinics and those so-called assisted-living facilities. But it may also mean your home, as your mother and father grow too old and too ill to care for themselves.

Several times in the past few weeks, the Alberta government has publicly admitted that citizens of this province have lost confidence in the health care system and promised to take action to restore their trust.

If they really mean what they say, they could do worse than to adopt the New Democrats’ eminently sensible recommendations on reducing the use of misleading language in the health care debate. To wit:

  1. “Publicly release all planning documents relative to health care reform.”
  2. “End the use of deliberately misleading language.”

Well, good luck with seeing either of those things happen.

We’ll know that they mean it about restoring our trust when we stop hearing carefully phrased promises about “publicly funded” health care.

Juxtaposition happens! Let’s hope for the Sun’s sake this salesman has a sense of humour

Juxtaposition happens!

And usually, when it does, something else flows downhill from there. Bet that the latter material was flowing downhill onto the head of some poor copy editor at the Edmonton Sun not so long ago.

I’m speculating, of course. I have no insider knowledge. I just opened the pages of Sunday’s Sun to see this:

Whoops! Bad juxtaposition! Let’s hope for the Sun’s sake that the car salesman in question has a sense of humour.

Having spent many years working for metropolitan daily newspapers, I can tell you that this kind of thing used to happen with astonishing ease. The business is rife with stories of plane crash stories placed beside have-a-wonderful-flight advertisements, followed by terrifying calls from the advertisers to the publisher, and so on down the chain. For some reason, it’s always an anonymous sluggo on the copy desk who ends up wearing it.

The reason is that the ads are placed in the paper first. How many pages there will be, and what they will look like, are decisions based on the number of advertisements that have been sold. When the page gets to the copy editor (in the old days on a piece of paper called a dummy, nowadays as an electronic file) the image on the ad doesn’t show up. Probably the only thing the editor could see was a label that said something like “Car Dealer Ad.”

For a few years, this particular problem happened less often. Newspapers took measures to prevent it. Usually that meant a person walking around the pre-press area eyeballing the pages for just this kind of thing.

Apparently in this era of short staffing, no-staffing and commuting editors responsible for the contents of different newspapers in different cities, that person’s been sent packing while no one else is paying attention. The results, of course, are predictable.

Indeed, one wonders if similar care was taken with the facts in the story.

Regardless, here’s some advice: Someone from the Sun should probably be calling up Andre and saying, uh, sorry! Maybe send him tickets to an Oilers game or something. … No, on second thought, probably not that…

How about a fruit basket? Yeah, that’s it! Fruit baskets are always good! If there’s room in the budget…

Cases in point: Alberta legislators could aspire to higher quality debate

Yer a punk! I’ll walk outside with any one a youse here… Parliamentary passion in New Brunswick. More boffo New Brunswick yuks below. Why can’t our Legislature be more like this?

No doubt a contributing factor to the uninspiring standards of debate in the Alberta Legislature has been the small number of questions allocated to opposition parties, a topic that has been the subject of no little commentary in recent weeks by the various caucuses of opposition.

This suggests that even Bull Trout Social Democrats and Wildrose Market Fundamentalists can find common ground now and again, even if they cannot, as I am sure both parties would insist, agree upon such questions of the day as whether we have a spending problem of a revenue problem in this province…

Regardless of that, only rarely does debate in our Legislature reach a level of passion sufficient to register on a lie detector, let alone a seismograph. After all, it’s pretty hard for an opposition MLA to work up a frenzy sufficient to send a minister of the Crown over the edge when he or she must wait 10 minutes or more for a government member to lob gentle softballs at the minister. “The Honorable Member has asked an excellent question, hack, fap, ahem…”

This is a pity really, because a good sharp debate entertains the visiting school kids and shocks their parents a good deal more than a gentle admonition from Mr. Speaker for everyone to put their BlackBerries away.

Yeah, sure, Frank Bruseker could get under Ralph Klein’s skin in days of yore, and a nettled Ron Liepert can put on a good show now and then, but, really, folks, our legislators just have a lot to learn about inserting some passion, not to mention some bathos, into debate.

Strictly as a public service, then, I offer these two clips that illustrate the more inspiring standard of debate in our Legislature’s sister legislature in New Brunswick. We live in hope!

Thanks to CC of the Canadian Cynic blog for pointing out the first, and to an unnamed Alberta politician for drawing our attention to the second.

Now there are four right-wing parties in the Legislature!

Checked by Finance Minister Ted Morton, left (flanked by Treasury Board President Lloyd Snelgrove, Premier Ed Stelmach and Chief of Staff Ron Glen), Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith, right, contemplates her next move, assisted by a Fraser Institute representative. Yeah, that’s it! Think up a snappy slogan! Alberta politicians may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Danielle Smith, leader of the Wildrose Alliance Party, was holding court with a bunch of reporters in the Rotunda of the Legislature on Tuesday, trying to let the air out of Finance Minister Ted Morton’s budget tires.

She was getting a laugh out of the gathered media stenographers with a good line: Now there are three left-wing parties in the Legislature!

Now, Ms. Smith was trained by the Fraser Institute – a so-called “right wing think tank.” No one will dispute the right wing part of that concept, though some of us may feel it’s a different kind of tank entirely. Regardless of that view, however, the Fraser Institute deserves credit for its genius for reducing complicated arguments to one-liners that get a knowing chuckle and appear to sum up the truth.

Like a lot of slogans, sometimes they sum up just enough truth to be dangerous, and therein lies their genius.

Take “Tax Freedom Day,” a concept much loved by the Fraserites, if not actually invented by them. It’s been well marketed, so by now everyone understands the concept without a journalistic backstory. It’s clever, and cleverly misleading. And notwithstanding the truth of the alternate proposition, Civilization’s Just Been Paid For For Another Year Day just doesn’t have the necessary snappy ring to it.

So, says Ms. Smith, there are three left-wing parties in the Legislature… Good one! Vintage Fraser Institute!

The only trouble is that her one-liner has pretty much got the true situation in the Alberta Legislature bass-ackwards.

Today, arguably, there are four right-wing parties in the Legislature.

Here’s Mr. Morton’s summation of his budget strategy: “Budget 2010 strikes the right balance between fiscal discipline and protecting core programs. It enhances our competitiveness by keeping taxes low and investing in infrastructure for the future, and positions us to be back in the black within three years.” (Emphasis added.)

Here’s Ms. Smith’s official line: “…A Wildrose Government would legislatively cap spending to the rate of inflation plus population growth, which this PC government has repeatedly failed to do.” (Ditto.) She also said: “The Wildrose Caucus is offering solutions that would help eliminate the PC deficit in two years.”

OK, so that’s what the right-wing right-wing parties say.

Here’s what Liberal Leader David Swann’s news release on the budget had to say: “…These spending increases are unsustainable.” The release didn’t make this promise, but who would bet Dr. Swann wouldn’t promise to eliminate the deficit in one year, given half a chance?

And here’s New Democratic Party Leader Brian Mason’s two bits’ worth, according to a pull quote, not available on-line, on Page A4 of Wednesday’s Edmonton Journal: “They’re spending the sustainability fund like drunken sailors and that is going to be almost gone in the next two or three years. …”

Do you see a common theme here? Granted, Mr. Mason’s comments taken in context are more nuanced. For that matter, so are Mr. Morton’s. But everyone, even Mr. Mason, seems to have drunk the spending-is-a-problem Kool-Aid.

Is it really? Look, you can always find an example of a tax dollar foolishly spent. The same would go for corporate dollars if you were ever allowed to look. And, yes, it is possible to spend beyond your means. But while this may not boil down to a quotable little Fraser Institute sound bite, the fact is that Alberta has a revenue problem, not a spending problem.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes quite rightly pointed out, it takes a certain amount of money to run a decent civilization. That’s what taxes are for, no matter how much the hyper-rich and the market fundamentalists may hate the idea. And in Alberta, we don’t tax some people nearly enough, and we don’t manage our taxes in a way that makes sense.

Our spending on most public services is low compared to other provinces. We could raise our taxes by more than $10-billion a year and still be the lowest-taxed jurisdiction in Canada. We could raise them by $14 billion and just meet the Canadian average!

If we brought back a fair taxation policy, instead of a flat tax that favoured the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, we’d have about $5.5 billion more in revenue. (Where are the huge benefits this Klein-era flat-tax scam was supposed to bring us? Where are our trickle-down riches?)

Moreover, we charge too little in royalties for the non-renewable resources that belong to all Albertans. If we’d had the same royalty structure as Norway, we would have brought in an additional $5.7 billion a decade ago, and presumably more in each year since.

Instead, we charge too little, then ride the oil and gas price roller coaster. We act as if the funding issues our government faces are the result of too much spending on public services, not the shortfall in revenues collected by the government. And everyone in the Legislature seems to agree. Everyone.

According to Ted Morton, quoted yesterday in the Edmonton Journal, “the last thing Alberta needs is two conservative parties.”

No, two conservative parties is just fine. The problem is, we have four.