Archive for March, 2010

Never mind the premier’s right-wing brother-in-law, this is serious!

T-shirt seen around the Stelmach household … NOT! Below: Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.

Hey, it turns out everyone has a you-know-what right-wing brother-in-law – even Conservative Premier Ed Stelmach, who’s far enough to the right himself to be in danger of tipping over the edge.

At any rate, Alberta’s media is full of the news this week that Mr. Stelmach’s brother-in-law has gone and joined the far-right Wildrose Alliance and said some uncomplimentary things about the job his sister’s husband is doing as premier.

The brother-in-law in question, Allan Warshawski, farms near the village of Chipman, which is not far from the premier’s farm by the village of Andrew. Mr. Warshawski marched into the Alliance’s offices in his shirttail relative’s Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville riding, bought a membership and made darn sure everyone knew about it.

Well, OK, the premier’s brother-in-law thinks the premier is self-interested. Things are probably a little tense around the Stelmach family breakfast table nowadays. So what else is new? For once, the premier’s spin-doctors are right: What family doesn’t have to put up with a relative like this?

More significant is the news from the Highwood riding south of Calgary, where the local Conservative constituency association fired off a long letter to the world excoriating the problem-prone premier and his bumbling government.

They were fuming about the demotion of their local MLA from Mr. Stelmach’s cabinet, but their criticisms went well beyond that. Signed by the secretary of the constituency association on behalf of her board, the letter rips Mr. Stelmach’s government for being “bereft of policy, planning, execution, follow through and communication to the members of the party and most importantly the citizens of Alberta.”

“The Alberta Progressive Conservative party is nearing the precipice of moral insolvency to govern,” the disgruntled High Plains Tories warned. Plus, they added, the government’s approach “will elect members of the Wildrose Alliance.” Whew!

What’s significant about this development is that, historically, tectonic shifts in Alberta’s political structure have been preceded by the movement of the government’s local constituency associations to the party challenging the government.

Thus, in 1934 and 1935, some local chapters of the United Farmers of Alberta government openly supported Social Credit candidates. In 1970, entire Social Credit constituency associations defected to Peter Lougheed’s Conservatives.

This is much more important than the oft-repeated claim that long-reigning Alberta political parties are occasionally crushed by new political movements emerging from the right. This is in fact a misreading of history, for each of the three times in Alberta history this took place, the emerging government was arguably well to the left of the government it replaced.

The location of the challenging party in the political spectrum, however, is less relevant than the willingness of party stalwarts in small-town Alberta to openly split with their government and express admiration for its principal opponent.

It is easy to speculate that the open dissatisfaction expressed in Highwood may be the first hint of a wave of wholesale defections by constituency association members, as has come before each big political shakeup in Alberta.

If that is indeed what this letter signifies, then the long Conservative dynasty that began with Lougheed in August 1971 is almost over.

With the Wildrose Alliance waiting in the wings, that is a far more important topic for consideration at all Alberta breakfast tables – not just the Stelmach family’s – than the colourful opinions of someone’s right-wing brother-in-law.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Busted! Alberta health officials cry poor and needlessly spend money

Building 12 at Alberta Hospital Edmonton, which houses the geriatric program. Inexpensive to fix.

Last year’s thankfully abandoned plan to close Alberta Hospital Edmonton, the Alberta capital’s world-class psychiatric facility, was touted by its advocates in Alberta Health Services and the provincial health ministry as a money saver.

This claim smacked of baloney from the get-go – at least if you assumed that AHS, the province-wide health “superboard,” actually meant what it said when it promised to provide equivalent or better mental health services “in the community.” After all, community services don’t come that much cheaper than institutional care, and critics were quick to point out that not a single acute-care psychiatric bed existed anywhere in the region but at Alberta Hospital.

Cynical minds suspected some other agenda was in play. Certainly it’s easier to privatize “community services.” Clearly some developers had their eyes on the hospital’s attractive sylvan site in northeast Edmonton. Whatever.

But conspiracy theories were forgotten when the provincial government changed course and ordered AHS to drop the scheme last January. By then it was painfully obvious to virtually everyone in the province – even the government, astonishingly – just how unpopular the notion of closing the psychiatric hospital had become.

It’s fair to say that if it had just been the hospital employees’ union screaming, the plan would have gone ahead. But when psychiatrists literally by the dozen, police, family members of the mentally ill, the mentally ill themselves, Crown prosecutors and criminal trial lawyers, plus huge numbers of unaffiliated members of the public, joined in, the government of Premier Ed Stelmach threw in the towel.

Well, first they’d struck a committee in the fall to study the “transition to community care.” That didn’t fool anyone, so the premier changed health ministers, replacing a hard-right ideologue, Ron Liepert, with a kinder, gentler version who listened to critics with empathy. The new guy, Gene Zwozdesky, quickly tossed out the worst aspects of his predecessor’s “reforms.”

Defenders of the hospital couldn’t call their fight a total success. The so-called transition committee held onto one bad idea from the old minister’s plans – moving the 100-bed geriatric psychiatric unit from the hospital’s campus to a busy area adjacent to West Edmonton Mall. Mr. Zwozdesky went along with this.

It was hard to understand why the province pressed on with this. It didn’t make any more sense than the bits they’d abandoned, and was controversial in its own right because it took over a partly completed facility that was to have been used for much needed long-term care beds. People who had made charitable contributions to help build the continuing-care building were furious, threatening a lawsuit.

Still, with the worst of the Alberta Hospital crisis averted, not very many Albertans gave much thought to what the provincial health care brain trust was thinking when it hatched the idea of closing Alberta Hospital.

Perhaps, upon reflection, this question deserved more study. At any rate, Albertans learned today through a document leaked to the hospital workers’ union (which employs this blogger, it must be stated) that it would cost several million dollars less to upgrade the building that now houses the geriatric psychiatry program than to move it to the controversial new site.

The confidential briefing document – which health authorities eventually admitted was genuine – estimated the cost of upgrading the geriatric psychiatric building as less than $1.4 million.

The cost of the new facility in the city’s West End is officially estimated at $3 to $5 million. This, however, is almost certainly low-balled, and does not include the cost of moving the program. When the dust has settled, expect the move to cost more like $10 million.

Hospital administrators who have been pushing the move … for whatever reason … tried hard to spin the costs outlined in the document as covering nothing more than basic repairs. The document, however, makes it clear this is not quite so, and that the building has plenty of life remaining.

Meanwhile, the province and the health board claim they’re working on a long-term province-wide plan for mental health care.

The province, of course, also famously claims that it’s virtually broke, and that cutting costs is a vital necessity. The health board is likely to take a hard line in wage negotiations with its employees.

So, given this, why are provincial officials pressing ahead immediately with an option that is both more expensive and less popular than leaving the program where it is? After all, leaving the program in place would work as cost-effective solution that could be either permanent or temporary.

Do last winter’s conspiracy theories still hold water? Does AHE want to keep the door open more radical changes for Alberta Hospital? Or is this simply a case of foolish pride getting in the way of an admission by officials that they were completely wrong when they set out to close the hospital?

The post also appears on Rabble.ca.

What would an Alberta NDP urban agenda look like?

Edmontons Tent City – now demolished – illustrates the attention paid to urban issues by rural-biased political parties.

If the Alberta New Democratic Party were to recast itself as the City Party of Alberta, what would the Alberta NDP’s agenda look like?

The party would need to speak forthrightly about things that really matter to city people. This would require some courage. That said, urban Albertans just might be ready for a little honest-to-goodness social democracy in the context of treating city folks and their taxes with some long-overdue respect.

Anyway, the Alberta NDP’s current strategy can hardly be described as a screaming success.

Here are five urban issues that would work for the NDP in Alberta:

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

Social Services. When Tories cut social services, who pays? Urban taxpayers, that’s who! We pay more for policing, health care, basic services required just to keep our fellow humans from freezing to death. We pay in crime, run-down neighbourhoods, foregone business opportunities and illness, physical and mental. And ever-higher municipal taxes, of course. Rural-based, rural-focused parties like the Conservatives don’t really give a hoot. By speaking up for social services and an end to downloading costs as city issues, the NDP would be speaking up for urban taxpayers, safer cities and a better life. They’d also be fighting for the socially disadvantaged, which is as it should be.

Child Care. Yes, child care. It’s bloody well time for child care! God knows, it’s not that we can’t afford it. We can’t afford not to have it. This is an urban issue if ever there was one. It’s also a prosperity issue – as a method of stimulating the economy, child care dollars are worth about five times infrastructure spending. All the other parties will say we can’t afford it – you know, all the parties that stand for low hydrocarbon royalties, scientifically unsound carbon storage schemes and generous donations to the upkeep of rural electoral districts.

Public Health Care. Decent hospitals and enough health professionals are an urban issue. Mental health facilities that work, where they’re needed – like Alberta Hospital Edmonton, the world-class psychiatric facility the government recently tried to close, then backed off when a broad coalition of everyone from the police to the unions screamed. Public health and emergency treatment facilities belong in every part of our urban communities. So do publicly run seniors’ residences. And how about health regions based in our cities? Alberta’s urban health regions did innovative, effective things to bring quality public health care to our metropolitan areas. The Stelmach Tories eliminated them to appeal to their rural base.

Public Education. Investing in public education obviously benefits the province. It pays dividends in terms of quality of life in our communities. It eases the impact of unemployment, especially for young people. It helps urban working families. What a concept – create vast long-term advantages for society by helping young people now! Caps on tuition, adequate funding for institutions, and schools where we need them – which is not necessarily in the village of Manyberries – add up to a terrific urban issue. If we can pay billions for carbon capture, we can afford millions for decent schools.

The NDP should speak to these issues. The NDP should paint itself as what it is anyway, whether it likes it or not: the only political party in Alberta that looks out for, or cares about, issues that matter to city people, rich and poor alike.

They wouldn’t have to badmouth rural areas. But seeing as folks there are not going to vote NDP anyway, no matter what, they wouldn’t need to put a heck of a lot of effort into developing a platform for them either!

Alberta’s city taxpayers get screwed. Street crime, sky-high municipal taxes, potholes, poor health facilities, doctor shortages, slippery streets and pathetic public transit are all glaring examples. No Alberta party likely to form a government soon will sacrifice rural votes to serve the people who really provide the energy, enterprise and creativity that make this province worth living in.

The NDP can speak for those of us who live in Alberta’s cities, and improve its electoral chances. Or it can wither into obscurity.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Emphasizing urban issues: a recipe for success for Alberta New Democrats

The voters who count in Alberta listen to a Conservative politician on the stump. Rural voters may not be exactly as illustrated.


[NOTE: Some time ago, I published a longer version of this post on this blog. I think this point is worth making again, both here and to a larger audience on Rabble.ca. That said, if I may say so myself, this version is better! DJC]

Question: How can the Alberta New Democratic Party get its fair share of the province’s increasingly fragmented political pie? Answer: By recasting itself as the City Party of Alberta.

This is not to say that the NDP should actually start calling itself the CPA. But it should pay attention to urban issues like no other party. And no other party is likely to, given the lay of the political land in this particular province.

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

What’s more, there’s a huge urban gap in the Alberta political structure. Notwithstanding a plethora of brave new startup parties, there is no political party prepared to really speak out for Alberta’s beleaguered urban taxpayers.

Indeed, one of the province’s recent big political stories was Premier Ed Stelmach’s spirited defence of the province’s rural-biased – and thus historically Conservative-biased – electoral map. Caught between the need to re-gerrymander Alberta’s electoral districts and the far-right Wildrose Alliance’s call to save money by restricting the number of ridings, Stelmach had to spell out the obvious for his wavering rural supporters.

“If we had not increased the number of seats we would have lost three (rural ridings),” an exasperated Premier Stelmach told the St. Patrick’s Day convention of the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties.

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

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

Well, folks, that is just not on. Most of the CCF’s supporters have gone to their heavenly reward, God bless them. Those of us still here on earth are just going to have to slug it out in the Alberta political landscape of the 21st Century. And that’s a place that doesn’t much resemble the stubbly ground of Saskatchewan in 1944.

Alberta today is dominated by low-population rural ridings whose residents are going to vote for their beloved tax-and-spend Conservatives, in one guise or another, no matter what, as long as sufficient loot from city taxpayers and oil upgraders keeps flowing their way.

More than anything else, Alberta needs a political party that will speak for the interests of the province’s hard-pressed city dwellers. It won’t be the Liberals, because they subscribe to the unlikely view that they’re just another Conservative Party in waiting, and to succeed they too must capture the hearts of rural voters. Likewise, the far-right Wildrose Alliance, with its power base in Calgary, will now emphasize its appeal to Conservative voters in Alberta’s hinterlands.

Of Alberta’s established political parties, only the NDP could honestly represent the interests of urban voters.

If the NDP will not – or cannot – bring itself to represent Alberta’s city voters, it will sentence itself to a diminishing future as a boutique social democracy club. If this happens, rest assured that sooner or later someone else will go after the urban vote and the balance of power it represents.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Coulter and the right: they can dish it out, but they can’t take it

How the right responds to criticism: the shock, the horror! Below: Coulter (scary and creepy); Justice Holmes.

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.

— Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Schenck v. United States, 1919

Friends of the notorious American hate-caster Ann Coulter have attempted to frame the controversies stemming from her continuing Canadian speaking tour as freedom of speech issues. This is, of course, baloney.

Indeed, it is more than passingly ironic that these same defenders of Ms. Coulter’s offensive views were so enthusiastic just a year ago in their support for the Canadian government’s successful and completely illegitimate suppression of the opinions of British Member of Parliament George Galloway, who was banned from the country on fatuous “national security” grounds for speaking out in defence of the rights of the besieged Palestinian people.

After all, Mr. Galloway and his strongly expressed opinions posed no threat whatsoever to the tranquility of our Dominion. Ms. Coulter, on the other hand, does present a danger that deserves to be considered in light of the absurd and self-justifying publicity being generated by her Canadian supporters.

God knows, Ms. Coulter has no shortage of opportunities in both Canada and the United States to broadcast her obnoxious opinions, so even if her attempt to hate-monger at the University of Ottawa Tuesday night had been put down by the authorities, it would not have amounted to much of a suppression of free speech.

In the event, of course, the authorities were nowhere to be found. Her rabble-rousing was in fact called off by her bodyguard on the questionable grounds a boisterous crowd of protesters posed a threat of violence. In reality, this was highly unlikely. It is much more likely, indeed, that the cancellation and its alleged justification were a ruse intended to generate additional publicity for this person’s risible claim that so-called conservatives are victims of persecution by the allegedly “politically correct.”

No doubt this street-corner Cromwell, to borrow a euphonious phrase, will receive a more respectful hearing at the University of Calgary this evening. Pity.

Be that as it may, the real question in this case is, rather, when do a speaker’s opinions (which she clearly has a right to hold and express, no matter how benighted they may be) stray into the zone of advocating actions that are both criminal and a threat to Canada’s peace, order and good government?

And here, given the kind of things Ms. Coulter frequently has to say, is where we find ourselves in the zone famously pondered by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the United States Supreme Court in 1919. To wit: even “the most stringent protection of free speech” does not protect a person who through their words actually puts other human beings in danger.

And so we have Ms. Coulter, for example, attempting to incite opponents of abortion to murder physicians who provide that procedure. “I wouldn’t kill an abortionist myself, but I wouldn’t want to impose my moral values on others,” she said, before absurdly denying that she’d just said what she’d just said.

Such outright appeals to criminality are in fact legitimate targets of the authorities who so far have been so conspicuously absent in the case of Ms. Coulter’s visit.

Meanwhile, don’t forget, our country’s profound commitment to the right of free expression also extends to Canadian citizens who want to protest Ms. Coulter’s most odious views, or even those that are merely silly. This does not amount to suppressing Ms. Coulter’s right to free speech, as is preposterously claimed.

Certainly, while it may have been tantamount to waving a red flag at a bull, it was hardly an assault on the rights we Canadians generously grant her as a visiting non-citizen for a University of Ottawa official to write a note cautioning her about the laws in this country. This action was more akin to advice to a well-known smoker that smoking is not permitted in the hall where she proposes to light up.

The fact is, right-wing foreigners like Ms. Coulter and their Canadian friends – including, one suspects, Ms. Coulter’s friends in the federal Conservative cabinet – are whiners who believe in their hearts that freedom of expression is for them but not for the rest of us.

They can dish it out, but they can’t take it.

This post is also found on Rabble.ca.

Looking out for ‘the national interest’ – where is Jason Kenney when you need him?

Where is Jason Kenney when you need him?

The Toronto Star reports that members of Canada’s large Sikh community are outraged by the visit of India’s transport minister, Kamal Nath, who stands accused of inciting bloody programs in 1984 in which thousands of Sikhs were slaughtered.

The Indian official “with a murky past” is scheduled to speak tomorrow at a meeting of the Canada-India Business Council in Toronto. A demonstration is planned for the street in front of the hotel.

According to the account in the Star, eyewitnesses reported that on Nov. 1, 1984, following the assassination of prime minister Indira Ghandi the day before by two of her Sikh bodyguards, the man now welcomed to Canada led a mob that attacked a Sikh temple and burned alive the people inside. “A commission that indicted Nath could not determine whether he was involved. While Nath testified that he was trying to disperse the mob, a journalist on the ground testified he ‘was controlling the crowd and the crowd was looking to him for directions,’” the Star report said.

Federal and Ontario officials blew off the Sikh community’s concerns. A Foreign Affairs Department spokeswoman noted that the Indian government commission had investigated the accusations and concluded there was no evidence of wrongdoing. (Well, one supposes they would conclude that, wouldn’t they? Although, from the Star’s report, it sounds more as if this was a Scotch verdictnot proven, as opposed to not guilty.) Ontario’s Liberal premier, Dalton McGuinty, opined with remarkable insensitivity that 1984 was “many years ago.”

Now, I do not know much about Indian sectarian issues and I am not about to demonstrate my ignorance by commentating overmuch on them. Nevertheless, when it comes to suggesting that someone should forget about a pogrom because 1984 was a long time ago… Please! Tell that to my relatives who are still furious about the way some of our Huguenot ancestors were treated in 1572 by members of a different branch of the same religion.

Regardless, it seems to me that if you were a Canadian immigration minister concerned about visits that could be “detrimental to the national interest,” welcoming someone with this kind of reputation to Canada might not be the right thing to do.

But Mr. Kenney, the Conservative federal immigration minister who supposedly worries about such matters, is nowhere to be found.

Yet a year ago, almost to the day, Mr. Kenney seemed to be everywhere, ensuring that George Galloway would not be admitted to the country, seeing as the British Parliamentarian’s presence would indeed be a detriment to Canada’s national interests. Mr. Galloway’s crime? Taking food and water to besieged Palestinians earlier in 2009.

While Mr. Galloway has no criminal record and had spoken in Canada the year before without incident, Mr. Kenney concluded he was a threat to Canada’s security because of his support of Hamas, the elected government in Gaza.

Alykhan Velshi, Mr. Kenney’s intemperate spokesman, well-thumbed thesaurus presumably in hand, said at the time that “we’re going to uphold the law, not give special treatment to this infandous street-corner Cromwell who actually brags about giving ‘financial support’ to Hamas, a terrorist organization banned in Canada.” (It is of some concern that Conservative insiders know who Oliver Cromwell was, but that is a topic for another day.)

Apparently in the eyes of Mr. Kenney and his colleagues in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, being accused of “supporting terrorists” by trying to provide food and water to besieged people makes you a danger to Canada, but being accused of burning innocent people to death in their church gets the welcome mat thrown out.

Mr. Kenney really ought to explain the difference to Canadians. However, this is apparently not on the agenda since, as noted, the immigration minister seems to be uncharacteristically silent this week. One wonders why.

Edmonton-Strathcona: More than an NDP outpost, it’s a bulwark against a Tory majority

Unelected Ryan Hastman holds a sign with federal Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose during a lame photo op as they hand out taxpayer cash for one thing or another. Linda Duncan, the taxpayers’ elected representative, below, doesn’t get invited to these things.

When the Edmonton-Strathcona riding once held by former Conservative high-flyer Rahim Jaffer unexpectedly fell to the New Democratic Party last October, it was pretty clear the federal Conservatives would pull out all stops to get it back next time.

For one thing, having a green-tinged New Democrat like Linda Duncan as Member of Parliament for even one Alberta electoral district smacks a little too much of democracy for Conservative tastes in this politically one-dimensional province. It’s what’s known as a burr under the saddle out here in the New West, notwithstanding the fact few of us actually know anyone who rides a horse.

For another, Conservatives already have a history of playing down and dirty in the riding. For example, in the dying days of the 2008 campaign, when it began to look as if Mr. Jaffer’s campaign was seriously faltering, they purchased sleazy radio advertisements that falsely implied federal NDP Leader Jack Layton condoned the use of marijuana.

In light of subsequent developments involving Mr. Jaffer, of course, these ads took on a quality of unintended hilarity – though, in fairness, they called for laws that are tough on dealers who sell drugs to school kids, not to Conservative MPs.

Regardless, Canadian politics are supposed to be competitive, and Mr. Jaffer – with his reputation as “Canada’s laziest MP” well established in the community – made it easy for the opposition to compete.

Now we are starting to see the outline of the effort well-financed Conservatives are prepared to put into knocking off Alberta’s only opposition member. It turns out Conservative riding associations in Calgary are trucking cash north to Ms. Duncan’s new opponent, Ryan Hastman, a 30-year-old insider from the Prime Minister’s Office, carefully selected to appeal to the university-area riding’s demographics.

Conservative-held ridings in Calgary – and that would be all of them – have plenty of cash because (a) there’s lots of Conservative money in that well-oiled town, and (b) Calgarians can be counted on to vote Conservative no matter what. Indeed, it’s said that if the Conservatives dropped an atomic bomb on Cowtown, the survivors would crawl out of the rubble and vote Conservative.

This means Conservative candidates in Calgary who don’t need all the money they collect from that city’s robotic voters have plenty left over to ship to their fellows in ridings where there’s actually some opposition. This practice is entirely legal, the local press took pains to assure its readers.

So, just for starters, look for expensive Conservative advertising in the riding to start early – well before campaign laws grind into action – and take a low, low road. Under the circumstances, however, the ads won’t necessarily go anywhere near drug policy.

Ms. Duncan can also assume her invitations to events involving the spending of tax dollars will continue to go missing. Leastways, when federal Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose popped into the riding with a cheque for $14.8 million made out to the University of Alberta, it was Mr. Hastman who was invited, not the area’s elected MP. And when loot gets handed out for neighbourhood improvements, it’s the unelected Mr. Hastman who does the handing!

For her part, Ms. Duncan – genteel and civil by nature – is going to need to take off the gloves if she is to survive this kind of sleaze. “Good for him, he’s working hard … I’m touched that I merit this attention,” is not the right response for what’s coming.

To paraphrase the Bard, the Retort Courteous, even the Quip Modest, is not going to cut it with these guys. The Radio Ad Quarrelsome might work.

Moreover, in addition to some plain talk, New Democrats and others elsewhere in Canada should be thinking about sending cash of their own to Ms. Duncan’s campaign. Don’t think of it as a lonely NDP outpost in benighted Alberta – think of it as a vital, defensible bastion against the nightmare of a Conservative majority!

This post can also be read on Rabble.ca.

The good old protest march – as Canadian as a hockey game!

Top: The front of the line, which stretched back for blocks, heads east on Jasper Avenue early Saturday afternoon. Below: Faces from the rally. Bottom: The crowd on the steps of the Legislature.

It’s always uplifting, and good exercise to boot, to get up off your duff and go out and rally for a good cause.

So it was inspiring to see close to 800 Albertans – students from MacEwan University, disabled citizens, teachers, public employees, trade unionists, social workers, retired folks, nurses and many others – give up a sunny spring Saturday to shout and sing for an end to dumb government cutbacks that exacerbate the problems they supposedly solve.

These folks marched through the streets of downtown Edmonton from several locations and ended up on the steps of the Legislature. The motorists they inconvenienced were mostly good sports about it, and surprising numbers of them stopped to honk their horns and shout their support.

We can be certain that our Conservative government and the media will dismiss protests like Saturday’s rally as the work of “the usual suspects.” To a degree of course, this is the truth – I’ll happily plead guilty to being a member of that happy band of brothers and sisters.
Yes, going to one of these events can be quite a bit like going to church. Still, I’m seeing an awful lot of new faces at these things nowadays, people who never would have let their shadows fall on an information picket in days of yore. Yesterday’s rally was no exception.

Whether it’s packed community meetings about mental health care, crowded protests against education cutbacks or well-attended rallies to support public services, I can’t shake the feeling that something is really happening here in Alberta.

Five reasons why the new Alberta Party won’t come to much

Earth to Alberta? Come in Alberta…? The political scene is getting darned weird down there on the surface … and not just in Vulcan.

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

Despite a great name and some excellent startup publicity, there’s little reason to hope the new and improved Alberta Party will blossom in our province’s increasingly crowded political garden.

It’s a sign of Alberta’s troubled political times that new parties are popping up like dandelions in springtime. Voters are discontented with the government of Premier Ed Stelmach, who is seen as a bumbler with no plan. But they are even less impressed by the traditional opposition parties.

Out of this ferment sprang the Wildrose Alliance on the right, a party that a year ago was far out on the fringe, but which today looks like a real contender.

Now a group of Red Tories and Blue Liberals have forged a peculiar alliance with some conservative environmentalists to tear a page from the Alliance’s playbook and create a new party in the political centre.

Alas, despite the good intentions of its founders, there are five key reasons why the Alberta Party is unlikely to enjoy the success of the Wildrose Alliance anytime soon.

First, the Alberta Party lacks money. It has no energy industry benefactors like the Wildrose Alliance. Cash is a great fertilizer for political movements. The Alliance was born with a silver spoon in its mouth; the Alberta Party was not.

Second, the Alberta Party occupies a much more crowded spot in Alberta’s political garden than the Alliance. The Alliance may have tried to move toward the centre under Leader Danielle Smith, but it still occupies the right side of the patch where it can count on the votes of its ideological true believers. The Alberta Party, by contrast, is competing for exactly the same voters as the Conservatives, the Liberals and even the NDP.

Third, speaking of Danielle Smith, the Alberta Party has no identifiable or charismatic leader around which potential supporters can rally. In fact, just now, it doesn’t really have a leader at all. There’s no indication it thinks this is a problem.

Fourth, the Alberta Party’s beginnings are too muddy. Its disparate coalition could easily fragment. The party was originally another right-wing fringe group with roots similar to those of the Wildrose Alliance. Later, it seems to have been taken over by conservative environmentalists fed up with the now-defunct Green Party. That group, in turn, merged early this year with participants in Reboot Alberta, a talking shop of middle-of-the-road Conservatives and Liberals frustrated with the glacial pace of political change in Alberta. It’s hard to believe all these groups can coexist under one roof.

Fifth, the people who are now movers and shakers in the Alberta Party love to talk – and talk, and talk, and talk, and talk…. Their current organizing drive is called “the Big Listen.” They say they want to “start the conversation around how to build a better province.” That’s fine, but will the conversation ever end?

Unfortunately, building a political party from the ground up – as the Wildrosers are learning – takes elbow grease and grit. It requires people who are prepared to organize teas, deliver leaflets, sign nomination forms and clean up the mess after everyone else goes home.

The Alberta Party has lots of self-important yuppified professionals who would like to go straight into power without pausing along the way to do the necessary hard work. It’s a great plan that won’t work.

For these five reasons, the Alberta Party is unlikely to be a significant factor in the expected 2012 general election.

If it ever amounts to anything, it will likely be because it is absorbed by another Alberta political party for its one great property – its winning name.

Alberta Conservatives surrender unconditionally to oil industry

International signal flags: Above, “I have developed a sound and competitive energy royalty policy.” Below, “Help me, I need assistance communicating.” Below that, “Warning! I am discharging really dumb political strategies.”

They’ll be laughing out loud in the oil industry’s towers in downtown Calgary this morning. At least, that’s if the oilmen haven’t already abandoned their offices to dash down 8th Avenue to the bank to arrange vault space for all the extra cash coming their way.

Getting Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s timorous Tories to scrap their short-lived and modest increases to Alberta’s energy royalties turned out to be hilariously easy for the deep-pocketed oil and gas industry.

The industry’s been throwing a full-blown tantrum since 2007, when Mr. Stelmach responded to public anger about Alberta’s paltry royalty rates by bumping up royalties enough to supposedly collect an extra $1.4 billion. “Albertans made it clear that examining the province’s royalty regime was a priority to ensure they are receiving their fair share from energy resource development,” Mr. Stelmach said at the time. (Emphasis added.)

Well, that was then, before the oil industry threw its epic hissy fit. It wasn’t long before Mr. Stelmach and his legislative caucus were in headlong retreat. Last Thursday, they surrendered unconditionally, abandoning the last of the changes they’d trumpeted back in 2007.

Usually in Alberta, it’s not necessary for the energy industry to do much more than ominously chant “National Energy Program” to get Conservative politicians into line. Never mind that most of the economic damage ascribed to the NEP was caused by the worldwide recession of the 1980s. Facts notwithstanding, Albertans are weaned on the notion the NEP was an economic catastrophe, not to mention a vicious scheme by those Eastern Bastards to stay warm in the dark at our expense. Just saying the dreaded initials aloud is sufficient to induce hyperventilating rage.

When recession coincidentally followed Mr. Stelmach’s modest royalty increases in 2008, Albertans were treated to a powerful sense of déjà vu all over again by oilpatch propagandists and their faithful media sidekicks.

Back in the day, the industry would have organized a capital strike and sent the oilrigs south to Oklahoma if the government dared to get shirty about Albertans’ fair share of their natural resources. But who wants to do that when there are hydrocarbons to be extracted and customers lined up to buy the stuff?

So this time they had a novel idea: Take a moribund loony-right fringe party, slap some lipstick on its tired mug, pour a few hundred thousand dollars into its advertising budget and place at its helm an articulate right-wing commentator whose congenial manner belies her scary market fundamentalist dogma.

Clearly, this scheme worked admirably for the industry. Even if Danielle Smith never becomes premier and her Wildrose Alliance Party fails to win power, the threat they pose to the government has achieved its principal goal.

As Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason put it, “fearing for its political life, the Stelmach government has folded like a cheap tent.” Indeed, the Liberal so-called Opposition folded too. Alberta’s brief attempt to get something a little closer to a fair return for the people who actually own the resource was gone like a puff of smoke in a breeze.

A delighted David Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, told an Edmonton newspaper that Stelmach’s capitulation “goes a long way toward repairing the province’s relationship with the oilpatch.”

Maybe. But what do you want to bet the industry goes right on supporting the Wildrose Alliance just the same. After all, why settle for most of what they want when they can have it all?

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.