Archive for April, 2010

Holy Cow! Reversidex ™ hits 14! Alarmidex set to rise too!

Salineville, Ohio, pop. 1,397, the home of Mayor Dave Berta, from the air, looking south. Watch your salty language! I’m not making any of this up!

Alert readers will recall that on Monday of this week, the Reversidex ™ – the index of embarrassing reversals by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s reversal-prone government – had risen to a record 11.

This was astonishing news all on its own, but who could have predicted that even before Friday, the Reversidex ™ would stand at an unprecedented 14? (Of course it’s unprecedented. I only invented the thing Sunday night.)

There was one reversal Tuesday, and two more big reversals yesterday, catalogued along with some other junk by my friend Dave Berta over at No, wait! Dave Berta is the Mayor of Salineville, Ohio. I’m not making this up! I meant Dave Cournoyer, the guy who my other friend Neil Waugh, the fisher guy, once observed “isn’t some obscure fat frat boy with a sticky-up haircut.” (That’s the trouble with frat boys. They always end up being the president of the United States and stuff. Then the sticky-up haircuts disappear.)

Anyway, Reversal No. 14 came in the form of a news release from Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky yesterday that stated “consultation on new Alberta health legislation is underway and Albertans are urged to provide their ideas on recommendations for the forthcoming Alberta Health Act.” Yadda yadda. For the official reaction, go here, or here….

But, gee whiz, wasn’t it just two years ago, almost to the month, that then Health Minister Ron Liepert stated: “We have studied the issue to death. … There will be no more studies, no more commissions, no more roundtables. It’s time for action.”

Whoops. Did he mention consultations? I call that a reversal, and the Reversidex ™ does too!

Reversal No. 13, of course, was the decision not to hold another fake Senate election any time soon. This is actually a good idea that can save some money seeing as the Senate is (whisper this part) an appointed body. I guess that was sort of a problem back when the appointed ones were all Liberals. Indeed, the idea of the fake elections was to press the Liberals to appoint Conservatives from Alberta so as to be more democratic. But, uh, now that the prime minister’s a Conservative, and he’s appointing his pals from Ontario to the Senate… … uh … never mind. There won’t be any more Senator-in-Waiting elections. Got that?

Senator-in-Waiting Link Byfield will just have to wait a little longer. He’s been waiting so long that there hasn’t been a sighting of him for months, anyway. Folks around here are starting to call him the Missing Link.

The Wildrose Alliance calls this a reversal. (I don’t know why they’re complaining. Isn’t Bert Brown one of theirs?) The Reversidex ™ does too.

Reversal No. 12? Security guards at rural hospitals. They’re keeping them.

So, just to keep score, here are all 14 reversals since the dawn of the year:

14) Another health care study, commission, roundtable, whatever (April 29)
13) No more fake Senate elections (April 29)
12) No overnight security at rural hospitals? C’mon, we were kidding! (April 26)
11) OK, the Liberals can send emails from the Public Accounts Committee without checking (April 26)
10) No means test for seniors’ prescriptions after all. (March 31)
9) OK, we didn’t mean it about not funding foster kids (March 25)
8) Jails closed at night? Sorry, didn’t mean that either! (March 21)
7) Centralize the province’s ambulance dispatchers? Where’d you get the idea we were going to do that? (March 17)
6) Have the energy industry pay it’s fair share? You’ve got to be kidding!? We certainly were… (March 12)
5) Of course we’ll build a new cancer hospital in Calgary (March 9)
4) Pay for performance? Say what? (March 9)
3) You know how we were going to cut health spending? Well, we actually didn’t. Maybe next year, though (Feb. 9)
2) Close 300 acute care beds? NOT! (Jan. 21)
1) We’ve studied our plans, and we’ll be keeping Alberta Hospital open after all. Thanks for the thought, though, Dr. Duckett! (Jan. 18)

Those of you who feel governments shouldn’t flip-flop may find this alarming. Speaking of which, the Alarmidex, the index of everything alarming that makes alarming things seem more, well, alarming, is set to rise soon. Maybe tomorrow!

Oh dear!

Cheery media release about Alberta job safety ‘progress’ omits key fact

Working in Alberta. Below: Lukaszuk.

According to a news release from Alberta Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, cynically timed yesterday to exploit the International Day of Mourning for workers killed and injured by their work, Alberta has made “good progress reducing workplace injuries.” Occupational fatalities are also down in Alberta, the minister said in his statement.

Alas, Mr. Lukaszuk’s media release omits mention of one fact so important that it reduces his cheery claims to not much more than a cynical fantasy intentionally designed to mislead naïve journalists and voters. This strategy seems to have worked, at least as far as journalists are concerned. At any rate, local daily newspapers reprinted the news release pretty much verbatim.

The true reason workplace deaths and injuries were down in Alberta in 2009 was the recession. Period. Full stop. The actions of Mr. Lukaszuk’s ministry, or any other branch of the Alberta government, had nothing to do with it.

It strains credulity to ask citizens who are paying attention to accept that the Employment Ministry (which is what Alberta calls its ministry of labour) does not know this.

Regarding injuries, the statistics cited in the minister’s release and an optimistic chart accompanying it purport to show decreasing numbers of lost-time claims. But these calculations are highly suspect. The Alberta Workers Compensation Board continues with its campaign to reduce claims through financial incentives to employers (which perversely encourages bosses to discourage workers from reporting injuries), by denying many legitimate claims and forcing injured workers back to work too soon.

But let’s take work-related deaths alone as a yardstick, because the numbers of dead bodies are a little harder for the government to fudge.

According to the Alberta WCB, there were 110 “occupational fatalities” in 2009, down from 166 in 2008.

The WCB’s terminology includes death from occupational diseases, “workplace incidents” and work-related motor vehicle accidents. True numbers, though impossible to verify, are almost certainly much higher – including work-related car crashes not reported as involving work, self-employed workers killed at home, workers killed on farms, workers killed on federally regulated job sites and deaths from occupational diseases the WCB refuses to recognize as work related.

The downward statistical blip in 2009 was recorded during a period when the global recession slowed production in Alberta’s oil patch and related service sectors and forced working people out of thousands of jobs.

With the provincial economy seemingly on the rebound, again little thanks to the government of Alberta, work-related deaths are rebounding as well.

There were 36 occupational fatalities recorded by the WCB in the first three months of 2010. By simple multiplication projection alone, that puts us on track to have record 144 by the end of 2010. Since the period from May to November is traditionally busier than the rest of the year, work-related deaths are likely to be much higher in this period too. As a result, Alberta will likely meet or exceed 2008’s tragic toll in 2010.

What will Mr. Lukaszuk’s news release say this time next year? That “we can still do better”?

Actually, he said that this year too.

His predecessor at the Employment Ministry, Municipal Affairs Minister Hector Godreau, said almost exactly the same thing in 2008: “There are still far too many workers in Alberta getting killed on the job….”

Indeed, Alberta Conservative employment ministers always say something like this when the annual death toll is announced.

The trouble is, just like Mr. Lukaszuk, they never do the things that need to be done to bring the death toll down, like aggressively enforcing safety laws, vigorously prosecuting companies that violate safety rules, naming companies that have too many accidents, inspecting workplaces without tipping off employers in advance, requiring workplace safety committees and hiring enough safety inspectors. (Only Quebec and B.C. employ fewer per capita.)

Until then, all these ministerial press releases aren’t good for much except paper recycling … one way or another.

Until then, Alberta remains among the most dangerous Canadian provinces in which to work.

Monarchs cannot govern without the consent of Parliament, but the question is unsettled as to prime ministers

Three views of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Canadian political leaders may not be exactly as illustrated.

First the king and then Stephen Harper! It’s two for two for Parliament … maybe.

Leastways, according to yesterday’s news coverage of House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken’s ruling, Parliament has achieved a mighty victory over Mr. Harper’s U.S.-Republican-style government in a fight that never should never have had to be fought – reasserting the right of our elected representatives to information about how our country is run.

Specifically, in this case, the information being sought was about how Afghan prisoners of war (or, in the Orwellian language of the modern Canadian governing class, “detainees”) were treated by their Canadian captors. (The problem being, of course, that they may not have been treated as prisoners of war.)

The Speaker ruled that Mr. Harper’s Conservative government would be in contempt of Parliament if it refuses to give members access to the secret story of the Afghan prisoners.

But really, as the Toronto Star quite rightly explained it, this fight is about “who is the ultimate power in Canada and it’s been simmering since shortly after the last election, when Harper was almost tossed out of office by the opposition parties.”

So who does have the power: Our presidential Prime Minister, or Parliament? The Speaker was unequivocal in his answer: Parliament. As another Speaker said in analogous circumstances: “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”

But just as Mr. Harper was prepared to do anything to prevent Parliament from exercising its constitutional right to vote non-confidence in his minority government, Canadians should not expect him to go along with this ruling. Indeed, there were hints in the prime minister’s vague and ambiguous statement today that he has no intention of doing any such thing. After all, kings and other tyrants do not give up their power to elected legislatures without a bitter fight.

Presumably, however this plays out, the prime minister will not attempt to govern completely without the inconvenience of Parliament – though one suspects that, given the opportunity, the man would welcome the opportunity to do so.

This would take the concept of minority government to exciting new extremes, no doubt with the complete support of the National Post, the wavering support of the Globe and Mail and the half-hearted opposition of the Star. (The Suns, presumably, would miss the story unless it could be determined it had an impact on local crime.)

Readers with long memories will recall that something like this was tried some years ago by an unhappy king named Charles, with somewhat dubious results from the monarch’s perspective. His Majesty did manage to rule with a modest degree of success for not quite a dozen years, notwithstanding the absence of Parliament (attempting to pawn the Crown jewels and cutting the ears of a few pamphleteers, the bloggers of the day, along the way). Alas, matters came to a head, as it were, on Jan. 30, 1649.

Different country, you might say, but not so different, really. The lesson in this potted history, one that our prime minister and others who dismiss what today we would call “liberals” should keep in mind, is that just as tyrants do not give up their power willingly, neither do elected Parliaments.

The Canadian Speaker gave Mr. Harper’s Ministry 14 days to cough up the records. But he begged Parliamentarians of all parties to reach a compromise that would avoid a constitutional crisis. “Surely that’s not too much to hope for,” he said.

It is, given the personality and inclination of the man who leads us.

Constitutionally speaking, the effect of the ruckus in England three and a half centuries ago was to establish that a monarch cannot govern without Parliament’s consent.

Apparently it remains to be seen whether this rule applies as well to Canadian prime ministers.

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For the Alberta NDP, it’s time to get cracking on nominations

David Eggen, centre, in blue, at the steps of the Alberta Legislature. Who’s that poorly dressed guy with him in the crooked blue hat? Below: Deron Bilous.

Whether or not the Alberta New Democrats do anything about changing their leader any time soon, now that Canada’s laziest legislature has closed for its long summer break there is another completely non-controversial task they need urgently to address.

To wit: nominating candidates for the next provincial general election.

After the March 2008 general election that saw then-trusted Conservative leader Ed Stelmach returned to office by a more-massive majority than even his most-loyal loyalists predicted, there was a lot of talk in Alberta NDP circles about the need to nominate candidates in plenty of time for the next election. No way should New Democrats ever again be surprised by something as predictable and inexorable as the Alberta electoral process, plenty of NDP supporters said at the time.

Well, here we are two years later and virtually nothing has happened. Well, two hard-working teachers, Deron Bilous and former Edmonton-Calder MLA David Eggen, are applying themselves to get nominated. Mr. Bilous is seeking the nomination at a meeting May 5 in Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview, and Mr. Eggen, with his old riding gerrymandered out of existence, plans to run in Edmonton-Glenora. But other than that, there’s precious little activity.

If you talk to Alberta New Democrats nowadays, plenty of them will tell you there is no urgency whatsoever. After all, Mr. Stelmach has said there’d be no election until March 2012, and the premier is known to be a stubborn and determined man who won’t change his mind even when he needs to. Ergo: it’ll be two years before the next election; everyone can go back to sleep

Don’t count on. Because that was then and this is now.

The key difference now is that Mr. Stelmach is no longer the trusted and popular figure he was in 2008. Those notorious “No Plan” TV ads attacking Mr. Stelmach and the Conservatives may not have done much for the unions that bankrolled them back in 2007, but they seem to have set the tone for public attitudes about the premier ever since.

That is, while the Tories were reelected big time, the no plan accusation stuck – thanks in part to the Conservatives’ own repeated fumbles, of course. Regardless of the reason, the Conservatives’ legislation attempting to ban similar ads criticizing the government before an election won’t make the no plan perception go away. Today, Mr. Stelmach and many members of his government are widely seen by Albertans as nincompoops who just can’t get the job done.

That’s not good news for the Conservatives in a province where voters don’t much care if you’re a nice guy, but do expect their governments to be run by people they see as capable of doing the job.

But it’s not necessarily good news for opposition parties if they can’t get their acts together to prepare for an election against Mr. Stelmach’s stumblebum caucus. Indeed, one thing that still works for the Conservatives is the equally pervasive popular perception that the centrist opposition parties are even less competent than the government. As Albertans so frequently explain their Tory votes: “What are the alternatives?”

As a result, Alberta voters dissatisfied with the government are for now parking their protest votes with the far-right Wildrose Alliance. But that could change after the Alliance’s general meeting this June in Red Deer, when the Wildrosers are going to have to release a policy platform. If it flops – as it could as they struggle to balance public caution with the far-right wish list of their radical base – opportunities will be created for the parties in the centre.

With the disunited Liberals focused on a misconceived strategy of painting their leader as a nice guy who really cares (all true, but irrelevant to Alberta’s pragmatic voters) and the Alberta Party still holding endless kitchen-table kaffeeklatsches, this presents a unique opportunity for New Democrats.

But nothing is likely to come of it if they don’t quickly nominate strong candidates in key ridings.

There are plenty of reasons for the Tories to find an excuse to call an election early. After all, while they’re still in the lead according to most reputable polls, Wildrose support continues to grow. What’s more, Mr. Stelmach’s leadership is being questioned within his own fearful caucus. At least one well-placed Conservative cabinet minister has quietly set up a committee to seek the leadership in case the premier steps down – or is skidded.

For the NDP, this adds up to an urgent need to find good candidates immediately and nominate them. It’s time to get cracking!

Another embarrassing Alberta government reversal brings 2010’s total to 11

Early Reversometer models found on Alberta porches. (IMPORTANT NOTE: See the other Important Note at the bottom of this blog post.)

The Reversidex ™ – a new index of embarrassing reversals by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s reversal-prone government – has now risen to a record 11. This is the highest level since the index was introduced, oh, about 15 minutes ago.

The Reversidex ™ has a base of zero, because that’s how many times a normal Canadian provincial government completely reverses itself on major policy decisions in a one-year period. The Reversidex ™ is now at 11 because that’s how many times the Alberta Conservative government has reversed itself on major policy decisions since we all sang Auld Lang Syne last Dec. 31.

Albertans had to switch to the Reversidex ™ because the old Reversometer that you can see through the kitchen window, the one Grandpa nailed up back William Aberhart was premier of Alberta and that darned Ottawa-appointed Lieutenant Governor kept tossing out his funny-money and press-control laws, only went up to ten. (And when it comes to flip-flops, ten is just so last month! Anyway, the Reversometer hasn’t worked right since the winters got so warm.)

By the way, speaking of social credit, we Albertans were pretty darned mad about the stamps falling off our prosperity certificates back in ’37, and we probably would have stayed that way if that National Energy Program hadn’t come along to make us even madder! (Ralph Klein gave us a prosperity bonus in 2006 that was big enough for everyone in Alberta to buy an iPod, so we all felt better for a while after that, especially if we sold iPods for a living, leastways until that Stephen Harper turned out to be just another Eastern politician. One thing’s for sure, though, there are one heck of a lot of obsolete iPods in Alberta!)

Just the same, it’s pretty shocking that with the latest flip-flop by Alberta’s Conservatives last week, we’ve gone right off the chart – off the Reversometer, anyway.

You could argue this flip wasn’t as big a flop as the last 10. This time, the Stelmach Tories backed down on their plan to make the chair of the Legislature’s Public Accounts Committee, a member of the Liberal Opposition, give all his email questions to a Conservative backbencher for approval before he was allowed to press the send button. (Really! We’re not making this up! It was a respectable morning newspaper that reported it first!)

Needless to say, this sort of thing is not generally done, least of all in functioning Westminster-model democracies where the chair of the Public Accounts Committee is by tradition a member of the Opposition who enjoys a meaningful degree of independence. As a result, it aroused a certain amount of disapproval, even in democratically somnolent Alberta. Apparently the premier got enough calls after the even-more-right-wing Wildrose Alliance Party threatened to hold a media conference about it that he figured he’d better change plans again before he shut down Canada’s laziest legislature for the summer. It must’ve made the Conservatives really nervous, because they even put out a story that the premier himself had disapproved! Good one!

The opposition said this change shows the government has no plan. The government says that it does too have a plan, but that its plans need to be responsive “to public opinion and changing circumstances.” (You know, like Wildrose Alliance press conferences.)

Well, whatever! The previous ten flip-flops have involved health care policy (seven of them), oil royalties, jail-admission operating hours and funding for foster parents.

With a record like this, you’re really got to wonder why all the opposition parties are acting like Premier Stelmach means it when he says there won’t be a provincial election until March 2012.

The Reversidex ™ says they’re wrong!

But then, maybe they’ve got no plan either.

IMPORTANT NOTE: There is no such thing as the Reversidex, and the name is not really trademarked. What’s more, there never was any such thing as a Reversometer. The author just made it all up to make a point. That’s what you get for wasting your time reading blogs on the Internet, instead of respectable newspapers staffed by trained professional journalists! This post also appears on

Rachel Notley and Danielle Smith stand to remake Alberta politics

Your blogger with the two most interesting politicians in Alberta, Rachel Notley, above, and Danielle Smith, below.

The most engaging and promising politicians in Alberta today are two women at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Rachel Notley of the Alberta NDP and Danielle Smith of the Wildrose Alliance Party are the kind of engaging public figures any political party would give its ideological eyeteeth to possess. Ms. Notley, 46, is a labour lawyer and first-term MLA for the riding of Edmonton-Strathcona. Ms. Smith, 39, is a former journalist and TV personality with ties to right-wing think tanks like the Fraser Institute. Both are good public speakers and hard workers.

If you could be a fly on the wall at local meetings of any of Alberta’s other political parties, the question you would hear rank and file activists asking themselves and each other would be, “Why the heck don’t we have candidates like that?”

Nevertheless, despite their undoubted talents and remarkable political skills, both Ms. Smith and Ms. Notley face critical challenges, not least because of the high expectations they generate among supporters and opponents alike.

As a standard-bearer for the left-of-centre New Democrats, Ms. Notley has long climb up in the eyes of Alberta’s traditionally conservative voters. But there is a tremendous amount of goodwill for her as well – some among older voters who remember her late father, Grant Notley, the man who led the Alberta NDP to its high-water mark in the early 1980s, but much more among electors from all parties who appreciate her tireless efforts in the Legislature and her ability to stay in the media spotlight day after day.

These two points would be enough to overcome many of the natural disadvantages a party like the NDP must bear in the place known as Wild Rose Country. A much bigger problem for Ms. Notley, though, is how to gracefully ascend to her natural position as the leader of the NDP and indeed Alberta’s entire centrist opposition.

NDP Leader Brian Mason is a fine man who has worked hard for many years to keep the New Democrat brand viable in Alberta. He has many loyalists within the party’s ranks. He keeps the Edmonton-Highlands riding safe for the NDP. But his great contributions notwithstanding, he has not caught fire with voters and never will.

What’s more, one of these days Mr. Mason’s going to settle down to a nice retirement. He may not want to hear this message just yet, but the time for a new leader of the two-member caucus to be anointed is before the next election, when voters and the media are certain to be captivated by the idea of a contest between two strong, capable and articulate women.

As for Ms. Smith, as a candidate of the ideological right who has never held a seat in the Legislature, she faces a slightly different challenge.

She’s done well so far thanks in large part to her many fans in the media and effective fund-raising among American-influenced Calgary energy companies that wanted to push the government of Conservative Premier Ed Stelmach further to the right.

But to a large extent, that strategy has already worked for the corporate sector. They’ve squeezed the energy policy they want out of the Conservatives, and as a bonus out of the faltering Liberals as well. So Smith is going to have to offer something more to keep their loyalty – to wit: build credibility with voters.

The key moment for Ms. Smith will be at the Alliance’s annual general meeting June 25 and 26 in Red Deer. She has proved in the seven months since she became leader that she is an able spokesperson for the right. But now even conservative voters need to see a little more.

So, first, the Wildrose Alliance needs to demonstrate it can put on a well-organized convention. If the Wildrosers can’t hold an entertaining, well-paced and media-savvy event in Red Deer, no one will believe they can actually run a government.

More important, she desperately needs the convention to end with a credible policy platform that won’t frighten cautious Alberta voters, who if spooked will flee back to Mr. Stelmach’s comfortable old Conservatives.

That means no more talk about getting out of the Canada Pension Plan, dumping the RCMP or policy changes that would establish a two-tier health-care system. Indeed, some of these points have already disappeared from the policy section of the Alliance’s Website. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not near and dear to the hearts of the party’s far-right base, which is always ready to head out for the territories at the drop of a ten-gallon hat and start a new splinter party even farther to the right.

If either Ms. Smith or Ms. Notley can overcome the challenges they face in the time before the next election – which Premier Stelmach says will be in 2012, but which in fact may be much sooner – they have the opportunity to remake Alberta’s political history.

If they both succeed, they will make Alberta politics more interesting than those of any other province in Canada.

And if neither does? Well, expect the same old same old.

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Right on, Mr. Rathgeber! An opportunity presents itself for St. Albert’s most ardent advocate of free speech

Your blogger, freely expressing himself with Bret Rathgeber, MP for Edmonton-St. Albert. Below: George Galloway.

A St. Albert weekly newspaper recently informed its readers that Brent Rathgeber, our city’s Member of Parliament, is “an ardent advocate of free speech.”

This is nice to know, as a major story about freedom of expression is looming on the horizon and, given Mr. Rathgeber’s ardent advocacy of this fundamental freedom enjoyed by all Canadians (and apparently their visitors too), we can be confident he and like-minded Conservatives across the land will wish to be in the forefront of the commentary on this issue.

This is mentioned here purely as a public service, lest our local champion of free speech happened to have missed the item, which for some reason seems not to have garnered much attention in the national press.

But first, the backstory: Apparently Mr. Rathgeber was disappointed because Ann Coulter, the odious American advocate of tea-bagging and other unsavoury practices common south of the Medicine Line, had freely chosen to cancel a speech at the University of Ottawa last month because some Canadians had the cheek to exercise their constitutional right to criticize her offensive views.

It seems the noise of the demonstration gave her a headache. Or something. Alert readers will recall how this was portrayed by Ms. Coulter’s supporters and their echo chamber in the mainstream media as an attempt to suppress her right to free expression, a claim that illustrated their astonishing brass if not their reserves of intellectual honesty.

Alas, it seems Mr. Rathgeber’s hopes to pass a bleak evening in Ottawa – the city Marc Lalonde once observed is proof Canada still has capital punishment – had been frustrated by the ruckus surrounding Ms. Coulter’s visit. This, in turn, provided him with a soapbox to mount and offer his commentary on the issue to the local press.

But where was Mr. Rathgeber just a year ago, when the Hon. Jason Kenney, Canada’s esteemed Minister of Immigration, exerted himself in “a short but intense campaign” to ensure that British MP George Galloway did not have the opportunity to exercise his right to free speech in our country.

Astonishingly, Mr. Rathgeber was nowhere to be seen or heard, along with all the other Conservative Members of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s House of Frequent Prorogation!

Mr. Galloway, readers will recall, is a law-abiding socialist Member of the Mother of Parliaments who has the temerity to hold views different from those of our prime minister and his neo-con acolytes on such topics as Israel’s treatment of the people of Palestine and the United States’ lamentable recent war in Iraq. Mr. Galloway was fatuously labeled a threat to Canada’s “national security” and prevented from entering the country from the United States, where despite his views he was allowed to roam and speak as he pleased.

One suspects that it was not so much Mr. Galloway’s views that were the real problem for our Conservative masters as his ability to communicate them effectively. Regardless, Canada’s Conservative guardians of free speech – either by commission like Mr. Kenney or by omission like most of the Conservative caucus – ensured that Mr. Galloway did not have an opportunity to express his dangerous views in Canada.

It took a mild protest against Ms. Coulter’s racist views and open support for political violence – which unlike Mr. Galloway’s opinions could in fact be said to constitute a threat to Canada’s national security – to arouse these tireless advocates of free speech from their deep slumber.

Now that he has awakened, however, Mr. Rathgeber will be pleased to learn that the issue of Mr. Galloway’s right to free expression is about to return to the news, so he will have the opportunity to redeem himself for his previous silence.

Lawyers representing Mr. Galloway and the Canadian government are scheduled to face off in the in the Federal Court of Canada in Toronto next Monday, April 26. There, the organizers of Mr. Galloway’s suppressed tour will attempt to overturn Mr. Kenney’s ban. Soon after that, they hope, Canadians will have an opportunity to hear for themselves what Mr. Galloway has to say.

If Mr. Galloway speaks in Ottawa, one can only assume that Mr. Rathgeber will be there to express his support for the British MP’s right to speak, if not his opinions.

After all, as Mr. Rathgeber told the local press in St. Albert: “When the government defines free speech, when the government tells you what is and what is not acceptable speech, that is antithetical to true free speech.”

Right on, Brother!

Alberta Health Services executive bonuses had better be dropped in 2010

Don’t worry, AHS managers will recover the cost of their bonuses by taking it out of the hides of health care workers like these UNA members, who are preparing for their 2010 round of contract bargaining. Alberta trade unionists may not be exactly as illustrated.

It should be glaringly obvious by now that in Alberta, like everywhere else where the corporate model of government prevails, the bigger your salary, the smaller the consequences for messing up.

This was shockingly illustrated last week when it was learned that in June 2009 Alberta Health Services, the bloated and inefficient government agency created by Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative government to run all public hospitals in the province, had paid huge bonuses to its top executives.

The public health big shots got their money as they approached the end of a fiscal year of spectacular cock-ups and mind-blowing deficits that forced the Conservative government to step in and bail them out in the February 2010 provincial budget.

Indeed, seven times in the first three months of 2010, Conservative MLAs felt the need to reverse major decisions made by Alberta Health Services’ top dogs. Granted, the government did so to save its political skin. But how confident can taxpayers feel that their money is being well spent when the brain trust running Alberta Health Services was rewarded with huge bonuses after its dismal performance in fiscal 2008-2009, which among other things included tripling the health agency’s deficit?

How big are the bonuses? They ranged from $19,000 to $130,000 – on top of the six-figure salaries and solid gold pensions already paid by taxpayers to these same officials, many of them presumably the foreigners with experience in privatization recently recruited from abroad by Alberta Health Services.

No one seems to know exactly how many big wheels received the bonuses, which were paid on June 26, 2009.

So, how do we know what little we do about this disgraceful situation? Well, it was no thanks to the Stelmach Conservatives, who strive mightily to keep embarrassing stuff like this deeply covered up. The information was leaked by the Opposition Alberta Liberals, into whose hands copies of letters to bonus recipients had fallen.

Kevin Taft, the Liberals’ health care critic, observed the rich irony of big payouts given to the agency’s underperforming bosses at the same time as a workplace engagement survey done by AHS shows very few physicians trust the organization to meet its goals.

But don’t worry, AHS has a plan! They intend to take it out of the hides of their employees who actually work with sick people. For example, the AHS bargaining position in contract negotiations with the United Nurses of Alberta could very well provoke months of labour strife and destroy what’s left of the morale among front-line medical staff throughout the province.

If you wanted a perfect illustration of how so-called conservative governments talk about prudence and restraint but spend on themselves and their friends like drunken sailors, this should be it.

And for this we got a plan to close a desperately needed world-class psychiatric hospital, another scheme to shut down 300 acute care beds in the province’s two biggest cities, and a “security” system that will leave rural hospitals unguarded at night, except by nurses. Cue the musicians to play “Send in the Clowns!”

Like the bankers that drove the world’s economy into the toilet, these so-called managers feel they’re entitled to their bonuses, and they’re damned well going to have them. If the optics are horrible, they couldn’t care less.

If this sounds a lot like paying bonuses with public bailout funds, the AHS executives’ only excuse can be that they got in quick and rewarded themselves before the bailout. Did they not understand the fiscal situation they had created, or did they in fact think they were doing a bang-up job preparing the system for privatization?

Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky sounded uncharacteristically lame when he tried to defend mid-recession bonuses for overpaid managers after a year of under-performance. “You have to engage the best people you can find when you’re overseeing a $10-billion operating budget with taxpayers dollars, when you manage over 400 facilities, and a workforce of 90,000 people,” he told CTV, trotting out the usual bogus argument to justify huge corporate-style salaries for public officials.

Well, if that’s the plan, it’s clearly not working.

If there’s a plan for more bonuses at the end of the 2009-2010 fiscal year, which will be upon us very soon, it clearly must be dropped.

From now on, any bonuses would have to be paid out of bailout funds. This is unacceptable.

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Message to NADbank: you can’t stuff the Internet genie back in the bottle

Read all about it! It’s 2010, and online readership oughtn’t to be used to justify high prices for ads that only the guy with the cuffs will read. Below: Pandora. Below her: a box like Pandoras.

The business model on which the profitable operation of corporate newspapers depends has collapsed. For once, pundits are right when they identify the “villain” as the Internet.

Damn straight it’s the Internet! Yet, despite corporate forays online and corporate-backed legislative attempts to hobble the democratic power of the ’Net, these troubles are proving as hard to put back in their box as the ones Pandora unleashed upon the world.

The Great Minds of the media have certainly been trying, without much success. It figures. For a century they could do pretty well anything they liked and make money. About all that could get in the way of unlimited newspaper profit was offending advertisers. This was not a situation that fostered critical cognitive capacity on the part of newspaper executives. Perhaps this is why the ideas they come up aren’t proving to be so great.

Accordingly, the state of the business is “ugly.” That’s how the Pew Research Centre put it in its 2010 “State of the News Media” report. U.S. newspaper advertising losses averaged 26 per cent in 2009, on top of cumulative losses of 23 per cent in the two previous years, Pew reported. Some 15,000 full-time U.S. newspaper reporting and editing jobs disappeared, a loss of about 30 per cent. “Even if the economy improves we predict more cuts in 2010.”

The situation is likely as bad in Canada, although our secretive media corporations are less likely to come clean.

This has spurred a debate of sorts in the business. How do you get readers to pay for something they have become accustomed to getting for free?

A recent op/ed story in the Edmonton Journal plaintively called for the CanWest chain’s new owners, whoever they turn out to be, “to quit giving away the product for free on the Internet.” It’s safe to conclude from the story’s prominent placement this view has some official support at CanWest headquarters.

Alas, that train’s left the station. The people at Pew report that readers just won’t pay. Even among the “most loyal news consumers, only a minority (19 per cent) said they would be willing to pay for news online.” This includes those who already do so!

But even if that might work, newspaper owners have decided to make a virtue of necessity and use online readership to justify high rates charged for print advertising!

Leastways, that is the most reasonable interpretation of the last couple of years of press releases from the Newspaper Audience Databank, the self-described “principal research arm of the Canadian daily newspaper industry.” The goal of NADbank’s twice-yearly surveys, the group explains, is “to assist in the buying and selling of newspaper advertising in Canada.” In other words, to justify the cost of newspaper ads.

For many years now, NADbank has measured readership. This has some merit, although there are many who think the only truly meaningful measure is circulation, especially if it’s paid for. The latter, of course, is the number of copies of a newspaper sold or delivered. The former is an estimate of the number of copies read by different people. Advertisers may be forgiven if they suspect such estimates of excessive optimism.

Yet, this is still a step away from what NADbank appears to be doing now, to wit, adding online readership to print readership to come up with a combined estimate. This leads to reporting like the following: “The number of people reading the Edmonton Journal took a healthy jump in 2009, led by the growing appeal of The Journal’s online product.” (Emphasis added.) “Nationally, about 14.7 million adult Canadians read either a printed or online edition of a newspaper each week in markets where a daily newspaper is available.” The story notes, rather hopefully, that printed editions still have more readers than the online versions. Similar articles appear in almost every daily newspaper in Canada.

This would be fine if newspapers were only claiming to contribute to our faltering democracy. The trouble is, they’re trying to justify the price of ads in print, where most of the industry’s shrinking profits remain, despite declining circulation.

No sensible advertiser should believe on-line readership justifies print advertising rates, or vice-versa.

Thinking “out of the box” is one thing. But there’s no way such hopeful interpretations of readership data can stuff the Internet genie back in the bottle.

Newspapers will have to come up with something better if they want to hang onto their advertisers. It’s a sad commentary on the state of media nowadays that no paid commentator would dare reach this obvious conclusion in print.

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Outrageous opposition virtually guarantees approval of Akinsdale project

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

Prediction: When it comes up on May 17, the controversial Habitat for Humanity project in Akinsdale will be unanimously approved by St. Albert city council without a whisper of opposition.

Oh, there was plenty of opposition within the Akinsdale neighbourhood to the planned 58-unit project at 70 Arlington Drive when the idea first came forward. Some city councillors might even have been inclined to pay attention to it, all things being equal. But that was then and this is now!

The reason: a single outrageous letter to the editor signed by a couple of people who don’t even live in the neighbourhood.

If you ever imagined that small groups can’t influence the course of events, the letter from Chris and Karleena Perry that appeared in a St. Albert newspaper on April 3 illustrates that this is not always the case. Their literary effort, mind you, may not have influenced events in quite the way they intended.

The controversy over the project had been brewing for weeks. Neighbours were upset they’d be losing a well-established green space – although many knew it was not zoned as a park. Many residents were also worried about the effect the development would have on parking, the number and size of the units proposed and the developer’s motives.

And who knows, there may have been some grumbling about who would live in the development, too, although that issue barely surfaced in the public portion of the debate. Until the Perrys stepped in with their astonishing views, that is.

“We moved to St. Albert because we can afford it and we deserve it,” they wrote. “We feel comfortable joining in activities we would not have considered in Edmonton.” They added elsewhere: “What we want is for St. Albert to remain as it is with very few low-income households….”

What happened next could only have taken place in the Internet Age. The Perrys’ letter became the shot Tweeted ’round the world. By the next day, links to the letter were appearing on mainstream news websites in Eastern Canada and the United States, not to mention blogs as far away as Dubai!

Needless to say, some of the comments that accompanied these posts were not exactly complimentary about those of us who live in St. Albert. We were portrayed as heartless toffs who don’t want any poor working stiffs on our streets after dinner, when we sent them home from their jobs as maids and butlers.

Never mind that you can still buy a residence in Akinsdale for under $150,000 – which makes it a working class neighbourhood by any reasonable reckoning.

The authors of the letter, as it turned out, live in Kingswood, where several houses are on the market for more than $1 million. This may account for how they also managed to push one of our city’s political hot buttons: the fear of many citizens of ordinary means, and especially seniors living on fixed incomes, that they are being pushed aside by residents of expensive new developments who don’t much care how high local taxes go or how expensive it gets to use community facilities.

That in turn may explain why some of the comments from St. Albert were as sharp as the responses from farther away.

The authors of the letter, no doubt as astonished as everyone else at the passions it aroused, soon apologized. But it was too late by then to blunt the effect of their opinions. The result of St. Albert’s sudden international notoriety has been an outpouring of support for Habitat, which reports a bump in donations, and widespread support for the project within the city.

Akinsdale residents will have a chance to address some of their concerns at a couple of neighbourhood roundtables before the proposal comes to council on May 17. But the approval of the project by council is now virtually guaranteed.

Talk about the Law of Unintended Consequences!