Archive for May, 2010

‘Earmarks’ have no place in Canadian legislation

Stephen Harper: The Americanizer

The party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his band of angry radicals should be known as the “American Party of Canada.”

The latest pernicious Americanism that they have imported into Canada is the use of omnibus legislation to circumvent democracy and suppress democratic debate about spending priorities.

In the United States, such legislative sleights of hand are known as “earmarks.” While Mr. Harper’s “American Party” government has avoided the use of the term, which has been in bad odour among our American cousins for some time now, the technique used in the budget implementation act, Bill C-9, is essentially the same.

By burying unrelated spending provisions in a large and complex piece of legislation, the government hopes to achieve several goals, among them:

  • To avoid public scrutiny and commentary on specific buried provisions.
  • To enable the government to operate largely in secret.
  • To permit the government more easily to reward its supporters covertly.
  • To make it politically difficult for opposition politicians to derail bad policies buried in legislation that also contains popular provisions.

Canada has been largely spared this anti-democratic Americanism to date. Now the prime minister’s former Reform Party – for whom “reform” meant the Americanization of everything and very little else – has brought this noxious approach to creating legislation to Canada.

The government calls this piece of legislation the “Jobs and Economic Growth Act.” The act will do little to promote the growth of jobs or the economy, of course. However, labelling legislation with intellectually dishonest and deceptive titles is another Americanism beloved by the Harper Tories and their sympathizers in various provincial governments.

Buried inside Bill C-9 like roadside explosives are provisions that would allow the government to sell off Atomic Energy Canada to its corporate supporters, to take away Canada Post’s monopoly on overseas mail and to permit the environment minister to waive legislated environmental assessments.

A case can be made for and against each of these ideas, of course. However, the purpose of hiding them within Bill C-9 is to ensure that those cases are never made. Rather, the intent is to force the legislation through without debate, then let the new policies advance safe from public scrutiny.

Other Canadian governments have used omnibus bills to push through legislation – but rarely has the use of such “earmarks” been so shameless, or the intent to circumvent the democratic powers of Parliament so transparent.

But, really, what do you expect from a government that would prorogue Parliament to prevent a vote of confidence by Canadians’ democratically elected representatives?

Bill C-9 is both disturbing and disgraceful. It is, however, completely unsurprising given the undemocratic impulses and the penchant of this prime minister and his misnamed party for importing the worst American political ideas to Canada.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Time for St. Albert’s MP and MLAs to get their report cards

This column appeared in yesterday’s edition of the Saint City News. Since I am a habitual early filer, as we used to say in the newspaper industry, I tend to try to write my Saint City News columns the weekend before they are to run. This one was pretty well finished on Sunday, May 23. That said, alert readers will notice a significantly different assumption between this column and yesterday’s post on the question of how soon Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives would like to see a federal election take place. This goes to the late Baron Wilson of Rievaulx’s famous observation that “a week is a long time in politics.” The passage of time is one of the perils of punditry. I stand by the grades I assigned our MLAs and our MP. DJC

Do you agree with the grades assigned in this column? Disagree? Have your own say by assigning your own grades. Your results will be reported in a later blog post. Click here to grade our St. Albert representatives.

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Forget about the smoke and lights issuing from the House of Commons in Ottawa and the Legislature just south of St. Albert. There isn’t going to be a federal or provincial election any time soon.

In Ottawa, an election would be a high-risk proposition for both the minority Conservative government and the Liberal Opposition. The other two parties don’t have enough votes to topple the government. Ergo, no federal election.

Here in Alberta, the governing Conservatives have a majority and little inclination to call an election. Anyway, all three opposition parties need more time. Therefore, no provincial vote either.

So what better time than right now to give our three senior government representatives – MLAs Ken Allred and Doug Horner, and MP Brent Rathgeber – their mid-term marks?

Ken Allred, MLA, St. Albert

Ken who? St. Albert has an MLA? … Sorry, that was mean.

Let’s start over. In fairness, Ken Allred, 69, Conservative MLA for St. Albert, does show up for community events. Plus, he dutifully attends sessions of the Alberta Legislature and sends form letters to constituents who complain about this or that. But where is he when his community needs him, say, to mediate its dispute with Sturgeon County? Somewhere else, apparently. Maybe he’s lobbying for us behind the scenes. But if so, where’s the money for Ray Gibbon Drive and for paving the 137th Avenue off-ramps?

Allred rarely takes a strong position on anything and, when he does, it’s something off in right field, like American-style fixed election dates, that appeals only to a wild-eyed fringe that has mostly abandoned the Conservative party for the Wildrose Alliance. Indeed, one wonders sometimes why Allred hasn’t taken the same route.

Allred must be one of the most disengaged politicians in Alberta. Surely St. Albert deserves better.

Allred’s mark: D

Doug Horner, MLA, Spruce Grove-Sturgeon-St. Albert

Doug Horner, 49, the MLA for Spruce Grove-Sturgeon-St. Albert, Minister of Advanced Education and Deputy Premier of Alberta, is the polar opposite of his counterpart on the east side of town.

Horner is energetic, plugged in to the provincial power structure and – notwithstanding that he’s not from Calgary – quite possibly the next premier of Alberta should the current one continue to stumble. Behind the scenes, Horner’s quietly getting ready to campaign for the top job. Disengaged, he’s not!

Horner is not a genial character the way some politicians are. A hard-working technocrat is more like it. But no one – even those of us who are not fans of his Conservative party – can deny he has a high profile and keeps his nose to the grindstone. He gets an A+ for ambition, but falls down a little on effectively representing St. Albertans on all their issues – no easy task for an MLA with most of his constituents in other nearby communities. In fairness, Horner has gone to bat for St. Albert on funding issues, with positive results.

Horner’s mark: A-

Brent Rathgeber, MP, Edmonton-St. Albert

Well, nobody’s going to accuse Brent Rathgeber, 45, Member of Parliament for Edmonton-St. Albert, of being absent without leave. He regularly pops up at community events, slaps backs, shakes paws and chats up the folks with a friendly, down-home style that’s hard to dislike. Plus, he’s real tall, so we can always say that our MP towers over other parliamentarians!

But while Rathgeber is friendly, active and reasonably well spoken, he’s no Parliamentary heavyweight. Mainly he issues news releases calling for tougher penalties for criminals – whether or not they make sense – and applauds the wedge issues favoured by the Prime Minister’s Office.

As such, he’s more of a cheerleader than a heavy hitter. In fairness to Rathgeber, Conservative MPs who speak up forthrightly don’t score points with Canada’s current prime minister. But despite his efforts, he’s unlikely ever to have a cabinet post.

Still, Rathgeber gives the impression of an MP who might shine in opposition. With luck, he’ll get the opportunity.

Rathgeber’s mark: C

Is it time to reinvent the Coalition to eliminate Harper’s polarizing ‘Reform Party’ government?

Remember these guys? It may be time to unpack the coalition kitbag. Below: Bizarro World, where the Conservative supporters and much of the Canadian media live.

Private polling conducted for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government must be saying it can win a majority campaigning on such narrow, far-right wedge issues as restricting abortion rights, pandering to gun nuts, bigotry against gays and climate-change denial.

Other recent public opinion polls may have suggested the prime minister’s government remains mired in minority territory. But if they didn’t think they could win with divisive wedge issues, why would the Harperites be advancing polarizing positions at the same time as they are apparently trying hard to find something that will cause the Opposition to defeat the government on a vote of confidence?

When the government’s refusal to give Parliament documents about the mistreatment of Afghan war prisoners captured by Canadian troops failed to produce a vote of confidence, Mr. Harper’s inner circle moved on to something new. Now they seem to be trying to provoke a similar Parliamentary crisis by refusing to let their ministerial staff testify before committees of MPs.

If that doesn’t work, maybe there’s something in their enthusiastic defence of the international banking sector that can get the Opposition riled up enough to pull the plug. Whatever… Any old port in a storm!

It’s hard to shake the feeling the Harperites will stick with this tactic until they get their election – which for their purposes must appear to have been forced by the Opposition – or the polls consistently start to tell them something different.

As the Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin recently pointed out in an intelligent dissection of this phenomenon, the divisions in the centre and on the left of the Canadian body politic make it possible for the renamed Reform Party to win by campaigning only to its extremist base.

“So while a big majority of Canadian women might be pro-choice, there are probably enough anti-abortion advocates to cover off the one-third number the party needs,” Lawrence says in explaining how this “cynical optic” works.

Once they get their election, it’s likely the Conservatives will campaign on the relative strength of the Canadian economy. This will be an ironic position, of course, when one considers that the measures that have made our economy as strong as it is were mostly forced on this government in 2008 by the threat it would be toppled by a coalition of Liberals and New Democrats with support from the Bloc Quebecois.

However, the government need have no fear the mainstream media will report much about that fact!

God help us one and all, of course, if the Harper neocons get their majority. Then it will be austerity, austerity and more austerity – promoting the economic crisis and the upward economic redistributive opportunities it presents that the hard-right circle around Mr. Harper have wanted all along.

In the event of another Conservative minority, however, it is time for all three of our opposition parties to work together for the good of the country.

In the Bizarro World of Canadian politics and media in the Harper era it is considered the purest form of democracy for our country to be run by a minority of bigots and an outrage for our Parliament to work as it was intended, as the democratic voice of our democratically elected representatives.

But that is precisely what needs to happen. After another divided election outcome, the Liberals, the New Democrats and the Bloc may for the sake of the country have to revive the idea of a democratic coalition to prevent another minute of Mr. Harper’s ugly policy of polarization.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Alberta Party Website makes appearance – and some interesting points

As readers of this blog will know, “I’m from Missouri” on the topic of the Alberta Party. (That’s because Missouri is the “Show Me State,” my Canadian brethren. Actually, I’m from Vancouver Island, but never mind that right now.)

I’ve been carping for some time now that the Alberta Party’s “Big Listen” seems to have been going on for an awfully long time, with nothing but the promise of a Website outlining their positions on the issues.

Well, their Website has now appeared, and it is worth a look, even though the actual policy positions remain rather thin on the ground.

I would say the new party’s supporters still have a ways to go, particularly about clarifying what it means to be “a political party that will work for all Albertans.” Speaking for myself, I’ll need to see some policy positions before they’ll make a believer out of me.

However, Alberta Party spokesthingy Chima Nkemdirim makes some interesting points, some of them well worth repeating. Common themes he cited from his experience listening large included the following:

  • The lack of long-term planning by our government is a significant concern. Whether it is healthcare, education, or road construction, there seems to be a fairly consistent view that our government is doing a poor job of planning for the future.
  • Sustainability, in a broad sense, has emerged as another theme. Many participants have discussed sustainability in the context of the environment and land stewardship. Others have discussed the need to have a small town sustainability strategy to help keep our rural communities viable.
  • Family security is a consistent theme. Many participants are worried about their jobs, concerned about saving for retirement and the affordability of post secondary education for their children.
  • Many participants have recognized the need for a strong and sustainable energy industry. There is also a strong desire to ensure that some of the wealth created from fossil fuels is available for future generations.

With the province approaching the “pink zone,” if not the pre-election red zone, one hopes that we hear more from the APs in the weeks ahead.

Column, lawsuit provide glimpse of mainstream media’s blockade of progressive news

Above: How the mainstream media reports progressive causes. Below: Former Sun columnist Diotte.

A story in one Edmonton newspaper and a wrongful dismissal lawsuit by a former political columnist at another have pulled back the veil a little on the mentality that fuels the mainstream media’s blockade of stories about the labour movement, liberal political parties and other progressive causes in Canada.

Any observant reader of mainstream newspapers in this era of concentrated media ownership knows that certain stories, for example the many significant activities of organized labour, are consistently underplayed compared with such more acceptable areas of coverage as the plans, proposals and political agendas of major corporations. This is simply a matter of arithmetic – just compare the column inches devoted to one topic versus the other, or count the number of stories in the business section versus the number of stories in the labour section. (Wait! There is no labour section!)

Likewise, critical readers of the press know that Canadian newspapers owned by the major media chains have a bad habit of seriously underplaying the crowds that attend demonstrations against causes and activities with which the media’s corporate owners are in sympathy, if they report such protests at all.

But it’s easy for those who still work for the mainstream media to pass off such criticism as merely unprofessional news judgment by supporters of special interests. (This is often done in the context of touting the valuable service provided by professional journalists, helping us poor citizen schmucks sort through what’s important and what’s not in an age when anyone can report anything on an Internet blog.)

Those of us who have toiled in the chambers of the mainstream media know the distain with which labour news and the like is treated behind closed doors, but this is rarely a matter for public discussion.

So it was interesting to read the obvious stated aloud in a rather unsympathetic Edmonton Journal portrayal of retiring City Councillor Dave Thiele. It seems that the former CUPE activist’s opinions were too progressive for the Alberta media to report.

Say what? We’re talking about a guy here who has served four three-year terms on city council representing a southeast Edmonton ward that is home to more than 130,000 people, not all of them old enough to vote, of course. Nevertheless, the folks in Ward 6 must have thought Mr. Thiele had something worthwhile to say!

But here’s Journal columnist Scott McKeen on his professional perception of Mr. Thiele: “Thiele was not someone I approached for insight into civic issues. Thiele was no media darling, to be sure. His politics were too left for some local pundits.”

Hmmmm… Interesting. For many on the left, Mr. Thiele’s positions on such issues as the privatization of Edmonton Power’s electricity-generation assets and the plan to sell off the Edmonton Municipal Airport were sadly deficient from a left perspective. But they were left enough to make “some local pundits” brush them aside.

Meanwhile, court documents in the interesting case of former Edmonton Sun columnist Kerry Diotte’s claim against his former employer contain more food for thought.

The CBC reported: “According to the statement of claim, Jose Rodriguez, the editor-in-chief of the Sun papers in Calgary and Edmonton, sent Diotte an email on Sept. 30, 2009, expressing concerns about how often Diotte used Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald in his stories — an amount Rodriguez felt was ‘disproportionate’ to the coverage given to other MLAs. Diotte was to rectify the ‘imbalance in his reporting,’ Rodriguez said in the email quoted in the court document.”

If Mr. MacDonald had been a Conservative Cabinet minister, presumably, the Sun would have had no trouble reprinting his press releases.

The matter became a legal brouhaha when, according to the former columnist, Mr. Diotte was demoted to writing stories about rescued pets when he followed instructions and ignored another story originated by Mr. MacDonald that turned out to be well played by the competition.

Well, Mr. McKeen’s column was just one guy’s opinion, and the allegations in Mr. Diotte’s statement of claim are, as they say, unproven in a court of law. Still, regardless of the relative insignificance of these two small incidents, their presence in the public prints where “civilians” can see and think about them is unusual.

Insiders know there is a systemic blockade of news about progressive issues, positions and arguments in the corporate-owned mainstream media. These stories are two small examples of how the system works.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Controversial health leader continues to attract lightning bolts to Alberta Tories

Stephen Duckett: “the greatest single liability for AHS”?

Albertans with a stake in health care continue to line up to take potshots at Stephen Duckett, the brusque Australian economist hired by the Conservative government of Premier Ed Stelmach in the spring of 2009 to shake up Alberta’s health system and lead it into a new, heavily privatized era.

We’re not talking about the usual suspects from the trade unions and social democratic political parties here, either.

The latest in this long parade of influential Albertans to bash Mr. Duckett and embarrass Mr. Stelmach’s accident-prone government is Dr. Lloyd Maybaum, president-elect of the Calgary and Area Physicians Association. This is a group that includes among its officers such well-connected Tories as Dr. Grant Hill, the paleoconservative former Member of Parliament for Macleod.

In the May edition of Vital Signs, the group’s magazine, Dr. Maybaum slams Mr. Duckett’s leadership as the cause of “the devastating morale problems we currently face” at Alberta Health Services, the massive “superboard” created by Mr. Stelmach’s government in May 2008 to replace the province’s nine regional health authorities.

Describing Mr. Duckett’s performance explaining the health board’s dismal ratings in a province-wide employee engagement survey during an April 13 staff meeting at the Peter Lougheed hospital in Calgary, Dr. Maybaum wrote: “As I numbly stood there in shocked disbelief watching him and listening to him glibly reply to questions and comments I came to one stark conclusion: the single greatest liability for AHS is Dr. Stephen Duckett.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Indeed, shaking up health care and appointing the likes of Mr. Duckett as CEO of AHS must’ve seemed like a great idea at the time!

At any rate, this or something like it seems to have been Mr. Stelmach’s idea when he appointed Ron Liepert as his health minister back in 2008. Mr. Liepert was yet another tough-talking, right-wing, privatizing gunslinger in the mould of Mike Harris, the Ontario premier who wreaked havoc in that province through the 1990s.

That, or something like it, also seems to have been Mr. Liepert’s idea when he hired Mr. Duckett, the short-tempered and sharp-tongued PhD from Australia, to make it all happen. The pair were simpatico, birds of a feather.

Who, Mr. Stelmach must have thought, could hope to stop a pair of Masters of the Universe like these guys? With only one health board, why, all local resistance would be futile. Finally he’d succeed where even the politically masterful premier Ralph Klein had failed when he tried to cook up his doomed “Third Way” health care restructuring scheme back in 2005.

Alas for Mr. Stelmach, the whole plan was a train wreck from the get-go. With their bull-headed lack of diplomacy and radical plans, not to mention enormous cost overruns at the new health board, the inimitable team of Liepert and Duckett managed to arouse even Alberta’s complacent public into a fury at the deteriorating state of health care in their province.

With public opinion polls heading south and his caucus in a state of advanced panic – those that hadn’t already packed up and crossed the floor to join the upstart Wildrose Alliance Party, anyway – Mr. Stelmach finally folded his cards at the start of this year and shipped Mr. Liepert off to the Energy Minister’s office, where he could presumably do less harm.

Mr. Liepert was replaced as health minister by the smooth-talking and diplomatic Gene Zwozdesky, who has done a lot to allay the Alberta public’s concerns about whatever Alberta Health Services is likely to get up to next. He’s done this in part by overturning a long list of unpopular policy decisions made by Mr. Duckett.

But Mr. Duckett, as Dr. Maybaum’s recent comments show, continues to act as a lightning rod for Albertans of all stripes worried about the state of public health care. Moreover, he continues to attract unwelcome negative coverage to the government in the mainstream media.

“Those I spoke to that attended the debacle on April 13th felt invalidated and unheard,” wrote Dr. Maybaum. “With each reply another blow was delivered to the morale of the assembled staff. He is tone deaf to the cries and concerns of the gathered assembly of health care experts – nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, psychologists, recreational therapists, technicians, porters and, yes, physicians. His only concern apparently to prove himself correct.”

Well, yes, as those of us who have met the man can attest, that’s his style.

Dr. Maybaum concludes that what is needed is “a leader that inspires us and lifts us from our present morass of low morale. … Would that individual please step forward – we desperately need an intervention.”

Premier Stelmach really should pay attention. If he doesn’t intervene, the voters may!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Alberta Liberals and New Democrats: Will they will, or will they won’t, be buddies?

The leaders of the Alberta Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats, at right, confront Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith, left. Alberta politicians may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: Strange bedfellows, though not nearly as strange as the idea of Alberta Libs and Dippers in the same bed.


Will they will, or will they won’t, be buddies?
That’s the question a lot of Albertans keep asking themselves about the provincial Liberals and the Alberta New Democrats.

After all, as the Democratic Renewal Project, Alberta’s minuscule but determined unite-the-left faction, endlessly repeats, if only the Liberals and the NDP could get together they might somehow be able to defeat the province’s right if it splits its vote between the Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance in the next provincial election.

Actually, the right-wing vote is so strong in many parts of this province, and the Liberal-NDP rivalry so intense, that this idea is not much more than a pipedream for the coalition zealots of the DRP, the always optimistic Yente of Alberta’s political left.

But as the recent post-election shuffle in the United Kingdom illustrates, it may be the wrong question for Albertans to be asking anyway.

Maybe the real question, come the next election, is who will cut a deal with Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservatives to keep the Wildrose Alliance out of power – the Liberals, or the New Democrats?

The most reliable recent polls seem to suggest that the Conservatives are still leading the Alliance by enough committed voters to form a razor-thin majority. But the trend has not been in their favour. Mr. Stelmach’s leadership is prone to stumbles, and the Alliance under former journalist and Fraser Institute apparatchik Danielle Smith has continued to see its support grow.

So it is not outlandish to suppose that if the government waits until March 2012 to call an election, as the stubborn Mr. Stelmach has promised, the Wildrose Alliance under Ms. Smith could be in a position to form a minority government.

In that event, there will be plenty of pressure on the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats alike to do something to keep the far-right Alliance – with its market fundamentalist ideas on charter schools, “right-to-work” labour laws and privatized health care – as far as possible from power.

But given both their long history of animosity toward one another and the arithmetic of Alberta politics, it is much more likely Liberals or even New Democrats would be able to cut a coalition deal with the Conservatives than with each other.

Liberal ambivalence about the New Democrats was clearly on display at the Alberta Liberal convention in Edmonton last weekend when delegates narrowly passed a mealy-mouthed resolution to “work together” with “other progressive parties” in the next election.

The timid resolution, which passed 81 to 64, infuriated as many Alberta Liberals as it pleased. Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann marched out for an emergency meeting, then marched back to say the vote changed nothing much.

For his part, Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason said he was willing to speak with Dr. Swann, but dismissed coalition talk – as indeed he must, since his party has even less appetite for it than the Liberals.

There’s just no way either of these gentlemen is going to say of the other any time soon, “is you is, or is you ain’t, my baby?

Meanwhile, it’s unlikely Premier Stelmach and his Conservatives would dignify this kind of talk with a comment, at least while they still lead in the polls.

But that would change quickly if the premier faced losing power to Ms. Smith, and either the Liberals or the NDP were prepared to play the kingmaker as British Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg did across the pond last weekend.

Of course, if the Wildrose Alliance wins decisively, what’s left of Mr. Stelmach’s Tories will be quietly absorbed into its ranks soon enough. The same thing would probably happen if the Tories won big and the Wildrose results disappointed the new party’s supporters.

Then everything will be back to normal in Alberta – one massive right-wing party in power and two tiny centre-left parties fighting it out for the scraps.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

The shape of Wildrose Alliance policies begins to emerge

The Wildrose policy contraption begins to take shape.

Pretty much from the get-go, but especially since the election of Danielle Smith as leader last October, Alberta’s Wildrose Alliance got a free pass form the province’s mainstream media on the policies desired by the party’s hard-right core supporters and their likely impact on its true electoral platform.

The leaders of the Alliance have shrewdly played to this journalistic deficiency, sidestepping most policy questions by putting them off until the party’s annual general meeting June 25 and 26 in Red Deer, which will serve as a policy convention. For its part, the media’s motto seems to have been, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Both groups appear to have concluded it’s in their interests to portray the party as moderate and centrist, populist at worst. The appeal of this from the Wildrose leadership’s perspective is obvious: if they appear too right wing, they may spook Alberta voters, who are conservative in every sense.

From the media’s point of view, it is most likely simply that this makes for a better horserace story. But it is not beyond the pale that some powerful people in Canada’s media would very much like to see a government somewhere in this country at least as far to the right as Mike Harris’s disastrous 1995-2002 Conservative regime in Ontario.

Alberta’s political cognoscenti have generated lots of sound and fury, but very little of significance, speculating about where Ms. Smith and the party’s movers and shakers really stand on social and economic conservative issues.

With the AGM nearing, however, we can start to make out the outlines of where the Wildrose leadership really wants to go.

Yesterday, the Alliance released a 172-page resolutions package for the Red Deer AGM. What is supported by the party policy committee, what is opposed, what was introduced by the party’s Legislative caucus and what is left without comment, presumably for the members to decide without guidance, tell an interesting story of what the Wildrose leadership likely really thinks is important – and what they think it’s important to stay the heck away from.

It seems safe to conclude that, as many of us suspected, they are mostly market fundamentalists on economic issues. However, they seem much cooler on the social conservative hot buttons of their core supporters, many of whom were Wildrose members long before Ms. Smith and the Fraser Institute apparatchiks and Calgary oilmen she brought with her joined the cause.

So, for example, without quite ruling them out, the party seems to be gently easing itself away from such guaranteed polling-booth disasters as the call to replace the RCMP with a provincial police force and to dump the Canada Pension Plan. Both these policies had their origins in the sovereignist 2001 “Firewall Letter” to then premier Ralph Klein signed by such influential Alberta independentistes as Stephen Harper.

The Wildrose base will be sorely disappointed with their leaders’ retreat from the strong anti-choice position favoured by so many of original supporters. So a resolution calling for an end to the use of public money for “the deliberate and intentional termination of pregnancies” was “strongly opposed” by the policy committee. The committee remarked in its notes that this is likely unconstitutional and, moreover, “inconsistent with the beliefs of most pro-lifers who recognize that there are occasions when some terminations of pregnancy are acceptable especially to protect the life of the mother.” (They do?)

And the committee was unsympathetic to the base’s nuttiest political notions, for example, a call for province-wide elections for premier.

On the other hand, when it comes to market fundamentalist nostrums, while their language is circumspect, the Wildrose leaders were mostly true to their far-right principles – although they tippy-toed around the touchy issue of health care.

On social services, for example, the policy committee strongly supported the notion such services “be provided by community organizations rather than government wherever possible.”

The party also remains strong for charter schools, a particular bee in Ms. Smith’s ideological bonnet, with the Legislative caucus proposing a carefully worded resolution that “a Wildrose government will support a stable and predictable per-pupil operational and infrastructure maintenance funding model (including appropriate special needs funding) that follows the student.” (Emphasis added.)

On unions, the party seems to be standing by its likely unconstitutional desire for so-called “right to work legislation,” which is designed to make it impossible for unions to effectively represent members, and to call for a ban on strikes by teachers. Its legislative caucus ambiguously calls for a review of labour laws “to ensure fairness for all Alberta workers whether employed in union or non-union settings.”

Looking ahead, they even slyly anticipate consolidation of rural support, opposing the idea of electoral districts with approximately the same population.

As the Wildrose leadership no doubt intended, this is a little like reading tealeaves. Resolutions without recommendations are all over the ideological map. Still, the outlines are clear enough: a policy package that gets the party’s financial backers where they want to go, doesn’t unduly frighten the voting public and keeps the loony-right base happy enough they won’t run off and found another party.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Whiff of hypocrisy from ‘detainee deal’ undermines Parliament’s position on expense accounts

Seriously, people, no Canadian Parliamentarian is going to bill taxpayers for moat cleaning!

Canadian Parliamentarians would have had a lot more credibility when they claimed the Auditor General has no business auditing MPs’ accounts if they’d had the courage last week to stand up to the prime minister on Parliament’s absolute right to see the so-called Afghan detainee documents.

But under the circumstances – to wit, the surrender of the Parliamentary Liberal caucus to avoid a risky election fought on ground that could be advantageous to Prime Minister Stephen Harper – their “principled” opposition to Auditor General Sheila Fraser’s call to be permitted to audit the expense accounts of Members of Parliament looks self-interested and their explanations sound lame.

After all, it is really the same issue that is that the core of both arguments: the supremacy of Parliament.

In the case of the Auditor General’s desire to scrutinize their accounts, the better to ensure that no MPs are having their moats cleaned at taxpayer expense, or whatever the Canadian equivalent of that British outrage might be, they wish to assert the supremacy of Parliament. Never mind that many taxpayers of all political stripes consider scrutiny by an impartial accountant to be a sensible and reasonable precaution against abuse.

In the case of the documents related to the treatment of Afghan prisoners of war by Canadian troops and the Afghan faction those prisoners were handed over to, and which MPs are quite obviously entitled to see, a majority of Parliamentarians are willing to reach a dangerous compromise to achieve a short-term political goal.

Prime Minister Harper’s caucus, naturally, supported the denial of the documents to Canada’s elected leaders because they are far more likely to contain potential political embarrassments for the Conservative Party than anything that might put Canadian security at risk. Conservative MPs’ cries of patriotism and the safety of our soldiers abroad are nothing more than a refuge of scoundrels, as Dr. Johnson quite properly observed in other circumstances.

As for the Liberal caucus, under Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff, they bowed to the wishes of our secretive and profoundly undemocratic prime minister because they calculated the odds of winning an election now on this issue were not in their favour, principles be damned. As Rabble blogger Murray Dobbin quite rightly pointed out, this creates a dangerous precedent.

Their actions were not so different from the American Democrats who voted against their principles in favour of president George Bush’s suppression of their countrymen’s constitutional rights for reasons of political expediency, creating an ugly precedent of their own that lives on under an otherwise much better president.

Anyone interested in politics can understand the calculations that led to these decisions, but history is unlikely to hold any of their perpetrators in very high regard. Only MPs from the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois were prepared to stand up for the long-established right of Parliament to have these documents, uncensored.

Of course it is ironic that the first argument to be weakened by the Conservatives’ and Liberals’ dangerous precedent is the wish of members of all parties, except apparently the BQ, to keep Ms. Fraser’s paws off Parliament’s prerogatives.

After all, as will obviously be apparent to those many taxpayers who see common sense in the idea of independent scrutiny of MPs’ expense accounts, there’s more than a whiff of hypocrisy to Parliament’s position on auditing in light of its unprincipled surrender on secrets that might embarrass the government.

As anyone can plainly see, they can’t have it both ways!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Alberta Liberals need to go back to the future with Kevin Taft

Your blogger with Kevin Taft, back in the day before Dr. Taft adopted that silly buzz cut…

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

Kevin Taft is proof there’s some truth to the old saw about nice guys finishing last.

Back in March 2008, when the former University of Alberta professor was leader of the Alberta Liberals and opinion polls said dissatisfaction with Premier Ed Stelmach had voters thinking seriously about their options, it almost looked as if the brass ring was within Dr. Taft’s grasp.

It was not to be. Maybe it was those union TV ads attacking the premier – for which the Liberals got the blame, even though they had nothing to do with them. Maybe it was Dr. Taft’s stumble about oilsands development rules, which made it sound as if he wanted to slow job creation. Maybe it was just the snow that fell the night before the polls opened.

Whatever it was, farmer Stelmach’s Progressive Conservatives snatched a huge majority from the jaws of something less, and nice-guy Taft did “the right thing” and stepped aside as Opposition leader while remaining an MLA.

But that was then and this is now. Premier Stelmach’s popularity didn’t last. On the contrary, it crumbled. The doubts among voters that opinion polls were tracking before the election kept growing, and Conservative popularity declined accordingly. Had the capable and intellectually nimble Dr. Taft remained at the helm of the Liberals, a strong case can be made many of these votes would have switched to his party.

Meanwhile, the Liberals’ choice of a replacement was less than stellar. David Swann, an environmentalist and Calgary physician, is a fine man – kind, decent and sympathetic. He is so nice a person that it is almost painful to state this truth, but he clearly lacks the instincts required to succeed as Opposition leader. Under his lacklustre leadership, one prominent Liberal MLA has quit to sit as an independent, reducing the party caucus in the Legislature to eight, while another has announced he’s departing soon to run for mayor of Calgary. Support that could have gone to the Liberals went elsewhere.

Elsewhere turned out to be the far-right Wildrose Alliance under the leadership of the engaging former journalist Danielle Smith. Of course, this could be either good news or bad news for the Liberals. Some of those potential Wildrose votes most certainly belong to electors who would have supported the Liberals if Dr. Taft had stuck around. On the other hand, many ridings, like St. Albert, have strong Liberal voting traditions, and if the vote on the right splits evenly enough it could hand many constituencies to the Liberals.

But for that to happen, the Liberals need a strong leader, and Dr. Swann is simply not that person.

Now, the conventional wisdom among almost everyone who follows Alberta politics is that the Liberals require a new face. But there’s hardly enough time for the Liberals to come up with someone completely new before Premier Stelmach calls an election – even if he waits, as promised, until March 2012.

Realistically, there is only one place for the Liberals to go for an effective leader, and that is back to the future: Kevin Taft.

Dr. Swann needs to follow the great Canadian political tradition of taking a walk in the snow – or the spring dandelions, as the case may be – to ponder stepping aside for the good of his party and our province.

He deserves an important and influential role in government. But that is something he can only have if the Liberals have a leader who can get enough of them elected to form a government – even if that means co-operating with the NDP. Right now, the only Liberal who fills that bill is Kevin Taft.

Nice guys don’t have to finish last every time. Sometimes history gives them a second chance. If history smiles on Dr. Taft, he has the opportunity to be something more than the best premier Alberta never had.

If it doesn’t, maybe we should start getting used to the sound of Premier Danielle Smith!

A version of this post also appears on Rabble.ca.