Archive for July, 2010

Jason Kenney’s dilemma: Whatever to do about Conrad?

Lord Black argues during the Calgary Herald strike of 1999-2000 with union leader Andy Marshall, one of the “gangrenous limbs” amputated because they believed thay had a legal right to be members of a union. In the foreground, Lord Black’s bodyguard.

VANCOUVER

Thanks to Chicago Judge Amy St. Eve, Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has until Aug. 16 to wriggle off the horns of the dilemma he faces over whatever to do about Conrad Black.

That’s how long the judge of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Illinois last Friday grounded Lord Black, the bailed-out former newspaper magnate, within the borders of the American Homeland.

After that, if he submits to her court a humiliatingly thorough accounting of his current reduced financial circumstances, she will reconsider the fate of the man she packed off to jail in 2008.

It turns out the Lord Black pines to return to his native land – notwithstanding the fact the former newspaper owner and Pontifex Maxuimus of the cult of the right renounced his Canadian citizenship in 2001 in order to be “elevated” to the British House of Lords. Perhaps with his present pecuniary embarrassments, our single-payer public health care system has acquired an unexpected allure.

Regardless, Judge St. Eve’s restrictions on his Lordship’s travel itinerary give Mr. Kenney, the self-righteous keeper of Canada’s gates, 24 additional days to figure out how to let Lord Black into Canada without appearing to be a lickspittle toady to a man Canadians generally view with discomfort and distrust. One imagines the pressure on Mr. Kenney is almost unbearable.

Talk about a dilemma! Having cast himself in the persona of an immigration tough guy, a vigorous defender of the realm – ready at the drop of a dime, as it were, to bar the national door to foreign riff-raff – he can hardly be seen to be encouraging the admission to Canada of a foreign citizen fresh out of jail, with a criminal history and a felonious conviction still in place.

And yet, the foreign riff-raff in this case is not some law-abiding British Parliamentarian who wishes merely to address a Canadian audience on some topic verboten by the Harperite faction of the Reform Party that controls Parliament.

Instead it is a revered figure in the circles inhabited by Prime Minister Stepher Harper, the shot-caller behind Mr. Kenney, our nation’s Nixonian little gatekeeper.

No doubt Mr. Kenney is sadly contemplating the scientifically polled attitudes of ordinary Canadians – the kind of people held in contempt by former-Citizen Black – as he takes calls from his campaign contributors in Lord Black’s diminished but still influential circle of Canadian friends.

Add to this pressure the fire lit under Mr. Kenney by the nearly hysterical – and at times hysterically funny – campaign on Mr. Black’s behalf by what’s left of Canada’s mainstream media, which has been lurching further and further to the right since Mr. Black himself founded the National Post in 1998 to assist in that project.

Since, under the circumstances, Lord Black is technically inadmissible to Canada without Mr. Kenney’s assistance, and since large numbers of Canadians view Mr. Black as a divisive figure whose attitudes border on unpatriotic, this leaves the minister between the proverbial rock and hard place.

As the Globe and Mail recently reported, Lord Black’s “best hope” is to apply to Mr. Kenney for a temporary residence permit, which may be granted “to persons travelling to Canada who might otherwise be turned away at the border for reasons including a past criminal conviction.”

The Globe quoted Guidy Mamann, a lawyer and expert on Canadian criminal law, who stated, “the bottom line is, does Conrad Black have friends in the minister’s office? That’s what it’s all going to boil down to.”

Well, he does, of course. The questions are, what will those friends do, and what will be the nature of the political fallout for them?

If Mr. Kenney bows to Lord Black’s remaining cronies and the campaign in the right-wing gutter press, he must know that he and the Conservative government of Prime Minister Harper will be reviled by Canadians.

At the same time, if he fails to come across with a Canadian passkey for Lord Black, he will have to suffer gross indignities at the hands of people he looks up to in the Establishment and his dear friends in the Canadian media.

In an editorial cartoon, Sunmedia has already risibly compared Lord Black to Nelson Mandela - whom Mr. Kenney’s former “snackpack” buddy Rob Anders once disgracefully labelled a “terrorist.” We can expect much more of this sidesplitting claptrap in the next few days as the media’s yellow ribbon campaign for Conrad ratchets up.

It is an interesting situation, not unlike the Perils of Pauline, and we can all enjoy the suspense while we wait with Mr. Kenney and his Lordship to see what Judge St. Eve does next.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

$1.7 million: Too much for a St. Albert birthday bash, even after 150 years

Fireworks like these scare dogs and make some taxpayers cranky.


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

When it comes to birthday parties, $1.7 million is too much.

Even if you’re a city of 60,000 people, and even if you’ve lasted 150 years, $1.7 million is too much for a birthday celebration.

Even if all the money isn’t going to come out of the pockets of the taxpayers of St. Albert – as indeed appears to be the case with the birthday bash planned for 2011 by the St. Albert 150th Anniversary Celebration Committee – the optics are terrible.

The fact is, even with federal and provincial grants and corporate sponsorships, it sounds very much as if about $1 million is going to have to be paid by St. Albert taxpayers. And $1 million is too much for a birthday party in a city where municipal taxes are a hot-button issue.

Someone at St. Albert Place needs to sit down with the committee and explain the political realities of spending this much on a party in a community where many voters are still fuming about their past tax increases, and many others are concerned.

Now, St. Albert deserves a significant birthday bash for its 1500th anniversary. While there are party poopers here who would have us spend nothing at all on this historically significant event, it’s appropriate to pay a meaningful sum for our celebration. It’s great to think about trying to get St. Albert into the Guinness Book of Records by organizing a huge birthday picnic, and, yes, there will be substantial costs associated with that.

But making a budget request for close to $2 million – which is what it will be when the dust settles if we proceed down this road – smacks of arrogance and a complete disdain for the opinions of that significant group of taxpayers who are unhappy with local tax rates.

In the last civic election, the cost of building and opening Servus Place became a huge issue. If the facts about Servus Place’s operating deficit had been available before October 2007, instead of a short time after, there are grounds to believe St. Albert would have a different city council today.

Since then, however, our council has done a pretty good job of getting tax increases under control and persuading citizens that Servus Place is a real benefit to our community. Sure, there are those who are still steaming about this issue, but it’s a safe bet that the majority of St. Albertans are reasonably happy with things as they are.

But the level of spending proposed for this 2011 birthday bash is so high it has the potential to reignite the same kind of political rage we saw back in 2007 and 2008.

Even people who are not opposed to incremental tax increases will probably raise their eyebrows at spending on activities that leave only a limited legacy. Why not party less and leave more – say, by starting work on a Sesquicentennial Branch of the St. Albert Public Library…

One would think that successful politicians getting ready for a civic election just 88 days away would see the potential for outrage from spending so much on a party – even one that’s supposed to last for most of a year.

Already there are the stirrings of awareness on council, if Councillor Gareth Jones’s questions reported in the last edition of the Saint City News are anything to go by. The committee anticipates raising $400,000 in corporate sponsorships, Jones observed. “How realistic is that $400,000 going to be?”

Good question. Good for Jones for asking it. But just asking is not enough.

Our city council needs to sincerely thank the committee for its hard work and its excellent first draft of the party budget.

Then council needs to task someone in the city administration with a cool head and a durable adding machine to come up with a budget that is under $1-million.

They need to do this, at least, if they want to be re-elected!

Privacy Commissioner Frank Work, a rare Albertan voice of common sense

Frank Work, Alberta’s information and privacy commissioner, is a rare official voice for sanity and common sense.

Mr. Work is his own man. Since his appointment in 2002, he has never kowtowed to the provincial Conservative government or been afraid to stake out a separate position from it on the rights of Albertans to enjoy their privacy or have access to information about their government.

His office often aggressively takes the side of citizens trying to pry loose information to which they are entitled, not the side of officials who would like to make getting public information as expensive and difficult as possible.

So when he speaks about an issue, Albertans – and other Canadians too – should pay attention.

Earlier today, Mr. Work’s office issued a characteristically and commendably terse news release advising Albertans not to be in a big hurry to give up their rights and freedoms because they fear crime. After all, he pointed out, Statistics Canada has reported once again that crime rates continue to fall.

“Decreasing crime rates have been a trend across North America in recent years, yet we continue to regard surveillance as a means of curbing crime,” Mr. Work’s release stated.

“If we are frightened by the thought of crime, we are more willing to give up privacy and other civil liberties if we think it will make us safer,” he observed.

The release concluded: “Work hopes that decreasing crime rates will prompt politicians and the public to question the need for increased surveillance in the name of crime prevention. Work adds, ‘Surveillance on our streets does not prevent crime, but simply disperses it away from the glare of the lens.’”

What a breath of fresh air this is compared with the usual “crime fighting” folderol we receive from Conservative politicians of both the federal and provincial persuasion.

For one of many examples, just consider the Harperite Conservatives’ ludicrously named “public safety agenda,” which is all about stampeding voters by inciting their natural fear of crime and has very little to do with actually alleviating the (shrinking) amount of crime Canadians face.

To stretch a point, isn’t our federal government’s habit of ignoring or willfully misinterpreting unbiased data produced by Statistics Canada precisely what is behind their crusade to eliminate the census long form, debasing the quality of material that StatsCan can collect and strengthening their opportunities to tell us the Big Lies that advance their neo-liberal agenda?

After all, when Statistics Canada – which has been ranked the world’s No. 1 statistical agency many times and takes pride in producing sound and reliable data – tells us crime is on the decline, there is the danger that Canadians will listen to citizens like Mr. Work and resist the Conservative agenda to restrict our civil liberties and our limit access to the sound factual data we need to refute their claims.

Frank Work is an Alberta original and a rare provincial asset. As such, it’s astonishing that Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s Tories haven’t moved to replace him with someone more compliant.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Health care RX: First, do no harm … so dump the bonuses!

Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett in interview mode.

After a grim year of failure after failure, Alberta’s spectacularly overpaid public health care executives are now collecting their colossal performance bonuses.

The management group now being rewarded for their efforts was put together after May 2008 when Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative government created Alberta Health Services to eliminate nine health regions that had grown too independent for the premier’s liking.

Stephen Duckett, an abrasive PhD economist from Australia, was hired to lead this effort – which was touted as a way to save money and improve service. But never mind the backstory. This is about the utility of paying big bonuses to public service managers.

So never mind that these bonuses, themselves many times the pay earned by the lowly front-line health care workers who actually care for the sick, are being paid on top of “corporate style” base salaries that are ludicrously large. (Mr. Duckett’s base pay: $595,000 this year. His bonuses and benefits: $149,000. Total: $744.000. Years a hospital housekeeper would have to work to collect Mr. Duckett’s annual salary: 21.)

After all, Albertans have pretty well all swallowed the ideological Kool-Aid that we must pay huge corporate style salaries to senior public servants to get the “best people for the job.” As Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky recently explained: “When you’re looking at keeping the good people that you have and recruiting more good people, skills, abilities and other expertise, you have to compensate them in order to attract them.”

And never mind that these AHS executives have taken a health care system that two and a half years ago was working reasonably well, at least in the Edmonton area, and reduced it to a shambles. (Remember H1N1?)

And never mind that this wrecking crew is costing us more, not less. This spring, the government had to step up with a bailout of more than three-quarters of a billion dollars to keep the whole provincial health care system from imploding like a Calgary hospital!

Which means, obviously, that these undeserved executive bonuses are being paid out of public bailout money!

And never mind Premier Stelmach’s promised salary review for health care executives – after all, this is Alberta. If this kind of thing is fine for Wall Street, we’re sure as hell not going to miss the chance to get in on the fun in the executive suite of Alberta Health Services.

Nope, never mind any of this stuff!

But do think about this: There is no evidence that giving bonuses to executives will improve their performance in any way!

There is some evidence, on the contrary, that bonusing executives will make their decisions worse, since they are bound to focus on whatever must be done to feather their own nests instead of on overall goals to improve the system. Moreover, since whatever “performance measures” you set are bound to contain perverse incentives to engage in harmful behaviour, some damage is likely to follow.

For example, if you make trimming jobs or costs a part of the executive bonus package, your executives are sure to trim, even if it proves harmful. So, to give a completely imaginary example, they might scratch out a scheme to close one of the world’s best psychiatric facilities on the back of a restaurant napkin and try to implement it the next morning.

Consider AHS’s current vice-presidents. In fiscal 2009-2010, they were told that improving patient care had the same importance as meeting budget targets. But improving care is hard and making cuts is easy, so guess what they did? Hint: every one of them got a bonus despite the fact they failed to meet their performance targets on measures of patient care. Why? Because they cut.

The areas they cut the most – emergency rooms, hip and knee surgeries, seniors’ influenza immunization rates, use of acute care beds – were where patient care suffered the most.

Indeed, studies show that performance bonuses are an ineffective way to enhance performance. For example, in 2003, the Academy of Management Journal published a review of 200 academic papers that compared stock bonuses with executive performance. Their conclusion? Bonuses had no effect on performance.

The next year, a survey of 350 companies by global human resources consulting firm Hewitt & Associates reported that 80 per cent of these organizations had concluded their pay-for-performance programs were only partly successful at best, and more likely did no good at all.

But business types, of course, influence other business types, so these unproductive, wasteful and usually harmful bonusing schemes were an easy sell to Ed Stelmach’s “Conservative” government. After all, these guys imagine themselves to be hard-nosed, clear-eyed businessmen. In fact, a pretty good case can be made that they are gullible chumps.

Having set out to find “the best people for the job,” they came up with something quite different. Now we Albertans are going to have to face up to the mess these “top people” have left.

It will be hard to know where to start. But here’s a thought, this being health care, we could begin by taking the advice that physicians give themselves: “First, do no harm…”

Since scandalous, counterproductive, bailout-financed executive bonuses are pretty obviously a recipe for harm, we should start by eliminating them.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Conrad Black is a citizen of Britain, a resident of the United States – let it remain that way!

“In happier times” – Conrad Black gesticulates at Canadian union leader Andy Marshall during the Calgary Herald strike in 1999 and 2000. Canadians should show a little spine and bar the door to his Lordship’s return.

Peter C. Newman, the well-known author of tedious doorstoppers exalting the supposed virtues of the Canadian business class, says he believes Conrad Black will leave his American jail cell “as a better man, with a higher appreciation for Canada.”

A better man? I suppose we shall see about that. But he would have a heightened appreciation for his native land, wouldn’t he? After all, his Lordship never would have been prosecuted for anything in this county, let alone found guilty, however temporarily. Unlike the United States, the law doesn’t really apply to our business people at all.

Hard as it would be to have missed this, so great is the glee of Canada’s mainstream media at the former newspaper magnate’s unexpected release from American incarceration, the facts for those of you have just returned from Jupiter are as follows: His Lordship, justly famous for renouncing his Canadian citizenship in order to be declared a British peer, has been granted bail as his fight to overturn his convictions for fraud and obstruction continues south of the Medicine Line.

Indeed, the chances are good that Lord Black will not have to return to jail when he is released within the next few days. Even if he is unable to get his obstruction of justice conviction overturned, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent redefinition of a legal theory used to convict him two and a half years ago will likely mean he will be deemed to have served sufficient time. So for Lord Black – or Lord Tubby, as he was fondly known by his former employees in the Canadian newspaper business – it will be adieu to the federal correctional institution in Coleman, Fla.

Well, so be it. Regardless, however, despite his Lordship’s supposedly elevated appreciation for his native land, he should not be welcomed back to our country. This is so whether or not he owns property in Toronto. And it is so whether or not he still is a member of the Order of Canada, which continues on its Website to windily honour him as “a distinguished Toronto entrepreneur and publisher … a man of diverse achievements within the realms of Canadian commerce, education, literature and the arts.”

Please! This Lord is, after all, out on bail. That is to say, the United States government still views him as a convicted felon – albeit one with a chance of slipping off the hook – and like any other real or potential criminal he should not be permitted to cross the border for the security of the realm.

Our current Governor General would never say why Mr. Black was allowed to hang on to his Order of Canada lapel pin when he had been convicted of a felony in a sister democracy with an adequately functioning justice system. Presumably it was because of the very thing that has come to pass – to wit, that he might be able to succeed at having at least some of his convictions overturned.

Well, in the proper pursuit of peace, order and good government, the Dominion should now take the same approach to Lord Black’s readmission to the land of his birth – that is, he should be turned away in the reasonable supposition that the American courts may yet uphold his conviction.

At the very least, being released for time served without all his convictions being dismissed should not be sufficient to allow his Lordship to jump the queue and gain admission when so many fine, blameless and better qualified people are waiting to become Canadians.

But for the moment at least, Lord Black remains a convicted criminal. And as our Conservative government is so apt to remind us, criminals should not be welcome in our country, leastways those who are citizens of other lands.

Moreover, lest we forget, Lord Black his no longer a Canadian. He renounced us. He dismissed us. He kissed us off. He had no use for us at all, we Canadians who saw “cowardice as wisdom, philistinism as Olympian serenity and the spitefulness of the weak as moral indignation.”

Indeed! So, even if all of his convictions are eventually overturned, let’s show a little spine for once in dealing with this undesirable former Canadian. He is a citizen of the United Kingdom. He is a resident of the United States. Let him live in one of those places!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

ReThink Alberta? How about, Take a Valium, Alberta?

One of Corporate Ethics International’s notorious billboards. Below: Premier Ed Stelmach, in Edmonton Journal photo. “We absolutely will fight back!”

Talk about getting value for your money!

A hitherto little-known San Francisco-based group called Corporate Ethics International last week announced it had bought a small number of billboards in the United States calling Alberta an environmental villain for the way it’s developing the Athabasca tarsands and urging Americans to rethink their Albertan holiday plans.

In response, tout le monde Alberta flipped its collective lid.

The government promised a massive taxpayer-financed public relations counterattack that, if past PR efforts by Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservatives are any yardstick, is bound to create more enemies than friends. “We absolutely will fight back,” a defensive Premier Stelmach vowed at a Calgary news conference. “…This is something we’re going to push hard against.” Stand by for scores of Alberta Cabinet ministers jetting off to luxury hotels in the power centres of the United States, their official credit cards ready for a workout.

Opposition politicians, petroleum industry lobbyists and flacks, mainstream media commentators and many ordinary Albertans appear to have been driven into a state of utter hysteria by CEI’s campaign. Wildrose Alliance chief Danielle Smith demanded a great council of war to discuss Alberta’s response. (Premier Stelmach, to his credit, sensibly declined.) Random commentators on the Edmonton Journal’s Website accused such well-known international fiends as Quebec and the European Union of being behind the billboards for reasons of sinister self-interest. (No one mentioned a beast with seven heads and ten horns, but this being Alberta, it’s only a matter of time.)

If they hear about any of this, bemused Americans must think, “methinks these Canadians doth protest too much!”

Despite the high-pitched rhetoric on the billboards – which depict an oil-soaked pelican in the Gulf of Mexico and a couple of oil-soaked ducks in Alberta, and declares this province to be “the other oil disaster” – reporting on the campaign has been pretty vague and takes many of CEI’s claims at face value.

There are said to be billboards in four American cities, which the environmental group says cost as much as $50,000 US. But no journalist seems to have thought to ask exactly how many billboards this sum actually purchased in Denver, Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis.

Well, I can tell you, as a matter of fact, seeing as my work involves buying billboards from time to time. The answer would be … about four.

So for the cost of one billboard each in Minneapolis and three other third-tier U.S. cities – apparently similar signs in the likes of New York and Los Angeles just cost too much – CEI has the chattering class of Alberta and the entire population of Calgary in a mortal swivet!

There’s more, of course, CEI has also promised an on-line advertising campaign – which I can also tell you is a bargain compared to other forms of advertising – linking to a Website called ReThinkAlberta.org with a clever rendering of Alberta’s new “corporate” logo smeared with oil. What’s more, they promise, there will be a billboard-beachhead in Europe. Where, one wonders – Düsseldorf and Reims?

Now, as the people behind CEI surely know even if the combined great minds of Alberta can’t figure it out, this campaign is unlikely to succeed at its stated goal of completely shutting down oil extraction operations in the tarsands. In a petroleum dependent – and increasingly petroleum short – world, that just ain’t gonna happen.

But they have effectively undermined the Alberta government’s dubious campaign south of the border to portray tarsands mining as environmentally safer than other forms of hydrocarbon extraction.

What’s more, they may make a contribution to forcing the Alberta government – or some future Alberta government – to clean up our oil-extraction act. Because, let’s face it – as the tone of Alberta’s response to CEI’s billboards illustrated – this premier doth protest too much. All is not well in the Alberta oilpatch.

Environmental regulations are lax – and likely to get laxer. Most of the money we spend on the environment is going into to a scientifically dubious carbon capture boondoggle. Irresponsible energy companies with no commitment to anything but their own bottom lines call the tune in this province. Tarsands development has been hurried and poorly planned – barely brought under control by the recession. Regulatory agencies are understaffed and under-funded.

And you know what? No matter how high Ed Stelmach’s blood pressure goes, those ducks on that billboard didn’t just fall out of the sky!

Many of the issues identified by the ReThink Alberta campaign are in fact legitimate concerns, even if their details are not precisely accurate or their rhetoric is intentionally overblown.

In the mean time, far more U.S. tourists are likely to rethink their Alberta holiday plans because of the overheated Canadian dollar – encouraged by our federal Conservative government, not black helicopters from the EU – than because they happened to see a billboard in Minneapolis.

So here’s a three-part program for effectively responding to ReThink Alberta:

  1. Start acting responsibly about the environment, and put some money and effort into commonsense regulation.
  2. Charge fair prices for tourists from Canada and the U.S. who come to Alberta.
  3. Take a Valium, Alberta!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Liberals to Leader: Never mind the New Democrats, let’s just talk to ourselves!

Efforts to unite the left in Alberta experience a bumpy landing after a very short flight. Below, departing Alberta Liberal party president Tony Sansotta.

If you want to know just how steep the climb is to the united centre-left proposed last week by Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann, consider the resignation today of party president Tony Sansotta.

Yes, that Tony Sansotta – the one who with Dr. Swann co-signed last week’s “Let’s Talk” newspaper advertisement entreating members of the Alberta New Democrats and other political parties to make common cause with the Liberals to create a new progressive alternative to replace the Conservatives and Wildrose Alliance in the hearts of voters.

To achieve that goal, it was suggested in this blog a few hours ago, Dr. Swann and his Liberals would at the very least have to fight both die-hard New Democrats and some of their own party’s fiercest partisans.

Well, the fight started immediately, and was over quickly. The New Democrats got their licks in first, but it was Dr. Swann’s fellow Liberals – in the symbolic form of by his co-signer Mr. Sansotta – who delivered the coup de grace.

Mr. Sansotta pulled the plug on his role of Liberal Party president yesterday with a brisk resignation letter made conveniently available to the media. The note made it unambiguously clear where Mr. Sansotta really stood on the whole matter of working with New Democrats, or presumably anyone else.

“I have reflected on the events of the past several days and have come to the conclusion that the Alberta Liberal Party needs a different kind of President to work with the Leader,” Mr. Sansotta wrote. “All of you know that my focus has been to build strong constituencies, raise funds and help find top notch Liberal candidates to fight the next election. I will continue to help the Party in anyway I can. I am resigning my position as your President effective immediately. I wish all of you and the Alberta Liberal Party every success in electing Liberal MLAs.” (Emphasis added.)

Well, that was quick! Just nine days for Dr. Swann’s bid to reconcile the centre-left to crash and burn, or at least experience a very bumpy landing. Albertans can safely assume that any effort to create a united progressive alternative is deader than the proverbial mackerel for the rest of the current election cycle.

As an aside, Mr. Sansotta’s departure led to another peculiar development in the contest between the Alberta Liberals and New Democrats for the title of The Little Caucus that Shrank.

The local press reported that Dr. Swann had replaced Mr. Sansotta with an ardent Twitterist named Jody MacPherson. Oddly, the successful job candidate is an enthusiastic booster of Calgary mayoral candidate Kent Hehr. Mr. Hehr is the Alberta Liberal MLA for Calgary-Buffalo, so if his municipal campaign succeeds this October, it will deliver another body blow to Dr. Swann’s incredible shrinking caucus, reducing it to seven. (The formerly nine-member Legislative caucus lost Dave Taylor April 13 when the Calgary-Currie MLA threw up his hands over disagreements with Dr. Swann and opted to sit as an independent.)

These developments presumably leave the majority of committed Alberta Liberals happily stuck with a core vote around 20 per cent, give or take, and decided New Democrat voters equally satisfied with a core party share of roughly 10 per cent. This way, both can concentrate of taking potshots at the other and talking to themselves about their ideological purity. This is a much more comfortable role than the untidy business of providing an alternative government for Albertans, as suggested by Dr. Swann.

Meanwhile, without fear of further interruptions, the nascent Alberta Party – a seeming alliance of Red Tories, Blue Liberals and Hazy Greens – can get back to its ongoing strategy of meeting for coffee and pondering deeply how much better things would be if only they were the government.

This clears the path for the right-wing but populist Wildrose Alliance under Danielle Smith – apparently the only political leader in Alberta who is comfortable with ordinary voters – to pick up many soft Liberal and New Democrat votes from electors who are fed up enough with Premier Ed Stelmach’s moribund Conservatives to take a chance on the most likely next thing.

Only in Alberta, you say? Pity!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Awkward! When the rain fell and waters rose, Alberta premier headed to Portugal

Unidentified Medicine Hat resident scans the floodwaters for some sign of Premier Ed Stelmach, pictured below. Stelmach is smiling because he’s thinking of his Portuguese vacation. Note, Albertans portrayed may not be exactly as illustrated. Below Stelmach, U.S. President Barack Obama fills sandbags in Iowa.

It has been axiomatic since the days of Noah that if you want to survive in politics, and the waters are rising anywhere in your jurisdiction, you get your ass to the riverside and start filling sandbags. Politicians who ignore this universal law of politics do so at their own peril.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt if you make sure there’s a photographer in the vicinity when you wade in to the top of your hip-waders. But the important thing is that you’re there, and that you’re seen to be there.

So if you’re on the beach in Florida when the floodwaters start rising back home, or you’re hiking through the backwoods of Patagonia, you get yourself to the nearest airport and get the heck back to the flood zone as fast as an Air Canada Airbus can carry you. Before you’re within a kilometre of the airport departure gate, you need to have your media-relations flunky issue a press release saying you’re on your way.

This is a universal law that applies equally to the leaders of democracies and dictatorships, in big countries and little provinces. It doesn’t matter if there’s nothing useful you can do. It doesn’t matter if you’ve created the greatest emergency response system in the world on your watch. It sure doesn’t matter if you’ve dispatched whole platoons of ministers and deputy ministers, or even your deputy premier. It doesn’t matter how quickly you’ve rolled out the biggest flood-relief package in your province’s history.

If you are not there, you are done like dinner.

As Alberta blogger Dave Cournoyer observed, “there are significant symbolic reasons why political leaders show up at disaster areas.”

So, pretty clearly, Premier Ed Stelmach’s non-appearance when the floodwaters rose in southeastern Alberta at the end of June was a powerful symbol of how long the Alberta Conservatives have had it far too easy politically – and how tone deaf Mr. Stelmach is to the fundamental verities of politics, even in Alberta.

Instead of showing up in the flood zone, Premier Stelmach … went to Portugal!

Bookmark this Web page: Come the next provincial election, this astoundingly wrong-footed decision will come back to haunt Mr. Stelmach and his Conservatives more than any of the premier’s much more substantial policy blunders from trying to close Edmonton’s psychiatric hospital, to flip-flopping on oil and gas royalties, to over-paying health care executives.

It sure as heck doesn’t matter if you’ve bought a ticket for a short holiday in Portugal at a charity fundraiser auction and as a result were flying out that day! And explaining self-righteously that “that’s why we had all our ministers there” just isn’t going to wash. For heaven’s sake! As if the highest paid premier in Canada couldn’t afford to pay for a later flight to Portugal!

But that’s what Premier Stelmach told a local radio reporter in Medicine Hat, down in the flood zone where they’ve always voted Tory, no matter what, but nowadays are batting their eyes and flirting with the far-right Wildrose Alliance. And he told it in a way that suggests he just doesn’t get it about why that’s not the right thing to do.

Right now, notwithstanding the fact no opposition leader had the wit to travel to the flood zone either, some clever boots Wildrose Alliance strategist is cooking up a TV ad about how when the rains came and the waters rose and Albertans really needed him, Premier Stelmach went missing in action. This is why we have recently seen both Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and U.S. President Barack Obama, sleeves rolled up, on the scene at serious floods within their jurisdictions.

This isn’t quite on a par with former U.S. president George Bush remaining on holiday while New Orleans foundered, then telling Brownie he was doin’ a heckuva job, but it has the same kind of lousy optics.

Is the premier of Alberta so out of touch with the most basic political conventions that he can’t figure this out? Is there no one among his political advisors that has the courage to tell him such an obvious political truth?

So it would seem. That’s why there’s rain in the political forecast!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

For Alberta Liberal entreaties to have meaning, David Swann must risk even more

Above, the Liberal ad. Below, Liberal Leader David Swann; below him, NDP Leader Brian Mason.

Another shoe must drop before the new campaign by provincial Liberal Leader David Swann to “unite the left” in Alberta has any hope of success.

Unfortunately for Dr. Swann – since he can expect no immediate reciprocal gesture from the province’s New Democrats – it is his Liberals who will have to make the next necessary concession too.

Now that the Liberals have called on other parties (and by implication those parties’ supporters) to come to Papa, or at least to find some way to co-operate, they need to commit themselves to the very hard decision not to run strong candidates in the few Edmonton-area ridings where the Alberta New Democrats have a chance.

This will be extremely difficult for the Calgary physician’s own Liberal supporters to swallow. But risking even more than he has already is the only way to prove that this is not just a halfhearted gesture required by the Liberal convention resolution that was narrowly passed last May.

Oddly enough, as Dr. Swann seems to be an unusually sincere politician whose personal beliefs are far more progressive than those of Liberals in other provinces, it is likely he really meant his entreaty to the supporters of “progressive political parties” to find a way to make common cause at a historic moment when the usually monolithic right-wing vote in Alberta is split.

Dr. Swann’s plea appeared as a half-page advertisement in Alberta’s two largest newspapers on July 7. Under the heading “Let’s Talk,” it argued that working together is the way to “build a progressive alternative” to endless right-wing rule, whether under the pragmatic Conservatives of Premier Ed Stelmach or the market fundamentalist Wildrose Alliance of Danielle Smith. Indeed, one senses that Dr. Swann has picked this issue as his hill worth dying on.

The advertisements – signed by Dr. Swann and party President Tony Sansotta – beseeched other political parties and their supporters to work with the Liberals toward the goal of achieving “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to unseat the Conservatives.”

Of course, placing the ads was the easy part. Now Dr. Swann’s Liberals have to show that they mean it. To do that, they will have to fight both die-hard New Democrats and their own fiercest partisans, and perhaps the kitchen kaffeeklatschers of the nascent Alberta Party as well.

At least the leader of the Alberta Party, which has no MLAs and which for months has been holding meetings in homes across the province supposedly to find out what Albertans think, did not slam the door on the idea. He did suggest the AP would really prefer just to go on chitchatting and drinking coffee.

The New Democrats under Brian Mason said hell no: “We believe that this ad by the Alberta Liberal Party is an act of desperation by a party that is clearly floundering and worried about holding onto the seats it does have,” Mr. Mason sniffed at a news conference called in response to media interest in the ads.

In a long commentary posted on Facebook, influential Lethbridge-based NDP activist Shannon Phillips provided a distilled version of the official New Democrat theme: “People who think the ‘left’ or ‘progressives’ should unite are interested in power. Full stop. That’s all they want. They don’t care about how they get it, and they have no plan for once they’ve got it,” she wrote. “…If the Liberals pull their heads out and leave the NDP alone on the left, the NDP increases their vote, and the Liberals actually get a shot at power.”

Ms. Phillips and many others in the NDP argue there is no guarantee Liberal or New Democratic voters in ridings where their party has pulled back would vote for the other partner in this effort. They suggest the Liberals would be smarter to go after Red Tories than coalition minded New Democrats. This argument could turn out to be true, of course, but to many progressive Albertans it smacks of a call to leave us Knee-Dips to our 9 per cent, where we’re happy, secure and in no danger of ever having to make the hard choices required to govern.

Given such objections by the potential allies to whom Dr. Swann was reaching out, the chances of his effort succeeding seem slim.

Still, the ad was a significant development. For one thing, it was a rare acknowledgement that the Alberta Liberals recognize what they’ve been doing isn’t working.

More significantly, the fact the Liberals ran the ads – and the New Democrats’ defensive response – suggest the leaders of all centrist parties in Alberta are starting to hear from their supporters that they would welcome some form of co-operation that could finally topple the Tories and stave off the Wildrose Alliance.

There is no polling yet to prove this supposition, but informal Internet polls like one on the CBC seem to indicate that ordinary Albertans are warmer to the idea than their political leaders. Likewise, letters to the editor of Alberta papers have so far been mainly positive.

Count on it that the New Democrats have heard the same things from many of their supporters as the Liberals are hearing from theirs.

New Democrat leaders will resist the idea of co-operation just as many Liberals activists did last May. But if Dr. Swann dares to go further and drop the other shoe, rank and file members may just take up the idea and push their leaders to a level of co-operation that could actually bring positive change to Alberta.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

David Johnston: certifiably old, rich, white, male and reliable

As things should be, as seen by the prime minister of Canada: HRH Prince Phillip, HM Elizabeth II and, at right, HE Canada’s governor general. You guess which one is the PM’s idea of a perfect GG. Below left, David Lloyd Johnston; below right, Conrad Black in his previous uniform, that of the Governor General’s Foot Guards. Really!

OK, so he doesn’t quite have the marquee appeal of a Preston Manning or a Conrad Black, neither of whom appears to be available just now for some reason, but David Lloyd Johnston is pretty much what we would have expected our prime minister to pick for a governor general.

Stephen Harper called Mr. Johnston someone who “represents the best of Canada,” and one supposes that from the prime minister’s perspective that is an accurate statement. Mr. Johnston is, after all, an old white guy with money, influence and lots of corporate board memberships who has proved capable of making the sort of nice legal distinctions needed to keep a Conservative government afloat.

The case in point being the time the Ontario university president and law professor was given the job of drawing up the terms of reference for the commission of inquiry into the sleazy cash-only business dealings of former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and his oily German pal, Karlheinz Schreiber.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Johnston ensured that taking a look into the questionable business of the sale of Airbus jetliners to Air Canada – surely the key to the entire squalid affair – was not going to be part of the job of what came to be known as the Oliphant Inquiry.

Notwithstanding the endless squalling of the mainstream media about how Mr. Johnston is a fine fellow, a servant of both Liberal and Conservative governments who doesn’t have a partisan bone in his body, we can take it for granted that if called upon to prorogue Parliament again, establish a rump Parliament or engage in some similar undemocratic maneuver, Mr. Johnston would prove to be up to the task. Otherwise, obviously, he wouldn’t have gotten the job.

Our prime minister, pretty clearly, does not have much fondness for our Constitution, especially its inconvenient requirements for regular elections and democratic rights. Who better, then, than a “legal scholar” like Mr. Johnston – a trained slicer and dicer of fine legal points – to find the necessary justification for whatever it is this government has in mind next.

At any rate, the Harperista cheerleaders in the gutter press repeat claims about Mr. Johnston’s lack of partisanship so assiduously that one cannot avoid the thought the media doth protest too much. After all, these are the same people who shout huzzahs to the prime minister’s frequent calls for an elected Senate – then smile benignly as he packs that august body with grubby Tory pork-barrelers.

Mind you, departing Governor General Michaëlle Jean was up to carrying the can for the PM’s undemocratic impulses as well. However, it seems unlikely that her future reliability could be guaranteed by the prime minister. Anyway, alas, there was the matter of her vice-regal spouse. Thankfully, the media assures us, Mr. Johnson’s loyal helpmeet will behave herself as the Conservative scriptures require.

In the end, of course, any hope Ms. Jean might have entertained of holding a second five-year term must have abruptly ended back in December 2008 when she made Mr. Harper wait longer than he wanted to before allowing him to circumvent the will of a newly elected Parliament.

Anyway, a popular and appealing GG like Ms. Jean doesn’t send quite the right symbolic message from the Conservative Party perspective – to wit, that the rich old white guys are in charge, and they’re going to stay that way, no matter what you might think about it!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.