Archive for August, 2010

Science won’t shake Alberta’s government – but tourist boycotts might…

The Athabasca River at Fort McMurray. Below, a tar-sends mining operation. Below that: Ed Stelmach.

Don’t expect a study released yesterday that shows water in the Athabasca River is being polluted by tar sands oil-extraction operations to change the way the Alberta government does anything.

The study by two University of Alberta scientists, Dr. Erin Kelly and Dr. David Schindler, and four others was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a publication that carries a certain amount of weight in scientific quarters.

But the government of Alberta has only three instinctive responses to bad news from scientists about oil extraction from the Athabasca tar sands: deny, deny and deny.

The government of Premier Ed Stelmach is big on pouring taxpayers’ money into slick public relations and advertising campaigns – which have the added benefit of stuffing the pockets of their friends in the advertising industry who are going to be needed when a general election is called.

It’s even better, of course, if there’s some travel to pleasant U.S. destinations for some of his cabinet ministers and their flunkies as they spread the word about what “responsible energy developers” we Albertans are.

And the government is big on attacking the credentials and work of scientists who say things it doesn’t want to hear. So Doctors Kelly and Schindler had better brace themselves for some shocks similar to those directed at researchers Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee last spring.

The government is also big on making up facts of its own. It claims, for example, that the pollutants in the Athabasca are all natural, just seeping out of the sands. (On the face of it, this might be a plausible explanation for at least some of the pollution. But Dr. Schindler and Dr. Kelley say it ain’t so. According to the Edmonton Journal, the two scientists tested for that specific phenomenon and found it not to have a significant impact. The cause of the mercury, arsenic, beryllium, copper, cadmium, thallium, lead, nickel, zinc and silver pollution, they are certain, is the tar sands industry.)

But what this government just won’t do is what they should do: show a little responsibility.

Make a serious effort to monitor pollutants in the Athabasca River and try to identify their source? Work with industry to get serious about cleaning up the tar sands act? Slow down tar sands development enough to get effective anti-pollution measures in place? Well, they’ll talk the talk, but there’s precious little evidence they’re prepared to actually walk the walk.

And if the slogan of Premier Stelmach is “not on my watch,” don’t expect anything better from Ted Morton, Doug Horner, Danielle Smith or anyone else likely to be the premier of Alberta in the foreseeable future.

That’s why efforts like the campaigns by Corporate Ethics International and ForestEthics drive this government completely bonkers. They could actually work!

Indeed, CEI’s few Re-Think Alberta billboards in the United States and Europe, along with word that several large U.S. retailers intend to try to boycott tar-sands-sourced petroleum products, have caused a remarkable level of hysteria in official and business circles in Alberta.

That’s because the techniques that are used so successfully here in Alberta to brush the government’s and the petroleum industry’s opponents aside don’t work so well when the message they hate finds its way onto a billboard or into the media in Portland or Paris.

Messages like the Re-Think billboards can’t be ignored, dismissed and laughed off the way they can at home. Media managers in Los Angeles and London are less likely than some of their local counterparts to take direction from the premier’s office in return for an early look at a press release. And, face it, Ed Stelmach’s name doesn’t carry a lot of weight in the head offices of Walgreens, Levi Strauss or the like.

Boycotts and consumer campaigns in the United States and Europe have the power to do something the environmental opposition groups here in Alberta, not to mention hard science, can never achieve on their own.

To wit: force the government of Alberta to shape up and start acting like a government.

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Court documents reveal more details about Networc dispute with AHS

Networc’s Calgary Health Resource Centre. Below: the Salvation Army Grace Hospital in simpler times.

Plenty of troubling facts have emerged in the media about the bankruptcy of Networc Health Inc., the private Calgary surgical clinic that Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith says Alberta taxpayers should bail out and keep operating.

For example, it is well known to the public from mainstream media reports that Alberta Health Services has intervened in bankruptcy proceedings against Networc in order to ensure that hip and knee surgeries can continue in the Calgary area, and that this court action has turned into an increasingly acrimonious public battle.

It has been reported that in order to keep the private surgical clinic afloat, AHS has had to fork over $765,000 in receiver costs, $1.3 million in secured debt (in the form of two CIBC lines of credit acquired by the province-wide health “superboard” in May 2010) and in operating costs through to January 2011, including $960,000 in rent.

It’s also been reported that a deal under which AHS would have hired employees from the private surgical centre in a former Salvation Army hospital in Calgary, which does business under the name Health Resource Centre, has gone off the rails.

In a Calgary Herald report Friday, Networc Health CEO Tom Saunders accused AHS of structuring the offer to Health Resource Centre employees in a way designed to force his company out of business. In the same report, AHS CEO Stephen Duckett said the health superboard withdrew its offer of a deal because Networc officials rejected it.

As yet unreported by the mainstream media, however, are the following interesting points found by researcher Shannon Phillips in court documents related to the legal scrap between Networc and AHS:

  • There is no provision for repayment of the outstanding Receiver’s Certificate balance of $500,000 plus interest.
  • Networc argues that in order to meet its most-optimistic financial scenario for its business until January 2011, its three senior managers must be kept on.
  • Based on current six-month figures in the report of the Interim Receiver, we can calculate that those officers (Mr. Saunders, CFO Bernie Simpson and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Stephen Miller) were each paid annual base salaries of $239,000, not including other benefits or perks such as a car allowance.
  • Cash flow projections by the Interim Receiver indicate that Networc expects to pay $1.4 million in legal costs out of normal cash flow. (According to the Interim Receiver, however, AHS disputes this figure.)
  • For its best-case scenario to be met, Networc wants AHS to agree to its position on payment of its legal counsel.
  • Unsecured creditors are owed more than $8.4 million, money that could be unpaid if AHS and the taxpayer don’t pony up.
  • The largest portion of this debt, $7.4 million, is to Clark Builders for an expansion to Networc’s surgical facilities at its Health Resource Centre in Calgary.

The Interim Receiver’s report included two financial scenarios to January 2011 – a “base case” and a more optimistic “summer push” that assumed AHS would give the company a larger number of surgeries to complete.

The base case would result in the company facing a shortfall of $1.7 million. The more optimistic projection would result in the company facing a shortfall of $1.4 million – a sum very close to Networc’s expected bill for legal fees.

It would be fair for taxpayers to wonder, if they are being told by the Wildrose Alliance that they should pay for Networc’s legal costs, if this means they are in effect being asked to underwrite the costs of restructuring Networc now that it has failed as a private surgical clinic so that it can go into some other kind of business after January 2011.

Notwithstanding ludicrous suggestions by supporters of privatized health care, “health economists” and the like that a business deal gone bad shouldn’t be part of the debate about the privatization of health care, that is exactly what should happen.

This fiasco clearly illustrates two things: that health care belongs in the public sector and exactly where the Wildrose Alliance intends to take us if they get the opportunity.

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Question for the Wildrose Alliance: Where’s the evidence of Networc deal?

Alberta Health Services should fill those efficient Networc beds right now, says the Wildrose Alliance. Below: Danielle Smith.

Where is Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith’s evidence there was ever a deal between Networc Health Inc. and Alberta Health Services?

Ms. Smith’s whole it’s-not-a-bailout campaign calling for Networc to be bailed out by Alberta’s taxpayers hangs or falls on this thin thread.

And with each passing day, it looks more as if Ms. Smith’s campaign to get Alberta Health Services to bail out a bankrupt private surgical clinic in Calgary is her first major blunder since she became leader of the right-wing Wildrose Alliance in October 2009.

This is a backhanded tribute to Ms. Smith’s undeniable abilities as a charismatic natural politician, but that hardly diminishes the danger she now faces of being hoist with her own rhetorical petard. It will be very difficult for her to defuse this problem of her own creation.

AHS is the province’s so-called health superboard, responsible for all public health care in Alberta. Networc is the operator of a private clinic hired by the now-defunct Calgary Health Region to do hip and knee surgeries. Networc spiraled into bankruptcy after it made an expensive decision to expand its Calgary surgical facilities. Whether or not it had a deal with AHS to do so is in dispute.

Networc and AHS were in the thick of an acrimonious and increasingly public financial spat that had already migrated into the courts when Ms. Smith foolishly jumped into the fray on Aug. 19. In Wildrose Alliance news release that day, she claimed AHS caused Networc’s business problems by making a decision “to terminate its contractual relationship with Networc Health.”

Her release went on to say the Calgary Health region had “committed to increase the number of surgeries performed by Networc Health to 3,500 per year.”

But at a news conference in Medicine Hat yesterday, AHS CEO Stephen Duckett confidently told journalists that “there’s no evidence that’s been presented to the court about any commitments made by the Calgary Health Region or Alberta Health Services about the expansion.”

So either Mr. Duckett has it right, or Ms. Smith does.

The smart money should be on Mr. Duckett. After all, the Australian PhD economist brought in by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s government to head the superboard in 2008 may be many things, but he is not a fool.

It strains credulity to believe, with the fight over Networc’s contract at a boil in both the court of public opinion and the Court of Queen’s Bench, that Mr. Duckett would have made a flat statement like yesterday’s without being confident of his facts.

Moreover, credence is lent to Mr. Duckett’s version of events by remarks made to the Herald in September 2009 by Networc CFO Bernie Simpson, identified in that Herald story as CEO, who was quoted as saying there had been no negotiations when the company decided to expand its facilities.

“It just makes business sense to try to continue to grow,” Mr. Simpson said in the Herald story.

So the ball is clearly now in Ms. Smith’s court to demonstrate to the public that she has evidence for her claims. It’s unclear where she’d be smartest to hit it.

Claiming she can’t comment on a public debate that she started because it’s now before the courts won’t wash.

But then, if Ms. Smith can’t quickly prove she was right to the satisfaction of the public, she has very few politically palatable options for dealing with this situation.

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Coalition talk, Alberta style: Tories helping Liberals? Holy Cowtown!

David Heyman when he was Premier Stelmach’s Calgary media thingy, in the unsavoury company of your favourite blogger. Below: Kent Hehr.

Politics, as Carl von Clausewitz didn’t exactly say, is merely a slightly more civilized version of war. Thus, among the immutable laws of politics is this one: When in doubt, shoot those whose loyalty is in question and blame your communications people.

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach is in deep trouble in Calgary, thanks to the challenge by Danielle Smith and the far-right Wildrose Alliance. Conservative Energy Minister Ron Liepert, no slouch in the right wing department himself, is one Calgary member of Mr. Stelmach’s cabinet who is likely to be swept away by the Wildrose wave in the city that’s still angry more than a century after it wasn’t picked as Alberta’s capital.

So it couldn’t have been good news for a former journalist, sometime Calgary aldermanic wannabe and Liepert staff communications thingy named David Heyman that the Calgary Herald – his erstwhile employer – outed him this morning as working for Kent Hehr, the Liberal MLA who is running for mayor of Cowtown.

The Herald reporter who wrote the story sounded genuinely astounded to learn that a Conservative would be helping out a Liberal. My goodness, what an oddity, the story all but exclaimed under the headline “Party lines blur in Calgary’s civic race as Grit MLA gets PC help.”

Liberals all mixed up with Conservatives! Good lord, what next? Could this be the end of Alberta civilization as we know it? Could it violate a Biblical law?

After all, this is unheard of. Well, except for the time Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky gave up his career as a Liberal MLA to sit on the side of the House that has cabinet seats, of course, or when tax-and-spend Calgary Mayor Ralph Klein gave up his Liberal tendencies to become a slash-and-burn Conservative. Or when former Conservative Cabinet Minister Nancy Betkowski re-branded herself as Nancy MacBeth and ran as the leader of the Liberals. Or when…

But, other than those times … nothing like this has ever happened before!

In truth, you’d think that Liberal-Conservative cross-dressers would hardly be news, even in all-conservative-all-the-time Alberta. Just ask any New Democrat what he or she thinks – if he or she can even tell the difference…. You’d surely think such a revelation wouldn’t cause such a sense of journalistic wonderment – but then, presumably they live sheltered lives down there at the Calgary Herald nowadays.

Indeed, one fears that the Herald might put in for a National Newspaper Award for this scoop – and, worse, the way things are going, win it!

One could make the case, of course, that by running to be mayor of Calgary, Mr. Hehr is actually helping the Conservatives. After all, he’s currently the Liberal MLA for Calgary Buffalo – a job he hasn’t yet given up. Nevertheless, just the announcement of his candidacy has weakened the flagging Liberal caucus in the Legislature. If he wins, his departure might mortally wound it.

Then again, Mr. Hehr’s taking a powder from the Legislature could merely open the door to another Wildrose victory in Calgary. Anyway, alas for Mr. Heyman, the foregoing kind of analysis is probably just too subtle for Mr. Stelmach and his strategic braintrust – of which Mr. Heyman was once a part before the premier shook up his bumbling communications team early this year.

More likely, Mr. Heyman’s exposure in the Cowtown gutter press will bring him under the jurisdiction of the immutable political law cited above. He is, after all, now identified as something just a little less than a perfect loyalist, and he is a communications specialist to boot, if only for a cabinet minister with fading prospects. Moreover, if Mr. Stelmach is not in doubt about his own prospects by now, there may be no hope for him.

So, given that the premier is in fact something of a survivor, it seems likely that Mr. Heyman will soon find himself in the gunsights of Mr. Stelmach’s remaining loyalists.

His best hope? Probably he should pray for a nice job at Calgary City Hall.

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Alberta Notes: Electrical storm brews in premier’s riding; Alberta Party makes a move

Opposition party leaders research Vegreville power issue – but where’s Ed Stelmach? Alberta politicians may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: That darned Vegreville egg.

What could turn out to be a significant political development in Alberta took place this evening, when the leaders of all three opposition parties with seats in the Legislature showed up in front of a large crowd of agitated rural landowners in the town of Vegreville, about 100 kilometres east of Edmonton along the Yellowhead Highway.

The 500 rural folks at the meeting are riled up about plans to build a high-voltage electrical line through many of their farms. Since there is more than one proposed route, no one is yet sure which farms will be affected – magnifying the furor all the more.

So that noise you hear is the sound of rock-solid Tory voters from Vegreville, hitherto best known for its huge roadside Ukrainian egg, sticking their heads out their windows and yelling “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!”

The only party leader missing? Vegreville’s MLA: Premier Ed Stelmach.

According to the Edmonton Journal, Mr. Stelmach skedaddled, claiming that facing the crowd in the Vegreville Social Centre could amount to a conflict of interest because … uh, like the other farmers, one of the proposed power line routes passes through his fields.

Oh dear! If Mr. Stelmach intends to run again – and maybe this is evidence he doesn’t – nothing good can come from his absence from the meeting, or the empty chair that sat mockingly at the front of the room throughout the evening.

Count on plenty of political fallout from this still developing story.

Meanwhile, as was predicted in this space a few weeks ago, the fledgling Alberta Party has now hired community organizer Michael Walters as its $70,000-per-year full-time organizer.

The party – which thinks of itself less as right wing or left wing as middle-of-the-bird – circulated a news release making the announcement earlier today.

According to the release – which interestingly has so far appeared neither on the party’s Website nor in the local media, which was probably more interested in the premier’s travails in Vegreville – Mr. Walters “will focus on continuing the Alberta Party’s community engagement and policy development campaign known as The Big Listen.”

The Big Listen, for those of you who weren’t listening, involves small groups of party supporters getting together in over coffee and cake in someone’s home to ponder the Big Questions about Alberta’s future.

Clearly, however, this seemly endless talkfest is finally about to morph into an effort to build a real political party, instead of a mere network of kaffeeklatsches. The release said that Mr. Walters “will be organizing constituency associations across the province as well as developing a Community Organizing training program for all Alberta Party candidates, campaign staff and volunteers.”

It quotes Chima Nkemdirim, a Calgary lawyer who was one of the founders of Renew Alberta, the effort by a group pf ambitious Blue Liberals and Red Tories who engineered a reverse takeover earlier this year of the Alberta Party, which got its start as yet another Alberta party of the right-wing fringe in 1985. Mr. Nkemdirim was elevated to party president at the start of this month in an unsurprising restructuring that shuffled aside party officials leftover from its days on the loony-right fringe.

Mr. Nkemdirim lauded Mr. Walters as “a skilled and experienced community organizer with a great track record of engaging a wide range of citizens in political life.” But that was just political news release boilerplate. More significantly, he said, “Michael will also play an instrumental role as co-chair of our policy development committee leading to our November policy convention.”

Mr. Walters comes from the Greater Edmonton Alliance, a non-partisan faintly leftish group that has tried to bring together labour, religious, cultural and community groups to push for incremental change.

The chief knock against the GEA was that it’s engaged in a lot of talk over its five-year history, but doesn’t really have a lot of major successes to point to – other than a huge potato giveaway in a field in northeast Edmonton in a quixotic effort to preserve urban farmland.

Nevertheless, Mr. Walters is a talented and ambitious character who grew up in rural Alberta and should bring some drive to the activities of the party.

And remember, if some people sniff at him for being a “community organizer” (say what?), remember that that guy in the White House started out in the same field, likewise influenced by the late Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation.

Since the last prediction proved to be right, here’s another one: Mr. Walters will not be satisfied with the back-room role of party organizer, and will seek the Alberta Party nomination in an Edmonton riding when the next provincial election comes to pass.

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What on earth sparked Wildrose leader’s awkward defence of failing clinic?

The Muses, above. Danielle Smith’s creepier muses, below.

They say that Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith keeps photos of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Ted Byfield in her office … used to, anyway.

The Iron Lady, the Great Communicator and Fierce Old Ted. The latter was a fundamentalist of both the religious and market persuasions, plus an educational eccentric, who nevertheless was for many years one of Western Canada’s more entertaining opinionators.

Despite his goofy views, Mr. Byfield always understood that a great column requires a beginning, a middle, an end, a fiercely argued thesis and no more than 800 words. One thing he never did in his writing days, though, was to make people laugh, intentionally anyway.

So it’s interesting to ponder which of these muses Ms. Smith was listening to when she decided to hasten to the defence of that corporate shipwreck, Networc Health Inc. of Calgary, and its bankrupt private surgical clinic.

As the Alberta political party farthest to the right and most deeply committed to privatizing the most public-sector activities the soonest, the Wildrose Alliance has a major problem with the straits in which Networc finds itself.

The company’s private, for-profit Health Resource Centre surgical clinic went broke after making an ill-considered investment in the hope of getting more contracts from the Alberta government’s province-wide health superboard. That, in turn, burned Alberta Health Services and left it fearful it would be unable to deliver scheduled hip and knee surgeries in Calgary. Thereupon AHS expended considerable sums of public money to pay a receiver to keep the facility afloat while they figured out what to do next.

In other words, Networc and its tribulations are quickly turning into a very public spectacle clearly illustrating why privatized, contracted-out health care – among the idées fixe of the Wildrose Alliance – is a really dumb idea.

Enter Ms. Smith with her call for Premier Ed Stelmach and his Conservative government to bail out Networc. She insisted unconvincingly that the company’s problems were entirely the fault of the AHS and the government, and that what she was proposing was something other than a bailout. But whatever it is, this quacking, honking fowl is not the graceful swan Ms. Smith says it is.

Up to now, the Wildrose Alliance has played things pretty shrewdly, so this latest move is hard to fathom. Maybe it’s just a Hail-Mary pass to toss an embarrassing situation out of sight.

Possibly it’s a misguided attempt to woo Calgary voters by suggesting the Alliance’s power base is somehow being shortchanged by Alberta Health Services, which the party likes to refer to as “Edmonton dominated.” Of course, while the AHS corporate offices are in Edmonton, its executive is dominated by people from … uh, the former Calgary Health Region. In other words, it would be fairer to refer to the provincial health superboard as “Calgary influenced.”

Regardless of that quibble, yesterday Ms. Smith was back in the pages of the Calgary Herald – the newspaper that once nurtured her and her crackpot economic dogma – blaming everyone but Networc for Networc’s troubles. She even assailed left wingers, for heaven’s sake – as if they had any power in Alberta – for being among the company’s tormentors.

Who’s next? Proof readers, irresponsibly irritated by the troubled corporation’s missing K?

Now, despite Ms. Smith’s claim in her story that the Calgary Health Region reneged on a commitment to increase the number of surgeries performed by the Health Resources Centre, thereby causing the company’s difficulties, the record seems to suggest otherwise.

Leastways, back on Sept. 9, 2009, Networc CEO Bernie Simpson told the late Michelle Lang of the Herald that “we’re pretty much at capacity for our (operating rooms) here today. … It just makes business sense to try to continue to grow.” The story went on: “While Simpson said there haven’t been any negotiations to expand the company’s surgical contract with the provincial superboard, he said the clinic is ‘always hoping and aspiring to do more work.’” (Emphasis added.)

Well, there you have it. Hoping and aspiring.

Aside from prompting fits of giggles among Ms. Smith’s readers, this contretemps suggests the Wildrose leader is finally running afoul of what many Alberta political observers long suspected could become her Achilles heel. To wit: the fact she is an ideologue, and not, despite her considerable charm, a consensus politician.

If true, this leads one to suspect her inspiration for this clanger was Mr. Byfield – father of the missing Link, Alberta’s putative “Senator in Waiting.”

Despite their many efforts and several re-branding efforts, neither Byfield, père ou fils, could make a success of Alberta Report, their kooky monthly panegyric to the glories of the market. Alas, it seemed there was no market for that stuff.

Ms. Smith could find herself in similar difficulties if she frightens enough Albertans by obstinately insisting that “if we want to fix our public health system, we need many more HRCs, not less.”

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The ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ – it’s adjacent to … a strip bar

From A to B: The pin marked “A” marks the site of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, which isn’t really a mosque. The pin marked “B” marks the site of the New York Dolls Gentlemen’s Club, which isn’t really for gentlemen. The World Trade Centre construction site is located bottom left. (From Google Maps.) Below: Abraham Lincoln.

It turns out the so-called Ground Zero Mosque – the excuse for an outpouring of Islamophobic hatred from the tip of Manhattan to the pages of the Edmonton Sun – isn’t even at Ground Zero. (It’s not really a mosque, either, but never mind that.)

Nope, but the GZM is in fact one block from the site of New York Dolls Gentlemen’s Club! That’s right, the New York Dolls topless strip club!

Now this, of course, means that in turn the “gentlemen’s club,” which in case you wondered isn’t really for gentlemen, is pretty close to Ground Zero – which, appropriately enough under the tragic circumstances of Sept. 11, 2001, many Americans think of and describe as “hallowed ground.”

Remember that everything on southern Manhattan is pretty close to everything else – and those of us who live in the great open spaces of Canada may not realize what a physically small place the New York financial district is. But what’s interesting about this is that the proximity of a nudie bar so close to hallowed ground doesn’t seem to have been a problem at all for the far-right opportunists trying to score points in the U.S. mid-term elections by drumming up a little convenient hatred and creating plenty of make-believe “facts.”

The phrase “hallowed ground” is a tip of the top hat to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which is worth reading and re-reading. That November afternoon in 1863 at the site of the great battlefield in Pennsylvania that marked the high tide of the evil that was the Confederacy, Mr. Lincoln said, “We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

That’s why the phrase resonates so powerfully with Our American Cousins in connection with another historic tragedy. This is true even for those many Americans who may have forgotten where they first heard it.

That said, one suspects pretty strongly that the nonsense spewing forth nowadays about the GZM isn’t exactly an expression of the “new birth of freedom” that Mr. Lincoln had in mind when he made his brief remarks at Gettysburg. Still, in a free society we have to tolerate a certain amount of mean-spirited nonsense, just as the people who spew it out need to be made to tolerate the right of others to worship where and how they please.

This is a point that the great defenders of freedom on the Canadian right, all too typically, seem to have missed.

But then, this ought not to surprise us. Our Canadian neo-liberals are just as cynical as their American counterparts, and stirring up a little rage and hatred serves the same purposes on this side of the border as it does on the other. Who knows, we may have an election soon here too…

But maybe this is unfair. These people tend, after all, to ascribe god-like powers to the market, bathing all commercial ventures in a glow of pious reverence. And, sure enough, the services rendered in a strip bar are commercial transactions not so different from such more respectable capitalistic activities as selling worthless derivatives based on underperforming mortgages to pensioners or overcharging elderly widows for unneeded home renovations.

So maybe, in their market fundamentalist way, there is a kind of consistency to the inconsistencies and oversights of the Tea Party right, including its embarrassingly derivative little acolytes here in Canada, of whom there appears to be no shortage.

Still, for the rest of us, illumination of these inconvenient new geographical facts somehow puts the GZM “debate” in an appropriately symbolic context. Hallowed ground, indeed!

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Reality check: Questions to ask yourself about that Ipsos poll on health care

Sliced baloney. Not necessarily good for you, but good.

It may not have been stormy, but it was dark last night when the Globe and Mail told a story on its Website about a poll of Canadians’ attitudes about health care – specifically, their supposed willingness to pay pots of money to private insurers for it.

“The survey shows strong support for user fees and having well-to-do Canadians pay more out-of-pocket to help attenuate the impact of caring for a growing population of seniors,” reported the Globe. No doubt this will be on Page 1 in the morning.

This must be true, readers surely concluded, because the Globe is Canada’s National Website and it says right there in grey and white that this poll is “considered accurate within 1.66 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.” Sure sounds scientific!

The poll was done by Ipsos-Reid (sounds reliable) for the Canadian Medical Association (if you can’t trust your doctor…), more evidence that it must be bang on. What’s more, it was immediately followed by a veritable flood of positive commentary from “ordinary Canadians” who, like this blogger, apparently have time on their hands and a keyboard in front of them during the long hours of darkness.

So if it just happened that the CMA’s results dovetailed precisely with the CMA’s current policy agenda, never mind. Coincidences happen…

However, here are some things to think about before you rush out and buy health insurance on the strength of this public opinion poll.

First, should we believe results collected with an on-line poll, as opposed to a poll conducted over respondents’ phone lines?

The trouble with polls collected on line is that the respondents select themselves. This means such polls are less likely to produce results that really reflect the views of the population being sampled.

Ipsos-Reid’s respondents come to the game with knowledge of polling, an inclination to take part, and quite possibly an agenda they want to push.

So, from the get-go, readers should be skeptical that this is truly a random sample. Readers should also ask: Why didn’t the CMA demand a more rigorous sampling method?

Second, while the sample of 3,483 respondents is a big one, the claim it can be considered accurate to a given percentage point a given number of times is highly controversial within professional polling circles.

The Canadian Marketing Research and Intelligence Association says pollsters shouldn’t publish a margin or error on Internet samples because on-line surveys are convenient samples, not random samples.

So why is Ipsos-Reid doing this? The simple explanation is because the statement lends credibility to the poll, something any pollster hopes to project, for obvious reasons.

Readers, however, should know this information – it was part of the Globe’s job to tell them about it. Perhaps the pressure of deadlines didn’t leave the reporter sufficient time to research the CMA’s press release properly.

Third, we need to know the order in which the questions were asked. It sounds very much as if the order of questions in this survey was designed to push respondents toward the conclusion most of them reached.

If the order in which the questions are reported by the journalist who wrote this story reflects the order in which the questions were actually asked, it would tend to lead respondents to the conclusion that, gee whiz, we’re just going to have to pay more. We might as well get used to the idea.

  1. Are Boomers are going to cause access to go down? (Gee, I guess so…)
  2. Are seniors going to have to pay more? (Golly, sure sounds like it!)
  3. Are you ready to acknowledge reality? (Ummm, yeah, I suppose…)

Canadians might actually think what this poll says they do. But, like the old song says, it ain’t necessarily so.

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Brits do it, Aussies do it … Let’s do it!

David Cameron and Nick Clegg on a commemorative coalition teacup. Yikes! All around the world, coalition uninterruptus! Below: Stephen Harper, would-be loner; Ella Fitzgerald, “…even educated fleas do it!”

Brits do it, Aussies do it,

Even the Japanese do it,
Let’s do it, let’s … form a coalition!

We can fall in love, too. But the first order of business really ought to be getting rid of Stephen Harper and his odious so-called Conservatives.

And the best way to do that, as we (almost) discovered in 2008, is to form a coalition, or, failing that, some kind of co-operative modus operandi in Parliament between Liberals and New Democrats, including, if necessary, the Bloc Quebecois.

But wait, you say, Canadians hated the idea of a coalition. They were bludgeoned by Prime Minister Harper’s Conservative Rage Machine into believing the proposed 2008 coalition, a profound expression of our Westminster-style democracy, was somehow undemocratic. What’s more, they were persuaded that proroguing a new Parliament that had done no business, which is about as undemocratic as you can get short of mass street arrests, was somehow an example of democracy!

Yeah, yeah. All true. But things are different today. You see, that was then and this is now!

This is because Canadian voters aren’t stupid – even though some of us may feel they are when, for their own good reasons, they don’t vote the way we wish they would.

Plus, a lot of things have happened since Canada’s moment of coalition interruptus in 2008.

People who may have been persuaded by the first blast of the Tory Rage Machine’s hysterical response to the coalition idea have now had a little time to think about how our Parliamentary democracy really works, and how they’ve observed it working elsewhere. Moreover, they’ve also had nearly two additional years to see Mr. Harper in action.

It’s been – and continues to be – an educational experience.

As a result, going into the next federal general election, Canadians have had their consciousness raised about Parliamentary coalitions.

Sure, lots of folks will still be opposed. And the Rage Machine will still scream at us that coalitions are an outrage. But Canadians have had a couple of years to ponder what really happened 2008, and what could have. It seems likely, in these circumstances alone, that many more voters than not will have moved from the anti-coalition camp to the group that is at least prepared to consider the idea.

What’s more, going into an election that could result in a coalition from the get-go is different from being surprised by the idea a few days after what you’d thought was a foregone conclusion.

Then there’s the matter of what other people are doing, some of them in the English-Speaking World, as we used to call it back in the day when a U.K. passport carried the right to vote in a Canadian election.

The Brits did it – and while you may not agree with the fiscal policies that resulted, the world didn’t end. Leastways, Her Majesty is still on the throne, notwithstanding the fact Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is governing in coalition with the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg. There are five Lib Dems in his cabinet.

And now the Aussies are talking about doing it – even if, like the clams Ella Fitzgerald was singing about, it’s partly ’gainst their wish.

In a general election, Australia’s Labour Party and its opposition (called, interestingly, The Coalition) both fell short Saturday night of winning the 76 seats they needed to form a majority government. As a result, both sides are now wooing the Aussie House of Representatives’ four independents and one Green to form … a coalition.

If the Coalition forms the coalition, one supposes, it’ll be a coalition squared – but the important thing is that whatever happens in Australia, it will be another example of a coalition government working out just fine in a country with a Westminster-style Parliament, thanks very much, mate.

So Australia’s election result is just one more nail in the coffin of the peculiar Canadian notion that Parliamentary coalitions are “undemocratic.”

When the dust settles Down Under, Canadian voters will certainly take note that no one in either the U.K. or Australia is hyperventilating about how undemocratic their Parliamentary coalitions are.

Finally, there is the matter of our sourpuss prime minister’s own conduct. Canadians have had almost two more years to watch the guy in action – fighting tooth and nail against honest statistics that might run counter to his Tea Party ideology, rounding up free Canadian citizens in the streets of Toronto for the crime of wearing clothing that was too dark, and spending our taxes like a drunken sailor on “security,” including that notorious fake lake.

All these factors will make drumming up hysteria against the notion of a coalition considerably more difficult going into the next federal election.

The Dutch in old Amsterdam do it, not to mention the Finns; folks in Siam do it – think of Siamese twins!” Let’s do it!

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St. Albert Taxpayers Association: more sizzle than steak?

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

The St. Albert Taxpayers Association gets a lot of ink in this town. A week rarely passes that SATA President Lynda Flannery is not in the news taking potshots at city council for something. Now and then, she makes a good point.

Whatever the issue – downtown redevelopment, Riel Park sports facilities, the Arden Theatre, Servus Place, a new public library, funding for the arts – SATA has an opinion. Usually, it’s the same one: don’t do it!

Ms. Flannery, a retired human resources manager with a master’s degree in economics, is an inveterate writer of letters to editors. She’s been known to dismiss people she disagrees with as members of a “special interest group.” Indeed, SATA’s Website describes the organization as favouring a community where “municipal spending is in the best interest of the majority of taxpayers rather than special interest groups.”

But SATA does not speak for all St. Albert taxpayers, including many who worry that residential taxes here are too high. Plenty of St. Albertans support our city council’s efforts to keep taxes under control while also recognizing the importance of supporting recreational, historical and cultural facilities and activities.

Now, when you annoy SATA, you must be prepared for a blast from the association’s ardent band of letter writers. Their remarks can be, shall we say, intemperate. You may be accused of being a rich newcomer with too much cash in your pockets. And woe be unto you if you support a tax-funded project and fail to mention your membership in a “special interest” group that backs it.

Fair enough. If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t dish it out. But what about SATA?

On the theory that turnabout is fair play, it’s reasonable to ask the same questions of SATA. Who is on their board of directors? How many members do they have? Where does the money they use to run their website and advertise in local newspapers come from?

None of this information is available on SATA’s website and, when I contacted her, Ms. Flannery would not say. She argued that since SATA does not seek tax dollars, it is entitled to treat that information as private.

Fair enough, but that said, its members can hardly complain if others speculate about them. I have been to one SATA meeting and it was sparsely attended. Without the facts, I could easily be wrong, but my sense is that while many St. Albertans are concerned about taxes, only a very small group supports the extreme positions taken by SATA.

Moreover, I suspect that like many groups of this type, SATA’s active members are not opposed to all developments that impact taxes, but are cherry pickers, opposing only those they’re not interested in.

At the meeting I attended, for example, I suggested funding the Northern Alberta Business Incubator might be a place we could save a few tax dollars. This didn’t get a very good reaction from one participant who said he was on the board of NABI. None of the dozen or so people at the meeting argued with him. This left me wondering if one taxpayer’s “special interest” is another’s “worthwhile initiative”?

Regardless, I think SATA makes a useful contribution to our civic discourse, but if they demand full disclosure from others, they need to be prepared to offer the same, or not be taken too seriously. Moreover, we know what they are against. But what are they are for?

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, here’s mine: I have been a volunteer member of the St. Albert Public Library Board for three years, I think St. Albert needs a new library and would like to see one built. I recognize, however, that any such project requires extensive public buy-in.

I have been a resident of St. Albert for close to a decade, and I live in one of the city’s more modest neighbourhoods. My pockets do not clink with gold, although I wish they did.