Archive for September, 2010

Fifty-five or fewer seats for Ed’s Conservatives mean Freedom 55 for Marie

Ed and Marie Stelmach: retired Alberta political families may not be exactly as illustrated. Below, the real Mr. Stelmach and the actual Danielle Smith.

If Marie Stelmach is truly as unenthusiastic about her husband’s political career as the rumourmongers report, she may now have a Freedom 55 escape clause built into in her retirement plan.

That is to say, if he even wants to survive as premier of Alberta, Ed Stelmach is going to have to win 55 seats in the next provincial general election.

Fifty-five is just a number, of course. But some arbitrary number very much like 55 is sure to soon become the benchmark that Mr. Stelmach must meet or exceed if he expects to remain in politics, at least as the leader of the Alberta Conservatives.

So it’s written here that 55 is in fact that number – in the minds of both Mr. Stelmach’s supporters and his opponents.

Since Mr. Stelmach is one of Canada’s ultimate political survivors, don’t count him out. Still, with the Wildrose Alliance breathing down the necks of Mr. Stelmach’s still-Progressive Alberta Conservatives in many places, the possibility of significant electoral change in this province appears real for the first time in a generation.

The way Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith tells the story, this means there will soon be a generational changing of the guard, with an overwhelming Conservative majority giving way to an overwhelming Wildrose Alliance majority as the Social Credit government gave way to the Conservatives in 1971 and the United Farmers of Alberta surrendered to Social Credit in 1935.

From Ms. Smith’s perspective, this is a compelling yarn, and she can be forgiven for telling it.

However, it is extremely unlikely that this is the way things will in fact shake out when the next election finally takes place in Alberta. As Ms. Smith must surely know, the principal effect of current voter intentions is likely to be a reduced Conservative majority or, if she’s lucky, a Conservative minority.

Just because a Wildrose Alliance government is probably not in the cards any time soon is not necessarily bad news for Ms. Smith and her party, of course. Indeed, as the leader of a party that has come from nowhere virtually overnight, almost any electoral outcome is good news for Ms. Smith and the Alliance.

Realistically, though, one of the key effects of her challenge, especially if it continues to grow, will be that vote splitting on the right increases the number of seats held by Liberals and New Democrats. As previously noted, any seat that goes to either of those parties in Alberta’s Capital Region, where the Alliance is likely to be weakest, will improve the overall position of the Wildrose Alliance.

Dispirited and confused as the Alberta Liberals now appear, one thing can be said about this party and that is that their floor is solid – no matter how bad things get, there are always about 15 per cent of Alberta voters who will support the Liberals in the polling booth. And 15 per cent in this electoral environment nets the Liberals more seats – possibly in the high teens.

The same electoral math – with or without a fifth party like the Alberta Party in the mix – will likely also send the NDP a couple of additional seats in the Edmonton area.

Sad to say, both parties will likely attribute their improved results to their skills, rather than to a historically anomalous situation in which the right-wing vote is split for a time.

Existing reliable public opinion surveys of Albertans’ voting intentions are all getting a little long in the tooth. (Surely it’s time for a new poll!) But if an election were held tomorrow, an educated guesser might conclude that the province would emerge with a redistributed 87-seat Legislature that looks something like this:

Conservatives: 44
Wildrose Alliance: 23
Liberals: 16
NDP: 4

If such a razor-thin majority is indeed the outcome of the next election, there will be changes at the top of Alberta’s Conservatives. Count on it.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

The old man. The old flag. The old policy. The same old…

The old man with the old flag advocating the old policy. Below: the Old Man, still young, Harrison at Tippecanoe and Tyler too, Rory. Vote for Rory or he’ll bite your ass!

Edmonton mayoral candidate Daryl Bonar has signs that say “FIGHT BACK!” I suppose that locates him somewhere in the political spectrum, but I hope readers will forgive me if I say that this particular candidate’s slogan really ought to be “STANDING UP FOR EDMONTON!”

Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel, who is going to knock out Mr. Bonar and all the other would-be fighters in the opening round of the Oct. 18 Alberta-wide municipal election, has one of the better political slogans: “Open. Decisive. Fair.” The fair part is in a cool ecological green. This is an unusual slogan, as political slogans go nowadays, in that it actually says something … even if it’s not entirely true.

The mayor of the town I live in has a slogan that says “Our City – Our Future.” My wife says this should read “My Vision – Your Taxes,” but personally I think this is unfair. However, the mayor will likely only be getting one vote from our household.

Out on my lawn there’s a sign for a city council candidate who takes the minimalist approach. It just says “Wes Brodhead. Councillor.” So is he an incumbent, or what? (He’s not.)

Wes may be taking a chance, because a professional political operative of my acquaintance (NDP) once told me you have to have a slogan if you want to get elected. So I did as he said and had one when I ran for city council back in 2007. I didn’t get elected anyway, so maybe my political advisor was full of hooey, or maybe my slogan wasn’t up to snuff.

Actually, my slogan was so insipid I can’t even remember what it was. “Yes we can!” Nope, that wasn’t it. Anyway, whatever it was, as it turned out we couldn’t.

The thing is, political slogans that actually tell the truth are generally frowned upon in the post-modern era. The theory is that Albertans (and presumably other Canadians too) like straight talkers who say what they mean. This, of course, is complete baloney, because if you said what you meant, nobody would vote for you.

Vote for Dave: I’m only in it for the money!

Vote for Rob: I’m a big fat right-wing slug who wants to wreck your city!” (Shut up! I’m allowed. I lived six year’s in Rob’s town. Anyway, thanks to Duffer Harris, the suburbs get to wreck your city now and there’s nothing you can do about it!)

Vote for Rory*: I’m a retired pain-in-the-ass and I have time on my hands.” (*Resemblance to actual politicians is purely coincidental. If you’re a politician running for city council and you name is Rory, I’m sorry that I missed it. I really, really didn’t mean you. Rory is my dog’s name. Really.)

Seriously, do you think Alberta voters would reward straight shooters who had slogans like that with their votes? Fat chance! No, voters expect you to lie to them, and if you don’t and they catch on, they’ll punish you on voting day. That’s why there are so many utterly boring generic slogans, like mine, which I still can’t remember.

Here’s one from a would-be councillor who’s really hard to find on the Internet because he shares a name with a semi-famous movie star. “Let’s focus on the future. Together.” (No, whaddya say you just go on by yourself. I’ll catch up later….)

Here are some more actual political slogans from the generic school of political sloganeering (names of candidates, who are all running right now, are not included to protect the guilty), with explanatory commentary provided by your blogger:

Work with [FIRST NAME OF CANDIDATE HERE] to build the future.” (I’d really rather not, thanks very much.)

The BEST choice for city council!” (Good one!)

A positive voice committed to improving our community.” (Does he really mean this?)

A voice of reason.” (Oh dear…)

Refresh. Refocus. Renew.” (Really? How about … Reassess!)

Together, we can make things happen.” (Not tonight, dear. I have a headache.)

A smart direction with fresh ideas.” (The same old Tory bean counting.)

Make your vote count.” (Oh, I will … but not for you!)

Serious about choices and voices.” (Obviously not the front-runner.)

OK. Enough of that. For my money, political slogans just aren’t as good as they used to be.

Consider John A. Macdonald’s: “The old man. The old flag. The old policy,” plus sundry variations thereof. Who wouldn’t vote for the guy? In my opinion, things started going downhill in this country, slogan-wise, with “Let Laurier finish his work.” Please! It’s enough to make you want to vote for Robert Borden!

The United States offers a richer vein of political sloganeering. President James K. Polk, for example, was in 1844 one of the last who actually said what he meant: “54.40 or Fight!” (Not good news for you, Canada!)

William McKinley in 1900: “A Full Dinner Pail!”

Warren G. Harding, 1920: “Cox and Cocktails.” (It’s not as bad as it sounds folks. Whereas, “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa, Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha,” is, although it didn’t work.)

Personally, my favourite political slogan of all time is William Henry Harrison’s “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” which apparently meant something to American voters at the time. “Hasta la victoria siempre,” of course, must be counted a close second.

Political leaders of an earlier generation, sadly for us who live in their future, got by without slogans. What would have been Genghis Khan’s if he had had to run for office? Or Emperor Nero’s, had he faced the same challenge? Catherine the Great’s?

And then there’s George Armstrong Custer, who lived in the Slogan Era, but never had the opportunity to follow through with his ambition to run for president of the United States?

Readers are encouraged to offer their suggestions to fill these important blanks in history.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

The continuing long-gun-registry fight: a dangerous two-edged wedge

Conservative strategists confidently sit back to watch their gun-registry wedge issue go into action. Below, Brent Rathgeber, Harper Conservative hero Karl Rove.

In the lead up to Parliament’s dramatic vote last week to keep Canada’s national long-gun registry, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s political advisors clearly thought making Canadians register their rifles and shotguns was a classic “wedge issue.”

Judging from their promises since they lost the razor-thin Sept. 22 vote that they will not rest until they can shut down the national registry, they still think so.

But what if this particular “wedge” cuts in two directions?

Now, a “wedge issue” is political shorthand for a social or economic issue that divides the core supporters of a particular political party. If you’re a Conservative say, and you can use a wedge issue to push people who would normally vote for the Liberals or the NDP to vote for you, or not to vote at all, you’ve driven a wedge into your opponents’ support.

Obviously, the Conservatives concluded registration of rifles and shotguns was a wedge that could separate sufficient numbers of habitual NDP supporters in rural Northern Ontario and Liberal supporters in rural Atlantic Canada to give them the Parliamentary majority they crave.

There is no doubt wedge issues work. They may be divisive and negative, polarizing the populace into bitter camps, but they have effectively driven politics in the United States since the era of Richard Nixon. The cynical Republican strategist Karl Rove used them to push the sophomoric loser George W. Bush right into the White House.

But while Mr. Harper’s Conservatives clearly admire Mr. Rove and imitate his tactics, there are reasons to believe the divisive campaign they have crafted using the long-gun registry could drive just as deep a wedge between Conservatives and many of their natural supporters as the other way around.

This may be especially true in several seemingly safe electoral districts here in Western Canada where many of the groups that polls show support the long-gun registry in rising numbers – women, seniors, well-educated people and people with high incomes – make up a significant portion of the population.

For example, most folks in the riding of Edmonton-St. Albert tend to vote for the federal Conservatives out of ingrained habit, without thinking too deeply about it. So a Member of Parliament like Brent Rathgeber, with an undistinguished history as a defeated one-term provincial MLA in Edmonton, was elected with ease once he won the Conservative nomination.

But many of these same customary Conservative voters may be among the millions of ordinary urban Canadians who surprised seasoned political observers by rising up to passionately support keeping the long-gun registry alive.

Unlike the opponents of the registry, who benefited from organizational assistance from the fanatical U.S. National Rifle Association, an inside track to Mr. Harper’s wedge strategists and a chorus of cheerleading from the Conservative-dominated mainstream media, support for the registry bubbled up spontaneously from women, men, parents, grandparents and young people in towns and cities across Canada – and in plenty of rural areas, too.

Yes, they heard some good arguments from the chiefs of police and organized women’s groups, but in large part this was a natural and unrehearsed expression of political will by literally millions of Canadians in every corner of the country. All you have to do is look at the letters columns of our local community papers in the Edmonton area to see which way the wind is really blowing on this issue.

So will these same voters, concerned about the minority Conservative government’s plans to close the long-gun registry, now be pleased that their MP has made his mark as one of the fiercest boosters of the scheme to scrap the registry?

Mr. Rathgeber’s political calculation – and that of Conservative MPs throughout urban Alberta – is that his enthusiasm for killing the registry will help his party in Ontario and Atlantic Canada without negative impacts at home on his rock-solid Conservative vote.

He may be right. But with no shortage of women, seniors, well-educated people and people with high incomes among his traditional core supporters in Edmonton-St. Albert, maybe he’ll be in for a surprise.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if an intentionally polarizing strategy like the attack on the long-gun registry turned into a dangerous two-edged wedge for Mr. Rathgeber and other Conservative MPs throughout urban Alberta?

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Bad news for Alison Redford: You’re only as smart as your last press release!

So, just how dumb is Alison Redford?

On the face of it, Ms. Redford, QC, Alberta’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General, would appear to be a pretty smart person. Brilliant even.

Indeed, she’s a classic overachiever: law degree, advisor on legal issues to numerous African countries, senior policy advisor to Conservative prime minister Joe Clark, appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations to be one of four international overseers of the 2005 Afghan national election, advisor to the justice minister and Supreme People’s Court of Vietnam. No kidding! And that stuff’s all before you press the button for the extended biography on her website.

But folks, you’re only as smart as your last press release, and considering Ms. Redford’s last press release yesterday morning, it may be time for a complete reassessment of how smart she actually is.

Now, the ostensible purpose of this release was to lament the failure of the federal Conservatives’ divisive attempt to scuttle the national rifle and shotgun registry. It explained that Ms. Redford, along with Solicitor General and Minister of Public Security Frank Oberle, were both deeply sorry about the terrible events Wednesday in Ottawa that resulted in the national shotgun and rifle registry managing to hang on for dear life.

“Our priority as a government is to support police efforts to make Alberta communities safer,” they jointly explained. “For that reason, we are disappointed in today’s vote in Parliament to prolong the life of the long-gun registry.”

Say what?

Let’s see that again as it actually appeared in the news release: “Our priority as a government is to support police efforts to make Alberta communities safer. For that reason, we are disappointed in today’s vote in Parliament to prolong the life of the long-gun registry.”

What? Because it might make Alberta’s communities too safe?

Yeah, I know, there are a zillion guys out there with tattered bumper stickers on their camo pickup trucks that say “The West Wasn’t Won With a Registered Gun,” “No Wheat Board, No Long-Gun Registry,” and “Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark” who will bore you to literal tears explaining to you why the registry makes you less safe by limiting your ability to resist the invaders in black helicopters or fight your way out of the secret prisons under the airport. But, you know…

The release goes on: “Premier Stelmach has been very clear: We need to devote our law-enforcement resources where they will do the most good. That means real and effective programs and initiatives that will make our communities safer instead of a registry that front-line police officers across the country agree adds little value for its cost.” (Emphasis added.)

Really, we’ve all been back and forth on this one for the past few days, so there’s not much point in repeating all the arguments. Just one question about this, then. Where did Ms. Redford’s PR brainiacs get this last tidbit, that “front-line police officers across the country agree” the registry adds little value for its cost?

Because, you know what, there is no credible research whatsoever that supports this opinion.

Surely this dubious claim wasn’t based on that Internet straw poll that appeared in the reader forum run by an on-line magazine for cop wannabes replete with ads for battle-hardened sniper scopes? Even the magazine’s publisher repudiated it. What the police really thought was pretty darn clear, and it was not that

If this is the quality of research Albertans are getting from their government, it sounds as if it may be time to crank up the petroleum royalty rate so we can afford to hire some more researchers – there will probably be a few capable Statistics Canada employees at loose ends soon.

Seriously, folks, do the Attorney General and the Solicitor General of Alberta really believe this stuff. It’s pretty hard to credit. Do they even read their press releases before they sign their names to them?

The fact is, the likely explanation for this news release is pretty obvious. Ms. Redford in Calgary-Elbow and Mr. Oberle in Peace River both occupy the Legislative seats for ridings that are seriously threatened by the Wildrose Alliance led by Danielle Smith.

Many movers and shakers in the Tea Party government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper openly support Ms. Smith with financial contributions, and political aid and comfort.

Yesterday’s news release was a transparent – and likely doomed – attempt to make nice with Mr. Harper so he won’t send more cash and operatives Ms. Smith’s way.

Rhetorical questions aside, Ms. Redford is no dummy. For that matter, neither is Mr. Oberle. But apparently they both think the voters of their ridings are. Perhaps those voters will have an opportunity to let their MLAs know what they think of that when Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach next calls an election.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Let’s see… reform the Senate or beat Ken Kowalski? The Missing Link reappears

The Senate, sans Link: Reform it, or abolish it? Whatever … just keep the room for something nice. Below: Non-senator Link Byfield.

After a short period of relative silence, Alberta’s Missing Link has resurfaced. Link Byfield, that is.

Mr. Byfield, an icon of the post-Conservative right out here in the New West, is seeking the Wildrose Alliance’s nomination for MLA in the rural riding of Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock. He shouldn’t have any trouble getting it.

Mr. Byfield is the former publisher of the now defunct Alberta Report magazine, the loopy monthly panegyric to the towering twin True Faiths of God and the Market founded by his father Ted Byfield in 1973. It folded in 2003, presumably because there was an insufficient market for its market-fundamentalist bromides.

Whatever you may make of Mr. Byfield’s economic and religious views, you have to give the man credit for a certain intellectual consistency and the courage of his radical convictions. For example, he seems to have his doubts about that market-distorting war on drugs (though he blames “utopian proto-feminists” for its beginnings), thinks marriage should be handed back to the church and believes state-run education was the ruination of the family.

Be that as it may, Mr. Byfield is nowadays variously described as conservative newspaper columnist (true in the sense that out here in Western Canada, the term “conservative” is often used to describe “fundamentalist radical”), president of the Society to Explore and Record Christian History (true according to the Wikipedia, although one would have thought this field had been pretty well tilled by now), and one of Alberta’s three remaining “Senators in Waiting.”

The latter position, dating to a brainstorm experienced by then-premier Ralph Klein in 2004 as a way to keep on side those many Albertans dedicated to the proposition that a “Triple-E Senate” should be foisted upon a skeptical Canada, has amounted to non-Senator Byfield’s principal claim to fame in the eyes of the general public.

The cunning Mr. Klein knew perfectly well that no one was going to fall for the idea of an Elected Senate that gave Prince Edward Island Effective power Equal to that of Quebec and Ontario, or for that matter Saskatchewan. But he wasted a few taxpayers’ dollars on this nonsensical vote anyway in the name of popular political entertainment.

There were to be four members on Alberta’s senatorial wait staff, and in 2007 Tea Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper actually appointed one of them, Calgary-area farmer Bert Brown, before getting back to his Project for a New American Canada. (Mr. Harper’s PNAC should not be confused with the similarly named Project for a New American Century, of which it is arguably a part. Nor is the Triple-E Senate to be confused with the manufacturer of Triple-E recreational vehicles, which are very popular in all parts of Canada.)

By then everyone – including Mr. Klein, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, Prime Minister Harper and the other two remaining Senators in Waiting – was completely bored with the silly idea. Except for Mr. Byfield, that is, who continued to dedicate his rhetorical powers to the Triple-Edification of Canada.

Now, astonishingly, even Mr. Byfield appears to have given up on this lost cause and exchanged it for another equally hopeless passion, to wit, defeating Alberta Speaker Ken Kowalski, the province’s longest-serving and most secure Conservative MLA, in the next Alberta general election.

Both weekly newspapers in the Edmonton-area suburban city of St. Albert have now reported that Mr. Byfield is seeking the Wildrose Alliance nomination in Mr. Kowalski’s riding. Speaking from his rural redoubt in the delightfully named hamlet of Riviere Qui Barre a few kilometres northwest of St. Albert, Mr. Byfield told the weekly Saint City News: “I’m running against Stelmach. I’m not running against anyone else.”

Alas for Mr. Byfield, that’s not the way our Canadian Parliamentary system works, although we should never be surprised if supporters of the various Western “reform” movements fail to understand this. In the case of Mr. Byfield, of course, he knows perfectly well who he will be running against, it’s just that it is generally assumed by political pundits hereabouts that on his own Mr. Kowalski could only be blown out of his riding with an atomic bomb.

Talk about tilting at windmills! Mr. Byfield has exchanged the most hopeless cause in the federal jurisdiction for the most hopeless electoral crusade in Alberta. To put this another way, if Mr. Byfield can succeed in unseating Mr. Kowalski, a 30-year veteran of the Alberta Legislature who is still going strong, flying pigs will be waiting down the road at Villeneuve Airport to carry him to Ottawa and his seat in the Senate.

Back in Ted Byfield’s heyday, when young Link was barely out of his teens, Alberta Report was known as St. John’s Edmonton Report. It was named, we assume, for the patron saint of printers and publications.

As a scholar of Christianity, though, Mr. Byfield will appreciate that his current political efforts are more likely to be watched over by St. Jude the Apostlepatron saint of lost causes.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

The gun-registry end-game: whistling past the graveyard with flip-flopper Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Government House Leader John Baird as they see themselves. Below: as others see them. Below those two: Peter Stoffer.

If Canada’s rifle and shotgun registry manages to cling to life Wednesday, as seems likely with support from NDP Sackville-Eastern Shore MP Peter Stoffer, the Conservative strategy will be to go after rural New Democrats who planned to dump the registry but were talked into switching sides.

So NDP MPs from rural Canada who vote to save the registry will be portrayed by Conservatives and their on-line auxiliary, the Tory Rage Machine, as self-interested flip-floppers who switched sides for the most craven of political reasons.

As kill-the-registry bill sponsor Candice Hoeppner, Conservative MP for the Manitoba riding of Portage-Lisgar, put it today: “People are very frustrated with members of Parliament who have turned their back on what they campaigned on and what they promised.”

You know, flip-floppers, just like Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the former serial gun-control supporter who voted for the registry twice in 1995 then switched sides for craven political reasons. But never mind that! Just give us a few minutes to flush it down the Memory Hole!

If you’d like the details of how the Conservative plan is supposed to work, check out the Postmedia News columns of Don Martin, who for many years has been among the Conservatives’ most enthusiastic cheerleaders. On Sept. 14, Mr. Martin argued the Conservatives actually, secretly, really want the New Democrats to keep the registry afloat so Mr. Harper can sail effortlessly to a majority on a wave of popular revulsion by gun-toting Canadians.

Now, Mr. Martin is too Tory-friendly to call this Carl Rove-George Bush style wedge politics, but that’s what it is. Just look at Government House Leader John Baird’s contemptibly divisive effort to pass off support for the registry as the work of “Toronto elites.” Please! This guy’s from Ottawa!

It’s not as if Conservatives wouldn’t have campaigned against the NDP in rural Canada anyway. But since there is truly less support for the registry in rural ridings than other places, it’s likely this technique will win some votes for the Conservatives.

However, it strains credulity to believe, as Mr. Martin suggests, that “deep in the bowels of Conservative party backrooms, gleeful laughter can be heard from a government celebrating a defeat.” A lot can happen between now and the next election, but it’s a safe bet that if the Conservatives get a majority, it won’t be because they played wedge politics with firearms.

For one thing, notwithstanding the transparent lies of the Rage Machine, it’s obvious that NDP Leader Jack Layton actually allowed what Mr. Harper only says his troops should be able to do, that is, let his MPs vote with their consciences.

For another, while there’s not a lot of polling on this topic, there’s reason to believe public opinion is shifting in favour of the registry. In late August, a credible Canadian Press-Harris-Decima telephone survey indicated 48 per cent of respondents thought it would be a bad idea to eliminate the registry, an increase from 42 per cent in April and 41 per cent last November.

On the other side, only about 38 per cent of the 1,000 respondents thought the registry should be scrapped, down from 45 per cent in April and 46 per cent last November. The shift toward a plurality of support for the registry was especially strong among women, Ontarians, people over 50 and high-income earners – groups no minority government can afford to lose.

The reasons are obvious: despite the hysteria of its opponents, the case for eliminating the registry is weak. As the arguments pro and con rise in the public’s consciousness, thanks to media attention, fewer Canadians support dumping of the registry.

Note that the Toronto Sun Monday claimed an Angus Reid poll shows 46 per cent support for scrapping the registry. But the hard-right Sun provides little information about the poll beyond percentages. Nor was there any information on Reid’s website. If history is a guide, the Reid poll is a less-trustworthy on-line forum, but more facts are needed to analyze its conclusions.

Meanwhile, another Harris-Decima survey of voter intentions between Sept. 9 and Sept. 19, when it still appeared many rural New Democrats would back the Conservatives, showed NDP support slipping – especially, unsurprisingly, among urban women.

Harris-Decima Chairman Allan Gregg offered a pro-Tory spin, but here’s a prediction NDP support will bounce back now the party is siding with its natural supporters.

Moreover, the Conservative counterattack predicted by Mr. Martin fails to account for the appeal of sensible proposals by the NDP to scrap features of the registry its rational opponents most dislike, for example criminalization of honest mistakes.

This was ignored by the cynical Harperites, naturally, and will hardly satisfy the registry’s most rabid foes. But that’s the Conservatives’ problem now, as National Rifle Association-style screeching about confiscation by the likes of Yorkton-Mellville MP Garry Breitkreuz is not terribly persuasive to anyone.

Nothing in this world is for sure, of course. There remains, one supposes, the unlikely possibility Liberal supporters of the registry as Machiavellian as the Rovian Conservatives are secretly plotting to scuttle it so they can hear “gleeful laughter from an opposition celebrating a defeat.”

But for many sound political reasons, the scenario described by government supporters sounds each day less like reality and more like the Conservatives whistling past the graveyard.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

The case against John Kelly: Canada’s unconstitutional Defamatory Libel law has no place in a democracy

Justice William J. Brennan Jr. of the United States Supreme Court. Below: the advertisement in the New York Times that turned U.S. defamation law on its head in 1964. Below that, Alberta Social Credit whip Joe Unwin, sentenced in 1937 to three months at hard labour for Defamatory Libel.

Calgary RCMP may have done Canadians a great favour by laying criminal libel charges against a man they accuse of running a website critical of Calgary city police.

With a little luck and the efforts of a capable lawyer, the Criminal Code offence of “Defamatory Libel” will end up on the scrapheap of history, where it belongs.

The Defamatory Libel provision of the Criminal Code and its Sharia-like sibling, Blasphemous Libel, have no place in the law books of a modern democracy.

On their face, these laws violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Specifically, our guarantee of “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”

Moreover, by any commonsense definition, they cannot be defended by the Charter’s qualifying clause, which states that its protections are “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

Adequate tools are available to the authorities and individuals to deal with obstruction of criminal investigations and defamations of police officers. These include the obstruction of justice provisions of the Criminal Code and the civil tort of defamation, which gives a police officer or any other person whose reputation has been besmirched the opportunity to sue for damages.

So if John Kelly of Calgary, who was arrested Thursday and also charged with obstructing a police officer from his duties, can find a lawyer willing to represent him, perhaps we can see Defamatory Libel proceed to the chambers of the Supreme Court of Canada for its long-overdue disposal.

Mr. Kelly’s website, according to the Calgary Herald’s prudently worded account, “accused officers of perjury, corruption and destroying evidence… Police deny the charges, saying they injure the reputation of Calgary police officers and interfere with an ongoing homicide investigation.” (RCMP are handling the case on the sensible grounds the Calgary Police Service ought not to investigate on its own behalf.)

The website is hosted in the United States, however. While, as the Herald pointed out, “RCMP can ask the New York-based Internet provider to take it down,” the Internet provider can also tell the RCMP its writ does not extend to New York State. Indeed, if memory serves, citizens of the United States established quite decisively in the late 18th Century certain limitations on the prerogatives of groups of men with the word “Royal” in their titles, mounted or otherwise.

The Internet provider may be inclined to do just this, owing to the fact that the country established after the rebellion of 1776 came to have, in the words of the United States Supreme Court, “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

The Supreme Court of Canada would do well to consider the wisdom of the reasoning of that civil-rights era American case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, when it eventually considers the criminal prosecution against Mr. Kelly.

In 1964, Times v. Sullivan turned the law of defamation in the United States on its head, one American innovation we would do well to imitate in Canada. And while it related to the civil tort of libel, much of the reasoning applies directly to Canada’s absurd and unconstitutional Defamatory Libel criminal offence.

Mr. Kelly has expressed strong views about members of the Calgary Police Service, which the RCMP says it can prove are false.

Times v. Sullivan, a case involving strong statements made about Alabama police officers in an advertisement, established in the United States the important principle that the plaintiff in a libel case (that is, the person who claims to have been defamed) must prove that the person who made the statement knew that it was false or acted in reckless disregard of the truth.

This was necessary, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote, because erroneous statements are inevitable in the kind of strong debate on which a democracy thrives, and freedom of expression needs “breathing space” in which to survive.

The Supreme Court of Canada has already gone part way down this road, creating in 2009 the new civil libel defence of “responsible communication in the public interest.” While this new defence still holds journalists and others to high standards, it does recognize that minor errors made in good faith alone should not result in a defendant being held liable for defamation – as long as the story is in the public interest.

Significantly, the Court also noted in 2009 that cases involving police officers accused of acting wrongly are clearly matters about which all citizens should be concerned and therefore can automatically be defined as being in the public interest.

Obviously, Justice Brennan’s courageous logic extends to the outrageous idea of criminal prosecution of defamatory statements, especially those made against powerful people and groups in society.

Indeed, this is especially true in the case of Defamatory Libel since the mere existence of this law combined with the aggression and prosecutorial powers of the police and courts will inevitably exercise a powerful chilling effect on the willingness of citizens to make legitimate criticisms of the authorities.

It’s been 73 years since we last had the opportunity in Alberta to do something about Canada’s iniquitous Defamatory Libel law. But since Social Credit MLA Joe Unwin and George Frederick Powell, advisor to the Social Credit Board, served time at hard labour for calling for the extermination of bankers’ toadies, we have a new tool to defend our fundamental rights – the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Thanks to the RCMP, now is the time to complete this long journey and purge the Criminal Code of this insult to Canadians’ freedom of expression.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Stelmach’s dinner with Pelosi: much ado about nothing?

Madame Speaker, meet your Canadian cousins! Ed Stelmach, front row, centre… (Actual Alberta politicians may not be exactly as illustrated.) Below: Nancy Pelosi.


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

It’s not every day an Alberta politician gets to attend a three-hour business dinner with one of the most powerful women in the world.

In such circumstances, of course, even a mere photo opportunity might have been helpful to a beleaguered politician like Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.

But to be invited to such an event must have seemed to our premier more like manna from heaven than the rubber chicken that was doubtless served because the powerful woman in question – Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives – was actually in a position to help him with something important to his increasingly truculent voters back home.

That something, of course, is the unpleasant and only partly misleading international reputation for environmental villainy that is sticking to Alberta’s massive and economically important bitumen-sand mining operations along the Athabasca River, known to their supporters as the oilsands and to doubters as the tarsands.

So one can hardly blame the Alberta government’s huge corps of Conservative spin doctors for doing its utmost to make the best of Premier Stelmach’s opportunity to state his case about the security and environmental friendliness of our bitumen resources to Ms. Pelosi at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Ottawa last week.

But amid all this jubilance and hoopla by the PR specialists, and the positive media coverage it generated, it was easy for the rest of us to miss the obvious.

To wit: that this genuinely powerful American politician the very next day extended exactly the same courtesy to Mr. Stelmach’s rivals, a group of environmentalists and First Nations leaders determined to express what the premier recently called “anti-Alberta” opinions. And let’s face it, we’re talking here about a group of people who would have had trouble getting a firm handshake and a warm cup of coffee from influential members of Mr. Stelmach’s government.

In other words, stripped of all the hullabaloo and spin, our premier didn’t seem to carry much more weight with the current U.S. government than any other group of foreign mendicants.

While Mr. Stelmach got fed, and the environmentalists apparently just got coffee, it sounds as if his invitation came mainly thanks to the efforts of federal officials who leaned on U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson to have Ms. Pelosi meet some local politicians from energy producing provinces. (Stelmach was accompanied by Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Quebec premier ministre Jean Charest.)

Indeed, you could argue that the environmentalists got more respect from Pelosi and Rep. Ed Markey, the chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming who accompanied her to Canada, since they didn’t seem to need the assistance of the Ottawa mandarinate to wrangle an invite.

One could even make a persuasive case that Ms. Pelosi was sending a message to the Canadian premiers by meeting so quickly afterward with less powerful folks who hold contrary views.

Even if this is overstating things, these circumstances hardly add up to the ringing endorsement of the Alberta government’s position on the oilsands that the premier’s PR machine has been making them out to be.

In fact, if you were paying attention, you will have noticed that the environmental and First Nations leaders emerged from their meeting with Ms. Pelosi just as star-struck and optimistic as her official Canadian visitors.

Said Mr. Stelmach: “I was quite buoyed leaving the meeting. All parties agreed the best solution to the environmental challenges is to work collectively across the border.”

Said Rick Smith, Executive Director of Environmental Defence: “We’re very confident they’re going to be taking our message back to the U.S.”

Few ordinary Albertans like us are likely ever to find out what was really said behind the closed doors of the U.S. Ambassador’s residence. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling Premier Stelmach’s communications team should hold off pealing the church bells with joy until we see what Ms. Pelosi actually does when she gets back to Washington, D.C.

The Alberta Health Act: Are Alberta’s health care ‘reformers’ just going through the motions?

A typical Alberta health care rally in 2009, this one in Red Deer, before Gene Zwozdesky got everyone breathing normally again. You know you’ve got Albertans seriously riled when even they start flying the red flag a their health care rallies! Fun fact: The red in Red Deer has nothing to do with politics. Below: Fred Horne.

After four months of soothing “dialogue” with plain-vanilla Albertans, a nine-member committee of health care, government and business types – including one former union leader – has come up with Alberta’s latest scheme for patching up the province’s supposedly rickety public health care system.

The committee’s solution? Something called the Alberta Health Act, which is a really cool idea because it shares 66 per cent of its name with the popular Canada Health Act.

The Alberta Health Act, in the words of the government press release that announced publication of the committee’s “Putting People First” report yesterday, will “lay out a framework for moving forward on new health legislation and improvements to the health system.” Eventually, that is.

When it comes to pass, the release said, the Alberta Health Act “is intended to help guide Alberta’s publicly funded health system into the future.” Some time in the future, that is…

That future won’t be any time soon because, to be blunt about this, there’s got to be an election between now and then, and if anything is bad news for an already shaky government it’s a public perception they’re monkeying around with health care right before a vote.

Indeed, that’s how this committee came about. It was set up last February by Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, who had just been shuffled into the post by Premier Ed Stelmach. Mr. Zwozdesky’s job there was to use his renowned diplomatic skills to defuse a full-blown public relations crisis that had erupted over massively unpopular monkeying by the previous health minister, Calgary-West MLA Ron Liepert.

The suave Mr. Zwozdesky reckoned that if you could get folks talking, they’d calm down. The result was the committee, chaired by Edmonton-Rutherford Conservative Fred Horne, another pleasant guy who smilingly takes on a lot of the government’s really crappy jobs but never seems to be rewarded with a cabinet post.

Sure enough, by the time the committee had done talking and Mr. Zwozdesky had had a chance to reassemble most of the crockery his predecessor had smashed, the health care system was looking pretty copasetic again to a lot of Albertans. This is true even though the Wildrose Alliance is out there soliciting health care “horror stories.” The damage wrought by the belligerent Mr. Liepert was all but forgotten.

And so the report – with its plans for a new health act – was rolled out yesterday with only modest fanfare at a Calgary news conference that neither the premier nor the health minister bothered to attend. What’s more, now that the report is printed, it’s pretty clear it’s pretty much all we’re going to hear or see from this process until after the next election.

Now, there’s something very familiar about this tale.

Back at the start of the 21st Century, former Alberta premier Ralph Klein vowed to make “reforming” health care his hill to die on. But when he left office in 2006, health care was still unreformed from Mr. Klein’s perspective. His vaunted Third Way of delivering health care had broken up on the rocks of public opinion.

Mr. Klein was succeeded by Mr. Stelmach, who also came into office with grandiose plans of opening up the health care system to private-sector “improvements.” Mr. Liepert stomped around Alberta telling citizens that the time for yakking was over and the time for action had come. “We have a plan, and we are going to follow it,” he stated.

But the Stelmach-Liepert Fourth Way broke up too on the same reef as the Third Way. Mr. Liepert was sent packing to the Energy Ministry, which in Alberta pretty much runs itself.

The assumption of supporters of public health care is that it has been their ability to mobilize opposition to these schemes that has saved Alberta’s public health system. No doubt there is plenty of truth to this. Without opposition, surely, the plans of an actor like Mr. Liepert might have moved ahead.

Yet it is hard to shake the feeling that this is only part of the story. Indeed, it often looks like Alberta’s supposedly pro-market premiers are only going through the motions when it comes to talking about more private health care. Mr. Liepert was the closest we’ve come in a generation to a genuine “reformer.”

That’s crazy, you might think. Why push an idea that’s bound to be unpopular with voters if you don’t believe in it? Well, when you’re a politician, sometimes you need to win the support of more than one constituency.

Sure, it’s nice to have the public on side come election time. Ensuring that is Mr. Zwozdesky’s job. But you also need the big-money boys, the ones who pony up your election campaign budgets and give you hell behind closed doors if you’re not enthusiastic enough about the bees in their bonnets. That was supposed to be Mr. Liepert’s job.

What better way to keep both groups smiling than to always promise dramatic reforms that will please everyone, and when the crunch comes, back off and leave things the heck alone until … next time?

After all, you can tell your financial backers: “We tried, and The People said no!”

You can tell the public, “Hey, we listened to you and we paid attention!”

And you can tell everyone: “Next time, we promise to try really, really hard to get it right!”

Is this what the Alberta Health Act is? The Fifth Way? All about keeping everybody happy until next time … after the next election when we launch the Sixth Way?

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Blame the National Post when quality dailies in Alberta wheeze their last

The National Post, with Postmedia News managers in the foreground. Who else gets sucked down in its wake? Below: The end is nigh!

The inexorable decline of the Canadian newspaper business continues, well, inexorably, as the new owners of the delightfully named Postmedia News set about trimming the deadwood from their regional newspapers by offering buyouts to aging and expensive employees.

If this effort at “rightsizing” is like those in the past – and of course it will be – the “deadwood” trimmed will be the most solid planks in the vessel, the ones keeping Postmedia’s foundering ship barely afloat.

In other words, too many of the folks who put up their hands for the buyout will be employees with options in other media or other lines of work. The deadest wood, of course, will cling like barnacles to Postmedia’s doomed hull.

It was interesting to learn in the Thomson family’s Globe and Mail that while employees at the Victoria Times-Colonist, the Ottawa Citizen, the Vancouver Sun, the Vancouver Province and the Montreal Gazette were all offered generous buyouts, equally deserving toilers for the chain’s Alberta newspapers simply got canned.

About 20 lost their jobs at the Edmonton Journal and another 30 or so at the Calgary Herald.

So why were employees of the two Alberta papers, among Postmedia’s most profitable franchises, treated so shabbily compared to the company’s other workers? It boils down, pretty obviously, to a matter of unions.

Journalists at the two Alberta papers don’t have them, and so were easy prey for the beancounters in Postmedia’s head office, wherever that happens to be this week. Other departments at those papers may have unions, but they are emasculated by Alberta’s unconstitutionally weak labour laws.

A decade ago, journalists at the Calgary Herald fought a bitter and ultimately unsuccessful strike to secure their legal right to be members of a union and bargain collectively with what was then Southam Inc., was later Canwest Media and is now, appropriately enough, Postmedia News.

As one of the journalists who walked that picket line for eight months only to face decertification and the need to find a new career, I must admit to mixed feelings about this situation. On one hand, it is a shame to see Postmedia sucking the blood out of good regional papers that have served their communities imperfectly but well for more than a century. On the other, considering that so many of the non-union journalists now contemplating the high jump are the very people who crossed picket lines to keep the paper publishing during its long effort to bust the union, it’s hard not to think: “Well boys, cry me a river!”

Still, it will probably be better for Alberta if the Journal and the Herald survive as viable businesses.

So it had to be considered an optimistic sign when the Canadian Journalism Project reported yesterday that the entire National Post newsroom had been offered buyouts. A reasonable interpretation might have been there was a chance, finally, that the newspaper chain’s new owners had decided to pull the plug on the whole questionable National Post project.

But this story, which seems to now have disappeared from the CJP’s website, turns out to have been overstated. Leastways, Postmedia’s head-office spin-meisters were hard at work yesterday recasting the offer as a routine business tactic.

This is a pity because, as has been argued here before, the National Post is the cancer on Postmedia’s flagging corpus that threatens to kill good daily journalism throughout Western Canada and elsewhere too.

If Postmedia, and Canwest before it, possessed an ounce of sense, they’d have long ago killed the propaganda sheet founded in 1998 by former Florida felon Conrad Black to advance his far-right agenda at the expense of the facts, and, as it turned out, a goodly portion of the Canadian newspaper business.

The Post has been a money loser on a grand scale since its first day. According to a 2009 Globe and Mail story, no longer available on-line, it “suffered an unbroken string of losses since its inception.” In just one year, 2001, it lost $60 million!

The tragedy of the Post, of course, is not that it bleeds cash. After all, for the wealthy right, quality propaganda costs big bucks. And luckily for them, gullible investors can usually be found to pay, even for a paper read by no one but the weary occupants of hotel rooms and airport lounges, who are handed their copies for nothing.

No, the tragedy is the damage wrought by the deadweight of the remarkably unmarketable pro-market Post. Combined with laws that encourage the concentration of media ownership in Canada, the Post’s losses have dragged down valuable and still viable community daily dailies like the Journal and the Herald.

The CJP’s bulletin this week offered a brief flash of hope the Post’s latest owners had finally seen the light. Alas, it was not to be. They are as enamoured of this rag’s propaganda potential as the previous proprietors.

This can only be bad news for Canada’s few remaining newspaper employees and their dwindling supply of readers.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.