Archive for October, 2010

Surely it is time to end the blemish on the Order of Canada by dismissing Lord Black

Lord Black in happier times … for him … debating Andy Marshall, leader of the strikers at the Calgary Herald 11 years ago. Mr. Marshall was one of many “gangrenous limbs” slated for amputation, in the then-Mr. Black’s description of participants in the legal strike at the Herald. Below: Steve Fonyo.

Yesterday, three judges of the Seventh Circuit Court in Chicago upheld two criminal charges against Baron Black of Crossharbour.

In other words, Conrad Moffat Black, late of the federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, Fla., where he resided for a spell at the courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer, remains a convicted felon.

According to Article 3 of the Policy and Procedure for Termination of Appointment to the Order Of Canada, revocation of the Order may be considered when the holder has been convicted of a criminal offence.

Surely it is time at long last for the Governor General of Canada to revoke Lord Black’s membership in the Order. Indeed, it is a disgrace and a blot upon the nation’s highest civilian honour that this person remains an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Clearly, there is a strong argument to be made that such a measure is long overdue. Notwithstanding that, the still-well-connected Lord Black remains on the list of members of the Order of Canada, windily honoured on the Governor General’s Website as “a distinguished Toronto entrepreneur and publisher … a man of diverse achievements within the realms of Canadian commerce, education, literature and the arts.”

The previous Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, may have hesitated to strip Mr. Black of this great Canadian honour because he still had appeals outstanding against his multiple convictions for fraud, racketeering and conspiracy in the United States.

Reading between the lines, she suggested as much in a Jan. 23 news release announcing that Stephen Fonyo had been given the bum’s rush from the ranks of the order “related to his multiple criminal convictions, for which there are no outstanding appeals.” (Emphasis added.)

The hapless Mr. Fonyo, of course, hardly has the means enjoyed by Lord Black to pursue appeals against his convictions.

As has been argued in this space before, the treatment of the troubled Mr. Fonyo and that of Lord Black makes for an ironic contrast.

Mr. Fonyo, who when he was 12 lost a leg to cancer and who was made an Officer of the Order in 1985, has since had a history of criminal behaviour including assault, aggravated assault, theft, fraud, drunk driving and driving without a license.

However, he also ran across Canada in 1984 on one good leg and one artificial one – following and completing the route of the saintly, cranky and doomed Terry Fox – and in the process raised $13 million for cancer research. This was no small feat for an ordinary man with a serious disability and it is said here that Mr. Fonyo – bad judgment, substance abuse and all – deserved his Order of Canada.

This is somewhat different from the record of Lord Black, about whom it would be a fair comment to say that both his past remarks about Canada, which he once termed “an oppressive little world,” and his manner of conducting his business affairs both deviated “from generally recognized standards of public behaviour,” which may also be considered grounds for revocation of the Order. Lord Black, of course, renounced his Canadian citizenship in 2001 to become a member of the British House of Lords.

Yet Lord Black, by contrast to Mr. Fonyo, remains to this day a member of the Order despite having been properly convicted of serious criminal offenses by an impartial court in a neighbouring democracy.

Lord Black has had some success overturning some of those charges, but as of yesterday the unanimous decision of the U.S. appeal court upheld two charges and indicated the judges believe Lord Black, who at the moment is free on bail, should still face a stiff sentence for his crimes.

Lord Black was sentenced to six and a half years in jail in 2007 and had served about two years when he was released on bail. He will now be re-sentenced by Judge Amy St. Eve of the District Court of Northern Illinois, who was the judge in his original trial. If she chooses, she may impose the same sentence as before or let him serve his time in the community on probation.

But Judge St. Eve’s eventual decision regarding how Lord Black spends his time is really irrelevant to the matter of his Order of Canada. His conviction stands. Surely it is now time for David Johnston, the Governor General who replaced Ms. Jean, to say “enough” and end this blemish on the Order of Canada by dismissing Lord Black from its ranks.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Health care in Alberta: Is it dying the death of a thousand dithers?

Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky croons a song so smooth it’s like a Velvet Fog has descended over Alberta. Photo borrowed from the Society for Safe and Caring Schools and Communities. Below: former health minister Ron Liepert.

Uh-oh! Mr. Dithers is back.

Gene Zwozdesky used to be the Mr. Dithers of Alberta politics, back in the day when he was minister of education and that file was causing some problems for the accident-prone government of Premier Ed Stelmach.

When things weren’t unfolding quite the way he wanted, Mr. Dithers … I mean, Mr. Zwozdesky, um, dithered….

More precisely, during his tenure at the Education Ministry from November 2004 to December 2006, Mr. Zwozdesky visited schools to make sure he understood the problems of schools. After a while, he visited more schools. Eventually he’d get around to making a decision, he promised, but first he wanted to visit some more schools.

He was still visiting schools when the 3 o’clock bell rang and all the kids got on the yellow bus and went home. Then Premier Ed Stelmach dumped the former Liberal who crossed the floor from cabinet. Too much dithering, maybe?

Anyway, Mr. Zwozdesky may dither, but by God he is smoooooth! Eventually the former professional singer and dancer (really!) found his way back into a minor cabinet post. And when the clamourous Ron Liepert – who had replaced him as education minister before stirring up all the teachers in the province to a state of near rebellion – proceeded to muck up his next portfolio, health care, the tables were turned and it was the mellifluous old crooner Gene Zwozdesky the premier brought up from the minors to save the day.

This was not so long ago. Alert readers will recall how, just last year, Mr. Liepert had worked his reverse Midas touch to the full and torqued pretty much the entire province into a full-blown swivet about the state of the health file. Seniors booed when Conservative MLAs turned up in public in their home communities; it was nothing for 500 or 600 people to show up at a town hall meeting protesting Mr. Liepert’s outrageous plans to close hospitals, up seniors’ drug payments or shuffle the elderly into American-style pay-for-everything nursing homes.

It was, in other words, a full-blown political catastrophe for the premier.

Eventually the message sank through Mr. Stelmach’s skull – likely about the time several hundred protesters surrounded his leadership review meeting in Red Deer, not a town usually associated with noisy mass protests – and he skidded Mr. Liepert off to a safer portfolio in the oilpatch, where people actually think the same way he does.

Mr. Zwozdesky took over on the Ides of January this year, and up until now has performed brilliantly.

First, he overruled basically every decision of substance made by Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett, the crusty Australian imported by Mr. Liepert to shake things up in the province’s so-called health superboard. The minister promised Albertans there would be more study before anything rash was done. Then he schmoozed every upset party in the province – crooning a song so soothing he could be dubbed the Velvet Fog of Alberta politics.

The result – perfect from Mr. Stelmach’s perspective – was that Conservative polls stabilized, Wildrose Alliance polls stalled, and pretty well everyone seemed to go happily back to sleep. If some decisions needed to be made, well, Mr. Zwozdesky was looking into them.

The problem is that looking into things is not only Mr. Zwozdesky’s great strength, it’s potentially his downfall too.

As former Liberal Leader and health care boffin Kevin Taft once said of Zwoz, as he is known: “Gene Zwozdesky is as smooth as any politician that you’ll meet, but is notorious for struggling to make even the simplest decisions. … My greatest concern for Gene Zwozdesky is that the health-care system will dither to death and will die the death of a thousand dithers.”

And alas for Mr. Zwozdesky, all of a sudden – thanks to an emerging crisis in Alberta’s emergency rooms – the health care system is unexpectedly a disaster all over again. And guess what Mr. Zwozdesky is doing? That’s right, he’s dithering.

When the Opposition went after him in the Legislature earlier this week about the condition of emergency care, which the province’s emergency docs (Tories to a man, no doubt) characterize as being in a state of imminent collapse, Mr. Dithers responded that he had launched a tour of the province’s emergency rooms.

He told some questioners he’d already toured some emergency rooms. He told others he was about to tour some more. Pretty soon, no doubt, he’ll be scheduling a tour of every darn emergency room in the whole darned province, and maybe a couple in Saskatchewan too!

In other words, faced with an unexpected crisis caused in part by his senior health bureaucrats’ foolish decision to close badly needed long-term-care beds to advance the previous minister’s privatization agenda, causing the overflow to wash back into emergency wards everywhere, Alberta’s health minister has reverted to form.

As Dr. Taft also once said: “Gene’s there to take the heat. He’s there to smooth the many feathers that Ron Liepert ruffled. But I’d be surprised if Gene makes any tough decisions.”

That’s the problem, of course, to avert a crisis, tough decisions now have to be made. The right tough decision would be to stop all planned long-term-bed closures for the indeterminate future, and to start building new LTC beds as fast as humanly possible. That would take the pressure off acute care beds, and thus off emergency wards, in the short term at least.

But Mr. Dithers is back, and it’s not a pretty sight.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Alberta Liberal leader’s blunder was worthy of a Tory, if not a Swann song

David Swann with your blogger. A guy this tall should be harder to misplace!

What was he thinking?

When the Alberta Legislature came that close on its first day back Monday to a desperately needed emergency debate on the parlous state of emergency room care in this province, it was as much the Liberal opposition as the nervous government caucus of Premier Ed Stelmach that scuttled it. Opposition Leader David Swann, anyway.

Dr. Swann is a physician, so he generally knows what he’s talking about when it comes to health care issues. And he’s the Opposition leader, for heaven’s sake, so he has political points to score by talking about it. So we can only shake our heads and speculate about what he got up to on Monday afternoon.

The debate was requested by New Democratic Party Leader Brian Mason. Amazingly, Speaker Ken Kowalski agreed. The Wildrose Alliance was on side, and the Liberals appeared to be. At any rate, Dr. Swann told reporters early in the afternoon that he backed the idea.

Since the Opposition MLAs just happen to add up to 15, this meant Mr. Mason had the bare number of votes he needed to force the emergency debate to proceed, even if no one from the government benches had the intestinal fortitude to break ranks and say Yea.

But when the division bells rang, Dr. Swann was nowhere to be found! He was reported to be out in the hallway, talking to a reporter. Moreover, Liberal MLA Bridget Pastoor was officially AWOL, driving home to Lethbridge in Alberta’s deep south.

Since the government caucus – oddly enough, actually – refused to play ball, the vote was lost and with it the opportunity for a debate on the disastrous condition of Alberta’s emergency rooms. This topic has been getting a lot of coverage since last Friday when Dr. Paul Parks, Emergency Medicine president of the Alberta Medical Association, sent a letter to Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky and sundry other high government officials warning that “we anticipate the potential catastrophic collapse of timely emergency care delivery in the upcoming months. There must be an intervention immediately.”

By now, needless to say, a rattled public is thoroughly engaged.

But Dr. Swann’s momentary lapse – those bells are loud, for heaven’s sake – didn’t end the strangeness Monday afternoon. Queried about where he’d gotten to, the normally dignified Opposition leader improbably told reporters that the problem was all Brian Mason’s fault! According to the Edmonton Journal, Dr. Swann informed the assembled media that the NDP leader “set me up. He could have prepared for this emergency by letting us know so we could plan our schedules and be there for the vote. … Frankly, it says to me that he has no interest in forwarding public policy, he has an interest in scoring cheap political points at my expense.”

Say what?

Mr. Mason sent out two notices Monday morning to all the usual suspects, including the Liberal caucus. As noted, Dr. Swann indicated his support for the debate as he walked into the Legislature. He was right outside while the bells rang – talking to a journalist no less! All the other Liberals (except Mrs. Pastoor, of course) were in their places with appropriately grim faces – presumably secretly pleased at the hapless premier’s apparently imminent comeuppance.

So what the heck happened? Did Dr. Swann covertly not want the debate to proceed? This seems highly unlikely, as the Liberals had plenty to gain and little to lose from the debate. Did he just forget? Hard to imagine, since, face it, the reporters in the Legislative Press Gallery just aren’t that engaging. Anyway, those bells are loud enough to wake the dead – who may be piling up soon in Alberta’s emergency wards if Dr. Parks has it right.

Well, here’s a theory. Earlier in the day, Liberal MLAs were speculating to members of the public that the government would support the motion for an emergency debate because it would give the impression the beleaguered Tories were doing something. This may or may not have made sense, but the theory obviously had some currency in the Liberal caucus.

So the simple explanation is that Dr. Swann let Mrs. Pastoor drive home to Lethbridge and continued to chatter with a representative of the gutter press because he was certain there would be enough votes for the debate anyway.

In the event, alas, the Conservatives apparently decided the risk of publicity about a disaster they have caused was greater than the potential for looking like they have the situation in hand. (They caused this problem, by the way, through mismanagement and a commitment to dumb market fundamentalist “solutions” that resulted in closing needed long-term care beds while continuing-care patients occupy active treatment beds in hospitals, backing the space crisis up into emergency.)

The humiliated Liberal caucus was left tied to the tracks in the face of an oncoming Tory locomotive – although it was probably the little orange NDP caboose that really hurt when it went over.

Whatever the reason, Dr. Swann’s stumble Monday was a blunder worthy of a member of Mr. Stelmach’s cabinet, if not quite a Swann song.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Branding Alberta: Freedom to fake it! Inclination to forget!

“Push on brave York volunteers!” The Battle of Queenston Heights. Now that you’ve seen the picture, do you recall anything about it? Just in case you were having trouble remembering, it didn’t happen in Alberta, but it wasn’t in Northumberland either. Below: One of the many neat things you can do with PhotoShop.

During Question Period in the Alberta Legislature yesterday afternoon, Wildrose Alliance MLA Heather Forsyth mocked the government’s propensity for pouring money into dubious projects. Among her examples, “your provincial branding … which no one can remember.”

She wasn’t kidding.

Do you remember that effort to re-brand Alberta as an environmentally friendly, happy and creative kind of place? You know, the one that got off to such a bumpy start in the spring of 2009 with outrage over its price tag and that goofy story about how the geniuses behind the advertising campaign used pictures of an English beach to boost Canada’s second most western province?

No? Well, as Ms. Forsyth pointed out, neither can anyone else!

In fact, according to the government of Alberta, 57 per cent of Albertans say they have “some level of recall of the brand.” Apparently the government thinks this is pretty good. They commissioned a public opinion survey, you see, and then they announced they were very pleased with this level of recall, thank you very much.

The trouble with this kind of analysis, of course, is that most Albertans likely also have “some level of recall” of the Battle of Queenston Heights. But they’d be hard pressed to tell you who was fighting there, over what, or why it ought to matter to them. But, like, they’ve heard the name…

In case you were wondering, the Alberta government came up with that 57 per cent this way after the Harris-Decima polling company surveyed 1,000 Albertans. The on-line poll indicated that about 31 per cent said of the survey’s respondents said they were familiar with the strategy when they were “presented with it on their computer screen.”

Another 26 per cent said they “vaguely recall seeing” the brand. Another 43 per cent said they’d never heard a thing about the darn thing. That gave the government’s Public Affairs Bureau its 57-per-cent figure, which it then declared to be an impressive result.

So, let’s just think about this for a moment.

Is this really a ringing endorsement of a logo and slogan for which the Alberta government says it paid $3.7 million of your tax dollars to a private-sector advertising agency with close ties to the provincial Conservatives, Calder Bateman Communications, plus an unknown sum to propagate?

After all that, only a third of all Albertans can say only that they’ve heard about the fact there is a strategy – after they’d been shown an example. Another quarter, approximately, say they vaguely recall it. The rest know absolutely nothing about it.

In other words, it sounds very much as if, just as Ms. Forsyth suggested, essentially no one could recall what the $3.7-million slogan says, or was aware any longer of any significant details about the branding campaign.

This is after the $3.7 million was spent on the brand and slogan alone, plus another significant sum – the total of which we do not really know, but is probably in excess of $5 million – to market the branding campaign. (Initially, the government said $25 million would be budgeted over three years for marketing the brand. They now say that three-year total has been reduced to $15 million. What’s been spent so far is only a guess.)

And for this expense we taxpayers get … vague recall?

Something is quite wrong with this picture. If this campaign was “meant to push back against negative images of the oilsands and portray the province as diverse, a good place to invest and an environmentally aware provider of energy,” as the Calgary Herald reported, we’re not getting good value for our tax dollars.

Ask yourself: Did Corporate Ethics International get good value for its Re-Think Alberta campaign that successfully branded this province as an international environmental villain when it paid about $50,000 US?

Then ask yourself, whose Alberta “brand” is the most widely believed? The government’s $15-million dollar campaign that folks vaguely recall, or the one that cost 300 times less that everyone remembers?

The Alberta government could have saved an enormous amount of money and been guaranteed better results simply by getting its own employees from the Public Affairs Bureau to develop a slogan and a logo and buy some advertising.

The Harris-Decima survey was conducted between March 18 and March 24 this year and, according to the polling company, involved 1,000 interviews “completed on-line among a broad sample of Alberta residents,” whatever that means.

Harris Decima’s report on this research is full of charts and graphs and clear explanations about most parts of its results, but is curiously unsatisfying when it comes to the question about recall. There is no chart, and the subject is handed off in a few lines without details.

This is very peculiar. It is almost as if someone in the Alberta government’s large and highly politicized Public Affairs Bureau demanded – with the political needs of the government firmly in mind – that the hard information be pulled from that part of the report, perhaps because the recall results looked so bad! What other explanation makes sense?

Indeed, we should also ask, with so much money to spend, why did the government use an unreliable on-line poll to test their brand when more reliable polling methods are available?

Alberta needs a new approach to branding, one that starts with meaningful action on the environment that will show the world we’re responsible planetary citizens, not just spending money and getting high-priced, well-connected ad agencies to make up slogans no one can remember.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Message to Calgary media: Just put a cork in it, we’re fine with Calgary, it’s YOU we don’t like!

Iconic Calgary. Great place, if you ignore the local media. Below: Licia Corbella, Rick “The Dinger” Bell and an unidentified Calgarian looking really foolish in cowboy duds at Stampede time.

Speaking here as someone who has endured a dozen or so years of hard labour in the Cowtown media, Calgary’s worst literary enemies are not “smarmy twerps” from the eastern press. They are the paranoid and belligerent twerps in the Calgary media.

Let me explain.

But first, I hope readers will forgive me if I brag a little and tell you about how the Toronto Star chose a line from my post about the results of Calgary’s recent mayoral vote for a roundup of what other folks are saying about the election of a mayor who is both progressive and Muslim in a town mainly associated in the popular imagination with mean spiritedness and narrow mindedness.

This is kind of provincial of me to brag about the attention, I know, but then, like I said, I used to work for a Calgary newspaper…

Now, where was I? Oh yeah… There’s lots of depth to Calgary, lots of interesting people there, and lots to do and see – which would include, of course, that famously great view of the Rocky Mountain Cordillera. As has been noted here on more than one occasion, Calgarians have a propensity for electing liberal mayors who get it that government can and should do great things. If their voting record at the provincial and federal levels is not so great, well, their mayors are evidence there is hope they can do better someday.

Having also spent some time working in the media in Toronto, I can tell you that the dread eastern media generally understands this about Cowtown – indeed, when I was at the Globe and Mail, it seemed as if half the people I met in the newsroom had passed through the Calgary Herald at one point or another on their way to something bigger and better.

So if the big, bad eastern media generally gets it about Calgary, and Calgarians themselves contain plenty of genuinely progressive and thoughtful people among their numbers, where do I get off saying Calgary is “mainly associated in the popular imagination with mean spiritedness and narrow mindedness”?

I’ll tell you: It’s the parochial and provincial commentary provided by the quite dreadful media in that town that leaves many folks in the rest of the country with the mistaken impression people from Calgary hate them, and are cranky and miserable about pretty well everything else too.

What made me think of this, of course, were a couple of the other voices included in the Star’s roundup …. if I can be forgiven for using a term that could be taken as disrespectful to the New West

Here’s Rick Bell, for example, the Calgary Sun’s, I don’t know… staff curmudgeon? Whatever. Anyway, here’s what “the Dinger” had to say about one of the positive and friendly stories about Calgary appearing in the media across the land.

“We’ve thrown a curve to the eastern chattering classes who look down their nose at us when they look down at all. They figure we are backward, misguided folk who are less tolerant, less compassionate, less open-minded. We exist to be chastised for being politically out-of-tune one minute and patted on the head the other, usually when some smarmy twerp flies out here and scribbles out patronizing pap on how goldarn cute us Calgarians look decked out in western duds at Stampede time.”

I’ve got news for you, Dinger. It’s you the eastern chattering classes are paying no attention to. I’ll give you this, though: a bunch of pasty faced overweight office guys do look pretty silly teetering around on Cuban heels with 10-gallon white hats pulled down to their ears at Stampede time, especially when they insist on calling each other goldarn cute little nicknames.

Seriously, though, where are the examples of this demeaning coverage about Calgary that “The Dinger” says is routine in the eastern media? I must have missed that day’s edition of the Globe and Mail.

Then there was Licia Corbella, editorial page editor of the Calgary Herald but an alumna of Mr. Bell’s Calgary Sun, who opined sarcastically that, “suddenly the East’s view of Albertans as hayseed bigots will somehow evaporate like hardened snow in a Chinook. …” Don’t worry, she promised, “the unfair stereotype sticks like bullpoop on Alberta boots.”

Well, true enough, I suppose, but only because of the efforts of a few tiresome windbags in the Calgary media. If these guys would just put a cork in it, Calgary’s reputation would improve overnight! Just look at the lovely coverage Naheed Nenshi quite rightly got!

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

New poll suggests Alberta’s right-wing Wildrose Alliance has stalled

Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith, centre, waits with her supporters for a tow. Alberta politicians may not appear exactly as illustrated. The roads, however, look pretty much the same, winter and summer.

Finally, with the Legislature about to resume sitting on Monday, a new Alberta political poll that tells us … nothing much has changed!

Indeed, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to argue that the Citizen Society Research Lab poll released yesterday indicates Wildrose Alliance support in Alberta has stalled.

Remember when the “upstart” Wildrose Alliance was “soaring in the polls,” according to every esteemed journal from Britain’s Economist to, well, Edmonton’s Journal? A couple of polls in particular, the questionable on-line kind, indicated that the then-still-novel far-right party was rocketing to new heights.

So, do you also remember how certain cooler heads argued Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservatives were still leading, and could still form a majority government if an election were held the next day? Well, it increasingly appears as if those cooler heads were right. Not that you’re likely to see the story reported that way.

Leastways, the latest poll and the first new one in a while, the survey by CSRL at Lethbridge College, seems to confirm the cooler-headed view. It shows Mr. Stelmach’s Conservatives still in majority territory – with the likelihood they would win about 50 seats if an election were held tomorrow.

Now, it has been written here that Mr. Stelmach needs 55 seats to remain as premier – so such a result could put his personal political career in interesting straits, but it hardly predicts the sweeping generational change that a year ago many pundits were claiming would soon happen.

Since this is the first serious Alberta political poll we’ve seen since last spring, it provides an important look at what’s going on in this province and cuts through the claims of many parties who have an axe to grind.

To get the results, Lethbridge College and Athabasca University students polled 1,067 adult Albertans by telephone on Oct. 2 and 3. Their efforts indicated that 30 per cent of Alberta’s voters would stick with Premier Ed Stelmach’s Progressive Conservative Party if an election were held right now. About 20 per cent would support the Wildrose Alliance led by former broadcaster and Fraser Institute apparatchik Danielle Smith.

This was portrayed by some journalists as the Conservative vote “stabilizing,” although arguably “remaining stable” would have been a more accurate way to put it. Regardless, the poll also indicated that the Alberta Liberals next behind the Wildrose Alliance, with 17 per cent of voters leaning their way. The New Democratic Party was at 9 per cent and a significant 18 per cent of respondents said they have not yet decided whom to vote for.

Significantly, according to the CSRL, Conservative support remains widespread throughout most demographic groups in Alberta. Only young voters, aged 18 to 29, favoured another party, the Liberals. What growth there was in Wildrose support, the pollsters noted, came from the Conservatives’ column, with Liberal and NDP results remaining pretty much the same.

The poll didn’t ask respondents what they thought of the fledgling Alberta Party, although it did ask them if they supported “some other party,” which assigns the Alberta Party about the right place in the scheme of things. (With many Alberta Party stalwarts deeply involved in the successful Calgary mayoral campaign of Naheed Nenshi, their attention may be thoroughly diverted for a spell.)

The Canadian Press report of the CSRL survey chose to emphasize the subgroup of 804 decided voters to reach the conclusion that the results suggest “Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives are still the party of choice in the province, but their popularity continues to slip at the expense of the Wildrose Alliance.” (Emphasis added.)

Note the unenthusiastic tone of this story – it’s just not as good a yarn as if it showed the Wildrose Alliance squirting upward – and the attempt of the writer to spin the Wildrose gains into something more dramatic than reality. After all, what the poll actually indicates is a mere 2.2-per-cent increase in committed Wildrose support, surely less than the party’s strategists were hoping for.

So that leaves Mr. Stelmach’s Conservatives down incrementally to 36.1-per-cent level of support among decided voters, and the Wildrose Alliance up marginally to 24 per cent from where it was in October a year ago. Decided Liberal voters were at about 21 per cent and committed NDPers close to 11 per cent. About 8 per cent indicated a preference for “some other party” – essentially unchanged from last year.

Also according to the survey – and no surprise to anyone who pays attention – Conservative support is strongest in rural areas, at about 41 per cent. Interestingly, in Southern Alberta, the Liberals and Wildrose Alliance are in a statistical dead heat, separated by less that 1 per cent at about a quarter of the vote each. This could be good news for the Liberals, since much of their vote is concentrated in and around the city of Lethbridge.

In Calgary, the supposed hotbed of Wildrose support, Mr. Stelmach’s Conservatives lead narrowly, 34.1 per cent to 29.4 per cent.

In Edmonton, the Conservatives also lead … the Liberals: 33.3 per cent to 24.2 per cent, with the New Democrats third at 19.8 and the Wildrose Alliance bringing up the rear at 16.3 per cent.

As previously noted, however, this means the Alliance can get Liberals and New Democrats elected by bleeding off Conservative support in ridings like Edmonton-Rutherford (where the Tories won in 2008 by 58 votes), Edmonton-Glenora (96 votes), Edmonton-Calder (172 votes) and Edmonton-Beverly Clareview (337 votes).

At least two other pollsters – Trend Research Inc. and Environics – are now in the field, so we should have a clearer picture of where things stand in Alberta, and what’s likely to happen next, by the end of the month.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Civic election hangover: the future still looks bleak for a progressive Alberta

Edmonton’s City Centre Airport, visible in the photo’s upper left, and its surrounding neighbourhoods. Photo snatched from Daveberta.ca. Below: Calgary Mayor-elect Naheed Nenshi; Blogger Ken Chapman.

Popular wisdom in the first hours after the Edmonton civic election quickly sprouted around the idea the results were a big humiliation for the right-wing Wildrose Alliance Party.

The logic went like this: The Wildrose Alliance under Leader Danielle Smith stepped into the municipal fray to keep Edmonton’s City Centre Airport open. Edmontonians elected a progressive mayor and a council mostly committed to closing the airport and redeveloping the site. Ergo, the election was a big loss for the Wildrose Alliance.

“The results are a slap in the face, not just to the Envision Edmonton airport campaign, but also, more obliquely, to the Wildrose Alliance, which had tried to make the airport issue its entrée into Edmonton politics,” opined Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons the day after the election.

“The significant increase voter turnout in the big cities shows that people want change and it is not good enough to merely offer a choice between very right-wing Progressive Conservative Party agenda and extremely right wing Wildrose Alliance Party agenda,” wrote Ken Chapman in his excellent blog.

While there are some signs of hope to be found in the municipal election results in both Calgary and Edmonton, alas, both these fine commentators are likely greatly overstating the case for optimism.

Simons’s analysis in particular hangs on the notion the Wildrose Alliance’s principal objective in Edmonton really was to save the City Centre Airport and see pro-airfield candidates become the victors on Monday.

Not that the Wildrose Alliance would have minded such an outcome, of course, but to frame the election result that way is to misunderstand the party’s true strategy. Actually saving the airport was never the principal Wildrose objective or even a vague goal.

On the contrary, the Wildrose Alliance’s main aim remains simply to boost its support in the Capital Region by 3 per cent or a little more, which is what it needs to achieve its secondary objective of getting New Democrats or Alberta Liberals to win in a part of the province where the Alliance itself is unlikely to gain many seats in a provincial general election.

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, the more non-Conservative MLAs elected in the Capital Region – even if they are New Democrats, members a party diametrically opposed to the ideology of the Alliance – the better the Wildrose Alliance’s overall position in Alberta.

The more New Democrats and Alberta Liberals that are elected in the Edmonton area, the more likely it is the Conservative government of Premier Ed Stelmach will sink into a minority. With the Wildrose Alliance much stronger in southern Alberta, this outcome increases the chance the Alliance can become the Official Opposition. Indeed, although this is unlikely for the moment, if the Alliance picked up sufficient rural support, it could even become the government.

Since the Conservatives and Wildrose Alliance are essentially in accord on ideology, moreover, such an outcome increases the chance a shaken minority Conservative Party would drop Mr. Stelmach and elect a new leader even farther to the right, say, Finance Minister Ted Morton. In such circumstances, the Conservatives at the very least would ape far-right Wildrose policy nostrums, including more privatization and vicious legislative attacks on the rights of working people, which are the ultimate goals of the people financing both parties.

So if Edmonton Journal columnist David Staples is right, as the Wildrose Alliance surely hopes, and the civic election result means “bitterness over issue will continue to fracture Edmonton,” that is precisely the best outcome Ms. Smith could reasonably hope for.

Indeed, Wildrose Alliance strategists are far more likely to be concerned by the civic election outcome in Calgary, which shows a genuine appetite among voters there for new faces and progressive policies. However, Calgary’s long history of electing popular liberal mayors while overwhelmingly supporting far-right provincial and federal politicians suggests we should be cautious about reading too much into the election of Naheed Nenshi as mayor of Cowtown.

Meanwhile, with few new faces or ideas among the Liberals and New Democrats, both those parties remain mired at their historic minimum support levels and focused on their traditional election strategies. The upstart Alberta Party may be doing something, but it remains very unclear what that might be or if the party can do anything useful in time for a provincial election. More likely it will achieve nothing more than to further fracture an already fractured progressive vote.

The mainstream media and the Alberta chattering classes for obvious reasons will continue to frame the issue as a contest between the Conservatives on the far right and the Wildrose Alliance on the even-farther right. To paraphrase Mr. Chapman, “the single-minded media focus” is certain to remain “on the culture wars between the right wing parties for political power.”

Add to all this the danger many progressive voters will be tempted to cast ballots for the Wildrose Alliance out of mischief and fatigue with generations of Conservative mismanagement, and the political landscape in Alberta remains bleak for those of us who hope for genuinely progressive change at the provincial level in Alberta.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Bad news for B.C. – decriminalization is coming, to the U.S.A.

An illegal indoor marijuana grow-op: soon to be a thing of the past in Canada? California votes Nov. 2 on pot legalization. Below: Yes and No advertising on California Proposition 19; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

To twist the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, “Decriminalization is coming, to the U.S.A.” That, or outright legalization.

This is good news and bad news. But it’s likely to be bad news for lots of Canadians who live in British Columbia. And it could begin happening in less than two weeks!

It’s starting in California, of course, where the Golden State, which is broke, is on the verge of completely legalizing marijuana, if only as a way to raise badly needed tax revenue. (Under the U.S. Constitution, criminal law comes under state jurisdiction. In Canada, of course, it is a federal responsibility, so even if they took it into their heads to do so, British Californians would be unable to follow suit.)

On Nov. 2, Californians will vote on Proposition 19, a statewide referendum that if passed would legalize marijuana and allow local governments to collect pot-related taxes. Pro- and anti-Prop-19 campaigners are busy in the state. But even if Californians don’t vote for outright legalization, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has already approved a law reducing possession of marijuana to the equivalent of a $100 parking ticket.

Civilization will not end, and California will not sink into the sea – or, at least, if it does, it’ll be because of an earthquake and not a drug-induced frenzy. Anyway, such a seismic upheaval would likely take British Columbia along with it, rendering the point of this post moot.

The good news is that California pot legalization – or even mere decriminalization – will mean the beginning of the end of the counterproductive, expensive, destructive, pointless and often tragic “war on drugs,” at least its marijuana front.

This won’t happen overnight, of course. It will take years, with the likes of Prime Minister Stephen Harper hanging on to punitive mandatory sentences for insignificant possession, harsh enforcement and senseless expenses for unneeded new prisons as if their political lives depended on it – as indeed they may, given their core constituency.

But one by one the states of the U.S.A., most of them like California broke anyway after years of right-wing economic mismanagement, will give up on the doomed war on weed, if only for sound fiscal reasons. Then, as we so often do – for good or ill – Canada will bob along in their wake.

The bad news – other than for those of us who make our livings enforcing drug laws, training dogs to sniff out the stuff, manufacturing Kevlar vests and the like – will take longer to sink in.

But decriminalization is ultimately an economic decision. Not only will it increase tax revenues some places, it will decrease economic activity elsewhere. Most obviously, while there will continue to be profit in growing, packaging and selling marijuana, it will be nowhere near the magnitude of the industry’s profits today.

This may come as a surprise to most of us who don’t buy or use illegal drugs, but that’s bad news for British Columbians because the economy of that province – which is not unlike that of a so-called narco-state – is so heavily dependent on marijuana production. Arguably it’s bad economic news for all Canadians for the same reasons, whether we recognize it yet or not.

Because the Canadian marijuana industry is illegal, it operates almost entirely off the books, generating virtually no tax revenue and precious few records. So estimates of what it’s worth to the B.C. economy are all over the map. But even the small numbers are big, with estimates starting at around $3 billion a year and rising as high as $20 billion, double the legal revenue generated by B.C.’s forest industry.

The Wikipedia puts the number at $6 billion. Britain’s Guardian newspaper puts at $20 billion. In 2006, the B.C. forest industry’s direct economic activity totaled about $10 billion, representing 7.4 per cent of the province’s GDP.

The driver of the huge profits for growing marijuana in Canada and smuggling it south, of course, is enforcement and prohibition. That motive will largely disappear with legalization or even decriminalization. Why risk smuggling pot from Canada if you can grow it legally at home in Los Angeles?

And why grow pot in secret urban grow ops all over Western Canada if there’s no profit in smuggling it to the States. The secret Canadian drug industry – built up in increments over the past 40 years – will quickly collapse.

What’s the big deal, you might wonder, if, like most of us, you neither buy nor use the stuff, nor have any involvement in this illegal industry whatsoever?

The problem is that, arguably, whether you do or not, you do. Why do retail businesses do so well in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland? At least in part because of pot profits. So you benefit if you’re a retailer in B.C. even if you retail products that have nothing whatsoever to do with the drug trade.

Why have house prices remained high and stable throughout Western Canada, especially B.C., even as they are collapsing in the United States? Untaxed profits from the drug trade certainly help, and may even underpin them. So if you’re a homeowner, hoping to finance your retirement through the sale of your Vancouver or Victoria house, you too benefit from B.C. bud.

Even municipal taxes in communities that would otherwise be recession-bound depend on the illegal Canadian drug trade.

As columnist Douglas Haddow argued in the Guardian, if California legalizes, about all we Canadians could do to save our economic skins would be “to follow suit, legalizing on a national level and taxing the industry a la tobacco or alcohol.”

This, however, would present a huge political problem to the Harper government, both in terms of dealing with pressure from U.S. states that don’t legalize immediately, and its own perception of how to play to its political base. The same can be said of most provincial governments.

Whatever they decide to do, one thing is certain: Decriminalization is coming, and not just to the U.S.A.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Everything you wanted to know about the St. Albert election (but were afraid to ask)

Retiring Councillor Lorie Garritty, right, commiserates with defeated incumbent James Burrows at the St. Albert Inn Monday night. Below: Burrows, Wes Brodhead, Cam MacKay and James Van Damme.

“What I really want to know,” a comment on a previous post says, “is what happened in your home town of St. Albert?”

The short answers are easy. The analysis may be a little harder. But it’s probably worth the trouble because it may contain useful tidbits for candidates and campaign managers contemplating municipal election runs in suburban Alberta communities, indeed, suburban communities anywhere.

The easy answers first: St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse was overwhelmingly reelected as predicted. Your blogger’s record on predicting the success of council candidates was more mixed. In the public prints, I predicted only that the four incumbents who were running – Len Bracko, James Burrows, Gareth Jones and Roger Lemieux – would all be reelected, largely on the strength of name recognition.

In the event, I was half right. Mr. Bracko, a former Liberal MLA with deep roots in St. Albert’s community of Liberal voters and great respect among many others, was re-elected. So was Roger Lemieux, who has strong connections to our city’s historical francophone community and ran a business here for many years. But both could be fairly described as having scraped back into office.

Messrs Burrows and Jones were swept away, presumably the result of voters dissatisfied with St. Albert’s relatively high taxes, but perhaps because of other factors too. Mr. Burrows was controversial, and was disliked by more than one group of voters. This setback will do no good to his reported plan to seek the Wildrose Alliance nomination for the next provincial election. It is harder to pinpoint a single reason for Mr. Jones’s lack of success beyond, perhaps, his age.

Now, it is dangerous to read too much into these things. Most St. Albert candidates, incumbents or not, ran lazy, uninformative campaigns. Those who got out and door-knocked – including Cam MacKay, Malcolm Parker and Wes Brodhead – all won council seats.

Can the St. Albert election be called civic referendum on taxes, the purchase of municipal art, the checkered history of the Servus Place recreation centre, the future of the public library or whether or not that notorious lot in the Akinsdale neighbourhood should be the site of a Habitat for Humanity development? You could fashion almost any answer you like to these questions from the confusing data emerging from this election. No doubt folks of all persuasions will do just that.

Turnout was embarrassingly low – a pathetic 34 per cent, down from 37 per cent three years ago. That may have magnified the impact of disaffected electors who were willing to vote for a single candidate.

Judging from the strength of the mayor’s majority over his only challenger, Akinsdale resident Shelley Biermanski, the controversial Arlington Drive development that made headlines around the world did not stir many voters locally. Still, for a low-key, lightweight campaign, Ms. Biermanski’s final tally was none too shabby. As a seasoned observer of political affairs in this community commented to me outside the mayor’s celebration at the St. Albert Inn Monday night, a stronger candidate with a better campaign organization could have made much more serious inroads into the mayor’s majority.

Privately, I circulated a list to a few friends of the order in which I expected the 13 council candidates to place. My prognosticating abilities were not too horrible. Readers who wish to compare my bets to reality may click here.

Some quick observations and opinions about the meaning of the St. Albert election results, in no particular order:

  • The Akinsdale Habitat-for-Humanity brouhaha didn’t have much impact on most voters, and there were at least as many people embarrassed by the affair as upset at it. I say that votes flowed both ways as a result.
  • Taking a hard line on taxes is an overwhelming issue for a group of voters, but not a majority of St. Albertans by any means. The candidate most closely associated with the St. Albert Taxpayer’s Association – Mr. MacKay – did well. SATA members likely “pumped” their ballots for Mr. MacKay by voting only for him, an entirely legitimate technique in my opinion. But there were other factors in Mr. MacKay’s success, and support for SATA was not the only reason.
  • Low turnout helps special interest groups – including anti-tax groups like SATA – if they are willing to pump for a single candidate. As noted, the turnout of eligible voters in this election, typical of municipal elections across Canada, was at 34 per cent pathetically low.
  • St. Albert voters – and not just women – want women on council. They considered the three female candidates, concluded that Cathy Heron was the strongest, and made absolutely certain she was elected. Ms. Heron topped the polls with close to 10,000 votes.
  • Door knocking counts – as noted, candidates known to have actually gotten out and met voters did better.
  • Social media did not have a particularly big impact. Who knows, maybe there are just not enough young people in St. Albert? Maybe the pundits are misinterpreting the impact of social media in the Calgary civic election. Whatever is going on, the candidates who tried to use social media sites heavily – James Van Damme and Aisling Pollard-Kientzel, for example – did not do particularly well.
  • Money alone will not buy an election – at least not in St. Albert. Mr. Van Damme spent a heck of lot on advertising over a very long time. It didn’t get him past the No. 10 spot on a list of 13 candidates.
  • Age does not seem to be a particular factor one way or the other. Voters turfed one candidate in his 70s and kept another. They elected mostly people in their middle years, elected one young woman but generally rejected younger candidates.
  • Signs still matter. When you door-knock, voters often complain about “sign pollution.” But they tend to vote for candidates with lots of signs. It seemed to me that some candidates who had a lot of signs last time had fewer this time. Candidates with many signs – like Malcolm Parker and Cam MacKay – did well. Incumbents who had fewer signs than last time saw their vote totals slip – it looks to me as if that’s what happened in part to Mr. Burrows and Mr. Jones. Mr. Lemieux’s extra signs may just be what saved him, allowing him to slip into the last spot a mere 14 votes ahead of Mr. Burrows.
  • Notoriety gets you about 6,000 votes in this town, which happens to be home to about 60,000 people. It seems to me as if there may be a nice neat formula in that for the managers of suburban electoral campaigns. If merely being a council incumbent gets you about 10 per cent of the vote, you’d better get out and knock on doors, go to events, talk to journalists, put up signs, buy advertisements, persuade your friends to pump the ballot and be responsive and respectful when it comes to voters’ concerns if you expect to be re-elected. In other words, run as if you were in third place!

A modified version of this post can be found on rabble.ca.

By electing Naheed Nenshi, Calgarians deliver a slap to the grim Harperite vision of Alberta

Calgary Mayor elect Naheed Nenshi on the stump. (Calgary Beacon photo.) Below: Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel.

Calgarians, denizens of what is supposedly the country’s most conservative major city, will awake this morning to the news they have elected a liberal mayor who is a member of both a visible minority and a religious minority.

The election of Naheed Nenshi as mayor in yesterday’s civic election tells a very positive and inclusive story about Cowtown, and establishes a clear trend of Calgarians electing the most liberal candidate available to the top job in what is supposedly the heartland of the mean-spirited Harper regime and the rabidly market fundamentalist Wildrose Alliance.

As regular readers surely know, your blogger thought about the best that could be hoped for was the election of the nicer conservative candidate, and so this morning I must eat a little crow. This kind of thinking must be the result of too many ice-cold post-election mornings over the years out here in the New West. Well, it really is the New West now, and … and … and Leger Marketing called it right!

Thankfully, notwithstanding the need to choke out that phrase, I won’t have to eat as much crow as the supporters of Ric McIver, “the toast of Conservative Calgary,” the man so far to the right he gave up the K in his first name to the Tories’ bean counters. What a slap in the face to the Calgary Herald editorial board, Jason Kenney, the political prognosticators at the Globe and Mail, Tom Flanagan and all their ilk among the Harperite spear carriers who boosted the angry and divisive Mr. McIver throughout the campaign.

What’s more, Mr. Nenshi got Calgarians to say No to “Dr. No” with a campaign war chest less than half the size of Mr. McIver’s!

Mr. Nenshi’s success at the polls should be a reminder to the good people of Toronto that they too can do better in a week’s time than they once had thought. We’ll have to see about that, I suppose, but it’s something to ponder.

It can also serve as a reminder to those of us in the rest of Alberta that we can do better too – and that one of these days we just might.

In Edmonton, meanwhile, Mayor Stephen Mandel romped to an easy and decisive victory over his Wildrose-backed rival.

Fact is, the popular Mandel would certainly have won no matter what, but it surely did not hurt his prospects for a two-to-one victory that his chief opponent’s campaign was tarnished by the sleazy tactics of supporter who pretended to be a freelance journalist from the United States to smear the mayor.

The decisive defeat of candidate David Dorward, who had hung his hat on the fight to keep Edmonton’s City Centre Airport open in the face of Mr. Mandel’s plan to convert the site into a upscale inner-city development, also may have interesting implications for Alberta politics in the long run.

Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservatives, not to mention many New Democrats and Alberta Liberals, are all sure to take comfort in the fact the candidate openly backed by the Wildrose Alliance of Danielle Smith was so thoroughly trounced by the moderate Mr. Mandel.

It will take some time – and possibly some beer – to puzzle out the rest of the implications for the Alliance of this civic race in Edmonton.

Only one thing can be said for certain about that at this hour – for throwing her support behind the fight to keep the city airport open, Ms. Smith will have a free plane ride anywhere in the province that she wants to go once a provincial election campaign begins.

But surely it is a hopeful sign here in Canada’s supposedly narrow-minded Bible Belt that the citizens of its two principal cities have elected mayors distinguished by their moderate and inclusive views who happen to be members of religions not practiced by the majority.

It’s not exactly springtime in Alberta – it’s October, after all, and the snow will soon be flying. But there may be hints of a warming trend among big city voters nonetheless.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.