Archive for December, 2010

Happy New Year from Alberta: the Syphilis Capital of Canada

Happy New Year: Ron Liepert once said you should know who your partner is partying with! Below: Chart from Medical Officer’s report showing Alberta syphilis infection rates; Liepert; Gene Zwozdesky.

Happy New Year! Have you had you syphilis test?

Just in case you were wondering, Alberta is the syphilis capital of Canada, a fact that crept into the news over the holiday with publication of a report called the Syphilis Outbreak in Alberta by the office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health.

Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky and senior health bureaucrats were quoted intoning about how seriously the province takes this threat, how much money is being thrown into the fight (a measly $4 million), how hard-hitting and targeted our “awareness campaign” is, and how it’s not really our fault anyhow.

On the latter point, you see, the real reason for all this syphilis is an economy so robust that irresponsible young people from all over come here and, as it were, screw things up. So, as Ralph Klein might have said, Alberta’s 267 reported syphilis cases in 2009 were really the fault of “creeps and bums” from somewhere else.

All in all, then, this wasn’t too disastrous a PR hit for the province’s beleaguered health officials, presumably because everyone in the media was in a hurry to get home for the holidays and didn’t bother to check the files for past references to this story.

For example, while the media informed us the increase in syphilis cases was 9 per cent in 2009 over 2008, no one seems to have noted that the number of reported cases was up 99 and a quarter per cent over the past decade. The disease was almost eradicated in Canada after 1995, but, presumably, it’ll be on the increase elsewhere too, if only because of migration from Alberta.

What’s more, no one seems to have reported what the previous health minister, Ron Liepert, had to say about this particular health threat back in 2008, when the government’s self-described vigorous anti-syphilis campaign, which appears to have had no effect whatsoever at slowing rates of infection, was just getting under way.

Alert readers will recall that Mr. Liepert, who is now minister of energy and still an influential member of Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative cabinet, refused to support a general province-wide campaign to raise awareness because syphilis victims were mainly people whom he reckoned didn’t take enough responsibility for their own behaviour.

Here’s what Mr. Liepert said in the Legislature on Nov. 6, 2008, according to Hansard: “We really have to ensure that people accept some personal responsibility in this area.”

Three days earlier, he told the province’s Standing Committee on Health: “The decision to not proceed (with a broad-based syphilis awareness campaign) at that time was my decision.”

Even back then, it was important to the Conservative government to make the point the problem wasn’t their fault: “We’ve had a high degree of workers in this province, more than the average norm nationally, who would be in work camps, would be working in the oil fields,” Mr. Liepert told the Standing Committee on Health. “We also have had a situation where you have a lot of disposable income. A lot of not-good things happen when that is the case.”

In other words: Creeps and bums … plus too much money. What can you do?

The ever-diplomatic Mr. Liepert also suggested that Albertans ought to “know who your partner is sleeping with.” (Other than you, that is, he presumably meant.)

Mr. Liepert told the Edmonton Journal on Aug. 15, 2008: “You have to remember, 95 per cent of Albertans are not impacted by (syphilis). I’m not necessarily going to subscribe to a province-wide ad campaign that could be communicating more to senior citizens than it is to street workers.”

As the NDP pointed out at the time, and the Medical Officer of Heath’s report now confirms, syphilis hits more than high-risk groups – striking babies and the elderly too. According to the report, the number of cases has been rising steadily ever since Mr. Liepert’s remarks, and continues to rise, in all segments of society.

The lingering effects of Mr. Liepert’s questionable health care leadership can be observed several places in the report, which is careful to tippy-toe around the need for a widely disseminated awareness campaign like the one the former health minister pulled the plug on in 2008.

“Targeting the high risk sub-populations for prevention of transmission should reduce or eliminate transmission to the larger community,” the report says at one point. “While the syphilis outbreak is deeply entrenched in the population as a whole, considerable effort must be made to target interventions to specific high risk groups,” it says elsewhere. (Emphasis added.)

This isn’t a knock at the idea of informing high-risk groups. It is a knock at dangerously de-emphasizing a general information campaign aimed at all Albertans so as not to upset the famously thin-skinned Mr. Liepert, which is what one suspects is going on here.

Indeed, as the report explains usefully elsewhere, “No segments of the population are spared from contracting syphilis. The disease is being found in young children under one year of age; teenagers as young as 14; seniors as old as 84; university students and professionals.”

And I guess that goes for you, too, out there in the rest of Canada, if your partner, unbeknownst to you, is sleeping with an Albertan.

Also back in 2008, the Alberta NDP suggested Premier Stelmach call an inquiry into the province’s handling of the syphilis epidemic. “An inquiry will yield facts regarding the failure of Alberta Health and Wellness to effectively manage the syphilis outbreak, answer questions surrounding the deaths of five babies from congenital infection, the unexplained departure of public health doctors and allegations of ministerial interference with their efforts to promote a province-wide syphilis awareness campaign,” NDP Leader Brian Mason said at the time.

That idea wasn’t half bad, but don’t bet on it happening, for obvious reasons. Indeed, don’t bet on hearing much more about this than the odd cheery press release, timed to come out when something is happening the media is more interested in.

This post also appears on rabble.ca. The graphic is copied from the Syphilis Outbreak in Alberta by the office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health of Alberta.

Federal Conservative-NDP détente comes right out of the Ralph Klein Playbook

Détente: Jack Layton, left, and Stephen Harper, right (geddit?), work together on their sinister plans. Warning: Canadian politicians may not appear exactly as described by Michael Ignatieff. Below: Ralph Klein.

If you’re wondering where most of Stephen Harper’s big political ideas come from, look no further than Alberta.

And so it is with this holiday season’s Conservative-NDP détente, which is whipping the federal Liberals into a froth of self-righteous frustration. The prime minister has torn this particular page right out of the Ralph Klein Playbook.

As premier of Alberta, Mr. Klein was always careful to ensure that the Alberta NDP, if it didn’t exactly prosper, at least would live long. That way, to the intense frustration of those who imagine social democratic voters in Alberta would all happily vote for a “united alternative” led by the Liberals, the NDP could always bleed off the Liberal vote in the generally more progressive Edmonton region come election time.

Thus after the general elections of 1997 and 2001 under Mr. Klein’s premiership, Alberta’s victorious Conservatives granted the provincial New Democrats official party status and the cash and perks that went with it despite the fact they failed to win the four seats required.

Mr. Klein’s successor, Conservative Premier Ed Stelmach, continued this tradition in 2008 in the same circumstances, for the same reasons and with much the same results.

Politics being the art of the possible, this small Conservative kindness has made plenty of sense from both the Conservative and NDP perspectives. From the Conservative point of view, it minimized any threat that might be presented by the Alberta Liberals from time to time. From the New Democrats’ viewpoint, it helped keep the social democratic option alive in Alberta and the NDP in the game.

So why shouldn’t two political parties in such circumstances help one another? It’s not as if the Alberta Liberals were offering policies identical to the New Democrats’ in most years. On the contrary, historically in Alberta as at the national level, Liberal policies trend closer those of the Conservatives than those of the NDP.

Alberta New Democrats never felt they owed it to the Alberta Liberals to commit suicide just because the Liberals were ever so slightly to the left of the Conservatives, and why should they have?

If someday soon the Conservatives are replaced by the Wildrose Alliance as the government of Alberta, it seems likely that this same dynamic will continue to be played out in the Alberta Legislature for the same sensible reasons.

It’s hard to feel much sympathy with those Alberta Liberal supporters unhappy with this arrangement because it is, after all, politics as usual. Would the Liberals play it any differently in the same circumstances? Of course not!

All the same arguments for this arrangement apply at the national level, except that the policies of federal Liberals and Conservatives are even closer than are those of the two parties’ counterparts here in Alberta. Indeed, if anything, they’ve drifted even closer together from a policy perspective under the leadership of Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff.

The Liberals will do whatever they can to avoid a national election if it is not to their advantage. Why should they ask NDP Leader Jack Layton and his caucus to do any differently? Certainly – in Ottawa as in Edmonton – the New Democrats are under no moral obligation to destroy themselves politically to suit Mr. Ignatieff’s ambitions.

When the Liberals dismiss the “common ground” between New Democrats and the Conservatives as mere political convenience, they are just whining. It’s always a little unseemly when politicians complain that other politicians are playing politics. That’s the name of the game! This complaint, after all, is being made by the party that foolishly dropped the idea of a democratic coalition with the NDP the instant Mr. Ignatieff saw an opportunity to have it all for himself.

But if the Ignatieff Liberals would prefer this arrangement to be cast as a question of high principle, then that can be done too. That is because, for all the many sins of the minority Conservative government under Mr. Harper, Canada is far better served by continuation of the present minority situation with a strong NDP contingent in Parliament than by either a large Harper Conservative or Ignatieff Liberal majority in Parliament.

If by working with the Conservatives, the NDP can hold the government’s feet to the fire to achieve sensible and fair policies that help low-income seniors and the unemployed, Canadians will be better off.

If by working with the Conservatives, the NDP can establish the credibility needed to become the Opposition in Parliament, or eventually even the government of Canada, then politics as usual will truly have paid dividends for the Canadian people.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Secret shocking Press Gallery videos – available on Youtube in the morning

So far, this is turning out to be Video Week on Alberta Diary. Click on the image above to see the NDP video that was posted on all the other political blogs first, only without the snarky commentary.

This year’s winter holiday season marks the beginning of the end of one more in a long string of media traditions that have fallen to the Internet.

You are forgiven if you missed this one. After all, it was a secret. That is, it was information to which only privileged members of the media and political fraternities were privy. It tells, nevertheless, a story of how the Internet and the technology that drives it is irrevocably changing the cozy little world of media insiders. For the better, I guess.

Each year, just before Christmas, the Alberta Legislative Press Gallery throws a bash at the University of Alberta Faculty Club. The crème de la crème of Alberta’s political media and political elites, or something along those lines, gets together at this event – not to mention large numbers of hacks, flacks and lobbyists of various stripes – to exchange bons mots and business cards.

Most other legislative press galleries in North America have a similar tradition.

Plenty of alcohol is consumed at these events, and lots of other useful information is exchanged. For example, a certain former premier of Alberta was once sighted clearly suffering the staggers and jags, just days before he threw a pocket full of change at a flock of homeless men who had annoyed him. I guess someone should have said something.

Sometimes well-paid lobbyists get bow-tie-tying lessons from impoverished sluggos at these events. Occasionally people even drink so much that they meet their future partners in various spousal crimes.

But the high point of the evening, without question, has for more than a decade been the often-hilarious clandestine videos made by each political party with a Legislative caucus, as well as the Press Gallery itself, and shown only at this event.

In the past, some pretty outrageous stuff got included in these efforts, which were in camera in every sense of the phrase. And the politicians really got into the act. Only here, for example, could you hear a famously intemperate cabinet minister loudly dropping the F-bomb in a genuinely hilarious parody of his own terrible manners, or watch an Opposition leader mocking her fascination with her own reflection.

This was not necessarily the sort of thing the public would have viewed with the same degree of amusement as the insider crowd.

But now that we have entered the age of the high-quality video camera hidden in a palm-sized cellular phone, it was only a matter of time before one of these things found its way – via Youtube.com or like on-line sites – to the Great Unwashed. When that happened, there was the potential for real damage, because some of the participants – well-known politicians included – went pretty far out on a limb to squeeze a laugh out of their pals in the Gallery.

And so it should be, one supposes. Cozy little journalists’ clubs need to be subjected to the light of public awareness, just like other institutions in society. Indeed, good sport that he is, your blogger left his iPhone locked in the truck for this year’s Gallery party, ensuring the that plea of the Lord’s Prayer – “lead us not into temptation” – would be answered even before he stepped across the threshold.

It was a needless precaution, because the tradition has ended, at least in Alberta, as it will soon end everywhere else it still lingers.

This year, some of the short videos found their way to Youtube all right – but not because of the efforts of sneaky video pirates with cellular phones, but rather, officially, posted there by the parties that made them.

So how does this end the tradition, you ask? It kills it because it was the clandestine nature of the projects that lent them their bite. Behind closed doors, individual politicians, political parties and journalists were all willing to make jokes that would hurt them in public – to really make fun, in other words, of their own foibles.

This year’s videos are designed for public consumption, and so they either un-funnily stick to the party line, as did the Wildrose Alliance’s first effort, or pull their punches, as did the NDP’s video, which was made in co-operation with the Wildrose Alliance caucus and leader.

The NDP’s video was genuinely funny, but hardly “worthy of the Daily Show,” as one blogger enthused. At least it shows that Legislative caucuses with widely varying political philosophies can work together on something, even if that runs counter to the image all parties try to present to the innocent public during Question Period.

It’s hard not to believe that future efforts will be less funny and more studiedly political, as the realization sinks in with the public that, if they want to, they can go to Youtube to peek at what’s behind the curtain that obscures the comfortable relationship between politicians and the media.

In the end, one supposes, it will also be like posting the secrets of the lodge on Youtube – what was once shrouded in mystery and insider knowledge will just be a bunch of stout and poorly lit old guys with reedy voices wearing aprons and trying to sound enigmatic as they ask the Junior Beadle to tile the doors.

Will any political party really risk losing votes by being Monte Python funny when the whole thing’s going up on Youtube in the morning? Unlikely.

But without their traditional bite, the videos aren’t likely to draw the enthusiastic crowd they once did. If nothing else, the Gallery ticket committee will have its work cut out in 2011 and beyond.

Officially, folks, this is a Good Thing. But one can’t shake the feeling we’re losing something too.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Seasonal angst: Ted Morton’s Christmas message

With likely future political challenges in mind, presumably, Alberta Finance Minister Ted Moron recently rolled out a spiffy new Website.

When it appeared, the new site was replete with a Christmas video that shows this minister (of the Crown) in a nice environmentally green sweater, surrounded by seasonal paraphernalia and invoking the name of the deity five times in one minute and 34 seconds. This seems appropriate for a politician whose only hope of not being toppled soon by the Wildrose Alliance may be divine intervention, regardless of which Calgary riding he chooses to run in.

Whatever. It’s easy not to listen carefully to holiday messages of this type. They tend to be anodyne and predictable. Nevertheless, there may be value in parsing Dr. Morton’s festive maunderings, if only to assist us in reading Alberta’s political tealeaves. After all, Dr. Morton wouldn’t have done this if he hadn’t thought it was to his political advantage, so, if nothing else it tells us what groups of voters he is persuaded he most needs to keep if he is to survive.

Anyway, like the “Sovietologists” of yore, we need to read between the lines seeking the minutest hints to figure out what the heck is going on within Premier Ed Stelmach’s secretive government. So, in the name of Kremlinology, Alberta Division, here is a short commentary on Dr. Morton’s Christmas message, with Dr. Morton’s remarks shown in bold, my comments in italic.

(Sound of Sleigh Bells)

Yeah, sleigh bells. Sleigh bells are OK! This may sound tacky to the overly sophisticated, the kind of people who live in Toronto. But really, it’s entirely appropriate to mark the arrival of Jesus Christ in his sleigh on our rooftops each year just before he slides down the chimney carrying a huge bag of expensive electronic gifts. I’ve got this Christmas story thing right, haven’t I?

Christmas Message from Ted Morton

These words hover on the screen for a moment. But, just in case you wondered, there’s a message to the Base here. To wit: this is about Christmas, it’s not some politically correct “holiday greeting.” Got that, Durango?

By now, I’m sure you’re tired of politics and I don’t blame you. In the recent U.S. elections and here at home, there’s been way too much negativity. And mudslinging. Thank God it’s Christmas!

For heaven’s sake, Ted, the United States is your model for politics, not to mention your dream economy. Anyway, we’re not tired of politics, not even a little. Even American politics. As for mudslinging, please! Most of the mudslinging in Alberta is done by your party. You’re confusing legitimate political criticism, alternative policy positions and the shocked reaction of taxpayers to your premier’s continued bumbling with mudslinging. Yeah, there’s been some mudslinging in the States – but, gee, I guess that’s the kind of thing that happens in your ideal style of democracy. Same goes for your supposed nattering nabobs of negativism. Uh oh! Here comes Divine Reference No. 1. Too bad for you that, with or without an invocation of God’s name, Christmas isn’t going to make those voters who are carping so vocally any less tired of your Conservative government.

Christmas is a time to remember what really matters: Family, friends and the celebration of the birth of Christ. The glow of the Christmas tree is a reflection of the love that Jesus taught us. For family and friends, yes, but also for those less fortunate. So, please, take some time over the holidays to help some of our fellow Albertans who are down on their luck.

In this section, we see Divine References 2 and 3. And just in case you doubted which divinity we’re speaking about, that’s been made explicit. ‘Here’s hoping,’ Dr. Morton presumably thought, ‘that I can get back some of the nutty fundamentalists in … whatever riding I decide to run in…’ And by the way, that tree is a reflection of our pagan pre-Christian beginnings. But never mind that, ’tis the season after all, so give a fiver to a hard-luck case. You’ll find lots of them hanging around hospital emergency wards all over Alberta for hours on end! The rest of the year, of course, it’s OK to give them a good swift kick, like Ralph Klein metaphorically used to do. By the way, if you think love for friends, family and the less fortunate might mean doing something about pensions to actually help folks get by, well, forget it!

Celebrating the birth of Christ also reminds us that all children are special. Here in Alberta we talk a lot about our natural resources, but it’s important that we never forget it’s our children who are our most important natural resource. They are our future, and we have a special obligation to leave Alberta as good for them as we received it from our parents. This means not leaving them with piles of public debt and unpaid bills, but also means a healthy environment, and the special beauty, the natural beauty, that we’re so blessed with here in Alberta.

First comes Divine Reference No. 4, with a weird segue to the kiddies. Oh well, as You-Know-Who famously said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” (By the way, the “suffer” in this reference means “allow” – I point this out only in case any Conservative Biblical literalists are confused about the resulting theocratic policy point.) If you ever wondered how Conservatives see your children, now you know. They’re a natural resource, best subjected, presumably, to the whims of that other almighty, the Market. You know, like Alberta water. “We have a special obligation to leave Alverta as good for them as we received it from our parents…” But Ted, you didn’t receive Alberta from your parents! You received California, or maybe Wyoming, depending how you want to look at it. And if we thought that green sweater meant the environment, we can forget that too. It’s all about cutting spending… Well, you’re not doing so well with this one just now, are you Dr. Morton? Yeah, yeah, it’s about special beauty too…

So my New Year’s promise to you is that I will continue to support strong families, as well as economic and environmental sustainability. To my constituents in Foothills-Rocky View, thank you for allowing me to represent you in the Legislature of Alberta. And all of you, my wife Bambi joins me in wishing you health and happiness in the New Year. God bless and Merry Christmas.

Strong families? Did we mention improvements to the Canada Pension Plan, which Dr. Morton’s been manfully opposing? That would strengthen families, and the economy too. But, you know… “To my constituents in Foothills-Rocky View, thank you for allowing me to represent you in the Legislature of Alberta.” He may also have been thinking: ‘Thanks all right! Seeing as I don’t think you’re going to do it again, I may run somewhere else next time….’ We end with Divine reference No. 5, and a further invocation of Christmas, and if you happen to be a member of another religion, well, you’ll get your own message later, if at all.

(Sound of sleigh bells)

See above.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Cuba loves Chevrolets; GM needs sales: what’s wrong with this picture?

An ancient Jeep, probably with a Lada engine, drops passengers at Revolution Square last week in Havana. The sign says: “51 years of struggle and victories.” Below, Charles Erwin Wilson, an old Chevrolet (and a new Peugeot) on a Havana street, and scenes of Havana’s crumbling housing. Oh, wait! The last one’s in Detroit.

HAVANA, Cuba

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

Charles Erwin Wilson, president of America’s largest automaker through World War II, was more than half right when he remarked, “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

So, how dumb are our American cousins, anyway?

Here in Cuba, a country of 11 million souls, every one of whom appears to love Chevrolets, any new car you see nowadays is likely a Peugeot or a Geely. Meanwhile, the streets of this proud little island are a-hustle with vintage Chevies – not to mention Mercuries, Plymouths, Packards and Ramblers lovingly maintained with Bondo, duct tape and Russian knock-off parts. They’re kept running, the Cubans boast, by the world’s best mechanics.

This isn’t the doing of either the country’s Communist government or wily French and Chinese auto salesmen. It’s the Americans shooting themselves in both feet, year after year for more than half a century, as they punish the cheeky Cubans for setting too independent an example to the Third World. It’s certainly no objection to Communism, as the hypocritical Americans have little trouble dealing with China or Vietnam.

This punishment takes the form of an embargo – an act of war. The half-century-long war against Cuba hurts ordinary Cubans without question. They struggle on a shoestring, with a little help from their Canadian and European friends – plus the Russians, who are back in droves, mostly as tourists, though more than a few have that Spetsnaz look.

So antique cars, motorcycle sidecars, battered buses and trucks doing service as public transit are the order of the day for ordinary Cubans on the move – not to mention horse-drawn wagons and shoe leather as an obvious fuel shortage bites. Tourists ride in Chinese-made buses.

One could argue the effects of the embargo have not been all bad. Despite their proximity to Florida, the embargo has insulated the Cubans from many of the worst features of American culture. It has also vastly strengthened the government of the Brothers Castro, although this has allowed Cubans to excel in unexpected areas.

Nowadays, American taxpayers may be looking as shopworn as the average Cuban, but even as their government bailed out fat-cat bankers with trillions of dollars, there was no way poor and working Americans had access to the equivalent of Cuba’s excellent systems of public education or health care. It makes one wonder what Cubans could have achieved without the cruel and stupid embargo.

But the embargo has also hurt Americans. Not so far away in Detroit, another crumbling city, the former Big Three automakers are still in business thanks only to bailouts by hard-pressed taxpayers.

Journalists who cover the U.S. automakers began years ago to call these companies “the Detroit Three,” in recognition of the fact non-American carmakers like Toyota, Fiat and Volkswagen are now bigger. In 2009, all GM was so close to collapse it couldn’t function without, in effect, state ownership. You know, like Cuba. And despite the enthusiasm of stock touts, its condition remains fragile.

Access to a market of 11 million people who love GM products and paste Chevrolet bowtie logos on decrepit Ladas and Skodas might not save the Detroit Three, but it sure as heck wouldn’t hurt!

Fully opening this market to American business would also help the Canadian industrial heartland. After all, GM’s most productive and reliable assembly plants are in Ontario. Some are mothballed, and thousands of workers have lost jobs, because of GM’s troubles.

We have an expression in English to describe behaviour like the U.S. embargo of Cuba. It’s called “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” If the Americans were smart, they’d stop. Instead, under President Barack Obama’s disappointing leadership, things seem to have gotten worse.

Ordinary Cubans, of course, crave an end to this pointless cruelty. Perhaps, though, they should be careful what they wish for. Someday they may find new Chevrolets and new friends aren’t as reliable as the old ones!

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

‘Morton’s last stand’ – good political theatre; faint political hope

Ted Morton as high plains drifter – a likely story! Below: Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith; disillusioned Highwood Tory MLA George Groeneveld.

Alberta Finance Minister Ted Morton successfully portrayed himself as an arch-typical Western gunslinger today when he mused aloud in the Calgary media about going toe to toe with Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith in the new Okotoks-High River riding in the next provincial election, which is surely coming sooner than later.

In reality, however, Dr. Morton’s talk of seeking the Conservative nomination in the area of well-heeled bedroom suburbs and million-dollar hobby ranches south of Calgary was more likely motivated by a simple instinct for self-preservation.

Dr. Morton’s Western bravado notwithstanding, his chances of getting re-elected in Okotoks-High River are probably marginally better than in Chestermere-Rocky View, the re-drawn version of his current Foothills-Rocky View riding.

Ms. Smith, who does not now have a seat in the provincial Legislature, announced her plans to run in Okotoks-High River last fall.

In either place, Dr. Morton’s re-election in the face of the Wildrose challenge – which is particularly strong in well-off suburban Calgary-area ridings – is no sure bet.

Still, for the normally impeccably dressed, Los Angeles-born academic and ideologue to successfully pull off an imitation of a high-plains drifter at least deserves rave reviews as political theatre, even if it’s unlikely to much to improve Dr. Morton’s electoral chances come March 2012, or whenever it is the premier dares to call a general election.

Naturally, the Calgary Herald swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker, portraying the putative contest as a “rural rumble,” and the rest of Alberta’s commercial media has bobbed along in the Herald’s wake.

After all, Dr. Morton, once a mainstay of the University of Calgary’s taxpayer-supported “Calgary School” of loony-right economic and political fantasists, is the neo-liberal poster boy of Mr. Stelmach’s bumbling cabinet. Ms. Smith is a former Fraser Institute apparatchik, which is basically the same thing without the PhD. Both are beloved by the province’s instinctively right-wing mainstream media.

Hence the Herald’s over-blown characterization of the potential election scrap in Okotoks-High River as a “clash of conservative champions.” Well, at least they didn’t call them titans!

Given the vote totals in the pre-redistribution versions of both electoral districts, a Conservative candidate like Dr. Morton should have been safe in either. He won in 2008 by 57 per cent of the vote in Foothills-Rocky View – 6,916 votes to 5,130 for all opposition parties combined. Voter turnout was 45 per cent, which is respectable by Alberta standards.

The bitterly disillusioned George Groeneveld, the current Highwood MLA who was cashiered from Mr. Stelmach’s cabinet for reasons of pure political convenience, won in 2008 by better than 65 per cent of the vote on a pathetic 36-per-cent voter turnout – 7,715 to 4,135 for all opposition parties combined.

But that was then and this is now. Mr. Groeneveld, despite being a little cute about his plans, is not going to run again for Mr. Stelmach’s party. When he doesn’t, he’ll probably vote for Ms. Smith. So will many of his Conservative supporters, furious at his treatment by the premier’s Northern Alberta inner circle.

Moreover, many voters in the riding who normally back the traditional opposition parties will vote Wildrose just for sport.

Finally, the prospect of a real contest will attract many electors who didn’t bother to make the effort to vote last time. So look for much higher voter turnout percentages – never good news for a governing party.

Ultra-Conservative and well-heeled voters in the expensive bedroom suburbs that dominate both ridings – notwithstanding the “rural” appellation predictably and misleadingly trotted out by the media – clearly find Ms. Smith’s brand of hard-line market fundamentalism appealing. This must be particularly frustrating to Dr. Morton, who represents the same kind of thinking in Mr. Stelmach’s cabinet.

Regardless, this all adds up to bad news for the Conservatives, especially in Dr. Morton’s current territory. A case can be made that Tory prospects are likely to be marginally better in Okotoks-High River than in Chestermere-Rocky View, offering Dr. Morton a forlorn hope of re-election.

But well-placed sources in the Wildrose Alliance say they don’t particularly care where Dr. Morton runs, they’re confident they’re wearing the right boots to kick his butt in either riding.

The auguries being what they are, they are probably right.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Looking ahead, Alberta Conservative-Wildrose Alliance merger seems inevitable

Not-so-strange bedfellows: Remember the Conservative Reform Alliance Party merger? Below: John A. Macdonald, Ted Mordon, Vitor Marciano.


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

Here’s a small wager: Within a decade, probably much less, the Alberta Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance will be one party.

What that party will be called, and who will lead it, depends a bit on the outcome of the next provincial general election. But let’s make a side bet that this new political entity will be called the Conservative Party of Alberta.

If this sounds familiar to you, it should. After all, there’s a well-thumbed playbook for the takeover of moderate centre-right parties, those “big tents” like the Alberta Progressive Conservatives that broker the interests of a wide range of supporters, by more radical parties dedicated to moving policy far to the right.

This strategy has been successfully applied to both the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and the Republican Party in the United States, neither of which much resemble their predecessors in anything but name. Canadian Conservatives were pushed toward their current position by the neo-conservative Reform Party, later known as the Canadian Alliance.

Not so long ago, remember, the great Conservative Party founded by Sir John A. Macdonald, renamed the Progressive Conservatives in 1942, was the sort of party that could stand four-square for the protection of Canadian industry from foreign corporate predators, or even create the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

But that was before the split in the party’s support engineered by the Reform Party, and the corporate-backed effort to “unite the right” that followed, resulting in what was in business terms a reverse-takeover by neo-conservative Reformers in December 2003.

Now the days of a progressive national Conservative party are gone forever, and gone with them is the “progressive” in the party’s name.

Today we are seeing the application of the same strategy to the Alberta Progressive Conservatives through the well-funded challenge presented by the Wildrose Alliance. If the Alliance cannot exploit Premier Ed Stelmach’s inept leadership sufficiently to form a government, their next goal will be to split the conservative vote enough to justify a call to “unite the right” in Alberta.

In this they are aided by the powerful market-fundamentalist “fifth column” within the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, led by politicians like Finance Minister Ted Morton who favour the same policies as the Wildrose Alliance. It should come as no surprise that this effort is also backed by federal Conservatives and run by political operatives like Vitor Marciano who honed their skills in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s service.

Sadly, they are also helped by the splintered efforts of Alberta’s traditional opposition parties, which cannot seem to devise ways to exploit what is sure to be a temporary split on the right.

One goal of the Wildrose strategy is to move the entire political debate as far as possible toward the right – making market-driven mechanisms for addressing society’s problems the only ideas that get serious consideration. Another is to deny conservative voters a centrist alternative, in the hopes they will stick with the names and symbols they are comfortable with, even if those things have come to mean something quite different.

The effect – as we see clearly in the current debate over the future of health care – is to push the range of policies contemplated much farther toward privatization than most Albertans are comfortable with.

Opinion polling shows a substantial majority of Albertans want health care that is both publicly funded and publicly delivered. Yet thanks to the Wildrose challenge, public debate now centres on how much privatization we must accept!

In the next Alberta general election, we seem certain to see the ironic spectacle of the Progressive Conservatives, led by people who want to privatize health care, portraying themselves as the defenders of public health insurance against a party with identical policy goals.

In the slightly longer term, however, these two streams of Alberta conservatism are bound to be pushed by their financial backers to become one again.

When they do, all vestiges of the Conservatives’ traditional progressivism will disappear.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Corrupt language corrupts minds: police are civilians, under the control of civilians

George Orwell, instructing us on language. Below: Julius Caesar.

George Orwell famously observed that, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

If you want to see this principle in action, just read the coverage of the G20 police riot in Toronto last June.

Here is just one passage from one of Rosie DiManno’s excellent series of Toronto Star columns about the disgraceful conduct of Toronto’s militarized city police and the continuing refusal of that city’s police chief to do his sworn duty and uphold the law.

“The ghastly scenes of cops tackling peaceful demonstrators on the Legislature grounds on June 26 do not foster confidence,” Ms. DiManno wrote. “That melee — batons battering, feet stomping, civilians curled up on the ground in the fetal position — was obviously the crescendo note of a lurid police action opera. Yet the cacophony of the G20 fiasco continues to reverberate these past six months.”

Most of us, reading this passage, likely will not see anything wrong with it other than in the actions of the so-called police it describes. But that is because, as Orwell suggested would happen, our thoughts have been corrupted by the way our language is used daily.

I refer specifically to the phrase “civilians curled up on the ground in the fetal position.”

And who was beating these civilians, pray? Other civilians, that’s who!

Let us consider the important proper distinction that the media, police and many of the rest of us nowadays fail to make between the terms “civilian” and … what exactly? Well, in civil society – using that term in its technical sense – the distinction is between “civilian” and “military.”

This would have been obvious to any minimally educated person only a generation or two ago.

We crossed the Rubicon on this troubling usage about two decades ago – an appropriate enough metaphor, as it happens, as it refers to the moment when Julius Caesar’s army crossed the traditional border into the constitutionally protected environs of Rome where no one was supposed to be able to command a military force on pain of death.

The traditional view of Caesar’s action is that, when he got away with it, it spelled the end of the Roman Republic.

This happened in North America – first in the United States, of course – when civilian police departments began to think of themselves as militarized occupation forces, there not to enforce the law but to exert the will of the powerful. Soon after, many police began to make a distinction in their jargon between themselves and “civilians.”

This was quickly picked up by police reporters – that most toadying class of journalist – and now it has “officially” entered the language. At least, it is official enough to satisfy the editors of the Canadian Press, and worse, of the Oxford Canadian Dictionary. Thus, states the latter: “civilian … a person not in the armed forces or the police force. …” (Emphasis added.)

This is a corruption, and a corrupting corruption, since the simple fact is that municipal police are civilians, charged only with enforcing the law, subject themselves to the rule of law, and properly described as public servants.

If they police are not our servants, bound to the law as we all are, then there is no law. To paraphrase an old Irish song, if being Canadian means we’re guilty, then we’re guilty one and all!

This seems to be the position of the Canadian government. It has always been the position of the Alberta government, whence spring Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his anti-democratic disciples. And now it is becoming the position of other governments in the newly Albertanized parts of Canada, such as metropolitan Toronto.

It is also clearly, as cited above, the position taken by our corrupted lexicographers.

Symbols can be corrupting too, of course, and it could be argued we started down this particular unhappy garden path long ago, when we began to dress our police officers in military uniforms. (This became a particularly Canadian fault at an unusually early point in our national history when we had to disguise a cavalry regiment, complete with campaign hats and yellow-striped jodhpurs, as a “mounted police force” to keep our envious neighbours both from grasping too much and from reacting with too much hostility. Arguably, however, this strategy worked in a geopolitical sense, and we are all the better for it.)

Moreover, since most Canadians (including an astonishingly large number of members of the armed forces) are almost perfectly innocent of the meaning of military symbolism, much of the corrupting power of military-style uniforms on civilian police officers was soon lost, at least until our police forces adopted the American practice of wearing combat fatigues complete with boots and tin helmets.

Clearly this latter practice should be stopped at once, especially for officers on routine patrol. Civilian police should wear uniforms that clearly identify them as the civilian public servants that they are – models might be found in the work-related attire worn by nurses, postal delivery personnel and police officers in other countries whose governments are more committed to democratic values than ours.

That said, the symbolism of the language we use is in many ways more powerful, if only because it is less obvious and thus more insidious.

As a consequence, the simplest place for all of us to start recalibrating our perception of our civilian police as something other than a military occupation force in the service of an alien power, is simply by refusing to participate in this corruption of our language.

In other words, let’s each of us stop this dangerous and anti-democratic practice of falsely distinguishing between “police” and “civilians” in speech and writing, and tell the media that we expect the same from them.

This post, which represents one of the bees in David Climenhaga’s bonnet, also appears on rabble.ca.

Smokin’ Tom Flanagan! Jumpin’ Steve Harper! Bozo eruptions erupting all over!

Where’s that freakin’ Flanagan now that I need ’im? Canadian politicians may not be exactly as illustrated, no matter what they think, and thank God for that! Below: Smokin’ Tom at the actual instant of shooting off his mouth. Heh-heh!

Holy cow, police in the United States say threats against public figures are on the rise. Like, way on the rise!

According to a report of the Sergeant at Arms of the U.S. Senate issued last May, threats against U.S. senators “were up 300 per cent in the first few months of 2010.”

Three hundred bleepin’ per cent!

Usually the people who make these threats, of course, are described as “quiet,” “loners,” the kind of folks who have “a history of mental illness” and “a cache of guns.” You know the drill … Kinda like the quiet 70-year-old North Carolinian who phoned up his U.S. Senator and told him, “if you vote for that stimulus package, I’m gonna kill you. Simple as that.”

FBI agents arrested the poor old slob and hauled him off to the crowbar hotel, where prosecutors charged him with threatening to kill a federal official — a felony, we’re told, that’s punishable by up to 10 years in prison in the very, very, very serious country to the south of us.

However, court records show the case was dropped after it turned out he was only joking… No, wait, that’s what happens in Canada! The North Carolina case was dropped after the guy was found incompetent to stand trial.

Well, sheesh, never mind that. There’s none of that stuff up here in the Great White North because our own politicians and their pals do their own threatening, thanks very much.

Consider the case of Thomas “Smokin’ Tom” Flanagan, a quiet loner from Calgary with a cache of …. No. Wait! I’m getting my cases all mixed up again. That was the crazy old North Carolina guy. Nothing crazy about Perfesser Flanagan. Smokin’ Tom not only teaches political “science” to impressionable young people at the University of Calgary when he’s not issuing fatwas and emailing “borderline” threats off to Toronto, he’s a rich old white guy who advises our prime minister and his underlings on how to avoid “bozo eruptions.”

So if you piss off a guy like Tom Flanagan for advocating freedom of information or, worse, doing something about it, he might just be on the phone to his pal the PM to scare up R2D2 or whatever that secret elite commando force is called, or better yet going on TV to advise the president of the Good Old U.S.A. (at least, I’m pretty sure that’s the way ole Tom sees the place) to call in a drone attack and blow the whole Wikileaky pain in the continental butt to kingdom come.

And if you don’t happen to like what he’s saying, and should you drop him an e-card to say so, well, he knows where you live. And he bloody well should, too, because there are Mounties with CPIC computers living right inside his pal Steve’s house! So, yeah, he does know where you live!

So if you think Canadian politicians have anything to fear from their POed voters like their wimpy U.S. counterparts, well, guess again, because in this country we have Tom and his buds from the Calgary School, like Ted “Hunter” Morton, and if you mess with them, well, they might just mess with you. Got that? Capiche?

And, by the way, if you think I’m just being mean to these guys because they’re from the ReFarm Party and want to bust up the gun registry, which even the cops like, well never let it be forgotten that we used to have a Liberal prime minister who went around throttling protesters and bopping burglars on the head with Inuit sculptures!

But that was bad, of course, because, like, the prime minister in question was a Liberal. (And where were the Mounties then, I wonder?)

Meanwhile, charges against the purveyor of Perfesser Flanagan’s Anti-Bozo-Eruption Creem won’t even be laid because … everyone out here in Alberta knows he was only joking. It’s true. Really. That’s what the Edmonton Journal said yesterday morning. (They also said Henry II was just kidding when he told his spear carriers to go murder Thomas Becket – I’m really not making this up! Any of it.)

Facing a death threat? “We must learn to let such things pass,” quoth the Journal editorialist, mercifully anonymous. You see, it’s the Wikileaker we should be pissed at, the Journal explained, because … because … because maybe if this keeps up our few remaining readers might expect us to report the news too? And, anyway, Ole Tom said he was sorry, for cryin’ out loud.

But, je digresse. Just one more word of advice to the young people. Don’t you crack any jokes like Perfesser Flanagan’s, especially if you’re about to board an airplane, for, unlike the noted Senior Fellow of the Frazier Institute, you might find yourself talking to the police for several hours in a room with no doorknob on the inside.

And speaking of doorknobs and bozo eruptions, as we were, Dr. Flanagan’s fairweather pal Steve Harper was doing Jumpin’ Jack Flash imitations in front of a crowd of Conservative bagmen and obsequious reporters in an Ottawa hotel last night. I’m not making this up either, and I have the link to prove it! Talk about, “Oh-NO-ooo-oooh, don’t get caught in a bad hotel! But, je digresse again.

Remember that U.S. Senator from North Carolina? Well, he and the Mrs. have found a uniquely American solution to their crazy stalkers. They’re both packin’ heat!

But what the hell are we supposed to do here in Canada when our politicians start stalking us? I mean, hell, gun registry notwithstanding, we’re not even allowed to carry!

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Read them yourself: shocking emails catalogue Alberta’s Emergency Room crisis

The University of Alberta Hospital Emergency Department.

There is simply no way that the political or managerial leaders of Alberta’s health care system did not know that a major crisis was brewing in the province’s hospital Emergency Departments as early as the spring of 2008.

And there is likely no way that most Albertans who do not have an Emergency Room view of the details of this ongoing crisis can begin to imagine just how badly things have gone awry in our province’s Emergency Wards.

In a series of meticulously detailed emails to top medical and political leaders including former health ministers Dave Hancock and Ron Liepert as well as Premier Ed Stelmach, the head of the Alberta Medical Association’s emergency medicine section catalogued the shocking state of Edmonton’s University of Alberta Hospital Emergency Ward through 2008 and 2009.

The emails from Dr. Paul Parks, which have been obtained by a number of journalists and bloggers in Alberta, chronicle a shocking and tragic story of desperately sick Albertans trapped in a system incapable of even assessing how ill they are, let alone helping them for hours or days.

The cumulative effect of reading these emails is distressing to say the least, genuinely frightening when we think that any one of us could find ourselves in a dysfunctional emergency department like this or many others in Alberta through happenstance or ill health.

Perhaps that is why the mainstream media chose to write well-crafted news stories, which nicely summarized the contents of the emails, but which failed completely to capture their frightening intensity.

Indeed, these emails paint a picture of a Third World medical system, or something that we would expect to read about in post-Soviet Russia, not in Canada’s richest province.

Sometimes the impact of small details is overwhelming. Consider just these three incidents, catalogued in one letter, one after the other:

  • “Fractured hip, severe pain, nowhere to offload patient.
  • “Moaning in pain, on EMS stretcher, nowhere to offload patient.
  • “Triage category 2, end state CA, syncopal, nowhere to offload patient…”

That should be the motto of the Alberta health care system under Ed Stelmach’s Conservatives: “Nowhere to Offload Patients.”

OK. I’m not a doctor. I’m only guessing that CA is cancer. Syncopal means fainting. But, moving on through the emails, I do know that a CVA is a Cerebral Vascular Accident – in other words, a stroke – and you really don’t want to have a stroke in an Alberta where the health care system is run by the Conservative government.

A five and a half hour wait for a possible stroke victim to get a bed! Another one with stroke symptoms leaves after five hours without seeing a physician. The ugly fact is, thanks to the mismanagement of our health care system, stroke victims are at extremely high risk in our hospitals.

But what about…? A nine hour wait for a patient experiencing seizures! A patient admitted to the emergency department for an entire week! Acute appendicitis diagnosed with no bed for treatment! Patients in the waiting room threatening triage nurses – “screaming that we are letting people die.” …

A 45-year-old man requiring emergency brain surgery who can’t have it because of “overwhelming systemic overcrowding” … he later dies. A woman contemplating suicide who gives up and leaves without seeing a doctor … and returns by ambulance suffering from a life-threatening prescription drug overdose.

A 10-hour wait for a 91-year-old. … A 91-year-old, for crying out loud! A riot at the Edmonton Max – “absolutely no reserve in the ED and we were receiving a number of unknown injuries from the riot, requested to activate the disaster plan and (the) executive on call refused…”

“Department is completely non-functional and dangerous…”

Yet Ron Liepert couldn’t even be bothered to respond to the people telling him this stuff!

The deeply worried ER physicians represented by Dr. Parks say they heard nothing from Mr. Liepert at all. Indeed, this entire government had very little time for them – until, that is, a letter detailing their pleas for action was leaked to the media on Oct. 22, 2010!

I spoke to Dr. Parks about this, by the way, and he confirmed to me that the emails I’d obtained were among the ones he sent. Ironically, he said, while the solution to the ER crisis will take some time, it not all that complicated to implement.

What we need is more long-term care beds, he explained, so that patients admitted to emergency aren’t kept there for days blocking other patients who need acute care beds, which in turn are full of the chronically ill who have nowhere to go. Yet the Stelmach government is closing long-term care facilities as part of its relentless drive to privatize the delivery of seniors’ care in Alberta.

“We don’t need more emergency departments. We don’t need more hospitals. We just need to get our emergency departments back,” Dr. Parks said, noting that long-term care beds cost a few hundreds of dollars a day to operate, while acute care beds can cost thousands.

Really, Mr. Liepert should have given Dr. Parks a call, if only for some help with his arithmetic!

Look, people, sometimes a well-crafted news story just can’t do the job. Citizens of Alberta really need to read these shocking documents for themselves. And there’s really nothing more that I can say than, please click on the link below, and hold onto your hats!

[Click here to read emails from Dr. Paul Parks to various health officials cataloguing the crisis in our Emergency Rooms.]

This post also appears on rabble.ca.