Archive for January, 2011

Laugh-out-loud ironies dot Cannon’s sanctimonious sermon to Mubarak

Hosni Mubarak’s riot police viciously kick Egyptian demonstrators in the streets of Cairo. Egyptian dictator’s thuggish security forces may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Video of the same, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, Egyptian despot Mubarak.

There’s a certain laugh-out-loud irony to the spectacle of the Canadian government, whose own police thugs beat peaceful protesters in the streets of the nation’s largest city last June, lecturing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about the need to make his police take it easy on protesters in the streets of his country’s largest city just now.

Presumably Mr. Mubarak is too busy at this moment to point this out to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his sanctimonious crew, what with his unfortunately initialed National Democratic Party headquarters in Cairo going up in flames, but we can be confident that in the fullness of time someone from the region will.

In the mean time, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon’s office issued a statement advising the world that Canadians “urge all parties to refrain from using violence and the Egyptian authorities to respond to these protests peacefully.”

After all, he presumably meant, Cairo’s no Toronto, where the protesters are really dangerous!

Indeed, Mr. Cannon’s commentary was rich in irony – or simply the assumption that Canadian voters are all either idiots or Alzheimer’s patients incapable of remembering anything that happened more than 15 minutes ago.

“The issue remains an Egyptian decision,” the foreign affairs minister told the CBC. “We don’t get involved in, as you know, the internal sovereignty of a country…” Unless, of course, that country’s name happens to be Afghanistan. But never mind that just now…

The Canadian government’s equivocation about advising President Mubarak to step down, and Mr. Harper’s studied silence on the issue, should give us a pretty good idea where the our leaders really stand on this matter. Of course, that would be precisely where the only people in the Middle East our government listens to tell them to stand.

Can you imagine the racket that would be emanating from the PMO and Fort Pearson if the street demonstrations had been in Caracas, or God help us in Havana?

Meanwhile, the brave Egyptians continue their “very fine thing,” with thousands of protesters continuing to defy the government in Cairo and new demonstrations breaking out in Suez, Alexandria and other cities.

Indeed, some media reports yesterday even made it sound as if elements of the Egyptian army may be thinking about joining the revolution, as did the Gardes Françaises in Paris on July 14, 1789. This is never a good sign for a king or a dictator struggling to hang onto power in the face of a popular revolt.

We are taught that we are fortunate in Canada because, unlike the Egyptians, we have a system that allows us to choose our own leaders peacefully.

But we need to remember that our system of responsible government is an imperfect vessel, biased in favour of certain kinds of results and as capable of ignoring the true feelings of a people as any Middle Eastern despot. This is true when it is functioning as designed, let alone when its rules and conventions are being broken outright to steal elections and prorogue uppity parliaments.

That is why we Canadians need to remember, as we contemplate the very real possibility of electoral worst-case scenarios in both Ottawa and Edmonton, that even in a democracy, democracy is not simply a matter of voting.

When our system of government, whatever it may be, cannot reflect the will of the people, we the people have the right and responsibility to protest in the streets.

Indeed, this may be the only way that we can influence policies we cannot alter through the ballot box in an imperfect democracy with a powerful built-in bias in favour of the Party of Money.

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Hey, Alberta Party! You got some ’splainin’ to do!

Unidentified reporter asks Alberta Party interim leader Sue Huff to explain. Alberta media and politicians may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below, Huff as she appears in real life, and presumptive Liberal-to-Alberta Party floor-crossers Kent Hehr and Darshan Kang.

Hey, Alberta Party! You got some ’splainin’ to do!

Sue Huff, interim leader of the new party that determinedly places itself in the middle of the bird, said on the party’s website not long ago that “the Alberta Party is committed to doing politics differently in Alberta.”

But the party’s welcome Jan. 24 to former Calgary Liberal MLA Dave Taylor – an old-time legislative snake-oil salesman if ever there was one, with great pipes, an aggressive style and arguably a pretty opportunistic approach to his own ambition – smacks more of what most Albertans think of as “politics as usual.”

Unless all Ms. Huff meant was that the Alberta Party would now be writing all its press releases in fewer than 140 characters, taking on the Independent MLA from Calgary-Currie sure sounded like doing politics in the same old way, at least for a group that up to then had been portraying itself as hip, cool and politically nonconformist.

That’s why the media and the comentariat were working themselves into a lather last Monday about the fact the former radio talk jock had broken his oft-repeated promise not to join another party without holding a by-election first. He’d even once signed a legal document to that effect, a fact leakers in the Alberta Liberal caucus office swiftly made sure everyone knew.

However, that was the moment that the Conservative government of Premier Ed Stelmach went critical and melted through the floor of the Legislature building, becoming the story that has quite properly preoccupied the media and blogosphere ever since.

This was a bit of bad news and a bit more good news for the Alberta Party. It deprived them of publicity about the credibility of having an MLA in the Legislature, but it prevented everyone from getting whipped into a swivet about Mr. Taylor’s broken promise and the party’s old-style political line of patter.

The Conservative meltdown also provided momentary relief for the Alberta Liberals, who are embroiled in a full-blown crisis of their own after a little more than two years of Dr. David Swann’s leadership.

Astoundingly, this means that one way or another, fully 97.5 per cent of the 82 members of the Alberta Legislature are now involved one way or another in some kind of major family squabble, with only the tiny two-member NDP caucus maintaining peace in the valley!

Now, with two more Liberal MLAs said to be days away from crossing the floor to the Alberta Party, attention is bound to swing back to the question of whether or not the new party is doing politics differently or just offering us the same old guff.

Legislature insiders are abuzz with reports Calgary-Buffalo MLA Kent Hehr and Calgary-McCall MLA Darshan Kang, their Websites suspiciously free of explicit Alberta Liberal references, are about to join Mr. Taylor in the Alberta Party caucus.

The lines between Mr. Hehr and the Alberta Party seem particularly clear: He’s been looking for an exit from the troubled Liberal caucus for a while. Last fall he started to run for Mayor of Calgary, then dropped out when his campaign failed to gain traction. He withdrew in favour of the eventual winner, Naheed Nenshi. Mr. Nenshi, in turn, is often associated with the Alberta Party, and his chief of staff, Calgary lawyer Chima Nkemdirim, was once that party’s president. So these dots seem particularly easy to connect.

Meanwhile, three other Liberal MLAs are said to be considering the same move to the new party founded by disgruntled Blue Liberals and Red Tories, or to have thought about it and recently dropped the idea.

So this is as good a moment as any to say that, the Alberta Party’s pitch notwithstanding, there’s nothing wrong with “politics as usual.”

Indeed, our Westminster-style Parliamentary system implicitly requires political parties, and requires them to act like what they are, because anything else would be a formula for failure.

If we didn’t have political parties, someone would have to invent them, and right smartly! We, the voters, would demand it. How the heck, we would tell our elected representatives, are you going to enact any kind of program without a little party discipline, especially the program I voted you into office to pursue?

Which brings us back to the Alberta Party’s narrative. Regardless of what Ms. Huff says, Alberta’s political problems aren’t with “politics as usual.” Try policies that don’t make sense, lousy leadership and politicians of all stripes who can’t stop telling tall tales to voters.

Moreover, the lesson here certainly isn’t that MLAs or MPs shouldn’t be allowed to change parties – they’re elected as representatives of their constituencies and it’s up to them to decide how best to do that. They have the right – as they must for our system of responsible government to properly hold the ruling ministry to account – to change loyalties in the House. If their constituents don’t like it, they have the option of voting them out.

Granted, floor crossing moves into the unethical zone when it happens too soon after an election – as with the odious maneuver by Vancouver-Kingsway MP David Emerson in 2006. But there’s no way Mr. Taylor was guilty of anything like that.

Mr. Taylor quit his party over a legitimate disagreement with his leader, spent a reasonable period of time as an Independent and now he’s struck a deal with a new party that’s hard to distinguish from his old one.

That’s just politics as usual – as the Alberta Party and everyone else is quite right to practice them.

No, Mr. Taylor’s problem was his silly promise, and the whiff of hypocrisy that came with breaking it. If anything, he deserves to be pilloried for that, not for joining a new party.

The Alberta Party has some explaining to do too, but only because they promised to conduct themselves in a new way when they’re really offering is the same old same old.

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There are no disagreements among Alberta Conservatives … really!

More proof your blogger will hang around with just about anyone, in this case, Ted Morton… Oh! Wait! That’s some other trouble-making finance minister… Below: Ted, Ed and friends in happier times.

It was mildly entertaining yesterday afternoon to listen to Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and his sometime Finance Minister Ted Morton twist themselves like pretzels at an afternoon news conference where they claimed there are no major disagreements about anything within Progressive Conservative ranks.

Oh really!

This is what is known to people who are cynical about public life as “politics as usual.”

Mr. Stelmach announced on Tuesday that he was going to quit. While he said nothing at the time of the divisions in his party’s caucus and cabinet, choosing instead to emphasize his reluctance to suffer through a nasty U.S.-style political advertising campaign, other Conservative insiders have been quite open about the situation that led to his announcement.

Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, for example, a Stelmach protégé, told the Edmonton Journal that some members of the Conservative government desired deep cuts to social programs that the premier was simply not willing to make.

Dr. Morton, who is patently obviously the leader of the hard-right faction within the Conservative caucus that Mr. Lukaszuk was referring to, announced at yesterday’s newser that he was quitting as a member of Mr. Stelmach’s cabinet. But he insisted it was only so that he could pursue his own ambition to become the party leader and premier.

For his part, Mr. Stelmach stated that, “contrary to the rampant speculation, this does not reflect a caucus divided over the budget, or any other issue.”

This is true only the strictly limited sense that everyone in caucus has now agreed to vote for the budget as Mr. Stelmach wanted it to be, based on a deal that presumably saw Mr. Stelmach agree to resign and Dr. Morton’s supporters promise to stop sniping at the premier while their faction’s leader runs for the premier’s job.

However, the fundamental ideological rift between the progressive wing of the Progressive Conservative party and the Shock Doctrine wing led by Dr. Morton can no longer be denied. It is universally known and perfectly obvious to everyone in the province.

So the kind of nice distinctions Mr. Stelmach and Dr. Morton were making yesterday are essentially meaningless to ordinary folk – reminiscent of former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s grand jury testimony that “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” They serve only to deepen public cynicism about representative democracy.

Other than confirmation of Dr. Morton’s resignation, about the only other actual fact that emerged from the news conference is that the budget speech will now be read by Treasury Board President Lloyd Snelgrove, a member of the inner circle of Mr. Stelmach’s inner circle.

The only significance of that document, in turn, is that it will likely serve as the manifesto of the leading candidate of the party’s progressive wing – that is, the leader of the Anybody But Morton faction even now beginning to coalesce. As such, it must show a vision tough enough to keep politically active small-c conservatives voting PC but not so tough that more liberally minded Albertans bother to hazard a rare trip to the polls.

Everyone knows this budget will be torn to pieces the minute either Dr. Morton snatches the leadership of the Conservatives or Danielle Smith of the Wildrose Alliance triumphs in the post-convention election.

Speaking of Ms. Smith, judging from Dr. Morton’s few remarks at the afternoon newser, he appears to be reconsidering his decision to abandon his Foothills-Rocky View riding to challenge the Wildrose leader face to face in Okotoks-High River.

The situation Alberta now finds itself in is eerily familiar to anyone who has followed the affairs of that other former Natural Governing Party, the L-shaped one that used to live in Ottawa.

Readers will remember how Jean Chrétien, a successful and long-serving Liberal prime minister, got sick of the disrespect he received from his fractious and ambitious finance minister, a fellow named Paul Martin. So the wily Mr. Chrétien arranged things so that Mr. Martin had barely tasted prime ministerial nectar when the cup was snatched away by Stephen Harper, an anything-but-progressive Conservative of Dr. Morton’s ilk, who remains prime minister to this day.

Meanwhile, not nearly enough attention has been paid to Mr. Stelmach’s remarks last Tuesday about his fears of ugly U.S.-style smear advertising.

“The danger,” he explained then, “is that it could allow for an extreme right party to disguise itself as a moderate party by focusing on personality – on me personally. This type of U.S. style wedge politics is coming into Canada, and it comes at our peril.”

This is a sound point, especially as it so accurately describes the tactics of the federal branch of Mr. Stelmach’s own party and their Wildrose allies in Alberta.

Have no doubt that the strategists behind the Wildrose Alliance well understand how to use wedge issues – that is, divisive issues within a constituency that can weaken the unity of a political party.

Was Premier Stelmach merely still spooked by the 2006 “No Plan” campaign when he made that comment? Or had he gotten wind of someone’s actual advertising campaign plans for 2012?

Inquiring minds want to know!

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Stelmach’s message to Morton: Be careful what you wish for!

Hurdles? Morton should expect ’em! Below: Ted Morton, Ed Stelmach.

There can be no love lost between Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and Finance Minister Ted Morton, the man whose political brinksmanship is being credited with precipitating the premier’s unexpected announcement Tuesday that he is about to step down.

Reading between the lines of the masses of uninformative and often speculative media coverage of the past 24 hours, a clear theme emerges: It’s as if Premier Stelmach were saying, “OK, Ted, I’m going to let you have your wish. Sure hope you like it!”

Dr. Morton – the self-described “liberal’s nightmare, a right-winger with a PhD” – represents the privatize-everything market fundamentalist branch of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party.

By contrast, Mr. Stelmach, while no New Democrat, represents the party’s big-tent, politically pragmatic, progressive Conservative tradition.

As Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, a Stelmach protégé, stated: “There’s a reason this party is called the Progressive Conservative Party, and not the Conservative Party. We need to balance fiscal responsibility with our obligations to Albertans.”

That wouldn’t be Dr. Morton’s opinion, of course. As a highly ideological finance minister, he demanded brutal and painful cuts in the next budget, the better to compete with the neo-conservative vision of the Wildrose Alliance under Danielle Smith.

As a more pragmatic politician, there was no way Mr. Stelmach was going to subscribe to the What-Big-Teeth-You-Have-Danielle School of Political Strategy. The premier wasn’t about to take the chance of destroying the province’s economy and driving away his party’s centrist core to satisfy Dr. Morton’s notions of ideological purity.

According to several media accounts, Dr. Morton went to Mr. Stelmach with an ultimatum: Let me bring down the budget I want or I’ll quit and eight of my supporters in caucus will resign and sit as independents – then Danielle will bring you down!

Instead of firing Dr. Morton, as he was clearly entitled, Mr. Stelmach’s response was to pull the plug on politics. This decision astounded almost everyone, friend and foe alike – except, presumably, his wife Marie, who has been urging him for months to quit for the sake of his family and his health. (Not to mention his financial health – he’ll pocket close to a million dollars in “transitional allowances.”)

So Mr. Stelmach gave the ambitious Dr. Morton his wish for another crack at the job he’s coveted since he lost the party leadership contest to the premier in 2006. Remember, Dr. Morton surpassed the premier’s support on the first ballot before Mr. Stelmach “came up the middle” to win.

But Premier Stelmach granted his rival’s wish in a way that undermines Dr. Morton’s ambitions.

That’s because Dr. Morton’s second chance will now be on Mr. Stelmach’s terms – that is, according to Mr. Stelmach’s timetable, after Mr. Stelmach’s more moderate budget has been brought down, and without Mr. Stelmach’s sympathy or support in a multitude of tiny ways. In other words, “be careful what you wish for.”

Wildrose Alliance insiders are very likely right when they complain (or in reality rejoice) that the Conservative deck is likely to be stacked against any “truly conservative” leadership candidate – especially if that candidate’s name is Freddy Lee Morton and he’s just made the thin-skinned Mr. Stelmach a very, very unhappy man.

It seems likely that in the upcoming leadership race, there will be several candidates from the party’s more progressive wing arrayed against Dr. Morton, the sole candidate of the far right. That guarantees him a strong position on the first ballot, and a high probability of defeat if there is a second, as happened in 2006.

What’s more, as those Wildrose insiders point out, the Tories’ anyone-can-join-and-vote policy makes it possible for more progressive non-Conservatives of all stripes to influence the leadership vote’s outcome. By his divisive tactics in caucus, Dr. Morton has ensured that the premier – who will stick around for quite a while yet – will strew obstacles in his path.

If Dr. Morton loses the leadership, of course, his core supporters will likely decamp to the Wildrose Alliance while he sits out the election. But the question for the Alliance then will be if enough rank and file Conservative supporters will do the same thing, or if many will migrate back to Alberta’s Natural Governing Party one more time.

If they do, the Wildrose Alliance’s hopes could be dashed.

On the other hand, if Dr. Morton wins, he will be premier for a little time, but not necessarily long enough to implement his Shock Doctrine.

The question in that event is how the progressives among rank-and-file Progressive Conservatives will behave. Will they vote Tory out of long habit, even they distrust their new far-right leader? Will they stay home on voting day and sit on their hands? Or will they vote for the Alberta Party, the Liberals or even the NDP?

Dr. Morton now has some difficult choices to make too: Should he quit cabinet to fight for the leadership and lose his bully pulpit? Should he try to remain as a disloyal and divisive cabinet minister who refuses to deliver his own budget? Should he deliver Mr. Stelmach’s budget and suffer the slings and arrows of Alliance’s outrage?

Ironically, both sides of this debate in Progressive Conservative circles are almost certain to end up using Ms. Smith as their official boogie-person to terrify their opponents.

How will it all end? Alas, as Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China, observed of the meaning of the French Revolution of 1789: it’s too soon to tell.

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Can the Wildrose Alliance survive Ed Stelmach’s resignation?

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach contemplates his future. Below: Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith.

If the Conservative family feud is over, can the Wildrose Alliance survive?

For the next few hours, the focus of Alberta’s chattering classes will be on trying to ferret out the salacious details of what led to Premier Ed Stelmach’s completely unexpected decision yesterday to throw in the towel.

But the question that really matters is what the impact of this turn of events will be on the future of the Wildrose Alliance. That, in turn, has important ramifications for all three political parties of the centre left, which were hoping to capitalize on right-wing vote splitting.

Let’s take it as given that the split between the Alberta Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance was in fact a rift within committed conservative political circles. Naturally, there will be readers who vociferously take issue with this conclusion – among them, likely, the most enthusiastic Alliance supporters.

But really, if the Wildrose Alliance has been soaring in the polls at the expense of the Conservatives under Mr. Stelmach’s unpopular leadership, it stands to reason that the bulk of the poll respondents parking their votes with the Alliance were politically active conservatives of various stripes. In other words, participants in a conservative family feud over Mr. Stelmach’s hesitant approach.

The selection of Danielle Smith as the Wildrose Alliance leader in October 2009 is evidence for this proposition. She was, after all, the most moderate and least ideological of the party’s leadership candidates, obviously judged by party the most likely to appeal to a large number of uncommitted voters. This is not the behaviour of activists who would never support the Conservatives under a different leader.

Likewise, the fact that approval for Ms. Smith seems to have run ahead of support for her party, just as Premier Stelmach’s personal support has underperformed that of his party, suggests the same thing.

If this supposition is correct, what these 25 to 30 per cent of committed voters do now is critical to the survival of the Wildrose Alliance under Ms. Smith. Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that long-time Conservative Party supporters who were disillusioned with Mr. Stelmach will return to the party they are most comfortable with now that he is departing?

Naturally, the Wildrose Alliance offers another interpretation of events. Indeed, all opposition parties are claiming this changes nothing. The Wildrose argument in a nutshell is that their party offers leadership while the Conservatives have no ideas and don’t listen to Albertans.

They conclude from this that Mr. Stelmach was the symptom, not the disease, and that no truly conservative candidate can win the Conservative Party leadership, in part because their voting system allows insufficiently conservative outsiders to buy memberships and support candidates.

This may be so, but this claim still has the shrill tone of someone whistling past the graveyard.

The jury will remain out until we see the first polls sampled after Mr. Stelmach’s announcement, but the possibility is high that Jan. 25, 2011, will be the day that support for the Wildrose Alliance reached its high tide.

At any rate, yesterday morning Ms. Smith was the next premier of Alberta and Dave Taylor’s move to the Alberta Party was the talk of the province. By lunchtime, everything had changed except Mr. Taylor’s lamentable luck.

Of course, all this presupposes the Conservatives can now run a leadership contest that doesn’t tear the party asunder. As the Edmonton Journal reported yesterday, the last time the Conservatives went through this process, “the PCs nearly ripped themselves in half as the moderate supporters of Jim Dinning clashed with Ted Morton and his more dogmatic conservatives.”

Numerous candidates are already lining up for the race, including market fundamentalist Finance Minister Dr. Morton, rumoured to be the man who with eight supporters pushed the premier over the edge by threatening to cross the floor to sit as independents if he didn’t permit a brutal no-deficit budget. The embarrassment of a hyper-conservative rump equal in size to the Liberal Opposition was just too much for Mr. Stelmach, according to this yarn.

If there’s anything to this tale and Dr. Morton was behind it, he may have resuscitated his flagging career in a single Machiavellian moment! On the other hand, this would also considerably raise the possibly of an acrimonious leadership contest.

Naturally, a divisive Tory leadership race is now the Wildrose Alliance’s best hope.

We’ll see. Only one thing is certain – a day is a long time in Alberta politics!

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This just in! Alberta’s Premier Stelmach pulls the plug – what’s next?

Your blogger talks to everyone… Below: Ted Morton, Doug Horner.

After an inauspicious 2010, and a horrible start to 2011, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach has taken the traditional Canadian walk in the snow, which is as plentiful in Edmonton right now as it was in Ottawa in 1982, and announced he won’t run again as Alberta premier or anything else.

The reason was pretty much the same as in Ottawa in 1982, too. Back then, the polls said that if prime minister Pierre Trudeau remained at the helm of the Liberal Party, it would go down to certain and crushing defeat.

Does anyone want to guess what the Alberta Conservatives’ private polls have been telling them about Mr. Stelmach’s prospects?

Mr. Stelmach and his Tory insiders played it pretty close to their vests yesterday while the Alberta Party was getting all the headlines. It wasn’t until a few minutes before his 11:30 a.m. news conference today that anyone knew what was really coming down the pike.

But you can count on it that, behind the scenes, there were similarities to another dramatic Canadian political departure of more recent vintage, that of B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, who announced his resignation last November.

We know that Mr. Campbell had been suffering horrible, single-digit approval ratings in the polls and was facing a rebellion among his cabinet ministers. It’s hard to imagine that it was not exactly the same circumstances that faced Premier Stelmach.

The details will emerge in time, of course, but it is reasonable to assume that Mr. Stelmach was delivered an ultimatum by his fellow Conservative MLAs: Go now with dignity, or go soon without any at all!
So he stood up this morning with his wife Marie at his side and went over the side with dignity.

At any rate, Mr. Stelmach chose the same politically savvy departure as Mr. Campbell – he will remain in office until a replacement is found at a party convention. Alberta’s next premier will get to decide when to pull the plug on the Legislature for a provincial election.

As of this moment, the leading candidates to replace him are uber-rightist Finance Minister Ted Morton, who has been offered a reprieve from certain defeat at the hands of Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith by this turn of events, and centrist Deputy Premier Doug Horner, who occupies what must be the last safe Tory seat in Alberta.

Most Alberta punters are betting on Dr. Morton, but shrewd observers will not rule out the low-key Mr. Horner.

More to come… Bet on it!

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The Alberta Party’s first MLA: horrible news for the Liberals; entertaining for the rest of us

Your blogger with Dave Taylor. Below: Alberta Party interim leader Sue Huff.

Today’s announcement that Dave Taylor had joined the fledgling Alberta Party as its first MLA is horrible news for the Alberta Liberals and glad tidings for anyone who enjoys being a spectator at the political equivalent of a bar brawl.

Last April 12, the Calgary-Currie MLA pulled the plug on the provincial Liberals to sit as an Independent. The move followed 14 months of frustration for Mr. Taylor after he lost the December 2008 Liberal leadership contest to Calgary physician David Swann, MLA for Calgary-Mountain View. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear Mr. Taylor would have been a better choice for the Liberals, but hey, history is history!

When he departed, Mr. Taylor had harsh words for Dr. Swann, describing him as lacking in both vision and direction. Ever since, there’s been no shortage of speculation about where the former radio talk show host would end up, or whether he’d just pull the plug on politics altogether. Now we know.

With the Liberal Opposition under Dr. Swann apparently disintegrating as quickly as Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative government, today’s news that the Alberta Party is viable enough to have an MLA in the Legislature means the province’s loyal cadre of Liberal voters, 12 to 15 per cent of the electorate, now may have another hospitable political home.

After all, the Alberta Party in its present incarnation is strongly influenced by a group of small-c-conservative Liberals in despair at the deterioration of their old party under Dr. Swann, who probably sits well to the left of everyone in his dwindling caucus. The Alberta Party leaders’ rhetoric is aimed squarely at their former party’s supporters. Their goal, surely, is to supplant the Liberals as the key centrist Opposition party in the Legislature with many of the same policies as the Liberals, but without that party’s perpetually damaged brand name.

That the Alberta Liberals are in deep trouble under Dr. Swann can no longer be denied. Mr. Taylor’s departure in April reduced the party’s caucus to eight. Two other MLAs, former leader Kevin Taft, Edmonton-Riverview, and Harry Chase, Calgary-Varsity, say they do not intend to seek re-election. Another two appear to be in search of an exit strategy – Bridget Pastoor, Lethbridge East, flirted with Premier Stelmach’s Tories last year, and Calgary-Buffalo’s Kent Hehr tried pretty seriously to become mayor of Calgary. The remaining four members of caucus are likely to stay Liberals – if they can get re-elected.

It’s ironic, of course, that half the Liberals’ traditional strategic assumption has come true. They always figured Albertans would eventually grow tired of the Conservatives. But they also assumed they’d be the only party there to benefit. Albertans are indeed saying they’re ready for change – but the resulting Tory implosion has led to the creation of new parties, not to more support for the Liberals.

The Alberta Party, of course, is aiming for more than disgruntled Liberal voters. They are also targeting Red Tories fed up with the incompetence of Mr. Stelmach’s crumbling Conservatives but too moderate to support the far-right Wildrose Alliance under its market fundamentalist leader, Danielle Smith.

Meanwhile, other permutations of Mr. Taylor’s announcement include the fact he now has an obvious leg up on winning the leadership of the new party, that pressure on former Conservative Raj Sherman to join the Alberta Party will have increased, and that the possibility of a “pizza Legislature” – less euphonious than a pizza Parliament, but just as interesting – is greatly enhanced.

The Alberta Party has a capable and appealing interim leader in former Edmonton Public School Trustee Sue Huff. What’s more, the bombastic and traditional Mr. Taylor does not really project the kaffeeklatsch intellectualism and youthful cool the party’s founders have tried to exude. But he has one quality that may be more important – to wit, a seat in the Legislature.

If the Alberta Party were to choose their only sitting MLA as leader, they would qualify for a leader’s allowance worth close to a quarter million dollars! If the next Alberta general election is still more than a year out, as Premier Stelmach keeps insisting and as is in fact likely, that cash would come in darned handy to a new party with a year to get on the provincial radar.

No doubt this factor influenced the ambitious Mr. Taylor’s decision, notwithstanding his long-ago promise to sit as an Independent until after the next general election.

As for Dr. Sherman, the former Conservative Parliamentary Assistant for Health kicked out of caucus by Mr. Stelmach on Nov. 22, the fact the Alberta Party has a viable presence in the Legislature may make it more tempting.

The NDP has been pitching Dr. Sherman hard, but the Alberta Party is surely looking better to him now than it did a week ago. After all, Mr. Taylor may have his faults, but he is an effective old-style Question Period performer who could take the less confident Dr. Sherman in hand. Dr. Sherman may conclude the Alberta Party is more appealing to Alberta’s voters, who can be both cynical and naïve, as something new and untainted.

Finally, the entry of the Alberta Party as a real player means there are now five parties with seats in the Legislature – four if you’re a Calgary Herald columnist, but then the Herald never did pay sufficient attention to the NDP.

That gives the House the faint odour of a pizza parlour already. But both the Conservatives and the Liberals have had a terrible year, and yet both command the loyalty of a die-hard core. With two new parties in the mix, and a determined NDP that’s strong in the Capital Region, there’s the potential for enough unpredictable vote splitting to produce a wide-open five-party mash-up after the next election.

Almost overnight, Alberta’s politics have gone from the least interesting in the nation to the most. Mr. Taylor now has a starring role in that story.

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Bleak future: Ted Morton finds himself between a Big Rock and a hard place

Ted Morton: Hard to see how Alberta’s finance minister can get out of this tight corner. Alberta politicians may not appear quite as illustrated … then again, see below, maybe they will! Below the actual non-illustrative Ted, the Big Rock in the hard place.

At the risk of sounding crude, how screwed is Ted Morton? Alberta’s finance minister, hard-right-fiscal hawk and would-be future premier finds himself trapped between a Big Rock and a hard place.

Having rolled the dice in early January 2010 to stick with the then-still-seaworthy Conservative government under the leadership of Premier Ed Stelmach instead of joining the defectors to the Wildrose Alliance, and later having announced he’ll seek re-election in the same riding as Alliance Leader Danielle Smith, he can hardly reverse course now.

As a reward for his loyalty, on the Ides of January 2010 Premier Stelmach assigned the far-right PhD “Calgary School” political economist the important finance portfolio. Now, Mr. Stelmach has his weaknesses as premier, and in retrospect may have been the wrong choice for the Conservatives, but notwithstanding that he is no dummy. The premier surely had more than an inkling he was handing his once and possibly future challenger a poisoned chalice.

From Dr. Morton’s perspective at the time, the Conservative option must have seemed the best way to satisfy his soaring ambition. He’d already made a respectable showing in the 2006 Progressive Conservative leadership contest that Mr. Stelmach won to almost everyone’s astonishment – including his own, presumably. Moreover, by 2010 Mr. Stelmach’s leadership appeared precarious.

The hyper-conservative Dr. Morton must have calculated that it was only a matter of time before he could brush aside his few remaining Red Tory competitors in Mr. Stelmach’s caucus and assume his rightful position as Alberta’s premier. From there, he could lead the province into a new place so far to the right even his former Firewall Manifesto signatory Prime Minister Stephen Harper wouldn’t recognize it.

From the perspective of January 2011, such a calculation seems clouded, dependent on three uncertain factors:

First, Dr. Morton had to balance the provincial budget. The need for a balanced budget is an article of religious faith to Alberta’s right. Accordingly, it has been repeatedly promised by everyone in Mr. Stelmach’s caucus. To fail to deliver opens Dr. Morton to a natural and effective attack from the Wildrose Alliance under former Fraser Institute apparatchik Smith, who has positioned her party even further to the right than Mr. Stelmach’s Tories.

Second, at some point Mr. Stelmach had to recognize the inevitable, from Dr. Morton’s perspective, and step aside to let the future unfold as the god of Alberta’s Conservatives obviously intended.

Third, of course, Dr. Morton had to be able to get re-elected.

Alas for Dr. Morton, at this point, none of those conditions – which a year ago must have all seemed possible – appears realistic.

For one thing, it is increasingly doubtful the budget can be balanced by 2012 without politically catastrophic results that Mr. Stelmach would never countenance. The whole house of cards depended on an increase in natural gas prices that has failed to materialize.

Alberta’s budgets are founded on high natural gas prices, not sound stewardship or sensible taxation. So without an increase in the price of a commodity that is outside Alberta’s control, there is no choice but to run another deficit or suffer the political consequences of the brutal cuts that would be required to balance the budget. Say what you will about Mr. Stelmach, he is not so ideologically pure he would adopt such a self-destructive course.

Of course, Dr. Morton has already brought in a deficit budget, in February 2010. But he could plausibly make the argument that one was someone else’s budget, and that he only took over mid-stream. As they say, however, that was then and this is now.

The implication was clear at the time that with a fiscal conservative like Dr. Morton at the Finance Department’s helm, a deficit wouldn’t happen again. Well, it surely will, and Dr. Morton must pay the political piper.

Have no doubt that Dr. Morton is now making the argument behind the closed doors of the cabinet room that the next budget must be balanced. You can be equally sure that there is no way Premier Stelmach will permit him to do so.

Without balancing the books, all Dr. Morton can do is get on his knees and pray to God that natural gas prices will rise before the next election – an eventuality made increasingly unlikely as new supplies of shale natural gas come on stream back home in Dr. Morton’s native United States.

As for Mr. Stelmach, if Alberta’s premier is anything, he is a stubborn survivor. Will he step aside to make way for a former challenger like Dr. Morton or anyone else? Unlikely. The probability is high that Mr. Stelmach will lead his Conservatives into the next election, probably in 2012, just as he promised. He could just win, and therefore feel that he has been vindicated. Win or lose, there is nothing here for Dr. Morton.

Finally, it is no longer even likely Dr. Morton can be re-elected. Analysis of polling data suggests he would be defeated by the Wildrose Alliance in his Foothills-Rockyview riding. This is why, of course, he has announced he will challenge Ms. Smith in Okotoks-High River, a hard place that is home of a famed Big Rock, and where the current Conservative MLA is expected to step down. Wildrose Alliance insiders boldly predict they will beat Dr. Morton wherever he runs, and it would be a foolish punter who bets against them.

All of this leaves Dr. Morton with very few options, none of them good.

He can grit his teeth and bring in a deficit budget, then suffer defeat at the hands of the Wildrose Alliance in the fiscally conservative heartland where he has chosen to fight.

He can resign his ministerial post “on principle” for not being allowed to take the measures necessary to balance the budget. This would reveal him as disloyal to his leader in a crisis, likely making him unwelcome in either Conservative or Wildrose circles after the election.

He can leave politics entirely and return to hyper-right-wing bloviation in taxpayer-supported academia or at some far-right “think tank” in the United States or Canada.

In other words, no matter what he does, the future looks bleak for Ted Morton.

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Privacy commissioner’s real challenge is to us, Alberta’s voters

The aftermath of a right hook. (Grabbed from the Boxing Examiner.) Below: Frank Work, Ed Stelmach.

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

When Alberta Information and Privacy Commissioner Frank Work nailed him with a right hook (metaphorically speaking) late last week, it must have felt to Premier Ed Stelmach as if everyone was piling on.

By now, presumably, Alberta’s premier is almost getting used to taking shots about the catastrophic state of health care, Alberta’s $2-billion “carbon capture” boondoggle, rural outrage over the location of expensive and questionable power lines, Canada’s highest cabinet salaries, the government’s inability to keep its budget promises and all the other issues that bedevil his government.

But the shot from Mr. Work about the premier’s secretive governing style must have seemed like it really came out of left field. (And, by the way, for those of you who don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the martial arts, plus readers who object to mixed metaphors, your left side is where a right hook is bound to appear!)

Mr. Work, after all, is no screaming radical, and as far as anyone knows he’s not a partisan of any opposition political party. But he is an officer of the Legislature, with an independent streak, and he is known to be jealous of the powers of his office. As his official on-line biography explicitly states of his status, “as such, he is independent of the government.”

So the premier really shouldn’t have been surprised by Mr. Work’s critical observations, included in the introduction to his office’s 2009-2010 annual report, which was released to the public on Jan. 13. In the report, Mr. Work scolded the government for its failure to deliver on Mr. Stelmach’s past ritual promises to be more accountable and transparent.

“People who want our votes, particularly at the provincial and federal levels, espouse accountability and transparency,” Mr. Work said, noting that “the first of Premier Stelmach’s five priorities when he ran for election in 2006 was to govern with integrity and transparency.”

Mr. Work then chided the premier and his government for “a lack of leadership” regarding the public’s right to timely information about the government activities its taxes pay for. “Compliance with the law is pretty good,” he conceded. “But what I do not see, for the most part, is leadership at the political level in terms of getting information out, being proactive and fostering a culture of openness.”

Fostering a culture of openness is probably too much to ask of any politician, but it is certainly too much to expect from an Alberta Progressive Conservative like Premier Stelmach. Indeed, it’s sort of a truism here in Alberta that Mr. Stelmach’s government is among the most secretive in Canada.

From the premier’s continued refusal to name many of his leadership campaign donors, to his energy minister’s secret advisory panel, to a government agency’s use of private detectives to snoop on citizens opposed to a power line, to the widespread (and oft denied) sense the government has a secret health care privatization agenda, to the misleading partly tax-free formula used to disguise the size of politicians’ paycheques, Mr. Stelmach’s government is widely suspected by the public of being both opaque and sneaky.

Nonetheless, Mr. Work pleaded with Alberta politicians and senior bureaucrats to foster a culture of democratic openness, and fired a shot directly across the premier’s bow, challenging him personally “to appear during the next Right to Know Week and talk specifically about what has been done to further open and transparent government.”

Mr. Work’s admonitions, of course, are unlikely to have much impact on the behaviour of either Mr. Stelmach or his government’s officials.

But then, as he also pointed out, that’s really up to us. Mr. Work’s real challenge was directed to those of us who are not directly involved in government.

“There will be a lot of elections in the coming year,” he said. “I challenge the public to make openness and transparency an election issue for every candidate and then to expect delivery on any promises made.”

We Albertans should really take him up on that!

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No more Mr. Nice Guy? Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann shakes things up

The Alberta Liberal Caucus’s official photo: Is there a reason Hugh MacDonald is the only one on the carpet? Just wondering. Below: MacDonald at a labour rally, David Swann looking resolute.

Never mind his communications director, Alberta Liberal Leader Dr. David Swann has now officially shaken things up in his eight-member caucus and not everyone’s going to be cheering about it.

Not so many days ago, the Legislative Press Gallery crowd raised a huge hue and cry about Dr. Swann’s sudden firing of Communications Director Neil Mackie. It was a good story for a day or two – the deed was nasty enough to be compared to a mafia hit by one journalistic hyperbolist. It was reportedly done while Dr. Swann warmed his lanky frame on a Mexican beach, not atypical behaviour for a politician criticized by some insiders as only a “part-time” leader.

But while the media was in a swivet about Mr. Mackie’s sudden departure to pursue unexpected opportunities, nobody bothered to mention that Conservative Premier Ed Stelmach and NDP Leader Brian Mason between them seem to have gone through more communications guys than most of us have shoes in our closets. And if Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith hasn’t been observed doing the same thing, that’s likely because she hardly even needs communications staff except to type up the press handouts for stenographic reproduction by the Calgary Herald. Anyway, give her time!

Meanwhile, back at the Liberal caucus where Dr. Swann has turned his attention from his caucus employees to his caucus mates, it sounds very much as if the Calgary physician with a passing resemblance to Abraham Lincoln doesn’t really care if anyone reaches the conclusion he’s not Mr. Nice Guy any more.

Leastways, when Dr. Swann shuffled his shadow cabinet yesterday, among the things he did was dump the respected Hugh MacDonald as employment and labour critic, inexplicably replacing him with low-key Calgary-Varsity MLA Harry Chase, who is not expected to run again in the next election.

One imagines that Mr. MacDonald – one if the most capable MLAs in the little Liberal caucus that shrank – is none too happy about losing a responsibility in which he knew his stuff and performed well. Moreover, since Mr. MacDonald was a tough and effective critic, it’s likely that Alberta Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk will be delighted by this turn of events.

In labour circles, however, reactions are likely to be more complicated. Leaders of Alberta’s building trade unions held Mr. MacDonald in high regard. He was a former member of one of their unions, the Boilermakers, and they knew he genuinely cared about the welfare of working Albertans. So they will be sorry to see him go.

However, other unionists who actively support the New Democrats were cooler about him, for obvious partisan reasons, seeing him as a Liberal carpetbagger in what they regard as their natural bailiwick.

So maybe this move by Dr. Swann can be interpreted as an offering of aid and comfort to those particular New Democrats. After all, alert readers will recall that not so long ago, Dr. Swann was sending billets-doux to the Alberta New Democrats, to the intense annoyance of both NDP Leader Brian Mason and his own Liberal Party president, who quit over it.

Unhappy though Mr. MacDonald may be, it’s likely that no matter what happens, the truly Liberal-red Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA will be the last Alberta Liberal standing. At any rate, it’s impossible to imagine him departing for the Independent benches in a huff, as did his former caucus colleague Dave Taylor, or consorting with another party.

Meanwhile, Dr. Swann’s decision to take the health-care critic’s portfolio for himself is probably a smart one. As a well-known physician and controversial public health official once fired by the Conservatives for speaking his mind too plainly, Dr. Swann clearly has some credibility with a file that Premier Stelmach’s bumbling and doctor-less cabinet and caucus have clearly bungled.

Despite Dr. Swann’s uninspiring low-impact style during Question Time, he’s likely to do much better asking questions about a field in which he’s one of a relatively few people in the Legislature who knows what he’s talking about!

As for skidding his communications guy and shuffling an able caucus member who may not have wanted to be shuffled, well, in the end for most Albertans that’s just so much inside baseball. It’s not going to have any measurable impact on how the public sees Dr. Swann.

If anything, many voters will likely approve. After all, most Canadians don’t really care if their leaders are nice guys, only that they seem competent and tough minded and prepared to make difficult decisions when circumstances warrant.

Nobody’s going to lose any sleep over the rest of Dr. Swann’s portfolio reassignments.

The real question, now, is if acting tough a couple of times going to be enough to change anything important for Dr. Swann in time for the next election?

If he can’t do something to sharpen up his political instincts and think faster in Question Period, and if he isn’t prepared to devote himself to the cause 24/7, probably not.

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