Archive for February, 2011

In case you missed it: public employees caused the fall of Rome!

Canada in a state of collapse due to the influence of public employees. Canadian state institutions may not be exactly as illustrated by sundry right-wing “think-tanks” and publicly paid political “scientists.” Below: Fall-of-Rome experts Barry Cooper and Edward Gibbon.

Political scientist Barry Cooper, another of the academics employed by the so-called Calgary School of the U of C, has written an article for the Calgary Herald lambasting public employees for everything from Canada’s economic woes to the fall of Rome.

Dr. Cooper bases his fanciful screed on a report by something called the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, which he refers to as “a feisty Winnipeg think-tank.”

When not insulting public employees with allegations of “laziness,” “extortion” and an apparently powerful and sneaky thirst for taxpayer-subsidized alcohol, the publicly employed University of Calgary teacher rightly points out that the Frontier Centre’s attack on public sector wage increases has been widely reported in the mainstream media.

Now, people, the fall of Rome has been ascribed to plenty of causes, not least among them the pernicious effects of Christianity, too much lead in the water, ill-mannered immigrants from Gaul, too many Germans in the army, inflation caused by unfaithfulness to the gold standard, lousy agricultural policies, not enough taxation, environmental degradation, an economy based on slavery and a general lack of civic virtue. Oh, and did I mention corrupt emperors?

So, throw in Dr. Cooper’s “parasitic bureaucracy” and we’ve pretty well covered the Tiber-front. Pick your poison and blame your favourite villain.

We should take Dr. Cooper’s main point cum grano salis, of course. It’s unlikely that he really thinks lazy bureaucrats were behind the fall of Rome. Probably, Dr. Cooper is just making an entertaining little feint at the public sector – which is the primary purpose of the Calgary School, after all – in the reasonable expectation that we Proletarians will believe whatever he says, seeing as he’s smart enough to quote the great Edward Gibbon.

In fact, the English historian and Member of Parliament, who died in 1794, principally blamed Christianity for Rome’s troubles. But, presumably, that’s not a message that would be welcome in the pages of the Calgary Herald – even from its old friend Dr. Cooper. Likewise, it’s hard to say how his fellow Calgary Schoolmates Stephen Harper, Ted Morton and Tom Flanagan might react to that one!

While one suspects he actually knows better, however, Dr. Cooper could be forgiven for imagining based on its press clippings that the Frontier Centre is, as the Herald put it in an editorial, “an independent think-tank,” and that its research is therefore sound.

But one need look no further than the Frontier Centre’s website to glimpse the reality behind its claim to be independent.

First off, it espouses all the usual far-right nostrums: shots at the science behind global warming, paeans to liquor store privatization in Alberta, calls for “choice” in education, attacks on low-cost government car insurance and sly advocacy of privatized health care. You get the picture.

As for who funds this “independent” group, well, it’s not the government, as the Frontier Centre is quick to point out, but principally “foundations,” according to the centre’s website.

Accordingly, I dropped a line to Frontier’s president and asked, Which foundations? To his credit, Peter Holle responded: “Donner Foundation Toronto. Aurea Foundation Toronto. Hecht Foundation Vancouver. There are others who prefer to remain private.”

Of the Donner Foundation, the British Columbia Teachers Federation wrote: “It is known as paymaster to the right, and it’s safe to say that the reactionary right would have made little headway in Canada in the past decade without Donner’s backing. Stephen Harper would be a nobody, for instance. … Donner, with assets of $200 million, gives out two million a year to right-wing causes.”

The Donner Foundation also funds the notorious Fraser Institute, but it is now pouring funds into new “think-tanks” like the Frontier Centre since, thanks to independent commentators in the blogosphere and no thanks to the mainstream media, the Fraser Institute’s utter lack of credibility is finally sinking through to the public.

Indeed, like so many in the right-wing think-tank-academia-foundation-government-media nexus, Dr. Cooper was once “senior fellow” with the Fraser Institute.

Less information is available on the Aurea Foundation, founded by Barrick Gold chairman Peter Munk, and the Lotte and John Hecht Memorial Foundation, which appears to be another Fraser Institute funder.

Regardless, we can see from this simple check – which apparently no professional journalist bothered to make – that the Frontier Centre, feisty though it may be, is neither independent nor unbiased.

Naturally, its conclusions in this matter are subject to dispute. Its methodology fails to account for the number of hours worked in the sectors of the economy it looks at, and since public employees work more hours, between the lines its conclusions don’t mean they’re paid more per hour. It also conveniently ignores that in the previous decade public sector salaries lagged behind the private sector.

But never mind that technical stuff. What underlies the whole output of such professional bloviators is the North American far-right’s continuing attack on the middle class and the only remaining institution that offers the poor and working poor a hand up into the middle class – unions.

God knows where it will lead if the right actually succeeds with its program of wiping out the middle class.

Perhaps if it does, with a tip of the Phrygian cap to Dr. Cooper, it is possible that future historians will ascribe the fall of the West to the pernicious influence of publicly paid market-fundamentalist academics, “think-tanks” supported by under-taxed billionaires and groups like the “Calgary School” set up at public expense to foster the cult-like worship of the market.

There’ll be more evidence for that than for Dr. Cooper’s attack on public servants.

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Alberta Budget: We are all going direct to heaven … or not

The Alberta Budget Speech – sitting of Legislature may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: Lloyd Snelgrove, who also is not be exactly as illustrated. This picture was snapped the week he unwisely had his trademark goatee off.

Today was Budget Day at the Legislature: “…it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity … we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” You get the general idea.

Budget speeches may lack brass bands, artillery salutes and the bemedalled presence of the Lieutenant-Governor, but, no less than the opening of the Legislature two days before, an Alberta Budget Speech is pure Kabuki theatre – everybody has a role to play, and everybody plays it pretty much the same way.

Some roles are silent: Progressive Conservative Premier Ed Stelmach said nothing. Some are not: Former finance minister Ted Morton, the fiscal hawk whose rebellion prompted the premier’s Jan. 25 decision to throw in the towel, setting off the leadership race that is the backdrop to this budget, made an effort to set himself apart from the government.

Newly appointed Finance Minister Lloyd Snelgrove told us everything is great. The opposition and their supporting chorus of think tanks, federations, boards, agencies, municipalities, institutes, unions, lobbyists and industrial associations told us, for the most part, that everything isn’t. Some politicians cracked wise, because that’s something journalists remember. (“The capital budget is Ed Stelmach’s bucket list,” said NDP Leader Brian Mason.)

The media wrote down what everybody said and put it in the paper. Now everybody holds their breath and waits to see how Martha and Henry will react, which arguably is the story that really matters.

Alas, for Martha and Henry – and that would be you and me, m’dear – it’s very hard to figure out what the heck is going on. Most of us have trouble finding our way through a $40 mobile phone bill. How are we to make sense of a $40-billion budget, especially when everyone is telling us something different and all the numbers don’t seem to add up? So we make a snap judgment based on our political prejudices, economic instincts, hopes, fears … and perhaps a dollop of self-interest.

If you want to read the details of today’s Alberta budget, the Edmonton Journal did an excellent job of covering it. You can find their main story here.

If you want the Alberta Diary executive summary, here it is, in four-part harmony:

  1. Government says: The budget maintains its “commitment to preserving priority programs and investing in infrastructure, while holding the line on spending.”
  2. Opposition (Right) says: The government “is practically vaporizing our savings accounts. You can’t just keep on hoping that revenue increases are going to bail you out of this problem.” (The quote belongs to Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith.)
  3. Opposition (Left) says: The government doesn’t have a spending problem, it has a revenue problem. “They’ve given tremendous gifts to their friends in the oil and gas industry, letting them take most of the value of the resources that belong to the people of this province. They have continued to charge the lowest royalties in the world.” (The quote belongs to Mr. Mason.)
  4. The media concludes: “Alberta plunges deep into the red; $3.4-bllion deficit expected in fiscal 2011-12.”

Oddly enough, they’re all right. Premier Stelmach’s Conservative government has done the seemingly impossible and maintained the appearance at least of preserving programs that are popular with voters while not increasing spending. They’re sincere in their belief in Alberta’s future, but they’re also praying for petroleum prices high enough to sustain the gamble. Lots of experts on both sides think their estimates are way too optimistic. But they reckon if they can make the books look like they’ll soon be back in the black, they can get re-elected.

To do this, they are ripping through the Sustainability Fund. Once it’s gone, pretty much at the end of this budget cycle, it’s big spending cuts or big tax increases unless royalties increase.

Likewise, they do have a revenue problem. If they raised taxes to the same level as the next lowest-tax province, they’d collect another $10 billion according to one number cruncher at the scene of the crime. If they’d raise royalties modestly and make an effort to collect what we’re owed, they’d collect billions more.

And, yeah, there’s going to be another deficit.

So the real question – and probably the only one that really matters at the end of the proverbial day – is what Martha and Henry think.

Without some scientific polling, it’s hard to know for sure, but here’s this blogger’s guess:

  • They’re relieved that there won’t be painful cuts in a rich province.
  • They hope that with all the troubles abroad, oil prices will rise and the Alberta economy will boom again.
  • They’re not too worried about a deficit – yet.
  • It bugs them when the far right wants to cut everything.
  • It bugs them when the left talks tax increases – even sensible ones like fair royalties.
  • They’re willing to wait to see if things work out as the government predicts.

In other words, if this is right, the Conservative roll of the dice today came up lucky.

If true, it’s more evidence bench strength and experience remain significant assets for the party that’s ruled Alberta for 40 years.

The opposition of the right and left made their points with vigour and eloquence this afternoon – and they sincerely believe their arguments. But one still couldn’t shake the sense they were just going through the motions.

The last few months have been a difficult season for the Conservatives. At the end of last year, they appeared headed for the rocks. But Mr. Stelmach’s announcement he will quit has changed a lot. Today seemed like a pretty good day for them.

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Dan ‘Buff’ MacLennan and the Alberta Liberals: It’s just a rumour … maybe

Dan “Buff” MacLennan: Never afraid to make friends with politicians of all stripes, even this guy! Below: Laurie Blakeman. Hugh MacDonald.

What if the Alberta Liberals found a leader who could generate a little excitement – say like Dan MacLennan, the former union leader controversial in labour circles for not being a New Democrat and beloved by the media for his entertainment value and easy way with a quote?

Full-disclosure here: the charismatic former jail guard known to his friends as “Buff” was my boss for many years, and I’ve seldom met a better retail politician, or a luckier one. Never afraid to do something no one else had tried, Mr. MacLennan left the union movement more than four years ago to become a senior manager for a major oilpatch construction company.

Last year, he was one of the eight members the government’s advisory committee on health care policy. (Controversial.) He’s now chair of the committee organizing the 2012 national Special Olympics Winter Games in St. Albert. (Less so.)

Mr. MacLennan was always a Liberal, and, in case you missed it amid the buzz about the Progressive Conservative leadership race and all the Tweets about the Alberta Party leadership, the Alberta Liberals are choosing a new leader too.

Outside Liberal circles, however, up to now there’s been very little public engagement with the effort to replace Opposition Leader Dr. David Swann, who never caught on with the public. This lack of interest is a sign of the depth of the trough into which the Alberta Liberals sank during Dr. Swann’s uninspired leadership.

Reasons now include the widespread assumption – most likely correct – that after the next general election the Wildrose Alliance will become the Official Opposition. Plus, there’s the fact leadership of the eight-member Liberal caucus is mainly of interest to people whom the public know of, but aren’t particularly thrilled about.

Still, it would be a mistake to rule the Liberals out completely. After all, even if the Wildrose Alliance becomes the Official Opposition, Liberals will continue to play an influential role among the parties of the centre and moderate left.

The thing to remember about the Liberals is that while they are the perpetual victims of their “damaged brand” (hence the rise of the Liberal-like Alberta Party), and haven’t seemed to have what it took to challenge the governing Conservatives since Laurence Decore was at their helm in the 1980s and 1990s, they have a determined base that just won’t vote for anyone else.

The most recent Alberta polls show that this is true. So, no matter how you cut it, there will always likely be a few Liberals in the Alberta Legislature.

Moreover, if voters fail to cotton on to the Alberta Party, as even that group’s enthusiasts must recognize is a possibility, where are disillusioned Alberta Partiers to drift but back to the Liberals?

Which is another way of saying that, for all its troubles, leadership of the Liberals is still a prize worth fighting for.

The trouble is, as noted, most of the names of potential leaders being bandied about so far are present or former Alberta Liberal caucus members – nice folks, capable local politicians, hard workers for their constituents, but no one that’s going to set the world afire.

Perennial Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman, now justly famous for demonstrating the political verities of Alberta using fruits and vegetables, is the only candidate officially in the race. Not so many days ago she was musing about running for the Alberta Party leadership.

However, Ms. Blakeman will soon be joined by others. There’s talk that Calgary-Buffalo MLA Kent Hehr is also interested. Not so many weeks ago he was thinking about running for mayor of Calgary. (As the whole world knows, that didn’t work out.) Former Edmonton-McClung MLA Mo Elsalhy, who tried for this particular brass ring once before, may try again.

Likewise, Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Hugh MacDonald will probably take a run at the job, out of a sense of duty if nothing else. If there was only one Liberal left on earth, Mr. MacDonald would be that person, which seems a better motivation for wanting to be leader than seeing the job as Door No. 2 of a political exit strategy.

But the lack of enthusiasm generated by these good people brings us back to Mr. MacLennan.

There have always been reports he might someday, somehow be interested in making a run for the Liberal leadership – maybe even an eventual bid for the leadership of a united left. They’ve mostly been wishful thinking by people looking for a liberal saviour.

Lately, though, Mr. MacLennan’s been dropping hints he might actually be interested in the job. Leastways, he’s not denying the rumours any more.

Does he mean it? Beats me.

I can tell you one thing, though. I hope so. Because, if he does, the Liberal leadership race just got a whole lot more interesting!

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Sorry, but Raj Sherman doesn’t have what it takes to be a party leader

Raj Sherman lets your blogger know what he thinks about this post.

Let’s just spit out the obvious: Raj Sherman doesn’t have what it takes to be a successful party leader.

Raj Sherman is a nice guy. The former Conservative MLA, kicked out of caucus last November, has done Albertans a great service by highlighting some of the serious problems with our health care system. But, to repeat, he just doesn’t have what is required to succeed at party leadership, let alone get elected leader.

His comments on Saturday are powerful evidence of this.

Late Saturday night, the Edmonton Journal posted a story on its website stating that Dr. Sherman had announced at a public forum on health care in Medicine Hat he was looking around for a party to lead, and by the sound of it he didn’t particularly care which one.

From the tone of the story it sounded as if the former Parliamentary Assistant for Health, then the only physician in Premier Ed Stelmach’s government, now imagines that whichever party chooses him as its leader will automatically become the next government of Alberta as a consequence.

“In the next month or so,” the Journal’s reporter stated in the traditional tone of spurious authority cultivated by all successful journalists, “Sherman said he plans to sit down with representatives of the three parties currently seeking new leaders: the Progressive Conservatives, Alberta Liberals and Alberta Party. … ‘Once I announce, I am running to eventually be premier of the province,’ Sherman said. ‘Make no mistake about it.’”

Duly noted. And since professional journalists aren’t allowed to laugh out loud, I’ll be the bearer of bad news: That’s not the way it’s going to work.

For a time there, Dr. Sherman, who still works occasional shifts as an Emergency Room physician in addition to his duties as the now-Independent MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark, was just about the most popular politician in the province.

His popularity was the result of his taking a public stand against his own Conservative party on health care at a time the entire system seemed to be crumbling. It was also partly the result of sympathy for the appalling way some members of his own party treated him, phoning up senior physicians and wondering aloud about his mental health, appearing to reconcile with him, then kicking him out of caucus, and so on.

But while that sort of thing may give a politician a bump in the public opinion polls, a leader it does not make.

Indeed, Dr. Sherman’s remarks Saturday suggest he is a man who has been reading his own press clippings and taking them too seriously. As they used to say when they crowned a pope, “sic transit gloria mundi!” Dr. Sherman may still be drawing crowds on his health-care road trip, but here’s a guess more folks come out to satisfy their curiosity than be inspired.

For things have changed since Dr. Sherman was kicked out of caucus on Nov. 22. The unpopular CEO of Alberta Health Services has been fired. The premier himself has announced he’s stepping down. And, whatever the reality behind the curtain, AHS’s new leadership seems to be doing its job with considerably less public uproar.

Regardless of why he still draws a crowd, there are other reasons Dr. Sherman is not cut out to be a party leader.

First, while he has a following among the public, he has none within any political party. Remember, it’s connected party insiders, not apolitical members of the public, who ultimately choose leaders. Even in a party that sells memberships for $5 a pop, a candidate still needs volunteers, strategists and fund-raisers.

Second, he is not tough enough. When he was skidded by Premier Stelmach, the hurt showed in his face. Related to this, perhaps, Dr. Sherman is mercurial and impulsive. The email to the world that led to his firing was not carefully thought out. Then he apologized. Then he went back to criticizing his leader. Having an emotional side is one thing; flying off the handle because you’re tired from a long trip and frustrated by a loved one’s health is not a sign of strong leadership.

Third, while Dr. Sherman is not unique in missing this obvious fact, parties, their platforms and their traditions matter. Notwithstanding their historical ability to win elections, that’s why a lot of Albertans are not Conservatives.

Dr. Sherman acts as if it doesn’t matter which party he chooses – or which one makes him the best offer. He acts as if nothing matters except the fact he’ll be premier and he’ll be able to fix everything. Well, maybe he’s onto something when he names the Tories, the Alberta Liberals and the Alberta Party as likely parties to lead, because in reality all three aren’t all that far apart on a lot of issues. But they still have differences and those differences matter.

By contrast, both the New Democrats and the Wildrose Alliance have dramatically different approaches to fixing health care. Voters should decide which one to vote for based on their policies, something Dr. Sherman appears to have missed.

Moreover, party members generally want a leader who has a history with their party, shares its values and has supported its leaders. The Tories themselves are divided on public health care, so as a public health supporter Dr. Sherman can argue he is in the mainstream there. I am not so sure he makes the grade with any of those three parties on the other issues.

Finally, while Dr. Sherman is obviously a bright and well-educated man, he doesn’t have all the answers to Alberta’s health care crisis. Alberta wouldn’t be helped by a leader who thought he did, which is the way Dr. Sherman sounds right now.

There’s still plenty wrong with health care delivery in Alberta. Dr. Sherman is a strong voice for public health care with an important role to play.

Not as a party leader, though. Not as court jester either, which is where he’s going to end up if he isn’t careful.

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Afghan troops stoned, infiltrated by Taliban and likely to turn on their trainers, rebellious German soldiers say

German troops bid farewell to comrade killed in Friday’s attack. (Photo grabbed from Spiegel Online International.)

You’d never know it from Canadian mainstream media coverage of the war in Afghanistan, of course, but Spiegel Online International reported today that German troops in that country are in a state of near revolt against their commanders.

The reason? The danger they face training Afghan soldiers who, in the words of one German trooper quoted by the magazine, “consider us to be infidels who don’t belong in their country.”

Said another Bundeswehr soldier quoted by the English-language online edition of the German newsmagazine: “One doesn’t know anymore if they will suddenly turn their weapons on you.”

The reason for this angst is the attack last Friday by an Afghan soldier being trained by the Germans that killed three Bundeswehr soldiers and injured six others, some of them critically. The 26-year-old Afghan attacker, who Spiegel reported is believed to be a Taliban sympathizer, was killed in a hail of return fire from the Germans’ comrades.

With German morale at “rock bottom,” the publication said, many Germans soldiers are “now refusing to go on further patrols or missions with Afghan troops.”

Afghan trainees that don’t owe their true allegiance to the Taliban, the German soldiers also report, are as likely to be ripped to the eyelids on hashish. “Many of our Afghan comrades wander around here completely stoned,” said another soldier quoted in the story. “It is impossible to tell if they are fit for duty or not.”

But don’t worry, if the Germans won’t go, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will send Canadians.

This is, after all, how unreliable foreign armies are trained and kept in line when a Western country is so foolish as to intervene in a civil war in a faraway place with a vastly different culture. Moreover, historically, so-called combat “trainers” frequently find themselves in the thick of the fiercest fighting, lest they lose credibility with their students.

So this is precisely the “behind the wire” duty that Mr. Harper and his military commanders have in mind for the large (and no doubt elastic) number of Canadian troops they plan to leave in that benighted country despite the PM’s earlier pledge to end the Canadian “combat mission” this year … or is that 2014?

As has been argued here before, Canadian soldiers “training behind the wire” will continue to die in combat as 154 of them have fallen to date. Indeed, a German officer quoted by Spiegel argued that U.S. or other Western soldiers are no more likely to be successful with Afghan trainees than the Germans have been.

Moreover, Canada’s latest “end date of March 2014” is no more firm than the last one was. We will be pressured by the Americans and our prime minister and his Conservative Party will fold like a tent.

The corrupt government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai will never be able to stand on its own, not in 2011, or in 2014, or ever.

The cost to our supposedly strapped national treasury will continue in the billions of dollars, while other members of the now purposeless North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance praise Canada’s supposedly essential sacrifices but sensibly fail to offer their own.

Sadly, none of this appears to matter much to most Canadian voters, who may not approve of Canada’s role in this war but outside a few military communities are insulated from its tragic impact.

It is hard to believe that rank and file members of the Canadian Forces are as unanimous in their support of this adventure as the government, their commanders and the media suggest. This seeming support by the troops has been a big part of the reluctance by ordinary Canadians doubtful about this war to speak out forcefully against it when doing so is made to feel like a betrayal of soldiers doing their duty in a hard posting abroad.

If this is so, and if our Canadian service personnel share the doubts of their allies, we need to hear from them loud and clear as we now have from the German contingent.

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Dilemmas all round: What to do about that Tory leadership race?

The running of the Tory leadership candidates (may not be exactly as illustrated): Albertans find themselves on the horns of a dilemma.

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

Here’s something for Albertans of all political stripes to think about in the uncertain time between now and the moment Doug Horner, Ted Morton, Alison Redford, Gary Mar or some unexpected Conservative becomes premier:

What can you do to help the Progressive Conservative Party choose the replacement for Premier Ed Stelmach most likely to implement your vision for Alberta?

Getting from here to there involves choices for all of us who are politically active, and not necessarily easy ones.

If you’re on the right wing of the Conservatives, for example, you’ll have to decide if you’re going to remain Conservative or support the Wildrose Alliance. But that choice is for later.

First, if you’re leaning toward the Alliance, you need to decide if you’re going pay your five bucks to join (or re-join) the Conservatives so you can vote for a candidate. Hint: The Alliance wishes you wouldn’t, in case you decide to stick around afterward.

If you decide to re-up as a Tory, you have another difficult choice: Do you vote for former finance minister Ted Morton, the fiscal hawk with whom you agree, and risk he might defeat your real favourite, Alliance Leader Danielle Smith? Or do you vote for the more liberal candidate you think is most likely to be beaten by Ms. Smith, and risk the possibility the leader you most disdain will win the general election and be premier for a long, long time?

Later, of course, you can go Wildrose if the Conservatives don’t choose Dr. Morton. But since the others are all more centrist, if one of them becomes premier and wins a majority, you’re always going to wonder if you helped.

If you’re a “Red Tory” – that is, a Conservative who sees a role for government, is socially progressive and wants the PC Party to continue to welcome people like yourself – your choice is more straightforward, though not necessarily easier.

You’re not going to have a problem voting. But for whom? Do you pick the candidate with the views most like your own – and risk helping the Wildrose Alliance? Or do you pick the candidate most likely to beat Ms. Smith and the Alliance – only to see them implement a platform so conservative you’ll hardly recognize the party and province you love?

Then there are those of us in the centre and on the left who can’t bring ourselves to vote Conservative ever, even when we personally respect our local PC candidate.

Do we hold our noses and shell out $5 so that we can vote in the only Alberta election where we can actually influence our province’s direction? Remember, the most recent polls suggest this is still the case.

This is a weird political custom, people, and folks in other provinces are astounded, even offended, when progressive voters even contemplate such a thing! Yet, here we are, in a place where 40 years may be a minute in political time. If you try this, can you bear the thought your choice might be both more conservative than you imagined – and more successful? What if the leader you voted for wipes out your favourite party?

Beyond that, if you can choke down the bile long enough to become a fair-weather Tory, you face a conundrum similar to that of the Wildrosers. Do you vote for the candidate you find most palatable – and take the risk that person might be the leader most likely to make Ms. Smith the premier with a radical right agenda?

Do you vote for the candidate most likely to benefit your party, and end up seeing your team trumped anyway? Or do you vote for the most conservative candidate on the theory he (or she, one supposes) can easily beat Ms. Smith – and have them turn out to be almost as bad in office?

Lots of questions. No easy answers. We are all, as they say, on the horns of a dilemma.

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Now would be the moment for Harper to apologize for and withdraw ‘Taliban Jack’ slur

Amir Shere Ali Khan, Prince Abdullah Jan and the Amir’s Afghan sirdars prepare to meet the British for negotiations, 1869. These things have happened before. Below: Jack Layton.

“A comprehensive peace process has to bring all the combatants to the table.” – Jack Layton, Sept. 1, 2006, on the war in Afghanistan

Now that the United States has entered direct talks with the Taliban, one wonders what Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative camp followers will have to say about this development.

The New Yorker magazine reported yesterday that “the Obama Administration has entered into direct, secret talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders.”

“The discussions are continuing; they are of an exploratory nature and do not yet amount to a peace negotiation,” cautioned Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll.

Alert readers will recall that, back in 2006, Mr. Harper and his political and media echo chambers branded New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton “Taliban Jack” for daring to suggest that the best way to end the pointless and bloody civil war and Western occupation in Afghanistan might be to open lines of communication to the Taliban.

“Is it next going to be tea with Osama Bin Laden? This cannot happen,” sniped Defence Minister Peter MacKay, then the minister of Foreign Affairs.

Primed by the Conservative leaders’ vindictive line, the on-line Tory Rage Machine assailed Mr. Layton as naive at best and treasonous at worst, accusing him of betrayal of Canada’s brave soldiers abroad. The usual right-wing suspects posted pictures of the NDP leader Photoshopped into ethnic Pashtun headgear along with their predictably uncreative verbal abuse.

After all, went the conventional official Tory and right-wing echo-chamber wisdom of the day, no good Canadian would ever sit down to speak with unsavoury men who were shooting at Canadian soldiers, even if those same unsavoury men were part of a fragmented coalition that enjoyed the support of a considerable portion of Afghanistan’s Pashtun ethnic majority.

Last year, Mr. Harper gave a “cautious nod” to talks with the Taliban – but not by us, mind, only by Afghanistan’s corrupt Western puppet president, Hamid Karzai. Just to be certain, the Canadian prime minister larded on some impossible conditions that no indigenous insurgency, no matter how mild mannered, would accept. “‘There are always important conditions’ that must be met before Canada could endorse any agreement,” the Globe and Mail reported then. “Those conditions would include both the laying down of arms by the Taliban and its respect for the Afghan constitution.” Good one!

Presumably the Harper Conservatives softened their official line this much last year because they knew which way the wind was blowing south of the U.S. border.

But now we have reached quite a different point. The U.S. government is talking directly to the Taliban, who have neither put down their Kalashnikovs nor sworn an oath to uphold the Afghan constitution.

What’s more, the State Department may well be chatting with Mullah Omar’s men without any involvement by the Americans’ Afghan clients, although the New Yorker states the ultimate goal of the secret negotiations is to broker some kind of formal talks between the Karzai regime and the Taliban.

All in good time, of course. As the magazine points out, it took from 1968 to 1973 before the first secret talks between the U.S. and North Vietnam bore fruit and yielded an agreement to end that pointless and destructive war.

How long this process might take is not likely to be the first item on the agenda for Canadians, of course.

Some of us may want to hear officially what we already know instinctively, that is, how quickly Mr. Harper will fall in line and parrot the U.S. position on this genuinely hopeful development. Washington has acted, so that Mr. Harper will snap to attention and salute simply goes without debate.

In other words, our prime minister is bound to admit shortly, if only by inference, that in fact Mr. Layton had it right all along.

Given that reality, now would be an excellent time for Mr. Harper, Mr. MacKay and their stooges in the blogosphere to withdraw the offensive “Taliban Jack” slur and apologize to Mr. Layton.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen.

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Stephen Harper’s sense of timing: why Oda will soon be a coda

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Bev Oda, second left, and Conservative friends … NOT! Below: The real Oda, Helena Guergis.

Never mind the prime minister’s stout defence to date of his intergovernmental affairs minister and her hinky activities in the peculiar case of the KAIROS contract. Chances are high Bev Oda is not long for this political world.

This story just smells too badly for Stephen Harper to allow Ms. Oda to hang around his cabinet much longer. The failure of the Member of Parliament for Durham to avoid this embarrassment surely will not be forgiven at a moment in Canadian political history when the polls appear to be shifting in favour of Mr. Harper’s so-called Conservative government, especially in the key ridings around Toronto.

After all, timing is everything – and the timing of this strange little Oda coda to this prime minister’s unhappy minority years in Parliament dictates this minister must go, and she must go soon.

Of course, timing is at the heart of this sordid little story in another more basic way too. For if Ms. Oda signed the contract with the KAIROS Christian aid agency before the infamous NOT was inserted, an act akin to forgery has been committed.

If she signed it after, the contract is legally sound even if one doesn’t approve of the government’s motives for determining never to give another federal dime to an agency that failed to toe its line on Canada’s slavish support for Israel. If that were the case, however, one wonders why Ms. Oda didn’t simply initial the change, as any of us who has amended a cheque has done.

So when the axe falls, you can be certain it came down because the PM’s calculating mind reached the conclusion the time had passed when Ms. Oda’s inappropriate behaviour and implausible excuses to Parliament could be explained away.

Never mind that the reasons the KAIROS contract was altered certainly originated within Mr. Harper’s PMO. It was Ms. Oda that got caught doing something shifty. So when the controversy about it gets hot enough that Mr. Harper concludes the problem won’t disappear unless Ms. Oda does too, she’ll be out of cabinet faster than you can say “Helena Guergis.”

Alert readers will recall what happened to Ms. Guergis, MP for nearby Simcoe-Grey and once the Minister of State (Status of Women) in Mr. Harper’s Cabinet. Until, that is, her embarrassing husband Rahim Jaffer, a former Conservative MP from Edmonton, was pulled over by police near their Ontario home in 2009 as he went too fast with the wrong stuff in both his car and his bloodstream. In April 2010, when the fallout from the sordid affair had become sufficiently embarrassing, Mr. Harper brutally skidded her from both his cabinet and caucus. For the moment, she sits as an Independent.

There is a thread that connects these cases – one a possible forgery of spectacular incompetence, the other a pathetic case of automotive drugs, drunkenness and unintended consequences.

Both stem from two beliefs typical of powerful figures in the Canadian right, especially Mr. Harper’s Conservatives. One, that the rules are for the rest of us, but don’t apply to them. Two, that we in the hoi polloi are so addled and inattentive that we will usually believe anything we are told if it is repeated often enough and loudly enough.

How else to explain the prime minister’s instinctive defence of the egregious activities of his minister, Ms. Oda, which were so essentially shifty that virtually everyone who heard of the case immediately sensed something had gone badly awry. And this includes, surely, many natural Conservative supporters.

But everyone – even Prime Minister Harper – understands why you can’t get away with changing contracts after you’ve signed them. So, once the public mind reaches the collective conclusion that is what Ms. Oda in fact did, she is finished.

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Alison Redford – a spectacularly well-qualified Tory candidate … on paper

Three faces of Alison Redford: 2008, 2010, 2011. Below: Ralph Klein, still larger than life.

Two questions immediately spring to mind about Alison Redford, the latest candidate to declare in the race to replace Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach:

  1. Can a province that loved the elemental Ralph Klein also fall for a brainy academic human rights lawyer?
  2. What does this person, who’s only been an MLA since 2008, really stand for?

Neither question, as it turns out, is all that easy to answer.

Ms. Redford announced yesterday that the rumours were true and she would follow in the footsteps of former finance minister Ted Morton, former deputy premier Doug Horner and rural MLA Doug Griffiths and throw her metaphorical hat into the Tory leadership ring vacated by Premier Stelmach back on Jan. 25.

Notwithstanding the fact she is a one-term MLA for Calgary-Elbow, on paper Ms. Redford brings unmatched credentials to the race. She’s a lawyer, indeed, a Queen’s Counsel. Her official Legislative biography says she once worked for the office of the prime minister. (Didn’t it used to say she worked for former prime minister Joe Clark?)

She’s worked for the European Union, for the government of Australia, for the Commonwealth, for human rights in Africa, for the United Nations, as elections administrator for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and, for all you lefties, as a legal reform advisor to the People’s Republic of Vietnam. She’s worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Namibia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and the Philippines. There’s probably more.

Oh, and since she’s just 45, we’re pretty obviously talking about a major Type-A overachiever here, who topped all that stuff off with getting elected as an MLA for one of Calgary’s wealthiest neighbourhoods in 2008 and being appointed Justice Minister and Attorney General by an obviously impressed Ed Stelmach.

But you can just hear some unshaven guy in the bar in Carbon or some other not-so-swell location muttering, “Yeah, but would you want to have a beer with her … and what’s she done for Alberta?” Or, more to the point, and what such musings are really about, “Do you think she’d like to have a beer with me?

Maybe not. Who knows? Not this blogger. Not anyone he knows, even among the chattiest of the chattering classes. Indeed, for all anybody around here knows, Alison Redford could be more fun in a bar that a barrel of Ted Morton’s political science courses. But one can’t shake the feeling, just based on her public persona, that she’s a little more reserved than that.

If she is, and she wins the leadership race, she’s going to have to face off for the right-wing vote against Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith, who may not have a QC or a standing invitation to drop in on the Secretary-General of the UN, but who does have Ralph-Klein-like charm in spades.

Who would win in a race between these two where the people who get to choose the winner adored Ralph Klein, a Grade 9 dropout, and would forgive him anything – even getting blasted and throwing his pocket change at the bewildered occupants of a men’s shelter? (In fairness, that’s something neither Ms. Redford nor Ms. Smith is likely to do.)

Politics has not all been roses, either, for Ms. Redford. OK, she won as the Conservative candidate once she was anointed in Calgary-Elbow, but arguably a lot of candidates could have. Back in 2004 when she challenged Calgary West MP Rob Anders for the federal Conservative nomination, the man who is surely Canada’s most egregiously bad elected official mopped the floor with her.

Mr. Anders, a former professional heckler for the Republican Party, may have been the guy who called Nelson Mandela a terrorist, but Conservative nominators in at least one very basic Calgary riding clearly preferred him to a smarty-pants lawyer who spent 16 years working for human rights. So what makes you think a broader sampling of Albertans wouldn’t prefer Danielle Smith?

As for Question 2, Ms. Redford’s academic and public service record up to joining Mr. Stelmach’s team is clearly enough to get her branded a “Red Tory” by almost every journalist in the province. Leastways, those few who still doubted that should be persuaded now that she’s Tweeted her decision to run, instead of issuing the traditional press release.

But how red is she really?

All of a sudden, Alberta Tories who were scrambling over one another a year ago to prove their hyper-conservative chops are scrambling to redefine themselves as pretty liberal – presumably the better to put a little space between themselves and Ted Morton, who was raised in a part of Wyoming where Red means Republican.

But is Ms. Redford the real thing? Well, there’s not much of a legislative record to judge, seeing as she’s only been in the House since March 2008.

One good sign: If she didn’t quite have the courage of her convictions, at least she had the good sense to skip the vote on Bill 44, the ridiculous 2009 Tory law that gave parents the right to keep their children out of classes where the lessons touched on sex, religion or dinosaurs. That’s something neither Dr. Morton nor Mr. Griffiths can say, although Mr. Horner seems to have also had his wits about him that day, failing to turn up at Legislature as well.

Beyond that, Ms. Redford’s voting record is pretty much like any other Tory in this monolithic Legislature. Plus, she’s got a reputation for being as partisan as the next debater in the House. All of which, when you get right down to it, pretty much spells c-o-n-s-e-r-v-a-t-i-v-e – though maybe not conservative enough to dissuade a few strategic voters from the centre and the left to come on over.

The policy platform outlined on her website is pretty generic stuff, designed not to offend anyone too much. So it’s hard to say what she’d do in office.

Which brings us back to the question Alberta’s large population of small-c conservative, politically inactive voters might well ask themselves if they had to make the choice between Ms. Redford and Ms. Smith: “Why not vote for the real thing?”

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Doug Griffiths, the Man in Black & Blue – sorry, not a serious Tory leadership candidate

Men in Black – from left to right, Wildrose Alliance MLA Rob Anderson, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and just-announced Tory leadership candidate Doug Griffiths … maybe not! Below: the actual Doug Griffiths, former Man in Black, in brown.

Wasn’t Doug Griffiths one of the Men in Black? You know, one of the Fiscal Four on the Floor, the Gang of Four, or whatever they called those guys who were fed up with Premier Ed Stelmach’s prodigal ways back in the fall of ’09? (Rhetorical question: The answer is yes.)

Sorry, maybe it’s just me, but I have trouble getting too worked up about a candidate for the leadership of the almighty Alberta Progressive Conservative Party who promised back in the day to wear black for the poor and the beaten down, livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town… Oh, wait. That was Johnny Cash, or Brian Mason at the NDP or something…

Just a sec. Give me a minute here… Yeah, that’s it… a leadership candidate who promised to wear black until all the budgets were balanced.

Well, that was then and this is now, although it appeared yesterday morning at his news conference that Mr. Griffiths was still wearing black. In the event, anyway, he turned up to announce his run for the Conservative leadership in a nice black blazer with an electric blue shirt. (Full disclosure: Your blogger didn’t actually go to Mr. Griffiths’ morning newser. Uh, sorry…)

Funnily enough, all the reporters who did bother wrote pretty much the same story. That goes for the Sun, Global and the CBC. Only the Edmonton Journal added a little extra, though they all seem to have forgotten the connection with the Four Horsemen of the Fiscal Apocalypse. (Debt rides a pale horse, and so on.)

The fresh-faced MLA for Battle River-Wainwright is a guy who once told the Calgary Herald that “the 40- or 45-year old generation is going to be stuck between paying for everything for their kids and for everything for their parents.” What was he thinking? He was 36 at the time!

So, what’s the solution to this particular problem as proposed by the former schoolteacher? Here’s a hint: It didn’t involve talking his co-generationalists into moving out of Mom and Pop’s basement. It was all about eliminating government programs. You know, the kind of programs that help old folks and young people get along without being a burden on that long-suffering 45-year-old generation.

By yesterday, however, Mr. Griffiths was talking about our need to “think large.” We can only fervently hope that he spares us “the Large Society.” Leastways, I don’t know about you, but the alarm bells start going off in this blogger’s head whenever a conservative politician starts singing paeans to societies of size – just look at all the havoc the Big Society is wreaking right now in what Canadians of a certain vintage still can’t help but think of as the Mother Country!

Well, never mind that. According to the blogosphere, this candidate’s No. 1 attribute seems to be that he’s “an avid social media user.” OK, the Conservatives are the party that put the Twit back in Twitter, but deft thumbs and a Blackberry do not a credible candidate make, thanks very much. And they certainly don’t make a small-l liberal or candidate who belongs in the middle of the political roadmap.

Because Mr. Griffiths, notwithstanding the fact he knows how to use Facebook, is just another rural MLA (hometown Hardisty, pop. 760) way out there in the right field of the Tory party. In addition to his participation in 2009’s Fab Four hit single, Mr. Griffiths also made some headlines in 2010 with a proposal that Alberta replace its already-way-too-flat income tax with a sales tax on everything.

This idea is a non-starter among the Conservative base, of course, and Mr. Griffiths appeared at today’s presser to indicate he is tippy-toeing away from it – he just wants to chat, he explained. But those of us of a slightly more progressive bent should remember, just in case, that this kind of taxation really puts the regress in regressive!

Indeed, it just seems like yesterday that Mr. Griffiths was rumoured to be sneaking a peek at the Wildrose Alliance benches. But when his fellow Man in Black Rob Anderson had the wherewithal to skedaddle over, Mr. Griffiths appeared to get cold feet.

Or maybe he just saw larger possibilities within the Conservatives that got him elected than in a hot new party with a charismatic leader, no matter its reputation for fiscal frigidity.

Anyway, good for him for dancing with the one that brung him, if that’s the explanation, as well as for promising to reveal who all his donors and never to say anything mean about his opponents. And good for him for being an entertaining luncheon speaker favoured by small-town Chambers of Commerce for his talk on 13 ways to kill your community – although we’re assuming he’s speaking ironically when he says stuff like that. (You can never be too sure with conservatives, though. Remember, this is a guy who’s reputed to think “300” is a great movie!)

But these points in his favour are not enough to make him into what he is not, and that is a mainstream candidate with plenty to offer his party.

Mr. Griffiths got a lot of ink and airtime yesterday because it was a slow news day and Alberta politics has been generating some heat and light lately. But the Man in Black and Blue and Sometimes Brown is what a professional newspaper columnist whose name escapes me at the moment recently called a candidate of ambition.

Maybe with a little luck, Mr. Griffiths doubtless reckons, he can be a kingmaker or something, or even snag a good cabinet post, a first one, anyway.

Well, just be careful, Tory voters. Remember what happened to the last guy that entered the race with that strategy!

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