Archive for May, 2011

Build schools and lay off teachers? Hey, it’s the Alberta way!

New school. Lots of students. No teachers. What’s your problem? Below: Ed Stelmach, Dave Hancock.

Does it seem odd to you that Alberta’s Conservative government would be spending more than half a billion dollars to build new schools at the same time as it’s squeezing school board budgets and forcing the layoff of hundreds of teachers?

Well, don’t worry, the explanation is actually fairly simple. Like a lot of things conservative politicians advocate nowadays, this story is really about punishment.

But first the back story…

Just a week ago, Premier Ed Stelmach was announcing proudly that his government would be spending $550 million to build 22 new schools and renovate 13 old ones “to cope with a student population expected to soar by about 100,000 new pupils before the end of the decade.”

By golly, the government release cheerfully quoted the premier as saying, “our students are the future leaders of our province and deserve positive learning environments.”

Indeed, we were reliably informed, these schools will be “bright, welcoming spaces, equipped with the latest technology and designed to adapt to changing educational needs.”

Then some spoilsport went and pointed out the obvious irony of school boards being forced to lay off teachers all over the province because of provincial under-funding, which very well may result in those new learning environments not being quite as welcoming as the government’s sunny press-release writers would like us to imagine.

Province-wide, about 1,000 teachers are likely to get the chop before the next school year, with predictable results for the quality of the education Alberta’s deserving pupils can expect. In Edmonton alone, about 230 teachers are slated to go over the side, with another 90 or so special needs assistants and sundry support workers also out of a job.

Mr. Stelmach’s government, you see, has increased the education budget a little, what with all those new students flowing into the province. But as the Edmonton Journal explained in its coverage of a rally on Sunday by a group of unhappy parents, “the provincial government increased the overall education budget this year, but only enough to cover the promised 4.5-per-cent wage increase for teachers.”

Ah, so now we’re starting to get to the bottom of the matter.

You see, back in January, Education Minister Dave Hancock asked the Alberta Teachers Association to forgo a 4.3 per cent pay increase negotiated in collective bargaining. When that idea predictably flopped, the highest paid premier in Canada and his ministers went back to the drawing board and came up with something different.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Mr. Stelmach’s Tories are not just reverting to cynical form and punishing Alberta’s teachers for not going along with January’s cost-cutting scheme.

Indeed, our cranky premier yesterday all but confirmed this theory by opining in public that, as the Journal put it, “unreasonable contract demands, not government under-funding, is the reason why 1,000 or more Alberta teachers are expected to lose their jobs this year.”

“We asked for consideration,” said the premier. “It didn’t happen and, as a result, some teachers, especially temporary teachers, will not have a job.”

It’s pretty clear what he meant, isn’t it?

Mr. Hancock tried to do some damage control – uh, “I think the premier may have characterized this a little too bluntly” – but, really, it’s hard to argue that the premier didn’t get the tone just about exactly right for what he had in mind.

Presumably the Conservatives are counting on the fact local voters who see new schools arising in their communities will forget all about the missing teachers by the time the next election rolls around, just as we’ve all forgotten about the 34-per-cent raise he and his ministers gave themselves back in 2008.

Anyway, Alberta Conservatives have always liked capital projects that can be built by their friends in business better than bigger paycheques for a bunch of unionized schoolteachers, especially since a goodly number of our Great Plains governators don’t view book learnin’ as anything but a bothersome frippery anyway. Come to that, as has been done in the past, surplus buildings can always be sold off at fire sale prices to charter schools.

All this cynically said, this is a pity, because under Mr. Stelmach, the Conservatives really seem to have been trying to do better the past couple of years.

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Alberta Liberals’ open nomination scheme will not fix the party’s existential crisis

Alberta Liberals follow party leader Dr. David Swann down a street in Calgary. Alberta political party supporters may not be exactly as illustrated. (Photo grabbed from Below: the real Dr. Swann, Dr. Raj Sherman.

Are they nuts?

In an effort to end their party’s continuing implosion, Alberta Liberals voted at their convention in Calgary yesterday to open their leadership and riding nomination contests to all voters, including those who are not members of their party.

It doesn’t take a PhD in political science to see what’s wrong with this scheme. Talk about handing potential hijackers the keys to the jetliner!

At the riding level, the only thing that will save the fast-fading party from that particular kind of disaster is that outside of a few electoral districts it is now so irrelevant no scheming Tory, perfidious New Democrat or mischievous Wildroser would bother to waste the time needed to derail a Liberal candidate. In other words, why bother to hijack a mode of transportation that’s going nowhere?

Do you doubt that the Alberta Liberals are going nowhere? Consider the words of leadership candidate and Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman, partly recounted to us by the Calgary Herald, which unfortunately didn’t quote her in full detail. “Blakeman, however, believes opening the nomination and leadership votes to members and registered supporters alike is ‘a huge advantage’ for her because she has lots of backers who’ve left the Liberal party,” the Cowtown quotidian reported. (Emphasis added.)

On a similar theme in the same story, departing Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann, under whose unsteady hand the party has faltered so badly, compared membership in political parties to being part of a religious cult. “There is a reluctance to join a ‘religion,’ there is a reluctance to join a ‘cult,’” he told the Herald, apparently in an effort to explain why Albertans are reluctant to join the Alberta Liberals.

But political parties only start to seem like religious cults when they’re down to their final few true believers, still clinging desperately to the faith, and no one else is interested. Alas for the party led by Dr. Swann, physician and MLA for Calgary-Mountain View, that’s pretty much where the Alberta Liberals find themselves today.

Handing the levers of the party’s nomination processes to anyone who happens to wander in from the street is not going to fix this crisis.

Indeed, given the four candidates in the race to replace Dr. Swann as leader – Ms. Blakeman, Edmonton-Goldbar MLA and stalwart Grit Hugh MacDonald, hitherto unknown Calgarian Bruce Payne, who is both an evangelical preacher and trade unionist, and health care gadfly Raj Sherman, MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark – this is going to make the Liberals’ existential crisis much worse.

To be blunt, the problem is Dr. Sherman, the former Conservative Parliamentary Assistant for Health and part-time Emergency Room physician who was cashiered by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach last fall for attacking his own government.

Dr. Sherman is personable, presentable and very popular with a significant number of Albertans. He is also a one-issue politician who is persuaded that only he has the answers to Alberta’s health care crisis. As such, a strong case can be made that he is exactly the wrong person to lead a party that is teetering on the edge of extinction.

It is the special responsibility of party loyalists – the kind of people who join political parties, pay dues and get to vote in internal party elections – to think really seriously about who is right and who is wrong for leadership roles.

There is no pleasure in saying that the Alberta Liberals cannot survive Dr. Sherman as their leader, but Dr. Sherman is exactly what they are likely to get if they open their leadership contest to the general public.

The youthful party brain trust on the Alberta Liberal executive that came up with this foolishness claims it was modelled on the U.S. primary system. But this is a misunderstanding of how most U.S. primary elections work. Those elections are conducted by state governments on behalf of the parties, presumably guaranteeing minimum standards. What’s more, the system assumes there are only two parties, and typically only registered party supporters get to vote.

Yesterday’s Liberal decision, at least, is the best news that could be imagined by the fledgling Alberta Party, which ran a blunder-free leadership convention in Edmonton over the weekend and chose a sensible and experienced politician, Hinton Mayor Glenn Taylor, in a vote by 1,200 party members.

As a party dedicated to the proposition that many former Liberal voters are now looking for a new home, the adoption of this ill-thought-out notion as Liberal policy will surely persuade many of Alberta’s remaining hard-core Liberals to consider switching to the Alberta Party.

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New Alberta Party leader’s challenge is to turn a New Age blip into lasting political phenomenon

Your blogger discusses the state of Alberta (pun intended) with Alberta Party Leader Glenn Taylor. Below: Randy Royer.

In the end, the Alberta Party’s leadership vote yesterday came down to a choice between old-style plebeian NDP politics and old-style patrician Liberal politics.

It wasn’t much of a contest. The New Democratic Party approach won easily in a well-organized slam-dunk, and three-time Hinton Mayor Glenn Taylor became leader of the new political party without the need to resort to a second ballot. It helped that Mr. Taylor appears to have had the backing of the new party’s principal movers and shakers.

Mr. Taylor, who obviously honed his campaign-organization skills when he was an NDP candidate back in 1997 in his mill and mining town home, ran a professional campaign and mopped the floor with his three rivals. He won better than 55 per cent of the 1,200 ballots cast over the Internet, by telephone and in person at the two-day conference attended by more than 250 Alberta Party supporters in Edmonton’s Shaw Conference Centre. In all, the party has about 2,000 members.

Mr. Taylor’s closest challenger, Calgary businessman Randy Royer, who was once a rare federal Liberal supporter from Alberta’s conservative deep south, didn’t even come close despite a polished and professional campaign. He captured only 287 ballots, or 24 per cent of the vote.

Mr. Taylor’s election is, quite literally, a defining moment in the history of the fledgling party that has up to now defined itself as the one that “does politics differently” than all those others.

The Alberta Party now has a leader with an identifiable style that may not appeal to everyone, and a practical political need to develop policies that could turn off many current adherents. In other words, the Alberta Party’s days as a New Age political experiment are over, whether its leaders and adherents like it or not.

Until yesterday, the party was more of a social movement among Alberta’s chattering classes than a real political phenomenon. It has one member in the Alberta Legislature – Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor (no relation) – but more by happenstance than design. The disaffected former Alberta Liberal switched to the Alberta Party in January after quitting the Liberals and sitting for nine months as an Independent.

The party as we now know it (the name’s been around for a while in various ideological guises) was pulled together in 2010 by a group of disaffected Red Tories, Blue Liberals and small-c conservative Greens. For the better part of 2010 and early 2011, its supporters have met in kitchens and living rooms talking (and talking) about their vision for Alberta politics, an exercise they dubbed The Big Listen.

The question, of course, is whether anyone not at these coffee parties was listening – and the consensus is that they were not. At least, recent public opinion polls show the Alberta Party has barely registered with rank and file Alberta voters.

Its most enthusiastic supporters nowadays seem to define their mission as listening to everyone, or, as one member put it during a discussion Friday night, being “a party that is over the full spectrum of the political spectrum.” The problem with this, pretty obviously, is that by trying to be everything to everyone, the party has ended up not really representing very much of anything to anyone.

So, after all this talk and warm feeling, the practical step that confronted the party was choosing a leader who could turn it into a real political force without turning off the many enthusiasts who liked the fact their party dreamed of practicing politics as they have not been practiced before.

The big question confronting Glenn Taylor is whether he can be that politician.

It’s not at all clear he can persuade the party’s current membership to trade their idealistic notions about New Age politics for the old-school, nitty-gritty, NDP techniques he used in his campaign and which pretty obviously work.

It’s equally unclear if a former New Democrat from a working-class town can continue to appeal to a group who are mostly disaffected former Alberta Liberals and disgruntled centrist Tories. For that matter, it’s unclear if such unhappy Liberals and Conservatives will stay unhappy now that Liberal leader David Swann and Premier Ed Stelmach, the joint causes of most of their grief, are on the way out.

If the party only manages to further fragment the centre and centre-left vote in Alberta, it could well end up electing no MLAs in the melee that is sure to be the next Alberta general election. Mr. Taylor himself vows to run in his West Yellowhead riding – now held by former trade unionist turned Tory Robin Campbell, who won overwhelmingly in 2008. With no MLAs, it is said here the Alberta Party will quickly fall apart.

On the other hand, the Alberta Liberals are now in a state of advanced decay, a situation from which the Alberta Party could benefit. Mr. Taylor may be the right leader with the right political skills to exploit this possibility.

But that will depend a lot on whom the Liberals choose as their leader – a decision that won’t be made until fall.

Mr. Taylor’s job now is to turn a New Age blip into a lasting political phenomenon. Good luck!

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This just in: New Alberta Party leader gives speech; old leader sings Over the Rainbow (really!)

Outgoing Acting Alberta Party Leader Sue Huff sings Somewhere, Over the Rainbow, I’m not making this up! Below: First ballot leadership vote victor Glenn Taylor.

I went to the Alberta Party convention this weekend. I ate the cookie (chocolate chip) and the sandwich (egg salad), but I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid. Not yet, anyway.

Mostly, I’m afraid, the two-day leadership convention of the party that defines itself as being in the middle and pretty well everywhere else in the Alberta political spectrum reminded me a lot of going to church – which, as mentioned in a recent post at this location, is an important role in society that the NDP suddenly seems disinclined to provide.

Pleasant, well-dressed, earnest people gave me a media pass and led me to a comfortable seat at the front of the congregation, which numbered about 250 this morning, which is pretty impressive, all things considered. Much better, at any rate, than the 150 or so who registered for the Alberta Liberal Party Convention in Calgary this weekend, of whom about 125 bothered to show up today. In fairness, the Liberal convention didn’t offer the end of a leadership race, which is always good for a little excitement.

Anyway, nobody yelled at me for the skeptical things I’ve said about the Alberta Party in the past, and several politely noted that while they respectfully disagreed, they understood my caution.

Like church, people talked about such concepts as “servant leadership,” leaving your correspondent thinking, uh-oh! Unlike church, no one asked me to stand up and introduce myself or to leave an offering, which was a mercy.

There was what could have been an excruciating moment when the party’s outgoing acting leader, Sue Huff, marched up to the podium at Edmonton’s Shaw Conference Centre, slung a guitar around her neck and sang Over the Rainbow. Really! But, damn, she was pretty good, which kinda saved the moment!

At any rate, it sure as heck beat hearing our mean-tempered prime minister pounding out unauthorized covers of old Beatles hits on an out-of-tune piano. Indeed, one sort of feels this should become a new tradition for departing political leaders, although it’s not clear what song Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach would pick. (Cryin’ Time? Ring of Fire?)

And of course there was the traditional political convention moment when one of the four candidates, three-term Hinton Mayor Glenn Taylor, won the Internet, phone and in-person leadership vote in a first-ballot slam-dunk with better than 55 per cent of the 1,200 votes cast.

Mr. Taylor seems like a fairly normal political type with a reasonably solid grasp of reality. He’s a former New Democrat as a matter of fact. We’ll just have to see if he manages to turn the Alberta Party into more of a political party, which is what will be required if it’s going to win any seats in the Legislature, than the rather ill-defined group promising to do politics in different ways than the art of the possible is practiced in this province today.

Mr. Taylor had 665 votes. His nearest competitor, Calgary businessman Randy Royer, received 287, or 24 per cent. Lee Easton, an English professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, had 144, 12 per cent of the total, and Tammy Maloney, who was described as a social entrepreneur, had 8.6 per cent.

That’s the news. The analysis tomorrow.

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PC leadership tipsheet: Mar to win, Morton to place, surprises possible

Punters at the track: These guys all know that in a horserace, anything can happen, and, plus, you ought to dress well just in case it does!

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

With the federal election out of the way, the Alberta political spotlight should soon shift to the contest to lead the provincial Progressive Conservative Party – and, inevitably, the general election that will follow the choice this fall.

It’s a great political story by any yardstick. Six candidates are now in the race, every one capable of doing the job at least as well as Premier Ed Stelmach, the man they’re vying to replace. At least three more are reputed to be seriously considering running.

What’s more, there are significant policy differences among these candidates that mean there would be real differences in how each would run the province. This matters, because whoever wins this race will become the premier of Alberta, quite possibly for a long time.

If this were a horserace, and the candidates were horses, your racetrack tipsheet might look like this:

Doug Griffiths: At 38, the Battle River-Wainwright MLA is the youngest in the race. As a member of the short-lived “Fiscal Four” he’s on clearly on the party’s fiscally conservative side. He’s smart and speaks well, but, really, he’s mainly in the race to make a name for himself.

Doug Horner: Former deputy premier, long-time cabinet heavy hitter and part of Stelmach’s inner-circle, the 50-year-old MLA for Spruce Grove-Sturgeon-St. Albert has experience and a steady hand on his side, but a reputation as “Ed Stelmach Lite” working against him. He’s more conservative than the party’s right-wing opponents give him credit for being, but he’s clearly part of the party’s moderate centre.

Gary Mar: Relatively youthful at 48, smart, and, as holder of several important portfolios under premier Ralph Klein, experienced. So it’s no surprise Mr. Mar is the favourite of the Conservative party establishment. As Alberta’s “envoy” to Washington, the Calgary lawyer remained in the public eye, but far enough from government to be untainted by Mr. Stelmach’s blunders. He’s on the party’s more moderate side. He’s the front-runner today, yet somehow his campaign has failed to connect with Albertans.

Ted Morton: No question that the American-born Dr. Morton, a University of Calgary PhD political scientist known for his hard-line fiscal views, is the darling of the party’s right wing. As such, he’s the most likely candidate to woo back defectors to the Wildrose Alliance, but also the most likely to frighten moderate voters. After a strong finish in the 2006 leadership race, the Foothills-Rocky View MLA is said to have hung onto his supporters’ contact information, so he has a leg-up in the first-ballot race. At 62, he looks a little long in the tooth.

Rick Orman: This well-heeled Calgary oilman, youthful-voiced radio political commentator and former cabinet minister is nearly 63, so he saves Morton the embarrassment of being the oldest candidate in the race. He’s just as far to the right as Dr. Morton, clearly trying to encroach on Wildrose Alliance territory. But as a relic of the era of Premier Don Getty, he’s so far from politics he is only the longest of long-shots.

Alison Redford: Only 46, well known as an international legal authority, a polished performer and as tough as nails, the only woman in the race is the brainiest of this lot by far. The question is, will voters who loved a Grade 9 dropout like Mr. Klein take to someone who is so obviously smart, who also has a reputation for not suffering fools gladly? The first-term MLA for Calgary-Elbow and former Justice Minister leans to the Red Tory side of the party equation but is hard to categorize.

At least three others are frequently named as possible candidates: Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett, Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk and Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky. All are in the party’s squishy middle. All must declare their candidacy soon or forget about it.

So here’s the race as I see it today:

Win: Mar
Place: Morton

Show: Horner

Wild Card: Redford

But as any punter knows, in a horserace, anything can happen!

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Well-financed Rick Orman candidacy a grave setback to Ted Morton’s hopes

Beulah, peel me a grape! Alberta Conservative candidate Rick Orman aloft, with grapes on a silver tray and friends. This photo appeared in my in-box, source unknown. Below: Ted Morton.

Who wins when Ted Morton and Rick Orman battle it out for votes of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party’s right wing?

Answer: Gary Mar.

The entry of Mr. Orman as a candidate to replace Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach significantly changes the dynamic of the Tory leadership race, which is now starting to pick up steam.

However, it doesn’t change it in a way that particularly benefits either Mr. Orman, a well-heeled Calgary oilman and former Cabinet minister from the time when Don Getty was premier (1985-1992), or Dr. Morton, the market fundamentalist PhD political scientist who until now has been the darling of the party’s right wing.

Indeed, the only beneficiary on the right is likely to be the Wildrose Alliance Party, which in turn has problems of its own – including sinking public support since Mr. Stelmach announced his retirement plans and the loss of some of its best strategists, wooed back to Ottawa by ministers in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s federal Conservative majority.

So the only likely real gainers of the vote split between these two strong right-wing candidates will be moderate candidates like Mr. Mar, Alison Redford and Doug Horner.

Dr. Morton, the former finance minister, was the first candidate in the race and he certainly looked pleased with himself back on the day he precipitated Mr. Stelmach’s resignation announcement after a fight between the two over how tough the 2011 budget ought to be.

As a tough-guy fiscal hard-liner, the American-born Dr. Morton was the darling of the right and was immediately dubbed the front-runner by the media. He was seen, correctly, as the candidate then in the race most likely to successfully woo back Tory defectors to the Wildrose Alliance. He was known to have a strong organization in place that had managed to hang onto his supporters’ contact information from the 2006 contest with Mr. Stelmach and Jim Dinning.

So at the start of the campaign, Dr. Morton looked like a candidate who could win – although, since all the other candidates seemed more moderate, most likely only if he eked out a victory on the first ballot.

One imagines that Dr. Morton is smiling a little less now with the entry of Mr. Orman into the campaign.

Mr. Orman’s pitch is directly aimed at exactly the same slice of the Conservative Party’s likely supporters as Dr. Morton’s – including those who had given up on Mr. Stelmach and defected to the Wildrose Alliance. Indeed, he sounds an awful lot like a Wildrose supporter who has read the writing on the wall and concluded that the only way to win anything worth winning in this province is still as a Conservative.

What Mr. Orman lacks in supporters from 2006, he more than makes up for in cash – at least, this is so if there is any truth to the persistent rumour his campaign war chest contains $1.5 million!

Moreover, from Dr. Morton’s perspective, there’s not much in Mr. Orman’s resume to go after.

Even though Dr. Morton has tried to paint himself as just a little bit closer to the Tories’ squishy middle of late, the former finance minister who built his reputation as a fiscal hardliner can hardly attack Mr. Orman for being a fiscal hardliner.

He could go after Mr. Orman for being too old – the new candidate is 62, soon to be 63, after all. But then, Dr. Morton is, uh, 62 as well.

He could attack Mr. Orman for being an ideological market fundamentalist but for the fact he has been Alberta’s most prominent ideological market fundamentalist for years.

What’s left, shots at Mr. Orman for being rich and zipping around in corporate bizjets while plucking grapes from a silver tray? Well, it’s true – there is photographic evidence! But how is this going to have any impact coming from a well-paid career civil servant like Dr. Morton – who was first a professor at a public university and later an MLA and minister, notwithstanding his far-right credentials?

Please! They’re even both snappy dressers, partial to blue blazers and cufflinks.

Fact is, there is very little to distinguish these two and they’re likely to split their vote. One might even try to take his vote to the other on a second ballot, but by then it will be too late. The moderate Conservative vote will have chosen one of Mr. Horner, Mr. Mar or Ms. Redford and the game will be up.

The arrival of Mr. Orman in the race is a significant blow to Dr. Morton’s prospects.

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Air force generals’ pathetic lies: We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy

Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi with one of his Western friends. The Libyan dictator is stubbornly hanging on in the face of Western escalation and the promises of air power advocates.

So, how is that “no-fly zone” over Libya that we Canadians so enthusiastically joined last March working out? You know, the bombing campaign a certain set of bloodthirsty “liberals” argued was an example of a good war in the Middle East that we westerners could guiltlessly take part in?

I distinctly recall us being given the impression from the media that with the power of the air forces of NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, supposedly, an alliance set up to defend against a Soviet Bloc that literally no longer exists – it was only a matter of minutes before Libya’s unsavoury dictator, Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi, would be toppled.

But regular readers of this blog will recall that I wrote on March 20, the day after the bombing campaign began, “there is no guarantee the no-fly zone alone will result in the overthrow of Col. Gaddafi, whose armed forces do not depend on air power alone for their advantage on the battlefield.”

I wondered then what would we do if Col. Gaddafi defied our charming faith in our deadly airborne technology and managed to keep fighting? Would we give up, or escalate? I answered: “What we will do is escalate, of course, because no foolish politician wants to admit that he is a fool, and thus we never consider backing down until it is too late.”

Well, here we are, and look what’s happening: 68 days after the start of our bombing campaign, Col. Gaddafi remains doggedly in power. Apparently he has some allies among the population of his country and our easy little war to topple him has turned into a bloody stalemate.

Quelle surprise, the rebels we are backing turn out to be a rag-tag band of militants, with motives we don’t know or understand, incapable of making tactical gains against even the battered Gaddafi regime. Civilians are now undoubtedly dying beneath our precision-guided bombs, which turn out to be just as dumb as all the West’s other “smart” bombs before them.

And what are we doing? Escalating, of course.

The day before yesterday, according to the Globe and Mail, “NATO warplanes unleashed their most intense bombardment yet on Libya’s capital.” The New York Times reports we’re now throwing attack helicopters into the fight.

And as Thomas Walkom reported in today’s Toronto Star, the West’s war on Libya “was billed as a military action aimed at protecting civilians. But it has evolved into a bombing campaign that threatens the very civilians it claims to support.” In addition, a huge refugee problem has been created on Libya’s borders.

“While technically avoiding attacks on the country’s civilian infrastructure,” Mr. Walkom wrote, “NATO is gradually expanding the definition of what it calls military command-and-control centres to include any building that supporters of (Gaddafi) might use.”

With the stepped-up bombing campaign failing to produce results, there is naturally more pressure to escalate further, with U.K. Chief of Defence Staff Gen. David Richards calling for NATO “to go further and start bombing installations such as bridges and electric power stations.” Meaning, inevitably, there will be more civilian deaths.

It follows naturally that, whatever we are being told now, if the latest series of escalations continue to fail – as air force bombing campaigns usually do – pressure will begin to build to a ground invasion.

As I wrote on March 20, “how long will that resolve persist in the face of our Western hubris if the Libyans do not roll over, or if, God forbid, they manage to strike back in the Mediterranean or Europe? Faced with failure, the pressure for boots on the ground will grow.”

As previously noted, Western politicians like no-fly zones because, while they are acts of war, they sound like something more benign to the Western public. Alas, as we should have figured out by now, they seldom deliver as promised.

Human nature being what it is, bomb victims seldom side with the bombers, even if they are trying to bring them “democracy,” as we claim in Libya. Even if Col. Gaddafi gives up soon, with no credible alternative government available, we will never really subdue Libya without boots on the ground and bayonets at the Libyans’ throats. This will cost us, in lives, and treasure and reputation, long into the future.

Air force generals are, in the end, just successful bureaucrats justifying the purchase of incredibly expensive technology by promising results that are, literally, incredible.

In other words, the promise that we can achieve strategic goals on the ground using tactics that keep our hands clean and our soldiers far away are fantasy.

The pathetic lies of air force generals have been a consistent pattern since men started firing pistols and throwing bricks out of airplanes. It’s unclear why we never figure this out.

Well, we haven’t, and we’re waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fools say to push on.

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Don’t you get it? ‘Apparently not’ is the only safe conclusion as Alberta launches tardy STD campaign

Don’t you get it? Screen shot from provincial syphilis warning website. Below: Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, former health minister Ron Liepert.

At the risk of belabouring the point, while it is a good thing the government of Alberta and Alberta Health Services are now taking action to control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, it is a disgrace that it has taken so long.

One key reason for the delay, which has already cost lives and will surely increase health care costs here in the Syphilis Capital of Canada: the ridiculous attitude of one previous health minister.

So when we congratulate Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky for trying to address this serious problem – even if the solution proposed is a day late and a dollar short – we mustn’t forget that back in 2008 his predecessor Ron Liepert killed off a province-wide anti-syphilis advertising campaign because he figured the problem was caused by people who wouldn’t take responsibility for their own behaviour.

Just in case you and Mr. Liepert missed it, the nine Albertans who have died of congenital syphilis since 2005 were infants, not a group known for their inclination or ability to take responsibility for their actions, let alone those of their parents.

According to Hansard, on Nov. 6, 2008, Mr. Liepert told the Legislature that “we really have to ensure that people accept some personal responsibility in this area.” Three days earlier, he told the province’s Standing Committee on Health: “The decision to not proceed (with a syphilis awareness campaign) at that time was my decision.”

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

The always-diplomatic Mr. Liepert also suggested before the health committee that Albertans ought to “know who your partner is sleeping with.” And whom their parents were sleeping with, too, presumably.

Under Mr. Liepert’s predecessor in the portfolio, Dave Hancock, by the way, three senior public health physicians, including the one in charge of STDs and another who raised the alarm about syphilis in 2007, did not have their contracts renewed. None of them have ever explained why.

So, in 2009, Alberta reported – and I emphasize reported – 267 cases of syphilis, an increase of 99.25 per cent over a decade in a country where syphilis had almost been eradicated in 1995.

In 2009 Alberta also reported, the government’s press release today admitted, 1,500 cases of gonorrhea, 13,000 cases of chlamydia, and 219 new cases of HIV/AIDS. These rates of infection are worse than in any other Canadian province.

So now, as Mr. Zwozdesky announced yesterday, the province will spend $2 million on an awareness campaign in bars – where advertisements, presumably, will be placed above urinals in men’s washrooms where their messages will be attended to carefully by their readers. In addition, the minister said, another $4 million a year will be spent on the program over each of the next three years.

Well, good. But we’ve hosed away the better part of three years when we could have been aggressively addressing this health crisis because telling everyone in Alberta the bad news offended Mr. Liepert’s tender sensibilities.

Still, half a loaf is better than none.

The theme of the first phase of the new campaign will be “Don’t you get it,” we were informed yesterday.

Alas, the provincial Tories obviously don’t get it. Mr. Liepert now holds the critical energy portfolio and remains a trusted and influential member of Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative cabinet. What’s more, he turned up at Tory leadership front-runner Gary Mar’s campaign opener, so presumably we can assume he’ll be influential in those circles as well. (Mr. Hancock is also still in cabinet, as education minister.)

Finally, Albertans no doubt won’t get the public inquiry into the syphilis crisis the NDP were demanding back in 2008. But then, we’ve moved on to demanding a broader inquiry into a broader health care crisis, which we won’t get either.

All this said, Mr. Zwozdesky and his advisors at AHS deserve credit for finally getting it about kick-starting this campaign.

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The Church of the NDP is closed, and good riddance!

Typical NDP meeting in days of yore. Below: Jack Layton.

In the last hours of the 2011 federal election campaign, as word of Jack Layton’s Orange Wave spread to a wondering Canada, a longtime New Democrat supporter of my acquaintance made the following observation: “If it turns out on Monday that we only win 15 seats, a lot of New Democrats will quietly say to themselves, ‘Thank God!’”

During the election campaign, Mr. Layton achieved a goal that many of us thought was impossible: he turned the federal New Democratic Party into something it hadn’t been for many years. To wit: a political party.

And the NDP’s transition to a political party is going to be very hard on one significant group of loyal New Democrats – those who thought the NDP was their church.

Well, whether we like it or not – and face it, in their heart of hearts, many New Democrats won’t – the days when the NDP can be the church of choice for a small group of comfortable old social democrats are gone, thanks to the hard work of Mr. Layton and his associates.

I say good riddance, because the one thing the Church of the NDP had no hope of doing, ever, was forming a government. That was because churches almost always put dogma and political purity ahead of success in this life – just as the old NDP church certainly did.

But no one can say that the New Democrats under Mr. Layton have not taken the first step to being a government, to being the Government of Canada. (The Layton Government, as it were…) The special interest groups of the far right may not like this, and may argue why it shouldn’t be, but their arguments have the whiff of righteous fear to them, and with good reason.

Of course, it may not happen, for Mr. Layton and the party face formidable problems – not least among them the lack of an obvious successor should the Opposition Leader’s health falter again, the inexperience of some members in Mr. Layton’s large Quebec caucus and the inevitable bitterness of the old “churchgoing” NDPers who would rather be big fish in a marginalized pond than small players in a political party with potential.

Still, stranger things have happened. Luck and skill play almost equal roles in political advancement, and as a leader Mr. Layton has had both on his side. If his luck – and ours – holds, and his constitution supports his undoubted political skills through another Parliament, less likely things could happen than an NDP government of Canada.

Indeed, what political success story could be less likely than that of our disagreeable, petulant and ideologically pure far-right prime minister finally achieving a majority government?

If the NDP is to form the government, it won’t be easy. Mr. Layton will have to cozy the old NDPers along, keep the sovereignist tendencies of his Quebec caucus under control, school inexperienced MPs, keep a lid of those who have played leadership roles in other kinds of politics and safeguard his own health. But this is really not so different than the challenges faced by any other Canadian federal political leader, including the prime minister but especially the leader of the disintegrating Liberal Party.

If Mr. Layton can succeed – and he may just – sooner or later the basest instincts of our unlikely but undeniably skilled neo-con prime minister will tempt Stephen Harper to venture out where the ice is thin.

When that happens, all things being equal, Mr. Layton will have his chance to help Canada live up to its true potential.

There’s an old question-and-answer joke that asks: “Why do Canadians join political parties?” Well, it answers, “they join the Conservatives to get drunk, they join the Liberals to get lucky, and they join the NDP … to get leaflets.”

It’s still funny, but almost overnight Jack Layton has made it obsolete!

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Israeli newspaper reports U.S. may scrap F-35

A radar-evading F-35 “Flying Bathtub” fighter waits on the tarmac for takeoff. Below, U.S. Sen. John McCain in jet-flying duds, back in the day.

Well, you know how it goes: here today, gone tomorrow…

Anyway, this just in from Israel: The United States is thinking about scrapping the F-35 multi-bazillion-dollar stealthy fighter-bomber-whatever aircraft so beloved of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Retrogressive Preservative government.

They’ll be crying tonight at 24 Sussex Drive, not to mention NDHQ, if the report in the Haaretz newspaper turns out to be true and the Flying Boondoggle is headed for a rough landing.

According to Haaretz, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee “instructed the Pentagon to come up with alternatives to the jet fighter of the future, the F-35, with the project facing massive cost overruns.”

But this could turn out to be another example of Mr. Harper’s incredible run of good luck. If this keeps up and the F-35 goes plop like the flightless dodo bird it so marvelously resembles, Canadians may not have to choose between public health insurance and overpriced airplanes that don’t work.

Given the record of the Harper government and its allies in several provincial capitals, of course, such a choice would not bode well for the future of medicare.

However, if Haaretz is right, it may also turn out that the prime minister was too, at least when he said just before the election that the F-35 project is still within budget!

Regardless, Haaretz characterized the discussion at the House committee last week as “the most serious threat the F-35 has faced so far.”

There hasn’t been much talk about the possibility of the butt-ugly flying bathtub being grounded in the media, even south of the Medicine Line. A San Diego public radio station did quote Sen. John McCain – the former naval aviator who in 2008 was Sarah Palin’s presidential running mate – calling the F-35 program a “trainwreck” and “incredibly troubled.”

But since when did that kind of thing ever stand in the way of big spending on a largely useless aircraft with a shrinking range that is only balanced by its expanding cost?

So don’t pop any champagne corks just yet. The demise of the F-35 has been reported before and the project has continued to fly, after a fashion. Still, it’s nice to hear a little hopeful news out of the Middle East for a change.

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