Archive for June, 2011

The Americanization of Canadian medicine involves more than privatized clinics

“More tests, Doc? That lawyer is watching!” Below: More unhealthy things than unlicensed automatic firearms slip across the Medicine Line at the Ambassador Bridge and other entry points from the Republic to the south.

Are Canadian physicians and other health care professionals practicing “defensive medicine,” paying more attention to the legal risks they face than to the wellbeing of their patients? And are patient-care dollars being diverted by university hospitals to academic pursuits such as esoteric research and teaching?

We on the Canadian left have been very quick to assail plans by provincial governments to experiment with American-style, market-based health care delivery systems – and rightly so. The additional costs to taxpayers and the potential to harm the ability of the health care system to deliver care to everyone are well established in two-tier market-based systems, no matter what the Wildrose Alliance has to say about it.

But is anyone paying attention to the Americanization our health care system when it comes to aggressive civil litigation and the importation of American-style regulatory bodies to Canadian medicine?

In other words, there is more than one pernicious import from the United States slipping across our undefended Medicine Line that can have a nasty impact on our health care costs, and I’m not just talking about automatic pistols sneaking across the Ambassador Bridge!

Physicians will tell you privately that the impact of aggressive U.S.-style civil litigation on our health care system has been a dramatic – and expensive – increase in what they term defensive medicine. To avoid the potential for litigation, physicians will order every test known to medical science, or at least every test the doctor concludes a lawyer or judge would like to see. And then maybe some more after that. If the testing doesn’t produce satisfactory results, they’ll recommend a hospital admission where one really isn’t necessary.

Results still inconclusive? Well, leave the patient in hospital. Never discharge anyone until you’re rock-solid certain there’s a cure for whatever it is that ails them.

Obviously, in an uncertain world, this is going to have an impact on the cost of operating the entire system.

Worse, though, I have heard physicians discreetly suggest that close to a third of the time medical professionals take up preparing for operating room procedures goes to making sure a perfect medical legal document exists – rather than ensuring the patient’s wellbeing. Reduced to its cruelly absurd endpoint, the survival of the patient is unimportant as long as the documentation achieves perfection!

Apparently nowadays there’s a need to drape more than the patient during preparation for surgery – the surgeon’s butt and those of other OR staff need covering too!

The danger is that without adoption of a new model of medical litigation and regulatory enforcement, the efficiency of our health care system will continue to grind down, and costs will continue to rise.

Another cost factor little commented upon by anyone on the left, or anywhere else in the political spectrum for that matter, is the diversion of funds earmarked for patient care to academic pursuits, particularly at hospitals affiliated with university medical faculties. Universities are burning through patient-care funding to finance academic research and education.

Influences like these mean that whomever you put in charge of Alberta Health services – even if he or she has sworn off oatmeal-raisin cookies for a lifetime – their chances of success are slim when two out of three of the significant problems they face are outside their jurisdiction.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

A Tale of Two Tories: which one do you think is typical?

Good Tory versus Bad Tory… “Great God! Can it be!!” Below: The Calgary Herald’s nice sharp photo of Carol Haley and my own only blurry shot of Alison Redford. Where’s Daveberta’s photostream when you need it?

When it comes both to releasing potentially uncomfortable news and conducting yourself properly in public life, some Alberta Tories seem to get it and others do not.

Alison Redford, candidate for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, is one who apparently gets it. Carol Haley, former Conservative MLA for Airdrie-Chestermere and now Premier Ed Stelmach’s deputy chief of staff, clearly does not.

Despite the bad example set by past candidates for the Tory leadership and no doubt some pressure to conform to their ways for the time being, Ms. Redford last week did the right thing and published a list of the biggest donors to her campaign.

The list made the news in a fairly big way, both because of the size of the donations and the names of some of the people who contributed.

Now, we oughtn’t to make too much of this. The party’s current rules say she’s going to have to publish the list sooner or later – later being Feb. 1, 2012. What’s more, some of the others have promised to do the same thing, eventually.

But from Ms. Redford’s point of view, there was clearly a certain amount of risk involved in her decision to release this information now. First of all, because it shows that while the former justice minister and MLA for Calgary-Elbow may not be the candidate favoured by the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party establishment, she is backed by plenty of members of the plain old Calgary Establishment. Establishmentarians prominent in Big Oil, Big Hockey, Big Landlords, Big Utilities, and Big Health Bureaucracies all found their ways onto her donor list.

So that means some Albertans looking for someone a little different from the Old Boys Club that has dominated this province since a barefoot Ernest Manning rode his dinosaur to school, and who were thinking about casting a party ballot for Ms. Redford, or who might eventually think about casting a real provincial ballot for Premier Redford later on, may think again.

It also gives some of her opponents who might be less forthcoming with information just now a list of well-heeled potential donors who may wish to hedge their bets.

Ms. Haley, meanwhile, told the media the day before Ms. Redford’s announcement that she just couldn’t see anything wrong with taking a cheque for $3,000 as a farewell gift from her riding association when she told them she wasn’t going to run again in 2008.

Asked about the optics of this by a journalist, Ms. Haley was unable to see a problem. She didn’t exactly say, “What? Whaaaaat?” but that surely sounded like what she had in mind. Her actual quote, as recorded by Darcy Henton of the Calgary Herald: “It wasn’t anything that I believed was inappropriate.” (So, she presumably thought, shut up already!)

Uh, Ms. Haley, folks give donations to political parties to support the campaign efforts of those parties… not to send retired MLAs on sunshine-filled vacations. That’s why their donations are tax-deductible.

It is said here that political parties that misuse donations like this should lose their ability to have partisans claim such contributions against their taxes, just as churches that use their pews for political organizing should lose their tax-free status. Don’t count on either of these things happening in Alberta, of course.

OK, it’s not a big sum. But that’s not the point, is it? Indeed, surely Ms. Haley – who has enjoyed a number of very influential posts in the Conservative Party over the years – could afford to pay for her own holiday.

That she didn’t, that she doesn’t see anything wrong with that, that her constituency association thought this was appropriate (though we are told they balked at the idea of donating money from the same source to a deserving student) and that no one at her current place of employment thought to tell her to smarten up, speaks ill of the Alberta PC Party.

Indeed, this goes right to the heart of the problem with this bunch. They’ve been in power so long that they just don’t get it.

That’s why when it comes to Ms. Redford, it’s probably not a good thing for her prospects that she showed some gumption and did the right thing, this time as in the recent past.

When she called for a public inquiry into health care and when she called out Mr. Stelmach on his ridiculous attempt to blame teachers for education budget cuts, these were dismissed by the commentariat as desperation measures. Heaven only knows what they’ll make of her attempt to be transparent in her campaign financing. If she’s willing to upset the apple cart on these things, who knows what else she might do!

Alison Redford or Carol Haley? Which one do you think represents the true spirit of the Alberta Conservative Party?

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Alberta Conservative MP takes surprising swipe at Canada Post back-to-work law

Your blogger with Edmonton-St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber, in agreement for once … sort of.

With locked-out postal workers being forced back to their jobs last night by the Harper Conservatives, I was surprised and interested to learn that Brent Rathgeber, the usually well-behaved Conservative Member of Parliament for Edmonton-St. Albert, recently used his blog to criticize his own party for its approach to resolving labour disputes.

Does this indicate a sudden epiphany by Mr. Rathgeber that as an Alberta MP who isn’t one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s closest cronies he’s unlikely ever to be considered cabinet material, or is he merely showing a slightly independent streak now that he’s been comfortably re-elected?

Regardless, Mr. Rathgeber stated in the June 22 edition of his blog that he is philosophically troubled by back-to-work legislation. “As a former Labour Lawyer (Management Side), I do actually subscribe to the concepts of the right to collective bargaining and the right to withdraw services after the expiration of a collective agreement to demonstrate one’s resolve,” Mr. Rathgeber stated.

Perhaps I am reading too much into a simple comment, but in the context of Mr. Harper’s Ottawa, Mr. Rathgeber’s turn of phrase is interesting: “…I do actually subscribe to the concepts of the right to collective bargaining….” It almost sounds as if Mr. Rathgeber is acknowledging that such a sentiment is unusual, perhaps even unique, among the current unprogressive Conservative caucus in Ottawa.

And I can tell you that whatever he is, Mr. Rathgeber is no dummy. He’s a pretty sharp guy who knows how to parse a sentence for specific meaning as well as any of us. He is also, it should be noted, the MP for the riding in which I reside.

“At a more practical level,” Mr. Rathgeber went on, “I am leery of Back to Work Legislation because I cynically suspect that many unions favour such legislation, believing they will fare better under binding arbitration than they would at the bargaining table.”

While Mr. Rathgeber’s suspicion is by no means warranted in all circumstances and with all unions – especially here in Alberta, where the dice are usually loaded against working people in such processes – it must be conceded that there is enough truth to what he says to make it dangerous.

It is true at least that if the arbitration process is fair, and an employer is particularly unreasonable and intransigent, the process can be made to defend the interests of working people. Alas, unmentioned in Mr. Rathgeber’s blog, the arbitration process set out in the government of Canada’s back-to-work legislation, which was passed Saturday night, cannot be described as fair.

A useful exegesis of this ugly piece of legislation by Fred Wilson on rabble.ca explains that the final-offer selection process proposed is biased on its face against unions. Since the Canada Post bargaining position contains a number of outrageous demands for major concessions from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, including two-tier wages and two-tier retirement benefits designed to exploit younger workers, it will be impossible for the union to propose a fair agreement in the context of the bogus saw-off required by the process.

Indeed, in final-offer bargaining, from the company’s perspective, the more outrageous its bargaining position, the better. As Mr. Wilson writes, “unions are forced to present an offer that is usually just a more ‘reasonable’ version of what the employer is demanding. The union then becomes complicit in what can be very unfair results for workers.”

As Mr. Wilson further notes, Ottawa’s legislated approach is actually worse than that because it forces the arbitrator to effectively act as an agent of the employer through a rigged process by demanding, for example, that he or she consider wages in comparable postal industries, whatever that may mean. The Flyer Force?

The legislation also sets lower pay rates than Canada Post had offered CUPW in its last offer. The Conservatives’ Mr. Rathgeber concludes, therefore, that “it will be difficult for the Union to reject Canada Post’s final offer and then be subject to a legislated settlement that is less favourable.”

In other words, if his suggestion is correct (and, as a Conservative insider it is reasonable to assume that Mr. Rathgeber is doing more than idly speculating), it is clear that the intention of the Harper government’s foray into collective bargaining is to interfere on the side of an employer, not to protect the economy as the government maintains.

Indeed, Mr. Rathgeber seems to agree with this assessment, expressing his doubts about the significance of the economic impact of the Canada Post labour dispute and referring to “protection of the fragile economic recovery” as “the purported purpose of the Back to Work Legislation at Canada Post.” (Emphasis added.)

This kind of thing hardly indicates that Prime Minister Harper’s hold on his caucus is weakening. Still, it’s mildly encouraging to hear a Conservative MP suggest that his government’s policies may not be the best for Canada.

Meanwhile, although the reaction from organized labour to the government’s legislation was mostly one of wounded outrage, it seems to me that Canadian unions would be smarter to get cracking and challenge the constitutionality of this law.

Mr. Rathgeber, the sometime employer-side labour lawyer didn’t mention this in his blog, probably because he doesn’t wish to commit immediate political suicide, but the law is pretty clearly unconstitutional if the ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada in June 2007 has any meaning.

That case stemmed from a bill passed by the government of British Columbia that like this weekend’s postal back-to-work legislation clearly was designed to bypass the process of free collective bargaining and impose a punitive and unjust collective agreement on a group of public employees, in the British Columbia case, hospital workers.

The Supreme Court ruled that the right to bargain collectively is included under the freedom of association provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that the B.C. bill interfered with bargaining “either by disregarding past processes of collective bargaining, by preemptively undermining future processes of collective bargaining, or both.”

Sound familiar? This pretty fairly describes the intent and the action of Ottawa’s back-to-work law.

There’s no point wailing about the fact Stephen Harper and his Walmart Party of Canada government are anti-labour. We knew that before the election, and it’ll be a few years before they can be challenged in the courts.

So labour would be smart, in my view, to attack this disgraceful legislation in the only remaining branch of the Canadian government where the idea of the rule of law still holds sway – to wit, the courts.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Trust us, says Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith… uh… that’s it

Wildrose Alliance supporters form a line as they wait to rejoin the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. Some will make the trip several times, carrying bags of votes and money. Actual Alberta Tory voters may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: Danielle Smith, Hal Walker, Ryan Hastman.

That’s it? Trust us? Trust us?

That, according to the mainstream media, was the substance of Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith’s message to Albertans at the start of the oddly named party’s annual convention in Calgary Friday night.

Ms. Smith told her far-right party’s faithful that she knows “simply telling you to trust me … is not enough. …

“Trust is earned by the actions we take,” she said, according to the Calgary Herald. “Trust comes from doing what is right even when it is inconvenient. I’m asking every Albertan listening tonight to give me and (the candidates) up on this stage a chance to earn your trust.”

That may not seem like much of a message for a new party taking on a 40-year political dynasty with deep pockets, plenty of bench strength and a significant chance of reinventing itself as something both comforting and new. But, I guess, under the circumstances, it’s about all the new improved Wildrose (with reduced Alliance content) Party has to go on.

My guess is that most of the members of the strategic braintrust behind the Wildrose Alliance didn’t even want to think about the elephant in the room at their convention Friday and yesterday, which was the fact that since Progressive Conservative Premier Ed Stelmach announced his departure so many Wildrose supporters have either returned to the PCs or have reverted to behaviour that is normal in Alberta, having a foot in both camps.

The reality is that many Wildrose supporters were there because they didn’t like Mr. Stelmach, not because they didn’t like the Tories or because they loved the Wildrose Alliance. This assertion is difficult for anyone to prove right or wrong just now, but it rings with a pure harmonic chime.

Consider the case of Hal Walker, a long-time PC activist, Ralph Klein confidante and mover and shaker in the Calgary business community, who noisily switched to the Wildrose Alliance in April 2010 and before long was serving as the party’s president.

Now, while triumphant references to his defection linger on the Wildrose website, Mr. Walker has stepped aside as president of the party. It is easy to speculate that with Mr. Stelmach gone, Mr. Walker feels his work is done.

Remember, Mr. Walker was once part of Tory leadership candidate Alison Redford’s constituency association, and he may not be as enthusiastic about campaigning against Ms. Redford, or any of the other potential Tory leaders with whom he has a history, as he was about facing off against Mr. Stelmach.

At any rate, if indeed Mr. Walker has lost interest in steering the Wildrose Alliance through the shoals of the next election, lots of other former Tories who made the switch and are now drifting back toward the Conservatives may feel the same way.

Anyway, the main purpose of a convention like this is getting the party’s true believers fired up in case there’s an election sooner than expected, and at the same time not doing anything too outrageous that might scare off middle-of-the-road Alberta voters. You know, like voting to promote private hospitals or to scrap the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

Middle-of-the-road voters are the very folks who in significant numbers are already considering a return to the comfortable old Conservatives now that the singularly inept Mr. Stelmach is on his way out the door. I recognize that this is going to be a controversial statement, seeing as the Wildrose Alliance has been touting a dubious poll that says something else. We will just have to wait until someone does a serious poll of Albertans’ true voting intentions to settle this argument.

Meanwhile, before we go any further, I have a little confession to make. I’m relying mainly on what the mainstream media has to say about this event, supplemented by a little reading between the lines. I would have loved to have been there, truly, but the deal is that if I’d gone, the dogs would have been dead of thirst by the time I got home. I might sacrifice the goldfish for the Wildrose Alliance, but not Man’s Best Friends!

Where was I? Oh yes, the Wildrose Alliance. …

Without much actual news to report – it would have been news, after all, if Ms. Smith hadn’t delivered a rip-roaring partisan speech to her supporters – the political commentators are reduced to sorting through the tealeaves for auguries of what may come.

Thus, a few vague thoughts present themselves from the media coverage of this event:

  • Ms. Smith and her strategists seem to be focusing in on Gary Mar as the person to beat among the Progressive Conservative Party leadership candidates vying to replace Premier Stelmach. According to the Calgary Herald, at any rate, she made Mr. Mar the principal target of her attack on the Tories. But then, Mr. Mar is the frontrunner just now. This strategy, though, may prove to be wishful thinking, as Wildrosers have also identified Mr. Mar as the best candidate to run against from their vantage point. Either Ms. Redford or Ted Morton, both strong candidates, might present challenges the Wildrose Alliance is less well placed to meet.
  • The Wildrose Alliance appears to be is rethinking its past strategy of relying on Liberal or NDP victories in Edmonton to reduce the number of Conservative seats. The factors that drive this change are likely the apparent ongoing collapse of the Alberta Liberal Party and the probable return to strength of the post-Stelmach Conservatives. If so, this is probably a vain hope. Ultimately, the collapse of the Liberals in Edmonton is going to benefit the Conservatives and no one else. Think about it, where else are traditional Liberal voters who think the New Democrats are too far to the left and the Wildrose Alliance too right-wing going to go?
  • The ties between the Wildrose Alliance and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s neo-Con government in Ottawa remain strong. Count on it, Ryan Hastman, former PMO operative and Alberta’s only unsuccessful Conservative candidate in the most recent federal election, would not have joined the Wildrose ranks last week without the blessing of his bosses on the Rideau.
  • The biggest threat to the Wildrose Alliance’s long-term survival remains former finance minister and publicly paid far-right college ideologue Ted Morton, who as the Journal recently reported continues to campaign effectively but quietly in the background. Don’t forget, Dr. Morton is a guy with a long list of supporters from his last leadership campaign, so he presents a serious threat in the Tory leadership vote’s first ballot. If he triumphs, he poses an existential threat to the Wildrose Alliance, because his strategy (to court right-wing activists) and his plan (to re-unite the right under an unprogressive Conservative banner) are both essentially the same as Ms. Smith’s. The only real difference: the leader.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Lord Tubby’s Lament

It’s not my fault! Have you got that? It’s not my fault! Now, welcome me to Canada! Where’s my growing army of supporters who never believed I was guilty? Kenney! Fetch me a gin fizz! Bring Lady Babs her slippers!

I blame Chrétien, that wily old Canuck,
For forcing me to leave my natal land.
The moment of my triumph’s when he struck,
That Third World bum, the flames of envy fanned.
I blame Canadians, clangorous and weak,
Jealous of my grandiose success.
Medicare! High taxes! Oh, how bleak!
Addicted to their socialistic mess.
I blame Dave Radler, oily little snake;
That judge, self-righteous, pusillanimous;
The state DA, a pious little fake;
Revengeful journos, kicking up a fuss.
In short, though they all found me in default,
It all comes down to this: it’s not my fault!

This, er, post also appears on rabble.ca.

The Conrad Chronicle continues: Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Then go to Canada and make a nuisance of yourself…

Go directly to jail! Former Canadian press barons convicted of criminal offences in allied democracies may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: The actual Lord Black, mugged.

Amid all the courtroom histrionics yesterday when Chicago Judge Amy St. Eve sent the aggressively unrepentant Conrad Black back to jail, most of the media covering the proceedings declined to write what journos toiling under the former plain old Mr. Black, sometime press baron, used to call the second-day lead.

The second-day lead, of course, is the one you put in the paper in the morning after all the broadcasters and websites have already told everyone the news – which in this case can be basically summed up as “go directly back to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.” Well, not directly exactly, as Her Honor gave Lord Black two months to get his affairs in order before he returns to custody. And $200 ain’t worth what it used to be.

In this case, the second-day lead would go something like this: “The instant he steps out of his U.S. jail cell, probably in about nine months’ time, Baron Black of Crossharbour will attempt to rush back to Canada. Indeed, he is applying for a Canadian passport even as your humble and underpaid scribe scratches out this report!”

As the Toronto Star reported, albeit deep in the story, “Black’s lawyers also got permission to begin the process of applying for a (Canadian) passport, so that he doesn’t have to be locked up in an immigration facility after his release while he waits for the paperwork to be sorted out.”

Unfortunately, notwithstanding his felonious history and lack of citizenship, getting back into Canada will probably a swift and effortless process for Lord Black – what with his memberships in the Order of Canada and the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada still intact and his many friends in the Harperite councils of our neo-con government, whose slick entries to power were eased by his Lordship’s many efforts in journalism over the years.

Under such circumstances, Jason Kenney, the barking Cerberus determined to keep refugees from dreadful foreign conflicts from Canada’s gates, can be expected to fold like a cheap tent when presented with Lord Black’s residency application.

Remember, Lord Black is technically inadmissible to Canada without Mr. Kenney’s assistance, and since large numbers of Canadians view his Lordship as a divisive figure whose attitudes border on unpatriotic, that should give the immigration minister momentary pause. But then, what’s a little embarrassment when you’ve just been so massively re-elected?

Never let it be said, once Lord Black has returned to this country and is again making a nuisance of himself by advocating anti-social behaviour among the moneyed classes, that foreign felons are not welcome on our shores, as long as they come with the right credentials and a long list of influential Canadian friends.

However, what with Lady Black’s fainting spells, Lord Black’s impenitent poetry quoting and bluster, and the whinging from the defence benches about the fragile state of his health, one can forgive the journos in attendance for concentrating on the hard-news angle yesterday. Perhaps the National Post can devote some column inches on the morrow to an exploration of the lamentable quality of medical care in the U.S. prison system so beloved of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, arguably an ironic creation of Lord Black’s journalistic efforts.

Amid all this clangorous tambourine-rattling, as it were, about Lord Black’s good works in prison, let us never forget that this is the man who noisily renounced his Canadian citizenship, denounced his former compatriots as cowards and philistines, and dismissed his former country as “a Third World dump run by raving socialists.” He is a person who was, moreover, convicted of a criminal offence in a neighbouring democracy with a fully functional judicial system – as yesterday’s events amply demonstrated.

This was a business owner who, right here in Alberta, publicly declared his intention to ignore the laws of the province and sever his striking employees from their jobs like “gangrenous limbs.”

As such, he has no business carrying a Canadian passport in his pocket, now or in nine months!

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Is the Taliban ‘on its knees’? Not very likely

Nobody here but us poppy farmers! Really! Below: Mao Zedong and a visitor not dissimilar in many ways from certain recent Canadian politicians.

Mao Zedong, a guy who may have known a thing or two about guerrilla warfare, famously observed: “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.”

So when you hear news reports that thanks to the efforts of NATO forces in Afghanistan the Taliban is now “on its knees” in what used to be its heartland of Panjwaii, you can be reasonably certain that your leg is being pulled.

This should be true even if you are the prime minister of Canada, who was told this very thing a few days ago by Brig.-Gen. Ahmed Habibi of the Afghan National Army. “There were 400 or 500 Taliban in the area when the Canadians came to Kandahar in 2006,” Brig.-Gen. Habibi told an apparently credulous Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “The enemy is on its knees here now.”

Presumably, Brig.-Gen. Habibi will say much the same thing again, and be quoted by major media saying it, when he visits the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., next month.

So, imagine yourself for a moment in the dusty sandals of the local Taliban commander who must face Brig.-Gen. Habibi and his better-armed, better-trained, better-led and better-fed Canadian allies.

With the Americans saying they are about to pull the bulk of their forces out of your country, the French and Germans announcing the same thing, and the rest of the rickety NATO coalition certain to quickly follow, what would you do?

You don’t have to be a graduate of a prestigious military college, or even a guest speaker there, to know that you would act like a fish in the water, or, in the case of the Panjwaii district, like a subsistence farmer. This will be easy to pull off, of course, because in all likelihood, that’s exactly what you would be.

In other words, you would be patient and wait. Your Kalashnikov would be wrapped in an oily rag and buried – deep enough to stay where it is, but not so deep you couldn’t get it if you needed it. If you were feeling particularly creative on the night you did the digging, you might even scatter a few poppy seeds above it.

Would this mean you have gone away? No. Would this mean you have changed your mind? Nope. Would it mean you are on your knees? Absolutely not!

What it would mean is that you are behaving as elements of insurgent armies always behave. You know enough about war to know you cannot defeat a technically advanced army head on, even in your own backyard. You know enough about history to be certain no such army will stick around forever, especially if you harass it in your backyard. (Indeed, as Mao preached and the Taliban has practiced: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”)

You surely know enough about your own country to be certain that Brig.-Gen. Habibi and the ANA will not stand up when the Americans, Canadians and all the rest “stand down.”

You may even know enough about current events to have heard that your patience is about to be rewarded.

If it is, we Canadians will be entitled to ask what our soldiers were doing in your benighted country throughout this past decade, spilling their blood and spending in excess of $20 billion of our treasure that could have been used to build schools and hospitals right here in Canada.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Having a majority means never having to say you’re sorry – even about the ‘Taliban Jack’ slur

Above: Afghan fighters against the British occupation in the late 19th Century. Not much has changed but the rifles. Below: Peter MacKay, Jack Layton.

We’re still waiting for that apology to Opposition Leader Jack Layton from the Harper Conservatives.

You know, the one they owe him for getting their on-line Tory Rage Machine ™ and their Tame Mainstream Media Auxiliary ™ to label him “Taliban Jack” back in 2006 when the New Democratic Party leader had the temerity to suggest that the so-called NATO coalition should open lines of communication to the Pashtun fighters labeled the Taliban by the West.

Alert readers will recall how Defence Minister Peter MacKay, at the time the minister of foreign affairs, sniped at Mr. Layton: “Is it next going to be tea with Osama Bin Laden? This cannot happen!”

The TRM, of course, went much farther, demonstrating with its “Taliban Jack” smear its unchallenged ability, as the famous advertisement on Craigslist put it, to “make up facts,” and use “sarcasm and personal insults” to “score points” and “stir outrage.” (Perhaps I should call this an alleged ad. Can it really be real? I mean, obviously it can, given the vicious creativity of the TRM, but one so rarely sees an admission of malfeasance so crystalline in its clarity that one has to wonder!)

We’ve known since last spring that the U.S. government was talking to the Taliban. However, that information has really gone mainstream in the past two weeks, with the noisy complaints from Afghanistan’s Western-propped President Hamid Karzai about the Americans talking to his foes, and the apparent confirmation of the talks by retiring U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates in the foreign press.

It is reasonable to speculate now that the NATO-Taliban talks were meant to set the stage for U.S. President Barack Obama’s declaration of victory in Afghanistan yesterday and his announcement that 10,000 American troops would be withdrawn from that country by the end of this year, with another 23,000 out by the fall of 2012.

Under the circumstances, U.S. and NATO commanders don’t have much choice but talk to the military leaders of the majority Pashtun resistance to their occupation because it seems highly unlikely the Karzai government could survive without a perpetual Western occupation on the scale of the Soviet attempt to hold that violent country through the 1980s.

And this is not to mention the fact that the United States economy is on life support and can hardly afford the expense of $120 billion a year to prop up the Karzai government in the face of determined opposition from the country’s largest ethnic group.

Anyway, with bin Laden dead at the hands of U.S. commandos – an event that unsurprisingly took place on the territory of our Pakistani ally, not that of Afghanistan – the Americans and their NATO surrogates can stop pretending that the Taliban had anything much to do with the people who plotted the attacks on New York in 2001.

Indeed, the even Postmedia News reported yesterday that there are no more than 75 al-Qaida fighters left in Afghanistan, if there ever were very many.

So, given all this and their steely silence to date, one would think that now would be the ideal moment for the Conservative government and its stooges in the blogosphere to withdraw the offensive “Taliban Jack” slur and apologize to Mr. Layton.

Mr. MacKay – to whom will likely fall the role of being Canada’s official spokesperson for the NATO talks with the Taliban that he once said cannot happen, a sort of Taliban Pete, as it were – would make an excellent mouthpiece for the still-much-needed apology.

Instead, of course, the Taliban Jack slur remains current in cyberspace – cropping up in hydrophobic comments appearing under on-line newspaper stories about the treatment of Taliban prisoners as recently as last week.

As for Mr. MacKay, perhaps he was too busy explaining why we don’t need a judicial inquiry into the handling of detainees in Afghanistan. Anyway, having a majority government means never having to say you’re sorry…

Plus ca change…

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Fired former health CEO ensures line-jumping allegations won’t fade away

Pugnacious former Alberta health minister Ron Liepert, left, takes it on the chin from the man he hired, equally pugnacious former Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett, as a young Perfesser Dave looks on. Former Alberta health officials sparring may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: the real Dr. Duckett, Mr. Liepert.

If you doubt that Stephen Duckett is a sly old fox awaiting another chance to whack the Alberta government for whacking him, just read his recent letter to the Saint Albert Gazette.

Dr. Duckett, who was fired by the government last November and is now working as a health administration professor at the University of Alberta, told a medical conference in Toronto on May 5 that Conservative MLAs used to make it a practice to help their friends and patrons jump the queue for medical treatment.

Since then, it’s all hell all the time that’s been breaking loose out here on the Great Plains, with Premier Ed Stelmach, Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky and now former health minister Ron Liepert comedically trying without much success to get everyone to stop paying attention and go back to sleep.

Every time it looks as if this Tory braintrust may have succeeded, Dr. Duckett wakes us all up again with another swift jab to the Conservative gut, or the chin.

Dr. Duckett took his latest swift little shot at Mr. Zwozdesky in last Saturday’s edition of the St. Albert bi-weekly with a crisply worded explanation of why the health minister’s statement that Dr. Duckett had never told him about the line jumping doesn’t necessarily justify the conclusion that Dr. Duckett never raised the issue with anyone.

“In your story ‘Queue jumping allegations continue to boil’ … Minister Gene Zwozdesky is quoted as saying that I did not raise these queue issues with him and goes on to say, ‘I think you can read between these lines yourself,’” Dr. Duckett wrote, pointedly signing himself, “former president and CEO, Alberta Health Services.” (Emphasis added.)

However, the Australian PhD economist added, “There is little need to read between any lines as the explanation is simple and obvious.

“When I first came across these issues Minister Zwozdesky was not health minister and so there is no reason why I should have discussed them with him. I thought I had fixed the problem with my memo of June 2009 by making clear that these practices were to end. So when Zwozdesky became minister in 2010 this issue was no longer current and so I saw no reason to raise it with him then either.”

Ergo: it happened, and then it got fixed, no thanks to you Tories.

Slap! This was hardly a knockout punch from Alberta’s former No. 1 health care bureaucrat before he was felled by misuse of a raisin-oatmeal cookie, but enough of these little smacks can wear a minister down if he has to go 12 rounds with the guy. And it surely sounds as if Dr. Duckett intends to go the full 12 rounds – who wouldn’t bet that similar responses appear from time to time in other tiny community papers throughout Alberta?

Well, maybe that St. Albert letter was what prompted the government’s latest response to Dr. Duckett, or maybe it was some other painful jab in some other part of the governmental anatomy, but whatever it was, this time it was Ron Liepert himself who stepped into the ring.

Now, Mr. Liepert, the man who hired Dr. Duckett and who must now wish he’d never heard his name, has a reputation of the Raging Bull of the Stelmach cabinet. In his latest pronouncement, alas, he comes across more as a stumblebum political palooka.

“I think there was an overstating of this sort (that) somehow MLAs had some priority access and that’s certainly nothing that I ever saw,” Mr. Liepert was quoted as saying in the Edmonton Journal yesterday. If Conservative MLAs did anything, he added, they were just trying to help their constituents in “navigating the system.”

So that’s what those “designated go-to guys for discreet waiting-list adjustments on request from MLAs” that Dr. Duckett mentioned back on May 5 were for!

Read between those lines, of course, and Mr. Liepert seems to be implying that something may well have been going on – just that it’s no big deal.

Mr. Zwozdesky did a little better – spreading the blame a bit by implying that opposition MLAs asked for favours too, and explaining the notorious go-to guys away as mere government relations officers.

“You just immediately refer it on to the health services folks so you stay out of it yourself because everybody knows that MLAs have absolutely no power and no authority in this area,” Mr. Zwozdesky told the Journal. “Only doctors and other medically trained people can impact wait lists.”

That’s the problem in Alberta today, of course. Everybody doesn’t know that government MLAs have no power when it comes to medical waiting lists. That’s why we need a judicial inquiry, no matter what excuses the remaining members of the Stelmach cabinet trot out.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

Internet buzz predicts Speaker Ken Kowalski’s imminent retirement

Your blogger lectures Speaker Ken Kowalski on something or other at the Alberta Legislature as one of Mr. Kowalski’s aides desperately searches for an avenue of escape. Below: Link Byfield, Lloyd Bertschi.

As Alberta Speaker Ken Kowalski might say after a particularly spirited rendition of the national anthem by occupants of the Legislative galleries, “Well, now!”

The Internet is abuzz with predictions that Mr. Kowalski, after three decades and two years as a Conservative MLA, nine consecutive terms in all, is about to retire from politics.

If this is true, one of the seemingly eternal verities of Alberta politics will have at last come to an end. Mr. Kowalski, after all, is one of the great characters of the Alberta political scene. Once the deputy premier, he apparently fell into disfavour with premier Ralph Klein in the mid-1990s. At any rate, he disappeared from Cabinet. But it was not long before he reinvented himself and persuaded the House to elect him Speaker in 1997.

Now Mr. Kowalski appears both to be unbeatable in his own riding if he chooses to stay and entitled to enjoy his retirement if he decides to go. Enjoyable his retirement should be, seeing as a year ago he was reported to be in line for a comfortable payout of close to $1.3-million from the people of Alberta.

The rumour about Mr. Kowalski’s looming departure seems to have been spread by Joan Crockatt, a former journalist of a conservative turn of mind who nowadays, according to her online biography, “serves as a media consultant specializing in strategic communications.” Ms. Crockatt is also an ardent Tweeter, and of late several of her Tweets have chirped cheerfully about the possibility Mr. Kowalski will soon hit the road.

Various other Daves in the blogosphere have picked up this storyline, with Dave Heyman of the Allpolitics.ca blog commenting that Mr. Kowalski’s departure “throws wide open” the race in the Speaker’s Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock riding northwest of Edmonton. Mr. Heyman added that the Wildrose Alliance candidate in that riding is Link Byfield.

However, Dave Cournoyer over at the Daveberta.ca blog contributed a note of caution to Mr. Heyman’s analysis by noting that Mr. Heyman himself has taken of late to advising Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith on her political plans. This factoid is newsworthy on its own, as Mr. Cournoyer pointed out, since Mr. Heyman has also spent spells acting as a media spokesthingy for such well-placed Tories as Premier Ed Stelmach and Energy Minister Ron Liepert, not to mention helping out with the Calgary mayoral campaign of Liberal MLA Kent Hehr.

It is perhaps worthy of note at this point that the trio of Mr. Heyman, Ms. Crockatt and Ms. Smith worked together as journalists at the Calgary Herald during that newspaper’s unfortunate labour dispute in 1999 and 2000. (In the interests of full disclosure, the author of this blog post was walking a picket line outside the same building at that particular moment in history.)

The point of mentioning this, of course, is that while it may very well be that Mr. Kowalski is contemplating retirement, it is also likely quite possible that the Wildrose Alliance and supporters of its neo-conservative nostrums – whomever they might be – would very much like you to think that Mr. Byfield has a credible chance of winning in Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock.

Anything is possible, one supposes, but as noted here recently, Mr. Byfield, scion of the now-vanished far-right Alberta Report publishing empire founded by his father Ted, may be fairly described as a somewhat eccentric candidate. A founder and participant in such oddball Astroturf organizations as the Society to Explore and Record Christian History and the Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, which exists to resist the “expanding influence” of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or so says the Wikipedia, Mr. Byfield is probably best known as Alberta’s still-waiting Senator in Waiting.

Indeed, in the event Mr. Kowalski chooses to depart, much more likely than Link Byfield, MLA, is that some local Conservative grandee with access to the Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock riding association’s quarter-million-dollar war chest will come forward and sweep to victory on Mr. Kowalski’s coattails.

The name of Lloyd Bertschi, Mayor of Morinville, the largest community in the riding, and former president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, springs to mind in this context.

Regardless, whether or not Mr. Kowalski decides to retire remains to be seen. While he has clearly relished the position as Speaker over the years, what he concludes is likely to happen in the next general election will surely play a key role in his decision-making.

He has put his boot upon members of all parties in the Legislature at times, and more than a few would be happy to see him go. Moreover, if the Conservatives were to lose a significant number of seats to the Wildrose Alliance in the next election, the party could well be disinclined to see one of their own serve as Speaker.

In such circumstances, Mr. Kowalski would lose his not insubstantial power and be thoroughly marginalized by those in his own party who have been displeased by his rulings in the past. Facing that possibility, pulling the plug and retiring might not seem like an unrealistic option.

As is so often the case in the Legislature, we must await Mr. Kowalski’s ruling.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.