Archive for August, 2011

The other leadership race: Can the Alberta Liberals survive Raj Sherman as leader?

Your blogger with Dr. Sherman, back in the day. Below: Hugh MacDonald, Laurie Blakeman.

Can the Alberta Liberals survive the election of Raj Sherman as their leader?

This question has to be asked because the probability now seems quite high that Dr. Sherman will in fact win the Liberal leadership on Sept. 10.

Dr. Sherman has said and various media have reported that the former Tory MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark has registered about 18,000 of the party’s approximately 27,000 eligible voters. The number of eligible voters is so high for a party with low membership and relatively weak support because the party adopted rules that allow even non-party-members to vote without paying a fee.

And Dr. Sherman is without doubt popular among many members of the Alberta general public, thanks to his very public rebellion last fall against Premier Ed Stelmach and the rest of the Conservative caucus over their handling of the health care file. The perception that a campaign was orchestrated against him by Tory insiders who tried to question his mental stability hasn’t hurt his Liberal candidacy, given the party’s liberal voting rules, one bit!

In addition, Dr. Sherman is an engaging and intelligent man whom people tend to react to with favour. As an Emergency Room physician involved in a high-profile battle with his own party over health policy, a lot of Albertans give him some credit for knowing what he’s talking about. So, unlike all of the other candidates – including a couple of veteran Alberta Liberal MLAs who have served their party well through thick and thin – he now possesses extremely high name recognition.

Moreover, none of his opponents seem to have been able to inspire the public imagination. Opposing him are the two hardworking but relatively low-profile Liberal representatives – Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Hugh MacDonald and Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman – and two virtual unknowns from Calgary, Bill Harvey and Bruce Payne. Mr. Payne is both an evangelical preacher and trade unionist, and Mr. Harvey seems determined to occupy a position to the right of the Wildrose Alliance.

So it is said here that if all those voters show up in 11 days, high name recognition plus a wide-open voting process plus lots of supporters from outside the party’s traditional ranks plus low-impact opponents will add up to a slam-dunk victory for Dr. Sherman when the Liberals replace outgoing leader Dr. David Swann, also a physician.

That will generate some headlines, but it ain’t necessarily good news for the Alberta Liberal Party. This is because there are several pretty obvious problems with Dr. Sherman as a leader from the Liberals’ perspective.

Above all, he’s a one-issue politician who doesn’t really care about the party or any other policy except his prescriptions for health care. What’s more, while lots of potential Liberal leadership voters may be comfortable with his insistence that he’s the guy with all the answers, one imagines a shrewd opponent could work pretty effectively with that in a general election.

Remember, this is a guy who said, apparently without irony, that “within 24 months, I can fix the health system. … I am the national expert.”

Related to this is the fact that Dr. Sherman is not really a Liberal – he’s a Tory who became an Independent when he had a very public bust-up over health policy with the party under whose banner he ran.

Some readers will ask, what’s the big deal? And it’s true, lots of politicians change horses in mid-stream in Alberta politics. But the Liberals, who for years have managed to hang on to a deeply loyal core vote mostly in the Edmonton area, are in very shaky condition right now. There’s another party – the Alberta Party – that essentially shares their program and includes many of their former members. Their caucus appears to be crumbling at a moment when it should have been able to hope to make significant gains.

In such circumstances, can the Alberta Liberals really thrive under a leader who could care less about traditional Liberal values and positions, let alone traditions, and whose legislative interest does not extend beyond one single policy area?

Finally, there is the delicate matter of Dr. Sherman’s mercurial nature. There is no doubt that he was treated shabbily by some members of his former party, who really seem to have made an effort to spread the notion he was suffering from mental instability. His credibility was not hurt by the media revelations soon thereafter that such accusations seemed to be standard operating procedure in certain quarters when any physician dared to criticize the health care system.

But no sensible person can read Dr. Sherman’s Nov. 17, 2010, email without thinking that, at the very least, sending it was an impulsive decision that displayed questionable judgment.

This combination of factors bodes ill for the Alberta Liberals if they choose Dr. Sherman over Mr. MacDonald or Ms. Blakeman, both of whom have what it would take to preserve the party’s traditional vote and lead it through this difficult period until a more charismatic leader emerges.

It seems probable that if this speculation is right and Dr. Sherman wins, the party will enjoy a small boost from the media attention that will follow the election. It will likely last about a week – until the Conservative leadership vote seven days later generates its own excitement.

It seems unlikely Dr. Sherman will be able to sustain things much longer than that with a one-issue campaign, and that traditional party supporters will abandon ship soon thereafter with an impulsive captain unconcerned about their ideas and traditions at the helm. Indeed, signs of such fissures were becoming apparent at the final party all-candidates’ forum, last night in Calgary.

If this happens, it will be a disaster for the party, and quite possibly the end of the Alberta Liberals.

Sorry, but no matter how good he looks this week, Raj Sherman still doesn’t have what it takes to be a successful Liberal leader and the Liberals will regret it if they choose him.

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Political avian flu update: Will Doug Horner send the AMA’s chickens home to roost?

Dr. Patrick White ponders the future of the Alberta Medical Association under Premier Doug Horner. Noted Alberta physicians may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Mr. Horner, the actual Dr. White (CBC photo).

Will the Alberta Medical Association learn any useful lessons from Doug Horner’s health care policy, which the Progressive Conservative leadership candidate announced yesterday morning?

Well, that likely depends on whether Mr. Horner becomes the leader of the Conservatives and the premier of Alberta – something the political bookmakers may say the odds are against, but which is well within the realm of possibility.

The lesson for the AMA, just in case it turns out to be important, would be that you’re probably not smart to be too overt in your support for one particular candidate in a political leadership contest because there’s always the possibility another one might win. And then where will you be?

Alert readers will recall how back in June AMA President Dr. Patrick White appeared to endorse frontrunner Gary Mar’s candidacy by using the physicians’ association’s private email list to invite its 10,000 members to sit in on “a town hall conversation with Gary Mar from the comfort of your home.” After a few days of controversy, Dr. White’s endorsement or whatever it was appeared to drop off the provincial political radar screen. But did it?

Now, none of this is to predict that Mr. Horner, the Spruce Grove-Sturgeon-St. Albert MLA, will win and become premier, or that Mr. Mar, who is generally acknowledged to still be the frontrunner in the race that goes to its first ballot on Sept. 17, will not.

Nevertheless, as a former deputy premier and senior cabinet minister with plenty of support inside and outside the Conservative caucus, Mr. Horner is a credible candidate who could very well emerge victorious. Failing that, he could also end up with plenty of clout in the cabinet of whoever does win if he happens to make a deal that benefits the ultimate winner of the ABM (Anybody But Mar) campaign that appears to be starting to gel.

In fact, it’s widely thought that all candidates in the race other than Mr. Mar are busy plotting such deals right and left – and that Mr. Mar is focusing his efforts on winning on the first ballot on the theory that if it goes to a second one, his campaign could be in for a Jim Dinning-style drubbing. (And wouldn’t that be ironic, seeing as Mr. Mar seems to be backed by exactly the same cast of characters as that which supported Mr. Dinning, who was the frontrunner back in 2006. Mr. Dinning, of course, was defeated by Ed Stelmach in classic “up the middle” style on the second ballot.)

So, if Mr. Horner were in fact to emerge the winner, he might very well come to the conclusion that he didn’t owe a darned thing to the leaders of the medical association – which at the moment is Alberta’s most powerful trade union!

Indeed, looking at the health care policy that Mr. Horner published yesterday, it might almost seem that this is already so. At any rate, the document published on Mr. Horner’s website contains two interesting policies that are not certain to delight the physicians’ union:

  • Point 3: “Collaborating with stakeholders to minimize unnecessary residency requirements for foreign-trained doctors. Establish equivalency programs with non-Albertan medical schools to recognize training conducted outside our province and country.” Well, there goes the monopoly!
  • Point 4: “Enabling health care professionals to practice to the full scope of their training and keep pace with innovations already practiced by several health care disciplines. Enable direct payment from the publicly funded system for their services.” This means, for example, allowing nurses and pharmacists to do some of the work now exclusively done by physicians, and get paid the same way.

In his document, which the Alberta media bizarrely and irresponsibly chose to almost completely ignore, Mr. Horner also suggests allowing physicians to deliver some services over the Internet or the telephone and still be able to bill (interesting), and opening the door a little wider to private insurance (troubling).

From a cursory reading of this document, which only CTV seems to have covered as a website brief, it would be easy to conclude that Mr. Horner has decided there’s not much point in worrying about what the doctors think of him, seeing as it appears they’ve already made up their collective mind.

So if he does win, we will have to conclude that the AMA may have contracted a case of political avian flu, the sort of thing that can happen when humans with medical degrees live in proximity to chickens that are coming home to roost.

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NOTE (9:30 a.m):

After the media ignored the story throughout the day yesterday and well into the evening, when the foregoing was written, Conservative leadership candidate Doug Horner’s health care policy finally got a little late coverage in some Alberta newspapers. A Calgary Herald story, which was also reprinted in the Edmonton Journal in the morning, covered the plan in some detail, and the Edmonton Sun also gave it some ink. Perhaps we can conclude from this oddly unenthusiastic coverage that the Herald and the Journal are now in the process of combining their newsroom operations...

Labour law in Alberta: If you want better policies, you’re just going to have to elect better politicians

Alberta labour minister Thomas Lukaszuk gazes toward a heady future in which there is only one official and obedient union. Note that Alberta political leaders may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Another view of Mr. Lukaszuk.

Labour Day will soon be upon us, and Alberta’s labour minister has been publicly musing about measures that Alberta might take to weaken unions further and cripple what’s left of the rights of the province’s working people.

That, of course, is pretty much par for the course out here in the New West, where labour rights taken for granted in most of the rest of Canada are basically a cruel fraud. It’s the back-story that’s more interesting.

The labour minister is a fellow named Thomas Lukaszuk, who in Alberta officially goes by the Orwellian title Minister of Employment and Immigration.

Mr. Lukaszuk is a bright guy who emigrated from Poland to Alberta as a child. He is probably best known for his terrific hair, which often resembles the flowing locks of Lord Greystoke, also known as Tarzan, King of the Apes.

For a while not so long ago, Mr. Lukazuk harboured dreams quite similar to those of his fictional counterpart, to wit, to be premier of Alberta and King of the Conservative Caucus. Alas, this alliterative ambition slipped from his grasp, and at the end of June Mr. Lukaszuk announced he was pulling out of the race he’d never really been in and adding his support to those other members of departing Premier Ed Stelmach’s caucus who are backing front-runner Gary Mar.

Now, Mr. Lukaszuk is far from the worst offender in the Tory caucus – indeed, he’s often grumbled about within that exclusive conservative club as if he were some sort of parlour pink. Now and then he even comes out on the progressive side of an issue – for example, threatening to toughen up Alberta’s pathetic workplace safety standards.

But an Alberta Tory is an Alberta Tory, and you’d have to be smoking banana peels to imagine their default position is anything but anti-labour.

Regardless of that opinion, it is a fact that the loony-right Wildrose Alliance under Fraser Institute apparatchik Danielle Smith has been campaigning for “right-to-work” laws and other anti-union nostrums and trying to paint Mr. Mar as a faintly left-wing “wet.” At the same time, several militantly anti-labour lobby groups have been using the Tory leadership campaign as a backdrop to campaign vigorously for similar policies.

One of these groups recently hired a high-priced Edmonton legal firm to produce an opinion that such laws could pass constitutional muster in Canada, notwithstanding the June 2007 Supreme Court ruling that read the right to bargain collectively into the fundamental rights protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This group would also like to ban spending by labour unions on anything but “labour relations” – a transparent effort to “de-fund the left” – although of course they envisage no such restrictions on corporate political donations.

So, as they also did recently with the idea of private health insurance, perhaps the Mar forces decided they needed to do something to improve their street credibility with the corporate right, and maybe the flow of corporate generosity as well.

At any rate, it’s an undeniable fact that on Friday Mr. Lukaszuk was in the local media cheerfully commentating on a conveniently timed leak of information about the quiet discussions he’s been holding with the militantly anti-union Merit Contractors Association.

The Merit Contractors and several other groups generally not seen as friends of the workingman have been calling specifically for a series of measures clearly designed to put construction trade unions out of business. Or, as the Edmonton Journal put it in its story about the minister’s private chats, to amend parts of the Labour Relations Code that are “making Alberta companies uncompetitive.”

Alberta unions reacted with shock, and not merely the pro forma kind – seeing as the only union to be involved in this discussion turned out to be the Christian Labour Association of Canada, a group that Canadian Labour Congress President Ken Georgetti has called “an employer-dominated union” that “works hand in glove with construction employers.”

Isn’t it interesting how, as the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees put it in an open letter to Mr. Lukaszuk, the labour ministry wouldn’t give them the time of day when they gathered 24,000 signatures in 2007 on a petition calling for such basic improvements in Alberta labour law as first-contract arbitration and automatic certification when more than half the employees in a workplace sign a union card? But, “behind closed doors, a small cadre of anti-union business insiders and major donors to the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party have secured a review of Alberta’s labour legislation in the interest of making our laws more regressive.”

The cranky AUPE letter added: “Your appointment of two lawyers, one with direct connections to the Conservative party and the other well-known for his anti-union beliefs, does nothing but reinforce that view.”

Well, folks, get used to it. That’s just the way it is here in Alberta, and increasingly in the rest of Canada too. And that’s the way it will remain, no matter who leads the Tories, because those are the folks the Conservative party exists to serve.

That’s why it’s said here that AUPE – which, in the interests of full disclosure, was for many years my employer – ought to have put its money into getting progressive politicians elected rather than ineffective campaigns seeking technical legal changes that are unlikely to engage the imagination of the public.

If you want better policies, you’re just going to have to elect better politicians from parties more sympathetic to the needs of working people. It really is as simple as that.

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Remember where you heard it first! Former St. Albert city councillor James Burrows gets Wildrose nomination

Former St. Albert city councillor James Burrows on municipal election night 2010. The TV monitors in the background did not display particularly good news for Mr. Burrows. Now he has the Wildrose Alliance nomination for the St. Albert riding. Below: St. Albert Conservative MLA Ken Allred.

ST. ALBERT, Alberta

Timing is everything, I wrote of former St. Albert city councillor James Burrows back in February 2010: “If Mr. Burrows can get the Wildrose nomination, the timing could be perfect for him.”

Well, the party announced yesterday that Mr. Burrows has indeed got its nomination for the St. Albert riding in the next general election. But if a week is a long time in politics, a year and a half is darned near an eternity, and it’s a different Alberta now than it used to be back then.

So it remains to be seen if the timing will be as good for the ambitious and locally controversial former three-term councillor and sometime Alberta Liberal, who was turfed from office by a mere 14 votes in the October 2010 civic election, as it looked as if it might be back in the spring of 2010.

One could argue, of course, that what’s really interesting isn’t what party Mr. Burrows, 47, is going to run for, but whether or not Ken Allred, St. Albert’s 70-year-old Conservative MLA, will run again.

There was a day when it was widely rumoured that Mr. Allred would himself switch to the Wildrose Alliance, or perhaps retire, but he’s played his cards pretty close to his vest on his plans. Here’s a bet, though, that Mr. Allred will run again for the Tories, now that the wind again appears to be blowing their way with Premier Ed Stelmach about to go over the side.

He has vocally endorsed far-right Conservative leadership candidate Ted Morton, so it is possible the outcome of the leadership race will now influence his decision whether to stay or to go.

If Mr. Allred seeks re-election, he won’t be the only retirement-age Alberta Conservative politician re-considering another kick at the electoral can now that the Tory elevator seems to be going up again as the Wildrose elevator goes down. A week ago, Alberta Speaker and longest-serving MLA Ken Kowalski announced that he will be seeking his tenth term since 1979!

No doubt part of Mr. Kowalski’s motivation is the desire to hand his annoying Wildrose opponent in the Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock riding, far-right bloviator and sometime “senator in waiting” Link Byfield, his metaphorical ass. But the real story is that these kinds of decisions by politicians who could gracefully fade into the woodwork strongly suggest that no matter whom they choose as leader, the Alberta Tories no longer fear the Wildrose Alliance as much as they did a year ago.

So this could be bad news for politicians like Mr. Burrows, for whom not too long ago the Wildrose Alliance have looked like a certain ticket to electoral success.

Mr. Burrows has no shortage of detractors in St. Albert, but he has also proved in the past he knows how to get elected whether his political enemies like it or not. If he hadn’t been suffering from a cold the week before the 2010 municipal election, it’s likely he would have been able to squeeze another 15 or so votes out of the electorate. And he’s sure to work harder for a prize like a seat in the provincial Legislature.

It’s not clear if being a former Liberal will help or hinder Mr. Burrows in one of the few Alberta regions with a strong history of voting for Liberals. Traditional Liberal voters may distain him as a turncoat gone over the loony right, or may find him less threatening than a candidate from the party’s scary ultra-right.

Or they may simply not care, because St. Albert is a rare Alberta where other parties win votes from time to time too.

Despite their historical strength in the region, the Alberta Liberals don’t yet appear to have found a candidate to nominate in St. Albert. Perhaps local Liberals are waiting for the outcome of their leadership race?

Nor have the New Democrats, who could benefit from warm feelings for Jack Layton and the lingering Orange Wave.

Meanwhile, while they have barely registered in any polls so far this year, the Liberal-like Alberta Party, has two potential candidates fighting over the nomination in the riding – former New Democrat Tim Osborne and St. Albert fire fighter local firefighter Victor Fernandez.

NOTE: A reader informs me that Alex V. Bosse is seeking the Liberal nomination. Readers can look at his tweets at!/ALXV5 .

What would Jack do? Layton’s hopeful mien should guide our response to Christie Blatchford’s column

Some of the throng that gathered at the Alberta Legislature Wednesday evening to honour the memory and mourn the death of NDP Leader Jack Layton. Postmedia News columnist Christie Blatchford, in a mugshot snatched from the Internet.

The last person I expected to find myself defending is Postmedia News columnist Christie Blatchford.

Ms. Blatchford writes a lousy column, in my opinion, full of the worst sort of mealy-mouthed, right wing tripe. She often composes emotional slop that belongs in the pages of the wretched Sun Media tabloids, where she worked for many years.

I’ve usually got better things to do than read her column — for example, polishing the rusting hubcaps of my battered union-made Chevrolet with an old toothbrush.

Still, the brouhaha over Ms. Blatchford’s column on the life and career of NDP Leader Jack Layton, published by all Postmedia daily newspapers on the day of his death, is troubling both for its intemperate tone, which echoes the screeching hysteria of Tory online trolls, and because a key point made by many of her critics is simply wrong.

Indeed, the offending column is far from the worst piece Ms. Blatchford has written, and it makes a good point that many of us who loved and respected Mr. Layton can surely agree with, or at least concede contains some truth. Its other arguments would better be dismissed with a shrug than with obscenity and imprecation.

I bothered to read this piece only because I came across some of the angry reaction on social media sites. I turned to it with a sick feeling, because I expected from the lead-up to read something truly disgusting, like the odious efforts of Calgary Sun city editor Dave Naylor. I finished it and concluded we should all take a deep breath.

The chief knock against Ms. Blatchford’s effort seems to be that she called Mr. Layton a thoroughly political creature, and assailed his moving deathbed letter to Canadians with such uncharacteristically big words as “sophistry” and “vainglorious.”

Well, OK, the latter part of this opinion is graceless, even cheesy — exactly as we have come to expect of almost any Postmedia columnist. But really, so what? It does not seem appropriate to me to respond to this kind of drivel by calling its author a “heartless cow,” or worse, or wishing on her the same horrible fate that befell Mr. Layton.

Moreover, I think most of us can agree that Ms. Blatchford’s silly allegation of sophistry and vainglory is merely a typical response, and possibly a heartfelt one, by a Tory sympathizer who must have fretted deeply about the implications of Mr. Layton’s successful appeal to the better angels of our Canadian nature. Even our dour prime minister seems to have been improved by Mr. Layton’s sunny vision, which in some circles might be seen as evidence of miraculous powers!

Sympathetic pity, it seems to me, is a more appropriate response to this part of Ms. Blatchford’s argument than the fury it prompted in some quarters.

More troubling was the anger at Ms. Blatchford’s mere suggestion Mr. Layton was a thoroughly political breed of cat. Well, of course he was! He wouldn’t have gotten to where he did, let alone engineer a federalist and social democratic breakthrough in Quebec or raise our NDP to the Official Opposition of the land, without being such a person!

If you think this is an insult, check the label on your water bottle! You may have been drinking Tory bathwater without even knowing it.

Being a politician, especially a successful social democratic politician, is evidence of virtue, not its opposite. Pure politics in the defence of virtue is no vice, as Mr. Layton proved. He heard a higher calling, and took up his vocation. For this, we should rejoice!

The enraged reaction to Ms. Blatchford’s words by some of my fellow New Democrats suggests to me that the ongoing Conservative effort to tarnish elected public service and engender popular cynicism about politics is succeeding, even amongst those of us who ought to know better.

Consider in this light the tone of many online comments, which sank very low. Indeed, the tenor of the response to Ms. Blatchford’s column illustrates a victory for Conservative efforts to debase political discourse in Canada through the routine use of threats, abuse and hysteria.

Their ultimate goal is to tarnish the whole field of public life and thereby achieve the dual objectives of making assaults on public services easier and suppressing the vote, especially among idealistic young people who wish for change but are turned off by the cynicism and manipulation of modern electoral politics.

Surely we are not being true to Mr. Layton’s hopeful vision of Canada’s future by sinking to the same offensive tactics!

Even a cynical old hack like Ms. Blatchford had to concede Mr. Layton’s strength, courage and dignity as the end approached. “Again and again, waving the cane that became in his clever hands an asset, he campaigned tirelessly,” she concluded.

If Mr. Layton, as Ms. Blatchford opined, was “a canny, relentless, thoroughly ambitious fellow,” this is no bad thing, and none of us should allow ourselves to be led into thinking it was.

Thank God for Jack’s canny, relentless and ambitious nature, I say. Canada may yet be a better place as a result!

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The secret to Western success in Afghanistan: NATO must train the Taliban!

Completely untrained Afghan Mujahideen troops, the same people who later became the Taliban, stand atop a Soviet helicopter they downed in 1979. Below, Leonid Brezhnev.

I’ve got it! The way to move toward peace and progress in Afghanistan, that is.

Starting immediately, NATO needs to arm and train the Taliban!

This may sound crazy, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Canadian contingent is now preparing to train the Afghan National Army (ANA) to a point where it can take over the war against the Taliban.

As we all know, the Taliban needs to be defeated by NATO because, an attack on one member of NATO must be responded to by all members. (Unless, of course the NATO member whose ships are being attacked at sea is Turkey, and the attacker is Israel, but let’s not go there just now.) So if the ANA can’t be trained to defeat the Taliban on its own, the Taliban may launch a mass attack on Western Europe and then by merit of our NATO obligations we’d all have to be involved in a war in Afghanistan!

Wait! We are all involved in a war in Afghanistan. Give us a minute and we’ll come up with something better. In the mean time, though, let’s just assume that the ANA simply must be able to defeat the Taliban. You know, they need to be able to stand up so that we can stand down.

Now, where were we? Oh yeah… Unfortunately, for one reason or another, the efforts to train the ANA seem not to have gone very well. I read somewhere recently that it’s hard to even estimate how many soldiers the ANA has, apparently somewhere between 150,000 and 170,000 give or take, because so many Afghan recruits desert the minute they sign up and get a hot meal.

Moreover, out of all those soldiers, whom NATO has been arming and assiduously trying to train all these months and years, only two brigades are thought to be capable of fighting on their own as cohesive units. There are also apparently about 130,000 Afghan police working for the regime of President Hamid Karzai, what’s left of it, but their principal function is extorting money from ordinary Afghans and ensuring the steady flow of heroin to North America and Europe.

Mind you, this is not to say individual ANA soldiers aren’t capable of fighting. The problem is the only times they tend to get really enthusiastic about warfare is when they turn out to be supporters of the aforementioned Taliban and turn their guns on their NATO trainers. The fact this goes on is not particularly happy news for the Canadian NATO contingent in the new “non-combat” role “behind the wire” that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has assigned to them.

Which is what got me thinking about the urgent need for NATO to arm and train the Taliban.

You see, right now, the Taliban don’t get any military training at all, and certainly no help from the mighty, sophisticated and well-armed forces of NATO.

And yet, completely untrained, they seem to be able to hold their own against NATO with homemade bombs and old military rifles they stole from the Red Army when it was doing its Internationalist Duty in the 1980s.

And speaking of the Red Army, alert readers may recall what these same untrained Taliban insurgents did to the armed forces of the Soviet Union after Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev sent 100,000 or so troops into Afghanistan in 1979. The last Red Army troops skedaddled across the border and out of Afghanistan on Feb. 15, 1989.

So, thanks to their complete lack of training, the Taliban (which in those days went by the name of the Mujahideen, but it turns out it was the same guys, or their fathers, anyway) managed to defeat the mighty Red Army, something it’s not at all clear NATO’s armies could have done without resorting to nuclear weapons if the Reds had decided to invade Western Europe instead of the Hindu Kush.

If we were to arm and train the Taliban, however, it’s reasonable to expect that they would soon meet the standards of the ANA!

They would be, in other words, finished. Afghanistan would be well on its way to the adoption of the Western values we are fighting to defend – you know, beer, bacon and bikinis!

Obviously, it’s time to start talking with the Taliban about setting up a training schedule.

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Looking back to Election Eve, 2008, with happy memories of Layton, Jack

Jack Layton, 1950-2011

Don’t mourn! Organize!

— Joe Hill, Swedish-American union organizer

It’s OK to mourn the loss of Jack Layton, of course, Joe Hill’s wise strategic counsel to social activists notwithstanding.

It’s also OK to take a moment to mourn before we start to talk about the implications for the Canadian New Democratic Party of the death of Mr. Layton, which are very grave and must not be brushed away with glib optimism as I am sure many of us are tempted to do at a moment like this.

Canada’s New Democratic Party leader was beloved by many of us and respected by many more. His loss at the age of 61, still in the prime of his political life, comes as a profound shock, even to those of us who feared the worst after his news conference less than a month ago, at which he announced he was stepping down as leader of the Opposition to battle a new onslaught of cancer.

For those of us who have heard Mr. Layton speak, let alone who have met and talked with him, it is very hard to comprehend that someone so full of life could be alive no more.

On the theory that the best mourning is done by retelling happy tales that illustrate the character of our departed comrade, let me tell you about my peculiar relationship with Mr. Layton, the only leader of a national or provincial political party ever to have picked up the telephone and made a cold call to me, to ask me for an unusual favour, no less.

Actually, this is a bit of a fib. He had a political aide call first, to make sure I’d be waiting by my telephone when he phoned. But the aide, a very polite young person whose name, I’m afraid, escapes me at this moment, refused to reveal the topic of the upcoming call.

This happened back in 2008, and to tell you the truth, with a federal election looming, I thought Mr. Layton might be about to ask me to be a candidate in one of those Alberta ridings that was and is as lost a cause for the NDP as, say, a rural riding in Quebec…

In the event, however, Sunny Jack astounded me with another request entirely. Would I consider becoming, he asked, the poet laureate of the NDP?

Well, maybe the word laureate never left his lips, but without a doubt the phrase poet of the NDP was uttered more than once.

This turned out to be the brainchild of a mischievous Toronto business journalist and teacher named Kimberly Noble, a former colleague of mine at the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business who apparently had Mr. Layton’s ear on certain matters. It seems she had persuaded him of the potential political uses of light verse on current topics and given him the idea I was just the guy to dash off such stuff on demand.

Of course I said yes, although I’m sorry to report that nothing much came of this cheerful scheme. Presumably cooler heads prevailed in the busy months leading up to the great achievement of May 2011.

On the other hand, Mr. Layton consistently responded, politely and swiftly, when I misused his private Parliamentary email address and sent him questions for the enlightenment of this blog’s readers, so all was not for naught.

Now, at a moment when New Democrats really need a poet laureate, we are all struck dumb. So let’s look back to Election Eve, 2008, and to a happy plea that came true to a remarkable degree in 2011.

But what will we do now? That, of course, is a question for a few hours hence…

Election Eve, 2008

We’ve heard the pitches, promised goals

Put forth by Tories and by Libs.

Why are they sinking in the polls?

Perhaps because they’re mostly fibs!

Now that they know they can’t relate

Because their plans, revealed, are seen

To be a failure in debate,

They hope to get us voting Green,

It’s their last chance, the only way

To beat the surging NDP

And save their butts on Voting Day.

We hope that all Canadians see:

To get the country back on track

It’s time to vote for Layton, Jack!

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The Pottery Barn Rule applies to Libya: We broke it, now we own it…

U.S. Marines board the Barbary Pirates’ gunboat in Tripoli harbour, Feb. 16, 1804, a big night for the United States Marine Corps. Things are more problematic for the United States and its NATO allies in Tripoli tonight. Below: Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

There must be cheers all ’round tonight, not to mention a palpable sense of relief, among the senior officers of the air forces of NATO.

After all, their six-month bombing campaign to assassinate Libya’s unsavoury dictator, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, was becoming an embarrassment, an advertisement for the ineffectiveness of bombs and aircraft against even the weakest of opponents.

The Libyan “no-fly zone” was supposed to be inexpensive, quick and painless, and it proved to be none of those things. As a result, before the latest developments, U.S. President Barack Obama was reported in some circles to be considering pulling the plug on the bombing as potentially fatal to his re-election prospects.

However, with the homicidal rabble that the so-called North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been backing for the past half year now poised to replace Col. Gadaffi’s homicidal regime, success after a fashion for NATO’s air forces at last appears to be at hand.

The rebels are in the streets of Tripoli – and therefore, thankfully, there will be no need to the U.S. Marines to stage a messy return engagement there – so it can be conveniently forgotten that NATO’s air power never really succeeded at either its principal tactical goal, killing the Libyan leader, or its claimed strategic goal, protecting Libyan civilians.

As of this moment, Col. Gaddafi is still holed up in his compound, presumably preparing either his final stand or pondering his last-minute exit strategy, but his presidential guard is said to have surrendered, so things don’t look good for his prospects. However, before we fly back to our NATO air bases and start lobbying for expensive new bombs to replace the ones we’ve just exploded, let’s think about the next steps in North Africa.

Because what comes next won’t simply be a matter of ensuring that Western companies, and not the Chinese, get to tap Libya’s oil reserves, that the royalties charged by the new Libyan regime are now reduced to embarrassingly low Alberta-like levels, or that a safely market-fundamentalist economic regime is quickly established.

For while NATO partners like Canada and the United States can safely shirk some of their duties on this one – owing to the strategically convenient location of the Atlantic Ocean between them and the problem in North Africa – the financially strapped European members of NATO’s southern flank are about to experience all over again the reality of Gen. Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn Rule: “If you break it you own it!”

First of course, there is the matter of preventing an embarrassing massacre in tribally divided Libya. NATO has decreed that the transition must be peaceful, so – whatever actually happens on the ground in Tripoli over the next few days – that is presumably what we will be told before the cell-phone videos start leaking out.

Longer term – and more significantly – is the reality that someone is going to have to maintain order in the North African country, and it seems highly likely that the rag-tag and disorganized rebels backed by NATO and slavishly praised by Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird of Benghazi, are not up to the job.

The alternative to maintaining order is neither practical nor palatable to southern Europe, because with either an ongoing war in North Africa or no effective government in Tripoli, the region would be bound to become the centre of a massive people-smuggling operation as economic refugees from throughout Africa use it as a jumping off point to stream into southern Europe.

This is simply not on, politically speaking, for the governments of Mediterranean Europe, including France and Italy.

The brutal fact is that however this order is achieved, it’s going to cost pots of money and tie up many military and civilian resources. Moreover, if all NATO members do not share the costs – and it’s hard to imagine the likes of Canada, Iceland and Latvia rushing to pony up – the strains on the alliance will increase.

But for good or ill, NATO’s campaign has “broken” Libya. So NATO owns it now and the results of not paying the price have the potential to be catastrophic.

Just remember what happened in Afghanistan – which unlike Libya is not a convenient boat ride away from Europe’s southern shore – when the West walked away from the problems it created there!

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Stop me before I blog again! Alberta Diary is closed for vacation until Aug. 22

Gone campin’ … NOT!


No, really! I promise not to post about the CFIB’s attempt to bring “right to work” legislation to Alberta and ensure even less money is available for the “entrepreneurs” it pretends to represent.

And I promise not to blog about how Toronto’s odious Ford Bothers are trying to privatize animal shelters, ensuring that puppies will die to make their neo-Con dreams come true.

And I promise not to attempt to make up for the amazing dearth of stories in the mainstream media about how the Arab Spring has now spread to Israel, or the complete media silence on how the U.K. riots are a natural outcome of the re-Thatcherization of Britain.

Read my lips: No. New. Posts. For. (Almost.) Two. Weeks.

I really mean it! If I break down and post … Someone stop me before I blog again!

However, I promise to return to blogging here at and on on Aug. 22, or thereabouts…

But no posts until then, even if Gary Mar endorses Alison Redford for Tory leader! Even if Janet Brown publishes a new poll that shows the Wildrose in majority territory! Even if they start offering secular public education in Morinville! (Now there’s a wild one … there’s no word yet, by the way, nada, nothing, on whether anything came of that much touted Aug. 4 meeting in Morinville that was supposed to fix the problem … again.)

Not even if it turns out a big shot federal Tory minister was a member of the Bloc Quebecois! Oh, wait, that was last night’s story!

Would the PM please shut up: senior Conservative cabinet minister was BQ member for 7+ years

Separatist Conservative cabinet minister Denis Lebel being sworn in while Prime Minister Stephen Harper lovingly gazes on. That was then, from the prime minister’s web page. Is this now? Below: Mr. Lebel’s official mugshot.

This just in!
Senior federal Conservative cabinet minister was member of Bloc Quebecois for seven-plus years!

Well, it’s not April 1, and it’s in the Globe and Mail just now, so presumably the fact Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s transport minister, Denis Lebel, was a member of the theoretically separatist Bloc Quebecois for more than seven years during the 1990s means the federal Conservatives are either breathtaking hypocrites or they’re incompetent buffoons who didn’t do their due diligence.

By the sound of the Globe’s report, there wasn’t much secret about Mr. Lebel’s long sovereignist involvement, or his generous personal donations to Quebec’s separatist movement. But that was before Prime Minister Harper came along with his great economic plans for Canada, and Mr. Lebel saw the light, or so his spokesperson told the Globe yesterday.

Guaranteed, this story wouldn’t have rated two inches on page B97 but for the fact the Conservatives have been raging for days about Acting Opposition Leader Nycole Turmel having once been a member of the BQ … just like the prime minister’s esteemed cabinet colleague.

Ms. Turmel, of course, was appointed to her current position so that NDP Leader Jack Layton could take some time to recover from the obviously serious cancer that has beset him.

The federal Liberals, desperately facing extinction, opportunistically piled on. One can hardly blame them after their historic rout in the May 2 federal election. But if there are no federal Liberal MPs from Quebec with a PQ/BQ taint, rest assured it is only because there are only seven Liberal MPs left in that province.

As was written in this space last Friday, one can understand and sympathize with Ms. Turmel’s association with the Bloc – she is, after all, a social democrat and until Mr. Layton’s Orange Wave crashed through Quebec before the federal election, the Bloc and the Parti Quebecois were the only social democratic shows in the French-speaking part of town.

But Mr. Lebel is a neo-Con whose spokesperson says he’s an admirer of the PM’s economic wisdom. So what’s his excuse?

What this really shows is that both the BQ and PQ were mainstream parties in Quebec for a very long time, and many people with political ambitions no doubt joined them because that was the only way to have a realistic hope of political success.

This may seem opportunistic, but how is it different from the large numbers of otherwise reasonable people who are lifelong Conservatives in Alberta? The Conservatives have been the only show in this particular one-horse town for more than 40 years, so what do you expect people who want to build a better world to do if there’s no other way to attain office?

Mr. Harper could on the morrow surprise us and prove he really means what he says by firing Mr. Lebel from cabinet. If he does, he’d better dump Minister of State for Small Business Maxime Bernier too, seeing as that Tory grandee also served as an aide to separatist Quebec premier Bernard Landry.

The trouble with that kind of thing, of course, is that it could easily turn into a witchhunt. It would surely do the Conservatives no long-term good in Quebec – which, for all their bravado about needing only Ontario and the West may be necessary for them to stay in power in the future.

Probably a better outcome for the future of the country is that the prime minister just grow up and shut up about this particular issue, lest he be revealed as the unprincipled hypocrite many of us suspect him of being.

If he does, I expect most of us who don’t like him or his politics will be willing to forgo our sense of schadenfreude at the deliciously ironic sight of him trying to wiggle off the hook and explain Mr. Lebel’s political history.

Then we can all get back to what we should be doing – to wit, surfing the Orange Wave!

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