Archive for September, 2011

Alberta could do much worse than have Alison Redford as premier – and tomorrow it probably will

Alison Redford during Thursday’s TV debate. (Edmonton Journal photo.) Below: The other Iron Lady.

If television debates mattered, Alison Redford would win the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership vote tomorrow hands down.

She certainly turned in a more impressive performance than either of her two fellow candidates (in every sense of the phrase) in Thursday evening’s televised leaders’ debate on Global TV.

She was tough, clear about her intentions if chosen to replace Premier Ed Stelmach, and – as she has been throughout this campaign – prepared to challenge the Tory Old Boys Club and the way it does business.

She looked grim at times, but how could she not? She turned in this forcible TV performance just hours after her mother had suddenly taken sick and died. She maintained her dignity and her focus despite her personal tragedy. She exuded leadership.

She showed, as Edmonton Journal columnist Graham Thomson put it well, that “there is an iron fist inside that velvet glove.” Indeed, dressed in black, she looked at times remarkably like Margaret Thatcher – but a Margaret Thatcher prepared to stand up unequivocally for public health insurance!

The other two? Well, in fairness, they turned in solid performances, too.

Gary Mar’s was impressive, if not particularly convincing. He succeeded more through his capacity to bob and weave around the sometimes embarrassing points on which his opponents chose to challenge him, and his remarkable ability to sound confident and reassuring while revealing very little of his actual intentions.

Doug Horner’s effort was too tightly scripted. This is a guy who sounds natural and confident when he speaks off the cuff. Being a fairly distant No. 3 in a three-person race doesn’t seem like the moment to follow an ultra-cautious, take-no-chances strategy, but that’s what Mr. Horner did. He started in a respectable No. 3 position – and that’s where he finished too.

So, Albertans saw two competent performances, and one that really shone.

Alas for Ms. Redford – and likely for Alberta, too, under the circumstances – these things are usually decided by the grey eminences who lurk behind the scenes in any political party, and especially in this one, anointing their favoured candidates. They are not decided by which candidate is most engaging, has the best ideas, or is least likely to cause real harm.

And in the case of this contest, the insiders, the pork barrellers and the actual old boys who have run things through most of the Tories’ 40-year reign and intend to go on running them, have already picked a candidate, and that is Mr. Mar.

Ms. Redford’s dignified and powerful performance Thursday night notwithstanding, Mr. Mar is the man who can be counted on not to upset any well-positioned apple carts, to keep all the secrets that need to be kept, and in the tradition of Ralph Klein, Ron Liepert and Steve West, to keep on chipping away at the things our Conservative government’s financiers would dearly love to subvert, like our public health care system.

Mr. Mar is also the most vulnerable of the three candidates to a voter rebellion from the right or the left – but the Conservative Old Boys seem confident that possibility presents a far smaller risk to their power and comfort than would having a leader like Ms. Redford or Mr. Horner who might actually try to engage the citizenry and do something different from the same old same old.

Sad to say, notwithstanding the slight risk of an unexpected turn of events presented by their party’s semi-public leadership voting process, their cynical confidence is probably entirely justified.

From the perspective of supporters of the opposition parties, Ms. Redford presents a bigger threat than Mr. Mar – for the same engaging reasons that she threatens the party’s comfortable Old Boys.

The fact is, though, given the PCs’ current standing in the polls and the likelihood of a swift election when a leader is finally chosen, any Tory leader is likely to form a majority. For those of us who do not support the Conservatives, this should temper our jubilation when they choose the worst available candidate. We should, as they say, be careful what we wish for.

That said, you could argue that the PC party establishment just doesn’t see the need to suffer the inconvenience of putting up with a leader who has real character, some good ideas and an inclination to pick the side of what’s good for the province, not the people who run it.

Alberta could do much worse than have Alison Redford emerge as premier tomorrow – and it probably will.

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Gary Mar’s TV double-dip debate: You’re ALL right! It’s sleazy AND it’s business as usual!

Front-running Alberta Conservative leadership candidate Gary Mar shows no worry about the fact his challengers complained of his past double-dipping activities during last night’s TV debate. Alberta politicians may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Kelley Charlebois (Edmonton Journal photo).

It’s one of those weird things about Alberta that a quarter million people – or so they say, anyway, according to some sort of a calculation – actually sat down in front of a TV set last night and watched Gar Mar, Alison Redford and Doug Horner debate one another about which one of them would make the best leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives.

This is an intramural game, for heaven’s sake, in which everyone has the home-field advantage.

But as any die-hard, rootin-tootin’, cowboy-boot wearin’ Albertan can tell you, it may just be the intramural league, but the winner automatically gets to take home the biggest trophy of all – in this case, the premiership of oil-soaked Alberta. So watching the show, buying a Tory membership and then taking part in the vote may be the only kind of active democracy on offer in this place.

I wasn’t one of the watchers, though. While the leadership candidates debated, I was trapped in what was left of a rubble-strewn basement in Stalingrad being machine-gunned. I got through that ordeal still able to speak, as a matter of fact, but I’m afraid I didn’t survive falling on my own grenade. On the whole, though, that was probably a somewhat less painful fate than sitting through an hour of Mr. Mar doing his best imitation of Richard Nixon while Ms. Redford (looking scarily like Lady Thatcher) and Mr. Horner jumped all over the Tory front-runner for the way he took his leave the last time he quit Alberta politics.

Don’t worry, it was only community theatre. But one-act play rehearsals wait for no Tory, especially when you have a mean-ass director. Begging does no good. However, on the bright side, if the production goes ahead as planned, I’ll get to scream the F-word in a room full of respectable community members and their children, which seems like a reasonable response either to being overrun by the Red Army or watching the Blue Army debate on TV. Anyway, if you’re really a masochist like I am, you could catch it all later online.

As for Mr. Mar, well, surely all the people watching him last night know that three years ago he promised not to take his $478,000 “transition allowance” when he quit being an MLA to go off and be Alberta’s man in Washington, then he said he’d take it but not while he was in Washington, and then he took it anyway.

Ms. Redford and Mr. Horner argued that this was kinda sleazy. Mr. Mar asserted that it was business as usual and pretty much what any other government MLA would have done under the circumstances. As it happens, this being Alberta, this is one of those rare cases when you can say “You’re all right!” and everyone could go home happy.

Same story with the case of the nearly $400,000 Mr. Mar paid seven fat years ago to his friend and confidante Kelley Charlebois for verbal advice, no record of which apparently was ever kept. Mr. Mar said he regretted that one when it came up in the Edmonton Journal’s weirdly un-engaging, clickety-clacketing, online leaders’ keyboard debate on Tuesday.

Hope springs eternal that raising things like this will play a role in Albertans’ voting decisions, either in the all-important intramural league championship this week or in the largely irrelevant general election in the not-too-distant future. That said, though, no one who has lived here for long and has an ounce of sense is betting the bailed-out farm on an unexpected outcome.

Somewhere along the line, someone apparently forgot to explain to Alberta voters that this sort of thing is supposed to matter.

The final Tory leadership vote and the community one-act play festival are both scheduled to take place on Saturday, Oct. 1. It’s hard to say just yet which one will be more riveting.

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Departure of Hugh MacDonald a more serious blow to Alberta Liberals than the mere loss of a single Grit

Hugh MacDonald: A serious loss to the Alberta Liberals. Below: Edmonton-Gold Bar NDP candidate Marlin Schmidt.

The planned departure of Hugh MacDonald from the crumbling Alberta Liberal Party became official yesterday when paid reporters finally tracked down the Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA and got him to confirm what’s been discussed here in the blogosphere since last week.

When the media eventually found him, Mr. MacDonald, 56, was too polite to aim anything but the subtlest jibes at party leader Raj Sherman, the mercurial former Tory elected in a leadership contest dreamed up by a couple of youthful party officials that let people who weren’t members of the party make the key decision about its future.

Well, the people spoke when they chose Dr. Sherman – decisively defeating Mr. MacDonald – but it’s hard to image the people speaking cared very much about the Liberal Party except as a vehicle for their candidate’s hobby horses.

“A party is bigger than one person,” Mr. MacDonald gently told the Edmonton Journal yesterday, ostensibly referring to himself. “A party is a group of people, and we forget that.” Perhaps, however, he was also taking a sly dig at Dr. Sherman, a one-man band if ever there was one.

The loss of the four-term MLA and die-hard Liberal is a much more serious blow to the Official Opposition party than a mere resignation announcement by one individual would normally signal for several reasons.

For one thing, as noted in this space on Monday, Mr. MacDonald is one of the hardest working Alberta MLAs in any party, a skilled researcher all on his own with the ability to sniff out scandals buried deep in dull financial reports that were sure to engage the attention of media and embarrass the government.

Indeed, it would be fair to say Mr. MacDonald has probably been personally responsible for at least half the Alberta Liberals’ press clippings over the past dozen years.

And the media hits he generated tended to be substantial ones, because of his nose for news and ability to dig it out. Without him, the party will have a hard time engaging the media – as a tired-looking Dr. Sherman unintentionally demonstrated yesterday by drifting rudderless through a pointless news conference on how it’s imperative, nay, urgent, nay, essential that Albertans defeat the Tories. Why? Because, he said, “we must remove this government! They have lost the moral authority to govern!”

You know what? That isn’t going to wash with Albertans, whose deeply programmed default position is to vote Tory. If you don’t give them a reason to vote for another party, they won’t do it. “Alberta, you’re gettin’ screwed, it’s time to change your government,” isn’t a reason.

Indeed, this did not seem to impress the media. Reporters looked bored and quickly departed, filing little.

Returning to Mr. MacDonald, in addition to his personal qualities, he made Edmonton-Gold Bar the Liberals’ safest seat in Alberta. Arguably, that isn’t so any more. Right wing former Edmonton Mayoral candidate David Dorward, who did well running for the Conservatives in the riding in 2008, likely wants another kick at the can.

Moreover, the Wildrose Party has not yet nominated a candidate, but if they find a good one, they could split the right wing vote with the Tories.

In normal times with Mr. MacDonald bearing their standard, that would be good news for the Liberals. But with the party seemingly headed for the precipice, the door is open to unexpected outcomes.

All this has New Democrats counting up their recent federal votes in the neighbourhood – NDP 45 per cent, Conservatives 49 per cent over the same real estate, without any Wildrosers to confound conservative voters, and without “Hughie’s” union affiliation to woo those who might otherwise vote NDP.

This has the NDP wondering of their nominated candidate, groundwater specialist and geologist Marlin Schmidt, 33, may suddenly be a contender thanks to the lingering effects of the Orange Wavelet that lapped through Alberta in the spring.

Finally, the loss of Mr. MacDonald is not the only departure facing the nine-member Liberal legislative caucus. Calgary-Varsity MLA Harry Chase and Edmonton-Riverview MLA Kevin Taft, a former party leader, have already announced they are retiring. There is no guarantee they will be replaced by Liberals.

Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman, who also lost to Dr. Sherman in the leadership contest, was sounding yesterday like a woman who might soon make the same decision as Mr. MacDonald. “I’ll admit that I’m trying to figure out what my place in the caucus is,” she told the Journal. “I have, I’m sure, the same questions that must have gone through Hugh’s mind.”

“Bottom line is how much fun is that going to be if I just get pushed off to the side and I’m supposed to be the queen mother? Good Lord, I couldn’t do that.” These hardly sound like the words of a candidate determined to stick by the new leader through thick and thin.

With Dr. Sherman at the helm, the Alberta Liberals are falling apart. Mr. MacDonald’s official announcement is one sign. The only real surprise is how quickly it’s happening.

NOTE: Second-place Conservative leadership candidate Alison Redford did the right thing the right way yesterday when she immediately suspended her campaign to go to the bedside of her mother, who had an unexpected health crisis. Family comes first. The Edmonton Journal reported early this morning that Ms. Redford’s mother had died and that the candidate will return to the campaign trail.

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Will Gary Mar reinvent the Alberta Tories? Fat chance!

Gary Mar at the wheel of the new, improved, “reinvented” Alberta Conservative Party. Alberta politicians and the parties they lead may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Mr. Mar, Ralph Klein and a Tory electoral strategist speaking with an Alberta voter about reinvention.

One of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives’ key talking points is that every few years since the sainted Peter Lougheed retired in 1985, the party “reinvents” itself through the selection of a new leader certain to be beloved by the public.

This tale has been repeated enough times that it seems to have been accepted by everyone in Alberta, and certainly in the Alberta media, as gospel.

It is, of course, mostly baloney.

Leastways, if the Alberta PCs really want to reinvent themselves in order to get a new lease on life with Alberta voters, they have two good choices left in the leadership contest now running through its final days: Alison Redford and Doug Horner.

Ms. Redford is brainy and tough. Tough enough that when she deals with underperforming staff, it’s said, to almost make it worth living the short life of a fly to perch on the wall of the cabinet room after she became premier. The international human rights lawyer and former justice minister has certainly been bold about talking back to the premier when he’s made foolish statements about teachers. She was also prepared to defend policies like the restorative justice program when the government was about to make dumb cuts. Her commitment to public health care seems genuine. And her “high risk” campaign has been paying dividends.

Mr. Horner is smart and visionary. He has the best narrative among the three candidates of how to position an oil rich Alberta for a successful future in an era of both high technology and petrochemical shortages. He’s a sincere believer in the value and power of education. The former deputy premier may not be an academic overachiever like Ms. Redford, but politics runs in his blood and he seems like a more sure-footed version of the thoroughly decent Premier Ed Stelmach. This should be a compliment, but in the topsy-turvy world of Alberta politics will probably doom him.

Either one would be an excellent choice. Either would truly represent a genuine reinvention of the Conservative Party.

Then there’s Gary Mar. Mr. Mar is smart and …

Well, who knows what else Gary is? He’s said precious little during this leadership campaign that indicates what he really thinks, or what really motivates him. There was that vague salute toward the so-called Third Way attack on public health care. And there is ritual obeisance to the power of the Old Boys Club that ran the government of premier Ralph Klein, under whom he served as minister of health, education and several other portfolios.

The Third Way, of course, was Mr. Klein’s failed attempt to bring U.S. style private health care to Alberta – foiled by the overwhelmingly hostile reaction of the public. One of Mr. Mar’s chief backers in the current contest, Ron Liepert, tried much the same thing when he was Mr. Stelmach’s health minister and nearly got run out of town before the premier moved him to a portfolio where he could do less harm. (Mr. Liepert also almost started an open war with Alberta’s teachers in a previous incarnation as education minister, but never mind that just now.)

It seems likely that Mr. Mar will try something similar again – renamed, of course, but hardly reinvented. He’ll probably call it Healthcare 3.5 or something suitably leading edge and digital.

Even Mr. Mar’s general election platform released yesterday – billed an intensive plan for his first 120 days – is long on promises and short on explanations. It promises fiscal discipline and restored education funding, plus “steps” to make health care and education stronger. The plan suggests, at least, that Mr. Mar won’t call a fall election – offering new hope to the opposition parties.

Mr. Mar is also backed by a long list of more than 30 Conservative MLAs, including the ultra-conservatives skidded from the leadership race on Sept. 17. Whatever else he is, after all, he is the anointed candidate of the Tory Old Boys, and that means MLAs with cabinet aspirations now figure they’d better scramble on board. Who can know what motivated ex-candidate Rick Orman, who is old, rich already and not an MLA.

Mr. Mar is also – as has been repeatedly noted as if this were a point in his favour – the preferred candidate of the catastrophic Mr. Klein. This has likely been the case for more than a decade, but only now after a comfortable spell as Alberta’s well-paid “envoy” in Washington have the planets come into alignment for Mr. Klein and Mr. Mar to see this dream become reality.

Given all this, in addition to Healthcare 3.5 and Mr. Liepert’s dream of high-cost private seniors’ care, which we already know about, we have to wonder what else Mr. Mar might find if he roots around long enough in his mentor’s bag of tricks, which alert readers will recall contained such treats as:

  • Delisting additional health services
  • Exploding public hospitals, or selling them for a song to friends of the government
  • Driving health care professionals to other provinces and countries, leaving lingering shortages of epic proportions
  • “Deregulating” monopoly utility companies
  • Cutting education funding and imposing kindergarten fees
  • Introducing regional planning chaos
  • Encouraging streets full of dusty robbery-magnet private liquor stores mostly run by Tory insiders
  • Opening the door to biker-run privatized registries
  • Rolling back the pay of public employees
  • Introducing a Republican flat tax that lets the middle-class pay the freight
  • And slapping user fees on everything to make Alberta, despite the propaganda, a high-tax jurisdiction

Did I miss anything else from the Klein years? Oh, probably.

Well, maybe this is all wrong. Mr. Mar could represent something new. But based on what little information we have, or are likely to get, that seems unlikely.

So, are the Alberta Progressive Conservatives about to reinvent themselves?

Fat chance!

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Suddenly, a search for a Liberal candidate in Edmonton-Goldbar as Hugh MacDonald prepares to pull the plug on politics

Hugh MacDonald with your blogger at the Sept. 10 Liberal leadership vote. Everything is exactly as it appears.

With wild-eyed Alberta Liberal party officials about to launch an unexpected search for a candidate in Edmonton-Goldbar, about the last safe Grit riding on the planet, it’s a safe bet that blogger Daveberta got it right last week when he suggested Hugh MacDonald is about to pull the plug on his long political career.

As for Mr. MacDonald, the dogged MLA who was one of the hardest working members in the Legislature and surely the most loyal to the tattered and fading Liberal banner, so far he is saying nothing at all. But expect an announcement of his retirement from politics within a few days.

The four-term MLA is a trade unionist and a genuinely progressive guy, but raised as he was in the Liberal red soil of Prince Edward Island there was no way he could contemplate changing colours to NDP orange or the Alberta Party rainbow.

Faced with his decisive loss to the mercurial and impetuous former Tory Raj Sherman in the party’s weird leadership campaign on Sept. 10 – a race in which anyone was allowed to vote, whether or not they were a party member – Mr. MacDonald didn’t really have any choices other than quitting or knuckling under.

He’ll do the sensible and honourable thing and make a dignified withdrawal with best wishes all round to what’s left of the party. He is said to be contemplating a swift return to the oilpatch, or possibly to a role with his old union, the Boilermakers.

Mr. MacDonald could be gloomy, and he often disagreed with his own party’s leadership, but he always stuck fast to the colours, true Grit that he was. His voice, raised in genuine outrage and evocative of his Island upbringing, will be missed by Albertans, whether they know it or not.

Mr. MacDonald was the type of politician who was always sincerely offended by dishonesty and self-interest in government. What’s more, unlike most MLAs on either side of the Legislature, he was willing to do the hard work necessary to winkle out the government’s shenanigans, and to hold them up to the light of day. In this province, that meant he was a busy MLA, and one who doubtless found the job distressing at times.

For the governing Tories – in whose arrogant side he was a constant thorn – he’ll be missed like a toothache.

Truth be told, the new Liberal leader will probably not be that unhappy to see him go either, and will doubtless be quite untroubled by the suggestion his departure represents the beginning of the disintegration of the Alberta Liberals suggested in these pages and elsewhere.

For their part, what’s left of the Liberals may find a candidate to replace him, but whoever it is will have trouble filling his shoes, not to mention getting elected.

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NOTE: This report was confirmed at 11:43 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27, by CBC Edmonton.

Rust never sleeps … and neither do tar sands nuclear power boosters

Grande Prairie, or some other northwestern town in Alberta’s Peace Country, as it’s sure to be portrayed by the nuclear industry. Not exactly as illustrated, but then, these things never turn out to be exactly as illustrated, do they?


Just when you thought it was safe to breath the isotope-laden Western Canadian air again, now that the wind from Japan has died down a little, comes word that the tireless lobbyists for a nuclear power plant near the Alberta tar sands are back at it.

A Calgary Herald report last Friday told the story of a “debate” about nuclear energy in the oil sands at a conference of petroleum industry toffs at a famously luxurious Banff hotel.

Actually, if you read the story you’ll find the kind of thing that could only pass for “debate” in the pages of the Calgary Herald, long justly known for its undeclared mission as the Fearless Champion of the Overdog.

The debate in question, at any rate, consisted of the differences between an oil industry exec who wants a $6-billion-plus taxpayer-paid nuclear power-generation plant here in the Peace River Country right flippin’ now, and another big shot who only thinks the nuke should be built really, really soon.

At least as far as any alert reader could tell from the story, no one in a nicely tailored summer suit was standing up and asking, “Are we crazy, or what?”

Using nuclear power – either in the form of “controlled” explosions, or in the more conventional manner of electricity generated in a multi-billion-dollar reactor paid for by someone else – has long been a dream of the tar sands oil extraction industry.

When something like the recent Japanese typhoon-meltdown-incompetence disaster-cum-scandal illustrates the risks of nuclear power a little too vividly, these advocates issue a few soothing news releases (don’t worry, “our country’s nuclear sites are always built on sturdy foundations”) and keep their heads down for a spell. Pretty soon, though, we can again hear the buzz of low-grade mumbling about what a wonderful thing a nuclear plant in northwestern Alberta would be.

The event stumbled upon by the Herald’s Banff stringer – or whoever it was that authored this muddled report, which was mainly concerned with the irony of the fact the power briefly went out during the conference – is merely a little more evidence that, like rust, nuclear power advocates never sleep.

But with the oil industry in the vanguard, can the “reinvented” government of Alberta be far behind?

Not likely.

As has been said in this place before, pressure to build one of these massively expensive, high-risk, environmentally unsustainable white elephants out here in the Peace River Country of northwestern North America is likely to continue with the enthusiastic backing of the Alberta government, whoever leads it.

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Where will Gary run? A good question to ask on the campaign trail…

Conservative front-runner Gary Mar may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Mr. Mar announcing his plans to run for Tory leader on March 17 in Edmonton; Ron Liepert, looking very much as if he didn’t want to be photographed, at Mr. Mar’s announcement.

Now that his leadership of the Alberta Conservative Party is all but assured, where will Gary Mar run for the Alberta Legislature? He can’t be premier without a seat in the House, after all.

Well, how about Calgary-West?

But wait, you must be thinking, that’s Ron Liepert’s riding! You know, Ron Liepert, who was made special ambassador to the Oil Boys Club by Premier Ed Stelmach after he flopped so disastrously as minister of health that Alberta seniors spontaneously booed him when he appeared in a crowd!

No worries about that, of course, as long as Mr. Mar has a special job for Mr. Liepert – say, chief of staff in the premier’s office!

OK, that’s just a rumour that’s doing the rounds hereabouts, but the fact that serious people are nowadays whispering an unconfirmed yarn like this nevertheless illustrates why Gary Mar could very well end up being a huge liability to the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta.

There’s just something about Gary, as a politician, that a heck of a lot of Albertans don’t like. There’s no particular news in that – the Wildrose Party’s been saying much the same thing for the better part of a year, ever since Candidate Mar hove into sight. But the Wildrosers say it’s because Mr. Mar is “too left wing,” when in fact the problem for the Tories may be the opposite, or close to it.

The real problem with Mr. Mar – which a lot of ordinary Albertans are starting to pick up on and discuss in their coffee shops and workplaces – is that he represents the Old Boys Club (which, of course, is closely tied to the Oil Boys Club) in the Tory caucus and party structure.

These are the people who since Ralph Klein was premier have run Alberta as if it were their private playhouse, and as if the massive tax dollars this province generates are theirs to do with as they please – say, paying $400,000 to a consulting company run by a personal friend to provide verbal “advice,” no record of which exists.

Indeed, Mr. Klein – the avatar of this arrogant and incompetent approach to running Alberta – has publicly endorsed Mr. Mar as leader, a recommendation, presumably, that carries enormous weight among the Tory Old Boys.

But Mr. Liepert as chief of staff? It would indeed be troubling to have a man whose ministrations left Alberta’s health care system on the critical list in such an influential position in the office of a premier who repeatedly refused to rule out privatization of health care during his leadership campaign.

It would be fair to say that Mr. Mar’s views about health care are well known and worrisome and that Mr. Liepert’s are very troubling indeed, especially when it comes to the model of high-cost privatized seniors’ care he promoted as health minister.

At the very least, the question of Mr. Mar’s relationship with Mr. Liepert needs to be asked during the few remaining days of this leadership race – which as far as the Tory insiders are concerned is supposed to end with Mr. Mar’s coronation on Oct. 1.

As premier, Mr. Stelmach was hobbled by the legitimate criticism early in his premiership that he had “no plan.”

This first appeared in the form a controversial television advertisement paid for by some labour groups, and led directly to several unconstitutional Conservative efforts to attack the right of Albertans to free expression during election campaigns and the right of unions to engage in political action on behalf of their members.

Notwithstanding that impact, the charge stuck – to a substantial degree because it was so obviously true – and resonated in the minds of the public.

At the same time, there was always something about Mr. Stelmach that a lot of Albertans instinctively liked – the sense he was at base an honest person, and that he was an outsider who had somehow fluked into power, someone a little removed from the most deeply cynical and self-interested instincts of the Alberta Conservatives. He even tried to raise oil royalties, for heaven’s sake, before the Old Boys slapped him down!

The association of Mr. Mar with the Tory Old Boys Club and its promise of a government of insiders, by insiders and for insiders, combined with the complete lack of enthusiasm or engagement he brings forth from ordinary Albertans, could very well turn into a legacy the Alberta Conservatives live to regret.

Alas, that is unlikely to happen in the general election campaign that is certain to follow the selection of Mr. Mar very quickly, while the party still enjoys a bump in public esteem.

But Mr. Mar is certainly no “reinvention” of the party, and if that is what Conservatives are hoping for from this leadership contest, they’d better get cracking about changing course in the few days they have left to do something about it.

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The Top Ten reasons to worry about Premier Gary Mar

Gary Mar exactly as he appeared at a recent Conservative leadership forum, as some guy looks on. Your blogger is on the road, has limited Internet access and needs to keep it short…. so, perhaps we can explore this theme in greater detail soon. Photo by Dave Cournoyer.


10) He’s supported by Doug Griffiths

9) He’s supported by Rick Orman

8) He’s supported by Ted Morton

7) He’s Danielle Smith’s greatest hope

6) Boy is he ever supported by Kelley Charlebois

5) He’s a big advocate of the Keystone XL Pipeline

4) He did a lousy job of advocating the Keystone XL pipeline

3) He’s supported by Ron Liepert

2) He wants to introduce private two-tier health care



1) He’s Ralph Klein’s favourite candidate!

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Why those drat blamed cowboy poets make me so darned ornery

Your blogger, centre, at the June 1994 gathering of cowboy poets in Pincher Creek, wondering why they reckoned him for a city slicker. Online Alberta political commentators may not have appeared exactly as illustrated. Below: A couple of actual Alberta Conservative politicians, looking really foolish. Astonishingly, there appears to be no photo of Gary Mar in a cowboy hat! Your blogger’s boots.


Listen, Pilgrim, back in 1994 when I was still toiling as an underpaid sluggo in the reporting ranks of the Calgary Herald, I was asked to write a story based on a press release sent out by the cowboy poets’ society in Pincher Creek. All that was expected was the usual dull three paragraphs.

Bragging here, but bright spark that I was back in those days, I had the coruscating idea of writing it up as a cowboy poet might.

The dear old Herald didn’t quite know what to do with the outcome of this effort, but to their credit they didn’t spike it. They merely slammed it into a hole on the city page under a pedestrian headline: “Pincher Creek to host annual round-up.”

My colleagues, however, gave me a standing ovation when I came down for coffee the next morning, something that had never happened before and has never happened since. The managing editor of the day, on his way through the revolving door like all the rest of them, grumped: “Loved the poem. Don’t ever do it again!” Without a word of a lie, he ended up in Dayton Ohio, possibly as punishment for allowing it to go to press!

The facts were accurate, however, and the Herald never had to print an apology, correction or retraction. Here’s the story:

Pincher Creek to host annual round-up

They’ll be ridin’
From Vancouver,
Dawson Creek.

Even one
From Lubbock, Texas,
Has set out
For Pincher Creek.

It’s those drat-blamed
Cowboy poets,
81 of ’em
In all

Comin’ for
Their yearly readin’,
Roundup, tea party
And ball.

Seven years now,
They’re recitin’
In the fairgrounds
Down in Pinch’

4,000 folks
Came last year,
For t’ hear ’em,
It’s a cinch.

June 17
To June 19
Admission costs
Five bucks

So says
Anne Stevick,
Who’s in charge.
So go gas up the truck!

The dinner
And the barbecue
Are 20 bucks,
all told.

But Stevick says,
on Saturday,
the tickets
Are all sold.

So if you
Like yer rhymin’
With yer ropin’
And yer beans:

You come on down
To Pincher Creek,
They want you
On the scene.

After that grand success, the Herald rewarded me with a trip to Pincher Creek, whence I filed an uninspired and now entirely forgotten story – not in verse, as per my instructions – though, at my age, forgetting stuff like this or anything else isn’t entirely unexpected. I mean, I’m practically the same vintage as Rick Orman and Ted Morton, for crayon’ out loud, only without the nice, outside-my-snack-bracket Sam Abouhassan suits and cordovan loafers! (I do, however, have a nice pair of boots.)

I was reminded of this just the other day when what should show up in my e-mailbox but a press release from the Western Folklife Centre in Elko, Nevada, (of course, they don’t spell centre that way, but nuts to them!) plugging their 28th national cowboy poet gathering, Jan. 30 to Feb. 4, 2012. (Why me, now? I have no idea. Maybe because my former neighbour is Ian Tyson’s cousin, and he’ll be there – Ian, that is, not my former neighbour.)

However, since event this will no doubt be covered heavily in the mainstream media on the theory that what worked like a darn on June 9, 1994, must still be a great idea, I feel obligated to warn you about a couple of things about these guys, who made me real ornery in Pinch, and make me real ornery to this day on the rare occasions I think about them.

First of all, there doesn’t seem to be a heck of a lot of new blood in this field. At any rate, I’m sure I saw some of the same names on the list for 2012 as back in ’94. But that would be no surprise because these guys are real snotty about who’s a cowboy poet and who ain’t. And I can tell you that as far as they were concerned back then, you weren’t a cowboy poet if you couldn’t memorize your poems – although I bet you nowadays they all read them off their iPhones in squeaky voices and keep them real short so they can Tweet them around to their “followers.”

They were also real economical about keeping their promises when they said they’d have an open session where anyone could read a cowboy poem. Leastways, they wouldn’t let me read mine.

I’d rushed back to my truck, see – which, really embarrassingly, in those days was a Chrysler mini-van fully of baby diapers and stuff like that – and penned a cowboy poem for city people that, if you don’t mind me saying so, was pretty darned good.

And they wouldn’t let me read it! They said it was “too late,” which really strains credulity if you watched the same Western movies I did (apparently along with most Alberta Conservatives, see accompanying photos) when you were growing up.

In their defence, sort of, I think the real reason was that the lady before me read a poem that … and brace yourselves, people, because this is pretty ugly … didn’t rhyme!

Well, I can’t say I approve of that, but it’s probably not as a bad as not keeping your word as a cowboy poet and, to be frank, I’ve never really forgiven them denying me my sly little digs. That’s when I gave up the art for Elizabethan sonnets about the NDP and, I must say, it’s their loss.

Anyway, from that day to this I’ve never had an excuse for that poem to see the light of day, but thanks to the press release from the Folklife Association – whatever the heck a folklife is – now’s my chance. So here it is, establishing my credentials, I surely hope, as a True Albertan as true as any candidate for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta, even the ones that like me that were born on the West Coast.

After this, I expect, nothing more will ever again be said in this space about cowboy poetry. And I don’t want to hear any cracks from the usual online trolls about not giving up my day job!

Deconstructing the West

There’s men that wear their sisters’ shoes!
(Each one a college grad)
They’ll tell ya God Hisself is dead,
And eatin’ beef is bad!

They don’t approve of drinkin’ beer,
Cigar smoke makes ’em weep.
They want to register your gun,
And repossess your Jeep.

They’ll tell you that for womenfolk
All marriage is pure hell:
But put your kids in daycare
And they’ll think yer mighty swell.

Plain talk and self-reliance
Are to them a wicked curse.
But worst of all is this, my friends…
They don’t believe in verse!

Perfessers say that rhymes are dead!
The folks who write ’em, bent.
The only thing they can’t explain
Is where their students went.

Well, let me tell ya sumpin’, boys,
Sweet poetry ain’t dead.
Not here where deconstruction means
Takin’ down a shed.

So if you seek inspirin’ verse,
Well, all you need, my friend,
Is to sit down by the campfire
In the compn’y of good men.

U.S. opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline: it’s not what you think it is

The headquarters control room of the Keystone XL pipeline: caution, pipeline operations may not be exactly as illustrated, on this blog or on those run by the Alberta government. Below: The Keystone pipeline as environmentalists see it. Below that: the pipeline as American Tea Partiers perceive it. Bottom: Wildrose Energy Critic Paul Hinman.

So where’s the Wildrose Party and their principled support for property rights now that our good neighbours to the south really need them?

When you hear reports of opposition to Transcanada Corp.’s Keystone XL Pipeline project in Alberta’s media nowadays, it’s always cast as the work of nutty environmentalists – and treasonably un-Albertan ones at that, if the environmentalists in question happen to be from around here.

It’s true that neither Canadian nor American environmentalists are big fans of the plan to pump oil wrung out of Alberta’s tar sands all the way across the continent via Illinois and Oklahoma to the U.S. Gulf Coast, exporting thousands of jobs along with it. For that matter, neither is Peter Lougheed, the sainted founder of Alberta’s tiresomely long-lived Tory dynasty.

And it’s also true that all the Conservative leadership candidates still vying for the opportunity to replace Premier Ed Stelmach seem to be in favour of the project.

But there’s a special irony to the project’s support by Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith, who uses the Keystone XL project’s political problems as an excuse to lob shots at both environmentalists and Conservative leadership front-runner Gary Mar – who for years was Mr. Stelmach’s Man in Washington with the job of lobbying in favour of environmentally iffy activities like the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Mr. Mar, of course, is the candidate the Wildrosers would most like to win the final Tory leadership vote on Oct. 1 because they see him as the easiest to portray as a mildly left-wing “wet” who would be soft on their hard-right issues – such as, for example, “property rights.”

The Alberta government, Mr. Mar, the Wildrose and Ms. Smith all seem to be in agreement that if only the Americans can be persuaded the pipeline will do no environmental harm, the project is a deadbolt cinch.

“Some may be wondering where Gary Mar was while President Barack Obama was forming his opinions about Alberta’s energy industry based on false information and misleading environmental propaganda,” Ms. Smith complained in a recent speech. “Gary Mar was Alberta’s man in D.C., the man who was supposed to be defending Alberta’s energy sector against these unfair and unfounded smear jobs. On his watch, Alberta’s oil patch became America’s favourite environmental punching bag.”

Wildrose Energy Critic Paul Hinman, meanwhile, calls Keystone XL “important for the future growth and prosperity of the Alberta economy.” Said Mr. Hinman in a Sept. 1 Wildrose Party news release: “The question President Obama should be asking – and the question Gary Mar obviously failed to ask – is ‘would the United States rather buy their energy from a friendly neighbour delivered through a pipeline or from corrupt regimes delivered in oil tankers?’”

However, virtually unreported in Alberta, and certainly not mentioned by Ms. Smith or Mr. Hinman, are the real reasons why the Keystone Pipeline project is a big problem for U.S. politicians like President Obama – and it’s not opposition from environmentalists.

Mind you, this is entirely consistent with Wildrose practice on other issues. The party never mentions, for example, what a useful tool its approach to “property rights” would be to overcome legislative initiatives to protect the environment or act on the interests of society generally.

Greens are of course a political factor in the U.S., as they are in Canada, but when it comes to secure energy supplies and the chips are down, their concerns are certain to be brushed aside, and with the support of considerable numbers of voters in both countries.

The more serious political problem – especially on the south side of the Medicine Line – is the business of the need for eminent domain, or expropriation as we say in Canada, to build this monster project. In other words, “property rights,” a key issue for loony right Wildrosers and a concept that’s enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

As American commentator Alexander Cockburn observed recently on his blog, the Keystone XL pipeline “will require one of the largest and most aggressive eminent domain actions since the construction of the Interstate highways.”

Since, as Mr. Cockburn points out, opposition to eminent domain or any interference with Americans’ constitutionally enshrined property rights is the ideological bedrock of the Republicans’ Tea-Party right, any development of the project is certain to be a drawn-out and bitter battle.

This, of course, is the real reason the timorous Mr. Obama fears the Keystone project, not the objections of green-tinted movie stars at the White House fence whose concerns can be brushed aside with ease and a few plastic wrist ties in the face of the potential of energy security at fire sale prices from environmentally questionable projects in Alberta.

So if the pipeline flops, the Wildrosers need to remember that it’s not going to be the fault of easy-to-vilify environmentalists, or Mr. Mar for that matter. It will be their ideological fellow travellers in the U.S. chapter of the Wildrose Party, known south of the border as the Tea Party fringe of the Republicans.

If they ever thought about the Wildrose Party, those beloved and admired U.S. farmers and ranchers who fear expropriation along the Keystone XL route would be entitled to ask, “Where are our highly principled Albertan friends now that we really need them?”

Indeed, Albertans might ask themselves a similar question about how committed the Wildrose Party and Danielle Smith really are to the universal principle of “property rights” whenever it ceases to be convenient to implementing their economic nostrums.

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