Archive for October, 2011

Happy Halloween: The Mystery of the Missing Museum and what Edmonton needs to tell the Tories

Looking for the money: The typical Albertan, and the Albertosaurus, above, may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: Federal Tories never offered more than $30 million to Edmonton museum project, says MP Laurie Hawn … whoops, the latest Conservative claims may not be exactly as illustrated either. Below that: Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel, angered and dismayed.

About the only thing that’s really clear about the tortured saga of the $350-millionish Royal Alberta Museum is that hardly anybody understands how the supposed key to Edmonton’s desperately needed downtown renewal could be promised, then jerked away in a matter of weeks.

That said, two conclusions are inescapable:

  1. The major players from all three secretive Conservative governments that have had a hand in this fiasco (the Ed Stelmach provincial government, the Alison Redford provincial government and the Stephen Harper federal government) are likely lying to us about it.
  2. Edmonton and its taxpayers are consistently taken for granted and treated with contempt by Conservatives of all stripes.

Back on April 7, the provincial government of trotted out the trumpeters and the fireworks to announce that the grand edifice would be erected adjacent to the north wall of Edmonton City Hall, in a part of downtown that can be justly described as both dreary and dangerous.

The new museum was to be finished by 2015, we were told then. “Just as the great urban centres around the world are known for their great museums, known for their cultural facilities, so too, will this great city, and this great province will have a truly world-class museum,” enthused then-premier Stelmach.

“I really deeply believe that this particular structure will give a new birth to an area of our city that’s had challenges,” trilled along Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel, fastidiously understating the problems of the neighbourhood.

Over the summer, designers and contractors were hired, deals were signed, magnificent drawings were published by the local newspapers and the project appeared to be moving ahead swimmingly.

Most Edmonton-area residents were pleased by this announcement, even if they didn’t particularly care about museums or cultural stuff.

Most everyone here recognizes that part of downtown needs fixing – and patching up areas like that is an essential job that only a government can be expected to do in a pinch like this. People know in their hearts that if we wait for private sector to fix this grimy patch of concrete, we’ll be waiting till the 22nd Century. Indeed, building a museum in this block will do more to make Edmonton’s streets safe than another billion spent on the Harper Government’s “tough-on-crime” agenda.

Anyway, any city that aspires to be part of the elusive “world class” needs a museum or two.

In retrospect, one wonders if someone in the provincial government didn’t read the calendar wrong when they booked the room for the news conference at nearby Grant MacEwan University. Maybe it was supposed to be on April 1, not April 7?

OK, that was then and this is now. So, what happened was … something.

On Oct. 26, Edmontonians were genuinely shocked to learn from the province that the federal government had pulled $92 million in promised money and, in the process, pulled the plug on the project.

Mayor Mandel expressed his anger and dismay, which, is something that obviously caused Prime Minister Harper and his Calgary Conservative brain trust in Ottawa to lose no sleep. Indeed, all this had the feeling of déjà vu all over again. (Wasn’t it just this time last year that Mr. Mandel was expressing his anger and dismay at the federal government’s decision to pull the plug on the city’s bid for Expo 2017?)

At this point, the narrative becomes very confusing. Using Edmonton Centre MP Laurie Hawn, in whose riding the museum would have been located, as their point man, Ottawa denied ever having promised to fork over the dough.

As Edmonton Journal columnist and blogger Paula Simons explained it in her excellent unraveling of this Tory cluster-pluck, “like his colleagues Rona Ambrose and James Rajotte, Hawn has been busy insisting that the federal government never promised to give the RAM project any more than the minimum $30 million previously pledged by the former Liberal regime.”

Alas, she pointed out, this would appear to be a flat out fib, as Mr. Hawn was bragging about his government’s contribution, $85 million of it at any rate, back during his campaign for re-election in the federal election last May. That, however, may simply be another case of that was then and this is now. At the very least, the federal Conservative claims the provincial conservatives never asked for the money strain credulity.

Not that any of the other Conservative governments come off covered in glory or winning laurels for their commitment to openness and transparency.

As Edmonton blogger Dave Cournoyer has ably pointed out, the Stelmach government obviously rushed the announcement of the project as a legacy when they didn’t have all their ducks in a row, then misled Albertans about the deal. And the Calgary-focused Redford government may well have been less enthused by the expensive plan and quite happy to let someone else take the rap for killing it, and was economical with the truth about what they really want to happen.

What’s more, as Ms. Simons explained the background to this situation: “the federal Conservatives have clearly allied and aligned themselves with the Wildrose opposition, much to the fury of the provincial Tories. Our museum has been caught up, a civilian victim in that civil war.”

Needless to say, this whole fiasco is not only a slap in the face of everyone who pays taxes in the Edmonton region, it’s an international embarrassment – the opposite of the vision of world classiness we always seem to be striving for in these parts.

Indeed, about the only good thing that can be said about this situation is that it’s entertaining watching this tripartite peeing match between these three Tory skunks. Too bad it has to be happening in our front yard, because it’s going to stink the place up for years.

Weirdly unspoken, however, in all the mainstream media coverage of the Mystery of the Missing Museum is the obvious conclusion that these Tories of all stripes – and you should include the Calgary-centric Wildrose Tories in this because they’re part of it too – are obviously going to keep on treating Edmonton with contempt as long as we reflexively keep re-electing them.

Just look at what happened in the Edmonton-Strathcona riding before the last federal election: Having an NDP Member of Parliament, Linda Duncan, was the best thing that ever happened to the place!

It’s as simple as this, people. They’re going to keep slapping us around until we stand up to them and make them stop!

And if we won’t, well, we have no one to blame but ourselves!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Who is behind the ‘push poll’ attacking Alison Redford?

Is this the Albertan to whom I am speaking? The mystery push-pollster busy in Alberta this week – the caller you’re speaking with, of course, may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, sleazy U.S. political tactician Karl Rove; Redford Chief of Staff Stephen Carter.

Who is behind the sleazy “push poll” that’s got home telephones throughout Alberta ringing?

A push poll, for those of you who have not yet stumbled across the term, is a political campaigning technique in which a political party or interest group attempts to change the opinions of the people whom they contact by pretending to conduct a poll.

Usually push polls are designed to smear opposing politicians by suggesting something nasty about them, things that often have enough truth to them to make them dangerous but which occasionally are outright fabrications.

Even when they are founded in truth, push polls are designed to attack and not to elicit and tabulate actual opinions – hence, there’s usually little effort made to actually measure and analyze the responses that the questioners who interrupt your quiet time at home may hear.

The push poll currently doing the rounds in Alberta asks two questions designed to push “respondents” (that is, the message audience) toward a particular conclusion about Progressive Conservative Premier Alison Redford – and, eventually, in the direction of a particular action or non-action in the polling booth. There are some other questions, too, of the standard “who’s-winning-the-horserace” variety, say Albertans who have been phoned.

One of the push-poll’s questions asks respondents something like this: “The Globe and Mail reported that Alison Redford supported Stephane Dion’s multi-billion-dollar child care program and not Stephen Harper’s plan to give families a choice. How does that affect your opinion of Alison Redford?”

The obvious goal here is to paint Premier Redford as “anti-family” in that wonderful way neo-Cons, including neo-Cons who support Ms. Redford it must be noted, call programs that would help families “anti-family” and those that hurt them “pro-family.”

It also tries to imply that she is a big-time “tax and spend” type, as in the phrase “tax and spend liberal.” Never mind that it’s always so-called “conservatives” who want to hose away our billions by spending like drunken sailors on unneeded stealth fighters, unnecessary prisons and giveaways to billionaires.

The second question tries to get at Ms. Redford from another angle, asking something like: “Alison Redford’s chief of staff is not abiding by a court order to repay a $600,000 debt. How does that affect your opinion of Alison Redford?”

This is a reference to a story broken by the Calgary Sun that a company owned by Ms. Redford’s just-appointed chief of staff, political strategist Stephen Carter, owed the substantial sum to contractors including the University of Calgary for events run by the firm. A report in the Sun earlier this month said Mr. Carter had nothing to say on this matter, which one could argue is not the best political strategy for dealing with a situation like this. Be that as it may, while the criticism implied by the question may be legitimate, the technique is designed to deceive respondents.

Which brings us back to the question about all this that really matters: who is behind it?

Historically in North America, of course, push polls are much more likely to be used by the parties of the right than those of the centre and left. They were a technique favoured by Karl Rove, the scorched-earth mastermind behind the campaigns of George W. Bush and other politicians nurtured by the American 1 per cent. Mr. Rove is much admired by the Canadian right. But you really can’t put this sort of thing beyond anyone nowadays.

Arguably, any opposition party in Alberta stands to gain from anything that sows seeds of doubt about Ms. Redford’s capabilities or her appropriateness for the job.

That said, I am confident this poll was commissioned by neither the New Democrats nor the Alberta Party – because its message makes no sense from either party’s perspective, and because both parties categorically and convincingly deny having anything to do with it. Indeed, I broke my promise to do no actual research until someone pays me for this stuff, and contacted them all, except the Tories, of course, who ex officio are off he hook.

The same logic can be applied to the Alberta Liberals – even though they are now led by a former Conservative, it seems unlikely they’d include an attack on a former federal Liberal leader in a question – although the caucus spokesman I talked to, the only Liberal I could reach, refused to speak for the party.

Regardless, none of these three parties has the funds to waste on this kind of thing at a time when they may soon have a pressing need to pay for election signs.

Which leaves one party as Suspect No. 1, to wit, the well-funded Wildrose Party led by Danielle Smith.

It’s the only party in Alberta that these particular questions are likely to benefit. And the senior Wildroser I talked to was precise and nuanced in his response. He’s not involved in polling, you see – he does other things for the party.

This kind of evidence isn’t going to get a conviction, even in the court of Alberta public opinion, which has notoriously low standards. Plus, of course, it’s always possible the poll is being done by some independent of semi-independent group of Swift Boaters.

Nevertheless, in this light, Question No. 2 is interesting because Mr. Carter and his company’s financial issues present a particular problem for the Wildrose Party. After all, they hired him first, before Ms. Redford or the government of Alberta did, and any attack against him that proves effective could rub off on them too.

No doubt they’re looking for ways to get at him that will stick only to their opponent on the right, the Redford Tories.

Either way, if they can develop one of these issues into a wedge that divides Ms. Redford’s supporters and drives some of them to the right, or even just persuades some of them to stay home on voting day, the Wildrose Party will benefit. Indeed, the Wildrose Party even benefits if they can persuade some electors to move to a more left-wing party, as that could create vote-splitting opportunities in many constituencies. A potential target for this kind of thinking: small-l liberals who shelled out $5 to join the Tories and vote for whom they saw as the least offensive candidate for premier.

We may never find out who is behind this push poll, of course. Don’t expect the people who are doing it to fess up very willingly.

In the next few days, look for a new poll published for a political party, even if the publisher makes no reference to the two push questions. And look for polls by companies that you’ve never heard of before, since it’s unlikely a legitimate pollster would ask questions like these.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Wildrose leader nails the problem – but not the solution – with Calgary’s shortage of health professionals

The “Calgary South Health Campus” rises from a field in Calgary’s southeast corner. Below: Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, Tory Health Minister Fred Horne, radio host Dave Rutherford.

I just hate to agree with Danielle Smith.

Regular readers of this blog will understand why I’m uncomfortable finding myself on the same side of any issue as the leader of the Wildrose Party, who is a right-wing fundamentalist whose policy notions would do untold harm to our province if she ever had an opportunity to implement them.

But on the issue of staffing the giant new hospital being built in Calgary’s southeast corner, a topic on which she extemporized at a $325-per-plate Wildrose Party fund-raiser last week, Ms. Smith’s analysis was bang on.

The topic came up during a question-and-answer period after lacklustre speech, in which she is said to have been assisted a little by the studiously neutral QR77 radio host Dave Rutherford lobbing softball questions at her. Ms. Smith suggested poor planning about staffing at the so-called South Health Campus will cause wards to be closed at other Calgary hospitals in the near future when the facility opens.

“I think we are in big trouble with the South Calgary hospital,” Ms. Smith said, according to the Calgary Sun’s account of the event. “I think what’s going to happen with the South Calgary hospital, they are going to be closing down wings and operating rooms of existing hospitals to be able to move staff around.”

She added: “I think Calgarians had reason to expect there was going to be an increase in capacity, an increase in beds, an increase in operating rooms … and ultimately a reduction in waiting lists and I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Sad to say, it’s likely all too true.

Thanks to the catastrophic health-care policies of the Ralph Klein Government, which drove health care professionals out of the province and reduced available space in training programs for new ones, there’s still a shortage of all kinds of health professionals in this province that even wholesale raiding of South Africa can’t fix.

No doubt when the hospital starts to open next spring it will be officially named the Ralph Klein General Hospital in the great Alberta tradition of naming enormously expensive public health facilities after people who tried to privatize our public health care system. (Example: Edmonton’s Mazankowski Heart Institute, named for Conservative-Reform-Alliance Party stalwart Don Mazankowski, the author of a pro-privatization, pro-delisting report commissioned by Mr. Klein.)

Also thanks in part to the bumbling, confusion and wild changes of course under former Progressive Conservative premier Ed Stelmach’s government, this serious problem persists – although at least Mr. Stelmach seemed to come to his senses when he moved the eager privatizer Ron Liepert out of the health ministry in response to a general public rebellion.

Now, given the mixed signals being sent by PC Premier Alison Redford – on one hand, a promise to preserve public health care, on the other the restoration of Mr. Liepert to arguably the most important post in cabinet and the appointment of another friend of privatization, Fred Horne, to the health portfolio – it is far from clear what if anything the government intends to do.

There ends any agreement with Ms. Smith and her remaining hard-right Wildrose loyalists, of course.

After all, her policy prescription for solving the health professional shortage will be essentially the same as Mr. Klein’s, Mr. Mazankowski’s, Mr. Liepert’s, Mr. Horne’s and all the rest of them – more privatization, more market fundamentalism, two tiers, three tiers, and more tiers. And more tears, too, for those of us who can’t afford treatment in the Wildrose Party’s Americanized dream economy.

Notwithstanding the Wildrose Party’s care not to appear to advocate private health care, Ms. Smith hinted at this in her Q&A, in the words of the Sun’s reporter: “To deal with an acute shortage of nurses and doctors, she said the Wildrose Party believes in going back to a market-based approach to graduating enough of them to meet the needs of the population and ensuring they stay in the province.”

If you think about it, it would take state intervention, not the market, to solve both those problems. But with the very real shortage of health professionals, identified by Smith, there’s not much doubt that she’s right about what will happen when the $3-billion-plus south Calgary hospital goes on stream, whatever it’s called.

But “market-based solutions” are not what is needed to fix it.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Gary Mar for prime minister of Canada? Don’t giggle: It could happen

Canadian Prime Minister Gary Mar, at left, converses with the leaders of the NDP Opposition in Ottawa, circa 2025. Future Conservative prime ministers, of course, may not be exactly as illustrated. Nice to know that, even in the future, men don’t have to shave their legs. Below: the real Mr. Mar again, and Tommy Douglas and Winston Churchill, two other politicians who experienced setbacks in their political careers.

Gary Mar for prime minister of Canada?

Don’t giggle. It may not be likely, but it could happen.

With Mr. Mar about to leave for a comfortable exile in Asia – but an exile nonetheless – such a notion must seem utterly fanciful.

And surely it’s the last thing from Mr. Mar’s mind at this moment, as anyone who observed his game but pained demeanor – a brittle grin pasted on his face – the night he lost the ballot count, and the premiership of Alberta, to Alison Redford.

But, as Tommy Douglas quoted from an English folk song in similar circumstances: “I am hurt, but I am not slain. I shall lay me down and bleed a while, then rise and fight again.”

So as unlikely as it seems right now that Mr. Mar might rise and fight again, he most likely will – and the eventual leadership of the federal Conservative Party is just the sort of place his laser-like political ambition might focus.

Think about it. In a heck of a lot of ways, Gary Mar would be a powerfully appealing candidate for the unprogressive federal Conservatives in the wake of the leadership of the unsmiling, cynical, ideologically fundamentalist and often capricious Stephen Harper.

Indeed, Mr. Mar really could be a uniter for the Conservatives – just ideologically pure enough to satisfy Mr. Harper’s hard-line legions, cuddly and warm enough to appeal to more Canadians than our edgy and easy-to-distrust prime minister ever could. The leadership of the federal Conservatives might even be a place where his disastrous private health-care faux pas during the Conservative leadership race could be turned to his advantage.

If Mr. Harper is right and his great success has been to make the Conservative Party the new Natural Governing Party of Canada, Mr. Mar is the kind of politician who could broaden and secure such a party’s base.

Moreover, the selection of a politician like Mr. Mar as Tory leader would send a powerful message to the traditionally Liberal immigrant and visible-minority voters the Conservative Party is so assiduously trying to woo. For while Mr. Mar is no immigrant – his family, after all, have been in Canada for more than a century, and he himself was born in Calgary – the fact he is a member of a visible minority is a lesson for us all about what families can achieve when they raise their children in this country, wherever they come from.

Naturally, Mr. Mar would have to have the ambition to press on in spite of the setback he suffered on the first day of this month – but anyone who knows Mr. Mar knows that this is a given.

And he would have to have the political calculation and skills to learn from his mistakes and ensure that he, not to mention his campaign team, don’t repeat them. Again, anyone who knows Mr. Mar knows that this too is well within his capabilities.

Could he be elected as a Member of Parliament upon his return from Asia? In Calgary? Do you need to ask, people?

Could he learn to speak French well enough to pass himself off as prime ministerial timber? I don’t know the answer to this question, but he’s a smart guy and I’m betting that he could certainly learn to speak our other official language better than Stephen Harper does. Perhaps we should keep an eagle eye on the expenses of Alberta’s mission to Asia for signs of a French tutor!

Could the Conservatives countenance another leader from Alberta? Probably not – but maybe if there was another, less successful, one in between….

Normally, of course, losing a political race is not considered a promising harbinger of political success to come – although history is replete with politicians like Winston Churchill who had to spend a sojourn in the wilderness before succeeding in the grandest ways possible.

Ironically, in a scenario like the one described here, Mr. Mar needed to lose the race to become Alberta’s premier. After all, no provincial premier has ever become Canada’s prime minister since Charles Tupper held the job of premier of Nova Scotia for the first three days of Canada’s life in 1867. There is a good reason for this. You can’t be the first minister of all the people when you’ve been as closely identified as one province’s spokesperson as a you must be to be a successful provincial premier.

So at least that’s one millstone that doesn’t hang around Mr. Mar’s neck!

So is he really a likely prime ministerial candidate? Who knows? I certainly don’t. But I’ll tell you one thing. I’m certain we haven’t heard the last of Gary Mar!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Killing the gun registry: it’s about the Conservatives’ deeply cynical politics, not about waste

Big gun, little … never mind. The base of the Harperista base, pretty much exactly as illustrated? Photo grabbed from the Internet. Below: Victor Toews.

If you need evidence of the malice and cynicism behind the Stephen Harper Government’s determination to scrap the national rifle and shotgun registry, you need look no further than its refusal to pass the information already collected to provinces like Quebec that are prepared to carry on the job of protecting the public.

From Day 1 of this debate until literally today, the Conservative line has been that the registry was a waste of taxpayers’ money and a burden on law-abiding gun owners and therefore ought to be shut down.

Tory toadies like the so-called Canadian Taxpayers Federation – about which it cannot be said too many times does not represent the interests of taxpayers, this issue being yet another glaring example – have dutifully parroted this line.

But by their actions you shall know them, and by their actions we can see that their claim is baloney of a particularly unhealthy variety.

Yes, the registry did cost far too much when it was set up by the Liberals, although, those costs having been paid, it was relatively inexpensive to operate. So, given all that water under the proverbial bridge, why not give the data collected at such great expense to the police agencies and provincial governments that want it?

Well, as is so often the case with the Harper government, the positions it takes have little to do with the facts. In this case, Manitoba’s Victor Toews – the federal minister with the Orwellian title of Minister of Public Safety, which apparently in reality means Minister of Public Endangerment – has made it clear there’s no way on God’s green earth he’ll provide this information to the provinces and police departments that want it. It’s all to be destroyed.

At least in this case the Conservatives aren’t so much lying about the facts as merely ignoring them. Mr. Toews (pronounced Taves) passed right over justifying this crazy decision, flatly stating “we won’t have those records loose and capable of creating a new long-gun registry should they ever have the opportunity to do that.”

Hell no! A life might be saved, depriving the Tories of an opportunity to stir up public panic about crime!

In fact, this crusade by the Tories has never been about wasted tax dollars – that’s a laugh and a half from a government willing to piss our tax dollars away on unneeded F-35 stealth fighters that will have to patrol our northern skies in stately silence without bazillions more in radio repairs as their cost soars to $35 billion and beyond.

And this campaign has never been about the facts – another laugh from a government that wants to spend $10 billion or more building super prisons to fight a declining crime rate by jailing recreational drug users, and to send young offenders to prison for long stretches in the face of evidence that this will make our streets less safe.

No, to this government the long-gun registry was a wedge issue and nothing more than a wedge issue.

A “wedge issue” is political shorthand for a social or economic issue that divides the core supporters of a particular political party. If you’re a Conservative, say, and you can use a wedge issue to push people who would normally vote for the NDP to vote for you, or not to vote at all, you’ve driven a wedge into your opponents’ support.

The Conservatives long ago concluded that registration of rifles and shotguns was a wedge that could break the traditional voting habits of rural NDP supporters, especially in Northern Ontario where the registry was seen as a nuisance by many.

With the NDP now forming the official Opposition, the urge to stick with such dangerous and unethical tactics is likely to be impossible for the Harperistas to control – hence their determination to string this issue out.

That said, it’s hard to understand the hysteria with which the registry was opposed in some circles, since, after all, it was only a registry. We seldom hear conspiracy theories from car owners that being required to license and register their automobiles means a government conspiracy is afoot to seize their wheels. It’s almost enough to tempt one to indulge in certain common pop psychology theories about what really motives the screeching anger and drooping logic of the gun-fetishist set.

Be that as it may, there’s a real danger here because, egged on by the hydrophobic rage of the gun nuts that apparently comprise a significant segment of the Harper Conservative base, it is quite possible they will try to keep the issue alive by proposing to make it easier to own weapons that only exist to kill humans – handguns, fully automatic assault rifles and who knows what else. Bazookas?

Leastways, if this is not true – as some of their supporters are certain to instantly allege – let’s hear an unequivocal statement from the Harperites to that effect right now!

Regardless, the Harper Government’s refusal to retain and pass on the data already collected to urban police forces – a decision that will certainly result in the deaths of innocent citizens and police officers – is indefensible and immoral. In other words, pretty much what we’d expect from this deeply cynical government.

We owe it to our fellow citizens to track every one of these needless future deaths – and to assign the blame exactly where it belongs.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

In case you were wondering: a primer on how things still work in Alberta

Choice in seniors’ accommodation that suits your income, lifestyle and family structure. Below: Brian Mason, Fred Horne.

Former Alberta energy minister Ron Liepert, who is now Premier Alison Redford’s minister of finance, this morning denied Opposition allegations that his previous department put together a backroom deal to benefit a couple of energy companies.

Yeah, yeah, an energy company lobbyist sat down with the minister’s staff to draft the changes to the province’s Incremental Ethane Extraction Program, just like in George W. Bush’s Washington. …And, yeah, the two companies that benefited – Nova Chemicals and Williams Energy – did donate tens of thousands of dollars to Mr. Liepert’s Progressive Conservative Party. …And, OK, just five days after the cabinet approved the regulatory changes they helped to draft, the two corporations jointly announced a $311-million plan to take advantage of the brand-new program…

But that doesn’t mean a darn thing, folks. “There is nothing untoward here,” the minister told reporters, according to media reports. “There were no deals anywhere.”

What’s more, the premier has now ordered “full disclosure of the facts,” observing that “we do not have a scandal here. What we have is a tempest in a teapot.”

Fair enough. That, presumably, will be the end of it. Bored journalists are already flipping the pages in their notebooks. This is Alberta, after all. You can almost hear Mr. Liepert wailing, What? Whaaaaat?!

So we’ll just have to take him at his word. For sure the Opposition Liberals, who found out about this story through a freedom of information search, or the other opposition parties, won’t have a chance to ask Mr. Liepert much about it in the Legislature any time soon, because under Premier Redford’s new super-efficient approach to running the government our hard-working MLAs will only meet today and tomorrow before taking a break until late November, whereupon they won’t sit for long.

That means only two Question Periods until just before Christmas, and one of ’em’s over already.

Meanwhile, over at the Ministry of Health and Wellness (another of the stops along Mr. Liepert’s career trail of devastation), the media apparently didn’t even ask the government to defend a document leaked to the NDP that, according to party Leader Brian Mason, shows health care privatization remains on the government’s agenda notwithstanding its claims to the contrary.

A lot of the reporters at the NDP’s news conference this morning probably figured this was an old story, and it was in the sense that the newly leaked document merely backed up another damning document the media had already given short shrift back in November 2010.

The confidential briefing document to Gene Zwozdesky, the last Alberta health minister before Ms. Redford appointed Mr. Horne, illustrates a fairly damning sequence of events from back in the day when Mr. Horne was heading then-premier Stelmach’s public consultation on health care.

The NDP says it shows “Horne’s public consultations were a PR fraud that ignored public input, replacing it with points from the same backroom privatization playbook we’ve previously uncovered in a presentation to the government caucus.”

Many members of the public might have concluded there was something to this if the media had covered it. In their wisdom, however, most of them decided there was no story.

Moving right along, the Legislature was open for a little while this afternoon, and that in itself is a newsworthy item in Alberta these days, especially when a new premier delivers her first speech in that role.

Ms. Redford, who campaigned throughout the Conservative leadership race as a champion of public health care, got up in the Legislature today to say this: “Seniors are among those who most need the government’s support. This government will remove the cap on seniors’ housing costs and work with the home building industry to provide seniors with the spaces they need in assisted living and continuing care facilities, ending the bed shortage. Seniors will be able to choose from a wide variety of safe, comfortable accommodations that suit their incomes, lifestyles and family structures. Couples that have loved and depended on each other for decades will no longer be split up. To get things started, this government will add 1,000 new continuing care beds to the system through public-private partnerships.” (Emphasis added.)

This is an interesting approach to solving what truly is a public health issue – the safe and comfortable care of seniors. It will use your tax dollars to subsidize the private-sector assisted-living industry by building facilities at which they can charge whatever they please, and it will subsidize the construction industry through the more-expensive P3 model, and it will leave seniors out in the cold – in some cases, literally.

But didn’t the premier promise “quota systems for low and middle-income seniors will guarantee them access to the continuing care system,” you ask? True enough, but ask yourself what hoops you’ll have to jump through before you qualify. And what you’ll do before a space is available.

Actually, there’s a pretty good example right now of how this government operates in circumstances similar to these: not so long ago it was revealed that children in the care of the province for whom foster homes cannot be found are told to run along to the homeless shelter.

We’re not talking about runaways, people. We’re talking about children who are wards of the province. That is, the province is acting as their parent. Does it need to be said that if a real parent tried a stunt this, the province would certainly take their children into care … such as it is.

Here’s what Dave Hancock, Ms. Redford’s new minister of government services, had to say about this: “Sometimes it’s the best option that a young person has,” he told the CBC. “If a youth is coming out of a chaotic situation, they may not be ready for the rules in a group home.” (Shrug.)

I’m sure this will be very reassuring to those of you who are worrying about how you will spend your retirement in Alberta, where it can get pretty cold in the winter.

As a friend of mine explained it today, now that you have choice, you can be like the homeless youth who very much enjoys the choice of not being able to afford to stay at the Hotel MacDonald or not being able to afford to stay at the Delta down the block.

Just in case you were wondering, this is how things still work in Alberta.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Wiebo Ludwig, fierce and ailing at 69, brings his inescapable star power to Edmonton

Wiebo Ludwig, Saturday night in Edmonton. Below: John Brown, in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington; David York, director and writer of the NFB production Wiebo’s War; Richard Boonstra.

Something about Wiebo Ludwig that doesn’t quite come through in a TV interview or even a feature-length documentary is the crackling charisma of the man, the intensity of those startling pale blue eyes.

Seeing him on videotape holding court in his living room tells part of the story, but leaves a viewer not quite certain what sparked the rapt adoration his children and followers direct at a man journalists call an “environmental activist” for lack of anything that makes more sense in their limited frame of reference.

Old Testament prophet would be more like it, although that’s not quite right either. Experiencing his laser-like gaze, I am reminded for all the world of 19th Century American freedom fighter John Brown, another man with few supporters and a mission for unobtainable justice that led to something bigger and quite unexpected at the time. There is more than a passing resemblance, and in more ways than one.

Mr. Ludwig, 69, was on hand with several members and generations of his extended family Saturday night for an Edmonton showing of Wiebo’s War, a National Film Board documentary written and directed by David York. Because the film does not toady to the oil and gas industry – au contraire, my friends – one can almost feel the flying spittle from neo-Con politicians and industry flacks when they realize it was made with the assistance of our tax dollars.

For the rest of us, though, surely it’s mildly reassuring that when it comes to alms for documentary makers, neo-Con Ottawa’s left hand knows not what its right hand doeth!

The documentary aims to provide some insight into the troubling story of the Ludwig community’s conflicts with the law, with Alberta’s essentially lawless energy industry and with its neighbours in northwest Alberta who depend on that industry for their livelihood.

This is a story that involves pipeline bombings, cemented-over gas wells and the mysterious death of a teenage girl in 1999, shot by someone still unidentified when a group of teens roared in trucks through the Ludwig community’s Trickle Creek Farm at night. This tragedy has left deep bitterness between many of the oil-rich region’s residents and Mr. Ludwig’s mostly blood-related community of Reformed Christians. It is a tale by turns utopian and dystopian.

The broad strokes of this conflict are well known. The film’s invaluable contribution is that it provides context, which makes Mr. Ludwig a far more sympathetic if still unsettling character, and chronicles the extremely troubling behaviour of the RCMP in what has to be a multi-million-dollar investigation to pin environmental monkey-wrenching in the region on the Ludwig clan. It would appear that violent false-flag operations have not been dropped from the RCMP’s repertoire, notwithstanding the force’s bad experience during the FLQ crisis of the 1970s.

Mr. York’s documentary liberally uses home movies taken by members of the Ludwig clan, film fragments that are often empathetic, sometimes plain weird, and in one instance – the funeral of a stillborn child – deeply disturbing.

As is also well known, Mr. Ludwig was found guilty and sentenced to 28 months in prison in 2001 for vandalism against gas facilities in northwestern Alberta. He served two-thirds of his sentence. This has made him a hero to many in the environmental movement, and to plenty of beleaguered farmers and ranchers too. His charisma and personal discipline impressed even his jailers. And, as events like Saturday’s showing of Wiebo’s War illustrate, while thin and ailing (he is reported to be suffering from esophageal cancer), he remains a figure with real star power.

But as is made clear to some extent by Mr. York’s documentary, and clearer still by the question-and-answer session that followed its presentation Saturday, while concern for the environment that began with his family’s localized battle with the gas industry is part of Mr. Ludwig’s mission, he has something much bigger in mind.

He stayed to fight in the Peace Country despite being offered $800,000 to sign a non-disclosure agreement and leave the area, Mr. Ludwig told a questioner, because “if some of us don’t stand up and give an example, well, none of you will be interested in doing anything, that’s for sure.” And “we have achieved some things,” he added, noting that “they have blacked out our region from further development.”

Thus endeth the environmental lesson, however. The rest of his program is overtly religious, although it was well received by the audience, many of whom may not have recognized Mr. Ludwig’s Biblical references.

Mr. Ludwig, who described himself as “divinely stubborn,” noted that, at his age, “I’m not as angry, but I’m more determined.” I don’t think he meant this to be reassuring to the petroleum industry, however, or the governments that unquestioningly support it.

“The battle is won before it is fought,” he told a questioner, an apocalyptic reference in the strictest sense of the phrase. “It’s a question of which side you are going to pick.” He then quoted Matthew 10:28, to loud applause from his mostly secular audience: “And fear not them who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Governments that do the wrong thing, Mr. Ludwig observed, are like salt that has lost its savour. Which, as Christian scripture says Jesus himself preached, though not about the government, “is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.”

Where this goes was illustrated by the responses to a questioner, who wanted to know what the government should do, by the director, Mr. York, and by Richard Boonstra, 67, who might be described as Mr. Ludwig’s first disciple, right-hand man and the father of the Ludwig sons’ wives.

“First thing the government could do is act,” said Mr. York, who describes himself as an atheist and is shown in the documentary debating his beliefs with the Trickle Creek community. “Behave like a government! We elect governments to regulate powerful players in the economy…”

Mr. Boonstra saw this in a different way entirely: “The terrible need is for the government to change their spirit first.”

So what’s next? Mr. Ludwig says he is not yet certain, no doubt in part because of his illness. Young people keep showing up at Trickle Creek, he told me, looking for something, be it environmental or spiritual guidance. He will decide in the fullness of time where the community needs to go with that.

Like the folks who packed the room at the Garneau Theatre, though, if these young people come expecting an environmental activist, they will find a preacher, and one who in the words of a familiar old song can now see clearly a day when God hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

The jury’s out – or it should be, anyway – on the Calgary Herald’s latest pro-Redford poll

Premier Alison Redford of the Popular Conservatives is really popular with these guys, you can just tell!

Wow! This just in! Alison Redford is so popular….

How popular is she?

Alberta’s new premier is so popular she’s more popular that her popular party. And they’re so popular they’re called the Popular Conservatives, right? So that means, surely, that “the Conservatives have basically recovered from the Stelmach era.”

That quote belongs to a political scientist, so I guess you can take it to the bank. It’s one of several similar comments used by the Calgary Herald to bolster its story about its counter-intuitive new poll, which says that 44 per cent of decided voters and those leaning a particular way would vote for Ms. Redford’s Conservatives if an election were held right now.

What’s more, according to the exclusive poll, done for the Herald by Angus Reid Public Opinion, Ms. Redford herself has the approval of 55 per cent of Alberta’s voters.

So it’s all over but the weeping and the gnashing of teeth, right? Woe unto the Wildrose Party, saith the Herald, since it’s now sitting at a non-heady 22 per cent, the Alberta Liberals at 16 per cent, the NDP at 13 per cent and the Alberta Party at 2 per cent.

Indeed, things look so bad for the sad-sack Wildrosers, said the Herald, that the right-wing party has come a long way down from “the zeitgeist of 2009 and 2010, when the party seemed to be surging ahead of the long-governing Tories.” The zeitgeist of 2009? I guess it’s a good thing that the days are gone when they horsewhip editors for letting stuff like this into their newspapers. But, still…

Well, as they say, just a you-know-what minute.

First of all, of course, these results are based on a poll conducted from Oct. 17 to 19, before Premier Redford’s run of flip-flops and flip-flop-flips began to make the news.

Be that as it may, back in September, in the midst of the Ontario election campaign, Darrell Bricker and John Wright of the Ipsos Reid polling company had a little sage advice for journalists during election campaigns. To wit: “All polls are not created equally.”

There is, the pair of pollsters said, “a disturbing trend of late in which questionable polls find their way into an outlets coverage because they appear to match an editorial line, or present a counter-intuitive perspective.”

Messrs. Bricker and Wright called for journalists to be more grown-up and responsible about the way they report polls, and they provided readers with a handy list of six easy rules to help us, the “consumers” of the product produced by newspapers, judge their likely accuracy.

Among those rules, they suggested pollsters who use on-line methodologies to predict votes should be asked to provide “unweighted” data, results prior to adjustment for demographics and political support. “You will find some heavy thumbs are being applied to adjust for under-represented voting groups. While the weighting can produce very good results, it really amounts to no more than an educated guess. And if that’s the case, the results should be reported as such.” By the journalists reporting on them, that is.

Just for the record, the Herald story noted, “the Angus Reid poll was conducted as an online survey among 802 randomly selected Alberta adults who are Angus Reid forum panelists.” There’s no information in the Herald story about how the poll was weighted.

Another suggested rule the pair provided was for readers to take the traditional margin-of-error disclosure with the proverbial grain of salt. Merely disclosing a margin or error or listing the questions asked “doesn’t represent meaningful disclosure,” they stated.

They advised journalists: “Be honest when something looks dodgy – either don’t publish it, or publish it with an editorial disclaimer.”

Not that I’m saying anything looks dodgy about this poll, which the Herald reported as if it came down from Mount Olympus with a chorus of political scientists in white robes to reinforce its conclusions. Its margin of error, by the way, “is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20,” noted the Herald.

Just remember, as the Herald doesn’t seem to have done, that Angus Reid doesn’t exactly have a sterling record when it comes to reporting Alberta election results. On Feb. 29, 2008, for example, they released a poll showing the following results: 43 per cent for the PCs, 28 per cent for the Liberals, 13 per cent for the NDP, 10 per cent for the Wildrose, 7 per cent for the Greens.

Three days later, on March 3, in the “only poll that really matters,” as politicians are forever saying of general elections, here’s what the voters actually did: 53 per cent for the PCs, 26 per cent for the Liberals, 9 per cent for the NDP, 7 per cent for the Wildrose, 5 per cent for the Greens.

Oh well, what’s 10 per cent, give or take?

It’s worth noting that most other pollsters got the 2008 election right within a couple of percentage points. It’s also worth remembering that several other Angus Reid polls have been dramatically different from the surveys done by other pollsters with a record of success in this province.

Does this prove Angus Reid got it wrong? Of course not. For all we know, they could have nailed it this time.

But it is a good reason for a word of caution, or a qualifier or two from the credulous Calgary Herald. Well, if so, don’t waste your time looking for it in the pages of that paper, because you won’t find it.

This story also appears on Rabble.ca.

Flippity flop flip… has Alison Redford’s government ‘jumped the shark’ already?

Alberta Premier Alison Redford, immediately after ‘jumping the shark.’ Alberta politicians may not appear exactly as illustrated. Whaaaaaaaaat?! Below: The quotable LBJ.

Is this the worst start ever, or what?

Barely sworn in as Progressive Conservative premier of Alberta, Alison Redford’s flip-flop yesterday on the Heartland Transmission Line has seasoned political observers wondering if the Redford Government has already “jumped the shark.”

This comes hard on the heels of Premier Redford’s double flip-flop on the fall sitting of the Legislature described in this space a few hours earlier yesterday, not to mention the controversy over $600,000 in unpaid debts owed by a company owned by her just-appointed chief of staff.

If yesterday was an example of a shark-jumping moment, the decline of Ms. Redford’s political reputation from the high point of the Conservative leaders’ debate on Sept. 28 to the ignominy of the Heartland switcheroo on Oct. 21 must surely mark one of the swiftest implosions of political credibility in recorded history.

To turn Vietnam-era U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson’s sage observation about politics on its head, “Son, in politics you’ve got to learn that overnight chicken salad can turn to chicken sh…”

“Jumping the shark,” for those of you who have missed it hitherto, is a TV industry idiom used to describe the moment when a long-running TV series runs out of the ideas that made it a success and moves beyond recovery into irrelevance. It’s a reference to the moment in the 1977 season when the Fonz jumped the shark on water skis in an episode of the TV sitcom Happy Days.

Since the election of a new Tory leader was supposed to put an end to the blundering of the government of former premier Ed Stelmach, Ms. Redford’s accident-prone first days are bound to make Albertans wonder if the entire 40-year-old Tory dynasty has finally jumped the shark. For their part, of course, the Conservative brain trust in Ms. Redford’s cabinet and among her advisors is no doubt, like Fonzie, thinking “Whaaaaaaaaaaat?”

Yesterday morning, Energy Minister Ted Morton announced the government was putting three major power line projects on hold – including the expensive and highly controversial Heartland Transmission Line that’s supposed to run from Edmonton to Fort McMurray to power the oil-extraction mines of the Alberta Tar Patch.

Huge sighs of relief were heard from many folks – including plenty of conservative politicians in places the Heartland line is supposed to traverse – because the project and the Stelmach Government’s legislative framework to fast-track transmission line approval and expropriate land aroused such passions throughout rural Alberta and gave an effective wedge issue for the farther-right Wildrose Party.

The potential multi-billion-dollar cost of the transmission lines also left Albertans deeply fearful of what will happen to their already sky-high electricity bills.

The general consensus was the that government intended to defuse Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith’s exploitation of the property-rights wedge until after the next provincial election.

However, by the middle of the afternoon, Ms. Redford had pulled the plug on her minister’s announcement – the Heartland part of it, anyway. The premier tried to explain the latest flip-flop away as a miscommunication with her minister, just an early-days woopsie. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that someone with real clout put in a call to the premier’s office to say the line must go ahead, now, and that was that.

This has plenty of Albertans shaking their heads at Ms. Redford’s seeming trail of missteps. As Linda Osinchuk, mayor of Strathcona County (home of the non-city of Sherwood Park, the world’s largest legal village) told Global TV: “If it’s going to reverse itself, now that would be terrible for future elections, I would think, for this particular party, for this brand new premier, for this brand new caucus.”

Of course, that’s exactly what every one of Alberta’s opposition parties, right, centre and left is hoping and praying will happen.

Meanwhile, there’s evidence that the potential for new miscues by the Redford Government has not yet exhausted itself.

Alert readers will recall how the government of Ms. Redford’s predecessor really went over the edge with the hospital overcrowding crisis this time last year. It was soon apparent that the Stelmach Government didn’t have a clue in a carload how to deal with the situation – which was only defused when Mr. Stelmach appointed the soothing Gene Zwozdesky as minister of health and we were persuaded things were getting back on track.

Now, just days after Ms. Redford chose not to put the competent Mr. Zwozdesky back in her cabinet, the same physicians whose public statements sounded the warning on last year’s Emergency Room crowding crisis are back in the news saying much the same thing.

They say the problem is unresolved – this government’s unwillingness to build public long-term care facilities, leaving patients who should be in long-term care in acute-care beds and backing up the system into the province’s Emergency Rooms. The result will likely be the same, they say, especially as the fall rush and flu season hits the province’s Emergency Departments.

So, is the Redford Government up to handling a full-blown Emergency Room crisis just like last year? After this fumbling start? With the same old suspects sitting in the senior spots around the cabinet table – including Ron Liepert, the champion of privatizing long-term care, now the finance minister?

Never mind sharks. This is starting to sound like another one of LBJ’s pithy assessments, this time of Richard Nixon: “He’s like a Spanish horse, who runs faster than anyone for the first nine lengths and then turns around and runs backward. You’ll see, he’ll do something wrong in the end. He always does.”

Surely this can’t be all she wrote about the Alberta Tories?

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

OK, Premier Redford’s a flip-flopper … but does she have a plan?

Flip flops. Plenty of ’em. Below: Alberta Premier Alison Redford.


Flip. Flop. …

Is Alberta getting to be like a cheap rooming house? You know, the tenant upstairs just got home from the beach. And we’re all waiting for the other flip to flop?

Just about the first thing out of Alison Redford’s mouth after she won the Conservative Party vote to succeed Ed Stelmach as premier in the wee hours of Oct. 2 was that there would be no fall session of the Legislature.

The next morning, everyone complained, including Yours Truly, just to be completely clear about this.

Then the just-announced premier-to-be met her new caucus, private discussions apparently ensued, and she swiftly announced there would be a Legislative session after all.

This seems like a flip-flop. However, not being a neo-Con, I have to confess I’m not really up to speed with this whole flip-flop business – except that flip-flopping is something American Republicans like to accuse American Democrats of doing, and for obvious reasons is therefore also in the preferred lexicon of Canadian “conservatives.”

See, what confuses me is whether the first decision was the flip, in which case the second decision would be the flop, or if it was just whatever it was (an ill-considered comment, perhaps) and the second decision was the flip. In that case, the flop didn’t actually occur until yesterday, but je digresse.

I guess we should go with the Edmonton Journal, seeing as they actually get paid to write this stuff and surely as professionals they know what they’re talking about. They called the announcement that there would be no session a flip-flop. In which case today’s announcement was the second flip, which should leave us all waiting for the other shoe to flop. Still with me?

The first, no-session announcement seemed, if not exactly odd, to be a sign of political inexperience, if not ineptitude. Wouldn’t it have been smarter for the new premier to tell the media when they asked, “C’mon, fellas, I’m thinking about what to do with the fall session of the Legislature. Gimme a couple a days to talk to the caucus…”

Oh well, maybe her political advisors weren’t quite as seasoned as we all assumed they were in the first flush of her victory. Hell, maybe the last time her chief political advisor was really just a communications director – which from personal experience I can tell you is no guarantee of deep, probing political insights.

Anyway, getting back to today’s flip, or flop, or whatever the heck it was, we’re now moving from the sublime to the ridiculous – or perhaps the other way around. Instead of Not Having a Legislative Session, Option 1, or Having a Legislative Session, Option 2, we’re going to have a session that only lasts two days, where the premier only gives a speech about how lucky we are to live in Alberta when the rest of the world is a catastrophic mess, then we’ll all wait two weeks, then we’ll have two weeks of a legislative session at which we pass some laws, then we’ll all open Christmas presents, and then we’ll have a general election and another four years of Tory government. (Sorry, it was just too hard to capitalize every word in that sentence.)

Instead of Option No. 3, though, which is really boring, how about we call this the Third Way?

OK, where were we? Oh yeah. Maybe it occurred to someone in the caucus after they’d all talked the new premier into having a fall session after all that it would be pretty hard for her to come up with a legislative agenda on such short notice.

Now, if this sounds like I’m flip-flopping on my original position, well, all I can say is that I’m not the premier. And I still think that it would have made sense for Ms. Redford, and her high-paid political advisors, and her caucus, and her new cabinet ministers, to have taken a breath for a couple of days before they decided what to do – which, it is said here, would not have been this!

But, here we are anyway. The government is obviously right that it would have been pretty hard to come up with a full-blown agenda by the end of the month. And the Opposition is just as obviously right that it sure doesn’t sound like the openness and transparency Ms. Redford promised when she was running for the job to have a session of the Legislature but then to cut out all the days devoted to debate.

It’s also far from clear if anyone but the politically obsessed cares a fig about how long the Legislature sits, or even much about what it’s talking about when its sitting.

Be that as it may, the one thing opposition parties always try to do with new government leaders is to get something negative to stick to them before their advisers can plant the seed of something positive in the mind of the public.

Thanks to a little help from the premier herself, there’s a good chance the idea that sticks to her will be that she’s an inexperienced flip-flopper with no plan.

If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s probably something Ms. Redford’s brain trust might want to work on correcting!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.