Archive for December, 2011

Old Year assessment and New Year prediction: Alison Redford, Alberta Newsmaker o’ th’ Year, 2011 and 2012

Alison Redford meets the media minutes after her election in a Conservative Party members-only vote was announced in the wee hours of Oct. 2, 2011. Below: The unexpected results displayed.

All politics end in tears, a wise man once observed, meaning that sooner or later, almost all political winners turn into losers.

Here in Alberta, we tend to forget the immutable nature of this political law because its operations are heavily disguised by the fact that for 40 years at least the place has operated as a one-party state.

The Progressive Conservative dynasty will end in tears too, of course, but likely not just yet, thanks to the remarkable selection last October of Alison Redford as premier in a Tory party vote. In the mean time, so went the Getty Era, the Klein Era and the Stelmach Era, with not one of the successors of Peter Lougheed who lent their names to their spell in power particularly happy with the manner or the timing of their departure.

Whether the ascension of Ms. Redford shows that the Conservative party’s survival instincts are more profound and supple than many of us had imagined, able to react instinctively and rapidly to shifts within the psyche of the population, or just that Ms. Redford is more artifice than reality, remains to be seen. This blogger is open to both theories.

Regardless, the choice by Progressive Conservatives of Ms. Redford as their leader clearly ranks as the political story of the year in Alberta. And surely it says as much, or more, about the party’s will to live as of the undeniable talents of Ms. Redford and her political advisors.

The Redford team ran a smart and determined campaign that smoothly exploited both opportunities that emerged along the way and the man-ifest weaknesses of her challengers. It effectively used the re-emergence of health care as a major issue, promising to preserve health care when others blundered and mused about privatization. It surfed to a strong position on a single favourable poll. It made Ms. Redford look new and fresh and the others tired and sullied.

But it is said here that all things being equal that would not have been enough. What was really impressive was the ability of Alberta Conservatives themselves to grasp the unique nature of the challenge their party confronted and instinctively pinpoint the candidate best suited to face it.

The challenge confronting the Conservatives at the fag end of the bumbling but well-intentioned leadership of Ed Stelmach was unique. Albertans had made it clear in public opinion polling they wanted the party to emphasize the progressive part of its heritage over the conservative. At the same time, the new politician that most seemed to have engaged Albertans was an attractive and well spoken woman chanting the same old privatization mantra of the extreme right, Danielle Smith of the Wildrose Party.

Complicating that seeming strategic contradiction was the power structure of the party itself. The people with the most influence within Conservative ranks all seemed to support Gary Mar, a minister with several portfolios in the Ralph Klein government and a former MLA who had served four terms to Ms. Redford’s one. His well-organized and well-financed campaign appeared unstoppable.

So on the face of it, while it would have been be hard to imagine a better candidate than Ms. Redford for the peculiar circumstances the Alberta Tories faced, it was also hard to imagine her beating Mr. Mar.

Her pluses: Voters identified her as a Red Tory, liberal enough for majority tastes in a changing Alberta, yet conservative enough not to frighten the far right. Like Ms. Smith, she was an appealing and well-spoken woman. She was manifestly intelligent – no sin with voters fed up with the constant blunders of Mr. Stelmach (who in fact was no fool, just unlucky) and the embarrassing legacy of Ralph Klein.

Her biggest minus: Mr. Mar’s lead among committed supporters after the first ballot was so strong and his roots in the party establishment so deep, it simply seemed impossible to dispute the conventional wisdom he had it all sewn up.

After the dust had settled, a whine went up that Ms. Redford had been pushed over the top by such Tory-come-latelies as schoolteachers and health care union members. Other candidates muttered this accusation while the Wildrose Party said it aloud. But while there’s more than a little truth to it, the bigger truth is that the collective instincts of the party, including many party old boys, understood the meaning of the writing on the wall and acted accordingly.

There are sure to be many bends in the road before election day 2012, but Ms. Redford’s unique ability to appeal to progressive voters at the same time as she attracts former Danielle Smith supporters will likely to translate into a big election win.

As has been said in this space before, this is not really what Alberta needs. Indeed, we desperately need a new government, or at least an opposition big enough to shake up the Tory Dynasty and hold it to account.

Yet thanks to Ms. Redford’s natural political appeal and the skilful legerdemain that enables her to appeal to voters right across the political spectrum, that seems like what is most likely to happen.

My New Year’s Eve prediction for the outcome of the general election expected in the spring of 2012, therefore, is:

Progressive Conservatives: 78
New Democratic Party: 5
Wildrose Party: 3
Alberta Liberals: 1
Alberta Party: 0

If that or something like it turns out to be the case, there can be little doubt Ms. Redford will be Alberta Newsmaker of the Year for 2012 as well, and the inevitable Tory tears will be postponed again.

Happy New Year regardless!

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The Marxist Analysis of ‘the Wave’ in Sports Stadia

Perfesser Dave at a Blue Jays game, photo courtesy a kindly Yankees fan. Below: Exhibition Stadium – the cheap seats are at left, directly behind centre field! Below that: Thomas Mulcair; Niki Ashton.

Maclean’s Magazine once said that the Toronto Maple Leafs – which should be called the Maple Leaves, but never mind – were “English Canada’s team.” This is hooey. Back in the days of the six-team NHL, English Canada’s team was the Montreal Canadiens. (This was true even if the coach didn’t speak English, by the way – but never mind that either.)

Leastways, where I grew up in B.C., we all loved the Habs and we all hated the Leafs. Maybe it had something to do with Toronto, but we didn’t think about it. It was just a law of nature – or, maybe, a matter of historical inevitability, something like that. Anyway, the only English-speaking Canadians who loved the Leafs in those days, it needs to be said, lived in Toronto.

So, as Perfesser Dave’s Questioner might ask, why do I like those Blue Jays? That’s a good question, if I do say so myself, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the demise of the unlamented Montreal Expos.

Rather, I just happened to be living in Toronto in 1977, during the Jays’ first season, and I used to go and sit in that old football stadium and watch their games for a red two-dollar bill (or maybe it was two red two-dollar bills, whatever) and the modest price of a wobbly plastic cup full of Labatt’s Blue beer. Heaven!

Je digresse, but a word of warning: if you’re a Blue Jays guy and you go see them in that new stadium (the one that’s 22 years old now) and you’re from out of town, they’ll sit you with the Yankees fans, or, worse, with the Red Sox fans. I’m not making this up. It happened to me! For god’s sake, hide your light blue cap!

So where was I? Oh yeah, it was back in 1977 when I came up with “the Marxist Analysis of ‘the Wave’ in Sports Stadia.”

Now, I have to digress again for a moment. I didn’t actually do very well in my university Marxism class, plus it was more than 40 years ago, so what little I understood I’ve forgotten. I never did get that dialectical materialism bit down right, but for the sense that with communism, the future may be certain but the past can be pretty dodgy.

Still, it’s great to have an opportunity to use words like “Karl Marx” and “Marxist” in a 21st Century blog post because it will just send the blogging Tories and their ideological ilk rangy-tang, or, as we used to say back in the days when there was still a self-identifying proletariat, “apeshit.”

Bring it on, fellas! I’m signed in to Twitter right now!

Also, I just said “stadia” instead of “stadiums” because I’m a smart-ass.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, this is about the Blue Jays, and “the Wave,” and the working class, and the rich toffs. And more, as you’ll see if you stick with me…

Because, see, this is really about the Edmonton mainstream media, and their extremely crappy coverage of the NDP leadership candidates when they come to town. Actually, it’s not right to call their coverage “crappy,” because they don’t provide any coverage at all. Their political reporters are too busy filling their steno pads with transcriptions of what our Conservative premier, and her Conservative finance minister and all the other little Conservatives have to say about what a wonderful and fulfilling year 2012 is going to be, if you happen to be a Conservative. Plus all the murders here in Edmonton, of course.

So it’s, like, a metaphor. But you’re going to have to wait for the metaphor part too because I have to finish talking about the Wave first.

See, the Wave always started out back in the furthest reaches of the cheap football seats at Exhibition Stadium – hard wooden benches so far to the northeast that you were actually looking at the distant backs of the fielders. This is where the working class sat.

So, a couple of little foul-mouthed proletarians would start the Wave way off in the corner and it would ripple down through the cheap seats into the middling seats and peter out when it got to the rich toffs who sat behind home plate and didn’t send text messages to each other because nobody sent text messages in those days

Everybody in the cheap seats would then boo, and yell entertaining things like “F**k you! You rich f**king l**yers! Too f**king important to do the f**king Wave, huh? …A**h**es!” (Why lawyers got all the abuse, I’ll never know. Surely there were deserving accountants and physicians and MBAs all sitting down there with them too.)

I think this was the first time I had ever heard extended, sustained, prolonged profanity in a public place and I was so shocked it took me a couple of ripples before I got into the spirit of the thing.

Anyway, the next ripple of the Wave would go a little farther (same response), and the one after that a little farther still (same response, only louder, and more profane), and finally a Wave would half-heartedly ripple through the best seats and be picked up on the other side.

At that point everyone in the cheap seats would laugh derisively at how we’d made the rich lawyers bend to our proletarian will (not in those words, exactly, of course) and go back to drinking our beer. (Of course, the joke was really on us among the 99 per cent, as the 1 per cent all drove home in their pre-ABS satnav-free BMWs, while we took the streetcar, but you’ve got to get your satisfaction where you can.)

Anyway, that’s what the Wave was all about – holding the well-shod feet of the wealthy to the fire when you had the rare chance, sort of like Occupy Exhibition Stadium – and if that’s not a Marxist analysis, I don’t know what the heck is!

Nowadays, of course, proletarians can’t afford to go the Domed Stadium, or whatever the heck it’s called, but once or twice a decade, unless they’re selling hot dogs. If they ever do the Wave in there it’s sanitized, done in colourful shirts with Polo labels and washed down with Coors Lite. (Yuk!)

OK, so here comes the metaphor part: Not one single professional media reporter in Edmonton could be bothered to cover Brian Topp or Peggy Nash when they spoke to well attended public meetings in Edmonton.

Either one of those folks could be the next leader of Canada’s Official Opposition and it is not outside the realm of possibility one of them could be the next prime minister of our country.

But the Edmonton media couldn’t write three graphs about what they had to say, or even that they were going to say it, or send out a shabby guy with a camera to take a picture of one of them.

This is a disgrace. It’s worse than a disgrace, actually, but I can’t really describe it without resorting to the kind of language I used to hear at Exhibition Stadium, and I’m just too much of a gentleman for that.

Well, two more NDP leadership candidates are coming to Edmonton, and I think we need to do a version of the Exhibition Stadium Wave on our local media, especially the Edmonton Journal, which purports to be the region’s paper of record, if such a thing can be said to exist any more.

Journalists need to be reminded – by phone call, by email, by occasional derisive blog posts – that this is an important story and their few remaining readers (even some on the right, I’d wager) expect them to get off their sorry duffs and cover it. Some TV cameras would be nice, too.

Thomas Mulcair will be at the Strathcona Community Hall, 10139 – 87th Ave., on Friday Jan. 6, 2012, from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Niki Ashton will be at the City Arts Centre, second floor drama room, 10943 – 84th Ave. on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012, from 7:15 to 9:15 p.m.

Be there or be square, Mr. and Ms. Media. You’ll be mocked either way. But it’s better to endure it and do the right thing.

And if you’re not there? Well, of course your dereliction of duty will be noted, and a few more of your readers will say, “Nuts to you!”

Oh, and nuts to the Leafs, too.

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With a record like his, how could Alberta Health Services Chair Ken Hughes not run for office?

Ken Hughes on the night of Alison Redford’s victory. No idea what that passerby is looking at. Your blogger, perhaps. Behind her, former health minister Gene Zwozdesky tries to butter up Calgary Sun columnist Rick “Not The Dinger Any More” Bell.

Well, of course he’s running for office.

With a record like his, how could he not?

I refer, of course, to Ken Hughes, the first and so far the only chair of Alberta Health Services, the massive province-wide health board created in May 2008 to … well, it’s never really been all that clear just what AHS was supposed to do.

AHS has managed, one supposes, to realize a few economies of scale – especially among traditionally overpaid top health region executive positions – but at the cost of some pretty fantastic dis-economies of scale.

From the moment the Alberta Tories under then-premier Ed Stelmach and then-health-minister Ron Liepert announced their decision to roll Alberta’s nine regions plus the Alberta Cancer Board, the addictions commission and the mental health board into a single entity, saving money was said to be the reason. But, as far as anyone knows, precious little money has ever actually been saved as a result.

However, that’s the government’s story, and they’re stickin’ to it. As Premier Alison Redford’s current health minister, Fred Horne, said today in a carefully phrased news release announcing Mr. Hughes’s imminent departure as the chair of the health board, “Ken’s leadership helped AHS to deliver solid results, including over $660 million in administrative savings that has since been reinvested in patient care.”

The real reason for the creation of AHS was likely quite different from saving money. But since no one in a position to know has actually said, Albertans have been left to deduce that the desire to break the political power of the Calgary Health Region’s sometimes outspoken leadership, the need to be seen to be doing something, and the urge to mess up health care delivery just enough to open the door to privatization all played a role in creating the AHS fiasco.

Instead of savings we got a crisis in Emergency Room wait times, acute care beds full of patients who needed to be in continuing care, continued efforts to privatize long-term care and no respite from the shortage of health care professionals that dates back to policy errors committed under Mr. Stelmach’s predecessor as premier, Ralph Klein.

The main burden of responsibility, of course, must rest on the shoulders of Mr. Liepert and former premier Stelmach, but surely as their chief flunky at what was back in 2008 quaintly known as the “health superboard,” Mr. Hughes must shoulder some of the blame.

One waits with interest to hear what Stephen Duckett, the Australian PhD economist who was hired a year after Mr. Hughes to be chief executive officer under the chair’s supervision, will have to say about Mr. Hughes’s leadership. Dr. Duckett, of course, seems to have been hired in part because he was acerbic and undiplomatic, then in November 2010 was fired because he was acerbic and undiplomatic, and has now carved out a niche for himself as an acerbic commentator on Alberta health care matters.

Mr. Hughes must accept some of the blame for that unpopular decision as well, one presumes.

Regardless, we are now informed by the Edmonton Journal that Mr. Hughes will likely seek the PC nomination in Calgary-West, a piece of provincial real estate that occupies the same territory as notorious Conservative MP Rob Anders’s federal riding. It is also the Alberta electoral district now occupied by Mr. Liepert, who to everyone’s astonishment remains in Ms. Redford’s cabinet. However, Mr. Liepert has signalled his intention not to run again in 2012, or whenever Premier Redford decides to call an election under her recently passed unfixed-fixed-election-date law.

Mr. Hughes is not a stranger to politics. Before his career in health, he enjoyed an undistinguished career as a federal Conservative MP from southern Alberta, and before that as an insurance salesman.

This fall, Mr. Hughes took a leave of absence from the helm of AHS to serve on Premier Redford’s transition team. Given all that, it is likely that he hopes to become Ms. Redford’s health minister after what the government presumably assumes will be the triumph of the next election.

If so, or even if he just resides in cabinet in some other influential post, don’t expect to see meaningful change to fix the many problems with the single health board model.

It has been argued in this space that what Alberta really needs is a return to health regions, a structure that sensibly balances economies of scale with unique regional needs. This is because different blends of health services for different regional populations makes sense, delivering better service at a lower cost and responding more quickly to changing needs. This is why, of course, health regions remain the favoured way to deliver health services elsewhere in Canada.

A centralized province-wide board, by contrast, simply can’t respond as effectively as a region could. Emergency Room problems in Lethbridge, Grande Prairie or Red Deer don’t get addressed because we’re busy in Edmonton working on a provincial admissions policy. Even needed short-term solutions, such as opening more continuing care beds to ease the crunch in emergency departments, take longer when they must be solved by a bloated centralized bureaucracy like AHS.

Not so many years ago – before Mr. Stelmach, Mr. Liepert, Dr. Duckett and, of course, Mr. Hughes made their vision of a new health care model for Alberta a reality – we offered world-class medical services to residents of this province.

It will take something more than Mr. Hughes occupying a chair in Ms. Redford’s next cabinet to make that a reality again.

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Your seasonal anti-social-media message: Have a V**y Me**y Christmas!

Pierre Trudeau: What? Fuddle-Duddle? Below: Justin Trudeau; Pat Martin.

O Sir, we quarrel in print…

I blame Twitter, one of the first examples of genuinely anti-social media online, for the recent decline in the already debased state of public discourse in Canada.

Leastways, Twitter certainly makes it easy to slam off a reproof valiant to treat the right-wing trolls who inhabit the back alleys of the Internet with the respect that they so profoundly deserve. And if their tender feelings are hurt? Well, so much the better! Or so it always f**ls at the time.

Back in the day, it seemed like it was only the pimply faced agents of the Tory Rage Machine who used the on-line comments sections of what’s left of the daily press to threaten and abuse the many, many people to whose views they took violent exception. Inevitably, they hid behind a long list of pseudonyms, usually tinged with the fake patriotism of the Harper Cons. (By the way, if you’re a Harper Con named Johnny Can**k who disagrees with my a**essment, you can just shut the h**k up!)

Their strategy is well understood, thanks in part to their own famous Craigslist ad: to “make up facts,” and use “sarcasm and personal insults” to “score points” and “stir outrage.”

It was inevitable, naturally, that some of those who were among the principal victims of this sort of thing would begin to use the Internet – and especially the convenient 140-character format of Twitter – to respond in kind. Actually, with only 140 characters available, responding in kind is about all you can do!

Everyone of us, I am sure, has a r***t-w**g sh**t-t**l relative or the equivalent who has the power to get us really, really t**ked off – usually at a family dinner – safe in the knowledge that our cooler-headed spouses, parents or siblings will restrain us before we have the opportunity to say or do what’s really called for.

Unfortunately, Twitter seems to have given us the opportunity to respond as we deem appropriate, short of actual fisticuffs (which can be hard when you’re in a different city, for example) without the hand of a more-responsible or better-tempered loved one to restrain us. In other words, intemperately and with only a minimum of thought.

Perhaps if we lived in an era where all of our retorts weren’t restricted to 140 characters, we’d be less restrained in our enthusiasm for quaint f**r-letter Anglo-Saxonisms that seem to sum up neo-C*n policies and opinions so efficiently and accurately.

The problem, or maybe it is an advantage (it certainly seems to be the cause of a certain amount of relief), is that a lot of us who are not operatives of the Tory Rage Machine tend to fire off these ripostes under our own names. This, no doubt, carries a risk that some of our comments could come back to bite our backward-facing extremities if we decide to stand for deacon of our local congregation or chair of the local chapter of D**ks Unlimited.

On this general topic, my late mother oft advised me, if I’d ever dashed off an angry letter (this was back in the days of s***l-mail) to let it cool on the kitchen table over night. If I still wanted to send it in the morning, fine, go ahead. Chances were, she thought, I’d reconsider. Nowadays, of course, we all just hit “S*ND.”

So it was inevitable that a lot of us would be mildly shocked, but at the same time grimly satisfied, when NDP MP Pat Martin, exasperated at the arbitrary and undemocratic jackb**t strategies adopted by the Harper C***********s, Tweeted his displeasure in such blunt terms.

From there, I suspect, we will all move along briskly and cathartically – with no great service to the cause of intelligent public discourse, and not just in anti-social media, but a certain degree of satisfaction notwithstanding.

Most of us, for example, have resorted to the use of strong words in the face of outrageous provocation, which may be why so many of us were not particularly offended when Liberal MP Justin Trudeau assigned an unparliamentary label to Environmental Degradation Minister Peter Kent.

It is a sign of the times, methinks, that while Mr. Trudeau’s late father felt the need to explain away his response in the face of Tory provocation in the same venue (it was merely “fuddle-duddle,” he suggested) the son quite freely owned up to what he’d said and apologized.

I’m sure there were a lot of us who thought that, notwithstanding his apology, Mr. Trudeau’s comment was a pretty apt a**e**ment of Mr. Kent’s efforts, if not Mr. K**t himself, and, by the way, also that Mr. Trudeau’s beard and moustache looked quite chic and directional, no matter what the great minds of the media had to say about them.

Alas, I suspect this sort of thing is bound to continue on all sides, which is not necessarily for the good. You know: “bickering,” voter suppression, typical Conservative election t**tics and all that.

That’s why I’d like to propose a compromise. We on the left should agree to give up all profanity in our Tw**ts if the Harper Cons and their supporters will agree to stop making up facts, and using personal insults to score points and stir up controversy.

And if they won’t, well, I guess they can just … get lost! For the rest of you, Merry [EXPLETIVE DELETED] Christmas, and for Mr. Trudeau in particular, Happy [EXPLETIVE DELETED] Birthday!

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What Alison Redford really needs: a smaller caucus

Members of former premier Ed Stelmach’s caucus discuss their differences in the Legislative Assembly. Is that Ron Liepert top right? Actual Conservative MLAs may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: Premier Alison Redford; Tory defector Rob Anderson, in black.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford needs to be praying hard that she wins fewer seats next year than Ed Stelmach did back in 2008.

Alert readers will recall that Mr. Stelmach, who had been chosen Progressive Conservative leader and premier of Alberta in 2006, saw his party win 72 of the 83 seats in the Alberta Legislature in the 2008 general election.

This was hailed as a historic victory at the time, and it was in a manner of speaking. But many of Mr. Stelmach’s subsequent troubles, it can be argued, flowed directly from the size of his majority.

If Ms. Redford wants to avoid many of those same pitfalls – which stemmed mostly from human nature, not some special political circumstance unique to Alberta – she would do well to hope for a comfortable majority, but not one as comfortable as that achieved by her unfortunate predecessor.

If an Alberta general election indeed takes place in 2012, as we have been promised, somewhere between 50 and 55 seats in the redistributed 87-seat Legislature would be a harbinger of Ms. Redford’s continued success, it seems to this observer.

Right off the hop – without really changing anything in terms of her ability to do whatever she pleases – the entitlement and arrogance associated with a party that can win back-to-back overwhelming majorities over the course of more than 40 years might be ameliorated a little.

That, in turn, would reduce the who-gives-a-hoot attitude of a lot of MLAs and ministers, which arguably led directly to many of the problems experienced by Mr. Stelmach that really did make it seem for a time as if the mighty Tory dynasty was on the ropes.

Indeed, it is said here that it was – it’s just that the party’s well-honed survival reflex was prompted, and the result was a new leader at the helm that presents a very different image. But while a new image may be enough to get the party through the next election, it won’t keep it healthy for long if old bad habits reassert themselves.

Back in Mr. Stelmach’s anti-heyday, while the arrogance of some well-placed Tories began to create serious problems for the premier, another symptom of a dangerously large majority began to assert itself. Let’s call this “Devil’s Workshop Syndrome.” (Let it be noted here that the use of the term DWS is not meant to imply that any members of the Progressive Conservative caucus have actual personal dealings with the Devil, except perhaps inadvertently.)

Regardless, we all know the expression: “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” With 72 members in his caucus, virtually every one of them harbouring some degree of ambition, there simply weren’t enough cabinet posts and legislative committees to keep them all sufficiently busy.

Pretty soon MLAs were carping publicly about the premier’s lack of success, wearing black to the Legislature to protest the premier’s insufficient enthusiasm for really destructive economic policies (something akin to what Mr. Stelmach himself indulged in back in premier Ralph Klein’s day) or, worst of all, sharing discreet cups of vanilla latte with Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith in Starbucks cafes all over downtown Edmonton. (Rob Anderson, c’mon down!)

Next thing you knew there was talk of open rebellion and 10 more defectors crossing the floor of the legislature the then-Wildrose-Alliance’s benches. (One would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at the caucus meeting where the kybosh got put on that idea!) Not to mention Tory MLAs riding in the Pride Parade whilst sending out inappropriate Tweets about the other participants.

No, what Ms. Redford needs is a significantly smaller caucus as a percentage of total seats in the Legislature.

That would keep her troops focused on their jobs, and on behaving themselves. After all, the possibly of a humiliating defeat in the next election concentrates the political mind wonderfully.

Moreover, having 20 or more MLAs in the Opposition, especially if they come from all the parties that will be running candidates in the next election, will go a long way to allaying the cynicism and distrust that plagues Alberta democracy and could cause big social problems not so far down the road.

Who wants to bet, though, that Ms. Redford and her key advisers don’t see it that way. As we have already seen in the Conservative leadership campaign, they play to win – and they will only be perfectly content if they win it all, or very nearly so.

With most polls putting support for the Conservatives around 50 per cent following the leadership election, that could well happen. It is said here with no joy that, notwithstanding the recent Forum poll, the Conservatives could well again capture more than 70 seats in the Legislature, especially if voter turnout is low as historically has been the case in this province.

Nothing good will come from that – even for the Conservatives.

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Despite Alison Redford’s rhetoric, not much has changed on seniors’ care

Old folks at home: things are changing in Alberta, and not necessarily for the better. Below: Ed Stelmach, Guy Boutilier, Raj Sherman.

Does anybody remember the brouhaha in 2009 that was semi-officially designated The Trouble in Strathmore?

The trouble actually started a year earlier, in February 2008, when then premier Ed Stelmach and his Progressive Conservatives were running for election. The premier got up on his hind legs at a campaign meeting in the town half an hour east of Calgary and promised residents the government of Alberta would build 600 long-term care beds, 100 of them right there in Strathmore. There were 23 long-term care beds in the town at the time.

“We don’t need any more meetings,” Mr. Stelmach vowed. “It is a go.”

If Mr. Stelmach had kept that election promise, he might still be premier today.

At least, if “bed blockers,” who should be in long-term care beds but are stuck in acute care hospital beds, caused the Emergency Room wait time crisis that so deeply wounded Mr. Stelmach’s premiership, building the promised long-term care beds would have helped defuse the problem that continues to this day. Indeed, if the Tories had been serious about doing what they promised, Wildrose MLA Guy Boutilier and Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman would most likely still both be loyal Conservatives!

Instead, the strategic brain trust behind Mr. Stelmach’s ministry – including then-health minister and tireless seniors’ care privatization advocate Ron Liepert – diverted their efforts down the cul-de-sac of privatization and misrepresentation.

A year after Mr. Stelmach made his promise, with the Conservatives safely back in office with a huge majority, Mr. Liepert announced that the health department was reviewing its capital plans, including the promised long-term care beds in Strathmore.

By then, the government was working on a deal with AgeCare, a private company founded in 1998 by two physicians named Hasmukh Patel and Kabir Jivraj. In 1996 and 1997, Dr. Jivraj was president of the Alberta Medical Association, and in 1999 and 2002 he was senior vice-president and chief medical officer of the Calgary Health Region. A few years later, according to the Sun newspapers, a numbered company he controlled would make generous contributions to both the Redford and Gary Mar Tory leadership campaigns.

Back in 2009, a story in the Calgary Herald said AgeCare confirmed it had won $4.3 million in provincial funding to build 60 designated assisted living units in Strathmore for seniors, plus $10 million to build 82 affordable housing units, about half of which will be set aside for independent seniors. Dr. Jivraj was quoted as saying he believed the projects had no connection with Mr. Stelmach’s unkept 2008 election pledge.

According to the community’s newspaper, however, Strathmore-Brooks MLA Arno Doerksen told townspeople at about the same time that if the partnership with AgeCare became reality, the 100 long-term care beds would not be built.

Then something unusual happened, which suggests the people in Strathmore were paying more attention than most of us here in Alberta. They figured out the deceptive game the government of Alberta habitually plays with the terminology it uses to describe seniors’ care.

In the government’s lexicon, “long-term care” means properly regulated, appropriately staffed, publicly funded residential health care for seniors. “Designated assisted living” means privatized hotel-style residential care in which seniors have to pay for extra baths, feeding assistance or anything beyond the basics. Some designated services may be publicly funded, but they are likely to be delivered by a personal care assistant, not a Registered Nurse. “Continuing care,” means a combination of both – inevitably heavily weighted toward private, less regulated delivery.

The deception comes into it because the government assumes that most of us, unlike the citizens of Strathmore, don’t understand the differences and think we’re getting long-term care when they use our tax money to subsidize private corporations to build for-profit assisted living facilities.

This was what prompted The Trouble in Strathmore, when the good people of that community began to write angry letters to the editor (who in turn wrote critical and well-informed editorials), and took part in public demonstrations that made Mr. Stelmach look like a bumbler and revealed his government’s sharp practices.

As far as Mr. Stelmach is concerned, arguably, the rest is history.

One would hope the current Conservative government of Premier Alison Redford has learned from Mr. Stelmach’s errors. Alas, the evidence suggests they have not.

Earlier this week, the government slipped back into its deceptive ways with an announcement in Edmonton by Seniors Minister George VanderBurg that “seniors and persons with disabilities in six Alberta communities will benefit from more than 500 new affordable supportive living and long-term care spaces.”

If you read the fine print, though, you’ll learn that of the 541 new spaces, only 30 are actual long-term care beds – something that the Redford government, just like the Stelmach government, hopes you won’t notice.

The way the government news release explained this was as follows: “These projects will help build 511 new affordable supportive living and 30 long-term care spaces in Calgary, Okotoks, Strathmore, Edmonton, Villeneuve and Olds, identified by Alberta Health Services as having the greatest need for additional spaces and services.” Actually, and quite interestingly, it turns out that all 30 of the actual long-term care beds are located in … wait for it … Strathmore! This proves, I guess, that even in Alberta, the squeaky wheel gets a little grease!

Among the private-sector recipients of the government funds of the latest $48.2 million in public money being spent on this project, according to the government’s news release? Age Care Health Services Inc. – including $7.6 million in Strathmore for the 30 long-term care plus another 70 assisted-living beds.

Meanwhile, the number of long-term care beds in the province, approximately 14,500, has not changed since 1992. While new facilities have opened over the years, the government shuts them down as quickly as they open. The ones that close are likely to be publicly funded, publicly operated facilities, while the new ones are likely to be private, for-profit operations.

So it would seem that under Premier Redford, at least as far as seniors’ care is concerned, very little has changed.

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Will Stephen Harper’s War on Peace, Order and Good Government continue with an attack on handgun registration?

Claresholm, Alberta, the site of this country’s latest murderous shooting rampage, not likely to be its last. Below: Prime Minister Stephen Harper in all his divisive faux cowboy glory.

Do not doubt for an instant the inevitability of a great howl of violent protest directed at anyone who dares to connect last week’s murderous shooting rampage near the Alberta town of Claresholm and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s war on gun registration.

But the murderer used a handgun, registration opponents will protest, and the registry was for long guns! Then the debate, if that’s the word, will quickly spin into the usual specious arguments about their property rights and the need for stiffer prison sentences – as if such concepts would make any difference to someone prepared to put the gun to his own and head pull the trigger once his bloody work was done.

In reality, though, the dots between these two points on the Conservative timeline for the Albertanization of Canada are quite close, and can be connected easily – which is why we should expect the Harper government to try to use a promise to end to the registration of handguns in the same way in the next federal election.

The most obvious dot-connector is the fact that, having seen the national rifle and shotgun registry work as an effective wedge issue in 2011, it is doubtful the Harper Conservatives will be able to resist the temptation to do the same thing again in 2015, or whenever they choose to call an election.

Of course, whatever issues they select as wedges will be driven to some degree by circumstance and public opinion at the time of the next vote. And, as much as it pains the gun nuts, it is well known that Canada’s short-gun registration rules and tough controls are popular with urban voters throughout Canada and almost everyone in Quebec.

But then, the Harperites knew that long-gun registration was popular in Canada’s cities, even out here in the feckless West where we vote Tory anyway and complain after the fact. And they certainly knew their plans to wreck the registry caused outright revulsion in Quebec, where the tragic act that led to the registry’s creation took place.

Yet none of this stood for a moment in the path of their compulsion to seek out the lowest common political denominator and drive in the wedge. Since it worked, and apparently unbridled by any ethical considerations, why would they do anything different the next time?

So, it is said here, no matter what denials you hear from your Conservative MP today, a wedge strategy to end the registration of handguns and thus encourage the further descent of Canadian cities into American-style violence (something we know about here in Edmonton, by God), followed by screeches for more ineffective and expensive prisons and more ineffective, expensive and cruel punishments, is even now sure to be percolating deep within the Harperite brain trust.

A second reason these bloody dots are not that far apart is that, as in the United States, despite being a tiny minority, the gun lobby is a powerful fund-raising auxiliary for parties of the far right like the Harper Conservatives.

The feeble radio ad campaign now being run by the Conservative Party won’t change anyone’s position on gun registration. Most of us will just tune it out, or be faintly bemused by the fact that it manages to tell three lies in 30 seconds, a rate of one every 10 seconds, which is unusual even by Harper Conservative standards.

The lies, for those of you who demand justification for such remarks, are:

  1. “The Conservative government has been given a strong mandate from Canadians to scrap it.” No they weren’t. It was hardly on the radar for most voters. Let’s call this one the “Counter-cheque Quarrelsome.”
  2. “Hunters and farmers won’t be treated as criminals anymore.” They never were. They were asked to register their weapons, as we are asked to register our cars. “The Lie Circumstantial.”
  3. “Don’t forget the billions that were wasted on creating and maintaining the registry, money that could be put to better use…” Well, no it can’t, actually. It’s been spent. Let’s call this “the Lie Direct.”

Dishonest though they may be, the ads serve as an effective reminder to Canadian gun nuts that the northern chapter of the Tea Party still needs their contributions to keep looking after their anti-social special interests.

The third reason is that the property rights argument, in the minds of advocates for unregulated gun ownership, applies to handguns as nicely as firearms with longer barrels, and presumably to hand grenades and unexploded roadside bombs as well.

To believe this, you also have to think your fundamental property rights are impinged by regulation of such forms of property as automobiles, which must be registered and licensed by their law-abiding owners, and certain recreational drugs and activities that are banned outright.

This emphasis on property rights, one suspects, originates in the good fortune of Canadians not to have a Second Amendment or its equivalent anywhere in their Constitution, thereby invalidating the argument we have an unabridgeable right to keep and carry arms of any type wherever and whenever we please.

Lacking such a justification, those among the gun advocates who understand that the U.S. Constitution does not apply on this side of the Medicine Line sail toward the only port available in this storm. Mind you, there is nothing in our Canadian Constitution specifically guaranteeing us “property rights” either, but from their perspective at least there is a body of precedent and other law.

As for their call for long prison sentences or other severe punishments as an alternative to sensible regulation and control, this is another effective wedge issue for the Harperites, but it is unlikely to do much to prevent the use of firearms in violent domestic incidents, whether they play themselves out at home or on Alberta’s highways. People like the shooter in last week’s horrific murders are obviously not planning carefully when they snatch up a gun head out on a killing spree.

But at least registration and the controls associated with it, if they are implemented vigorously, might prevent weapons falling into the hands of such a person in the first place – and how did this shooter happen to get his hands on a 9mm handgun? And if they don’t, as is well known, they give the police some knowledge about what they might be dealing with.

Whatever those who insist on their imagined right to own anti-social property may assert, Mr. Harper’s compulsion to use wedge issues like the national shotgun and rifle registry, and his war on our actual Constitutional right to peace, order and good government, will continue until he is driven from office.

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National Post poll bad news for Alberta Tories … in the unlikely event it’s right

A word of advice, boys: don’t bet all your kibbles on the results of a one-day demon-dialer poll! Alberta political analysts or the chances they take may not be exactly as illustrated.

Toronto’s National Post – or, as I prefer to think of it, the National Pest – states in its meta tags that it’s “Canada’s trusted source for national news, financial news, world news, blogging, twitter, tweets, opinion, vodcast, podcast, commentary, entertainment and sports.” Really, it does!

Nothing in there about polls, though, so we’re not going to get to report them to the Better Business Bureau, tonight anyway.

But for some reason the Toronto newspaper took it upon itself to publish details of a poll about Alberta politics. Who knows why? Their new managing editor lived in Calgary until recently, so maybe he got nostalgic for the warm tickle of a Chinook on his ears. (For you Easterners who aren’t in the know, a Chinook is a nasty warm wind that makes people act crazy when it blows. They get them a lot in Calgary and almost never in Edmonton, which may account for why we elect more New Democrats up here.)

Whatever the reason, the Post was happy to oblige with a story when a Toronto polling company called Forum Research, which has little or no track record in Alberta, took it upon itself to get the skinny on what we Albertans are really thinking, politics-wise. To do this, Forum used robotic demon-dialing technology to call 1,072 Albertans over the course of one day at the worst time of year to get people at home. Forum knows its respondents were all over 18, by the way, because they all pressed a button their phone saying they were.

By doing all this, Forum came up with results that would be extremely bad news for the Alberta Progressive Conservatives under Premier Alison Redford if they were true.

Based on this information, the Post’s reporter wrote a story that treated the poll credulously and concluded its results were good news for the Redford Conservatives. As previously noted, the local papers – which surely have journalists on what’s left of their staffs who know better – reprinted this yarn whole cloth.

The Forum poll’s key conclusion was that, on Dec. 14, anyway, the intentions of decided Alberta voters broke down like this:

Progressive Conservatives: 38 per cent
Wildrose Party: 23 per cent
New Democratic Party: 13 per cent
Alberta Liberal Party: 12 per cent
Alberta Party: 6 per cent
Other Parties: 9 per cent

The Post’s report reversed the numbers for the NDP and Liberals, and didn’t mention the “Other Parties” column, leaving some readers with the impression Forum’s numbers didn’t add up to 100. (They still don’t actually, but since they’re only off by one, we’re going to chalk that up to rounding.)

Now, if the Redford Tories are really at 38 per cent three or so months from a general election, they are in deep doo-doo. This would mean they are a full 15 per cent behind where they were at the time of the 2008 general election. It would put them close to their lowest level of popularity since first being elected more than 40 years ago.

So, if there were anything to this poll – and the mood around here sure doesn’t feel like it – it would not place the Redford Tories with “a strong lead heading in to next spring’s vote,” as the Post’s scribbler concluded.

In fact, since former premier Ed Stelmach announced he was stepping down last January, most credible polls have put the Conservatives in a much stronger position. For example:

Environics (Nov. 4-8) – 51 per cent
Citizen Society Research Lab (Oct. 1-2) – 48 per cent
Environics (July 15-24) – 54 per cent

Those results by pollsters who used credible methodology suggest the Forum poll is an outlier at best.

Some of the Forum poll’s other results strain credulity too. The Wildrose numbers seem unlikely, but are within the realm of possibility. The Alberta Party numbers, it is said here, stray across the line into fantasy. As for 9 per cent committed to other parties, we can only ask, what other parties? I know, the Communists and Social Credit run a few candidates now and then, but, uh … 9 per cent? I don’t think so, people.

The poll also concludes that Premier Redford’s personal approval ratings are low, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith’s are high and Liberal Leader Raj Sherman’s are disastrous. There’s no mention of NDP Leader Brian Mason, despite the fact the New Democrats have outpolled the Liberals in several polls, including this one, and outpolled the Wildrose Party in one.

There’s plenty to like about Forum’s poll – but only if you’re a Wildrose supporter who hasn’t been paying attention. Naturally, the comments section of the Post was full of input from such citizens, concluding that “Wildrose should get 40 to 50 seats,” “Redford is a red tory and will destroy this province,” we need to “get rid of this socialist,” yadda-yadda.

My only advice to these nice folks: Don’t bet the bungalow or even the moose antlers in the den on the results of a single poll! They need to remember that this is the same company that back in June predicted that Ontario Conservative Leader Tim Hudak was well-positioned to form a majority government in October.

As for the Post, I guess, they really need to get polling onto that list of meta-tags.

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Alison Party of Alberta TV ads are not ready for prime time

The second Alison Party of Alberta 30-second advertising spot, which, like the first, fails to properly identify the advertiser. Below: Ms. Redford as she appears in the second ad and the logo of the Television Bureau of Canada.

The Alison Party of Alberta’s two new TV ads are not ready for prime time, literally.

This may or may not come as a surprise to the party’s top officials.

The two 30-second spots, both of which have now been posted to the party’s Youtube channel, fail to mention anywhere in their visual images or soundtracks the name of the party that is sponsoring the ads, which the last time we checked was still legally known as the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta.

The first one, which was posted to the Youtube channel on Dec. 14, ends with a portentous but nevertheless warm male voice that intones, “For a stronger Alberta… For a better quality of life… Premier Alison Redford… Making smart choices…” But there’s nary an indication anywhere in the whole 30 seconds that would suggest any of those smart choices involved voting for any entity called “Conservative,” or “Progressive Conservative.”

The second spot, posted to Youtube the next day, talks about education in Alberta and features only Ms. Redford’s voice explaining that “education is the main priority.” She promises that “if Albertans want to get an education, we’re going to give them an education.”

This spot shows signs of having been hurried into production to match the polished advertisement on education issues released a few hours before by the right-wing Wildrose Party. The Redford Tory ad weirdly juxtaposes Ms. Redford, her breath visible, high atop snowy Mount Olympus, Mount Sinai or maybe the terminus of the Banff Gondola, with students in shorts and T-shirts on a sunny University of Calgary campus.

Likewise, with this one, there’s no mention of who is behind the ad. Both end with an image that says only, “Premier alison REDFORD.” (Eccentric capitalization retained.)

There are also two 15-second ads on separate topics – sustainable communities and knowledge-based education – obviously designed for use on the Internet, that present the same information in the same way. These two also refrain from mentioning Premier Redford’s relationship to anyone or anything called “Conservative.”

However it’s the two 30-second spots – which have clearly been designed to be used on television – that are of interest, because they cannot be broadcast on TV in their present form. Either significant modifications will be required to make them acceptable or TV stations and networks will have to agree to bend their rules into the shape of a pretzel to suit the Alberta Tories.

This is because of a group called the Telecaster Committee of Canada, which in turn is operated by the Television Bureau of Canada. The former describes itself as “a voluntary, self-governing, commercial, infomercial and public service announcement clearance committee.” The 150-member TVB, in turn, describes itself as “a resource centre for our members – Canadian television stations, networks, specialty services and their sales representatives.”

The real purpose of Telecaster, it seems to me as someone who has purchased plenty of TV advertising over the years, is to ensure that their member stations reduce their legal and political liability for statements in advertisements that may become controversial, as well as to be a thorn in the side of advertisers through the medium of private-sector red tape.

Regardless of that opinion, a significant rule (and one that it seems to me is pretty hard to argue with) for issue and opinion advertising run on the majority of Canadian TV stations is that the advertiser must identify itself in one of two ways:

  1. “The advertiser must be clearly identified in both the audio and video portions. The audio disclaimer and video super must be preceded by one of the following: ‘these are the opinions of,’ ‘opinions expressed are those of,’ ‘message brought to you by,’ ‘brought to you by,’ ‘sponsored by’ or a similar statement.”
  2. “The advertiser must be clearly identified in video only. The super must be on screen for at least 3 seconds and must occupy 1/3 of the screen in size. The super must also be preceded by one of the following statements listed above.”

By the way, telecaster also insists that “the advertising must not appear to be intentionally deceptive, erroneous or misleading,” which could be a tall order for a lot of political advertising. But let’s put that question aside for the moment.

On the key practical issue of identification, the Wildrose Party TV ads discussed last week in this space clearly appear to meet the Telecaster requirements. The two Conservative ads – or, rather, the Alison Party spots – obviously do not.

Nor will they be particularly easy to edit to meet these requirements.

In other words, the apparently hurried Conservative ad spots – which have been presented to us as if they represent the beginnings of a major television advertising campaign – are far from ready for prime time.

And if you see them on TV as they appear on Youtube, you will know that rules have been bent for the Conservatives that are rigorously applied to everyone else.

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First impressions: NDP leadership candidate Peggy Nash in Edmonton

NDP leadership candidate Peggy Nash at last night’s “kitchen-table talk” in Edmonton. Below: Marlin Schmidt.

There are only three or so of the nine candidates for the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party, and therefore for Leader of the Opposition, who are truly qualified to do the job and do it right now.

One of them is Peggy Nash, who spoke at a “kitchen-table talk” in Edmonton last night. Another is Brian Topp, who was at a similar event here Monday.

While Edmonton New Democrats won’t get a chance to see all the candidates in action debating one another – a situation that can be as distracting as it is enlightening – seeing these two strong candidates in the same meeting room a few days apart provided a worthwhile opportunity to compare their ability to engage a wider audience of Canadians.

Ms. Nash’s resume is superb – she earned the economic chops as finance critic under Jack Layton’s leadership to offer better polices than the Conservatives and make Canadians believe in them, she is fluent in both official languages and she has enormous experience building progressive alliances with Canada’s social movements, including labour where she has been a senior official with the Canadian Auto Workers Union.

Moreover, as she clearly demonstrated yesterday, Ms. Nash is a capable speaker who, as Duncan Cameron of wrote in his endorsement of her candidacy and in other pieces, speaks with sympathy, humour and coolness under pressure.

Since we are talking about a top player in an elite political league here, though, all this is to be expected. Her performance yesterday demonstrated that she could do the job if New Democrats vote to choose her as leader on March 24.

But Ms. Nash is not merely running for the leadership of a perennial Parliamentary third party but to be Leader of the Opposition and the government-in-waiting of Canada at a crucial moment in our country’s history. As a candidate in that high-stakes league, she needed to show she could really engage and electrify her sympathetic audience of New Democrats, and that didn’t happen.

Now, this was one meeting, in a town that no doubt was at the end of a long and tiring road. But where Mr. Topp energized his audience Monday and turned up the temperature in the room, Ms. Nash was temperate and uninspiring. Her only passionate moment was in response to a question about the planned Conservative vandalism to the national rifle and shotgun registry.

The ability to really grab the attention of an audience and hang onto it is vitally important. As Ms. Nash put it last night in response to a question, “the first goal is to win the next federal election.” But to win the next federal election, the NDP leader is going to have to motivate and move more Canadians than just the familiar and sympathetic old New Democratic faces who dependably show up at meetings like this one and make them feel like church services.

Ms. Nash didn’t say anything with which this New Democrat disagreed, or anyone else in the room by the sound of it, and she made a couple of points I strongly support. As previously noted in this space, I’d be surprised if any of the candidates do anything differently. But unlike Mr. Topp, she didn’t do it in a way that I feel is likely to engage many voters outside NDP circles.

This showed in the responses of the audience. The meeting was chaired by Edmonton-Gold Bar provincial candidate Marlin Schmidt with the same good cheer and discipline he demonstrated Monday. But more questioners rambled on, instead of sticking to their points. It was hard to shake the feeling many of them weren’t really all that anxious to hear what Ms. Nash had to say because when they already knew her answer. It’s the passion that makes you want to listen and, last night at least, the passion was missing.

The audience ran out of steam 15 minutes early. No one could think of another question and Mr. Schmidt gently brought the formal meeting to an end. On Monday, hands were still waving when the time ran out, and the people waving them seemed genuinely upset they didn’t get their chance to query Mr. Topp.

The stakes could hardly be higher than they will be in the next federal election, in 2015 or whenever it takes place. New Democrats need a leader who can reach out and grab Canadian voters by the lapels and give them a good shake.

Based on their Edmonton performances, we know that Mr. Topp has that ability. Whether Ms. Nash does is not so clear. Other voices, of course, are yet to be heard from.

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It is an absolute disgrace that these well-attended meetings in the City Arts Centre at 84th Avenue and 109th Street in the midst of NDP MP Linda Duncan’s federal Edmonton-Strathcona riding are being ignored by local mainstream media. It’s embarrassing, really, making Edmonton look like a two-bit hick town unaware there’s a big world outside its civic boundaries.

Ms. Nash, Mr. Topp and the other candidates who will be visiting Edmonton are not campaigning for the leadership of some Alberta fringe party, but to be the Leader of the Opposition of the Parliament of Canada. As unlikely as this may seem to someone who has been imbibing nothing but Alberta political bathwater, Canadian leaders of the Opposition do become prime minister of the whole country now and then. What’s more, sometimes provinces with only one New Democrat MP suddenly take a notion to elect dozens of them.

I doubt the local media are missing these important stories because they’re actually plotting to ignore Canada’s social democratic opposition for sinister political reasons. But they have to be prepared for some of their dwindling numbers of readers and viewers to reach that conclusion anyway and make the effort to find their news elsewhere.

In the last provincial and federal general elections, Edmontonians elected two NDP MLAs and one NDP MP. They voted in significant numbers for the NDP in other ridings. Local media should make at least a half-hearted effort to serve this important part of our community.

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