Archive for February, 2012

Alberta Diary is closed, please come again soon

Closed for vacation. Come back soon.

Bad timing, I realize, what with a provincial election looming and all kinds of political havoc likely to break out at any moment, but Alberta Diary is taking a break.

Or, more to the point, I am, for about two weeks, maybe a few days more.

A couple of months ago, my Uechi-ryu karate teacher, Sensei Manuel deSa, extended an invitation to me to spend two weeks with a small group of his senior students at the Okinawa dojo of Sensei Kiyohide Shinjo, who is shown instructing a large class in this video.

I’m no spring chicken, and I figured this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so despite the fact I am a nervous traveler I said yes. Sensei Shinjo is one of the masters of this style of karate, so to say I’m a little jittery about all this would be understating things considerably.

With a little luck and an Okinawan Wi-Fi connection, I may be able to upload some photos here, or an emergency column by my friend Olav Rokne in the event of really stupendous developments in Alberta. But there are no guarantees, especially since I’ll be working solely from an iPad. Anyway, my arms may hurt too much.

In my absence, I recommend Dave Cournoyer’s excellent Daveberta.ca blog as the best way to stay au courant with Alberta politics.

I look forward to he opportunity to returning to blogging about Alberta politics very soon.

Till then, domo arigato gozaimashita for reading this blog.

No breakfast for Conservative champions? Alberta’s Tories as churlish as ever

Doug Griffiths, apparently still wearing black, has sent a message on behalf of his premier to Alberta politicos: resistance is futile, and will not be tolerated. Below: Edmonton City Councillor and AUMA President Linda Sloan; Chief of the premier’s staff, Stephen Carter.

As Ken Kowalski, the venerable and soon-to-retire Speaker of the Alberta Legislative Assembly might have put it: “Well! That didn’t take long!”

No sooner had the mainstream media proclaimed the Progressive Conservatives under Premier Alison Redford on their way to yet another huge victory than the word was all over the Interwebs that the Tories themselves were returning to their traditionally prickly ways.

A wise old Alberta political hand told me many years ago that this province’s Conservatives don’t really like being challenged by anyone, and even being so bold as to chat with an MLA from an Opposition party in public can be enough to get you and your cause into hot water.

So you can imagine the kind of trouble you could get in for saying something like, oh, the Tories had out municipal grants on the basis of how well a municipality’s voters behave come election time!

But for the last year or so, as Alberta’s Natural Governing Party for the first time in a generation has been contemplating the possibility that things might not go quite as would normally be assumed, so its visage has not been as stern toward those miscreants who toed the line with insufficient enthusiasm.

But the same day the mainstream media was penning predictions that the Redford Tories would return by another massive majority – maybe the most massive majority ever – Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths was pounding out a letter of his own, excoriating the president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association for her naughty suggestion and setting out her punishment for the world to see.

Linda Sloan, you see, had had the temerity to say to a journalist that the government hands out the municipal moolah based on political performance. Ms. Sloan, who is also an Edmonton city councillor who can be prickly herself on occasion, told the Edmonton Journal that “I don’t think it’s fair to pick communities one way or the other based on what their provincial voting record has been.”

Fair enough, except that the Redford Regime denied it all, with the premier’s Chief of Staff, Stephen Carter, Twittering hotly that Ms. Sloan was a lair, and a malicious one at that.

For his part, Mr. Griffiths’ sharp letter advised Ms. Sloan that unless she came to the throne on bended knee, tugging her forelock, the Conservative caucus and cabinet would boycott the AUMA’s breakfast tomorrow morning.

“Your comments are deliberately inflammatory and erroneous, and are not a sound way to build a strong relationship between governments whose ultimate purpose and focus is to build stronger communities,” Mr. Griffiths, or his executive assistant anyway, huffed. “Please be advised that as a result of your comments in the media, neither I, nor any of my Cabinet or Caucus colleagues, will be attending the AUMA breakfast on Feb. 16, 2012.”

What’s more, he went on, “you have chosen to make false accusations in the newspaper while claiming you want to work together. The situation can be remedied if you apologize and retract your erroneous statement.” (Emphasis added.) Click here to read the entire letter.

Now, to those of us in the hoi polloi, this may sound plain silly, but it would have been a major humiliation to any leader of the municipal politicians’ league.

As a consequence, apparently, Ms. Sloan grovelled sufficiently to satisfy the government, denying that she ever said any such thing as was reported in the Journal. For its part, the Journal, which is standing by its story, reports that peace reigns again in the Tory valley.

As a result, presumably, the breakfast is on again and the PC Party’s Legislative stalwarts will be able to sit down peaceably to their eggs and bacon as most of you are reading this.

As a gesture of good will, Ms. Redford lightly tapped Mr. Carter’s wrist for his overly enthusiastic Tweeting.

Meantime, though, we are all on notice again. Don’t cross an Alberta Tory government not matter how big its majority is. It can be meaner than a snake!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Is Alberta’s most entertaining political season in a lifetime drawing to a close? Gosh I hope not!

Get me Wildrose, Rewrite! Your blogger, who many not be exactly as illustrated but used to have a typewriter just like that, pounds out a last plea for a poll showing Alberta Conservative fortunes in decline before heading off to Okinawa. No soap!

According to the Edmonton Journal’s political columnist yesterday morning, “if recent public opinion polls prove prescient, the Alberta Conservatives could win somewhere between 70 and 80 seats – that’s out of 87 seats total. One poll even suggests they could win 82 seats, the most for any government in Alberta history.”

And according to a Valentine’s Day report in the Globe and Mail, “some of Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s closest advisers are predicting that the Progressive Conservative Party’s current seat total of 67 is merely a base from which to build an even bigger majority.” The Tory seat total could be as high as 79 or 80, Canada’s national website suggested.

Even given the natural optimism of political partisans, this gloomy prospect has the undeniable ring of probability.

But while it may be cause for despair, it is only news if you’ve been restricting you reading to the mainstream media, which has for a couple of years now been predicting a huge, epochal contest between the Wildrose Alliance, later renamed the Wildrose Party, and the unprogressive Conservatives.

Indeed, one assumes that even now this is only “news” because the mainstream media has been pushing the Titanic Right-Wing-Battle storyline for so long that it was starting to enjoy the taste of its own bathwater!

The reality is there’s never been much evidence for this. Two years ago, in the early spring of 2010, it was frequently reported that the Wildrose Alliance was “soaring in the polls.” In reality, at the time, there was only one poll that said that. Since then there have been a few more, but many others that show the Tories with an overwhelming lead.

Moreover, it would be a mistake to try to pass off the current success of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives to Ms. Redford’s influence alone, although she appears to have turned out to have been a remarkably adept choice for a party skilled at reinventing itself for a new generation of voters.

Even so, it is likely current PC popularity would have been much the same if the party had chosen Gary Mar, Ted Morton or any of the rest of them as its leader. Indeed, it is said here that even with Ed Stelmach at the helm, the Alberta PCs could likely have gone into an election campaign with reasonable confidence of victory.

This can bring no joy to the hearts of those of us who have traditionally opposed this government, from either the left or the right, and even less to those of professional storytellers, who thrive on conflict and unpredictable results – which is why, of course, the media hung onto the notion of an impending Conservative-Wildrose slugfest for so long.

But Albertans, uncomfortable with change as always, are used to voting Conservative and it will take more than a fresh new leader who speaks in full sentences to change that. As we have seen with Ms. Redford, the Conservatives turned out to be quite capable of coming up with such a leader all on their own.

With no compelling evidence of an immediate threat to all our economic wellbeing because of Redford Government incompetence – and, notwithstanding Wildrose hysteria about our alleged spending problem, there is precious little of this – Albertans are unlikely to take a chance on any party of right or left simply because it says “41 years is enough.”

It is profoundly depressing to say this, but at the mainstream media are now coming to acknowledge, Alberta’s most entertaining political season in a lifetime may be drawing to a close.

If there is any good news in this, it is only that when New Democratic Party Leader Brian Mason is named Leader of the Opposition after the election, Alberta Diary will get to say “I told you so.” (And if not? Well, we’ll cheerfully explain the reasons in the event.)

Regardless, though, this blog must now fall quiet for a few days. Your blogger is travelling to Okinawa to devote a couple of weeks to the study of karate, and so it is unlikely there will be more posts until the week of March 5.

By the time I do return, fondly do I hope, fervently do I pray, that the scourge of political boredom will have speedily passed away. For that to happen, though, something will have had to upset the Tory applecart.

Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber on the long-gun registry: welfare state social engineering, or what?

Edmonton-St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber, in naval costume, gets off some potshots with a Glock, or something. Below: Another shot Brent in a military getup. Note the flag, I swear I dragged this photo straight off his website without even passing it through Photoshop! Remember guys, when you’re looking down at the Velcro patch on your sleeve, the flag needs to look like it’s upside down! Below that: Yet another.

It takes a special kind of politician to use the shooting of two police officers as evidence for the need to eliminate the long-gun registry.

You see … er … the registry was an example of the welfare-state mentality! That’s it, I think.

I’m not making this up. My community’s Member of Parliament, Brent Rathgeber, publishes a blog on his website and, in his Feb. 8 post, used the shooting of two RCMP officers near the not-too-distant town of Killam the day before as a platform to defend the ongoing plan by his Conservative Party to shut down the long-gun registry and destroy the data it contains.

The MP for Edmonton-St. Albert sits on Parliament’s Public Safety Committee, whence he has been a braying voice for dismantling the registry. When he’s not doing that, he advocates turning the CBC into a charity. In addition … actually, that’s about it.

Now, it had been my intention for several reasons to draw no connections between the shooting of the RCMP officers at Killam and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s plans to continue using the registry as a Conservative Party fund-raising machine.

After all, I thought, the case appeared to involve a handgun, and so the weapon used to shoot the officers wouldn’t have shown up in the long-gun registry. What’s more, from the news coverage of the shootings, the police obviously knew there was a gun in the residence they were approaching. Plus, in this case, right from the get-go the shooter obviously wasn’t a “law-abiding gun owner” of the type Mr. Rathgeber purports to defend. So, from my perspective, there wasn’t really much of a connection with the long-gun registry.

Moreover, I didn’t particularly feel like trying to score political points off gun nuts or their Tory enablers out of respect for the officers, who thankfully by the sound of news reports will recover from their injuries.

Finally because, as much fun as it is to rile up the gun set and get them to say outrageous things by daring to mention a fight that they in fact have won, I’m growing weary of their hysteria.

Still, it’s hard not to say something when my own community’s MP takes the opportunity to exploit a painful event like this, which could easily have turned out to be a terrible tragedy, to score a few cheap political points.

He was reigniting the debate over the long-gun registry at this time, Mr. Rathgeber explained, because events like the shooting at Killam and the March 2005 tragedy at Mayerthorpe in which four Mounties were shot to death “reignite the debate over the merits of the LGR.”

“However,” he stated, “the fact that incidents like Mayerthorpe and Killam occur demonstrate the sad reality that there is no connection between preventing such tragedies and the LGR.”

Alas, Mr. Rathgeber provides no evidence for or explanation of this strongly stated proposition. Instead, he expresses his opinion that the rifle and shotgun registry won’t work because it “represents the worst of the modern welfare state mentality.” Say what?

What this latter comment may in fact be evidence of, to paraphrase Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman’s recent observation about the state of the conservative movement south of the Medicine Line, is that for conservatives on either side of the border tinfoil hats are becoming an increasingly de rigueur as a fashion accessory.

Mr. Rathgeber explained his belief there is a connection between the welfare state and the gun registry by arguing that the latter “is based on the premise that people who are likely to flaunt the law generally will somehow respect a law that requires them to register their firearms. The simple and overstated reality is that this premise is simply fallacious.”

Of course, while that statement may be fallacious, it’s not actually the premise on which the registry was based. The premise of the long-gun registry was that it would help to keep firearms out of the hands of people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others, and help return stolen firearms to their legitimate owners.

Now, it’s quite legitimate for Mr. Rathgeber and other opponents of the registry to argue that it didn’t work, couldn’t work, or cost too much money – all of which they have asserted, and indeed some of them also say about gun licenses and restrictions on the ownership of handguns. On these points, I suppose, we can all exchange statistics and angry Tweets until we are blue in the face.

But Mr. Rathgeber is just making it up when he suggests, without any supporting evidence whatsoever, that the premise of the long-gun registry was for it to be a social engineering project to turn the criminally minded into square-john citizens disinclined to flout the law. It is also worth noting, I suppose, that just because a legal measure is not 100-per-cent effective doesn’t mean it’s not effective at all.

Now, I have to pause here to say that in all the years I have read stylebooks warning aspiring writers not to confuse “flaunt” and “flout,” I have never come across an actual example in practice. I recognize that is tempting fate to draw this to anyone’s attention, as we all make errors of this sort from time to time. But still, forgive me Brent, there it is, a ripe plum just waiting to be plucked! Also, I liked the way you slipped in the Franklin Roosevelt quote.

Mr. Rathgeber begins to draw his post to a close with an observation that one could fairly summarize as saying that if you’re a police officer who relies on the long-gun registry for information, it’s your own darn fault anyway if someone takes a potshot at you.

He concludes with the thought that since “psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors have been unable to significantly alter human behavior when it comes to homicidal tendencies, it is unrealistic that legislated registries will perform any better.”

I wonder if these same psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors might have better luck keeping blogging Tories of the Parliamentary variety from drawing illogical and unsupported conclusions that, to borrow a delightful phrase from Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick, writing on the same topic, tends to make one “an MP who will lower the tone of any municipal wiener roast you invite him to.”

Well, to Mr. Rathgeber’s credit, at least he didn’t equate the registry with any European political movements from the 1930s.

Still, as political blog posts go, the timing of this one made it pretty tacky!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

What’s up with Calgary West Progressive Conservative nomination? Rematch, appointment or what?

Surprise winner Shiraz Shariff sends favourite Ken Hughes out of the ring in Round 1 of the Calgary West PC nomination battle on Jan. 21. Alberta political candidates may not appear exactly as illustrated. Now it appears that a rematch may be in the offing. Below: Ken Hughes, Shiraz Shariff and a couple of Mr. Hughes’s Tweets.

What are we to make of the calls by Ken Hughes, defeated front-runner in the now “disallowed” Progressive Conservative nomination race in the Calgary West riding, for a new nomination vote?

With a provincial election soon all but a done deal, wasn’t a candidate – maybe him, maybe someone else – just supposed to be appointed?

Back on Dec. 28, Mr. Hughes stepped down as chairman of Alberta Health Services with the apparent blessing of Alberta Premier Alison Redford to seek the PC nomination in the riding now held by retiring Finance Minister Ron Liepert. Absolutely everyone, including your faithful blogger, assumed Mr. Hughes’s ascension to the candidacy, the Legislature and the Cabinet as Alberta’s Minister of Health and Healthiness was a foregone conclusion.

So it was to everyone’s astonishment – most of all Mr. Hughes’s, presumably – that on Jan. 21 the candidate presumptive was narrowly defeated in the actual vote by Shiraz Shariff, a former Conservative MLA who lost in Calgary McCall in 2008.

Oh dear! As was noted at the time in these pages, that’s not the way things are supposed to happen in Alberta!

Facing this unexpected development, the PC Party convened a hasty investigation led by Kelley Charlebois, a sometimes controversial Alberta Tory operative who has haunted the party’s fringes for many years and is now its interim executive director.

Mr. Charlebois decreed on Feb. 9 that there had been written complaints about irregularities, for which no candidate was explicitly held responsible, and therefore the nomination of Mr. Shariff was disallowed.

Party President Bill Smith immediately issued a terse news releaseLord, how I love that phrase! – asking the Calgary West PC Riding Association to put forward the names of three candidates from whom Ms. Redford would pick a winner. That winner, presumably, was not going to be Mr. Shariff.

Mr. Hughes initially said he’d be willing to serve if asked, but while rumours swirled about who the named candidate would be, a prevailing view among political observers was that it was unlikely to be Mr. Hughes because the optics would appear so horrible, even here in Alberta where the Natural Governing Party can normally do pretty much what it pleases.

For his part, Mr. Shariff bitterly cried foul, sensibly pointed out that if there was no evidence he’d done anything wrong he ought not to be punished, and demanded a new nomination vote. “I’ll be there,” he vowed.

Now it begins to look as if he might get his wish.

On Friday afternoon, a story appeared in the Calgary Sun in which Mr. Hughes urged the party to hold another vote instead of letting the premier handpick a candidate.

“To clear the air, the party needs to allow the membership of Calgary West to select the candidate they want in a process that cannot be questioned,” Mr. Hughes said in the Sun, which is owned by Sun Media, a company that normally operates as the semi-official Conservative Party news agency in both Alberta and Canada.

The Sun, which kindly declared the swift party investigation to have been “thorough,” quoted Mr. Hughes explaining, notwithstanding his previous openness to the idea, that he “could not and would not be prepared to accept an appointment resulting from an undemocratic process.”

This appeared to catch some party officials off guard. At any rate, party spokesman Tom Olsen (a fellow who had a previous life as press secretary to former premier Ed Stelmach) told the Sun that the party executive knew nothing about Mr. Hughes’s thoughts and that unfortunately no one was available to comment just then.

Yesterday, however, Mr. Hughes (or someone with the password to his @KenHughes4MLA Twitter account) set to Tweeting that there should be another vote. “Democracy is only fair way to pick candidate in #YYCWest. 805 voted Jan. 21. Party should re-run the race,” Mr. Hughes Tweeted at five minutes before 3 p.m.

He followed that up with “I will not accept nomination in un-democratic way. Nor should anyone else. Plenty of time, last race was only 2 weeks,” and, more surprisingly, added right after that, “…Process failed everyone #pcaa. Let the 4 re-run.”

Does this all mean that the PC leadership has decided that another nomination vote – this time more intensively managed that the last one – is the only way to get Mr. Hughes in Cabinet where he belongs? Or is Mr. Hughes acting on his own for some reason that is not yet clear?

Regardless, yesterday the PCs held their “campaign college” in Edmonton, at which Premier Redford unveiled her “campaign bus,” an important feature of an upcoming election that now a hardy perennial of election news media coverage here in Alberta.

The local press tried hard to squeeze a nugget of news out of this insider event – noting that some campaign pictures showed Ms. Redford in a parka, and therefore we were likely to have an early election.

They did not think to report, however, on whether the event was attended by Mr. Hughes, Mr. Shariff, neither, or both.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Forum poll revealed: With an iPhone and a blog, we can now predict poll results before they’re published!

Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith with the voice of Forum Research Inc. She’s smiling because she likes his answers. Alberta pollsters and politicians may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Dave, about to hang up on another poll.

ForumPoll3 by djclimenhaga

Forum Research Inc. of Toronto was back in the field yesterday doing another Friday night poll of Alberta voter intentions.

The questions asked by the poll, the weird way it asked them and their timing may all provide some insights into why Forum’s surveys have consistently produced better results for the Wildrose Party than other public opinion polls by other pollsters.

First of all, as you can hear from this recording of last night’s demon-dialer phone-button poll from the Toronto-based polling company, it uses a faintly creepy electronically generated voice that’s mildly off-putting, and possibly scary if you’ve been getting too much science fiction. (“Just what do you think you’re doing Dave? Dave? I really think I’m entitled to an answer to that question…”)

Actually, it sounded to me like The Voice was generated at Xtranormal.com – which tells potential users, “If you can type, you can make movies.” Apparently if you can type you can make polls too. The thing is, I kept expecting a mean joke about the Alberta Party.

My guess is there’s a simple explanation for this: Cheap as voice talent may be, a type-and-talk voice generator has got to be cheaper.

As for the timing, it’s well known that Friday night is the worst time possible to run a public opinion poll. Who’s going to bother answering oddly enunciated questions like these on a Friday night? Only the politically committed and losers with nothing better to do than record poll questions on their iPhones. (Not to name names, of course.)

This may be part of the reason why the Forum polls seem to have been boosting Wildrose support while underestimating Progressive Conservative voters compared with other polls that rely on interaction between real human beings. The last one, on Jan. 17, had the Wildrose brushing 30 per cent and the Conservatives close to a 40-year low, at 38 per cent.

That makes for a nice tight horserace story, but consider Martha and Henry, those fictitious Albertans trotted out by former premier Ralph Klein to explain things to the public. Martha and Henry don’t think about politics on Friday nights. If they’re under 50 in this province, they’re probably thinking about getting a babysitter and going out for a well-deserved drink!

Are Martha and Henry going to hang on the line listening to this tedious robotic voice drone on about politics? Not very likely! They’ll be bored, and they’ll have better things to do. So they’ll do what any sensible person would do under the circumstances: hang up.

Instead of hanging up, committed supporters of parties like the Wildrose Party are much more likely to hang in there. But we need to remember that despite the fact they’ve headed out for the bar, young Martha and Henry may think Premier Alison Redford and her reconstituted Progressive Conservatives are doing just fine.

This could be a particular problem if, as Forum seems to have been doing, you also do your polls over only one night.

Then there are Forum’s questions, about which plenty can be said:

First, if you’re going to ask voters to rate the performance of Premier Redford, Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith and Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, why the heck wouldn’t you ask them their thoughts on the performance of New Democratic Party Leader Brian Mason? After all, Mr. Mason’s party may well have more seats after the next election than Dr. Sherman’s or even Ms. Smith’s.

What’s more, just including the Alberta Party arguably exaggerates its support – as we may also have seen in other recent Forum polls – because the party will be lucky to find candidates in more than a couple of dozen ridings while its wistful coffee-party supporters press the phone buttons for it in plenty of communities without a candidate.

Those questions about the pipelines should make a good news hit on Monday, but what about that scary query about a pay freeze for all provincial public sector employees? Is Ms. Redford actually proposing this? Or off-loading “all provincial services possible” to volunteers or the private sector? Both these questions significantly overstate what the premier has proposed, bad as that may be.

And why conduct a roboticized poll on a Friday night? Well, I’m just speculating, but if the brain trust at Forum listened to Thursday’s Alberta budget, cobbled together a poll in a hurry and now can get it out to the newspapers before anyone else publishes a poll, that’s pretty darn good publicity for the firm’s services.

It’s not exactly free, but it’s cheaper than some of the options. If this speculation is right, look for the results of this poll to be published quickly by Forum – possibly as soon as tomorrow or Monday.

And look for it to have a higher percentage of voters shown supporting the Wildrose Party in particular than show up in other polls.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Few oxen gored in Alberta Tories’ exquisitely political budget

Your intrepid blogger, with Alberta Finance Minister Ron Liepert. Below: New Democrat MLA Rachel Notley.

Oddly enough, there actually was a lesson that could be learned from the first budget of Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s government.

While the Budget Speech read yesterday by retiring Finance Minister Ron Liepert was self-evidently an election-year creation designed to offend no one who might wield influence, one ox was gored: post-secondary education.

While the media were reporting a 2.7-per-cent increase to post-secondary operating funds, they weren’t saying anything about the effects of inflation, huge population increases and big cuts to maintenance budgets that critics estimated would put the system back $80 to $100 million.

As the NDP’s Rachel Notley, MLA for Edmonton-Strathcona, observed: “Students will pay for that.” (And some of their parents, she forgot to add.)

So what community of voters doesn’t bother to make it into the polling booth in significant numbers? Uh, that would be post-secondary students.

Other than that, well, there’s not much to be said about this budget that hasn’t been said already in someone or other’s one-liner: Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith called it an “Alison in Wonderland budget.” I want readers to know they thought of that one first in the NDP caucus office, but then some fool Tweeted it and 10 minutes later Ms. Smith was repeating it. Either that, or everyone thought the same thing at the same time.

My favourite TV news reporter called it, privately, “the Dire Straits Budget.” Only this time, you know, it was “money for everything.”

But other than that sharp-tongued kind of thing, any observer of the hardball game of politics has to give this budget an A+ for pre-election optics. If it only gets a C- for prognostication – or, for that matter, a D or and F – how much difference is that going to make until after the election?

I mean, really people, you could almost hear Albertans sighing with relief that their particular ox wasn’t about to be gored – for a few weeks, maybe a year, or possibly, they hope, forever.

Whether it’s smoke and mirrors or reality, it’s a sign of how effective the budget was that most opposition politicians chose to attack it for the optimism of the revenue and economic estimates on which its income forecasts were based, not the benefits or lack thereof of the spending it proposes.

From a centre-left perspective, it’s pretty hard to assail things like a $400-per-month increase this spring for recipients of Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped – a sum that will bring this group, if only barely, above Statistics Canada’s poverty line. (And in fairness to Ms. Redford, that was another promise kept that she’s been knocked for not getting around to in these pages in the past.)

Expenditures of $16.5 billion to continue the repair work on the damage to the province’s infrastructure done back in the day by Ralph Klein, premier from 1992 to 2006? An increase of 7.9 per cent in health care spending in 2012-13? It’s hard to complain about those.

There were no significant program cuts, no public-sector job losses. It’s just not that easy to attack the government when they’re doing many of the things you said they should.

And if anyone noticed that all the extra government work was supposed to be done by only 500 new civil servants, and 260 of them will be jail guards, well, it wasn’t the media.

It was only a little easier to attack a budget like this from the right, where the politicians really do believe that all spending except on tax breaks for bazillionaires is bad, and that the Redford Tories, as Ms. Smith put it, “have no discipline.” But there were no tax increases, no new taxes either. Not even sin taxes. It’s hard even for die-hard rightists to work up a swivet about that when their supporters are secretly relieved, as it is said here most Albertans were.

Were the assumptions on which this budget’s deficit-elimination predictions were based too optimistic? The budget assumes, for example, there will be even higher oil prices, more profitable companies, and a much bigger population. Of course they were.

But were they so optimistic, as opposition politicians of both the left and right predicted, that the stuff is really going to hit the fan after the election? Well, that could very well happen, but nobody’s going to lose any sleep over it tonight.

And are Albertans smart enough to see through the exquisitely political artifice of Mr. Liepert’s budget and vote against the Redford Tories anyway, as opposition politicians of both the right and left gamely insisted yesterday they believed. Well, that could happen too. It certainly should happen.

But history suggests that it probably won’t.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Who shot Shariff? More lessons in democracy, Alberta-style

Shiraz Shariff works the phone in his Calgary office yesterday afternoon. Below: interim PC Executive Director Kelley Charlebois; former AHS Chair Ken Hughes; outgoing Calgary-West MLA Ron Liepert.

The Alberta Progressive Conservative Party has now given the bum’s rush to Shiraz Shariff, the 30-year party supporter and former MLA who had the unmitigated cheek to defeat Ken Hughes, the premier’s anointed candidate in Calgary West, in the riding’s Jan. 28 nomination vote.

The PC Party “received several written complaints about the eligibility of some of those who voted in the recent nomination for Calgary West,” Party President Bill Smith said in a terse news release late yesterday morning. Nevertheless, according to the release, the party “does not hold any one candidate or campaign responsible for the unfortunate situation.”

Just the same, Mr. Shariff – who wasn’t mentioned by name in the release and who says he was never asked any questions in the investigation conducted by interim party Executive Director Kelley Charlebois – is out, his nomination officially “disallowed.” Someone else will soon be in.

Mr. Smith’s release explained that because of tight timelines, the party has asked “the duly elected PC Board of Calgary West to consider possible candidates and submit three names from which the Leader can choose.” Presumably, Mr. Shariff’s name will be nowhere near that list when the constituency board examines it on Feb. 16.

The “review of memberships” that resulted in Mr. Shariff’s removal was Mr. Charleobois’s first brush with controversy since he took on the executive director job a month after Premier Alison Redford’s victory over front-runner Gary Mar in the party leadership race. He is not, however, a complete stranger to controversy.

Back in 2002 and 2003, the former executive assistant to Mr. Mar became the topic of embarrassing questions in the Legislature when it was revealed he had been paid nearly $400,000 over two years through an untendered contract for “oral advice” to Mr. Mar when he was health minister in 2002 and 2003.

Now, you may be thinking: “Hold it! This isn’t the way a democracy’s supposed to work!”

More than likely, that’s also precisely what they thought in Premier Redford’s office when they received the news of the nomination of Mr. Shariff, who back in 2008 was defeated by a Liberal as the MLA for the Calgary McCall riding.

After all, the successful nomination of someone not favoured by head office is indeed not the way democracy is supposed to work in Alberta. The very idea of an upstart winning a nomination over a favoured candidate is unheard of in these parts! In what passes for polite society hereabouts, that would be considered about as seemly as a general election being won by a party other than the Progressive Conservatives!

Remember, Mr. Hughes, the former chair of Alberta Health Services, had stepped down from his influential position at the head of the $12-billion public agency on Dec. 28 to seek the nomination in the riding. He had the apparent blessing of the premier, to whom he is said to be close, to replace the retiring incumbent MLA, Finance Minister Ron Liepert.

Tout le monde political Alberta simply assumed Mr. Hughes’s success was thus a deadbolt cinch. There was even talk that after his automatic election, he’d march right into Premier Redford’s cabinet and take up the reins of the massive province-wide health care system once again.

And now that Mr. Shariff’s inconvenient selection has been reversed, perhaps the Alberta universe is once again unfolding as God (who was mentioned four times in two lines of the government’s Throne Speech on Tuesday) intended.

Indeed, Mr. Hughes told the Calgary Herald yesterday that if the party desired his name on the ballot, “I’m willing to serve.” He also said it wasn’t his campaign team that made the complaint.

Still, that might be too much even for Alberta voters, who for the past 40 years have been prepared to put up with pretty well anything from the Conservative Party. Maybe that accounts for the buzz yesterday afternoon that Farouk Adatia, CFO of Ms. Redford’s leadership campaign who was defeated in his bid for the Calgary-Hawkwood nomination, might now be the anointed one in Calgary West.

For his part, Mr. Shariff was conceding nothing last night. “The nomination process for Calgary West was credible and set out by the constituency board, comprised of committed and competent volunteers, such as Dr. Ryan Carter, brother of the Premier’s chief of staff,” Stephen Carter, he said in a statement. In it, he noted that he and his volunteers had suspected from the start the party was biased against him.

“My campaign was run fairly,” Mr. Shariff stated. “It was run with integrity and we followed the process. Other candidates … also stated their acceptance of the process, the fairness and the outcome. Most importantly, security on the day of the vote ensured that no one could cast a ballot without first proving residency in Calgary West with two pieces of identification.”

Indeed, Mr. Shariff told your blogger yesterday, none other than Mr. Liepert sat on the credentials desk and reported no irregularities.

Mr. Shariff said he has never been given any indication what irregularities are supposed to have taken place. He challenged the party to tell the public what – and whom – they are complaining about. He asked: “What is there to hide? And if it is somebody else’s fault, why do I have to suffer?”

Mr. Shariff also said he asked the party yesterday for arbitration, as set out in the PC constitution, but that he was told by Mr. Charlebois “that avenue is not available any more.” The ballots have been destroyed.

Since there is to be no arbitration process, Mr. Shariff added, he is challenging the party to hold a new nomination vote. “Let another nomination be held! I’ll be there!”

Despite his anger at the process by which he was deprived of his nomination, Mr. Shariff said he would not consider running in the riding as an Independent. “I’m a Conservative and I’m not going away!” However, he warned that without the redress he is seeking, the party’s reputation as an open and democratic institution is bound to suffer. “The image of our party is at stake.”

“Regardless of the decision taken today by the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta, the ultimate decision was made by the constituents of Calgary West on Jan. 21st 2012 where I was democratically elected with a majority vote as their PC representative,” Mr. Shariff’s statement concluded.

Ironically, if the provincial party had responded the same way to the unexpected election of a candidate not favoured by the party establishment in October 2011, Gary Mar would now presumably be premier of Alberta.

One of the many factors that helped derail Mr. Mar’s efforts to become the premier, oddly enough, was his relationship with Mr. Charlebois, who is now cast in the role of party inquisitor in the strange case of Mr. Shariff and the eligibility concerns for which no one is being held responsible.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Alberta’s Electrolux Throne Speech: breathtaking in its vacuity, but quite possibly effective

Your blogger with Tory campaign mastermind Stephen Carter. Below, Charles Dickens, who also wrote a good story; Finance Minister Ron Liepert.

It was either the best of Throne Speeches or it was the worst of Throne Speeches. Heck, maybe it was both at the same time.

Yesterday being the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, maybe there’s something powerfully symbolic in that assessment of the first Throne Speech by the Progressive Conservative government of Alison Redford.

If the purpose of a Speech from the Throne, as historically has been agreed, is to set out the broad goals of the government and describe the initiatives it will undertake to accomplish those goals, then yesterday’s speech was a spectacular failure.

Indeed, it was breathtaking in its vacuity. Talk about low-bridging it! This speech was so content-free the Tory barge could slip unnoticed under any bridge, no matter how close the deck was to the water.

To call this speech the Electrolux Speech does it a disservice. It was so unenlightening it made one think of a stellar black hole – dense enough to attract matter, even light, into its dark core!

Oh, the speech haltingly read by Lieutenant Governor Donald Ethell was replete with cheerful sentiments – “your government will make Alberta the best jurisdiction anywhere…,” “your government will treat Albertans’ money with the same care and respect they do, spending wisely on the services Albertans count on for an outstanding quality of life…,” “your government will provide seniors with the supports, services and care they need to remain healthy, happy and productive…,” “patients in need of medical attention will be able to get it.” Yadda-yadda.

There were even a few choice comparisons of the Alison Redford Tories to the Peter Lougheed Tories – though without a whiff of the “bold” and “imaginative” policies that made even Mr. Lougheed’s enemies respect his leadership. As Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan quipped after the speech: “Peter Lougheed said hi to my Grade 8 class when we visited the Legislature! Premier, you’re no Peter Lougheed…”

Between that stuff and the four closing references to God – “May God bless you all; God bless Alberta; God bless Canada; God save the Queen!” – there was barely a hint about how any of this is going to be achieved. No, that’s not quite right. There were no hints at all!

The broad goals of this government are clear enough: heavenly perfection right here on the Great Plains. The initiatives to be undertaken to accomplish it? Insufficient data.

The closest thing to even a hint of a hint in the speech was the suggestion that since the province’s “current fiscal framework relies too heavily on volatile energy revenue as a source of income … it’s fine for foundational change. It won’t be easy, but it is the right way to better manage the annual unpredictably in the budgeting process.”

Say what? Foundational change? That’s it? Oh yeah, and we’ll have zero-based budgeting, except that we’ll call it something else.

The Wildrose Party will say this means new taxes. Possibly some of the other parties will too. Maybe someone will wonder if this means no petroleum royalties. The Redford Tories, one expects, will just smile and say very little at all. And that one’s about the only line in the whole speech anyone is going to be able to get their teeth into!

Look, it’s perfectly clear what’s going on here. The government’s strategy – doubtless devised by Stephen Carter, Premier Redford’s demonstrably clever chief of staff – is to say nothing, nothing at all, that can get the government in trouble.

Their own polls look good, and some of the others do too, although there are dark hints that a Sun poll today may contain some surprises. But the PCs are clearly counting on being able to coast through another election without a major upheaval. Describing an actual policy in detail might give the opposition something to take shots at, so no policies will be described.

“We thought they were going to give us a few piñatas to take a whack at,” a wistful Wildrose advisor commented, a little plaintively. “There’s nothing there.”

That’s almost certainly Mr. Carter’s idea. The only question is whether or not it will work. The jury’s still out on that, of course.

One seasoned political veteran told me with a straight face he couldn’t believe Albertans would fall for it. “It’s insulting!”

But the same strategy in the hands of the late Senator Keith Davey worked for Pierre Trudeau in the 1980 federal campaign, as Trudeau press secretary Patrick Gossage recalls fondly in this 2011 tribute to the Senator. At any rate, it spelled the end of Joe Clark, although it was left to another Conservative named Brian Mulroney to actually dispatch that poor fellow.

Mr. Gossage says of the campaign technique we are witnessing now in the hands of Mr. Carter: “This was and is … the classic strategy for politicians leading in the polls.”

It would be fair, though, to say that Mr. Carter is taking it farther than most political strategists would dare to advise their charges, although one would think there would have to be a few more details in the Budget.

If it works, as it very well may, Mr. Carter will be hailed as a genius. If it doesn’t, well, all we can say for sure is that any failure is bound to be spectacular.

All that remains to be seen is when Mr. Carter will advise his premier to call an election.

Will the Conservatives really wait until after the Legislature has debated and passed the budget that will be introduced by Finance Minister Ron Liepert tomorrow? Third Reading would come in late March, with an election late in April.

Assuming another Conservative victory – as the Conservatives obviously do – that would let them run the province for the better part of the year without the nuisance of having to answer annoying Opposition questions in the Legislature.

Or will they find some excuse to pull the plug sooner, once they see how the public has responded to the budget?

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

The Fraser Institute: 100% political and still a registered charity! Explain, please…

A typical Canadian taxpayer ponders the tax-deductible corporate pork that goes to support the Fraser Institute and its ilk. Below: Fraser Institute critics Donald Gutstein and Graham Steele; the Canada Revenue Agency, where is it?

Other than Canadian political parties themselves, the Fraser Institute must be Canada’s most intensely political organization.

Notwithstanding its pious mission statement – “to measure, study, and communicate the impact of competitive markets and government interventions on the welfare of individuals” – essentially 100 per cent of the Fraser Institute’s activities are 100-per-cent political.

As such, the far-right, market fundamentalist “think tank” plays a key role in what author Donald Gutstein terms the “corporate propaganda system” that purports to churn out unbiased research but in fact works tirelessly to hijack our democracy for the benefit of Big Business and the ultra-wealthy families that control it.

The Fraser Institute strives to change Canadians’ political attitudes so they will place far-right political parties like Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in power, and keep them there. It works relentlessly to restructure our political architecture in ways that will make it difficult for citizens to seize back their own country. And it fields an army of “former researchers” – Danielle Smith, leader of the far-right Wildrose Party here in Alberta is a prominent example – who play an overtly political role.

Nor is there much that is fair or scientific about the Fraser Institute’s research, despite the claim it is subject to “a rigorous peer review process.” Saskatoon health policy consultant Stephen Lewis brilliantly deconstructs the Grade 9 methodology behind the “institute’s” annual report on hospital wait times and exposes it as “skewed estimates on a hot-button issue,” retailed as hard data, and intended “to lure Canadians to the promised land of private medicine.”

“Never mind the 16-per-cent response rate in 2011, which alone cashiers validity,” Mr. Lewis writes of the Fraser Institute’s effort. “Even more fundamentally, the questionnaire asks respondents for neither the sources of their estimates, nor whether they consult any real data to support their responses.”

So, as Nova Scotia Finance Minister Graham Steele put it: “The Fraser Institute produces junk. It is not a serious institution. It is a political organization.”

Mr. Steele was two-thirds right. The Fraser Institute is serious all right, although its research is not serious in the normal sense of transparency and lack of bias, no matter what it claims. But it surely is political. Indeed, the Fraser Institute is all politics, all the time.

As it turns out, this is important, because the Fraser Institute is also a registered charity, meaning that those Canadians who do pay taxes are in effect subsidizing its purely political operations. Indeed, to go a step further, we are also subsidizing those wealthy individuals, organizations and corporations that bankroll the Fraser Institute’s propaganda efforts to work directly against the interests of ordinary Canadians.

Alert readers will be aware that charitable status for organizations that take controversial positions on the issues of that day is currently a highly contentious issue – at least when the registered charities in question do not support the Harper government on such issues as bitumen pipelines to the West Coast, climate science and uncontrolled oilsands development.

So, for example, Charles Adler, Canada’s self-styled “everyman” and a bloviator for Canada’s real state broadcaster, the Sun (Non)News Network, columnized last month about how “there’s no shortage of radical greens getting generous tax breaks from the federal government.”

“Under the law,” Mr. Adler opined, “these supposed charities can only spend 10 per cent of their budget on advocacy activities. I’ll leave it to you to judge whether these radicals are obeying this law.”

Others on the government side of this debate take a more extreme view. An email now in circulation originating somewhere within the Online Tory Rage Machine accuses an Alberta-based environmental group of being part of a “treasonous and underhanded” conspiracy “to destroy our Alberta oil industry.”

And last month, the Globe and Mail reported that the Commons Finance Committee’s review of the charitable sector is expected attack the charitable status of Canadian environmental organizations.

So it is interesting that when it comes to one of Canada’s most intensely political organizations, which boasts on its website about the controversial nature of the positions it takes, its charitable status passes uncontested among these same far-right actors, including the ones in government.

Now, the Canada Revenue Agency’s rules governing political activities by charitable organizations are not quite as clear-cut as Mr. Adler makes them sound, but he has the gist of it right. Depending on their annual income in the previous year, registered charities may contribute between 12 and 20 per cent of their resources to political activities in the current year.

However, “a registered charity cannot be created for a political purpose and cannot be involved in partisan political activities,” the CRA states. “A political activity is considered partisan if it involves direct or indirect support of, or opposition to, a political party or candidate for office.”

Elsewhere, the CRA goes on to define political activities quite broadly, including the following: “explicitly communicates to the public that the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada or a foreign country should be retained (if the retention of the law, policy or decision is being reconsidered by a government), opposed, or changed…” The CRA even defines as political activities as “attempts to sway public opinion on social issues.”

So, obviously, from any common sense position, the Fraser Institute fails to meet this broad test and clearly should lose its charitable status.

When a charity files its annual income statement with the Canada Revenue Agency, it is always asked: “Did the charity carry on any political activities during the fiscal period.” Yet in each year between 2000 and 2010, according to a recent Access to Information request by the Alberta Federation of Labour, the Fraser Institute answered “No.”

“Any rookie observer of Canadian politics knows this is nonsense,” the AFL wrote in its Jan. 17 submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance on Tax Incentives for Charitable Donations. “The Fraser Institute is actively involved in the Canadian political landscape. Any reporting or suggestion otherwise is a sham.”

In 2010, for example, the Fraser Institute explicitly communicated to the public calls for laws to be changed, thereby engaging in politics as defined by the CRA. So the Fraser Institute column, “Reject Unions and Prosper,” which was published on Sept. 10, 2010, urged Canadian provinces to adopt “right-to-work” laws typical of those U.S. states south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

“Provinces would do well to adopt worker-choice laws (called right-to-work laws in the United States), which would allow workers to choose whether they want to join and financially support a union,” the article, which is found on the Fraser Institute’s website, states.

Clearly this article meets the standard for political activity set by the CRA. There is no shortage of similar examples.

Indeed, one day after last year’s federal election, in which the political party clearly backed by the Fraser Institute won a majority, they were at it again, pushing Prime Minister Harper and the Conservative Party to change Canada’s election spending laws to eliminate all per-vote subsidies for political parties.

So, never mind why the media treats the Fraser Institute’s dubious findings with such respect, the question most often asked about this organization. That seems obvious enough considering who owns the media.

A better question is: Given its responses to the CRA, can Canadians have any confidence that the Fraser Institute is staying within the 12 per cent of its allowed limit for political activities?

Moreover, it is fair to wonder: Is anyone at the Canada Revenue Agency paying attention or even raising concerns about the Fraser Institute’s constant political activities, let alone questioning its charitable status?

As Mr. Adler said, “I’ll leave it to you to judge whether these radicals are obeying this law.”

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.