Archive for August, 2012

Fiscal shocker! Redford Tories promise transparency but deliver opacity!

Secretive Redford Tory, left, moves to the right, while Wildrose transparency advocate, right, opts for a totally different course. Below: Doug Horner and Alison Redford, both smirking.

This just in! Alberta’s Progressive Conservative government is secretive!

Well… yeah!

What’s astonishing is that the Alberta news media appears to be astonished by this revelation, which if you happen to have been paying attention at any time during the past decade or four shouldn’t exactly come as news to you.

Yesterday, the Alison Redford generation of the successful PC firm founded by Peter Lougheed in 1971 rolled out its 2012 first-quarter financial “update” and the media were shockedtruly shocked! – that the government wasn’t very forthcoming with helpful analysis about the fact its optimistic pre-election predictions have been blown to smithereens by “lower than expected” energy revenues.

Why, Finance Minister Doug Horner’s fiscal update yesterday “makes no financial projections, omits capital planning and financial assets, and dramatically reduces the number of raw figures available for public scrutiny,” the Edmonton Journal’s reporter sputtered.

And that was just the news coverage, where reporters were relying on the usual suspects in the professional commentariat to condemn Mr. Horner for his unrevealing dance of the thousand fiscal veils. You should have heard what they were saying to each other! “They promised to be more transparent but they’re actually making it harder to understand what’s going on,” moaned one.

Also, reporters complained, those helpful finance ministry officials that used to hang around before these events to make sure hapless journos understood the government’s careful spin on the numbers are completely gonzo, apparently never to appear again.

Your blogger didn’t make it down to the Legislature for Mr. Horner’s news conference performance yesterday, so he can’t actually say if the minister was smirking at the media, but it’s hard to believe he wasn’t. I mean, really, it would be pretty difficult to say, as the Journal’s scribe summarized it, “the changes were designed to make the information easier for Albertans to understand” without laughing out loud.

Look, people, this isn’t really all that complicated. The Alberta PCs are Canada’s most secretive provincial government and have been for generations. What’s more, they keep getting worse.

Pretty well every election they promise to be more “transparent,” and after every election they turn out to be more opaque.

If you wonder where Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s brain trust came up with their plan to stitch Conservative cabinet ministers’ and caucus members’ lips shut, well, look no farther than the elegantly marbled hallways of the Alberta Legislature.

Mr. Harper’s federal Conservative Party, by the way, is the one that’s so very, very close to Alberta’s even-farther-to-the-right Wildrose Party, which is now mantrically repeating the talking-point phrase “fiscal incompetence and mismanagement” to describe their Tory brethren’s entirely characteristic behaviour.

Sorry to have to state the obvious, folks, but anyone who is even mildly surprised by this should be immediately cautioned against responding to emails containing confidential business proposals from the Nigerian Chamber of Commerce and Industry!

It should shock no one that the Redford Conservatives behave as North American “conservatives” always do. Anyone who imagines even for a moment that the Wildrose stream of the same party under Opposition Leader Danielle Smith would behave any differently in office requires a similar caution.

So it now seems things aren’t as rosy as they appeared before the election, no one’s fault really, and the price will just have to be paid by public employees – voters who would be, in many cases, the same ones who made Ms. Redford’s victories possible in last fall’s leadership contest and last spring’s election.

Who can forget all the those naïve strategic voters opting last spring for Thing 1 when faced by the possibility Thing 2 might win the election, abandoning the NDP and Alberta Liberals in the process?

Well, you can count on it that Ms. Redford’s government won’t do the one thing that would make sense under the circumstances, to wit, charging a fair royalty rate for the resources owned by the people of Alberta.

That might reduce the PCs’ renowned fundraising capacity.

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The Annals of Law Enforcement: Yeah, Alberta’s Tories are sleazy, but now and then they get it right anyway

Just a year ago, it seemed likely police recruits like these would soon be lounging around the dusty streets of Fort Macleod, where not much has changed since the Mounties pounded in their first tent pegs in 1874. Alas, it shall not be. Below: Col. James Macleod; former MLA Evan Berger; Solicitor General Jonathan Denis.

“When I look out over the crowd today, I think I can actually see people pinching themselves,” proclaimed Evan Berger, Progressive Conservative MLA for Livingstone-Macleod, just over a year ago as the sod was turned at the site of the new provincial police college in the windblown Southern Alberta town of Fort MacLeod.

“They’re having a hard time accepting that this day is finally here,” said Mr. Berger, then Alberta’s minister of agriculture, who at the time must have been reasonably confident he would soon be attending the opening of the college as a member of Premier Gary Mar’s PC cabinet.

Oh well, that was then, this is now, and folks in Fort Macleod must be regretting ever pinching themselves!

Fast forward from Aug. 24, 2011, to Aug. 29, 2012, and the local MLA is a Wildrose Party usurper named Pat Stier, Mr. Berger has been compensated for his loss with a controversially plum civil service posting as a “senior policy advisor,” and Solicitor-General Jonathan Denis, a member of Premier Alison Redford’s cabinet, has pulled the plug on the grandly titled Alberta Public Security and Law Enforcement Training Centre.

The far-right Opposition Wildrose Party was screaming bloody murder yesterday, insisting the good people of the dusty outpost close to where Col. James Macleod of the North-West Mounted Police built the force’s barracks in 1874 are being punished for not voting Conservative. Alberta’s New Democrats are singing harmony.

For once, the Wildrosers are almost certainly right, notwithstanding Mr. Denis’s protestations to the contrary.

But Albertans need to ask themselves: Is this the right decision, anyway, even if it’s being made for the wrong reasons? As most folks who weren’t born yesterday understand, such a thing can happen.

Well, as it happens, the answer to that question is almost certainly yes.

Let me explain: Putting a $122-million college for city cops from places like Edmonton and Calgary in a location that’s never been anything but an isolated backwater since 1884, when the Mounties finally had the sense to move up the hill from the Oldman River flood plain, never made any sense. It was sort of like putting a rodeo clown college in Manhattan’s fashion district – dumber, actually, since the potential for entertainment was considerably lower.

It would have cost a fortune to ferry trainee cops back and forth from the cities where they would be working to the dust-coated burg, pop. 3,000, where they were to be trained … to do what? Bust cattle rustlers? Drive fast on washboard?

The promise was first made by Premier Ralph Klein in 2006, a typical example of the kind of rural pork-barreling that kept the Alberta PCs in power for generations – at least until the Wildrosers came along and tried to take advantage of Premier Redford’s urban image by outflanking her generation of PCs from the right. Unfortunately for the Wildrose Party, this strategy only worked in a smattering of rural outposts like Livingstone-Macleod.

In other words, about the only logical justification for putting the college in Fort Macleod in the first place – other than tying up the rural Tory vote in another sparsely populated riding – was the historical connection with the NWMP, which was in reality just a polite name for a cavalry regiment stationed in the North West Territories to keep our American cousins from coveting their neighbour’s frontier.

It made no sense from a training perspective. It made no sense from a cost perspective. And the cops, peace officers and correctional officers it was supposed to serve couldn’t stand the idea. Even the Mounties thought it was pretty lame.

So it was just the sort of thing our Opposition parties are supposed to loyally oppose a government for doing, except that in Alberta rural politics can distort issues like a fun-house mirror.

The interesting question that remains is just how this fits into the long-term strategy of the Redford Tories. Do they expect stubborn Southern Albertans to return to the Tory fold when they realize the cost of voting Wildrose? That could happen, one supposes.

Or is this part of a strategy to recast themselves as the party of urban Alberta? (That, by the way, was an opportunity generations of Alberta Liberal and New Democrat politicians, few of whom could hope to get elected outside city limits, have ignored because the idea of a rural-urban, north-south split on the right seemed unimaginable.)

“What we just see here is classic PC incompetence and mismanagement,” Wildrose Justice Critic Shayne Saskiw complained to the CBC after Mr. Denis’s announcement yesterday.

He was right, of course. It’s just that the PC in question was named Ralph Klein, the last one the Wildrose Party claims to have had any time for.

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Hurricane Isaac makes landfall in New Orleans; Hurricane Joan hits Calgary

A prophet laments the unwillingness of the people to heed warnings from on high. Alberta political bloggers may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Nominated federal Tory candidate “Hurricane Joan” Crockatt.

At the risk of going all Old Testament on readers, when Hurricane Isaac slammed into New Orleans last night, it could be taken as a warning to North Americans on both sides of the 49th Parallel that You-Know-Who doesn’t want us electing any more far-right governments on this continent.

If this warning from on high is ignored, well, you’ve got to know what happens next, as surely as Lamentations follows Jeremiah or, more significantly, J follows I: Hurricane Joan.

Speaking of whom, while your blogger was enjoying a well-deserved vacation in the Storm-toss’d States of America, a microscopic minority of Conservative voters in Calgary Centre were behaving entirely as predicted and picking right-wing commentator Joan Crockatt as their standard bearer in the upcoming by-election to replace former MP Lee Richardson.

Ms. Crockatt, who must be thought of hereinafter as Hurricane Joan, was once a competitive figure skater and later managing editor of the Calgary Herald. She was quite capable of spinning like a tropical storm in either role, although she was in a position to do considerably more damage in the latter during the late Nineties and early Zeros. There, Hurricane Joan’s fierce determination to change stories in the final moments before deadline earned her the bitter sobriquet “drive-by editor” from her frustrated underlings, one of whom now writes this blog.

God only knows what might happen if the citizens of Calgary Centre ignore His hints and, as seems likely, march on to elect the tempestuous Ms. Crockatt to the House of Commons, where she is certain to be welcomed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a sympathetic neo-conservative, if not quite a social conservative in the Old Testament mold nowadays preferred in Ottawa. (She has stated she is in favour of gay marriage and pro-choice. Her economic views, however, are very hard edged.)

But with each moment that passes without a high-profile candidate capable of appealing to voters in this perpetually conservative riding being named by either of the principal opposition parties, the less likely it seems that anyone can successfully challenge Ms. Crockatt.

This is not necessarily because she is a terrific candidate, although she will surely campaign with characteristic energy, but because this is a riding in which non-Conservative candidates start the race with a significant handicap, no matter how much they outshine the anointed local Tory.

Yet so far there is little but silence from the New Democratic Official Opposition and only a couple of decent but uninspiring local candidates put forward by the Liberals. There’s no sign of someone like Dave Bronconnier, former Liberal mayor of Calgary, Chima Nkemdirim, chief of staff to the current one, Olympian Mark Tewksbury, or such well regarded former NDP Calgary aldermen as Bob Hawkseworth of Joe Ceci. Former provincial Liberal leader David Swann, touted here as a possible NDP candidate, has said, Nope, not me.

Much is made of the fact that Mr. Richardson, who quit as MP last May to serve as Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s principal secretary, had a reputation as a Red Tory, as did former Prime Minister Joe Clark, who also once served as the riding’s MP. What’s more, a lot of people there are known to live in apartment buildings and talk on cellular telephones. But really, people, don’t forget that both the previous incumbents were conservatives nonetheless and too much can be made of progressive tendencies among an otherwise disengaged electorate.

Much is also made of the divisions among social conservatives, old-time Conservatives, neo-conservatives, Wildrose conservatives, and pinkishly Progressive Conservatives in the Calgary Centre nomination race, but it is also likely that most of these sub-species of conservative will heed Ms. Crockatt’s plea for Tory unity.

So anyone who is going to get out there and defeat Hurricane Joan needs to have started spinning themselves, like, yesterday! Oh well, we live in hope. There’s nothing more optimistic than an Alberta New Democrat, unless it’s an Alberta New Democrat who lives in Calgary. You need to be hardy to survive in this political climate!

And it is true, the numbers that nominated Ms. Crockatt were pathetically small – fewer than half the 1,956 eligible Conservative Party members managed to show up on Aug. 25 to vote!

It was really all over by the first ballot, in which Ms. Crockatt received about 350 votes to 225 for stock salesman Greg McLean, who had Mr. Richardson’s endorsement, 111 for former provincial politician Jon Lord, 90 for lawyer Richard Billington, about 50 for “Calgary Joe” Soares of Gatineau, Que., occupation not clearly defined, and 30 for Stefan Spargo, whose occupation escapes me at the moment but who was well known for flying an Alberta flag over his house.

Ms. Crockatt raised her vote by about 100 on the second ballot, although it took two more ballots for her to get the 51 per cent she required. According to the Calgary Herald, Ms. Crockatt had 445 votes on the fourth and final ballot, compared with 283 for Mr. McLean and 119 for Mr. Lord. The party has neither published nor confirmed the results.

Meanwhile, according to last night’s news reports, power cuts have been reported across low-lying parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, affecting more than 200,000 homes and business. U.S. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, has declared an emergency in Louisiana and Mississippi, allowing federal funds to flow to local authorities.

Thus endeth the lesson.

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Anti-union Wildrose Party’s fund-raising pitch piggybacks on union’s heavy lifting

Closed? Open? With Alberta Diary you can have it all. This blog is closed for a few days while your blogger takes a short break from writing stuff all the time. This means there can likely be no post on the Conservative Party’s Calgary Centre by-election nomination on Friday, Aug. 24. But … you just never know. You can always check what Daveberta has to say. Normal blogging should resume around Aug. 28. Plus, you may continue to comment – and your comments will (likely) continue to be posted. Below: Wildrose Seniors’ Issues Critic Kerry Towle.

Is it just me, or is there a certain irony in the spectacle of a political party dedicated to the proposition that trade unions are bad trying to raise money by taking credit for the good work done by a union?

I refer, of course, to the Wildrose Party’s recent exploitation of the brilliant exposure by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees of the appalling menu fed to helpless seniors in the province’s continuing care facilities – which even the mainstream media seems to think was the main reason Health Minister Fred Horne ordered 73 such residences to return to home cooking by Christmastime.

Alert readers will recall that nothing was done about Alberta Health Services’ so-called 21-day menu – the unpalatable tinfoil- and plastic-wrapped meals that have been trucked in, reheated and fed to helpless nursing home residents for months now – until AUPE created a video that cleverly asked a food critic to say what he thought of the culinary qualities of the frozen meals.

Words like “sawdust,” “mush,” “nasty” and “obscene” were used and, before you could say “Anthony Bourdain,” the video went viral on the Internet and the pressure increased on the Health Ministry, if not Alberta Health Services, to do something about it, at least as far as nursing homes went.

As an aside, it seems to me that this might have been the solution to the public relations problem created by former AHS Chief Financial Officer Allaudin Merali’s notorious entertainment expenses. Mr. Merali should have been told he could entertain anyone he liked, anywhere he liked, any time he liked, at AHS expense … as long as he served something from the 21-day menu!

Indeed, this might be considered as a sound policy to implement for Mr. Merali’s successor, since, as far as anyone knows, the 21-day menu remains in use at more than 200 Alberta hospitals and health centres. Heck, it might cost 6 per cent more, as AUPE says the 21-day menu does, but it would be almost worth it to imagine the looks on their entitled executive faces!

Regardless, the Wildrose Party, which under its market-fundamentalist Leader Danielle Smith is endlessly seeking ways to “reform” public health care by making it more private, jumped on AUPE’s bandwagon and, to give credit where credit is due, referred its supporters to the video and properly acknowledged AUPE’s role in the complaints about the 21-day menu.

But now, Wildrose Seniors Issues Critic Kerry Towle, the MLA for Innisfail-Sylvan Lake, has sent out a fund-raising letter soliciting donations from Albertans to help the Wildrose Party to make AHS “make things right.”

No mention, alas, in the letter of the group that did the heavy lifting to bring this issue to the public’s attention and that, arguably, did the most to resolve it, at least as far as seniors in Alberta-run nursing homes are concerned.

It’s hard to knock Ms. Towle’s basic argument that there’s something wrong with not using fresh, local produce in meals for the ill and the incapacitated. But when we consider this, we need to remember that a major part of the Wildrose Party’s push – just like that of the Conservative government of Premier Alison Redford – is to privatize nursing homes. That will mean better food for some – excellent food, indeed – if you can afford the tab.

For the rest of us? Not so good. Not unless we can count on our children to bring us doggie bags, anyway.

Likewise, the Wildrosers – like their colleagues in their federal branch, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Wildrose Party of Canada – are big fans of the dismantling of the Canadian Wheat Board, a decision that over time will impact the ability of Canadians to get quality locally produced food, and not just grain.

Another significant policy platform of the Wildrose Party, ironic under the circumstances, is to make it impossible for unions to do their job – if not to exist. The Wildrose, for example, has a policy to bring in U.S.-style “right to work” laws (nowadays increasingly called “worker choice” laws because too many citizens are onto the Orwellian implications of the original mischaracterization). That would mean individual workers could opt out of paying union dues even if they are enjoying the benefits of a contract negotiated by a union.

You can be sure that the market-fundamentalist Wildrosers are also sympathetic to the idea that unions should be forced by law to do nothing but “labour relations,” strictly defined as negotiating contracts and conducting workplace grievances, which is part of their long-term agenda to defund and defang the left (which really means to make our society even less democratic) and leave working people at the mercy of aggressive employers.

Most certainly if union activities were restricted as the Wildrose supporters advocate, AUPE would not have been able to make the video that opened the kitchen door to better means for Alberta seniors lucky enough to be in a publicly run nursing home.

Remember that when you think of making donations to the Wildrose Party, or consider them to be a meaningful alternative to the policies of Ms. Redford and Mr. Horne. There are better alternatives.

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‘Anybody But Crockatt’ Update: Calgary Centre by the Numbers

Anybody But Crockatt? Redford Tory cabinet Christine Cusanelli slams Calgary Centre Conservative nomination candidate Joan Crockatt. Actual Alberta politicians may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: Ms. Crockatt.

Seems as if an Anybody But Crockatt effort is afoot among some of the federal (or is that provincial?) Conservatives in the thick of the Calgary Centre federal riding nomination fight.

Leastways, according to the word from the trenches, supporters of candidate Greg McLean (who was, readers will recall, endorsed last Friday by departed Calgary Centre MP Lee Richardson, who is now Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s principal secretary) are being asked to place lawyer Richard Billington in the No. 2 spot on their preferential ballot.

That’s designed to edge candidate Joan Crockatt out, presumably as punishment for her backing the Wildrose Party in her journalistic commentaries before the April 23 provincial election. Another prominent Wildrose backer? Oh, say, Prime Minister Stephen Harper…

To this, we can add a few more relevant numbers to the exciting Conservative Party nomination race to replace Mr. Richardson:

  • Number of candidates: 6
  • Position Greg McLean supporters recommend voters place Richard Billington on preferential ballot: 2
  • Position Alison Redford supporters recommend voters place Joan Crockatt on preferential ballot: Dead last!
  • Number of Redford cabinet ministers officially campaigning for the ABC candidate: 1 (Christine Cusanelli, the tourism minister)
  • Revised number of eligible voters: 1,956
  • Number of still-eligible voters who were members before the campaign began: About 1,000
  • Number of ballots it could take to find a winner: 3
  • Number of well-connected Tory widows known to have been phoned and asked if their husbands would like a ride to the polls: 1

Well, as one Tory said to me: “You just can’t make this stuff up!”

The candidates, again, in alphabetical order, are:

  • Richard Billington, a well-connected Tory lawyer who has served as a party official
  • Joan Crockatt, a journalist and commentator known for her right-wing views
  • John Lord, a businessman successful in the past in municipal and provincial politics with ties to the party’s social conservative wing
  • Greg McLean, a venture capitalist and former young Conservative leader, endorsed by the previous (Red Tory) office holder
  • Joe Soares, a resident of Quebec – and for this reason, known as “Calgary Joe” – with an ill-defined past connection to the Prime Minister’s Office as an “advisor”
  • Stefan Spargo, well known for flying an Alberta flag over his house

Remember, whoever wins, if you happen to live in Calgary Centre, vote for the NDP when the prime minister gets around to calling a by-election! I mean, seriously, people… who wants to be represented by a divided party like this one?

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Departed MP’s endorsement, big donations by candidate’s firm, complicate complicated Conservative nomination race

Candidates for the Conservative Party’s nomination in the Calgary Centre constituency prepare for next Saturday’s vote. Below: Candidates Greg McLean, Joan Crockatt and Jon Lord.

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to … get elected.

The contest to find a federal Conservative candidate to replace Calgary Centre MP Lee Richardson is turning snarly as the race grows tight enough among various species of Red, Blue and Wildrose Pink Tories to make it increasingly difficult to pick a frontrunner. The vote is scheduled to take place in one week.

Mr. Richardson’s endorsement on Friday of Greg McLean, a Calgary investment advisor and “venture capitalist” who joined the race at the last possible instant before nominations closed, complicates matters further.

And now, talk of substantial donations – to the tune of more than $30,000 – to the far-right Wildrose provincial party by companies with which Mr. McLean is associated promise to get things spinning even faster.

To understand all this, alas, we have to plow through quite a bit of backstory.

So see if you can stay with us here … and while you do, remember that there are only 1,850 eligible voters who signed Conservative Party of Canada membership cards in time to take part in the constituency association’s nomination vote. Remember also that in the normal course of affairs in Alberta, the winner of the Conservative nomination is automatically declared the winner of the seat – although we haven’t quite yet dispensed with the meaningless formality of actually holding an election. (Settle down. That was sarcasm.)

Also in the normal course of events, an endorsement by a departing Conservative MP in a Calgary riding would all but cinch it for the anointed candidate.

But alert readers will recall that when he pulled the plug in May, Mr. Richardson was one of the very few Red Tories still occupying a seat in the House of Commons. There can be little doubt that the last thing Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to replace him is another Red Tory, which his endorsement sort of suggests Mr. McLean might be.

Mr. Richardson, by the way, went to work as Principal Secretary to Alberta Premier Alison Redford, who is perceived within this province as being pretty Red for a Tory herself, so presumably any candidate her guy endorses is going to get the votes of any of her supporters who remain in the federal riding’s constituency association.

Meanwhile, the most credible seeming candidates for the Tory nomination up until Mr. McLean’s last-minute arrival on the scene appeared to be Calgary lawyer Richard Billington, a past party functionary, Joan Crockatt, a commentator known for her right-wing economic views, and Jon Lord, a former provincial and municipal politician with ties to the social conservative crowd.

Notwithstanding his protestations that he prides himself on his ability to work with anyone, Mr. Lord appears to have gathered up the support of the riding’s social conservatives. You know, basically the Lake of Fire crowd. Which, in fairness, doesn’t make Mr. Lord a Lake of Fire believer, his name notwithstanding.

For her part, Ms. Crockatt – who despite her conservative economic views professes to be very liberal on such social issues as abortion rights and gay marriage – clearly hoped to build a winning combination of votes from riding association members who are progressive on social issues and those who are in the Harper Neo-Con Camp on economics. Obviously, Mr. Richardson’s endorsement of Mr. McLean is a setback to her hopes.

Mr. Billington? Well, not being a Conservative or a riding resident, I’m not quite sure about him – but presumably he hoped to emerge as an acceptable compromise candidate between Mr. Lord and Ms. Crockatt. Mr. McLean will also be vying for that role.

Now, stay with us here … there are plenty of Wildrose supporters among both Mr. Lord’s followers (the Wildrose so-con faction) and among Ms. Crockatt’s (the Wildrose neo-con faction), so you can count on Ms. Redford and her provincial Tories (who just hired Mr. Richardson, remember) not to like either of them.

This is said to be especially true in the case of Ms. Crockatt, who is scorned in Redford circles for endorsing the Wildrose Party in the recent provincial campaign in which the premier received a bad fright, although emerged victorious just the same after a hard fight. That may explain why, just today, a Redford cabinet minister was said to be out door-knocking with Mr. McLean. (Christine Cusanelli, c’mon down!)

So does it help or hinder Mr. McLean’s chances that between 2009 and 2001, the company of which he was investment director – Cavendish Investing Ltd. – donated $32,000 to the Wildrose Party? This is a matter of public record, all it took was for someone to look – which, this being the kind of battle it is, someone naturally did.

The bulk of that donation came in two lumps of $15,000, one in 2009 and one during the 2012 provincial election campaign.

In fairness, Mr. McLean wasn’t the only senior executive at Cavendish Investing and the company also gave $5,000 to Ms. Redford’s campaign, but the connection certainly has tongues wagging.

Mr. McLean also received a Tweeted endorsement from Jeff Callaway, who is a former Wildrose Party president and was fund raising vice-president when the first $15,000 contribution from Cavendish came in.

All this makes it quite unclear to an observer just how these votes are going to split, not to mention those that start out with the other candidates in the race. At this point, it would seem, almost anything could happen.

Naturally, it is hoped here that this will result in the weakest possible Tory candidate to emerge on Aug. 25 – allowing the NDP to win the by-election, or at least make a strong credibility building second-place showing, whenever Mr. Harper gets around to calling the vote.

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U.S. grain and seed ports will kill a few more Canadian jobs – with a little help from Stephen Harper

Bunge’s $200-million US grain port at Longview, Wash. Below, U.S. police and strikers scuffle at the port.

Back in 2009, when the destruction of the Canadian Wheat Board was still just a twinkle in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s eye, work started on a $200-million US grain-handling terminal in the port of Longview, Wash., just south of the Canadian border.

The companies behind the project – which, significantly, will be capable of loading about 200 grain ships a year – are Bunge Ltd. (the giant “Bermudian” agricultural and food products corporation with its real headquarters in White Plains, N.Y.), Japan’s Itochu Corp. and South Korea’s STX Pan Ocean Co.

Fast-forward to the present and the giant Longview grain shipping facility is open for business, Mr. Harper’s dismantling of the Canadian Wheat Board as an effective marketing agency for Western Canadian grain farmers is all but complete, and the West Coast Port of Vancouver is happily burbling along on the assumption it will continue to handle about 250 shiploads of CWB grain a year as it does now.

Vancouver’s not alone in this, by the way. About 350,000 grain cars controlled by the Canadian Wheat Board shipped grain not just to Vancouver, but Prince Rupert, B.C., Churchill, Man., and Montreal, Quebec City and Trois-Rivières via the Lakehead.

But will nothing change? As is so often the case with Mr. Harper’s economic export schemes, it’s our economy that ends up getting exported. In this case, what’s good for the U.S.A., Japan and South Korea (and China and Bermuda too, presumably) doesn’t necessarily offer very much to British Columbia or the Prairies.

If we think about it at all, city folks in Vancouver and elsewhere tend to see the fight over the Canadian Wheat Board as an internecine battle among Canadian grain farmers – with those in geographical locations that forced them to rely on the Wheat Board to fetch a good price for their product abroad opposing the Tories’ program, and those adjacent to the U.S. border who saw an advantage in not being restricted by the Wheat Board’s rules supporting it.

The latter group allied themselves with the Harper Government, which mouths market fundamentalist platitudes at every opportunity. Arguably, however, if the government of Canada adopts policies like this one, what it’s really doing is putting economic power into the hands of major corporations and delivering Canadian farmers into the hands of these often-foreign corporate entities.

Most Western grain farmers are not likely to benefit much as the centre of gravity in grain marketing shifts from the Wheat Board to corporations like Bunge and Cargill, but most urban Canadians are not likely to get exercised about it if Canada’s rural population keeps voting Conservative regardless and city folks don’t see any obvious impact on their lives.

Even some of the farmers who now support their “liberation” from the “tyranny” of the Wheat Board will come to regret their enthusiasm, it is said here.

But face it, we’re not likely to know very quickly if the declining quality of our bread, pasta and beer is tied to the import of low-quality grain from elsewhere, another likely impact of the demise of the Wheat Board. After all, it’s been plausibly argued that the end of the Board means it’s much less likely there will be high-quality Canadian grain in Canadian-made products like these as corporate food processors go for the cheapest source – even if it happens to be grain from Ukraine that glows in the dark.

And most of us will likely never make the connection when we’re required to shell out more taxes to support beleaguered farmers through other means, at least enough to keep them voting Tory – plus, of course, to offer big tax breaks to multinational “agri-food” corporations.

But maybe British Columbians at least will figure out the connection between lost jobs on the West Coast and the end of the Wheat Board’s single desk. This will happen because the Board will no longer be able to direct Canadian wheat along Canadian rail lines to Canadian ports, as it has done for years.

In addition to the grain terminal at Longview, Legumex Walker Inc. is also building a $110-million US canola exporting operation in Warden, Wash., which will likely also eliminate a few more Canadian jobs.

There’s nothing the Wheat Board could have done about that, of course, since it never handled oilseeds. Still, this development does suggest the claim that, if only the single-desk were shut down, Canadian companies would start adding value to Canadian produce at plants right here in Canada, is baloney.

Back in Longview, meanwhile, which will certainly contribute to a loss of good unionized jobs in Vancouver, Bunge has engaged in a protracted fight with union workers in the port – almost entirely ignored by the mainstream media.

According to the market fundamentalist philosophy that prevails among the Harper Conservatives, however, this is all as it should be – indeed, we’re being “greedy” and anti-free trade if we suggest Canadian work should stay in Canada.

Corporate donations roll in to pay for the slick ads needed to attack parties and politicians that might go to bat for Canadian farmers, working people and economic development.

As for those British Columbians who notice this, if they want economic benefits, they’ll just have to learn to live with a bitumen pipeline or two.

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Rats! Alberta has ’em … and not just the kind Ed Stelmach warned us about

Norwegian rats have their eyes on Alberta! It’s time to root them out, and their pipeline hating, royalty demanding, revolutionary pals! And where’s the AHS Plague Plan? And why does Norwegian crude cost so much? Below: More warnings, plus Verlyn Olson.

I don’t know about you, but a lot of Albertans are surely going to have trouble sleeping tonight when they realize their province is no longer rat free. Presumably a sales tax could be next!

This has been a lousy couple of summer weeks for Premier Alison Redford’s government, what with all the health executive pension plans and whatnot becoming public, but this rat report has got to be the topper. Well, look at the bright side: it’s a break from a steady drumbeat of health-care disasters – at least until someone asks Alberta Health Services if we have a Plague Plan!

After all, we’ve prided ourselves for a lot of years on the fact the only rats welcome in this province are, as former premier Ed Stelmach might have put it, the two-legged variety found in the vicinity of the provincial Legislature.

Mr. Stelmach, musing back in February 2011 about certain politicians who played a role in his decision to quit public life in disgust, observed that there are two things Albertans can be proud of: “We don’t have any four-legged rats and we don’t have a sales tax.” (Ted Morton! C’mon down!)

Now we’re down to only one such point of pride. (That’d be the sales tax, naturally, which we still don’t have. But how much longer can we stave that off if the price of non-Norwegian oil continues to languish below a hundred petro-loonies a barrel?)

As for the rats, Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson told a news conference yesterday that 19 of ’em were discovered on Aug. 9 huddled down in – what else – a rat hole in a dump near Medicine Hat, which is also home to a lot of venomous snakes and has all hell for a basement, the location for which it serves as the trap door, but never mind any of that just now.

No word on whether any of these four-legged rats had a gold-plated Kalashnikov given to it by a certified Enemy of Alberta – you know, like the premier of British Columbia – but Mr. Olson (who is a guy, notwithstanding being named Verlyn by his mom and pop) said there may be more of them in the region and we’re going to have to send in special forces to root them out.

That may not be so easy, because we’re not just talking kangaroo rats (which, dirty little secret, have been living here for years). Nope, these invaders are, wait for it, Norwegian rats!

This is bad, really bad. First the Norwegians embarrass our fine Progressive Conservative government by charging embarrassingly high royalties for their oil, and then not just pissing the proceeds away on pricey buyouts for health care executives who move to other provinces like we do here in Alberta, but actually using it to fund social programs and putting the rest of it in a savings account. And their oil costs a fortune compared with ours – what’s with that?

Now their rats start turning up in significant numbers just inside our eastern frontier. And you think this is a coincidence? Surely not!

My advice? Well, first thing, just stay the heck from strangers with a funny accents offering you tasty Kjøttboller – which even the Wikipedia admits is “a rougher version of the Swedish meatballs” – without a contents label.

Traps and digital cameras with infrared spotlights have been set up around the dump, we were assured by Mr. Olsen, who is the MLA for Wetaskiwin-Camrose. (What were his parents thinking?) Meanwhile, we await the Wildrose press release weighing in with demands that we purchase Predator drones with little rodent-sized Ratfire missiles.

Over at the Ethical Oil Institute, I think you can rest assured they’ll be looking into the Rattus norvegicus-Christy Clark-Norwegian Brent Crude nexus.

Royalty-demanding rats to the east of us! Pipeline-hating revolutionaries to the west of us! Guilty looking former health care executives walking around among us! It’s just not easy being an Alberta Conservative these days.

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The Annals of Alberta Labour Relations: Redford Government goes boldly where no Tory’s gone before

Some of the AUPE members who work at the Revera Riverbend facility in Edmonton, which ended yesterday when the Alberta government imposed a first-contract binding arbitration process and ordered an end to the strike. (AUPE Photo.) Below: Former AUPE President Dan MacLennan hams it up with former premier Ralph Klein.

Premier Alison Redford, Health Minister Fred Horne, Human Services Minister Dave Hancock and Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk yesterday went boldly where no Alberta Conservative has dared to go before! And good for them.

Specifically, yesterday Ms. Redford and the three members of her cabinet went where former premier Ralph Klein, human resources and employment minister Mike Cardinal and infrastructure minister Lyle Oberg hinted they might think about going, then chickened out, back in 2005.

To wit: the 2012 quartet of Progressive Conservative cabinet members finally, justly and quite properly imposed first-contract binding arbitration in a labour dispute that just couldn’t seem to be settled in the normal course of collective bargaining.

What’s more, they seem to have done it over the wishes of an employer, which as far as I know is absolutely without precedent in the annals of Alberta labour relations!

This being Alberta, naturally, they called it something different. Indeed, it could be plausibly argued they had to call it something different.

So, in the government’s news release, which was published at the crack of dawn yesterday, Mr. Horne and Mr. Hancock were quoted as saying the government had declared “a public emergency” to end the labour dispute between Revera Inc., which operates a private, for-profit nursing home in Edmonton, and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represents approximately 80 employees at the facility.

A strike by the AUPE members, mostly women in low-paying heath care support and auxiliary nursing jobs, has dragged on for 70 days, the longest in that union’s history. The workers are trying to get a first collective agreement – which in the few jurisdictions still living in the legislative stone age, like Alberta, is the hardest job in labour relations.

Without a doubt, negotiating first collective agreements with employers who resent the union and don’t think they should have to live with one, even though it’s the law if their employees vote for it, is a leading cause of unnecessary and harmful strikes.

Most jurisdictions recognize just how difficult getting a first contract can be, and so put in place a law that says that binding arbitration may be ordered if the parties simply cannot reach an agreement any other way.

Alberta labour leaders have been pleading with successive governments for a first-contract binding arbitration law for generations. They’ve always been ignored.

Back in 2005, Dan “Buff” MacLennan was the president of AUPE and had a good working relationship with premier Klein. He came pretty close to persuading the premier and his cabinet ministers to impose some first-agreement sanity on Alberta labour relations – and tried to lead them to the water with a little gentle persuasion in the form of a news release, written by Yours Truly.

“Their instinct is the right one,” Mr. MacLennan said in his press release. “The time is right for such legislation to find its way onto the government’s agenda.”

Alas, you can lead a horse … to water, but you can’t make it drink. Fair labour relations practice would have to wait for another day.

That day was yesterday – leastways, an important precedent was set yesterday. At any rate, the government’s declaration of the public emergency sends the strikers back to work and gives the union and the employer 21 days to try to reach a solution through collective bargaining. But if they can’t, an agreement will be imposed by binding arbitration.

That means an arbitrator appointed by the government will look at the employer’s arguments and those of the union members, consider what other people are paid for doing the same work, examine the circumstances of the company, and impose a settlement that is binding on both parties.

In this case, the government may have referred the dispute to a “Public Emergency Tribunal,” or a PET, “with the PET authorized to hear the dispute and impose a binding award on the two parties involved.” The union quickly agreed to comply with the order.

But call it what you will, it is what it is. And what it is is a clear case of first-contract compulsory arbitration.

Why the government chose this moment to impose an agreement is not perfectly clear.

“While there has been a contingency plan in place to ensure the health and safety of residents, it is no longer working. The situation inside the Revera facility has deteriorated,” Mr. Horne said in the government news release. Regular audits by Alberta Health Services and the Health Ministry “found evidence of conditions that pose an unacceptable level of risk to residents,” he said.

Undoubtedly, this is true. But there is also little doubt there were other factors at play.

The government generally and Mr. Horne in particular have been under pressure from other health care related issues in the news right now – the scandalous misuse of expense accounts by at least one executive of a former health region and the mishandled plans to close a dementia care centre in the village of Carmangay, which with a little help from their Wildrose Party MLA and a couple of unions has fought a surprisingly effective campaign to keep the facility open.

Tragically, on Monday an elderly resident of the strikebound Revera facility in Edmonton died after replacement employees are reported to have ignored her request for an ambulance to take her to hospital. The current AUPE president, Guy Smith, generated more news coverage calling for an investigation of the death.

Mr. Lukaszuk told the CBC the resident’s death was not the reason for the government’s decision to impose the PET, but surely the impact of these other circumstances, and the weight of the woman’s death in particular, influenced the government’s thinking – as indeed is proper.

Whatever the reason, the government did the right thing, given the particular circumstances in this case.

Now they need to put a first-contract arbitration mechanism in the Alberta Labour Code, the relevant piece of legislation, and finally impose a little sanity and maturity on labour relations in this province.

I’m not sure if I’m quite ready start thinking of the Redford Conservatives as truly Progressive just yet, but yesterday’s imposition of first-agreement binding arbitration in the Revera strike was a step in the right direction.

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Ethical Oil charity complaint sparks Alberta corporate complaint

Commentator Ezra Levant lets go a broadside at Tides Canada on his Sun News Network program. Below: Researcher Tony Clark; Jamie Ellerton, executive director of Mr. Levant’s Ethical Oil Institute; National Revenue Minister Gail Shea.

As is well known, the “Ethical Oil Institute,” the Edmonton-based organization founded by Sun News Network commentator Ezra Levant to support petroleum extraction companies in Alberta, has complained to the Canada Revenue Agency demanding the charitable status of Tides Canada “be reviewed for violating Canada’s charities law.”

Last week, Ethical Oil accused the Vancouver-based environmental and social issues charity of “‘laundering’ money from contributors to groups engaged in ‘non-charitable’ political activities,” as the complaint was summarized by the Edmonton Journal.

Ethical Oil also set up an automated online form to enable those who share Mr. Levant’s and his organization’s views to send emails to National Revenue Minister Gail Shea “to report any radical or environmental lobby group you’ve seen masquerading as a charity so that their taxpayers (sic) subsidy comes to an end!”

Now an Edmonton researcher has filed a complaint with Service Alberta Minister Manmeet Bhullar arguing that by taking this action Ethical Oil is violating its Memorandum of Association with the with the Alberta government.

“Corporate entities such as Ethical Oil are bound by the Companies Act to follow the objects set in their Memorandum of Association,” researcher Tony Clark wrote Mr. Bhullar last week. “Ethical Oil has mounted a protracted campaign against what it views as violations of the Canada Revenue Agency’s rules by certain environmentally oriented charities. I believe this campaign is against the letter, if not the spirit, of the corporation’s Memorandum of Association which regulates its external activities.”

Citing statements made by Ethical Oil on its website, before a House of Commons committee, in the mainstream media, in a 143-page letter of complaint to the CRA and on a Sun News Network television program hosted by Mr. Levant, Mr. Clark argues there is nothing in Ethical Oil’s Memorandum of Association “that allows this corporation to be a referee on charities’ activities.”

On his Sun News Network program, Mr. Levant – who is president, treasurer and a director of Ethical Oil and holds 50 per cent of the corporate entity’s shares – interviewed Ethical Oil Executive Director Jamie Ellerton about the campaign against Tides Canada’s charitable status. On this episode of The Source with Ezra Levant, Mr. Levant set aside his trademark aggressive interview style and was positively warm.

Regardless, Mr. Clark’s complaint goes on, “The objects of the corporation include, among other things, ‘issues and considerations of environmental responsibility, peace, treatment of workers, democratic rights, and human rights.’ There is no mention whatsoever in Ethical Oil’s foundational documents of this corporation being used as an overseer of the Canada Revenue Agency’s rules on charities.

“I do note, however, that Ethic Oil’s Memorandum of Association, article 5, specifically states (emphasis added), ‘[t]he income and property of the Company, however derived and received, shall be applied solely towards the promotion of the objects of the Company…’,” Mr. Clark writes.

“The key word in the sentence above, Hon. Minister, is ‘solely.’ Given the scale and scope of Ethical Oil’s campaign against a few environmentalist charities, I think it is undeniable that Ethical Oil is using its resources in contravention of its objects as set out in its Memorandum of Association,” he argues.

“I urge you to use your powers as the minister responsible for the Companies Act to investigate Ethical Oil’s activities and penalize the corporation to the fullest extent of the law if you find it has violated the Act,” Mr. Clark concludes.

Meanwhile, it is hard to predict the outcome of Ethical Oil’s complaints against Tides Canada and other environmental charities.

On one hand, Prime Minister Stephen Harper would clearly like to suppress the activities of charitable organizations that do not march in lockstep with his Conservative Party’s environmental policies. On the other, many other charitable organizations with which Mr. Harper is both broadly in agreement and whose work he values are clearly in violation of the CRA’s regulations about political activities.

So on the theory the rule of law still prevails in Canada, it is hard to see how what is good for the charitable goose mustn’t also be good for the charitable gander, an outcome with which the prime minister may be uncomfortable.

One of the most glaring examples, as is well known, is the Vancouver-based market-fundamentalist propaganda organization known as the Fraser Institute, which continues to be permitted to operate as a charity despite blatantly and consistently ignoring the CRA’s limits on political activities.

In January 2012, Mr. Clark wrote Ms. Shea arguing that the Fraser Institute engages in excessive political activities and requesting that the CRA investigate its activities and revoke its charitable status.

Ms. Shea responded with a letter that ran to two pages, but contained remarkably little information. She did note that “the confidentiality provisions of the Income Tax Act prevent me from discussing the tax affairs of any particular organization without written consent from an authorized representative of that organization.”

Ms. Shea did observe in her letter to Mr. Clark that “a charity’s political activities must be reported on its annual form T3010-1, Registered Charity Information Return.”

As Mr. Clark noted in an Alberta Federation of Labour submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance and Tax Incentives for Charitable Organizations on Jan. 17, 2012, each year between 2000 and 2010 the Fraser Institute responded “no” to the CRA’s question “Did the charity carry on any political activities during the fiscal period?”

As the AFL submission observed: “Any rookie observer of Canadian politics knows this is nonsense: the Fraser Institute is actively involved in the Canadian political landscape. Any reporting or suggestion otherwise is a sham.”

Ms. Shea also told Mr. Clark that “a charity whose object includes the advancement of education must take care not to disregard the boundary between education and propaganda. To be considered charitable, an educational activity must be reasonably objective and based on a well-reasoned position, that is, a position based on factual information analyzed methodically, objectively, fully, and fairly. In addition, a well-reasoned position should present serious arguments and relevant facts to the contrary.”

The flawed approach to “research” taken by the Fraser Institute is well known and aptly deconstructed by Saskatoon health policy consultant Stephen Lewis, who wrote in 2011 that the organization’s research in his field was “fatally flawed,” based on a methodology that is “essentially absurd,” uses respondents’ hunches and opinions rather than real data, relies on unrepresentative samples of self-interested respondents and produces only “sortafacts” that support its market-fundamentalist ideological position.

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

Since Canada remains a country of laws, surely we can assume that Mr. Levant’s Ethical Oil Institute will receive a similar response from Ms. Shea.

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