Archive for October, 2012

Fair or not, Opposition targets Katz donation(s) as symbol of Tory sleaze

Caesar repudiates Pompeia: “You’re outta here!” Below: Danielle Smith and Alison Redford.

The Wildrose Party strategy for defeating the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Alison Redford when the next election rolls around in 2016 is a variation of the right-wing party’s plan when it came close to winning earlier this year: paint the PCs as corrupt and themselves as the only viable uncorrupted alternative.

As a result, we can expect to see a lot more implications and inferences in the Legislature’s Question Period like the attack Monday by Opposition Leader Danielle Smith on Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz’s ability to perform his duties on the board of the Alberta Investment Management Co., which invests the province’s public service pension funds and other huge pools of money.

Ms. Smith argued in the Legislature Monday afternoon that Albertans are “uncomfortable” with what the Edmonton Journal termed in its report of her questions as “some potential conflicts” between Mr. Katz’s role as a billionaire business executive who wants taxpayers to help him build a hockey arena in Edmonton and as a trustee of a large publicly owned fund-management company.

But when one actually listens to what Ms. Smith had to say, she’s not really talking about potential conflicts very much at all. Rather, between the lines, she is reminding voters about a recently reported political donation cheque to Premier Redford’s PC Party signed by Mr. Katz that for many Albertans does not pass the ethical sniff test.

“Let me connect some dots,” the Wildrose Leader told the Legislature. “Given that a quarter of the government’s election donations are said to be from a single source, and given that source wants $100 million from the government for a hockey arena, and he sits on the board of a Crown corporation that invests $70 billion of assets owned by Albertans, doesn’t anyone in this government have a problem with that?”

The Alberta NDP followed a similar strategy, with Leader Brian Mason suggesting Mr. Katz’s influence had allowed him to successfully lobby for higher fees for pharmacists who give injections – even though neither Mr. Katz nor his Rexall drugstores company employ any lobbyists.

The known facts about Mr. Katz’s political cheque are as follows: In the closing hours of the 2012 election campaign, the Edmonton drug store and hockey billionaire somehow got several of his business colleagues and relations to each agree to donate up to the maximum allowable $30,000 to Ms. Redford’s PC party, which at that point looked as if it was about to lose to the Wildrose Party.

According to the PC Party, Mr. Katz, his company, three family members and executives with his company, the Katz Group, gave donations of $25,000 or $30,000 that added up to $300,000. But according to a report in the Globe and Mail, Mr. Katz took the entire sum over the PCs on a single cheque, and what’s more, the total was $430,000.

The PC Party’s Executive Director, Kelley Charlebois, told the Journal last week that the party often receives multiple donations on a single cheque.

But if the donation was made on single cheque, regardless of the sum, the optics are terrible. It surely didn’t sound to most Albertans as if the deal, however it went down, met either the letter or the spirit of a law limiting political donations to $30,000.

Moreover, it was also true, as Ms. Smith stated, that Mr. Katz was hoping to have Alberta taxpayers contribute to a swoopy new half-a-billion-dollar hockey arena in a nice part of Edmonton for his currently locked-out professional hockey club, the Edmonton Oilers.

But the argument that this can all be tied together in a way that would affect the way Mr. Katz does his job on the AIMCo board seems more tenuous. But that’s not Ms. Smith’s real point, anyhow.

Ms. Smith’s goal was to tie the government in the public’s mind to the idea of unsavoury deals among government insiders. It’s hard to know for sure, but I suspect she has largely succeeded. Her party’s strategy will continue to be to call the government corrupt until the idea gels and sets in the public consciousness.

For that reason, we are going to hear many suggestions like this over the next few months and years and Finance Minister Doug Horner’s huffing about how ridiculous and unfair it is, or his suggestions Mr. Katz might have grounds for a defamation suit, won’t make much difference at all.

This is a serious problem for the Redford Government because if it hopes to survive once again, its goal during this term of office must be to come up with a strategy for appearing to have dealt with the perceptions that almost led to its demise at the polls last April.

That was the point of the public service whistleblower legislation introduced yesterday: to put to sleep the lingering sense something is ethically wrong with the way the Alberta PCs do business.

And that was most certainly the point of the surprise announcement late yesterday that Elections Alberta would launch a formal investigation of the legality of the Katz crowd’s donation(s). Given the current state of the law governing Elections Alberta’s powers, however, it’s not at all clear if the conclusions of that inquiry will ever be made public.

The opposition parties, of course, will do everything they can to keep the perception in the front of the public’s mind.

Alas for the Redford Tories, and for Mr. Katz, this situation is rather like the proverbial case of Caesar’s wife: She had to be above suspicion, and so does he.

Pretty obviously, the best thing for the Redford Government from a political perspective would be for Mr. Katz to quietly step aside from his AIMCo role until the other matter has been settled … or forgotten.

That kind of climb-down would be a hard sell for the Tories, however, as it’s not a way they’ve ever had behave before in this province, where hitherto they could do whatever they pleased and be re-elected with metronomic regularity.

Whatever her personal religious convictions may be, the Opposition leader is now doubt less praying this particular old Tory habit dies hard.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Undemocratic impulses? Who ya gonna call? Not Jimmy Carter!

When it comes to ensuring the integrity of foreign elections, take it from Alberta Diary, Jimmy Carter is outstanding in the field. Below: Alberta MP Linda Duncan and Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovich.

By the sound of it, the international observers of Sunday’s Ukrainian parliamentary elections did manage to catch the government of President Viktor F. Yanukovich getting up to some undemocratic naughtiness.

Their report, which the international media yesterday described as scathing, accused Mr. Yanukovich’s Party of Regions of unfairly benefiting from excessive money from supporters, abuse of government resources to make it look good and heavily biased media coverage in its favour.

So it comes as no surprise that on the same day the party was claiming to have won the election and hung onto its parliamentary majority.

Last week during the lead-up to the Ukrainian vote, I have to tell you I was worried our Canadian observers of that vote wouldn’t manage to notice a thing – not because they weren’t fine people, but because they didn’t have the right expertise.

At least, I was concerned that if they were all like Linda Duncan – the only one of the 500 or so Canadian observers that I happen to know – we might not be sending the right sort people to ensure the former Soviet Republic’s national elections were open and fair.

After all, the Member of Parliament for Edmonton Strathcona, the sole New Democrat MP elected in Alberta in the past two federal elections, is a thoroughly honorable and upright person who won and kept her seat in the face of this province’s usual Tory onslaught solely by dint of hard constituency work and her famously energetic style of campaigning.

Before becoming a successful politician, Ms. Duncan had a reputation as a smart lawyer – which certainly puts her in a good position to understand how dire the implications are when she worries about Ukraine, where, as she put it in a news release before departing for the city of Kyiv on Oct. 25, even before the election campaign there had been “backsliding of democracy and challenges with erosion of law.”

Indeed, as Director of the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Friendship Group, Ms. Duncan recently contributed to a report on the growing democratic deficit in Ukraine, a copy of which may be read here.

My worry was simply this: the kind of people who steal elections are by definition sneaks – sort of like computer hackers. Indeed, nowadays a lot of them are computer hackers. They are never people like Linda Duncan, who is honest, upright and prepared to work hard to win. So, I wondered, had we sent exactly the wrong kind of people to solve the problem in Ukraine?

Indeed, wouldn’t an honest politician and an upright lawyer be the easiest kind of person to fool when you send out your sneaks and electoral cat burglars, your robo-callers and push-pollsters, your ballot-box stuffers and vote suppressers? They might not even notice and end up endorsing an election result that in fact was pretty hinky!

I’ve thought for years this is why the Americans are forever asking Jimmy Carter, the former peanut farmer and Democratic president defeated after one term by Ronald Reagan, to make sure foreign elections are clean at the same time as they’re assigning CIA operatives to corrupt the same vote Mr. Carter is checking up on.

The CIA steals the election and laughs up its collective sleeve back at HQ in Langley, Va., while Mr. Carter endorses the result and makes us believe it because he believes it so sincerely himself.

Well, that’s just me wearing my tinfoil hat, probably. And anyway, Mr. Carter doesn’t seem to have made it to Ukraine for Sunday’s election. But still, on the theory that it takes a thief to catch a thief, I say we have many people in Canada who are highly qualified to track down electoral chicanery – leastways if we could only identify who they all are.

I mean, just for starters, the whole Conservative Party of Canada campaign team is not exactly unfamiliar with the concepts of excessive money from supporters, misuse of public resources to make the government look good and heavily biased media coverage in its favour!

And what about the anonymous person who leaked that 22,000-name Alberta Progressive Conservative Party membership list to Environics back in October 2011, so that Environics could do an interesting poll of Tory party members’ leadership voting intentions?

Or what about the robo-callers? Remember them? They were the nice young people who phoned you up if you happened to be a Liberal voter in certain closely fought Ontario ridings the night before the May 2011 federal election, the one in which Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally got his coveted majority, and advised you that your polling station had been moved to a vacant lot between a pawn shop and a tattoo parlour in a part of town where there weren’t many streetlights.

Last we heard, both Elections Canada and the police were looking into those cases, but don’t expect any results any time soon, and anyway, the courts are now filling up with Conservative appointments, thank you very much, just in case there are ever any actual charges or legal challenges.

But if we could just find one of the people who came up with that scheme – a seemingly impossible task, alas – you’d think they’d be ideal at ferreting out the same sort of thing if Ukrainian telephone call-display units start showing the Moscow area code on calls from extremely rude people claiming to be from the Ukrainian equivalent of the Liberals or the NDP. (Isn’t Ukraine the place where they had an Orange Revolution?)

And what if someone prorogues the Ukrainian Parliament to prevent an expression of the democratic will of the people? Wouldn’t it be better to have Prime Minister Harper or retiring Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty there to spot the signs of incipient undemocratic impulses? Or at least one of their advisors?

Or what if Mr. Yanukovich or one of his henchpersons decides to pass an omnibus budget bill with about 300 provisions that have nothing to do with the budget, or signs a 31-year surrender of national sovereignty with the Russians in the form of secret treaty than no Ukrainian gets to debate before it’s sealed and delivered. Call it, say, the Russia-Ukraine Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement.

Once again, wouldn’t someone from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s office be better qualified for the observer’s job than, say, Ms. Duncan?

You probably get where I’m heading with this by now. After all, there’s more than a little evidence there’s been some backsliding of democracy right here in Canada, not to mention some challenges with erosion of law.

But, given what was noticed over there in Ukraine, maybe some of the 500 Canadians Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent off with a pat on the back did have the right kind of know-how.

What I want to know is, the next time we have an election here in Canada, who are we gonna call? And please don’t say Jimmy Carter!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

There is a God: Merit Contractors, advocates of Bill C-377, would be caught in its web

Tory MP wonders about Bill C-377: “Is anybody really interested in breaching Sally the Receptionist’s privacy because she earns 40k answering the phones at the Union Hiring Hall?” Below: Stephen Kushner.

Surely it is one of life’s little ironies that among the groups certain to be caught in the web of Bill C-377, the federal private member’s “transparency” bill mischievously designed to cripple unions with onerous reporting requirements, would be the anti-union Edmonton-based Merit Contractors Association.

Earlier this year, the Merit Contractors and their counterparts in other provinces set up a website and launched a national campaign complete with news releases and canned newspaper op-ed pieces to support Bill C-377.

But apparently they failed to notice, in the words of a report to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance prepared by the Alberta Federation of Labour, that the funds Merit established for the benefit of its own member companies’ employees would be captured under the provisions of C-377.

This isn’t how campaigns to harass unions are supposed to end up, is it? If nothing else, this suggests there is a wise and provident God concerned with cosmic justice.

This realization may be why expressions of consternation are now being heard within Conservative Party of Canada circles about this amateurish and unconstitutional piece of legislation.

As has been argued here before, about the only things that are truly transparent about this proposed Cotton-Belt-style law brought forward by social-conservative British Columbia MP Russ Hiebert are its goal of burdening unions with reporting provisions so onerous and expensive they can no longer do their jobs, and the opportunity for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to make bogus suggestions the NDP Opposition is too close to “Big Labour.”

The Canadian Bar Association’s Privacy and Access Law Section has compiled a long list of problems with Bill C-377, including violations of provincial privacy laws, huge administrative expenses for taxpayers and clear examples of violations of Canadians’ constitutional rights. The authors of the CBA’s letter note that since the financial activities Canadian unions are already required by law to be transparent to their members, “as a threshold statement, it is unclear what issue or perceived problem the bill is intended to address.”

Reporting requirements under Bill C-377 would be so intensive (notwithstanding Mr. Hiebert’s ludicrous claim to the contrary) that unions would be required to spend essentially all their time reporting every expense over $5,000, which would then have to be vetted and published on the Canada Revenue Agency’s website at significant public expense.

However, for some reason – perhaps because he failed to understand the full implications of his own bill despite his training as a lawyer – Mr. Hiebert has omitted to mention in the House of Commons or in public that his bill would require far more groups than just “trade unions” to disclose their finances, activities and the political views of their employees and officials.

This, in turn, has recently led some Conservative stalwarts to holler just hold it a minute. In a recent blog, Edmonton-St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber sensibly asks of the $5,000 reporting limit, “Is anybody really interested in breaching Sally the Receptionist’s privacy because she earns 40k answering the phones at the Union Hiring Hall?”

“Many other types of privacy are invariably going to be breached if this legislation proceeds unabated,” Mr. Rathgeber went on. “If one of the building trades spends $10,000 rehabilitating a carpenter who fell off scaffolding, suddenly the injured worker’s name, rehabilitation hospital and costs become a matter of public record. If a union member and his spouse divorce and if the member’s pension credits are to be divided as part of a matrimonial property settlement, the fact that the union pension administrator writes a check to the non-member over $5,000 would suddenly become disclosed, with the beneficiary’s name, on a public website. Where is the public interest in any of this disclosure?”

Despite being painted in the media as a maverick, it is said here Mr. Rathgeber’s blog commentary tends to provide useful insights into what Conservative top dogs are thinking. So we may be getting to the heart of the matter when he worries Bill C-377’s faulty premise that the tax-deductability of union dues creates a public interest in knowing what is done with them “would have to be more consistently applied.”

“As a lawyer, my law society fees are tax deductible,” he explains. “Does that mean that the public has a right to know what the Law Society pays its staff?” Under the logic of C-377, it is said here, the answer to Mr. Rathgeber’s question is bound to be yes.

Mr. Rathgeber therefore sensibly indicates he will not be voting for Bill C-377 – which as a private member’s bill, he cannot be compelled by his party’s whips to do. One suspects a lot of other Conservative MPs will be doing the same.

Nevertheless, Bill C-377 could still pass. Which brings us back to the Merit Contractors.

In case they missed it, their organization would be captured by C-377 because of the involvement of some Merit companies with the Christian Labour Association of Canada and other employee groups entitled to bargain collectively, as well as some of its employee group benefit programs that contain money from those groups.

As the AFL pointed out in its brief, this includes a benefit plan run by Mercon Benefit Services, the Merit Contractors’ “comprehensive and affordable medical, dental and insurance program,” whose sole director is Merit President Stephen Kushner.

This in turn means that under C-377, if it were passed by Parliament, Merit would be obligated to report on the Canada Revenue Agency’s new and improved (and extremely expensive) website the details of Mr. Kushner’s “gross salary, stipends, periodic payments, benefits (including pension obligations), vehicles, bonuses, gifts, service credits, lump sum payments, other forms of remuneration and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, any other consideration provided, and a record of the percentage of time dedicated to political activities and lobbying activities.”

Like any sensible person I oppose the passage of Bill C-377. But if it does become the law, I look forward to reading this private information about Mr. Kushner, that enthusiastic supporter of the bill, posted alongside the much shorter and more modest, though equally unconstitutional, section about me!

And if he objects, someone is sure to wonder: “Why are the Merit Contractors afraid of the light?”

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Stephen Carter addresses B.C. Liberals; apparently nothing more

Your blogger, looking rather stout and unkempt, his faded shirt stained with crow gravy, with political strategist Stephen Carter, who popped up in British Columbia yesterday at a meting of B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s foundering conservative Liberals. Nothing more. Below: Ms. Clark

Alberta-based political strategist Stephen Carter continues to insist that British Columbia Premier Christie Clark has not hired him to turn around her foundering campaign against the province’s New Democrats. Alberta Diary has no choice but to take him at his word and eat some crow.

As we speculated back on Sept. 28, with Ms. Clark, “a conservative Liberal, desperately low in the polls, facing an election in less than eight months, having just been forced to fire her chief of staff for unspecified naughtiness, who would want to bet against Carter showing up in Victoria with a smile on his face and a nice apartment overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca?” Absolutely not, says Mr. Carter now.

The CBC’s report of Mr. Carter’s remarks to a B.C. Liberal pep rally in the ski resort of Whistler, described by some participants as a campaign presentation, can be read here. He told reporters that British Columbians really want to like Ms. Clark. “I think right now they want to like her, they just don’t know what it is she’s in government for. I think she just needs to get back to who she is foundationally and people will remember why they liked her.”

Sources in LaLa Land, meanwhile, insist Mr. Carter has met with Premier Clark’s campaign management team at least twice, although the topic of those conversations can only be speculated upon, as of course they will.

As is well known, Mr. Carter is an avid Twitterer who served ably as Premier Alison Redford’s leadership and electoral campaign manager, and a little less ably as her chief of staff. He also played a similar role in the campaign of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, although there are former Nenshi supporters who dispute the claim Mr. Carter’s role was quite as pivotal as it is now said to have been.

In all three cases – that is, Ms. Redford’s leadership campaign against front-runner Gary Mar and others, her election campaign against front-runner Danielle Smith and her Wildrose Party and Mr. Nenshi’s campaign against front-runner Ric McIver and others – Mr. Carter has been credited by many observers with having devised the winning come-from-behind strategies.

Since well behind B.C. Opposition Leader Adrian Dix is precisely where Ms. Clark finds herself and her party at this juncture, Mr. Carter must have seemed like a good fit for the B.C. Liberals’ campaign for the election they’re locked into fighting on May 14, 2013 – and perhaps that explains the reported sightings with Ms. Clark’s campaign management team.

Even without Mr. Carter’s help, the B.C. Liberals are going to have to come up with something better than dealing with Ms. Clark’s faltering likeability index. If they pay attention to Mr. Carter’s past campaigns, one of those better things could be an unexpected poll that casts their leader in a different and much more complimentary light than everyone had thought was shining on her.

This often seemed to happen when Mr. Carter was around, although perhaps that was just because he’s just lucky, which is certainly what he would like you to think.

Days before the second Alberta Progressive Conservative Party leadership vote in early October 2011, Ms. Redford’s campaign effectively used an unexpected Calgary Herald-Environics poll that put her in second-place behind Mr. Mar. This in effect created a new reality that motivated her supporters and gave her sufficient momentum to push her narrowly over the top.

The mid-September poll was controversial because it was based on a list of 22,000 card-carrying PC Party members that probably ought not to have been given to the polling company. You know, because giving it to them likely violated Alberta’s privacy laws.

The next day, Conservative Party President Bill Smith issued a stinging rebuke on the party’s website of whoever allowed the “unauthorized and inappropriate use” of the party membership list.

However, no one but the people involved really knows who gave the list to the Calgary Herald to pass on to Environics, and the Progressive Conservative Party lost interest in pulling on that particular thread the instant Ms. Redford became the leader.

“It’s the miracle on the prairies. Nobody would have picked her,” PC party president Bill Smith later said diplomatically of Ms. Redford’s victory. He has since moved on.

Similarly, back in the fall 2010, Mr. Nenshi’s campaign gained sudden momentum and credibility from an unexpected September Calgary Herald poll that put the mayoral candidate in third place.

Indeed, third place is where Mr. Carter likes his candidates to vault from – which could be a problem in B.C. since the implosion not so long ago of the Wildrose-style B.C. Conservative Party.

So if an unexpected B.C. poll suddenly puts Ms. Clark in a more credible position at just the right moment before the election date, it would be fair to conclude at least that the B.C. Liberals have been paying attention to Mr. Carter’s strategies.

And whomever is at the helm of Ms. Clark’s campaign, British Columbians should brace themselves for residential telephones ringing off their hooks with a barrage of automated robocall push polls designed to drive them away from the NDP.

NOTE: This post has been rewritten significantly to reflect Stephen Carter’s insistence he is not working for Christy Clark’s campaign.

 

Welcome to Alberta’s Wild West, where the market sets the value of your vote

Drug store billionaire Daryl Katz, right, discusses his plans for a new Edmonton hockey arena with a representative of the Alberta government. Since Wild West hockey barons may not appear exactly as illustrated, a photo of the real Mr. Katz is shown below. (CBC Photo, circa 2008.)

Look, people, this here is the Wild West. If a billionaire wants to buy an election, why the heck shouldn’t he? Isn’t that what the Alberta Advantage is supposed to be all about?

Seriously, folks, that’s just the way we do things out here in Wild Rose Country, and if you don’t like it you should just go back to Ontario and freeze in the dark in your nuclear-powered basement!

If you’re one of those naïve ninnies who thinks your input ought to be considered come election time, well, fuggedaboudit! This is Alberta! You should have been a billionaire too, and it’s nobody’s fault but your own if you’re not.

Now, mind you, there is such a thing as too much democracy, even here in Alberta, and from time to time things do go wrong with our election financing rules. For example, what happens when even our billionaires can’t agree on which right-wing horse to back?

That seems to be exactly what happened in the April 2012 provincial election, the financing of which now has the entire province, not to mention the rest of the country, in a swivet in the wake of the release of our political parties’ fund-raising totals by Elections Alberta earlier this week.

The facts of the case are pretty simple, by the sound of it. In the last days of the 2012 election campaign, Edmonton drug store billionaire Daryl Katz somehow got all of his friends and relations to each agree to donate up to the maximum allowable $30,000 to Premier Alison Redford’s Progressive Conservative party, which at that point looked like it was about to lose the vote to the far-right Wildrose Party led by former Fraser Institute apparatchik Danielle Smith.

This all added up to $430,000. Strictly for convenience sake, I am sure, plus of course to save on bank charges for separate cheques, the dough was shipped over to PC HQ on a single cheque and later divided up for record-keeping purposes among the actual donors. Really.

By mere coincidence, Mr. Katz was hoping at about the same time to have Alberta taxpayers build him a swoopy new half-a-billion-dollar hockey arena in a nice part of Edmonton for his currently locked-out unionized professional hockey club, the Edmonton Oilers. Those negotiations with the City of Edmonton have hit a momentary roadblock, but will doubtless resume soon.

Anyway, if this sounds to you a lot like the political donations now being investigated so vigorously by the authorities in Montreal, you must be the kind of miserable crybaby who goes to protest marches, wears an orange hat, has a lifetime membership in the Friends of Medicare and uses a picture of Jack Layton for a screensaver on your computer.

Naturally, this being Alberta, things are completely different here – and not just because we don’t speak French. The biggest difference, of course, is that huge political donations are completely legal and standard operating procedure here in Alberta, so there’s absolutely no point having an inquiry like the one in Quebec.

Instead, Elections Alberta will quietly investigate the donation by Mr. Katz and all of his friends and relations. Since the donations are entirely legal except for some incorrect paperwork, the probe will find that absolutely nothing has been done wrong. The results of the investigation, unfortunately, will have to remain a secret, because that’s the way we do things here in Alberta and the law says we can.

Remember, there’s only one kind of election spending that we tightly control in this province and that’s third-party advertising, even if all it does is criticize a government policy during an election campaign without actually suggesting you vote for anyone else in particular.

The reason? Well, advertising like that might be purchased by people like the coalition of unions that paid for those notorious “No Plan” advertisements back in 2007 that got Ed Stelmach off to such a shaky start as premier the next year. Who knows, without a law like this, environmentalists, pipeline haters, world peace advocates and Esperanto speakers might do the same thing? None of them are the kind of people who are likely to urge you to support the kind of right-wing parties we like here in Alberta and therefore none of them are the kinds of people who ought to be able to speak their minds here in the New West.

Now, it is interesting and slightly ironic that the people screaming the loudest about the donation by Mr. Katz and all his friends and relations are in the Wildrose Party, which itself has not exactly suffered because of Alberta’s current election financing rules, loosy-goosey though they may be.

Indeed, Ms. Smith’s Wildrosers raised considerably more from their billionaires (as well as quite a few non-billionaires, of course) than did Ms. Redford’s Tories from theirs – a total of $3.1 million during the campaign period, compared with the PCs’ $1.6 million, according to Elections Alberta.

Now, one can feel a certain sympathy with the Wildrose Party, which the polls said was leading strongly until the final 72 hours or so of the campaign, a fact that must leave them feeling “we was robbed,” even if their own erupting bozos contributed significantly to their loss in the polling booths.

But their leader’s protests are pretty rich, as it were, given whom they represent, and who pays their freight. It seems pretty likely that they’re no more inclined to legislate the kind of election financing controls that Alberta really needs than are Ms. Redford’s PCs.

If they say they are, and even if they sincerely mean it just now, readers should remember that opposition parties don’t always deliver on such pledges once they observe the advantages of the status quo from the vantage of power. Example: the independent Parliamentary budget officer promised in 2006 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Neo-Liberal Party of Canada, then still in opposition.

It is said here that if all the billionaires’ donations in Alberta had gone to one right-wing party or the other (either Ms. Redford’s Tories or Ms. Smith’s Wildrose) and if the NDP were the only party protesting, this story wouldn’t even rate five column inches of news coverage in this province.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

None dare call it treason: Jeffrey Delisle’s secret sale and Stephen Harper’s secret treaty

Harper in China: Not likely to be an opera any time soon. Below: Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley, where is our Smiley now that we really need him? Sub-Lieut. Jeffrey Delisle, as himself; Sir John Harington.

Is it only me that sees a certain irony in the fact a naval officer who sold military secrets to the now-thoroughly-capitalist Russians for a few thousand dollars has been tossed in the slammer as a traitor by a government that would sign away our country’s sovereignty in an all-but secret treaty with the still-Communist Chinese?

It certainly shows the difference a big impact on the right people’s bottom lines can have on how the world sees you and your deeds!

As Sir John Harington, the first Queen Elizabeth’s “saucy godson” and the inventor of the flush toilet, so famously observed: “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that Navy Sub-Lieutenant Jeffrey Delisle, who has now pleaded guilty in what was pretty obviously some kind of bargain to preserve his Canadian employer’s privacy, ought to have been permitted to sell our military secrets to the Russians. This assumes, of course, that we have any meaningful secrets from them – which given the successful history of their organs of state security, we may not.

We’ll likely never know the details of the Delisle case because it’s said to be a matter of national security too sensitive for the citizens of the nation in question to know about. Having a suspicious nature, however, I can’t shake the feeling that Sub-Lieut. Delisle was offered a deal not to protect our military secrets or even our access to our powerful neighbour’s secrets so much as to save the Navy from the public humiliation of revealing the ease with which said secrets were purloined away on a flash drive.

Sub-Lieut. Delisle certainly didn’t make much money for the high risks he took, if media reports are to be believed – which, of course, in matters of state security, they may not necessarily be. According to the CBC, he got a $50,000 down payment and about $3,000 a month from the Russians for his troubles.

Meanwhile, an awful lot more money is likely to be made by folks who are not a low-ranking naval officers if the Harper government gets away with its plan to sign a treaty that all but hands over our national sovereignty and control over our natural resources to the Communist Chinese.

This scheme that appears to be designed to grease the skids of deals like the plan by state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. to take over of Calgary-based Nexen Inc. for $15 billion, something Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s friends and patrons in the oil and pipeline industries would very much like to see happen, whether or not most Canadians think it’s a good idea. (They don’t.)

Of course, when you’re talking about $15-billion, instead of $50,000, a lot of well-connected backs can get scratched, and so a lot of people are willing to stand up and tell you this idea’s just the ticket, even if a few environmentalists, social democrats, greens, Canadian nationalists and other marginalized voices are screaming from the peanut gallery that this may not exactly be in the country’s interests.

“By Nov. 1 three of China’s national oil companies will have more power to shape Canada’s energy markets as well as challenge the politics of this country than Canadians themselves,” Calgary writer Andrew Nikoforuk wrote in an excellent piece in The Tyee. “And you can thank Prime Minister Stephen Harper for this economic treason.”

“Given that oil consumption in the United States is steadily dropping and that the incompetent petro-state of Alberta has flooded the market with bitumen due to bad planning, low royalties and sheer stupidity, Harper is frantically trying to save his Tory cohorts and their special petroleum interests by peddling bitumen to Asian refiners at any cost,” Mr. Nikoforuk writes. “He’s prepared to sell out Canada in the process.”

How so? Well, the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act, which as Mr. Nikoforuk notes was tabled in another country (Russia, ironically) without so much as a press release undermines Canadian democracy and gives corrupt state-owned Chinese companies more rights than Canadian citizens.

Or, as international arbitration expert Gus Van Harten wrote in his now-famous letter to Prime Minister Harper, reprinted by the Tyee: “This treaty will have major implications for core elements of Canadian legislative and judicial sovereignty. It will tie the hands of all levels and branches of government in Canada in relation to any Chinese-owned asset in ways that many governments in Canada, I suspect, have not considered closely. The implications will be legally irreversible by any Canadian court or other decision-maker for at least 31 years.”

So, for example, if a British Columbia premier were to try to block or even delay Mr. Harper’s beloved bitumen hose to the West Coast, the Chinese could sue in a kangaroo court designed to guarantee a favourable result for the petro-state and the steamroller treatment for any Canadian foolish enough to try to stand in the way.

Certainly, anyone who opposes these deals cannot expect to be treated kindly by Mr. Harper’s acolytes. Consider the snarling aside about the Canadian Security Intelligence Service for daring to warn the nation about the security implications of the deal in a rambling attack on the Nexen sale’s foes by Barry Cooper, one of several neoconservative talking heads associated with the University of Calgary. “CSIS, Canada’s counter-spy bureaucracy, trying to prove it is still useful, muttered imprecations about Chinese spies.” (Emphasis added.)

Presumably Prof. Cooper thinks CSIS would do better chasing small fry like Sub-Lieut. Delisle. Obviously a moral relativist, he dismisses Canadians who oppose the deal on the basis of China’s human rights record on the bizarre grounds that “the Chinese have their own values.”

Getting back to the problem with Mr. Harper’s secret treaty for Canadians, Nikoforuk concludes: “The deal does not require provincial consent. It comes without any risk-benefit analysis. And it can be ratified into law without parliamentary debate. The more Harper wants to do business with China, the more he acts like another tank in Tiananmen Square. Barring a revolt within Harper’s own party, the trade deal automatically becomes law on Nov. 1.”

So ask yourself, short term or long term, which deal is likely to do more harm to Canada’s interests?

Sub-Lieut. Delisle’s betrayal of the details of a few submarine-hunting secrets or whatever it was he handed over, the broad strokes if not the details of which the Russian military certainly knew anyway, or the massive surrender of Canadian sovereignty and democracy being railroaded through by the Harper neoconservatives?

Perhaps we should start calling Mr. Harper’s party neocommunists, since they operate so much like the still-nominally Communist Chinese government they are so anxious to do business with.

I can’t say I’m really surprised that the Conservative Party seems willing to sell out the country, but I am astonished by their choice of buyer. Have they received assurances from our next-door neighbor’s petro-bosses that the deal is OK as long as the right nests are feathered? It’s hard to imagine that the hard-nosed strategists in Washington D.C. wouldn’t have something uncomplimentary to say about this.

One lesson is clear from all this, at any rate. If you’re pondering selling someone’s national security assets to pay off your Visa bill and you want to get away with it, don’t just think big, think huge!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Despite plans to reopen next week, ripples from XL Foods closing may spread

Everything from ranches to feedlots to auction operations not quite like this one could be affected by a financial disaster at Nilsson Brothers Inc., the owner of XL Foods in Brooks.

With reports yesterday the XL Foods meatpacking plant in Brooks is likely to reopen in a week, media attention is bound to shift back to the schedule on which full production will resume under whatever management team now gets to run the slaughterhouse.

But potential fallout from the E. coli crisis at XL Foods and the surprise sale of the company to a giant Brazilian meatpacking corporation could turn out to be more severe for farmers, workers and the provincial economy than just a month-long shutdown of beef processing at Canada’s second-largest meatpacker would suggest, and problems won’t necessarily be avoided by the plant’s acquisition by a new owner.

If Nilsson Brothers Inc., the privately owned corporate parent of XL Foods, continues to be heavily invested in agricultural land, ranching operations, feedlots and auction houses, and if it also remains financially on the hook for the disaster in Brooks, serious implications could spread far and wide through the rural Alberta economy.

The problem is, we can’t really know because as privately owned companies, XL Foods and Nilsson Brothers are able to make decisions in almost total secrecy based on knowledge only available to a small circle of insiders – even though both provincial and federal taxpayers have been putting money into their operations.

Many Alberta stakeholders – including most of our politicians, in all likelihood – are just passengers on this ocean liner and those white things we see in the mist may or may not be icebergs. Meanwhile, we are advised only to not be alarmed and to cook our beef thoroughly.

The announcement last week by the U.S. subsidiary of JBS SA of Sao Paulo, Brazil, that its managers were immediately taking over running the problem-plagued XL Foods plant in Brooks and that it had an option to purchase the facility for $100 million US half in cash and half in shares, raises significant questions to which Albertans deserve answers.

Did Nilsson Brothers clear their unexpected plan to sell off the Brooks packing plant to JBS USA with the people and businesses to whom they owe financial obligations?

As has been said in this space before, it seems highly improbable Nilsson Brothers made its multi-million-dollar investments in XL Foods without silent business partners to backstop the deal. If the Nilssons did not clear their plan with their creditors and if they have not cut the links between XL and their other holdings, it is hard to imagine how their company can survive.

If it doesn’t, what happens to its other operations?

In other words, this could have a much bigger impact on the Alberta cattle trade than the actual packinghouse problems in Brooks because the Nilssons are so horizontally extended into feedlots, ranches, auction services and cattle financing from their modest headquarters on St. Albert Trail in Edmonton.

JBS, as readers will recall, stated unequivocally in its news release announcing the manage-to-purchase scheme that there is no way it will be responsible for any of XL Foods liabilities, debts or penalties.

Moreover, how to we explain the 25-per-cent interest rate given to XL Foods by HSBC Bank Canada and reported by the Edmonton Journal in a good story on this situation published on Oct. 18?

To buy the Brooks plant, according to the Journal, “a consortium of lenders headed by HSBC Bank Canada gave XL Foods a $225-million line of credit at an interest rate of 25 per cent. In addition, the Nilsson brothers used their 75,000-head feedlot operation and other lands near Brooks as collateral on an $18-million mortgage from Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. and a $20-million loan from the Bank of Nova Scotia, the latter at a rate of prime plus 10 percentage points.”

On its face, the high interest rate suggests the bank believes the company’s position was shaky from the get-go. If that is so, we have to assume the bankers’ consortium protected itself from circumstances like those that have now unfolded. Will the lenders try to take over these assets? You have to admit, this would hardly be atypical behaviour for bankers. If so, what will they do with them? What will happen to unsecured creditors?

Count on it that JBS is already negotiating with XL Foods’ secured creditors to find out how little the Brazilian company can pay for its new Alberta assets. That means that many of the numbers that have been reported may not turn out to be anything at all like the final details of the deal, and that deal may not be very favourable to the Nilssons.

Well, you may say, this is just a problem for a bunch of businessmen, boring members of the 1 per cent. But not really. Albertans and other Canadians have a stake in XL Foods in the sense both federal and provincial taxpayers have been putting grant money into its operations.

While the Nilssons were using our money to improve their massive facility in Brooks – the one that now appears likely to end up in Brazilian hands – they were closing two plants in Calgary, another in Moose Jaw and yet another in the United States.

No doubt taxpayers will have to pay for the fallout from those closings too, at least the ones in Canada.

Nothing unusual about this, of course. There has been a parade over the years of fast guns in the Alberta meat-packing industry, helped out by taxpayers and sadly unsuccessful in a difficult business. Who can forget what Peter Pocklington was doing when he wasn’t making Edmonton hockey fans unhappy?

When they mess up, as businesses do with regularity, taxpayers often get to pick up the pieces.

So the most important question, it would seem to me, is this: What are we getting for our investment?

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Tweetergate? Meatergate? For heaven’s sake, stop her before she Tweets again!

Alberta’s Wildrose Opposition Leader Danielle Smith Tweeting “let them eat steaks” over the worldwide web. Injudicious Alberta politicians may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: The offending Tweet; the real Ms. Smith.

Alberta Opposition Leader Memo to Self: Whatever was I thinking?

Whoever does Wildrose Party Leader Danielle “Marie Antoinette” Smith’s Tweeting for her – and one can’t really shake the sinking feeling that it might be Ms. Smith herself – needs to memorize a new adage for the online era: Tweet in haste, repent at leisure.

Well, maybe leisure isn’t exactly the way to describe Ms. Smith’s at times panicky, at times cranky, always voluble responses to Tweetergate, or maybe that should be Meatergate, her scandalizing if not quite scandalous suggestion via Twitter on Sunday that the potentially E. coli-riddled meat XL Foods is dumping by the truckload in a Brooks landfill ought to be given instead to the hungry.

“We all know thorough cooking kills E. coli,” Ms. Smith Twittered innocently in that first blush of success that comes with the thought of a terrific riposte that really ought to set Premier Alison Redford’s Tories back on their heels. “What a waste!”

To put that another way: The peasants are rioting because they have no rib eye? Let them eat tainted chuck steak!

Didn’t take long for the seething responses to start rolling in: “UR KIDDING, FEED TO THE HUNRGY WHY NOT FEED IT TO UR PARTY INSTEAD,” said one countercheck quarrelsome to what Ms. Smith must have thought was just a modest quip. From there, while the rest of us chuckled, it was all downhill from Ms. Smith’s perspective.

And really, who can blame her opponents, having been handed an opportunity like this one, right down there with federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s famous “death by a thousand cold cuts” crack in 2008, the last time a case of unwholesome tainted meat broke wide open in front of Canadians?

Like Mr. Ritz, Ms. Smith is a member of a far-right fringe party with a reputation for a serious lack of empathy. Of course, in the case of Mr. Ritz’s Conservative Party of Canada, the lunatic fringe is in power, which is troubling to say the least. At least Ms. Smith’s Wildrosers are still merely baying at the gates.

Maybe the trouble was that what Ms. Smith seemed to be suggesting sounded suspiciously like what XL Foods, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and all our various stripes of conservative politician wanted to do when the U.S. Customs Service discovered a problem with the steaks from Brooks: Hand them off to the dumb Canadians!

Through the day Sunday, Ms. Smith Twittered away, explaining that some of the beef being dumped had tested negative for E. coli, that cooking works really well to get rid of the stuff and that NDP Leader Brian Mason was surely being insensitive for calling her out for her insensitive Tweet.

She finally gave up yesterday, retreated to the familiar and sympathetic ground of talk radio, and issued a half-hearted apology – trying to spin the heated reaction to her glib suggestion as proof folks here in Alberta don’t trust “officials,” whomever they may be.

Well, good try, I guess. But it sure sounded like it was “Danielle Smith, c’mon down,” the Angry Birds of Twitterland were Tweeting.

The thing is, we live in a global village now, and at the centre of the village is a virtual Place de la Révolution. Even if your name isn’t Marie Antoinette, that’s not a place you want to be making a trip!

So here’s some free advice for Ms. Smith, worth what she paid for it: Just shut up before the virtual tumbrels start to roll for you!

Then again, here’s your BlackBerry. Let those Tweets fly. Go ahead and make my day!

+ + +

In other Alberta news, meanwhile, Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally got around yesterday to setting a date for the Calgary Centre by-election, so the campaigning will now begin in earnest – except for the NDP, which strangely had not planned to pick a candidate until Oct. 27. On Sunday, the NDP changed their nomination meeting date to today.

This seems likely to all but cede the bulk of the opposition vote on Nov. 26, when the by-elections are to take place in three Canadian ridings, to either Liberal candidate Harvey Locke or Green Party candidate Chris Turner.

Well, so be it. The candidate nominated by the Conservatives, former journalist and market-fundamentalist hawk Joan Crockatt, still comes to the contest with a significant edge, thanks to the inexplicable voting habits of Calgary electors.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

The Albertaliberals spawn Liberalberta … this is a joke, isn’t it?

Raj Sherman kills at Huckabay’s Comedy Club, which of course doesn’t exist. Actual Alberta comedians may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: The re-branded Liberalberta logo; the real Raj Sherman, with his real chief of staff, Jonathan Huckabay; former Alberta NDP Leader Raj Pannu; the Sherman Tank.

THE SCENE: A late fall night in Edmonton, cold. A smoky bar, a comedy club called Huckabay’s. A comedian walks on stage…

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Coff-coff!

COMEDIAN: Hi there. Heard about the Alberta Liberals’ new brand? Raj Sherman, their leader? He’s re-branding them… Ouch!

AUDIENCE: [Feet shuffling, low conversations, sounds of glasses clinking]

COMEDIAN: Cute logo, new colours …  plus he’s renaming the party the …

VOICE: Alberta Party?

COMEDIAN: … Liberalberta Party!

AUDIENCE: [Muffled laughter]

VOICE: Thought they were the Rajbertans now!

SECOND VOICE: Rajtafarians!

THIRD VOICE: We’re livin’ in Rajtopia!

FOURTH VOICE: Geeze, get the hook! This isn’t funny…

COMEDIAN: So, take the Liberalbertans … Please!

DRUMMER: Ba-BAM!

COMEDIAN: If God had wanted us to vote… He wouldn’t have given us the Albertaliberals!

DRUMMER: Ba-da-BING!

AUDIENCE: [More talking, glasses clink, sound of a plate breaking, some applause]

COMEDIAN: So, I hear Raj’s staff took him to the airport last night… His flight leaves on Thursday.

DRUMMER: Ba-BAM!

AUDIENCE: [Voices grow louder]

COMEDIAN: You know that look that people get when they’re going to vote Liberal? Neither does Raj!

DRUMMER: Bim-BAM!

VOICE: Shut up! You stink!

COMEDIAN: Hey, I think we’ve got an Liberalbertan in the crowd! Did ya hear about the Alberta Liberals’ leadership election? Two Liberals walk into a bar! You’d think one of them would have seen it!

DRUMMER: Ba-BOP!

AUDIENCE: [Groans]

COMEDIAN: Hey, a word to the wise ain’t needed. It’s the Liberalbertans who need the advice!

DRUMMER: Ba-DING!

AUDIENCE: [Scattered laughs]

COMEDIAN: So… About Raj … the only guy he listens to is his chief of staff …

AUDIENCE: [Voices grow louder, glasses clinking, a cellphone rings]

COMEDIAN: …Or maybe his chief of staff is the only guy who listens to Raj! … S’cuse me? Drummer?

DRUMMER: Huh? His chief of staff is Jonathan Huckabay. What?… Oh, sorry… Ba-BAM!

AUDIENCE: [More coughing, foot shuffling]

COMEDIAN: The Liberalbertans? Their first slogan was Raj Against the Machine!

DRUMMER: Ba-Ding-BAM!

COMEDIAN: Except it turned out some other Raj owned that one. Anyone remember Raj Pannu? Any Knee-Dippers here tonight?

AUDIENCE: [Scattered cheers]

COMEDIAN: So… they call it re-branding … Ow!

AUDIENCE: [A few laughs]

VOICE: You already said that!

COMEDIAN: It can hurt… Especially if you’re a heifer! Any heifers here tonight?

AUDIENCE: [Scattered cheers]

VOICE: MOO!

COMEDIAN: Or if you’re a Liberal! Last time Rajberta had an idea this bad it was during the election …

DRUMMER: Drrrrrrrrrrrrrr….

COMEDIAN: … When he ran!

DRUMMER: Ba-BAM!

COMEDIAN: No. Seriously… When he had a contest to name his truck!

VOICE: The Crazy Train!

COMEDIAN: I think they decided to call it the Sherman Tank…

DRUMMER: Ba-BOP!

COMEDIAN: You know they used to call Sherman tanks Ronsons? … Because they lit up easily and you couldn’t put out the flame…

VOICE: I don’t get it!

COMEDIAN: Like Raj’s hair!

DRUMMER: Ba-Bop-BAM!

AUDIENCE: [Scattered laughs, another cellphone rings]

COMEDIAN: Hey! How about that email! The one Raj sent when he was still a Progressive Conservalbertan! Who knew that was the day the Liberals would be in trouble?

DRUMMER: CLINK-CLANK!

AUDIENCE: [Glasses tinkle, more voices]

COMEDIAN: Love those cowbells… That new Liberalberta name? I think the idea’s to distract people so they don’t notice … it has the word Liberal in it.

AUDIENCE: [One or two laughs]

DRUMMER: Ba-BAM!

VOICE: This is lame! Go home!

COMEDIAN: Who said that? The manager? Oh, Hi Raj!

AUDIENCE: [Scattered laughs]

COMEDIAN: C’mon, people! It’s hard to get a laugh when the stuff you’re making fun of is already funnier than your gag-writer!

VOICE: Hey, I like the little green flag on the logo…

COMEDIAN: So does the Green Party!

DRUMMER: Ba-DING!

COMEDIAN: Thanks folks. That’s it. Gotta go. Now appearing on the pole to my right, Miss PEARL HARBOR!

VOICE: Gawd! That guy stunk. It’s about time!

COMEDIAN: That you Raj?

VOICE: No, you!

AUDIENCE: [Rising voices, glasses clink, the story dies]

Alberta Premier Alison Redford gets warm reception in union lions’ den

Alison Redford speaks to the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees’ convention in Edmonton yesterday. (AUPE photo.) Below: Ms. Redford with AUPE President Guy Smith. Is she trying to build an alliance with public service unions?

It’s tempting to say Alberta Premier Alison Redford walked boldly into the lions’ den yesterday and emerged unscathed – whether or not what she found there resembled a room full of pussycats.

There are certainly those in some corners of the labour movement who will think Premier Redford’s welcome to the annual convention of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the 80,000-member public service workers’ union that is not affiliated to the Canadian Labour Congress, was entirely too congenial.

And it’s true it’s unlikely this was a performance Opposition Leader Danielle Smith could have managed before the same crowd, her evocative first name notwithstanding.

Premier Redford brought a warm message, and in return she was received warmly by the 1,000 or more people in the hall at Edmonton’s Shaw Conference Centre. Warmly enough, indeed, that some people there might have imagined they heard purring.

But there is something subtler and more intriguing going on, methinks, as Ms. Redford now appears to want to try to maintain the informal and in some ways unlikely alliance her Progressive Conservative government built in the final days of last spring’s provincial election campaign with unionized public service workers such as civil servants, health care workers and teachers.

The view of traditionally progressive political parties and many labour leaders after last spring’s election was that public employees were naïve to be wooed by Ms. Redford into voting strategically for her PCs, and that the premier’s still-conservative party would quickly revert to form once it had its majority safely in place. As much has been said in this space.

It was just, back in those scary days when the way-out market-fundamentalist Wildrose Party was riding high in the polls, that the PCs seemed like a safe, reliable and possible refuge to a lot of good rank-and-file Alberta trade union members.

But here it is October with the first snow of the season flying – as it does almost without fail during AUPE’s annual convention – and Premier Redford is still courting union votes, and indeed seems to be cozying up to public service union leaders like AUPE President Guy Smith as well.

Hers was the first time in history a sitting Alberta premier had ever come calling at an AUPE convention, and as far as anyone can remember, any union convention. Her staff phoned up and asked if she could speak.

So this is starting to smack of a real effort to put up some bridges to the union movement, especially public sector unions – structures that are built to last.

In this regard, Ms. Redford’s charm offensive is reminiscent of the coalition departing Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty built with the union movement back when he was still pursuing a strategy that worked for him.

It was also foreshadowed by things said by some of the brighter PC party leaders back in premier Ed Stelmach’s day, including Mr. Stelmach himself, who seemed to be trying to move the party closer to the centre, notwithstanding pressure from the right by the Wildrose Party and market-fundamentalist Tory insiders like Ted Morton, the worst premier Alberta never had.

All this said, it would be a mistake to read too much into this. Ms. Redford is not a social democrat. But she does seem now committed to preserving public services in sectors of the economy traditionally served by public employees. This is a change from her privatization talk during the Conservative leadership campaign in 2011.

Ms. Redford’s short speech to AUPE yesterday – frequently punctuated by applause – was pretty much boilerplate. But it was friendly boilerplate.

“This is an opportunity for me to personally thank your members for the work they do every day across the province … with integrity, dedication and compassion,” she began.

If you were waiting for tough news after this friendly start – and with the government staring at a deficit and the Wildrosers howling about it, that seemed like a possibility – it never came. Instead, she went on to say “the work you do is central to our government’s vision” and to express other similar sentiments.

“I remain committed to balancing the budget in 2013-2014,” Ms. Redford stated. But “at the end of the day, Albertans look to their government to provide first-rate public services, and we won’t let them down.”

Ms. Redford also made an effort to reassure provincial employees about the implications for their workplaces of the province’s “results-based budgeting” scheme – “this isn’t as simple as spending less to meet some arbitrary target.” Click here to read the full text of Ms. Redford’s speech, from which she barely deviated.

At an informal news conference after her speech, Ms. Redford reconfirmed her support for public services: “Absolutely, and I made that very clear during the election and I haven’t at all changed my position. It’s fundamental.”

Now, there are those in Alberta – not necessarily people hostile to Ms. Redford’s stated position on public services – who think this could be a dangerous strategy from her perspective. After all, they say, you can’t keep the loyalty of budget hawks and market fundamentalists, traditional supporters of the Alberta PCs, and also win the hearts of public employees.

Maybe so. But Ms. Redford’s apparent public service strategy suggests she has figured out the Alberta electorate had changed from the days the Conservatives came to power and that the smart place to move is indeed the centre, not the far right.

The right-wing rump in her own party may scream, and the Wildrose Opposition will fulminate. But if Ms. Redford really can build and maintain an alliance with public service labour unions, whose rank and file members show clear signs of understanding the issues and at least knowing who their friends aren’t, it could go work out quite nicely for her.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.