Archive for December, 2012

Order of Canada for Stevie Cameron sets the right tone for the coming Year of Mulroney

Happy New Year … and this time I mean it! Author and cook Stevie Cameron wearing the official regalia of a member of the Order of Canada. Actual Order of Canada recipients may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: The real Ms. Cameron; Brian Mulroney, the 18th prime minister of Canada, wearing his OiC pin in his official portrait by Igor Babailov, which kind of captures the guy, you have to admit.

What a delightful and ironic twist on which to end one year and start another was the announcement yesterday that Stevie Cameron had been awarded the Order of Canada!

And here I thought I was finished writing about – or at least during – 2012, with my bloviations yesterday on the future of Alberta’s NDP.

Ms. Cameron’s appointment on the cusp of 2013 makes up for some of the rather inferior choices by the committee that has picked the Order’s recipients over the past few decades. (You all know who I have in mind, I’m sure.)

Now, Ms. Cameron was supposedly given “Canada’s highest civilian honour” for her work as a philanthropist and a chef, but we all know better, surely?

The fact that Ms. Cameron strove to drive a stake (metaphorically speaking) through former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s Conservative heart must have been factored into this decision – if only at the committee’s subconscious level.

Alert readers will recall that Ms. Cameron is also a journalist and author, who wrote about Mr. Mulroney at some length in her 1994 tome, On the Take: Crime, Corruption and Greed in the Mulroney Years.

For some reason, the Toronto Star did not mention this notable fact of authorship in its summary of this year’s excellent crop of OiC winners, a list that also includes former Liberal Deputy PM Sheila Copps, former Newfoundland Liberal premier Brian Tobin, former B.C. NDP premier Mike Harcourt and pianist Jane Coop.

But who can forget On the Take, which describes on its sales site to this day as the “stunning expose of greed and crime in the Mulroney era” that “confirmed and detailed” the “widespread corruption the public suspected during Brian Mulroney’s regime”?

Mr. Mulroney and his many supporters of course vigorously dispute this assessment by the editors at Amazon – a fact that leads us to the irony in Ms. Cameron’s elevation to the heights of Member of the Order of Canada. For 2013, whether we like it or not, is surely bound to be the Year of Brian Mulroney.

That is, 2013 will be the year that Mr. Mulroney – a Companion of the Order, its highest rank, since 1998 – will almost certainly subject Canadians to the full-court press in his tireless campaign to salvage his tattered reputation before the final judgment of history is rendered. (The court referred to in this expression, I am reasonably certain, is the kind on which one plays tennis, not the kind Mr. Mulroney’s former associate Karlheinz Schreiber appealed to in hopes of not being extradited back to Germany to face accusations of tax evasion.)

Mr. Mulroney will do this, as has been previously reported in this space, with the able assistance of the professional lobbyists at the Earnscliffe Strategy Group, many of whom have past associations with the former PM.

For her part, Ms. Cameron has a fairly low opinion of Mr. Mulroney. She once told an interviewer she’d really rather write about serial killers.

That cruel assessment notwithstanding, Mr. Mulroney did some things right, and history should recognize his achievements.

But his record, in toto, is hardly universally lustrous. Perhaps Ms. Cameron’s appointment to the Order of Canada late in 2012 can remind us, at those moments in 2013 when the 18th prime minster of Canada positively seems to glow, that may be because a group of professional lobbyists are shining us on.

Again, Happy New Year! And Happy New Year to you, Stevie!

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A last thought for 2012: 2013 is bound to be an important year for Alberta’s NDP

2013 could be a big year for Alberta’s NDP – if they play their cards right. Members of the Alberta NDP caucus and their opponents may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: NDP Leader Brian Mason.

Surely the strategic goal of Alberta’s New Democrats between now and the next provincial election must be to move the NDP from being the fourth party in the Legislature to the second one after 2016.

In other words, although an NDP government in Alberta is simply not in the cards over the medium term, the NDP could form the Opposition in 2016 if the party’s Legislative caucus is dealt the right cards in the next round of the great game of political poker … and manages to play them the right way.

Such an outcome would require a full measure of skill, since it is hard to see how it could come to pass without a degree of co-operation between the NDP and the right-wing Wildrose Party, which won 17 seats in the April 23 provincial election and is now the Opposition.

For it is axiomatic that if the NDP is to become the Opposition in 2016, the Wildrose Party will have to defeat the Progressive Conservatives under Premier Alison Redford and become the government – with all the dangers that would entail.

So the Wildrose Party’s 2012 campaign manager, former Stephen Harper confidante Tom Flanagan, almost certainly got it right when he told the Opposition party’s annual general meeting in November that the key to forming a Wildrose Government in 2016 is “to liberate those left-wing voters to go back and vote where they would actually vote.”

Of course, readers are forgiven if they wonder how this would benefit the NDP under Brian Mason or whomever follows him when it is the Alberta Liberal Party under Raj Sherman that is the third party in the Legislature, with five MLAs to the NDP’s four.

But this is why 2013 is such a crucial year to the NDP if it is going to vault from last place to second – because 2013 is the year the erstwhile Alberta Liberals, nowadays apparently known as the Libealbertans, are most likely to self destruct.

Certainly, the strains among Alberta Liberals are more evident than they have been for a long time. Indeed, it was a surprise to many and a disappointment to some that they didn’t collapse in the April election.

It is said here that Dr. Sherman – a medical doctor who has been accused of caring only about one issue, health care, and a former Progressive Conservative with Tory instincts – is not a natural leader for the Liberals. Party officials’ angry overreaction to the recent call by Liberal MLA Kent Hehr for centre-left parties to work together is one illustration. The Bronx cheer that greeted Dr. Sherman’s disappointing testimony before the health care preferential-treatment inquiry is another.

So a worthy if untraditional goal for the Alberta NDP in 2013 should be to ensure Liberal MLAs unhappy with Dr. Sherman’s leadership know they would be welcome in the New Democrat caucus.

For many reasons, this would probably be as hard for the four New Democrat MLAs as for any of their Liberal counterparts, but the payoff is potentially significant – attracting at least some of the Liberal voters who traditionally can’t stand the right-wing parties but view the NDP with almost equal discomfort.

On the other hand, if Dr. Sherman can hold his fragmented and unhappy caucus together through 2013, the opportunity to cement the NDP in the minds of Alberta voters as the natural centrist opposition party will be far more difficult to achieve.

But if the NDP can cross this important steppingstone without getting its feet wet in 2013, it will be in a position to achieve something much bigger after that.

It seems likely that in 2016, the PC Government will try to replay the campaign that worked for it in 2012 – to paint the Wildrose as social and economic extremists and Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith as a doctrinaire market fundamentalist, and to woo worried NDP and Liberal supporters to a big tent party that they see as both progressive and conservative.

Public service union members are sure to be a seen by the Conservatives as a key part of this unlikely coalition – a goal that is in conflict with the government’s immediate need to appear fiscally tight-fisted in the face of more years of deficits and an inflexible resistance to raising taxes. So the government’s ability to shore up this corner of its coalition is far from a sure thing.

Thus if the Alberta Liberals fall apart in 2013 under Dr. Sherman – and time their collapse conveniently for the NDP – the fight for Liberal voters with no traditional home to go to will be between the NDP and the Conservatives.

Who gets them may hinge on how scary the Conservatives can make the Wildrose Party look versus how corrupt the Wildrose Party can make the Conservatives appear.

The NDP needs the Wildrose Party to succeed dramatically enough that the Conservatives are swept from the board, but not so dramatically there is no room for the last centrist party standing to effectively oppose the mischief a market-fundamentalist Wildrose government might get up to.

So the difficult question for the NDP would become: how much co-operation with the Wildrose Party would be a good thing, and how much could lead to a catastrophe?

Naturally, there will be no shortage of scoffers at this scenario, and fair enough. Maybe the Orange Wave of 2011 and the little Orange Ripple that followed it through Alberta in 2012 were just flukes and order has once again been restored to the universe.

Moreover, New Democrats have been known before to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Still, perhaps the cards really will start to break the NDP’s way in 2013. Whatever happens, next year is likely to be a significant one for Alberta New Democrats.

Happy New Year!

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Paywalls: a real ‘fiscal cliff’ for a plunging news industry

You’d have to be as rich as these well-dressed young readers to manage multiple newspaper subscriptions online! Below: P.T. Barnum with Commodore Nutt, the well-known newspaper paywall technology entrepreneur. Warning: potential profits may be smaller than they appear in newspaper publishers’ rear-view mirrors. Beneath Barnum and Nutt: some comments from yesterday’s Globe and Mail story about newspaper paywalls.

As was so famously observed, or not, by Phineas Taylor Barnum, the 19th Century American self-promoter, showman, scam artist and newspaper publisher better known as “P.T.,” “There’s a mark born every minute.”

We refer not to the minuscule group of newspaper readers who have actually paid on-line subscription fees to the likes of the Globe and Mail, but to the credulous newspaper publishers who have been persuaded by technological hucksters and scamsters to invest millions in “paywall” schemes in hopes of resuscitating the lost era when readers actually paid for news.

Alas, those days are gone like the manual typewriters on which I used to write my newspaper stories – for which readers happily paid a dime, quarter, four bits or even a whole dollar – and the 8-track tapes I enjoyed as I drove in to work.

I mention this again today only because the Globe and Mail proudly and self-servingly trumpeted yesterday how the entire newspaper industry now seems to have made the decision en masse to retreat behind “metered paywalls,” and if you want to read news on line, by golly, you’re just going to have to pay for it.

But the reality is that thanks to the metered paywall idea – a system by which one supposedly can allow online news readers to look at a few stories each month, and then try to force them to pay for more – many North American newspapers are about to plunge over a real fiscal cliff while they tell their remaining readers to worry about the mostly imaginary one in Washington, D.C.

The arrival of the metered paywall, the Globe’s stenographer explained, “means 2013 could be a make-or-break year for many in the industry, as they scramble for alternative streams of revenue to make up for lost print advertising.”

Well, it’s likely true that 2013 will be an importantly unhappy year for the newspaper business. What’s more, it’s obviously a fact that a lot of newspapers are indeed slipping behind paywalls. But there is little evidence to suggest wholesale adoption of this dubious technology by newspaper owners will amount to anything more than mass suicide by a once-profitable industry.

There are numerous economic and practical reasons for this reality. These include:

Readers won’t pay for a product they can get somewhere else for free. In other words, unless you’re a publisher like the New York Times that can make a believable case your product is superior and unique, consumers will be reluctant to pay for the same wire stories they can read online on publications that for business or other reasons have made the decision not to erect paywalls.

It may be a business like Metro Newspapers, it may be an ideological, religious or political group, or it may be a national broadcaster like the BBC, but it’s a given that the same stories are going to remain available for no cost on line.

The Globe and Mail may be able to fool a few readers into thinking its product is different enough to pay for online, but does anyone seriously think anyone will pay for the right-wing drivel produced by Sun Media’s understaffed tabloids and myriad other publications of their ilk? If you do, take a deep breath right now!

Moreover, the high cost of printing presses served as a barrier to entry that kept the publishing club tiny – and hugely profitable – for years. But even if paywalls work, and they won’t, those days are gone. The price of admission is as cheap as it was to one of P.T. Barnum’s freak shows.

Back in the day, most newspaper readers subscribed to only one newspaper. Online readers read dozens – and dozens of subscriptions simply cost too much. I might be crazy enough to subscribe to the New York Times, but the Times, the Toronto Star, the Globe, the Edmonton Journal, the Guardian, the Independent, the L.A. Times, my local weekly and so on? Get real!

And if you can only afford to pick one or two, so sorry, but they’re not very likely to be the low-quality local rags in most Canadian cities, are they? This is especially true when they’ve been giving it up for free for a generation – during which you discovered the product wasn’t really worth paying for!

Psychologically, it’s said here, it’s one thing to throw down two bits for a newspaper you can also use to line you bird’s cage, quite another to use your credit card to commit to paying two bits a day for a year to a low-quality local paper with almost no real journalists on staff.

Indeed, the rush to paywalls has some of the characteristics of a Ponzi scheme – the first papers in might be able to get a return on their investment, although it’s doubtful they’ll ever really pay for themselves in most cases. (The Globe article claims the New York Times has managed to sign well over 560,000 subscribers – although they’ve only done it at a promotional price of 99 cents a month.) But late entries are going to find subscribers are unwilling to spend more again for essentially the same thing. Saturation point is coming already in this game.

And then there’s the matter of the ability of those leaky paywalls to actually keep readers out. Right now, just at the moment so many newspapers are racing to get into the paywall business, they are laughably easy to circumvent.

Indeed, last night, commenters were cheerfully chattering about how easy it is to overcome the Globe’s paywall in the comments section under the Globe’s story. Their advice boiled down to this: delete your cookies and read to your heart’s content.

Finally, there is the serious question of whether newspaper advertisers will pay for ads behind a paywall. Some will, but it is said here that many more won’t.

Anyone who is not selling the equivalent of Rolex watches to millionaires will be reluctant to place on-line ads behind a paywall – or, indeed, in any online news publication that makes an effort to drive away non-paying readers.

So it is predicted here that advertisers will abandon on-line news organizations that employ paywalls in droves – leastways, they will if they’re using their heads.

Remember, paywall technology isn’t cheap. The New York Times has been widely reported to have paid $40 million US to set up their system – although some estimates put that figure as low as $25 million.

Regardless, that’s a lot to spend on a technology that in the end is likely to drive away more revenue than it generates for most news businesses.

Well, good luck to them. It’s a shame you can’t make big profits running a newspaper any more and it would be nice for the folks who own these big businesses if that could all be miraculously turned around.

But if paywalls are the best they can come up with, by this time next year, more of them will be gone like the wind. And, frankly m’dear, who’ll give a damn?

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Putting Christ back in Christmas: maybe Christians themselves need to ‘press reset’

Jesus, centre, separates the sheep from the goats. Don’t ask what happens to the goats. Below: St. Paul and modern Evangelical favourite Ayn Rand.

Today is Christmas, and thus an opportunity for many who think of themselves as adherents of the Christian faith to lecture everyone else sternly about the need to “put Christ back into Christmas.”

This is, after all, His birthday, they remind us – although, actually, it’s almost certainly not, but that doesn’t really matter as Dec. 25 stands in for it at a conveniently miserable time of year when European pagans would otherwise quite sensibly have gone on celebrating the imminent return of shorter and warmer days to their deeply chilled continent instead of the somewhat less imminent, as it turned out, return of their saviour.

Notwithstanding all that, the point of this particular little Christmas homily is that if Christians want to put Christ back into Christmas, an excellent place to start would be by paying attention to what Christ taught them – which seemingly nowadays has very little to do with the things that most concern a very large percentage of practicing Christians.

This is especially true of Evangelical Protestants – like the good people who raised me – who nowadays seem to be mostly focused on the Three Gs, with a side helping of Israel and the End Times. The Three Gs are, of course, Guns (they like ’em), Gays (they don’t) and Gifts (well, who doesn’t, eh?). By the way, unless you’re a black-helicopter conspiracist, Geometers and Geometry don’t come anywhere near this particular string of Gs.

However, as St. Paul (the saint, that is, not the city) most certainly didn’t say, the greatest of these is Gifts.

Indeed, so great is the last of the Three Gs, that some observers have theorized North America, and this would most certainly include its stubbornly secularist northern half, “is now firmly in the grip of a different religion: shopping.”

This fact, naturally, is the very thing that prompts annoyingly self-righteous Christians to decry consumerism and demand the immediate restoration of Christ to Christmas – especially if the Christian doing the decrying is the family patriarch (or, in possibly a majority households nowadays, the matriarch) contemplating the coming struggle to pay off the Visa bill.

But what, as we are constantly being asked by these same people in other circumstances, would Jesus say?

Depending, of course, on your view of the inerrancy of Scripture, we actually have a pretty good idea, since it was all taken down and (on at least one occasion) used against him in a court of law.

And so, speaking of courts, here’s an interesting commentary by Jesus himself (who most certainly was opposed to needless violence and never uttered a single word on the topic of homosexuality) on what the future holds – a commentary, it is said here, that should be attended to by followers of the Christian religion, in particular those who mix what they think of as their religious fundamentalism with economic market fundamentalism.

On the theory that what the adult Christ had to say is likely more relevant to how Christians ought to live than the story of the infant Jesus – which is bound to be reprinted anyway on the editorial page of the Calgary Herald, that old friend of values most associated nowadays with much of Christianity, such as narcissism, personal greed, intolerance and the absence of mercy – our text today comes instead from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, starting at Verse 32.

“…And before him shall be gathered all nations; and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. And he shall set the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

“For I was an hungered and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in; Naked and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me; I was in prison and ye came unto me.”

And the righteous, on his right hand, sounding more than a little perplexed, respond with questions:

“Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. …”

If the righteous sound mildly surprised by all this, as if their reward were quite unexpected to them, perhaps this was because so many Christians have been taught by the actions and the words of their leaders that charity – and, it is said here, the extension of charity into earthly government – was of no consequence at all, or even a bad thing.

As for those on his left hand, the ones who failed to do their charitable work, I won’t trouble readers about what happened to them, save to say that Pastor Alan Hunsperger late of Alberta’s Wildrose Party would have understood their fate even if he were surprised by the sin that provoked it.

No, Jesus didn’t have anything good at all to say about the “virtue of selfishness,” which to hear a lot of Christians nowadays you’d think was part of the Gospel of Jesus, not the gospel of Ayn Rand. Rather, he taught us about the need to provide food and drink for the hungry, clothing to the poor, offer mercy to those in prison, and proper care to the sick. You know, like those social workers the late Ms. Rand, the atheistic market-fundamentalist avatar, held in such deep contempt.

Not incidentally, by the way, Jesus also instructed us to pay our taxes. (Matthew 22:21)

Jesus most certainly did not teach us that the accumulation of wealth was virtuous on its own merits or any signifier of favour in the eyes of God. Indeed, he said the opposite: “…It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)

So if it’s rampant consumerism that bothers modern North American Christians, they ought to speak up about the corporations that encourage this behaviour and the right-wing governments that slavishly enable them, indeed, the whole capitalist system that depends on it.

Above all, if Christians want us to put Christ back into Christmas – where, arguably, he belongs – they need to start the process themselves by letting his teachings govern their actions.

If they won’t, who but Christians themselves can be blamed for the “war on Christmas”?

Happy Holidays!

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Toews an ill-timed Johnny-on-the-spot justifying imposition of U.S.-style gun-show anarchy

Victor Toews, Canada’s Minister of Public Insecurity and Zombification, rendered by Edmonton artist William Prettie. Below, a shifty looking Mr. Toews as he appears in the halls of Parliament. Pat Martin is a Great Canadian. ™

What a perfect way to throw a little red meat to your gun-nut money machine!

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s so-called Conservatives – of whom it cannot be said too many times are radicals bent on remaking Canada in the image of the worst aspects of the United States – managed to hit on a moment of worldwide horror at the slaughter of 20 small children and six grownups in the United States to further weaken our country’s gun laws, which are already crumbling thanks to this government’s avarice and cynicism, by allowing more chaos to reign at Canadian “gun shows.”

The decision was published Wednesday in the Canada Gazette, just five days after the massacre in Connecticut that left decent people everywhere reeling.

Given the opportunity for a little public decency and respect for our neighbour’s tragedy and the chance to raise a few more shekels from our country’s firearms fanatics, I guess, there was really no choice for these Harperites. Or maybe it was just the deadline of the Canada Gazette. Whatever, it’s powerfully symbolic.

So Mr. Harper sent out Victor Toews – the country’s Minister of Public Insecurity and the target of one of MP Pat Martin’s final, well-placed Tweets – and his tame, pro-gun “advisory” committee to justify the repeal this country’s sensible regulations governing gun-show sales of firearms.

This will please the hysterical gun-nut lobby in their tireless campaign to introduce sufficient chaos to Canada’s firearms sales regime to cause the entire regulatory edifice to collapse, in return for which the Harperites hope to create an issue capable of wedging rural votes away from the New Democratic Party and directing a stream of cash from the gun lobby into the Conservatives’ coffers.

Interestingly, late in the day, apparently too late to pull the Gazette off the press, even buffoons like Mr. Toews must have realized just how horrific were the optics of their timing – and the government now claims to want to “take another look” at the committee of toadies it set up to help it dismantle Canadian gun laws. This is about as persuasive as this government’s fable that it has pushed the reset button on the F-35 see-through-fighter boondoggle.

As is well known, anarchic American gun shows are a favoured way for that unfortunate country’s tens of thousands of irresponsible gun owners to purchase weapons without background checks and to circumvent other local attempts to control the misuse of weapons.

Ironically, and as the Harper Conservatives know very well, U.S. gun “shows” are carnivals of criminality. Indeed, that is why they are one of the key areas being eyed by President Barack Obama for action in the wake of the Sandy Hook horror. Most Canadians wish President Obama well in this effort, even as we question his chances of success.

Thankfully, we have hitherto avoided such a situation in Canada – although this cynical government, like their Republican brethren in the United States, is prepared to sacrifice our safety for the most craven of reasons.

Even the Globe and Mail, the government’s well-trained poodle on most issues, mildly tapped the Harperites on the wrist for this travesty – although it worked hard as usual to let them off the hook for its timing.

The Globe’s editorial on the topic concluded: “Gun shows are a legitimate target for some measure of control. We just don’t live in the same world we did prior to the Sandy Hook tragedy.” Although, count on it, Canada’s gun nuts will soon work themselves into a hysterical frenzy insisting that in fact nothing at all has changed.

Today we will finally hear from the National Rifle Association, who like the cowards they are have been keeping their heads down and their lips zipped since last Friday’s massacre. Count on it that Canada’s Anti-Gun-Control Rage Machine will flood the Twitterverse with the NRA’s defence of responsible nerve gas ownership or whatever talking points they manage to come up with.

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NOTE: Speaking of Canada’s firearms lobby, on this occasion and at this site I am going to rip a page from the book of Warren Kinsella, who recently told the gun-nut set: “Don’t try and post here. I won’t approve your comments. I’m sick of you. I detest you. I don’t want to hear from you. No sane person wants to hear from you. You’re a variant on al-Qaeda, and you’re too deranged to realize it. Go to Hell, where the likes of you belong.”

I wholeheartedly concur. The agents of the anti-gun-law rage machine are legion, and repeat the same tiresome and mostly preposterous arguments for their anti-social hobby over and over and over again.

Since they have untold places to repeat their nonsense, their redirections and misdirections, their preposterous claims, as well as enjoying the apparent enthusiastic support of the government of Canada, I’m going to give myself the satisfaction of deleting them all when they turn up here. They can even post them on Rabble or in the Calgary Beacon, places where this blog also appears, and which have a deeper commitment to the freedom of speech of these loons than I obviously do.

But as far as I am concerned, they can all drop dead. If they don’t like it, they can write a letter to the editor of the Internet.

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THIS JUST IN (10 a.m., Mountain Standard Time): The vicious fruitcakes at the National Rifle Association in Fairfax, Va., have identified the cause of the American pathology of school massacres: video games! Gosh, they must have toiled all week to come up with that inspired gem of a marketing strategy – out of “respect” for the victims and their families, no doubt. The NRA has also provided a “solution”: arm the teachers! Are these Tea Party lunatics sure this is what they really want: more firepower for militant public service union members? This may be something for Victor Toews, Stephen Harper and the other rat-faced fund-raisers of the Rosehip Tea Party of Canada to think about before they adopt the idea with a jerk of their knees. As for the Tory Rage Machine, which is certain to be re-Tweeting the NRA’s talking points even before they climb out of their jammies, what are they going to do with their spare time if they succeed at their new quest for video-game control?

The Alberta Apocalypto: The world as you know it is about to end! Again…

Alberta Finance Minister Doug Horner gets ready to make a sacrifice to placate the mighty and angry Deficit God. Alberta politicians, not to mention the Legislative complex, may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: The real Mr. Horner.

Oh my God! The world is coming to an end!

I’m not talking about the Mayan calendar, either, which says the jig is up tomorrow, which is going to be a big disappointment to those of us who were looking forward to a nice weekend followed by a little time off for the holiday.

But this time, it’s way worse than that. This is the Alberta Tory Calendar, after all, in which the End Times just keep coming around again and again with the regularity of a metronome. Tick-tock!

I’m telling you, it’s so bad that by the end of this post I’m going to have entirely used up my quota of italics for the rest of the year!

Right on schedule – Tick! – Alberta Finance Minister Doug Horner was up on his hind legs in Edmonton yesterday – Tock! – to grimly inform us all that this time he really means it – Tick!really, the world as we know it is coming to an end, we’re all going to have to wear sackcloth and ashes – Tock! – and get a haircut too, because, oh golly, the world’s most volatile commodity seems to have shown some volatility again.

Oil prices. Fluctuating! Who’d’ve thought?

But yes, the sands of time are finally running out – and, this being Alberta, we thought for sure it would take longer than this because the sand in question was all clumped together with oily goo. But, nope, this is it, people. We’re screwed. It’s all over. Finished. Done. Finis. …

You get the picture. And if you don’t, you will when you watch the evening news.

Here are the key parts of the Edmonton Journal’s story about Mr. Horner’s dire warning yesterday. I’ve left out nothing important: “Tough choices … plunging price … big bite out of provincial revenue … warned his colleagues … facing financial constraints … not the greatest Christmas news … we have to adjust … everything is on the table … taken off the table … facing a deficit … oil has fallen to a record low … different than in the past … might not be able to count on any increases … live within their means … reining in and restraining our spending … meet our targets … tough stuff … tough decisions … spending freeze …” yadda-yadda.

Yes, everything is in there except the bit about tightening our belts, and, count on it, they’ll have added that by lunchtime today.

Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes warned us the same warning the day before yesterday, by the way, and Premier Alison Redford added a dire warning or two in the afternoon. Prime Minister Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty are known to be fretting about this too, so count on them to weigh in on the need for more austerity momentarily.

And they just found out!

So, seriously, how stupid is this?

Of course we’ve got a freaking revenue problem! We don’t collect enough taxes.

We don’t collect enough taxes on purpose, because it keeps the oil companies who own our government’s soul happy and behaving themselves, politically speaking.

Last time they got exercised about this particular issue, they cooked up the Wildrose Party, which stands for exactly the same thing as the Mr. Horner’s PCs – only even more of it!

We also don’t collect enough taxes – and those that we do we take from the people who can least afford them through our thoroughly regressive and unproductive tax system – because it keeps voters disengaged.

Disengaged voters behave themselves too – by not voting.

That is, disengaged voters are good from the “conservative” perspective because they don’t feel like they have a stake in the province or anything it does, and so you get to stay in power for 41 years and counting.

Alberta politicians like Mr. Harper – the prime minister of Calgary – took this idea to Ottawa and would like to put it to work nation-wide. It was disengaged Alberta voters, you might say, combined with a useful split on the centre left, that got Joan Crockatt elected in the recent Calgary Centre federal by-election. Joan Crockatt!

Of course we have a cash shortage. We insist on paying cash for everything, including the house, the car and the new washing machine.

If I didn’t know better, I’d think we were run by economic imbeciles who hadn’t figured out that commodity prices go up and down like one of those pump jacks out on the Prairie. But we know for a fact these folks aren’t imbeciles – in fact, some of them, like Mr. Horner and Ms. Redford, for example, are quite smart. So something else must be going on.

Maybe they’ve actually bought the political calculus pushed by the right for three decades that you can’t do the sensible and prudent thing no matter what because … that’s just not the way we do things in North America. (“No taxes!” Ms. Redford barked this afternoon. She meant, presumably, no new taxes.)

Or maybe it’s because they have a plan to completely destroy our public institutions and they need the cash flow-through from a ’round the clock out-of-control boom non-renewable resources boom to keep us all distracted while they privatize everything.

While you think about those possibilities, here’s a home truth. Commodity prices are cyclical. They go up and down and they’re never going to stop going up and down. So plan for it! Put a little money in the bank. Don’t always pay cash. Have another revenue stream – you know, like a reasonable level of taxation.

Indeed, we could add a nice round figure like $10 billion to the taxes we collect here in Alberta and they’d still be the lowest in the country!

In the mean time, though, the world is ending, and the fact that the fixes are pretty obvious, easy to implement and relatively painless for everyone involved doesn’t mean for one second that they’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell of being implemented.

So have a wonderful holiday and a great 2013 … and if the world doesn’t really end tomorrow, tighten your belt.

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The Stephen Harper model for Wildrose power: promise free votes and deliver the Borg Hive

Singing along: What we were promised by the Reform-Conservative platform. Below: What we got.

Alberta’s Wildrose Party blossomed at the edges of the same muddy spring whence sprang the federal Reform Party of Preston Manning and Stephen Harper.

As is well known, the Reform Party went on to engineer the hostile takeover in 2003 of the old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, after renaming but not successfully re-branding itself as the Canadian Alliance.

By this mechanism the Reform Party evolved over a short time from a populist Prairie uprising into the most autocratic and secretive government in Canadian history, including wartime governments, under Mr. Harper’s mailed fist.

As we watch the iron discipline exerted on Mr. Harper’s obedient Conservative caucus this month in Ottawa – passing massive “omnibus” budget bills and even whipping through unconstitutional and amateurish anti-union private member’s bill with barely a whimper of protest – it behooves us here in Alberta to cast our minds back to the promises the Reform Party made at its beginning.

Because, as we are now invited to forget, the Reform Party’s platform in 1997 promised us high on its list of reforms that there would be more free votes in Parliament. This, said the party’s platform that year, would have the effect of “reducing the power of party discipline over individual MPs and senators while strengthening the powers available to citizens.”

This and many other pledges – fiscal responsibility, a more civil political discourse, the promise of a competent and businesslike government – all turned out to be fantasy or outright lies.

It is said here the free-votes promise – which was not just broken, but turned on its head – is a particularly useful litmus test for the likely future performance of a Wildrose Government, infested as that party is with the same cynical Reform Party operatives that plotted the coup that seized the national PC Party in 2003 and has held it ever since.

The Wildrose Party made the same promise, in almost exactly the same words, in the run-up to the 2012 Alberta election – and is about as likely to keep it.

According to a Globe and Mail story published on April 9, two weeks before the election that saw PC Premier Alison Redford receive the mandate she had sought, the Wildrose Party was promising a government it led would permit free votes on any bill.

The Legislature, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said in a news release, would become “a place where Albertans’ voices are heard.”

This is not likely, given the way our Parliamentary system must operate – unless the Wildrose Party proposes to ignore the Canadian constitution. But it may well prove to be an effective if meaningless promise to cynically manipulate Albertans who willfully refuse to understand the operations of our system of government – of whom there are many.

As the Reform Party’s Task Force on Democratic Populism promised back in 1996, “when a Reform MP speaks and votes in the Parliament of Canada, he or she represents: (1) the principles, policies and platform of the Reform Party of Canada on which the MP was elected; (2) the views and interests of constituents, in particular the consensus of a majority of constituents, if such a consensus can be determined; and (3) the application of the Member’s own knowledge, judgment and conscience to the issues at hand. For Reform MPs, where (1), (2), and (3) are in conflict, it is (2) – the consensus of the will of the majority of constituents – which takes precedence.” (Emphasis added.)

Well, we know how that one worked out!

So let me make a not-so-bold prediction, things will turn out precisely the same way if Ms. Smith becomes the premier of Alberta.

A Wildrose provincial government would be as autocratic, dictatorial and tightly regimented as Mr. Harper’s so-called Conservative government has turned out to be.

We have already had a hint of this in the promise by former Harper confidante and strategist turned Wildrose campaign manager Tom Flanagan to tightly control the messages emanating from Wildrose candidates in the lead-up to the next Alberta provincial election in 2016, or whenever it takes place.

Said Dr. Flanagan last month at the Wildrose annual general meeting in Edmonton: “The lesson for the future – message discipline. You’ve got to stick with the script.” Count on it, given Wildrose’s experience in 2012 with bozo eruptions by candidates, that this will be ruthlessly enforced.

Of course, in the Reform/Conservative/Wildrose mindset, there really is no contradiction between tough party discipline and “free votes.” As Ted White, the former Western separatist and chair of the Reform Party’s 1996 task force explained to a questioner who wondered why the party would bother developing policies if they were to be guided entirely by the opinions of constituents, there was nothing to worry about: “The people’s views on all contentious issues would coincide with those of the party rank and file.”

If this sounds suspiciously like the principles of author George Orwell’s Ingsoc understood through the application of Doublethink, there is probably a sound reason for that. Or maybe the Borg Hive would be the more appropriate metaphor for the 21st Century.

Regardless, if the Wildrose comes to power in Alberta, as is already the case in Parliament, reality will be what the Party says it is.

Continuing on the same theme, Mr. White is now a Fraser Institute functionary.

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Pollster’s take on Alberta leaders’ popularity sets stage for long Prairie slug-fest

Shades of things to come? Alison Redford, Canada’s second most popular premier, gets ready to break a board with Opposition Leader Danielle Smith’s face on it. Situations Alberta politicians find themselves in may not be exactly as described. Below: Ms. Smith.

Alison Redford remains Canada’s second most popular premier behind Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall, who after months at a steady 67-per-cent level of belovedness is the unquestioned Mr. Congeniality of Confederation, according to the Vancouver-based Angus Reid Public Opinion polling company.

Albertans who just can’t stand Ms. Redford, who mostly seem to be supporters of the right-wing Wildrose Party nowadays, can take some comfort from the fact the premier’s popularity has slipped eight percentage points since the last time the company did a similar poll in August.

Back then, ARPO says, Ms. Redford had the approval of 55 per cent of Alberta’s voters; now only 47 per cent love her, just one percentage point above Manitoba’s affable Greg Selinger.

Even better from the Wildrosers’ perspective is the fact Ms. Redford’s rating is a point lower than the popularity the poll claims for Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, although her esteem too is down a couple of points since August.

Ms. Smith, of course, has been lobbing spitballs at the premier since election day back in April – which was, as politicians never tire of reminding us, the only poll that really counts.

That one, as alert readers will recall, gave Ms. Redford’s Progressive Conservative Party a nice 61-seat majority in the 87-seat provincial Legislature. Only 17 went to the Wildrosers. But that was after a couple of weeks when it looked very much as if the market-fundamentalist Wildrose Party, allied closely with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative federal government, might actually win, which had to be giving PC strategists the staggers and jakes no matter what they’re saying now.

Now, this may be a silly poll, designed primarily to get ARPO free ink and electrons in the press and its on-line editions. Methodologically speaking, it’s iffy – based on interviews with 6,619 self-selected folks who voluntarily signed onto an on-line panel run by the company. (You can read the media coverage of ARPO’s poll yourself to see how the rest of the provincial leaders are doing – except for P.E.I.’s, or the territorial leaders, or the leaders of other opposition parties, none of whom make it onto the Angus Reid list for some reason.)

Regardless, it still drives the Alberta’s loony right batty that Ms. Redford remains as popular as she does. After all, they’ve been toiling for months to smear her as the kind of politician who, any minute now, may invite black helicopters from the United Nations into Albertan air space to seize our guns, arrest anyone with a nice pair of cowboy boots and carry out cattle mutilations on a mammoth scale.

It is well known that the Wildrose Party’s long-range strategy – mimicking the strategic tack adopted by Mr. Harper’s party in recent never-ending election campaigns – is to keep calling Ms. Redford and her PC government corrupt until some of that nasty rhetoric sticks. This may account for Ms. Redford’s slippage in the Reid poll, or it may just be the effect our lousy December weather has on Albertans.

Whatever, one thing that it extremely clear is that the rage and hatred for Ms. Redford from the foot soldiers of the far right is growing much faster Ms. Redford’s overall popularity is slipping, whatever that means in electoral terms – which is probably not all that much.

The anti-Redford rhetoric in media comments sections has taken on a palpable Tea Party quality, and it seems likely that sooner or later the Redford Tories will judge they have to adopt similar tactics to bring the Wildrose Part down a peg or two.

Indeed, the buzz in political circles remains that the Redford PCs will set up a “Wildrose War Room” for the next session of the Alberta Legislature that will give the Opposition a taste of its own gag-inducing medicine.

A senior Wildrose Party official who shall remain nameless because if the mainstream media can say that, so can I, recently told me his party views this as “a badge of honour.”

“They’ve never been this scared this fast before,” he opined. “It’s less than eight months since the election and they’re pushing the panic button!”

Well, maybe. Or maybe it’s just going to be a really nasty three-year campaign from which everyone will emerge bloodied and bruised – and much lower in ARPO’s quarterly popularity contest.

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Attack on Kent Hehr highlights deepening fissures in Alberta Liberal ranks

Calgary-Buffalo MLA Kent Hehr with a crowd of Liberalberta supporters in the background. (Bad joke. I apologize.) Below: Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman.

An angry and public attack last week on Liberal MLA Kent Hehr by Alberta Liberal Party President Todd Van Vliet suggests the party’s caucus is splintering under the leadership of former Progressive Conservative Raj Sherman.

Mr. Van Vliet’s rambling and bitter attack on Mr. Hehr was prompted by the Calgary-Buffalo MLA’s contribution of a guest post to the Daveberta blog, in which he mused about the victory of the Conservatives in the recent Calgary Centre by-election, a race in which 60 per cent of the votes cast were shared among three progressive candidates.

Since there was so little difference in the core beliefs of the Liberal, Green and NDP candidates in the federal race, Mr. Hehr wondered, wouldn’t it have made more sense to run a single progressive candidate against the Conservatives?

The lesson of this at the provincial level should be obvious, Mr. Hehr concluded, accurately if not particularly realistically: “The center/center-left in this province will not form government until we are in one big-tent party.”

Nothing new here and, seeing as he’s a very smart man, Mr. Hehr is certainly as aware as the rest of us of just how hard it would be in practice to stitch together the big tent he proposes. Indeed, Alberta Liberals before Dr. Sherman took the party’s helm have been preaching the gospel of progressive unity (under a Liberal banner, of course) for as long as most of us can recall.

Liberal pleas for New Democrat supporters to vote strategically for the almost-progressive Liberals would appear to be deeply embedded in that party’s political DNA.

So it was surprising that a party official reacted at all, let alone the way Mr. Van Vliet did – in a sharply worded press release that accused Mr. Hehr of “back room political engineering,” possibly with Alison Redford’s Progressive Conservative government, and all but invited him to quit the Liberal caucus.

“MLAs have their own opinions and even can choose to cross the floor and join another party if they disagree with their own party’s directions,” Mr. Van Vliet wrote. “While Mr. Hehr may be working in good faith to create a stronger alternative to the PCs, working to eliminate one’s own party would not seem to be the best way to do that.”

It’s impossible for those of us who are not Alberta Liberal insiders to know for certain if Dr. Sherman encouraged and supported Mr. Van Vliet’s eruption, but it seems likely. At any rate, other than telling a reporter Mr. Hehr is free to speak his mind, Dr. Sherman has maintained a studied silence on the issue since Mr. Van Vliet’s outburst. The Liberal leader also seems to be in no rush to reassure Mr. Hehr publicly that he remains welcome in the party’s five-member Legislative caucus.

Now, we need to pause here for a moment for the benefit of readers who don’t follow Alberta politics closely to consider clearly just who Mr. Hehr is. In one sentence, he’s a widely respected MLA with an inspiring story who would be welcome in any political caucus in the Legislature – well, except perhaps the one he’s a member of right now. Indeed, he has been courted by more than one of them.

At 43, Mr. Hehr has an unusual and uplifting story: a talented young athlete who hoped some day to become a physical education teacher, he was struck by a bullet while a bystander near drive-by shooting in 1991 and became a quadriplegic. Instead of despairing, he completed a BA in Canadian studies and a law degree, practiced law, became an articulate advocate for the disabled and against gun violence, and was elected to the Legislature in 2008.

If he were a member of the government party, Mr. Hehr would certainly be a cabinet minister – and don’t imagine for a moment that’s not been made clear to him by Premier Redford’s PCs.

Yet Mr. Hehr has so far remained steadfastly a Liberal, even after his party was sent packing as the Official Opposition by the far-right Wildrose Party in the 2012 election.

This is not to say Mr. Hehr hasn’t looked around for a respectable way out of the increasingly dysfunctional Alberta Liberal caucus. In 2010, before Dr. Sherman became the party leader, he briefly entered the Calgary mayoral race but pulled out before the election when it became evident his victory was not in the cards.

At the moment, it is fair to say, he is the only member of the caucus who could be described as a credible and available alternative to Dr. Sherman as the leader.

That fact may put into context Mr. Van Vliet’s grim-sounding reminder to Mr. Hehr that “Liberal bylaws state that membership in the party is open to those who ‘subscribe to the principles, aims and objectives of the party.’ Mr. Hehr, more than anyone, should understand that eliminating this party through a merger would not be within the objectives of the party. At the very least he must know that such talk would create uncertainty.” (Emphasis added.)

It is not impossible, given all this, that Mr. Hehr is indeed considering his options. Other members of the caucus are truly indistinguishable in their views from the New Democrats.

So maybe Dr. Sherman will succeed in his quest to turn the Alberta Liberals not just into the Liberalberta Party, but into the Raj Sherman Party of Alberta – although perhaps not in quite the way he anticipated.

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Time to move on from old Alberta Health Services expense claims? Not just yet, thanks, says Allaudin Merali

Will the wheels fall off the Alberta Health Services case for not paying severance to former CFO Allaudin Merali? At any rate, it sounds as if Mr. Merali, in blurry photograph below, hasn’t given up the fight.

Former Alberta Health Services Chief Financial Officer Allaudin Merali today issued a stout defence of the propriety of his conduct in a previous job as CFO of the Capital Health Region.

Mr. Merali’s personal response to a statement issued Thursday by AHS Board Chair Stephen Lockwood, which defended the expense account practices of other AHS executives, amounts to a scathing commentary on the way the former CFO was treated when he was fired Aug. 1 after a CBC report outlined his expenses in his previous CFO role at Capital Health.

In his official AHS statement, Mr. Lockwood said of the other executives that “the individuals concerned filed expense claims with the information they had available following the standards and expectations of the time.”

“In my mind, the integrity of these executives is not in question,” Mr. Lockwood added.

So how is his case any different, asked Mr. Merali in his personal statement – leaving unspoken the obvious answer that he was hastily fired on Aug. 1 because the CBC report had embarrassed the prickly government of Premier Alison Redford, which was already under siege on a variety of fronts.

Mr. Lockwood’s commentary about the other executives was fair and should apply to him as well, Mr. Merali said in his statement, which was sent to Alberta Diary and several journalists from a Gmail address.

“I cannot accept that my past expenses are held up to a different standard and reported in the media without context and without regard to simple fairness, so as to cast implicit doubts on my integrity,” the Merali letter states.

Mr. Lockwood’s commentary “would also be a fair comment on my own expenses,” Mr. Merali said. “The standards today at AHS are tighter, and I was fully committed to abiding by those standards when I was hired as Chief Financial Officer of AHS.”

As AHS itself reported in its Aug. 1 media release, Mr. Merali also stated, “my expenses were related to legitimate travel and hosting, as well as attending events nationally and internationally, and they complied with the standards in place at the time.

“There was no attempt on my part to gain personal benefit for myself, my wife, or anyone else with whom I was associated,” he said. “I expensed nothing for myself beyond travel expenses that were normal for my job at the time. The imputation that I simply lived a high life at the taxpayer’s expense is an invention of sheer malice.”

Among the many points in Mr. Merali’s personal statement were the following:

  • The “butler” services of which much has been made were for “catering staff who helped serve food at business receptions held at my home.”
  • His notorious car phone was expected as part of his job and expensed properly.
  • On the few occasions when his wife traveled with him, all her costs were properly reimbursed.
  • Costs attributed to him by AHS in August were overstated by more than $35,000.

Mr. Merali also lauded the work done by Capital Health during his time with that organization, including “development of a robust financial costing system,” “millions of dollars in savings on procurement,” and “obtaining approval for several major capital projects, some of which have recently been completed, to improve access and provide quality care to Albertans.”

Regarding the provenance of this statement, which is dated Dec. 13 and was received by media and this blog on the 14th, it must be said that I cannot prove to the standards of a courtroom it was in fact written by Mr. Merali. However, it is hard to imagine anyone else taking the time and effort to write a defence of this nature. I emailed Mr. Merali seeking more information – and a photograph that is in focus – and he politely declined further comment.

It’s been said in this space several times that Alberta Health Services and the Redford Government that pulls its strings left Alberta taxpayers wide open to a costly lawsuit when they tossed Mr. Merali under the bus because of the embarrassment caused by the CBC report.

Such an outcome was made more likely when AHS announced categorically on Aug. 6 that there would be no buyout for Mr. Merali under his employment agreement – despite the important facts that his controversial expense accounts were submitted while he worked for a previous employer and that AHS has never introduced a shred of evidence he wasn’t obeying the rules, as ridiculous as they seem to have been, either when he worked at Capital Health or at AHS.

As Alberta Diary asked on Aug. 6, “are we seriously expected to believe a man who would claim a single loonie plugged into a parking meter is going to say goodbye to a buyout of $500,000 without a fight?”

There’s nothing in Mr. Merali’s letter today that suggests anything different.

News reports Thursday quoted Mr. Lockwood saying it’s time to move on from this fiasco and he didn’t want to waste any more money auditing other executives’ former expenses. Mr. Merali won’t be forced to pay any expenses back, he added.

Notwithstanding Opposition protests in the Legislature, bet on it that’s because AHS has been advised it could never succeed at such a recovery effort in a court of law.

Move on? Not just yet, thanks very much, Mr. Merali seems to be saying.

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