Archive for January, 2013

‘Leading thinkers’ to set Alberta’s new economic course lickety-split – and you’re not invited

Premier Alison Redford eyeballs an uninvited visitor to the province’s economic summit. Without the password, you’re not getting in. Below, Premier Redford and Deputy Premier Tom Lukaszuk present their bona fides at the door. Actual Alberta politicians may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below them: The premier’s communications director, Stefan Baranski.

In just 10 days, “Alberta’s leading thinkers, key industry, non-profit and academic leaders, Members of the Legislative Assembly and passionate citizens will gather together for a spirited discussion on Alberta’s future.” You’re not invited.

The government announced yesterday in a terse yet effusive press release that the economic summit Premier Alison Redford promised in her “State of the Province” Address one week ago will take place on Saturday, Feb. 9, at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

But don’t worry about having to give up a day of your weekend – only the usual suspects will be invited, plus 87 citizens chosen one each by their MLAs.

I’m pretty passionate about this stuff myself, so I’ll be waiting by the phone for my call from Finance Minister Doug Horner, who happens to be my MLA. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

Meanwhile, Rome may not have been built in a day, but thankfully Alberta’s future can be – at least for a year, as this event has been billed a “first annual” in the press release from Ms. Redford’s communications director, Stefan Baranski.

“This summit will be a very important opportunity to discuss the economic challenges facing the province while also offering potential solutions for Albertans,” Mr. Baranski’s press release stated.

And thanks to your absence, Dear Readers, there’s no danger a crazy idea like a fair progressive tax system will be suggested to replace the Ralph Klein flat tax that the Calgary Herald, fearless champion of the overdog, likes so much.

Indeed, the absence of anyone on the invite list whose views haven’t already been thoroughly vetted is presumably the key to the success of this aspect of the “conversation” Premier Redford promised to start with us all in her SOTP message back on Jan. 24.

Lots of ideas have already been floated by people with connections to the right people – going after physicians’ compensation, going after teachers’ compensation, going after public service compensation, to name but a few – so it’s not hard to guess what will emerge from this glorified one-day seminar, which will feature four moderated panels, “each consisting of three to five participants with unique perspectives on areas relevant to Alberta’s fiscal framework.”

Topic areas will be as follows:

  1. Alberta’s economy, and the need for cuts
  2. Balancing expectations on the services Albertans need when things have to be cut
  3. Alberta’s revenue mix, and why we won’t change it when we can just cut stuff
  4. Responsible spending, including the need for cuts

The bit about the cuts doesn’t actually come out of the press release, I just threw it in to be a smart aleck, but you get the idea.

In fact, yesterday morning Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk was already telegraphing the government’s pre-summit plans for cuts via Twitter.

Meanwhile, while there suddenly seems to be some sympathy for the idea of an Alberta sales tax in Alberta Progressive Conservative circles – as well as among the deepest of the Globe and Mail’s deep thinkers – don’t count on this one being part of the government’s post-summit playbook. Too risky given all the opposition from the unwashed masses of both the right and left in the form of the Opposition Wildrose Party (no new taxes) and the NDP (no new regressive taxes).

Anyway, thanks to Mr. Klein, who was God’s gift to Alberta’s ultra-rich, it can’t be done without either passing a controversial new law or holding a doomed referendum.

Ms. Redford also briefly floated the idea of a return to health care premiums – which were cancelled by premier Ed Stelmach in 2009. That too would be unpopular, but at least could be re-branded and passed off as a user fee and not the regressive tax it in fact would be. Still, yesterday it appeared to have been judged too risky and dropped as well.

Getting back to the one-day, four-panel summit that will solve Alberta’s economic woes, if you’re not invited and are still anxious to take part, according Mr. Baranski – who managed George Smitherman’s campaign to be mayor of Toronto shortly before Rob Ford, that city’s answer to Ralph Klein, was elected – you can participate through social media, details to follow.

You can watch the Youtube video, I guess, or read the Tweets. Just don’t say you weren’t consulted!

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The 10% Delusion: Fraser Institute gins up fake facts about Alberta public sector pay

Women clerical workers, as the Fraser Institute would like to see them.

The Fraser Institute didn’t write the book “How to Lie With Statistics,” a guy named Darrell Huff did, but they might as well have!

You’ve got to have a little respect for the tireless political lobbyists at the Vancouver-based “institute” – they just never flag in their efforts to twist facts like pretzels to fit their paymasters’ ideological agenda.

The full-time political lobby group’s recent “study” purporting to demonstrate that public sector workers in Alberta earn 10 per cent more than their private sector counterparts is a typical example.

This in itself is not troubling. After all, the Fraser Institute’s “researchers” are nothing more than full-time propagandists and unregistered lobbyists, paid to produce this nonsense and pass it off as legitimate, peer-reviewed research – bankrolled in part by all of us through its charitable status while its many political activities are winked at by the Canada Revenue Agency.

To their credit, sort of, these Fraser Institute apparatchiks normally base their spurious and misleading conclusions on actual facts – giving rise, as in this case, to a species of data we have come to know as “Fraser Facts.”

What is troubling – indeed shocking – is the habitual willingness of mainstream media to reprint this baloney without even giving its opponents an opportunity to comment on it, let alone critically examining it for themselves.

Naturally, the Fraser Institute’s propagandists count on journalists to not read past the first few lines of their press releases – or in the case of particularly conscientious hacks, the executive summary. It is hard not to see something more sinister at work, however, in the media’s consistent failure to seek out balance when reporting on Fraserite findings, as every journalist is taught she must do in J-School.

In this way, Fraser Facts go down in the popular imagination as actual facts, unshakeable ideological building blocks upon which is built the foundation of our understanding of the important policy questions of the day.

And so, for example, we have the fanciful claim there’s a 10-per-cent difference between public and private sector wages in Alberta, and moreover a 14-per-cent gap in B.C. (Stand by for Fraser Institute news releases making similar claims in every Canadian province because, whatever their deficiencies as researchers may be, they make up for them with their public relations skills, which are without parallel.)

Count on it that you’ll be hearing “the 10% Delusion” trotted out at political meetings and in letters to the editor from now until the day everything is privatized and the perfect ideological nirvana is in place – and then watch out!

Don’t, by the way, expect to be collecting a pension while you’re watching out, because one of the principal goals of the Fraser Institute’s research in to deprive working Canadians of fair defined-benefit pension plans and leave us all at the mercy of the “wealth management” industry, which is no doubt among the generous and anonymous corporate donors who support the group’s work, as it scoops away our savings a percent at a time into corporate profits.

So here’s question the media could have asked, and didn’t, about this latest Fraser Institute study: Does it compare apples and apples?

Research done by an economist employed by the Canadian Union of Public Employees – which like the Fraser Institute can be said to have a dog in this fight – found the difference between Canadian public and private sector workers in 2011 to be less than 1 per cent.

Obviously there’s a difference in methodology here. So, did anyone in the media think to compare the research methods used? (Rhetorical question: The answer is clearly, “Nope!”)

The problem with the Fraser’s conclusions is that they do in fact make the proverbial comparison between apples and oranges – and it’s worse that merely comparing, say, police officers’ public sector salaries to security guards’ private sector salaries. But now that we’ve mentioned it, who would you rather have coming to your house when you think you’ve heard a burglar? Obviously, such differences in training and responsibility are pretty significant – and a good thing it is, too!

In fact, however, the methodology of the Fraser “study” is inferior to this. It doesn’t appear to compare occupations at all! This may be a convenient way to reach conclusions that fit the Fraser Fact finders’ biases, but it hardly lends confidence to their conclusions, if only anyone had bothered to check.

Do you think there might be a difference in training and responsibility between a Registered Nurse (a job typically found in the public sector) and a retail clerk (typically found in the private sector)? And who would you rather have caring for you as you cling to life in hospital? Just asking.

Should RNs be in the private sector? Well, no. But that’s another question – not the one the Fraser Institute is pretending to answer with this bogus study.

CUPE’s research last year looked at 500 different detailed occupations and found, first, that there isn’t much of a difference between public and private sector pay when the same jobs are compared honestly, and, second, that what difference exists is explained by the fact there’s a much smaller wage gap for women in the public service than the private sector.

And this, it is said here, goes to the heart of the Fraser Institute’s true objectives in publishing and publicizing this malarkey – and also why they and their paymasters hate public service unions like CUPE so.

One thing the emphasis on fairness in public service has done is bring male and female wage rates much closer together.

Since the private sector employs large numbers of women, and since its objective is to pay everyone less, this presents a major problem for those who are determined to take advantage of the effects of large workplace pink-collar ghettos to lower everyone’s wages. To put this in its most basic way, treating women fairly costs corporations money, and they don’t like it one bit.

So the point of the statistics cooked by the Fraser Institute can be seen as an attack on the public sector’s habit of treating women more fairly than the private sector does.

Indeed, CUPE’s research indicates that when you compare just men, the private sector on average pays men 5.3 per cent more than the public sector. Almost certainly, the difference is quite a bit larger here in Alberta. Of course, that’s not the kind of number that helps the Fraser Institute’s case, so it doesn’t get mentioned in their “research.”

Women in the private sector, according to CUPE’s research, got paid an average 4.5 per cent less, which I guess from the Fraser Institute’s perspective is OK.

It’s not reasonable to expect the Fraser Institute to stop perpetrating these fantasies. It’s their job.

We should be able to expect the media – understaffed as it is nowadays – to do its job and stop acting as if this nonsense was carved on stone tablets and brought down from Mount Sinai.

At they very least they could start referring to these Fraser Institute “studies” as what they really are – to wit: “press releases.”

As for the Fraser Institute, I’m sure they’d prefer it if you didn’t read Mr. Huff’s book.

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Great Plains Politics 101: Why everything new in Alberta’s Legislature must be old again

Perfesser Dave with Gene Zwozdesky, a.k.a. Mr. Speaker, the Speaker of the Alberta Legislature, with that rara avis, a recent Alberta Throne Speech. But not the one for March 5, 2013. Quick quiz: Why is that? Below: Alberta Premier Alison Redford in a screen grab from last week’s “State of the Province” address.

If you’re wondering why on March 5 Alberta’s MLAs are not returning to a new session of the provincial Legislature, there is an explanation.

We have lately been informed by House Speaker Gene Zwozdesky – who should know, after all – that Alberta’s MLAs will be returning on that date for the third sitting of the first session of the 28th Legislature.

While the 50 or so words of Mr. Zwozdesky’s media advisory (signed by his executive assistant) casts no light on the reasons for this technical puzzle, is happy to illuminate them in eight words: it avoids the necessity of a Throne Speech.

A Throne Speech, as those interested in Parliamentary procedures will recall, lays out the government’s agenda for the next Legislative session. From the perspective of the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Alison Redford, this would inevitably trigger a number of inconvenient consequences.

First, of course, an actual agenda would mean the parties of the Opposition would have something criticize, even to attack.

As we have already seen in the premier’s “State of the Province” address last week, this government would really prefer to give no hints whatsoever of whatever it intends to do, at least until it is actually forced to it. Anything else obviously risks an overabundance of democracy!

Second, naturally, a Throne Speech would provide the Opposition parties with additional opportunities to criticize the government. That is, by not having a Throne Speech, through the mechanism of merely continuing the old session, the government is able to eliminate a week to a week and a half of inconvenient Legislative Question Periods.

During that time, the Opposition instead will be reduced to sending out a flurry of media releases – much easier for all concerned to ignore, especially Alberta’s lackadaisical and easily distracted media.

Now, this does not mean the Opposition parties will have nothing to shoot at or no gallery in which to shoot at it. There must still be a budget, and therefore a Budget Speech, and the constitution of Canada requires that the Legislature get together once a year, so some criticism is inevitable.

Still, the lack of a Throne Speech will reduce the government’s pain not inconsiderably, and shortening the Legislative session also means it will be less obvious just how unambitious the government’s legislative agenda is this time around.

So, from Ms. Redford’s perspective, there is a lot to commend the idea of getting into the Legislature, fulfilling its constitutional obligations and getting the heck out!

Finally, there is the delicate matter of the PC Party’s upcoming annual general meeting, which is scheduled to take place in Edmonton in November 2013 and which this year inconveniently includes a leadership review for Ms. Redford, as is that party’s policy.

As Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid recently pointed out, when it comes to reviews like this, the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta (as the party is legally known) “has established quite the bloodthirsty tradition of palace revolt.”

Faced with Alberta’s recent Bitumen Bungle brouhaha, Ms. Redford could still face a considerable rebellion among the party faithful – many of whom continue to be traditional Prairie-style conservatives, that is, inclined to see a need for austerity and not at all comfortable with the new coalition Ms. Redford and Finance Minister Doug Horner would like to build with public service unions, teachers, and socially progressive voters, especially women and young people.

What to do? If Ms. Redford’s government pursues tough cost-cutting policies, she’ll almost certainly blow up the coalition that may be her only hope to survive in 2015.

If she doesn’t, she may be in deep trouble with her own troops in November 2013.

Best, then, to do as little as possible until the next known crisis – the leadership review – has passed. Ergo, no Throne Speech and the shortest possible Legislative session.

Class dismissed!

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Preston Manning’s well-funded ideological hobbyhorse takes aim at civic progressives

Calgary City Hall: The next target for former Reform Party leader Preston Manning’s not-very-merry band of far-right ideologues? Below: Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and neoconservative ideological guru Manning back in the day.

Is the so-called Manning Centre for Building Democracy preparing to target Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and other progressive city councillors for a corporate-backed reprise of the far right’s domination of federal and provincial politics in recent decades across Canada?

So it would seem.

Indeed, it would be fair to say the benevolent sounding Trojan Horse founded by Preston Manning, the former Reform Party leader and unflinching market ideologue, has its sights set on finding ways for the ideological right to take over municipal councils all across Canada. Calgary is just to be the first conquest in its ideological blitzkrieg.

The Manning Centre bills itself as an effort to “build Canada’s conservative movement,” which is fair enough as long as we understand that there’s very little that’s conservative in the true sense of the word with the destructive neoliberal strain of market fundamentalism advocated by Mr. Manning and his well-funded hobbyhorse.

In addition to the boilerplate commitment to “free markets, freedom of choice, and limited government” characteristic of these kinds of organizations, if you take the time to examine and decode the Manning Centre’s general goals you will find plenty that’s interesting. What, for example, does “living within our means … ecologically” mean? What does the Manning Centre really have in mind when it speaks of encouraging “strong families” or “respecting Canada’s cultural, religious, and democratic traditions”?

It’s not hard to guess, as long as we remember to wear our neocon decoder rings!

According to the National Post, the Manning Centre recently set up “training hub for the next cadre of small-c conservatives who seek to become campaign managers, co-ordinators, communications staff, policy makers and candidates” at a heritage building in downtown Calgary. The facility comes complete with a wall portrait of Louis Riel – more appropriate than you might first think if you consider neoconservative icon and firewall fantasist Stephen Harper’s past Alberta independentiste leanings.

It’s also interesting to take a look at the cast of characters planning to turn up at the next Manning Centre event: Sun News Network commentator Ezra Levant, health care privatization advocate Dr. Brian Day, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers President David Collyer, Immigration Minister and anti-choice activist Jason Kenney, former Liberal and neoliberal Australian prime minister John Howard and Treasury Board President and epic-spending constituency MP Tony Clement, just to name a few.

In addition, representatives of far-right AstroTurf groups and think tanks abound, including the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, the Montreal Economic Institute, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

But if you want to find out how the Manning Centre plans to translate all this bloviation into specific action, you’ll need to dig a little deeper – perhaps into some apparently unlinked corners of the ideological hothouse’s website.

Which brings us back to the centre’s plans for Calgary, and eventually other Canadian municipalities.

Consider the Manning Centre’s “Municipal Governance Project,” which, we are told, is dedicated to “improving local government through free markets” and “applying free-market principles to local government.”

What will this project actually do? Why, it will “develop market-oriented policies that can be applied at the municipal level – starting in Calgary, then throughout Canada.” (Emphasis added.)

It will also “provide research and education resources to market-oriented participants in municipal political processes.” Bet on it that those education resources will include the names and phone numbers of generous donors to municipal candidates far enough to the right to be approved by the Manning Centre.

Indeed, the Manning Centre is “inviting like-minded people from the entire cross-section of Calgary society to contribute to the discussion and the pursuit of the above objectives.”

So Mr. Nenshi and other progressive local politicians in Calgary should beware: the Manning Centre and its insiders have turned their baleful eyes on you, and they’ll be hoping to bring the same failed policies to your municipal government that have done so much damage at senior levels of government across Canada.

A key moment in this march of conquest, of course, was the hostile reverse takeover of the honourable old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada by Mr. Manning’s radical Reform Party in 2003.

The good news is that nowhere will these neocons be easier to identify and challenge than at the municipal level.

Forewarned is forearmed!

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Postponing the Day of Reckoning, Alberta-style

Alberta Premier Alison Redford beseeches the Almighty for higher petroleum prices as Wildrose Finance Critic Rob Anderson looks on. Actual Alberta politicians may not be exactly as illustrated. Below: Social democratic men of God J.S. Woodsworth (Methodist), Tommy Douglas (Baptist) and Stanley Knowles (United).

So what’s with the Redford Government’s receding horizon on tough decisions, d’ya think?

You bet they’re going to make some tough decisions. That’s for sure! The premier said so in her pretentiously titled State of the Province Address Thursday night. Again and again. So just you wait.

Heck, the finance minister was saying it for days before that.

So when will we see these actual tough decisions? In the budget on March 7? At the promised economic summit? When the bitumen pipeline to Kitimat is finished? The one to Texas? Later? Even later? Later than that? Maybe… Maybe not…

OK, people. Here’s the deal. I think I’ve got it figured out. Just remember where you heard it first.

Premier Alison Redford, Finance Minister Doug Horner and all the rest of the Progressive Conservative Legislative caucus – except, of course, the 20 or so who are continually rumoured to be on the verge of forming a third right-wing party, joining the Wildrose or whatever – are on their knees nightly praying for oil prices to go up.

Oh Lord, deliver unto us a little tension in the Strait of Hormuz, especially if it bumps the price of oil up to $200-per-bbl. for a spell!

But like the small-c conservatives to whom He has granted dominion here in Alberta, God Himself may be undecided about this – if only because He’s receiving so many counter petitions from the Wildrose prayer room.

Father in Heaven, as You said, blessed are the peacemakers….

Given their base, it must just about kill the Wildrose brain trust to be praying for peace in the Middle East, but there you have it. Under the circumstances, there’s nothing else for it, End Times, Armageddon, prophecy or no!

From the Progressive Conservative perspective, if only the price of oil will go up, Ms. Redford and her government will be absolved from ever having to make any hard decisions. God will be in His heaven and a the rest of us will vote PC, so all will be right with the world.

In the mean time, the tough decisions can just keep receding over the horizon, so that while the image of tough management perseveres, the wailing and rending of garments usually associated with actually making difficult decisions is postponed, hopefully for all of eternity.

In the mean time, we’ll look busy by having an economic summit while we wait for a bitumen pipeline to anywhere to be completed – a process that with bad luck for the Tories and good luck for the environment could take a decade or more.

On the other hand, from the Wildrose point of view, if the current mildly depressed state of energy prices will linger only a few months more – we can all agree, I think, that barring the introduction of cold fusion plants this isn’t going to be a forever thing – the Tories will continue to look increasingly incompetent or will finally be forced to put up a target at which the Opposition can take potshots.

God forbid, the Wildrosers and the Tories most certainly agree, that a fair and sustainable tax regime be adopted. That way taxpayers might actually have a stake in their government – and could an NDP premier be far behind?

All I can say is it’s enough to make one long for the days when the CCF-NDP leadership seemed to have its own direct line to the Almighty – J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas, William Irvine, Stanley Knowles, Bill Blaikie, c’mon down!

So don’t expect any light, divine or otherwise, to be cast on what the tough choices are likely to be made in Alberta between now and Budget Day, March 7.

And don’t be too shocked if there are no hard choices in the Budget Speech either – only references to how they’re gonna be made, and soon, and how tough they’ll be when they are.

The economic summit will be after the Budget, but don’t be heartbroken if there are no hard decisions recommended by the lucky summiteers, whoever they turn out to be.

And so on, forever and ever, amen.

Thus endeth the lesson.

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Premier’s fireside chat: No fire, few facts, and no there there

Alberta Premier Alison Redford earnestly explains the “Bitumen Bubble” to TV viewers last night. Is that really a radio on the credenza? Below: Ms. Redford fades to Tory blue.

When Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s $55,000 fireside chat wrapped up after eight thoroughly unsatisfactory minutes last night, Albertans didn’t know anything substantive they hadn’t already known the night before.

Surely I wasn’t the only Albertan thinking, “That was it?”

OK, we’re going to have to make some hard choices – or have them made for us, more likely. But that much has been obvious for days.

But the information that really matters? To wit: what those choices are going to be. No sign of it.

So, after all that fuss, we don’t know anything we didn’t know the day before the suppertime TV broadcast but for a ballpark estimate of how much Ms. Redford’s brain trust thinks we’re going to be in the hole – $6 billion – and that the premier’s speechwriters don’t understand the bubble metaphor.

OK, let’s get that one out of the way right now. The problem isn’t a “bitumen bubble,” if in fact such a thing ever really existed expect in the feverish imaginations of the Progressive Conservative government’s scriptwriters. It’s that the bitumen bubble has burst.

So, let it be said here, the billion-dollar bitumen bubble metaphor, while mnemonically alliterative, is not going to go down in the Annals of Speechwriting – you know, like the “Axis of Evil,” which was a load of malarkey too, but had a ring to it for all that.

So what was missing from the premier’s one-sided “conversation” with us from her Calgary living room during what was officially billed as the State of the Province Message was any suggestion of what these tough choices we supposedly face might be.

“We have to put Alberta’s finances on a more stable footing,” Ms. Redford asserted. “A province as prosperous as Alberta should not be as susceptible as we are to the swings in the price of oil and gas.”

Well, no kidding! But since Ms. Redford and her government won’t consider the obvious tough choice, a modest increase in taxes and a restructuring of the provincial tax and resource royalty systems to restore some sustainability and fairness, it’s safe to assume the tough choices and sustainability measures she’s talking about involve cuts to government services Albertans value, and likely broken promises as well.

We’ll see, I guess … eventually.

Not any time soon, though, because it’s now apparent Ms. Redford and her strategists are not going to give us any hint about where those cuts will be made – at last until the March 7 budget – for fear, presumably, that we’ll organize effective campaigns to thwart their plans.

It also gives the Opposition no visible targets at which to snipe while the government figures out what to do next, so I suppose in that regard the effort can be described as a tactical success, if only for the moment.

Beyond that, though, about all we know is that the fact volatile commodities turned out to be … wait for it … volatile also came as a matter of astonishment to the Redford government. Indeed, Ms. Redford put some effort into making excuses about this – who could have known? – something that the local media to its credit actually picked up on.

But this is hardly anything new to Alberta Progressive Conservatives either. Who can forget Premier No. 13 Ed Stelmach’s gobsmacked wonderment that there’d been, of all things, a recession?

Not getting it that economies are cyclical, and that you can plan for the cycles, seems to be something that has eluded Tory big thinkers in this province for generations. Which is why, of course, we’re always plunging from the best of times into the worst of times, from the spring of hope into the winter of despair, when the least we should have been able to expect was the lingering summer of global warming!

So if you thought that selecting the brainy and well-educated Ms. Redford might bring a degree of economic competence to Alberta, you’re obviously facing a big disappointment. But you will get an economic summit!

When all was said and done last night, and Ms. Redford’s fireside chat was over, about all we could tell you is that there was no fire, and as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there was no there there.

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Uh-oh! Premier Alison Redford wants to have a ‘conversation’ with us

Fireside chats? Alberta Premier Alison Redford as she’ll likely see herself while softening up the province’s citizens for the March 7 Budget Speech on CTV tonight. Below: Ms. Redford as Albertans may see her. Below that: the real Ms. Redford; Conference Board Chief Economist Glen Hodgson.

Oh dear. Premier Alison Redford wants to have a “conversation” with us tonight.

Daddy’s new job at the convenience store doesn’t pay as much as the old one. We’re all going to have to tighten our belts a little, and that means you kids too. We’ve had to cancel the snow clearing service – so you’re going to have to shovel the walks yourselves if you still expect to get your allowance – and it will be smaller, so get used to it! There will be no trip to Hawaii this winter.

In an email to her remaining Progressive Conservative party faithful yesterday, Ms. Redford explained how, this evening, “I will begin a conversation with Albertans about the challenges we face as a result of the rapidly falling price of Alberta oil. As loyal party supporters, I wanted to let you know first.”

In this conversation, Ms. Redford explained, she will do all the talking. She’ll talk for eight minutes on CTV, right after the suppertime news. After that, as part of Alberta’s new reality, we’ll all go into the kitchen and help with the dishes. There will be no conversing.

“In this year’s budget,” the premier’s email to the party loyalists went on, “we’ll hold the line on our spending and we’ll live within our means.” But she also promised “to focus our spending on the priorities that you told me were important. And that is exactly what we’ll do.”

Addressing us this way retrieves from the provincial Tickle Trunk a homey old propaganda technique favoured in Alberta by long-ago premier Ralph Klein – the televised fireside message.

This was considered too lame even for premier Ed Stelmach, the kindly fellow who ran Alberta Inc. into the ground in the interregnum between Mr. Klein and Ms. Redford, but over at CTV right now they’re probably assembling the gas-fire set that Mr. Klein used to use when he had something serious to chat with us about. Interestingly, every clip and shot of Mr. Klein’s fireside chats seem to have been purged from the Interwebs!

Well, Alberta has a boom-and-bust economy that goes bust with metronomic regularity, but it’s still always sort of amazing the way it catches our PC masters by surprise every time it does. Plan for it? Why bother when we can have a fireside chat on CTV two weeks before the March 7 Budget Speech?

Brian Mason, the leader of Alberta’s New Democrats, adopted a more sinister tone than the premier yesterday, but his message nevertheless had the effect of reinforcing hers. “She promised Albertans in the election there would be no service cuts and she promised there would be no tax increases,” he told the Edmonton Journal, by the sound of it through gritted teeth. “She’s very likely to break both of those promises in this budget. I think the cuts we’re going to see are very serious.”

Indeed, the cuts already seem to be starting. Yesterday, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees announced it had been notified that 48 Licensed Practical Nurses’ jobs were being eliminated in Edmonton to accommodate a $3-million budget cut to Capital Care Inc., a directly owned long-term-care subsidiary of Alberta Health Services.

Insiders say the union expects similar cuts at CareWest, the AHS long-term-care subsidiary in Calgary, and possibly others at large not-for-profit seniors’ care operators.

Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne was unavailable for comment, conveniently out of the country while the LPNs got the bad news, doing a little chit-chatting himself with “the best European minds” in England and Ireland, two well-known paragons of health care management, with a side trip to Belgium for a convention. The AHS spokesman the media managed to dredge up claimed it was all part of a plan hatched long ago.

As for the province’s other political leaders, Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman just sounded put out that Ms. Redford wasn’t going to hold her conversation in the Legislature and Wildrose Opposition Leader Danielle Smith actually sounded as if she were cheerfully looking forward to the premier’s message – something to take shots at, maybe, or just a neoconservative predilection for service cuts perhaps.

Still, new Albertans are advised not to worry too much just yet. Those of us who have lived here for a while have all seen this show before – literally, back when it starred Mr. Klein.

It usually ends up to be an exercise in expectations management – a kind of reverse bait-and-switch scam that generations of Alberta Tory governments have perfected. First the bad news (that will be tonight), then the news that’s not quite as bad as everyone expected (that’ll be on March 7, accompanied by sighs of relief), and finally the return of happy days (a few months before the scheduled 2016 election).

If Alberta voters perform to expectations, we’ll then reelect the Tories by a landslide!

Meanwhile, in other news yesterday, the chief economist of the Conference Board of Canada, said it was time for Alberta to return to a grownup tax system that would make government operations and public services sustainable and reduce the impact of entirely predictable wild swings in commodity prices.

“Not having a provincial consumption or sales tax is highly popular and has been great politics, but it denies the provincial government a steady and stable source of revenue through the business cycle,” said Glen Hodgson in a research paper published yesterday.

Well, no kidding! But don’t hold your breath waiting for the Alberta PCs to adopt a sensible approach to taxation, especially with the far-right Wildrose Party breathing down their neck.

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Sun News Network pleads with anti-choice group to back its quest for ‘right to life’ subsidy

Sun News Network commentator back in the day complaining about how media outlets want the government to solve everything. This goes for Sun News Network and its financial problems too, it turns out. Below: Anti-choice Sun News commentator Michael Coren.

As part of its full-court press to get the CRTC to approve a better spot for it on the dial and give it access to direct subsidies from Canadian cable TV users, Sun News Network is begging anti-choice groups and their supporters to write the national broadcast regulator to support the far-right vanity broadcaster’s application.

“Sun News is the strongest voice for the pro-life cause on television in Canada. Bar none,” said Sun News commentator Brian Lilley in an interview with an anti-choice website called as part of the so-called news network’s plea to get letters written to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on its behalf.

“No one on television in this country gives as much airtime to pro-lifers,” Mr. Lilley told the website, which seems to be opposed to all forms of female reproductive choice as well as having a clearly homophobic agenda. “We shouldn’t let that voice be silenced.”

Mr. Lilley also claimed Sun News Network is fair to the “other side of the debate,” a risible assertion given the offensive and bullying interview style routinely adopted by the broadcaster’s commentators when dealing with people whose views they oppose.

Kory Teneycke, the former senior spokesperson in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office who now serves as a vice-president of the extremist broadcaster, told the anti-choice site that “we need to demonstrate a groundswell of support for Sun News, and the readers of LifeSiteNews can help.”

The site noted that one Sun News Network commentator, Michael Coren, hosts a weekly program with leaders of the so-called Campaign Life Coalition and referred favourably to commentaries on abortion by program host Ezra Levant, who is better known for his hateful rants against groups like people of Roma origin and supporters of the Idle No More movement.

The LifeSiteNews story repeats the Sun News Network’s questionable claim its desire for a public subsidy to cover its start-up loss of $17 million this year is a life or death proposition for its operations.

The subsidy Sun News Network is seeking now would add up to about $4 a year from all cable subscribers, or about $18 million a year initially.

Sun News and corporate owner Quebecor Inc. want the CRTC to grant it “mandatory carriage,” which means you couldn’t keep it off your TV dial no matter how many times Mr. Levant insults your mother’s virtue because it would be included in basic cable coverage everywhere in Canada.

The LifeSiteNews story does contain useful information, however, advising readers who wish to make a submission to the national broadcast regulator about the Sun News Network application to send it by Feb. 20 in a letter citing reference number 2012-0687-1 to CRTC, Ottawa, Ont., K1A 0N2. The letter should start or end with either “I request to appear at the public hearing” or “I do not want to appear at the public hearing.”

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Why is Alberta studying seniors’ care at the same time as it’s privatizing it?

Coming soon to seniors’ centres in Alberta, a new model of elder care? Below: Health Minister Fred Horne.

See correction below.

On Monday, Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne announced a year-long project to study seniors’ residential centres and figure out the best way to fund and run them.

Sounds good, lots of Albertans must have concluded, before getting on with their business confident the administration of seniors’ care under Premier Alison Redford is in good hands.

But if Mr. Horne and the provincial Health Department are really serious about assessing the financial sustainability of the 400 or so seniors’ facilities, weighing various funding models and exploring what type of services and programs they ought to offer, why is Alberta Health Services plunging ahead and closing publicly run seniors’ centres right and left, pushing the residents into private facilities?

If this were a serious public policy study, wouldn’t decisions that logically flow from the study’s conclusions need to wait until after it has been completed?

Yet since last summer, AHS has announced (as quietly as it can get away with) that it’s closing well-run public seniors’ centres in the communities of Carmangay, Bashaw, Grande Prairie and Stettler. Count on it there will be more to come in the weeks and months ahead.

In each case, elderly and vulnerable residents and their families have been told they have no choice but to move to a private-sector facility being built with government subsidies in the same community, or, in some cases, to be scattered to the four winds in locations right out of the community.

It is very difficult to avoid the conclusion Mr. Horne and the Redford Government have already made up their minds about what to do with the province’s publicly run seniors’ centres. Likewise, it is impossible to avoid the thought Alberta Health Services has already received its marching orders from the government and is getting out of the business of running seniors’ centres altogether.

If so, just for starters, what is the government doing spending even the insignificant sum of $70,800 of our tax money to get the University of Alberta and a couple of seniors’ organizations to “study” what to do next when they’ve already decided on a course of action? Is this the distraction before the sleight-of-hand illusion?

In fact, if you’ve been paying attention, it’s been perfectly clear since the Broda and Mazankowski reports in 2000 and 2002, led respectively by dependable Conservatives Dave Broda and Don Mazankowski, where Alberta’s Progressive Conservative government intends to go with seniors’ care.

And that place is not the excellent public care that Alberta seniors have enjoyed in the past, but mainly into private, for-profit facilities that are intended to move the costs of care from the public to individuals and their families.

In other words, they plan to “unbundle” health care and housing from one another to pass the costs of caring for the province’s most vulnerable citizens to their estates and their families – or, if you wanted to take a particularly cynical view of it, to redirect their modest estates from their families’ bank accounts to the wealthy operators of private, for-profit seniors’ residences.

To the market fundamentalist worldview, this makes sense – although the costs of running a private for-profit health care system for a vulnerable sector of the population are inevitably much higher and the quality of service delivered to residents will surely be worse.

Each of the four closings announced since last summer will result in an immediate decline in the quality of care when the re-designated facilities are no longer required to have a Registered Nurse on the premises at all times.

But at the heart of the Broda-Mazankowski approach is a long list of items and services that in publicly run facilities were covered by the operator but which now will have to be paid by residents and their families: call bells, laundry, furniture, medical supplies and equipment, diabetic supplies and equipment, dressings, personal care supplies, dental care, vision care, glasses, medically required transportation, snacks, and of course, pharmaceuticals. The costs can run to thousands of dollars a year.

In additions, under the new model, many services that were provided on site – physiotherapy, rehabilitation, Registered Nurses, physician visits and recreational activities – are all likely to move to more expensive and inconvenient locations off site.

The costs to taxpayers, it is said here, will not decline as much as the government claims or imagines – but instead of helping citizens, the cash will go into the pockets of wealthy businesspeople.

It’s enough to make one pine for the days when Stephen Duckett, the Australian PhD health economist with a professionally fatal addiction to cookies, ran Alberta Health Services. For all his sins, at least he understood that from both cost and social perspectives, it made better sense to keep seniors’ care in the public health care system.

Undoubtedly, he was told to drop that idea poste haste by his boss, the health minister of the day.

There were also some rather mysterious references in Mr. Horne’s remarks Monday to what “the untapped capacity of senior centres might be across the province” might be.

What do you want to bet that what he has in mind might be as places to locate the Redford Government’s much ballyhooed but likewise vaguely defined “family care centres”?

If this speculation is true, it would provide a plausible excuse to further subsidize the operations of the for-profit landlords, and perhaps also offer a justification for banning strikes by their unionized employees – who, as things stand, can’t legally strike at publicly run seniors’ centres but can walk off the job at the privatized facilities this government is hell-bent on encouraging.

The bottom line – an appropriate enough a metaphor given the circumstances – is that notwithstanding its commitment to public primary health care, this government continues to be dedicated to the wholesale privatization of long-term care for seniors in Alberta.

If that makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t look to the Wildrose Party for help, because they stand for exactly the same thing – plus the privatization of whole swaths of primary care.

If Albertans want to protect the excellent system of seniors’ care enjoyed by previous generations, they are going to have to elect political parties that are genuinely committed to the idea caring for the elderly is part of health care. I don’t think I have to tell you who that would be!

CORRECTION: I am reliably informed (as readers can see in the comments section) that the seniors’ centres referred to by Health Minister Fred Horne that this study will be looking at are community centres, not long-term care centres. This is my error and I own it. However, most of the points made in this piece about the seniors’ care model in Alberta are valid, so, rather than a tortured rewrite or a craven retreat, I’m just going to leave the piece stand with this correction. Alberta Diary, as the saying goes, regrets the error … and so do I. DJC

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With no market for hate and right-wing drivel, Sun News comes cap in hand for public subsidy

More gruel, sir? The face of Sun News Network that Sun News Network would like you to see as they beg for public subsidies. Below: The real face of Sun News Network.

Sun News Network, that fearless foe of state subsidies for the CBC, wants you, Dear Television Viewer, to directly subsidize it to the tune of $18 million a year.

Have no doubt, that’s just the beginning, but it would nicely cover losses the company says now amount to a modest $17 million a year – hardly a corporate killer, one would think, but apparently enough to get Sun News queuing up at the public trough.

It turns out, as others have discovered before them (Ted Byfield, c’mon down!) that there’s not much of a market in Canada for the kind of market fundamentalist pap Sun News peddles – at least when consumers have the choice not to pay for it.

There’s even less of a market, by the sound of it, for the filthy language and outright hate-mongering indulged in by some of the network’s so-called commentators.

Given the opportunity to choose to watch Sun TV, viewers run away in droves. And who can blame them with boring drivel like Ezra Levant’s regular venomous rants about the Roma, Idle No More protesters, Hispanic business executives, environmentalists and anyone else who provokes his ill-managed anger to fill the seemingly interminable 24-hour broadcast day?

Now the so-called news channel, which disseminates anything but news, has gone with its grubby cap in hand to one of Mr. Levant’s targets, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, to beg for the right to inject its poison directly into almost every Canadian home because it desperately needs the wholesale revenue that would then automatically flow back into its coffers.

To put this in broadcast-speak, Sun News and its separatist bosses at Quebecor Inc. want the CRTC to grant it “mandatory carriage,” which means you can’t keep it off your TV dial because it would be included in basic cable coverage everywhere in Canada. That way, I guess, it’ll be easier for them to campaign against opposition parties led by committed federalists from Quebec, of which there will soon be two.

In the normal course of events, a broadcast regulatory agency like the CRTC is the sort of group that would provoke one of Mr. Levant’s trademark jeremiads, complete with accusations it is staffed by civil servants itching to help out “union bosses” by “censoring” his harangues.

But for the moment, Mr. Levant and the chorus of right-wing hysterics employed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s semi-official and ideologically approved state broadcaster are silent on the topic of the CRTC while they direct their supplications to it for a flow of public subsidies to be directed their way.

You see, Sun News Network is going deeper into the hole every day, with erstwhile Harper Government spokesthingy Kory Teneycke, now a vice-president of his former boss’s favourite network, pleading that opening the money tap “is live or die for us.”

For its part, the company claims it has market research that shows viewers would watch its programs if only they knew where to find them. But this is highly suspect, since cable companies push packages that include the network and viewers aren’t biting.

The fact is, if you wish, you can get a well-run focus group to endorse a ham sandwich for prime minister – which, come to think of it, is pretty much what Sun News Network spends its days doing right now to the minuscule audience of angry white gun-owning males and zitty-faced Internet trolls it has managed to attract so far.

The subsidy Sun News Network is seeking now would add up to about $4 a year from all cable subscribers to directly subsidize hate and propaganda, but you can count on it that, in the manner of all their ilk, the corporation will soon be back at the well for more.

So tell me, with Sun News imploring a federal agency for a quick infusion of cash from hard-pressed taxpayers, granted in the form of a bogus “user fee,” where’s the always noisy Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation? They’re like the proverbial cop, I guess, never around when you actually need them.

Regardless, according to the Globe and Mail, Sun News faces “stiff odds” in this effort, seeing as there are lots of other more credible and creditable broadcasters vying for the 10 channels that must be carried by all cable companies.

But Harper cronies and sympathizers are now deeply embedded in key positions at the CRTC and it has a proven track record of backing down and running away from confrontation with Sun News, as when the broadcast regulator hastily dropped its investigation of Mr. Levant’s on-air obscenities last fall after the network issued a vague and insincere apology.

Given all that, I don’t think we can count on the CRTC not to agree to put the Tory back into regulatory.

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