All posts in Alberta Politics

Outgoing Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock: 17 years of going along to get along

Another fine mess? No, no, it was a Bitumen Bubble that caused it! Really! Dave Hancock, left, shown explaining cuts to post-secondary education, imposed by Alison Redford, right, back when the bitumen was bubbling. Actual Redford Government officials may not have appeared exactly as illustrated. Below: The real Mr. Hancock, who leaves Alberta politics after 17 years later today.

As I flew back into Alberta airspace the day before yesterday, it seemed as if tout le monde political Alberta was bidding the fondest of farewells to departing Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock, who announced on Friday he would not only be quitting as first minister today, but stepping down as the MLA for Edmonton-Whitemud as well.

This clears the decks for Jim Prentice, who by the time many of you read this will have been sworn in as premier of Alberta, albeit one not yet a member of the Legislature.

It makes way for Mr. Prentice to step into the top job, of course, plus it opens up a riding in which one of the new premier’s promised star candidates can highlight the government’s potential for the real change as he tries to revivify the moribund Progressive Conservative dynasty.

After all, the unelected Mr. Prentice can only appoint unelected cabinet ministers for so long before Parliamentary pundits start to pontificate and the public grows restive and suspicious they’re being had.

Well, Mr. Hancock was always accommodating to a fault when it came to the wishes of his party’s leaders, although in this case it’s likely what he wanted too. Everyone expects a swift judicial appointment to reward the outgoing premier pro tem before any other government has the opportunity to meddle with it.

I actually used up my cell phone data allocation for the latest billing period sitting in Victoria airport reading the tsunami of anodyne platitudes about how much we’re going to miss Mr. Hancock from such unlikely sources as opposition politicians and union leaders, not to mention journalists who really ought to know better.

Indeed, the whole thing had the tone of a funeral oration – but it is not that, luckily for Mr. Hancock, and there’s no superstition or convention against speaking ill of the recently resigned. So forgive me, then, for stating what ought to be obvious:

Mr. Hancock – who really struck one as a person who understood what was the honourable, smart and decent thing to do in most circumstances – typically stood by uncritically while the PC government to which he was so loyal behaved unconscionably.

He handled every portfolio he was given competently enough, although it’s safe to say he’ll not be remembered for a single outstanding policy.

Here was a man who never stepped up and exercised his undoubted authority as the party’s respected elder statesman to urge either premier Ed Stelmach or premier Alison Redford to slow down when they were driving their governments, in their respective ways, into the proverbial guardrail.

He was one of the few people who could have said, “Enough is enough. This needs to stop now.” Instead, he fulfilled the role of enabler in chief, especially to Ms. Redford.

Here was was an Edmonton MLA the government could roll out to explain and defend any bill or policy that hurt Edmonton. An unconstitutional attack on the government’s own employees? There was nary a word of anything but justification from Mr. Hancock.

So while his job may have been to put out fires, and he was pretty good at it, we also need to remember – ungracious as it may seem to do so at the moment he steps off the stage – he was a key part of the team that lit them.

Tom Lukaszuk got to wear the Redford Government’s massive “Bitumen Bubble” cuts to post-secondary education, which hurt Edmonton’s University of Alberta more than any other institution. Mr. Hancock, who knew better, stood by and said nothing.

At the end of his political career, the whole thing looks like not much more than a long exercise in damage control, publicly justifying the worst excesses of his party’s leaders and cabinet. There was never a plan so bad, a policy so excessive, that Mr. Hancock wouldn’t stand up and defend it.

Well, there’s something to be said for being a good soldier, I guess, but when it comes to writing hagiographies, it doesn’t really provide very promising material.

It should be no surprise Mr. Hancock is on the way out. Regardless of his wishes or his judicial ambitions, if Mr. Prentice’s government really is going to offer a fresh start, a man like Mr. Hancock has no place in it.

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Cabinet making in a shallow talent pool: what’s Alberta’s Jim Prentice going to do?

The Alberta Tory talent pool in 2014. Shallow, and not much fun for the guy in charge. Actual Alberta PC leaders may not appear as illustrated. Below: The real Mr. Jim Prentice. Main photo grabbed from the Internet.

Never mind the transition team. What about the cabinet?

It’s not just a question of who will be in Alberta Premier Select Jim Prentice’s minimalist new pre-general-election Progressive Conservative cabinet – Ken Hughes, c’mon down! – but who won’t be.

It’s also a question of who gets stiffed, regionally speaking: Calgary, Edmonton, or the countryside – which has already gone over to the Wildrose insurgency?

Cabinet making before the high-profile candidates Mr. Prentice has promised can step up to the plate is a serious political problem for the new Tory leader, made no easier by his promise to keep the size of his cabinet small.

All small-c conservative leaders make this promise at the start of their terms, by the way, because it seems fiscally responsible to people who aren’t paying much attention, a large cohort of citizens otherwise known as “voters.”

All of them eventually break it, because it’s hard to run a cabinet government with a ministry that’s too small, and because the exigencies of the Westminster single-member system demand regions and voter groups get their voice in cabinet. In the end, it’s easier to try to deke out voters than offend special and regional interests.

Disgraced former premier Alison Redford was atypical in that she actually attempted to game the electorate, by having a big cabinet but pretending it was small by not counting so-called associate ministers who (allegedly) reported to a senior minister. It was all pre-captured carbon smoke from a diminishing supply of dry ice, and mirrors that were later requisitioned for the use in two bathrooms of the Sky Palace.

For Mr. Prentice, it’s going to be the second big challenge after getting a seat as an MLA for himself, which won’t be easy since voters are itching to teach his Tories a thing or two and the Opposition parties are likely to waive the traditional free ride given to a new government leader.

So, getting back to the cabinet – the one he has to put together from the current extremely shallow pool of talent…. Mr. Hughes will likely be in it because he’s competent and because he did Mr. Prentice a favour by dropping out of the leadership race when asked to do so by the Prentice campaign.

But the other three members of the Legislative 4H Club – Dave Hancock, Doug Horner, and Fred Horne – together pose a bigger problem for the new premier.

They’re all reasonably competent, and this is not something you can say about a majority of the members of the current PC caucus. Indeed, with two or three exceptions, they may be about the only competent people Mr. Prentice has got left. So, in that regard, he can hardly afford to do without them.

On the other hand, they’re all politically tainted, having played big roles in the Redford Government, so he risks big trouble if he has anything to do with them.

When he took over as premier pro tempore after Ms. Redford was fired by her own caucus, Mr. Hancock became the chief excuse maker for the sins of the Redford Regime. Everybody wishes him well on the bench or wherever he ends up post election, but at this point he’s hardly an asset to the party he served for so long.

Mr. Horne’s the man who canned the entire Alberta Health Services board, an error of judgment so grave Mr. Prentice made complaining about it and promising to fix it major plank in his platform. He can hardly invite Mr. Horne back, especially to the health portfolio, without looking like a genuine pratt.

Mr. Horner’s the fellow who came up with Alberta’s novel method of making confusing separate Finance Department reports for operating expenses, capital expenses and savings, which almost everybody else seems to hate … even Mr. Prentice. On the other hand, he’s been loyally supporting Mr. Prentice’s campaign – loyal support being something Mr. Horner seems to specialize in.

What to do? Mr. Prentice can hardly throw the old crowd under the bus at the same time as he’s putting some of them back in the driver’s seat. Maybe he’ll pick one and symbolically toss out the other two

If he keeps many of the 4H crowd around, it’ll certainly be hard to distinguish Mr. Prentice’s cabinet from Mr. Hancock’s – which was all but identical to Ms. Redford’s until the leadership race began and infrastructure minister Ric McIver and labour minister (and former deputy premier) Thomas Lukaszuk dropped out to run against Mr. Prentice.

So what about those two? They did poorly in the leadership race because they were tarnished with the sins of the Redford Government – Mr. Lukaszuk for his “Bitumen Bubble” cuts to post-secondary education even before the details of his cellular phone bill hit the fan mid-campaign; Mr. McIver for his murky role in the Sky Palace affair (did he approve it, or stop it?) and the hinky feeling his social conservative connections obviously gave a lot of party members.

With Messrs. McIver and Lukaszuk, Mr. Prentice is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. If they all kiss and make up, cabinet will look like the same old sinners. If they don’t, the new premier will look like a graceless winner. I’d say the second option’s the better one from an optical perspective.

Other than that, well, there’s West Yellowhead MLA Robin Campbell, who has already been appointed to Mr. Prentice’s transition team. It never hurts to have a little union common sense in your cabinet, something Mr. Campbell can provide as a former local president of the United Mine Workers of America union.

Also look for Calgary-Greenway’s Manmeet Bhullar to remain in cabinet, and maybe rise up a notch or two – after all, he’s seemed like a bit of a comer for a while now, and he jumped onto the Prentice bandwagon even before Mr. Prentice was on it!

But after them, who’s left? Peter Sandhu? Mike Allen? David Xiao? Neil Brown? No, scratch the last two – the former plans to run for the federal Conservatives next year and the latter has agreed to step aside so Mr. Prentice can run in a by-election in his Calgary-MacKay-Nose Hill riding.

And Mr. Prentice’s high-profile celebrity candidates? They won’t be around until after the election, and the worse it looks for the Tories, the harder they’re going to be to recruit.

Well, as George W. Bush’s secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, famously observed: “You go to war with the army you have – not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

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Who’s likely to be in, and to be out…

Here are some educated guesses – mine and those of some friends with similar interests – on whom Jim Prentice might remove from cabinet, plus those he’ll leave in or add to his first (and possibly last) pre-general-election ministry. No bets on what portfolios they might get, though. That’s just asking too much, even of a “pundit.” DJC


Jonathan Denis, Calgary-Acadia – Minister Jono? Shurely not!

Dave Hancock, Edmonton-Whitemud – he’s already been the premier (pro tempore), he wouldn’t want the job anyway, but others say he’ll stay in his old Education portfolio, a la Joe Clark

Fred Horne, Edmonton-Rutherfordgone from Health for sure, probably from cabinet as well

Doug Horner, Spruce Grove-St. Albert – certainly as finance minister, probably from cabinet

Thomas Lukaszuk, Edmonton-Castle Downs – he is from Edmonton, but nobody who matters in Edmonton likes him, and with fewer than 3,000 votes in the leadership race, he has no leverage


Manmeet Bhullar, Calgary-Greenway – he’s performed well and, as noted, jumped on the Prentice bandwagon before Mr. Prentice did, so he can expect a big promotion to one of the top posts

Robin Campbell, West Yellowhead – he’s on the transition team, he’ll also get an important portfolio

Ron Casey, Banff-Cochrane – the former mayor of Canmore is the only rural PC MLA south of Drayton Valley

Ken Hughes, Calgary-West – the man for whom Alison Redford cleared the decks, and who cleared the decks for Jim Prentice

Matt Jeneroux, Edmonton-South West – young, different, looks good on TV and is pretty smart

Donna Kennedy-Glans, Calgary Varsity – quit the Tories, assailed Ms. Redford and now wants back in, plus she has high-level connections with the oil industry

Jason Luan, Calgary-Hawkwood – new face, well liked, former public employee

Ric McIver, Calgary-Hays – they like him in south Calgary, so he may squeak in

Dianna McQueen, Drayton Valley-Devon – at risk, but probably to be kept around with a demotion

Steve Young, Edmonton-Riverview – a congenial former cop, bashed Alison Redford publicly, welcome to cabinet

How many PC memberships were given away? It’s time to get to know the known unknowns of the leadership campaign

Alberta’s PCs are smiling today as Jim Prentice, at right, takes over the helm of the RMS Titanic Tory. Actual just-elected leaders of the Progressive Conservative Party may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: The real Jim Prentice as he appeared surrounded by media last night. (Photo by Dave Cournoyer, used with permission.)


So, c’mon guys, how many of those 23,386 Progressive Conservative Party memberships were actually purchased by someone, and how many were given away?

Will the PC Party under Mr. Prentice, committed to transparency and integrity as its new leader says it is, want to make this information public as soon as possible as a gesture of good citizenship and a mature approach to governing?

Since neither candidate Ric McIver nor Tomas Lukaszuk had a policy of giving away memberships to their supporters, the number of freebie memberships should be an easy figure to come up with. Mr. Prentice’s campaign knows how many they gave away. All they have to do is tell us and we’ll have a number pretty close to the bottom line.

How about it? “My election of the leader of this party marks the beginning of a commitment to integrity and acceptance of responsibility in this province,” Mr. Prentice told the small crowd of supporters at Edmonton’s EXPO Centre after his victory was announced last night. “This must apply, ladies and gentlemen, to the government of Alberta, but first and foremost it must apply to our party.” (Emphasis added.)

If they won’t, I guess we can figure that, notwithstanding the latest claims to the contrary, it’s Tory business as usual.

It’s possible, of course, that more memberships were given away than ballots were actually cast. Not everyone who got a free membership will have bothered to vote, just as not every Albertan who actually paid for one will have bothered to cast a ballot either. If that happened, it would be embarrassing for the party.

Many also tried and couldn’t vote in balloting fraught with problems, said to be technical in nature.

So there’s no way to figure out to the exact decimal point how much impact the Prentice campaign’s free memberships had on the outcome of the race, given the shockingly low number of people who voted – 23,386, compared to more than 144,000 in 2006. Still, this information would provide some very useful insights.

You wouldn’t think it would bother them to tell us, seeing as they insisted during the campaign that giving away party memberships was standard operating procedure in most campaigns. We’ll see.

It would also be interesting to know if there’s anything to that persistent rumour that a very large number of memberships came during the campaign from a single IP address in Calgary. We’ll see about how far anyone gets with that one, too.

After Mr. Prentice’s victory yesterday, the Opposition parties could barely suppress their glee at the disastrous state of the PC Party as it tries to find its way away from the trail of devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Alison, the worst political storm to hit Alberta in a generation.

Everyone congratulated Mr. Prentice on his appointment as captain of the foundering vessel once known as the unsinkable RMS Titanic Tory. But they all moved pretty quickly to describing the circumstances in which Mr. Prentice takes the helm.

“The Progressive Conservatives have voted in a new leader but the party itself cannot change its political stripes,” said NDP Leader Brian Mason, as his own retirement as leader of the province’s Knee-Dippers looms. “The PC party is broken and after 43 years in power, the PC dynasty is crumbling. It is my hope that now that this leadership race is over we can return our focus to the issues that matter to Albertans, and away from the petty mud-slinging and infighting that we’ve seen from the PCs over the last few months.”

Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said much the same: “This has been one of the most bitter and divisive leadership races in recent years, which made all but the most die-hard PC supporters realize that this old, tired party is quite simply out of ideas, out of touch with the needs and sensibilities of modern Albertans, and outright obsessed with clinging to power at all costs. … What Alberta really needs is a change in government.” Dr. Sherman should know. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago he was a member of the PC cabinet himself.

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, the politician most like to lead any change in government, also weighed in after a quick congratulation: “Mr. Prentice has a tremendous road ahead of him in order to rebuild trust with Albertans and get a grip on a government that has spiralled out of control. Albertans will now look to him to start repairing the government’s damaged reputation and making progress on the many challenges we face as a province.” Her implication was clear: fat chance!

These are assessments, I suspect, that are widely shared by many voters. Indeed, a revealing comment left on last night’s blog echoes the thoughts of all the opposition party leaders and illustrates, I believe, a common perception of many seniors and rural residents, once core centres of Tory support.

“This so-called election was nothing more than a scam by the PC Party of Alberta’s top brass,” wrote Harry E. Stuart. “My reasons for feeling that way: when I tried to get a PC Membership so that I could vote, nothing was made available in my hometown of Rimbey … The PC Party of Alberta have said to hell with small town Alberta and seniors in general.”

Well, inquiring minds want to know about the process that brought Mr. Prentice to the premiership. Surely all Albertans have a stake in knowing this information.

The known unknowns of the PC leadership campaign, like the number of free memberships handed out, and to whom, are bound to become key issues in the by-election Mr. Prentice must win if he is to be able to lead his party from inside the Legislature, and not from the distant confines of the Members’ Gallery above, not to mention in the general election that must follow.

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Prentice in a walk – but the low voter turnout tells the real story about the fate of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives

Jim Prentice, the winner in the Tory leadership race, makes the traditional Nixonian gesture of victory. Photo grabbed, with permission, from Dave Cournoyer’s blog.


Well! That’s it then. Jim Prentice in a walk, the first time the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party has actually chosen the frontrunner in the past three leadership races, maybe four if you count Ralph Klein.

My phone chirped the results to me from the floor of the EXPO Centre in Edmonton at 6:54 p.m. Alas, I’m in exile in a disturbingly sunny and warm Victoria, B.C., so if you want coverage from the floor, you’re going to have to visit

The numbers were a wipeout for Mr. Prentice in one key regard – 17,963 votes compared with 2,742 for Ric McIver and 2,681 for Thomas Lukaszuk, and I’ll bet you Mr. Lukaszuk wished he’d managed to rustle up a 65 or so more!

It must have been those fund-raising numbers that swayed the remaining die-hard PC supporters to plump for the former banker, lobbyist and federal cabinet minister from Calgary. Plus, of course, his ability to claim he had nothing to do with the government of Alison Redford.

Mr. Lukaszuk and Mr. McIver were stuck with the fact they’d been members of fired former premier Alison Redford’s cabinet, their reputations tarnished like everything else she touched.

But that was good enough to call it a landslide, which was what the local media proceeded to do.

The numbers were a wipeout of Mr. Prentice, though, in another important regard – he fell just a little short of his benchmark of a total of 100,000 memberships to be sold by his campaign alone, dontcha think?

This lack of interest is a big problem for Mr. Prentice and the Tories and shows just how much damage Alison Redford did during her short reign to the once esteemed PC brand.

In 2006, 144,000 Albertans voted on the second ballot in the party leadership race that vaulted Ed Stelmach past frontrunner Jim Dinning to the province’s top political job. About 133,000 of them hung in for the final ballot, which put Mr. Stelmach over the top.

By 2011, 78,000 voted on the second ballot, helping to push the catastrophic Ms. Redford past frontrunner Gary Mar.

Now the numbers of people who think the PC leadership race is worth participating in are down to 23,000 and change? And many of those voters didn’t even pay for their memberships? C’mon! This hardly augurs well for the future of the PC Dynasty, 43 years old and everyone’s counting.

Indeed, what it says clearly is that Albertans no longer think of the PCs as their Natural Governing Party. The lack of interest also suggests voters who in the past might have thought the PC race was their only chance to influence the province’s leadership think they’ll have a real choice next time, or can hardly wait to see the PCs gone.

Mr. Prentice’s main job is to turn that around. He has two years to do it, less really. Recent events in Ontario and here in British Columbia have proven this is possible, but it’s got to be a long shot in trouble as deep as the Alberta Tories.

His first big job, though, is going to be just getting elected in a by-election so that he can run the party from inside the Legislature. There is no guarantee that Mr. Prentice will succeed even at this – although, at least thanks to his proven fund-raising capabilities, the PCs will have money to throw at the problem.

But count on it, the opposition parties will throw everything they’ve got at him in the by-election, wherever it takes place. And with the results Mr. Prentice got from his $1.8 million raised, he might have been smarter to hold union-style pizza meetings!

Well, what more can I say? I’m going for a swim. By the time I get back to Alberta, it’ll probably be snowing.

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That Portrait of a Certain Lady: a bargain for Albertans at $12,000? Or not?

Is this what Alison Redford’s official portrait is going to look like? Below: Ms. Redford as she might have been seen by Pablo Picasso or Gustav Klimt. We can do better, people!


“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray 

While we all wait for tomorrow night to see if fund-raising prowess or something else motivates Alberta Progressive Conservative Party members, let’s engage in a little creative thought about public support for the arts where the oil hits the canvas, at the nexus of politics and paint.

Specifically, let’s talk about those portraits of the premiers that are lately arousing the passion of Albertans, which naturally have turned out to focus on the price of everything and the value of nothing.

If it’s the ability to raise funds, by the way, that impresses PC Party members, then Jim Prentice will win the leadership and the premiership of Alberta in a walk tomorrow – he raised more than twice as much as candidates Ric McIver and Thomas Lukaszuk combined, apparently without breaking into a sweat.

But if it was just fundraising ability that won the hearts of Alberta Tories, they wouldn’t have picked Ed Stelmach over Jim Dinning or Alison Redford over Gary Mar, would they? And if they’d picked Mr. Dinning or Mr. Mar, whatever else might have happened, it has to be said that not only would the party have raised more money and had less turnover at the top, but when the premier finally got around to quitting we might have had better portraits hanging in the Legislature.

Here’s the thing. We have this custom in Alberta – which befits a place where governments rule for a long, long time – that when premiers leave office, they get a painted portrait on the wall of the Legislative Building’s third floor. By tradition – and any tradition in a place that’s only been a province since 1905 is by definition a recent one – the premier gets to pick the artist.

For one reason or another, we’ve had a lot of premiers lately and so the paintings and their cost have become an issue with voters.

But for whatever reason – possibly because Albertans are instinctively too polite or doubt their own ability to make judgments about art – the quality of the paintings, for which the public pays their freight, and the ability of most premiers to pick artists appropriate for a substantial public investment, have not appeared on the public’s radar.

This is a pity because, to be blunt, recent choices haven’t been very good.

It’s said here we’re both paying too much and not paying enough for these paintings. We’re paying too much for art that’s not very good, and we’re not paying enough for art that’s worth supporting. This is proof of the axiom that in Alberta politics you really can have it all, just not in a good way.

Back in the day, when Social Credit leader Harry Strom was premier, we got something akin to Socialist Realism – perhaps we’d be better to describe it as Social Credit Realism. Whatever, it was OK. Things have been going downhill since.

The last two? Terrible. Calgary-based Xin Yu Zheng’s painting of Ralph Klein, done from photographs, is in my view cartoonish, but at least it has a little life. Edmonton-based Tunde Vari’s portrait of Ed Stelmach seemed to me to be both cartoonish and lifeless – as if it had been illustrated for a 1950s kids’ comic book about a worthy cause, the sort of thing young people couldn’t reasonable expected to read a normal book about. You know, like Alberta History or Great Art.

We can’t yet see what Ms. Redford’s choice of artist will do with the former premier’s portrait, exactly, because it hasn’t been painted yet, but we can see what else Liela Chan has done by looking at her web page and I’m afraid the auguries are not promising. Her paintings make me think of greeting cards of the cute variety.

What gives me the right to be an art critic? In this regard, I’m at least as qualified as Mr. Klein, Mr. Stelmach and Ms. Redford, I guess.

Face it, people, if we chose other examples of important public art the same way – say large sculptures in front of a major public building – it would legitimately be a scandal. But because the premier’s own image is involved, we seem to think it’s OK for the premier to pick his or her own imageer.

Well, that dog won’t hunt!

Worse, we’ve set a baseline price of $12,000 on the project based on what Mr. Klein has us pay for his portrait, a sum too low for the work of an artist worth supporting with public funds to complete what is bound to be a historically important commission.

We can, and should, do better, and the first step is to stop letting the premiers pick their own artists if they’re going to use public money.

Yes, there needs to be a certain degree of sympathy between the artist and her subject. But you can go too far with that sort of thing. As Oscar Wilde wisely pointed out in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.”

So let the premier pick his portraitist from a selection of qualified artists chosen by a jury of people at least vaguely qualified to make such picks.

It’s true that such juries tend to be too cautious – which is why a selection of artists with the final call made by the subject of the portrait inserts an interestingly unpredictable element into the mix.

But public support for the arts is too important, and public paintings of premiers are too important too, to merely be left to the whim their subjects.

If we’re going to do that, we should adopt the practice of the good people here in British Columbia, where I am in temporary exile, and just pay a couple of hundred bucks for a nice photograph.

Let’s end the lesson with Oscar again: “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” Let’s invest in useless things are intensely admirable!

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The push-polls prove it again, Canadians hate unions … really, really, really they do! Happy Labour Day

The past is a foreign country: Labour Day in Vancouver, not so long ago. Below: The workers, united, will never be defeated! The goal of union “transparency,” “worker choice,” “right to work” and other Orwellian right-wing buzzwords is to ensure the workers are never united and always defeated. Below that: Stephen Kushner, president of the anti-union Merit Contractors Association.


NOTE TO READERS: Since the Alberta chapter of the Merit Contractors Association, a group of non-union construction companies, seems to have recycled much of its past opinion survey and press release on union “transparency,” I thought I’d recycle most of my 2012 post responding to nearly identical claims made by the same group. Remember, it’s not plagiarism if you’re only plagiarizing yourself.

When I was a kid growing up in British Columbia in the 1950s, there was a holiday at the end of the summer called “Labour Day” on which Canadians celebrated the vast contribution of working people to the past, present and future of our great country.

Unions, groups of working people who pooled their modest individual strength to bargain collectively and ensure that a fair share of the great wealth they created ended up in the hands of ordinary families, would sometimes gather for picnics on this holiday, which was tinged with true patriotism, and sing songs.

One of those songs, a particular favourite in those long-ago days, went like this: “It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade; Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid; Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made; But the union makes us strong….”

Well, those days are gone – the part about “but the union makes us strong,” anyway – and I can almost hear many of you, dear readers, silently mouthing “Thank God!”

Today, our Tea Party of Canada government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper is dedicated to signing “trade agreements” that ensure high-paying Canadian jobs are exported as quickly as possible to more efficient foreign jurisdictions, such as China, the role of public education is well on its way to being outsourced to corporate shills, and the final long weekend of our short Canadian summer is devoted to what might be called the Seventy-Two Hour Hate, a three-day frenzy of official and media sponsored loathing for the weakened vestiges of the labour movement.

Oddly enough, though, this occasion is still known as “Labour Day.”

This year, as in the recent past, we are marking Labour Day 2014 with the traditional publication in the media of “studies” by right-wing think tanks that “prove” how we’d all be better off if there were no unions, no pensions and no public health care, as well as with a “new” poll that purports to show everyone is in agreement that unions are at best an irrelevant anachronism, at worst an outright menace.

OK, enough with the sarcasm. The survey was conducted for the Merit Contractors Association, a group that describes itself as “the voice of open shop construction in Alberta.” Open shop, in this context, means non-union and prepared to do pretty well anything to stay that way.

The poll was conducted by Innovative Research Group, Merit said in its press release on Friday, which otherwise was little different from statements it has made about similar polls conducted for the association by other pollsters in the past.

The survey purports to show, in the words of Merit President Stephen Kushner, that “Albertans have a strong desire for labour reform on union fiscal transparency, worker choice and a fair and equitable labour market.”

Now, two points need to be made about this statement:

  1. Merit’s claims about the survey are hard to verify because the group has not provided us with access to a copy of the poll and the questions asked of respondents.
  2. Several of the phrases in Mr. Kushner’s statement, which may have been used in the poll, are coded expressions that do not mean what they appear to say. “Union fiscal transparency” means forcing unions to comply with expensive reporting rules more severe than those required of corporations and other organizations. “Worker choice” means effectively depriving workers of the choice of being union members. “A fair and equitable labour market” means U.S. style “right to work” laws that make it impossible for unions to operate.

In the past, this poll was conducted for Merit by another pollster that provided details about the questions asked and the number of respondents. It was possible to argue based on that information that the poll was a “push-poll” that asked questions clearly designed to make unions look bad, thereby leading respondents to the obvious “correct” conclusions about how to deal with that badness.

Deprived of this information about the current poll, it is impossible to say that this is also a push poll. However, the probability, given Merit’s history and well-known position, plus the loaded terminology repeated in Mr. Kushner’s news release, is quite high that the results of the 2014 poll are not a legitimate measure of public opinion.

Unlike its previous pollster, which had a reputation for serious public opinion research and was taken to task publicly for its role in promoting a push-poll, Innovative Research Group appears from its website to be principally a public relations firm specializing in issues management, corporate communications and fund-raising. This is not a comment on the quality of its public opinion research, of course, because we do not have an example of the work to comment on.

Merit has not yet responded to my request, made Friday afternoon as soon as I became aware of their news release, for more information about the poll. Perhaps they left work early to enjoy the Labour Day weekend.

Regardless, it is easy to get poll respondents to say they support “transparency” of union finances – a position for which an argument can be made.

However, I can guarantee you that with the right loaded questions it would be similarly easy to get like results in a poll asking about the benefits of financial transparency for governments, private corporations doing business with the public, public and private employers during negotiations, far-right “think tanks” and, just for one more example, non-union construction employers’ lobby groups. A good argument can be made for all these ideas as well.

Similarly, one could use push-poll questions to elicit responses that would allow us to confidently state that a majority of Canadians, including people who work in management, support a ban on corporate political donations and an end to charitable status for corporate think tanks that engage in constant political advocacy.

Be that as it may, most Merit Contractors members are virulently anti-union small construction firms that have banded together to pool their strength and lobby collectively (you know, like a union) for laws that would make it much more difficult for unions to organize Merit employees and represent them effectively. As a necessary sideline, they make a big effort to persuade the public that this is a good idea.

At any rate, for all their rhetoric about “choice” and “freedom” and their alleged concern for the rights of working people, I think it’s fair to say that Merit members’ principal interests in this are avoiding the inconvenience of dealing with unions generally as well as finding ways to compete with larger, often more successful, unionized contractors.

If they can recast their competitive struggles as a fight for “worker rights” and see the imposition of legislation that also makes it harder for their chief competitors to operate as they do now, perhaps they can increase they market share.

I wonder if IRG has done any parallel – and methodologically similar – polls on how many Albertans support the full disclosure of company financial information, especially during union negotiations? They might also ask how many Albertans want their tax dollars to subsidize excessive contracts with private companies, large executive bonuses and severance payments, or any advertising, including glossy corporate and government brochures.

You get the idea. Probably almost all of our imaginary respondents would agree with the conclusions suggested by these questions too – especially they’re worded like those in a typical push poll.

Well, never mind. Later today, from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the Edmonton and District Labour Council will hold its annual Labour Day picnic at Giovanni Caboto Park.

This popular event will attract a huge throng of Edmonton’s many unemployed and working poor citizens, hardship that stubbornly persists despite Alberta’s seeming economic prosperity. Similar events organized by unions will take place in communities all across Canada.

My guess is that most Canadians, polled about this informal annual charitable effort by unions and their members, would strongly approve. I wonder what they would say if they knew the proposals pushed by the Merit Contractors and their ilk would make these picnics illegal?

Happy Labour Day!

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Opponents beyond PC ranks start to take aim at Alberta Tory leadership candidate Jim Prentice

Alberta Tory leadership candidate Jim Prentice, invisible, as everybody and their non-partisan friends pile on. Actual scenes from Alberta politics may not take place exactly as illustrated. Below: The real Mr. Prentice, in his lucky campaign shirt; Canadian Taxpayers Federation Alberta Director Derek Fildebrandt.


Jim Prentice, you’re in the crosshairs now (metaphorically speaking).

And if you manage to win the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party next Saturday – which everyone except this blogger thinks is exactly what’s going to happen – in the crosshairs is where you’re going to stay.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation fired a shot at Mr. Prentice on Friday evening, releasing more than 3,000 pages of his expense records from back when the front-running Tory leadership candidate held the federal Conservative Government’s Indian Affairs and Northern Development portfolio.

Derek Fildebrandt, whose official title is Alberta director of the CTF, informed the National Post he received the extensive records some months after he was told they had been accidentally destroyed. Later, he said, he was informed by the federal government they had merely been mislabeled and later recovered.

The CTF said in its own news release that it filed Freedom of Information requests for the past expense claims of all three PC leadership candidates as part of an effort to ensure “Albertans would have as much information as possible in determining if the next premier’s record of expense claims were above board or not.”

To those who might wonder if this is a fairly partisan approach to be taken by a self-described non-partisan “tax watchdog,” presumably Mr. Fildebrandt and the CTF will review the records of influential Opposition members – at least those who were once members of a governing party and have therefore left a paper trail behind them – with similar vigour.

Regardless, there didn’t seem to be all that much in the thousands of pages of documents for Mr. Fildebrandt to work himself into his trademark high dudgeon about.

He did discover that as minister Mr. Prentice once took a chartered plane to cover a distance he could have driven over in a couple of hours and on another occasion rode a helicopter to a U.K. air show where he was representing the Canadian government instead of hitchhiking from London or something.

Since Mr. Prentice was legitimately working as a federal cabinet minister on both occasions, this is hardly seems to me like a scoop of earth-shattering proportions. However, the Post implied there is bound to be more, noting that Mr. Fildebrandt had only done a “cursory analysis” when he made these discoveries.

Well, we’re sure to hear about it if he does discover more. The Post story, meanwhile, also quoted Mr. Fildebrandt saying he had “very serious concerns about the completeness of the records released and the potential for political interference in the process.”

Thanks to the catastrophic premiership of the high-flying Alison Redford, which ended only in March, such is the distrust of the Alberta PCs in late 2014 that a press release mentioning airplane travel and expense filings carries considerable potential to persuade voters yet another high Tory official can’t be trusted.

Anyone who reaches this conclusion, however, is forgetting that the events Mr. Fildebrandt is complaining about in the pages of the Post took place while Mr. Prentice was a minister in the supposedly squeaky clean and intensively supervised federal cabinet of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The CTF claimed in its release that Mr. Prentice’s trip aboard the charter aircraft was “in clear contravention” of Parliament’s travel rules for MPs. My “cursory analysis” of Parliament’s guidelines, however, suggests it is not at all clear Mr. Prentice broke any rules – leastways, if he can argue that the charter was the “most practical” means of transportation.

Mr. Prentice’s current spokesperson argued the expenses in question were fully disclosed years ago and ruffled no feathers, the CTF’s or otherwise, at the time. Given this, it’s said here Bill Anderson would have been entitled to wonder aloud about if the CTF is now pursuing an apparently partisan agenda in Alberta politics.

Instead, he worked up a fairly high degree of dudgeon of his own, huffing to the Post, “this is clearly a witch hunt! We’re disappointed that people would stoop to this level of politics.”

Well, Mr. Prentice and his aides need to get used to it, if he is indeed going to emerge as the winner next Saturday, or on Sept. 20 if the leadership contest fails to produce a clear majority on Saturday and goes to a second vote.

Since the local press has already declared candidate Ric McIver a politically dead man walking, and with Thomas Lukaszuk’s leadership efforts breaking up on the rocks of his cellular telephone bills, this must be what is going to happen on Saturday.

If Mr. Prentice becomes PC leader and premier, the attacks and implications from political operators of all sorts with all sorts of agendas won’t stop until he has either won or lost the next general election.

Instead of whining, then, Mr. Prentice’s camp might be smarter to do some witch hunting of their own!

This actually is politics, after all, a game played with the elbows up. Other parties and interests are bound to play hard to win the next election, just as Mr. Prentice, presumably, is going to try to do.

Note to readers: I have been called away to the West Coast on a matter of urgent family business. Alas, this means I will miss the opportunity to be at the PC vote on Sept. 6 in Edmonton. I take comfort from my belief – which is apparently mine alone – that the probability of a second vote on Sept. 20 is high. If I am right, I will be there. In the mean time, for those of you who want a first-hand account of the goings on at the EXPO Centre on Saturday night, I recommend Dave Cournoyer’s excellent blog. I intend, of course, to commentate on the developments in Edmonton from one province away. This post also appears on

Thomas Lukaszuk’s campaign jumps the shark! Did Alberta’s PC government just do the same thing?

Thomas Lukaszuk looks cool as always, despite having just jumped the shark. Actual PC leadership candidates may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below, the real Mr. Lukaszuk. 

Yesterday was the day we were all supposed to be in agog at how Alberta is awash in cash again – a long-predicted lottery win for which the governing Progressive Conservative Party understandably if unjustifiably intended to take full credit.

Instead, the capital city’s principal newspaper apparently didn’t even write a separate news story about the government’s upbeat first-quarter financial report, but rolled it into a political column about all the scandals plaguing the PCs less than two weeks before they’re scheduled to choose a new leader to help them find a way out of the political wilderness.

For the details of how Alberta has “turned a corner financially” – in Finance Minister Doug Horner’s limp phrase – you needed to look at the tabloid Edmonton Sun. Bitumen Bubble? What Bitumen Bubble? That Bitumen Bubble was just so 2013!

Meanwhile, by this morning, tout le monde political Alberta will be abuzz with chatter about the bizarre spectacle of Mr. Lukaszuk’s updated explanation for his $20,000 holiday cellular phone bill, a story originally leaked to the Sun on Monday and highly controversial because we taxpayers got to pay the bill.

Readers will recall that when the matter first surfaced, Mr. Lukaszuk told the Sun: “When you travel as a minister, you pre-plan as much as you can. When something goes sideways in Alberta, all of a sudden you’re inundated with documents. We’re talking document packages are being sent to you by data transfers.

It was the roaming charges that killed him, he explained, something anyone who owns a Canadian cell phone can sympathize with. Another source called the material “numerous and extensive telephone and data communications with the deputy premier relating to legal matters which affected the government.” Given that, Mr. Lukaszuk probably should have just left it there and hoped we’d all forget about it amid yesterday’s wave of good news, which might very well have happened.

Instead, yesterday Mr. Lukaszuk was responding to yet another CBC scoop, this one revealing the reasons for the flurry of expensive calls to Poland back in 2012. In an interview with the CBC, though, he continued to insist the topic of the calls was “an urgent government matter.”

This is what he said by way of justification to the Calgary Herald’s friendlier political columnist:

“I received a frantic call directly from a cabinet minister, direct to my cellphone, saying: ‘I’m in danger, I may be attacked, and police are coming here, what should I do?’ Already the bill is racking up. … All I knew is that I had a cabinet minister in potential physical danger.”

Don Braid’s story, which he wrote with Edmonton Journal reporter Karen Kleiss, began like this: “A panicked cabinet minister in the middle of a family crisis phoned then deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk when he was overseas in 2012, and the ordeal ballooned into a $20,000 cellphone bill.

“The name of the cabinet minister and the details of the family drama are protected by a publication ban, but Lukaszuk’s involvement as deputy premier has become a public issue because thousands of taxpayer dollars were spent on the phone calls, document exchanges and video conferences that followed. …”

OK, we need to understand that the CBC has confirmed all the details of this story. But surely it wasn’t wise of Mr. Lukaszuk to go on at such length about the arresting details of the case when the roaming-charge story otherwise could well have died down, perhaps even in time for the leadership vote on Sept. 6.

And talk about spectacularly bad timing on the first day in weeks the government had anything good to report!

Inevitably, the details revealed last night are strange enough they will remind many Albertans of a certain vintage of comedian John Lovitz’s hilarious routines about a guy who just couldn’t help not telling the truth – a fellow who, unfortunately, happened to be named Tommy.

Surely most Tories who plan to vote in the leadership race will be disinclined to support a candidate whose commentary completely swamped the first good news the party and government have enjoyed in weeks.

I think it’s a safe bet that, with this, Mr. Lukaszuk’s campaign officially jumped the shark last night. Did Alberta’s PC government just do the same thing?

NOTE: This post has been revised to reflect the CBC’s role in this story. It also appears on

Unsolved mysteries: Never mind those roaming charges, who leaked that Tory party membership list in 2011?

Capt. Queeg of the USS Caine channels Alberta Tory Party leaders as he describes the search for the missing strawberries. Imagine what he would have done with a purloined cell phone bill or a leaked list of Tory Party members! Below: Dave Hancock, Thomas Lukaszuk.

Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock is said to be pondering an official hunt for the perpetrator of the leak to the Edmonton Sun of Tory leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk’s $20,000 Telus bill.

According to the Edmonton Journal’s account of the impending search for the missing strawberries, Mr. Lukaszuk complained to the premier about the leak, although it was not entirely clear form the story whether the former deputy premier actually asked for an investigation.

Meanwhile, on social media, some of Mr. Lukaszuk’s supporters blamed his political opponents for the purloined Telus bill ending up in the hands of the media.

That’s certainly a possibility. The timing was clearly designed to inflict the maximum damage on Mr. Lukaszuk’s campaign while leaving him the minimum opportunity to engage in damage control over something that is far from the worst offence ever committed by a politician. That’s certainly the sort of thing an opposing campaign’s war room might just do.

According to the Sun’s report early Monday, the documents were sent to the paper’s legislative reporter by someone inside the government and the identity of a Calgary resident was used fraudulently to have the package delivered by courier. The fraud potentially makes the leak a criminal offence.

Would anyone in a political campaign be dumb enough to commit a criminal office to advance the chances of their candidate? Oh, probably. (Michael Sona, c’mon down!) For the record, spokesthingies for both Jim Prentice’s and Ric McIver’s campaigns denied any involvement in the plot, the Journal said, and Mr. Lukaszuk’s campaign wasn’t exactly thriving on its own. So why bother?

On the other hand, there are plenty of people in the employ of the government, high and low, sufficiently displeased by Mr. Lukaszuk’s confrontational approach to any number of files to have been willing to fire a rocket in his direction, so it’s said here it’s not a slam dunk case that the leak originated with an opposing campaign.

What’s more, since at least in the short term the narrative reinforced the perception that the Redford-Hancock-Whoever Government is entitled and careless with public funds, I suppose we can’t completely rule out other political parties with no particular dog in the leadership fight from joining the growing list of suspects.

At this rate, it will soon be as big as a telephone book – those of you old enough to remember telephone books will appreciate the metaphor.

It’s said here the Tories, including Mr. Lukaszuk’s supporters, would be smarter just to drop the matter resentfully, because any search for the anonymous if unethical whistleblower will soon look like a witch hunt designed to suppress reports of irresponsible spending by government ministers – a perception that only reinforces the entitlement narrative.

On the other hand, if they’re going to do it, Premier Hancock should get on with it promptly.

Who can forget then PC Party president Bill Smith’s fierce vow in 2011 to root out the perpetrator of the purloined Tory Party membership list that was mysteriously leaked to a well-known pollster?

Readers will recall how, days before the second Alberta Progressive Conservative Party leadership vote in early October 2011, Alison Redford’s campaign effectively used an unexpected Calgary Herald-Environics poll of Tory Party members that showed her in second place behind frontrunner Gary Mar. This, arguably, created a new reality that motivated her supporters and gave her sufficient momentum to push her narrowly over the top.

The mid-September poll, which was controversial because it was based on a list of 22,000 card-carrying PC Party members passed on to Environics by a Calgary Herald columnist, whose mysterious possession of the list has to this day never been explained.

Using it for an opinion poll may have violated Alberta’s privacy legislation, and a furious PC Party President Bill Smith immediately issued a stinging rebuke on the party’s website of the unidentified villain or villains who allowed the “unauthorized and inappropriate use” of the party membership list.

The use of the list was “absolutely unacceptable,” Mr. Smith wrote. He vowed to get to the bottom of the mystery. “We will be contacting all leadership campaigns regarding this issue.”

For some reason, though, the party lost interest in pulling on that particular thread the instant Ms. Redford became the leader. “It’s the miracle on the prairies,” Mr. Smith later said of Ms. Redford’s victory.  “Nobody would have picked her.” After that, he quietly moved on and the press release vanished from the PC website.

It’s less likely the same thing could happen today – but that’s only because it’s quite possible the party doesn’t have 22,000 members any more!

Still, if Mr. Hancock doesn’t move forcefully on the matter of who leaked Mr. Lukaszuk’s phone bill, who is to say the investigation won’t fizzle out the same way again as soon as a new leader is in place?

That said, what Mr. Hancock really ought to be demanding is an investigation of scandalous roaming fees charged by Canadian cellular phone providers. Now, that would provide a public service!

Meanwhile, ministers of the Crown are advised to do what the rest of us have resorted to while travelling outside the Dominion. To wit: leaving their Telus devices at home in the sock drawer and, if necessary, buying a local “burner” for a modest price from a convenience store.

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PC leadership: Jim Prentice’s term limit fumble and Thomas Lukaszuk’s cellular bill are good news for Ric McIver

File under, “Dinner, done like”… Alison Redford serves dinner to Thomas Lukaszuk as Jim Prentice, at left, and Dave Hancock, Doug Horner and Ric McIver look on. Actual Tory premiers, former premiers, would-be premiers and former would-be premiers may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: The author with Ric McIver. It just seemed like the right time to trot this one out!

Looks like it’s time to start planning for a couple of years of a McIver Government.

Leastways, the past couple of days have not earned any gold stars for former infrastructure minister Ric McIver’s two competitors, supposed frontrunner Jim Prentice, the former banker supported by almost all of the Progressive Conservative caucus, and Thomas Lukaszuk, the former deputy premier who is supported by almost no one in the Tory establishment.

With his announcement last week that Alberta MLAs and premiers should be reined in by unconstitutional term limits, Mr. Prentice has revealed himself to be the Mitt Romney of Alberta politics – with just the right amount of grey in his hair to be a triumph of appearance over substance.

For his part, Mr. Lukaszuk must have been feeling pretty pleased with the nearly universally negative reaction to Mr. Prentice’s Big Term Limits Idea when the Edmonton Sun reported yesterday he let the people of Alberta pay when he got dinged for $20,000 in roaming charges while on a personal trip to Israel, the West Bank and his native Poland in 2012.

Even before the shocker about Mr. Lukaszuk’s cellular roaming bill surfaced, Mr. Prentice had started to back away from his silly term limits suggestion when almost everyone but a few Americanized nuts on Twitter started screaming about how it’s totally unconstitutional and a terrible idea to boot. For a minute there, it was almost as if the whole province had been reading Alberta Diary and absorbing their lessons!

Saving his pride a little, Mr. Prentice, who is also a lawyer, insisted manfully that the idea could pass constitutional muster, but conceded that there are ways to achieve the same goals without passing a law – like, you know, just making his own caucus do it.

Well, good luck with that. It might stand a chance of working for a couple of terms if 80 per cent of the seats in the Legislature are Tory seats, but that’s an outcome that seems increasingly improbable.

As for Mr. Prentice’s insistence on the constitutional merits of the idea, the Calgary Herald trotted out a trio of well-known constitutional lawyers who dismissed it as a pipe dream.

Now, that constitutional law stuff only goes so far with the locals hereabouts, but Mr. Prentice’s proposal really got into trouble when it started to sink in that it would have prematurely ended the stellar political careers of such Tory demigods as Peter Lougheed, Ralph Klein, and … wait for it … Stephen Harper. Not to mention Winston Churchill, rumbled Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid disapprovingly from the high plains of Cowtown.

With the shocker registering that this lame idea could also apply to conservative colossi and not just popular Liberals and New Democrats, as if such a thing existed in this province anyway, the thought that Mr. Prentice might be a bit of a lightweight despite his beautiful suits seemed to be starting to sink in among the general populace.

As for Mr. Lukaszuk’s unexpected phone bill – well, actually, our phone bill unexpectedly run up by Mr. Lukaszuk – he initially reacted huffily, saying he personally paid for the trip even though it was “pseudo government related.” (Say what?)

“Lots of documents were shipped then and that was in official capacity and I continued working,” he sniffed, complaining to the Sun’s reporter that the person who slipped the tabloid the documents this late in the leadership race was obviously a Jim Prentice supporter.

A little later, Mr. Lukaszuk sensibly apologized for the mistake to another newspaper and admitted it was his. “Absolutely I made a mistake, and for that I apologize,” he told the Edmonton Journal. “I did not check the data plan myself, and I did not confirm that my office had done so.”

That was better than Mr. Prentice’s response to the reaction to the term limits brouhaha, but it does little to alter the widely accepted narrative about the Alberta PCs’ lack of care with money raised from taxes and the idea Tory insiders like Mr. Lukaszuk have a powerful sense of entitlement.

Indeed, the inevitable denouement of this narrative is that the Tories have learned nothing, even now, and therefore never will.

This may be unfair. For example, who knows or cares what the prime minister pays for secure communications when he’s abroad? But it’s a problem that the Alberta PCs created for themselves, and now it won’t go away.

I would suggest the inevitable public reaction to this means Mr. Lukaszuk’s candidacy is done like dinner.

As for Mr. Prentice, he is not in quite as bad shape, since there are plenty of Albertans who think that anything a bunch of professors don’t like must be a good idea and may have missed the bit about Stephen Harper.

Still, in the immortal words of Sid Vicious and the rest of the Sex Pistols, it sure makes him look pretty … vacant.

By comparison, the brief flutter over Mr. McIver’s appearance at Calgary’s March for Jesus back in June is starting to look pretty benign. If he can just keep his nose clean for 12 more days, he might just pull off an upset.

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