All posts in Alberta Politics

Never mind the Mudville Nine: Nothing has changed, nothing ever will, that is all!

“Your health. Our promise.” It’s March 1, 2013, and then-premier Alison Redford announces plans to build a new cancer treatment facility in Calgary to replace the grubby and overcrowded Tom Baker Cancer Centre. (Photo grabbed from Metro Newspapers.) But that was then. This is now. Below: Alberta Health Minister Stephen Mandel; the Tom Baker facility in northwest Calgary. 

As Danielle Smith might have said, were she still the leader of the Opposition, “nothing has changed!”

On Friday, mass media were uncritically reporting the “reasons” the new cancer hospital promised to Calgary on which construction was supposed to start next year, and then the year after that, will now have to wait until … someday.

Ms. Smith’s new best friend forever, Health Minister Stephen Mandel, with whom we are told she has agreed to bury the hatchet from their nasty disagreements during the 2012 election campaign, had been musing about how the declining price of oil was the cause of the $1.3-billion cancer hospital project being put off, again.

Just last year, the Progressive Conservative Government (Alison Redford Edition) was bragging about how this new hospital would be the biggest public health project in North America and the government was “proceeding with all possible speed” to replace the grubby and overcrowded Tom Baker Cancer Centre.

Well, no more. Health care must remain in chaos, the better to justify privatization of public services and the marketization of human life, one supposes.

Oil prices have fallen, dontcha know? And if there’s one thing we do know about Alberta’s PCs – and this includes the shiny new Jim Prentice Edition of the party, obviously – they either lack the budgeting skills to break even running a food truck on the streets of Edmonton, even when petroleum prices stay high, or they’re doing it on purpose.

Indeed, the Prentice PCs’ response to the most recent oil price decline is proof that nothing has changed. It’s also proof of the truth of what Ms. Smith herself said about the PCs not so very long ago: “You can change the leader, but you can’t change the party!”

Both these things are true with or without Ms. Smith and most of the rest of her Opposition MLAs now back in the bosom of Premier Jim Prentice’s PC caucus.

As an aside, with media justifications of Ms. Smith’s nakedly cynical political cross dressing now beginning to appear in the partisan Conservative media, it is important to remember the flaws in the argument advanced in a toadying Globe and Mail story yesterday that the Wildrose opposition had no policy it could logically pursue that was different from Mr. Prentice’s PC narrative.

It is true that the Wildrose and PCs held identical positions on ensuring a fair energy royalty return for Albertans or dropping Alberta’s flat tax, which benefits only the truly wealthy. That is, we won’t do it! But there remained plenty of room for hardline balanced-budget advocates like the Wildrose to make the case the PCs continue to fail to take as firm a line as they would have.

Really, though, what has actually been consistently the same with Alberta’s PC governments since Don Getty was premier is their inability to resist the temptation to use normal cyclical declines in commodity prices as an excuse to take another stab at expensive but ideologically approved creeping privatization and cuts in health care, education and other public services.

I say convenient because two abstract concepts that shouldn’t really be beyond the comprehension of a market fundamentalist government like Mr. Prentice’s strongly suggest low oil prices will not be with us for long: Supply. Demand.

Well, we’ve all seen this movie before and we all know that it ends the same way every time.

Meanwhile, the details keep leaking out about the protracted negotiations between Wildrose Party and PC leaders to merge their Legislative caucuses, with Preston Manning acting as the “honest broker,” to borrow a phrase.

Turns out now they were going on for well over a month, possibly for several months, even as Ms. Smith and her (loyal?) sidekick Rob Anderson were assailing the government and expressing their profound shock and disappointment at the departure of premature floor-crossers Ian Donovan and Kerry Towle. They didn’t even tell their own caucus staffers, wishing them Merry Christmas with a pink slip.

This can only be described as barefaced lying on a truly stupendous scale – not the usual, and sometimes necessary, fibs and broken promises associated with the mechanics of democratic government as circumstances change and alliances shift.

In an entertaining analysis in the Globe on Friday, an astounded Western Canada columnist Gary Mason wondered, “Whatever will Ms. Smith say to Ms. Towle when they bump into each other at the first Tory caucus meeting?”

Actually, I doubt Ms. Towle will be much troubled. Notwithstanding the supposed breach in their friendship caused by Ms. Towle’s early defection, the pair were observed in one another’s company a few days before the Mudville Nine slipped their moorings by a group of Knee-Dippers relaxing at a downtown Edmonton watering hole.

Wherever could they have been going together? To a meeting with Preston Manning, I suppose.

Even Sun Media commentator Ezra Levant managed to seem genuinely appalled at Ms. Smith’s epic deception – and, to give the man his due, he did a better job than anyone else at making the ever-glib Ms. Smith look like a spluttering liar.

Regardless, this is all just more evidence that along the straight line that runs from Mr. Getty’s PCs, though Ralph Klein’s and all the other premiers’ down to Mr. Prentice’s version, nothing at all has changed when it comes to cynicism, dishonesty, entitlement or the placement of ideology above common sense and decency.

Well, maybe that’s a little unfair to Dave Hancock, this year’s premier pro tempore, but he wasn’t really around long enough to do much more than look solemn.

When it comes time for Ms. Smith to take her place in cabinet, one can only hope she is seated near her new BFF, Mr. Mandel, so they can cheerfully discuss the City Centre Airport, the Royal Alberta Museum and the new provincial park once planned for the shores of the Lake of Fire, but now delayed due to lack of funds. (I just made that last one up, although it’s said in the Book of Genesis, every word of which some members of both the Wildrump and PC caucuses apparently believe to be literally true, that the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah sat beside what today we would term tar sands. Perhaps there is a message in that for Alberta.)

So, nothing has changed. You are not allowed to believe anything ever will. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end. Amen.

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Blogger Brian Mason explains why Jim Prentice, ‘Alberta’s first Wildrose premier,’ is preparing to call a snap election

Former NDP leader Brian Mason in a couple of typical poses, above and below. I’ll bet you didn’t know he was a terrific political blogger too!

Jim Prentice is Alberta’s first Wildrose premier and he will soon call a snap election to ensure he can push forward a Wildrose program of using temporarily low oil prices as justification to roll back public sector salaries, attack pensions, reintroduce health care premiums and lay off nurses and teachers.

This sharp and credible warning comes from someone who should be better known as a political blogger than he is, a shrewd analyst of Alberta politics named Brian Mason.

Mr. Mason, of course, is well known to Albertans as the former leader of the Alberta New Democrats, and he remains the NDP MLA for Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood. But from time to time – not nearly often enough, if you ask me – Mr. Mason also writes a smart and entertaining blog about Alberta politics, and the post he published yesterday deserves to be widely read.

Mr. Mason sets out to explain not only why former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and the rest of the Mudville Nine – as her Alberta Black Sox squad has come to be known around here – abandoned their supposed principles to join Mr. Prentice’s government caucus, but why the sordid deed was done in such a hurry when on the face of it there was no particular need for speed.

Notwithstanding its leadership’s disappointment at the results of the four by-elections on Oct. 27 – all of which were won by Mr. Prentice’s putative Progressive Conservative Party – the Wildrose Party itself “remained in good shape,” Mr. Mason wrote.

“While it was polling lower than when Redford was Premier, its numbers remained respectable,” he said. “It had money in the bank, a large membership, and a good staff team at the caucus. Despite Prentice’s whirlwind De-Redfordization program, the situation was redeemable.”

Mr. Mason, kindly citing my earlier reference to the malign influence of Preston Manning in this affair, suggests that Ms. Smith might have thought her party was doing well enough to carry on too, but for the influence of the Godfather of the Canadian Right.

“I know Danielle Smith well enough to know that she reveres Manning, and sees him as the eminence grise of Canadian conservatives,” Mr. Mason wrote. “If Manning argued that the deal was for the greater good of the conservative movement, I’m sure it would counter many objections for Smith.”

Indeed, the National Post’s Jen Gerson has now written a detailed explanation of “how Preston Manning convinced Wildrose MLAs to join mass defection,” as the paper’s headline writer put it. Personally, I think Ms. Gerson’s sources fudged the timeline a little for their own benefit, but she is quite believable when she reports “Mr. Manning’s pep talk was the moment that turned the tide.”

But why the hurry? Mr. Mason explains: “The answer comes from Smith herself. As I’ve watched her round of media interviews defending her decision, my Pepto-Bismol at the ready, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. And she did indeed reveal the political basis for the betrayal of her own party. … In the era of $50 oil, says Smith, she is ‘bringing conservatives together to make sure the tough decisions get made.’ She adds that this includes ‘selling them to Albertans.’”

So there we are, as Mr. Mason says.

The hurry’s partly about the temporary nature of the decline in the price of oil – driven down by the actions of the Saudi-led Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which itself is going to suffer pain if the tactic is carried on too long. So if “shock doctrine” marketization propaganda is going to be applied effectively in Alberta by Mr. Prentice, it’s going to need to be done sooner than later because the winning conditions won’t last long.

The Wildrose forces were also needed in the PC caucus, Mr. Mason argues, to shift the balance of power the right way and ensure genuinely progressive Conservative MLAs can’t rebel again, as they did against Alison Redford when she turned sharply right after campaigning to the left.

Mr. Prentice, who is also in the process of turning sharply right after campaigning to the left, certainly wouldn’t want to find himself in the same pickle. It “prepares the political ground for a brutal restructuring of public services in Alberta,” Mr. Mason wrote. “Jim Prentice it turns out, is Alberta’s first Wildrose Premier.”

Ironically, it was the existence of an effective Wildrose opposition, even though it was on the right, that gave leverage within caucus to the opponents of Ms. Redford’s attacks on public services. Some of them may have been motivated by mildly progressive sentiments as Mr. Mason suggests. More, I suspect, were just worried about losing to Wildrose opponents.

It’s highly evocative that all through the last days of Ms. Redford’s premiership, the Wildrose Party strove to persuade Albertans it was really very moderate and firmly in the centre. When Mr. Prentice was campaigning for the PC leadership, he tried hard to portray the same image. Now that they’re together again, they are singing a very different tune.

So the absence of an opposition party that could actually win saves both Mr. Prentice and his former opposition on the right from the need to show too much moderation in an election campaign that they both want to be followed by unneeded austerity.

Mr. Mason’s final conclusion, that there will soon be a snap election, is almost certainly right.

So here’s my prediction: Not only is he right, but Premier Prentice will call the general election next month, in late January 2015. We Albertans will go to the polls in February. Low oil prices will provide the cover.

Mr. Prentice will try very hard to ensure the campaign is about anything except what Mr. Mason says it ought to be: the need for the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share of the cost of running this province, not to mention “cynical conservative back room deals and the tired ‘sky is falling’ chorus from Tory premiers going back to Don Getty and Ralph Klein.”

In other words, nothing has changed. 

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Tory resistance to Wildrose interlopers? Don’t believe it! Here’s why Danielle Smith will soon get her cabinet post

Preston Manning joins the sales team for the new, new, newly united Wildrosey Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. Actual beloved godfathers of the conservative movement may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: The real Mr. Manning smiling benevolently, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice in a Joe-Clark-like moment, former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith when she was still pretending she thought the Prentice PCs were evil, and former federal Liberal Conservative cabinet minister David Emerson.

Don’t worry, Danielle Smith will soon be deputy premier of Alberta or occupy a similarly influential post.

Likewise, Rob Anderson will be finance minister or something similar, if not by next week, as soon as Christmas and New Year are out of the way. Perhaps one or two of the other Wildrose Party defectors will join the cabinet of Premier Jim Prentice as well.

Nothing is absolutely certain, of course, especially when all the important business of Canada’s “most ethical and transparent government” is conducted behind locked doors as far as possible from the prying eyes and ears of taxpaying citizens and smart aleck bloggers. Mr. Prentice certainly doesn’t phone me up and tell me what his plans are.

Still, the man himself is already dropping hints, and when you think about it, this is the only future narrative that makes any sense.

A deal was made in Edmonton in a dark and secret place, and the terms of that deal are going to have to be kept or the wronged party could do serious damage.

And this wasn’t just some handshake agreement with a smooth-talking sales guy either. As befits a group of people whose promises aren’t necessarily made to be kept forever, there was a detailed written document, some of which at least we have seen. Somewhere there may even be a signed copy with all the fine print.

Preston Manning, the godfather of the Canadian right, not only came down from on high in Calgary to bless the union, but played a role in brokering the secret deal. He’s now using his soothing persona to evangelize on its behalf.

So you can also count on it that there was a quid pro quo, with the imprimatur of Mr. Manning himself and the solemn agreement of both parties, plus a certain amount of strategic leaking to well-placed reporters just in case. What the media reported thereafter was that Ms. Smith and Mr. Anderson have portfolios waiting for them.

Right now, while they work their way through the (perhaps to them surprisingly) intense public reaction to the unprecedented and breathtakingly cynical deal for the opposition to quit en masse and join the government party, both groups have the power to make trouble for the other if the deal goes south, and neither has anything to gain from that happening.

Remember, Ms. Smith is now not powerless in caucus. She has a rump of at least 10 supporters there, former members of her former party, and probably more.

Finally, the closed-door deal – from which you, Ms. and Mr. Voter, were completely excluded – has to include cabinet posts for key Wildrosers or, to be blunt about it, they simply wouldn’t have come across. 

So the logical conclusion is that Ms. Smith’s cabinet appointment and the others are a done deal, and the deal will be completed sooner than later.

If I were one of Mr. Prentice’s more vulnerable current cabinet members – say, like Finance Minister Robin Campbell, Minister of Licence Plates Stephen Khan or Tourism Minister Maureen Kubinec – I’d be quite worried about this. Cabinet must remain small to present the right image during the short-lived austerity opportunity provided by temporarily low oil prices, so a couple of loyal Tories will have to go over the side, and those three are all candidates for the high jump.

As for Mr. Prentice’s claim during Wednesday’s news conference that any such appointments had been delayed because of resistance in his own caucus, this hardly seems credible.

At the moment – at least until the full integration of Ms. Smith and the rest of the Mudville Nine into the caucus – Mr. Prentice is a premier in complete and total control.

He may have been presented during his leadership campaign as a candidate gently akin to former prime minister Joe Clark, to whom he bears an occasional passing resemblance, but he turns out to be a leader more in the style of current Prime Minister Stephen Harper. So the PC caucus will do what he tells them, when he tells them, with very little backchat.

No, the problem is the blowback in Southern Alberta from the jaw-dropping cynicism and outrageous careerism of an opposition party folding its tent to join a government of convenience with a 43-year-old behemoth that’s hardly had a good idea since Don Getty took over in 1985. This is as the Wildrosers themselves regularly reminded us until just days ago, it must be remembered.

The dealmakers may also need a little time to solve the problem of recalcitrant Wildrose Party executives determined to hang onto the party’s bank account, and furious members cutting up their membership cards with chainsaws and posting recall petitions on social media.

No doubt Mr. Manning will help with those problems, pouring some grandfatherly unguent on the troubled waters, as may a couple of the MLAs left in the five-member Wildrump Opposition party who for practical tactical reasons of their own need to delay their departure for Tory Nirvana for a spell.

Meanwhile, the key participants in this carefully staged production all sound a little like David Emerson, the Liberal cabinet minister from the Vancouver-Kingsway riding who in 2006 switched teams to Mr. Harper’s victorious Conservatives two weeks after the federal election didn’t turn out as he hoped.

Like this week’s Wildrose defection, that deal too was hatched in secret.

Soon afterward, Mr. Emerson claimed to be “flabbergasted” that anyone would have been upset, telling the CBC: “I am pursuing the very agenda that I got involved to pursue when I was in the Liberal Party supporting Paul Martin. I’m continuing to pursue it.” What could be more reasonable?

Or, as Ms. Smith put it on Wednesday afternoon, “if you look at our statement of principles, our aligned values, it’s very clear that the lion’s share of Wildrose policy is contained in those shared values.”

This may take a few days to blow over, but, when it does, count on it, Ms. Smith will get her influential cabinet post.

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Danielle Smith’s conduct and the mass Wildrose defection must be seen as character issues

Former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith with her new boss, Premier Jim Prentice, at yesterday’s news conference announcing the defection of the nine Wildrose caucus members to the Progressive Conservative Party. (Photo by Dave Cournoyer, used with permission.) Below: Another shot of the pair in an informal moment at the start of the news conference.

It’s a character issue.

Certainly the recent conduct of the leadership of the Wildrose Party, which this afternoon culminated with the desertion of most of its key elected officials to Premier Jim Prentice’s ruling Progressive Conservative caucus leaving their loyalists and supporters in the lurch, has to be considered as an issue of character.

The ability of Parliamentarians to cross the floor is essential to the operation of our Canadian system of Responsible Government, and so not every floor-crosser ought to be be described as behaving badly.

But when more than half a caucus, elected and supported by voters who put their faith in the idea their party offered something different and better, decamps and joins their former enemy, it is hard to summon up excuses, or indeed anything but contempt, on their behalf.

In addition, when you consider key events in the career of former Alberta Opposition leader Danielle Smith, it’s also difficult to conclude that issues of character have not been in play before.

Indeed, at a number of key moments in her career, Ms. Smith has left a trail of devastation in her wake that, at the very least, suggests a lack of empathy for co-workers, rivals and now her own supporters.

Her abandonment of her own Wildrose Party because the road ahead seemed to be a hard one – and possibly also to get a post in Mr. Prentice’s cabinet – suggests what we might euphemistically call a “lack of moral fibre.”

Moreover, while we should generally give the benefit of the doubt and assume a lone floor-crosser acted out of genuine principle, that is harder to do when a legislator has crossed twice in opposite directions, as Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson did yesterday.

That is why, of course, Sir Winston Churchill’s observation about his own floor crossing strikes most of us as hilarious: “Anyone can rat,” he famously said. “It takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.”

When Ms. Smith and Mr. Anderson changed parties in the company of seven other members of the Wildrose caucus whom they had obviously persuaded to come along, it failed to pass the ethical sniff test, notwithstanding the doctrinal similarity of the two parties. That’s because “there is no difference” is most definitely what Wildrose supporters and donors were being told as the plotting proceeded apace in secrecy.

When I first met Ms. Smith, she had just joined the Calgary Herald. This was at a time labour relations there were in a downward spiral and an ugly strike was looming. The newspaper’s proprietor in Central Canada brought in a publisher with a reputation as a union buster during this time, and Ms. Smith was one of several employees hired not long before the strike began on Nov. 8, 1999. I was the vice-president of the journalists’ union, so, yes, I have an interest in this ancient history.

Whatever her motivations for coming on staff, Ms. Smith crossed picket lines and worked throughout the strike.

Now, I will admit that I do not agree with Jack London’s prescription for strikebreakers. There are many reasons some of my colleagues crossed their co-workers’ picket lines, some of them even saw themselves as acting on principle. More were frightened, suffering from loss of income, under pressure from family members or a host of similar reasons. One, nearing retirement, had been told by someone in a senior job he would lose his pension. Only a few acted out of hard-nosed self-interest.

To me, though, for someone to come in from outside to play that role in a long-standing labour dispute, no matter how misguided the unionized employees may have been and even though it is completely legal to cross picket lines in the province of Alberta, does not speak well of a person’s character. I’ll respect your right to disagree.

Ms. Smith had come to the attention of the Herald’s management partly as a result of her activities as an elected trustee on the Calgary Public Board of Education. She was also known, I am sure, as a former Fraser Institute apparatchik with the right ideological credentials and temperament for the new owners of the Herald and other papers in the then-Southam newspaper chain.

This was a period after the 1998 civic election when the CBOE became so dysfunctional that the minister of education used his legal power to dismiss the trustees and put an administrator in change until the next scheduled election.

Ms. Smith alone can hardly be blamed for this situation. The board’s notorious troubles seemed to have arisen after the 1998 civic vote from an ideological rift between trustees committed to public education as traditionally funded and supported and a couple of right-wing trustees more sympathetic to market fundamentalist nostrums – one of whom was Ms. Smith.

Whatever it was, Ms. Smith’s role in drawing private notes that had been exchanged by trustees with whom she disagreed to the attention of the public, even if only by responding to media requests for comments, is troubling.

In 2009, author Dave Cournoyer published a revealing look back at this situation. Click on the links to read each edition: Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV.

It seemed ironic in light of this history when Ms. Smith accused MLA Joe Anglin a few weeks ago of secretly recording proceedings of the Wildrose caucus, an accusation for which she has never provided evidence.

And now there is the still-unfinished business of the demise of the Wildrose Party legislative caucus, which came to a climax yesterday when Ms. Smith, Mr. Anderson and seven other Wildrose MLAs struck a deal with Mr. Prentice’s PCs and were allowed to join the government caucus.

If this was a legitimate matter of high principle, why was it carried out in secrecy?

As Ms. Smith yesterday tacitly admitted, the plotting was hidden for weeks from the Wildrose Party’s financial backers, mostly small donors who believed in the party’s purported principles and probably could have found something else on which to spend their limited funds. It was also a secret from voters generally, many of whom until hours ago were still seriously considering casting their ballots for the Wildrose Party.

Notwithstanding his PC party’s history of entitlement and arrogance, one can at least see sound political reasons for the conduct of Premier Prentice and his closest advisors. It is much harder to perceive the actions of the Wildrose floor-crossers as anything but self-interested, despite the protagonists’ mutual efforts at yesterday’s news conference to characterize Ms. Smith’s efforts as honourable and courageous.

Certainly Ms. Smith has left – as she must have known she would – bitterness, anger and a sense of betrayal in her wake. I am sure there are longstanding friendships that will be severed forever as a result of her conduct, as well as many citizens who will be permanently disillusioned about our democracy.

Mind you, I suppose, from the point of view of the Prentice PCs and their opposite numbers in the Harper Government whence the premier sprang, this state of affairs is entirely satisfactory. After all, when unsupportive voters grow cynical about the meaning of their vote and contribution, they stay home, and vote suppression is a key part all North American conservative parties’ key election strategies.

So when we consider Ms. Smith, we are inevitably reminded of the aphorism of Ian Fleming, author of the original James Bond novels: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”

This is not, of course, the way Ms. Smith’s change of parties was being presented at yesterday’s joint news conference. Premier Prentice praised her “considerable personal courage.” For her own part, Ms. Smith insisted, “these are the values I fought for through different jobs I’ve had the past 20 years.”

Just the same, given her history, Mr. Prentice would be wise to ensure she is closely supervised, and not to push aside too many loyal Tories aside to make way for Wildrose newcomers in cabinet, lest this adventure, too, should end in tears.

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Say it ain’t so, Danielle! Bulk of Wildrose caucus commits ritual political suicide

Looking grim, as befits leaders of a unification government during a grave economic and pipeline crisis, former Wildroser Danielle Smith and Premier Jim Prentice gamely spin the astonishing mass political suicide of Ms. Smith’s former party this afternoon at Government House. If you missed the crisis, no doubt you’ll be instructed in the details soon.

Say it ain’t so, Danielle?

Well, the Wildrose Party committed ritual political suicide today, defecting in even greater numbers to the Progressive Conservative caucus of Premier Jim Prentice than anticipated by the Edmonton rumour machine.

At the end of the day, not only had party leader Danielle Smith and House leader Rob Anderson abandoned their foundering Wildrose Party, so had seven other MLAs.

A chipper looking Mr. Prentice and an apparently tired Ms. Smith finally appeared at Edmonton’s Government House just after 4 p.m., gamely trying to spin this astonishing surrender as a “unification” to a room packed with about 50 uncharacteristically skeptical and cranky Alberta journalists.

Well, the journos had been waiting all day – unlike dilettante bloggers who have the luxury of only showing up only minutes before the action starts. Still, it’s hard to believe that this unification hooey will go over any better with the public than with the press.

At any rate, that was their story, and they were stickin’ to it: “The caucuses have agreed to unite under a set of aligned values and principles,” Ms. Smith said, sticking closely to the script and tightly inside the joint message box.

This, of course, was baloney on the face of it. Nine members of the Wildrose caucus chose to accept Mr. Prentice’s terms and join the PCs. Five did not, and will try to soldier on as the Wildrump Party. That is not a merger, unification or anything of the sort, as we will see when they start to fight over the Wildrose Party’s well-stuffed bank account.

The details of today’s events are in the daily press, of course, but from an amateur political observer’s perspective, a few themes from coming PC charm offensive began to coalesce, and a few other interesting tidbits emerged.

The principal arguments for the mass defection will be, first, that since everyone now realizes Mr. Prentice symbolizes conservative perfection, there was no longer a need for another conservative political party – no matter what the Wildrose Party’s own donors, supporters and members imagine.

“I don’t want to take down this premier,” Ms. Smith asserted urgently. “I want this premier to succeed!”

Second, of course, was the application of the Shock Doctrine in its pure form. Oil prices are low and therefore we must be disciplined. The discipline, it went literally without being said, will not be felt by the rich or the energy industry in the form of higher taxes or royalties. (“In this time of economic uncertainty … our province needs united leadership and shared purpose in tackling the challenges ahead:” Prentice.)

Knowing that this will be unpersuasive to many Albertans, and that yesterday’s “unification” will offend the good sense and values of large numbers of voters, however, the newly unified PCs also began to float the narrative that the Wildrose Party was really too full of knuckle-dragging social conservatives for a sensitive and liberal soul like Ms. Smith.

Look for more of this in the weeks ahead, although I don’t know how this is supposed to go over with die-hard Wildrosers the Tories would also like to woo.

And let’s not forget Ms. Smith’s hilarious claim she saw the need in the entrails of the Calgary-Elbow by-election for the two conservative caucuses to unite lest they become the victims of sneaky progressive vote splitting by the Alberta Party. The Alberta Party? Wait for this one to appear among the PC talking points soon too.

Rumours that the quid pro quo of the deal would be cabinet posts for some of the most prominent defectors will have to wait to be resolved. Mr. Prentice stoutly resisted questions from reporters about whether, or when, he would appoint Wildrose defectors to his cabinet. Not sure what this means: Mr. Prentice dictated terms? Or the PC caucus needs to be whipped into line?

That business, like everything else in this affair, will be conducted away from the curious gaze of taxpayers and voters according to the premier’s own timetable.

“I have made no decision related to cabinet,” he repeated, sticking manfully to his message box. “That’s not part of what we are discussing today.”

Finally, it was conceded openly by the principal characters, that this scheme has been in the works at least for several weeks, possibly longer – while Wildrose Party members and the public were kept in the dark. Together now … unified, as it were … they will bring unto us “the most ethical and transparent government in Canada.”


Today’s Wildrose Defectors to PCs

Danielle Smith (Highwood)

Rob Anderson (Airdrie)

Gary Bikman (Cardston-Taber-Warner)

Rod Fox (Lacombe-Panoka)

Jason Hale (Strathmore-Brooks)

Bruce McAllister (Chestermere-Rocky View)

Blake Pederson (Medicine Hat)

Bruce Rowe (Olds-Didsbury- Three Hills)

Jeff Wilson (Calgary Shaw)

Previous Wildrose Defectors PCs

Kerry Towle (Innisfail-Sylvan Lake)

Ian Donovan (Little Bow)

Previous Wildrose Member, Now Independent

Joe Anglin (Rimbey-Rockey Mountain House-Sundre)

Wildrose Loyalists

Drew Barnes (Cypress-Medicine Hat)

Rick Strankman (Drumheller-Stettler)

Heather Forsyth (Calgary-Fish Creek)

Shayne Saskiw (Lac la Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills)

Pat Stier (Livingstone-Macleod)

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Hatched in secret, today’s expected mass Wildrose defection to PC benches brings party to a pathetic end

The captain of the RMS Wildrose and her officers slip quietly away from their sinking ship in the darkness. Actual Wildrose leaders may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith and Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson. Both are expected to be rewarded for abandoning ship with cabinet posts in PC Premier Jim Prentice’s government.

As of today – even before we are certain of everything that has happened in the last 48 hours or what will happen in the next 48 – we can be confident of this: the Wildrose Party is finished.

I do not mean it’s washed up in some metaphorical sense, or that the party is simply unlikely to win the next election.

No, I mean that thanks to the deal cooked up between the leadership of Opposition Leader Danielle Smith’s party and Premier Jim Prentice’s unreformed Progressive Conservatives, whatever the details are, the Wildrose phenomenon is done like dinner. 

Even if it has a half-life in the Legislature as the rural Wildrump Party, it will be as electoral zombies, the living dead.

Even if by some miracle Mr. Prentice’s PC caucus grew some principles and told the Wildrose surrender party to go to blazes, the remaining shattered caucus would have not a shred of credibility.

No one will now want to be associated for long with a name that will become a synonym for perfidy and surrender, undignified and unsavoury. Any holdouts of the Wildrose Legislative caucus who decline to make the humiliating walk to bow before Mr. Prentice’s throne would do better to rename themselves Social Credit!

Indeed, the only reason left for them to hold out now is to fight over the party’s substantial war chest – raised in significant part from small donations given by the party’s now-scorned true believers.

In an act of cowardice and duplicity that is genuinely shocking – and these strong words are completely fair and reasonable under the circumstances – the principal leaders of the party have abandoned their followers and their principles as well, if they ever really had any.

According to media reports, Ms. Smith is expected today to lead most of her pathetic caucus to Mr. Prentice’s PC benches in the Legislature. This is a development unprecedented in Canadian Parliamentary history. Rumours say she will be rewarded with the meaningless bauble of the deputy premiership, and Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson with another cabinet post.

For those of us with a healthy skepticism about what motivates the principal figures of the Canadian right, the self-interested self-immolation of Alberta’s Wildrose Opposition over the past few days is nevertheless both astonishing and genuinely contemptible.

Carried out in secret, without a whisper of what they planned to their own supporters, the Wildrose captain and her leadership elite silently slipped into the lifeboats and rowed stealthily away from their sinking ship. Their presumptive goal: to put their own careers and wellbeing ahead of the sacrifice and effort of their adherents.

Together with the Progressive Conservatives they claimed to despise, who until a few days ago they described as the archfiend incarnate, they will now create, in the words of their articles of unilateral surrender to Premier Jim Prentice, the most ethical and transparent government in Canada.”

Oh please! It is to laugh aloud. Or, for their naïve supporters, to cry tears of bitterness and shock, as many of them were doing yesterday on Twitter and other social media sites.

They’ll get over it, the persuasive Mr. Prentice presumably told the Wildrose leaders as he wooed them. I am not so sure. Their supporters’ sense of betrayal, if you ask me, is entirely warranted, and will run deep.

Whatever new expanded PC party emerges once the dust has settled in a day or two will be dedicated to two principles only: preserving the entitlement of its insiders, who will now include Ms. Smith and Mr. Anderson, and ensuring that Alberta’s bitumen flows unvexed to the sea.

The PCs’ strategy at least is understandable – and more in character – but they too hardly come off smelling like a rose. As was pointed out by many ordinary Albertans of all political stripes on social media yesterday, the PCs aimed their last campaign at the electorate’s mushy middle, promising mild progressivism in contrast to the Wildrosers’ frightening social conservatism.

And then they did this! Well, seriously, what did you expect? Except for Mr. Prentice and his ministers of health and education, these are exactly the same people who cheered Alison Redford through the last three bizarre years.

They fooled you once, so shame on them. No need to say anything more about that!

Surely the cynicism and contempt of Albertans for the Wildrose will run deeper than for the eternal Tories, if only because they pretended to be something a little different – and they fooled us for a spell, even some of us who didn’t support their market fundamentalist program.

No one said politics is easy. But history is rife with the names of people who accomplished something by sticking to their principles, and continuing to fight when the odds said their goals seemed impossible.

As the oft-quoted American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead so famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Well, if we imagined those at the front of the Wildrose Party comprised a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens, we have now been set straight. Danielle Smith, it’s said here, could have changed Alberta. But even if she becomes the deputy premier for a spell, she will sink into well-deserved obscurity before the decade is over.

What happened? No jam! The wind went out of Ms. Smith’s sails when she and her advisors realized it wouldn’t be all that easy. Anyone could run a successful campaign against Alison Redford. Jim Prentice was a tougher customer.

So when they hit a speed bump and won none of the Oct. 27 by-elections, the party shattered into a thousand pieces of glass.

In fact, their supporters were tougher than their leaders and could have made a good showing in the next election. But I guess winning by increments built up through hard work in opposition didn’t meet the schedule preferred by Ms. Smith and Mr. Anderson.

What happens next remains to be seen. Someone will form the opposition. Maybe the Liberals for a spell; maybe the Wildrump, if there are enough of them. There will be a fight over the money and someone will win it. Ms. Smith will smile and get to make a few announcements. Mr. Prentice will plead poverty and call an early election before the RCMP reminds us of all the things Ms. Redford got up to. This being Alberta, it’ll probably work.

You know what? I often complain that my Alberta New Democrats have very little to show for their stick-to-itiveness and principles beyond “moral victories.”

But I’d sure as hell rather have an Alberta NDP-style moral victory than suffer a collapse of principles and moral fibre the way the Wildrose Party just has!

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Friends close; enemies closer? Rumours abound Wildrose is about to return to PC mothership

Say it ain’t so, Danielle! Your blogger with … Progressive Conservative Deputy Premier? … Danielle Smith. Below: Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Tout le monde political Alberta was abuzz last night with rumours the entire Wildrose caucus is on the verge of walking over and joining Premier Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives, perhaps as soon as today.

The Wildrosers will be briefed at today’s caucus meeting, then the Provincial Government of Petroleum Unity will be formed, or so goes the universal rumour.

This makes so little sense that, this being Alberta, it’s probably true. Certainly it will be close to unprecedented in the annals of Canadian politics for an entire opposition party just to surrender and join the government holus-bolus, but there you go.

Certainly it would effectively bring to an end one of the most entertaining and interesting periods in Alberta political history.

Perhaps there will be a few holdouts, perhaps not. If this happens, the Wildrose Party’s furthest right true believers will feel abandoned and furious, but what do they matter? They haven’t been part of the Wildrose brain trust’s political calculus for a while now, as its members felt increasingly anxious to return to the comforts of governing, whatever that took.

An anonymous blogger of some variety of small-c conservative bent reported Opposition Leader Danielle Smith is leading the charge, begging her caucus to come with her to the PC benches.

Perhaps Premier Prentice will reward Ms. Smith for her past hard work and good sense with the post of deputy premier – don’t look at me, that’s part of the rumour too!

Calgary Sun Columnist Rick Bell reported in tiny paragraphs that he has seen a copy of the “reunification document.” He quotes it as saying: “In this time of declining oil prices and economic uncertainty it is imperative we come together as conservatives.”

The Calgary Herald said Wildrose movers and shakers like Ms. Smith, Rob Anderson and party president David Yager are refusing to comment and not returning their phone calls – always a sure sign something is up.

Remember, when the kid cried out to Shoeless Joe Jackson, accused of throwing the World Series, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” Joe had nothing to say in reply.

Say it ain’t so, Danielle!

Speaking of Joes, it seems to have been Independent MLA Joe Anglin, a former Wildroser, who tipped Albertans to the fact something was brewing.

As they say over at the mainstream media, “more to come…”

For the moment, just remember this about politics in Alberta: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

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Prentice Government takes Alberta from boom to bust in one weekend, breaking all records

Premier Jim Prentice points the way for public spending in Alberta now that our boom has gone bust again. Oil prices, ya know… But read the Reaper’s grim lips: “No new taxes!” Actual Alberta premiers may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Finance Minister Robin Campbell, Infrastructure Minister Manmeet Bhullar and Labour Minister Ric McIver, three of the Seven Horsepersons of the Alberta Fiscal Apocalypse

Guess what, we’re broke again out here in The Richest Place on Earth!

Yesterday, citing the spectacular recent drop in oil prices, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice pulled his Grim Reaper’s hood over his head, took up his scythe and headed out to, in the words of his government’s press release, “take action to control spending.”

Target No. 1 of his newly formed seven-minister “Budget 2015 committee,” according to the press release: “Public sector compensation.”

Mr. Prentice, Finance Minister and former trade unionist Robin Campbell, Health Minister Stephen Mandel, Municipal Affairs Minister Diana McQueen, Energy Minister Frank Oberle, Infrastructure Minister Manmeet Bhullar and Labour Minister Ric McIver will be sharpening their metaphorical knives and trying to figure out ways to enact disgraced former premier Alison Redford’s policies without sounding like they’re implementing Ms. Redford’s policies, I guess.

What Mr. Prentice thinks this means for the “blue-ribbon” committee of boardroom bigshots he cheerfully announced on Friday to improve the flagging morale and “shockingly” high turnover in the Alberta civil service is not immediately clear.

If I were any of the four execs so optimistically named by the premier just one business day earlier, I think I’d say thanks very much but I’ll stay home and paint the baseboards. After all, there’s nothing for them to do now except look foolish, thanks to the upcoming efforts of the Seven Horsepersons of the Alberta Fiscal Apocalypse (SHAFA).

Even by Alberta’s ridiculous recent standards, going from boom to bust in one weekend has to be something of an accomplishment!

Notwithstanding yesterday’s grim talk, Albertans need not worry overmuch. Soon enough we’ll all be rich again, here in the brokest place on earth.

That’s because we don’t just have a boom-and-bust resource-based economy hereabouts. We’ve got a boom-and-bust government. Indeed, we’ve had one for most of the past half century. Mr. Prentice is just the latest figurehead at the helm.

Critics often say this is because the Progressive Conservative government is fat, profligate, entitled and above all incompetent. There’s enough truth to that to make it dangerous, although you ought not to hold your breath waiting for Alberta voters to catch on. Their tendency not to do so, of course, is what Mr. Prentice is counting on.

But the real issue is because this boom-to-bust-and-back cycle works for the government. 

Thanks to our junkie-like resource dependency, based on too-low royalties used to underwrite our unprogressive tax system, we flit from crisis to complacency and back with a tick in the price of a barrel of oil, from prosperity to panic at the whim of a currency trader’s keyboard. The last few weeks provide just one more example.

But the province’s wealthiest citizens and the energy industry – in possession of a bigger picture than the rest of us – are happy enough right now to keep cash flowing into PC Party coffers.

That wasn’t necessarily the case back when Ed Stelmach was the Progressive Conservative premier and made a half-hearted attempt to squeeze a little more value for Albertans out of our non-renewable resources. Some energy companies were not remotely happy, and, arguably, that led directly to the formation and rise of the Wildrose Party, Danielle Smith Edition.

Now, under Mr. Prentice, the energy industry can expect to get everything it wants and, unsurprisingly, the Wildrose Party seems to have fallen on hard times. Such hard times, indeed, that rumours are circulating the Wildrose caucus is about to merge back into the PCs.

If you want to start cutting public services, as a neoliberal party like the PCs on principle wants to do, it’s quite handy if there’s always another financial crisis right around the corner to assist the process. There’s just nothing like a crisis to justify the application of a little economic shock therapy, no matter how ineffective or unwarranted.

That, it is said here, is the fundamental reason for the past few years the economic news in Alberta always reads like the opening of a Charles Dickens novel: “…It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

In 1987, we were so unexpectedly broke that Premier Don Getty had to stop putting money in the so-called Heritage Fund, which is small enough to have precious little to do with our province’s future heritage. Indeed, nothing’s gone in ever since, so, as Dave Cournoyer pointed out in an excellent blog post last week, Alberta has managed to save $17.5 billion while Norway has put away $905 billion.

I suppose that money went somewhere, but that’ll have to be a topic for another day.

Back in 2009, two years after he tried and failed to increase royalties, we were “meeting the challenge of tough times” under Mr. Stelmach, who was astounded by the downturn caused by the 2007-8 financial crisis. Who could have known?

Then we had another boom.

Two years ago, premier Redford was scaling back her leadership campaign promises because, wouldn’t you know it, there was an unexpected “Bitumen Bubble” – a PR term cooked up by her brain trust for the difference between the price fetched by Alberta’s dirty bitumen and sweet Texas crude. Or something along those lines. Whatever, there would be an $8-billion shortfall! Who could have predicted it?

Then we had another boom.

Now we have Premier Prentice telling us we’re in a “price trough” and everyone will have to go back to being poor again. There will be a $7-billion shortfall! And what a surprise it is! Who knew?

As Mr. Cournoyer explained, part of this is just good old-fashioned expectations management. Another part is part is out-and-out propaganda. For example, that projected $7-billion shortfall Mr. Prentice told us about last week? According to the sharp-eyed blogger, Alberta was only projected to collect $7.5 billion in total energy royalty revenues in the 2014-15 financial year.

Was Mr. Prentice seriously telling us that essentially all of our resource revenues had disappeared? Oh, don’t worry your pretty little heads – just tighten your pretty little belts – it’s way more complicated than that.

The main point being this entire $7-billion prediction rests on an assumption that is almost certainly not true, that the current low price of oil will stay right there right through to the end of the 2016 fiscal year. It could happen. It’s certainly prudent for our government to be aware of the worst-case scenario. But it is unlikely to happen.

Still, it almost seems as if, thanks to the PC way of doing business, Alberta is now in a permanent two-year boom-bust cycle timed to achieve electoral goals. That is, of course, unless Mr. Prentice hasn’t actually instituted a two-day boom-bust cycle, in which case our heads really will start to spin.

Now, you might think it makes sense to plan for the worst-case scenario by charging fair royalties instead of the lowest on the planet, and returning to a progressive taxation system so that the people who benefit the most from society, and cost it the most, pay their fair share.

Don’t look for that under Mr. Prentice, however, or for that matter any PC or Wildrose leader.

Anyway, sometime quite soon we’ll need to be rich again. The Prentice PCs – like the Harper Conservatives – are already floating balloons about an early election, perhaps in case an old PC scandal decides to make a return engagement. We’ll need some spending money for an election to take place. So look for the economy to perk up before too long.

In the mean time, pity the poor civil service. The sum of Friday’s and yesterday’s Siamese twin press releases seems for Alberta civil servants to be “the beatings will continue until morale improves!”

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Oh Buffster where art thou? Jim Prentice names nothing but bosses to his ‘blue ribbon’ panel on worker morale

Dan MacLennan – known as Buff, or the Buffster, to his friends – with Premier Ralph Klein, back in the day when Alberta’s leaders didn’t just talk to the Big Kahunas from the executive suite. Below: Ex Syncrude CEO Jim Carter, former Edmonton Journal Publisher Linda Hughes, Maclab Enterprises Chair Marc de La Bruyère and Queen’s University Professor Françoise Morissette.

Premier Jim Prentice, former chartered bank vice-president, has created a “blue ribbon” advisory panel of big bosses from public and private sector executive suites to do something about sagging morale and high turnover in the Alberta public service.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Mr. Prentice started the month by naming his Big Three Agents of Change – or, as they’re known around here, the “Three Amigos.” They are:

  • Ian Brodie, University of Western Ontario business professor and first chief of staff to that well-known friend of the working man, Prime Minister Stephen Harper
  • Oryssia Lennie, former deputy minister of this and that in the Alberta and federal mandarinates
  • Richard Dicerni, Alberta’s top civil servant and another veteran of the mandarinate in Ottawa, Queen’s Park and now here on the northern bank of the North Saskatchewan

In case that level of attention wasn’t enough to get Alberta’s civil service underlings to stop feeling like they’re under-valued, under-staffed, underpaid and constantly under assault, on Friday the premier named even more big cheeses from the executive suite to the job of probing the mysteries of low morale and “shockingly” high turnover among the rank and file of the public service.

The latest batch of top-floor experts on what motivates shop-floor sluggos?

  • Jim Carter, retired president and CEO of Syncrude, with annual revenue in the order of $3.5 billion
  • Marc de La Bruyère, rental housing conglomerate Maclab Enterprises chair and trustee of a chichi U.S. prep school
  • Françoise Morissette, a Queen’s University business professor and adjunct business school prof at the University of Alberta
  • Linda Hughes, retired Edmonton Journal publisher and current corporate newspaper chain board member

In other words, what are technically known as “the suits,” or maybe “the usual suspects.” One or two of them may have had a real job for longer than the premier’s summer sojourns in coal mining way back when, but they’re far, far from it now.

And we all know there’s nothing like the plush carpets and heated toilet seats of the private or public sector executive floor, not to mention the Spartan prestige of the faculty club, to isolate a person from the rigours of the workplace and the financial challenges faced by the folks who toil on the front lines of the civil service or in like careers.

So I doubt that it’s just me who sees the irony – not to mention the utter foolishness – of bragging about a panel of professional mandarins and coruscating executives from the last century’s flagging industries being asked to create the public service of the future!

Just a thought, Mr. Premier, but if you’re thinking about a bigger role for the private sector going forward – which as a good neoliberal, you doubtless are – the newspaper industry may not be the right avatar of success to be looking at just now, if you know what I mean.

OK, enough sarcasm. What to do? Leastways, what should you do if you don’t want to be remembered for a bon mot like “let them eat cake.”

Well, duh! Consult the people who actually do the work, and by that I don’t mean a brief tour of the shop floor by execs in lab coats and cordovan shoes.

Ralph Klein did this back in 2005 when he had Mr. Prentice’s job, asking Dan “Buff” MacLennan, then the president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and a veteran Correctional Officer, to serve on a panel looking into how to stop young people from using crystal meth.

Ed Stelmach and his health minister Ron Liepert did the same thing, asking the Buffster to serve on the Minister’s Advisory Committee on Health led by Fred Horne, who was later health minister himself. The committee reported in the fall of 2010.

And, Mr. Premier, your health minister, Stephen Mandel, went to the same guy to serve on the Edmonton Mayor’s Task Force on Community Safety.

The latter two efforts took place after Mr. MacLennan had left AUPE to work for the private sector, but in each case the fact that he’d done a difficult job on the front lines of law enforcement and earned the respect of two premiers as a tough negotiator for tens thousands of civil service and health care employees lent credibility to the work being done and assured impacted workers they had a voice at the table.

In case Mr. Prentice didn’t notice, AUPE is the union that represents about 80 per cent of the 27,000 nervous and increasingly distrustful civil servants whose jobs and lives are about to be fiddled with by his “blue ribbon” panel of suits from the top floor.

Mr. MacLennan, of course, is not the only working person with brains and insights that might be tapped for such a panel.

But I wonder if it even occurred to the premier to ask someone who the people being probed knew and trusted to join this effort? Naw, didn’t happen, did it? That’s one thing about being the VP of a chartered bank and a Harper cabinet minister – you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Hoi Polloi! Except maybe just before an election.

And when you never see them or think of them, it’s hard to remember they’re even there, dutifully paying the bills.

Well, it’s never too late to pick up the phone and call someone who has spent their career on the front lines, actually doing work.

If the premier can’t be bothered to do so, and decides to add underrepresented to the list above, I’m sure he’ll forgive the poor working stiffs in the Alberta public service if they view efforts of his panel of Big Kahunas with a certain degree of justified skepticism.

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Government communications staff learn only this week of huge shakeup set for Monday at Public Affairs Bureau

Worried Public Affairs Bureau staffers wait for more information on the shakeup affecting their jobs, which takes place Monday. Actual government of Alberta communications specialists may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: PAB Deputy Chief Martin Kennedy and top agent of change Richard Dicerni.

The Alberta government’s long-controversial Public Affairs Bureau is hours away from a significant restructuring by the Prentice Government.

The massive structural change, which will reduce the PAB to a shadow of its former self and scatter most communications staffers throughout government departments, takes effect on Monday.

All but about 40 of the 200-plus employees of the monolithic centralized communications group – long controversial in Alberta because of its size, power, $23-million budget and the perception it has become thoroughly politicized – will now report to deputy ministers in the departments to which they are assigned.

The core PAB staffers at “the centre,” as Deputy Chief Martin Kennedy confirmed to me while shovelling his front walk rather late last night, will co-ordinate interdepartmental communications efforts and help hire new communications staffers for the departments.

Mr. Kennedy described the change as an adoption of the decentralized departmental communications model used by Ottawa and the Ontario provincial government, in which communications directors and their staffs report to the department’s deputy minister.

PAB employees were only informed of the changes in an emailed memorandum from Mr. Kennedy on Wednesday, with a follow-up email yesterday that outlined some of the senior personnel changes. Alberta Diary has obtained a copy of the first memorandum.

The major restructuring of government communications to a more traditional reporting model may reflect Premier Jim Prentice’s approach to administration, but the impetus for change appears to have been driven by the premier’s new Deputy Minister of Executive Council, Richard Dicerni, one of the three “agents of change” hired by the premier to shake up the Alberta civil service.

The “Three Amigos” seem not to have waited very long to start making dramatic changes – the big ones at the PAB came just days after the government’s Bill 10 fiasco, as the legislature was getting ready to shut down and right before the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, when the media can be counted on to be inattentive.

The changes seem to have gobsmacked PAB employees and sparked speculation in the ranks that the restructuring was inspired by the PR disaster that accompanied the government’s decision to replace Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s private member’s bill on gay-straight alliances with the government’s Bill 10, which doesn’t require schools to permit students form the clubs.

However, Mr. Kennedy, who became the PAB’s top executive (notwithstanding his title of “Deputy Chief”) only last April, said the shakeup was being planned well before the flames fanned by Bill 10 engulfed the Legislature.

Wednesday’s memorandum informed employees that “the new structure aligns resources and reporting relationships to support departmental accountability, while continuing to support the delivery of high-quality, co-ordinated, and cost-effective communications services that help the government communicate effectively with Albertans.”

The main organizational changes, the memorandum said, will include:

“Communications branches will be aligned to ministries and report to deputy ministers. Communications directors, assistant directors and communications branch staff will become department employees rather than PAB employees.” (Emphasis added.)

“The role of Communication Director will focus on accountability to the deputy minister and providing communications leadership to the ministry. It will also reflect a clear expectation for continued participation in cross-government communications co-ordination activities, including established processes such as weekly directors’ meetings and government-wide communication calendars, and implementation of government-wide communications policies.

“The PAB will continue to co-ordinate communications across government. We will continue to support department communications branches with cross-government communications planning, government-wide communications policies and strategies on key initiatives, and central services including media planning, news services, digital communications, advertising, corporate products, research, writing, planning and recruitment support.

“Accountabilities within the PAB executive team will be re-organized to reflect changes in PAB structure and focus. To support implementation of the cross-government internal communications strategy, one executive role will transfer to Corporate Human Resources. …”

Mr. Kennedy said in the memo and confirmed to me that the new structure will be put into operation immediately on Monday, Dec. 15. “Documentation of the changes is expected to be completed by mid-January,” the memo to staff said.

“The Public Affairs Bureau and department communications branches will continue to work together, as a team, to support the communication needs of government,” the email said. “I recognize that these are significant changes for an organization with a long history and record of exemplary service in government. Organizational change can be challenging for everyone involved.

“We will work to implement the new reporting structure of government communications as quickly and sensitively as possible. I invite you to speak to your director or an executive team member, or to contact me personally if you have questions or would like to discuss the changes.

“Although our reporting relationships and structure are changing, as government communications staff we will continue to work closely with each other. Thank you for your service to Albertans. I look forward to continuing our work together.”

The PAB has long been mocked in this space as the world largest advertising agency, and not a very good one at that. Whatever it has become, it doesn’t seem like that’s what it is any more. So while not much may happen in reality about the government’s tight control of its messaging, the restructuring will remove an irritant that has become a burr under the saddle of successive PC governments.

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