All posts in Alberta Politics

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.

VICTORIA, B.C.

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!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

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.

VICTORIA, B.C.

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 Daveberta.ca blog. I intend, of course, to commentate on the developments in Edmonton from one province away. This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

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 Rabble.ca.

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.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

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.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Why Edmonton Strathcona electors should vote NDP, as (not exactly) explained by Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland

Toronto Centre MP Chrystia Freeland, a Liberal, after speaking at the University of Alberta Faculty Club last week. Below: Eleanor Olszewski, nominated Liberal candidate in the federal Edmonton Strathcona riding; Linda Duncan, NDP MP for Edmonton Strathcona.

Last Wednesday night, during an engaging talk at the University of Alberta Faculty Club, Chrystia Freeland pretty clearly laid out the arguments for why voters in Edmonton Strathcona should re-elect New Democrat Linda Duncan in the next federal election.

The Toronto MP, who is one of the bright lights of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s caucus, wasn’t aiming to make that point, of course. Indeed, she was actually gamely making the argument to the more than 100 Liberals who spent two hours listening to her remarks why voters should elect Eleanor Olszewski, the Liberal Party of Canada’s standard-bearer in the riding.

As a native of Alberta – born in Peace River and raised here in Edmonton, where she was educated in public schools before attending Harvard and Oxford – Ms. Freeland is likely to be to play an important cabinet role if the Liberals manage to form a government. As such, it was bizarre no one from the local mainstream media could be bothered to show up to cover her remarks or even try to get a file photo.

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about Ms. Freeland’s potential as I am, by the way. A scion of the Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora, she has been banned from Russia by President Vladimir Putin’s diktat, a retaliatory slight that must get up similarly hostile Harper Conservative noses, pretending, as they do, to be Ukraine’s only friends in Canada.

But at the risk of being mean (Ms. Freeland was certainly very nice to me, and kindly posed with me for a photograph), and also of offending my friends in both the Liberal Party and the NDP, the case she so articulately set out is in fact stronger if you replace Ms. Olszewski’s name with Ms. Duncan’s.

I imagine the recently elected Member of Parliament for Toronto Centre knows all this, although she was too loyal a Liberal to let on, having just won a hard fought by-election against New Democrat Linda McQuaig, who like Ms. Freeland is an author, journalist and high-profile and effective spokesperson for progressive Canadians. Both of them deserve to be in Parliament, but, alas, that’s not the way the system works here.

It’s important to all Canadians, Ms. Freeland emphasized to start, “not to have the Conservatives form the next government.” Agreed!

She excoriated the so-called Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper as deeply sexist, profoundly out of touch with the values of Canadians, anti-science and not even able to live up to its No. 1 talking point, “that it is business oriented, business friendly or oriented to business.”

“It’s just not true,” she said, wondering what kind of a pro-business government wants to suppress science and ignore facts. She introduced a nice argument that the Harper Government’s hostility to science is in fact evidence of its lack of business acumen.

So, she argued, is its misunderstanding of the U.S. government and the psychology of President Barack Obama. Mr. Harper’s bizarre pronouncement that he won’t take no for an answer from Washington is not likely to be effective, she said, nor is his apparent notion he can exploit Alberta bitumen while ignoring the need for social consent in the United States or elsewhere.

“The fact that Keystone hasn’t been approved is directly the fault of this government,” Ms. Freeland stated. “Believing we have to choose between the oil industry and the environment totally misreads the situation,” she went on.

Whether or not you endorse the entire range of views expressed by Ms. Freeland, it’s hard for me to argue with her conclusions the Harper Conservatives suffer from “an arrogant sense of righteousness and entitlement” or that allowing them to continue to govern would be deeply harmful to Canada.

Which brings us back to Ms. Duncan and Ms. Olszewski. In Edmonton Strathcona, Ms. Duncan can win, while Ms. Olszewski cannot – although Ms. Olszewski very well could split the vote sufficiently to ensure a Conservative gets elected.

The arithmetic is pretty simple: if the Liberals do well in Edmonton Strathcona in 2016, the Conservatives will win in the riding, as they have many times in similar circumstances in the past.

If you are simply a party partisan, this doesn’t matter, I guess. For most of us, though, Ms. Freeland spoke a profound truth when she said of the Harperites that this is an election in which we simply “can’t let them continue to be our government.”

So this calls for a certain degree of strategic voting, as unpopular as that idea is bound to be with both Liberal and New Democrat true believers. But here too the electoral math is pretty clear: the more seats not held by Tories, the better off the country is.

I think Ms. Freeland’s late mother, Halyna Chomiak Freeland, might have agreed with this analysis. After all, she ran for the NDP in Edmonton Strathcona in 1988 and came pretty close to winning.

Regardless, Liberals should hold their noses and vote NDP in Edmonton Strathcona, for the very reasons Ms. Freeland ably enumerated.

New Democrats in some other ridings – including, I daresay, Toronto Centre – are going to have to return the favour.

The hard part for many progressive voters is going to be figuring out how and where to cast a strategic ballot – which is seldom completely clear.

It is clear in Edmonton Strathcona, though, and that requires a vote for Linda Duncan, whether it’s strategic or deeply partisan.

As Ms. Freeland rightly stated: “We cannot afford in this crucial year to split the progressive vote.”

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Just as things were looking up a bit for foundering PCs, Alison Redford showed up again

Alison Redford contemplates which way to turn as she leaves behind a trail of devastation, toward the capital city’s new Sky Palace Hotel, left, or toward Edmonton’s High Level Bridge, right. Actual former premiers and the landmarks they threaten may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: The real Ms. Redford; Tory leadership candidates Jim Prentice, Thomas Lukaszuk and Ric McIver.

Just when things were starting to look a little better for Alberta’s Progressive Conservative government, Alison Redford blundered back onto the provincial scene like the monster from low-budget a 1950s horror flick.

So suggests the latest version of a regular Alberta poll, which was in the field between July 20 and July 26 and shows the Wildrose Party holding onto its commanding 41-per-cent lead among committed voters, the identical level of support the party received in the same survey back in May.

But Progressive Conservative support had crawled back to 26 per cent of decided voters in late July from a low of 19 per cent in March, according to the ThinkHQ Public Affairs “Eye on Alberta” on-line poll of 1,582 voting age Albertans, at which Alberta Diary recently had the opportunity to sneak a tantalizingly brief peek.

Respondents’ impressions of the Tory government’s performance had shown a similar modest improvement, the poll indicated, presumably also thanks to Ms. Redford’s ejection from the Premier’s Office by her caucus in March.

Alas for the unlucky PCs, that was just before CBC Edmonton reported the leaked preliminary report on the investigation of the Premier’s Office by Alberta Auditor-General Merwan Saher. There have been no shortage of embarrassing stories since then, and it is hard to believe that this will have a very positive effect on the PC Party’s faltering brand and foundering fortunes, no matter what one thinks of this particular poll.

The ThinkHQ survey is conducted for private clients of the Calgary-based pollster. The July edition also showed 14 per cent of decided voters province-wide supporting the Alberta Liberals, possibly a reflection of the warm light cast by Justin Trudeau. (That’s my interpretation, by the way, not theirs.) Provincial New Democrats were at 13 per cent and the Alberta Party, which has no members in the Legislature, at 4 per cent. The group of undecided voters remained high – a quarter of the respondents polled.

Broken out by region, the results indicate a trend that should concern – though not panic – the NDP, which as been polling very well in Edmonton in a number of surveys.

To wit: the Wildrose Party has now edged noticeably past the NDP in voter support inside the capital city – with 32 per cent of decided voters compared with the New Democrats’ 25 per cent and the Tories’ 21 per cent within city limits. This trend is more pronounced in the Capital Region.

Liberal support was at 15 per cent in Edmonton city proper and Alberta Party support was at 7 per cent, a number that likely reflects the makeup of the ThinkHQ panel more than actual voter intentions.

If this reflects reality, the good news in Edmonton for the NDP is that it remains the progressive party best positioned to defeat conservative candidates, whether they call themselves PCs or Wildrosers. The selection of a new leader like Rachel Notley or David Eggen – even if this poll suggests the NDP leadership race is hardly on the public’s radar – should help.

But the NDP is going to have to work hard to get that vote, and not just coast along with the thought several polls predict it will be handed to them. The can do this by persuading progressive voters who favour other parties, including the PCs, to vote strategically for them in Edmonton.

New Democrats need to remember that Wildrose strategy is now likely to shift if winning in Edmonton is within the party’s grasp. They will move from hoping the NDP wins seats to deny them to the PCs to actually trying to win the same seats themselves.

There could be also be some hope for the NDP in Calgary, despite the fact the poll shows Liberal support there spiking. While Alberta Liberal support may be strong now in Cowtown, if the Liberals can’t find good candidates to replace MLAs Kent Hehr and Darshan Kang, who are departing in hopes of finding redder federal fields, and David Swann, who is retiring, an effective NDP campaign could attract progressive voters.

But the Wildrose lead is bigger in Calgary, according to the poll, at 39 per cent compared with 28 per cent for the PCs, 19 per cent for the Liberals, 8 per cent for the NDP and 5 per cent for the Alberta Party.

That trend accelerates for the Wildrose in small urban areas (43 per cent for the Wildrose; 29 per cent for the Tories; 14 per cent for the Liberals; 11 per cent for the NDP; and 2 per cent for the Alberta Party) and becomes overwhelming in rural areas that were once the PC heartland (60 per cent Wildrose; 25 per cent PC; 3 per cent Liberal; 10 per cent NDP; and 1 per cent Alberta Party).

Province-wide, according to ThinkHQ’s July poll, the Wildrose Party enjoys a commanding lead in every demographic category – men, 47 per cent; women, 35 per cent; under 35s, 32 per cent; 35-54, 44 per cent; and 55 and overs, 48 per cent.

In more bad news for the governing Tories, the poll suggested Albertans are still not much engaged by the PC leadership race.

Whatever the three candidates’ membership sales and support may be – there’s a persistent rumour out there that fewer than 30,000 memberships have been sold or given away that meet the party’s standards for acceptance – a mock ballot exercise in the ThinkHQ survey suggests Jim Prentice remains in the lead with poll respondents.

And this time, tying the candidates’ names to provincial vote intentions in another mock ballot for a future general election indicated little change from ThinkHQ’s results in May.

As noted in Alberta Diary’s commentary on the May ThinkHQ poll, there is a potential for selection bias in any online panel. According to many polling experts online panels should not publish margins of error, implying more statistical validity than such a poll can really claim. ThinkHQ does nevertheless, this time saying the margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 2.5 per cent.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Term limits on Alberta MLAs? ‘I think Jim Prentice is trying to lose… nothing else makes sense’

“A night to remember”: Jim Prentice explains to reporters how term limits for MLAs can work. Really! Below: The orchestra the Tories should have hired to play the lunchtime event.

There was no orchestra at Tory leadership candidate Jim Prentice’s lunchtime speech in Edmonton yesterday. But if there had been, it would have been playing “Nearer My God to Thee.”

Many of the journalists who turned up for what had been billed as a major event in a sustained Twitter fusillade in the hours before the microphones were turned on were persuaded Mr. Prentice was about to announce the acquisition of a high-profile candidate, possibly former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel.

The more cynical in their number joked that the Progressive Conservative establishment’s favourite in the race to replace the catastrophic Alison Redford as the province’s next permanent, full-time premier would be announcing he was going to hand out free steak knives to get people to take the free Tory memberships nobody seems to want.

So there was a palpable sense of disappointment when Mr. Prentice stepped to the microphone unaccompanied by Mr. Mandel or anyone else that looked like the sort of big-name star-power candidate the former federal cabinet minister, corporate lobbyist and bank executive was supposed to be able to attract to the moribund party’s banner.

Then Mr. Prentice began to work his way through his remarks, interminably describing the dismay, the frustration, the anger, the determination to restore public faith in the PC Government, that he personally has been feeling about the recent antics of the Redford Government. Eyes in the supportive crowd of about 80 souls grew glassy as he droned through three pages of this boilerplate.

Then he reached the point where he told us what he was going to do about it, to, as he put it, ensure the highest ethical standards and accountability: “There will be term limits. A limit of two terms for the premier and three terms for MLAs.”

I can’t speak for others, but this was the moment that I heard a faint creaking noise far below the waterline, and felt the slightest tremor through the deck of the unsinkable Tory Titanic that Mr. Prentice insisted he still hopes to captain, despite everything.

Say what? That’s unconstitutional. I mean, it’s really unconstitutional – unconstitutional enough to make the Redford Government’s recent foray into labour law look sober and cautious!

So that was the big news! Never mind the qualifiers (term limits will be grandfathered in, the limit clock only starts now) or the other promises (no holiday flights on government airplanes for anyone, ever, and a stern look at maybe selling them too, one day, yadda-yadda).

This was the plan of pure political genius that’s going to woo us angry Albertans all back to the Tory Mothership? Term limits!

People! How lame is that?

Notwithstanding the fact term limits are a bad idea – we the sovereign voters, thank you very much, will limit the PCs’ term in the traditional way, through the ballot box, to about 44 years – cooked up by disgruntled right-wing Americans to keep popular progressive politicians from using democracy to hang around the way Franklin Roosevelt did …

Never mind the fact this policy was apparently designed to woo back a sector of the electorate that’s long gone, and not to Saskatchewan – the wackiest fringe of the wackiest fringe of the Wildrose Party, whose leaders have never advocated this policy …

It’s simply not on.

The reason? It’s right there in black and white in the Constitution Act, 1982, Part 1, Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.”

Every citizen. Even those Jim Prentice thinks ought not to be allowed to ask voters nicely for a fourth term in office.

Note also that the Constitution Act, 1867 assures us we will have “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.” And, by the way, that Section 33, the famed “Notwithstanding Clause” of our Charter, cannot be applied to Section 3, Democratic Rights, whether Jim Prentice or the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party feel like it or not.

This is a done deal. Term limits are simply not being placed on members of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta or any other Canadian province.

Good lord, how dumb do they think we are? That’s probably more complimentary than the other question we might consider asking under these circumstances, How dumb are they?

I was shaken out of thoughts like these when Mr. Prentice thundered: “We can take back our party, and we can set it right, my friends!” All around me, the room was full of many of the same Tory hacks we’ve seen at dozens of government functions over the past decade.

Moments later, Mr. Prentice backpedalled a little from the stern promise of his speech, telling reporters: “It can be done in terms of party policy. It could be a combination of the two.” True enough, I guess, and we all know how well that’s likely to work.

“It works in the States,” he also observed, a titch defensively. But this isn’t the States: we don’t have a constitutional right to bear arms and we do have a constitutional right to run for MLA as many times as the voters will elect us. Get used to it.

Even the other PC leadership candidates were gobsmacked by this brainstorm. As Thomas Lukaszuk told the Calgary Herald: “It defies tradition. It defies the law. It defies fundamental values of democracy. It’s just bizarre.”

It’s hard to disagree with that, but I’m going to give the last word tonight to Lou Arab, union organizer, New Democrat and inveterate Tweeter: I think @JimPrentice is trying to lose. Nothing else makes sense.”

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Albertans have a right to ask questions about the integrity and preservation of their government’s records

Alberta Tories contemplate their departure from the Legislature. Actual Progressive Conservative Government officials may not leave office in exactly the manner illustrated. Below: But if they do, is this the fate of their secrets? Below that: the late premier Ralph Klein and privatization advocate and cabinet minister Steve West.

There’s a whiff of panic in the air nowadays in some of the most politicized corners of the Alberta government.

Of course, every government that has been in power for more than a few years, regardless of its ideology or party name, has secrets it would rather not reveal.

But with the sense Alberta’s government very well could change hands after the next general election, Progressive Conservative politicians and some of the senior bureaucrats who are an essential part of the nearly 44-year-old PC Dynasty have to be asking themselves what they are going to do about it.

This is an important question for we citizens who want to know what happened within our government during their long watch, not to mention who care about our history.

When it comes to their commitment to transparency, not all the signs are promising.

In a 2012 study of Canadian access-to-information laws by the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy, Alberta was tied for last place with the Alberta-dominated federal Conservative government and the government of New Brunswick. That is, according to the CLD, we and the others have the weakest legal frameworks in Confederation for protecting the right of citizens to information about their government.

That rating put Alberta 55th in the world, by the way, behind Colombia and Mongolia and barely ahead of Angola and Thailand.

Way back in 2003, the Parkland Institute attempted to compare Alberta’s highway maintenance system, which had been privatized a few years before by the PC Government of premier Ralph Klein, with the government-run program that preceded it.

This proved to be impossible. Constant reorganization of the departments responsible for the program allowed the government to claim records could not be found. Confidentiality agreements with private contractors provided another convenient excuse for withholding comparative information. In the end, there was no choice but to take on faith the claims of Ralph Klein and Steve West, the minister the premier favoured to lead his attacks on public services. Dr. West, a veterinarian from Vermilion, later also served as Mr. Klein’s chief of staff for a spell.

A decade later, the Parkland Institute reported last year, there had been no improvement in the ability of citizens to access information about Government of Alberta operations.

Indeed, with the introduction of Finance Minister Doug Horner’s unorthodox, confusing and much criticized budget reporting techniques, understanding what this government is up to has grown even more difficult.

Until very recently, however, the Progressive Conservative Party and the senior reaches of the civil service have at least mostly felt comfortable with the notion they would remain in power forever.

Since then, though, Albertans have been buffeted by spectacular revelations about lavish spending by senior health care officials, donations to the PC Party by a raft of publicly financed institutions, routine use of the provincial air fleet by the premier’s office and a secret project to build the premier a luxurious residence high atop a government building in downtown Edmonton. The latter, we were told, had been cancelled at a small cost. Then we learned it had never been cancelled.

Surely, under these circumstances, Albertans are entitled to wonder what else they don’t know.

They’re also entitled to worry they will never know many important facts, if senior elected and unelected officials of this government – never all that committed to transparency – take measures to ensure their secrets remain hidden forever.

As things stand, Albertans know far less than they ought to know about:

  • Electricity deregulation
  • Liquor sales privatization
  • School and highway P3s
  • Flood cleanup and mitigation costs in Southern Alberta
  • Payouts for cashiered political aides
  • The operation of the most politicized provincial departments, such as Finance, Justice, Municipal Affairs and Education

As the British historian Antony Beevor observed: “Few things reveal more about political leaders and their systems than the manner of their downfall.”

So it is not unreasonable to ask the three candidates for the leadership of the PC party, in these circumstances, if they will commit to ensuring the integrity and preservation of government records keeping during a transfer of government.

Albertans shouldn’t have to worry about a fleet of shredder trucks descending on the Legislature between now and election day!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

A few harmless slaps were landed, but last night’s PC leadership debate in Edmonton was no donnybrook

The Three Tory Amigos just before last night’s Edmonton debate. Below: Mr. Lukaszuk, who your blogger says was the debate winner, frontrunner Jim Prentice, and the challenger with the best chance, Ric McIver.

If last night’s Alberta Progressive Conservative Leadership debate in a North Edmonton Ukrainian community hall shows anything, it’s that candidates Ric McIver and Thomas Lukaszuk were slightly better brawlers than leadership frontrunner Jim Prentice.

But you’d expect the two challengers to pile onto the favoured candidate at an event like this – the only forum in the entire leadership campaign not carefully scripted by the PC Party brass and caucus members, who overwhelmingly favour Mr. Prentice’s candidacy.

It was also the only forum to permit a few moments of actual three-way debate among the candidates for Alison Redford’s tarnished crown, an aspect helped by the able moderation of CBC announcer Kim Trynacity.

Anyway, you’d expect Mr. Prentice to tread carefully, especially around the two issues that provided some difficulty for him yesterday – his recent announcement his campaign would be giving away party memberships, instead of selling them as is the party tradition, and his ideas about how Alberta Health Services should be run.

So I’m not sure how much can be deduced about how each of the Tory trio are doing from the few moments of fun the forum provided to the crowd of about 100 people, about half apparently members of the Edmonton Ukrainian community. (A small sleight of hand was managed by the event’s organizers, who moved the debate from a huge room, where the crowd would have looked pathetic, into quite a small one, which seemed impressively packed.)

To turn to the inevitable boxing metaphor, local homeboy Lukaszuk landed a couple of punches, Mr. McIver landed one, but the frontrunner escaped with no obvious bruising. There were no knockouts.

I’d have to respectfully disagree with one professional journalist who said the debate featured “a rowdy shouting match.” Voices were raised, but not for long. Decorum was maintained. As for the heckling heard by another reporter, it was mostly one guy, and he divided his attention between Mr. Prentice and Mr. McIver. I know this because he was sitting right behind me.

On the whole, I’d say all three candidates did OK, although I’d give the contest to Mr. Lukaszuk on points, if only for the best line of the evening, in which he mockingly encouraged “all Albertans to pick up a free membership from Jim and vote for me.”

He followed that up with a clever but harmless tap at Mr. McIver: “This province doesn’t need a Mr. Vague or a Dr. No” – the latter being a reference to Mr. McIver’s nickname as an austerity advocate on Calgary city council and the former a pretty fair description of Mr. Prentice’s approach to most issues.

Cut through the verbiage, though, and there was very little to separate any of the candidates on genuinely important issues other than how to run AHS.

None of them favour changing the oil and gas royalty structure (although Mr. Lukaszuk advocates more value added processing in Alberta), all of them say they want to make peace with Alberta teachers, and all of them advocate some degree of fiscal conservatism.

Not surprisingly, given the venue, all of them think warm thoughts about Ukraine, which Mr. McIver, with an unintended geographical tribute to former U.S. vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, described as our “good neighbour.”

On his call to restore board governance to the AHS and his justifications for giving away memberships when, after all, the party’s rules allow it, Mr. Prentice reminded me for all the world of a earnest Joe Clark trying to explain a complicated point to an inattentive listener.

Interestingly, the loudest cheer of the evening went to Mr. Lukaszuk’s argument the federal Temporary Foreign Workers Program needs to be replaced by real immigrants who get to stay in Canada – but this too was a point of which all three candidates are really in agreement.

The reality is that while a fine time was had by most of the people who bothered to turn out, this contest is going to be decided by membership sales and committed voters – which likely means it’s a fight between Mr. Prentice, with the support of the party establishment, and Mr. McIver, who is emphasizing political niche marketing to committed groups.

This leaves Mr. Lukaszuk without much to show but two thumbs up from Alberta Diary for his modest debating victory last night.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.