All posts tagged Alison Redford

Collapse of rickety Wildrose coalition of market fanatics and religious fundamentalists could be bad-news/good-news story for Alberta’s NDP

A recent meeting of the Wildrose Party Legislative caucus. Actual members of the official Opposition party may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: NDP Leader Rachel Notley and Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith.

Monday’s bombshell that the rickety coalition of ideological market-perfection fanatics and social-conservative religious fundamentalists called the Wildrose Party was coming unstuck may turn out to be a bad-news/good-news story for Alberta’s New Democrats.

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith’s big problem – other than the fact she appeared to have been completely out of the loop last week about the upcoming defections of MLAs Kerry Towle and Ian Donovan – is that her party’s rank and file is made up of significant numbers of refugees from the disaffected fringes of the vast centre-right coalition that is the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta.

Newly elected New Democratic Party Leader Rachel Notley’s potential big problem is that without vote splitting on the right between Wildrose conservatives and Progressive Conservatives in the Edmonton area, where all three parties have been polling at similar levels, the NDP’s dream of picking up many more seats than the four it has now could evaporate.

Not so long ago, NDP strategists were talking as if they could win a dozen or more seats in the next general election. If the Wildrose Party crumbles, so could the dream that might have seen the NDP form the Opposition in the Legislature based on a stronghold in Edmonton.

On the other hand, with the Alberta Liberals no longer much more than a collection of independents who share office space and the Alberta Party barely on the radar outside a few ridings, the NDP is probably the best placed to pick up votes from disaffected Tories if the Wildrose really does collapse. And even if the NDP sees its dream of a 12-seat caucus die, six seats may be enough to form the Opposition!

What a bitter day it would be, though, if the New Democrats significantly increased their province-wide vote in the next general election but saw their seat tally in the Legislature fall!

So it’s not necessarily only the loony right that is praying Ms. Smith can somehow keep her Wildrose caucus on life support. It will be interesting to see some public opinion polls taken after the brutal events of the past 31 days, in which the Wildrose Party managed to lose all four Oct. 27 by-elections plus three of its caucus members with the possibility of more to go.

Regardless, it won’t be easy for Ms. Smith to fix the gaping tear in the fabric of the Wildrose Party.

Her trouble is that from the start the party was the home to significant cohorts of extreme neoliberal economic fundamentalists who worship the Almighty Market and extreme religious social conservatives who worship a particular interpretation of Almighty God. Alas, they never really had that much in common with one another.

Both had lived unhappily on the disaffected fringes of Alberta’s big-tent Tory coalition because their views were too extreme for most Albertans who, despite thinking of themselves as “conservative,” believe in a modest degree of state intervention in the economy and take a live-and-let-live approach to issues like LGTBQ and reproductive rights that send so-cons into conniptions.

The Wildrose Party, apparently even more conservative than the Conservatives, attracted members of both groups.

But the Wildrose Party really got off the ground in the late 2000s with some big donations from junior oil company movers and shakers who were in a swivet about former premier Ed Stelmach’s sensible if faint-hearted attempt to raise royalties on non-renewable resources. Now that fight is over and the oil companies have won.

If the oilpatch doesn’t need the Wildrose Party anymore because PC Premier Jim Prentice is going to give it everything it wants, can the Wildrose’s remaining supporters write enough cheques to keep the party afloat?

So, after all this excitement, it may have turned out that the only thing holding the so-cons and the market nuts together in the Wildrose Party could be summed up in two words: Alison Redford.

Ms. Redford’s leadership was so incompetent, her own conduct so appalling, and her policies so alienating that the public concluded the Wildrose could be a reasonable still-conservative alternative. The PCs may richly deserve to be punished for their many sins, but with Mr. Prentice at the helm, the need does not look nearly as urgent to a lot of Albertans.

Without the glue provided by Ms. Redford to hold them together, it’s hard to see how the Wildrose Party can soldier on without one faction or the other pulling the plug on what’s left of the shaky enterprise.

Ms. Notley’s task now is to get enough Albertans who are fed up with PCs’ past sins and not yet ready for what may turn into an increasingly extreme Wildrose to rally round the NDP strongly enough to preserve and perhaps even increase its Edmonton stronghold.

This is possible. Historically, Tory and NDP voters have found it surprisingly easy to move back and forth between those seemingly quite different parties in Western Canada. But it will certainly not be easy – as long as Mr. Prentice can maintain the discipline of his growing caucus. That, of course, is no sure thing either, which should keep things interesting.

Ms. Smith’s job is to pull her party’s fat from the fryer before, at the risk of mixing metaphors, more petals fall from the rose.

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Defining ‘neoliberal’: market fundamentalist, but anti-democratic

I am regularly taken to task by a couple of regular commenters for using the term “neoliberal” to describe, erm, neoliberals.

For the record, here is what I mean when I use that term: ideological market fundamentalism combined with belief in strong state power to enforce market mechanisms, even at the expense of democracy.

In Harperism, How Stephen Harper and his Think Tank Colleagues have Transformed Canada, author Donald Gutstein writes: “The ideology the think tanks promote is properly called neoliberalism because, in contrast to libertarians who want a small, powerless state that leaves people alone, neoliberals require a strong state that uses its power to create and enforce markets, and prop them up when they fail, as happened after the 2007-08 financial meltdown. Their utopian dream is a state governed by market transactions and not democratic practices. It’s based on the principle that economic freedom must come before political freedom. Political freedom may not even be necessary. It’s fair to say they believe in government, but not in democracy.”

This definition for market-perfectionist but anti-democratic neoliberalism may properly be applied to many groups in our society, including Mr. Harper’s federal Conservative Party, the market fanatic wing of the Wildrose Party, myriad organizations like the Fraser Institute and Preston Manning’s mislabeled Manning Centre for Building Democracy.

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The bloom is off the (Wild)rose – Opposition Leader Danielle Smith assailed by doubts, dissent and departures

Are the wheels falling off the Wildrose bus, which may or may not look exactly as illustrated any more? Below: Beleaguered Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, Taber-Warner-Cardston MLA Gary Bikman and Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson.

These may be happy days for the Progressive Conservatives under Premier Jim Prentice, but the bloom is definitely off Alberta’s Wildrose Opposition.

Just weeks ago seen as a sure bet to be the province’s next premier, Wildrose Opposition Leader Danielle Smith is today buffeted by an embarrassing scrap between her party’s social conservatives and socially progressive members over LGBTQ rights, troubled by questions about her own performance in four recent by-elections, and sees her supporters tempted by the welcoming glow of the rejuvenated Tory benches.

Commentators are starting to talk openly about the wheels falling off the Wildrose bus.

In other words, the turnaround in Tory fortunes engineered by Mr. Prentice in the short time since the PC Party’s darkest hours under the catastrophic Alison Redford seems to have had a calamitous effect on the morale and unity of the Wildrose Legislative caucus and the rank and file of the party, which for almost two years has looked as if it were about to canter into government without breaking into a sweat.

Mr. Prentice’s success should surprise no one. He is a capable and disciplined politician at the head of a party that was ready to pay attention to a strong leader after two and a half years of chaos and deepening doubts about Ms. Redford’s erratic and at times irrational leadership.

But the apparent unraveling of the Wildrose caucus and party so quickly in the face of the Tory regrouping is a surprise – at least this early in Mr. Prentice’s tenure.

But since the party’s loss of all four Alberta by-elections to the government on Oct. 27, Ms. Smith’s hold on the affections and loyalty of the other 15 members of the Opposition party’s caucus, not to mention its inevitably fractious general membership, has appeared increasingly tenuous.

Right after the by-elections, Ms. Smith said she would stand for a leadership review, then changed her mind, apparently at the urging of supporters in caucus who were none too confident she could win it.

Last weekend, while Ms. Smith was still smarting from the by-election losses and trying to figure what to do next, Wildrose members at the party’s general meeting in Red Deer ignored her call to support an amendment to the party’s human rights policy.

Instead, they voted down the change, which would have said the party would defend the rights of all Albertans “regardless of race, religious belief, colour, gender, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income, family status or sexual orientation of that person or class of persons.” (Emphasis added.)

Their leader’s hope, of course, was that by passing the resolution the party could finally put behind it the reputation for intolerance stuck in the public’s mind with the so-called Lake of Fire Affair during the 2012 election campaign, in which a Wildrose candidate outlined his views on the eternal consequences of homosexual relationships in a blog published by an evangelical church at which he was also a pastor.

The revelation, which Ms. Smith later characterized as a “bozo eruption,” without question played a role in the Wildrose defeat at the hands of Ms. Redford’s PCs.

Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason this week portrayed the vote in Red Deer as a “bozo eruption” by the entire party – but I don’t think that’s quite right. Oh, they were bozos, alright, but this was no eruption. Alas, the party, with its roots in the social conservative fringes of Alberta politics, has suffered a steady leakage of this kind of thing since Day 1.

Ms. Smith gets it that her party needs to change if it’s going to succeed. The instinct of too many of her party’s members is the opposite.

Perhaps they were influenced at the AGM by the brochure left under the windshield wipers of their cars by the “Reform Party of Alberta,” an entity apparently created by Randy Thorsteinson, a familiar name to those who follow Alberta’s social conservative fringe. He founded the Alberta Alliance Party, a predecessor of the Wildrose Party, and was leader of the Alberta Social Credit Party for a spell, in his effort to push socially conservative nostrums at an uninterested public.

If nothing else, both Mr. Thorsteinson’s reemergence on the Wild Rose Country so-con scene and the Wildrose Party’s rebellious membership are symptoms confidence on Alberta’s right the party can form the government if they only behave themselves is beginning to waver.

The defeat of the human rights policy immediately led to plenty of bad press, plus the very public resignation of a Calgary party official who supported the change.

Ms. Smith will have a chance to try to get this issue right with her caucus next month, when Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s private member’s bill supporting gay-straight alliances in schools, which passed first reading in the Legislature yesterday, comes back for second reading.

Ms. Smith says she is likely to support the bill. Her caucus is squirming with indecision. Here’s betting they don’t have it in them to do the right thing.

Meanwhile, the decision by former caucus member Joe Anglin early this month to sit as an independent seems to have opened fissures too. The disputatious Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre MLA and former Green Party leader may have been a bad fit for the Wildrose caucus, but his departure amid claims the caucus in the midst of a “civil war” has according to blogger Dave Cournoyer garnered the support of other Wildrosers.

To top it all off, speaking in the Legislature this week, two members of the caucus could be heard heaping praises on Mr. Prentice and his government.

“We want to help the Premier. We believe he’s serious and self-aware enough to realize help and good solutions are available from other sources, like the Wildrose Official Opposition,” Cardston-Warner-Taber MLA Gary Bikman said wistfully in the Legislature. “Welcome to Wild Rose Country, Mr. Premier. We’re all MLAs, and we really are here to help you.”

The same day, Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson, a former PC Party member, pitched in: “I’d like to stand and say a few words about the Speech from the Throne. I thought it was a very interesting document. I think there were a lot of good things in there, a lot of good words, good ideas. …” He went on: “Hopefully, we can work together.”

Is this a theme, or what? Is it just me, or do these guys sound like they’d like to re-join Mr. Prentice’s party as soon as possible?

Then there’s the unconfirmed buzz in the Legislature that at least one other Wildrose MLA – no one named in this post – is talking to the Tories about crossing the floor now that Ms. Redford’s political career is history.

If this keeps up, Ms. Smith’s political career may soon be history too.

Indeed, if it continues, it’s hard to believe she won’t be thinking seriously about pulling the plug on politics herself.

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Two political general meetings in one weekend: Wildrosers conduct gloomy post-mortem while PCs flirt with characteristic hubris

Steady as she goes! Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, centre, works to keep party stalwarts, on either side, on the right course, which would be not too far to the right, of course. Alberta Premier Prentice, at the wheel above, tries to get the earnest Wildrosers to take a wrong turn. Actual Alberta conservative party leaders, supporters and their political vehicles may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: The real Mr. Prentice and the real Ms. Smith.

Both of Alberta’s right-wing parties held general meetings this weekend – the ever-ruling Progressive Conservatives in Banff and the so-far never-ruling Wildrose Party in Red Deer.

The PCs led by Jim Prentice patted themselves on the back for their victories in the Oct. 27 by-elections and the Wildrose Opposition led by Danielle Smith beat themselves up for their inability to make any headway in the same four votes.

They both, arguably, missed the boat in their deliberations.

Readers of Alberta Diary are just going to have to put up with armchair strategizing  from afar, since getting to Banff is just too big an investment in time and money for a busy pre-Christmas weekend, and Red Deer, well, nobody in their right mind would go to Red Deer at this time of year!

Indeed, the fact the Wildrose Party’s leaders were inclined to pick that central Alberta city – a venue that seems to possess all the vices of a small Prairie town and none of the graces – may illustrate part of their problem.

That said, of the two, the Wildrose Party had the more interesting topic to ponder – how to deal with the existential crisis it faces if it can’t pull off a victory in the next general election, something that looks less likely every day Jim Prentice remains as premier.

On Friday Ms. Smith told the party faithful that she’ll step down as leader in 2016 if the Wildrosers don’t win the election widely expected that year. Of course, that’s not much of a promise as there’s unlikely to be much of a Wildrose Party left to lead if it can’t win an election after the Tories and the province suffered through a catastrophe like Alison Redford.

According to reports in the popular press, Wildrose rank and filers stood up at the meeting and complained their slogan in the Oct. 27 mini-election election sucked, the focus on Ms. Redford’s disastrous tenure in office was all wrong, and, as the Edmonton Journal put it, they had a problem with “disorganized internal data.”

This all has a ring of truth to it, but none of it really goes to the root of the Wildrose problem.

Yeah, “Time to Send the PCs a Message” was a pretty lame slogan, but I doubt any slogan would have made much difference in a vote in which, as Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson rightly pointed out, the deck was stacked by the governing party in favour of the governing party.

The Wildrose campaign’s negative focus on Ms. Redford was a mistake. Albertans seem in a forgiving mood when it comes to Mr. Prentice’s leadership, at least willing to give him a chance to prove the Redford Government was an aberration, not the reductio ad absurdum of 43 years of PC rule.

But that fact is closely related to the Wildrose Party’s genuine need to set itself apart from a PC party that espouses the identical ideology, advocates the same policies, is funded by the same corporations and people, and in many cases still has the same members, but also has the significant advantage of actually being in power.

The Wildrose plan, clearly, was to say, “we’re more honest than those other conservatives.” Or maybe, “we’re more competent,” which wasn’t a hard case to make with Ms. Redford at the helm. But the replacement of the Redford PCs with the Prentice PCs seems to most voters to have put paid to both arguments.

So how are the Wildrosers any different? Well … and this is the party’s real problem that no Wildroser wants to confront … they’re still scarier than the PCs to most uncommitted voters.  The devil you know, and all that.

Moreover, the deep-pocketed corporate oilpatch backers whose money got the Wildrose off the ground in reaction to Ed Stelmach’s feeble effort to charge a fair royalty are bound to be significantly less enthusiastic about a second conservative party now that there are no policy differences on questions affecting the energy industry.

The real problem the Wildrosers face now, as some of the news coverage of their meeting illustrated, is that they’ll be pushed away from the moderate positions Ms. Smith has worked hard to foster by the disaffected social conservative extremists who played a big role in establishing the party.

That would be exactly the wrong thing for them to do – as Ms. Smith clearly understands. The Wildrose Party will never win as the party of Tory outsiders. But the pressure on Ms. Smith to tack to the loony right will now be great.

Which brings us to that “disorganized internal data,” whatever that means. The Journal’s reporter didn’t explain.

I don’t think the problem was that the party’s data was disorganized, so much as it was misinterpreted. This may or may not be what the Wildrose insiders had in mind, but it sounds very much as if on Oct. 27 party strategists got the idea they could beat Mr. Prentice in Calgary-Foothills and pulled resources that should have been used to win in Calgary-West, where the Wildrose candidate ended up only 315 votes from the brass ring.

In reality, Calgary-Foothills voters, concerned about keeping the good times rolling, were never likely to reject Mr. Prentice and introduce major instability into the administration of the province.

But victory in just one seat was all it would have taken to turn a gloomy post-mortem this weekend into a huge celebration for Wildrosers. So that Oct. 27 miscalculation may turn out to have been a blunder of historic proportions.

As for the PCs, they seem to go from strength to strength under Mr. Prentice, but the problems of hubris and a weak bench that plagued them during the Redford Era remain, lurking in the wings.

Mr. Prentice boasted that money is again flowing into Tory coffers, just like the good old days before Ms. Redford ascended to the leadership. No surprise, really, since the PCs are now advocating the oilpatch policies the Wildrose Party was established to ensure.

Mr. Prentice cleverly left the impression an election may come sooner than later – a simple strategy that could stampede the Wildrose Party into once again trying to line up candidates too soon. It’s said here the Wildrosers would be smarter to wait for serious candidates to emerge from the woodwork.

It was this mistaken sense of urgency that led to the party’s acceptance as a candidate in 2012 of Pastor Allan Hunsperger, who holed the Wildrose boat just before election day when his religious views on homosexuality emerged in a blog post no one had thought to cleanse from the Internet.

And it could again result in the Opposition party picking, at best, weaker candidates than necessary.

But it would be a grave mistake for the Tories to conclude, as they seem to have done, that all the damage suffered by the PCs under Ms. Redford can be patched up in a few weeks by Mr. Prentice.

Their strongest players are gone, purged from important positions by Mr. Prentice for the crime of being too closely allied with Ms. Redford.

The weak players that remain may be just as prone to egregious blunders as the candidates the Wildrose Party is in too much of a hurry to nominate.

So while things look bleak for the Wildrose Party this weekend, it would be a mistake to count them out.

And while things look as rosy as an Alberta wild rose for the PCs, it would also be a mistake to assume their restoration to another four or five years of power is a foregone conclusion.

Mr. Prentice and his three new MLAs – Health Minister Stephen Mandel, Education Minister Gordon Dirks and Mike Ellis – will be sworn in Monday morning, then everyone will repair to the Legislative chamber in the afternoon for the start of the third session of the 28th Legislature with the delivery of the government’s pre-election Speech from the Throne by Lieutenant-Governor Donald Ethell.

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Conservative parties squirm as fired AHS executive triumphs over government, controversial MLA quits opposition caucus

This just in from Alberta’s two conservative parties. Below: former Alberta Health Services CFO Allaudin Merali, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice, MLA Joe Anglin (CBC Photo), Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, former health minister Fred Horne.

Alberta’s governing Progressive Conservative Party and its Opposition Wildrose Party, in addition to sharing an identical right-wing ideology, face a similar problem this morning, a situation and a person each party would very much like to see go away as quickly as possible.

In each case the circumstances have the potential to embarrass each party seriously enough with voters to impact its chances in the next general election.

For the Progressive Conservative government led by Premier Jim Prentice, the potential embarrassment is caused by the substantial settlement received by Allaudin Merali, the chief financial officer of Alberta Health Services fired in 2012 when expense claims he had filed in a previous job were reported by the CBC and became a major crisis for then-premier Alison Redford and her health-minister, Fred Horne.

Mr. Merali was back in the news yesterday after rightly declaring the $900,000 settlement he received last week was a victory in his two-year fight with the government and a vindication of his conduct in both his former jobs.

For the Wildrose Party led by Opposition Leader Danielle Smith, the potential embarrassment is caused by Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre MLA Joe Anglin, handed his hat by party members in his own riding last July when they nominated his constituency association president to replace him in the next provincial general election.

The mercurial Mr. Anglin, always ready for a fight, was back in the news yesterday in a frenzy of recriminations after quitting the party’s caucus on the weekend and declaring publicly its ranks are riven by “a civil war between ideologues and pragmatists.”

In the short statement sent to media and political bloggers by Mr. Merali yesterday, the former CFO for both the Capital Health Region and Alberta Health Services declared that the settlement of his claim against AHS and former Minister of Health Fred Horne “covers not just amounts that were due to me under a contractual commitment but also damages.”

Mr. Merali’s statement continued: “The settlement is a clear indication of two points: the decision to refuse to honor a legal contract was wrong, and the defamatory statements by Alberta Health Services and the former Minister Horne and other politicians (particularly the former premier) were irresponsible and totally inappropriate. AHS, the former minister and the former premier were not entitled to shred my contract and damage my reputation, by insinuating that my expenses under a former employer, Capital Health were in any way improper, let alone that they were a cause to terminate me.

“As AHS indicated in their press release on October 31, 2014, they are ‘….satisfied that the termination of … employment is properly characterized as having been without cause.’ Therefore, this settlement has clearly vindicated me in that I had done nothing wrong and that my dismissal was unjust.” (Emphasis added.)

In this assessment, Mr. Merali is most certainly correct.

It was clear from the get-go the expenses he filed at Capital Health in 2008 and 2009 were approved by his supervisor, CEO Sheila Weatherall, and that he was being punished years later for the political embarrassment the health region’s vague expense-claims policies caused to the PC Government after the CBC story appeared.

What was bizarre was the determined insistence by Mr. Horne, Ms. Redford and the government’s army of public relations specialists that no matter what his contract said they could tear it up because … well, because they felt like it.

It turns out, however, that even after more than 40 years of PC rule, the rule of law persists in Alberta and a legal contract is a legal contract – even when the premier and her health minister don’t like it.

So it can be argued, even though this is bound to be unpopular in certain journalistic quarters because of the inevitable cost to taxpayers of a settlement, that Mr. Merali’s victory is a victory for everyone who believes in the rule of law.

It is worth noting in this context that Stephen Lockwood and the rest of the board of AHS, fired by Mr. Horne last year for not agreeing to tear up legal contracts with other AHS executives, were right while the minister and premier were out to lunch.

As for the well-known Alberta journalists screeching last week that the government should continue to fight Mr. Merali’s claim, Premier Prentice obviously can recognize a lost cause when he sees it. So taxpayers will be spared the further burden of such foolishness.

Mr. Anglin, meanwhile, issued a statement of his own on Sunday, noting that he had written the Speaker of the Legislature asking to be seated as an Independent MLA immediately.

“It is no secret that I have been a round peg in a square hole in the Wildrose Party,” Mr. Anglin wrote. “I speak my mind. I bring different experiences and a different point of view to the caucus than my colleagues. This has never been an issue for me: a strong party is made stronger by a variety of opinions.”

However, he went on, “behind closed doors, the party has increasingly lost focus on its original mission of creating a true grassroots party. It has been caught up in a civil war between ideologues and pragmatists. …

“As a result of poor management and infighting, there will be a motion today by my leader, Danielle Smith, to have me removed from caucus. To be honest, this is upsetting but not surprising. It was clear by the way the party executive mishandled my nomination process last June, and by the way they mismanaged the past four by-elections, something needs to be corrected.

“The Wildrose Party is now at a crossroads. The Party’s interference in local constituency matters and its lack of respect for the democratic process must be corrected if this party is to continue. … The party and its leadership are in crisis.

“This party … is now infested with an unelected backroom weed that is choking off the grassroots movement. I still have the highest regard for Danielle Smith as a person. She is intelligent and thoughtful, but in saying this I have little respect for the people advising her. Ultimately the leader bears the responsibility for addressing these problems.”

The intramural fight soon degenerated into the public accusation by Ms. Smith that Mr. Anglin had been taping caucus meetings, a claim the MLA denied. The party also withdrew its previous announcement it would hold a leadership review.

Notwithstanding the similarity of their situations, it’s clearly going to be easier for the Prentice PCs to clear up their problem than it will be for the Smith Wildrose Party.

That’s simply because Mr. Merali has absolutely nothing to gain from sticking around. He fought and he won – as it was always obvious he would because he had the law and the facts on his side.

As he concluded his statement yesterday, “I am glad that this is behind me and want to get on with my life now that I have been vindicated.”

Mr. Anglin, on the other hand, now has little to lose from sticking around. He fought and he lost – and he has a nice platform for the next year or two from which to make the Wildrose Party pay for its victory.

Given his pugnacious nature – this isn’t the first time the former leader of the Alberta Greens has been in the thick of such an internal party fight – it seems probable he’ll take advantage of the opportunity.

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No change! No change! Jim Prentice’s ‘new management’ is offering the same old Tory stuff

New management … same old owner. It’s all about marketing. Below: Jim Prentice and Fred Horne, advocating the same health care policies.

Sustained, uninterrupted privatization of health care, a senior official dumped for daring to speak out about political interference in her supposedly independent work, thousands of dollars in illegal donations to the good ole Tory Dynasty now led by Premier Jim Prentice …

All this and a Speaker who doesn’t understand or care about his impartial role in the Legislature. … Plus a national mission to build pipelines to all points of the compass!

This is new management? Sure sounds a lot like the old Alberta Conservative management to me!

Now, it cannot be denied that Mr. Prentice dramatically and publicly repudiated some of the more bizarre activities that went on during the strange interregnum when Alison Redford and her advisors briefly grabbed power from the Tory Old Boys’ Club, a spell during which the entire place seemed to descend into political la-la land.

So give the man his due: He gave the bum’s rush to a few cabinet ministers he saw as too close to Ms. Redford, announced plans to sell off the planes Ms. Redford misused (even though that’s not really a sound economic decision), and the notorious Skypalace will now have a half-million-dollar-plus boardroom table instead of two similarly priced powder rooms reminiscent of the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C.

But really, the cost of abandoning policies and legislation is low when they appear to the public either to be prima facie evidence of corruption or are self-evidently doomed to be overturned by the courts.

So Alberta’s “new management,” to use the premier’s own phrase, really appears to be substantially unchanged when you look at the policies and behaviour that really matters. That stuff, even amid the supposed disavowal of everything that happened during the Redford Era, continues pretty much unchanged and unabated.

Consider the Sonic Boom – that is, the privatization of more and more of Alberta’s essential medical lab operations into the hands of a multinational company based on another continent: How is this anything but a continuation of the policies of the now-reviled former health minister Fred Horne, whom Mr. Prentice tossed over the side for being too closely associated with the Redford regime?

Alert readers will recall that Duncan Campbell, momentarily the CEO of Alberta Health Services during Mr. Horne’s watch, swiftly departed that role after he mistakenly Tweeted last year that AHS would not seek private-sector bids for a $3-billion medical testing lab in Edmonton when physicians and other staff members protested.

Mr. Campbell was swiftly overruled on that one by Mr. Horne himself, who at the time was for all intents and purposes acting as the de facto CEO of AHS. Nothing had changed in the government’s plan to privatize lab services, Mr. Horne snapped, closing the book on that episode as well as Mr. Campbell’s term as CEO, although we were told at the time there was no connection.

Likewise, what is the significance of Health Minister Stephen Mandel’s and Premier Prentice’s own cautious bafflegab about continuing care versus long-term care but more of Mr. Horne’s unstinting effort, as well as that of his portfolio predecessor Ron Liepert, to privatize and marketize seniors’ care as if this were about the kind of hotel you could afford to holiday in and not the kind of place in which you would be forced to spin out your “golden years”?

“No plan! No plan!” those 2006 Albertans for Change “attack ads” whispered. They got that wrong. When it came to health care, and especially seniors’ care, there was a plan all right. The same plan’s in effect today under Messrs. Prentice and Mandel. Exactly the same plan!

Turning to personnel matters, we have now learned Mr. Prentice’s new management team – the weakest PC cabinet in 43 years, in former NDP leader Brian Mason’s piquant phrase – won’t be renewing the contract of Alberta Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Anny Sauvageau. The apparent reason? Internal documents obtained by the CBC revealed Dr. Sauvageau had dared to express her concerns about political and bureaucratic interference by provincial government representatives in the operations of her office.

In her correspondence, Dr. Sauvageau said she feared the interference could affect the public’s trust in the integrity of the death-investigation system, specifically in cases like the deaths of children in provincial care, which had been a huge embarrassment to successive Tory governments.

So how is this different from Mr. Horne firing the entire AHS board last year when they refused to knuckle under to his scheme to deny contractual bonus payments and dismissal payouts to health executives that had become controversial with the public? It turns out, as we now know, that the board got the law right, even if they misunderstood the political consequences of failing to kowtow to Mr. Horne.

And how is it different from the firing of the medical officer of health for the Palliser Health Authority in southeastern Alberta in 2002 when he made the mistake of talking publicly about the harmful health impacts of burning fossil fuels?

Ralph Klein’s government wasn’t going to let a guy hang around who was prepared to declare his support for the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

That story at least had a happy ending: the health official in question was Dr. David Swann, who was soon elected to the Legislature as a Liberal MLA, where he did yeoman service for the people of Alberta. Dr. Swann plans to retire after the next general election.

So again we see, on issues that matter, we just get the same-old-same-old from the Prentice government.

And how about those illegal donations? According to the Opposition Wildrose Party – granted, doing a little creative news recycling – the PCs were paid more than $100,000 in illegal donations between 2004 and 2010.

In 2010, the Legislature voted to change Alberta’s election financing law, banning political donations from publicly financed institutions. But MLAs prevented Elections Alberta from revealing improper donations made before 2009! Say what?

Now we have a pretty good idea, thanks to this timely reminder from the Wildrose Party, why that particular provision was put in place.

So far, there’s been no apparent effort by the government to do anything about this, notwithstanding Mr. Prentice’s assurance that everything is different now.

It’s hard not to think that Liberal Leader Raj Sherman had it right when he described the PC problem with illegal donations as “systemic.” The Tories should “return that money,” he told the Calgary Herald. Well, good luck with that.

Mr. Mason put it well last year. When it comes to dealing with the Tories in Alberta, he said, “If you don’t pay, you don’t play.”

So what’s changed?

Yes, there’s been a management facelift. And the expensive Skypalace is an expensive boardroom now.

But where the rubber hits the road? No change! No change!

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New Democrats yesterday were ready for Rachel – can Albertans reach the same conclusion?

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, about to be interviewed by the media, moments after her victory speech in Edmonton yesterday. Below: Three scenes from yesterday’s NDP leadership convention, one of Ms. Notley’s buttons, her father, Grant Notley.

Rachel Notley’s campaign buttons asked: “Are you Ready for Rachel?”

There was never much doubt Alberta’s New Democrats were ready for Rachel, and they proved it yesterday by overwhelmingly choosing the scion of this province’s second-most-famous political dynasty as leader of their party in voting at Edmonton’s Sutton Place Hotel.

This has been clear since former leader Brian Mason announced his intention to retire after a decade as leader last April while the ruling Progressive Conservatives unraveled before our eyes, and certainly since Ms. Notley, 50, the MLA for Edmonton-Strathcona since 2008, officially joined the race on June 16.

Just the same, Ms. Notley’s leadership team rolled the dice when they opted for a campaign strategy that, from the get-go, shot the new leader’s message way out beyond the party faithful and aimed it straight at middle-of-the-road Alberta voters who are not part of the traditional NDP universe in this province.

I’d go so far as to say it was pretty bold for her campaign team to eschew the natural temptation to campaign to the party’s various bands of true believers – the granola crunchers, the die-hard trade unionists, the remaining raging reds, the Dogmatically Perfectionist Church of the NDP, and so on – and then sneak back to the centre later.

Instead, she boldly led a tightly disciplined campaign aimed at a broad mainstream coalition of mildly progressive voters – the kind of people to whom Alison Redford successfully appealed in 2011 and 2012, and then turned on in 2013 and 2014 – with a message that we can do better in Alberta with a political party that really means it when it says it speaks to our values.

There’s a fine line between being confident about the right way to lead the Alberta NDP from the margins to the mainstream and arrogantly assuming you can ignore the cliques and clubs within your own party to get there.

Ms. Notley’s campaign executed this feat deftly, never straying from the message that mainstream Alberta voters need to hear if they’re going to turn to a party that’s always been on the margins outside the province’s Capital Region without alienating groups within the party that value ideological purity above any chance of victory.

So the efforts by Edmonton-Calder MLA David Eggen and University of Alberta staff union leader Rod Loyola to “niche market” to some of those groups within the NDP fell flat. Ms. Notley won on the first ballot with more than 70 per cent of the votes cast.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call this balancing act masterful and its messaging pitch-perfect.

Now, however, the hard work starts. Ms. Notley must take the NDP’s message to a bigger audience for whom the name Notley means little, citizens who have no memory of the role her father, Grant Notley, first elected in 1971 as MLA for Spirit River-Fairview, for 11 years the only New Democrat in the Legislature, and leader of the Opposition from 1982 until his death two years later in a small airplane crash 30 years ago today, played in building the party.

Grant Notley’s work made possible the high-water mark of the Alberta NDP, when in 1986 it won 16 seats. For this he is revered by the province’s social democrats.

Rachel Notley’s well-known skills as a lawyer and Parliamentarian may not count for much with these voters, especially in southern Alberta where the party barely registers on the political scales. As federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has proved, being a Parliamentarian of the first rank and a probing cross examiner in Question Period may not count for much with bored and disconnected voters attuned to the U.S.-style media campaigns conservative parties have perfected.

So it will be a tough sell for Ms. Notley to get the NDP to the point it can be more than just a niche party rooted in one region.

She will have to turn her agile mind to finding ways to really unite the province’s progressive voters – a much larger group than their representation in the Legislature would suggest if recent polls are to be believed – under one orange banner.

However, it is said here, she just might be the person to do it, and this might just be the moment.

The governing PCs, notwithstanding their new leader, are deservedly viewed by voters with deep suspicion as corrupt, entitled and arrogant. The official Opposition party espouses the same bankrupt market-fundamentalist ideology. The Liberals, once the Opposition, seem to be suffering their own collapse. And the Alberta Party is barely on the radar.

The media – to judge from some of their breathless commentary yesterday – have already fallen in love. “She’s smart, experienced and charismatic,” enthused Edmonton  Journal political columnist Graham Thomson last night – quite accurately, as it happens.

She’s already on a first-name basis, as it were, with a goodly segment of the population – like Ralph … but also Alison.

So, it would seem, the planets may be in alignment for Ms. Notley not just to breathe new life into the Alberta NDP as Mr. Mason asked but, as she put it in her victory speech, to make history. “This time,” she said, “let’s not forget history, let’s not repeat history, let’s make history!”

The balance of power in 2016? The opposition? What next?

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As soon as the NDP picks a new leader today, the party’s focus should turn to Edmonton-Whitemud – here’s why

Your blogger with Edmonton-Whitemud NDP candidate Dr. Bob Turner. Yeah, I support the NDP. Live with it! Below: Retiring NDP Leader Brian Mason, Health Minister Stephen Mandel, Alberta Liberal candidate Donna Wilson and NDP leadership frontrunner Rachel Notley.

After today, when the Alberta New Democratic Party has at long last chosen a leader to replace the retiring Brian Mason, she (or he) needs immediately to turn her (or his) attention to the Oct. 27 Edmonton-Whitemud by-election.

That’s because, if the buzz from some conservative-leaning campaigners is to be believed, there’s a sense on the doorsteps of the suburban Edmonton riding that if the opposition to unelected Health Minister Stephen Mandel is coalescing around anyone, it’s coalescing around the NDP’s candidate, Dr. Bob Turner.

Indeed, it’s even possible some Wildrose supporters could cast a strategic by-election ballot for Dr. Turner, an Edmonton oncologist and medical school professor who has exhibited unexpected passion about health care issues on the campaign trail. If they do, their theory would have to be it’s more important to see the Jim Prentice Tories beaten than to gather a few more votes for one of their party’s weaker candidates in this go-round, businessman Tim Grover.

I utter this hopeful thought aloud with a certain trepidation because I still think Mr. Mandel has the edge in that particular constituency, and because I know I will be roundly assailed by the Alberta Liberal Party’s increasingly cranky supporters, who are bound to point out, quite rightly, that I am known to be a card-carrying New Democrat.

Well, so be it, I talk to everyone, usually in a pretty friendly fashion, and I hear what I hear. I recognize it could be wrong.

Still, this is not a completely implausible scenario. First, Dr. Turner, as noted, has turned out to be a surprisingly effective campaigner – ready to loose newsworthily fiery darts at both the pre-Prentice Progressive Conservatives’ horrible health care record and the Mr. Mandel’s already apparent deficiencies as unelected health minister.

Mr. Mandel was also Edmonton mayor recently enough to have some constituents remember his role in civic decisions they didn’t like.

Second, at least one poll – the ThinkHQ survey last cited here on Thursday – shows the NDP, PCs and Wildrose all within 1 per cent of one another in the Edmonton region (at 25, 26 and 27 per cent respectively) with the Liberals trailing distantly at 16 per cent.

Well, Edmonton-Whitemud is certainly in Edmonton although not a part that has normally been friendly to anyone but Tories – but these are not normal times.

The other opinion poll cited by celebrity poll analyst Eric Grenier was done by Lethbridge College and shows the PCs with a more comfortable lead – 32.7 per cent to the NDP’s 23.5 and 22.4 for the Wildrose, with the Liberals again trailing far behind at 10.2.

Under such circumstances, it is not completely improbable to imagine the progressive vote at least gathering around a credible NDP candidate.

Perhaps as a sign of their desperation, the Alberta Liberals have published a preposterous press release claiming to show evidence candidate Donna Wilson, an RN and PhD nursing professor, is running ahead of all the other parties’ candidates in the riding.

Alas, for Dr. Wilson, who is a fine person and like Dr. Turner would make a terrific MLA, not only was this statistic the result of a push poll, but we can prove it because the Liberals published the wording of their doorstep question: “Will you vote for Liberal Candidate Dr. Donna Wilson, another candidate, or are you unsure or undecided?”

Faced with no named alternatives and a pleasant Liberal campaigner at their front door, most Canadians – who are unfailingly polite if they’re anything – will take the hint and provide the answer that’s desired. Doesn’t mean they’ll vote that way, though.

This silly poll identified about a third of decided voters in the riding as Liberal supporters, fewer than 20 per cent backing all other candidates, and close to fifty per cent undecided. Taken together, this is merely fantasy. The predictive value of this naïve enterprise is essentially zero.

As an aside, if you’re going to have fun with polls, you need to imitate those successful political campaigns that come out with a plausible sounding opinion survey not long before election day that puts your candidate unexpectedly within striking distance of victory – like Naheed Nenshi in the Calgary mayoral race in 2010, Alison Redford in the PC leadership race in 2011 and now Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark in the Calgary-Elbow by-election, in Ms. Redford’s old riding.

What did all three candidates have in common? The assistance, as author Dave Cournoyer pointed out, of strategist Stephen Carter.

Calgary-Elbow and Edmonton-Whitemud are only two of the by-elections taking place during the Oct. 27 mini-election, as the four races are inevitably being seen. The other two are in Calgary Foothills, where Premier Prentice himself is seeking a seat, and Calgary-West. All four seats are traditionally safe for the Conservatives.

Getting back to the Capital Region where we started and the NDP is showing some strength, tomorrow isn’t too soon for the new NDP leader to rally the party’s troops around Dr. Turner and send them out to the doorsteps of Edmonton-Whitemud.

That said, it’s not much of a feat of prognostication to predict that’s exactly what the Knee-Dippers will do – it’s on the leadership convention’s schedule for tomorrow, no matter who wins the race.

In this, as in all other matters where democracy is involved, there’s no absolute certainty about who will win – but it’s predicted here the winner will be Edmonton-Strathcona MLA Rachel Notley, who has been the front-runner from the get-go. The other candidates are Edmonton-Calder MLA David Eggen and union leader Rod Loyola.

As for Mr. Mason, whatever he was, the first sentence of this post notwithstanding, it was never retiring! Least of all now that he’s giving up the leadership and feels free to say exactly what he thinks.

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Alberta may be under ‘new management,’ but we’re getting the same old bait ’n’ switch tactics in health care!

Premier Jim Prentice and Health Minister Stephen Mandel, both PC candidates in the Oct. 27 four-seat mini-election, at yesterday’s “Bed Blocker” news conference in Edmonton. Below: NDP candidate Dr. Bob Turner and Liberal Candidate Dr. Donna Wilson, RN, both running against Mr. Mandel, ex-mayor; Seniors Minister Jeff Johnson; and AHS CEO Vickie Kaminski.

Unelected Premier Jim Prentice and his appointed Health Minister Stephen Mandel held a news conference in Edmonton yesterday afternoon to demonstrate they’re doing something decisive about Alberta’s embarrassing “bed blocker” problem and, no doubt, aid both their by-election campaigns on Oct. 27.

“Bed blocker” is an uncomplimentary term for patients who belong in long-term care, but end up in acute-care beds because there’s nowhere else suitable to put them. It implies that they are somehow at fault for their plight, when in fact it’s successive Progressive Conservative governments that have been closing long-term care beds and encouraging their replacement with expensive private-sector alternatives generally referred to as “continuing care” or “assisted living spaces.”

This has been going on since Ralph Klein was premier. Now, however, we have another politically embarrassing health care meltdown at a rather delicate moment for Mr. Prentice’s PC “new management.”

And it’s not exactly a secret that the government’s determined emphasis on assisted living and cuts in long-term care beds has contributed directly to the huge backlog in hospital acute care wards, which in turn has increased wait times in Emergency Wards.

An embarrassing story in the Calgary Herald over the long weekend illustrated how this process works, and included new Alberta Health Services CEO Vickie Kaminski musing about how keeping the elderly poor from being admitted to acute care hospitals might be the answer.

She asked: “Is there a role that we can be to be able to provide better treatment options in the emergency departments so that they don’t just get admitted?”

Perhaps the government had a moment of clarity and realized how that sentiment might go over with the public if the message started to sink in.

That would explain the timing of yesterday’s news conference, which had a large supporting cast including Ms. Kaminski herself, recently demoted Seniors Minister Jeff Johnson and Alberta Medical Association President Richard Johnston. The Greek chorus was provided by the Wildrose Party’s seniors’ critic, Kerry Towle, and the Alberta New Democrats’ and Liberals’ candidates in Edmonton-Whitemud, Professors Bob Turner, MD, and Donna Wilson, RN, PhD.

But the message from the premier and health minister to the gathered media – which turned out in considerable numbers at the newser in the lecture theatre of the Royal Alexandra Hospital, notwithstanding a weekend Ebola scare in Edmonton – was less than clear, and short on details.

The PC candidates for Calgary-Foothills (Mr. Prentice) and Edmonton-Whitemud (Mr. Mandel) solemnly informed the media that the government would “open 464 continuing care spaces that are currently unfunded or unstaffed through the reallocation of existing resources.” (Emphasis added.)

Why that particular number was not fully explained. Presumably, it’s what they managed to come up with on short notice.

They also vowed at some indeterminate future date to “assist” some of the 700 patients said to be in acute care who really ought to be in long-term care “through $60 million in targeted Affordable Supportive Living Initiative funds,” and to reserve about 20 per cent of the beds freed up for exclusive use by Emergency Departments.

“We’re taking concrete steps to relieve pressure on Alberta’s hospitals by considering the flow of the overall system and effecting changes to help those who most need continuing care options,” Mr. Prentice said in his news release. (Emphasis added again.)

I’m afraid I’m not at all certain precisely what the premier had in mind with the bit about the flow of the overall system, other than, “calm down, people, everything is taken care of. Don’t forget to vote on Oct. 27.”

Regardless, the important thing was that this sounded decisive enough. Plus, Mr. Prentice made the point of telling reporters they were looking at a “hands on” health minister in Mr. Mandel, the kind of decisive guy who can get stuff done in a big fat hurry. (I thought the previous incumbent, Fred Horne, was pretty hands on too and decisive, especially when it came to dealing with Alberta Health Services Board members who were insufficiently co-operative. But there you go.)

On closer examination, however, Messrs. Prentice and Mandel seemed to be playing the same old bait ’n’ switch game of confusing “continuing care” (a murky term that could mean anything, private or public) with “long-term care” (a specific term set out in legislation and regulation that means a defined level of care).

The differences can be very important with registered nurses on staff, essential supplies and medicines, physician services, physiotherapy and transportation all provided in long-term care, and either unregulated or sold as high-cost extras to residents in other levels of care included under the mushy term “continuing care.”

In other words, on the basis of what was actually said between the lines of yesterday’s news conference, the Prentice Government remains as committed as was the Redford Government, the Stelmach Government and the Klein government to the privatization of seniors’ care.

Since committing to continuing-care beds is exactly what got us into the current mess in the first place, it’s hard to see how these changes are going to make things better.

The government’s news release, in Mr. Prentice’s preferred technocratic style, provided us with an impressive chart outlining how many beds will be opened, approximately when, and in what parts of the province.

But it seems almost certain that the government remains committed to making them the wrong kind of beds.

So at the end of the news conference, when the premier raced off to another engagement and Mr. Mandel hung around to skillfully field reporters’ questions, it wasn’t entirely clear underneath which walnut shell the bean was resting.

And it may be working, at least if the reports are true there’s a new public opinion survey out there suggesting Mr. Prentice and the hitherto troubled PCs are enjoying a nice honeymoon bounce with the public, polling only a point or two behind the Wildrose Party.

We’ll have a better idea of what this really means on Oct. 27, when we learn the results of the by-elections in Edmonton-Whitemud and Calgary-Foothills, as well as in Calgary-West and Calgary-Elbow, disgraced premier Alison Redford’s old riding where Mr. Prentice’s appointed Education Minister Gordon Dirks is running.

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Plot summary for a zombie policy apocalypse: Return of the Living Bed Blockers, Nightmare on Alberta Avenue, Part IV

Even though we know the prescription for curing the “bed blocker” problem, it’s unlikely Alberta can escape the revenge of the conservative zombie policy makers, shown above. Actual Progressive Conservative and Wildrose policy makers may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Zombie policy enablers Jim Prentice and Danielle Smith; ER physician Dr. Paul Parks.

The “Bed Blockers” are back. Health Minister Stephen Mandel (unelected) used the term, so it’s official.

Actually, it’s a lot like a horror movie that never ends out here in Alberta. Just when you think it’s safe to settle down on Elm Street and get the kids ready for a little Halloween fun, the Bed Blockers come lurching down the street.

It happens every time we get a new conservative premier here on the Western edge of the Great Plains, which seems to be every couple of years nowadays.

First we’re promised the problem will be exorcised. Then we vote for the new conservative exorcist. Then there’s a yet another crisis in acute care. Then Dr. Paul Parks, the Emergency Room physician from the appropriately named city of Medicine Hat (always played by the same guy), is interviewed in one of Alberta’s better newspapers, or writes an op-ed. He explains to us, again, that the problem is a lack of long-term care beds for people who require hospitalization but don’t need acute care.

Then the new premier recognizes the problem – he may even tell a moving story about how it’s affected his, or her, family personally – and promises to do something about it, to wit, somehow creating more long-term care beds to free up acute care beds, which will ease the crunch in Emergency Rooms, etc.

Then he, or she, gets into office and does the opposite, reducing the number of long-term care beds in the public system, encouraging a bigger role for the always expensive and inefficient private sector. Next thing you know we’re back on the edge of a “catastrophic collapse” and blaming the “bed blockers” – who had absolutely nothing to do with creating the problem.

It happened under premier Ralph Klein. The same thing happened under premier Ed Stelmach. Then it happened under premier Alison Redford. Now it’s happening under premier (still unelected) Jim Prentice. So not only have we seen this lousy movie before, we’ve seen it over and over, and we’re still seeing it.

Inevitably, the recognition of the problem is accompanied by calls for more expensive and time-consuming studies to find a solution – which, as noted, is pretty apparent. This increases the sense of crisis – and public willingness to try increasingly radical “solutions.”

Do you sense a pattern here?

Well, I’ve got news for you, people: conservatives cannot fix this problem.

And that means conservatives of any stripe, including Wildrose conservatives, Progressive Conservatives, neoliberal conservatives, and plain old unreconstituted Tories.

Whether or not Alberta voters are prepared to admit this – and the chances are very slim that they are – this is axiomatic.

The reason for it is plain on its face. The era of genuinely progressive conservative thinking that recognized the absolutely essential role of government is over and every stream of modern conservatism (including, alas, those that have infected some of our progressive parties as well) is simply delusional on the topic of the alleged benefits of privatization in health care.

If this debate were about empirical facts, the conversation would be over.

But it’s about ideology, bordering on faith, bordering on religion – so no amount of evidence is about to change the belief in privatization that drives the long-term care policies of both the Jim Prentice Conservatives and the Danielle Smith Wildrose Party.

I doubt there’s much difference with the Liberals under Raj Sherman, either, or for that matter the New Democrats under whoever wins the leadership of that party next Saturday, probably Rachel Notley, although my (obviously partisan but sincerely held) belief is that the New Democrats remain the best spokespeople for public health care.

Whoever emerges victorious in the next general election, and we all have to concede that it’s almost certain to be either the Prentice Tories or the Smith Wildrosers, will continue to try to solve the “bed blocker” problem with “market-based solutions.”

Whether they actually believe in the efficacy of privatization as policy – and I’m prepared to concede that some of them sincerely do – or they’re just doing it to please some of their most generous donors doesn’t really matter. The policy will return and the results won’t change.

Dr. Paul Parks will continue to write op-en articles explaining the looming catastrophe.

The disaster will lurch from bad to worse. The policy you get may be undead on arrival, but every time it turns up it’ll do real harm.

We are just, as they say, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

And if we keep electing zombie policy makers, we’re going to keep getting zombie policies.

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On those Wildrose attack ads: they can hardly say Jim Prentice has ‘no plan’

The harshest of the three Wildrose Attack ads. Just let Youtube play, and you can see the Wildrose Party’s other two current attack ads plus its single positive spot. Below: A screen shot from one of the spectacularly ineffective 2006 No Plan ads attacking then premier Ed Stelmach. The full ads, unfortunately, have been removed from Youtube. A scene from another of the 2014 Wildrose ads.

I’m not at all certain the Wildrose Party’s TV ads attacking the governing Progressive Conservative candidates in the upcoming Alberta “mini-election” are going to work as intended.

The three negative TV ads depict Premier Jim Prentice – who himself is seeking a legislative seat in one of the four by-elections scheduled for Oct. 27 – as being indistinguishable from disgraced former premier Alison Redford.

“Jim Prentice isn’t change,” says a sarcastic female voice-over in one of the ads, “he’s just more of the same.” All three 30-second spots repeat that same key message and use all the gimmicks associated with U.S.-style TV attack ads – grainy photos, caustic delivery and crude animations.

Now, look, I’m actually qualified to commentate on this issue. I am a student of political advertising, having had a hand in one of the largest political advertising disasters in Canadian political history.

I speak, of course, of the 2006 “No Plan!” ads about Ed Stelmach, which were supposed to persuade more voters to support one of the progressive parties in this province, but by turning off progressive voters or motivating conservative ones, or both, had the opposite effect.

I know who was in the committee room when the decisions were made, but I’m the only one who will admit to having been there. Let’s just leave it that way: I’ll remain silent to protect the guilty. The 2006 ads – which seem pretty tame now but were viewed as extremely nasty at the time – used many of the same techniques as the new Wildrose ads. I’m not bragging about it – I’m just saying

The point is, an experience like this that had the opposite effect to what was intended tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully on what might actually work – and what might not.

And, as an aside, I can tell you with absolute confidence that negative political advertising does indeed work. It’s true: Albertans truly believe they don’t like attack ads. But they respond to them just the same – if they’re done right, an important proviso.

Which brings us back to the Wildrose TV spots. They’re pretty funny. They’re memorable. I particularly enjoyed the way the ad makers caught Ms. Redford’s mouth flapping open and shut. But their key message is so obviously off base they may well provoke an unintended opposite reaction on the part of many viewers.

Yes, Jim Prentice represents the same political philosophy – anti worker, pro big business, infatuated with markets, unimpressed by human values, beholden to the oil industry – as Alison Redford.

But anyone who thinks Mr. Prentice is cut from the same piece of cloth as Ms. Redford is simply not paying attention. Of course, the ads’ makers are counting on it that plenty of Albertans aren’t. But I’m not so sure that’s the case any more.

How do these ads get it wrong when they say Mr. Prentice and Ms. Redford are as alike as Tweedledee and Tweedledum? For one thing, in Mr. Prentice, we are looking at a far more skilled politician than Ms. Redford, who possessed a kind of reverse Midas touch that turned everything she touched into … not gold.

For another, Mr. Prentice is courting a different segment of the Tory Universe than Ms. Redford settled on after her initial, highly deceptive leadership campaign and first election.

After being elected by nervous progressive voters spooked by the thought of a Wildrose government in April 2012, Ms. Redford turned her attentions to winning back the right-wing voters the PCs had lost to the Wildrose. The increasingly radical right-wing policies her government delivered were rightly perceived as a betrayal of the moderate voters who saved her bacon.

Mr. Prentice seems determined to move his party rapidly back to the centre, as premier Ed Stelmach had tried to do before he got sick of being dissed by the organized right in business, the media and his own party.

So in the fall of 2014, no one can say Mr. Prentice has no plan!

I grant you, as the Wildrose would like to suggest, Mr. Prentice could just be trying to trick the same group of voters the same way. But that won’t necessarily help the Wildrose Party since those voters – progressives – are unlikely to vote Wildrose no matter what.

It is also true that Wildrose strategy since the days Tom Flanagan was setting the party’s course has been to encourage progressive voters just to return to their party homes instead of strategically voting PC, but all four October by-elections strike me as a straight fight between the PC and Wildrose candidates.

Mr. Prentice seems wildly different from Ms. Redford because he is so much better at playing the political game. To put it in oil industry terms, Ms. Redford’s political skills were crude; Mr. Prentice’s are much more refined.

Which means, if you ask me, that the three Wildrose attack ads unintentionally tend to reinforce the message that Mr. Prentice is in fact very different, not the same at all.

What’s more, the natural reaction of progressive voters – who might otherwise be inveigled into voting Wildrose in a by-election just for toots and giggles – is that it is Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, in fact, who is cut from the same far-right piece of cloth as Ms. Redford.

Count on the PCs to hammer hard on this idea in the TV ads that they’re bound to produce for this mini-election. Here’s betting the Tories’ ads will encourage the idea that while they’re maybe a little bit progressive, there’s nothing even remotely progressive about the Wildrose crowd.

The reality that really matters now, but may not even make it onto the radar, is that when it comes to ideology and likely policy, it’s Mr. Prentice and Ms. Smith who are as alike as peas in a pod.

The most effective Wildrose ad, which Mr. Prentice’s PCs will find it much harder to refute, is the fourth one, a positive spot that shows an approachable Ms. Smith telling voters “we’re ready for form a government you can be proud of.”

Four by-elections, of course, won’t let the Wildrose Party do that, no matter how they turn out, but the statement clearly illustrates the problem Mr. Prentice has been left by Ms. Redford, and therefore just how important these by-elections are to each of the province’s matched set of ideologically conservative parties.

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