All posts tagged Alison Redford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there we are, as Mr. Mason says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, nothing has changed. 

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we had another boom.

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

Then we had another boom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

The Santa Clause: A holiday gift of biting humour from Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley

NDP Leader Rachel Notley, helping to improve the New Democrats’ game in Alberta. Below: Education Minister Gordon Dirks, restored Tory MLA Peter Sandhu and former PC cabinet minister Evan Berger; Alberta Premier Jim Prentice.

No one can say Rachel Notley hasn’t upped the Alberta NDP’s game since she was elected party leader in October.

Yesterday, the provincial New Democrats put out a biting public statement on their proposed amendments to Premier Jim Prentice’s so-called Alberta Accountability Act that was funny enough to make me laugh out loud.

The Progressive Conservative government’s Bill 2, as noted in this space earlier today, seems to have been designed mainly for show to smooth over the horrible impression left by the scandals that erupted under the leadership of former premier Alison Redford.

There’s a case to be made satire and politics don’t mix – leastways when the satire is being provided by politicians themselves – but I think readers will agree that the NDP’s approach to its quite serious amendments will stick in the minds of any Albertans who have been actually paying attention to the operations of our government these past few years.

Premier Prentice, needless to say, is unlikely to be amused.

The news release, like the setup for any good punch line, was delivered deadpan, metaphorically speaking. It began: “In response to PC legislation claiming to increase government accountability, NDP Leader Rachel Notley called for a series of changes that would effectively protect Albertans from several forms of inappropriate behaviour demonstrated by the PCs over the last several years.”

Many of the “necessary clauses” the NDP says are required to bring the legislation up to snuff are named for the PC members and insiders whose shenanigans gave rise to the need for the amendments. These include:

  • The Katz Clause, named for Edmonton Oilers owner and drugstore billionaire Daryl Katz – “changing the Elections Financing Act to prevent massive vote-buying donations.”
  • The Sandhu Clause, named for PC-Independent-PC MLA Peter Sandhu – “changing the Conflicts of Interest Act to ensure that no member uses their position to lobby on an issue that directly impacts their financial interests.”
  • The Dirks Clause, named for Education Minister Gordon Dirks – “fixing the Elections Act to prohibit MLAs from using government resources during elections or by-elections.”
  • The Redford Clause, named, of course, for former premier Redford – “changing the Conflicts of Interest Act to prevent MLAs from involvement in decisions that benefit political confidantes.”
  • The Berger Clause, named for defeated PC cabinet minister Evan Berger – “expressly prohibiting the waiving of cooling-off periods for former political staff or former MLAs and cabinet ministers.”

There are other clauses, and they can be read in the party’s news release. The actual details of all the proposed NDP amendments – which despite being sound policy that would actually help Bill 2 do what Premier Prentice says it will do are doomed to be defeated by the PC majority in the Legislature – are found here.

News media reported some of the NDP’s suggestions, interestingly, but for the most part didn’t dare to repeat the news release’s barbed tone.

“Each of our recommended changes corresponds to an obvious breach of the public trust on the part of this PC government,” Ms. Notley was quoted as saying dryly at the end of the NDP statement. “This isn’t rocket science – it’s just making the changes that are necessary for Albertans to believe that this government is actually taking accountability seriously.”

The NDP news release, however, did not mention the most egregious part of Bill 2, that is, the fact the proposed rules for governing such important policy areas as sole-source contracts and political advisors’ salaries will be embedded in the regulations of the Treasury Board, which by law are not subject to access requests by the public and media under Alberta’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

It wouldn’t be a complete surprise, however, if that topic came up in the House today.

Also missing from Bill 2, if you didn’t happen to notice, was Mr. Prentice’s other big promise for that particular piece of legislation – term limits for MLAs.

That idea appears to have been quietly abandoned as unconstitutional, as was pointed out to Mr. Prentice almost the instant the words left his mouth back in the summertime when he was still running for the leadership of the PC party.

Meanwhile, in completely unrelated news, yesterday was marked by the United Nations to be International Anti-Corruption Day.

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The ‘Price Trough is Albertas new ‘Bitumen Bubble’

When Alison Redford was at the helm, Alberta had a “Bitumen Bubble” that was going to pop the province’s budgeting plans. Now we have Jim Prentice in the same office and we’re going to have to dig our way out of a “price trough.”

Mr. Prentice gave the bad news yesterday in his “State of the Province Message” to one of Alberta’s real legislative assemblies – the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.

Oil prices have plunged, dropped, fallen, collapsed, skidded, plummeted like an elevator with a broken cable, the premier told 700 of the best burghers of E-Town, so once again our government is going to “have to make some tough decisions and the impact will be felt in every corner of this province.”

When you’ve been around as long as I have, you begin to get a little cynical about how right-wing governments like Mr. Prentice’s keep changing the reasons for the same story.

When it comes to public spending, at least, when Alberta is in one of its periodic busts, there’s no money for infrastructure and public programs so we’ll need to wait till the economy is booming.

When the economy is booming, alas, everything costs too much and there are no workers, so we’ll need to wait until things cool off.

Repeat as required. Nothing will be done, however, to smooth out these usually predictable revenue peaks and valleys. Read our lips: There will be no new taxes. Ever.

Well, I’ll give him this, the drop in oil prices has been steeper than the government of Alberta expected and it is real, although it is said here it’s unlikely to be long lived.

Whether the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is pumping crude like crazy to put the U.S. shale oil gas industry out of business as has been theorized by some (highly unlikely) or with the encouragement of the U.S. Government to make the sanctions imposed on Russia bite (certainly part of the story), here’s betting it won’t last for long.

You may have noticed, though, that balloons are already being floated by Premier Prentice in friendly corners of the mainstream media about an early election as a result of the petroleum price decline.

That way, as Ms. Redford did, the more confident Mr. Prentice could wait till he was safely ensconced in office with a real mandate before telling ordinary Albertans we’re all going to have to have another haircut and tighten our belts.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

The accountability ship has sailed, Bill 2 notwithstanding; Premiers Jim Prentice and Ralph Klein compared

A pensive Ralph Klein, maybe thinking about his worst political mistakes. Below: Jim Prentice and Alison Redford, also Alberta premiers. Premier, you’re no Ralph Klein!

Accountability legislation?

Oh, well … that changes everything!

All sarcasm aside, people, I think that ship has sailed, actually …

Bill 10, legislation designed to make it hard to form gay-straight alliances in schools, having turned into an embarrassing flop that won’t go away, Premier Jim Prentice yesterday introduced Bill 2, a law that in the words of the headline on the government’s news release, “aims to improve accountability and restore trust with Albertans.”

Known as the Alberta Accountability Act, it’s legislation promised by Mr. Prentice back when he was running for the Progressive Conservative Party leadership to clean up the horrible impression left by former premier Alison Redford, she of the Skypalace, Fakes on a Plane and First-Class-to-Africa scandals.

There are those cynics, of course, who think the problem with the Alberta PCs may run a little deeper than just Ms. Redford. And there are naïve idealists like your blogger who don’t think a provincial politician should need a detailed rulebook to spell out what’s ethical – or, dangerously, what by omission therein is allowed, whether or not it can pass a sniff test.

That said, this is Alberta, and it wouldn’t come as a complete shock if a lot of voters took the bait and came to the conclusion everything has now been fixed, and Mr. Prentice fixed it.

Media coverage focused on the fact the bill would double the time government officials were required to wait before they could become professional lobbyists – from a paltry six months to a paltry one year. Well, a person’s got to make a living.

The new rules are also supposed to mean that political staffers will never again get the same whopping payouts that went to Ms. Redford’s top advisors when the stuff hit the fan and the former premier was toppled in a caucus coup. Severance pay for political staff will be capped at six months.

Unsaid in all this is that this particular rule change is likely to require increases in the salaries top political advisors are paid – since some of them are actually worth the money they can demand from their bosses.

What’s more, some of these changes turn out to be not particularly meaningful because instead of being part of the law, they are written down only in a secret Treasury Board directives that can be amended at the government’s whim.

This could happen, say, right after winning a majority government – and without citizens like you needing to know a thing about it.

Very significantly, also in this semi-secret category, will be the rules that supposedly eliminate controversial sole-source contracts “in all but exceptional circumstances.”

Alert readers will remember how, in the wake of successful negotiations with the government by several public service unions in 2013 and this year, Ms. Redford’s solemn promise to freeze the salaries of the top management officials in the civil service was quietly broken by premier pro tem Dave Hancock weeks before Mr. Prentice took over.

The government will assure us no such a thing will happen again with the Accountability Act in place, especially now that Mr. Prentice is the premier, and perhaps it won’t.

But as Wildrose Opposition Finance Critic Rob Anderson told the CBC, “if you’re going to have transparency, if you’re going to have accountability, things are going to all be done in public, above-board, it’s important to have these things in legislation.”

Citizens who are paying attention are entitled to ask, What’s really changed?

Meanwhile, speaking of Bill 10 as we were, Alberta’s mainstream media seems to have decided Mr. Prentice deserves a pass for his spectacular GSA fumble. A recent political commentary lauded the premier for his “courage” in “pausing” his controversial Bill 10.

The author, influential Edmonton Journal political columnist Graham Thomson, compared Mr. Prentice’s non-Parliamentary stall to Premier Ralph Klein’s decision in March 1998 to drop Bill 26, which would have overridden the rights of 2,844 Albertans who between 1928 and 1972 were forcibly sterilized as children and adults because they were ruled by the Alberta Eugenics Board to be “mental defectives.”

Mr. Klein’s bill, which was introduced on March 10, 1998, would have used the “Notwithstanding Clause” of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to prevent surviving victims of the eugenics board’s dictates from going to court, and would have limited the compensation they could receive to between $50,000 and $150,000.

But when the word got out that day that the government of Alberta intended to “opt out” of the Charter’s guarantee of equal protection under the law for some of Alberta’s most vulnerable and mistreated citizens, I have been told by people who were there that the phone lines into the premier’s office nearly melted with the fury of hundreds of ordinary Albertans.

Many Albertans were also shocked and deeply troubled to learn their government had right into the 1970s been victimizing some of the province’s most marginalized citizens with a policy that reminded them of another government that came to power in the 1930s in Europe.

The next day, March 11, 1998, Mr. Klein hastily withdrew the bill, acknowledged his error and later issued a public apology to the eugenics board’s victims for what had been done to them.

That same year, Mel Graham of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities wrote that “Ralph Klein’s real mistake was in his presumption that the kind of amorality private insurance companies routinely use to conduct their business should become the operational standard for the behaviour of provincial governments.”

This is fair. Still, you have to give Mr. Klein credit for showing genuine courage in two ways:

First, when he proposed the bill it was clear on the face of it that he intended to use the Notwithstanding Clause to deprive a group of citizens of their Charter right. In other words, there was no particular hidden agenda. It was right out there for all to see, and to react to as they saw fit – as, indeed, Albertans unequivocally did.

Second, when he heard what Albertans thought of “his government’s promotion of the me-first, dog-eat-dog society,” as Mr. Graham put it, he yanked that bill to fast you could barely see it.

Mr. Prentice, by contrast, introduced Bill 10 to block Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s private member’s Bill 202, the purpose of which was to require all publicly supported schools to permit gay-straight alliances to operate in safety on their premises. “Pausing” the bill changed nothing, because it had already knocked Bill 202 from the Legislature’s agenda.

We can argue about what he was trying to achieve – woo social conservative voters back from the Wildrose Party, promote the fiction that the existence of GSAs would somehow be in conflict with “family rights,” make it easier to divert tax dollars to private religious schools, or perhaps all three.

But there is simply no way this manoeuvre can be characterized as courageous.

If Mr. Prentice wants to show some courage, he should withdraw Bill 10 and allow the Legislature to vote on Bill 202.

That’s not very likely, of course, because it would demonstrate to voters the PC caucus contains some pretty primitive characters, as does the caucus of their principal competition on the right.

I knew Mr. Klein. The man had his flaws. But to borrow a phrase, Premier, you’re no Ralph Klein!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Bill 10 gong show’s bungled effort to pander to PC Party’s worst elements proves Jim Prentice is no political superman

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice, as he appeared to almost everyone until yesterday, except there are no ships here in Alberta, which is why we need all those pipelines. Below: Education Minister Gordon Dirks; humiliated PC MLA Sandra Jansen, official sponsor of Bill 10; and Liberal MLA and Bill 202 sponsor Laurie Blakeman.

If the gong show that erupted yesterday over the Progressive Conservative government’s bungled effort to pander to its troglodytic social conservative faction by roadblocking LGBTQ students’ rights illustrates anything, it is that Premier Jim Prentice is not the political superman we imagined, before whom all must bow.

It also shows that the famed dictum “a week is a long time in politics” is profoundly true here in Alberta, just as it is the United Kingdom where Labour prime minister Harold Wilson is said to have coined it in the 1970s.

Just a week ago, Mr. Prentice stood astride Alberta like a colossus, hands on his hips, master of all he surveyed.

But the key lesson to be drawn from this is that the premier has blown this opportunity to get things right on a key social issue that enjoys significant popular support – his first major blunder since he was entrusted with the province’s top political job.

Maybe he still holds most of the cards, but this brouhaha reveals the premier is just another politician who puts his pants on one leg at a time … backwards.

Surely his government’s obvious and unpopular mishandling of this file will breathe new life into an opposition that only a week ago, bereft of two floor-crossing MLAs successfully wooed by Mr. Prentice, appeared to be on the ropes and ready to surrender to another half century of the incompetent Tory juggernaut.

Nevertheless, thanks to his spineless Tory caucus, Mr. Prentice managed to win the scrap in the Legislature with ease. Only former leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk, already sent to Coventry because of his role as one of Alison Redford’s senior ministers, had the intestinal fortitude to stand up with some members of the Opposition and vote against the government’s hastily scribbled Bill 10, which passed second reading in the afternoon by 42 to 10.

Mr. Prentice left the unseemly maneuver of using the vote on Bill 10 to sideline Bill 202, the private member’s bill proposed by Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, to his minions. He was in Quebec trying without apparent success to sell his skeptical Quebecois counterpart on the merits of taking all the risk and none of the benefits from a pipeline full of bitumen running through the province on its way to New Brunswick.

Ms. Blakeman’s bill would have required schools to support gay-straight alliances under their roofs if students concluded they were necessary. This drove social conservatives in the PC caucus batty, hoping, as they are, to win back the rural Alberta so-con vote from the Wildrose Party.

Mr. Prentice’s Solomonic solution to this dilemma was to suggest without evidence Ms. Blakeman’s bill somehow violated the “rights” of some parents and school boards. As a result, he had government lawyers pencil Bill 10 onto a napkin from the Legislative coffee shop over the weekend and rush it upstairs to the Legislature.

Mr. Prentice gave the humiliating job of introducing Bill 10 and claiming it does everything Bill 202 does plus is sensitive to parents “rights” to Sandra Jansen, the PC MLA for Calgary-North West who has spoken passionately in the past in defence of GSAs.

This, of course, is baloney, as Ms. Jansen most certainly knows. While the government bill gives children a theoretical right to challenge a school that denies their wish to form a GSA in court, what kid has the resources or the know-how to finance and organize such a legal appeal?

Mind you, any law scratched together this quickly is in danger of collapsing if it ever does come under the scrutiny of a court.

Even the normally supportive Edmonton Journal published a story by a columnist calling the “stink bomb of a bill” Orwellian in title – stating its goal as “to protect our children” is the opposite of what it will actually do – and concluding it amounts to an invitation to bullying and an effort to keep children in ignorance.

“It seems much more designed to protect children from the knowledge that homosexuality exists,” sneered columnist Paula Simons. “This gross hypocrisy of pretending to protect our children, all the while shoving them back into the closet as fast as possible, is so absurd, and so offensive, it almost beggars description.”

Meanwhile, however, in a disturbing precedent, Bill 10 also manages to entrench the notion of “parental rights” as a legal concept deeper in Alberta law.

“Parental rights” is code for laws inspired by the American religious right designed to weaken the curriculum for all children, enable sexuality and AIDS education to be censored or blocked outright, and pave the way for school voucher programs that divert money from public to private religious schools.

It first wormed its way into Alberta’s Human Rights Act in premier Ed Stelmach’s Bill 44 in 2009, championed by Ted Morton, the former finance minister and aspirant for the premier’s job.

Prentice Government Education Minister Gordon Dirks, a former evangelical pastor with strong social conservative views, cast the new powers given to parents who share his views as benign and reasonable, telling the Calgary Sun that “underneath this legislation, (parents) have an opportunity to express their opinion and to be heard and if they don’t agree, to appeal.”

The likely true meaning of this, however, is that parents with extreme religious views will now will have the option of using the courts to demand changes not only to their child’s education, but to yours.

That’s the Trojan Horse. In the short term, however, the worst harm inflicted by Bill 10 will be that, practically speaking, it will make it impossible some places for vulnerable young people to form gay-straight alliances in a safe environment if their principal, or their principal’s bosses at a school board, want to make them go away.

That will mean more bullying, more bigotry and more suicides.

I’m going to give the last word on this tonight to Ms. Simons: “Goodness knows what deals cabinet moderates like Heather Klimchuk and Stephen Khan will have to make with their own consciences to support this legislation,” she commented.

Ms. Simons picked Ms. Klimchuk, the MLA for Edmonton-Glenora, and Mr. Khan, MLA for St. Albert, I am sure, because she knows them to be decent people who ought to know better than participate in a spiteful charade like this.

She concluded: “But that’s clearly the price Jim Prentice is demanding of his new caucus – to sell a little piece of their souls to stay part of the frat that is Team Tory.”

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

What are Premier Jim Prentice and his three ‘agents of change’ planning for Alberta’s public service?

Alberta civil servants: do you get the feeling someone may have their eye on you? Below: Agents of change Richard Dicerni, Ian Brodie, Oryssia Lennie and Steve West.

Premier Jim Prentice says he intends to “reform” Alberta’s public service, fix its low morale, reverse its “shocking” turnover and deal with its other “very significant problems.”

He’s appointed a former senior federal civil servant and well-connected business professor to be his “agent of change,” along with a couple of right-hand persons to assist with this change agentry. Their work will start immediately.

Sounds way better, huh, than former premier Alison Redford’s heavy-handed war on the Alberta civil service?

Well, if you think that, I’m sorry to have to inform you this is probably bad news for those who work in public service in Alberta.

I don’t think Mr. Prentice has anything different in mind for you or your jobs than Ms. Redford did. It’s just that the way he goes about it is likely to be a lot smoother.

Just for starters, anyone who believes in the value of public services should be wary when the term “reform” pops up.

“Reform” is the original neoliberal code word for “destroy.” Alberta civil servants will remember Steve West, the Vermilion veterinarian who was premier Ralph Klein’s agent of change for the provincial civil service. Dr. West – known in those days as Dr. Death – was a “reformer” too.

There will be lots of talk about how the reforms implemented by Mr. Prentice’s team of change agents are going to make things better for public employees and the public generally, but if they were planning to actually improve things, they’d use that word.

Now that’s just suspicion based on bitter past experience, of course. For the rest, all we have to go on for the moment is very limited information available about Mr. Prentice’s three amigos – Richard Dicerni, his new top civil servant, whose official title is deputy minister of Executive Council; Oryssia Lennie, another veteran senior civil servant; and Ian Brodie, the best known of the trio, who was once Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff.

I spent enough time working as a civil servant many years ago in another province to know Mr. Dicerni’s type. He’s part of that itinerant class of top bureaucrats known as the Mandarinate who flit from job to job, civil service to civil service, and public sector to private sector to academe, often under the patronage of an influential politician like Mr. Prentice. According to the Edmonton Journal, he “oversaw a public service overhaul” in Ottawa too. We all know how that’s working out, don’t we?

These types often speak multiple languages, have multiple advanced degrees and command extremely high salaries – as a rule they are not, however, friends of front-line civil servants or the public services they deliver. They see the world through the eyes of the politicians they work for, and nowadays the prevailing ideology among those politicians is neoliberalism, and all the wreckage that entails.

We know Mr. Dicerni was until not long ago deputy minister at Industry Canada, where he worked with Mr. Prentice in his former federal incarnation. He has also held similar senior positions in the Ontario government and the private sector, where he has been associated with such entities as Ontario Power Generation, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and Mercer Delta, a management consulting firm.

He’s an adjunct professor at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business, which like any corporate-sponsored business school is not exactly a hotbed of social democracy, and on the board of the Public Policy Forum, a think tank dedicated to getting the public and private sectors to work more closely together.

Ms. Lennie is cut from the same piece of cloth. She too has floated between senior bureaucratic positions in the federal and Alberta governments. She was Deputy Minister of Western Economic Diversification Canada, the highly politicized federal pork-distribution agency.

Her resume includes a many senior civil service jobs that place her on the political fringe of the civil service – intergovernmental affairs, international trade agreements, head of Alberta’s delegation on the failed Meech Lake Accord and the province’s Senate Reform Task Force, which pushed for the so-called Triple-E Senate scheme to Americanize and bog down Canada’s parliamentary system.

She took a secondment away from the civil service from 1973 to 1975 to set up and lead premier Peter Lougheed’s correspondence unit. She is a member of the board of the Canada West Foundation, another promoter of the Triple-E Senate nostrum.

Then there’s Ian Brodie, who mainstream media did kindly inform us was Mr. Harper’s first chief of staff, though little else.

Here we find a character who is at the very centre of the disproportionately influential nexus of neoliberalism that nowadays runs Canada.

He is research director of the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, which as author Donald Gutstein points out in Harperism, How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada, functions as “a neoliberal think tank embedded within a university.”

Dr. Brodie has a PhD in political science from the U of C. He studied there under former Alberta finance minister Ted Morton, a well-known neoliberal hard-liner and the worst premier Alberta never had.

Typical of the far-right university types who make up the faculty of the so-called Calgary School, of which the School of Public Policy and the U of C Political Science Department are both integral cogs, Dr. Brodie once boasted of his success exploiting Canadian voters’ distrust of academics.

During a talk on federal Conservative strategy at McGill University in Montreal soon after he left Mr. Harper’s service, quoted by Dr. Gutstein, he bragged: “Every time we proposed amendments to the Criminal Code, sociologists, criminologists, defence lawyers and Liberals attacked us for proposing measures that the evidence apparently showed did not work. That was a good thing for us politically, in that sociologists, criminologists, and defence lawyers were and are held in lower repute than Conservative politicians by the voting public. Politically, it helped us tremendously to be attacked by this coalition of university types.”

We can expect the same approach to evidence-based policy making in Mr. Prentice’s upcoming campaign to “reform” the Alberta public service.

With the Wildrose Party seemingly on the ropes, and therefore no alternative to the PCs that Alberta voters are likely to support, Mr. Prentice and his three amigos can get right down to their plans for the civil service.

No wonder Ms. Redford’s unconstitutional Bill 45, which attacks the free speech rights of all Albertans if they dare to talk about public service labour relations, remains on the books under Mr. Prentice!

So watch out, the fight to save public services, fair pensions for the people who deliver them, not to mention the very idea of a public sector, is far from over in Alberta.

Keep your powder dry!

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Too many chiefs (of staff); not enough bureaucrats?

Well, some ministers just generate a lot of work, I guess.

The government of Alberta has updated its online employee directory and … guess what? … Health Minister Stephen Mandel has two … two … two chiefs of staff!

It’s not entirely clear which of Chief of Staff Jennifer Pougnet or Chief of Staff Christel Hyshka, who back in the day was a Liberal caucus staffer and later Mr. Mandel’s by-election campaign manager, is the chief chief of staff.

Whatever. Maybe they split their duties supervising the staff of seven in the minister’s office. Or maybe one of them just supervises Mr. Mandel.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Alberta Tories are swinging right, paradoxically because of the implosion of their right-wing brethren in the Wildrose Party

Family values: Not so long ago they were all swinging left, but now the Progressive Conservative caucus of Premier Jim Prentice is swinging right. Getting ready to launch, from left to right, new PC caucus member Kerry Towle, Mr. Prentice, new caucus member Ian Donovan, and an unidentified former Redford Government cabinet minister. Actual Alberta politicians may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: The real Mr. Prentice, NDP Leader Rachel Notley, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith and Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman.

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman and Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark were onto something yesterday when they all observed that the government of Premier Jim Prentice is now quickly swinging to the right.

There’s an element of truth to the suggestion Mr. Prentice and his Progressive Conservative caucus are doing it to chase the votes of the province’s loony right, especially its loony social conservative right, which for the past few years has found a not-entirely happy home in the Wildrose Party under the leadership of the socially more flexible Danielle Smith.

Well, those days appear to be over as illustrated by Premier Prentice’s studied waffling and intentional lack of leadership on Bill 202, Edmonton-Centre Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s private member’s bill that would force schools to allow gay-straight alliances in the event students perceive a need for them.

When Mr. Prentice says he’ll allow a free vote by his MLAs on Bill 202, and when ex-Wildrose turncoat Ian Donovan risibly suggests that the his former party is now far to the left of the PCs, both statements are code for saying homophobia will be tolerated in the PC caucus to win so-con votes as long as it’s reasonably discreet.

But that’s not the whole story.

The underlying reason this shift to the right is suddenly possible, paradoxically enough, is that the apparent implosion of the right-wing Wildrose Party under Ms. Smith has made it easier for the right-wing PC Party under Mr. Prentice to dismiss the threat from large number of centre-left voters who live in Alberta, as poll after poll of citizens’ general attitudes have shown for years.

Since in reality there is no practical or ideological difference between the Wildrose Party and the PC Party on economic issues, and very little on social ones, it was easy for moderate voters to the left and the right who wanted to punish the 43-year-old Tory dynasty for its deplorable recent performance under Alison Redford to contemplate voting Wildrose.

Indeed, this is the explanation for the recent cautious Wildrose drift toward a more moderate position on such issues as LGBTQ rights, much to the chagrin of MLAs like Mr. Donovan, who was obviously nervous about how the social-conservatives in his rural Southern Alberta riding would respond.

The possibility that moderate voters might go Wildrose also partly explains the initial Tory moves, after Mr. Prentice took up the reins of governing and before the Oct. 27 by-elections, to dump the worst legislative excesses of the Redford regime. He hoped to win back centrist voters who had saved Ms. Redford in 2012, as well as, reasonably enough, to repudiate the former premier’s deplorable personal conduct.

But with Wildrose Party support apparently evaporating in the wake of last month’s by-election disappointments – both in caucus and among its general membership – the Prentice PCs have been freed to revert to form and ignore the moderate instincts of so many Alberta voters.

This should surprise no one. It’s been apparent to anyone who paid attention to what the candidates were actually saying during the Tory leadership campaign that on economic issues Mr. Prentice is just as determined a neoliberal market fundamentalist and oil industry apologist as former Fraser Institute apparatchik Smith. As for social issues, it now appears he doesn’t give a fig about LGBTQ rights and will do whatever it takes to win yet another PC majority.

With all three parties generally labelled progressive in Alberta splitting one another’s votes and polling in the teens, he’s no longer under much pressure to pay attention to the “left.”

However, the committed social conservative right – which has its electoral act together, whatever we may think of its social views – is another matter entirely. Mr. Prentice will pander to it as long as he needs to – and how long that is entirely up to the rest of us.

In an interview with the CBC yesterday morning, Ms. Smith was sounding more like her confident old self, as if she had recovered some of the aplomb she seemed to lose immediately after the defections Monday of Little Bow MLA Donovan and her former close friend, Innisfail-Sylvan Lake MLA Kerry Towle.

But it will be a hard struggle for her to get her party back to where it was even a month ago.

And if we believe former Wildrose MLA and Green Party Leader Joe Anglin, who quit Ms. Smith’s caucus earlier this month before she could fire him in an unrelated dispute, that two more Wildrose MLAs are about to decamp, well … the party’s done like dinner, no matter how confident its leader appears.

The plain fact is, as hard as this may be for Alberta’s progressive voters to digest, if they want progressive policies, they’re going to have to vote for progressive parties.

And if the progressive parties can’t get their act together and show some co-operation, progressive voters are going to have to pick one and get on with it themselves, or resign themselves to a full half century of Tory rule!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

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.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

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.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.