All posts tagged Stephen Harper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

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

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

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

What’s wrong with this picture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

A political oddity hits the big time – but what do we really know about Michael Cooper?

Michael Cooper turned up door knocking on your blogger’s doorstep in St. Albert last summer. A photo was required! Below: Independent St. Albert Member of Parliament Brent Rathgeber, former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day and journalist Paul Wells.

ST. ALBERT, Alberta

Every few years, Michael Cooper seems to pop onto the national news radar. The first time, it was as a political oddity, a sort of human-interest story with an edge.

The story appeared under a headline in the National Post that read, “Not your average high school senior: ‘Blood sport’ of politics has lured Michael Cooper most of his 18 years.”

That was 2002. Now it’s 2014 and Mr. Cooper is neither a high school student nor an 18-year-old any more. He’s a 30-year-old lawyer who appears to harbour deeply conservative views – although he has successfully kept discussion of what he thinks, particularly about social conservative issues such as LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights, well off the radar.

Now he may be about the join the big-time, as the Harper Conservative Party’s response to rebel MP Brent Rathgeber here in the St. Albert-Edmonton riding, which for the moment is still known as Edmonton-St. Albert. Count on it that the Tories will pour a lot of money and effort into winning this constituency, both to keep their Alberta heartland in ideologically reliable hands and to send a message to others in their ranks who, like Mr. Rathgeber, may be harbouring mutinous sentiments.

So what’s on the record about Mr. Cooper’s beliefs, other than what he chooses to tell us in his own campaign materials? Precious little – and most of that is not on Google or other Internet search engines, so I can’t provide you with web links for the three stories noted below. You’ll have to look them up yourself on a newspaper database.

The most colourful was the April 6, 2002, National Post story by political writer Paul Wells, the headline from which was noted above.

In it, Mr. Wells observed of the young politician that “it is difficult to call him ‘Mister’ because he just turned 18 and he’s rail-thin and he looks like he’d float away on a stiff breeze.” However, Mr. Wells observed, Mr. Cooper was also the an Alberta member of the Canadian Alliance party’s “powerful” national council, the youngest member of the party’s elected national governing body. He had joined the provincial Progressive Conservative Party at 14, the age most Alberta kids are thinking about getting their first learner’s driving permit.

Mr. Cooper remained in the PC party, by the way, when many on the party’s right were abandoning ship for the Wildrose Party – a bit of loyalty that did him no harm when it came time to collect endorsements for his nomination from the local PC grandees.

His still-unchanged campaign website lists 15 endorsements from prominent conservatives, including the city’s two PC MLAs and the PC MLA for the Edmonton portion of the federal riding, a former St. Albert mayor, a former councillor, two former MLAs and sundry out-of-towners including Pierre Pollievre, Stephen Harper’s intemperate and extremist “democratic reform” minister, and John Carpay, who has been prominent for many years in anti-union Astro-Turf groups.

Endorsements in hand, Mr. Cooper defeated Ryan Hastman for the nomination with apparent ease late last month. Mr. Hastman was the only Alberta Conservative candidate to lose in the 2011 federal general election, defeated by New Democrat Linda Duncan in Edmonton-Strathcona.

In his 2002 story, Mr. Wells praised Mr. Cooper as an able speaker – with a telling caveat of sorts: “He speaks in long, grammatically perfect sentences with spooky intensity, his Adam’s apple bouncing up and down behind his tightly-knotted tie.”

Mr. Cooper is said (by none other than prime ministerial aspirant Jason Kenney, another former political child star from Alberta) to be “an encyclopedia of political trivia.”

Well, Mr. Cooper still looks as if he could float away on a breeze, and most of the time his tie remains tightly knotted, although none of the rest of this should surprise us about an intelligent young aspiring politician. But what does he believe? That, after all, is the knowledge voters need to know what he would do in power

There are only a few hints, other than from some of the company he keeps. From Mr. Wells’s story:

Mr. Cooper loves politics because “it’s a true blood sport.” That could be a comment on how he would conduct himself in office, or just a comment on the entertainment value of politics. (Full disclosure: I feel the same way, for much the same reasons. Not only that, but one of the former city councillors who endorsed Mr. Cooper once endorsed me too. Go figure! Maybe there was a misunderstanding.)

“He names Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney as his models” – but only as his oratorical models, mind. The writer doesn’t tell us if this point was added as a careful afterthought, although he did quote Mr. Cooper saying he didn’t like Mr. Mulroney’s politics.

Mr. Wells, unhelpfully, provided us with no hint of why this might be. I am presuming, from the auguries, it’s because the former Canadian prime minister was a little too far to the left for Mr. Cooper’s taste, too much of a “wet,” as Mrs. Thatcher would have put it.

Mr. Cooper was an enthusiastic supporter of Stockwell Day in the 2002 Alliance leadership election, but made the switch to the side of winner Stephen Harper happily enough once the votes had been counted.

In Mr. Cooper’s 2002 campaign for party office, Mr. Wells wrote, he “ran on a platform of ‘no truck or trade with the Tories’ but professes no great concern at the fitful negotiations between his party and the Progressive Conservatives.” Well, people, that was then and this is now, and nowadays Tory is just a convenient four-letter word for use by headline writers, which no longer means what it used to.

A few days earlier, on April 2, 2002, the Edmonton Journal’s Larry Johnsrude also profiled Mr. Cooper – providing us with another hint of what he really believes, or, at least, what he really believed when he was 18. The headline: “‘No to Joe’ is the mantra of Alliance’s youngest voice.”

The headline encapsulated Mr. Johnsrude’s only insight into Mr. Cooper’s place in the political spectrum: “He wants nothing to do with ‘Red Tories’ like Joe Clark,” he wrote. “Although he’s been a member of the provincial Conservative party since he was 14, the self-described ‘Blue Tory’ wants nothing to do with federal Conservative Leader Joe Clark.”

“‘I was elected on a fundamental principle of having no truck or trade with Joe Clark’s Red Tories,” the reporter quoted Mr. Cooper saying.

In 2003, Mr. Cooper got into hot water – but seemingly managed to scramble out of it without being burned too badly – when controversy erupted over his dual role as the agent for a candidate seeking the Alliance nomination in Calgary-Centre and as a member of the party’s national council. For background on this situation, readers can look for Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid’s account of the brouhaha.

Nowadays, Mr. Cooper is very careful with what he has to say about his own views. Revelations during his nomination campaign were almost non-existent – but for the fact he supports Premier Jim Prentice’s and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s calls for pipelines to all points of the compass. “Canada’s future economic prosperity is dependent on being able to transport and sell Alberta oil and gas,” he said in a nomination campaign news release.

His nomination campaign’s online policy page lists support for “pro-business, pro-growth policies, including reductions in personal, business and capital gains taxes,” as well as Texas style “three strikes and you’re out laws,” among the usual anodyne platitudes. About the only really personal detail is that he’s a member of the Knights of Columbus.

Not much else is on the record and, it seems to me at least, that residents of this riding should be asking questions about Mr. Cooper’s views on many issues, particularly his level of support for policies demanded by social conservatives.

Meanwhile, as Mr. Cooper was being chosen by local Conservatives to challenge Mr. Rathgeber, the national media seems to have adopted the Independent MP and former Conservative as a sort of mascot on the sensible journalistic principle that where you have conflict, you have a good story.

And, indeed, as long as Mr. Rathgeber continues with his determination to seek re-election as an Independent, that conflict is guaranteed.

Alas, from a resident’s perspective, Mr. Rathgeber is more interested in his hobbyhorses, like dismantling the CBC, than the issues that truly affect local citizens.

Mr. Cooper seems to be cut from a similar piece of cloth. And his lack of clarity on his social conservative views certainly requires illumination.

Progressive St. Albertans should vote for neither man.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Six things we all need to think about when Canadians volunteer to fight for the Kurds

The Kurds: They should have had a country of their own, but since they don’t, and since Canada is allied by treaty to one of their principal enemies, letting Canadians join their fight isn’t a simple matter. We need clarity on just what Canada’s position is from the Canadian government. Below: Dillon Hillier is shown with a Kurdish fighter in this photo from the National Post – what’s the badge on his arm say? Canada? Lord Palmerston; a map of Turkey showing its majority Kurdish-speaking regions.

While a couple of officials of the Harper Government have now half-heartedly warned Canadians they’d be smart not to volunteer to fight for the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, Canadian mainstream media continues to act as a recruiting agency for Kurdish militias, at least one of which has been identified as a terrorist group by our own government.

Think about the many connections between the National Post, which seems to be leading the recruiting drive, and the Harper Government. Is it a stretch to wonder if the involvement of a group of former Canadian soldiers in this fight is not being supported and encouraged by elements within the government?

The problem, regardless of the government’s actual level of support, is that the involvement of Canadians on the side of the Kurds – no matter how just their national aspirations – is a potential snake pit for our country and all its citizens.

Official Ottawa was suspiciously quiet when this story first broke, with Department of National Defence officials pointedly refusing to say anything pro or con about the Canadian volunteers.

Both the National Post and the CBC published enthusiastic stories, casting the volunteers as part of a heroic fight on behalf of the Kurds against the depredations of the Islamist extremists of the so-called Islamic State.

The National Post’s profile of one such volunteer, Dillon Hillier, a former Canadian soldier who was a veteran of both Afghanistan and the Alberta oilpatch, read like a recruiting manual for the Kurdish Foreign Legion.

The Post story came complete with a list of what to bring ($5,000 in cash), promises you won’t have to stay if you don’t like it, information on the trade-in value of your assault rifle if you decide to go home, and helpful directions to a recruiting page on Facebook run by the Peshmerga, a term used to describe several groups of Kurdish fighters.

The Post’s story was replete with stirring sentiments – “I look at what I’m doing as no different than when thousands of Canadians went to fight the Germans” – and assurances that joining an unofficial entity calling itself the “1st North American Expeditionary Force” is legal.

The CBC’s marginally more professional story the same day claimed “a number of Canadian military veterans say they’ll be enlisting with the growing ranks of foreign fighters who have joined the Kurdish battle against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.” It revealed the interesting factoid that Mr. Hillier is the son of Ontario Conservative MPP Randy Hillier.

The CBC also assured readers that volunteers are on the right side of Canadian laws, explaining that “it is not illegal in Canada to enlist in a foreign militant force, provided it is not a group the federal government designates as a terrorist entity and it is not engaged in hostilities against Canada or its allies.” (Emphasis added.)

The Hillier Family issued a statement, lauding their son’s patriotism and past military service. “As a proud Canadian, he has always cherished and defended the freedoms we are all afforded in this great country.”

This was all before Gill Rosenberg, the young Canadian woman and veteran of the Israeli armed forces, disappeared while on her personal mission to help the Kurdish fight, prompting a marginally more cautious tone in Ottawa, if not in the media.

Regardless, let’s consider some of the things all Canadians ought to keep in mind in this situation:

First, Canadians who went to fight the Germans in the First and Second world wars were for the most part members of the Canadian armed forces in the service of the Canadian state. Prematurely anti-fascist Canadians who fought in Spain as volunteers for the International Brigades were treated as criminals by the Canadian government.

Second, while the Kurds almost certainly should have been supported by the international community in their ambition to have a country of their own, they were not, and as a result have found themselves in conflict with the states where there are significant Kurdish populations – Iran, Iraq, Syria and our ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey. This is why the Peshmerga, although it is a network of armed forces, cannot be called the Armed Forces of Kurdistan.

This has serious implications for Canada as a member of NATO.

Our NATO allies the Turks have been in a state of war with the Kurds for generations. That, in turn, is why our Turkish NATO allies sat by literally idling in their tanks as IS pounded the Kurds a few yards across the Turkish frontier in the Syrian town of Kobani at the very moment Canadian warplanes were on their way from Alberta to strike IS in the same neighbourhood.

So what is the position of our Turkish NATO allies, whom we are bound by treaty to defend in the event of an attack on them, on Canadian volunteers being encouraged to serve as volunteers in the military of their sworn enemy?

Could Canadian soldiers end up fighting Canadian Pershmerga volunteers as well as Canadian IS volunteers?

Indeed, the group Ms. Rosenberg was reported to be fighting with has been identified by the Toronto Star as having been labeled a terrorist organization not just by Turkey, but also by Canada. So it would be fair to ask if she faces arrest upon her return home under Canada’s anti-terror laws. Because Peshmerga is a generic term for Kurdish fighters, and the Post story is not specific, it is not clear if the younger Mr. Hillier is in the same situation.

Third, how confident can we be that Canadian Peshmerga volunteers will restrict their activities to fighting IS in Iraq and Syria? Are we certain they will stay out of Turkey and Iran?

And what if the Peshmerga turn out not to be as noble as we’ve been assured by the news media? You know, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, who were the West’s allies and heroes as long as they were fighting the Soviet Union.

Fourth, what are the obligations of the Canadian Government to Canadian citizens serving as volunteer soldiers in the unofficial armed forces of an unrecognized state, albeit not Islamic State? Do the volunteers have any idea what Canada will or will not do for them if, say, they are captured by the Turks, let alone IS?

The answer to this seems to be not much – leastways, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the Post the government had “virtually no capacity” to assist Canadians in the region.

Fifth, is there a danger of Canadian volunteers to international Islamist groups (discouraged) and Canadian volunteers to international nationalist groups (encouraged) bringing their fight home to Canada?

Sixth, what is the potential impact in other theatres of diplomacy of Canada tacitly supporting what are bound to be seen as quasi-official volunteers in a fight that has many characteristics of a civil war?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper gets extremely exercised at Russian volunteers serving in so-called pro-Russian separatist groups in what is widely seen as a civil war in eastern Ukraine. He denies the Russian volunteers are volunteers at all, insisting they are Russian soldiers.

How is the arrival of Canadian ex-military volunteers in Iraq and Syria going to look any different in the eyes of the world, especially the Russians?

Sometimes, it’s true, you can’t satisfy everyone in a complicated world. Canada accepted volunteers in its armed forces from the then-neutral United States in two world wars, discouraged Canadians from volunteering in some fights (Spain) and encourages them in others (Israel).

It is essential that the Harper Government make its position on Canadians serving with the Kurds unequivocally clear so that we can all understand the impact on our national interests and debate the policy properly, and the implications for the volunteers if something goes awry – as has been known to happen in wartime.

Lord Palmerston famously observed that “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”

The risk of ignoring this dictum is that the people who do so will adopt or support policies ranging from dangerously naïve to openly treasonous.

What are Canada’s interests in this case? What are our government’s intentions?

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.

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.

Tory income-splitting tax policy: It’s about creating and preserving gender inequality and making rich guys richer

Whew! This income splitting is a killer. Actual perfect families as seen by the Harper Government may not appear exactly like Canadian reality. Below: Queen’s University tax law professor Kathleen Lahey.

A fundamental purpose of the Harper Government’s ideologically driven income-splitting tax scheme is to undermine women’s equality, Queen’s University tax law professor Kathleen Lahey told the Parkland Institute’s annual fall conference yesterday.

That’s a statement that may cause some readers to react with skepticism – but if you’re one of them, let me suggest it’s because you haven’t really been paying attention.

Dr. Lahey told a plenary session of the conference how, back in 1982 when the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted, women were almost full citizens of Canada. Almost.

But powerful neoliberal and social conservative forces have been pushing back against gender equality ever since through such agents as the Reform Party, the Canadian Alliance and most recently the Conservative Party of Canada under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Not to mention, of course, the scores of neoliberal “think tanks” and lobby groups financed by deep-pocketed corporations to repeat Harperite talking points.

“While women were working so hard to get equal rights” – and, in Canada, succeeding more than in most countries of the world – “there was a rearguard action taking place,” Dr. Lahey observed.

“From the moment those laws hit the books, social conservatives have been pushing back as hard as they can” – and the reality is they have succeeded, continue to succeed and the result is there is real deterioration of gender equality in Canada today.

A key tactic in the Tory gender-inequality project, in Mr. Harper’s characteristic incremental style, has been to use a large number of small tax measures to return wealth to where he and the social conservatives who back him believe it belongs – the pockets of already well-off men.

The scheme works in two directions: Outright tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals, of which we’ve seen plenty, deprive civil society of the financial oxygen it needs to survive.

And while civil society suffers the death of a thousand cuts, scores of ideologically inspired tax breaks direct that money to places where it will encourage the kind of society the acolytes of Harperism want to build. And that’s not a society, let it be understood clearly, that values equality between genders.

“Almost half of Canada’s remaining fiscal capacity (after tax cuts) was given away through these little tax termites,” Dr. Lahey said. “The whole system is designed to be available only to people at the top of the income curve, and those are mostly men.”

If the expensive income-splitting dodge diverts $2.7 billion from tax revenues in 2015, 88 per cent of that will end up in the pockets of men, 12 per cent in the pockets of women, and nothing in the pockets of single parents, who have no one with whom to split their income. Poor and moderate-income couples will get little or no advantage either if they’re in the same tax bracket.

Conservatives, of course, spin this another way. They call it “putting money back in the pockets of families” and allowing “the real childcare experts – Mom and Dad – to decide how best to raise their kids.” (Both quotes are from Conservative fund-raising letters sent to the party’s supporters, and they make a lot of superficial sense to many Canadians who haven’t bothered to count up all the beans.) And if there’s no dad, I guess they just don’t care.

The reality is, in Dr. Lahey’s words, “very little of this money actually goes to the people who need it. … Forty per cent of women have income so low, they can’t take advantage of a tax cut.”

The Harper Government knows perfectly well how this will play out: Canadian so-cons have had the example of income-splitting tax measures in the United States to observe since 1948, and the results, said Dr. Lahey, has stopped millions of American women from achieving their full potential in order to protect their family’s income-splitting benefits.

“It’s a totally toxic tax measure, and it is the plan for Canada,” she stated, and it is being adopted – the propaganda notwithstanding – for purely ideological reasons.

“It’s being done as a marriage-promotion project. … It’s being done to maintain a ‘Christian home.’”

None of this is exactly news. Dr. Lahey has outlined her arguments in an excellent op-ed story in the Globe and Mail, which is well worth reading, and the consequences are well known to tax experts. Still, in the absence of much critical coverage in the mainstream media, it’s always worth hearing the obvious stated clearly: The Harper Government is doing what it can to undermine gender equality in Canada and redistribute wealth upward.

If you’re concerned about gender equality – and as a father of daughters who may have to survive in the wretched neoliberal dystopia Mr. Harper longs to build, I sure as hell am – you really shouldn’t support Conservatives come voting day!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Maybe fake soldier didn’t understand only Tory politicians and TV stars are allowed to play military dressup in Canada

Canadian Armed Forces members and veterans were outraged when this man allegedly passed himself off as a Forces member at the scene of a flood in Calgary, Alberta. As you can see, he seemed to have a couple of civilians fooled. However, his weird haircut gave him away to keen observers familiar with military regulations. Below: Other Canadians not entitled to wear Canadian Forces uniforms dressed in military drag. (All photos dragged from the Internet.)

Didn’t the unfortunate Franck Gervais understand you have to be an elected Conservative politician or a TV star before you’re allowed to dress up in a uniform and pretend to be a soldier?

I speak, of course, of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino and right-wing hockey commentator Don Cherry, all of whom are known to dress in military drag and prance around as if their power and status derived from something other than the inattention of voters and television viewers. There are many others, I have no doubt.

We’ll get back to those worthies in a moment.

Mr. Gervais, of course, is the sad specimen who put on a Canadian Forces uniform and went to a Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa last week.

His mistake appears to have been giving an interview to a TV reporter – something many of us have come to regret, regardless of the topic – plus wearing his beret in such a peculiar fashion that even an old civilian like myself didn’t think it looked right. (Actually, he was wearing it in the style of the armies of some of Mr. Harper’s best friends abroad, so perhaps it was an easy mistake for a poor poseur to make.)

If Mr. Gervais had been really using his head, he would have worn civvies. After all, as I recall someone observing in a mostly forgotten work of fiction, “a brigadier is only a brigadier. A man in mufti could be anyone!”

Regardless, Mr. Gervais, we are now reliably informed by the mainstream media, faces charges of personating a public officer, or, in the language most normal people without law degrees would use to describe the same thing, impersonating a non-commissioned officer.

Now, it seems to me that a certain amount of shaming and mockery are entirely appropriate when dealing with creatures like Mr. Gervais who feel the need to pretend to be something they’re not.

But to suggest his costume is worthy of criminal charges because it showed disrespect for the armed forces, which is how his actions are being portrayed by the many people who have worked themselves into a full-blown swivet over this Canadian Walter Mitty, is genuinely troubling.

This is not, if I may be so bold, what a generation Canadian soldiers fought in Europe through the early 1940s to achieve. On the contrary, in fact. They fought for the right of people to be highly critical, even disrespectful, of institutions and people that most of us hold in high regard. Freedom of expression protects unpopular opinions, not the ones we all agree on.

Not that Mr. Gervais appears to have been criticizing the armed forces. On the contrary, he seems to have been rather wistfully paying homage to them.

No evidence has been presented by the media that Mr. Gervais intended his impersonation of a soldier or use of the uniform or badges he wore to gain advantage for himself, obtain property, cause a disadvantage to anyone, obstruct justice or avoid arrest – which, one would have thought, are the reasons for criminal laws against impersonation.

If Mr. Gervais had dressed as a police officer, it would have been a different matter. Police have real and necessary powers in civilian society. The military does not – and woe betide us all if they begin to think they do.

That criminal charges are seen as an appropriate response by the authorities to such pathetic foolishness is troubling evidence of the march toward militarization of society that is being encouraged for nefarious reasons by the Harper Government.

Speaking of which, it’s also pretty clear that the high standards of respect for the military that are apparently being demanded of Mr. Gervais are not required of the likes of Mr. Harper, who showed up here in Alberta not so long ago wearing a Canadian Forces flight jacket complete with military insignia.

Mr. Harper is not, nor has he ever been, a member of the Armed Forces of Canada.

Indeed, as has been previously noted in this space, none of Messrs. Harper, Fantino or Cherry appears ever to have served in the military, yet all of them are frequently portrayed without comment or criticism in the media dressed up in all sorts of military costumery.

Of course, this may simply be more evidence of the widely held view among conservatives, especially conservative leaders, that the rules are for everyone else, never for them or their friends. In which case, Mr. Gervais’s greatest sin may turn out to have not been a member of his local Conservative riding association.

Not only has the prime minister never served in the armed forces, he has never held a real job of any kind. He merely graduated from young Liberalism to tiny Toryism to various ancillary and auxiliary political jobs before rising to elected office, higher and higher, where he has remained ever since.

Let it be noted, though, that this is not a knock at our prime minister for his appearance in a Kevlar helmet, camo fatigues and a flak vest on his infrequent visits to the Graveyard of Empires, as Afghanistan is deservedly known. This is simply a matter of sound occupational health and safety procedures.

The wings were the reason, I suppose, that the military jacket he wore to the floods in Southern Alberta in June 2013 provoked such a sharp reaction from some readers of this blog.

One wrote: “What combat unit did Don Cherry, Stephen Harper, Julian Fantino and the other chicken hawks ever serve in?”

Said another: “I am an ‘air force brat’, so I find it insulting that Mr. Harper wears a flight jacket sporting wings. In my younger days, my brother, sister and I (like other brats) would wear our father’s old military issue. ... However, we had to remove all insignia before we were allowed to use them. In fact, in the air force community it was considered a serious offence to wear any patches that had not been earned, even (and especially) on ‘hand-me-downs’. If Harper, Fantino and Cherry want to play ‘Mr. Dressup’ might I suggest clown costumes.”

Mr. Fantino did work as a mall security officer for a spell before joining the police force. So at least he has seen paramilitary service. But I am at a loss to explain the chest full of military-style medals he is shown wearing in his role as minister of veterans affairs on his official website.

Nobody from his office has ever written me to explain what the gongs he wears actually signify. Perhaps one of them is the Maple Leaf Gardens Post-Game Scuffles Service Medal. Regardless, I am not sure if, in law, pretending to be a hero is quite the same thing as pretending to be a soldier.

But I will tell you this: no one can accuse Mr. Fantino of treating the Canadian military with respect, as his conduct toward of our veterans, especially PTSD victims, clearly shows.

As for Mr. Cherry, the former professional hockey player and coach, and taxpayer-subsidized megaphone for uninformed political and social commentary, dropped out of high school and went directly into the sporting life.

That said, he can hardly be accused of impersonating an officer, or even an enlisted man, by wearing the tailored camouflage suit in which he turned up on a morale-building visit to Afghanistan.

I’m sure Mr. Cherry intended no disrespect for the troops by wearing this ludicrous garment, and none seems to have been taken. Nevertheless, if respect for the forces is the issue at the base of this brouhaha, Mr. Cherry may want to take more care in his future instructions to his tailor.

Getting back to Mr. Harper, just remember this the next time you see a Canadian prime minister in uniform: The last Canadian PM to see military action in wartime was Lester Bowles Pearson. The last one to be a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces was Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Why libraries – and library users – need their librarians and other library workers to be union members

Maureen O’Reilly, president of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, speaking in Toronto last weekend. Below: Renowned author Margaret Atwood on an Alberta union picket line, circa 2000, Doug Ford and his Brother Rob.

Doug Ford? Doug Ford? Who is Doug Ford again? 

I think he’s Rob Ford’s brother?

OK. Who is Rob Ford?

Didn’t I say back in the summer of 2011 that Margaret Atwood – and, by contrast, we all know who Ms. Atwood is – was the best thing that ever happened to Doug Ford?

Mr. Ford, in case you’ve forgotten already, was the former Toronto city councillor and sometime candidate for mayor of that city, elder brother of the frequently stupefied and nationally embarrassing mayor of the same last name.

Back in 2011, when the Ford Bros. were in the midst of their campaign to close public libraries, the renowned Canadian author Ms. Atwood gave Mr. Ford a good public spanking on Twitter – and about a quarter million people Tweeted in their support.

Mr. Ford should be grateful, I suggested in a blog post at the time. “When the bug spray has settled down after the next Toronto municipal election, history will likely not have much to say about you. Ms. Atwood, on the other hand, is someone whom history will remember. But a public slapdown by Ms. Atwood means that at least you might get a mention in a good book or something of the sort that would be kept in a library.”

Well, 18 days have passed since the Toronto civic election, and as predicted the elder Mr. Ford is pretty well forgotten – likely only to be remembered as a footnote in a book about Ms. Atwood.

But if Ms. Atwood turned out to have done a back-handed favour of sorts for him, his worst nightmare was Maureen O’Reilly, the president of the library staff union local at the Toronto Public Library, who played a central role in the brilliant campaign to save Toronto’s library system from the depredations of the crude neo-conservatism the Fords represented and gravely wounded the Fords in the process.

It’s probably too much to say Ms. O’Reilly and the library workers deserve credit for finishing off Ford Nation’s misrule at Toronto City Hall – no, the Fords pretty much accomplished that by themselves – but as President of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, CUPE Local 4948, she certainly did as much harm to their chances as she did good for the future of libraries in Canada’s largest city.

The union’s clever campaign, which took an image of dowdy Marian-the-Librarian spectacles and turned them into an instantly recognizable symbol of defiance, community and literacy was not just a key factor in turning away the Ford attack on libraries, it was a defence that could only have been organized by unionized library workers.

Unionized, of course, because being part of a union gives working people the protection and resources they need to run a campaign that may be unpopular with library managers and library boards, and is certain to be unpopular with the right-wing municipal politicians who go after libraries because they don’t read much themselves, and therefore view the 70-plus per cent of the population that use library services as a “special interest.”

That’s why people like the Fords – and their dear friend and mentor, Prime Minister Stephen Harper – hate unions so much.

But unionized librarians and library workers are the best defenders of libraries, Ms. O’Reilly told me at a conference we both attended in Toronto last weekend, because other people who should be effective defenders tend not to be, for a variety of reasons.

Library managers, and library board members too, are not as good at advocating for library services “because they tend to be team players,” she told me – and the team they’re playing for is the city council team. Often, they have ambitions themselves to be on council.

Library managers, she argued, are more vulnerable to discipline by senior managers and politicians, whereas “union membership gives you a platform, and a budget, to fight for library services.”

You can make a strong argument that even by simply looking out for the wellbeing of their own members – job security, better wages and the rest – library unions are protecting library services for the public.

“This is because they are resisting the ‘dumbing down’ of library work,” Ms. O’Reilly explained. Protecting their own jobs and those of their colleagues – a charge often thrown at union members as if it were a bad thing – protects the workers’ ability to provide the specialized help with information that is the true heart of library services.

With only their official “friends” – volunteers, board members, senior managers and the like – to protect them, she said, library budgets just keep getting trimmed. “It’s just the easiest thing to cut, because no one resists.”

Unionized library workers in Toronto resisted. The library board hated it. Their managers hated it. Politicians hated it. The Fords hated it with a special passion. But it worked.

Today, thanks to the campaign organized by Ms. O’Reilly and her sisters and brothers at the Toronto Public Library, cutting the system is largely off the table and there’s even talk of reinvesting in it.

It’s still just talk, she warned me, but that’s progress just the same.

That’s why it’s important in a place like my town – St. Albert, Alberta – for library workers to join a union, even though almost everyone will try to talk them out of it. “It was the library workers who were making politicians account for their actions,” Ms. O’Reilly said.

Right now, I don’t think there’s more than one or two members of our city council who truly view our library as an important public service. And we may soon have a civic government here that’s as bad in its own way as the one run by the Ford Bros.

This isn’t just true in St. Albert, of course.

If that happens, library workers need to be part of a union to protect themselves. The rest of us need them to be part of a union to help us protect the most popular – and the most vulnerable – public service in our communities.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Alberta’s big problem is the same as Russia’s – so what’s Stephen Harper doing about it?

Keep those wells a-pumpin! Keep those oil prices low! Squeeze those Russkies! Uh … just a minute. … isn’t that bad for Alberta’s many varieties of Conservative? Below: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Mr. Harper’s hero, Margaret Thatcher.

The Globe and Mail, tireless cheerleader for the Harper Government, was gloating Monday about the impact falling oil prices, a declining Ruble and the bite of Western sanctions are having on Russia, which, the Report on Business rejoiced, is being pushed toward the brink of recession.

Woo-hoo! That’ll teach those Russkies to try to keep NATO missile forces off their strategic front porch!

As we all know, rattling Canada’s largely non-existent sabres at the Russians, exaggerating the threat posed to Canada by post-Soviet Russia and caricaturing Russian President Vladimir Putin as the Beast of the East is a key wedge issue in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2015 re-election armoury. It’s thought to play well in places like Winnipeg and Edmonton.

To make Russia behave in a properly neoliberal way, it’s widely believed, the United States and the invitees to its geopolitical party, including Mr. Harper’s (neo)Conservative government in Ottawa, have been doing everything they can to persuade the OPEC countries to keep their oil wells pumping at the highest possible rate, thereby keeping oil prices low.

If OPEC’s members were to cut back on production, energy prices would go rocketing back into the stratosphere, to Russia’s considerable benefit, not to mention the Islamic State’s.

But as long as OPEC keeps pumping, the undeniable squeeze on Russia will get more painful.

But has it occurred to anyone among the governing party’s unquestioningly loyal supporters out here in the Alberta Tarpatch that what’s bad for Russia is bad for Alberta too? Leastways, it’s bad for the Alberta energy industry, which from Mr. Harper’s point of view is Alberta.

And not just the oilpatch, but those federal Conservative politicians who come from out here in Wildrose Country – Prime Minister Harper among them – whose Thatcherite scheme for the neoliberalization of Canada depends on revenue flow from a booming energy sector and shipments of Athabasca bitumen via pipeline to all points of the compass.

That was the Margaret Thatcher formula, no? Use the revenue generated by North Sea oil to underwrite the massive tax cuts necessary to cripple the welfare state – or, as people like Mr. Harper prefer to think of it, the nanny state. Then, when it’s too late to put Humpty-Dumpty together again, Milton Friedman’s Shock Doctrine can take over and do the rest.

Mr. Harper – who on Lady Thatcher’s death hailed her as “a truly historic figure, remembered for centuries to come,” which no matter where you stand on her legacy is hard to argue with – plans along with the rest of the Alberta Establishment to use the Athabasca Bitumen Sands to do the same thing to Canada, if only they can figure out a way to get its squeezings to market.

Well, I’ve got news for them: keeping the price of oil low enough to put the screws to Russia isn’t going to do any good for the viability of high-cost oil extraction industries like those in the Athabasca Tarpatch and the shale gas fields south of the Medicine Line. We are not talking about sweet ’n’ easy-to-pump Saudi crude north of Fort McMurray, folks.

Likewise, engineering low oil prices to crush Russia for the benefit of the U.S. strategic program in Eastern Europe is not going to do anything to improve the economics of building pipelines to Texas, British Columbia and New Brunswick.

Gee, it could turn out that Mr. Harper’s made-in-Washington Ukraine strategy is the best thing that ever happened to the North American environmental movement and the worst thing that ever happened to our vast deposits of presumably ethical but undeniably expensive-to-process sandy oil.

In other words, the U.S. tactic that Mr. Harper is cheering on is effective against Russia, but it’s also effective against American ideological buddies in places like Ottawa and Edmonton where neoliberal planners are making the same mistake as their Russian counterparts did during the chaotic Boris Yeltsin era – hollowing out the country’s manufacturing base to rely solely on energy exports to parts of the world that still make stuff, viz., China.

The most important question may turn out the be who has the greatest capacity for pain – Russians or Americans. I suggest you take a look at the history books to answer that one. It’s said here that the Republican Congress’s impatient backers in the U.S. oilpatch will cry Uncle long before the Russians, with their proven capacity to endure suffering.

Remember, when you’re calculating time lines, Mr. Putin is now polling in excess of 80 per cent. Mr. Harper’s approval rating is around 30 per cent.

So Conservative allies in the Alberta oilpatch have their pips under pressure just like Mr. Putin. Here’s betting they squeak first.

Here in Alberta, low oil prices are extremely bad news for the Progressive Conservative government of former Harper minister Jim Prentice, which had been counting on going into an election campaign with a big surplus.

Well, at least they’re selling the stuff in U.S. dollars, since falling prices are having the same effect on the Canadian dollar as the Russian Ruble – which would have helped Canada’s manufacturing sector if the Harperites hadn’t managed to hollow it out already.

Yesterday, the ever-loyal Globe advanced a fanciful theory about how this “shelters” Canadian oil producers, but even Canada’s National Website admitted this can’t last for long.

It’s also not particularly good news for the Cordilleran Elite that runs Canada or whatever you want to call Mr. Harper’s crowd, which has been counting on high energy revenues to bankroll their pre-2015-election tax-cutting scheme while still being able to pull a “balanced budget” out of its top-hat.

It will give the Wildrose Party an opportunity to scream about Mr. Prentice’s mismanagement of the economy, I suppose, but it’s hard to see how that will be very persuasive if oil prices remain low all over. Albertans, after all, actually pay attention to that kind of thing, and enough of them know the reasons to be dangerous.

Presumably the great secretive minds of the Harper Government have connected these dots and know that Alberta’s big problem, which they’d desperately like to go away, is the same as Russia’s big problem, which they’re doing their best to encourage. It would be interesting to know what Mr. Harper plans to do about that.

Right now, it looks like his violently militaristic anti-Russian rhetoric is aimed directly at his own feet. Ain’t it a funny old world?

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.