Ladies and Gentlemen….Introducing Alberta’s First Wildrose Premier!

Like most Albertans, I watched the recent defection of Danielle Smith and 9 (more) members of her caucus to Jim Prentice’s PCs with a mixture of astonishment and disgust. That it has been a breathtaking example of political opportunism on the part of both is obvious. That Jim Prentice has scored a huge coup by eliminating a mortal threat to his party’s 43 year rule is also clear. That Danielle Smith stands to gain personally by gaining a seat at the cabinet table is almost as clear, provided that Prentice overrules his caucus’s objections and keeps the deal he made with Smith.

What is not so clear is what the more immediate political reasons for this tainted compact are. It was far from inevitable. The former leader of the Wildrose Party  apparently suffered a dramatic loss of confidence following the loss of four by-elections in October 2014. But the party itself remained in good shape despite this. While it was polling lower than when Redford was Premier, it’s numbers remained respectable.  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. To do so required a significant re-calibration of political strategy on the part of the Wildrose, and likely another term in opposition. Smith seemed unable to do the former and was unwilling to do the latter.

In a recent post, blogger David Climenhaga shone a light on one dark corner of this sordid pact – the role of Preston Manning. http://albertadiary.ca/2014/12/tory-resistance-to-wildrose-interlopers-dont-believe-it-heres-why-danielle-smith-will-soon-get-her-cabinet-post.html He apparently encouraged the deal, and has publicly defended it. I know Danielle Smith well enough to know that she reveres Manning, and sees him as the eminence grise of Canadian conservatives. 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. As federal Reform Party leader, Preston Manning served 13 years in opposition. So with regard to the obvious objective of reuniting conservatives, there was no great rush. Yet rushed this deal certainly was.  So what more immediate goals might Manning and Smith be pursuing?

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. Defending her decision to former ally and fellow Fraser Institute graduate Ezra Levant, she lays it out very clearly:  http://www.sunnewsnetwork.ca/video/danielle-smith-faces-off-with-ezra-levant/3953114766001 (at about 8:40, if you can’t stomach the entire interview)

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. Hold on to your health care, here come the United Conservatives!

Many Albertans are already aware that the failure on the part of successive PC governments to wean the provincial treasury off volatile royalty revenue means another round of budget cuts, affecting mostly low income and middle-class Albertans. What they may not be aware of is that Smith and the Wildrose, like the PCs, have steadfastly refused to consider any changes to the province’s revenues. She wants to keep the flat tax that boosts taxes on the middle class while slashing them for the very rich, keep the huge corporate tax cuts that Klein introduced, and keep some of the lowest royalties in the world. When the price of oil drops, then cuts to social programs like health and education are only alternative she is willing to consider. And she wants to make sure the PCs do not stray from that road.

Prentice himself is on the same path, as his many statements as well as the floor crossing agreement makes clear. But he still has to contend with that pesky PC caucus. You know, the group that fired that other Premier. But Danielle Smith is here to help: “I think he (Prentice) needs some allies in being able to advocate for the changes that need to be made” she said. This defection is more than “uniting conservatives”. It shifts the balance of power in the Tory caucus, and prepares the political ground for a brutal restructuring of public services in Alberta. Jim Prentice it turns out, is Alberta’s first Wildrose Premier.

What is the likely response of this Prentice WildCon government, given the “price trough”? Rather than having the rich pay their fair share, we are likely to see a repeat of legislation to roll back the contracts of public employees. Pension reductions may be back on the table. Layoffs of nurses and teachers are likely as cuts to health and education are made. Tuition fees will probably go up. A sales tax is unlikely, but reintroduction of health care premiums is not. Programs will be cut across the board. Plus lots more – conservatives can be very creative when it comes to screwing average folks during an economic crisis. A very big social fight is coming very soon, perhaps beginning with a snap election.

There is a price to be paid for big tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. And it is paid by ordinary Alberta families, seniors and the poor, whose health care and education, seniors care and social services are cut or priced further out of reach each time the price of oil and/or natural gas drops. We’ve seen this movie before, too many times. It’s time to take a stand against cynical conservative back room deals and the tired “sky is falling” chorus from Tory premiers going back to Don Getty and Ralph Klein. Rachel Notley and Alberta’s NDP offer a principled and fair-minded alternative. Help us fight Tory manipulation and greed. Check us out: http://albertandp.ca

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The Godfather, part IV.

I thought I’d start this post with an understatement: It’s been a strange week in Alberta politics. The Wildrose party has, in the last year, given the PC government a glimpse of its own mortality. Now, it is the WRP that is in critical condition, and many observers give it less than a year or two to live.

Like most Albertans, I find this turn of events unexpected and puzzling. And disappointing. As I’ve said before, I like right wing parties so much, I want there to be two of them. Or three. A divided right benefits the NDP certainly. But far more than that, the rise of the Wildrose created the conditions for a true multi-party democracy in Alberta, something we haven’t enjoyed since Social Credit came to power in 1935. Now the road will be harder.

This is not to say that the NDP will not contend against the PCs. We will, and we will surprise Albertans with our strength and determination. There are hundreds of thousands of Albertans who voted for the PCs in the last election because they were afraid of the Wildrose and/or because of Alison Redford’s progressive promises. Already disappointed in the broken promises of the PCs, they now see them absorbing the very party they were voting PC to stop. These voters are angry and disillusioned. And they are looking for a new home.

Alberta’s NDP is organizationally and financially in the best position it’s been in since the early nineties, far ahead of the Liberal and Alberta parties. And we intend to make use of our growing capacity to reach out to those progressive voters who were so betrayed by Alison Redford and Jim Prentice.

But how do we make sense of what’s happened to the Wildrose Party? I can’t. Who knew they were so fragile? The loss of a couple of by-elections is something that should have been merely a wake up call, a chance to correct deficiencies before the general election, expected a year and a half later. Instead there has been panic and confusion on an epic scale, with events cascading out of control.

The crossing of seven MLAs to the PCs, including the Leader of the Official Opposition is unprecedented. That it is apparently being done against the will of the Party is a huge betrayal. It is a setback for the opposition as a whole, because the WRP was effective in its role. So how did we get to this point?

It seems that negotiations between the 2 parties have been going on for a week or so. There is an agreement of sorts, leaked to Rick Bell of the Calgary Sun. http://www.scribd.com/doc/250299264/Wildrose-reunification

We are told by unnamed sources, presumably from among the WRP defectors, that this is a victory for the Wildrose since Prentice has agreed to adopt a range of Wildrose policies and to support the defectors to win PC nominations for the next election. If Prentice has actually agreed to everything that’s in the document, he has made it clear that his caucus will have the final say. They meet tomorrow.

But who is the agreement actually between? Is between the PC party and the WR party? The PC caucus and the WR caucus? Or between Prentice and the defecting MLAs? It provides that Prentice and Smith will write to the Wildrose executive and membership asking that the WR membership be asked to vote on the “reunion” proposal in the spring. So that part at least, is between the parties.

But what if the Wildrose party executive not only says no, but hell no, as they surely will? Or if the WR membership was to vote it down, as they surely would, at the spring convention? What then? Do they still have a deal?

Will Prentice be bound to accept Wildrose policies in that event? And what about the PC membership? They will undoubtedly want a say in the party’s policies, regardless of any agreement.

And what about the requirement for Prentice to endorse defecting Wildrose MLAs for the PC nomination in their constituencies? Will that still be a valid contract? And even if it is, there are no guarantees under this agreement. Given the apparent hostility to this deal from the Wildrose grass roots, WRP defectors will have to depend on the PC faithful to win their nomination. A wink and a nudge, the Premier does his formal duty, and the Tory membership disposes of the Wildrose interloper at the nomination meeting. It’s the all-to-common fate of the floor crosser, and usually the end of their career.

Those Wildrose MLAs thinking about betraying their party would do well to watch The Godfather II. And consider the fate of Fredo.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next. But I’ve watched enough Godfather movies to know how this turns out.

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Is it the Accountability Act, or an accountability “act”?

It’s 9:00 Wednesday evening, and I just got home from the Legislature. The 2014 Fall sitting adjourned about 45 minutes ago, after passing Bill 2, the Accountability Act. The Tories and the Wildrose voted for it. The Liberals and the NDP voted against. Debate was very limited, and I feel there is more to be said.

Bill 2, the Accountability Act

Premier Prentice has touted this bill as a way of ensuring that the Tories regain the trust of Albertans. Announcing the bill, he said:

“I promised Albertans that as Premier, I will change the way things are done in government. I have been clear on my commitment to end entitlements and restore public trust. One of the first actions I will take when we return to the Legislature will be to introduce legislation that strengthens our accountability to Albertans.”

The PCs  need to show Albertans that the excess and corruption that existed under Alison Redford has been ended,  and more importantly, cannot happen again. Does Bill 2 do the job Albertans expect?

Certainly there are some improvements. Longer cooling off times for elected officials and senior bureaucrats, stronger conflict-of-interest guidelines for political staff, and greater separation between lobbyists and consultants are all improvements that just about everyone supports.

But let’s recall how this PC government lost the trust of Albertans in the first place. The scandals and ethical lapses that led to the fall of Alison Redford and plunging support for the PCs are surely what Bill 2 should address. If not, then Albertans can not be faulted for thinking the bill a failure and concluding the Tories have not learned their lesson.

Tobacco Gate

Alison Redford was accused of a conflict of interest, when as Justice Minister she approved awarding a $10 billion contract to the law firm of her ex-husband and close political confidante Robert Hawkes. She denied having made the decision because her successor as Justice Minister actually signed the final contract. Documents tabled in the Assembly proved she had made the initial selection, which satisfied the requirements for a conflict set out in the Conflicts of Interest Act. But the Ethics Commissioner ruled that she did not personally benefit, so he found no conflict under the act.

Does Prentice’s Accountability Act fix this? Unfortunately, no. Conflict of interest is narrowly defined in existing legislation, and Bill 2 doesn’t change that. The NDP put forward an amendment to Bill 2 changing the Conflicts of Interest Act to prevent MLAs from involvement in decisions that benefit close political confidantes. The PCs voted it down.

The Best Government Money Can Buy

Near the end of the last Alberta election campaign, billionaire Darrel Katz gave a $430,000 donation to the PC party, which was lagging behind the Wildrose and almost out of money. The political donation limit in Alberta is $30,000, which is far more than in other provinces.  The donation was divided among Katz’s family, business associates and companies. This retroactive trick was approved by the Chief Electoral Officer.

What does Bill 2 say about this type of chicanery? Well, nothing really. The NDP amendment changing the Elections Financing Act to prevent massive vote-buying donations was defeated by the PC majority.

Gorden Dirks’ Campaign Promise

During the Calgary Elbow by-election, Gordon Dirks, the then unelected Education Minister, approved modular classrooms for a school in the constituency. This was not consistent with the priority list established by the Calgary Board of Education. Complaints by the Wildrose and Alberta parties have been made to the Ethics Commissioner, but no judgement has yet been issued.

This kind of porkbarreling during an election is illegal in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, but Bill 2 is silent on the practice. The NDP tried to amend the act, but it was again voted down by the government.

Peter Sandu’s  “Appearance of Conflict of Interest”

MLA Peter Sandhu, who owns a house building company, was accused of a conflict of interest for aggressively lobbying senior executives within Service Alberta to change Alberta’s Builders’ Lien Act. Once again, then Ethics Commissioner Neil Wilkinson ruled against the complaint. The reason given was Sandu’s lobbying benefited all home builders, not just Sandu alone. And that wasn’t a conflict of interest in Wilkinson’s book. “Member Sandhu’s persistence in this matter created an appearance of conflict of interest but did not amount to an improper use of his office,” he wrote.

Is there any chance the Accountability Act tightens up this section? Sorry to disappoint folks, but no.  However, the intrepid NDP caucus did try another amendment. Three guesses as to what the outcome was.

The Sky Palace

Remember the Sky Palace?  Who could forget Redford’s suite among the clouds? Still, two former Infrastructure Ministers can’t seem to remember which one of them cancelled the project, since both Ric McIvor and Wayne Drysdale take credit. It seems that both memories are faulty, since it’s still going ahead, minus the bedroom furniture. The cost so far? $930,000 and counting.

Surely Bill 2 will put a stop to the back door manipulation of capital budgets that allowed this to go on? Well, it would have, except the NDP motion to compel the government to publicly disclose criteria for determining public infrastructure investment priorities, establish a clear public infrastructure priority list, and  provide a detailed explanation for changing the priority list when that occurs was shot down by the tories.

Bill 2 fails the real test

A comparison of the provisions of Bill 2, the Accountability Act with the ethical transgressions and scandals of the Progressive Conservative government shows that the bill would not have dealt with most of the serious breaches in the last 5 years. If these sort of practices continue, the government will be able to get away with it. Again.

So when Jim Prentice says that Alberta will ensure the “highest ethical standards” and will “end the culture of entitlement”, he’s blowing smoke. The “new management” is much like the old one, saying one thing and doing another. If Albertans really want the highest ethical standards, they will have to start by changing the government.

references/reminiscences:

http://globalnews.ca/news/1580626/watch-live-premier-prentice-unveils-new-accountability-measures/

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/alberta-premier-accused-of-conflict-in-tobacco-case-1.1222056

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/premier-alison-redford-cleared-in-ethics-investigation-1.2451263

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/billionaire-oilers-owner-katz-gave-430000-to-alberta-pcs/article4647260/

http://www.calgarysun.com/2014/10/25/opposition-accuses-unelected-education-minister-of-using-status-to-get-votes-in-upcoming-byelection

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/alberta-mla-peter-sandhu-cleared-of-conflict-of-interest-charges-1.2101255

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Member Statement on the 2012 Fall Session.

The end of the Fall Session is fast approaching. It has been one of the most acrimonious in recent history. The government is threatening to end the session early, by invoking closure. It is doing so because it can no longer face opposition scrutiny of its actions. Indeed, the legislature has become dysfunctional. This is not because of “opposition antics” as some would suggest, but because the government has thwarted legitimate debate and questioning. It has raised avoiding accountability to a fine art.

Questions about illegal election donations are not answered, and when complaints are made to the Chief Electoral Officer, investigations are kept secret, along with any findings or penalties that might be imposed. The government’s so-called reforms will shroud any offenses more than three years old in permanent secrecy, including several high-profile cases. Questions about potential conflicts of interest have been ignored or prevented outright. The answers that are given contradict documentary evidence, with no repercussions.

Vital election finance legislation has been drafted with no input from the political parties directly affected, except of course the Progressive Conservatives. The Chief Electoral Officer provided advice directly to the government but not to opposition MLAs, despite his mandate as an officer of the Legislature.

The Whistleblower Protection Act does more to protect the government from whistleblowers than the other way around. All 29 opposition amendments to Bill 4 were defeated, many with no one from the government even getting up to speak. Opposition parties have so far presented 106 amendments to government legislation, and the government has voted down all but 2.

From the outset of the fall session, the government has pushed legislation through the assembly, regularly sitting past midnight. Finally, the government has put a motion forward to impose closure on Bill 7, a critically important piece of legislation affecting the financing of provincial and municipal elections. If the government limits debate to 2 hours in committee and 2 hours at third reading, they ensure that many opposition amendments cannot even be made, and that debate is severely limited.

The government’s arrogance and disdain for the democratic traditions of the Legislative Assembly have predictably generated much frustration on the part of opposition MLAs. This government has set the tone, but civility can be restored if the government begins to show more respect for the Assembly and the public it represents.

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Before the Debate …

As I prepare for the Leaders Debate tonight, my thoughts are on the issues that matter to ordinary Albertans.

In this election Albertans have a choice – they can vote for conservative parties that keep Alberta’s wealth for their CEO and lobbyist friends, or New Democrats and our vision to makeAlberta’s prosperity work for everyone. 

This election for me and for the New Democrats has been all about showing Albertans that it’s possible to see our prosperity benefit everyone.

I believe that if we act to make sure thatAlberta’s wealth belongs to each and every Albertan:

  • we can provide quality publicly delivered health care
  • deliver affordable electricity
  • help young Albertans succeed
  • sustain a clean, healthy environment, and
  • make oil sands prosperity work for all Albertans by getting a fair return on our     resources.

The Conservative government has been in power for half a lifetime.  And the people of Alberta in this election have clearly been saying that’s too long.  But as all Albertans think about how to move our province forward, we can’t look to the Wildrose Party. 

Neither of these conservative parties can be trusted with our essential public services, with our health care, our education, or with our environment. Instead, they’re committed to looking for opportunities for their friends in the boardrooms to make a profit.  That means privatized healthcare, cuts to services, and unfairly low taxes for the wealthiest Albertans and corporations, and the lowest royalties in the world. 

The Alberta New Democrats is the party that’s committed to strengthening public health care, delivering electricity that is affordable for families, helping young Albertans succeed in and out of the classroom, maintaining our environment, and ensuring that the resource wealth from our oil sands benefits all Albertans.  We want Alberta to be a place where ordinary people and working and middle-income families are important again. 

Our platform makes a difference for ordinary in every corner and community in this province. It’s a plan that’s focused on improving the everyday lives of ordinary people, not benefitting people of one ideology or another. 

There’s such momentum building behind the New Democrats in this election.  And I’m excited about what April 23 will bring. 

I believe that Alberta belongs to all of us.  And that’s what the Alberta New Democrats will fight for every day in the next four years.

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An Open letter to Albertans

My fellow Albertans,

Our publicly funded and publicly delivered healthcare system and the principle of universal access to quality care have come under attack in this election.

Albertans, like all Canadians, place great value on the idea that all citizens deserve the best possible care, regardless of income or status. Stories of families losing homes to pay for medical bills are not limited to the United States. Many older Canadians can still recall the same thing happening right here in Canada.

It is almost incomprehensible that some people want to lead us back to those days. Yet recent proposals of Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Party do just that. The creation of a two-tier private health system, where wealthy individuals can pay to get better treatment, and get it sooner, is the foot in the door for American-style private healthcare. Allowing taxpayers money to be used to subsidize preferential, private health care just adds insult to injury.

We can’t count on Allison Redford’s PCs to stand up for public healthcare. In fact, the Conservatives have created chaos in our health system through constant reorganizations and repeated attempts to introduce more privatization.

They mislead voters about their real intentions before elections, only to reveal new health care “reforms” after being safely re-elected. Remember Ralph Klein’s “Third Way” plan for two-tier private health care after the 2004 election? Or the bed closures and nurse layoffs of Ron Liepert’s disastrous corporate style reorganization after the 2008 election?

Allison Redford wants to hand new senior’s care facilities over to private developers who will charge seniors more for daily living costs. She is careful to say that the Conservatives stand for “publicly funded” health care, but what she means is taxpayer support for private, for-profit health services. We just can’t trust the Conservatives to stand up for public healthcare.

In this election, the future of our healthcare system is on the line. What the Wildrose is publicly proclaiming they will do, the Conservatives will continue to try to accomplish by stealth.

Publicly funded, publicly delivered healthcare produces the best outcomes, at the lowest
cost, of any system. It also ensures fairness and equity in access to health services, something that’s critically important to Albertans. Properly funded and run, it is still the best health care system in the world. Join me in standing up for public health care, part of our heritage as Albertans and Canadians.

Yours sincerely,

Brian Mason
Leader, Alberta’s New Democrats

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Seniors deserve better!

A few weeks ago, I talked with Bev Munro, a long-term care patient at the Edmonton General Hospital. She is a woman in her 60s that gets around in a wheelchair. She spent her life working on construction sites, and she still doesn’t mince words. So when she said she’d be better off living in a ditch, she got my attention.

Of course, she was trying to make a point. A warm and comfortable place to live and be cared for is what she really wants. It’s what Alberta seniors deserve. But instead, the Conservatives have left our seniors out in the cold.

The common room on Bev’s ward is covered in tarps. So are parts of the hallways. The roof is leaking, and taking the elevator risks being trapped behind doors that won’t open.

This isn’t the kind of life people plan on when they get older. We want to know we’ll be well cared for. But the Conservatives have left us with a seniors care system that’s understaffed, underfunded, and has long waiting lists. And what is their answer? To invite private developers to build for-profit facilities, with seniors and their families paying far more for reduced levels of care.

Many families can’t afford these fees. Some family members even quit jobs to provide needed care for aged or chronically ill parents. This is unacceptable, especially in a province as well off as Alberta. We can, and must, take care of the people who raised us and who built this province. Under a New Democratic Party government, we will make it so.

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