|2004 Archives from ColbyCosh.com
Same-sex Monday, part one
Heeeelllp!--Lesbians ate my newspaper! For some reason, all the items
that have built up in my queue over the Christmas weekend seem to have a
homosexuality angle. (Send the "Only his hairdresser knows for sure" jokes to
the usual address, Mary.) First up is my Dec. 16 Post column, which
analyzed a little-noted aspect of Canada's gay-marriage debate--namely,
that Alberta, the most notable provincial holdout on the issue, has already
eliminated most of the exceptional privileges attached to marriage.
EDMONTON - Is Alberta a bastion of tranquility and freedom
for same-sex relationships? If it's true, it's certainly the country's best-kept
secret. But when local reporters challenged Ralph Klein about his government's
stance against gay marriage on Monday, the Premier made a surprising defence of
the path the provincial Conservatives have chosen. "Alberta has never looked
backwards," he said: "We have probably the most advanced and forward-thinking
legislation in the country as it affects gays and lesbians." Surely some
Klein actually has a point, sort of. His government tried awfully hard to
devise a compromise on the gay-marriage issue. In 1998 it became apparent, with
the Supreme Court's decision in the Vriend v. Alberta Charter case, that
the province could no longer ignore the claims of gays and lesbians to
protection under various species of equality legislation. Premier Klein outraged
social conservatives by suggesting that the resulting public clamour against the
court was motivated by hatred, and by declaring that he was not going to use the
"notwithstanding" clause to counter Vriend's effects. His promise was
that he was going to, instead, put semantic "fences" around certain extremely
sensitive institutions -- notably marriage.
The "marriage fence" took the form of the Adult Interdependent Relationships
Act, which was passed into law in June, 2003. The AIRA is basically an
implementation of the "civil union" concept; it allows partners in "committed"
cohabitation to sign an unregistered contract that gives them access to a wide
array of privileges previously reserved for married couples. "Adult
interdependent partners" can claim "spousal" insurance benefits, "spousal"
support in the event of a separation, "spousal" privileges relating to wills and
inheritances, and even court-mandated protection orders in the event of domestic
violence. It's designed to be marriage in all but name.
The unique Albertan quirk was that the new "interdependent" relationships
don't have to be conjugal. Unmarried platonic "life partners" -- even a pair of
old bachelor brothers in a tin shed --can sign on the dotted line and get the
benefits once reserved for heterosexual spouses. In that sense, Alberta's law
has leapfrogged beyond mere gay marriage and is arguably more "progressive" in
its recognition of non-sexual life couplings. Supporters of same-sex marriage,
however, feel that Alberta's expansion of spousal rights was merely a coded
insult to their aspirations. For better or worse, they now insist on nothing
short of the real thing by its proper name. You could argue that they're tacitly
arguing for the sanctity of marriage by insisting on access to it -- and that
Alberta's radical response actually cheapened the coin of marriage somewhat.
It's not quite true that Alberta was particularly far ahead of the curve in
extending the social benefits of marriage to gays and lesbians. Other provinces
acted faster. But it wasn't especially far behind, either. AIRA isn't too well
known even within Alberta, and no one knows how many Albertans, if any, have
signed partnership agreements. What's interesting is how quickly the debate
moved, and how fast the courts acted to ruin Klein's attempted compromise; by
the time Alberta was ready to introduce civil unions, civil unions were no
longer good enough.
His heart, I think, was in the right place. Sure, Klein's protestations of
sympathy are tin-eared. ("I have friends who are gay and friends who are lesbian
and they are wonderful people," he said on Monday.) But it must not be forgotten
that he started out as a liberal journalist, an earthy bon vivant among
Calgary's most marginalized and downtrodden downtown-dwellers. When he senses
that someone is being picked on, as he did in the post-Vriend deluge of
Bible-quoting faxes and e-mails, his hackles rise.
Did he really think AIRA would succeed in creating stable social peace on the
marriage question? His government gives the appearance of having been surprised
by the result of the gay-marriage reference to the Supreme Court, as it ponders
the outright elimination of marriage licences and tries to devise a response
that will satisfy the Tory rank and file. (It's probably just a wacky
coincidence that the Supreme Court's decision was delivered at the peak of
post-election chaos in Alberta's assembly, cabinet and senior government staff.)
Although Klein has been speaking all the familiar social-conservative phrases
about the great antiquity and singularity of traditional marriage, his language,
closely examined, suggests that the fight has more to do with the "feelings of
[his] caucus" than with his own passion for heterosexual exceptionalism. Alberta
may not be same-sex paradise, but its premier is a pretty live-and-let-live kind
- 11:05 am, December 27 (link)
Reloaded: a couple of weeks ago the National Post asked me to provide
some Western-made editorial content for a couple of brewing features about the
Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund, a $12B Lougheed-era "rainy day" bank
account formerly used to convert oil revenue into permanent cultural and social
legacy projects. Today the Heritage Fund is just sort of sitting there, doing
nothing. Liberal leader Kevin Taft tried, with some success, to make this an
issue in the election campaign just completed here. The short piece I sent the
Post--suggesting, more or less, that the only thing sillier than leaving
the fund dormant might be reviving it--ended up appearing opposite a piece by
Taft himself. I'd had to cut a lot of stuff out of my first draft, and although
the article was probably improved as a result--and may not be of much interest
to non-Albertans either way--I'm presenting my edit of the long version here.
Watch for my latest in the Post's comment section today or tomorrow...
EDMONTON - Albertans have a comical tendency to leave
provincial governments in charge forever at home while knocking voters in the
rest of Canada for behaving the same way toward federal governments. In truth,
we are superstitious and stubborn about some things. The two in particular that
come to mind, if you live here, are provincial sales taxes and the Alberta
Heritage Savings Trust Fund.
In the former case, we have always eschewed sales tax as a means of raising
income for the treasury. We are annoyed by PST when travelling to other
provinces, and we felt doubly victimized by the introduction of the GST, which
imposed an unfamiliar nuisance on our retailers and our shopping lives. No
politician could win here if he seriously proposed a provincial sales tax, even
if income taxes were lowered to make the change revenue-neutral. Yet an
overwhelming consensus of economists--especially the conservative ones--holds
that such a change would be, on net, fair, sensible, and conducive to economic
growth. Consumption taxes punish savings and investment less harshly than income
taxes, yet they're no more regressive. The government of free-enterprise,
ultracapitalist Alberta should, to all appearances, rely on sales taxes more
than its neighbours do.
But--we're agin it. I have no good explanation for this, even though I share
the same instinct. Suboptimal or not, that's just our way.
The passion for the Heritage Fund is vaguer, yet perhaps equally intense. The
Fund, established in 1976 at the outset of Alberta's champagne-and-cocaine
phase, is tied up in our minds with Depression-era thoughts of saving for a
"rainy day"; with motherhood notions of diversifying the economy before the oil
"runs out"; and, for Albertans of my generation, with the texture of the
personal past. I entered university on a Heritage Scholarship, took classes in
buildings purchased with Heritage Fund interest, and sampled from libraries
whose holdings were stamped with Heritage Fund bookplates.
Much of this spending happened in the 1980s, when a mild summer shower had
broken out over Alberta's economy. The Conservative government stopped topping
up the Fund in 1987, and has let the principal float, without further
contributions, ever since. After a brief spurt of social endowments, the
government stopped making showpiece purchases with the interest, and in 1997
formally started ploughing it into the treasury's general revenue stream.
So even though Albertans still express strong support for the Fund--well,
what the hell is the thing for at this point, really? If we're saving for that
rainy day, spending the income immediately, at a time of whopping huge budget
surpluses, seems like a hell of a silly way to go about it. The magic of
compound interest is a notion that seems to have eluded our czarist Tory
government. As far as diversifying the economy goes, it's hard for me to see how
steering capital away from its most high-return uses is anything but a synonym
for wasting money. And, anyway, the economic figures suggest that Alberta's
economy has diversified markedly away from energy since Ralph Klein got into
office and stopped trying so hard to diversify it. (Funny how often that sort of
thing happens with governments.)
While I appreciate the visceral terror we all feel about running out of oil
and having nothing to do when it's gone, I find the opposing argument--that the
oil should be extracted and sold while people are still willing to pay for
it--much more convincing. Not that it's ever made, mind you. But for every
region that ever ran clean out of a non-renewable resource, there's another that
simply found better uses for its capital and labour than resource extraction.
England didn't run out of coal--it ran out of people who cared to mine coal for
the world price, and ran into a politician (Margaret Thatcher) who wasn't
willing to subsidize the business any longer. The long-term trend of real
commodity prices is downward, ever downward; the people who have forecast the
advent of permanent petroleum shortages have been wrong so many times over, it's
a wonder they weren't asked to take their act to the street corner.
Right now the prices of oil and gas have spiked because of a unusual
confluence of political events, and because of a ruinous quarter-century taboo
about the development of nuclear energy. These things will pass--particularly
the latter, as the dopey greens gradually realize that nukes are the most
earth-friendly bet, watt for watt. In the meantime, what's wrong with the old
proverb "Make hay while the sun shines"? Alberta is sitting on oil reserves
approximately the size of Saudi Arabia's, and while they are "non-conventional",
that's a distinction which makes less difference all the time. We have,
literally, barely scraped the surface of the tar sands.
If people are still willing to pay us $40 a barrel for this stuff when we
finally do run out, the last thing we shall have to worry about is money. The
real doomsday scenario is the one where some prat in a lab discovers practical
cold fusion and the whole hydrocarbon economy goes the way of the candlemaking
business. You could be reading about this over tomorrow's breakfast; there has
already been one false alarm. For us to be worrying about the alternate
scenario, 50 or 100 years down the road, is simply mind-boggling.
Either way, the Heritage Fund should either be liquidated--and Alberta's
future left to shift for its own damn self, as its present has largely had
to--or it should be made what most Albertans have been deliberately deluded into
thinking it still is: a method of retiring future obligations of the provincial
government. Unfortunately this gets us into the business of trying to foretell
the day-to-day priorities of governments that same 50 or 100 years hence. It is
senseless to pretend we can do that. Go back to 1900, and look how grotesquely
inaccurate even the best mental images of the year 2000 were. Do we want to
endow hospitals for a future in which disease is conquered by genetic
engineering, or injury by nanotechnology? Libraries, for a time when one e-book
on everyone's shelf contains the entire collected wisdom of humankind? I do not
predict; I merely suggest that the future is, in principle, unpredictable.
Ambitious politicians should not necessarily be permitted to throw our good
money away on things that may be useless to our grandchildren. If we must spend
the money, perhaps we should be biased towards the things we lack which are most
valuable by virtue of being "useless": institutions of pure research, notable
public buildings, traditional graphic and narrative arts, and the like.
Sadly--this being Alberta--the money would inevitably flow into the pockets of
local mediocrities, which is, after all, somewhat defensible. Foreign geniuses
don't need the help. (November 19, 2004)
- 8:24 am, November 29 (link)
The Liberal success in last night's Alberta election was less surprising to
me than it was to most. But as I peruse the casualty lists this morning, I see
still more marginal surprises and occasions for comment. The Liberals took some
really startling Conservative scalps; there is nothing very special about their
seat count, but the particular chairs they've occupied are weird. Conventional
wisdom would probably have suggested that if the Liberals won anywhere in
solid-Tory Calgary, it would be in their traditional beachhead, Calgary-Buffalo.
Instead they won three Calgary seats--including Murray Smith's old Varsity
riding, whose loss Ralph Klein admitted to being baffled by--without
winning Buffalo. In retrospect, Klein might have cost the party that Varsity
seat by naming retiring pal Smith as Alberta's high-paid official agent in
The Liberals also seem to have accidentally run over some high-profile
Conservative moderates who were out on the skirmishing lines in Northern
Alberta. They are practically
apologizing this morning for having trounced former Reform MP Ian McClelland
in Edmonton-Rutherford. McClelland had been the author and federalist guiding
spirit of the government's lukewarm official response to the "firewall" agenda.
Mary O'Neill, one of the reddest Tories in the caucus, also went down to an
unexpected defeat in St. Albert. Tony Vandermeer ran
openly against Klein's go-slow policy on income support for the disabled*
and got edged out in Edmonton's northeast corner. Most importantly, the Liberals
snuffed out the career of the most talked-about Edmonton candidate to succeed
Klein, Mark Norris.
Norris was never likely to get anywhere in a leadership fight; that anyone
was mentioning his name was nothing but a sign of the pathetic Conservative
bench strength in northern Alberta. His humiliation leaves Iris Evans as the
last semi-papabile northern Conservative, so one supposes it's good, in
theory, for her. It's more likely that the ouster of Norris will work in favour
of Jim Dinning, who can probably now add the support of Edmonton's
Cooper-Mini-sized business elite to his control of Calgary's fleet of Lexuses
(Lexi?). The general massacre of Conservative moderates, however, may help the
cause of Dinning's most visible potential challenger, firewall theorist Ted
Morton. Even if Morton doesn't run this time, the loss of the Edmonton caucus
will, overall, reposition the Tory caucus as a more ideological instrument that
is tougher on the treasurer (and on tax-hiking nitwits like Health Minister Gary
Mar). Right-wing sentiment within the party has been looking for an articulate
leader with a separate power base for a long time. That's Morton, even if he's
not interested in being premier yet--and everything I've heard suggests he is.
The media has largely failed to notice that he is following the same playbook
Klein did in 1992.
The New Democrats' doubling of seats from two to four was an embarrassment in
disguise; their caucus contains current leader Brian Mason, a former Edmonton
alderman and bus driver who is admittedly good at playing the "little guy" card,
and two popular former leaders--gentlemanly party mascot Raj Pannu and '80s
nostalgia figure Ray Martin. Factor that lot out and you're left with just one
guy who actually ran to victory under the party banner proper--David Eggen in my
own riding, Edmonton-Calder.
On the opposite side, Alberta Alliance candidate Paul Hinman pulled off an
upset in Cardston-Taber-Warner. Canada's Mormon capital was a natural enough
place for such an event, seeing as AAP leader Randy Thorsteinson had stormed out
of Social Credit claiming that he and his leadership clique were being bullied
for their Latter-Day Saint beliefs. But the utterly unknown Hinman doesn't seem
to make a very promising candidate for a right-wing flank charge against the
Conservatives. This account
of a local candidate's debate has him "continually saying the Conservative
government serves big business, not the interests of the Albertan people" and
proposing what sounds like a stealth nationalization of the beef-packing
industry. (The Alliance will at least have the pleasure of wrong-footing the
morning papers Truman-Dewey-style: early editions of the Calgary Herald
contain the headline "Greens, Alliance upbeat despite coming up empty".)
The papers are also putting forward (as fact) the hypothesis that Klein faces
pressure for an early exit, despite his signed promise that he will remain in
the saddle for another 3¾ years. I'm not so sure about a quick parachute jump
anymore. The race to succeed Klein is the party's ace in the hole; the
leadership contest will attract hundreds of thousands of new members, and
although some will go away disappointed, the Tories may wish to conduct the
convention as close to the next election as they can decently manage. Klein
still has a certain amount of political capital to burn, and the Liberals are
25% of the way to being a credible opposition, not 75%. I imagine the
Conservatives will watch the weathercock closely, hope oil prices remain high,
and try very hard not too move too soon. And for the moment Klein's possible
successors are cooperating.
*Incidentally, far, far too much is being made of the "gaffe" Klein committed
in complaining of being badgered by "handicapped" welfare recipients who seemed
able-bodied and clear-minded. One must revert here to Michael Kinsley's
definition of a "gaffe"--it's when a politician says something true that isn't
polite to mention. Such "gaffes" are inherent to Ralph's style, and are probably
crucial even when they do him minor damage. Klein occasionally drags his ass
downtown in Alberta's large cities, into neighbourhoods like mine; I don't know
whether most of his critics do the same. Many times I've heard the complaints
Ralph has about AISH (Alberta Income Support for the Handicapped) from people
who were well enough to, say, spend the day hanging around in an ice-cold bus
station bumming cigarettes. (Surely it would be more comfortable behind the
counter of a 7-11?) AISH payments are long overdue for an increase for the
people who genuinely need them--and a hike is now inevitable, especially with
the Tories suffering electoral setbacks in the metro areas--but one cannot
entirely escape the suspicion that bureaucrats have used AISH as a waste dump
for welfare lifers who could no longer qualify for payments to the able-bodied
under Klein's U.S.-style reforms.
- 12:54 pm, November 23 (link)
|Fight to the death
The Progressive Conservatives
have won their tenth consecutive majority government in Alberta tonight.
They came in here the same year I did, and I suppose it's time to start
wondering which of us will last longer... the story on the margins is the
relative success of the Liberals, who went into the election with seven seats
and will come out with around 15, returning Edmonton to a deep-red flush.
(American readers: the colours are switched around here.) When it comes to the
Liberal revival, I don't think I can improve on the analysis I
already did; it was almost bang-on. I still have a radio monologue to write
and record, so I'm off...
- 10:23 pm, November 22 (link)
|Alberta election beat
Matt Fenwick makes a good
case for holding one's nose and voting for Klein one last time. I'm
almost convinced. One guy I do have zero problem endorsing is former
Yellowhead MP Cliff Breitkreuz, who is on the
Senate ballot as a Progressive Conservative.
You may remember that I was supposed to do CBC Radio One's national Commentary
segment the morning after the federal election. The electoral balance
shifted slightly in the wee hours of the morning, and the monologue I'd taped
was deep-sixed. We're going to give it another shot for the Alberta vote, so if
you're up early Tuesday morning and you know what time Commentary runs on your
affiliate, you can listen for that.
- 12:56 pm, November 20 (link)
| Here's last
week's Post column about Air Canada and WestJet. Part of it is given over
to rebuttal of this column by CAW
economist Jim Stanford, so you might consider giving him equal time. I also
have to plead mea culpa on a textual issue concerning this column. In the
original version I wrote that WestJet was accused of surreptitiously lifting Air
Canada "data on seat sales". By "seat sales" I meant "the selling of
seats"--passenger loads on different routes and whatnot. An Air Canada pilot
wrote me to complain that the phrasing made it sound like WestJet had allegedly
poached information that merely concerned special fare offers. I've fixed the
mistake here, and I'm sorry if anyone was misled into underestimating the value
of what WestJet is said to have taken without permission (though by means I'd
still consider to be pretty kosher, ethically).
Be sure to check out
Tuesday's Post for my
semi-informed thoughts about SpaceShipOne,
the Ansari X Prize, and the dead hand of Newton. [UPDATE, Oct. 5: Huh.
Wednesday, maybe, then.]
EDMONTON - The Calgary-based discount airline WestJet made
its first foray into the United States last week, ferrying 120 beaming Canucks
clad in Mickey Mouse ears from Calgary to Los Angeles. I almost called it the
"beloved Calgary-based discount airline," but that's not quite right. People
heap praise on WestJet -- the families on the first L.A. flight seem to have
booked tickets as much for the ride as anything -- but there's a certain set to
the jaw, a certain undertone of bloody-mindedness, that is perceptible when they
do it. Are they really praising WestJet, or are they perhaps just revelling in
the slow-motion comeuppance of Air Canada?
Either way, the goodwill toward the Western upstart still lingers. It's
stronger amongst Albertans, though not exclusive to us. When I rode Air Canada
to Toronto earlier this month and took WestJet back, I got the distinct feeling
I was being eyeballed suspiciously by locals who heard of my travel plans. Was I
The truth is, all things being equal, I'd probably pay a little more to be
relieved of the slightly oppressive comedy stylings of the WestJet flight crews,
and, as a morbid connoisseur of aviation accidents, to fly Airbus rather than
Boeing. But all things were not equal in my controlled experiment. Air Canada
jumped the gun during boarding and left passengers loitering in the jetway for
what seemed like hours. In 10 years' time my knees won't be able to tolerate
such foolishness. Big Red served one of its Play-Doh-and-roughage inflight meals
for free, whereas WestJet was selling excellent sandwiches for cash on the
barrel. Even as a consumer-cum-hostage, I'll take good food over free food every
I was plunked down near fussing infants on both flights (of course); the Air
Canada stews clucked with helpless sympathy, but the chief attendant on the
WestJet flight borrowed the child from its grateful mom and used some weird
magic -- possibly transdermal heroin? -- to quiet it instantly. I'd have given
that woman a kidney right then if she'd asked.
Air Canada, of course, still has fans. Two weeks ago Jim Stanford, an
economist for the Canadian Auto Workers, found a perfect occasion to chortle
over the temporary misfortunes of non-unionized WestJet in a CAW newsletter. The
airline had just finished second in KPMG's annual CEO poll of Canada's most
respected corporations. Stanford professed confusion at this, pointing to
WestJet's lower profit margins for 2004: WestJet, of course, has never failed to
turn a quarterly profit and is reinvesting in route expansion, while Air Canada
is swaddled in bankruptcy protection. He accused WestJet, whose employee
participation in ownership would plaster a smile on a bust of Marx, of
perpetuating "income distribution practices [from] the Industrial Revolution."
And he professed mock-indignation over the airline's "corporate espionage"
dispute with Air Canada.
That stab was especially priceless, I thought. The lawsuit has put a small
dent in WestJet employees' stock options, though the effect is hard to separate
from those of high fuel prices and failed experiments on some Eastern routes. If
you're determined, you can spin the espionage case as a matter of the little guy
suffering from mismanagement at the top. But remember, WestJet is accused of
using a former Air Canada employee's password to access and compile private Air
Canada data on passenger loads. This may not have been cricket, but I suppose
WestJet employee-shareholders would rather see errors made out of
hypercompetitiveness rather than carelessness.
And if anyone should be embarrassed here, surely it's the goofballs that
haven't learned the rudiments of network security? Air Canada emphasizes
stridently that its site was hit a quarter of a million times, possibly by means
of data-harvesting software, while the barn door was open. They think this will
make WestJet look evil, instead of themselves stupid. In the meantime, they have
admitted to hiring private investigators to retrieve and reconstruct shredded
documents from the trash of WestJet cofounder Mark Hill, which seems at least as
questionable and espionage-y as eyeballing a competitor's intranet when you've
happened upon a password.
Stanford did get one thing right: He pointed out that WestJet is "squeezed"
on both sides as Air Canada regroups and new regional airlines copy its
Southwest-inspired methods. For him, the incessant churn of brands in the
aviation business is a morality play depicting the myopic cruelties of
capitalism. Perhaps, but even if WestJet folded up tomorrow, the changes it has
brought to Canadian travel would remain intact among the new minnow airlines.
The middle-class traveller can only, I think, be grateful. (October 4,
- 1:38 pm, October 4 (link)
| Here's the subscriber
link to today's National Post column (see below
for details). Last week's column previewed and handicapped the imminent Alberta
election; if you read it in the paper, you can skip to the update at the end.
EDMONTON - The provincial enumerators have just been by my
hovel this week, and I must say it was pleasant to have two young women
inquiring into my continued existence, if only for 40 seconds. The visit
signifies, if one needed another sign, that an Alberta election is coming this
icy fall. Last week Premier Ralph Klein narrowed the dates down to two
late-November Mondays. The vote won't be close -- this is Alberta, after all --
but there are always sources of interest, for the experienced punter, aside from
the overall outcome.
Edmonton, marooned in a sea of conservatism, always makes an unpredictable
spectacle at ballot time. Like all cities, it contains an army of beneficiaries
of the state -- health care workers, teachers, welfare recipients -- but when
you throw in a corps of provincial bureaucrats, the balance between taxpayers
and rent-seekers is decisively tipped. Edmonton is also much more blue-collar
than white, and labour union loyalties count. In the rest of Alberta, you get
Conservative blowouts, with the Liberals and NDP battling for silver against the
Heavily Armed Anarchists for Jesus. In Edmonton, almost every constituency
features a three-sided brawl.
Right now, there are eight non-Tory members of the legislature, and all are
Edmontonians. (Lethbridge's soft-spoken Liberal MLA, Ken Nicol, injudiciously
defected to Team Martin in January to seek a federal seat.) If there is any
Opposition left in Alberta after the upcoming vote, or even if it grows, it is
likely to retain its all-Edmonton character. But no one can foretell its makeup.
Strong NDP candidates -- there is at least one, in the person of former Alberta
Teachers' Association president Larry Booi -- often merely split the vote for
Conservative functionaries. The Liberals, for their part, are a glum and
undifferentiated lot struggling with $900,000 in debt.
Their new leader, Kevin Taft, is a bristling, hard-left, detail-oriented
former civil servant who advances a view of Alberta as a wasteland of robber
barons, crumbling hospitals and environmental toxins. In fairness to Mr. Taft,
the newspapers -- by quoting him a sentence at a time -- encourage the view that
he is only in politics to oppose, automaton-fashion, every single policy of the
Conservatives. Then again, I cannot name one Conservative policy that Mr. Taft
does endorse. If Mr. Klein announced publicly that "ice cream is yummy," Mr.
Taft would denounce both Ben and Jerry with his next breath. He is everything
you want in an Opposition legislator, and nothing you want in a premier.
Which is not to say there is much love left for Ralph Klein. Anger persists
over auto insurance, energy deregulation, cigarette taxes and rising health
premiums. In general, one can feel sand in the gears. Mr. Klein privatized
provincial registry offices early in his administration, and soon you could
replace a drivers' licence, miraculously, in about 20 minutes. This year, the
system was made more "secure" and fortunes were wasted advertising the changes
to a captive market. After the "Hooray for Big Brother" billboards came and
went, the credentials required to obtain a licence were much as before, but now
one's data must be sent to Ottawa for laser engraving. It takes two weeks.
Unfortunately for the disgruntled, Premier Klein stands all but unopposed.
The right-wing protest parties remain disorganized, underfunded and uninspiring.
Anti-Confederation sentiment is near an all-time high, and people remain irate
with the Premier for dropping a Canada Health Act stink bomb at Stephen Harper's
feet during the federal election. But there is no respectable, unified outlet
for protest. Unless -- and this is the really intriguing subplot -- one appears
in the Senate election being held concurrently with the legislature balloting.
There are three Alberta Senate seats open, and turnout should be low. 130,000
or so votes ought to win the trick. The odds are against Paul Martin accepting
any of the Senate-election winners, but attention should be paid to the
candidates as they declare. If prestigious Conservatives jump on to the ballot
with the implied permission of the party, it may suggest that Mr. Klein has made
a deal with Mr. Martin to have the "elected Senators" appointed if they're the
right people, or that he thinks he can make such a deal. Mr. Klein insists that
Mr. Martin has left the possibility open in private discussions. If partisan
Conservatives stay out, as they did in both previous Senate elections, and they
leave the field to the cranky independents, so much the more exciting. What will
Canada say if Alberta chooses to elect a separatist Senator-in-Waiting?
(September 13, 2004)
What have we learned since last Monday? PC MLA Ian McClelland, who authored
the tepid summer "firewall report" but cares a great deal about the credibility
of the senatorial elections, has talked about leaving his Legislative Assembly
seat and running. He hasn't yet closed the door, but it is getting awfully close
to November and Edmonton-Rutherford's constituency board would have to find
another candidate. However, one must remember that the Senator-in-Waiting prize
may never be as tempting as it is now, with a Stephen Harper-led federal
Conservative party hovering within striking distance of the prime ministership
(and the Liberals needing every populist weapon they can find). I still see a
possibility of quasi-establishment candidates emerging at the behest of Reform
elements in the provincial Conservative party. On the right flank, the Alberta
Alliance party became, on the day this column was published, the first
registered Alberta party ever to declare the intention of choosing
a formal slate for the Senate race. The Alberta Liberals, being Alberta
Liberals, are likely to overlook their one reasonable chance to get some
encouraging news out of this election and sneak someone into the top three. Ken
Nicol could probably turn the trick if he's not too shell-shocked.
Incidentally, I've met with widespread confusion amongst Albertans who don't
quite understand why this vote is happening now. I didn't give it much thought
until I sniffed around either. Most of us were not aware that the
Senators-in-Waiting were elected to fixed,
six-year terms which have been extended slightly to make balloting coincide
comfortably with the general election. Under the Senatorial Selection
Act, current S.I.W. Ted Morton is forbidden--as a candidate in the general
election--from putting his name on the ballot again. The other incumbent S.I.W.,
Bert Brown, is stepping aside.
- 6:06 am, September 20 (link)
(AFP) -- General Motors Corp.'s uber-sport utility, the Hummer, has been the
biggest and baddest passenger truck on the US market to date, but it may soon be
getting some outsized competition in the form of the CXT.
Pardon me, you sad little micropenis, but I believe that
would depend on just which dirt pile you brought your truck to. Here in Alberta we prefer our toys a little larger.
Actually, the way things are going in the automotive arms race, I fully expect
to see family of four tooling around Edmonton in a Cat 797 anytime now. They'll
treat apartment blocks as speed bumps. How long before there's a passenger
version with captain's chairs and DVD for the tots in the crew cab?
The brainchild of International Truck and Engine Corp., a manufacturer of
commercial trucks and mid-range diesel engines, the CXT has been conceived of as
a industry-worthy truck with some of the consumer comforts of passenger
pick-ups. The CXT combines towing, dumping and tilt bed capability with 220 hp
and 540 lb.-ft. of torque. At six tons, its hauling capability is three times
the payload of consumer pick-up trucks.
The company plans to build between 600 and 1,000 units next year at its plant
in Garland, Texas and it's hoping that the vehicle will find customers among
tradesmen like landscapers, carpenters, and brick or stone contractors, and home
builders. "The International CXT is a truck for businesses that want to promote
themselves as much as perform," said Rob Swim, a spokesman for International
Truck and Engine Corporation. "If you brought this truck to the playground,
you'd be king of the dirt pile." (þ: NullDev)
- 3:23 pm, September 17 (link)
Absolutely all I'll have to say about the outcome of the first ministers'
meeting this week: nobody should be surprised that the Prime
Minister yielded so precipitously to the premiers' demands for money. The
key to this meeting, which was clear enough before it started, was not the
personalities involved or the particular state of the federation. It was that it
is Martin's first such conference. The premiers, in essence, always have
a gun to a new prime minister's head. Any failure to get what they want from
Ottawa only accrues to their political benefit. (Barely showing up at all, as
Ralph Klein did, will be perceived by Albertans as the coolest stunt he's pulled
in years, pace Adam
Radwanski.) The incentives at such a conference all point in the same
direction--towards abject surrender for the central government. It was thus with
Mulroney, who ladled out so much no-strings cash at his first summit that even
Rene Levesque came out of it singing his praises, and it was thus with Chretien,
who shook hands, gave the premiers enough simoleons to pave the land surface of
the entire country, and declared quick victory. It's imperative for a prime
minister to emerge from that first meeting able to claim a triumph credibly--the
more so because his relations with the premiers are only going to get worse as
things go along.
Former internet journalist Andrew Coyne blasted the new health accord in a
column this morning (subscriber-only),
denouncing it as an absurdity--and the numbers involved are unquestionably
At one go, the Prime Minister has surrendered control over much of
the federal budget, vitiated any pretense of national standards in health care,
and tilted the federation still further toward special status for Quebec. That
he has also, by bailing out the provinces, removed any incentive for substantive
reform of the health care system -- for a generation? -- is almost an
And in return, the provinces agree to continue contenting
themselves with an ad hoc system of financing the federation cobbled
together to meet an emergency, viz., the Second World War. Within living
memory, Ottawa was able to meet almost all its own fiscal needs with excise
taxes alone. But Andrew Coyne is a 1970 conservative, not, say, a 1938
conservative. He finds it perfectly reasonable that the federal government
should spend three times as much as it transfers to the provinces, even though
it's the latter who have to budget for health, education, infrastructure,
municipalities, and social services--nearly everything that government does for
you, instead of merely to you. The absurdity he perceives embedded in our system
of government is real, and tends to aggrandize the overall mechanism of the
state. Where he's wrong is in suggesting that the absurdity only began
yesterday, or even that it got significantly worse.
- 7:16 am, September 17 (link)
...When the premiers say "give and take," they mean the federal government
gives and they take. And so it has. Under the agreement the first ministers have
just signed, Ottawa will give the provinces another $41-billion over 10 years:
$18-billion over six, plus a 6% annual cost escalator, on top of the massive
increases already in the pipeline. As it is, the federal government transfers
one dollar to the provinces for every three it spends itself. Twenty years ago,
the ratio was one to four. At this rate, before long it will be one to two. And
|Dumb luck theory, revisited, again, some more
You can tell there's
an election coming up in Alberta: the provincial Tories are playing hardball
with Ottawa. First Ralph Klein
cocks an asteroid-sized snook at Paul Martin's Healthcare Summit and
Travelling Medicare Show, saying he'd rather be in Lloydminster than attend.
This has generally caused the federal ministry to start kowtowing like mad, and,
speaking as someone who's spent time in Lloyd, it's no wonder: the shock must
have been grievous. Then, yesterday, outgoing Treasurer Pat Nelson played
Alberta's best-loved national hymn of rage:
Alberta's finance minister warned Ottawa to keep its fingers out of
the province's resource revenue pie Tuesday as she forecast a budget surplus of
nearly $3 billion.
And for those who don't have personal memories, there is the
urgent, murmured intergenerational instruction of the sort that must have
preceded the Night of the Sicilian Vespers. (I know one distinguished gentleman
who taught his children to chant "The oil belongs to the people of Alberta"
whenever they drove past an oil donkey.) Nelson's evocation of the NEP provided
a natural opportunity for the opposition leaders to demonstrate why they will
never come within a parsec of becoming premiers of Alberta.
Pat Nelson said the Tories will be watching for any attempt by the federal
government to introduce measures such as the national energy program, which led
to a massive shutdown in Alberta's oilpatch in the 1980s. "If they come after us
like they did in the early '80s... that hurts the whole country," said Nelson as
she released the government's first-quarter fiscal update.
..."Are we cautious? You bet. Because some of us have memories and we haven't
forgotten what they did to us."
Nelson said eliminating the debt will provide a lasting benefit to
Albertans and all Canadians, who share in Alberta wealth through a national
Pannu's statement is simply idiotic: if he cannot be called
upon to reconcile his statement with the, you know, envy openly expressed
on all sides for Alberta, then at least he could explain why Canadians are stumbling
over themselves to migrate to the land of long waiting lists and jumbo
classes. (And where, one wonders, does Raj Against the Machine get his
waiting-list data?... surely not from the corporate
whores at the Fraser Institute?)
Liberal Opposition Leader Kevin Taft, however, said the Tories should stop
patting themselves on the back for paying off the debt. "The Tories didn't put
the oil in the ground. None of us put the oil in the ground. It's a gift."
Alberta's NDP said that even though the government is rolling in money, the
plight of average Albertans has not improved greatly. "With oil and gas wealth
we should be the envy of the country and we're not," said the NDP's Raj Pannu.
"Alberta has amongst the longest health-care waiting lists and among the largest
class sizes in the country."
It's Taft's statement that is more interesting from the standpoint of this
website's perennial obsession with the Dumb
Luck Hypothesis. Though, in actuality, it's not very interesting at all: Taft utters this exact line just as often
as the Klein government sends some minister into a scrum to repeat a fiscal
announcement already made eleven separate times. Which is about once a week
Do you suppose Taft ever wonders why the Conservatives feel obliged to engage
him in this dreary, unending minuet? Could it be that... they somehow consider
it politically advantageous when Taft squares himself up to the cameras
and tells Albertans that nobody here deserves any credit for our relative
prosperity? Doesn't this remind you of when you were a kid and your older
brother, or a larger neighbour boy, would hold you down and grab your wrists and
steer your hands into your face over and over again while saying Stop hitting
yourself! Why are you hitting yourself? Stop hitting yourself, stupid! Stop
Usually, the Dumb Luck Hypothesis is inflicted on Albertans by people from
outside Alberta. Perhaps Taft is satisfied that his ordained role in
political life is to aggressively represent the fundamental attitudes of
non-Albertans to Albertans. If he ever wants to actually win, he will have to
work out which end of that shotgun is supposed to point at the enemy. But I
digress. Before I read Nelson's war cry I had already been reminded, this week,
of the DLH. It happened when I called my mother on her birthday a few days ago
and she mentioned something about Saskatchewan diamonds.
Saskatchewan diamonds? Did I hear that right?
diamonds. It so happens that the Fort à la Corne area, east of Prince
Albert--which has an intriguing history
already--contains what is thought to be the world's largest accretion of kimberlite, the
characteristic geological marker for the presence of diamonds. This seems to
have been known since the 1960s--magnetic surveys of the province conducted from
the air make it blindingly obvious--and now de Beers is working with Canadian
mining companies to begin preliminary exploration in the area.
FALC's productive capacity is suspected, or hoped, to ultimately be much
larger than that of the mines in the Northwest Territories which are already
flooding premium-priced Canadian diamonds onto world markets. By "much larger",
I mean "an order of magnitude larger". But any profitable extraction of the
glittery stuff is still years away--five to eight, at least. Why did it take so
long for serious exploration to get underway, when the financing for it has only
been a matter of a few million dollars? One could propose many reasons (an
obvious one being that de Beers only recently has lost its monopoly on the
diamond trade), but it has been pointed out that Saskatchewan layers a
delightful and unique resource
surcharge on top of its corporate tax. The surcharge is levied on resource
producers' gross annual sales, irrespective of profits; from what I can decipher
from the news clippings, the phrase "they get you coming and going" would seem
to apply here, as would certain terms of art from the pornography business.
Relief arrived only in 2001, in the form of a Mineral Exploration Tax
Credit. And suddenly the cry went up: Saskatchewan gots diamonds!
The Dumb Luck Hypothesis, as it applies to Alberta, is terribly
popular with people in Saskatchewan. They love to tell me, personally, how lucky
Alberta has been to find itself sitting on top of all that oil. (They are
generally unfazed when I explain that my parents and an army of kinfolk took the
trouble to move here from Saskatchewan, many years ago, precisely because
hardworking people were needed to help locate and extract all that oil.) Now I
can simply point out that those who stayed behind have suddenly been revealed to
be, almost literally, sitting on an assload of gems that has been left
unprobed for decades. Luck ain't something you get: it's something you make.
- 4:41 am, September 1 (link)
| Today's Post column
about the 9/11 Commission report is accessible
online only to subscribers: the streak continues. Here is last Tuesday's
column, which covered a theme very familiar to readers of this page but which I
had never quite grappled with in print before.
EDMONTON - I've been following, with keen interest, the
provincial and national reactions to Ralph Klein's announcement last week that
Alberta will shortly become "debt-free." They have ranged from the incisive to
Most welcome were the many forensic dissections of Ralph's opportunistic
proclamation. They added a welcome note of skepticism to an act that, over the
years, Premier Klein has milked for more than it's worth. When the net debt was
polished off in 1997, and provincial assets became larger than liabilities,
there was a similar outpouring of joy about our "freedom from debt." Yet even
now, the last of the debt hasn't been totally licked: There will be paper coming
due for years to come. All the latest announcement means is that enough cash has
been put away to meet future repayments.
Inside Alberta, everyone is lining up for his share of the newly unencumbered
provincial surplus. Seniors are shrieking, public-sector workers are pleading,
and, miraculously, even a few voices in favour of the taxpayer are heard. Some
of these cries have verged on the delusional: While Klein was basking in glory
at the Calgary Stampede, a self-described "person living in poverty" accused him
of shucking Alberta's debt at the expense of the poor. "How many people have
been killed? How many people have been mutilated?" she bellowed.
Mutilated? Holy frijoles! After all these years, somebody finally found a
completely new accusation to throw at the Tories.
Outside Alberta, there was some restrained praise, and a certain amount of
self-questioning in provinces that have tamed debt less well. But mostly what
you heard was the old tune: It's all because Alberta is so lucky, so very lucky.
It's our oil, you see, that guarantees us wealth and government surpluses. All
we need do is turn on the big faucet.
Murray Mandryk of the Regina Leader-Post, who snarked that "evidently,
oil wealth is [Albertans'] birthright," raised hackles here by joking: "It's
enough to cause you [to] clamour for the good ol' days of Pierre Trudeau's
National Energy Policy." But one must admit that the dismissive tone is struck
as often within Alberta as it is elsewhere. Paul Haavardsrud lectured us in the
Calgary Herald about the fate of Houston, which congratulated itself
often on its free-enterprise rectitude only to suffer bad karma when Texan oil
production passed its peak in the 1970s. And New Democrat MLA Brian Mason
reacted crankily to Klein's pre-emptive mortgage-burning, insisting that "oil
and gas price increases guaranteed ... surpluses regardless of how the Tories
steered the economy."
As it happens, there's something of a lab experiment available to teach us
the relative importance of resources and sound policymaking to an economy.
Venezuela has an oil industry, and tar-sands deposits, roughly equal in extent
to Alberta's. That country is run much as Brian Mason's party would like Alberta
to be -- but the socialized Venezuelan oil industry has failed to deliver
automatic prosperity. Its strike-ridden economy shrank a horrific 9% in 2002 and
another 9% in 2003, just as petroleum prices peaked. Unemployment is in the high
teens and the government is incurring heavy deficits. If oil were such an
unfailing divine gift, this state of affairs would be impossible.
Without doubt, Alberta has benefitted from the war premium on oil and gas
prices. But the sheer shortsightedness of the chatterboxes' "dumb luck" view
boggles the mind. Thousands went broke in the Alberta oilpatch over 30 years or
more before Leduc No. 1 hit it big in 1947. For the next 20 years, E.C.
Manning's Socred government built a trusted, universally imitated royalty regime
that walked the line between bending over for U.S. capital and driving it out
(as other provinces chose to). And in the '70s, the Lougheed government invested
heavily in tar-sands exploration and research, which has now given Alberta
technically realizable oil reserves greater than Saudi Arabia's. Forget Houston:
Our oil production may not pass its peak in my lifetime.
If Alberta has been lucky, it has not been in possessing resources, but in
having sensible leaders and a curiously stiffnecked public that voted for them.
Premier Klein may have succumbed to the temptations of runaway public spending,
but he has never wavered from the swift pace of debt repayment Albertans
demanded. Our reduced debt-servicing costs have been a big part of the
"windfall" of late, too. Still, I wouldn't object so much to the taunts of "dumb
luck" -- if I didn't suspect that they made certain dumb clucks awfully eager to
cook Canada's golden goose. (July 26, 2004)
- 6:45 pm, July 26 (link)
| Today's National
Post column about the CRTC is available
on the Web to subscribers only. It's on page A1 of the print edition, which
I mention only because I had to tear down and rebuild the whole thing in
response to this
front-page news. Here's an unedited version of last week's column about the
future of the federal Conservative party.
Stephen Harper, it now appears, is going to hang in as
leader of the federal Conservatives. And it appears, too, that he is going to
take the advice he has received from all quarters, and particularly from
Ontarians hoping to be saved from eternal Liberal government: make the party
"centrist" and bring some diehard Progressive Conservatives into the circle of
power. All he has to do is centre-ize the party without destroying it, and
actually locate PCs willing to enter the sanctum.
What I've heard since the election is a disguised universal clamour from
Eastern Canadian Conservatives for another Brian Mulroney--someone who can build
a coalition including the West while keeping the West in its place. You should
notice that this tacit longing is being expressed mostly by advocates of the
PC-Alliance merger, which lost a net 45% of the Ontario PC vote from 2000 and
was hence a near-total failure. But advocates of the New Mulroney strategy will
not apologize: the merger is merely a foundation for the future, they'll say.
The strategy seems to be predicated on the idea--I am dignifying a
psychological defence mechanism here with the term "idea"--that Harper's Alberta
origins (as a politician) had nothing to do with his failure to fulfill the
promise of his campaign's first days. It also tacitly proposes that a Calgarian
will serve just as well to reconstruct the Conservative Party in Quebec (and
Ontario) as a boy from Baie Comeau. Shucks, who'd ever think otherwise?
It's charming, really, to witness how far central Canadians--and brilliant
ones at that--will press these points. Andrew Coyne insists that the cultural
separation between Ontario and Alberta is a "myth" even as his compatriots
(comprovinciots?) chastise us on our redneck rage and make envenomed jokes about
cowboys. Diane Francis attempts a judo throw, arguing that it was Albertans--I
damn near shot half a Coke out my nose reading this--who really failed to
"deliver the goods" electorally, having given just 26 of 28 seats to the
Well, surely we can agree that there is some non-zero number of Ontario and
Quebec voters who will find it difficult to contemplate any Prime Minister of
Canada from Calgary. This means that to credibly drop his "regional baggage",
so-called, Harper will have to be more ruthless about suppressing socially
conservative dissent and blurtcrimes than a leader from outside Alberta would.
I don't know exactly what people want when they demand, like Ms. Francis,
that Harper "boot out" certain people from the party. But I know imposing order
on these elements will be harder for Harper than it would be for, say, Peter
MacKay. Mulroney never had to strait-jacket his caucus's "social conservative"
elements; when Westerners blew up his party, it was asymmetric federalism, not
gay marriage or abortion, that lit the fuse. MacKay himself escaped criticism
for being joined at the hip to queerbashing granny Elsie Wayne throughout the
Conservative leadership race.
Only a fool (or a Liberal) could really want Harper to tear up the membership
cards of popular so-con MPs--but he may have to go that far. In the Conservative
party, candidates are chosen by the members in each riding: to give Harper the
necessary control, the party may need to adopt the autocratic Liberal style of
candidate selection. This "booting" business, examined closely, begins to look
like a secret plan for reviving the Reform Party.
Albertans and other Westerners are not, contrary to popular belief,
especially "conservative" on social issues: Alberta's level of church
attendance, to choose one obvious indicator, is lower than Ontario's. There are
an awful lot of us pro-weed, pro-sodomy, pro-abortion unbelievers out here (and
we have our share--yes!--of abortion clinics, gay hangouts, and feminist
bookstores). But many of us acquiesce in being represented politically by
religious politicians, who are more likely to develop an altruistic interest in
public service and who possess ready-made social networks upon which to base a
candidacy. We share the Christian's devotion to Western civilization and
Anglo-Canadian traditions. We may even sense that our Christian fellow-citizens
are increasingly beleaguered by an elite for whom perpetual revolution
constitutes its own unpalatable religion.
And, yeah, we dislike the Supreme Court's habit of reading the Charter to us
like the Riot Act, only backwards and upside-down. If you were to toss out
everybody in the present Conservative caucus who agrees with Randy White about
our courts, the remainder would easily be outnumbered by the exiles. If Harper
weren't engaged in a ploy for the prime ministership, he'd probably be one of
As it is, he will have to behave cruelly to impose his vision of a "moderate"
Tory party on a caucus that is, a priori, immoderate. However well he succeeds
in this Stalinist task, the exercise will still be insincere. Ontarians are
smarter than Ontario Conservatives think: they won't forget Harper's political
history (or his home address) overnight. He has already tried, doing minimum
violence to his own principles, to steer close to the Liberals on abortion, gay
marriage, bilingualism, the "notwithstanding" clause, and other matters. He
tried to play the moderate, and was vilified as a radical.
If he tries harder, will he win people over, or just encourage the belief
that he's a bullshooter with a "secret agenda"? As an Albertan who supports the
Conservatives, I fear that it's the latter, and that Harper's decision to cling
to the leadership may hurt both province and party. (July 9, 2004)
- 4:34 am, July 16 (link)
| Monday's National
Post column (subscriber-only) is about the
future of the firewall movement within the Klein government. It's mostly
reporting on some stirrings and developments inside the province, and not in the
nature of a polemic. Norman Spector
Colby Cosh should read
Chantal Hébert: who cares whether the momentum in Alberta is behind the
firewall? After all, equalization is and would remain a federal
Which is, of course, true, but equalization is hardly graven in granite, as
Spector well knows; it is tweaked nearly every year on the basis of
"consultations" with the provinces--or with the "have-not" provinces, anyway.
It's all the more reason to lay the necessary foundations for a strengthening of
Alberta's bargaining position within Confederation. The issue is whether it
accomplishes that, and not just what it creates or accomplishes in
Though that, too, is worth considering. Hébert makes a couple of points about
the cost Quebec pays for having its bags forever packed to flee Confederation,
and while she is one of my three or four favourite columnists, bringing health
care into a discussion of firewalls seems like deliberately confusing the issue.
The main relevant things she wishes to call to the attention of Western
intellectuals are twofold: (a) Quebec's dual tax collection makes life harder
for Quebec taxpayers by making them fill out two forms and creating two
compliance structures; (b) Quebeckers don't gain anything financially from
having their own pension system, the main difference being that QPP
contributions are invested within Quebec.
(A) is an important point, and dual taxation must qualify as a real cost,
though in the long run who the hell knows if (newly debt-free)
Alberta will even bother with personal income tax. There has already been
semi-serious talk of scrapping it down the road (but there is a cultural
prejudice here--probably an irrational one, if the economists can be
believed--against the consumption taxes that would have to replace it in the
short term). (B), however, has exactly the wrong end of the stick. Because
Alberta's labour force is so young, the CPP is (like most other federal social
programs) a giant monetary black hole for this province; leaving
the CPP would immediately force contribution rates up in the rest of Canada
(except Quebec), and would allow the Alberta government to either drop the rates
noticeably for Albertans or increase the payout down the road.
National Post column is available to subscribers only, but it's
something of a follow-up to last Saturday's anyway, and that is just now hitting
the Web for the first time. Just in time, actually, for the "Harper come home"
idea to be rejected. It remains to be seen how well the "Klein go away" part
It has been most instructive this week to see central
Canadians trying to explain away Stephen Harper's electoral failure in Ontario
by means of anything -- anything at all -- but the anti-Alberta prejudice Paul
Martin used openly to rally swing voters toward the end of the campaign. "Ignore
what you saw," seems to be the message from Ontario.
We have heard it said that Harper's "radical" conservative ideas, and not his
person, were rejected by voters. But normally Harper's "regional baggage" is
mentioned in practically the same breath, and how he might dispose of it is
never made clear. As to the ideas, Ontario gave 45% of its vote to Mike Harris
twice; Harper got just 31% of the province's federal vote. The difference might
be attributable to the troubled Harris "legacy," but until the election's eve,
Ontarians seemed a good deal more angry at their current Liberal government.
We have heard it said that Harper failed to stomp on the nefarious "social
conservatives" in his party hard enough. But he stomped harder and was vastly
more credible on the subject than the young-Earth creationist Stockwell Day, yet
the negligible gains suggest that the men have been dismissed as
indistinguishable cowboys. We have heard it said that Harper was unreliable on
the Charter of Rights, having been willing to exercise the "notwithstanding
clause" which is, under this view, a less sacred part of the document. But
nothing is ever mentioned about Liberal-appointed judges who invent exceptions
to the Charter wide enough to drive a bus through.
One could go on, but this is old news. Scott Brison denounced the
Conservative party as a gang of "rednecks" before a national television audience
in his victory speech. One doesn't suppose it will keep him out of Paul Martin's
Cabinet; it didn't even make the newspapers. But he'd have been pre-emptively
expelled from the new Liberal caucus if he'd used a word like "frogs." Albertans
-- particularly Albertans living in Ontario -- know that one, and only one,
acceptable regional prejudice exists in this country.
The issue for Harper is what to do about it. Some have suggested that his
post-election talk about reconsidering his future is mere posturing. He ran the
best campaign he could, and his right to lead the Conservatives into another
election is conceded on all sides. But he must ask himself whether having an
Alberta leader is too much for the federal Conservatives to overcome,
considering the other structural factors the party always faces, such as the
unguarded self-interest of Canada's welfare sinks and the Liberals'
near-monopoly on the votes of new citizens.
Already there are emerging signs of a "Stephen Come Home" movement. If having
an Alberta leader is hard for the federal Conservatives, having an Alberta
premier shooting them in the back during elections is doubly tough. Ralph
Klein's fatal intervention in the campaign has Conservative Albertans -- which
is loosely to say "Albertans," period -- eyeing their dubious generalissimo. One
MLA has already walked out of Klein's caucus in a huff.
It hasn't registered much on the national scene, but the Premier's approval
ratings stand at all-time lows here. Klein eagerly set the pace for a nationwide
cigarette-tax increase -- a nanny-state move that has exhausted the budgets of
the poor and depressed -- and has waddled slowly along with a "health care
reform" that amounts to nothing but increased spending and premiums. His scary
"defiance" of the Canada Health Act turned out to be more of the same when it
was announced on Thursday, and the federal Liberals promptly expressed complete
satisfaction with the plan. There was no "Harper-Klein" deal on health care; it
looks rather like there was some sort of Pettigrew-Klein deal.
Klein has backed down from every major fight with the federal Liberals, is
visibly impatient with the "firewall" strategies once espoused by Harper, and
has bullied the (very large, if timid) quasi-separatist element in his own
party. He is known to be a former Trudeau Liberal, and in practice he has
continued to be the Liberals' best friend here. It is for Klein's MLAs to decide
whether they can judge and execute the Premier, Paul Martin-style, before a
credible alternative party appears and wipes them all out. It is not impossible
that the Alberta premiership could end up in Stephen Harper's hands within the
It's not the most likely outcome, either. Klein would fight like a wolverine
to remain in office through the provincial centennial in September, 2005. But if
it happened, it would solve two problems at once. It would allow the federal
Conservatives to locate some "trustworthy" leader with no "regional baggage" --
fortunately, no one but us Albertans seems to possess any such baggage -- and it
would allow Albertans to concentrate on bargaining with Confederation in the
dispassionate, unrelenting way Quebec does. Albertans love Canada, but after a
while even the sturdiest unrequited love starts to turn bitter. (July 3,
- 3:59 pm, July 10 (link)
|The forward backward province
While casting about for a suitable subject for Friday's Post column, I
ran across a strange Canada Day piece in the Edmonton Journal's business
section by Gary Lamphier. It's about how Alberta needs to revisit those ruined
'80s dreams of heavy public spending on "economic diversification".
I'm a business writer, not a politico. But for all its economic
success--and it is undeniable, thanks to high commodity prices and a dynamic oil
and gas sector--Alberta can be a curiously unsophisticated place
Lamphier's rhetoric echoes the "lucky Alberta" messages that
my inbox is constantly being bombarded with--every one a variant on "If it
weren't for oil and gas, Alberta would be the Sudan with better skiing". It also
echoes fearmongering from
moderate greens--and from those who long for the era of Lougheed-Getty state
capitalism--about Alberta's dependence on dwindling nonrenewable resources. But
maybe someone should look at the actual data on the share of Alberta's economy
given over to energy production?
Other than paying off the debt and supporting current and future
oilsands developments, the Tories have yet to unveil any cohesive economic
development plan for what is still largely a one-industry province. The budget
slashers don't seem to know how to build a diversified economy.
I built this from a
Statistics Canada table. One finds, to one's enormous surprise, that
Alberta's energy dependence peaked precisely at the end of the Getty
administration, during which the Alberta government had invested
billions--was it trillions?--on failed diversification efforts. Since Lamphier's
"budget-cutters" took over in 1993, the trend is unmistakeable... but,
mysteriously, the mathematical sign he assigns to it is the wrong one. Alberta
is rapidly getting less dependent on energy, not more.
In a way Lamphier isn't wrong. Alberta can still be described as
something of a one-industry province, if you are willing to cram oil and gas
and the dozens of spinoff businesses into one Black-Hole-of-Calcutta
category. As long as the rate of return on capital in that one industry remains
high, and the economy isn't trifled with by some future premier's fantasy of a
Great Leap Forward, Alberta is likely to remain a one-industry
province--one which is funding its educational institutions fairly well
(particularly on the research side), attracting the best minds from other parts
of Confederation, creating more homegrown multimillionaires every year, and
building the most aggressive economic counterweight in Canada to that strip
along the St. Lawrence. If this is a lack of "sophistication", then I'd say
sophistication (seemingly a synonym for central economic planning) can go piss
up a rope...
- 5:59 am, July 8 (link)
|Democracy is good, ergo more must be better
Andrew Coyne's column in
Wednesday's Post is an impassioned defence of hybridized proportional
representation against, er, me (among others). You can read my own Post column on the subject and
the weblog entry that provided more
detail. Has Andrew addressed all these concerns with PR? It may be unfair to
cite it, but the comment thread below his column at AndrewCoyne.com would
suggest otherwise. His readers still seem to lean towards my position by about a
two-to-one margin, if I can be permitted a casual estimate. Good objections to
PR are made by "Jerry Aldini", Paul, Dennis, "Jerry" again, and
Then again, you don't have to be especially clever to recognize the weakness
of Andrew's either-or dichotomy between "autocracy" and "democracy".
Incidentally, I'd like to remind people that I'm not opposed to the use
of transferrable ballot within ridings. Such a change would be pushing
the limits of the simplicity that is needed to protect the electoral system's
credibility, which is one of the most important elements of first-past-the-post.
I think it is arguably within those limits, because we have some experience of
multiple rounds of balloting in leadership races (though many moderately
well-informed people don't quite know how that works, either). Unfortunately,
the net effect of the transferrable ballot, on its own, might be to hurt
proportionality. Parties with broad but shallow national appeal, which are the
ones hurt most by first-past-the-post, would have to get 50% of the
transferrable vote somewhere to get a seat, rather than a mere plurality
The various formulae used to implement PR in foreign countries stand at a
whole other level of complexity, well above the ideas behind the transferrable
ballot. It's possible Andrew can deliver a diatribe on the merits and demerits
of the Sainte-Laguë formula, but I wouldn't expect too many of us to be able to
follow it. If we were to introduce a system whereby the way that certain MPs
"won" their seats became incomprehensible to the great mass of voters, you'd
end up destabilizing democracy in the name of purifying it. The system of
"whoever gets the most votes wins" is obviously just from at least one
standpoint. It can be considered an "impure" principle of democratic choice only
if you are especially concerned with a species of proportional "justice" to
parties--which have no constitutional standing at all in our system of
government, and which are generally conceded to have acquired too much
extraconstitutional authority in the actual function of our House of Commons.
There is a sad side note to be made here. There was a paragraph in my June 14
Post column that stressed the importance of MPs being subject to local
Canadians know that the personal rebuke of a political leader by
home voters can serve as a useful signal. In Alberta, we remember the 1989
election, in which the Conservatives won but premier Don Getty lost his
Edmonton-Whitemud seat. Albertans weren't ready to support a non-Conservative
government (and still aren't), but they were exasperated by billions of dollars
in losses from bad loan guarantees to businesses, made with the aim of "economic
diversification." What Albertans wanted was a Conservative government based on
actual conservative principles. It came about quickly because the Whitemud
voters were able to wound Mr. Getty and spare his party.
I didn't mention the man who won that riding in 1989. It was
Alberta Liberal and former Edmonton city councillor Percy Wickman, who died last
weekend of complications from the paraplegia he had lived with for forty years.
Wickman's defeat of a sitting premier was in the first paragraph of many of his
obituaries (CP, CBC,
Sen. Nick Taylor talked to the CBC about Wickman's feat:
Wickman, a Liberal MLA and an Edmonton city councillor during his
25-year political career, was best known for using a toy chicken to defeat
then-premier Don Getty in 1989. Getty, who represented Edmonton Whitemud,
refused to take part in an all-candidates debate, former Liberal leader Nick
Taylor said. "[Wickman] put a rubber chicken in the seat that Getty was to
occupy. That seemed to really catch on with the media, and Getty went down the
drain," Taylor recalled
- 1:28 am, July 8 (link)
Andrew Coyne in the Saturday Post: the cultural divide between the
West and Ontario is "a
myth, a phantasm". (A mirage, a spectre...)
Ian Brown in the Saturday Globe: Dear
"Hothead" "cowboys" out there in "Ranchland"... [etc., etc.] ...so screw you,
Brown's brilliant theory is that Randy White's comments about judge-made law
cost the Conservatives the election. As Paul
Wells--no hothead cowboy--pointed out at the time, the reaction was
illogical and unfounded on its face whether White's comments are regarded as
having been right or wrong. Brown might also have cited Ralph Klein's
"secret health care deal" with Stephen Harper, an invention which has already
been comprehensively falsified and which was arguably only relevant in Alberta
even if true. (Klein never proposed to violate the portability requirement of
the Canada Health Act--which, by the way, Quebec
craps all over routinely, assuming anyone cares.)
The whole point is that is awfully easy for a comment from one
Westerner to cost a national Conservative party an election. The Liberals
somehow find stampeding Ontario swing voters against a particular class of
citizen about as difficult as falling off a log. The tone of Ian Brown's op-ed,
swathed as it is in prejudiced fantasy language about gunslinging rage-aholics,
makes the reason for this clear enough. A national paper, so-called, printed
this stuff. Ian Brown's column very nearly causes Coyne's "mythbusting" more
embarrassment than it does to Brown himself, although that would be difficult.
(Funnily enough, Adam Radwanski is taking a lot more crap from the
West right now, even though his position is more forthright
than Coyne's: he confesses that Ontarian prejudice against Albertans and
Westerners exists, believes it's more or less justified, and courageously
proposes that Albertans should acquiesce in exclusion from the prime
ministership. He is, I'm tempted to say, 100% right about that last point: we need to take back the Alberta premiership from the federal
Liberals first. I'm not the only one who's
- 1:55 am, July 4 (link)
|An explanation in the form of a manifesto, or vice versa
What I wrote Wednesday about the reaction in Alberta to
the election, and what I've just written for tomorrow's Post, amounts to
this: having failed in reaching out, Albertans are now going to look inward. On
Wednesday, Ted Morton was part of the subject matter: now you can read more
or less the same thing from the man himself in the pages of the Globe and
If we cannot achieve more Western influence within Ottawa (the
purpose of Senate reform), let's pursue reasonable policies to reduce Ottawa's
influence in the West: Withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan and create our own
provincial pension plans; collect our own income taxes; cancel our contracts
with the RCMP, and create our own provincial police forces; take control of our
health-delivery systems; and use the notwithstanding clause when nine,
non-elected judges in Ottawa try to impose their notion of good public policy on
our democratically elected governments.
Of course, this is radical insofar as it prepares the
ground for separatism in the far distant future, when Albertans are finally
ready for it. We're not, yet, and we're not close. Having muttered darkly about
"getting the hell out of here" as often as any of my Alberta readers and
friends, I have had to admit that I fail the test for national disloyalty, which
is easy, valid and famous. Norman
Tebbit invented it. The rest of Canada doesn't have to worry about Alberta
going anywhere until Albertans start cheering against Team Canada in
international hockey tournaments.
Media pundits characterize this as the radical firewall agenda. It's anything
but radical. Each of these policies is already in place in either Quebec,
Ontario or both. For many Westerners, it's time to start working on the "or
else." Ironically, the model for Plan B -- and its most likely ally -- is
Quebec. [Emph. mine]
The other test, of course, is whether Albertans are ready to commit violence
on behalf of the free and well-ordered republic they all like to envision; we've
failed that one too, and we fail it so thoroughly that the suggestion will
(mostly) be regarded as slightly revolting by my Alberta readers. But those
readers want--and the great, great majority of native-born Albertans want--the
future option of separatism, and the power of the bargaining position. Whoever
is going to end up running Alberta for the medium-term future--it might well be
Morton--will have to take the first steps, or risk being outflanked electorally
by someone more willing.
The "firewall agenda" is the anteroom through which one must pass to make
credible protests against Confederation. A unilateral declaration of
independence delivered tomorrow morning by a transmogrified Ralph Klein would
fall down, one notices, on some the points the firewall addresses: the unfunded
liabilities of the federal government, federal control of the constitutional and
practical tax power, and the presence of a large federal police force in the
province. Everything else--everything but those coppers, perhaps--is footnotes.
Quebec gets to push Canada around--while facing much less opprobrium than
Alberta--precisely because Quebecois politicians have created the preconditions
for separation in conjunction with the federal government, and must be taken
seriously. With respect to the rest of Canada, the Quebec Liberals are to the
Parti Quebecois as Sinn Fein is to the IRA; they are there to collect at the
table what the bad guys earn with threats. Separatists and mere "soft
nationalists"--and it's certainly remarkable how deftly men like Lucien Bouchard
and Jean Lapierre jump back and forth between the categories--all want, or want
to use, the bargaining power that comes with separatism. They want it
whether they happen to be separatists just at the moment, or not. (Stephen
Harper may even turn out to be our first such jumping-bean politician.)
All Quebeckers--with the exception of those pitiful Anglos whose minds are
still confounded with visions of their overthrown ascendancy--are Quebec
nationalists. Their practical separatism, or lack of it, is a convenience to be
shed or donned with the exigencies of the moment--and which has nothing to do,
actually, with any attachment a Quebecker feels to the emotional construct
called "Canada". Confusion about this basic fact of Canadian life is
surprisingly common amongst newspaper columnists, who insist on a bright,
burning distinction between separatists and soft nationalists. Actual Liberal
politicians understand perfectly well that the distinction is trivial (how many
of you newspaper superpatriots would really be willing to hang the people
you describe as "traitors"?), and conduct themselves accordingly, as Martin did
by inviting Lapierre into the tent. If the maneouvre seems to have failed for
Martin, it's only because the prospects for actual separatism are currently dim,
and it is therefore still time, in Quebec, for rallying round the BQ and keeping
up appearances. I'm not sure how much the Liberal "scandals" have anything to do
with this; and, anyway, Lapierre is merely a vessel--a gravy boat, if you like.
He is there to protect the Liberals against the PQ, not the BQ, by making
sure--as he is well-placed to--that the federal loot doesn't just go to the old
cronies who made out so well under Chretien.
The dual consciousness Quebeckers have lived with since the Conquest has been
germinating slowly in Alberta; it has a long, long way to grow. On the other
hand, we may, as a matter of cultural fact, be more of a "nation" than we
realize even in our sourest moments. (I believe a Trinidadian or a Pakistani
born and raised in Alberta finds out soon enough, if he happens to move to
Ontario, that his neck is still regarded as red on the inside.) Anyway, if
nationhood were the sine qua non of irridentism, there'd be no such thing
as the United States of America.
- 3:56 pm, July 2 (link)
|The view from here
Now why would I need to leave home to report on Canadian
politics when all the fun stuff happens within sight of my front porch? For more
than a decade my federal riding has been the scene of Anne McLellan's
spectacular constituency fights; and now Gary Masyk, assemblyman for this
provincial Edmonton-Norwood riding, has taken centre stage in the post-election
enraged by Premier Ralph Klein's sabotage of the Conservative federal
campaign, quit Ralph Klein's caucus Thursday to sit as a
member for the Alberta Alliance party. There is talk
that more MLAs may follow.
How seriously should Canadians take all this? Masyk's specific
act of defection should not be taken very seriously on its own merits.
First of all, Masyk is an idiot. He is best known for having spoken up early
last year to advocate... er, well, he pretty much came out in favour of the
Gulag. There's really no other way to put it, as Kelly Cryderman duly reported
at the time for the Edmonton Journal.
Repeat offenders who commit serious crimes should be
sent to Russian prisons where hard work and no TV will lead to their
rehabilitation, an Edmonton backbench MLA says.
The scary part was that the
Solicitor-General, Heather Forsyth, was quoted in the same story as saying "I'm
not sure that's the answer." You're not sure?
"When it comes to pedophiles, send them over to Siberia, to
the salt mines," Edmonton-Norwood MLA Gary Masyk said Wednesday. "Over here,
it's human rights this, human rights that. Over here in the so-called civilized
world, you do this heinous crime, the police put up a public warning ... doggone
it, I think something's wrong with this picture."
...Masyk hasn't studied the prison system in contemporary
Russia, but said he bases his proposal in part on stories his paternal
grandmother, from Belarus, told him about the former Soviet days under Josef
One particular story about his uncle, who worked in a mine,
struck him. "They protested working conditions and the long hours and the food,
and so on and so forth. So they come out of the mine shaft, a couple of thousand
people -- they're protesting, they're not going to work anymore. So the
negotiator came up in a six-wheel drive truck with a tarp over the back. "So
they're all shouting about this and shouting about that. So they threw open the
tarps, there's two 50-millimetre cannons (machine-guns) and they just start
shooting them." The protesting workers "ran back into those shafts and all of a
sudden, it was not that bad of conditions."
The next day, presumably by coincidence, the Alberta PCs
accepted a judicial redistricting report that will see Masyk's seat eliminated
in the next provincial election. Since then, Masyk's most notable foray into the
news pages has been a motion he introduced to outlaw self-service gas stations
because they are "unfair" to senior citizens and the disabled.
Masyk's political annihilation is thus inevitable, and will be
lamented by approximately nobody. His lack of a future is why he was free to
express the widely-felt rage over Klein's clumsy, or calculated, intervention in
the federal campaign. Switching to the banner of the Alberta Alliance is just
another sign of his lousy judgment; the AA is the political vehicle of Randy
Thorsteinson, who has been trying for years to create a
right-wing alternative to the Alberta PCs. He took over the moribund Social
Credit brand in 1991, tried to convince people that his radically
small-government platform was somehow consistent with Socredism, and actually
enjoyed marked success, finishing a strong second in several rural ridings in
the 1997 election. To borrow Thorsteinson's words:
By early 1999 polling showed that over 150,000
Albertans supported Social Credit and a breakthrough of seven to eight elected
members was already likely. However, Randy resigned from Social Credit in April
1999 in protest of an internal party proposal to limit the involvement of a
specific religious group within the Party. Randy believes in the equality and
dignity of all people and could not in good conscience be a part of an
organization that would foster intolerance in any form.
Translation: the large numbers of new members started to
complain that Thorsteinson's Mormon clique was stubborn and impenetrable, so
Thorsteinson took his money and went home, dispersing eight years of political
promise and gain to the four winds.
The fact is, hundreds of thousands of Albertans are just
itching, at this hour, to give a beatdown to Ralph Klein. The premier's
popularity was already at an all-time low before he pantsed Stephen Harper. He
has proven spineless in every serious fight against the federal Liberals, he has
allowed provincial-government spending to spin out of control, he raised
cigarette taxes to the highest levels on the continent (a nice little tax hike
for the poor, melancholy, and mad), and he's doubled health-care premiums (an
intensely regressive tax hike for the middle class). Quasi-separatist unrest is
already rampant in the Alberta PC ranks, and Klein has repeatedly used
procedural tricks to stamp out such motions at Conservative policy conventions.
It is often noted that Klein was an open supporter of the
federal Liberals during the Trudeau period. Right now, on the balance of the
evidence, there is a strong presumption afoot that he remains one. In the view
of conservative Albertans, Klein has squandered the right to have his "Canada
Health Act" bungle interpreted as a mistake. The "reforms" he warned us of were
announced today, and they mostly seem
to consist of further increases to premiums; there's also
talk of introducing an income-linked deductible to public healthcare, which
would amount to a user fee that does nothing to discourage the most frequent
users of frontline medical resources.
And--strictly by coincidence--the Liberals are
now suddenly talking about Klein in quite generous terms mere
hours after having demonized him for electoral gain.
Federal Health Minister Pierre Pettigrew says Klein's
promise to work within the health act, at least in the short term, is "good news
for Albertans and it's very good news for Canadians." Speaking in Montreal,
Pettigrew said he hasn't looked at the fine print of Klein's announcement but he
says the Alberta premier is committed to respecting the Canada Health
Masyk's defection should not be taken seriously: the blind
rage it represents should be taken very seriously indeed, if only by Ralph
Klein. The marginalized Masyk couldn't do anything but walk the plank, but
other, smarter MLAs in the PC caucus must at least be contemplating a mutiny
against the dry drunk. (Hopefully they won't make the Martinite tactical error
of letting him hang around for a year stinking the place up.)
There is no obvious successor to Klein, but there are several
credible ones. Former treasurer Jim Dinning, one of the major administrative
engines of the so-called "Klein Revolution", has been cooling his heels in the
private sector, perhaps expecting an open chance at the premiership after the
Alberta centennial in 2005. But Dinning may not want to participate, even
tacitly, in parricide. I can't help wondering whether Ted Morton would have such
scruples. The renowned "Calgary Mafia" member, Charter of Rights critic, and
elected Senator-in-Waiting has been running a quiet campaign for the past year
to prepare the ground for an entry into electoral politics. The most
under-reported important story of the past month in Canada was Prof. Morton's
successful June 19 capture of the Alberta PC nomination for Foothills-Rocky
View; only the Calgary Herald mentioned it, and their piece didn't even
get around to saying what riding he was in. (Huge hat tip here to Ric Dolphin's
Provincial and Territorial
There is a third possibility for restless MLAs, aside from
Dinning and Morton. I didn't really want to reveal my cards here before I had a
chance to spin my nascent theory in the Post, but ask yourself this
question: are we entirely sure that Stephen
Harper's talk of stepping down from the federal Conservative leadership was an idle gesture? Or is there a chance he wants to wait and see
whether some other job comes open in the next six to 12 months?
- 10:54 pm, June 30 (link)
I must extend regrets to those of you who were expecting to
hear me on CBC Radio 1 this morning (though some of you did just hear me work
the supper-hour politics show with Rob Breakenridge at Calgary's CHQR). We got
the Commentary piece recorded, edited, and sent to the various CBC affiliates,
but the text was predicated on the Liberals and the NDP having won enough seats
to pass legislation between them without help. (When I went into the booth, the
total was still 157.) As I understand the sequence of events, the late-night
desk at an East Coast local station noticed at around 5 a.m. Atlantic time that
the combined NDP-Liberal total had dropped to 154. If the Speaker is elected
from the Conservative Party or the Bloc (or is Chuck Cadman), that will be
enough for a 154-153 Red-Orange margin. The "problem" was nonetheless reported
to network headquarters, which made the unusual decision not to supply local
stations with a Tuesday morning Commentary. (I probably would have supported
that decision if I'd been asked; I didn't realize the implications of the odd
number of seats in the new House until today, myself.)
With the presumptive forbearance of our state broadcaster (which apparently
intends to pay me for what follows), I'll present the text of the piece you
didn't get to hear.
Many of you will be delighted to hear that watching the election
results last night was a banquet of suffering for this cranky Western
conservative. I had grown used to enjoying elections--in 1988, when free trade
won the day; in 1992, when the Charlottetown Accord was resoundingly rejected;
and in three federal elections since, when the performance of Reform and the
Canadian Alliance surprised everyone.
I must admit, the vague sense
of menace in this last sentence is really pretty empty and reflexive. Yes, the
country will become more divided and hostile. Will that change anything,
practically? I doubt it. As the week goes along, I'll explain why.
- 8:27 pm, June 29 (link)
Last night, the joke was on me. Having joined the professional media, and
having predicted big gains in Ontario for the Conservative Party, I've become
one of those miserable suckers I used to laugh at. But I have plenty of company.
I know of no one in media circles, or amongst professional pollsters, who
predicted that the Liberals and the New Democrats would win enough seats between
them to form a working majority in the House of Commons. As I record these
words, it appears they have done just that.
And so, perhaps, the joke is on us all. Just 15% of us voted for the New
Democrats last night, but Paul Martin's rhetoric in the campaign's last days
leaves small doubt that we will now have a Liberal government run on NDP
principles. One recalls the sequence of train wrecks that these principles have
strewn across Canada: transforming British Columbia from a "have" province into
a "have-not"; depopulating Saskatchewan with the efficiency of a Sudanese
warlord; creating a home-grown recession in Bob Rae's Ontario. The joint
NDP-Liberal government of the '70s gave us skyrocketing public debt, loopy
economic policies, and a separatist heyday in Quebec. Left-leaning Canadians
typically consider all this to have been merely a damnable run of bad luck. We
are about to put that theory to the test, with our jobs and quality of life as
As leader of the Canadian Alliance, the much-derided Stockwell Day got 26% of
the national vote in 2000. Last night Stephen Harper, who went on a tireless
crusade for moderation and peace on social issues, could only increase that to
30%. Why didn't Harper do better? Gosh, for some reason, Easterners just
couldn't trust him. I've already heard many people say that another leader--say,
Peter Mackay or even Belinda Stronach--would have done much better running on
the exact same platform. Victorious Liberal candidate Scott Brison openly joked
about "rednecks" in his victory speech on national television.
Alberta gets the message: only its chequebook is wanted in Confederation, not
its voice. And meanwhile, the Bloc Quebecois, by happenstance, may have been
excluded from the pivotal role in power which had been forecast for it. If you
thought the country was divided before this election, this redneck wants you to
know you ain't seen nothin' yet.
column today for the special Canadians-choose-a-government-or-die-trying section
of the Post is a soft-shelled rumination on the pleasures of voting and
the nature of democracy. Alas,
subscriber only, except for the first paragraph. But you may
not have read the column that ran subscriber-only last Saturday: here 'tis.
Whatever the outcome of the election, Stephen Harper can
savour this week as the time when the scope of his achievement as a national
party leader became apparent. A year ago, absolutely everybody who was paying
attention judged Mr. Harper to be an odd-looking, slightly autistic individual
who was terminally lukewarm on the stump and seemed to wish he had never been
dragged out of private life.
Now, however, look at the Liberal Party of Canada. It has
found a timely excuse to start scaremongering about Alberta Premier Ralph Klein.
Turn on the TV and see the new Liberal attack ads: Note the surprising
appearance of retired politicians Mike Harris and Brian Mulroney. In
Saskatchewan, the party is running different, customized ads in which Mr. Harper
is linked to the retired head of one of the most notorious provincial
administrations in human memory -- that of Grant Devine, who was specifically
forbidden to run as a Conservative and who is on the ballot as an Independent.
In short, Paul Martin is running against absolutely everybody
he can find who isn't Stephen Harper. Take a bow, Mr. Harper -- win or lose, you
have made them awfully frightened of you.
Liberal campaigns can never be held to a high standard of
logic, but this misdirection is something special. When Conservatives try to
point out the heap of smashed promises that Dalton McGuinty has compiled as
Liberal Premier of Ontario, Paul Martin disavows any connection between the
provincial and federal regimes. "Dilton McGurney? Never heard of the guy."
Premier McGuinty's brother is one of Mr. Martin's Ontario candidates, and Mr.
Martin's right hand, David Herle, provided advice on the Ontario Liberal budget,
which raised taxes despite frequent and strident promises to the contrary. But
Mr. Martin thinks it very important that you remember that there are Liberals,
and then there are Liberals, and never the twain shall meet.
Mr. Martin is even reluctant to claim the faintest
acquaintance with the Chretien Cabinet he sat in for eight years; he was off
napping, you understand, when they were planning all those phony sponsorships.
So one wonders how he can now -- without trying the patience of a just God --
posit some sort of connection between Stephen Harper and every dubious figure
who has ever called himself a Conservative. Mr. Harper, you may recall, didn't
even fly under Conservative colours between 1987 and December 2003.
Granted, the Conservative leader is taking campaign advice
from Brian Mulroney. But Mr. Mulroney is the only living non-Liberal to have won
a House of Commons majority. I would have to think Mr. Harper rather silly if he
didn't consult with the man. Mr. Harper was also wise to leverage the conceptual
union the Liberals postulated between him and Mike Harris. Whatever else history
says of Mr. Harris, Mr. Harper noted yesterday, it will judge that "he did what
he said he would do -- and that obviously makes him very different from the
current government Ontarians have today." It also makes him rather different
from the Liberal governments in which Mr. Martin has been serving.
That the Prime Minister is now doubling back on his pieties
about placating Western alienation makes the spectacle richer. He was supposed
to be the man who ended Western alienation -- remember that? In his first House
speech as PM, Mr. Martin reassured us that "alienation in the West and British
Columbia is not a myth. It is a reality. We must address that reality -- it's a
question of earning people's trust." But now, at the first sign of trouble, Mr.
Martin drags out a papier-maché figure of a blood-mawed Ralph Klein and waves it
at Eastern voters. It's exactly the sort of thing that creates "alienation" in
the West, and a clue that Mr. Martin's other attractive platitudes might just be
Premier Klein was brought into play by means of an imbecilic
miscue on his part. On Wednesday, he made vague reference to health reforms he
would announce on June 30, two days after the election. He mentioned "some
things that might possibly violate the interpretation of the [Canada Health]
Act." In the hands of some ham-fisted reporters, the all-important word
"interpretation" -- meaning the schizoid, oppressive Liberal interpretation of
the Act -- disappeared.
So did Mr. Klein's clear implication that he was expecting a
minority government of some description, not a Harper majority. So did the point
that it is not surprising, or sinister, for controversial political news to be
saved for a long weekend. And certainly there was little mention of the
Constitution -- that document Mr. Martin professes to adore, when he's not busy
defiling it by some weepy denunciation of the division of powers it specifies.
Of course, Mr. Klein's comment might have been sabotage rather
than ineptitude. Stephen Harper never had too much luck bending Mr. Klein's ear
with decentralist ideas as a private citizen. Mr. Klein praised Paul Martin when
he became Prime Minister, endorsed Bernard Lord for the Conservative leadership,
and refused to make a second choice when Mr. Lord declined the job. Still,
perhaps the Premier and Mr. Harper became the warm friends Paul Martin thinks
they are on some recent night over a snifter of welfare-mom's blood and a plate
of senior-citizen filet. If you can believe in the wacko ideography of a
Martinite election ad, you can certainly believe that. (June 19, 2004)
- 10:38 am, June 26 (link)
| Q: Hey, where's that
Monday National Post column? A: Being of a soft-pegged nature, it was
swapped to Tuesday's paper to make room for a tête-à-tête between the Martins
(Liberal leader Paul and Post political reporter Don). Worse still,
you'll have already read--or should have read--this column from last week about
proportional representation. (There was a follow-up to it here). But don't fret--there will be more
content as soon as I wrap up a column on the election for the American
Spectator. Meanwhile I've done you the favour of dragging Fumbling.com back
from desuetude: Mike is in excellent form, so go read.
It is hard to see how the New Democratic Party could get any
"greener," short of putting Jack Layton on an all-chlorophyll diet until his
cookie-duster turned viridian. Nonetheless, Canada has acquired a viable,
independent, cross-country Green Party that, in national polling, draws the
support of between 3% and 5% of the electorate. If we are to believe the
numbers, about a half-million Canadians can be expected to cast a Green vote on
I'm not here to pass judgment on the sanity of those
half-million -- not today -- but I do note that one of their health-related
campaign promises is to "create opportunities for more outdoor physical
activities." Am I the only one who suspects this means, "If we ever win, you'll
have to walk to work"?
Anyway, those half-million votes, should they appear, are
likely to be ineffectual under our first-past-the-post system. The Greens will
end up with no Commons representation, precisely because they are spread out
across Canada. The same half-million votes, if they were geographically
concentrated, could yield seats by the dozen. So the Greens have become a trendy
case study in supposed electoral injustice -- a living argument for the
replacement of our winner-take-all balloting with Euro-style proportional
With so much lip service being paid to PR, I want to remind
everyone that hard cases make bad law. The Greens seem to be charming and
innocuous -- precisely, I think, owing to their impotence -- so they are a
pretty hard case indeed. No one would talk of reforming our democracy to address
the cruel silencing of an Aryan Nations or Marxist party that had 5% support in
the polls. The Green voters are young, passionate and have new ideas, and while
I figure that's three strikes against them, there are those who imagine that
Green inclusion in a fragmented PR Parliament might "reawaken" youth interest in
politics. Which is supposed to have died out, sometime, and is supposed to be
One must admit there is a big, crude moral argument there: If
you have 5% of the votes, why not 5% of the seats? And that argument, indeed,
has a practical appeal to those of us vexed by 10 years of Liberal majorities
commanding no more than 41% of the Canadian vote. But there is cause for
hesitation about favouring proportionality.
Last week, Patrick Basham of the libertarian Cato Institute in
Washington, D.C., wrote a brief article pointing out some of the recent research
on the effects of electoral structures on public affairs. (Basham is also a
former director of the Fraser Institute's Social Affairs Centre.) Two European
economists named Torsten Persson and Guido Tabellini are the leading experts in
this field, and their most recent finding, based on a survey of 140 countries,
is that democracies with proportional representation consistently tend to have
higher taxes, more government spending (by about 5% of GDP) and higher deficits
This is just what one would surmise, I think, from observing
world politics non-scientifically. Proportional representation generally forces
large mainstream parties to find coalition partners amongst smaller,
single-issue groupings. We could end up with a minority government ourselves
come June 28; imagine the bidding that would arise if the Greens held a key to
the majority necessary to govern. Far from bestowing a suitable modicum of power
on narrow interests, PR arguably gives them a chance to hold a country hostage.
There's another Persson and Tabellini paper that Basham didn't
mention -- a 2003 study suggesting that PR encourages outright corruption.
"Corruption" is a little hard to quantify, but a nonpartisan organization,
Transparency International, publishes an annual index of nations rated on their
reputation for suppressing dodgy political practices. Persson and Tabellini
tested the hypothesis that individual accountability amongst politicians would
be greater, and corruption less likely, in countries where candidates had to win
pluralities in a home riding and earn their own seats instead of being part of a
preordered party slate under a PR system. They found confirming evidence that
politics are cleanest in first-past-the-post systems (though it is equally
important that electoral districts not be too small).
Canadians know that the personal rebuke of a political leader
by home voters can serve as a useful signal. In Alberta, we remember the 1989
election, in which the Conservatives won but premier Don Getty lost his
Edmonton-Whitemud seat. Albertans weren't ready to support a non-Conservative
government (and still aren't), but they were exasperated by billions of dollars
in losses from bad loan guarantees to businesses, made with the aim of "economic
diversification." What Albertans wanted was a Conservative government based on
actual conservative principles. It came about quickly because the Whitemud
voters were able to wound Mr. Getty and spare his party.
It may be rude to mention it, but Confederation nowadays owes
its solvency to Albertan prosperity and to the fiscal example set by Mr. Getty's
successor. In an alternate universe where Canadian legislatures are elected
under PR, Mr. Getty might still be premier, perched comfortably at the top of
the Conservative electoral slate. (June 14, 2004)
- 11:35 am, June 21 (link)
There have been a couple of snarky replies to my Monday
column about proportional representation, and the usual
diffident e-mails of support have so far been largely absent. I'd like to
address a couple of the objections, as they are perhaps widely shared.
One puzzling, finger-wagging letter from a Post reader
suggested that I had deviously cast PR in the most negative possible light by
failing to mention the transferrable ballot and the old practice of having
multiple seats in single ridings. I wrote back with the modest riposte that
these are not proportional representation, are not logically conjoined with
proportional representation, and would not necessarily make representation any
more proportional. I could be persuaded to favour the transferrable ballot with
a simple 50% majority requirement for election, but PR wonks have invented a
plethora of bizarre alternative
formulas which have the dubious twin merits of (1) making the
vote-counting process incomprehensible and (2) not yielding just results even
according to PR norms. Whoops.
The proportionality of STV can be controversial,
especially in close elections such as the 1981 election in Malta. In this
election the Maltese Labour Party won a majority of seats despite the
Nationalist Party winning a majority of first preference votes. This caused a
constitutional crisis, leading to provision for the possibility of bonus seats.
These bonus seats were used in 1987 and again in 1996. Similarly, the Northern
Ireland elections in 1998 led to the Ulster Unionists winning more seats than
the SDLP, despite winning a smaller share of the vote.
There are a whole lot of people, I guess, who lack the barest
acquaintance with Arrow's
Impossibility Theorem. Something to do with archery,
Functional PR, in the real world, is compatible only with
party-picked national slates of candidates--and such slates are themselves
incompatible with basic features of our democracy. I consider local
accountability for every elected parliamentarian to be such a feature, at any
rate. It is wise to require that every MP should command the certifiable support
of some specific geographical community.
Another reader laughs at my "weak arguments" and says simply
that "First-past-the-post is sort of limited democracy." Whatever "limited
democracy" might mean, it seems as though that is exactly the sort of democracy
we live in, and I thank heaven for it. I know of no unlimited one--no perfect,
crystalline method of translating collective will to action; if there were one,
I think we should rue the results soon enough. Democracy is not a primary
principle of our constitutional monarchy. If it were, we should have, at the
least, separate elections for each federal ministry; or no Parliament at all,
with federal referenda on every federal bill. We should have no fixed
constitution, written or otherwise, and perhaps no judiciary (let us vote on
whether to set the cute murderer free!). Some of us appear to have attained
adulthood without learning that democracy, in Canada, is merely a method of
choosing parliamentary representatives and, by extension, ministers. It is the
best such method if not promoted to the status of a god.
Some--and I am thinking of the majority of my Alberta
compatriots--believe that while democracy may not be an end in itself,
more of it would be desirable, as a check on the unexpected growth in the
power of the Prime Minister's Office. For years now Westerners, including those
at the old Alberta Report magazine, have favoured citizens' initiatives,
binding federal referenda on particular matters of urgent concern, an elected
Senate, the right of recall, and other procedural reforms designed to purify our
constitution by injecting a heady speedball of democracy into it. For years,
Westerners' advocacy of these ideas has fallen on deaf ears--been mocked, to
some degree, and actively spurned without really offending anyone, in the case
of Senate reform.¹ Similarly, Alberta has complained that its representation in
the number of overall House of Commons seats has never caught up with its
share of the Canadian population, and never can, under the current distribution
formulas. In this last instance, the cries for "proportional representation"--in
the most basic sense of the phrase--have been little heard outside
Alberta. If PR is coming, as I am assured confidently by my correspondents, let
it come here to my doorstep first.
I have never joined too eagerly in the constant chanting for
Democracy here in my home province. But I do find it droll that so many people
have suddenly been converted to the particular cause of PR, rather than the
dizzying universe of alternative reforms which might be adopted sooner. Can it
possibly have anything do with the fact that a charming little left-wing Green
Party full of apple-cheeked young idealists is now being ill-treated by the
cruel logic of first-past-the-post, as the Reform Party was at one time in its
existence? Can the fact that the Conservatives might now win a majority
government with about 40% of the federal vote, as the Liberals have so often of
late, be related?
¹The Alberta legislature demanded the right to elect senators
as the price of its support for the Meech Lake
Accord, and received it, electing Stan
Waters. Jean Chretien's refusal to follow this precedent
bothered approximately no one outside this province. In fact, some columnists
have a noxious habit of pretending that the original exercise never took
place and that provincial elections for senators would require an active
change--impossible under current political circumstances--to the Constitution.
It requires only a prime minister willing to play along, as Brian Mulroney was,
and a public willing to hold the prime minister to the principle until it
becomes entrenched by custom.
- 11:37 pm, June 14 (link)
Nobody, after all, had to change the
Constitution to create the office of "Prime Minister", a phrase which is not
found at all in the British North America Act of 1867, but which magically
appears--without being anywhere defined or ever having been formally created--in
the Constitution Act of 1982.
|Picture from an exhibition
I thought I'd mention an interesting little campaign factoid
from ground zero of Liberal Alberta. My house has received precisely one visit
from a doorknocking politician so far. Last week I ducked out for a plate of
eggs during the afternoon and returned to find a short note, on red Liberal
paper, in my mailbox. It said something to the effect of "Called while you were
out--sorry I missed you. Best regards, John Bethel." This was good for a long,
hearty laugh, since I couldn't vote for John Bethel even if I wanted to.
Last month Paul Martin elbowed
Edmonton lawyer Sine Chadi aside and arbitrarily declared
Bethel the Liberal candidate in the riding of Edmonton East. Chadi, a former
Liberal member of Alberta's legislative assembly, told
the Edmonton Sun that he was offered compensation in
the form of uncontested Liberal silks for a race in St. Albert against John
Williams. He spurned the offer, no doubt realizing he was about as likely to
beat Williams as Pee-Wee Herman is to take down Oscar de la Hoya in a bar fight.
My real point here, though, is that the boundaries of Edmonton
East meet the border of Edmonton Centre in the middle of the road that passes in
front of my door. But I'm on the west side, in Anne McLellan's riding.
For some reason--and you may regard this as a metaphor for the Liberal campaign,
if you like--Bethel was literally working the wrong side of the street.
- 8:51 pm, June 2 (link)
|Second-class "third-party" citizens
The Supreme Court's perfectly
abominable decision in Harper v. Canada, the case
against the third-party election gag law, is now online. Lorne Gunter says
everything I'd care to over at Across the Board. I'll have
more in Friday's Post, no doubt, but the [point] I want to make right
Adam Daifallah is surprised that Chief Justice
McLachlin dissented from the majority opinion: some of us are not. The basic
difference in cultural respect for free speech between Alberta and the rest of
this country could not be clearer than at this moment. The case against the law
was originally brought by an Albertan--fellow named Stephen Harper, you've
probably heard of him. (He was in the private sector as the head of the National
Citizens' Coalition at the time.) The appeal decision under review, which had
correctly struck down the unconstitutional strangulation of third-party campaign
spending, was a decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal. There are two Alberta
judges on the Supreme Court: Jack Major, formerly of Bennett Jones in Calgary
and the Alberta Court of Appeal, and Chief Justice McLachlin, who is from
Pincher Creek and went to the University of Alberta. Both subscribed to the
Chief Justice's dissenting opinion (as did Ian Binnie, an Ontario justice who
has apparently retained some liberal instincts). This is not a
In honour of Ratt
Welch, I give you the unexpectedly interesting History
of Rat Control in Alberta--a study of what is probably the
single most successful government program in the history of the universe.
Public interest and support for rat control was
favorable, particularly from people who had rats... However, there was some
resistance. One mayor refused to cooperate because he thought the program was a
red herring initiated by the ruling political party. Another mayor refused to
believe that rats would threaten his town and stated that he would eat any rats
within the town limits. He subsequently changed his mind when presented with a
bushel of rats from a local abattoir.
They don't make civil servants like that anymore.
- 4:43 am, May 11 (link)
Indian reservations and Metis colonies in north-central
Alberta presented a special problem in public relations. Natives did not want to
have rats but were only familiar with strychnine, and assumed that all poisons
had the same properties. Warfarin baits were removed or destroyed by Natives
because they feared for their children, pets and livestock. David Stelfox with
Alberta Agriculture held a series of meetings with Natives and casually chewed
on warfarin-treated rolled oats while discussing rat control and the
physiological effects of warfarin. His behavior had a startling effect on the
Natives, for they expected him to die before their eyes, and convinced them of
the relative safety of warfarin.
|Don't go there
The soul of Liberal Canada: thank goodness the Senate Standing
Committee on Human Rights is holding hearings into anti-Semitism! Surely we'll
get to the bottom of this business yet? Alas, don't hold your breath. As , the committee regards actual evidence on anti-Semitism in Canada
as having nothing whatsoever to do with the hearings.
The controversy erupted when Professor Steve
Scheinberg, National Chair of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights tried to
present the committee with an example of antisemitic writings by a leader of the
Canadian Islamic Congress hosted on the website of the organization.
Sens. Plamondon and Jaffer are both prize-winning advocates of justice, and one wouldn't wish
to disagree with their classicist interpretation of it here as being the
interest of the [demographically] stronger.
Scheinberg was interrupted first by Liberal Senator Mobina
Jaffer, and then by independent Senator Madeleine Plamondon, who complained to
the chair of the committee, Liberal Senator Shirley Maheu, that his testimony
had wandered far from the subject being examined. This position was supported by
Incidentally, does anyone mind if I call for a moratorium on
the use of the phrase "across Canada" to refer to the recent and unrelenting
spate of anti-Semitic violence and vandalism in Ontario and
Quebec? I realize it's habitual to think of "Canada" as lying entirely within a
day's drive of the St. Lawrence, but Alberta and B.C. were given very nearly
a clean bill
of health by B'nai Brith in 2003, and the latest sequence of
insanity has--knock wood--not yet found imitators out here. (The B'nai Brith
audit of anti-Semitic incidents notes, in passing, that Canadian Jews are voting
with their feet for Alberta; how many more living in the Golden Triangle must be
considering it these days?)
Perhaps a few times a year in Alberta, some loon spray-paints
a swastika on a bridge abutment or shoves misspelled, cranky flyers into a few
mailboxes. There has been no firebombing of schools: if there were, you'd
instantly be reading in Eastern Canada about the thin veneer which has been torn
from the white-hot cauldron of prairie hatred, etc. etc. The problem is
not "across Canada", and anyone who would say so as an unthinking
solecism probably has no hope of understanding why it's happening.
- 8:15 pm, May 3 (link)
| Don't mind me, I'm
just dropping off a copy of last week's column on the Kyoto Protocol--with any
luck, my last on the subject...
Denial, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross taught us, is the
first stage of grieving: And so it goes with the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto is deader
than Abe Lincoln, and has been, really, for more than a year. This is not
exactly a secret. But there appears to be a -- what? A conspiracy? A gentlemen's
agreement? -- not to mention it. The elderly guest has expired in the parlour,
but his teacup must be kept full, despite the gathering flies. It's like a
protracted and even less funny version of Weekend at Bernie's.
One supposes someone must recap the relevant facts
for the nth time, if only for form's sake, so here goes. The protocol was
attached to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) at a conference
in December, 1997. To come into force, it must be ratified by countries
accounting for 55% of carbon dioxide emitted by the industrialized world in the
year 1990. This means that any group of countries accounting for 45% of those
emissions has veto power over the protocol: the United States and Russia, for
instance, have 53.5% between them.
Which is a problem. In 1997 the U.S. Senate voted
95-0 in favour of what was, in essence, a resolution not to ratify. On the
Russian side, President Vladimir Putin has criticized the Protocol, his economic
advisors don't want to sacrifice growth for a short-term bonanza in tradeable
emissions permits, his science advisors can't see how global warming is bad for
Russia, and senior Kremlin officials have categorically ruled out ratification.
In short, you can stick a fork in this deal.
Already, this realization is dawning in other
countries. Reuters reported March 26 that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder
wants no part of a bargain that will "distort competition at the expense of
European, and especially German, economy." Right-wing governments in Italy,
Spain and Denmark have also been making discontented noises, and the European
Union's facade of pro-Kyoto unity is rapidly crumbling. Several countries missed
a March 31 EU deadline for filing national greenhouse gas-reduction plans.
Austria's proposal was on time, but proffered, perhaps in the spirit of satire,
a rather steep increase in emissions. Many of these countries have already
mortgaged their energy output to environmentally insane anti-nuclear
superstitions. Going it more or less alone on Kyoto would mean entertaining
another expensive delusion.
Canadian officials, you may recall, tried to
convince the EU in 2002 and 2003 to grant Canada extra credit under Kyoto for
our CO2-absorbing forests and our clean-energy exports to the United States.
When Jean Chretien was deposed in slo-mo by his caucus, he rammed Kyoto
ratification through Parliament for the sake of his post-career prestige. Now
that even the Europeans are shying away from Kyoto, what is the reaction from
Mr. Chretien's successor? Why, in his February throne speech Paul Martin
naturally "reaffirm[ed] our intention to meet the Kyoto challenge."
"Challenge" -- how tellingly vague. Mr. Martin, one
suspects, knows the score, but many are still nattering about our "Kyoto
commitments." Jack Layton complained last week, in connection with the
government's planned PetroCanada sale, that "we're going nowhere to meet our
Kyoto commitment." Environment Minister David Anderson reiterated Canada's
intention to meet its "Kyoto commitments" in a March 19 speech in Winnipeg.
David Suzuki prattled repeatedly in the March 17 Globe and Mail about our "Kyoto
goals" and "Kyoto targets." It is all nonsense. Whether good or bad in itself,
Kyoto was supposed to be a bargain between developed nations, and the conditions
haven't been met. How can we still be said to have obligations under a
nonexistent agreement? Why is the Protocol being treated as something we
Outside of Canada, they're moving beyond denial to
the Kübler-Ross "bargaining" stage. The next FCCC conference is scheduled for
Buenos Aires in December. A little-noticed March 17 story from the IPS news
agency reported that chief Argentine eco-diplomat Raul Estrada Oyuela is
proposing a new stratagem for the developing nations: since the rich countries
apparently can't wrestle Kyoto into existence, maybe they'll pay poorer ones to
"adapt" to inevitable climate change. "If Russia ratifies the Protocol before
[the conference], then we'll change our plans. But the most reasonable route is
to prepare for the worst,"' Estrada told Argentine NGOs, declaring that, as
substantive host of the FCCC conference, he will push to have pointless
browbeating of the United States and Russia taken off the agenda. The idea went
over like gangbusters.
Bjørn Lomborg, the Danish "skeptical
environmentalist", has spent the last couple of years pointing out that,
according to the theoretical underpinnings of the deal itself, Kyoto wouldn't
have accomplished anything practical to mitigate climate change. He has been
vilified for arguing that spending on "adaptation" strategies might be more
effective. Now it seems that developing-world environmentalists may accept this
argument. No doubt their sensitive colleagues in the First World can be expected
to follow suit and say they knew it all along (though Lomborg shouldn't hold his
breath for a show of gratitude). Eventually, even Canada's cloth-eared
environmental demagogues will get with the program and give "Kyoto goals" a
hasty midnight burial. (Apr. 2, 2004)
- 2:24 am, April 10 (link)
|Newest of the new media
Things To See: a lot of you Canadians have probably already
heard about The
Shotgun, the embryonic but already quite active weblog of the
new magazine. Looks like it will be populated by existing
Canadian favourites like Damian Penny, Nicholas Packwood, and Kathy Shaidle as
well as by Standard staffers and new faces. Watch for the occasional
Colby Cosh cameo. It would have been trite but apt to acknowledge the Shotgun's
ancestry and call it Canadian Corner (as in NRO's Corner), but you can't have everything.
While we're handing out plugs, we can't overlook Provincial & Territorial
Report, the new political newsletter created by Western
journalism legend Ric Dolphin. It's a pricey insider sheet for corporate types
and government departments, but the website has single-item tasters and a PDF of
the full first issue. Looks pretty nifty. If you end up subscribing, tell
Dolphin I sent you--maybe he'll comp me!
- 12:46 pm, April 5 (link)
|Mr. Klein, tear down this wall
There's important news about the forgotten sibling of
Alberta's oil and natural gas industries: the Fording Coal Trust, spurred on by
a spike in the price of metallurgical-grade coal needed by the world's
steelmakers, is reviving its unused Cheviot mine site near Jasper National Park.
are up in arms, naturally (when are they not?). The Cheviot
site has long been a source of irritation to the greens, who would like the
whole Continental Divide made a no-go zone for human beings. Whenever Fording
proposes to go ahead with mining at Cheviot, there's a blizzard of legal
activity--and that has hitherto always succeeded in delaying extraction until
prices dropped and it had to be abandoned.
There are some curious claims, implicit and explicit, among
the objections to the mine, which is said to threaten grizzly habitat east of
the park. As always, we have the amusing idea put forward that grizzlies, who
can run upwards of 30 miles an hour, cannot possibly cross a road through the
The company's current proposal is different than the
one that caused considerable controversy and endured rounds of environmental
hearings, said Dianne Pachal, Sierra Club of Canada's Alberta wilderness
director. In fact, this proposal is worse, she said. [Of course it is. -ed.]
"They will mine less coal, but the area they'll disturb will be much larger,"
she said. The 22-kilometre long road to transport the coal will be an impassable
"wall to wildlife" because trucks will use the road every six to 15 minutes, she
Not very cricket of us humans to put a Polish corridor in the
sovereign Yellowstone-to-Yukon Republic of the Bears! Environmentalists don't
trust the Conservative government's stewardship of bear habitat very much, even
grizzly population has been increasing steadily since 1989,
sometimes with disconcerting
effects for human beings. (The grizzly is deemed neither
endangered nor threatened in Canada; COSEWIC, the federal authority on
biodiversity, lists it as a species of "special
concern".) Yet I'm puzzled by this map and text on the official website of the "Y2Y" movement. It appears that bears
don't particularly like national and provincial parks, where industrial
development is forbidden completely.
Notice that some grizzly bear habitat inside protected areas isn’t
as suitable as some places outside protected areas. For example, the area just
southwest of Jasper National Park is better grizzly bear habitat than most of
the land protected within the national park boundaries. There are two possible
explanations for this: the habitat inside the park may have fewer food sources
than the habitat to the southwest, or it may have more people, roads and trails,
which increases the likelihood that a grizzly bear might get killed.
Of course it is!
So it sounds like it's a good thing the Cheviot mine is on the east side of
the park, then, right? It would appear that Fording, for all
its rapacity, isn't threatening prime grizzly bear habitat. No, we can't have
that, I suppose: a park manager says in the Journal story that "There is
no question that the Cheviot mine will be going in the most important and most
productive grizzly bear habitat in the area." Why do I have the feeling he'd say
the same thing even if the mine was located on Mars?
- 4:33 am, March 17 (link)
Of course, the habitat east of Jasper National Park is much worse than either
the habitat inside or to the west of the park.
|Wild wild West
Speaking of house parties, Albertans should be planning some
this weekend: Steve
West is back! Pardon me while I weep soft tears of joy.
West's name might not ring a bell outside of Alberta. But four years
after he retired from provincial politics to work in the oil patch, West's name
can still set off a five-alarm gong among provincial inmates and public
servants. He's an ideologue with balls, the sort who wakes up on a Monday
morning looking for places to cut, people to fire or policies to change...
The completely successful liquor privatization, a government
policy that actually improved the ordinary person's quality of life in
Alberta, is merely West's most visible success. I suppose some failures can
be attributed to him, but I don't know what they'd be: Don Martin tries to
attach electricity deregulation to his "early watch", but I've heard the
argument run the opposite way, that it was a bold, Gordian-knot plan spoiled by
the timidity of West's successors.
His most notorious act of hard-right ideology was sprung on an unsuspecting
Alberta public 11 years ago when he privatized liquor retailing. He didn't
bother with a consumer impact study or cost-benefit analysis. He didn't consult
or offer government workers a chance to improve their service first. The way
West saw it, government had no place at the booze checkouts of the province. So
he privatized it. Overnight. No appeals would be entertained.
Whenever Steve West took over a government department, it actually got
smaller: he makes civil servants lose their jobs if they can't show they're
doing something necessary that the private sector cannot. I've always seen him
as more of an anarchist in mufti than a "hard-right ideologue", but
Martin is here using the latter phrase in its traditional Alberta meaning:
"someone who is slightly to the left of a majority of Alberta voters." West is
arguably more responsible than any other single individual--including Premier
Klein--for Alberta's current prosperity. He's entertaining and even somewhat
erudite: he mostly treats journalists with contempt, coming across in his scarce
interviews (and in political lore) as a cross between Dirty Harry and a B-movie
mad doctor. I still remember the sound bite he gave when former Tory cabinet
minister Nancy Betkowski took over the provincial Opposition: he leered at the
TV camera menacingly and said, "The ancient Greeks had a saying: when you seek
revenge, dig two graves." (In the event, she only needed the one for
West arrived in provincial politics equipped with instinctive knowledge and
moral confidence about public-choice theory and about the hidden dichotomy
between "ministry policy" and "ministerial policy". It remains to be seen
whether he can accomplish anything from the office of a chief of staff--he's
already lessening expectations, saying he's been appointed to implement policy
rather than make it. But he may be most important as a symbol anyway. James
Baxter and Tom Barrett have some amusingly positioned quotes about West in
Klein told the legislature Thursday that West will keep the
Opposition's feet in the fire. "We will see their rear ends pucker," he
And right on cue... the dewy sound of puckering:
"I think it is the greatest threat to health care that we've seen,"
New Democrat MLA Brian Mason said of West's appointment. "I think this means
he's serious about (reform)."
You have to admire Ray Martin's quote: the man has
so little shame--a New Democrat calling others "ideologues" and
complaining about the "problems" created by Steve West in Alberta. Hey, I don't
like high energy bills either, but I persist stubbornly in being glad we haven't
had the wise and non-ideological government that turned B.C. into a have-not
province and depopulated Saskatchewan like a political insecticide. Call me
- 9:37 pm, February 27 (link)
..."It scares the bejeebers out of me to think that Steve West is going to be
there, because there is no bigger ideologue in the province," said Ray Martin,
former leader of the provincial New Democrats. "The problems that we're facing
now with (electricity) deregulation, the privatization mania that went on, a lot
of the problems that we're facing were created by Steve West. This will be like
a bull in a china shop in the premier's office. This is not good news... for the
Harvey Voogd, co-ordinator for Friends of Medicare, said: "We're not getting
someone who is known for his quiet, subtle, diplomatic skills in the
|From stage to screen?
In the old
days before I implemented these impermanent permalinks, I
once linked to a tongue-in-cheek
undergraduate paper entitled "Shakespeare’s Henry V as
an Allegory for the Post-Modern Western Canadian Politics of Protest and
Alienation: the Machiavellian Corruption of the Grassroots Democracy Movement".
In order to make our presentation of Henry
V more relevant to a modern audience, and to de-emphasize the play as a
History, we chose to set the play in the context of the Canadian Alliance party
under the leadership of Stockwell Day. Stockwell Day as Henry V? I hope this
guy got a 9.
That entry is so old, in fact, that it has outlived the
University of Alberta's eccentric nine-point grading system. But I got an e-mail
yesterday from the author of the paper:
I got an 8.
I couldn't let it go at that, so I asked Charles if he's still
implicated with thespianism nowadays. He says no,
although I do host a party every year to celebrate
St. Crispin's Day and the Battle of Agincourt. We start the meal with British
beer, and end it with plundered French delicacies (wine, Brie, etc.).
Technology's uncollected gain is undoubtedly the theatre's loss.
- 12:29 pm, February 20 (link)
I just graduated from NAIT [the Northern Alberta Institute of
Technology] with a diploma in Computer Systems Technology, so I am currently
lifting things in a warehouse until I can find a job telling people to take off
the Caps Lock key so they can log in.
|It's just a shot away
Hey, remember that billion-dollar federal gun registry? Not so
fast! The CBC now
estimates the total spending and allocation to date at two billion. That's awfully close to the original cost estimate, of
course--only one letter away!
The gun registry was originally supposed to cost less
than $2 million. In December 2002, Auditor General Sheila Fraser revealed that
the program would run up bills of at least $1 billion by 2005. ...A large part
of the $2 billion expense is a computer system that's supposed to track
registered guns, according to one document. Officials initially estimated it
would cost about $1 million. Expenses now hover close to $750 million and the
electronic system is still not fully operational.
Remember, friends, when you go to shoot your Liberal MP this
afternoon, make sure you do it with a legally registered firearm. It's
the Canadian way.
The CBC's sudden interest in gun spending is, of course,
fascinating in itself. Radio-Canada is said to have "obtained documents" which
revealed the scale of the horror. Leaking such documents to the public
broadcaster rather than the Opposition is apparently the way a patriotic Liberal
civil servant does these things. Unlike the sponsorship scandal, this is a
catastrophe Paul Martin
has no way of extricating himself from, and you'd have to be
pretty dozy to imagine that the timing was a coincidence. The story breaks just
a few days after Martin declared that any vote on the registry would be a
three-line House vote of confidence. Hey, did someone say "confidence"? In this
- 1:40 am, February 14 (link)