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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 mistake?

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 of guy.

- 11:05 am, December 27 (link)
CJC 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)
Lessons learned

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 Washington, D.C.

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 50% traitor?

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 time.

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, 2004)

- 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)

CHICAGO (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.

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)

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?
- 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 absurd:

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 afterthought.

...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 in return?

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)
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.

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."

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.
Nelson said eliminating the debt will provide a lasting benefit to Albertans and all Canadians, who share in Alberta wealth through a national equalization program.

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."

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?)

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 (seasonally adjusted).

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 it!

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?

Yeah, Saskatchewan 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 the eccentric.

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.

Simple, right?

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 Conservatives.

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 the ejectees.

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 writes:
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 program.

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 itself.

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.

Friday's 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 fares.

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 next year.

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, 2004)

- 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 otherwise.

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.
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?

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 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 SD.

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 somewhere.

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 accountability:

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, Globe). 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)
Bang, bang

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.] screw you, whiners.

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 saying so.)

- 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 Mail.

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.

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]

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.

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 drama. Masyk, 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.

"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 Stalin.

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 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?

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 Act.

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 Report newsletter.)

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
Who's missing

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.

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 the stakes.

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.

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)
National Post My 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 shinola.

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 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 June 28.

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 representation.

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 desirable, somehow.

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 (by 3%).

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)
PR pressure

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, surely?

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.
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.

- 11:37 pm, June 14 (link)
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 almost 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 away [is]:

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 coincidence.

Hot rats

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.

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.

They don't make civil servants like that anymore.
- 4:43 am, May 11 (link)
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.

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 the chair.

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.

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 accepted unilaterally?

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. Environmentalists 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 bush:

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 said.

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 though Alberta's 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, the habitat east of Jasper National Park is much worse than either the habitat inside or to the west of the park.

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)
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...

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.

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.

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 herself.)

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 today's Herald:

Klein told the legislature Thursday that West will keep the Opposition's feet in the fire. "We will see their rear ends pucker," he shouted.

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)."

..."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 province."

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 background."

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 crazy!
- 9:37 pm, February 27 (link)
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.


Charles Macdonald

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.).

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.

Technology's uncollected gain is undoubtedly the theatre's loss.
- 12:29 pm, February 20 (link)
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 government?

- 1:40 am, February 14 (link)
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