Friday, October 14, 2016

Jim Prentice (1956-2016)

Jim Prentice, the 16th Premier of Alberta, has died at age 60 according to multiple reports.

While details will be coming fast and furious in the coming days and weeks, and memorials will pour in for the man and the public figure, I will offer relatively little by comparison.

I worked with Jim Prentice while he was the Leader of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta and I was its Regional Director for South Calgary.

We weren't close. I wasn't in his inner circle. He didn't seek my counsel, and we didn't see eye to eye on very much about how to run a political organization.

None of that matters today.

Jim Prentice was a son. A husband. A father. A public servant who could have - and did - earned a lot more in the private sector than in the public sector, for a lot less hassle. And yet, he left his comfortable position in 2014 to run for and win the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in Alberta, taking a huge pay cut in the process.

No matter what anyone has to say - myself included - about his political legacy, this was a man who wanted to serve his fellow citizens, and did so with a keen mind and laser-like focus. His service is worthy of our respect, and his family's loss is monumental.

This is not a time for politics. This is a time for appreciation for the man's service to us, and for his loved ones to mourn.

Rest well, sir.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Show Me The Money

"Alberta doesn't have a spending problem, it has a revenue problem!" - Economist A

"Alberta doesn't have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem!" - Economist B

"Stop oversimplifying a complicated issue in order to sell your book. Alberta has both a revenue AND a spending problem." - Enlightened Savage

Nation, if there's a story older than the Epic of Gilgamesh, it's probably the never-ending debate about taxation in Alberta.

My fellow conservatives pine for the halcyon days of King Ralph, when taxes were basically non-existent, government spending was only on the absolute necessities, and the surplus went to paying down debt and then cutting everyone a big, fat cheque.

Those on the Left side of the spectrum, meanwhile, tell stories around the campfire of the boogeyman from Tuxedo Park who slashed government services, blew up hospitals, and let the energy companies steal our resources for nowhere NEAR their actual value.

I have neither the time nor the energy to either defend the legacy of Ralph Klein or defend myself against attacks from people - on the Left OR the Right - who disagree with my interpretation of same. The facts are this: Tax rates in Alberta during Klein's first term were higher than they are now. Klein's government radically changed the way public services were delivered. And the cash debt that Alberta had accumulated to that point was paid down.

Those are the facts, and as such can't be disputed.

However, I'm not here today looking to write about history. I want to have a conversation about the future.

The reality of the fiscal situation in Alberta today is far from rosy. The Contingency Fund is completely tapped out, and the Alberta Government is running a deficit in excess of ten billion dollars. With a "b". $7 Billion of that is program spending - not money spent on one-time capital projects meant to put Albertan tradespeople back to work, but things like keeping the lights on at Mount Royal University, or paying your nurse at the Grey Nuns.

On the revenue side, while income tax revenue has been fairly consistent, the "Golden Goose" that Alberta Governments have used for years to cover their spending habits has all but stopped laying eggs. Over the past 2 years alone, non-renewable resource revenue has dropped by almost 85% - from $8.948 Billion down to an estimated $1.364 Billion. Put in another context, this drop represents almost the entire budget for the Ministry of Education - every teacher, janitor, building, and textbook - gone, in 2 years.

So, what do we do? How do we raise more money? How do we spend less?

I'm a fiscal conservative myself. I believe that government should provide only the services that it must, that it shouldn't compete with private companies offering the same service, and that every dollar spent by government needs to be justifiable. So naturally, my first inclination is to look for areas where the government can spend less.

These are some really big numbers, when you consider that they're in Millions of dollars. The 2 big kids on the block are obviously Health and Education - combined, they account for well over half of every dollar that government spends. And luckily, as a blogger, I'm not under any obligation to come up with a concrete and specific plan about which line items in each budget need to be trimmed, and how, and by how much. The problem is, they people we actually elected to the Legislature, who sit on the Opposition side of the House, aren't making specific and concrete recommendations either.

"Find efficiencies" and "Bring back the Alberta Advantage!" isn't a plan. They're catchphrases at worst, and putting a band-aid on an arterial wound at best.

Okay, there's a lot to take in there on the Expense side of the ledger. Let's see how much we actually NEED to find, and then we'll be in a better place to make tough decisions. So let's look at our Revenue:

Oof. That hurts. If you take away the non-renewable revenue, and don't include the transfers from the Feds (taxes that Albertans pay to Ottawa that Ottawa then returns to us, because that's how Confederation works), our revenue is $32.7 Billion. Of course, Ottawa's not going to cut us off, and those ARE our dollars to start with (there's only one taxpayer, after all), so call our "taxes, fees and investment" revenue an even $40 Billion.

Now, IF you subscribe to the theory, as I do, that non-renewable resource revenue shouldn't be used to fund government operations but should instead go into the Heritage Savings Trust Fund to bequeath to future generations who won't be able to rely on that sector of the economy once they figure out how to run a car on saltwater, then we've got "spendable" income of $40 Billion, and expenses of $51.1 Billion.

If, however, you further believe that taxes are too high, or that sin taxes and other fees are too high... then you've got to knock even more off the revenue side. Let's say an anti-tax party gets into government and reduces the tax revenue of government by a net of 20% - they cut taxes, the economy picks up, more people are paying taxes, which earns some of that money back... a 20% reduction overall, though. Now you're talking about spendable revenues of $32 Billion. Which is $19 Billion below our current spending levels. That's the entire Ministry of Health. If you sold every hospital, laid off every doctor and nurse, and fully privatized the entire system, you'd be at "break even".

Obviously, for numerous reasons - not the least of which is the Canada Health Act - that's not going to happen. So you've got to find the money somewhere. Surely, there are things government is doing that don't need to be done by government - programs and services can be privatized, government staff and their cushy salaries taken off the books. What do we spend on public servants, anyhow?

There it is - $25 Billion. Half of the budget is spent on public sector compensation. So if we just lay off roughly 90% of the sheriffs, teachers, doctors, nurses, lifeguards, administrative assistants, professors, meat inspectors, and firefighters, we'll be able to "bring back the Alberta Advantage!", lower taxes, live within our means, and save oil & gas revenue for the future. We'll just have to get used to 3 day wait times in the ER, elementary school class sizes of 100 students, and sheriffs driving schools buses full of violent offenders to fully automated jails.

If that sounds ridiculous, it's because it's supposed to.

But in case you weren't aware: the contracts between the government and the public sector unions are coming due. And nobody really expects the NDP to bring a salary freeze or mass layoffs to the table, which means that with new agreements the cost is likely going to get higher, not lower.

Look, at the end of the day, we all have programs that we like, and programs we see no purpose for. Some people see no reason for government to be in the business of fighting forest fires, until they see a glow coming over the hill. There are inarguably some government expenses that are far too high, and likely some that could stand to come off the books altogether.

But the larger discussion to be had here, is what we actually think government should be doing. What is its role, and what do we leave to the private sector? Should we, as Alberta taxpayers, be helping Alberta businesses, or let the market determine who succeeds and who fails? Should we promote tourism? Should we provide student loans, or let the students fight for the available scholarships and bursaries? Should we pay for parks, or charge users to get in? Until we've had that discussion, as a society, we can't get this funding issue under control.

A party or politician that proposes to hold the line on expenses needs to explain how they propose to pay for it all, without saddling future generations with so much debt they'll never be able to recover.

A party or politician that proposes to lower taxes is going to need to explain what specific programs they are going to cut, and how many Albertans they're going to send to the unemployment line, to save the $10B or more they need to balance the books while also reducing revenue.

There's plenty of blame to go around for the current situation - but blame isn't going to fix our problem. You can blame Redford, or Prentice, or Stelmach, or Klein - hell, blame Brownlee for all I care - but after you're done blaming somebody for this mess, we have to have a serious discussion about the government services we use, and whether we can have all the nice things that we want without paying higher taxes (spoiler: we can't).

We have, as politically engaged Albertans, fiddled for far too long while our fiscal Rome burned around us. Some of our politicians have tried to warn us that this reckoning was coming - but it's here, now.

What are we going to do about it?

The government budget documents are here. Go there, read through them, and find building projects, programs and jobs to cut. Or find taxes to raise. You, humble reader, are no less qualified than anyone else to suggest ways we can get our house in order.

So, let's do this. Let's fix the problem.

Show me the money.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Voter, Inform Thyself

Nation, one of the great truisms of politics is that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing".

Voters who know something to be true - or even worse, FEEL it to be true - will latch on to that thing, disregard all other opinions or contrary facts, and will ride that certainty all the way to the polling station, stopping along the way only to encourage other people to follow them and their way of thinking and to mark their ballot the same way.

This hesitation towards engaging in fulsome discussion and seeking out contrary opinions is understandable. We're busy. We're working a lot - those of us lucky enough to have a job, anyhow. We've got Twitter wars to get into. We have cat videos to watch. Who's got time to discuss issues of policy divergence when ERMAGERDLOOKATDAKITTY...

Sorry. Where was I?

Right. Informed voters.

Most of us don't have the time or inclination to agonize over our choice at the ballot box, or how we feel about a given issue. So we cheat. We watch a video our cousin posted on Facebook about vaccines, and we decide that vaccines are bad. Or we read a 5 paragraph excerpt from a 400-page book with an impressive title about fluoride, and we decide that fluoride is okay. We let ourselves conclude that if every caller to the talk radio show this morning had something bad to say about the Prime Minister, we should probably hate him too. We read a guest column in the paper attacking a member of city council for spending tax dollars on public art, so we decide we have to rid ourselves of that councilor. And maybe of public art, too, while we're at it.

This abdication of our responsibility to our fellow citizens to inform ourselves is a direct threat to our democratic principles. Choosing our representatives based on poor information we cobbled together with the minimal amount of effort - or that well-connected, well-funded campaigns and citizens made sure we'd see - and then ignoring them for 4 years isn't a democracy, it's an oligarchy with an election-day opening act.

Which brings me to the issue of endorsements.

There was a noteworthy, though not-at-all unexpected, endorsement in the news today: PC MLA Mike Ellis, of Calgary-West, endorsed Jason Kenney for Leader of the PCAA.

I don't have any ill will towards Mike Ellis whatsoever. He's a good guy, a very effective MLA, and has been there for the party in the almost 18 months since the election loss, unlike many former MLAs and leadership candidates who completely ghosted once they lost power, resurfacing with a sudden interest in the party's leadership race only when it became apparent the party was unlikely to die on its own. I don't share Ellis' assertion that "Egos and arrogance" are the only reasons the PCAA and Wildrose Parties wouldn't merge, but we're allowed to have differences of opinion. There will likely be other endorsements from within the current PC Caucus coming as well. I'd bet my life on one of them.

However, as I have stated before: Endorsements are, by and large, meaningless. And they SHOULD be.

When we allow a celebrity endorsement of a product or politician to sway us towards buying that product or voting for that candidate, we're telling the world that David Hasselhoff or John Legend are so much better informed than we are that we'll just take their word for it, and do what they tell us to.

Likewise, when we allow an endorsement from a public official or a newspaper editorial to colour our opinion or effect our vote, we're in essence saying "I can't be trusted to make this decision, so someone else should make it for me. Here's my ballot, tell me what to do with it.". It's a dangerous move, with real and lasting implications.

Long-time readers of this blog will note that I don't use this platform to endorse candidates for office. Have I met many of the people I write about in this space? Absolutely. I've had the pleasure of interviewing dozens of candidates for office for this blog and others, and I'd like to think that over the course of my interviews with them I've gotten a good feel for their issues, policy ideas, principles, etc. But whether or not my opinions are informed, the important thing to remember is that they're just MY OPINIONS. What matters to me might not matter to you. And whether or not I like a candidate or a party shouldn't in any way be reflected in your vote. I'll present facts, or an argument, It's up to YOU to decide who to vote for.

There are 2 people who have thus far declared themselves candidates for the PC Leadership. There will likely be more as we get closer to the official launch of the leadership race in 2 weeks. I have met both of the currently declared candidates in the past, and personally like them both. They've articulated distinctly different visions for the future of the PC Party, and that's a good thing. Competing visions for the future is good, and the more of those we have, the better party members will be able to determine which candidate best represents their views.


You've got to WORK for it. Don't just read my blog - or ANY blog - for information about these candidates. Don't take your MLA's word for it on who the best leader will be (that worked out SO well for us and for Alberta last time). Don't wait for the paper to endorse someone. Don't let talk radio do your thinking for you. Don't let retweets and Facebook "shares" from your friends or coworkers decide for you. Don't let someone else tell you what Lougheed would have wanted, or what Ralph would have done.

MEET these candidates. Do your homework. Ask them questions, in person or on social media. And if they don't answer your question, ask them again. Keep asking until you get an answer.

And make sure you elect local delegates to attend the leadership convention who have done the same.

The way the delegated convention works, they'll need to have a second choice, and a third choice, in case their first choice gets eliminated. Even if their first choice isn't one you share, you want thoughtful delegates who aren't going to be swayed by public endorsements from public figures.

After all... you wouldn't want an MLA who voted on your behalf to shut down the oilsands because Leo Di Caprio said it was a good idea, would you? Or a city councilor who voted to give the Flames hundreds of millions of tax dollars for a rink because Gary Bettman said it was a good idea?

You expect your representatives to make good decisions, based on facts and after studying all sides of an issue, regardless of the opinions of celebrities.

Set the example for them.

Get to work.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

School Daze

Nation, the dog-whistle of "politicians determining what's taught in schools!" has reared its ugly head again.

Much like "politicians deciding their own salaries", "politicians determining what's taught in schools" is one of those tried-and-true hot button issues that never ceases to piss off voters who are angry that people who don't agree with them about every single issue actually got elected. And of course, the politicians are in a classic no-win scenario - as soon as they put the issue out of their direct control and say "we've got an equation now that will automatically set the pay for our council members" or "we've appointed experts in the field to determine curriculum for students in this province", the people who are against whatever the outcome is go completely ballistic in their demands for the politicians to directly insert themselves back INTO the process, with old saws like "council should vote down the pay increase that the equation gave them", or "we need to elect a government that will get back to the 3 R's".

Well, with the assertion by some of the usual suspects that a cadre of socialist activist teachers and the Notley Government are using curriculum redesign - and, by extension, the entire school system - to program collectivist, anti-Christian, anti-conservative ideals into our unsuspecting children, I have a humble suggestion:

Pull your kids out of school.

If you really believe that the teachers at your kids' school are trying to brainwash them with values and ideas that you don't want them to have...  pull them out. Homeschool them. It's completely within your rights. Don't let the pinko commies have access to your kids, and your kids won't have to learn about "the gays". If you know better than the teacher what your kids need and how they learn, then YOU be the teacher.

What's that? You don't have time to stay home with the kids? Well, I guess that's a valid point - though, I was always told that if something's important, you MAKE the time... but whatever. You've made your choice, and your choice is to drop your little darlings off at a publicly-funded institution of learning for 7-or-so hours per day.

That's perfectly fine. Nobody's judging you. Most of your neighbours send their kids to these wretched hives of scum and villainy, too.

But if you're going to avail yourself of this building full of trained professionals who are going to take responsibility for educating your children, you have to accept that you no longer have exclusive control and pre-approval of every single fact that they're exposed to. In choosing to use the public education system, you forfeited that right. They're going to hear things from the teacher that they've never heard from you. They're going to hear things from their fellow students that they've never heard from you.

Do you still have a say? SURE you do. You get to elect a school board. You get to elect an MLA. You get to attend parent council meetings, and meetings with the teacher, and you can call the principal and storm into her office any time you like to rail against your kids learning about Islam or the metric system or being told that the world is over a billion years old. You have a say.

But what you DON'T have is control.

And if you WANT control, you have only one choice:

Pull your kids out of school.

Pull them out, and those lazy socialist teachers and their propagandist curriculum cooked up around Notley's kitchen table while they were reading the Communist Manifesto won't be your problem.

But if you're going to use the public system, you have to accept that your opinion doesn't make something true, or factual. Your kids are going to be exposed to information you don't agree with. You don't have control.

Yes, I know you pay taxes. I know that your money goes into running those schools, and paying those teachers, and as a taxpayer you have a right to value for your money.

But I'll tell you what: Start the car right now, go downtown, and drive the wrong way up a one-way street. Swerve around a lot. Wave a bottle of whisky out the window. When the nice police officer stops you for a chat, tell him that you pay taxes, your money goes into paving that road and paying his salary, and as a taxpayer you demand that he just let you go on your merry way.

Or even better: Drive up to Edmonton. Visit our beautiful Legislature. Walk through security, and head straight for the Premier's Office. Pound on the door, and demand to sit in her chair. Because you're a taxpayer, and you paid for the chair, and you pay the salaries of everyone in the building.

Let me know how that works out for you.

Here's the thing: You can't opt out of traffic laws. If you're going to drive, you have to obey them. And you can't opt out of being governed by someone you disagree with. Unless you move to another jurisdiction, the laws they pass will still apply to you.

But you CAN opt out of those terrible public schools, and those collectivist teachers, fangs dripping with the venom of Che Guevara worship and union politics, and the shockingly secular and humanist curriculum. You can't opt out of PAYING for it, just like you can't opt out of paying for cops and roads and the offices of politicians you don't like, but you can choose to not expose your kids to the horrors of public education.

Pull your kids out of school, teach them only what you believe to be true, and make sure they're not exposed to other ideas, lest they be confused by the notion of pluralism.

It'll make it easier for the rest of us to get our kids INTO what is one of the best public school systems in the history of civilization.

Everybody wins.

Well, almost everybody.

But you know what's best for your kids. So do it.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Oh My God - They Killed Kenney!

Nation, as has been widely reported in the press over the past few days, Jason Kenney - prolific cabinet minister in the governments of Stephen Harper and Member of Parliament for Calgary Midnapore - is testing the waters for a run for the vacant leadership of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta.

The thought here is that if Kenney can come home to Alberta and win the leadership of the PC's - which will be decided by next summer - then the schism on the centre-right of Alberta politics would be healed by an exodus of Wildrose members who would either join the Kenney PC's, or would be willing to leave Wildrose for an entirely new party. Leaving a united right to cruise to power in an expected 2019 provincial election.

Pundits and party rank-and-file from both sides of Alberta's conservative "family feud" have weighed in, talking about how it could be done, why it does or doesn't make sense, and whether Kenney should actually make the jump to provincial politics or run for the leadership of the federal Conservatives.

So, let's ask the important questions:

1. CAN Jason Kenney win the leadership of the PCAA?

Yes, he can.

The new leadership selection process for the PCAA is a delegated convention - which is exactly the type of convention they're been using for years to vote on issues like the party's executive board, policies, and constitutional amendments. So it's not like this is an entirely new process that nobody has any insight into the inner workings of. If Kenney can gain the support of a majority of the voting delegates in the leadership race - roughly 700 people - he can win the leadership.

2. HOW can he win?

No one's quite sure at this point whether the voting delegates are going to be selected by a vote of the local PC members in each constituency, or whether they'll be appointed by the local CA Boards. If it's the former, Kenney has the organizational chops to make sure he's got enough members signed up in enough ridings to tip the scales in his favour when the local vote is held. If it's the latter, Kenney would need to move quickly to have his supporters gain control of enough CA Boards to get friendly delegates appointed. The local Annual General Meeting is the most likely place for such a move, but how many CAs are having AGM's between now and when the delegates would be chosen?

3. What could go wrong?

The PC Party has the right to refuse or revoke the membership of anyone whose membership is deemed "not in the best interests of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta". This is not a common occurrence by any means, but it's a tool they have at their disposal.

So, just like the NDP did with the "Kudatah" gang who tried to sign up as members in order to take over the governing party from within, the PCAA has the ability to deny membership to anyone who they know isn't joining to help the PC cause.

And while this might be an overwhelmingly difficult task - there's no blood test for motives, after all - it's also conspicuously easy, in that there's only one membership you'd need to revoke or refuse in order to torpedo Kenney's chances of winning the PC leadership:

Jason Kenney.

If you're not a member-in-good-standing of the Party, you can't run for its leadership. All stop. And if Kenney is being up-front and public (he's not, yet - this is conjecture that's been bandied about in the press) about his desire to win the leadership of PCAA in order to start another party and get Wildrose supporters and PC supporters to meet on new terms, without either having to surrender to the other (the approach many argue would be the ONLY palatable or legal option available for a "merger"), then it's not a hard argument to make that Jason Kenney would therefore NOT be acting in the best interests of the PCAA - because he'd be advocating for its destruction.

I know, a lot of you think that doesn't sound like a bad idea, and that it would be in the best interest of Alberta, but the PCAA Board isn't bound by what you or I or the local mechanic think is best for Alberta. They're bound by what's best for the PCAA. When the 2 line up, decisions are easy. When they don't, decisions are a lot harder. This would be one of those times. If Kenney was declared ineligible to run for the leadership on account of his not being a member-in-good-standing, the effort would die right then and there.

4. What are the reasons for caution?

There are many. The first, and most obvious one, is money. Kenney is a fundraising machine - as was Jim Prentice before him - but the rules are different in Alberta now, and fundraising requires a broader stroke than it used to. But that's not what I'm talking about.

If the PCAA and Wildrose ceased to exist, the money in their central and local CA accounts would go buh-bye. Opinions on the accuracy of that statement vary, but the only interpretation that really matters is the interpretation of the organization that governs the finances of Alberta's political parties. And they say, in effect: If you cease to exist as a party, your money goes away. It cannot be transferred to a different party. It pays off party debt, then it sits for a year in case you change your mind, and then it goes into General Revenue. Both the PCAA and Wildrose are in the black when assets are weighed against liabilities, so that's a lot of money that goes off the table. Kenney could find more for the new party, to be sure, but fiscal conservatives hate to see money wasted - particularly money that was fundraised for conservative candidates, and ends up in the General Revenue fund to be spent by Rachel Notley.

The second is further vote-splitting. If Kenney is successful in winning the PCAA leadership, some of the party's moderate voices are going to leave, and either disengage or find new homes in the Alberta Party or the Liberals. How that number would compare to the number of Wildrose supporters who would join the Kenney PC's no one can say for certain. But there will be some in the Wildrose who steadfastly refuse to ever work with anyone who was involved in the PCAA, regardless of who their current leader is. And if those folks stay in the Wildrose, join the Alberta Reform Party, or start up another party entirely, it creates yet another vote-split on the right.

The third is tricky: Victory is not assured - either short-term OR long-term. When Jim Prentice rode in on his white horse to save the PCAA and Alberta as a whole, he did it with almost unanimous endorsement from the massive PC Caucus. As it turned out, the judgement of elected MLAs on issues of politics isn't completely unassailable after all, because a year later most of them were unemployed and Prentice was persona non grata.

Likewise is the possible case with Jason Kenney. Even if he got the support of most of the current PC Caucus (there's at least one member whose endorsement he shouldn't be counting on), and many of the former MLA's, those opinions carry a LOT less weight with rank-and-file PC members than they used to. Having been very recently burned by the judgement of their local "kingmakers", grassroots PC members have taken a more active and independent stance on issues like constitutional amendments and the election of a new provincial board. The question of the Party Leadership would likely fall into that category as well. If Kenney wants to win the leadership, he may have to do it DESPITE these present members, and that means signing up new members all across Alberta. He can likely count on the support of some of his federal Conservative allies, but can he count on all of them? Would the ones in Northern Alberta help him out, if it meant creating a headache for their pal and former caucus-mate Brian Jean? A smart strategy would be to target the constituencies with the smallest membership numbers, because you'd have less work to do - and under the delegated system, all constituencies top out at the same number of votes in a leadership contest, whether they have 20 party members in the riding, or 2000.

But even if Kenney DOES win the leadership, can he win the province? It would be a HUGE step backwards for him to leave federal politics, win the leadership of the Alberta PC's, and then achieve (at best) Leader of the Official Opposition status. He can have that in Ottawa, in a heartbeat.

In order for Kenney to win the Premier's Office and avoid the ignominious fate described above, he'd have to convince 2 of Alberta's 3 voting blocs that he and his party (whatever that party would be called or look like in 3 years) were the best choice to lead Alberta. The traditional 3 blocs in Alberta are Edmonton, Calgary, and Rural Alberta - if you can dominate 2 of those 3, you can win a majority government. Under Klein, the Tories dominated Calgary and Rural Alberta. Under Stelmach and Redford, they had great success in Calgary and Edmonton, but lost a lot of the rural south in the later years. Under Prentice, they lost all of Edmonton and much of Calgary - making overall defeat inevitable.

Can Jason Kenney win Edmonton? It would be a hard sell. His provincial policy positions aren't well known, but it's safe to say that fiscal restraint would be a big emphasis for the former head of the Canadian Taxpayer's Federation. Edmonton is an AUPE town, and preaching "fiscal restraint" in a union town sounds a lot like "salary freezes and layoffs".  Which doesn't make the policy WRONG, mind you - it just makes it unlikely to help win you the popularity contest we call "an election".

Can Jason Kenney win Calgary? Absolutely he can. He's well-known in the city, his contacts run deep, and his pro-business message would be very popular. The only potential stumbling block for him in Calgary would be pipelines: If a pipeline getting Alberta oil to tidewater gets approved with the Trudeau Liberals in power in Ottawa and the Notley NDP in power in Edmonton, it makes the job of convincing Albertans that "only a conservative government can get our product to market" a lot harder.

Can Jason Kenney win Rural Alberta? Who the hell knows? He's not necessarily the best-known politician in rural Alberta, particularly as you get further away from Calgary, but the support of fellow Conservative MP's would go a long way to bridging that gap. But would Rural Alberta - particularly in the south - give another chance to a party that had a large plurality of former Progressive Conservatives in it? Would they elect a local candidate who had been a PC? Would they vote for a shiny, new 3rd party if half of their province-wide candidates had run as PC's in previous elections?

Kenney might do well to thank former PC candidates and MLAs (and Wildrose ones too, for that matter) for their support, and then make it clear he wouldn't sign nomination papers for any of them in the interest of giving Albertans something "clearly new" to vote for. You lose a lot of institutional and political wisdom from your potential caucus in that move, but you also permanently jettison a LOT of baggage.

Adding to the uncertainty, is the fact that with redistribution on the horizon, most pundits expect the overall weight of the rural constituencies to diminish in favour of more weight for the major cities.

So, after almost 2,000 words:

  • Can Kenney win the PC Leadership? Yes.
  • Can he be stopped? Yes.
  • Is running for the leadership in the best interests of Alberta? That's up to you to decide your opinion on.
  • Is it in the best interest of Jason Kenney? A soft MAYBE. He might be the next Brad Wall (presumably without the deficits). He might be the next Jim Prentice.

What do YOU think, Nation? Will he? SHOULD he? And if he does, will it work out the way he HOPES it will? Sound off below!

- Savage out.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Blind Leading The Blind

I've written this blog post 3 times now.

The first time, I completed it, only to read back and realize I was casting aspersions on the motives of certain people. That wasn't my intention, but it happened early on, and soured the whole post. So I trashed it and started over.

The second time, I made some pretty big assumptions about the most likely power-brokers behind the scenes. I realized that wasn't what I actually wanted to write about, so I cleared the screen, and started over.

Here's the thing: I don't find writing as enjoyable as I used to. It takes a lot of time - a LOT of it - to get things written down just the way I want them. In that time, people have already used Twitter and Facebook to make up their minds on a given issue, and once they cross the line from "idea I favour" to "belief I hold", there's no point in trying to convince them otherwise. Beliefs are tricky.

Add to this that for the most part, I've been filling my time either with a) my family, which is absolutely where my focus belongs, or b) work, which in this economy is a blessing that can't be ignored, and it's a little more clear why I've only been able to rattle off a half-dozen blog posts in the space of a calendar year that included both a provincial election AND a federal election.

But, when something gets me REALLY fired up, I can't help myself.

There has been a lot of talk lately about "uniting the right" in Alberta. Wildrose Leader Brian Jean talked about it at his party's AGM, in the context that Progressive Conservative supporters should buy Wildrose memberships, and join the ascendant party. He changed his tone at a recent fundraiser, and left several other options on the table, whether it was a re-brand of Wildrose (along the lines of the Reform Party's evolution to the Canadian Alliance) or to possibly fold up both the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta AND the Wildrose Party, and create an entirely new entity out of the ashes of both.

Note: I'm not in favour. But that's a blog post for another day, and it's not the subject of this one. When that post comes, I'll be honoured to argue with all of you about the pros and cons until we need to consume all the scotch in Christendom.

We've also been hearing from former PC MLA's that this is exactly what they want to see. They argue that this is the right thing for Alberta, that we need to end vote-splitting on the right to keep Notley from winning a second term in 2019 or 2020.

I have come to respect some of these vocal former MLA's. Some of them are my friends.

And they don't know what the hell they're talking about.

If I can pull back the veil for a minute, as someone who has worked closely with MLA's, I want to share something with all of you that might not be readily evident:

MLA's are just people. That's it. They're not demi-gods. You don't find them sitting on top of a mountain dispensing wisdom (well, except for one - Hi Dave!). They're no more special than you or me. They're not necessarily smarter. Or more gifted. And I say that with all the love in the world. They're just like the rest of us - and they're SUPPOSED to be. That's the entire point.

"But, but, but... E.S., these people got ELECTED! Something that, BY THE WAY, you couldn't manage to do when you tried it. They live and breathe politics! Surely, they know what the right thing to do is?"

Let's step back.

What does it take to become an MLA, and get a beautiful Mace lapel pin?

First of all, you have to win a nomination race. Depending on the timing and the party, that may be as simple as being the only person to have stepped forward, or you may have to run in a contested vote. Or, in some cases (Hi, Jono!) MORE than one contested vote (ah, 2008...). But even if the race is contested, in some instances and parties a hundred to a few hundred votes will get you the win. Getting a hundred votes is hard. You need to be organized, and work hard, but it's not 10,000 votes.

AFTER you win your nomination race, and receive the blessing of your chosen party... you don't necessarily have to do ANYTHING. I mean, it can certainly help your chances if you go out to the community, knock on doors, attend the local barn dance, show up at PTA meetings and 4H meetings and the like, but ultimately (as much as I wish it were otherwise), your fate as a candidate has more to do with the performance of your party's Leader and central campaign staff than anything you're going to do.

Don't get me wrong - a great candidate and a great local team can - and do - work miracles from time to time. But for every great candidate who beats long odds, there are 20 candidates - be they phenomenally gifted politicians or just regular folks who had the courage to step forward - who work incredibly hard, but lose because they're running under the wrong leader, at the wrong time, in the wrong riding.

And we have only to look at the results from this past May to see exactly what I mean. We saw a lot of people elected as MLA's who barely campaigned, raised and spent virtually no money, but they were the local candidate for the party whose Leader had captured the imagination of the electorate. That's not a condemnation of them - not by a long shot. But let's call a spade a spade: The candidates who won - and the candidates they defeated - were not, in most cases, the masters of their own destiny.

And it's always been this way. It's the unavoidable result of the Party system, where voters focus on the Party Leaders and barely pay any attention to the local candidates. As a result, we have to accept that the candidates who are elected won't necessarily be the best local choice - rather, they were (in many cases) the candidate representing the correct Party for a plurality of their local voters. But whatever they ARE, we have to accept that they're NOT better than we are. They put their shoes on one foot at a time.

And they make mistakes.

Here's a fun fact: Of the 43 sitting PC MLA's who ran for re-election and lost in 2015, 39 of them endorsed Jim Prentice for PC Leader. Some of them went further, and actually helped the "draft Jim" movement that changed Prentice's initial "no" to a "yes". If you accept - as many do - that Prentice and his pals and their campaign strategy were what sank the Battleship Tory, then you have to accept that those 39 former MLA's - some of them among the most vocal of the "unite the right" crowd - exercised TERRIBLE judgement in throwing their unequivocal support - not to mention their livelihoods - to a guy who would leave them unemployed and defeated 243 days after winning the party leadership, and barely 4 months after absorbing most of their Official Opposition in the Legislature (a move those defeated MLA's also publicly and enthusiastically endorsed at the time).

They bet on Prentice as the guy to appeal to Martha and Henry. They bet on him to bring some of that "Harper Magic" back to Alberta where it was born. They bet on him to get pipelines built, save Alberta's economy, and also (incidentally) their jobs. They backed his early election call. They backed his backroom deal with the Wildrose defectors. They gave him everything he wanted, in the hopes that people would forget most of them were elected as enthusiastic candidates for the Alison Redford PC's in 2012.

In short: These defeated former MLA's screwed up. BIG time.

This doesn't mean that everything they say is automatically wrong, any more than everything *I* say is automatically wrong. But what it DOES do is show that the fact that you used to be an MLA doesn't make your political judgement unassailable. It doesn't mean that everything you say should be taken as 100% inarguable truth, because you used to sit on the government side of the Legislature, or even in the front row. Maybe this former MLA or that former MLA DOES think a merger is a good idea. I've spoken to dozens of PC members myself over the past month, and I've heard 2 people in favour. Call it 2 in favour, 34 opposed. Does your voice drown out those 34, because you used to have an Edmonton office? Does your vote count more than theirs? Speak directly into the microphone, please.

If these former PC MLA's want to join the Wildrose so badly, they can buy a membership. Here's the link. They may want to consider, though, that under the current PCAA Code of Conduct, they can't be PC candidates in the future if they hold a membership in another provincial party. Or maybe they've already considered that, which is why a merger is so damned important to them.

Power's addictive. Being an MLA - especially a government MLA - is a position of power and influence. It's a chance to make your community, and society, better. Whatever that means to you. I can completely understand why someone would want the job. And I completely understand why someone who LOST the job - maybe through little fault of their own - would want to do whatever they could to remove barriers to them getting it back in the future.

I totally understand.

But just because you WANT it, doesn't make it "what's best for Albertans".

And even if you really believe, in your heart of hearts, that a merger IS what's best for Albertans, let me tell you: you're wrong.

Just like you were wrong about Jim.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

When You're A Jet...

When you're a Jet, 
You're a Jet all the way 
From your first cigarette 
To your last dyin' day. 

When you're a Jet, 
If the spit hits the fan, 
You got brothers around, 
You're a family man! 

You're never alone, 
You're never disconnected! 
You're home with your own: 
When company's expected, 
You're well protected! 

Then you are set 
With a capital J, 
Which you'll never forget 
Till they cart you away. 
When you're a Jet, 
You stay a Jet! 

 - Sondheim, West Side Story

Nation, as the 42nd Federal Election winds down, I've found myself thinking a lot about the state of democracy in this country.

To say that this has not been an uplifting campaign full of respectful exchanges of ideas would be akin to saying I found Star Wars Episode One "a tad underwhelming".

We humans are social creatures. We seek each other out. We want to build and belong to social constructs. Even the introverts among us (myself included) feel a need to BELONG to something larger than ourselves...

A family.

A religious organization.

A political party.

A gang.

We feel driven to BELONG to something, and what we want more than anything is to feel safe when we're there. We want to feel accepted, and protected. Sometimes, though, this results in something a bit more dangerous: It leaves us feeling that we are more righteous than those who don't choose to follow our path. 

We know "the truth".

We're better and smarter than they are. 

We're good. And if we're good, and they choose not to join us, then they, as "the Others", are bad. 

This exclusionist way of thinking can take us to some pretty dark places. Some of them have been on full display during this 4,871-day campaign (or maybe it's just felt that long to me). The place I want to cast a little bit of light on, though, is our political parties themselves.

Whether we belong to a particular party ourselves, or just tend to lean more in one direction than the other, it's the easiest form of politics to use labels to describe ourselves, and "the Others". We're conservative, and everyone who isn't one of us is a "tax-and-spend liberal". We're progressive, and anyone who is opposed to us is a "neanderthal social conservative". The reality, though, is that people are NOT labels. Labels are simple, and people are complex. When we try to apply a simple black-and-white worldview to the wide range of opinions a person can have on a particular issue, it just doesn't fit - leading us, naturally, to apply the simple binary standard: Does this person agree with me, or are they one of "the Others"?

Part of the problem - a big part, in my opinion - is that we identify ourselves as holding political BELIEFS, rather than political IDEAS. I'll leave the explaining to the Chris Rock character "Rufus the Apostle", written by Kevin Smith for his film Dogma:
“I think it's better to have ideas. You can change an idea.  Changing a belief is trickier.  Life should be malleable and progressive, working from idea to idea permits that.  Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth.  New ideas can't generate. Life becomes stagnant.”
If I have the IDEA that the Earth is stationary and the Sun revolves around it, then it's easier for me to change that idea when presented with contrary evidence. If I BELIEVE that the Sun revolves around the Earth, then Galileo ends up locked in a tower, despite the fact that he's ultimately going to be proven correct. Because he's challenging my BELIEFS, and has to be defeated and destroyed. He's a heretic. An "Other".

Once we've identified - to our own satisfaction - that someone isn't WITH us, our inclination - at least in politics - is to go on the attack. We've seen this recently when a member of a provincial party in Alberta which has tended to lean to the right in past publicly came out in support of a former colleague running for the centre-left Liberal Party in the federal election.

"This is terrible!" went the hue and cry from those on the right, within her own party and others. "How can a person call themselves a conservative if they'll support a liberal!?!"


It goes like this:

"I worked with this person. I like them, and respect them, and they're my friend, and they have some good ideas, and I think they'd make a good Member of Parliament. And also, you don't get to tell me who I'm allowed to be friends with."

That last point is key.

I believe, in my heart of hearts, that people get involved in politics for the right reasons. Almost without exception. They want to raise the level of debate. They want their fellow citizens to be informed about issues that matter to them. They want to make their community a better place. They want life to be better, for themselves and for others.

What we end up with when we adopt this exclusionary, gang-mentality "my way is the only true path!" way of looking at our politics, however, is quite different.

Stephen Harper is NOT happy that First Nations women are missing and being killed. He is also not pleased that people are assaulting women in niqabs.

Justin Trudeau does NOT want to make a brothel mandatory in your neighbourhood. He is likewise not planning to sell crystal meth in your child's school.

Tom Mulcair is NOT planning to send all our jobs to France as result of his dual citizenship. Neither does he want to see Toronto attacked by terrorists.

Are we clear?

The problem is, we're NOT clear. We're not clear at ALL. Because the people who are really, REALLY into politics - people who, as I said above, almost without exception got into it for the right reasons - are stating the above points as truth. They're telling their family and friends this stuff, and the general public starts to buy into it.


Well, at the end of the day politics in Canada is a pursuit where one person wins, and everyone else loses. One party is in government, shaping policies and making laws, and the others are on the outside looking in, opposing the government but unable to affect much change.

It doesn't HAVE to be this way. But this is how it is. "Win at all costs". It leads to gerrymandering. It leads to dirty tricks. It leads to sign vandalism. It leads to trolling. It leads to stunts. It leads to on-line witch hunts. 

Everyone wants "their team" to win, and "the Others" to lose. Because if MY team wins, then we're special. We've got The Truth. The policies and ideas that I support will be made law. And I feel warm and fuzzy knowing that my fellow citizens have validated my choice. And if I have to get a little dirty to make that happen, then so be it: the end justifies the means.

But why did I get into politics in the first place?

To raise the level of debate.
To inform my fellow citizens.
To make my community a better place.
To make life better.

Instead, the debate is lowered - to the lowest possible level. The citizenry is confused by 2, 3 or more sets of conflicting "facts". The community is torn asunder because everyone who's not WITH us, is AGAINST us. Neighbours are destroying signs being put up by their neighbours, and shouting at each other at candidate forums that become a contest in "who can get more supporters to fill the seats meant for undecided voters?". And life isn't better - it's a meaner, darker place where the party that wins rubs it in the face of those who lose, and the losers spend the next few years resenting the winners, resenting everything their government does, and trying to think of new ways to stick it to them when next they get a chance.

There are ways out of this mess our parties have created, fed, and allowed to grow.

There are ways to be better. To actually raise the level of debate. To inform our fellow citizens. To make our community a better place, and to make life better for everyone. 

We can do all of this, if we truly want to.

But first, we have to lose the gang mentality. 

We have to decide that the way it is now isn't good enough, and that we want to be better than we've been.

We have to decide that the object of this pursuit is NOT to "win", if it means that everyone who isn't with us must "lose".

The fine details of how we're governed, and the policies that guide our lawmakers, are not simple black-and-white. There's a lot of grey.

There ARE no "Others".

There are no Jets. No Sharks.

There's just all of us, out here, trying to make the world better according to the best ideas we've heard so far.

We're all in this together.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Open Challenge

Nation, as a resident of Calgary Shepard, which is a new federal constituency on the city of Calgary's southeast edge, I find myself in a fairly unique position: I have no incumbent Member of Parliament.

There are, of course, many ridings where the incumbent is not running for re-election. But in the case of Calgary Shepard, there has NEVER been an M.P. Most of this riding had been previously represented by Jason Kenney (who was first elected when my entire neighbourhood was a farmer's field), however with the riding split following the boundary adjustments, Mr. Kenney is running in the riding of Calgary Midnapore.

This creates an opportunity for someone to step forward and plant a flag, as the first ever Member of Parliament representing the riding of Calgary Shepard in the House of Commons. To their credit, as of the writing of this post, 4 people have done just that, and stepped forward. They are:

Dany Allard, IT professional
Graham MacKenzie, Teacher
Jerome James, Engineer
Tom Kmiec, Human Resources professional

Here's my challenge: Tell me why I should vote for one of these people.

A little background, first: You will no doubt notice that I have not included the political parties of the candidates. This is because, quite simply, it doesn't matter. Many of my political friends and long-time readers will argue this point with me, but they'll be wrong. There's no guarantee that, the day they're sworn in as M.P., any of these 4 candidates will still belong to the same party they did on the day of the election (ask any of the 20,062 Vancouver-area citizens who voted for Liberal David Emerson on January 23rd 2006 and saw Conservative David Emerson sworn into cabinet on February 6th 2006).

So here are the rules of the challenge:

  • I want to hear reasons why I should support your candidate of choice that do not include the names of any parties. My vote can't go to a party. It can only go to an individual, and like I said in the paragraph preceding this one, parties can change. So I don't want to hear that I should support such-and-such because the Liberals believe yadda yadda yadda... doesn't matter. Tell me about HIM, and what HE thinks.
  • I don't want to hear about party leaders. Period. There are no party leaders on my ballot. It doesn't matter who Mulcair hates, or whether or not Justin is ready. They're not on my ballot.
  • I want to hear about why I should vote FOR someone, not AGAINST the others. This is a riding where in hiring someone to be the first ever MP for the riding, I don't have to fire the person who's already in the job. So I don't need to know why the current MP needs to be turfed in favour of your candidate - there isn't a current MP on the ballot. Likewise, don't talk about the other candidates and why they SHOULDN'T get the job - talk about your candidate, and why he SHOULD.

That's it. 3 simple rules. If your comment on this post follows them, I will seriously consider your argument as to why my vote should go to your candidate. If it breaks any of the 3 rules, I will disregard the entirety of your argument.

My vote is up for grabs, folks: EARN it.

p.s. Apologies for the recent silence, Nation - I was on a good tear there, getting my rhythm and mojo back in form, and then had a bit of a medical issue (since resolved, thankfully) pop up that kept me flat on my back. Good to go now.

I wanted to put this blog post out a little earlier, but with over a month to election day, now's as good a time as any.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Running Scared

Nation, the numbers don't lie - nobody raises more money in Canadian politics than the Conservative Party of Canada. It's not even close.

No doubt, most of that money is being studiously squirreled away for the upcoming election. However, there are expenses that a party has to incur BEFORE an election: Advertising, platform development, branding, polling - the list is long. But it's that LAST one - private polling - that really gets the attention of a party's movers and shakers.

I've been in meetings where the platform was a 5 minute conversation, and internal polling took just about an hour to go over. "How are we doing overall? How are we doing regionally? In urban areas? In rural areas? Who do voters find the most appealing as a leader? Who do they trust? Are they happy with the direction we're going, or proposing?"

The truth of the matter is, nobody is polling more than the CPC, because nobody has more to spend than the CPC. And while most of us mere mortals will never have a chance to take a look at those polling numbers, we can ascertain what they're indicating by watching what the Tories choose to spend their money on... and right now, the answer is pretty clear:


You can't turn on the tv or the radio without hearing about how Justin Trudeau is "not ready". Over the past few months we've been treated to commercials featuring Justin stripping, talking about budgets balancing themselves, and pandering to pot activists. Never in the history of Canadian politics has the party in power in Ottawa spent this much time and money attacking the leader of the THIRD party in the House, and so completely ignored the Leader of the Opposition.

As a result, we can safely draw the conclusion that the Tory campaign braintrust are seeing poll results that point towards their chief competition being not Tom Mulcair, but rather the Dauphin himself, the Scion of He Who Shall Not Be Named, Justin Trudeau.

There are, of course, other indicators that the Tories aren't polling as well as they'd like. They've actually found themselves facing the intolerable, unthinkable burden of having to campaign in Alberta. As in, make promises so as not to lose seats. In Alberta. ALBERTA., who just like any pollster or poll aggregator are far from perfect (but are still right WAY more often than they're wrong) show a good likelihood that if the election were held today, the NDP would increase its seat count in Alberta from 1 to 4 (yes, all in Edmonton). More unthinkable, though, is the notion that 3 Liberals - LIBERALS - would be elected, with 2 of them coming from Harper's adopted hometown of Calgary.


Canada's energy capital.

Electing the party that brought in the NEP.


That sound you just heard was Ezra's head exploding.

Now, we don't know if the CPC internal polling shows these same numbers, or if the picture is better (or, even worse). What we DO know, is that the Conservatives are poised to lose their majority, if the current polls bear out on Election Day. It would be a crushing defeat, humbling, and almost certainly spell the end of the Prime Minister's career. The snipes passing back and forth between Mulcair and Trudeau in recent weeks make it unlikely that the 2 men would form a legislative coalition government in the minority scenario, even if the benefit was the removal of the CPC from power.

The conventional wisdom is this, however: Stephen Harper has no desire to finish his term as Prime Minister the way he started it - at the mercy of a minority parliament, out-numbered and unable to pass legislation without compromise. He needs centrist voters, who can traditionally swing Liberal or Tory without compromising their core values either way, to abandon Trudeau and vote Tory. Appealing to likely NDP voters won't work - their values won't let them vote Conservative. The best he can hope for is that those voters stay home on Election Day.

The Liberals. Trudeau. That's who Stephen needs to target. And he's doing it.

Will it work?

Joan Crockatt and Devinder Shory, the Conservative candidates in Calgary Centre and Calgary Skyview, certainly hope so. Because if the polls hold, those ridings will be coloured red after Election Day.

Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies...

Rivers and seas boiling...

Forty years of darkness...



The dead rising from the grave.

Human sacrifice. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria.

The Conservatives know who they have to target. The question they need to be asking themselves, and answering honestly, is this: Is it working? Is saying this guy's name at every opportunity turning voters off of him?

Or does it just look like we're running scared?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Rising Tide

Nation, we're now over 10 weeks into the reign of terror known as "NDPocalypse 2015", and I thought I'd take a break from hoarding food and stashing cash in my mattresses to discuss one of the key planks of the NDP platform during the spring election: Raising the minimum wage.

Indeed, the minimum wage issue was one of the pieces of fruit that was so low-hanging that the new government moved in its shortened Spring sitting to take immediate action on it. Phased in over several years, the minimum wage in Alberta will move from the level it has been ($10.20/hour generally, $9.20 for liquor servers as it's assumed they receive gratuities) to the NDP's "fair minimum wage" of $15/hour, with no distinction for liquor servers.

Now, full disclosure right off the get-go: I agree with the NDP that the minimum wage has historically been far too low in Alberta. The purchasing power that minimum wage earners have to contribute to the economy and to better their chances at climbing up the socio-economic ladder through continuing education is VERY low in Alberta, where a red-hot economy has in past meant that rent is higher, food is more expensive, and pretty much everything you buy is - relatively-speaking - a bigger bite out of whatever you have left after you pay for the essentials. Sure, the income tax is lower than in some places... but if you're working a minimum wage job, you aren't paying a lot of tax to begin with. And the fact that you're not paying provincial sales tax helps, but when your monthly income is $1632 (gross, pre-tax), saving that extra 5% or so at the till is a difference of $81 if you were to spend every dime you earned - and darned sure the extra cost of living in Calgary swallows up those $81 right quick.

I'm not deaf to the assertion that minimum wage earners should "get an education and increase their earnings potential" - but with what money are they supposed to pay for tuition? And with what time can they go to school? Even assuming they got student loans that covered the full cost of tuition, AND all books and supplies, the fact remains that in order to afford to live, they're still going to have to work a full-time schedule. And god help them if they have children.

The bottom line is that minimum wage earners aren't all "kids in high school working at McDonald's" (50% are aged 25 or older). There are 38,000 Albertans in the workforce who earn minimum wage - they're not on welfare. They're TRYING to help themselves. But the nature of our economy dictates that in order to live anything resembling the life that so many of us take for granted, they have to work 50 or 60 hours per week - and that's just to avoid having to live 2 to a room in a run-down, borderline-condemnable apartment. We're not talking about driving an SUV, vacationing in Cancun and sending little Johnny to Electric Guitar Camp. They're stuck in a situation that - by their own making, as result of their own choices, or because of external factors such as a failed marriage or a pension plan that took a bath over the past decade (nearly 12% of minimum-wage workers are over 55 years old) - by its very nature makes it almost impossible to escape.

ALL of that said, I'm uneasy about increasing the minimum wage by 47% in 3 years. And here's why:

"A rising tide lifts all ships"

Rare (bordering on the non-existent) is the case of the business that saw a government-mandated increase in their cost of doing business and said "well, there's nothing we can do but absorb the hit to our bottom line".

In the case of the minimum wage increase, we are going to see the impact reflected first in the two-pronged approach of price increases at the till and reduced worker hours (whether shorter hours of service or job cuts). You'll pay more for your coffee, and your meal at the restaurant. The drive-thru will be closed. Your movie ticket will cost more, and there will be longer lines at the concession stand because only 2 registers will be open while the other 10 sit unattended.

That's the first thing we'll see, and the first that many people will notice that this policy - meant to help people who in many cases are just barely treading water - has repercussions.

Good business people know they have to tread a fine line when it comes to charging for a good or service. You can only charge what the market will bear, or you'll drive away business - which is bad for your bottom line, and therefore your workers. If Albertans aren't willing to pay $18 for a movie ticket in the world of Netflix, the theatres can't charge $18. So they'll charge what they think we WILL pay - say $15 - and make up the difference another way. That might mean your large diet coke goes up fifty cents. Or it might mean Myrna (72 years old, widow, pension was wiped out by the market in 2009) and Stephanie (23, single mom whose ex moved back to Oman 6 months ago and left her and the baby in the lurch) are going to be let go, or will have to work 40 hours BETWEEN them, instead of 40 hours EACH.

Think about that - stop obsessing over the cost of your diet coke for a second (yes, I KNOW it's already highway robbery - FOCUS!), and think about Myrna and Stephanie. If they were each earning $1632 per month (again, PRE-tax) under the old system, now they're earning $1200 per month - with the 50% reduction in hours. They *might* be able to get another part-time job to cover the shortfall, but then again, there are fewer jobs out there. Those who can't find jobs at all, because employers have to be choosier about who they're hiring with their limited staffing dollars, end up on social assistance. You and me get better service once we get up to the register (maybe), but it comes at a cost to us in terms of our time spent in line, and our taxes going to help the people the theatre had to let go who couldn't find other work in a suddenly VERY chilly job market.

There's another issue that pops up as result of this change, however, and it's one I have yet to hear discussed in the media releases from opponents to the move: This inflation of the minimum wage creates a situation where prices on just about everything rise. Which means that the $15 per hour you'll be earning in 2018 will NOT buy what it would have bought in 2014. Because the price of eggs, and milk, and formula have gone up due to wages in the grocery store. The cost of living has gone up, because landlords can now charge more as the minimum-wage earners have more money (those who were able to maintain a full-time schedule, anyhow). The subsidy for the monthly transit pass has been sharply reduced, or gone away entirely. Student loans are now harder to get, because your income has gone up by 47%, gross (again, assuming your hours of work weren't reduced). Other wages have gone up in the public and private sector, because for those who DO live with family and don't have to be the primary bread winner, why would I take your incredibly stressful office job for $16 per hour when I can do something I enjoy that's a 5-minute walk from my house with little responsibility for a buck less? And the price of just about everything else has gone up, too: Because wages have gone up, and people have more money, and the businesses want that money to cover their rising costs (remember: their expenses have gone up with the minimum wage, either directly to staff or indirectly for services and products they need to carry on business).

I don't pretend to know what the solution is, here... I'm not an economist. I don't even play one on tv. I'm not suggesting we set the minimum wage at $1 per hour so everyone can have a job, and bread will cost a nickle per loaf. The fact that these changes are being phased in over several years is a positive step that gives businesses a chance to do the math and figure out what they're going to do in order to deal with the changing reality. But I have to wonder if, in THIS particular case, the reality of a $15 minimum wage might actually do more to HARM those who earn the minimum wage than it will to HELP them. If their hours are reduced, or they're let go, and the price of just about everything goes up, are they better off?

I'm not the sharpest knife in this particular drawer: there's math involved. I'm counting on you, folks, to have this discussion... discuss below in response to this post, discuss on social media, discuss with your neighbours, and discuss with your MLA. Helping people is good. But this policy might not actually do that - then again, it might. Maybe I'm 100% wrong, and my fears are unfounded. Let's do the diligence. Let's start today, and maybe by Fall Session we'll be able to have an informed discussion about precedents and make sure our government is working from the best available information. Because policy made with fact, rather than dogma, as its foundation is typically much better for everyone.

Including Myrna and Stephanie.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Own It

Nation, it has now been just a shade over 2 months since the end of civilization as we know it NDP was elected to govern Alberta. We're going to talk about our new government a LOT over the next while, but today's post is about a particular reclamation project that has been off-and-on for many years now, which with this new government running things might actually (finally) get off the ground.

I'm talking, of course, about the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta, which traces its lineage back to the founding of our province in 1905. You might remember them more recently as "The Natural Governing Party of Alberta (TM)".

The reality of the election result this spring was that Albertans had finally had enough of the crap they had been seeing from the PC's for years. In the age of social media, where any jerk with a keyboard can get a message out to hundreds or thousands (case in point: this blog), the dirt was starting to come to the surface, and Albertans didn't like what they were hearing or seeing.

At a certain point, it doesn't even matter whether allegations are true or not. Once you reach a tipping point, where the public no longer trusts you, the response goes from "that's probably not true" to "I could see them doing that". And at that point, the battle is over: In politics, once you've lost the people, you don't have anything left.

To govern, you have to win a popularity contest first. And people won't vote for someone they don't trust.

The PCAA, as the third largest caucus in a majority legislature, is in a perfect position now to do something they should have been doing LONG ago, but couldn't due to fears it might hurt their chances at fundraising and re-election: They can finally own their shit.

I'm not suggesting they dig through files going back 110 years and trot out Ric McIver for daily sessions of self-flagellation on the Legislature steps. Trust me - NOBODY wants to see that.

What I *am* suggesting, though, is that for the first time in nearly 20 years, the PC's have an opportunity to have their Leader, or President, or Managing Director, stand up in response to a question about a past transgression and say "on reflection, we've looked into this and what happened was in violation of our Principles. It was wrong, and it won't happen again."

Not since Ralph Klein have the PCs had a Leader who was willing to stand up and publicly say the words "I made a mistake". Not the passive "mistakes were made", but a straight-up mea culpa. Klein felt free to do it primarily because he didn't have much viable opposition in his heyday, and also he was just GOOD at apologizing. It's a skill that comes from years of practice, making lots of mistakes and being able to admit - to yourself and to others - that they were mistakes. At any point in the last several years, did you get the impression that a PC Leader was humble enough to admit - even privately - when they were in over their head? Yeah. Me neither.

Over the course of at LEAST the next 4 years researchers from both the government and opposition caucuses, MLAs, Committees, and the general public are going to scour every record they can get their hands on, to try and put a stake through the heart of the PCAA for good. They might well succeed. But the absolute best, sure-fire way to ENSURE that they succeed is for the PCs to refuse to own it. When something comes out - and make no mistake, things WILL come out - it is incumbent on the Leader of the PCAA to step up to the mic and own it, even if it didn't happen on their watch.

And if the Leader isn't willing to do that, then it's incumbent on the PCAA President to do so.

A failure to own up to mistakes and be honestly embarrassed at having made them, and a lack of a clear statement that such behaviour will NOT be tolerated on a go-forward basis is the death knell for the PC Party in Alberta. Albertans showed with Klein that they would be willing to forgive almost ANY transgression, so long as the violator showed honest remorse. For the past decade-plus, "remorse" has been a dirty word in the PCAA. But pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

Even now, some well-known party members advocate for a "no rear-view mirror" policy, where the only discussion that can be had is "how positive the future looks", and any reflection on how they got to this point is "too negative". Nobody's suggesting that you have to sit in the corner for the next decade and do nothing but mull over your failings - but you have to reflect on what you've been doing wrong, in order to ensure it doesn't happen again, and a big part of that starts with the PCAA coming to terms with the "cult of personality" it has built around its Leaders for decades now.

Let's keep in mind that the President is the "Executive Head of the Association" (per the PCAA Constitution) and the Leader is the "Chief Public and Political Official of the PCAA". I'm not saying that when the 2 disagree they should battle it out American Gladiator-style, but for the past several years the practice has been to let the Leader have whatever the hell they want, almost without exception. Votes have been whipped by Leaders using their MLAs to get local delegates to elect the President they wanted - so obviously, the position must have some authority, or why go to the trouble? If the Leader is stepping out of line with the Party that put him or her in that position, the President needs to be able to pull the Leader back in line.

MLAs and Leadership Contenders are always careful to note when talking to members of the Party that the Party and the Caucus are 2 separate, yet equally important things. I agree that they're separate. Where you lose me, though, is the "equally important" part. The PCAA caucus just shrunk from 70 seats to 9. There is still a Party. If the Party had folded up camp and taken the volunteers and money with it, how many of those 70 would have won re-election? Probably fewer. The Caucus, in MANY cases, owes their jobs to the fact they're running as members of the Party. The people who spend dozens or hundreds of hours volunteering to get that candidate an MLA job could just as easily spend those hours volunteering at a soup kitchen, or playing with their kids or grandkids and be none the poorer.

The insinuation has been, of course, that if Caucus or the Leader doesn't want to do something that the Party does, it won't happen. If the Caucus doesn't feel like something should be a PCAA policy, it won't be. And if they feel like something SHOULD be a PCAA policy, it *will* be - no consultation with the membership required. This position completely disenfranchises rank-and-file members of the party. During the "re-building" phase, people are absolutely right to be asking "what is the actual VALUE of my $10 membership - what do I get with that?". And if the answer is "a chance to volunteer and be asked for more money to attend expensive cocktail receptions and events through the year" rather than "a chance to put forward and work on policies that we'll run on in 4 years and will make this province better", it is going to be a looooong rebuild. And I know long rebuilds - I'm an Oilers fan.

This idea that the Leader or Caucus sits aside and above the Party is ass-backwards, and 100% wrong. It's that kind of thinking that leads the Party Leader to decide they want to hire a new Executive Director for the Party, even though the Party already HAS an E.D, and the job of hiring and firing that person belongs to the Party Board of Directors. Or leads a committee loaded with loyalists to decide who is and isn't eligible to be a nomination contestant based on the Leader's wishes rather than objective standards. Just as a couple of purely hypothetical examples, you understand.

The bottom line for any potential candidate or leader of ANY political entity is this: The party membership is the people who raise you money and knock on doors and put out your lawn signs and convince their neighbours to give you a chance. If you think for one second that they are NOT the ultimate authority in the organization, enjoy your next career, because THIS one is ending sooner than you think.

The Leader isn't the Party - the MEMBERS are the Party. And they're in charge.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Revenge of Bill 10

Nation, with (as many as) 4 hours of time in the Legislative Assembly remaining for the introduction, debate, and voting on a Bill 10 that has been rumoured to be a "page one re-write" - not a moment too soon, I might add - it's worth re-examining how we got to this strange place in the Bill's history.

Government Bills pass. Almost always. The only time that Bills put forward by the Government of Alberta don't pass through the Legislature is when they are so fundamentally flawed that even the Cabinet can't support them. Being a Minister responsible for that kind of Bill will probably earn you a "not ready for prime time" label, and a trip to the back benches the next time there's a cabinet shuffle.

In Bill 10, the Tories brought forward a Bill - through a former junior cabinet minister who had been responsible for, among other items, preventing bullying in schools - intended to address the issue of LGBTQ teens being bullied in school. The solution, the government was well-advised, was to make "Gay/Straight Alliances" available to kids. The research was clear that kids with access to the supportive environment of a club in their school where they could be themselves and be surrounded by peers who accepted them were less likely to suffer from depression and less likely to attempt self-harm.

Let's be real, folks: Being a teenager sucks in a lot of important ways. You're oily. Your arms and legs don't really work properly. At least for the first half of your teenage years, you can't drive. You're always hungry. You start to smell funny. Your taste in music goes off the deep end, and your parents mysteriously turn into completely unreasonable and ignorant people (they'll grow out of it when you hit your twenties). For many of us, if you can think back that far, it REALLY sucked. I was a teen in the 90's. Hypercolour shirts were a choice that still haunt much of my generation to this day. Imagine how much worse it would be if the people around you considered you defective, dirty or lesser because of something you didn't choose.

Yes, I know there are people who maintain, despite all evidence to the contrary, that being gay is, in fact, a choice. That's an academic argument that I'm not prepared to have today - my focus isn't on settling the debate around the nature of human sexual identity and attraction. It's about helping kids feel safe at school - which is a more urgent need at the moment.

Now, you may recall that Bill 10 was brought forward by the Government in response to Laurie Blakeman's Bill 202, which would have made it mandatory for schools to allow GSA's when students asked for them.

In a move that can't really be described as anything but crass political gamesmanship, Bill 10 was introduced - because if you're going to do the right thing as a Legislature, you should be able to brag about how it was your government's idea. Bill 10 effectively killed Bill 202, as it dealt with the same issue. When the GSA's were set up, people wouldn't be thanking the Liberal opposition - they'd be thanking the government. And really, what good is a majority if you can't use it to crush your opponents?

The government's Bill 10 added another wrinkle, though: It gave kids a prescribed recourse in the event that a school elected not to allow the requested GSA (Bill 10, unlike Bill 202, didn't make approval of the GSA mandatory - an effort to protect the government from blowback among more socially conservative populations). If a school or school district didn't approve the GSA, the kids could - wait for it - take their school to court. Yep. Hire a lawyer (budget for $300 an hour, minimum - time to add a few more blocks to that paper route!) and put on your best khakis, you're going in front of a judge to hear your school's lawyer talk about why you shouldn't be allowed to form a club with your fellow students.

The outcry was entirely predictable, entirely justified, and entirely avoidable.

In the aftermath, the Wildrose opposition (remember them, from wayyy back in 2014?) tried to amend Bill 10, to no avail. The amendment to the Bill that DID pass was brought in by the government, and took out the provision that allowed kids to take their rejected case for a GSA to court. Instead, the Education Minister would mandate that a GSA had to be set up when kids asked for one - even if the school said no.

Awesome. Except for the small print...

... if the school said "no", the GSA would be set up somewhere off of school grounds.

So if you need the support of your peer group in a safe setting, and your school has decided not to allow you to have the club on school ground, you've got to walk 5 blocks to the YMCA after school, or hop on the bus to go into the closest town. The A/V club gets a space in the school, but you don't.

The justification for this, we were told, was that the government had to show respect for the beliefs of religious schools who were teaching students a certain moral code. It wouldn't do to impose secular beliefs on a religious school if they were contrary to the deeply-held personal beliefs of the school board, the teachers, the parents, or the students.

Riiiiight. Like the science curriculum in Alberta, which clearly states that "the Earth is over 3 Billion years old. Unless you believe it's only 6,000 years old based on your religion's teachings. In which case, please notify your instructor, and we'll accept either answer." 

The reality, of course, is that the science curriculum makes no such allowance for personal belief. You can still believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old if you choose. That's absolutely your right. But if you give that answer on your science diploma exam, you will be marked as giving an incorrect answer.

And here's where the real problem with that most recent incarnation of the Bill asserts itself: We're not talking about curriculum, here. It's not mandatory for all students to JOIN a GSA. It's up to them whether they want to join it. Nobody's forcing your child to do anything. And if no students in the school request one, the government isn't going to force a deeply religious teacher to sit alone in a classroom at lunchtime with a sign overhead in rainbow colours, supervising an empty room just in case a curious student wanders in.

The fear that a VERY small minority of people seems to have is that the presence of a GSA in a religious school will result in proselytizing about the virtues and benefits of the gay lifestyle. That if there's a GSA in the school, some of "those kids" might trick "MY kid" into being "a gay".

I don't really have a pithy remark to add in response to that fear, because I can't operate on that level of stupidity.

What I CAN add, though, is this: Bill 202, and what I HOPE to see in the "new, improved" Bill 10, would neither force your kids to join a GSA, nor force you to accept LGBTQ kids as equal. If you have your mind made up that these are just confused, sinful kids who haven't been raised properly, you have every right to continue thinking that. You can even teach your kids that value, in your own home. Nobody's denying you that. But when your kid goes to school and picks on some other kid (because intolerance in the name of "helping that kid see the light and saving him/her" is something your kid has learned at home), that bullied kid has a place in the school he can go to be supported and feel safe.

Because while you retain the right to be as supportive or as non-supportive of the LGBTQ minority as you want to at home, our publicly-funded institutions do not have that option. The public employee at your local employment office can't refuse service to coloured people because they believe them to be inferior. The public employee who answers your 9-1-1 call can't hang up on you because your last name is of English origin, and they're from Ireland. And the public employees who are entrusted with teaching but moreover with PROTECTING our children for 40 hours every week can't refuse to give kids a place in the school where they can at the very least support each OTHER.

The education minister has given indications in recent days that the changes to Bill 10 will restore what 2 failed attempts have tried to balance with parental or conscience rights for school districts, and that any kid who WANTS a GSA in their school, will GET a GSA in their school. If this is in fact the case, I hope they give Laurie Blakeman a chance to hang her name - or the name of her mother, to whom Bill 202 was dedicated - onto the Bill somehow as it passes into law. Without Blakeman's work on this issue, it's not clear whether it would ever have come up in the Legislature.

What is clear, though, is this: 82.5% of Albertans favour GSA's in public schools. 77.1% favour them in Catholic schools. This is basically as close to consensus as you can get on a social issue that hasn't been codified for generations.

The time has arrived to get on the right side of history with the third attempt at Bill 10. I hope this cabinet and this government do the right thing. And if school trustees have a problem with following a law designed to protect the kids in their care, I encourage them to either stop taking tax dollars to fund their schools, or to step down and run for the board of the local private school.

Because in my Alberta, we don't publicly fund organizations who put theology ahead of protecting children.

The science is settled. GSA's save lives. Now let our kids have them.