Saturday, July 26, 2008

Happy Blogger-versary!

Just a quick hit today, to wish my Godfather of Blog-itude, my Sensei of Cyber-Smack, Ken Chapman a happy 2nd anniversary as a blogger.

If you don't read Ken, you should... just bring a dictionary. He's not writing for the "lowest common denominator".

... then again, neither am I - so they're probably not reading this post anyway.

Here's to many more, Ken!

- ES

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Laurie, Davey, and Mo?

Nation, it's no secret that one of the most thankless jobs in Canadian politics is the leadership of the Alberta Liberals.

This isn't because the voters are mean, or spiteful, or stupid... it's because the Alberta Liberal party is resistant to change. Don't get me wrong - they change with the times. But, much like the Catholic Church, they long ago decided what it is they're going to believe in, and heaven help the poor soul - grassroots member or leader - who dares question Dogma. Because of this, Liberal support - much like attendance in Catholic parishes - is down.

The question, then, begs to be answered: Does it even MATTER who leads the Alberta Liberals? If the policies and values are going to be the same, unwavering and never changing, can anyone lead this party to an electoral victory? The party, much like the Church, sits there and expects people to come to them. Well, not to mix my religious metaphors, but the mountain that is Alberta's electorate isn't going to come to Mohammad - so Mohammad (the Alberta Liberals) are going to have to go to the mountain.

Shockingly... Dave Taylor gets it.

Taylor, of course, announced his candidacy for the leadership of Alberta's Official Opposition yesterday, to little fanfare (us political nerds aside). Other rumoured candidates include current MLA Laurie Blakeman, and former MLA Mo Elsalhy, who recently launched a blog with fellow-ex-MLA and first-ever recipient of the Enlightened Savage "Never Release Something You Wrote Angry on a Friday Night Directed At Your Political Adversaries That The Public Won't Give a Crap About Except To Laugh At You" award, Maurice Tougas.

Elsalhy may attract some of the younger crowd, while fire-breathing True Believers will flock to Blakeman, who symbolically represents the "the problem isn't within the party, the problem is the voters" bloc of the Alberta Liberals. Taylor, however, is the wildcard.

Let's get this out of the way: I like Dave Taylor. I thought he was a great talk radio host, and I was a frequent caller to his show. He was consistent, called it how he saw it, accepted no B.S. from you whether you started off agreeing or disagreeing with him, and flew the straight-and-narrow. When I heard he was getting involved in provincial politics, I wanted him to do well, regardless of party affiliation - and he has. Good, principled people who want to serve the public should be empowered to do so, and Taylor has been. The role he has served for the Alberta Liberals has been a little grating at times, as the unofficial "attack dog" of the caucus under Dr. Taft. In reality, though, Taylor has been one of the opposition members least prone to histrionics and hyperbole. Once they peeled Blakeman off the ceiling, Taylor would step up and ask an intelligent and biting question.

Our question NOW needs to be, can Taylor give the Liberals what they need?

In a word: "Yes". In 6 more: "But the membership won't LET him".

Dave Taylor is a centrist. So are most Albertans. He moved here, from somewhere else. So did most Albertans. He calls a spade a spade, and is a realist. Just like most of us. He's a likable person, provided you either a) agree with his point of view, or b) have no vested interest in losing the argument. Even if you DO have a vested interest, if you enjoy a spirited debate, Dave's a good egg. So where's the problem?

The problem is that Dave Taylor IS a realist. That he doesn't have his head planted in the sand, and sees that the Liberal party in Alberta needs to evolve or die. Yesterday, he admitted that they deserved to lose the election.


True-Red supporters of the Liberals view such proclamations as treasonous. "Did Taylor actually suggest that the party might have to change its policies and views to reflect the plurality of Albertans whom elect a government every 4 years or so? Ridiculous! We are, after all, Liberals. The party of Laurier. The party that formed this province, under Rutherford. Our views are static, our policies timeless, our values above reproach."

The problem for the Liberals is that the values of Albertans have changed. Their views are fluid. The policies for which they pine have evolved. And the Liberals refuse to either accept it, or follow suit. To win office, they'll need to do both, or wait for the whole province to shift back to their side - for the mountain to come to Mohammad.

Taylor knows you can't move the mountain. He'd lead the party to a shift to the right (where most Albertan voters are), EVER so slightly left of the PC's, and work on policies that typical Albertans will care about, rather than cracking open the book of Liberal dogma to determine policy.

And that's why the ideologues and dogmatics in the party won't let him win - and if he DOES win, won't follow where he leads.

"Change the policies? Change the approach? Change the NAME?!? Preposterous. If that's what it takes to win elections, then we're not interested."

Silly me... I thought that was the whole reason for political parties in the first place.

Good luck, Dave.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Into the Lion's Den: Dion at the Calgary Stampede

Nation, Stephane Dion made headlines recently when he attended the Calgary Stampede, pitching his Green Shift. Much was made of the "bravery" of this endeavour, as though he were going to be physically assaulted by each of the 60,000 people in attendance that day. Dion was compared to a modern-day martyr, putting his well-being on the line to speak the truth.

Good messaging by the Liberal media people. Far from reality, but good messaging.

We've already talked at length about the Green Shift itself. While the plan does have its merits, it's also a far cry from what this country truly needs. I firmly believe that, at this critical junction in our history, what we need is a Prime Minister with a firm grasp of this issue and the bravery to do what is necessary to get out in front of the issue. Sadly, I suspect that none of the current crop of leaders is up to the challenge - and even if they were, they'd need a freshly-minted majority to get their agenda through Parliament, which isn't likely anytime soon.

Coming to Calgary with this plan was a no-lose proposition for Dion - he got media attention simply by virtue of the fact that he was a Liberal leader visiting the heathens in Calgary. Add the recent Green Shift announcement to that, and it had all the makings of a media firestorm. He may as well have been Nixon in China. If people rejected his message, well, what do you expect? They're Liberal-hating, greedy, "me-first" Albertans. If you found more than a handful who WERE receptive to the message, then the message of environmental salvation was "taking root even in backwards Alberta". Either way, Dion gets points - as a martyr, or as a saviour.

Do I think the Green Shift is a great plan? No, I don't. Do I think it will fundamentally change our country for the better? No. Will it make a difference, in the short or long term, in the battle against climate change? Absolutely not. As I've said before, we could wake up tomorrow in a self-imposed Stone Age in this country, and it would not make 1/10th of 1% of a degree's worth of difference next week, next year, or next decade. We're paying for 300 years worth of industrial sins, and it's being exacerbated by a natural warming trend that may very well be part of the Earth's natural cycle - either way, we can't fix it with good intentions and wealth-transfer schemes. We need a fundamental shift in the way we live our lives; how we consume and produce energy - and the Green Shift isn't going to do that.

Does Dion deserve credit for coming to the Stampede? Sure. It was a politically smart move, one that he did well to recognize, and he was dressed pretty snappily. But was it a gutsy move, showing true leadership mettle? Hardly. Showing up in Ontario's rust-belt, where he has seats to lose, and telling the autoworkers there that they're going to lose their jobs under his Green Shift, and that they're hurting the environment, so they'll deserve it - THAT would be gutsy.

Standing up for your ideals when they're sure to cost you something - that's brave. Showing up to a place where you've got nothing to lose, and taking an unpopular stance? That's show business.

Good show, Stephane. Now if you REALLY want to show some bravery and leadership - when can I expect to see you in Hamilton?


Don't get me wrong, Nation... I want a Leader to step forward on this issue. Desperately. But if this is the best Dion's got, then he's not the guy. None of the others are, either - including Liz May.

Can ANYONE out there point me towards someone who understands the larger issue, has a workable plan, and the political guts to carry it out?


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Greening Our Growth - A New Park in Kananaskis!

Nation, as a Calgarian who loves the outdoors, I realize what a blessing it is to have an area like Kananaskis Country a mere half hour's drive from the city. Camping, horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, whitewater rafting, or just a quiet picnic by the river - K-Country is the crown jewel of Alberta's parks system.

It's something of an irony, then, that only slightly more than 52% of the land in Kananaskis Country is actually under the protection of Alberta Parks - the rest is crown land under the management of Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, allowing commercial logging, resource extraction, oil and natural gas development, and hunting - on the same trails, at the same time, as you hike them in the fall.

Local residents, businesspeople, and visitors have been clamouring for more protection for some of the higher-use areas of Kananaskis - particularly within the Elbow River watershed, as it provides nearly half of Calgary's drinking water supply.

In late June, they got some good news.

The Alberta Government has released a draft management plan for 51 of the Provincial Recreation Areas within Kananaskis calling for, among many other items, the creation of the Elbow Valley Provincial Park. While this new park wouldn't, in fact, offer protection to any more land than is already protected in the area (simply redesignating several PRA's to Provincial Park status), the change in designation would free up funding for, among other things, increased interpretive programming, visitor services, and enforcement.

Predictably, area activists say the plan doesn't go far enough to address their concerns. And I happen to agree with them - the amount of protected land in the Elbow Valley needs to be increased, drastically. That's not tree-hugger hippie talk, it's motivated self-interest: I'd prefer very much if there was as little industrial development as possible happening upstream of my water tap.

However, as a first step, this is a good proposal. It calls for increased access for several types of recreational activities, more trailheads, improvements to visitor services and the return of the famous Kananaskis Interpretive Programs, which have been sorely missed since they left the Elbow Valley in the early 90's.

Does it outlaw quadding in the McLean Creek area? No. Does it ban forestry, or resource extraction, or hunting on SRD-controlled lands? No.

But it's the thin end of the wedge. It's a start - an honest-to-goodness Provincial Park, with more boots on the ground making a difference in education and enforcement.

It very well may be that the environmentalists, myself included, have to get used to the idea that the whole area, including the forestry lands, won't be a fully-protected park until the resources have been exhausted. And that's not without precedent in that part of Kananaskis, either. Bragg Creek Provincial Park and Paddy's Flat Campground are both former sites of oil wells. Bragg Creek P.P. was also the site of a sawmill in the early 1900's, and one of the more popular areas in the Elbow Valley is the site of a long-abandoned coal mine.

It's not a perfect proposal. It's not the ideal solution. But it's a START - a step in the right direction. And if every journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, this is that single step. The Government of Alberta wants to give Calgary another Provincial Park to play in, and simultaneously educate us about the outdoors and protect our drinking water... anyone inclined to say no?

The release and full plans are available here. The government is taking feedback on the proposed plans until September 30th, and then will finalize details for what will hopefully become the Elbow Valley Provincial Park before Christmas.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Kevin Versus The Volcano

First off, my apologies for my extended absence, Nation. It's been an interesting time, a great deal of which has been spent in and en route to hospital emergency rooms - perhaps more on that later.

Some of the issues I want to touch on in the next few days may be a day or 2 past their expiry dates, but please bear with me - I'm only going to post on the issues for which I feel I can actually add something substantive to the debate, rather than simply contributing to the noise. I'll make it worth your while - I promise. :)

Now then...

Kevin Taft has decided to seize the moment, and is calling for the Auditor General to investigate the Alberta General Election, citing voting irregularities and incompetence on the part of Elections Alberta - a mere 4 months after the election.

Wow... way to strike while the iron's hot, Kevin.

Taft, many of you will recall, spent a good 2 weeks of the campaign accusing Elections Alberta of wrongdoing and biased hiring practices, before a single vote had been cast. As you read here, I pointed out (rightly) that attacking the referee's credibility is the surest sign that you know you're hopelessly overmatched, and need an "out" to save your pride and, possibly, your job (of the people I mentioned in the linked post, Wilson and Tortorella were fired, Taft "stepped down", and Mason is practically begging Rachel Notley to take his job). The allegation that "the fix was in" is a ridiculous one meant to soothe Taft's shattered ego. The reality is, he didn't lose because many of the deputy returning officers personally supported the Tories. He lost because he ran a bad campaign that failed to capture the hearts and minds of Albertans.

Taft is saying some Liberal scrutineers have remarked this was the "worst-run election they have ever witnessed". I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume they're not talking about what they saw in Liberal party headquarters (although, the results sort of speak for themselves).

Now, I will back Kevin on some of his points.

Firstly, the voter's list was an unmitigated disaster. As an example of that, consider that I only cast 33% of the ballots I was eligible to cast... I was on the voter's list 3 times, between 2 different constituencies. Using my example, it's possible every man and woman in Alberta voted this March, and the list errors account for the huge number (59%) of "non-voters". Unlikely, yes... but possible. This made line-ups at the polls longer, made life exceedingly difficult for campaign volunteers, and just generally cast an unfavourable light on Elections Alberta.

Also, the enumeration was incomplete, the website going down ON ELECTION DAY was a fiasco, and many polling stations seemed to be flying by the seat of their pants. I'm guessing some areas were hurt by the fact that their area Deputy Returning Officers spent 2 weeks defending their own hiring in the media instead of being able to, you know, DO THEIR JOBS and train staff properly.

One wonders, though, why Taft is bringing this up now... why didn't he bring it up during the Spring Session of the Legislature, while the taxpayers were paying him and 82 others to tend to the business of the residents of this province... say, sometime between May 14th and May 28th?

Look, Nation: There were undeniable problems with the way the election was conducted, but they're far from fatal - this isn't Zimbabwe. 4 major "tweaks" to the system would drastically improve many of the problems we saw, in all their glory, on March the third.

  • Tweak 1: Legislate fixed election dates. It's pretty simple: If Elections Alberta knows, years in advance, when a vote is going to be held, they can PREPARE for it, and be READY when it happens. Staff, polling stations, literature, voter's list, enumeration, website - all of it. From a political stand-point, by giving up the ability to choose the most politically advantageous time at which to call an election, the governing party sends the message that they're more interested in fixing the problem than in exacerbating it for political gain. Sure, they lose that ultimate trump card, but it's made out to be more than it is... from late October of 2007, everyone (except, apparently, Elections Alberta) knew a provincial election call was right around the corner, and yet the PC's still managed to govern without the "lame duck" effect taking hold. Our municipal governments deal with fixed election dates, and those elections tend to be quite orderly.

  • Tweak 2: Give Elections Alberta the resources it needs. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Ensure that EA has the computers, staff, and funding necessary to do the job, and do it right. Considering how many millions of dollars go into party advertising during elections, I don't think it's out of line that the taxpayers be on the hook to fully fund the department whose job it is to make sure nobody cheats.

  • Tweak 3: De-politicize the hiring process. By instituting fixed election dates and giving Elections Alberta the resources it needs to recruit, hire and train the best available help, you eliminate the need for the province's biggest political entity to put forward a list of interested people for appointment to the jobs. Put EA in direct control of their own hiring, and they can vet to their heart's content... "are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the PC Party of Alberta?". Even if they end up hiring a bunch of the same DRO's who spent much of the election defending their hiring instead of training poll workers, the change in the process will help clear the air. I don't for a second believe the DRO bias in any way affected the outcome of this election, but if there's a way to get rid of the APPEARANCE of impropriety, I'm all for it.

  • Tweak 4: Work in partnership with Elections Canada, StatsCan, and other governmental agencies to keep your information current. Elections Canada knows damned sure where I live. StatsCan has that information as well, yet I've never had direct 2-way contact with either entity. Neither has "enumerated" me, or sent someone to my home to ask me questions... the information was ON MY TAX FORM. I know the feds got it, because they mailed me a cheque back, to the proper address. By working in partnership with those and other agencies, we can keep an up-to-date voter's list, lessening the burden on everyone come election time. Passports? Driver's Licenses? Alberta Health Care? Records check for employment purposes? Income tax? All require providing your current address to a governmental agency. That agency then stores the information. Why, then, if I have provided my address to all 5 of those agencies, is it even remotely possible for me to show up to vote, and have Elections Alberta be unaware of my current address? For that matter, how can the City of Calgary know where I live for voting purposes, and the Federal Government know the same, but the province have no idea? Issue us all voter ID numbers, if you can't use the SIN numbers (it's my idea, so if they actually DO issue voter ID numbers, I call dibs on VID# 0000001)... and don't tell me about FOIP. These are all government agencies, they are entrusted with much more delicate information about each of us than "current address", so they can at least share THAT info with each other. Alberta Registries shares your address, full name, and date of birth with the police, after all... and that's enough for Officer Swanson to apply for a credit card in your name. So, either we trust our government agencies with our information, or we don't. But at this point, having "Savage, E." on the voter's list 3 times, at 3 wrong addresses in 2 ridings and having campaign volunteers calling to speak to people on the voter's list who died in 2001 is just embarrassing.

I say, if Taft wants a clean-up of the electoral system in Alberta to be his legacy, then he should get fully on-board with the effort. The Premier should empower a legislative committee to make the above-listed changes, and Taft should ask to serve on it. Hell, he should ask to chair it. We're not talking about altering the way we elect MLA's, or electing the Lt. Governor - we're just talking about cleaning up, modernizing and stream-lining Elections Alberta and how they do business.

That way, the next Liberal leader will have no one to blame but themselves.

... or those stupid Albertans who keep voting for the damned PC's - right, Kevin?