Thursday, March 24, 2011

qOtd: Campaign Finance Reform

Nation, my apologies for the silence as late. To say that I've been going through some interesting times would be an understatement. What I want to talk about today is campaign finance reform.

One of the most convenient slurs to throw towards a candidate is the ever-popular "we don't know who's funding his campaign - he might be bought and paid for". While statutes regulate donations to political parties, they're all too lax when it comes to leadership campaigns, and to municipal elections.  For examples of this we need only look as far as the Wildrose Alliance leadership race, whose eventual winner still hasn't released a list of donors citing their apparent "fear of retribution from the government". Several PC Leadership candidates, including Doug Griffiths and Alison Redford, have expressed their commitment to full pre-emptive disclosure of donors to their campaigns, and amounts. The PC Party itself, through President Bill Smith, has been most emphatic that formal disclosure rules for all leadership candidates WILL be in effect, contrary to past practice (although Ed Stelmach DID eventually release the donor list for his successful PC Leadership run in 2006).

We saw a bit of this flavour creep into the Calgary Municipal campaign last October as well. Naheed Nenshi released a list of his donors, putting them into broad categories much like the back of a concert programme thanking "classes" of donors - "These people donated between $1,000 and $2,499". The advantage this has is that it provides partial disclosure - it says WHO is funding you - without requiring you to be so specific as to advertise to your opponents exactly how much money you've got in the War Chest. Kent Hehr, by comparison, released a full disclosure of his donors, before eventually pulling out of the race (Hehr, incidentally, has apparently REFUNDED his donors, on account of him not finishing the race. Now THAT is worth respect from across the entire spectrum).

The question is, do we need provincial statutes governing political party leadership races? And if so, what should they look like?


Yes, we do.

Political parties aren't like your local Elks Lodge or the Legion. The person who wins that election could conceivably find themselves, as result of our sometimes-arcane Westminster political system, in charge of the entire apparatus of government. Tens of Billions of dollars get spent every year by the provincial government, on the direct say-so of someone who was elected to lead one of those poorly-regulated political parties.

As it stands now, we count on the parties themselves to run these elections fairly. We're counting on it, but we have no way to hold them to account. For all we know, the leader of the Alberta Party is going to be declared after a cage fight (in which case my money's on Tesarski).

Just kidding, Alberta Party. I know better. But if you DID choose your leader that way, Albertans wouldn't be able to do anything about it.

Likewise the donation disclosure. Moreso than fisticuffs and way-too-tight Tap Out shirts, what successful political operations have in common is money. That money comes from average citizens, and it comes from businesses large and small. Some of those businesses and individuals, hard as it may be to believe, aren't donating out of the goodness of their hearts, but rather because they want to curry favour with a candidate they feel could someday be in a position to return the favour.

And we have EVERY right to know who our wannabe leaders are owing favours to, BEFORE we cast our ballots.

We don't regulate the leadership selection for the local chapter of the Rotary Club.

Then again, the Rotarians don't get to spend my tax dollars.

Let's fix this. Make it one of the first bills passed under the new Premier's administration. And commit to passing new, more stringent rules in time for the next municipal campaigns.

That's MY take...  what's yours?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Wildrose Alternative Budget: Fun With Numbers

Nation, after the release of the Government of Alberta's 2011-2012 Provincial Budget (and the all-day media feeding frenzy that followed), the "next Premier of Alberta" (as introduced by Rob Anderson, AFTER Ed announced his impending retirement, which makes you wonder what Rob knows that we don't) Danielle Smith presented the Wildrose Alliance's "Alternative Budget 2011".

I try to look at these types of documents with as objective an eye as I can - numbers in the millions and billions tend to make my head hurt, as they're so completely unrelatable to my every day life (more on that in an upcoming blog post).

That said, however, after reading the entire document, one phrase kept asserting itself over and over in my mind...  "ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!?!"

Okay...  now that I've got that out of the way, let's take a look at the Wildrose Alternative Budget (full document available here).

Increasing spending on health care, education, children’s services, public safety, and seniors and social supports by the rate of inflation plus population growth (which was approximately 2.2% in 2010).

Alright...  now, I've gone on the record time and again as being in favour of spending restraint. We shouldn't waste money. Seriously. If I do it at home, my wife throws things at me. And that's if I waste my OWN money. Government doesn't HAVE its own money - the money that government spends is OUR money - yours and mine. We worked for it. We earned it. And they took it. Or it's a royalty on a resource that we own. But the money's ours, and government shouldn't waste it.

BUT...  the Wildrose often likes to echo the mantra from the Ralph Klein days (which makes sense, as they're adding notable Klein-era Tories all the time, much to the chagrin of some of their original membership) that "government should be run the same way you run your household".  They even refer to that idea a little later in their budget alternative.  So let's play a little game I like to call "inflation plus population growth".

Last year, your household budget for maintenance was $200. You spent $175, because you're awesome. This year, you had no new children, and inflation was - oh, let's say 1%. So, if you use the Wildrose Spending Restraint Rule, you can budget $202 for maintenance. Which you should be able to swing - after all, you're awesome.


That sound you just heard downstairs was your water heater blowing up. A new one costs about $500, uninstalled.

Not a giant deal, you say.  This is an unusual situation, I can whip out the credit card to deal with this...  Oh, no you can't. You can't do that, because we govern our home under the Wildrose Spending Restraint Rule. Turn on the stove and start filling the bathtub with hot water from the pots on the stovetop, because we don't run deficits in THIS home.

The Wildrose points out - in their budget document - that a private member's bill brought forward from their caucus last year would have codified the Wildrose Spending Restraint Rule as law, and it was defeated. It was defeated, of course, because it's a stupid thing to have codified under law. About as stupid as a law outlawing deficit spending. Sometimes, bad things happen. Sometimes, you need to spend money to fix them when those bad things happen. And forcing politicians to "break the law" when those bad things DO happen is wasting our legislators' time in order to score cheap political points and satisfy the egos of the bill's author and sponsors.

Repeatedly throughout the document, the Wildrose Alliance makes reference to what they call horrible over-spending from the PC's "over the last decade". Half of that decade saw their hero Ralph Klein as Premier and half of their current caucus as Cabinet Members, although they go to great pains not to mention those facts. And another of those years saw the budget overseen and presented by one of their newest publicly-lauded party members, Dr. Lyle Oberg, who was Minister of Finance in 2006-07. So, which is it, Wildrose? Did Ralph and Lyle suck, or were they awesome? You can't have it both ways...

There are also communities in the province that need new schools and health facilities immediately. Only the most urgent of these should be undertaken this next year with a commitment to refrain from opening any new facilities without the budget to fully staff them.

An excellent idea. Take the new South Calgary Health Campus, for example: They shouldn't start accepting emergency cases there until all 293 beds at the new hospital are fully staffed. I don't care if you're bleeding from your carotid artery, get to the Rockyview Hospital - tell them Danielle sent you.

This year, the Wildrose Balanced Budget Alternative proposes to increase overall departmental spending for the Departments of Health, Education, Solicitor General, Seniors and Community Supports, and Children and Youth Services to the rate of inflation and population growth, which in 2010 was approximately 2.2% (*Stats Canada and Alberta Finance). All other departmental budgets will be kept relatively unchanged or decreased where recommended by the PCs in Budget 2011.

Okay. I'm not going to go into the "Which hospitals won't you open? Which schools will you close?" line of questioning, because it's already been done. We've got new health centres opening, and they need staff - which costs money. We've got teachers getting a contracted 5% raise - if their district budget increases by 2.2%, the extra money's going to come from...? (DON'T say "selling the CBE's new headquarters" - it'll just make Josh Traptow's head explode when he reads it).

What I AM going to take umbrage with here is the statement "All other departmental budgets will be kept relatively unchanged or decreased where recommended by the PCs in Budget 2011".


We can't trust the PC's to run a lemonade stand...  there's nothing even remotely conservative about them...  they're in need of a "3-step program" to deal with their "spending addiction"...  and yet, where they suggested spending reductions, you're just saying "okay, we're good with that"?

Folks, this is political laziness at its worst. And it's dangerous.

The Provincial Budget was written with hundreds of staff and full access to government financial details, over months of working meetings, deliberations, internal audits, and polishing. They had access to the full weight of the public service in writing it - because it's not the PC Budget for Alberta, it's the Government Budget for Alberta. Wildrose has to use their own people, and their own resources. The entire document is a massive undertaking. No one expects the Wildrose to be able to produce a mirror to that document, taking apart every ministry and department budget expense line-by-line.  But if you're the party that likes to think of itself as the next government - if your members introduce your leader as "the next Premier of Alberta" - you've simply GOT to do better than an 18-page rebuttal document that includes a title page and 8 charts that take up at least half-a-page each. That's 13 pages worth of text. This might be the last Budget to come out before the next General Election. You're proposing we hand you the keys to a nearly $40 Billion economy and our entire social infrastructure, based on 13 pages of text.

The Wildrose Alternative Budget was released the day after the Government presented the actual Budget document. One day after. The sober, reasoned construction of a mature and well-constructed rebuttal to 500 pages of detailed financial information and fiscal policy was released after less than 24 hours. I don't know if you can write a budget rebuttal hopped up on Red Bull or not, but the only other alternative I can see is that the rebuttal was written before the authors saw the original budget, and they just filled in some blanks. But the meat-and-potatoes of that 13 page rebuttal was written before they saw the budget. Which reeks of "politics as usual" - "I haven't read it, but I oppose it". THERE'S the refreshing change Albertans are looking for.

I get it. I really do. In the age of retail politics and Twitter, you've got to get your rebuttal out as soon as possible, while people are still talking about the Budget. Three hours from now Charlie Sheen's going to do another interview, and you'll lose your casual audience. But doing it FAST shouldn't be the focus of a party that wants to form government. Being thoughtful and thorough should be their focus. If you want to win the hearts and minds of Albertans, start by giving them what they deserve. Take a week, and do it right. Albertans don't deserve slick retail politics. That assumes they're fickle and simple-minded. Albertans deserve thoughtful and deliberate planning. They're smart enough to read a document without the pretty coloured charts (that indicate Wildrose proposals in blue and PC Government actions in red or pink - nice touch!), and they're serious enough about their government to read something at least as thick as the local paper. Albertans are smarter than you give them credit for. They don't just want it fast - this isn't drive-thru governance. They want - and deserve - for it to be done RIGHT.

Now, none of this is to say that the document is completely devoid of any redeeming qualities: The title page is nice, and the graphs are appealing (though VERY poorly labelled). And there are even a few good ideas in it, like shrinking the size of cabinet. I think we need a strong public service, but that doesn't mean we need 23, 25, or 29 ministers overseeing it.  And as I said, I favour the principle of eliminating waste, and spending only what MUST be spent, and saving the rest for a rainy day.  I get that from my parents, who in turn were raised by people who grew up in the Great Depression.

But this document reads, to me, like a badly constructed joke more than a serious proposal from a party that hopes to form government.

I'm not going to tell you what you should think - read the document for yourself. Come to your own conclusions.

But I *am* telling you what *I* think.

I think... "Are you freaking KIDDING me?"

Friday, March 4, 2011

Tory Leadership Contender Doug Griffiths on the Budget

Nation, it's no secret that I have a lot of love for politicians who blog (now, if only I could think of some bloggers who want to do politics...  oh well...).  I twumbled across a response to the recent provincial budget that was posted by PC Leadership Contender and Justin Timberlake lookalike Doug Griffiths on his campaign website.

Griffiths' remarks, available here, are notable for a few reasons - not the least of which is their tone. While defending the principle behind government spending on infrastructure during lean times when costs are lower (even at the risk of running a temporary capital deficit), Griffiths also warns against operating deficits, and manages to take his own party to task - again and again, in fact - for the lack of a long-term fiscal framework: a guiding document to get us from where we are to where we want to be in 10, 20 or 50 years.

Griffiths, along with Alison Redford, Doug Horner and Ted Morton, might be the next Premier of the Province of Alberta - so if you pay taxes here, it's worth checking out his thoughts.  In the next few days, I'll be reviewing the "un-race for the Premier's Office" thus far.

It's important to note that this blog will - as most of you long-time readers will have guessed by now - not be endorsing or "cheerleading" for any particular candidate during the PC Leadership race. It's my intention to try to offer as objective a viewpoint as possible, so PC Party members and regular Albertans can get a feel for the people running to replace the outgoing PC Leader and Premier. It's why this blog was started in the first place, during the PC Leadership race of 2006.

I should note that I also had a chance the day after Griffiths' leadership announcement to sit down and interview him at what his team was calling a "Blogger Breakfast". Video was taken, but I haven't yet posted it as I'm trying to adjust the brightness setting (shoddy camera work by yours truly). I would be absolutely delighted to offer the same opportunity to any PC Leadership candidate, as well as to any candidate for the open Alberta Liberal and Alberta Party leadership contests.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

qOtd: Private Health Delivery

qOtd: Should Alberta further explore the option of allowing private, for-profit delivery of health services?

Nation, it's no secret that our current healthcare system in this province is seriously over-taxed. We have too many people, making too many visits, to too few doctors and too few facilities. Once they get there, they have too few beds and too many patients to deal with. Wait times are improving, but still an issue of major concern. Throwing more money at the system doesn't seem to be helping, and isn't fiscally sustainable even if it WAS helping.

One proposed solution that keeps coming up is to allow private, for-profit delivery. In essence, allow "Enlightened Savage Health Services" to open its doors and perform neuro-surgical procedures, as an example (I'd recommend against it, as I had to check the spelling of "neuro"). Alberta Health would then cut a cheque to the clinic, rather than to itself.

The benefits, we're told, are that it would provide more options for care. More beds. More surgical bays. More facilities, closer to more Albertans. The risks, critics claim, is that it will take the most qualified doctors and nurses out of the clinics and hospitals we have, and put them in the for-profit clinics where they can afford to pay more, or offer better perks. Also, we're reminded, it doesn't address the issue of a lack of trained health personnel - we'll just be spreading a limited number of doctors and nurses even further.


I think we're foolish if we don't at least explore this option. If we have more facilities offering care, then the demand for trained health professionals will rise. When demand rises, the supply will increase to meet it (in theory). More students will pursue nursing or medicine, because they'll know there will be jobs. If they're exceptionally good, there will also be opportunities in the "for profit" health system.

There IS, of course, the "slippery slope" argument to be made: That once we allow this to take root, before too long we'll have a second tier of health care, available only to the super-rich.

I'd point out that we already HAVE a second tier of health care, hidden in plain sight. We see the results of that second tier every Saturday night.  When Jarome Iginla loses an edge and twists his knee on Monday, he's getting an MRI on Tuesday, and (if necessary) surgery by Friday. If the same thing happened to you or me on Monday, I'd get an MRI by Labour Day, and surgery by this time next year (maybe).  
Would these "for-profit" clinics allow for queue jumping? I suppose it's possible - it would depend on the legislation and the regulations. Even if it DID, though, consider: If I'm #3 on the list for a hip replacement, and Brett Wilson (who is #2) pays an extra $50,000 to get his done right now at the "Golden Hips OsteoSurgical Spa" in Nanton, then I - the poor plebe that I am - move to #2 on the list. And I'm getting mine sooner. Provided there are doctors to do it, and they aren't all working on Brett's hip because Golden Hips pays better than the Rockyview General Hospital.

I don't know if private, for-profit delivery can work for health services. I know that's how we get dental, vision and chiropractic care in this province - some dental clinics are better than others, and the rates we pay vary from chiropractor to chiropractor. If we're told that it can't work, then fine - it can't. This isn't something I want to explore due to ideological dogma. I'm not interested in this idea at ALL if it means anyone, anywhere, is waiting LONGER tomorrow than they are today. Or receiving worse care tomorrow than they are today.

But we owe it to our parents - and to ourselves, and our kids - to at least TALK about it. Because nobody gets hurt by TALKING about it, right?

That's MY take...  what's yours?