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.