Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Alberta Politics Overview - December 2010

If you are a blogger interested in Alberta politics recent months, and this past month in particular, have been filled with an embarrassment of riches. I am finding it difficult to actually finish posts, as there are so many topics worth writing about that even the low-hanging fruit is overwhelming. If only I got paid for writing here, eh? However, one of the more common conversations I've been having recently is about the 'state of the game' in Alberta politics. How badly have the Progressive Conservatives been hurt by recent events? Has the Wild Rose Alliance stalled or is it making up ground? Are the Liberals in trouble? Can the Alberta Party actually become relevant? This is my brief overview of the current state of play.

The governing Progressive Conservatives have had a very bad few weeks. Alternatively one could refer to the fall session of the Legislature as a train wreck for the governing party. From a communications point of view 'Cookiegate' and the subsequent, and much more harmful, loss of MLA Raj Sherman are the only memorable images of the session for most Albertans. From a branding point of view the damage done to the PC party may have legs, if the opposition parties can continue the identification of the PCs with long wait times and erratic management. That said the PCs have escaped the fall session, and they still have the largest political infrastructure in the province. While bloodied they have the time and resources to fight back, especially with an election still most likely over a year away and at a time of their choosing.

The Wild Rose have had both good and bad news in the past month. The latest polls put them within 5% of the PCs in popular support province wide, and while it is far too early for that to be vital it is certainly good news for the party. They have, however, had some problems of their own at the grassroots level, with problems around the nomination process in Little Bow and other internal frictions in Medicine Hat. In the legislature the WAP MLAs have been very insistent in their attacks on the government, as is their role, but occasionally have strayed beyond the bounds of decorum and relevance. Sadly they are far from alone, and the debate between Hancock and Anderson over the former's point of order was not an edifying parliamentary spectacle. While I'm sure the heated language and personalization of issues will play well with elements of the Wild Rose's base support, they haven't made as much out of the opportunity the government has presented them with as I would have expected.

The WAP push to continue nominating candidates for the next election continues despite the difficulties in Little Bow. They have, as of this writing, settled on candidates in 26 ridings, far more than anyone else. This is slightly misleading of course, as the PCs will be running many of their 67 incumbent MLAs again, but it does put them far ahead of the other opposition parties. The challenge they will have to overcome moving forward involves fundraising, as they managed to match the Liberals last year while falling far short of the PCs. They need to close that gap to make themselves look like the government in waiting, and to provide the resources they'll need for a winning campaign.

The Alberta Liberals have, despite feeling very good about their work in the fall session, fallen to 19% support in recent polling. This indicates that, despite their efforts, they are not connecting with the imagination of the voters. Again, this polling is a snapshot, and one taken a long way from an election, but I think it points to an issue that has troubled me about the Alberta Liberals for a long time. While they have managed to consistently attract the support of 1/4 of voters, give or take, I have long felt that this support was 'soft'. As the only serious opposition party over the past 20 years, since there was no realistic chance of the NDP winning an election, the Liberals became a parking place for voters opposed to the PCs. With the rise of the Wild Rose, and at least potentially the Alberta Party, this 'soft' support will no longer be necessarily available to the Liberals.

The NDP, with its tiny caucus of two MLAs, continues to punch well above its weight in the legislature. I continue to be impressed with the work of Rachel Notely - I may not agree with her on many of the issues, but she has proven to be a fine MLA. Long term it is hard to see how the NDP can move much beyond the half-dozen or so ridings in which they possess significant support, however.

Finally there is the Alberta Party. While only a participant in the ongoing drama in the legislature via its committed online partisans, it is starting to stand itself up as a viable political organization. I emphasize starting, but the appointment of Sue Huff as its interim leader provides a charismatic and articulate face for the organization. At least as important constituency associations, the real groundwork of any political party, are coming online at a rate of 2-4 per week. I'm also told that fundraising is moving forward and should the party maintain this momentum for a couple of months then by spring it will be in a position to act as a full participant in the political arena; with people, money and a leader to provide the voice. That said it is worth remembering that the party was left off the recent poll for a reason - it has a long way to go yet.

According to Premier Stelmach the next election is likely to he held in the spring of 2012. There is no realistic scenario in which the PC party could lose control of the house before that, and it is hard at this point to imagine a situation in which the Premier and cabinet want to rush into an election. Thus, we have a year and a half to go - a long enough time for a great deal to change in politics.

To count to PCs out because of the battering they took last week would be foolish - they have a lot of time, and the experienced personnel, to right the ship. The Wild Rose may have stalled, but they have time. Their biggest issues are the internal frictions that have been surfacing between the party's central bodies and its constituencies. The Liberals are working hard to change their methods and messaging, and depending on the results of those efforts their position may improve by election time. The fundamental question they will face is whether the 25% of voters they have been attracting consistently are supporting the Liberals or just opposing the PCs. The NDP seems content to remain what it is, and they possess a committed base of support. The Alberta Party has generated some energy and is transitioning into the real business of politics, and at its current rate of progress will be able to take its place as a full participant in the political scene with a year left to go before the likely election call.

Anyone still bored with Alberta politics? I think we're in for a very interesting year and a half.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Representative Independence versus Caucus Control

Behind all the Sturm und Drang engendered by Dr. Raj Sherman's letter, comments and subsequent removal from the PC caucus there are several stories. The specifics of what happened and why are known only to those involved, and I won't speculate. There is a good post at the Enlightened Savage about which line Dr. Sherman crossed:
The basic outlines can be found here:

It is important to note that Dr. Sherman has been suspended, as opposed to Mr. Boutillier who was simply expelled. What requirements have been communicated to Dr. Sherman for his return, if any at this early stage, I certainly do not know. It is, however, clear that the PC caucus and the PC party both want Dr. Sherman as a member, something that was not the case with Mr. Boutillier.

Dr. Sherman's suspension from caucus is part of an ongoing conversation in Canada about the role and independence of our elected representatives vis a vis their parties.

Dr. Sherman was an emergency physician before he became an MLA, and continues to practice while he sits in the legislature. His sincerity and passion on the issue of emergency medicine are not questioned by anyone so far as I am aware, and he possesses a professional's knowledge of the systems strengths and faults. Dr. Sherman was entirely right to act as he did in order to bring the greatest possible profile to an issue he felt was vital. Conversely the government caucus was entirely within their rights to suspend him. This is the creative tension between the individual representative and the discipline of the group, and the latter is essential in order to make the system work.

The problem is that the individual representative has been pushed into the background by group discipline. Both Federally and here in Alberta the governing party keeps all conversations behind the closed doors of caucus far too often. Party discipline for votes on the floor is an essential element of a representative system, don't get me wrong. Without the ability to whip votes you wind up needing the kind of earmark system which has so bedeviled the American Congress in order to deliver enough votes to pass legislation and do the basic business of government. The tendency, however, to follow the logic of control past the point of necessary and into the realm of convenience.

Avoiding the presentation by your MLAs of alternative views to that of the government makes communications and messaging easier, avoids some public frictions; fundamentally it is easier to manage than diversity. The problem is that the diversity exists anyway - in a caucus of 68 members does anyone believe that the PC MLAs all agree on anything? Behind the closed doors of government caucus the debates and alternative views are guaranteed to be lively, but we the public don't get to see it. This disconnect is worsened by the lows to which question period has sunk, shortened legislative sessions and the steady reduction in the independence of committees in the legislature. As a result there are fewer and fewer arenas in which the individual MLA can be relevant outside of caucus, which we can't see, and constituency work, which is profoundly local. The latter is important, and many of our MLAs do it very well and build important and useful two-way relationships with their communities. Our public dialogue would be greatly enriched, however, if individual MLAs were more engaged and engaging on the provincial stage.

This does not require a revolution in political procedure - here in Canada we have a tradition of ministerial responsibility and representative independence. Even in this age of tight party control there are individual MLAs (and MPs) who, by force of personality or sheer competence, have carved out independent voices for themselves. Does this mean that Doug Griffiths or Jim Prentice don't vote with their party on matters of confidence? Of course not. We as citizens need to demand more from our representatives, however.

Equally important party organizations and party leaders need to examine what they lose by keeping the reins short, as well as what they gain. Simplifying the messaging has to be balanced against the separation created between party and citizens. Openness has the advantage of creating conversation and engagement, which can be harnessed and directed in positive ways. True discipline doesn't mean there is no debate on what to do, it just means that when the time comes to act everyone supports making the decision work. We need to work on a parliamentary culture that embraces the diversity of views expressed publicly for examination and debate. The biggest gainers will be the parties, in the end.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Alberta Party policy convention - Aftermath

The Alberta Party is a young, relatively small and rapidly evolving organization. In Red Deer this weekend at their first policy convention following the merger of the old Alberta Party and the Renew Alberta group. Essentially the party is building from scratch in both organizational and policy terms - a state that implies both vast opportunity and manifold risks.

This past weekend was the Alberta Party's policy convention, following up the "big listen" process that the party had undertaken over the preceding 6 months or more. Tension between diverse viewpoints was a characteristic of the weekend, as the thousands of points that had arisen from the 'big listen' were considered, debated amended etc. There were people present from a wide variety of backgrounds, including former PC, Liberal, NDP and Reform members and organizers, as well as a variety of people formerly unengaged in partisan politics. It was an impressive group, and I found myself learning something with almost every conversation I had all weekend.

What arose from the weekend should be available on the Alberta Party website ( later this week, as soon as the volunteers can finish with the drafting and formatting. For a party that lacks a permanent leader and is just beginning the process of constituency organizing policy will be crucial, both to define who the party is and provide people with reasons to support its growth. Among the policies I was involved in the discussions for were the following:
- Strengthening officers of the Legislature like the Ombudsman, Chief Electoral Officer, Ethics Commissioner and Auditor General by guaranteeing their funding and ensuring their third-party status. Included in this was a commitment to empowering the Auditor to undertake forensic audits at their discretion.
- All government data and reports that do not contain personal or sensitive information are to be available to the public as soon as they are complete. This includes the information on which official reports are based.
- The Alberta Party is committed to moving all natural resource revenue as investment capital, and to cease its use for directly funding programs.
Obviously these are a small sample of the total, but I was there for these conversations, and I think that these are ideas worth supporting.

In his talk to conclude the event following Sunday's plenary session Dave Cournoyer argued that our existing government has become formatted by its own success. It is organized as a top-down culture, with limited interest or acceptance of transparency. According to Cournoyer, and I agree with him, Minister Leipert's anonymous advisory group is a sign of a government that has lost its way. There is no reason for the identities of those the Minister has turned to for advice should not be public knowledge, especially since the Minister is entirely correct to seek advice wherever he feels it will be useful. The Alberta Party's commitments to transparency and a bottom-up culture are what drew Mr. Cournoyer to join the party, and provide it with some of its potentially defining characteristics. Mr. Cournoyer's address can be found here:

Moving forward one of the most important issues for the Alberta Party will be leadership. Mr. Erickson stepped down as interim leader this weekend, after shepherding the party through the amalgamation and subsequent rapid expansion with quiet grace, for which members of the party should be thankful. The new interim leader will, I expect, be one of the current board members and will be announced in the immediate future. The sooner the better, as the party now needs to launch its real leadership contest, with a leadership vote to come before next summer. Whoever the new interim leader is they will have the responsibility of nourishing the fledgling party's energy and culture through further rapid expansion, constituency organizing and a leadership race. No shortage of work.

There are a number of people involved in the party I would like to see throw their hats in the leadership ring. Obviously I can't speak for any of these people, and the opinion being expressed is entirely my own! Chima Nkenmdrim would have been an obvious choice, but has likely removed himself from contention by choosing to join Mr. Nenshi at Calgary city hall. I think Glenn Taylor, recently re-elected as mayor of Hinton, would be an intriguing option. He's young, electorally successful, well-spoken and familiar with the province's issues. I am also interested to see if Michael Brechtel, Edmonton ad man and community builder as well as Alberta Party board member, will put himself forward. He too is a builder of relationships who could offer a lot to the race. Also on the board is former school trustee Sue Huff, who has certainly been an active and appealing figure in Edmonton over the past several years and would be an excellent candidate. Again I cannot speak for any of these four, but I do hope that they all give the option serious thought.

Alberta politics is, and has been for several years now, in a state of change. There are two new political parties on the scene, a surprising new mayor in Calgary, and an ongoing conversation about change in every party and at every level of government. This is healthy and exciting. I think that there is a lot of room in Alberta politics for the Wild Rose and Alberta parties, and that the existing parties are all undertaking changes of their own. The tired narrative of Alberta politics as monopolistic and uninteresting no longer applies, no matter what your political views are. This is, I would argue, the most politically active and interesting province in the federation at this time and I, for one, am excited to see how it develops.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Alberta Party Policy Convention - Part 1

I am in Red Deer this morning for the Alberta Party's policy convention - my third weekend in a row out taking the pulse of Alberta's political culture. While not a morning person I have to say that a prairie sunrise is worth getting up at 0615 all by itself on a day like today - Alberta is a gorgeous place.

what interests me in this event is the intersection of of hope and ideology with political reality. Chris LaBossiere, president of the party, called it "an idea yet to be actioned" this morning; a phrase which I think admirably sums up where the Alberta Party stands. There are a lot of engaging things about this young party, but this is the point at which a lot of similar efforts have fallen flat. Political organization is an exercise in patient logistics. Logistics are hard, unglamorous and need to be kept rolling day by day. Can the enthusiasm in this room be translated into real and effective organization? I'm here to find out.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Reboot 3 - Now what?

I was only able to make time to attend the Reboot 3 gathering at the last minute, meaning that I was not prepared or engaged in the agenda-setting stage. I found it interesting to note that the blogger population at Reboot 3 was considerably smaller than the first two, with major cogs in the Alberta blogosphere like DJ Kelly, Joey Oberhoffner and Dave Cournoyer not attending. Congratulations DJ, by the way!

The morning sessions were spent discussing models of ownership and their implications for the management of the oil sands. The table I happened to be at was, to my good fortune, full of passionate, articulate and capable people – one of whom thankfully makes a living as a mediator and was able to keep the conversation moving in more or less the intended direction. While we certainly didn’t arrive at a consensus on how ownership ought to be considered in the area of natural resources we were agreed that it was important for the Government and corporations to think differently on the issue. To me there is, or ought to be, a creative tension between the profit motive of corporations and the social good that ought to underlie government decision-making. Interestingly the table was quite interested in the idea of full-cost accounting, which is hardly a simple or non-contentious topic in and of itself.

The central conversation in the afternoon revolved around the question of what it meant to be a progressive. In examining this issue four speakers gave us their thoughts: Troy Wason of the Alberta PCs, Chris LaBossiere from the Alberta Party, Phil Elder for the Democratic Renewal Project and David Swann of the Alberta Liberal Party. (Speaking in that order) Both Mr. Wason and Mr. LaBossiere talked about their reasons for being involved with their respective parties, and their thoughts on how they feel their organizations are embodying and responding to ideas that can be defined as progressive. Mr. Wason was passionate in his belief that the progressive element of the PC party is a central part of that party. He also pointed out that his qualification as a member of the provinces notional political elite consisted of “paying my $5 and putting up my hand to volunteer”. Succinct and important to bear in mind – our system is run by those who choose to show up. Mr. LaBossiere’s talk is perhaps best summarized by himself on his blog, but he too addressed the importance of engagement.

Mr. Elder and Mr. Swann took another tack entirely. Mr. Elder outlined the Democratic Renewal Project and their plans to encourage non-competition among opposition parties. My thoughts on the undesirability and futility of their project are elaborated in an earlier post . Mr. Swann’s presentation focused on the reasons why the people in the room for Reboot should vote for the Liberals. Interestingly his primary reason was fear – he argued that without the Liberal’s tradition, organization and financial framework none of the other parties before Albertans could advance a progressive agenda or effectively challenge the PC party. Leaving aside the assumption that replacing the PC government is inherently desirable, it is hard to see anything progressive or attractive in this inherently negative formulation. It appeared to me as an attempt by Mr. Swann to dissuade those present from considering the Alberta Party, which, while an entirely justifiable end for the leader of another party to undertake, seemed entirely at odds with the kind of dialogue Reboot exists to promote.

In my view there are two ends that the Reboot name and movement can serve here in Alberta moving forward. I need to underline that my views here reflect nothing beyond my own opinions, and have no bearing on the thoughts or intentions of the organizers in particular or the other participants in general.

To begin with I continue to find these meetings to be a good forum for people of diverse views to meet and discuss matters of common interest. There is real value in a periodic forum to exchange views outside our usual partisan or professional communities, and Reboot has contributed usefully to the political culture of Alberta in that respect. Being exposed to alternative viewpoints is essential in challenging our assumptions. That process of challenging ideas and evolving them under the pressure of new information is in turn a fundamental element of healthy public discourse. I would like to see the Reboot gatherings continue once or twice a year, focusing on acting as a common area in which people of all partisan stripes, or none, can gather to discuss issues of public interest. As a mechanism perhaps an issue or two could be selected for discussion, followed by an unconference format upon arrival to decide where and how that conversation will be focused.

Reboot can, however, be the genesis of something beyond a useful meeting place on the political commons. I would like to see a permanent non-partisan think tank develop from the Reboot community. This organization would study questions of civic engagement, civil society and public policy. The public discourse gains real value from organizations like the Manning Centre and the Pembina Institute, the research they create, the events they hold and the people they train and employ. Given the population and wealth of Alberta, and the gaps between existing bodies of similar nature, there is more than enough room in the public discourse for such a body. (That sound you hear is the pained laughter of the Reboot organizers as I volunteer their idea and efforts for an extensive and labour-intensive expansion.) If the idea is of any interest to anyone but myself I hope to hear from you!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Reboot Alberta 3.0

I'm in Edmonton this weekend for the Reboot 3.0 conference, to see what the latest installment of these gatherings for self-selected 'progressives' has in store.

The most interesting charecteristic of the Reboot gatherings in the variety of people who attend. The first two Reboots crossed partisan lines in their attendence, and based on Friday's opening reception this one is no different. What is different, or perhaps just more noticable to me, is the presence of more declared partisans. There are members of the PC and Liberals present, though the coincidental overlap with the NDP's AGM has meant I have yet to see anyone from that party. There are also members of the Alberta Party here, though I put them in a seperate catagory since that organization is still in its infancy as an effective political organization.

what most interests me are the conversations about civic engagement. Much as wonks like myself enjoy the details of policy or the mechanics of campaigning it is important to step back form time to time and consider the wider questions of political culture. It is my opinion that the province of Alberta is in the early stages of a political transition. (Whether or not that means a change in government is another question entirely.) The shape of that transition will be an organic outgrowth of the changing political culture here, and the kind of wider engagement that preoccupies most of the attendees at Reboot can be a factor there. More to come as the weekend goes on.

Monday, November 1, 2010

PC AGM Part 3 – Final thoughts

I should begin this post about the weekend’s PC party AGM in Calgary with a pair of disclaimers. I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the Alberta Progressive Conservative party. I am also not a reporter. I am an analyst and an academic, but those are very different things, and there were a number of ‘real’ reporters in the media room this weekend whose work you should read if the event interests you. What I am interested in, and writing about here, is more thematic and impressionistic than the “who, what, where, when and why” of traditional journalism. Such are the privileges of being your own editor.

One of the most noticeable features of this year’s PC AGM was the change in tone and attitude from a year ago. Where a year ago the PCs were visibly distracted by internal frictions and a real sense of threat the mood this year was definitely more positive and combative. The choice of ‘Team PC’ as the event slogan, and I expect as the ongoing slogan for the party and campaign, is certainly indicative of the awareness that one of the party’s first priorities had to be an emphasis on unity. As I have said before, however disoriented the PCs may have been by the initial onset of the Wild Rose in combination with the impact of the recession, they had a lot of time before the next election to pull themselves together. The party appears to have made a lot of progress on that front.

In combination with the ‘Team PC’ theme the primary message would appear to be the success of Alberta under PC management. The successes of Alberta under PC management featured prominently in the Premier’s speech on Friday night, through the Q & A sessions on Saturday and many of the speakers at policy sessions as well. Hardly surprising that this is the message that the party would want to go with as their central message and the basis of the campaign, but what is interesting is the very real feeling that, only two years into a mandate, the PC party and government are starting their next campaign. In addition almost everyone I spoke to on the issue emphasized the unity of the party, which certainly speaks to the awareness that infighting hasn’t done them any favours in the recent past.

Alberta is possessed of an active and engaged online political community. The invitation of bloggers to attend the AGM, in addition to the various ‘in-house’ PC bloggers, strikes me as the beginnings of an institutional acknowledgement that the PC party will have to go where the conversation is. Bloggers each have the ability to build an audience, and an audience self-selected based on interest at that. In addition in a world where search engines are so important to how people find information it will often be a blog entry that matches someone’s search terms most clearly, with the implications that can have for the dissemination of information on a specific case or issue.

Twitter hashtags like #pcagm, or even more so #ableg, are excellent opportunities to engage with people of varied views through a shared link. The very publicity of anything said over twitter means that no matter how hard a single partisan group might try to dominate a topic or a tag they can never keep other individuals or viewpoints out. Throughout the weekend there was a constant interaction between attendees of the AGM, observers present (including myself), interested PC members who were unable to attend and people interested in the event or the issues discussed. Thinking of it now I should have checked the total number of tweets exchanged on the #pcagm and #ableg hashtags this weekend, but a quick check of my tweetdeck shows over 600 tweets using #pcagm alone. This doesn’t include any of the untagged tweets to and from attendees, or those using other tags. A number of very lively exchanges took place on each of the relevant hashtags, and it is important for both organizers and interested citizens to realize that these events are now more public than ever before, and are playing to the world in real time!

This evolution in the information environment, and the implications it is already having on political communication, led me to spend the weekend talking to people about how they feel that PC party will change. In particular I was interested to talk to the volunteers who really make the party work at the constituency level. I talked to over 40 of these volunteers about communication, both within and without the party, party organization and their concerns and views of the prospects for change. As you would expect there were a wide variety of responses, but they grouped themselves rather neatly. I have several more people who have agreed to talk to me about these issues in the near future, so I hope to be able to build a better image of the visions of change in the PC party.

First, there were those who felt that the party would have to make substantial changes to its structure and methods. While some felt that the party needed to make immediate changes, there was little sense of urgency. Those advocating these changes rarely gave existential reasons for their concerns, rather the conversation tended to be one of competitive advantage. The greatest sense of urgency was to be found among those engaged in communications and election readiness, but even in those groups there was a general sense that the roughly two years until the next election would provide more than enough time.

Second, there were those who felt that all the talk of change was simply window dressing. The campaign messaging from the Premier about the success enjoyed by Alberta under PC management certainly resonated with these individuals. Interestingly it was also this group that evinced the most discontent with the Premier, though criticisms were inevitably followed by the disclaimer that they were committed to making things work.

Finally, and the largest group, there were those that felt that the party was structured and operating effectively, but needed some fine tuning here and there. I heard from several people that they felt very comfortable with the party’s methods for disseminating information internally, with one consistent exception. That exception was a perceived failure to make best use of the expertise of grassroots members of the party. Several health professionals in particular felt that their expertise was receiving short shrift. There was also a consensus that the party was going to have to increase and improve its utilization of non-traditional media; the Nenshi campaign’s victory here in Calgary seems to have made quite an impression in that regard.

I have to thank the AGM’s attendees for their hospitality and willingness to talk to me, and Brent Harding, Janice Harrington and Joey Oberhoffner in particular for their efforts in managing the media room and supporting its occupants. The realities of media are changing, and political commentary and analysis is immensely more open-source than it has been in the past. It is my hope that accreditation of bloggers as media to this AGM sets a precedent, and that the active online and twitter political community is embraced by all parties and organizations at their events moving forward.

Fundamentally what I saw this weekend was a prototypical establishment party, comfortable with itself and the world as it is. I mean neither that as neither an insult nor a compliment, merely a summary of the zeitgeist. There were the expected cri de couer marginal groups, and the passionate crusaders for change (in one direction or another), but the dominant feeling was one of satisfaction. I wouldn’t call it complacent, not after the last year, but there was a definite sense of returning purpose and order after a scare. The PC party remains unchallenged in fundraising, as the recently released numbers for last year demonstrate, and there is no other provincial political entity capable of bringing together over a thousand members for a weekend. The human capital and intellectual resources of the party remain formidable, and if they ‘team PC’ meme catches on with the party’s membership those resources may be deployed much more effectively in the year to come than they have been over the last few. We shall see, as there are more than a few factions within the party that have in the past struggled to cooperate effectively.

For further comment see:
Dave Cournoyer -

Saturday, October 30, 2010

PC AGM Part 2

While this morning's closed session on election readiness is taking place it is time to put some thoughts together on the opening night of the PC AGM . (the research being presented in the closed session has been distributed in PowerPoint form here in the media room) I also have to say that the variety show put on by many of the PC caucus this morning was actually worth getting up for - watching Ted Morton and Dave Hancock singing Kumbaya hand in hand was well worth the (free) admission.

The central element of opening night was, of course, the Premier's speech. Mr. Stelmach, not noted as a speaker, has definitely improved the writing and delivery, however, and there were several moments of real warmth and humour. The speech itself was a classic stump speech, with elements to rally the base, clips for the news and some positioning for future negotiating. It included a strong emphasis on Alberta's relative insulation from the recession, and the strengths of the PC record. Interestingly there was also a commitment to complete the nomination process for candidates, including the four new ridings, by the end of spring 2011. Particularly interesting to me was the announcement that the party would be undertaking a very wide-ranging and open policy development process, which the Premier said would be the most open and interactive in Alberta history. I am interested to see how it will compare to the Alberta Party's 'Big Listen' idea, given that the PCs have to deal with a vastly larger structure and certain concerns, like getting elected and raising money, that the Alberta Party is only in the natal stages of considering.

The part most striking to me was the positioning for future negotiations with the Federal government, as the Premier opposed a national securities regulator and insisted that Alberta needed to be "treated fairly" in terms of the net tax burden. To me the fact that Alberta and Albertans pay more than less affluent provinces is hardly surprising, nor is it an issue. The Premier, on the other hand, was clearly staking out a position for a future negotiation about transfer payments and natural resource revenue distribution. How helpful the combative language is, as opposed to the dangers of creating a negative feedback loop in the conversation, is not clear to me. That said, given the Harper government's usual negotiating style, it is hard to see how anything the provincial government could say would substantively change the tone of the conversation.

As far as my ongoing project for the weekend, namely talking to as many constituency organizers and riding presidents as possible about their perceptions of and involvement in change within the organization, I have had a number of very interesting conversations. The responses have so far fallen into three broad categories. First, those who are genuinely concerned with and engaged in change, variously defined, and acutely aware of potential risks and opportunities for the PC party here in Alberta. Second, those who feel that change is coming, but either aren't clear on what it should be or why it is necessary. Finally, there are those who talk about change without any seriousness - either because they feel they need to say something about it for form's sake or because they don't really see any need for it. I'll have a real breakdown on the details after the event ends.

I do need to thank the organizers and participants for their warm welcome and, for the overwhelming majority, their willingness to take time to talk to an outsider freely and openly.

Friday, October 29, 2010

PC AGM, Part 1

I have been offered the opportunity to attend the PC AGM here in Calgary this weekend as a 'new media' observer. Leaving aside the simple curiosity of a political nerd I accepted for a number of reasons. First, I think it is important that our parties continue evolving to reflect the new information environment and changing the traditional notions of what constitutes political press is a part of that. Secondly, I am curious about the atmosphere of the gathering - how do the delegates feel about the party and its situation? Finally, how is the party dealing with the challenges it is publicly perceived to be facing, including complacency and fading popular support.

In looking at these issues I am not interested in talking to the elected party representatives, whether MLAs or party executives, but rather the volunteer rank and file that actually make a political party function. In particular I will be targeting the constituency presidents and organizers. (Organizers have conveniently tagged the presidents with orange ribbons - thanks!) So far several have taken the time to speak with me, so we'll see how this plan works out.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Some Pictures Are Worth a Thousand Words

From today's Toronto Star:

Funny and on target! I have to say that I'm very happy with the real contest of visions we had in our municipal election, especially compared to the dismal partisanship of the Toronto campaign.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Nenshi Wins - Now What?

And so it is Nenshi for Mayor - but what looks like a very conservative council. Should be an interesting few years, Calgary.

Ironically, for all the talk about technology and change, the Nenshi campaign won because they ran the best old-fashioned political campaign. They presented the best-developed message, and did a great job of layering it from the sound bite all the way through to clear policy plans. Mr. Nenshi showed good groundwork as a candidate, building profile the old-fashioned way by appearing everywhere, all the time. The campaign made good use of volunteers, and got their best work out of them by building a really energized team environment. They also figured out how to identify and motivate their supporters, a process complicated by the fact that they didn't have any (or at least not many) a year ago, and there was no obvious political constituency of support. I found it encouraging that I know people supporting Mr. Nenshi who in provincial politics support the Greens, the NDP, the Liberals, the PCs and the Wild Rose. An advantage yes, but one that greatly complicates the process of getting out your vote!

As for Mr. Nenshi's competitors; Ms. Higgins found her rhythm too late in the campaign to carry it to a successful conclusion, but looking at the process in retrospect I am sure she will be proud that she received over 91,000 votes. I would be very surprised at this point if we have seen the last of Ms. Higgins. Mr. McIvor, the prohibitive front runner at the beginning of the race, made the mistake of running too conservative a campaign. (I assure you that the pun wasn't deliberate!) In spending most of the campaign running not to lose he missed out on the opportunity to define the process, and Ms. Higgins' entry and Mr. Nenshi's rise defined it for him. In the new dialogue Mr. McIvor found himself with multiple threats, and while this appears to have galvanized his campaign he was unable to make up for earlier complacency.

With regard to council, and the potential dynamics thereon, I recommend reading DJ Kelly's post here: Mr. Nenshi and the Aldermen will have to develop a modus vivendi that enables them to develop into a team. Calgarians turned out in record numbers, over 53% of eligible voters casting ballots, which shatters the previous record of 48.6% in 1989. Also remember that the last provincial election saw a turnout of a little over 40%. In short Calgarians took this election very seriously, and I think it is fair to say that we, as a city, are expecting results from out representatives. They in turn will now have to figure out how to deliver.

Personally I would like to thank all of the people who sacrificed their time, privacy, peace and quiet and energies to run for office. You all deserve recognition for stepping forward - our system relies on people doing what you did. For those whose hopes were disappointed last night, it is important to remember that not only the winner is important. Stepping forward to advance the issues that are important to you helps shape the conversation, and you all did that. Thank you all.

Going forward the question is whether the scale of Calgarians' involvement with this election, whether in the number and variety of candidates, the voter turnout, the volunteerism or the number of conversations it engendered, indicates that people are going to be more engaged after the election. It is my belief that it does, and that Calgarians, and Albertans more generally, are once again becoming energized about their beliefs and concerns in the public arena. I look forward to what promises to be a most interesting few years!

Friday, October 15, 2010

What's in a Name?

The negative tone of much contemporary politics in Canada, and even more the case in the United States, is an issue of concern to people from all sides of any given issue. It seems to me, based on prolonged observation, that there is a simple remedy that would go a long way to address the concerns of those lamenting the balkanization of our political discourse: use people's names.

Even if you don't like someone, or their views, show them some respect and use their name. As someone who has trained as an academic I'd be interested to see a correlative study linking the use of derogatory nicknames with the appreciation of complexity in politics. Painting issues in black and white is rarely a good way to accommodate the complexity of the world we live in. Painting policy alternatives, like a given airport tunnel project or piece of legislation, in black and white is even more unlikely to reflect anything resembling their true relationship with reality.

The fundamental point I always aspire to bear in mind is that people of good will can, and will, disagree on any given issue. Our system of Westminster-style democracy is not only designed to accommodate such disagreements, it is dependant on the adversarial contest between diverging views to develop a working consensus. This is perhaps even more the case in our pluralist parliamentary model, as opposed to the unique duopoly the Americans have developed. A substantial majority of our fellow-citizens are good people, so those engaged in our political discourse, whether they be politicians, civil servants, journalists, commentators or concerned citizens, deserve the same assumption.

The use of nicknames, whether simply shorthands or the actively derogatory, is obviously a continuum. However, in order to avoid slipping into the derogatory, or the grey area in which one could be perceived that way, use the simple alternative of the proper noun. So instead of 'Slitherman' or 'Harpo' I try to use Mr. Smitherman or Mr. Harper. In the latter case why not acknowledge his earned title, and call him the Prime Minister? He is, after all, whether I like it or not, and he deserves to be.

In short, I have resolved to combat trolls on the internet and incivility in my speech by aspiring to use the simplest of formal courtesies - the proper name.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Christopher Hitchens on Dealing with Mortality

I found this piece enormously powerful, and thought it was worth sharing.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Calgary's Municipal Election, version 2010

As the Municipal Election begins to loom here in Calgary I have regularly been asked for my thoughts on the race for Mayor. Having repeated them so many times I may as well post them publicly....

Both of the current front-runners in the polls will not be receiving my support. Ms. Higgins, running an exceedingly cautious campaign based on her name recognition, has yet to provide any reason for me to actually support her. In fact it is difficult for me to recall any serious campaign in the last 15 years in which the candidate offered less insight to their views or policy outlook. Mr. McIvor, whose record as an Alderman was indifferent, has also run a very cautious campaign based on his name recognition and the 'Dr. No' image he cultivated on council. Unfortunately the flip side of the 'Dr. No' reputation is the friction created on council, which certainly doesn't bode well for a Mayor, especially in a city where the mayoralty is a chairman of the board without much inherent power and thus in need of consensus support. The policy framework advanced by Mr. McIvor is also vague and unimpressive, which I suppose is part and parcel with the decision not to risk controversy.

The candidate I would most like to support would be Wayne Stewart, whose resume is impressive and comes very highly recommended by several people I trust. unfortunately I can't see any way for Mr. Stewart to break out of pack of also-rans and actually have a chance to win the race. I believe the same fate awaits Craig Burrows, whom I have been surprisingly impressed with in his attempt to recover from losing his last Aldermanic contest to Joe Connelly.

In the end I think this will leave me supporting Naheed Nenshi for Mayor. Mr. Nenshi's background in business and thinking about municipal issues is impressive, and his policy platform is the most complete and best elucidated. I do worry about his ability to manage a council, since a disconcerting number of his sentences start with "I" and he will need to command the support of seven Aldermen. Several people I know who have worked with him assure me that this won't be a problem, however, and in light of the balance of the race it is a risk I am willing to take.

On a more local level the Aldermanic race here in Ward 7 has caused me more trouble. I had hoped that I would be able to support a replacement for Alderman Farrell, but that is looking unlikely now. The Ward 7 Aldermanic candidate forum put on in the Triwoods Community Centre by Civiccamp was a very useful event. My thanks to all the volunteers who made it happen, and to Civiccamp as a whole for undertaking to put on one of these in every Ward. We as citizens need to have these, and I certainly appreciate having had the opportunity to attend one.

The five candidates attending were the current Alderman, Druh Farrell, James Taylor, Jim Pilling, Elizabeth Cook and Michael Krisko. For a detailed summary of the meeting see The event certainly helped me familiarize myself with the options, and there is no substitute for seeing candidates live and in person, talking to them and listening to them answer questions. The result, for me, was that the options to Ms. Farrell underwhelmed me. The only serious challenger appears to be Mr. Taylor, but I have no real idea where he stands on the issues. His presentation, like Ms. Farrell's, is polished, but there is little in what he says to get a hold of. Hence, at the Aldermanic level, I am uncertain and unhappy with my options but leaning toward the incumbent. Inertia certainly isn't the best reason for casting a vote, but in the absence of a compelling alternative....

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What to make of the Gun Registry

The existing Federal Long Gun registry is an issue on which I have mixed feelings.

To begin with it is a flawed peice of legislation, its startup costs were exhorbitant, and its operating costs remain higher than they should be. That said Canada's police chiefs say it is useful, and the current operating costs aren't so extreme that the program should be cancelled on that basis alone. It should, however, be subject to a full review, with the intention of making the program both more useful to law enforcement and cheaper. A committee of the House of Commons with representation from all parties would be the ideal mechanism for this, though it is hard to see how it would work in the current poisoned climate in Ottawa.

Do I think Canadians ought to be able to purchase and own firearms? The answer to that is, unhesitatingly, yes. Do I think they should have to register those firearms? The answer to that is yes as well. It is a question of responsibility; where society is trusting you with a weapon you should be accountable for the maintenance, safety and use of that weapon. We all register our cars for the very same reasons, and it doesn't seem unreasonable to me that we be accountable for our weapons in the same way. This is especially the case for handguns and automatic weapons, whose designed purpose is for use on humans. Long guns in the traditional sense have real and enduring utility outside city limits, but handguns and automatic weapons do not, outside of the pleasures of target shooting or collectors.

The argument that 'criminals don't register their guns' is a disingenuous straw man. It is, of course, partially true - but it is also a red herring. The goal is to restrict their access to weapons, with the acknowledgement that you can never eliminate it entirely, and to reduce gun crime by making it more and more difficult. in Switzerland, where nearly every household has several military-issue firearms, a result of their universal militia service, gun crime is among the lowest in the world. Their system of registration and accountability is one of the most important reasons why.

The other concern most often used by opponents of gun control is that "the government may take away my guns". I'm afraid that, with or without gun control legislation, if the government has reason to then they can certainly do that. Preventing unreasonable search and seizure is a part of the ongoing battle to maintain due process! Another, more reasonable, version of that argument holds that the government can retroactively ban certain weapons, making your formerly legal possession illegal. In my view almost all weapons should be allowed, provided the purchaser meets reasonable requirements, and thus the confiscatory concern should be addressed. Where there should be severe penalties is on the purveyance, and use in criminal activity of, illegal and unregistered weapons.

Given that we register our charitable donations with CRA, file for permits to move plumbing in our houses with city hall (in order to maintain our valid home insurance, if nothing else!), and register our vehicles with multiple authorities it hardly seems unreasonable to me that I should file that I own a deadly weapon.

People who really want to kill will find alternative methods, and there is no way to eliminate crime through legislation. Given the evidence of what stricter attitudes towards the responsibilities of firearms ownership, for example the British or the Swiss, does to crime and injury rates as opposed to the looser attitudes of the United States or Mexico I have to place myself in the stricter camp.

The problem with the Long Gun registry is that it is such a flawed and inadequate measure I'm not convinced it is more a part of the solution than it is a simple obstruction.

EDIT: It appears that the Registry has survived the private member's Bill to abolish it, by the narrowest of margins: 153-151 against. Now I hope there is a Bill introduced with changes to the legislation, to be followed by an open debate on the merits of said changes. Note the use of the word 'hope'.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In Memory of Dr. Margaret Osler

Last week the University of Calgary lost a superb teacher & scholar, who I deeply admired, and a witty and caring woman, of whom I was very fond.

Dr. Osler joined Calgary's department of History in 1975, and for the next 35 years enriched the world's understanding of the history of science and religion, intellectual history, the mechanical philosophy and the scientific revolution. She helped create the major and minor undergraduate programs in History and Philosophy of Science, the interdisciplinary M.A. and Ph.D. programs in Cultural Studies, and the Research Institute in Gender Studies. She also served as coordinator for the Science, Technology and Society program. Her published work is impressive in volume and quality, and her professional standing was of the first class. All of which was simply a result of her brilliant mind, impatience with guff, and wicked sense of humour.

During the coursework of my PhD I took a seminar with Dr. Osler on the development of the mechanical philosophy in the 16th & 17th centuries, roughly Gassendi through to Newton. It was utterly outside my field, but the opportunity to study with Dr. Osler was not to be missed simply because I was here in Calgary to study something else and didn't have an adequate background to study the topic at that level! My standing in the class could perhaps be best summarized by a comment on the paper I wrote, in the margin of which appeared "For flailing this isn't bad". That was all Maggie - succinct, penetrating, and witty.

As her teaching assistant, something I had the privilege to be more than once, I will always treasure that I was paid to listen to her lectures. How often to we get to listen to a world expert on an interesting field range over the topic with humour and wisdom? She told me more than once that when I "got over that political stuff" I should come and study a 'real' topic with her. I treasure that, and I choose to think that it was more indicative of her opinion of me than the time she snored through my lecture in her class. (In my defence I did better the next time!)

Outside of the University Dr. Osler was active in the Calgary community, dedicating time to the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association and the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, among others. Issues great and small were subject to her acute and occasionally acerbic wit, and to her warmth.

Goodbye Maggie, the world is a poorer and less interesting place without you. You touched many of us, and we won't forget.

The University of Calgary obituary is here:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

'Fixing' what isn't Broken: Tampering with the Census

I have been startled this last few weeks to witness the extent to which a seemingly esoteric subject, the census, has become a political and conversational issue during the dog days of summer. Here in Calgary I have had a series of conversations about this topic, and so far all of them have been with people upset by the changes. Most people have been concerned by the prospect of impeding the gathering of good data, and everyone I have had the conversation with have been baffled by the government's decision to fix something that manifestly wasn't broken.

The decision by the Conservative government of Mr. Harper to change the long-form census from mandatory to optional was announced and defended on two grounds. First, that the current system was intrusive, and thus needed to be changed on privacy grounds. Second, that because there were legal sanctions attached to a failure to return the mandatory form it was necessary to act in order to protect Canadians from being punished by the state should they decide not to return the form.

Both of these grounds were, sadly, completely fatuous. In the case of the latter it is enough to point out that no Canadian has ever been jailed for the failure to complete the census. If there is a case I've missed on this point please let me know! As for the former, well, there are a series of reasons why that concern makes little or no sense. To begin with it is entirely possible to return the form blank, or with inaccurate answers. Tens of thousands do - witness the write-in answer of 'Jedi' under the religion category over the past few censuses. Secondly anything which identifies your answers with you is held in confidence for 92 years, at which point you will be past caring about what you may have said. Thirdly the data you are submitting via the long form frequently exists elsewhere, in tax filings, building permits, school records etc, all of which are vastly more accessible than the census data. Fourthly, many of us submit vast amounts of personal data to private organizations, whether those be stores or banks, that maintain and are held to a much lower standard of privacy. Finally it should be borne in mind that in an era in which we all can and do complain about things which irritate us every day the last census received a grand total of three, yes three, privacy complaints. I would submit that any private organization that sent out a questionnaire to its membership and received only three complaints would be thrilled; and that on a vastly smaller sample size.

The problems with the proposed new system of a mandatory short-form and a voluntary long-form are manifold. To begin with the mandatory long-form is the fundamental control group for all of the research done in this country by Statistics Canada and most private researchers as well. The mandatory long-form is invaluable because it reaches a huge number of people, the response rate is high and the people are randomly chosen. As a result the data provides a statistical sample size and randomness that is unmatched. This means that its results are accurate even though many people either don't complete it or send back that they are Jedi - these outliers fall off the edges of the curve for any given question and we are left with an enormous sample to work with. the result is data that is internationally admired for its reach, accuracy and completeness. To make the sample voluntary means that response rates fall, and the response rate skews away from a representative sample of Canadians. The worst thing about this is that we won't be able to know how much, or which way, the data has skewed - we will have cancelled the control group we test everything else against.

What I have found fascinating the past few weeks is the number of people I have had this conversation with, many of whom are not political people, much less policy wonks. I have several times been told that we, as Canadians, prefer to settle our differences by appealing to the facts. There seems to be something in the census changes that people recognize as an attack on the facts, or at least the system for gathering them. Last time I checked there were hundreds of groups, ranging from provinces and municipalities to professional groups like statisticians and economists, in opposition to the changes. In favour these was only the government, the National Citizen's Coalition (formerly run by Mr. Harper) and the Fraser Institute. The contrast is educational in and of itself. The issue also seems to have resonated with a much wider section of the public than the narrow element of the Conservative Party's base that the move was intended to satisfy. the polling data the last week indicates that it has hurt the government's standing with voters, though like all polls (especially in the summer) that needs to be placed in context. Unless the opposition is able to make strides towards portraying itself as a viable government-in-waiting then the results are unimportant.

Mr. Clement's announcement today that the government would move the language section of the long-form to the short-form census questionnaire is a transparent effort to avoid the court challenge filed by the Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities of Canada. The conflict between the maintenance and extension of the short-form census and the rhetoric about removing the mandatory long-form and protecting citizen privacy from the state is striking.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Another avoidable tragedy for Gaza

The loss of life on the flotilla attempting to move from Cyprus to Gaza is tragic, but it was also completely avoidable. This is a topic certain to inflame passions, but there were a few points I felt I had to make.

Gaza is under a declared blockade; one declared not by Israel alone, but rather by Israel and Egypt. While Israeli warships and troops carried out the blockade in this instance it is important to remember that a Palestinian ally supports the blockade. The flotilla's organizers refused to follow the protocol of the blockade, docking in either Egypt or Israel to have their cargo inspected and then delivered overland to Gaza. They wanted to make a statement, and they did that.

Obviously the primary focus of the blockade is weapons smuggling. Currently what is known as dual-use material is also restricted from shipment to Gaza under the terms of the blockade, however, as a result of the risk of it being used to support violence and terrorism. Piping and concrete are harmless in and of themselves, but they can become rockets and bunkers. As it stands today the blockade is a hardship on the people of Gaza, but food and medicine are exempt from the blockade and it doesn't add unduly to the humanitarian crisis that is Gaza.

The terms of the Camp David agreements removed Israeli troops from Gaza. they also forbade heavy weaponry to the Palestinian government of Gaza, something that Hamas has been reluctant at best to comply with. (Hence the blockade) Until Hamas realizes that giving up certain kinds of weaponry is one of the prices for peace, just as Egypt is not allowed heavy weaponry and more than a certain number of light soldiers in the Sinai, then the peace process will remain stalled. Israel, of course, needs to make concessions as well, with the most egregious violation on its part of the peace terms being the continued building of settlements on Palestinian land. This is, however, a separate issue.

Running a declared blockade means that you know there is a real possibility of a military response, and by declaring your intention and timeline beforehand you are basically fishing for one. Last night 3 Israeli naval vessels intercepted the flotilla, and presumably were unable to convince them to turn around or dock for inspection in accordance with the blockade. These vessels rightly decided that sinking the ships would be excessive, and elected to use a much lower scale of force. Interestingly the information I've seen indicates that all vessels complied without violence except one, so we'll have to see whether that case involved excessive force or real provocation. Sadly the facts may actually matter very little as the overwhelming majority of people will simply fit this episode into whichever pre-conceived framework they want to.

As a final thought there will be calls for the UN to take action against Israel as a result of this, and the question that I have is why did Israel's opponents give up on the UN to pressure Israel and Egypt to take down the blockade?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Link to Sue Huff on Expense Accounts

This is a link to a post by Sue Huff (an Edmonton School Trustee) on expense accounts and political culture. Well said, Sue.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A night with the Alberta Democratic Renewal Project

Tonight I attended a panel put on by the Alberta Democratic Renewal Project here in Calgary.

I should be clear that while I am not a supporter of the ADRP or their specific aims I certainly endorse their passion for Alberta. In addition I’d spent the rest of the day mired in re-working a chapter section on the development of the Bank of England’s 1925 American credit for the return to gold, so some political debate and contact with other human beings was more than welcome. In brief the ARDP is an organization devoted to two goals. In the short term a cooperative alliance or non-compete agreement among opposition parties here in Alberta, which they refer to as progressive parties. The ultimate purpose of this alliance, and their second goal, is to institute a system of proportional representation here in Alberta.

The panel consisted of three speakers: Dr. Avalon Roberts (former Liberal Candidate), Dr. Phil Elder (of the ADRP) and Dr. Doreen Barrie (University of Calgary) standing in for a panelist trapped in Edmonton by the weather. Each panelist spoke for 15 minutes to an audience of approximately 50 people. Typical of most such events the crowd was decidedly monochromatic, well off, well-educated and older, but what the group lacked in variety it made up for in lively engagement. The formal Q & A lasted longer than the talks, and many people stayed later to continue conversing. I don’t know whether the event generated any support for the ADRP, but it certainly succeeded in generating a worthwhile and engaging couple of hours.

As I couldn’t take notes I will simply note some of the themes discussed by the panelists. Dr. Roberts and Dr. Barrie both moved over similar territory; the focus was on declining voter turnout, increasing disengagement from the process, the travails of the current opposition parties and the inadequacies of the provincial government. Dr. Elder spoke on the ADRP’s plans and reasoning, which I will omit as you can find the basics on their website above. The one statement he made that I need to set out is the assertion that the opposition parties here in Alberta have broadly common policies. Questioners of note included Donn Lovett, formerly of the Alberta Liberals and now involved with MLA Dave Taylor, The President of the Alberta Liberal Party and MLA Harry Chase. When he spoke Mr. Chase seemed to be saying that he supported the ideas of the ADRP, but they could never work because of the NDP’s unwillingness to work with the Liberals. Mr. Sansotta’s stepped up later to address a critic of the ALP with some humour, but regrettably did not address any of the issues raised by the panel or other commenter's. Mr. Lovett made a couple of trenchant points about the layout of the Alberta electorate, and the requirements as he saw them of a successful party in the centre.

I had to ask a few questions. To begin I took exception to the repeated assertion that politics in Alberta is moribund or unchanging. What other jurisdiction in Canada has two new parties like our Wild Rose and Alberta Parties, not to mention activist groups like Reboot and the ADRP itself all coming forward at once? Secondly I pointed out that disillusionment might well have more to do with the inaccessibility of parties, and the tiny percentage of the population that belong to one, than the length of the current government. I couldn’t resist noting that most opposition candidates in Alberta are already ‘paper’ candidates, so the plan of the ADRP really only has relevance in perhaps 12-20 ridings in the province, even accepting (which I certainly do not) that the opposition vote could be united. Finally the idea that the Liberals, NDP and Greens share common policies demonstrates far more about the failings of those organizations to define themselves than it does about their commonalities.

So what do I think at the end of the night? For myself I am not sold on the virtues of proportional representation as a system. Provided the basic political culture is healthy it seems like a solution looking for a problem, and if the culture is unhealthy there are a whole new crop of potential abuses – every system has them. As for the idea of non-compete agreement, well, I oppose it on grounds of both principle and practice. To begin with the ADRP is so far from the consciousness of the mass electorate as to be a minor factor in voting intentions at best, so even if such an alliance were signed it could not deliver the votes to one candidate. I also don’t believe that the parties are in fact interchangeable, certainly not to their supporters. In addition I as a voter oppose the limitation of my options, and view diversity of competition as a healthy thing. Besides, with the rise of the Wild Rose it won’t just be the centre/left vote that splits in the next election, will it? All in all I feel that the ADRP’s plan is a poor substitute for a well-organized and well-executed opposition party or two.

That said I think having groups like this coming alive and working to raise awareness and engage people with the system, and trying to change the system, is an essential element of that healthy political culture I talked about earlier. I wish the ADRP people all success in bringing their plan before a wider audience, I just hope that it isn’t adopted!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Public Accounts Committee and the casual abuse of power

Politics here in Alberta is certainly lively, both in ways that the rest of Canada will envy, like the recent profusion in parties and movements, and in ways less good, like today's stupidity in the Public Accounts Committee of the Alberta Legislature. To be brief I will quote the Edmonton Journal article linked below:

"Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Hugh MacDonald was effectively neutered as chairman of the Public Accounts Committee this morning.

On the recommendation of Wetaskiwin-Camrose Tory Verlyn Olson, "all future correspondence on behalf of the public accounts committee (must) be signed by both the chair and deputy chair."
So, before MacDonald can send out e-mails, make plans for future meetings, and demand government bodies make an appearance before the all-party committee, Calgary-Lougheed Tory Dave Rodney (the deputy chair) must give him the nod.

It's an unusual practice, since it doesn't happen in any other legislative committee, all of which are dominated by government Conservatives. Olson's motion this morning was backed by all present government members and opposed by NDP Leader Brian Mason and Calgary-Varsity Liberal Harry Chase. (MacDonald, as the chairman, can't actually vote.)"

As a basic matter of good governance this move by government caucus is appalling. What is the point of such a committee if its every move, even to convene a meeting, essentially requires the permission of the government? The abuse of power, and it is hard to see what else to call it, is especially flagrant given that this is the only significant committee I am aware of that the government doesn't already chair. Was one potentially awkward voice too many? According to the Edmonton Journal's article this is in fact the only committee of the legislature that the government doesn't already chair. As a matter of principle in governance it is best to have oversight committees like this representative of as many views outside the government as possible, to encourage them to ask the kind of questions they need to in order to be effective. Especially with a strong majority situation like we have here in Alberta this kind of oversight is important; the government should welcome an effective opposition voice, especially when it comes without any serious threat in the legislature itself.

Edmonton Journal - Capital Notebook:



It appears that there may be a retraction of the offensive motion coming tomorrow, April 21. In addition worth reading this post by Dave Cournoyer to learn who the silent votes on the motion were from the PC caucus. Shame on all 5 of you!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Enbridge's BC Battle

Well, it appears that the gloves are off in public for the opponents of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline from Fort McMurray to Kitimat BC. This ad ran in today's Globe and Mail, as well as being widely posted online by the various signatories:

From the the point of view of Enbridge and other players in the oil industry the majority of the signatory list can be referred to in shorthand as 'the usual suspects'. That being said there are a couple of reasons that this public statement is significant. First and foremost the lengthy list of First Nations groups is a serious threat to the very existence of the project. Laying out a pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat that doesn't cross First Nation's land would be awkward, to put it mildly.

In addition the decision to challenge the pipeline on the basis of the risks on the maritime end is smart, on several levels. The ferry Queen of the North was lost in those waters in 2006 and the case has been in the news recently as the lawsuits wend their way through the courts. In addition this threat has enabled Greenpeace and other opponents of the pipeline to get the tourist and fishing industries on board with their opposition, as the organization and business lists reveal. Finally it enables them to challenge the pipeline without reference specifically to the domestic oil industry or the pipeline itself. This last demonstrates that Greenpeace and their allies have learned that threatening jobs and economic growth directly is a counterproductive marketing strategy.

It would be in Alberta's interests to see the development of this pipeline, or some similar project. Creating alternative markets for bitumen and oil outside of our current restrictions would help insure better access to markets, and perhaps a greater degree of competition for our raw product. Currently the pipeline grid means that our options are starkly limited in terms of refinery access - whereas a link to a deep-water port opens the world's refineries to us. Whether or not a modus vivendi can be found that makes this pipeline, or another like it, feasible is something that Alberta in particular and Canada more generally need to pay serious attention to.

* My thanks to @duncankinney for linking and discussing this with me today!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Canadian Impact of the GOP's "waterloo"?

Here is a link to an opinion piece by David Frum, former special assistant to President Bush in 2001-02 and a prominent conservative commentator south of the border:

In addition to the interesting take on the political dimensions of the Republican party's challenges there are a couple of storm cloud comments in this piece from the perspective of Canada and Alberta.

Frum begins by acknowledging that 'Obamacare' is now a done deal and that the idea that the Republican party will be able to simply repeal it is ludicrously simplistic. He then focuses in on specific challenges he feels that the GOP needs to address, starting with the means of paying for the program. He identifies minimizing the impact of upper-tier income-tax increases as a priority. "We need to start thinking now about how to get rid of these new taxes on work, saving and investment -- if necessary by finding other sources of revenue, including carbon taxes."

Well Alberta, that is the sound of change coming south of the border. There is already a large faction of the Democratic party working to implement some kind of carbon tax, for one or both of the environmental or fiscal agendas. In the Republican party support for the idea has been more limited, but if Frum and other Republican thought leaders come to see it as a source of revenue to fund some of their liabilities, as well as a possible wedge issue to court certain factions within the Democratic vote, then the likelihood of a serious carbon tax regime of some kind in the next few years goes up markedly.

In addition he makes a couple of comments about the coming shift in the American health insurance market, the impacts of which will be felt on this side of the border as well. I will leave aside his discussion of the market mechanics of a free trade, if such a thing can be said to exist in this case, in health care. The more immediately germane comment is his fourth - that dealing with the potential impact of the punitive provisions of the new health plan on employers who don't meet the new rules. The American recovery is tender, and productivity south of the border, while not as bad as in Canada, is certainly nothing to envy. Given the impact of the American economy on our own we need to be alert for indications of how some of these elements of the plan will play out in practice.

Given the magnitude of the Republican mismanagement of American policy and finances under President Bush it is hard to feel an sympathy for the GOP when Frum concludes "the "Waterloo" threatened by GOP Sen. Jim DeMint last year regarding Obama and health care has finally arrived all right: Only it turns out to be our own."

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Reboot 2.0, or herding cats.

This past weekend was the Reboot Alberta 2.0 conference, which following on the striking success of the first I made time to attend. For my summary of Reboot 1 and some links to other responses see

I, like the vast majority of the participants, found the November Reboot event profoundly stimulating and energizing. Obviously my hope going in to the second event was that the group would be able to build on that momentum. I was also looking forward to seeing what the larger attendance inspired by the success of the first event would bring; in particular if the event would see the arrival of provincial elected officials. With that said I also wanted to see how the challenges of growth, especially the challenges of raised expectations and the practical difficulties of recapturing the freewheeling discussions of Reboot 1 in a larger group.

The dissatisfaction that motivated many of us to attend the first Reboot, and by extension the second, was put on display for me early Saturday morning. During the first session I found myself at a table with a grade 11 student, who had decided to come (mother in tow) to take part in the event as the result of a trip their school had taken to an MLA-for-a-day event at the legislature. Despite being excited to attend that event what they saw had profoundly disillusioned this individual, who was startled by the blind partisanship and shortsightedness they witnessed. In addition they found the way their group of enthusiastic youth were treated, "like our enthusiasm was cute and they knew they'd never see us again", profoundly off-putting. While this anecdote only speaks directly to the mind of one person the feeling that the system is less responsive and less engaging than it could and should be is, I think, at the root of what created this gathering.

In the event there were several key differences between Reboot 1 and Reboot 2. Firstly it was simply larger; while obviously as an attendee I do not have access to the organizers' information by my count the attendance at Reboot 2 was at least 50% larger than Reboot 1 with at least 120+ in the room on Saturday morning. Secondly Reboot 2 was much more structured in approach than Reboot 1. The structure of the discussions was based on the outlines developed at the first event, which had a couple of important impacts on the weekend.

It was the combination of these two differences which I think led to the initial frustration of the 40 or more of us in attendance who had also been at Reboot 1. Shannon Sortland blogged about this here: In short many of us who had attended the first event felt like much of the activity on Saturday was a 'Cole's notes' version of Reboot 1 - or perhaps more accurately a remedial course for the majority of the attendees who had not been at the first event. At the time, like Shannon, I found this very frustrating. As the day wore on, and in the days since, I have realized that my frustration reflected an unrealistic desire to forge ahead on the assumption that everyone who had missed the first event had somehow absorbed all of the information arising from it nonetheless. In fact until mid-afternoon on Saturday what we were doing, in fact, was not building on the previous event but bringing a wider circle of people up to speed on the conversation.

The fact that this process went as quickly as it did was the up side of the structuring of the event based on the 'streams' arising from Reboot 1. What the use of the outcomes of Reboot 1 cost Reboot 2 was the magic of that open-ended process. That being said I'm not at all sure that with the numbers present at last weekend's meeting that the methodology of the first meeting could have worked anyway. At Reboot 1 the discussion group for "Change within the existing system" had 14 of us. On Saturday afternoon I was part of a group of 30. 14 people is a manageable conversation, 30 is much less so and requires more structure and provides less interactivity.

As a result by Saturday afternoon, despite some really excellent exchanges and good ideas, I was getting frustrated that we didn't seem to be breaking any new ground. That said I would like to thank everyone in the final afternoon session - I thought there were a lot of interesting/challenging things said! On the whole I was frustrated at the outcome of Saturday as we ended the formal sessions, as I had come looking to exchange ideas on action to be taken, not the continued identification of problems. the problem here is, of course, that my dissatisfaction was completely unreasonable. First of all you can never recapture the magic of a new thing. Secondly the connections and conversations taking place were invaluable, and need to be acknowledged as such independent of my personal agenda going in. Where else in Alberta last weekend were PC MLAs, Liberal Strategists, NDP researchers and Wild Rose members all sitting down to talk with unaffiliated citizens and people from the civil service, the ATB and a spectrum of non-profits?

Things began to turn around for me personally almost as soon as dinner was served, however. My table, a most lively collection of people, was positively abuzz with ideas and proposals on how to effect changes of all kinds moving forward. Having a bunch of spontaneously witty people certainly helped liven things up too, though I certainly didn't add much to that part myself, sadly. Following that the migration of a large part of the overall group to a pub certainly helped shake things up too, mixing up individuals and groups rather thoroughly.

The upshot was a Sunday session completely different in tone and nature than Saturday. In short Sunday was what I came for - the 'OK, now what?" phase. A series of ideas, proposals and metrics were advanced for further discussion via and the forums community there. I encourage Albertans of every stripe to join that community and the conversations taking place there! It would have been good to have seen more representation from the Wild Rose, and the absence of the folks from the Manning Centre was also a loss. Other than that I found the variety of voices in the room both stimulating and encouraging, as was the sheer depth of knowledge available on a wide range of public policy challenges.

I learned a great deal last weekend, and I look forward to learning a great deal more in the months to come. It is in that arena of exchanging ideas and facilitating conversation that I see the future of Reboot - a larger-scale civic camp perhaps, or a common area for people of divergent interests and inclinations to meet and exchange ideas and arguments without the direct investment of partisan competition. As a movement to improve the exchange of ideas and help promote a healthier political culture here in Alberta I definitely think there is a place for Reboot as we move forward.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Calgarians Against Proroguing Parliament

The Calgarians Against Proroguing Parliament, a non-partisan outgrowth of the 208,000 member Facebook group, is hold a rally outside Mr. Harper's office on Saturday. I'll be attending, and hope some of the other Calgarians that read this blog will too.

Date: Saturday January 23rd
Time: 1 pm
Location: Outside Mr. Harper's office at 1600 - 90th Avenue SW, Calgary

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Letter to the Herald

I wrote a letter to the Calgary Herald this week, which appeared in the Sunday edition.

"Prime Minister Stephen Harper claims that this extended break is to allow the government to consult with Canadians over the economy. If that is the case, I will expect my MP, Rob Anders, to be in his office every day between now and March 3. In addition, I expect to see consultation meetings within the constituency scheduled immediately. I'll be checking, and I encourage others to do the same.

Thomas Muir, Calgary"

Monday, January 4, 2010

PC MLAs defect to Wild Rose

The news this morning that Rob Anderson and Heather Forsyth were leaving the Alberta PC party and joining the Wild Rose Alliance party and caucus has, predictably, generated a lot of commentary. In light of that commentary I think a couple of points need to be reiterated.

First of all during the last election the Premier, his staff and advisers were hoping to win somewhere in the area of 55-65 seats - a massive majority of the 83 total. They wound up with the unwieldy total of 72, a majority of exotic magnitude. At this point the PC government still commands more seats than they had hoped to win in the past election. It is also over two years to the next election - we're still in the first period of this game so let's not jump to conclusions.

Secondly the defections hardly constitute major losses to the PCs, or game-changing additions to the Wild Rose. Given the changing dynamics of Alberta politics and the inflated size of the PC caucus some defections to the Wild Rose were almost inevitable. If the government is able to keep the losses to such minor figures and Mr. Anderson and Ms. Forsyth then they will have done well. Neither of them has the stature to constitute a significant threat to the PC's standing.

Finally I think it is worth noting that the Wild Rose and the two defectors have certainly not gained the maximum political traction from the opportunity this move created. Had they paired the news of the defections with a major policy platform announcement they would have had the opportunity to fix both the event and Mr Anderson/Ms. Forsyth in the public mind. Instead they are likely to be forgotten or simply remembered as 'the defectors'. Another idea would have been to pair the announcement of the defection with the news of the cabinet shuffle or a major news story negative to the PCs. Whether this opportunity has gone begging due to a lack of vision or simply lack of discipline I certainly cannot say, but the fact is that done in this way the defections will have less impact than they could have had.

Mr. Anderson's Statement:

Calgary Herald Article: