Two good men: Hugh McDonald and Kevin Taft.

Just before we get into full election mode, with all the name calling and accusations and all that stuff that makes politics such a classy profession, I’d like to take a few moments before I launch into 28 days of name calling and accusations to say a few nice words about two true gentlemen who are leaving politics.

The election call marks the end of a number of political careers. Some of them have been inconsequential, coming and going leaving little more than an ass impression in a legislature chair. I’m speaking of guys like Doug Elniski, Carl Benito and hopefully a number of other useless Tories (I’m looking at you, Peter Sandhu and Tony Vandermeer) who should be forced into retirement.

But the legislature will be a noticeably lesser place when two long-serving MLAs, Liberals Hugh McDonald and Kevin Taft, walk out for the last time.

I worked with both of these men during my one-term stint at MLA, and I can tell you that the constituents of Edmonton-Riverview and Edmonton-Gold Bar are lucky to have had them as their representatives, and all Albertans are lucky that there are still people who enter politics for the right reason.

Hughie (as everyone called him, even government MLAs) and Kevin could hardly be more different. Hughie is a native of Prince Edward Island who somehow managed to maintain a distinct East Coast accent (I do a killer Hugh McDonald impression, by the way) despite living in Alberta forever. As an MLA, going the extra mile wasn’t enough for Hughie; he had to go an extra 10 or 20 miles. He would drive for hours to go to an small meeting in out-of-the-way towns just to listen to people gripe, then come back loaded with nuggets of ammunition for question period. To be honest, Hughie had a streak of McCarthyism in him; he didn’t see Reds under every bed, but Conservative corruption in every contract. He tried — Lord knows, he tried — to find the scandal that would bring down the PCs, but never did. It’s not that there isn’t corruption in Tory circles — there’s no way that 40 years in power doesn’t lend itself to corrupt practices — but he just couldn’t find the one that would stick. But that didn’t stop him from plowing through damn near every government report produced, searching for numerical nuggets to give the Tories fits. I never visited Hughie’s house, but I suspect that in his bathroom, where other people might have a People or a Reader’s Digest, Hughie would have a pile of government reports.

Hughie was also one of the great debaters in the Leg. Or perhaps debate is the wrong term, since Hughie could talk and talk and get no response from the government. While I hated those pointless nights in the leg debating something like the Agriculture Subsidy Reimbursement and Redistribution Act, Hughie could debate it for hours given the chance.  The Tories hated that because the last place they wanted to be was in the Legislature. And to tell the truth, I hated it, too. But he was doing his job, which was to a) dutifully debate and discuss government bills, and b) piss off the Tories. Hughie loved his job, and I think he loved being in opposition. We used to joke that if the Liberals ever won an election, Hughie would cross the floor just so he could stay in opposition.

Kevin Taft, on the other hand, wasn’t the type of MLA who could get up and blather on about something just to fill time. When Kevin spoke, he knew what he was talking about, and people listened. Kevin was probably the smartest person I have ever known, a man with an apparently outsized brain that sucked up knowledge.

There is an innate kindness to Kevin. When my brother Gary died, he came to the funeral. When he named me the critic for aboriginal affairs, he gave me an excellent book, Strange Empire, about Louis Riel. When party leaders were making the standard statements in honour of Remembrance Day, Kevin actually teared up recalling a trip to Europe with his sons. I know that Kevin and his wonderful wife Jeanette worked the province tirelessly, and, ultimately, thanklessly. (When I was running in the 2004 election as pretty much of a one-man show, Jeanette came out to go door knocking with me, even though I had never met her.) Kevin is a man of integrity, a man who was genuinely appalled by profligate government spending. He would have made an excellent Minister of Anything had he been on the government side, but he chose to join the Alberta Liberals because he was disgusted by the actions of the Ralph Klein government.

Hugh McDonald and Kevin Taft are proof positive, for all you cynics out there, that there are good people in politics, who endure the thankless chores of public life for all the right reasons. Thanks for your service, guys, and thanks for the memories.

Note to Alberta Liberals: find a new bone to chew on.

I have a dog, Bam Bam (no, we did not name him) who loves to gnaw on bones. The bone begins with a little meat on it (not much, really, once I get through with it), and as the dog gnaws away at it, it becomes progressively smaller and smoother. After a day or so of this treatment, the bone is bare and not very interesting, except to my dog. Even my OTHER dog, Bailey, has lost interest in it, except when he decides it would be fun to hide it from Bam Bam, which is hilarious.

The Alberta Liberals, in their role of Official Opposition, are a lot like my dog Bam Bam. The Liberals get a bone with some meat on it, and just keep gnawing away on it until there’s nothing left of it. Basically — and this was my experience as an MLA — they just don’t know when to quit.

This is exactly what we’re seeing in the Legislature right now, for those of you who pay any attention to what is happening under the dome. The Liberals have been gnawing on the issue of how much money the PC party gives in supplementary pay to the premier. The PCs, who are flush with cash, give their leader extra pay on top of the $200,000 or so the government pays the premier (the highest paid in the land, we are told). The Liberals seem to think there is something nefarious in all of this, and have asked question after question in the past week. There have also been much better questions about an organization called True Blue, the legal vehicle for fundraising for the Tories, that is run by well-connected lawyer who gets incredibly lucrative contracts from the government. The uptake from the media — which, ultimately, is the point of modern question period — has been at best minimal.

I’m sure the Liberals are frustrated by the lack of coverage and attendant outrage over their questions. But I know why the questions are getting so little traction — NOBODY CARES!

Frankly, I don’t care if the PC party gives the premier top up money. How does this impact me in any way? The PC party is free to do whatever they like with the money they’ve raised. If they want to give it to the premier, fine. I don’t care, and I haven’t read any reason why I should care. If there is a reason why this is worthy of days of questions from the official opposition — which the government has easily batted away, since it’s not really public business — I haven’t seen it.  Perhaps there is something here, but the Liberals have done a bad job of relating whatever it is.

As for the True Blue story, yes, that stinks. But it’s not surprising. This government — hell, any government — repays its friends. That’s the Alberta way, or at least the PC way. And while it is a legitimate question, asking it any more than once is a waste of a precious Question Period space.

So, if I may, a little advice to my friends in the official opposition. Bury this bone, and forget about it. The public already has. I hope when the Legislature returns, the Liberals have found a new bone to chew on, preferably something with some meat on it.

The Redford Equation.

On Saturday night (or more accurately, Sunday morning), after it became apparent that Alison Redford was going to be our new premier, I went on Facebook to see if any of my ‘friends’ were registering any opinions. There was only one (most of my friends are in bed at that hour, and if not, they sure as hell aren’t looking at Facebook at 1:30 a.m.), and what she said brought home the enormity of the Redford victory.

My friend is a liberal and (or at least, was) a Liberal. I always felt she wouldn’t have voted Tory even if promised a lifetime supply of licorice. But on her Facebook update, she wrote: “Alison! Alison! This is amazing!”

And I thought: “Uh, oh.”

Redford’s stunning victory Sunday puts all the pieces in play. For years, Alberta politics was as predictable as the sunrise and complaints from farmers. Now, all bets are off (although I would take odds on the Tories extending their winning streak for another four years).

What the Tory party has done, at least in my view, is nothing less than paddle against the prevailing political currents. While Stephen Harper goes further and further right, and American politics threatens to fall off the face of the earth, the reigning conservative party in the most conservative province in Canada has taken a leftward turn. Not a hard left, by any means. Alison Redford isn’t going to put out the welcome mat for creeps and bums to return to Alberta. But Redford is the reddest of Red Tories, a former human rights lawyer in a province where human rights have been up for sale for years. Achieving power while being beholden to no one, she is free to shape her cabinet with new faces, without a concern to repaying debts owed to the lame, the halt, and the rural Conservative MLA. (Doug Griffiths, however, might want to take up permanent residence on the backbenches, having backed the wrong horse on the second ballot.)

Redford’s victory has so many potential ramifications, it’s perhaps easiest to just put them in point form, which is an easy dodge for lazy writers:

• Where will angry Gary Mar supporters go?  Will they turn their backs on the party because their guy got stiffed, or was his support more bandwagon jumping than true blue? (Once again, the Tories have allowed a loser to become a winner.  Redford came in second on the first ballot, second on the second ballot. And yet she emerges the winner.)

  • Will Redford push the Tories solidly on the centre-left (by Alberta standards, anyway) setting up a truer leftish vs. right showdown with the Wildrose?
  • I think Wildrose supporters might be dancing in the streets today; the right wing of Alberta politics is now wide open, with only one standard bearer for the right.
  • What will rural Albertans think? Well, the party they have voted for blindly for so many years first conspired to get rid of one of their own (Ed Stelmach), and replaced then with a lefty woman. Now that rural Alberta has been so thoroughly shunned by the Tory party, there may no longer be any valid reason to stick with the PCs. Unless, of course, the Tories appear set to win the next election, in which case the rural vote follow the power.
  • Media darling Brian Mason is now the oldest face in the race. The PCs and Wildrose have dynamic, accomplished young women in charge. The Liberals have a controversial, headline attracting youngish immigrant running the show. That leaves Mason — an old, male, career politician — looking very much like a Chevy Vega in a showroom full of 2012 model sports cars.

So much to think of. So many ramifications. The only thing I know for sure is that the political ground shook, and shook hard, on Sunday. All that’s left to see now is who’s left standing.

Liberals: new politics, or desperation?

Well, it was an interesting weekend in Alberta politics. The Alberta Party held a leadership convention, and the Alberta Liberals held a policy convention. Of the two, I’d venture that the Alberta Party came out ahead, in that they actually have a leader for their party. So, maybe they’re a little short on policy, but really, does anyone care about policy?

I’ll answer that: no.

Meanwhile, my friends in the good ol’ ALP were busy “reimagining” themselves down in soggy Calgary. The Alberta Liberals are, as always, looking for ways to boost interest in their party. This has always been difficult, because it has little to offer compared to the other parties.

Joining the PCs means jumping on the bandwagon of a winning team, not unlike the thousands of new “fans” of the Vancouver Canucks. And if you join the PCs, you could brush shoulders with Ted Morton — now THAT’s worth the five bucks. Joining the NDP gives you the right to tell everyone else how to run the province, without ever having to worry about actually doing anything about it. Sanctimony is free with every membership. Joining the Wildrose gets you on the ground floor of the Cranky Old Man movement that might sweep the province. And joining the Alberta Party is cool because it still has that new party smell.

Joining the Liberals gives you a membership in an elite organization with a nearly unblemished record of abject failure. But it also marks you as a rebel, someone who isn’t afraid to use the “L” word in public. I always thought that was one of the benefits of being a Liberal, but apparently not. The young bucks in charge of the ALP these days (and it’s good news that there are young bucks in the party) have convinced the rest of the membership that actual paid membership in the ALP is so tainted that nobody wants to actually buy a membership.

The solution, as approved by the membership — give it away.

That’s right, folks. The party has opened up voting in its current leadership race, and even constituency nominations, to anyone. You don’t have to pay your five bucks; all they want is your interest, however fleeting, and your email and home addresses. As party president Erick Ambtman put is: “You’re not saying you want to marry us, but you’re saying you’re willing to date. It’s allowing people to engage with us without having to say we’re going to go all the way.”

There is no truth to the rumour that the new slogan for the Alberta Liberals will be: “We’re easy.”

Personally, I’m worried about abuse of the system. It wouldn’t take may mischievous PCs or NDPs to band together to support terrible candidates, or plant a candidate to run against a major opponent like Hugh MacDonald or Laurie Blakeman. And don’t think for a moment that they wouldn’t try to do something underhanded like that.

I am also baffled as to why the always cash-strapped party would go to this system during a leadership vote, which brings in members and money. Now, they’ll bring in members… but no money.

I’m sure all of this was discussed at length (Liberals do love to debate). The young turks say the party system in Canada is dying … except for the federal PCs, the provincial PCs, the Wildrose Alliance, etc. The move to an open membership is either a bold, visionary move, or a sign of desperation. We shall see…

A few thoughts on David Swann.

While waiting to watch the live feed of the David Swann press conference Tuesday morning, I overheard one reporter say “Will the last person inside the Alberta Legislature please turn out he lights”.

I’ve never seen Alberta politics as volatile as it has been in the past seven days. First Ed Stelmach quits, to everyone’s surprise, then Ted Morton quits to run for Stelmach’s job, to no one’s surprise. Alberta Liberal leader David Swann’s resignation today came as a surprise as well, but perhaps it is not entirely unexpected.

I have a bit of a hard time commenting on David Swann, because after serving with him for 3 1/2 years in the Legislature, I consider him a friend. He is genuinely one of the kindest, warmest men I have ever known. As corny as it sounds, he genuinely believes in helping his fellow man. He’s a quality person through and through. But that doesn’t always translate to leadership.

David has a core of followers in his constituency who believe in him deeply (I’ve called them acolytes). Why didn’t that translate into province-wide affection? I think, just like Kevin Taft before him, that David Swann is the type of person who is smart, caring, and deeply impressive in person, and yet does not translate on the big stage. Why that is, I do not know, but I have a theory.

In order to really succeed in politics, you have to be a bit of an SOB. Ralph Klein, for example, has plenty of SOB in him. Jean Chretien oozed it, but hid it well. Trudeau was pure SOB, and didn’t care if anyone knew it. Same with Stephen Harper.

Ed Stelmach failed, in part, because he lacked that SOB ingredient. He, too, is essentially a nice guy who just didn’t have the stomach for the uglier aspects of politics (i.e. Ted Morton). David Swann doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, which just doesn’t guarantee a long political career. I’m not saying that there isn’t room for good people in politics — there are plenty, from all sides — but when it comes to being leader, sometimes you just have to be a miserable SOB, because that’s what’s right for the party. Sad, but true.

I’m sure there will be lots of conjecture on who will be the new leader (the list is not long, believe me), but for today, I’ll let it go. This is a day to say thanks to David Swann, a good man who took on a tough job for all the right reasons.


On Edmonton names, Harry’s revenge, and the ND loving Sun.

New constituency of Edmonton South West
What Edmonton South West looks like.

Legislature session, day 2:

I am disappointed by Edmonton’s MLAs. Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats… all of them. Here’s why.

The bulk of Tuesday’s session (the stuff that happens after the media stops watching Question Period) was taken up with a discussion of the new electoral boundaries commission final report, which was ordered to add new seats to the Leg, including one to Edmonton. You may remember the initial boundaries report, after months of study and deliberation, changed the landscape of Edmonton, with new boundaries and new constituencies (Callingwood, La Perle, North West). But the politicians didn’t like it much, so the commission said; “Screw it, we’ll just carve off a corner of Edmonton and give it one new riding.” Which is basically what they did, creating a dog’s leg, dog’s breakfast constituency called Edmonton South West, that seems to be made up mostly of empty space with pockets of population from as far south as the Calgary Trail north to the Whitemud.

The deed has been done, and no one seems to care about this newborn orphan. But what disappoints me is that no Edmonton MLAs tried to give this unloved newcomer a better name.

Most of Tuesday was taken up by amendments, as MLAs asked for, and received, renames for some constituencies. Strathcona became Strathcona-Sherwood Park. Calgary Montrose became Calgary Greenway. And Calgary Nose Hill became … I am not making this up … Calgary Klein. (This resulted in an interesting exchange, when ND MLA Rachel Notley questioned whether Klein was “part of history” and should be honored. An unidentified member asked: “Do you want him to die first? Is that it?”, to which Notley replied: “I wouldn’t go there.”)

Since Edmonton South West has no sitting member, and no one to speak up for it, it will be born with the dreary name Edmonton South West. Couldn’t one Edmonton MLA have stood up and asked for a better name for this baby?

How about Edmonton-McLuhan, after media guru Marshall McLuhan, who was born in Edmonton? Or maybe Edmonton-May, after aviation great ‘Wop’ May, or Edmonton-Dickens, after another aviation great, Punch Dickens. Maybe Edmonton-Page, after J. Percy Page, Edmonton Grads coach and former Lt. Gov. If you insist on a political name, try Edmonton-Murphy, after Emily Murphy, the first female magistrate of the British Empire.Or how about Lois Hole, although I don’t know if anyone would want to be the MLA for Edmonton-Hole. Just to get the legislature talking, maybe Edmonton-Chong, after Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong fame. Or Edmonton-Fox, after Michael J. Fox. Or Canadian nationalist and publisher Edmonton-(Mel) Hurtig. The Tories would love that one.

The bottom line is that there are dozens of worthy Edmontonians we could have named our new constituency after. But instead, because no one took the reins, we’re stuck with Edmonton South West. Missed opportunity for everyone

Elsewhere Tuesday, Calgary Varsity Liberal MLA Harry Chase must have enjoyed his day of revenge.

Chase spoke at length during first reading of the law on distracted driving, which bans the use of cellphones while driving. As Chase pointed out, he made an almost identical private member’s bill in 2005, which was shot down by the Tories. On Tuesday, Chase threw the words of Tories who disagreed with him back in their faces, gleefully quoting one Tory after another who disagreed with his bill, all of whom will no doubt agree with the government bill. That must have been a good day for Chase.

And finally, it’s time to call out the Edmonton Sun for what it is — a New Democrat supporting paper.

Seriously. In the story on the latest case of duckicide in Fort Mac, ND MLA Rachael Notley was quoted first and extensively, and her quote was used in a drop-quote in the story. Two pages later, in a story on the Auditor-General’s report on health-care accounting, ND leader Brian Mason was the only politician quoted, complete with mugshot.  That’s a lot of ink for the no. 4 party in the legislature. Could the Edmonton Sun be harbouring a soft spot for socialists … or are the other parties just doing a crappy job of getting their message out?

Did Smith blow it with her airport stand?

Public opinion polls taken when an election is about 18 months away are more fun than informative.  As John Diefenbaker said, “Dogs know what best to do with polls.” And, just like dogs, it’s best to just sniff around for a minute, then do on to something more important.

But what they heck; let’s look at the most recent poll on political preferences, from the Citizen Society Research Lab at Lethbridge College. A telephone survey of 1,067 Alberta voters, held Oct. 2-3, found the PCs still out in front with 30 per cent of the vote, with Danielle Smith and the Wildrose Party (that should be their official name; without her, they’re like the Heartbreakers without Tom Petty) at 20 per cent, the Alberta Liberals at 17 per cent, and NDs at nine. A healthy 18 per cent was undecided. .

While the PCs and Danielle Smith are duking it out in Calgary, Edmonton is a much different story. Here, the PCs still lead with 33 per cent support of decided voters, with the Liberals second at 24, NDP at 20 and Wildrose at 16.

Whoa. The supposedly surging Wildrose at a puny 16 per cent in Edmonton? And behind the Few Democrats? Those are the kind of numbers that must give the supremely confident Smith pause.

I’ve been saying for a long time (mostly to myself) that the Wildrose is much more of a southern and rural Alberta party. Their MLAs are all from well outside Edmonton, and unless they’ve got somebody hiding out somewhere, they haven’t come up with any high profile (or even mid-high profile) Edmonton candidates.  As far as I can tell, they have two candidates  so far in Edmonton. Of course, there’s no election on the horizon (Stelmach again reiterated the March 2012 date earlier this week), so you might think that there was no rush. But when you’re a new party, with no presence in the community, you can’t have enough candidates too early.

Here’s another thought. The poll was taken Oct. 2-3, well after Smith stuck her nose in Edmonton’s business by signing the Envision Edmonton petition to keep the airport open. Could it be that Edmonton voters reacted negatively to Smith’s ill-advised grandstand play? Smith hasn’t done much wrong so far, but choosing a side in an entirely local issue may have cost her dearly.

But of course, the election is a long ways away. Voters will have forgotten Smith’s gaffe by the time March 2012 rolls around. But the Danielle Smith party, if it wants to make any inroads in Edmonton, should probably start paying attention to the capital they want so badly to take over.