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.

The obligatory review of 2011. With videos!

Well, here we are at the end of another arbitrary span of 365 days that we call a year. And what a year it was! Things happened! Famous people died! Future famous people were born (how come nobody talks about that?)! Movies and TV shows were produced, some of them good, and some of them bad! The earth moved, literally in some cases, figuratively in others. It was a year of bests and worsts, mosts and leasts. Here’s my entirely personal list, which has no scientific basis.

Canada, Alberta and Edmonton

Least surprising political event: Stephen Harper gets his cherished majority, and  immediately sets about cranking Canada so far to the right that even American Republicans are saying: “Slow down, Steven.”

Most surprising political event: The NDP becomes the Official Opposition as Quebec voters elect 20-year-old barmaids who don’t even live in their ridings. Quebecers apparently mistook election for one of those terrible Just for Laughs gags shows.

Most surprising political development: Alison Redford comes out of nowhere (Calgary) to win the PC leadership, using a canny mix of populist promises and a guarantee to spend $100 million on teachers, putting her over the top as teachers flock to the polls.

Least surprising political development: Alison Redford reneges on her promise of fixed election date. Calling it a fixed date when there is a three-month window is like saying your dog is fixed if he’s only had one nut removed.

Most welcomed political retirements, Alberta edition: No more Ron Liepert, no more Lloyd Snelgrove, and especially no more King Ken Kowalski, who leaves the speaker’s chair with $1.3 million in his pocket. But he earned every penny of it. Just ask him.

Least welcomed political retirements (Alberta edition): Hugh MacDonald and Kevin Taft from the Alberta Liberals, neither of whom is running next year. The legislature will be a lesser place without them, if that’s even possible.

Most protracted debate: the Edmonton arena debate. Hey, we all knew Darrel Katz was going to get his way. What took so long?

Least welcomed retirement: Rod Phillips calls his last Edmonton Oilers game. I’m pretty sure you can still hear “HE SCOOOOOOOOOOORES” in the rafters of Rexall.

Most welcomed retirement (permanent): Serial killer Clifford Olson croaks. He won’t be meeting his child victims where he’s gone.

Worst season: The winter of 2011-12. Too much snow, too much cold, too much everything.

The World

Least effective protest: The Occupy Anywhere Movement. Remember those guys, hanging out in public squares, banging on drums and their old ladies (I assume that’s what they did to keep warm, anyway)? Now that they’re gone, the world has changed … how?

Most effective protests: Egyptians and Libyans and everyone else for overthrowing regimes by taking to the streets. See, Occupy people? THAT’S how it’s done.

Most hilarious political scandal: New York Congressman is ruined for emailing photos of his Little Congressman to women. His name? Anthony Weiner. And he doesn’t even pronounce it ‘Whiner’. It’s Weiner! This is like a sex scandal written by the staff of Family Guy.

Most recorded disaster: Japan earthquake and tsunami. Astonishing footage, like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kOpVUTXqS0&feature=related and this one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ceym2c18OQM&feature=related and this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTeQt3KmpNA&feature=related. Unreal.

Most welcomed political retirements (permanent edition): Hosni ‘The Modern Pharaoh’ Mubarek of Egypt, Muammar ‘Multiple Spellings’ Gaddafi of Libya, Kim (I Once Got 18 Holes-In-One The First Time I Went Golfing) Jung Il of North Korea, Osama (Honey, There’s Someone At the Door) bin Laden of 9/11 infamy, Silvio ‘Bunga Bunga ‘ Berlusconi of  Italy. It was a really great year for taking out the trash.

Most overwrought media coverage: The death of Jack Layton. The untimely departure of the NDP leader was given the full ‘great man has passed away, nation grieves’ splash. The cane he used only briefly was raised to iconic status, like Charlie Chaplin’s.

Most overwrought media coverage, international edition: Marriage of Prince Prematurely Balding to Princess Way Too Hot for Him. Honorable mention: death of Steve Jobs.

Least surprising riot: Let’s see now… cram 100,000 young and privileged people into a public square to watch Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, add liberal doses of alcohol and drugs, stir in a hometown defeat. What could possibly go wrong?

Most baffling riots: Youths run wild in London. Still don’t know why.

Most hilarious commercial: Herman Cain’s utterly bizarre Smoking Man ad. No Saturday Night Live parody was funnier. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6VnTqpTqvQ

“Arts” and entertainment:

Most overrated TV show of the year: Two Broke Girls. Routine CBS style sitcom. But it stars two chicks, so that’s supposed to make it groundbreaking. I’d settle for funny. Also seriously overrated: Louie.

Best new TV comedy: New Girl. The only positive in a brutal year for TV comedy.

Best TV comedy: Parks and Recreation. By the way, the spinoff book, Pawnee, is hilarious. If you like the show, you’ll love the book.

Best new TV drama: Homeland, a genuinely gripping drama of post 9/11 America (and as an added bonus, with gratuitous nudity). Well worth downloading the first season.

Best TV drama: Breaking Bad. I hate to use a term like ‘pulse pounding’, but it made my pulse pound. One of the best seasons of any TV show. Ever. Honorable mentions: Garrow’s Law (a BBC series seen on PBS set in very, very, very olden times English courts; superb acting and writing), Boardwalk Empire (top notch HBO series about bootleggers and general criminal types in the 1920s; no character was safe), and Justified (crackling good lawman drama set in Kentucky).New season starts soon. Check it out.

Most disappointing TV finale: The Killing, which promised a resolution to a season-long murder mystery, then didn’t deliver. Producers actually apologized. Too late for that, pal.

Best books of the year (at least of the ones that I read): Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean; Here Comes Trouble by Michael Moore; Life Itself by Roger Ebert; Fire and Rain, The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970.

Most promising musical newcomer: OK, this is more of a prediction, since her album doesn’t come out until next year, but Lana Del Rey will be the talk of 2012 based on this song from this year alone. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HO1OV5B_JDw&context=C35e71a7ADOEgsToPDskJqAaWUF6ojl0Vka21fUVFJ

Worst song. Ever: “Friiiiday, Friiiday…” You hate me for putting that song back into your head, don’t you? Fifteen million views and counting. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfVsfOSbJY0&ob=av3e

Best film I saw this year: Hugo, Martin Scorcese’s thrilling, awesome, touching 3D tribute to the early days of movies. Spend the extra to see it in 3D.

Most overrated movie: Bridesmaids. Yes, it was funny, and yes, it was entertaining. But one of the best of the year? C’mon.

Most confounding but strangely captivating movie: The Tree of Life. Have no idea what the hell was going on, but couldn’t take my eyes off it.

Worst movie by good people: Larry Crowne, a total turkey from Tom Hanks. And Julia Roberts!

Sporting stuff

Best sporting event: Canucks do not win Stanley Cup. There, I said it.

Most overhyped sporting event: World Junior Hockey Championship. Seriously, until the gold medal game, who cares?

Worst sporting event: Canadian women’s soccer team crashes and burns in women’s World Cup. Who did they think they were, Canadian men?

Most disturbing sports trend: Half of the NHL is out with a concussion. NHL baffled as to why young men who are hit at high speeds by other 250 pound men suited up likes knights of yore are suffering concussions. Must be today’s softer skulls.

Most surprising sporting event: Eskimos trade proven winner Ricky Ray for unproven non-winner Stephen Jyles.  But the trade must be good, because Esk GM Eric Tillman is a genius. Right? Please, somebody tell me I’m right.

Most surprisingly entertaining sports event: The rugby World Cup from New Zealand. Now that’s a man’s game.

Agree? Disagree? Want to add your picks. Always happy to hear from my reader(s).

Happy new year to you all, and thanks for reading.

Sherman deserved the win. But does he know what he’s in for?

The doctor is in. Does he has the prescription for the ailing party?

Final thoughts on the Liberal leadership race:

Yesterday, I pondered going to the U of A to attend the coronation announcement for the new leader of the Alberta Liberal Party. I didn’t go because I didn’t want to wander around looking for a parking spot, then pay through the nose for it, and attend an event that seemed to have no agenda.

Apparently, judging from the pathetic ‘crowd’ of 150 people, I wasn’t alone. Holding the event at the university, in a cavernous hall with terrible acoustics, is just the kind of thing that makes voters think that the ALP is not ready for prime time. Or even late-night infomercial time.

I’m no event organizer, but even I know that a crowd of 150 people looks a lot bigger when crowded into a smaller room than dispersed inside a much too big room. Better to turn people away at the door because there is no room than to have too much room. Why did the ALP hold this event at a huge gymnasium? I can just imaging the conversation: “We’re signing up thousands of supporters, and we’re going to get a HUGE crowd! Let’s get the biggest room possible!”

Sigh.

The choice of venue was just one of many miscalculations surrounding this leadership race that makes me just roll my eyes about the party. I tried to watch the event (such as it was) online. The feed consisted of one wide shot (as they say in the movies) that was frequently obscured by the backs of photographers. Worse yet was the sound, which bounced back and reverbed to the point of being incomprehensible. I would have liked to have heard David Swann’s swan song, but I could barely make out a word.

The announcement itself was botched as well. Executive director Corey Hogan made the announcement, which is odd; I would have thought the party president or a member of the executive would have made it. He raced up the stage, and with no fanfare or dramatics, announced the first ballot results of the victory for Raj Sherman. I really wasn’t sure it this was the final result, or the first ballot, or what the hell it was. Again, I tried to listen to Sherman’s speech, but gave up.

And what of the great experiment, opening up the leadership vote to “supporters”? This is a mixed bag. The fact only about 8,600 of 29,000 supporters and party members bothered to go online to vote points to an epic fail. I’m sure the online voting system cost the party plenty, and it forfeited thousands of dollars in real memberships that would have been sold in the traditional way. If this bold or foolhardy move is to be judged a success or failure, well, only time will tell. The party now has 29,000 names in its database — what it will do with them remains to be seen.

And what of Raj Sherman, the new leader? Why did he win?

Well, for starters, he wanted it more, as they say in sports circles. Say what you like about demon dialers and the other tricks of the political trade, but the fact is that you have to use these kinds of things to succeed in politics these days. Sherman wasn’t without the personal touch; I got a call from a volunteer wanting to know if I voted, and then another call on Friday, (And props to Hugh MacDonald; I wasn’t home, but I got a call from Hughie himself wanting to know if I had voted on Saturday). I was disappointed by Laurie Blakeman’s campaign. She clearly knows how to win and she’s a survivor, but her campaign seemed to me to be tepid and perfunctory. (This is surely the last we’ve heard from the Bill Harvey. Let’s hope this petulant putz severs ties with the party for good.)

But no matter how much Sherman may have wanted it, he wouldn’t have gotten it if the party members didn’t want him. Sherman is the biggest gamble as a leader the party has ever taken, and that is exactly the point. The last two leaders, Kevin Taft and David Swann, are fine, intelligent, thoughtful men for whom I have the utmost respect. And it’s no insult to them to say that they are not what you would call charismatic; few people have it (I know I don’t). Sherman has it. He has a forceful personality, full of confidence bordering on arrogance. He’s a wildcard, though. With Taft and Swann, you knew what you were getting. Sherman is an all-in gamble. He will be tough to work for, and rough around the edges. And he won’t do things the Liberal way. Which is another reason why he won.

Lots of talk under the dome — at least on one side.

Well, with all the excitement about health care and MLAs getting turfed, it’s easy to forget that there are other things going on under the dome.

For example, there was Monday night’s debate on Bill 29, the controversial Alberta Parks Act.

Now, I will confess that I know little about the Alberta Parks Act. I’ve read a few comments about it, and it appears that is gives too much power to the minister, or something along those lines. I’m betting that it’s a bad bill, which would be in keeping with this government. But, I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that if the opposition doesn’t like a bill, they do what they can to delay it, since stopping it is impossible in a majority legislature.

One of the ways opposition parties (and the government if they want it, for that matter) try to quash a bill is to amend it so that it is revisited six months hence, which in effect kills the bill since it disappears from the order paper. The government has done it sometimes when they realize that they’ve got a dog of a bill that needs to be put to sleep. It is more likely for the opposition to try the tactic — called a ‘hoist’ — to slow it down or stop it.

The opposition parties, led by the Liberals, tried to hoist Bill 29 on Monday night. So, how’d that go?

Not so well, as expected. From roughly 8 p.m. to about 11 p.m., the legislature debated hoisting Bill 29. It wasn’t much of  debate, however — for nearly three hours, only opposition members spoke on the hoist. Not a single government member rushed to the defense of the bill for three grueling hours. That includes such stellar performers as Doug Elniski and Naresh Bhardwaj of Edmonton.

Why wouldn’t at least one government member speak up in support of the bill, if they believe in it? Because it they did, it would prolong the session even longer, and the last thing the Tories want right now is a long session. They’re taking a beating, and nobody wants a beating to go on any longer than it has to.

In the end, Bill 29 passed second reading, as soon as the hoist bill was defeated.

Much the same thing happened on Tuesday afternoon. Edmonton-Riverview MLA Kevin Taft introduced a motion concerning the Alberta Health Act, attempting to strike out a contentious paragraph of the bill. Again, it was too complicated for the likes of people like me, but as Taft put it, “the remarkable intent and effect of this particular paragraph is, in our view, to put the minister and the health advocate and any employee or agent of either of them above the normal law.”

Serious stuff, I guess. But again, the result was a couple of hours of debate, almost entirely from opposition members. Only Dave Hancock, the very smart (and not afraid to let everyone know) minister of education as around to swat the amendment around, although for the most part he was content to just throw in shouted asides.

The amendment, of course, was defeated, and a couple of hours of time was frittered away. If you ever wonder why I couldn’t stand being in the legislature, this is why: all talk, no action. But good on the Liberals, Wildrose and NDP for doing their jobs.

Passion and posturing in the Legislature.

I’ll say this for Ed Stelmach — the guy has all the political instincts of a squirrel.

Wednesday’s QP was an example of Stelmach at his worst.

Liberal leader David Swann was asking some very pointed questions about long term care.

“The Premier likes to talk about not splitting up senior couples when they need long-term care, but the much bigger problem we’re hearing about is three people squeezed like sardines into rooms built for two,” Swann stated. “We’re not talking about the remand centre here; we’re talking about our public health system. To the Premier. It’s become common practice in Alberta Hospitals today to squeeze three patients into rooms built for two. Is the Premier aware of this? How does he justify it?”

Anyone with an ounce of political savvy would have expressed regret at the situation, vowed to repair the system, blah blah blah. But not our Eddie.

Mr. Speaker,” Stelmach stammered, “a bit of an irony here because when we were attempting originally to move patients from Alberta Hospital, from multiple patients in one room to a facility that gave individuals their private bedrooms, more green space, better accommodations, that party opposed it. Now they’re saying that, well, that’s not the right thing to do.”

Well, that got Edmonton-Riverview Liberal MLA Kevin Taft, former leader of the party, genuinely livid.  Here’s what was said right after Stelmach’s answer:

Dr. Taft: Oh, come on, Ed.

Mr. Stelmach: Well, they’ll have to decide where they stand on this particular issue.

Dr. Taft: You know perfectly well that in acute-care rooms people are squeezed in three to a two-person room.

The Speaker: The hon. leader.

Dr. Swann: Mr. Speaker . . .

Dr. Taft: Don’t evade these life-and-death issues so badly.

The Speaker: Hon. leader, would you just tap the hon. Member for Edmonton-Riverview on the shoulder? You have the floor.

Dr. Taft: It’s offensive. This Premier is offensive.

The Speaker: The hon. leader has the floor.

Dr. Taft: He’s offensive to the people of Alberta.

The Speaker: The hon. leader has the floor. Edmonton-Riverview, if you want to take over, you go and fight that out behind these doors, but the hon. Leader of the Official Opposition has the floor.

This exchange, along with Pope Kenneth The Infallible’s snippy little cheap shot, really riled up Swann.

The Premier continues to dismiss these issues and talk around the issue rather than addressing the question. Albertans are not fooled. This Energy minister is the cause of the problems in the health care system today. Unbelievable. His arrogance and incompetence created such suffering in this province, and he sits over there and laughs. You should be ashamed of yourself. Why don’t you staff the beds that are needed so that we stop this squeezing of three patients into two-bed rooms?”

The energy minister is, of course, Ron Liepert, Stelmach’s disastrous previous choice for health minister. I couldn’t see Liepert, but I can well imagine him snickering away at the exchange. That’s the kind of guy he is.

You don’t often see real passion in the dog-and-pony show that is the legislature, but this was the genuine article.

Less genuine were questions from a couple of Edmonton MLAs, who were apparently trying to show that they can be tough on the government, too. Last week, I pointed out how some rural MLAs weren’t afraid to ask tough questions. Edmonton-Decore’s Janice Sarich, and Edmonton-McClung’s David Xiao tried to play tough on Wednesday, with embarrassing results.

In questioning  Housing Minister Jonathan Denis, Sarich was apparently trying to say that there was too much social housing in Edmonton. I guess she was. Read it yourself and try to figure it out:

“Several communities in Edmonton have repeatedly raised concerns over housing projects in their communities and have come to the realization that these concerns, quite frankly, are not making a lot of progress. My questions are for the Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs. What will the minister do to slow the growth of government-funded housing projects in Edmonton communities?”

Sarich was actually asking the housing minister to build LESS government-funded housing in Edmonton. Fewer homes for those who are struggling. Fewer homes for the disadvantaged. Incredible.

She followed that up with this garbled question: “Given that it’s not very appropriate to ignore community concerns, the community would like to know: why won’t this minister recognize that there seems to be a growing disconnect between the concerns of the community and the wishes of the residents and the will of government to have a concentration of low income housing in Edmonton?”

Sarich, I suppose, was trying to make a point that there is a lot of social housing in Edmonton, maybe more than there should be. If that was the case, she should have backed it up with numbers and some reasons why this is a bad thing. She botched her questions badly.

Worse, however, was the shamelessly self-serving and disingenuous series of questions from Xiao.

Xiao, the wealthy international man of mystery, jumped to the defence of a core constituency of his middle-to-upper middle class constituency — panhandlers.

Speaking in a way that indicates Xiao may have no mother tongue, Xiao asked the housing minister this baffling question:

“The Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs was very outspoken about the panhandling issue this past spring and promised action by this fall. Since then, the Calgary Homeless Foundation released a report saying that panhandling, according to the research, is not an issue. My questions are to the minister. How long has this minister been out of step with one of the biggest stakeholders, and why does he pick on such a disadvantaged section of society?”

WTF?

Denis responded by “that report does not indicate that panhandling is not an issue. It indicates that instances of it have gone down.“

Xiao, not content to look foolish with one question, waded in with another.

This minister promised action this fall. It’s now mid-November. To the minister: are you doing anything about panhandling, or are you planning more grandstanding?”

Man, talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Xiao racing to the defence of panhandlers, something he has never mentioned in the past, is the height of grandstanding. Denis replied by calling Xiao’s questions “unduly caustic and self-serving”.

Xiao applied the coup de gras to his own credibility with this befuddling question: “My last question to the same minister: if he has nothing planned, whether he has a real handle at the provincial level, and instead is dumping this issue on cities to address it, what will he do if the cities have no plan or intention to address panhandling?”

Again, WFT? Even Denis had to say “I had some difficulty understanding this member’s question.”

While his questions are befuddling to read, to get the full impact of the cynicism behind them, you’d have to watch the video. At the end of the question, Xiao sat down with a self-serving, aren’t-I-a-naughty-boy smile on his face, like he’d done something really smart and clever.

This is the first we’ve heard from Xiao, and hopefully it will be the last. As the saying goes, better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubts.