Why are the PCs so afraid of gay teenagers?

Premier Jim Prentice has gotten off to a pretty impressive start as the latest star of the longest running series in Canadian political history, Alberta Dynasty. He did a lot of little things right, like cancelling the ill-conceived plan to change our license plates and grounding the provincial fleet of airplanes. He did the usual big picture announcements, promising 1,487 new schools, or something like that. The voting public gave him a robust vote of confidence by going four-for-four in byelections, and just for fun he picked up a couple of Wildrose members, practically by accident. The Wildrose seems to be collapsing before our eyes, and the polls put the Tories back in front. All is well in Prentice Province.

So why is he so terrified of gay teenagers?

Prentice’s first misstep as premier has been in dealing with Liberal Laurie Blakeman’s fairly innocuous private member’s bill.

Blakeman, the best friend the gay community has in Alberta politics, proposed a bill that would require Alberta schools to institute something called a gay-straight alliance in high schools upon request from students. Sounds innocent enough, right? When I was in high school, I always felt like an outsider, and I’m straight; I can’t imagine how miserable life can be for a gay teen, particularly in this age when you can be hounded and bullied 24/7 via social media. You would think that something called a gay-straight alliance, which would create a more welcoming environment for gay teens, would be a slam-dunk for the government to support.

But no. Blakeman’s bill forced the Prentice government to cobble together a hodge-podge bill to supersede the Liberal bill. Titled “An Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect Our Children” (Prentice has learned well while in the Stephen Harper cabinet; giving a bill a preposterous feel good title is straight from the Harper playbook), the bill doesn’t outlaw gay-straight alliances, but it gives the school boards the power to say no to the request to form such a group. But if a school board took such a measure, the kids would have a legal recourse — they could go to court! *

Seriously.

This is beyond preposterous. Does the province really believe that a bunch of high school kids have the know-how or the desire to take their school board to court?

Why would the Prentice government haul out a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito?

My guess is that Christian schools — and Catholic schools** — still have a tremendous amount of sway with the government. Presented with the choice of pissing off the gay voters, or doing the same to the evangelical Christian voter, the Tories sided with God.

What is especially surprising about this needless snafu is just how easy it would have been to avoid it. In fact, supporting Blakeman’s bill would have served the government’s political purposes.

If the Tories supported the bill, and the Wildrose didn’t, the Wildrose would have been pushed into the deep end of the lake of fire. But if the Wildrose voted in support of it as well, the issue would have died. If all parties supported the bill, those opposed would have no one to vote against.

But what of those MLAs who are opposed to the bill, for whatever reason? If the PCs or the Wildrose genuinely had MLAs opposed to the bill on ‘moral’ grounds or whatever, the smart strategy would have been to let them say a few carefully chosen words against it, then make sure they were absent on the day the bill came up for a vote. The MLAs could then go back to the voters, and in the unlikely event the issue came up, they could say, ‘Hey, I was opposed, and spoke against it. But I lost. That’s the way democracy works.’

But they didn’t do that. The PCs could have let the bill slide quietly through the legislature, taken a few minor hits from opponents, and wrapped themselves in the warm fuzzy embrace of inclusiveness and general niceness. But instead of voting for a bill that is designed to prevent bullying, they came out looking like bullies themselves.

* Early Thursday, the bill was amended to eliminate the court option in favour of going to the minister of education. The GSAs would then hold their meetings off-site from the schools. How this is any great improvement is beyond me.

** According to the Journal, the Catholic system doesn’t allow GSAs because the group is too narrow in its reach. What a crock. Catholic schools have football teams even though they exclude people who don’t play football, right? And if students wanted to form a support group for, say, native students, or new immigrants, there is no way the school board would say no to those groups despite being too narrow.

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.

The Liberal leadership: Apocalypse next?

According to a front page story in the Journal Sunday, written by hyperbole-prone reporter Karen Kleiss, the Alberta Liberals are facing a “do or die decision” in selecting its next leader.

Choosing a leader is important for any party, but to categorize this election as one that will “perhaps even determine whether the 106-year-old organization will survive the next election” is overstating the case.

Consider this sentence, which sets up the rest of the story: “The party is plagued by internal fissures over controversial new voting rules, and strained by a fractious leadership contest.”  Kleiss offers up no proof of either claim, no anonymous insiders, no highly placed sources, nothing. Then comes the kicker: “As a result, many experts and insiders agree: Saturday’s vote is a question of survival.”

Kleiss comes up to exactly two political “experts” to back up this statement, which is not “many” by any calculation.

One of them is the ubiquitous Chaldeans Mensah, of Grant MacEwan. Mensah has become the go-to guy for the media on provincial matters. (I admit I used him in a story for SEE magazine, but only after I found the U of A communications people utterly useless. Mensah, on the other hand, is always available.) Mensah is used so often on TV news, I suspect the local channels have a camera stationed in his office. (I saw him on CFRN news yesterday… even on a holiday, the guy is available.)

Most of the time, Mensah is bland enough to be inoffensive, while sounding authoritative. But he was flat out wrong in his assessment of the Liberal party. According to the story, Mensah called the Liberals “an ideological party pursuing policies that are not in touch with most Albertans’s political preferences.”

Whaaa??? There is nothing strikingly ideological about Liberal policy. It’s consistently centrist and financially conservative. I would like to see Mensah provide proof of any ALP policy that is so far out in left field that it alienates Albertans. They simply do not exist.

Jim Lightbody from the U of A is much more accurate in his assessment.

“You can’t convince people to vote for you if you can’t convince them to listen to you,” Lightbody said. He’s right about that. The biggest problem facing the Liberals has been that is has never been able to convince Albertans that it is a government in waiting.

But Lightbody goes off track as well. He predicts the Wildrose will become the No. 2 party after the next election (could be), reducing the Liberals to No. 3. “If you’re a third party in a two-party house, it’s very, very difficult to be taken seriously, and very difficult to get people to listen to you,” Lightbody is quoted. Well, the NDP is the third party in a two-party house, and with just two members has had no trouble being heard.

I was most disturbed by comments by leadership candidate Laurie Blakeman, who painted an apocalyptic vision of the party, presumably if she isn’t elected.

“I think the party’s survival is on this leadership race,” Blakeman was quoted. “If we can’t offer people a big opportunity that is different, then I think we’re done. I think those few people that are left will go to the Alberta Party.”

I assume Blakeman is speaking of the party without her at the helm. I think this is bad form, to be honest. While I agree the Liberals have to do things differently, I don’t see anything in Blakeman’s leadership proposals that are particularly groundbreaking. And I don’t think she’s going to make any friends by agreeing with critics that the party is finished (without her at the helm, anyway). And suggesting that the Liberal party will fade away, and it’s few remaining members will go to the still-in-diapers Alberta Party gives the Alberta Party far more credibility than it deserves.

I agree with Hugh MacDonald, that predicting the demise of the Liberal party has been a cottage industry in Alberta. There are problems with the party, to be sure. I still think the name is its biggest problem, and its chronic changing of leadership has done nothing to gain public support. Support has been ebbing away over the last few elections, but the party still has the support of 250,000 voters.  You can’t just throw away 100 years of history and hundreds of thousands of voters.

Problems? Of course. Is this leadership vote important? That goes without saying. Is the party doomed if the wrong person (whoever that is) is elected? Only the next election will tell.

Alberta Liberal forum only muddies the waters for this voter.

On Wednesday night, I went outside of my comfort zone (my house) to attend the Alberta Liberal Party all-candidates leadership forum at Grant MacEwan downtown. As a dues-paying member of the ALP (not just one of fair weather ‘supporters’ the party has signed up for the purposes of boosting interest in the leadership race), I admit to being torn on my choice. I thought seeing the candidates in action might clear things up.

It didn’t. I anything, I’m more confused than ever.

I easily eliminated the two Calgary candidates, Bruce Payne and Bill Harvey. Payne seemed sincere but unimpressive; when someone asked a question about the airport closure, he said he was under the impression that the public voted to keep it open, but the city decided to close it. That did not endear him to an Edmonton audience. (Note: would you airport people PLEASE give it up and move on?) Bill Harvey, who described himself as a salesman and who actually used the term “okey-dokey”, didn’t have a scrap of literature available. (His financial disclosure statement, posted online, shows zero dollars raised. I believe it.) A pretty poor sales job, I would say.

As expected, it really comes town to three: MLAs Hugh MacDonald, Laurie Blakeman, and Raj Sherman.

Hugh MacDonald jumped up a notch in my estimation. Hugh clearly really wants to win this thing. He looked poised, and spoke with his usual steely-eyed conviction. However, I wasn’t wild about one of Hughie’s “facts”. He rightly pointed out that the Legislature some time ago gave the province the OK to enter into lawsuits against Big Tobacco, but has done nothing about it since. He then went on to say all the wonderful things the province could do with the “$3 billion” we would get from Big Tobacco in a lawsuit. Where the hell did that number come from? I have heard of one person who was awarded $3 billion in a lawsuit against tobacco, which will no doubt be overturned.  To suggest that Alberta is passing up on $3 billion in free money is vintage Hughie. Otherwise, Hugh impressed. He said he has sold (that’s sold, not given away) more than 1,000 memberships. His disclosure statement shows he has raised $15,000 from unions, which is impressive and shows he’s got credibility with union types. My experience with Hugh is that he was always a bit of a lone wolf, but I go the distinct feeling this lone wolf genuinely wants to lead the pack.

Laurie Blakeman is another strong contender, and with 14 years as an MLA, she certainly deserves serious consideration. Laurie was, as always, poised and articulate and never at a loss for an answer. Laurie is bursting with ideas, and most of them are solid. She told the crowd that it is insane for the party to keep doing what it has been doing for years, and I agree. (Exactly what the party could do differently is a topic for another blog.) She’s smart, knows a lot about just about everything in government, but lacks that common touch. Hugh made a joke about playing hockey, and how he plays centre and can pass to guys on the right wing or the left; sporting references like that might as well be in Swahili with Laurie. That’s not a fatal flaw in a leader, but it hurts.

And then there’s Raj, the wildest of the wild cards.

Raj can certainly be accused of being a one-trick pony — but, as he says, what a pony it is. He is the health care candidate, which is great if health care happens to be the dominant issue come election time, not so great if it’s not. But, he showed a greater depth of knowledge than I expected when answering some of the questions from the floor. However, his speaking style needs polishing. But there’s no questioning his energy, and he’s a guy with lots of ideas. But keeping him on message might be a chore for an entire army of political consultants. Raj was taken to task for voicing support for Wildrose Alliance MLA Guy Boutilier, a rookie mistake, as Hugh called it. (The Edmonton Journal played this up big, calling it a “blistering exchange”; blistering it was not.)

Unfortunately for me, the forum was not every enlightening. I’m not interested in the candidate’s views on the issues; realistically, there will be very little difference between them. Policy comes from the bottom up, not the top down. What I wanted to hear was some discussion on the party. Should the party run a candidate in all ridings (as Bruce Payne says) or concentrate on winnable ridings and quality candidates (as Blakeman says)? I want to know their ideas for building the party, raising the funds, all that boring old stuff that makes up the backbone of a political party. How would they build up the constituency associations? How would they recruit candidates? That’s the kind of stuff I wanted to hear.

So, two hours and one sore ass later (very uncomfortable chairs), I’m no closer to picking a favourite, or even the order of preference.  I’m glad that, out of a field of five, there are three strong candidates with enough strengths and weaknesses to make it an interesting race.

But who’s on first? I still don’t know.     

Raj Sherman tells all about the rumours: an interview.

Raj Sherman

Raj Sherman is not crazy.

OK, maybe anybody who wants to lead the Alberta Liberals has to be just a little bit crazy, but I’m talking about real, certifiable, lock-‘em-up loony. Raj Sherman is not a candidate for the rubber room, despite what you might have heard if you’ve been around Alberta politics for any length of time. Rumours are mother’s milk to politics, and Sherman has been the subject of more than his fair share.

If you’re reading this blog, you know Raj Sherman: Renegade MD story. He was elected in 2008 as a PC MLA in Meadowlark (no, he did not run against me; I didn’t run for re-election) on a mandate of fixing the health care system from the inside. He had a spectacular falling out with the ruling party (among other concerns, he is convinced that the PCs are planning to privatize the health care system) that dominated the political agenda for weeks, and turned Sherman into a political star. He sat as an independent while every party from the Wildrose to the NDP to the Socreds wooed him, before choosing to join the Liberals. He is now one of five in the running for the leadership.

As a member of the Liberal party, I’ve been pondering who to vote for in the leadership race. To be honest, Sherman was not on my radar because of the stories I heard about him, and his rather late conversion to the ALP cause. Last Friday, I was having coffee with my dad at a McDonald’s (Hey, I’m unemployed. It’s what we do.) when in walked Steve, an old Liberal supporter I know. He waxed enthusiastic about Sherman, but I told him I was skeptical. He told me I had to meet with him to get the full story.

Well, lo and behold, later that night I get a call from Raj Sherman. We set up a coffee date for the next day (Starbucks this time) for a no-holds-barred discussion.

This was my first meeting with Sherman, and I was a little unprepared for the hurricane that is Raj Sherman. ER doctor, politician, athlete, coach, house builder, would-be opposition leader, Raj Sherman is not the type of guy to do things in half-measures. I had expected to chat for about an hour; he was still going strong after two-and-a-half hours. I had to take a pee break at the 90-minute mark.

We talked about a lot of stuff — his Liberal credentials (solid federally, weaker provincially), his plans for the party (he wants a candidate in every riding and has big election plans), his campaign (signing up lots of new members), his interactions with the other Liberal MLAs (solid, he says) — but what I really wanted to ask about were the rumours, specifically one that goes that he snapped in the ER at the Royal Alex, and had to be restrained by security.

According to Sherman, here’s the real story.

In 1999, fed up with a deteriorating system at the Royal Alex, Sherman became a persistent thorn in the side of the administration. That year, based on what he says was an unfounded complaint from a patient (which he says he was never shown) he was told to leave the hospital because he was incapable of performing his duties as a doctor. He’s convinced it was just a way to get rid of a troublesome doc.

Shortly after being told not to come into work, in October 1999, Sherman found himself suffering the classic signs of a heart attack. He went to ER at the Royal Alex, and was found to have sky-high blood pressure. He was convinced he was on the verge of a heart attack, but the attending doctor disagreed. Angry that he wasn’t getting the care he desperately needed, he told the doctor that he was going to voluntarily discharge himself and go to the University Hospital. But the doctor “made the presumption that I was crazy”, he says, and filled out a mental health certificate, which gives the doctor the right to restrain a patient for their own good. Sherman says security guards tied him to his bed to keep him from leaving. Forty-five minutes later, a psychiatrist showed up and revoked the certificate because he did not find Sherman to be either manic or psychotic. If the psychiatrist had also signed the form, Sherman would have been held for 72 hours, and his career as a doctor would most certainly have been over.

After being released, Sherman went home, thinking “I can’t even get medical care in my own province.” In December, while in Quebec, he ended up in the cardiac ward for three days. He took a voluntary leave of absence from the hospital to get his health back.

And so, the legend of Raj Sherman wigging out in emergency was born.

Sherman says has all the paperwork to prove his story (and was prepared to launch a $5 million suit against the province until he was talked out of it), and the mere fact that he was allowed to continue to practice medicine certainly corroborates his story. He says there are no complaints filed against him with the College of Physicians and Surgeons, he has been given a clean bill of health by the same organization. He still works every Sunday in ER, and says that after 100,000 patients, there isn’t a single complaint against him with the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

And finally, as Sherman points out, if he really did have a psychotic episode and mental health skeletons in his closet, would the provincial Tories have wooed him to join the party, and run in Meadowlark? Good point.

The health scare has a happy ending. Realizing that his life was out of whack, Sherman cut out nights in ER, took up yoga and vegetarianism, got back into sports, and basically turned his health around. But it’s clear in conversation with Sherman that the whole incident, which goes back a dozen years now, still angers him enough that it almost brings his blood pressure back up.

Raj Sherman has felt the wrath of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, and not only lived to tell about it, but thrived. The Tories tried to destroy his reputation by launching a whisper campaign about his mental health, which only served, ironically, to bolster his public image.

So is Raj Sherman the right person to run the Liberal party today? I still don’t know.

You’ve heard of Type A personalities? Raj  Sherman is a Type AAA. He is the type of person who would attract and alienate people in equal numbers. But with his knowledge of how the Tories work and where the health care skeletons are buried, he could be the PCs’ worst nightmare. (He promises a knockout punch in an election debate if former health minister Gary Mar is the PC leader.) And he certainly breaks the mold of the two most recent Liberal leaders, David Swann and Kevin Taft, who were both cerebral, soft-spoken men essentially devoid of ego. Sherman is sharp, but he’s not the retiring type and his ego is, shall we say, robust.

I can’t say if Raj Sherman is the right person for the job right now (I admire both Hugh MacDonald and Laurie Blakeman), but I’m convinced that he’s not crazy, and has never been crazy … running for the Liberal leadership to the contrary.

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…