Tories have bungled tobacco file, but it’s no scandal.

The Edmonton Journal’s main headline today, “Speaker clears Redford” takes its place on the list least surprising headlines ever, right up there with “Winter will be cold” and “City to raise taxes”.

There was never any doubt that Speaker Gene Zwozdesky would find some way to proclaim that Premier Alison Redford in no way misled the Legislature when she said “I was not the justice minister at the time the government made that decision” to award a potentially lucrative lawsuit against the tobacco industry to a firm that included her ex-husband. Redford was always in the clear on the point of privilege raised by Wildrose’s snarler-in-chief Rob Anderson. The only way Zwozdesky would ever find a member of the government lied to the Legislature would be if … OK, I actually can’t think of a situation where Zwozdesky would ever make that ruling, regardless of how egregious the lie might be.

This led to the most bizarre day of question period I’ve ever seen. On Monday, Zwoz uncovered an obscure reference in the rules of parliament that said that when a question of privilege is raised, there can be no further questions on the issue until the matter was addressed by the speaker. And since Zwoz had yet to make his ruling, that meant any questions involving the use of the words “tobacco” and “lawsuit” would be ruled ineligible. So, whenever Wildrose leader Danielle Smith rose to ask a question that the Wildrosers desperately want to call “Tobacco-gate” (just like the Wildrose to use a painfully dated reference), she was shut down. Baffled and clearly not too quick on her feet, Smith soldiered on, and Zwozdesky shut her down every time, sounding oh-so-apologetic at first, then completely frustrated.

Then it got really weird, as members rose to challenge the speaker. When Pope Kenneth the First, speaker Ken Kowalski, ruled the chamber, nobody would ever have dared to rise and question his authority. Kowalski would have not only shut down the questioner, he would also have put their names in his naughty MLA list. The fact that MLAs have no problem with questioning Zwozdesky’s authority shows just how little respect the opposition has for him.

As if that wasn’t weird enough, some sharper MLAs got what Zwozdesky was talking about, and found a way to twist their questions around so the word “tobacco” and “lawsuit” was never mentioned. Consider this ludicrous dance between ND leader Brian Mason and Zwozdesky:

Mr. Mason: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. Well, what’s sauce for goose is sauce for the gander.

Given that Albertans need to have confidence that their Premier knows how to avoid situations that might create a conflict of interest or the appearance of bias and given that they have a right to demand complete honesty as well, why won’t the Premier do the right thing and step aside until this matter is fully investigated?

 

The Speaker: Hon. members, I’m not sure what the hon. member was referring to. He didn’t seem to mention any case in particular if someone from the government side wishes to answer.

Seriously. This is how stupid the whole thing got.

Of course, the whole imbroglio could have been avoided if Zwozdesky had warned the opposition parties in advance, in writing, that he would not allow any questions about the tobacco lawsuit. Perhaps he did, but I haven’t heard or seen any evidence of the advance warning.

As for this whole so-called scandal, it’s time the Wildrose and the Liberals and the New Democrats moved on. Yes, the evidence clearly shows Redford wanted her ex-husband’s firm to handle the lawsuit. But, dealings with ex-spouses are not considered to be conflicts of interest (most ex-spouses are mortal enemies, so this makes sense). Did Redford stand to gain by awarding the contract to her ex-husband’s firm? No. They are not married anymore, and have gone their separate ways. It is true that they have remained close (good for them!), and that ex-hubby even led her transition team. But there is no law against anything Redford did. This is Alberta, where Tory friends help each other all the time. Redford should have said come clean at the time the first questions were raised, instead of hiding behind legalities. But she didn’t do anything legally wrong. 

Bottom line: it’s time the Wildrose went on to other things. This so-called “scandal” is simply not resonating with Albertans. There is no question Redford massaged the truth when she said she didn’t make the decision, but the Wildrose won’t be able to destroy Redford’s reputation for integrity with this weak gruel. 

Points of disorder

For a guy who really hated being under the dome, I have developed a strange fascination with what’s going on in there.

Take Monday, for example.

These guys are supposed to be discussing important matters of government business, a.k.a. your business. But Monday’s afternoon session, following the marathon of last Wednesday (it was never Thursday in the Leg, since Wednesday never ended) was bound to be interesting.

It started off well, with a nice little grenade lobbed into the government ranks by the Alberta Liberals, who revealed the existence of a government power point presentation that suggested the government was actively thinking about a whole raft of private medicine initiatives. Stelmach’s explanation was so lame, and he looked so defeated, that it was almost like he had no idea the document existed. Or maybe he just looked like a guy who was prepared to take yet another beating.

After QP, things got interesting, if not downright bizarre.

First, there were dozens — literally dozens — of tablings, indicating the government is clearing the table to shut down the whole show at a moment’s notice. Then came the points of order on previously asked questions.

The first government complaint was put forward to Dave Hancock, who is an excellent, if longwinded, speaker. His complaint was that Rob Anderson, the ex-Tory who seems to have a profound hate on for his old mates, asked inappropriate questions regarding the Raj Sherman fiasco. After Hancock made his impassioned ‘we’re all friends in here’ speech, which went on at length, Anderson rose to defend himself, also at length. Then Fred Horne, the “friend” of Sherman who made the phone call that triggered the whole “nuts or not” debate, gave HIS side of the story.

Since Calgary Varsity Liberal MLA Harry Chase was mentioned by Hancock, he was given the chance to speak. Which, of course, he did.

Then, for no apparent reason, NDer Brian Mason barged in and prattled on for a while with his opinion on the point of order. By now, Pope Kenneth the Infallible looked as exasperated as Mr. Wilson was with Dennis the Menace, but he let him speak. Now, of course, Pope Kenneth has opened Pandora’s box, and he’s just a guy who can’t say no. Enter Edmonton Gold Bar Liberal Hugh MacDonald, who probably felt compelled to join the fray since Mason had spoken. With cartoon steam almost coming out of his ears, Pope Kenneth then had to allow Guy Boutillier of the WAP to have his say, and later Paul Hinman of the WAP, who opened up a whole new can of worms by saying he interpreted Horne’s comments about Sherman to indicate that Horne thought Sherman might have been suicidal. (Kowalski mocked Hinman for the comment, but to be fair, when I heard Horne’s comments, I thought the same thing.)

Well, by now we’ve heard from just about everyone except the star of the show, Raj Sherman. The good doctor then rose to make his statement, stating that he was not suicidal or homicidal (strange, but that’s what he said).

So, after about an hour or so, Pope Kenneth was ready to rule, which was that there was no point of order. So that left TWO MORE points of order, one of which was from an alleged infraction from last week. At this point, I had gone on with my life, only to return just in time to hear Pope Kenneth say that Twitter was just a passing fad, and “a game that somebody is making a pile of money on.”

Just another day in paradise.

The Great Scrap Metal Debate

Remember Rob Anderson’s comment from last week that when he was part of the government, he felt like a trained seal who read whatever was put in front of him?

Well, welcome to the circus.

Of all the pieces of legislation facing this government, it appears the one of greatest importance to the government is the highly contentious, controversial and red hot Bill 205, Scrap Metal Dealers and Recyclers Act.

Yes, you read that right. The Scrap Metal Dealers and Recyclers Act, a private members bill from the Tory member from Strathcona, Rob Quest.

What, you may ask, is the Scrap Metal Dealers and Recyclers Act? Apparently, it is aimed at deterring scrap metal theft, which is supposedly a pretty big deal. Good. Anything that deters theft is fine with me. But to at least 11 members of the Tory caucus — including leading lights like Carl ‘Take My Wife, Please’ Benito — felt so strongly about the bill that they rose to speak during discussion of private member’s bills on Monday. Each one read out lo-o-o-ong, detailed descriptions of why the Scrap Metal Dealers and Recyclers Act was so important. All of them praised the bill, and its sponsor. This debate took up a minimum of 90 minutes of house time.

My guess is that if you asked any of the 11 Tories who stood up to speak in favour of this bill, you’d be lucky if you could find one who even knows what they were talking about. I have sympathy for the poor sod in the Public Affairs Bureau who had to write the same speech over 11 slightly different ways.

Why would they waste so much time on such a trivial matter? The key words are ‘wasting time’. The longer they debate trivial government motions that are going to pass anyway, the less time there is to debate opposition motions.

It’s all so silly. Just like the circus.

And Kudos for Alana DeLong, the Calgary MLA, for standing up and lobbing the most shameless softball questions at Ted Morton. They were:

1) The B.C. government recently announced a 15 per cent personal income tax reduction. They claim this means that B.C. taxpayers now pay the lowest provincial income tax in Canada on incomes up to $130,000. My first question is to the Minister of Finance and Enterprise. Has Alberta lost its tax advantage?

2) Can the minister tell us what tax advantages Albertans continue to enjoy?

3) Does the minister have the numbers to back up his claim that Albertans remain the lowest taxed in Canada?

OK, Alana, you’ve done your time. Next time the puffball question has to be asked, you are within your rights to say: “Hey, I asked a humiliating puffball last week!”

Rural MLAs sowing their mild oats.

This session of the Legislature is now two whole weeks old — which, in the wonderland that is the Alberta legislature, means they have met for eight days — and things are just warming up. Which must mean it’s time for a break.

After eight days/two weeks of watching question period and skimming Hansard for amusing nuggets, I noticed something interesting. Some of the Tory’s rural MLAs are actually taking their jobs seriously.

Thursday, in particular, was a feisty day for the gang from the sticks. It started with Richard Marz, the lugubrious member from Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills. Marz asked a question about market value of land across the province. When Ron Liepert, the ever-snarling Minister of Energy, gave him an answer, Marz said  “Well, I’m getting a bit of a different story.”

OK, that’s not exactly open rebellion, but for a guy as mild-mannered as Marz, this is practically like waving a red flag and calling for a revolution.

It got better. Pearl Calahasan, the brassy long-time MLA from Lesser Slave Lake, asked this rather cutting question to the minister of housing: “The minister of housing has been all over the news in the last little while, a month or so, cutting ribbons, announcing affordable housing projects but all in big cities. It appears to me that this minister does not recognize the dramatic shortage of affordable housing in rural Alberta. With no plan for rural Alberta what will this minister say to the people in my area who cannot afford housing? Move to Edmonton? Move to Calgary? I’d like an answer.”

Whoa. Good one, Pearly. Anyway, when Jonathan Denis, the minister of housing, gave an answer that didn’t suit Calahasen, she shot back: “Well, Mr. Speaker, Lethbridge, Fort McMurray, et cetera, do not qualify as rural Alberta. To the same minister: how can you assure this House that the RFPs that you will be providing for those opportunities are for developers in rural Alberta, giving them the same opportunity as those in big cities like Edmonton and Calgary?”

These are questions worthy of an opponent, rather than a member of the team.

Then there was Jeff Johnson from Athabasca-Redwater, who asked why work was not being done on an unsafe stretch of highway in his constituency. When Transportation Minister Luke Ouelette answered the question is his inimitable style — shouted, breathless gibberish — Johnson replied: “I appreciate the comments, but I don’t think the minister answered the question.” After another question and another gasping reply, Johnson somewhat mockingly said: “We’ll let the minister take a breath while I ask the next question here.”

And finally, George VanderBurg of Whitecourt-Ste. Anne, who already asked a tough question last week, asked some pointed questins about Internect connectivity “or, in the case of Whitecourt Ste. Anne, the lack of it.”

Are rural Tory MLAs being overlooked by their party, or are they just gutsier than the spineless city slickers from Edmonton and Calgary? Or are they simply bumping up their profiles in preparation for an election, which I get the feeling will come well before Ed Stelmach’s promised March 2012 date?  Or, in the case of people like Calahasan and VanderBurg, maybe they’re just a couple of former cabinet ministers who know their political career trajectory is trending downwards, so they have nothing to lose?

Whatever the reason, it makes QP a little bit more fun.

Speaker for Life, Pope Kenneth the Infallible, lost his cool on Thursday.

It’s difficult to get a feel for things on television, but it sounds like Rob Anderson, the Tory-turned-Wildrose, was being a naughty little boy. At least, he was treated that way.

At the end of QP, Pope Kenneth rose from his majestic throne, and singled out the member for Airdrie-Chestermere (Anderson) and the whole Wildrose caucus, for a little tongue lashing.

“Airdrie-Chestermere, just cool it, okay? “ thundered Pope Kenneth. With his finger wagging like an angry elementary school teacher in front of a room of antsy kids, Pope Kenneth warned “one of the things I’m going to look at – and I want to look at the deputy leader of that party and that caucus – is that in the last number of days we’ve been getting a lot of complaints in my office from people outside of this Assembly about the noise coming from there.”

Then, lowering the boom, Pope Kenneth threatened to move the Wildrose Alliance members closer to his throne so he could keep an eye on them.
“One of the items I’m looking at for the spring session is to actually move the chairs and the desks here so that you’ll be right close to me.”

Calm down, children, or you’ll be moved to the front of the class.

And one last bit from Anderson. In a later debate, Anderson was called on a contradiction on his voting record as a PC, and revealed what it was like to be a backbench Tory.

“I know. I spoke to it. I spoke to the land-use framework,” Anderson said.  “It just ticks me right off.”

Speaking of his time as a Tory, Anderson said: “That’s what happens when you’re a trained seal. You’ve got to get in there. You get a speech handed to you, “Here’s the speech; read it,” and you’ve got to read the speech. You’ve just got to do it … You give the speech, and then you realize: ‘Oops. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.’ ”