Reboot Alberta

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Could Dying Ducks in Toxic Tailing Ponds Provide a Watershed for Oil Sands Development?

The demise of up to 500 ducks on the Syncrude tailing ponds may be the crystallizing event that finally brings the public to outrage over the way the oil sands are being developed. The ducks landed on the ponds on Monday but apparently the company did not report it to the government. An anonymous tip was how this came to the attention of government. Not good!

Cambridge Strategies did a Oil Sands Discrete Choice Modeling Survey last November and found that the dominant value drivers for Albertans around responsible and sustainable oil sands development was wildlife habitat, GHGs, water and reclamation. It is potentially the perfect storm for industry and government based on Albertan’s dominant value drivers from our survey.

This situation involves wildlife habitat, reclamation and water issues. That is three of the four top value drivers and oil sands issues that concern Albertans. The story about "ducks dying in a toxic tar sands tailings ponds" has gone viral in the Internet. The story has legs and it activates some core values of Albertans and others about the environment and oil sands development.

These events have the potential to push the industry out of deferring its duty to reclaim the ponds. For government and regulatory authorities, enforcement inertia will turn into urgency and a new focus on more effective environmental enforcement. For ENGOs they have been given a sad but saleable gift to draw even more attention to oil sands issues. They will become more energized to press their narrative about dirty oil and toxic environmental consequences of oil sands development.

There are rising expectation levels by the public on government and industry to be more responsible and accountable than in the past - especially around environmental issues. In the “old days” providing insurance against damages was the norm. When bad things happened somebody got a cheque and that was that. Think Love Canal.

The standards then moved to assurance. The expectation changes toward industry and government required that they show us that they have taken reasonable steps to prevent and mitigate possible damages. And they had to convince us of the appropriateness of the steps being taken. The use of air cannons as scarecrows to keep birds off the tailing ponds is an example of trying to meet this expectation level.

The emerging public expectation standard is becoming one of “ensurance.” Now the public expects planning and procedures to be in place to try and make certain that some things will not happen at all. This is a very rigorous test indeed but as the public perceives that there is insufficient engagement on ecological issues the natural response is to raise the bar of expectation and perhaps legislation.

Yes, I think we may have just seen the crystallizing event that will create the overt shift in the public consciousness to become engaged and more demanding about the consequences of oil sands development. The public’s questions and concerns that could emerge from this value activating event will be very interesting. How the government, industry and ENGO players respond will also be very telling.

If the governments and industry just try to push the PR on us with platitudes and rhetoric they will do more harm than good – for citizens and their own credibility and reputations. If the ENGOs respond by merely raising the rhetoric and the volume of their rant, they will be perceived as only adding to the problem.

If the players just try to fix the blame instead of fixing the problem they will all be convicted in the court of public opinion and they will all be hanged together as a result.

Government enforcement better be quick and convincing. Industry commitment to reclamation better be quick and convincing. ENGOs better present the best information and science they can muster. All parties have to look for ways to collaborate so government and industry can achieve a more integrated approach to sustainable ecological outcomes from development of the oil sands.

The death of these ducks may be the equivalent of the proverbial butterfly of chaos theory that flaps its swings and causes a storm of public opinion to rage in Alberta and elsewhere.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Nice To See Alberta Ministers Musing About New Ideas in Public

Anyone who has read this Blog for any length of time knows that I am a card carrying member of the Alberta PC Party and friend and fan of Dave Hancock, Alberta’s new Minister of Learning.

So with that bias disclosed let me say Hancock has been making some interesting moves in that of portfolio of late. Suggesting that school planning has been “insane” and that perhaps school boards are worthy of more respect and responsibility than they have been in the past decade and maybe ought to have some more political power.

I have to say I am surprised and encouraged by this new openness and policy commentary actually making news coming from Ministers like Hancock, Liepert on health reform and Morton on land use issues. This is kind of political using before matters get to Cabinet good for democracy and key to achieving a re-engaged and informed citizenry.

There seemed to be a message controlling chill over government MLAs and Cabinet Ministers expressing opinions before Stelmach became Premier. For sure, once a Cabinet decision has been take that position is, and should be, gospel for all Ministers. If they don’t like it they can resign from Cabinet. It has happened.

As a citizen I am as interested in what range of options is being considered and how policy issues are being explored before they go behind the closed Cabinet doors for decisions. I want to see want is left on the cutting room floor as these who govern us make the hard choices on our behalf. This new openness is so much more respectful of Albertans.

It is important that our policy makers show that they are informed, engaged and actively exploring options that, in the end, serve the common good. If the politicinas want to earn our respect and gain our trust they need to show citizens that they are not just in a sheep-like acceptance of a top down pre-ordained and dictated “political solution.”

I credit Premier Stelmach for this change in attitude and governing philosophy. The old-style pre-ordained political positioning that is pushed through a public consultation process purely for show is hopefully a thing of the past now too.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Is Alberta Suspending the Poisoning Wolves Just Because it Looks Bad?

The Canwest story is not all good news. It says” “Provincial officials argue that wolves are the biggest threat to caribou populations and will continue to shoot the predators from helicopters in the Little Smokey caribou range, about 40 kilometres north of Hinton. But, they say, the three-year practice of laying bait laced with strychnine to kill wolves has been put on hold. Killing wolves is part of the province's plan to help the caribou population rebound.” (Emphasis added)

Suspending poisoning wolves is a step in the right direction but the disturbing context around why this “issue” is being handled the way it is seems very short-sighted, shallow and narrow. It seems top me the justification for the suspension is based on issue management more than concerns for species at risk.

The Canwest new story says “…a spokesman for the Sustainable Resource Development, said Minister Ted Morton wants more extensive research done to address ‘public concerns and misconceptions.’ ‘Our objective here is to make sure the minister has all the information he needs and to feel comfortable in dealing with any of the public's concerns about how we manage wildlife….’"

Is our government therefore suspending wolf poisoning mostly because it looks bad? Maybe I am just suffering from misconception. Perhaps I need to be better educated about why we must correct our first mistake of not preserving caribou habitat by making more mistakes. We presume we can control nature by imposing ourselves even more on nature’s balance. That way poisoning wolves is now a justifiable remediation for our first folly. Is that the misconception I am suffering from?

Speaking of “misconceptions,” wolves are a natural predator for caribou populations and therefore a “threat” by definition? They are hardly the “biggest threat” to caribou populations rebounding, as is claimed in the news story. Man deserves that credit don’t you think? Especially given the way we have fragmented the forest and intruded on wildlife habitat in our ever accelerating single-minded quest in pursuit of GDP measured “growth and progress.”

It seems to be we may do less harm by doing fewer and more intelligent habitat interventions in the first place. We should spend more time and resources fixing up the messes we have already made by actively reclaiming old seismic lines, and unnecessary old road to help restore wildlife habitat. Maybe we should also spend more time up front on being more enlightened and sensitive to the impact we have on other species when we tear up their terrain in the name of progress.

Or should we just continue to say “screw it” – and justify killing the bad wolves that we deem are the real culprits endangering the caribou. To every complex and intricate problem there is always a simple answer that is WRONG.

This all reminds me of the children’s song about the old lady who swallowed a fly and then swallowed a spider to catch the fly, then a frog to catch the spider. Do you remember it? It ends with “I guess she’ll die.” When will we ever learn?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Developmental Disability Sector in Alberta Still Waiting for a Solution - The Budget Offered Nada

The Alberta government 2008-09 Budget funding announcement for the developmental disabilities sector is very disappointing. It is way too little and time is running out to fix the human resource problems in the disability services sector. Qualified staff shortages, unfilled vacancies and high turnover rates are largely due to the unconscionably low uncompetitive wage rates that the service agencies have been authorized/allowed to pay.

The natural consequences if such under funding are that vulnerable Albertans with developmental disabilities suffer. There is a high and unacceptable potential for mistakes due to negligence caused by insufficient staff levels and burn out plus more untrained and unqualified staff now are being recruited by necessity.

I have been working with these agencies professionally for about a year months on the funding issues and now on contracting issues. During the election Premier committed to “close the wage gap” between community based not-for-profit agencies and government employees who also provide services to Alberta citizens with developmental disabilities. This recent budget does nothing to close that gap. In fact it makes the gap with government workers even wider.

Here are some facts:

According to a recent independent consultant report the community based agencies pay about 2/3 of the wage levels of equivalent work in the government – and they receive much lower benefits.

To close the gap at the 50 percentile level of government workers would take about $182m – excluding benefits and only for current agency employees, ignoring the need to fill staff vacancies, meet population growth needs and to provide for any benefits costs at all.

Stop gap wage funding (sic) measures have been taken by the GOA in the recent past, a onetime grant of $11m in the Spring of 2007 from Seniors and Community Supports departmental year-end surplus funds – mad available because there were no staff to provide certain programs funds.

There was a one-time $15m grant last November that has apparently now been made part of the new funding base, a good thing.

Of the $30m additional money announced in the April 22 Budget, it is payable to the Persons with Developmental Disability Boards, the appointed government agencies who contract with the community groups to provide services. Only $24m of this total is going to the agencies to provide for front line worker compensation.

The $24m to community based agencies is about 5% but when inflation in Alberta in 2007 was 8.1% according to the Minister of Finance in a fund raising speech I heard her deliver on April 23 and minimum wage is going up at the same time, this funding level is not getting ahead of the human resource recruiting staff retention problem in the disability sector.

The PDD boards are retaining $6m of the additional budget funds, 20% of the total new funding, to cover inflation and their AUPE based staff wage and benefits increases… the same wages and benefits where the Premier has promised to close the gap for the community based agencies.

The September 2007 AUPE /GOA wage settlement was 14.66% over three years (4.9, 4.8 and 4.3%) with a $1500 signing bonus paid to each full time employee and pro-rated with part-time and seasonal employees. There were changes for many job classifications ranging from 7 percent to about 15% in the first year of the agreement.

There was an additional $6,000 - $6,300 northern living and a $12,480 annual living allowance for living in Fort McMurray. There was also an “improved core benefits package effective July 1, 2008 and an “enhanced benefits packages at the employees cost.”

The government “commitment” of additional agency staff compensation funds for next year was also announced at another 5% or $20m more dollars.

The gap is getting wider not smaller notwithstanding the Budget Speech saying “We will also increase funding to agencies contracted by our government to provide care for Albertans, to help
those agencies recruit and retain staff.” It will not happen at these funding levels.

Most of the community based service provider agencies have signed 6 months contracts that end October 1, 2008. They cannot continue to provide adequate service levels if they cannot attract and retain qualified staff. If serious levels of new funding are not forthcoming it leaves few options and it will all come to a head when these current contracts expire.

At the end of the day it is the GOA who is responsible to meet the needs of citizens with developmental disabilities. I hope they have a Plan B ready to meet the needs developmentally disabled Albertans if no additional funding for the sector is their Plan A.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Harper's Hypocrisy is Trying the Patience of Canadians

While waiting for the Alberta Budget speech today, I have to take a few minutes and comment on the Elections Canada initiative to enforce the legislation they are entrusted to enforce. The spending dealings and the positioning of the Harper Conservatives with the RCMP assisted investigation has to be treated judiciously.

The Cons are spinning and framing of these events as merely being a “visit” by the RCMP. This is like suggesting you are leading a parade when there are people with tar and feathers who are actually chasing you out of town. The selective messaging to selective media in secret briefings only undermines the credibility and erodes confidence in the Cons as being of sufficient character to continue governing. The unsubstantiated allegation that others have done this too is the well worn Cons ground saying “that yes we are bad but the other guys are worse.” Canadians are not tricked, amused nor reassured of having an effective and responsible government with such ill-conceived defenses.

The Cons say the facts are agreed upon but I think that is premature until Elections Canada confirms they also agree on the facts. There are some significant fact discrepancies to my mind, that go beyond the spin and positioning of events perpetrated by the Cons. Consider the Cons said they gave Elections Canada everything they asked for. Apparently Elections Canada felt compelled to go to Court and get a search warrant to ensure they got all relevant documents…and they felt it necessary to engage the RCMP in helping to enforcing the search warrant.

Hardly seems like the parties are on the same page, never mind agreeing on the facts. We will never know if the $1.3million of additional advertising spending the Harper Cons that was shuffled from over 6o candidates to support key Quebec candidates had an impact on the election outcome. That is a concern, especially if the conclusion of the Elections Canada investigation finds that the Cons broke Canadian law. However there is very little we Canadians can do about that now. We have to wait until the next election when we can rethink about who we wish to grant our consent to govern us.

The hypocrisy of the Harper Cons is breathtaking and has been for quite some time. They are not as keen on providing Canadians with a good government as much as they are focused on beating down Stephane Dion. We will never know how many millions the Cons spent for party donations on the Dion TV attack ads. This was more Harper Con cleverness because the money was spent outside the Writ period, but when they thought an election was imminent, but those funds would not have to be included in campaign spending limits. Again the Cons show too much cleverness by a half. Now the Cons are abusing their free postal privileges with Canada Post and flooding the country with pamphlets that harp on the Liberals but not providing good government.

The fact they have been unsuccessful at engineering their own defeat has frustrated the, perhaps it is time Mr. Harper called upon the Governor General and tender his resignation. I expect Dion and Layton would not want to try a coalition government and Mr. Harper would have his “dream” election immediately.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Alberta Budget Not Likely To Introduce Big Changes - But Next Year Will Be Different.

It is Budget Day in Alberta tomorrow. I do not have any inside information but have some thoughts and speculations.

I do not anticipate any significant changes from the draft budget that was done and ready to go before the election was called. Since the Budget speech is so soon after the Cabinet and Committee structures were announced there is not a lot of time to rehash the original positions.

There will be budget increases for some departments to cover inflation costs and some growth pressures and recent AUPE wage and benefits negotiations. There is no indication that there will be the big bucks needed to resolve the staffing shortages in areas like community based nor-for profit agencies in the disabilities services sector, children’s services, women’s shelters and long term care.

For the record and full disclosure I am working on this issue with the Alberta Council of Disability Services. We are talking about $200M to get these people paid at the 50 percientile level of government workers doing equivalent work. This will not happen overnight but the Premier is aware of the problem.

I expect there will be lots of budget focus on capital expenditures as the province continues to fix up the as-built maintenance deficiency and new facilities to respond to growth pressures...schools, hospitals and roads.

There is a recognized need to build new structures and retrofit existing buildings to a more eco-friendly standard. That will add costs in the short term but pay off in reduced operating and environmental costs long term. That is a hopeful sign that a new full cost accounting approach for capital expenditure will become the norm.

There is a lot to do in refocusing the fiscal framework for Alberta but my guess is most of it will be deferred for the next budget. That process will likely start by this Thursday and be about more savings and more spending both operational and capital accounts. There ias one thing for sure...Iris Evans is going to be busy – very, very busy this spring and summer.

Engaging Albertan's in Climate Change

There is a different sense of urgency amongst young people about the destructiveness of human impact on the environment.

This video is an example of the urgency youth feel about climate change. She is a 13 year old Vancouver girl who really set out the issues and concerns at a UN Conference on the Environment.

In the early 90’s Albertans set out on a mission to get rid of our fiscal debt and deficit. We did it with a single minded focus that engaged the entire province and drew people together to make personal sacrifices. We could have done it better – like making sure we did not harm the provinces social and physical capital at the same time as we made massive and brutal cuts in government spending.

A large part of our motivation was we decided as a province that we could not face our children if we saddled them with this enormous fiscal liability we had accumulated in the 80’s due to plummeting oil prices.

It is time to revisit the focused set of values and reconsider what kind of society and environment we will leave for future generations. This ecological effort will also take a significant personal focus and entail changes of behaviours that many will see as sacrifices. Alberta is an obvious place to start this change in behaviour and attitude towards the enviornment.

We need a crystallizing moment that triggers the collective consciousness and captures imagination of Albertans to get this change happening. Then we will see the massive changes necessary in our personal and collective behaviours that must engaged to really address the crisis identified in this video.

The crystallizing moment or event can we launch an ecological crusade of common cause and mutual caring for the greater good. I only hope we can do it by an intentional deliberate design process and not await another disasterous moment or event in order to get our attention.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Thoughts On Wolves, Mankind and Nature

I have to compliment the Edmonton Journal’s environment writer Hanneke Brooymans on her excellent piece in today’s Sunday Reader section entitled “Man at the Door - Wolves in the Crosshairs.” She illustrates just how human “development” has come to be an escalating problem and our solutions of more intervention have mostly just made matters worse.

We definitely need to intervene, especially in Alberta. But we need to engage in ways that cleans up the destruction and fragmentation we have wrought on the landscape already and that has served to destroy and interfere with wildlife habitat, particularly in our boreal forest. We need to accelerate our efforts and commitments to restoration of the unused and unnecessary resource roads, seismic lines and pipeline right-of-ways, and abandoned and orphan oil and gas well sites. We need to get on with reclamation of oil sand pits and tailing ponds. And we need to move immediately to create biodiversity based off-sets to balance the consequences of oil sands development that will take vast areas of the forest out of the natural patterns and purposes for up to 80 years.

The planned intervention against wolves in Brooymans’ feature seems to be a textbook case of human hubris as presumptive, capable and competent managers of the environment. We chose to kill and sterilize wolves in the pursuit of saving caribou instead of engaging in acts of stewardship that would reduce our impact and interference on wildlife habitat overall in the boreal forest and enable nature to restore itself.

We know our human activities are major causes of this imbalance in nature but we default to further interventions in, on and against those natural patterns. We inappropriately assume that by adding more human impact on the forest and wildlife habitat, (instead of reducing and reclaiming it from human activity), that we can “have our cake and eat it too.” This is the overarching observation of the University of Alberta noted biologist Dr. Stan Boutin in the Edmonton Journal feature story on wolves.

The new default position for humanity has to be is to strive to share the biosphere on a more integrated and equitable basis with the rest of the flora and fauna who are also “entitled” to share the planet. We need to learn to co-habitat and collaborate and integrate much more with the natural phenomenon that is inherent to supporting the diversity of life forms on the planet. We need to do this for the planet and also perchance, for the sustainable survival of our species as part of the future of the planet. Remember extinction is also a natural phenomenon.

We can’t continue in our pursuit of wealth creation that presumes the industrial definition of well being based on GDP justifies our on-going quest to conquer nature. We can no longer rely on and carry forward a foundational myth that says mankind can actually dissect, direct and control nature. Nor can we afford the presumptive arrogance and that our manipulations and interventions of natural forces can actually result in predicable and positive outcomes.

We continue to take delight in this dysfunctional definition of progress and we almost deify ourselves as a species; believing that our “being” is somehow above nature. We tend to rely on our capacity to Dissect, Manipulate and Control nature as part and parcel of progress. We want to push an ever-accelerating industrial growth as being progressive even though we know such activities are often intolerant and indifferent to the long term consequences to the environment.

What if the next reality is based on the planet taking over dominance? Could the planet take a Control, Alter and Delete approach and “reboot” itself to rid itself of the crap that has accumulated and that is causing it harm? I know this is more poetic than a practical analysis. But it is no more far-fetched and metaphorical than believing human-kind need not change its beliefs and behaviours for the sake of the environment and in response to climate change.

We are now starting to recall and re-accept that nature is a force unto itself and that it is full of intricate patterns and constant changes. We are learning to re-appreciate that these natural changes are spawned and sustained by self-organizing adaptive sets of feedback mechanisms that are embedded in that intricacy. We are recollecting that life itself has an energy composed of the collective and collaborative diversity of the biosphere.

This renewal of human awareness of our place in the grand scheme of things is catching on and is also evolving. This renewed consciousness is making our presumptive mythology that mankind can actually control nature and predict its outcomes "questionable." This questionable human conduct is more than just another event in the long line of follies that have marked the absurdist history of our species. It is not merely a silly and discountable foolishness. It is downright dangerous and reckless and particularly crucial to the vitality and survival of our own species.

There is no doubt that the future of planet Earth is assured, and life will continue in some form or other. What is not clear is what that future of the planet means for mankind, given the hubris of our current dominant consciousness, beliefs and behaviours. Just what the hell we are doing and why is something to think about and reflect upon as we anticipate Earth Day coming up next Tuesday April 22nd.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Stelmach's Throne Speech Addresses Lots of Priority Concerns

I have spent some time studying the recent Alberta Speech from the Throne. It is worth your time to read it and reflect on the content and context.

There are the obvious focus elements on energy resources but in the context of sustainable development. There is a promise of provincial energy strategy focused on innovation, new sources and responsible energy use, efficiency and conservation. Balance needs to be restored and the Royalty Review issue is not really resolved yet and this energy strategy may help compensate for the short coming of the GOA respsonses.

The pace of development is noted as an on-going issue – particularly in terms of housing in Fort McMurray. The GOA holds the keys to unlocking this problem by releasing land to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo so the servicing can get done and housing built. The cumulative effects of the growth challenge are now being considered and that is good news, especially for Edmonton and region with the pending impact of billions of dollars of upgrader construction.

The down side realities of the livestock and forest industries are going to be addressed as these folks are in dire straits. The need to look at the “cultural and economic importance of vibrant rural communities…” is noted and something I will be doing a number of posting on as I work on two new projects to get the SuperNet missing link to non-profits, local economies and rural Albertans through the Rural Alberta Development Fund and the Access to the Future Fund. These SuperNet based initiatives are foundational to Premier Stelmach realizing this Throne Speech aspiration...and he knows it.

Lots more coming this summer in consultations on Land Use Management and a new Parks Policy hopefully based on conservation, preservation, reclamation, water quality and quantity concerns and wildlife habitat protection as guiding principles – not just a negotiation of priority listing of users.

I am biased but if you look past the health care headlines in the MSM speech coverage, I see a lot of potential in this Throne Speech. There is a wide array of issues and concerns mentioned. It has the usually pomp and puffery but a careful read shows a definite and more progressive agenda and tone in this document. Now we need to see how it gets acted upon and if the agenda that we end up with is as comprehensive as the content of the Throne Speech indicates.

I will post again soon on some of the important social and cultural aspects of the Throne Speech that have not been covered much. Stay tuned.

What Is Wrong With Canadian Politics?

Anyone who values democracy appreciates the efforts of good politicians and sees politics as a force for good in our world has to wonder about what is going on in Canadian politics these days.

The RCMP raids, the fraud charges and the belligerent buzz and bluster that has surrounds these events and others…shows just how diminished we have allowed out political institutions and political players to become.

"Lament for Our Democratic Nation" is an excellent post by NDP Blogger Cameron Holmstrom from Toronto. This post catches and expresses much of my dismay and disgust with the way politics is going in our country. It is worth a read.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Canadians Don't Think Politicians Debate Important Issues Well.

The fundamental underpinning of an effective democracy is debate amongst citizens as well as their elected representatives. The belief is that an informed and engaged citizenry will make for better democracy and better governance because, as the theory goes, the quality and substance of the public debate will create these preferred outcomes.

According to an April 11, 2008 Ipsos Reid release of on-line survey results 77% of Canadians think this is not happening in Canada. Only a third believes our politicians are doing a god job of debating the important issues facing Canadians. Ouch…considering that is a large part of why we elect them. And, just as bad, 79% of us think that we Canadians are “too reserved” as a people when it comes to debating important issues.

These findings are at the heart of some of the reasons why citizens are not participating in elections and the political culture of the country. On the up side, 86% of Canadians “enjoy being exposed to people and ideas that challenge the way they look at the world.” Perhaps our political parties, our public intellectuals and thought-leaders need to get out more and start talking to people where they live, work and try to raise a family.

The media is seen as doing a good or great job on thinking about the issues by 65% of Canadians, but 66% see NGO’s in this positive light. Not bad but 73% see more awareness and thoughtfulness about important issues coming from friends and family and 72% see universities as thoughtfully engaged in the issues of the day. The church is no seen as a source of thinking on issues – 63% say they do a poor to terrible job in this area.

In a time when it is hard to find an institution in our society that has not lied to us or betrayed our trust in some significant way it is not surprising to see these result. The gut-check most of us political activists do around civic engagement and political participation is confirmed by this survey. This authentication of the collective intuitive sense of what is happening to and in our body-politic does not alleviate the problem but it sure brings it into a sharper focus.

A comprehensive and contentious citizen engagement initiative that is not a tepid tinkering with the electoral process is an idea whose time has come. I hope the Stelmach government with consider such a genuine trans-partisan effort to understand why our democracy seems to be failing our citizens and our society and adding to cynicism as the default political position of so many people

Laurie Blakeman Was Like "Donna" Quixote in Her Chase for the Speaker's Chair

I admire the pluck and posturing of the Liberal MLAs Blakeman (Edmonton Centre) and Pastoor (Lethbridge East) efforts for their personal ascension to the Speaker and Deputy Speaker position. Kind of reminds me of Don Quixote.

All Hail “Donna Quixote” (a.k.a. Laurie Blackman) and Sandra Panza (a.k.a. Bridget Pastoor) on their Quixotic excursion and parallels and spoofs the same over-the-top chivalric romance of the Cervantes original “novel” idea.

Still these two Liberal MLAs showed some independence and spunk in putting themselves up for election as Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the Alberta Legislature. Their rationale was Ken Kowalski has been there long enough and it is time for a woman to hold these positions - simply because no woman has done so before.

Hummm...I wonder if basing such a decision on gender really makes sense as sufficient justification? We sure need more women in politics and I acknowledge the system is stacked against them. However, when women really want more women elected to public office they have a large enough voting potential to influence the outcomes and to make it happen. They have to show up and engage - particularly in party politics.

Maybe this effort by Blakeman and Pastoor will help focus the attention of women and attract more of them to a more active political engagement. That would be a good thing...regardless of party and policy preferences. Time will tell.

Still this was an interesting proposition these two put forward - but futile politically given the size of the PC majority in the Legislature. Yesterday their futility came to fruition as Ken Kowalski was once again ensconced into the Speaker’s Chair.

The Liberal’s did score a political point or two by helping to elect Calgary PC MLA Wayne Cao as Deputy Speaker - and not the preferred first choice of the reigning government. I know the small Liberal opposition will have to enjoy this political "victory" while it lasts. This is likely the last time the PC Caucus will split in a way that the Alberta Liberals will actually determine an outcome.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Jim Prentice Kills Satellite Deal - The Right Thing for the Right Reasons

This week illustrates another reason why I value Jim Prentice as a politician and a person. The progressive and positive positions he has taken as Minister of Industry is a continuation of his quality governance capabilities. His move this past week to kill a sell off of a publicly paid for Canadian space technology is the most recent case in point.

He is a bright, thoughtful, competent and conscientious man with enormous personal and political skills. He is a former federal Progressive Conservative leadership candidate - and my choice in those days. He is obviously so far above the posturing pettiness and the blatant bullying of the majority of his Reform types CPC “colleagues.”

The proposed sale by Canadian company MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. of our just launched earth observation satellite, Radarsat-2, to an American corporation, Alliant, is wrong at so many levels. Prentice knows this and has moved quickly to do something about it.

We have many issues of Canadian interests at stake here, including our sovereignty over the Arctic that the Americans and others are challenging. Those dealing would be seriously compromised with this commercial deal going forward. We also have the loss of technology that we Canadian taxpayers have paid for in large part…and the company would have pocketed the benefits – not us. Then there is the fact this technology is critical new 21st century infrastructure to boot.

Well done Mr. Minister and keep up the good work - and don’t let antics of the small-minded bullys that seem to be all around you get you down.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

IMF Weighs In on Pending Global Credit Crunch - It is Not Pretty!

The plot thickens and gets gloomier around the consequences and impacts of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco. The International Monetary Fund has issued a new “Global Financial Stability Report” that says the fall out is “widening and deepening” as it spreads geographically and into corporate debt markets.

Now the financial institutions and security market firms are said to be coming under “considerable stress” caused a weakening of their balance sheets, the deleveraging process due to falling asset prices and the overall weakening of global growth…particularly in the States.

There is a quickening curtailment of credit that may start to impact normal business operations as banks cut back and try to raise capital. Central banks in Canada, the States and Europe are pumping cash into the system to provide liquidity and some semblance of short term stability.

The question remains about how much more money will be required to bolster the bungling and booga-booga economics of the Masters of the Universe types? How big and damaging will the bank’s asset write down actually be and how quickly will it happen – with what global economic consequences?

The system has been into denial for months but the vultures have come home to roost and with a vengeance. The impact is now being felt where 1 home in 5 in Detroit is under foreclosure. U.S Housing prices have dropped for the 9th consecutive month and last month alone a whopping 80,000 jobs were lost in the States...and as Karen Carpenter would say…”We’ve only just begun.” Former U.S. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan has said the States is already in a recession…too bad the current crop in charge can’t be that honest.

Those numbers are impressive and startling but they are nothing compared to the galactic calculations that are happening at the macro levels. Since August last year banks and security firms have written down $232 billion ($232,000,000,000.00) in assets and credit losses. The IMF predicted in February this total would reach $600 billion ($600,000,000,000.00). Two months later in April the IMF is saying the losses and write downs will be one trillion…$1,000,000,000,000.00. Obviously the worst is yet to come and indications are the biggest hump that will the system will have to get over will be in full force in the fall of 2008 and resonate for many quarters afterwards.

Governments are going to be called on to bail out these bozos who love to boast about how much brighter they are than the public service bunch who the like to look down their noses at. The lack of proper oversight by the regulatory authorities in government, their agencies, boards and commissions is a sad consequence of letting-the-market-decide-everything school of far right governing philosophies so “popular’ as of late.

Now we will likely see the reverse reaction and a tendency to over regulate and what I like to call the hardening of the Auditors. We will see a tendency to want to micro-manage and not regulate all in the cause of consumer protection and guarding the value for the taxpayer dollar. Business leaders better start taking the concept of social responsibility and social license to operate concept to heart as core values and not just public relations exercises if they don’t want to find themselves in personal lines of fire from a growing wave of fiercely angry citizens.

There is always lots of blame to go around history repeats itself where we see corruption and cons fueled by greed and abetted by a failure to properly perform public duties. The other truth seems to be every time history repeats itself the price goes up as do the consequences.

Monday, April 07, 2008

I Read Dunn and Valentine and I Still Don't Know If Albertans Are Getting Their Fair Share of Royalties

I have read “Building Confidence” the Peter Valentine document on “Improving Accountability and Transparency in Alberta’s Royalty System” that was released today. Apparently the former Auditor General was asked by the Premier to consider “oversight of the royalty system, a review and assessment of the government’s business processes and controls; and a performance measurement and reporting.” Mr. Valentine has made 13 recommendations that the Minister of Energy was quick to note today the all Valentine’s recommendations will be accepted by the government.

The genesis for this “Building Confidence” undertaking was in response to a report last fall by Fred Dunn, the current Auditor General, who criticized the government on how it reviewed and decided to adjust royalties. Dunn made 5 recommendations and it looks like Valentine has caught all of them in his report. Valentine has also made recommendations that make the Minister of Energy more accountable to Cabinet and therefore Albertans and not just the one-man-show “decider” of all things royalty related as in the past.

Valentine hired KPMG to help him out in his review. They were charged with reviewing the “source and nature of assurance the Department has over the accuracy and completeness of industry and/or other external data. They also were tasked to review the processes in the Department to collect external data and information used to assess the performance of Alberta’s non-renewable recourse revenue policy and collection of royalties. What KPMG was not asked to do was “review of calculations, data input, reporting and verification processes and controls that take place outside the Department, for instance in oil and gas companies and the Energy Resources Conservation Board.”

It is more interesting as to what was out of scope in both reports. Dunn did an analysis on conventional oil and gas and oil sands for a 5 year period starting in 2000. He also did not examine the system the Department used to calculate and collect the royalty and bonus revenues. He did not assess if Alberta Energy “…has adequate controls on the completeness and accuracy of data that form the foundation for royalty calculation.”

Dunn notes that in coming to a calculation for royalty revenues the government uses averages and scenarios covering a range of pool sizes and well characteristics from publically available sources. Industry on the other hand models well data outputs based on “confidential information such as the company’s financial parameters.” The upshot is government models royalty returns on “averages” to estimate economic rents but industry models the specific well or project to determine profitability and rate of return.

The two reports by Auditor Generals present and past are excellent documents but they both beg and profoundly fail to answer the foundational question…are Albertans getting all the royalties they are entitled to under the law? If we don’t know if the input data is accurate and if the model being used is adequate how can we tell? If industry uses one model and government uses another how can we cross check for accuracy in calculations?

Valentine says the Department settles for a vague answer to this foundational question. He says the Department “estimates that it will effectively collect 100% of the available return to Albertans by collecting 20%-25% of the industry’s net operating revenues.” Well my understanding is we have not been at this rate of return for royalties and recommendations by the Department to the former Minister(s) to return to that range of royalty revenues were rejected unilaterally by him/them.

Both Dunn and Valentine noted the royalty system in place no longer served the public interest in the days of high and fluctuating commodity prices. That is where Dunn identified the $1 billion of opportunity losses from uncollected potential revenues. Valentine says there is no substance to support claims we were missing collecting money but the admission of the various systemic flaws makes it difficult to square that conclusion with so many unknowns still unknown.

It looks like industry knows its own numbers on production and costs. Industry’s actual production numbers of our non-renewable resources belonging to Albertans should be made public and used for royalty calculations on a gross basis. Costs of doing business are individual corporate competitive issue and that data rightly belong to the industry players and not the public.

This dichotomy of data and cdifference in alculations between the industry private and the Alberta public interests provides us with a problem in determining if we are getting Our Fair Share. What needs to change is the royalty regime based on net revenues and move to a gross production and commodity price based calculation for royalties. That way we don’t care about the company’s costs of doing business and our government doesn’t need to make wild-assed guesses and averaging calculations to deem a production total.

Mr. Premier, you have two excellent reports on royalties now but neither of them adequately answers the single most important and fundamental question on the minds of Albertan…are we getting our fair share. Until that is answered authoritatively and authentically with information and evidence to back it up the job is not done and the foundational question is not answered.

Financial "Masters of the Universe" Are They Committing Crimes Against Humanity?

I have been mulling this Blog post for a week now trying to find the balance between containing my anger and express my angst due to the economic circumstances created by the abuses perpetrated by certain financial institutions - mostly in the United States.

The developed world economy is about to go into a vicious downward cycle of recession that has been caused by the greed, selfishness and hubris of the “Masters of the Universe” types in the financial services sector, particularly in the USA and triggered by the sub-prime mortgage fiasco and meltdown.

It is not just the greed and short term selfishness of the mortgage/lending business that was written for too many folks who had no hope in hell of handling the initial debt – never mind the rate bumps built into the deals. There is the culpability due to the wanton negligence and possible fraudulent willful blindness of so-called “independent” debt rating agencies who ranked these junk loans a solid and who were paid by the very perpetrators of the scams in the first place.

The investment banking and commercial banking division and separation after the Depression was done for a reason. But it has been inconvenient and avoided in generating the enormous fees and bonuses inherent in the short run short term thinking of these greedy bastards who were in for the fast buck and screw the consequences to the rest of us.

The high priests of the free market who sell us the concept that open markets are the best arbiters of fairness, openness and determinate of value are undoubtedly charlatans and likely crooks in many instances.

The government’s use federal reserve systems have been bailing them out in the Billions of taxpayers money – as the write-offs pile up within big-name financial institutions that are (were) some of the most respected and revered in our world view.

Now we will see the pendulum swing away from free markets into regulated financial institutions where realities will be tough government regulation that run them like utilities. OK by me but there is another “catch.” With the gutting of governments buy the likes of Thatcher, Reagan, and the Bushes…and Harper, Klein and Harris if you want to come closer to home…and you should.

I wonder, do any of these governments still have the technical talent and expertise plus the political wisdom and energy in place to exercise the resilience and robustness of political will needed to do the job? I don't relish this alternative any more than I do the meltdown caused by the sub-prime financial fisco caused by idiots who are noted for their supreme self-absorption and selfishness instead of the common good.

The UK is under as much pressure as the US in htis regrd and, as a result, Prime Minister Brown is a spent political force...stick a fork in him...he is done! Bush is out of his depth and done like dinner too – and his Canadian "mini-me," buddy Steve Harper is not strong enough politically, policy or character-wise to cut it in the face of the pending disaster...and Canada has have no one in the wings politically to take over either.

The Democratic presidential race is internally destructive and both candidates are actually avoiding dealing with the real economic policy issues in the campaign and will continue to do so until after the election in November. McCain is just another Bush with an Eisenhower perspective who is fimly embedded in the 1950's and '60's who readily admits to not knowing much about economics anyway.

This means there are many months to go before anyone in America can really wrestle with this politically and with practical policy alternatives...even if they had someone win the election who is capable enough to do the economic job. The Americans are already in a recession and it is only a dirty little secret to the authorities because everyone else in the world already knows this truth. The "authorities" have to stay in denial to stave off the inevitable admission of reality because this is an election year and they dare not be seen as telling the truth under such circumstances.

The financial sector Masters of the Universe who are involved in running the private sector financial markets, who have also enabled, aided and abetted this travesty, and soon to be tragedy, deserve to have their “balls” busted. Why? Because of their iresponsible disregard for the common good while they manipulate the rules to gather accumulations of astonishing personal wealth through greed and possible corruption. Will it happen? Not likely.

It will only happen if we have an effective, forthright, strong and activist government leadership once again. We need political leadership who will undertake to regulate and “unfix” the “fix” that has been “in” on the public. The common wisdom about the preference for the so-called “free markets” and the "professional" managers, who have been allowed to abuse their privileges and avoid responsibility and accountability is no longer a myth - it is a lie!

In wars we have a concept of crimes against humanity and we try and even execute the guilty. These greedy bastards in these financial crimes are damn lucky the concept does not transfer to the damage that they have done against the economy and the human condition for purposes their own prosperity, power and personal purposes.

Now we will have the likely alternative possibilities of inept or fascist strong-man government who would take over and perpetrate more variations-on-a-theme abuses on the public. Unless citizens smarten up and re-engage in politics in a purposeful, informed and meaningful way we will continue to suffer abuse from private sector or public sector idiots who both abuse the system...and us!