Reboot Alberta

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Pay Politicians Well - and Pay the "Little People" Better!

I don’t begrudge the Alberta Premier, Cabinet Ministers and other elected representatives getting “healthy” raises. Let’s face it if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. I don't want to be governed by monkeys - regardless of party affiliation.

Now will they do the same for the lowest paid people in our work force? I am talking about the working poor who work in the social service sectors. What about paying a livable wage and benefits to those folks who take care of our developmentally disabled citizens, our at-risk and troubled children and our frail and fragile senior citizens who work in the not-for-profit community based service provider agencies.

Mr. Premier, during the election you never mentioned wage hikes for elected people. However you did promise to narrow the wage gap between these people and the equivalent work done by Alberta's civil servants. True more money has been put towards staff retention efforts but it is ad hoc and one-time band-aids. A more systemic and long-term commitment to closing this gap is required if people are going to stay in the social services sector.

So far with your government's union settlements and signing bonuses and increased staff benefits, the gap is wider than ever - even with the ad hoc one-time payments. What is worse, some PDD Boards have been very slow to get into the hands of agencies and employees. So much for crisis control and urgency.

I believe our elected representatives should be paid well, very well in fact. After all they are potentially more important to our well being and long term quality of life than hockey players who can make millions of dollars a year and they have about the same shelf life as a politician.

Now Alberta has pony up and honour, respect and compensate the “little people” who do the difficult and often dirty work we need done to care for the most vulnerable in our society. Quit the delay and the deflection of the issues Premier Stelmach. Pay the working poor in community based agencies a wage that can support a family. You do it for unionized employees why not the rest of the people who work in the sector in non-profit community based agencies?

Maybe that is the message the Progressive Conservative government is sending these folks. Perhaps your government is saying they should “join a union” and pick a fight if they want to be treated fairly and with respect. I hope that is not the message you intend to be sending these working poor. What else can they do to get the attention, respect of government. Remember the responsibility to take care of the vulnerable Albertans serviced by these workers is ultimately the government's.

These people need a significant raise, just like you and your colleagues just got sir. They need enough money and benefits to live in our expensive Alberta. Is it too much for such workers to expect to be financially secure enough to to actually enjoy the so-called " Alberta advantage?"

Congratulations on your raise Mr. Premier. It was the right thing to do. Now take that same philosophy one step further and show the same concern for the working poor who are doing some of the most important and most thankless (next to a politician) jobs in our society.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Fast Life in Alberta is Creating Serious Social Costs

Here is a disturbing sign of the times in Alberta. The annual Blueberry Festival in Fort McMurray is cancelled this year. Why? It is a community driven event but with the time starved reality of life in Alberta, the city could not find the volunteers to produce the event.

Looks like Fort McMurray had to pick up the production of the Canada Day events because of lack of volunteer capacity as well.

This is not unique to Fort McMurray. In Edmonton some 15 festivals banded together this year to run a volunteer recruiting event. The life-work balance in Alberta is way out of whack. Some will take pride that Albertans work the hardest and longest in Canada. Not me. The Alberta pace of growth and the stresses it is causing on individuals, families and now communities is not part of the success story of the economy. I think the economy should be there to serve the neds society and make it better for everyone, not the other way around and only serve the few at the top of the socio-economic food chain.

The use of GDP to measure our success is not only useless it is dangerous. We need a more comprehensive and balanced approach to measure success and progress in ourselves, our communities, if not society and the world The movement toward Genuine Progress Indicators (GPI) is a much more appropriate tool than GDP to see how well we are doing as a society.

What makes life worthwhile in terms of well-being, be it financially, professionally, personally, environmentally and in our social and civic lives all need to be considered now in how we our measure progress.

I strongly recommend people read Mark Anielski’s book “The Economics of Happiness” for some better understanding of this GPI concept. That is if you can find the time to read a book these days.

Mulroney Recalled to Commons Ethics Committee

The House of Commons Ethic Committee is also tired of waiting for Stephen (Godot) Harper to live up to his promise of last November for an inquiry into the Mulroney-Schreiber Affair.

They have voted 6-5 to recall Mulroney for June 12th. The issue is not going away and Harper's delays and excuses about calling the inquiry are shewing away at his integrity and accountability.

The former PM refused to appear at an early recall because the inquiry was supposed to be around the corner. It is not happening – at least not so far and not very fast. So the MPs on the Ethics Committee are tired of waiting and want to know if there was more to the Mulroney-Schreiber relationship.

The Siemens bribery trial in Germany, one of Schreiber’s alleged clients/funders will bring a new twist to an already sorry, sand and sordid story. The Ethics Committee vote to recall Mulroney was 6-5 and I imagine the Cons were against the recall. They are good at using their little book of committee tactics and political tricks to try to protect Harper more than Mulroney. Harper is reported widely to have consulted his mentor Mr. Mulroney on the Cons strategy to win over the hearts and minds of Quebecers. Mulroney is consedered to be the source of the Harper positioning by implying support for the soft nationalist strategy in Quebec.

First Mulroney and now Bernier – both Quebec based political embarrassments for the Harper Cons. It gets better, or worse, depending on your POV. Consider Harper’s obvious support for the falling star, the ADQ Mario Dumont and concurrently snubbing Quebec Prime Minister Jean Charest, a man whose star is on the rise now. Harper should be looking to Charest for advice and mentoring on how to successfully lead a minority government and get stuff done.

That snub of Charest was just another of the classic political cow pies the brain trust in the PMO has deftly stepped into. Now they just can’t seem shake the political consequences off its shoe in the province of Quebec.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Harper's Old-School Politics of Command and Control Could be His Demise.

Lawrence Martin of the Globe and Mail is my favourite national political columnists. His analysis today about Stephen Harper leadership style and character and comments of Mr. Harper’s former mentor, Preston Manning are worth reading and pondering.

The man is all about tight command and control by the PMO. He applies it to everyone in the Harper government. The default talking point of every Conservative in Ottawa is to reference the sponsorship scandal. That is an old storyline that Canadians have moved beyond. However it is trotted out every time as the answer to any criticism directed at the Cons political, governance and statesmanship gaffe and shortcoming.

This centralized micromanaging and macro messaging control is Harper himself is bound to run its limits and try the patience of the voter. The sponsorship scandal as the Harper Cons answer to all issues is past frustrating, was never funny and now shows just how futile the Harper Cons are at real governing.

I love this African proverb and often think of it when I reflect on Mr. Harper as our pro tem PM. "If want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others." I like to add, if you want to do both you better transform the culture and find consensus. Tranfixing on dictating from the top will not go fast or far.

The Harper minority government has run its course. Unfortunately the Dion alternative is not seen as viable either. It is time for a different political approach and a different kind of person in politics. Given the nature of the job and the little upside for citizens to actually run for office, we may have ot wait a long time for that kind of change to occur.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Power and Influence

My friend (but no relation) Jason Chapman did this video as part of a project we worked on together with Vince and Dale as part of our Leadership Edmonton experience.

We are a generation apart but of one heart. I am so glad to see there are protest songs and the power of images and music still available to influence authority - and is still alive in some souls.

Thanks Jason. I hope readers of this Blog absorb and reflect on your work.

Gomery Not Amused - Harper Delays Mulroney-Schreiber Inquiry

I see retired Judge Gomery, the man who headed the investigation into the sponsorship scandal, is musing about Mr. Harper's commitment to convening the promised inquiry into the Mulroney-Schreiber affair.

Harper promised the inquiry last November and has found excuses to delay taking action. The time for excuses is past according to Gomery.

Gomery was also not amused that the Prime Minister delegated the determination of the scope of such an inquiry to a private citizen when it is the central role of good government to determine such things. Paul Martin had the strength of character to call a broadly based sponsorship inquiry. Many will suggest the inquiry results cost Martin his political career, for sure his place as Prime Minister.

Harper's firing of Bernier this week was justified and the right thing to do. It also helped Harper solve the problem that was about Bernier's proven incompetence. But he was Harper's most popular Quebec minister and the Cons need Quebec to win the next election. Bernier's prervious blunders were minor compared to his five month long Cabinet security breach.

That one instance aside, there is no indication Mr. Harper is made of the same stuff and Mr. Martin when it comes to his mentor Mulroney and the cloak and dagger dealing of Mr. Schreiber.

Harper's insouciance on this ethical issue is further evidence that it is time for him and his government to go. That looks like it will not happen until the next fixed election date comes up in November 2009. Too bad!

Alberta Venture Column on Ethical Issues in Business

Check out the Alberta Venture magazine and the "Odd Man Out" column. It is a commentary piece with myself of Cambridge Strategies Inc, Fil Fraser, Dr. Tony Fields of the Alberta Cancer Board and Janet Keeping of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.

This a regular column I participate in for Alberta Venture magazine focused on ethical issues in business.

I would be interested in reader feedback on the issue discussed.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Updating the Public Record.

More Comments on Free Speech Limitations:
The continuing saga of proposals for the Alberta provincial governments to impose limitations on free speech during elections has been reviewed in a Calgary Herald editorial today. I have previous postings on this unnecessary and dangerous policy proposal, here, and here and here.

The Looming Fed-Prov Showdown on Environment:
A year ago former Alberta Premier Lougheed mused that a looming constitutional crisis between the governments of Canada and Alberta over environment jurisdictions and standards gets a boost today from Jeffery Simpson in the Globe and Mail today. Lougheed is recently quoted as saying his earlier suggestion that this constitutional dust up will be 10 times more volatile than the National Energy Program was a bit extreme. Maybe not. Time will tell.

Siemans Slush Fund and Bribery Trial:
Newspaper reports note that Siemans has been investigated for bribery charges in a dozen countries and were fined the maximum of 1 million Euros for bribes in 77 cases between 2001 and 2004. Sieman's was part of recent the testimony in the Schreiber/Mulroney affair. PM Harper has promised an inquiry into those dealings but has yet to deliver. Time to get going on this Mr. Harper.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Bernier Resigns - Call in the RCMP Mr. Harper!

Maxime Bernier, the most troubled and troubling Minister in the Harper Cabinet is gone. Apparently he left classified Cabinet documents in a public place.

Prime Minister Harper is saying that the Bernier resignation is not related to Mr. Bernier’s recent escapades with a former biker girlfriend.

Mr. Bernier allegedly left classified Cabinet documents in his former girlfriend's apartment. I am not a conspiracy theorist but these are the reason and circumstances for the resignation, it poses more serious security questions than it answers.

I suggested the Prime Minister needs to consider a Cabinet shuffle when Bernier was shown to lack judgement. Now with Mr. Bernier's admitted recklessness and negligence and breach of trust heads have to roll and Harper is on the bubble to explain this. Harper can't delegate or duck the issues.

Mr. Bernier resignation only opens the issues and multiplies them. It closes nothing. The RCMP have to be called in to investigate and to review the security clearance status of all your Cabinet members and Parliamentary Secretaries.

Time for a face saving Cabinet shuffle Mr. Harper. This time your Cabinet must be chosen based on competence not just your compunction command and control of the PMO .

Why Harper is Afraid of an Election

Harper has not gained any traction or sustained momentum in the polls since he became the pro tem Prime Minister of Canada so many long months ago.

He played with the Quebec sovereigntist’s “nationalists” sentiments a while back and got a dead cat bounce for a bit. He even got cozy with Mario Dumont of the right wing ADQ and intentionally snubbed the Quebec Prime Minister Jean Charest when he was suffering as the leader of a minority government. That has all changed recently. For Harper to realize his dream of a majority right wing government he needs Quebec or Ontario. Looks like Quebec as cooled to the ADQ and Mr. Harper’s friend Mario Dumont.

The blogger Paulitics gives a very comprehensive and interesting account of the shifting sentiments in Quebec. He is worth a read for sure if you are concerned about the future of a unified Canada. The Harper Cons friends, the ADQ, are in free fall. What will that to do Harper's prospects in Quebec in the next election?

The recent Quebec bye-elections are another reason why Harper has to be cooling if not quivering about facing the Canadian electorate any time soon. Quebec has figured him out, Ontario has as well and Atlantic Canada never did like him. The west is now more competitive – except for Alberta of course. But if Harper, the Albertan, keeps taking on personal advisors from the old Ontario Harris government and snubs the Alberta boys who made Ralph Klein and coached Mike Harris, you have to wonder how long they will stay “loyal” to Harper's cause.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Harper Caught in More Political Hypocrisy

Harper is such an old school politician. Say what you have to in order to get elected. Do what you have to in order to stay elected and don’t sweat any intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy in between. In the old days before the Internet and the blogosphere, the public and the MSM would have forgotten such promises. Not any more because everything is searchable and can be monitored…by ordinary citizens.

This time the MSM has followed up and exposes the inconvenient truth about Stephen Harper's political style. Promising in 2004 to eliminate GST on gasoline over $.85 a litre but now it is hovering round $1.28 a litre Harper says there no need to fulfill the prior POLITICAL promise because it would make little difference on overall prices anyway. There was no need to make such a pointless and purposeless political promise in the first place Mr. Harper. Oh, I forgot for a moment, there as an election to win - at all costs, including making disingenuous promises.

The GST tax cut he did promise and make also has little impact on prices or the taxes Canadians pay. With gasoline prices up dramatically and inflation starting up, the 5% GST staying on – my guess is Canadians are paying the same dollar amount of GST at the end of the day anyway.

Harper Wins the Most Secretive Award

Steve Harper wins the Canadian Association of Journalist secrecy award and it apparently the easiest decision the judges have ever made. Is anyone who follows politics in Canada surprised?

Open, accountable, transparent government be damned...this man is all about raw power. A Cabinet shuffle is in the offing...heads will roll. Intimidation dominates caucus and the principle of representative government will take another body blow from this Prime Minister. Expect he will move to further gather and centralize all the political power he can muster - in himself.

Wasn't it Plato who suggest the best way to govern was with a benevolent dictatorship? Harper is half way there but benevolence is not within his character qualities. What we see now is a "good" as Harper's statemanship can get.

Canadians belief in Harper has moved in 18 months. It has gone to lets give him a chance, to ok he is a message manager but not a governor, to why is he such a bully, to is that all there is, to I wonder what is going on with this guy, to oh oh - he is not very trustworthy to...ok enough is enough, what the hell is really going on here?.

Time to make a change Canada and give someone with a better sense of the country as a whole, who has proven intellectual integrity and with principles moral courage, like Stephane Dion, a chance to govern. However, lets wait for an election in late 2009 - for events to unfold for Dion and to unravel for Harper.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Keith Olbermann Special Comment: Clinton-Obama Assassination

Further to the previous post on Clinton's assassination comments about Bobby Kennedy - Keith Olbermann has obvously made up his mind about her position, the appropriateness and the motivation behind her comments.

He provides a litany of examples of the inherent violence of the American political culture. Says Clinton should know better and can't be forgiven for this comment.

Bobby Kennedy Jr. has already endorsed Hillary Clinton

...and is quoted in the New York Times helping her with damage control over the comments about his father.

Hillary Clinton Assassination Comment Kennedy Obama Shocking

Watch this video of the now famous recent Editorial Board comments of Hillary Clinton and judge for yourself what her motivation and meaning was.

What was behind her referencing the Bobby Kennedy assassination during the nomination process?

Was it an appropriate and worthy reason for her contining to campaign for the Democratic nominiation?

Was she stating that event as a merely historical fact? Or was it in reference to a possibility that she sees as justification for her continuing because tragedies happen? Or is it about something else entirely?

Is this comment being blown out of proportion or is it a measure of the desperation of Clinton's campaign?


I have been wondering where the heads and heart of youth today is at given everything that is going on.

As a product of the 60's - tame as I was - I can't believe there is so little protest going on in campuses these days...when the times are so similar-ish.

The fellow in this video gives me hope. He makes me think I have been looking for protest in all the wrong places.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lots to Applaud in the Alberta Land Use Framework

The Alberta Land Use Framework is one of the most important and eagerly anticipated public policy initiatives in Alberta in a long time. OK maybe saying it has been eagerly anticipated is a stretch for most Albertans but it is true for those of us who live in the public policy and political world.

I was involved in the early stages of the process and even had a small hand in some of the process design and participated in some of the stakeholder consultations and workshops and did some briefings for senior officials on the outcomes of the discrete choice modeling values based research we did on forestry stewardship and oil sands development. That involvement adds to my sense of anticipation obviously. I have not had the time to read the document in detail but let me share some initial impressions.

This document is a thoughtful response to growth pressures in Alberta. Don’t be na├»ve. It will have an impact on the pace of growth and even the purpose and place of growth in some instances. It is going to be an effective “touching of the brakes.” Be careful how you interpret that comment. Touching the brakes tends to slow things down. You have to “hit the brakes” to stop things. This is not about hitting the brakes but it is definitely going to have the effect of touching them. This slowing down of the pace of growth will give us time to get growth right instead of rapid as has been the case so far.

This document has been a long time coming and for good reason. It is the result of a comprehensive and intensive series of explorations and consultations and activist citizen engagement. It is the product of an intelligent policy design process. The last time complex and intricate policy was developed in such a positive way was the Water for Life Strategy. That policy was left unfunded so it has not lived up to its promise – at least not yet but I am hopeful that will change as it integrates with the Land Use Framework policy.

The brilliant move in the Land Use Framework is tying land use to water use as the defining element in regional planning. If the water capacity can’t sustain a land use development – it should not happen. There limits to our ecological capacity for growth that are atmospheric (GHG) water and land use. There is a focus on cumulative impacts now and not each project being looked at on its own “merits.” The integration of land, air and water, with cumulative impacts, consideration of habitat, fragmentation, urban sprawl and a host of other growth pressure elements will all come into play now. This means there will not be a one-size-to-fit-all approach going forward. More design intelligence is obviously at work here in this document.

This auger well for us now avoiding turning the entire province in to the same mess we created in Fort McMurray caused by delays and the disasters due to the personal political agendas of incompetent and neglectful former key Ministers who are no longer around.

The other really reassuring strategy in the Land Use Framework is the commitment to develop a conservation and stewardship ethos on public and private lands. This issue, especially around preserving and protecting wildlife habitat has shown up as top of mind for Albertans in our research but had not registered in the political agendas of the province – until now.
Congratulations Dr. Morton for making these policy considerations central to our land use ethic going forward.

There is a lot more meat in this document and policy process that I will have to read and reflect on before I comment further. I see this as a great day for Alberta with the release of this draft. It impacts every one of us and ought to be as catalytic for public engagement as the Hunter Royalty Review Panel document was last fall. Now the real work begins!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

More Provinces Are Pushing For Limits to Free Speech

The political trends towards gag laws in Canada are getting serious as more jurisdictions are getting into the action.

These are political efforts that are missing the point and trying to make their own “communications” job easier by monopolizing the messaging market. We need good governance and that relies on a diversity of opinions promulgated in a variety of ways to anyone who wants to participate in the deomcratic process.

If these old-school stlye of communications constraints survive and become government policy in Alberta, B.C. and Manitoba the Internet will become even more powerful as a source for political and policy information for people. That is not a bad thing. It will show these promoters of political limits on free speech just how wrong they are when the blogosphere and Web 2.0 takes them on and deals with them in the court of public opinion.

The challenge for modern political parties is not to put limits on the free speech of others but to do a better job of communicating their own policies and platforms to citizens in the first place. The opportnities for politicians to connect and communicate with citizens directly has never been easier or cheaper with the ubiquity and accessibility of the Internet.

Get in the new game guys and compete for attention and for credibility of voters in the open market of ideas instead of using your legislative power to rig the rules of the old game in your favour and stifling the free speech of others in the process.

Monday, May 19, 2008

BC Government Limits Free Speech - Shame!

Looks like the BC government has already legislated limitations on free speech at election time.

There are similar musings in Alberta to do something akin to this limitation on third party advertising at election time. Not good.

People are not stupid. They can make informed judgments. In the Internet age limiting third party advertising in elections is a silly and ineffective “solution” that abuses power and adds to political cynicism.

In a time when everyone is potentially a publisher, limits on traditional advertising for third parties is only going to extend and expand the other more effective media like You Tube, the Blogosphere and social networks. Limits like this will only make the "perceived problem" caused by third-party advertising worse. The networking power of the world wide web is enormously more powerful at informing and influencing public opinion and changing voter behaviours than a billboard or brochure will ever be.

Free speech is not free. It must be protected, promoted and used responsibly. That duty to ensure freedom of speech falls on governments and every freedom loving citizen. Premier Campbell's limitiation on freedom of speech in BC is wrong headed and this law needs to be repealed.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Will Bernier to Get the Boot in a Cabinet Shuffle?

The Hill Times is running a front page story this week speculating that Maxime Bernier will be shuffled and demoted due to his poor judgment concerning his biker girlfriend. I suggested in an earlier post that it was time for a Cabinet shuffle. Looks like Harper is considering it at least.

Sources tell me Bernier actually noted in certain documents calling his former biker girlfriend his “spouse” so she could travel internationally with him on the taxpayer’s dime. A classy guy – all the way.

Stephen Harper - THE Small Man of Confederation.

Next ask yourself; couldn’t events and times be changed to enable the current Prime Minister to be there and avoid even appearance of a slight? Even delaying the House of Commons ceremony to accommodate the Prime Minister Harper’s schedule should be simple enough to arrange.

Let face it, the Prime Minister of Canada does not want to be there…for pure and simple personal and political reasons. Too bad Steve. Showing respect is part of the job description of the Prime Minister of Canada.

Canadians indicate in poll results that they are unsure if they like Stephen Harper as a person. Surely this rudeness and slight underscores a personal character flaw in Mr. Harper as a person. This incident is a minor issue in the more complex context of running the country, but it serves as example of the kind of man Stephen Harper is. It makes you think about just how worthy Stephen Harper is, as a person, to serve and represent us in this most powerful and important office in our country.

As for me, I think such incidences of political and personal pique ought to resolve any disquiet in the minds of Canadians about how Stephen Harper ought to be perceived. We have seen him perform as a bully and as a miscreant and as an obfuscator. And now we see just how small minded and petty he can be. Stephen Harper has proven himself not to be a leader and he did not have to spend millions of partisan advertising dollars to substantiate that fact for us.

The Harper Cons have gleefully accused Premier Dalton McGuinty of Ontario of being a “small man of Confederation.” Prime Minister Harper’s actions here, and there are others, make him look absolutely diminutive as a man. We ought view this event as an opportunity to question if Stephen Harper has the qualities of leadership and the qualities of character to serve the Confederation and Canadians well enough.

Elections Should Be About More Free Speech - Not Less!

If you have some time to reflect on your right of freedom of speech today – and who amongst doesn’t have that topic as top of mind on a long holiday weekend ;~)…read Mark Milke’s piece in the Calgary Herald today.

I agree with him and tried to say so in an earlier blog post. I think it is a mistake to limit third party advertising in election campaigns. Instead I think those who engage in such freedom of speech activities have a duty to be open, transparent and accountable for their actions.

The reforms I suggest are, first, don’t let such proselytizers hide behind screens like “Albertans for Change” when they are in fact the Building Trades Council and the Alberta Federation of Labour. The sponsors of the messages have to state clearly and precisely who they are.

Next we need to consider if they should be registered under the new Lobbying legislation if they undertake such activities in election times. This new law is coming to Alberta eventually. Why does it take so long to draft the regulations and proclaim this Act anyway Mr. Premier?

And lastly perhaps the sponsors should be required to file, in advance with Elections Alberta, a budget indicating what they intend to spend, where and when in such campaigns and this information should be public. I am not so sure on this last thought but the information would help Albertans judge if some special interest group was trying to buy our attention with advertising instead of persuading us based on the merits of their positions.

Political advertising is very effective in the States but not as embedded nor as effective in the Canadian political culture. Americans seem to think the more something is advertised the better it must be. Canadians think if you have to heavily advertise something, there must something inherently wrong with it. My belief is that paid political advertising has a place but it is not the way to win elections. Paid political advertising at the party level is essentially the price you have to pay for being boring or irrelevant. It gets attention but it is not very effective at influencing opinion and is will not ensure the voter behaviour ou want either.

Word of mouth is much more effective in gathering real political support that actually shows up and votes. That is still best done by old fashioned door knocking and face time with citizens. The next most effective way is Word of Mouse. That is an emerging technique using the connective power of the Internet and viral potential of social networking for electronic “door knocking.”

Friday, May 16, 2008

Alberta's Bold Move on Health Care Governance

The decisive move yesterday by the Stelmach government to preemptively eliminate the regional health authorities was a bold move. Others may see it as brash…not me!

I think this elimination of regional governance in health care has been coming for quite some time. It may be the health area is the proving ground for a new governance philosophy in Alberta. A taskforce looked at the governance of all agencies boards and commission a while ago and made some important and strong reform recommendations. The thrust of the findings was these groups together spend about half the provincial budget and the government better ensure they align with the GOA Business Plans and goals.

Apparently a rookie MLA asked Caucus who his constituents would call if they had a complaint about health services. Other MLAs answered in chorus “YOU!” Right on! That is exactly who citizens should be talking to if their government funded facilities and services are not meeting needs. It is government who has to resolve these issues and the provincial politicians have to have first hand information if they are going to understand and appreciate the situation.

The way I see it the beginning of the end of Health Authorities started with the fiasco around instrument sterilization in St. Joseph’s hospital in Vegreville, the Premier’s riding. Then Health Minister Dave Hancock “accepted the resignations” of the board of the authority and then he put his Deputy Minister in charge of running the hospital and the region on an interim basis. The problems were clean up, people were screened for possible infections and the entire region was reviewed from an operational perspective.

The chronic incapacity of the Calgary Health Authority to live within its budget and for them to perpetually press the government for bail out money worked under Klein but not anymore. Then the media stunt about money designed to embarrass the Premier over immediate demands for emergency cash was the last straw. I believe the fate of any continuation of the Klein era regional governance and management model in the health sector was sealed.

My observation is that some of these boards, not just in health, were formed in debt and deficit era to save money, take power from bureaucrats and to be more representative of local needs. They were political appointees but power devolved to the administration and the boards became buffers between the politicians and citizens. Not a sustainable democratic governance philosophy.

There are services government is obligated to provide to citizens. The Alberta government set up various regional authorities with appointed boards and then delegated its public interest obligation to them. Government’s obligation to provide services in areas like social services, children’s services, persons with developmental disabilities are other some examples of a delegated ( some say abdicated) governance philosophy.

It would not be surprising if some of these government responsibilities were re-centralized again. The provincial board in the persons with disabilities area was abolished a couple of years ago but the regional boards remained. There is a government level review now over service needs in the developmentally disable sector – not just nice to haves. Expect a report in June.

Insufficient public funding of community-based agencies in the developmentally disability sector has made it impossible for them to recruit and retain qualified staff. It would not surprise me if a recentralization into government happened in this sector too.

These regional boards may disappear overnight like the Health Authorities. The government may move to direct service delivery and contract with community based provider agencies – or even absorb them back into government over time too? There are arguments both ways but unless there is enough funding to compensate staff to provide services the governing philosophy is moot. The government will be inheriting much of the responsibility as service providers revise downwards the program offerings to pay staff at government rates to fit the budgets provided. Some others may close down altogether leaving the government to create needed services internally.

All we can do now is stay attuned to the happenings in the legislature.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Americans Realize Polar Bears are Threatened!

So the Americans find the Polar bear to be under stress and just listed them as a threatened species. Can Canada be far behind?

The decision according to U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne is said to be based on science. The science is clear, he says. "Today's decision is based on three scientific findings," he said. "First, sea ice is vital to polar bear survival. Second, the polar bear's sea ice habitat has melted in recent decades. Third, computer models suggest sea ice is likely to recede in the future."

Does anyone still not believe that climate change is happening?

More Dead Ducks - This Time it is Saskatchewan's Turn

Here we go again. More dead ducks found in a “waste retention site” in Saskatchewan this time. The operator advised the Saskatchewan government immediately – not eventually and they have jumped to the pump to respond and co-operate.

The Saskatchewan Minister of Energy and Resources announced an immediate investigation. Is the irony lost on anyone that this death of 53 ducks happened on “International Migratory Bird Day?” Lots of talk about prevention and mitigation – yes that word ensure against this ever happening again.
Saskatchewan was very clear that they had learned from Alberta’s mistakes as they moved into economic boom mode too. Habitat is a major value of Albertans and I expect the folks of Saskatchewan feel the same way. I love this quote:

"Hopefully, Saskatchewan is a lot smarter than Alberta when it comes to this development. When the oil and gas runs out we don't want to be left with a toxic wasteland."

Ouch! So far not so good Mr. Minister.

Fort McMurray Folks Feeling Fragile.

A friend of mine was in Fort McMurray yesterday and sent me this picture. It was taken at the Fellowship Baptist Church on Franklin Avenue – the main street in Fort McMurray.

The death of the ducks in the Syncrude tailings pond reverberated around the world so it is not surprising that the good folk in Ft Mac are feeling a bit fragile these days.
At least the are not ducking the issue...or are they ;~)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Courts Reject Imperial's Kearl Lake Oil Sands Project!

The Federal Court has just dismissed Imperial Oils bid to quash a previous regulatory decision that cancelled the 100,000 barrels per day Kearl Lake oil sands project. The original project permit rejection was because of an inadequate environmental reporting on air quality implications from greenhouse gas emissions.

The review panel did not take the project’s GHG emissions that are equivalent to 800,000 passenger vehicles as being of any significance. A Judge disagreed and said the review panel made an error of law and sent the matter back to the panel to do its job right.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans then advised Imperial the project permit was a nullity and they could not proceed with the project. Imperial challenged the federal position and today the lost that challenge.

A corporate spokesman speculates the project may be delayed for up to a year as they comply with the process that is in place.

The Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development and Sierra Club of Canada took the lead on challenging the project approvals and sought to quash them through the courts - and they won! Good job! The courts have made it pretty clear that “…we need a higher standard associated with environmental assessment of oil-sands projects” according to Simon Dyer, Pembina’s director of oil sands.

The world of oil sands development just changed - and for the good again. First 500 ducks die in a tailings pond and the world notices. Now the environmental standards for project approvals are subject to a real rigour and not just an old style and clubby de rigueur standard of care.

Great day for the future of Alberta’s ecological integrity! This decision is a wake-up call for industry and the regulators to be more circumspect in approvals for oil sands development.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Humans Cause 40% of Wildfires

Highlights From the Legislature:
Tidbits from Hansard:
Monday May 12, 2008

The following question and answer yesterday was interesting considering the human cost of wildfires in Alberta. Worth noting is 40% of wildfires are caused by human activity. The fire that recently threatened Kelowna was caused by a guy throwing a lit cigarette out of his vehicle.

Mr. Xiao: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. My next question is to the
Minister of Sustainable Resource Development. Fire safety is a
concern for the summer months, whether you are at home or on a
vacation in the great Canadian outdoors.
With the May long
weekend rapidly approaching, can the minister explain what this
government is doing to minimize the human cost of wildfires in
Alberta that can threaten towns and our communities?

Dr. Morton: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Thank you for that important
question. With the May long weekend approaching – you’re
absolutely right – prevention of wildfires is a high priority.
per cent of all the forest fires in Alberta have a human cause
. Our
department, Sustainable Resource Development, has developed a
group of educational materials called FireSmart. They’re available
on our website. They’re for cottages, homes, and also campers.
They’re also on the new respect the land web page that we’ve talked
about before, and also they’ll be handed out by our staff at the
various entrances to parks and campgrounds this long weekend.

Good question! Is the FireSmart education program enough? Is it time to consider a smoking ban while driving through our forests and in our provincial campgrounds and National Parks? With a summer drought, high temperatures and the growing impact of climate change like the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation dry and dead trees are going to be a tinderbox.

Who is Responsible for Land Reclamation in Alberta?

Reclamation is an emerging hot topic in the minds of Albertans according to the Cambridge Strategies Inc Discrete Choice Modeling survey on oil sands development. We have unnecessary seismic lines, old oil and gas and forestry roads, abandoned well sites, pipeline disturbance all over the province that could be reclaimed. We have the open pit oil sands disturbances including tailing ponds and the really big oil sands show is the in-situ development where 70% of future oil sands activity is going to take place.

The question on my mind is if reclamation an afterthought in the consciousness industry and policy makers in Alberta? If so how long can this go on and who is ultimately responsible to pay for reclamation in the end? The old conventional industry game was for reclamation responsibility to be with the original developing oil company. The big guys, who do the really big plays, take on the reclamation responsibility at the front end. As the production diminishes the wells get sold off to juniors and smaller players who further exploit the wells and assume the reclamation duties. As the wells get really inefficient they get sold off to smaller and smaller groups who can use shell companies to pick up the dwindling production wells.

Then these micro players bankrupt the shell companies and leave the reclamation obligations unfulfilled. Not good. As I understand it the reasonability for reclamation can be enforced up the chain of ownership to the original players. If that is the case how often is that enforced by the government? If not, why not?

Another “disturbing” point about reclamation is the requirements to return the lands to a useful purpose akin to the original one would hope. Conventional site reclamations only require the l companies to plant grass…not even replace the trees they took out. In the early days of open pit oil sands mining the operators just stripped off the “overburden” and piled it up. One man’s overburden is another man’s topsoil and trees. Other species with whom we share the overburden lands call them home. How is it possible to replace the topsoil and the surface organic material that will sustain a forest growth if it is all mixed up in a pile? If this is what has happened one has to ask can the legal responsibility of developers to reclaim open pit oil sands mines ever be met with such operational practices?

The regulators have recently changed this and the Shell Albion project has actually for the first time separated the overburden into different piles so there is at least a chance it can be returned in some form so future efforts at reclamation may have a chance of supporting growth.

We better start looking seriously at responsibilities for reclamation now. We can’t wait any longer to get our heads around this problem. I am hoping we see something significant about reclamation in the soon to be released Land Use Framework of the GOA.

Short sighted development that is not integrated and enlightened cannot be the default position of Alberta. Albertans know this and it is time for our government to catch up to this reality and get aggressive about enforcing reclamation obligations.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Alberta Election Reform Should Not Limit Free Speech

The existential anxiety I feel when I agree with Lorne Gunter amuses and alarms me. His column today goes beyond my usual cognitive dissonance. It actually astonishes me because I can’t even find a quibble with what he says - never mind any significant disagreement with him.

The election reform we need to restore citizenship and participation in Alberta’s democratic process is not going to be achieved by putting a limitation on free speech. The contest of how to correct the system so far sees Stelmach’s trial balloon of limiting third party election spending and the Alberta Federation of Labour’s counter punch of demanding big business donation bucks are taken out of politics too.

The story line is there is too much political muscle vested in special interests like labour and business. Those big money guys are the problem. Why? Because they can buy influence via paid advertising in the election process. I don’t buy that. I also don’t buy that political parties should be the only serious players in politics at election time. If any group has too much power over the process it is the political parties, not business and labour.

The problem with our lack of political engagement in our democracy is not about who has and is exercising monetary muscle. It is more about that what is being said at elections. What problems being presented in platforms. What solutions are being offered by the political class. For the most part the content and context of elections are not meaningful to the population.

Political parties try not to lose elections rather than win them. They play super safe by doing pointless polls, run obtuse focus groups, then media train the personality out of the leaders by shrink-wrapping them into a message bubble so they will be politically safe. Elections are supposed to be about choices and consequences. Instead of making election politics about practical purposes and people they become personality contests focused on tactics, gaffes and shallow media events.

There are some changes that need to be made in the election process that deals more with openness and transparency of who exactly is trying to buy influence over me. People who show up and think about the issues and how to cast their vote are not stupid. Those who don’t bother to get informed or to vote effectively abdicate their democratic rights to those who do vote. As a result the no-shows have made a decision that they don’t want to count in the future political direction and decisions that impact their lives. So be it but paid advertising is not likely to change the opinions much less the behaviours of the pathologically disengaged “citizen.”

The solution for that democratic dilemma is not the elimination of third party advertising or abolition of certain financial support sources for elections. I would be trying to expand both elements and also be encouraging individual donations and citizen political participation as a way to get political parties and leaders to become more open to new ideas.

We need more candidates who are able to be bolder, braver and come forward with more engaging and meaningful policy promises. they need to be able to clearly articulate a relevant practical political platforms they intend to keep. I think if there is going to be a focus on election reform, it is not so much about how free speech is being exercised but to ensure we know who exactly is “talking” to us to influence our vote.

The AFL gambit of not disclosing that they were behind the anti-Stelmach TV ads hurt the NDP who could have used the money. It also hurt the Liberals who got caught in a backlash because they were presumed to be the source of the ads and they got blamed because for many Albertans they were seen to be in bad taste and too negative. The irony is, as Gunter points out, that while Stelmach may be trying to limit such ads, he actually benefited significantly from the AFL negative TV ads at the end of the day.

There is some positive, serious and significant election reform going that will not likely get front page headlines because it is not deemed to be newsworthy. It is the recent Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta effort to amend and fix its own leadership selection process. It is one of the most open and democratic processes in the country today but still needs improvement. I suggest this effort is a more important and meaningful step at significant political reform.

The Alberta Liberals and NDP are poised for leadership changes as well. They might we well advised to look at their own party processes and shortcomings before they jump into any exercise or bandwagon to limit free speech masquerading in the guise of enhancing our democracy.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Minister's Biker Girlfriend is Not a Security Risk

Let me get this straight. The Minister of Foreign Affairs (sic) has a girlfriend who was married to a well known and convicted mobster and formerly in a relationship with another who was killed before he got to trial. This is a private matter and “none of our business” and not a security risk according to the Prime Minister.

Our government does not know where 41000 at large deportees are and they presume they left Canada when we rejected them status and because they must be honourable folks.

Now tell me again just who is not a leader?

Politicians who are that naive, lack a modicum of judgment and are self-delusional are not fit to govern.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Western Canadians - Including Albertans - Are Moving to the Center.

The findings are very interesting and show a shift in public consciousness squarely toward the social infrastructure deficit and looking for a more activist government to invest qualitatively in the future prosperity in a knowledge economy.

The most significant finding is the consistency on the top public policy issues for all four western provinces. We all agree across the west that the top three public policy issues being improving health care (77.2%) doing more to protect the environment (74.9%) and doing more to reduce poverty (71.7%). These findings are consistent with a conjoint research project we did in the fall of 2006 during the Progressive Conservative leadership campaign.

The growing public concern over dealing with poverty issues surprised most people back then. The greater concern for Aboriginal social issues (44.3%) and creating employment opportunities for Aboriginal people (43.9%) over attracting skilled workers from other countries (31.3%) is illustrating a shift the social infrastructure deficit as a critical issue as well.

Alberta and BC align on the next priority of issues with concerns about investments in post-secondary education (61.9%), transportation and infrastructure (58.1%) plus science and technology (57.1%) are ranked as more important than lowering personal income taxes (55.1%). Expect TILMA to assist in this regard.

Westerners are all still big on the free market economy with 6 out of 10 wanting government to stay out of the economy but still 78.8% of us want government to protect rural economies. There is enormous support for activist government in using tax incentives for supporting resource industry, science and technology and increasing R&D funding as well as putting money into universities for hiring top researchers. Albertans are at the very top of the push in these areas. Ironic really, given that the previous government’s mantra of “government on being in the business of being in business.”

There are some storm clouds indicated about acceptability of high levels of foreign investment. Only 49.2% support and 46.7% oppose this trend and the highest support is not from Alberta but recognize the differences between provinces are not statistically significant. Times are good in Alberta and the west generally. This all may change if the economy changes dramatically.

CWF’s concluding remarks really nails the essence of the research when they say “ Western Canadians’ top public policy priorities are decidedly non-economic: while addressing issues of health care, the environment, poverty and greenhouse gas emissions may have economic dimensions, they are not economic policy areas.” They go on to note “…there are a wide range of areas in which western Canadians are supportive of government action and intervention.”

Squaring this circle of free enterprisers and activitist government is done by the CWF who point out only 2 of 10 strongly agree for government to stay out of the free market, at least “…suggesting that almost 8 in 10 are open to government economic intervention in selected areas.”

Westerners, including Albertans, have moved on from the past harsh economic policies and the far right political focus of reducing government capacity to simply lower taxes. The new Stelmach government clearly has a sense of this and is adjusting accordingly. Lots to do and fiscal prudence is still the overarching principle but we need to do more for those less able to help themselves in the brave new world of western Canada.

Why Are Alberta Opposition Parties Blaming Voters the Election Results?

The talk of a new political party or the merger of the Alberta Liberal and the NDP in response to the recent Stelmach Progressive Conservative landslide majority is interesting but if it is reactive it will not get any momentum.

The gnashing of Liberal and NDP teeth after the last election results was more like they were blaming Alberta voters for electing the Stelmach versions of a Progressive Conservative government. They bemoaned that 20% of total of eligible Albertans selected the Stelmach government. Stelmach actually got over 50% of the 41% of eligible voters who bothered to show up on election day.

The Alberta results could also be legitimately framed that the majority of voting Albertans selected Stelmach and it is worth noting only two political parties showed an increase in their popular vote, the Progressive Conservative and the Green Party of Alberta. The rejection of the Alberta Liberals and the NDP means they need to look at themselves instead of blaming the voter or the apathetic Alberta for the performance of their parties in these election results.

Still the opposition parties and vested interest groups wailed and moaned that these election results were unacceptable and somehow undemocratic and the low participation actually diminished the PC mandate. That is utter nonsense.

That kind of reaction from the losers was just insulting the Albertans who had considered the options, made a decision on who to vote for and then took the time to show up and vote. Those engaged Albertan made their preferences known about who they wanted to grant consent to govern the province. It was not the Alberta Liberals or the NDP. The right to vote is a moral duty and not a legal obligation. Enough said!

That said, there is still a problem that threatens our democracy when only 41% of the population could be bothered to vote in the first place. That is not going to be solved by blaming the voter or arranging a shotgun marriage of the Alberta Liberal and the NDP. Even worse is the “solution” of some who are calling a strategic machination to reduce the democratic choices for Alberta voters. This is the end result of the proposal that the Alberta Liberals and NDP collude and not run candidates against each other in certain close ridings to avoid splitting votes.

Instead the oppositions parties ought to be look at ways they can offer Albertan’s a better government through better leadership, better candidates and more resonate platforms. Tinkering with the system with schemes like Proportional Representation is another folly of political parties who just can’t cut it with the electorate.

We need a strong opposition. They help make government better, more accountable and more effective and can provide voters with choices and alternatives. That is the job of the opposition and they need to get on with it. They should quit trying to change the rules and stop blaming voters or apathy for their own shortcoming. More opposition members is an obvious “solution” but remember the four-man NDP Caucus last session was pretty damn effective by all counts.

Reality is when Albertans what more opposition member it will elect them. In the meantime opposition parties should refocus and get serious about being an effective opposition and an acceptable alternative for Albertans if they ever want to govern us. So far they look like they just want to whine about not getting political power.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Syncrude Apologizes - Alberta Investigates - Albertans Expect More

The media’s, special interest groups and citizens mistrust of authority and power is showing itself in follow up coverage on the ducks on toxic ponds stories. The apology advertising by Syncrude in major newspapers over the weekend is not a request for absolution but an acknowledgement of culpability and an undertaking to do better.

The front page newspaper coverage on the weekend shows that the newsworthiness of an acknowledgement by Premier Stelmach that the apology will not stop the probe and investigation. Stelmach is quoted as saying he appreciates the apology “but done not necessarily accept it.” He has promised to ensure “…once the investigation is complete it will be shared with Albertans.”

The ENGO quotes in these stories are casting more doubts on the oil sands companies “management of their waste products” emerging from the “On Tailings Pond” incident is more proof of this endemic mistrust.

Syncrude is promising to do better. Alberta’s international image is tarnished. The linking of Alberta’s claim of “Mission Accomplished” to Washington DC legislators about the ecological integrity of our oil sands to Bush’s similar claim a couple of years ago about Iraq is more collateral damage.

Syncrude is still looking for distressed ducks and have sent three more to Edmonton for care. Of the original five ducks rescued only one has survived and indications are the next three are in better shape and early indications all of them will survive.

Now ConnoPhillips has reported that eight migratory birds had settled on a pond at its Surmount oil sands project and one loon was found dead, although the cause was unclear but they are quoted as “taking this very seriously.” I would not be surprised to see more such admissions from other sources in the near future.

The most important comment made by Syncrude and the Premier on this situation to date was that both parties are working to “ensure” that it does not happen again. Syncrude’s ad said: “We understand you expect the best from Syncrude in environmental management and the protection of wildlife. It’s a value that we share, and we are committed to making the necessary changes opt our long-established practices to help ensure a sad event like this never happens again.”

This is all further acknowledgement of the new expectation levels of the public for ensurance on not just insurance or assurance has been noted in the blog before. There is nothing totally ensurable so that prevention is 100% effective in the world today. But without assuming a higher standard of ecological care we will merely continue to degrade and destroy the environment for the sake of growth and artificial short-sighted “wealth creation.”

This lack of an integrated and long-term approach that respects the social and biological ecology as an integral part of resource development is an unacceptable state of affairs to any thinking Albertan. We citizen/owners/voters have to stay engaged if this is going to really happen.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Looks Like Albertan's Are Back to Being "Blue-Eyed Arabs"

I find gems every now and then in Hansard. Most of my readers have lives and do not spend a lot of time on the detailed happenings in the Legislature, I do for professional reasons and often come across these gems. I will share them from time to time.

One that struck me was Kevin Taft's speech in reply to the Budget. He puts the petroleum wealth of Alberta in terms of how much there is for each Albertan. Our total reserves may be second to Saudi Arabia, which I would dispute - the Saudi's have not really updated reserve estimates for decades. Kevin Taft put reserve comparisons in per capita terms. Here is an excerpt from his speech on April 23rd:

Dr. Kevin Taft Alberta Liberal Leader - MLA Edmonton Riverview
"Alberta’s petroleum riches are even more impressive when measured against Alberta’s small population; on a per capita basis Alberta has 51,900 barrels of recoverable oil reserves, tops in the world. In other words, for our small population, per capita we have the largest oil reserves
in the world. Second is Kuwait, then the United Arab Emirates, and then Qatar. Saudi Arabia, which we always assume is incredibly wealthy in petroleum, actually ranks fifth on a list of petroleum wealth per capita. Alberta ranks first."

"I think that’s something we should all remember when we’re weighing out how we manage this
wealth. Now, that’s just oil reserves. If you add in natural gas reserves, our wealth rises even higher. Natural gas reserves are almost 57 trillion cubic feet, and there’s perhaps another 500 trillion cubic feet of coal-bed methane. So we have here staggering wealth."

Iris Evans in a recent speech to the Edmonton Glenora and Riverview PC party faithful noted this "managing our future, savings and long term investment policy" is going to be the focus of her time as Alberta's Minister of Finance. By the looks of it Albertans will need a new mind set to think long term. Adopting a Genuine Progress Indicator model of measuring real growth - not just GDP would be a great place to start a change of mind set.

Dying Ducks - The New Symbol of the Oil Sands Spells Disaster for the Alberta Energy Sector

Good for Roger Soucy of the Petroleum Services Association for this quote in a Calgary Herald today. It is a good piece of journalism on how the energy industry feeling the heat on ecological concerns with the death of 500 ducks in oil sands toxic tailing ponds

Here is the excerpt:
Even the Petroleum Services Association's Soucy says he remains optimistic, though he concedes energy-sector players have to adjust to "new realities" if the industry wants to maintain its social licence to operate. (emphasis added)
"Things are much more positive than they were in the fall," he said. "It's just going to take some time.
"Face it, you have to be optimistic if you're going to drill a hole in the ground and hope to get something out of it.
"It's always a risk, but you still have to be positive. That's what makes this industry work."

This is the kind of industry comment that shows a recognition that the energy sector has to come to grips with. It needs public support from Albertan – not just political support – if it I going to retain it social license to operate. Jobs and economic growth are vital to the well being of the province…but it is not the only thing that contributes to our well being.

When those holes are drilled in the ground, it is not only the investor funds that are at risk. There is risk for wildlife habitat especially for suffering species like grizzly and caribou. There is risk to the biodiversity of the province. There is potential for water and air risks and the negative impacts of fragmentation of the land base. Then there is the long term responsibility of the industry to reclaim the lands back to a useful, if not original purpose. I have not even mentioned the social aspects of well being that are impacted positively and negatively by too much growth too fast.

If the energy industry want to retain its social license to operate it need to address the value drivers of Albertans that relate to their activities. Our research shows the major value drivers and concerns of Albertans are around habitat, GHG, water usage and reclamation. Those are the hot topics for the
Many energy companies are conscious of this "new reality"already and are engaged in the issues. But they have a long way to go to convince the public who have been focused activated by the death of ducks in a toxic tailing pond - and full page newspaper ads apologizing are not going to cut it to regain public respect and trust.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Why Can't the Calgary Health Authority Live Within a Budget When Edmonton's Can?

This attitude from the Calgary Health Authority drives me crazy. The presumption that Edmonton and Calgary are the same and somehow there is a health funding discrepancy between the two authorities is idiotic and pure politics. It always worked in Calgary’s favour under Klein. That erroneous and simplistic “logic” will not prevail under Minister Liepert.

The fact is Calgary serves a population that is more urban, educated, wealthier, younger, white collar, less distributed and perhaps more culturally homogenous than Edmonton. I accept that latter point may be disputable given the recent immigration wave that came to Calgary. These are indicator of better health conditions and outcomes. For sure they indicate a better and healthier population than exists in the Edmonton region.

The Capital Region Health Authority in Edmonton serves an older, poorer, less educated, more industrial blue collar and culturally diverse population. That industrial based economy is prone to accidents that tend to be more serious than white collar worker paper cuts. Edmonton has a more dispersed population too, serving the north where we find all the Alberta development and related danger form accidents and social breakdown. All this indicates Edmonton will be a more expensive and difficult health care system.

The Calgary Health Authority can’t ever seem to manage its budget. It has perpetual deficits and the Calgary solution is to automatically run to the province for more money – and Klein always obliged. I can remember one year when Calgary ran a $70m deficit and the Capital Region Health Authority ran a $17m surplus. There were no unusual Calgary specific higher health demand circumstances that year. Go figure!

Come on Calgary. This perpetual self-absorbed Toronto wanna-be attitude and the over the top hubris about being better than Edmonton is childish. Surely the talented private sector brains down there can do better. If they insist they are better than the Capital City of Bureaucrats who makes up Edmonton why can’t they simply do it?

Calgary, as we are constantly told by Calgarians and their media, is where all the management and financial talent exist in the province. Just look how “smarter” they ended up being about the impact of the royalty review…surely they weren’t bluffing about something so important to the entire province. Surely they can get that kind of talent to serve on the Calgary Health Authority. Maybe then the Calgary Health Authority can actually do a better job of providing quality health care for Calgarians and provide top value for taxpayer dollars too. Give the superior attitude that is always spouted down there, this ought to be a slam dunk – wouldn’t you think?

Minister Liepert has made it pretty clear that the governance of the health care system is on the table as part of his efforts to change "mind-sets." Looking at the mind set attitude and actions of the Calgary Health Authority I's say it is a damn good thing he is looking at some serious governance changes.

Tailing Ponds and the Tale of Two Leaders: Stephen Harper and Ed Stelmach

Readers of this Blog will know I am no big fan of Prime Minister Harper. However, when he gets things right, I have to take my hat off and give credit where credit is due.

Harper Gets It:
The Prime Minister sure got it right in Edmonton the other day when he commented on the death of 500 ducks in the Syncrude oil sands tailing pond. He said the obvious when he commented "There were supposed to be systems in place to prevent this particular kind of event and obviously we're greatly disappointed, and troubled that we've seen what has occurred here." So what happened?

He shows he gets it with this comment, "I'm not here to make any excuses for the particular event that occurred in the last few days. It's a terrible event. It's not going to do anybody's image any good." So are we just going to spend money on PR to “improve” our image?

Then Harper put the incident in the larger context when he said, "Part of our responsibility as an emerging energy superpower is to be good stewards of our environment and also to become world leading on the environmental side of the business." Stewardship is the key issue here, not just growth at any cost.

Alberta - Not So Much:
The Alberta government response so far has not been as clear, consistent or as correct as it should be. Ed Stelmach is one of my favourite politicians but he seems to be vacillating and not showing that he “gets it” about the significance of this event. The GOA seems to be focused more on parsing the "facts. " Albertans are all about the greater symbolic significance of the demise of these ducks in these man-made toxic tailing ponds. The facts can be dealt with, but are they really all that critical determining how our political leaders need to respond to this "tragic" event.

Insuring and Assuring are Insufficient Responses:
The focus on the facts falls into the “insurance” level of pubic accountability. It is the lowest level of meeting the public's expectations for good governance. Screw ups happen and with the insurance approach to consequences the guilty are simply slapped with a fine - in this case of up to a million dollars. This fact of a fine has also been noted. Will a fine, of even a million dollars, change a corporate culture where the potential offender made a net profit approaching $300m in the last quarter?

The next public expectation level is for an “assurance” that public policy, industry practices and actual performance aims to prevent the repeat of such events. The failure to perform, the failure to monitor, the failure of timely notice to government, the potential failure to account and be transparent are some of facts that can and will be dealt with. This usually creates a governance culture of increased government regulation, monitoring, auditing reporting and enforcement. That increases government accountability and enforcement is obviously needed but is it enough to fix the stewardship problem?

It is an approach that too often results in industry merely complying with the new regulations as the stewardship standard. There is no incentive for project developers to raise the stewardship bar or to invest in new and better approaches. It is more about creating a corporate and political culture that worships the status quo.

Albertan's Know We Must Be More Responsible Stewards:
Albertans know we have a special responsibility to be global leaders in responsible sustainable development and also ensuring environmental stewardship - especially around oil sands development. A $25m PR campaign is not the way to prove this to the world. The indications are that the GOA has shelved its PR campaign aimed at countering ENGO messages about dirty oil ands. That image has already become the world-wide normative consciousness about Alberta's ecological values.

You can’t change values, earn respect or prove integrity with PR and paid advertising campaigns. We have to be more worthy and substantive than that if Albertans are going to regain the respect and trust of others in this interdependent globalized reality.

Why I Believe in Ed Stelmach:
Ed Stelmach made two very important and telling value statements during the PC leadership contest. He said “The environment trumps the economy” and “Leadership trumps issues.” Those two comments did a whole bunch to cement my conviction that his values were just what we needed for Alberta’s next leader.

Now, as the elected Premier of Alberta with an overwhelming mandate, Ed Stelmach knows he has to show us that he is serious about walking that talk. Good farmers are also good stewards of the environment. Ed Stelmach is well known as a good farmer. He has proven himself to be a capable leader. He can also be a good steward. It is time for Ed Stelmach focus on using his life experiences, his leadership skills and his stewardship values to ensure Alberta's economic, environment and social future.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Imagine No New Tailing Ponds for Oil Sands

Look at what is happening at the University of Alberta to eliminate tailing ponds, reduce water usage and apply CO2 to the extraction of oil from bitumen. And the water that is needed for pipeline transportation looks like it can be reclaimed from the existing tailing ponds. That means eliminating the need for new freshwater sources.

Lets get this research fast tracked! This is exciting and newsworthy stuff - and on a global basis - especially given how the toxic tailing pond duck deaths went viral around the world.

This is what a quality knowledge economy will do for Alberta.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

It is Time Alberta Ramped Up Tailing Pond Reclamation Requirements

Back in the day Syncrude was one of the top rated corporate citizens in the country and for sure in Alberta. In the days when Eric Newell and Jim Carter were at the helm, Syncrude’s community involvement, imaginative philanthropy and social responsibility performance was exemplary.

Their fostering and nurturing of aboriginal people in hiring and contracting was ground breaking. They have recently received the first reclamation certificate for any oil sands operator. Their environmental leadership was also well known and respected.

Then things seemed to change when Exxon took over the corporate leadership. The focus became more about maximizing profits and pushing growth over an integrated sustainable an responsible approach to development.

Now it seems to many observers that this project is being run mostly out of Houston more than from Fort McMurray. Syncrude is a complex corporate entity with an interesting mix of other corporate owners. I am sure they are all starting to think about what exactly the impact of the recent death of ducks in their toxic tailing ponds means for them as owners and their social license to operate now too.

There were some players in the oil industry who overplayed their hands using intimidation tactics on Ed Stelmach during the public debate on the royalty review. I can’t think of a single threat those players made then that had any real substance or could be tied to the royalty rate increases…which do not even start until January 1, 2009.

The Government of Alberta is the proxy for the citizens of Alberta to ensure our natural resources are developed in a sustainable and responsible manner. The days of the energy industry self-regulation, self-monitoring and voluntary reporting of their environmental performance obligations should be over. Our government needs to step up to the plate and take over inspections and reassert its responsibility to the citizens of Alberta.

The need to ensure high environmental standards and enforced for air, land and water protection is squarely on the Stelmach government’s shoulders. They also need to take steps to ensure biodiversity and wildlife habitat protection has to be added to the GOA’s active engagement in ecological integrity.

Syncrude was required at one time to set aside $100m for reassurance around their reclamation obligations. That was reduced to a line of credit only. Then the annual $1m fee for keeping the $100m line of credit was eliminated along with the line of credit - with a promise that Syncrude’s reclamation efforts would start sooner. Syncrude has done some reclamation and it takes time but one site in 40 years is nothing to brag about in the bigger scheme of things.

Clearly the Alberta government has to demand that tailing pond reclamation for all producers start immediately and that it be done right – not just rapidly. Suncor, for example, has committed to reclaim its first tailing pond by 2010. That is a 136 hectare site that Suncor says will include rebuilding wetlands to encourage the return of wildlife. We need to see more examples like that coming from industry. Perhaps more huge profits being realized from $100 oil need to be invested in reclamation now and not wait for other generations to carry the can.

Government spending $25m on a PR campaign to “protect Alberta’s integrity” will do nothing of the sort and will actually do more harm than good if that is the key message. You can’t buy integrity and respect with advertising and brochures…you have to earn it. Substance over style and performance over posturing will have to be the new standards of behaviour that must become embed in our provincial culture.

Albertans will expect nothing less from their government and the energy corporations who we license to develop our natural resources. The energy industry is only a tenant. They are not the owner of the resource. Albertans own these resources and we have the obligation to insist our government and our tenants act responsibly and not just expediently in how they are developed.

The ecological tipping point has arrived and the citizens of Alberta are coming out of their cynicism and are mad as hell. I think they will become much more informed, aware, engaged and insistent about environmental performance concerns in all aspects of our provincial progress as an energy supplier.

Anyone who want to get re-elected or requires a natural resource lease and a social license to operate those resources had better take this new Alberta attitude to heart. The public is watching and they are not impressed.