Reboot Alberta

Friday, July 31, 2009

Alberta Venture Magazine "The Right Call" Column

Here is a link to the audio interviews we did with Fil Fraser in the column for Alberta Venture "The Right Call" on "An Ounce of Flesh" topic.

It is about the payday loan business and the role of government to regulate interest rates charged by businesses.

The "Green Issue" of Alberta Venture is on newsstands now. Pick it up or better yet, subscribe. It is a terrific Alberta based publication.

BTW next month "The Right Call" column is about social media in the workplace. What do you think and what are your experiences.

Land Use Framework Guidelines for Lower Athabasca Region Released

The Land Use Framework Guidelines for the Lower Athabasca Regional Council (RAC) have jsut been released.

It is looking at a 50 year planning horizon in a complex context around land use in the area of the oil sands. It aims to be comprehensive and deal with cummulative impacts of multiple projects and the ful array of impacts from regional economic, environmental and social outcomes. It is about developing strategies and actions to meet measurable objectives and goals.

A profile for where we are now as a province in the region was also released. Lots to chew on here and I will do so over the week end and post more on this very significant policy initiative next week.

This is a very important policy process that needs and deserves the benefit of the doubt as to its good intentions. That does not mean there is no need for rigerous monitoring and engagement by experts and others to help make it the best it can be.

Best of luck to Heather Kennedy and her Council as they launch into one of the most important and critical policy processes that will have enormouos impact on Alberta and Albertans for a long time to come.

Joe Clark's York University Convocation Address

I have never had a "guest blogger" on this Blog and this post is not technically that either. It is however the text of a recent Convocation Address given to the Graduating Class at York University and delivered by the Rt. Honourable Joe Clark.

I call myself a "Joe Clark Tory" and share his sense of what Canada is and can become. These days our politics are critically short of statesmen but Joe Clark, Peter Lougheed, Paul Martin and Preston Manning fit that discription to my mind. We could use a bunch more.

Here, for your reading pleasure, and with his permission, is what Joe recently said about Canada; a country still too good to lose.


I am honoured to accept this degree, (I remember keenly that, a quarter century ago, when my political career took one of its sideways turns, York offered me a refuge at the Schulich School,) and I thank you all for inviting me to be part of a graduating class which has an unusual capacity to change and shape our world.

Fifty years ago, York University was born into an era dominated and traumatized by a Cold War between two superpowers who each had the will, and the nuclear weapons, to destroy the other. There was a name for that nuclear standoff. It was Mutual Assured Destruction. It had an acronym – M.A.D. – Mad.

Thirty years ago, this month, the promise of the steady evolution of China was shaken by the tanks in Tiananmen Square. Today, with some important lessons learned, China is one of the two most powerful nations in the world.

Short weeks ago, the caricature of Iran was of a vibrant society turned monolithic, controlled by its clerics. It is evidently not monolithic – and millions of its citizens, whatever their religious faith, are demonstrating a democratic faith which we can only envy.

Four days ago, a Canadian-led research team announced it has discovered where the AIDs virus hides in the human body. The team also announced it was moving its 25 scientists to the United States, because Canada has cut its science funding.

And, as soon as the weather allows, Julie Payette will be back in space.

This is a world changing faster than it ever did before. There is literally no predicting what you can do with your life – or what kind of world you can shape.

The American broadcaster Tom Brokaw coined a term for that cohort of his fellow citizens who survived a Depression, fought a world war, and built a superpower. He called them, modestly, “the greatest generation”.

We should not assume that our greatest generations are behind us.

And we genuinely modest Canadians should realize that some of the most promising capacities for future accomplishment are right here, in a Canada which combines wealth, and aspiration, and freedom, with a profound respect for the diversity that is the defining characteristic of the world that is emerging.

The transformations in this modern world can sharply increase Canada’s international influence and relevance. The Cold War was animated by ideology, and the post-Cold War by a faith in trade and economic growth. Now, the critical conflicts are rooted in culture, and stoked by poverty and inequality. In many cases, the causes have been latent a long time. Their catalyst is a general sense of shared grievance, or of holy mission. Those conflicts cannot be resolved by mere military power or “the magic of the market”. There is no real central command, no driving interest in economic growth.

So, where the roots of conflict are different, the remedies must be different. The issue now is bridging hostile cultures -- and the indispensable international attributes are the ability to draw differences together, to manage and respect diversity, and to earn and generate trust. Those are the traditional and genuine signature qualities of Canada, rooted not just in our history but in our behaviour, day to day. Our diversity, the growing equality of rights in Canada, and our example and success as a society are Canadian assets, as important, in this turbulent era, as our resource and material wealth.

And there is a warning. If we fail to invest our distinct international assets, our place in the world will decline. In the conventional terms of economic growth, there is a roster of countries which could overtake us. The Goldman Sachs projection of the world’s “largest economies by 2050” puts Canada 16th, a little smaller than Vietnam, a little larger than the Philippines.

But if we marry our economic strength with these new assets of international relevance, we can be a significant and positive influence in the world taking shape.

We have all learned to be suspicious of nationalism, and of the extremes and the violence to which it can lead. But a sense of nation can also be a motivating source of purpose and of pride, both an instrument and a guide to what we can become, as individuals, and as a community.

Beyond our wealth, our freedom, our ability to aspire: what distinguishes Canada?

I argue it is our tradition of diversity, which has characterized this large land literally for centuries.

Long before Europeans settled here, our Aboriginal peoples were as diverse as the geographies and climates which formed them – from the nations of the Plains, to the Woodland, to the Innu, to the art and seamanship of the Haida, to the caucus of the Algonquin, and the longhouse of the Iroquois and Huron.

And after Europeans settled, and disputed, and fought the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the side which won that battle did not treat the side which lost as a vanquished people. On the contrary. We kept the French language and the English. We kept the civil code and the common law. We kept for almost a century the seigniorial system of land distribution – fly today over the Red River in Manitoba, and see as evidence the long strips of farm land stretching back from the water.

We deliberately respected the minority – and the minority culture – and that set the pattern which made it possible for wave upon wave of different cultures – from Europe, and Asia, and the Middle East, and Africa, and the Americas, and everywhere -- to come here, and co-operate here in relative harmony and respect.

Of course, there are tensions in Canada, and prejudice, and discrimination, and bursts of violence. There is the continuing scar of the conditions of life of our Aboriginal peoples. And there are other vibrant multicultural countries. But Canada may be the most successful country in the world at bridging cultural differences. Our own culture is to respect cultures.

These qualities are in our history and our nature, but they are not our birth-right. They have always to be earned.

This country was built against geography, against north-south economics, against the prejudice that cultural differences should set people permanently apart. Yet now, we are wealthy, lucky, increasingly self-absorbed. Without some sense of common purpose or vocation, we could become smaller than our whole, burrowing in to our regions, or our economic sectors, or our private lives and diversions.

Canada has always been an act of will. We didn’t come together naturally. We don’t stay together easily. Confederation was an act of will. So was Medicare. So was equalization. So was the Charter of rights. So was free trade.

As graduates today, you each have your own plans and hopes and aspirations. But remember this about this country, whether you are a Canadian, or an admirer of Canada. Our future will reflect your will.

You could not have a better place to prepare. For all its 50 years, York is a relatively young University – others are more deeply rooted in the Canadian past. York’s distinction is as the University of the Canada that is emerging – as diverse as the country is, urban, occasionally controversial, accomplished and outward-reaching.

I wish you well, I wish us well, and am honoured to be part of this community of graduates.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Freedom of Expression is NOT a Licence to Offend

I am a big fan of free speech, as regular readers of this blog will know. I am also a big fan of Human Rights Commissions and civil society. Still I see no legal reason to keep the hate speech provisions in Canadian human rights legislation, federally or provincially.

In the recently amended Alberta HR legislation Section 3 is the "offensive" section. Here it is:

3 (1) No person shall publish, issue or display or cause to be published, issued or
displayed before the public any statement, publication, notice, sign, symbol, emblem or
other representation that
(a) indicates discrimination or an intention to discriminate against a person or a
class of persons, or
(b) is likely to expose a person or a class of persons to hatred or contempt
because of the race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, physical disability, mental
disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income or family status
of that person or class of persons.
(2) Nothing in this section shall be deemed to interfere with the free expression of
opinion on any subject.

There are Criminal Code provisions that serve the same purpose and so it is arguable that these provisions in HR legislation are redundant. The Canadian Constitution Foundation has recently launched an Intervener Action to declare Section 3 of the Alberta HR legislation outside the jurisdiction of the province of Alberta. This matter will be in court in September and will be interesting to follow.

It was expected that the Alberta government would be repealing this Section 3 in the recent Bill 44 amendments to the new Alberta Human Rights Act. That repeal did not happen for some strange reason. Repeal was highly recommended by many informed sources including the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership. No explanation for this unexpected shift in policy has yet been provided by the province of Alberta so far as I know.

For a more practical discussion and explanation of the implication and civil and ethical exercise of our Constitutional Right of freedom of speech I recommend this op-ed published in the Edmonton Journal. It is by Janet Keeping, President of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation. She really puts free speech matters in perspective.

I think her title for the op-ed frames the overarching duty for responsible speech perfectly, "Freedom of Expression Isn't a Licence to Offend." She, like me, endorses the principles behind Ezra Levant's push to eliminate Section 3. However Janet pushes back hard in this op-ed over how Mr. Levant is strategically pursuing his purposes.

She points out "It's not ethically OK to be obnoxious." She goes on to say "Even if you are legally entitled to be offensive, you are doing a bad thing - acting unethically - if you deliberately set out to harm people by your words or if you don't care about 'collateral damage' your offensiveness causes."

Life is not Disneyland easy. We can't live in a simple world like Bambi's mother described in admonishing Thumper: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." We have too many fundamental differences and the world is very small, complex and inter-related place these days. Nobody is able to be an island any more. So while we can be definite and determined in our disagreements, we must also do it without being disagreeable or disrespectful.

What all this also means is that effective citizenship now requires that when we encounter offensive disrespectful speech, we must, as a matter of principle, actively speak up against such behaviours. To let it slide lets the offensive exercise of free speech become normative. Going along to get along is also an unethical and inadequate response.

Janet Keeping in her excellent op-ed serves as a role model. She is an example in how to be effective in taking on that responsibility of ethical citizenship and properly protecting of our right of free speech. Give it a read and share it widely.

Alberta's Smoking Ban is Working

Nice to see some creative pubic policy working. Cigarette sales are dropping in Alberta. This is said to be as a result of a recent positive move by the Stelmach government to ban smoking in public and workplaces.

Full disclosure - I worked on this lobbying effort with a consortium of health advocacy groups and professional organizations.

The second positive contribution to this positive preventative health trend is the tax increase on cigarettes in Alberta. Recent pronouncements by Premier Stelmach that there will be no tax increases while he is in charge have to be rethought in circumstances when they can produce positive health benefits like this.

Taxes are one of the most effective ways of dissuading kids form picking up the addictive smoking habit. Glad to see the positive results coming in about reduced tobacco sales. Now we have to keep up the momentum with further tax increases and programs to pay for things like the patch to help people to quit.

Monday, July 27, 2009

What Cabinet Shuffle Advice Would You Give Premier Stelmach?

Every now and then rumours appear about a Cabinet Shuffle in the Alberta government. Usually they arise when something momentous happens (booting Boutilier does not count as momentous by any objective measure). The shuffle rumours are circulating quietly, likely also around the BBQ and golf tournament circuits, this summer.

Ron Stevens' Resigns But No Shuffle
We had a potential for a "momentous" occasion that could have given rise a Cabinet shuffle. It was too soon in the mandate and the Premier did the right thing by personally assuming the roles and responsibilities of the departed Minister. The surprisingly rapid resignation of Ron Stevens was the potential momentous occasion trigger for a Cabinet shuffle. He was the Deputy Premier, Minster of International and Intergovernmental Relations and perhaps most important of all, Ron was the political lead in Calgary. He was respected and a buffer for the Stelmach government in Calgary. Out of the blue he resigns and the next week shows up with an appointment the Court of Queen's Bench. Net result, no shuffle and nothing really changed.

Shuffles also occur when there is a perception that the Premier's "political team" needs a shake up. A recent Deputy Minister mini shuffle saw two of them switch places but that hardly constitutes a shake up. This was a very strange event and done without much explanation. Is is still leaving speculation about what exactly was the driving force behind that decision and who made it. These kind of strange anomalous happenings add to the perception that the government is drifting and one of the best solutions would be for a front bench shake up.

A New Tough Budget Cycle Could Use Some Fresh Horses
It would be a good move to start the new budget and policy process with a fresh set of horse all pulling the same policy wagon and in the same clear direction. In September it will be 18 months since the last Alberta election. That may be a bit soon for a shuffle in normal circumstances. But these are not normal times. There is a growing sense of restlessness throughout the province about the economy, the environment, the quality of life in Alberta and the future direction of the province generally. That angst could be largely addressed by a Cabinet shake up and a new policy agenda clearly and forcefully articulated by the Premier.

There is a need to revise the thinking and governing philosophy from record surpluses to record deficits. We need deal with the recession and what we are going to do about it. We also need reposition the provincial government's mindset about how to deal with the environment. There is a nagging feeling that the front bench could use some serious focusing and take a much more strategic and coherent approach as they go forward into the next budget cycle. After all the writing is on the wall that at least $2B of budget cuts are coming next year.

The Premier is on record saying taxes are not going up. Our resource revenues, natural gas especially, are in the tank and likely to be there for a while longer. Some serious planning, cutting and communication work needs to be done. Re-branding the province with slogans, logos and paid advertising is not going to reassure Albertans that their government "gets it" and is capable of dealing with the challenges ahead.

Facing the PC Party Confidence Vote
The Premier also has to face the PC Party in a confidence vote in early November. He will need all the power his office can bring to bear on ensuring a big turnout and a strong endorsement. Culling his Cabinet herd early this fall may help reassure PC partisans he is reaffirming his leadership of the party and of the government and is taking control of the agenda.

If there ever was a time for Premier Stelmach to rethink and re-imaging how and where he wants to lead the province the time is now. Albertans are ripe for some changes but they want to see a plan that they can have confidence in. Given all of this political noise and churn, could a Cabinet Shuffle be in the offing this fall? I would not be surprised - either way.

What Cabinet Changes Would You Make If You Were in Charge?
So lets presume some Cabinet changes are going to happen. What advice would you give Premier Stelmach for a Cabinet shuffle? No cheap shots or character assassinations please. Give us your picks and pans and give us your reasons too. And please go beyond the personalities. Shift happens. Give us your Cabinet shuffle thoughts and recommendations. Tell us why you think your recommendations would be better to help ensure the prosperity and progress of the province.

I know the Premier's office reads this blog from time to time so your recommendations just might have some real influence. Who knows. Looking forward to your Cabinet shuffle thoughts, comments and recommendations.

Who Needs a Visa When You Have Video Conferencing.

It appears that the Canadian government is even more protectionist about allowing foreigners in professional capacities to enter the country than the post 9/11 American model.

We are working on a joint venture project with an Indian company and looking at Indian bank financing through their Canadian subsidiary. We had a meeting set up in Toronto to discuss the project and we wanted our Indian strategic partner to attend the meeting with us. He is a PhD in Finance educated at the University of California.

When he applied at the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi for a business visa he was denied and said he needed a "work permit" to be able to work with us in Canada on this project. How absurd. This kind of interpretation of consulting services by the Canadian government makes no sense and undermines efforts to provide equal trade in services between India and Canada. India has no such silliness in its business vise polities.

It seems to be motivated more by the Harper government trying to indirectly control international trade in services under the guise of visa restrictions. Accessing high calibre talent with the right relationships, from anywhere on the plant, is a necessity for Canada to become competitive and productive again.

As a matter of interest the hyper-anxious Americans, particularly about immigration matters have issued our strategic partner a 5 year unlimited access visa. So when he comes now I guess we will meet in New York instead of Canada. We will end up spending the money for such meetings in the States instead of Canada. Canadian short sightedness has its economic costs too.

So we solved the Visa problem by merely using communications technology. We set up the meeting using a commercial video conferencing service out of Mumbai right into the bank's boardroom in Toronto. We avoided the silliness of the Canadian visa restrictions, had the advantage of the strategic partnership and had a successful meeting anyway. At Cambridge Strategies we use video conferencing a great deal and find it a very effective tool that saves time, money and increase productivity, reach and effectiveness.

Just as capital is fluid and global these days - so is high quality talent global in context and reach. The arcane belief by our Canadian government that visa restrictions can somehow control access to national markets and stop this new world of global connectivity from happening is laughable.

Even the recent blanket visa restrictions by the Harper Cons with Mexico, our NAFTA trading partner makes no sense. It is apparently motivated by some ill-founded angst about allegations of 900 Mexican refugee applications in Canada. Deal with the real problem of processing refugee applications and stop creating bigger problems with blanket visa restrictions with Mexico. This is another galling example of misguided public policy being pursued by our-of-touch and out-of-date Harper Conservative government.

Canada, and especially Alberta, should be aggressively reaching out to India for more mutually beneficial economic, environmental, political and societal relations. We at Cambridge Strategies have written on this opportunity before. After all, we are both members of the British Commonwealth, share language, legal systems, the rule of law and democratic institutional frameworks. Instead we restrict visas to control relationships instead of opening up and embracing opportunities. Again the Americans are eating our lunch in promoting these crucial new relations with the large and emerging economies, especially India.

So once again we see our federal public policy approach as trying to perfect yesterday instead of designing and adapting to the new realities to prepare us for the future. Canadians have to get past our pride a "hewers of wood and drawers of water" if we are ever going to compete in the new world order.

Friday, July 24, 2009

More Influencers - Less Powerbrokers

The Mark News has published a shorter version of my "Contented Oyster Never Made a Pearl." It was a paper done for a presentation for school trustees who are members of the Alberta School Boards Association. It was focused on influence, power, politics and governance in public education today and tomorrow.

If you missed the earlier version here is the shorter Mark News link.

I would really like to hear your thoughts on the issues in the piece. Comments welcome.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Oil Sands Interview on BNN with Satya Das on Green Oil

Satya Das, my business partner was on BNN today talking about oil sands and responsible development. He is writing a book called Green Oil about responsible and sustainable oil sands and what it will take.

Here is the BNN interview link.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

It's Not About Boutilier - It's About Politics and Leadership

Political leadership, particularly when in government, has three key elements. There is the party leadership, caucus leadership and the government leadership. They are all different but they are significantly overlapping elements that together determine the effectiveness of modern political leadership.

Premier Stelmach's government leadership is legally and technically secure for at least three years until the next election. Given that timing and his impressive majority government in the last election plus the enormous political powers of the Premier's office as head of state, Stelmach is pretty secure, at least technically and conventionally.

Stelmach has just confirmed and consolidated his caucus leadership with his unilateral, fast and furious firing of the backbencher Guy Boutilier. Boutilier built his political bed and the caucus knows it. They concur with the Premier's conclusions and support his actions. Boutilier, while appearing to merely represent his constituency, which is his right and his duty, his timing and technique was off as a government MLA and member of Treasury Board. He left Stelmach no choice but to expel him from the PC caucus. I expect a strong caucus backing for the Premier's decision. It will not be out of fear for future reprisals but rather for better teamwork and better policy execution in what will be difficult times ahead.

On the other hand, Stelmach's governing leadership is being actively questioned on the streets all over Alberta. It is mostly happening in Calgary and led by energy sector executives but there are others who are also grumbling and rumbling about him too. The Calgary based energy sector seems to have made it their mission to undermine the Premier, allegedly over royalties, but their angst goes deeper. It goes all the way back to Stelmach's "surprise" winning of the PC Party leadership over Jim Dinning. Dinning was the Calgary choice for heir apparent to the Premiership. That never happened and some of the Calgary elite have never gotten over it.

Now we come to party leadership. Here is where members of the PC Party of Alberta get to rate Stelmach and relay a message to their party leader. It could be good, bad and even ugly. We have no idea today what the outcome will be. This party leadership evaluation will not be done without serious consideration of all the duties and responsibilities Stelmach has as Premier. So frustrations will be tempered by reality when the vote happens.

Like politicians, political party influentials also want to retain political power. Winning elections for rabid political partisans is not everything, it is the only thing. Indications are that the party faithful were pleased with the Premier's performance at the recent Policy Conference. A good sign. However a recent poll however has shown no growth in the Premier's support since the last election and some surprising softness in rural Alberta. If winning is the only thing how will that desire drive the decision about Stelmach's party leadership performance in the climate of an AGM, not a policy conference?

Policy conferences attract a different kind of partisan political animal than show up at AGMs. Policy wonks are interested in talking and exploring ideas, political processes and governance issues - forever! They are often more interested in getting the governing right and forget the need to get the right to govern thing done first. AGMs, on the other hand, attracts a more red meat kind of partisan player. These are folks who are more interested in the power of politics and being ready for the next big political fight. They want to do what it takes to win elections. Leadership is job #1 for achieving that goal for any political party.

The PC Party Constitution requires that its leader be subjected to what is essentially a confidence vote at the next AGM after each election - win or lose. That vote will happen at the November AGM in Red Deer. I think there is good reason to be concerned about the final outcome. Who will show and how will they vote? What issues or concerns will be on their minds as they "evaluate" the Premier as the leader of their party? Will we have pooled political ignorance or collective reflective wisdom in determining the outcome? What pressures will be brought to bear on party members leading up to the process? There is a lot at stake this November no matter how you look at it.

Ralph Klein, much to his surprise, was turfed as leader of the PC Party at one of these AGM evaluation votes. If Ed Stelmach suffers the same fate will we be back into a PC leadership race for the Premiership of the province as soon as spring of 2010? Will we be in a federal election at that time too? What will an early leadership campaign do to the PC political brand and the confidence Albertans? Will Albertans be happy with another chance to select a Premier - or not? What will be the impact on the economy? Will a lack of strong support for the Premier cause investment uncertainty and will it prolong the recession? Or will the party decide that another change is necessary and will they cause it to happen, sooner than later? Damn the consequences!

So I think Premier Stelmach's caucus leadership is well in hand. Government leadership is always a work in progress and the record so far is mixed. But the party leadership is also in play. It may have a serious negative impact on the other two political leadership realms, especially if the party evaluation of the Premier goes badly. Even a tepid support for the Premier's party leadership in November will damage the Premier, the party and the province. I expect a full court press from the PC caucus to encourage PC party members to show up and indicate their strong support Stelmach's party leadership in November and that will start in earnest by mid September.

There a hundreds of critical questions facing the future of Alberta. But make no mistake about the importance of the PC Party leadership results. That may determine much of the future for the province. This November in Red Deer is when a small group of Albertans, who just happen to be members of the PC Party, will show up at their Annual General Meeting. They will take a vote and they will make a very important decision. They will have the power to impact the entire future of the province.

It all depends on how they express their confidence in Premier Stelmach in a secret ballot vote. That all depends on how they feel about Premier Stelmach's overall leadership performance at the time. That enormous power is in the hands of a small group of citizens who belong to what is essentially private club, namely the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta.

November is a long way off and lots can happen. The 100 days between now and November is an eternity in politics. Let's hope for the best but lets not presume anything between now and then. There is much at stake for all Albertans, not just the political partisans. The outcome of the PC Party AGM vote on the party leadership this November will dramatically impact the entire province - regardless of the final results. Scary eh?

Monday, July 20, 2009

BOOTilier's Been a Problem for a Long Time

Here is another reason why the Premier is right to Boot Boutilier. Three years ago today I posted a piece about Boutilier as then Minister of Environment insisting that he be allowed to testify at an EUB hearing on an oil sands project...on two days notice.

He became famous for his testimony consistently saying he was there as the Wood Buffalo MLA and not the Minister of Environment. He assured the hearing that "he could turn off that part of his brain that was the Minister's role and just be the MLA." He became famous for that advanced neurological capacity.

I called him reckless then and he was. He could have forced that hearing to be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court with his ill advised ege driven "intervention." I believed then and I still believe today that he was more concerned that the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo's legitimate intervention and that would somehow upstage him as the local MLA. This hubris was too much. But to take such a position and for the Klein government to allow that to happen meant Boutilier actually jeopardized the executive branch discretion of the Klein government in the oil sands project approval process.

Klein knew what Boutilier was up to but was either ignorant of the consequences or oblivious to the problem. Soon afterwards Ron Stevens, the Deputy Premier and Minister of Justice suddenly became the Chair of the all powerful special multi-departmental Cabinet committee that was dealing with the oil sands policy and strategy. I think the Minister of Justice took over that committee just in case the province got sued because of the rashness of the then Minister of the Environment.

The problem that is Boutiler goes back a long way and has persisted for many years. Stelmach has not over reacted to this. There is always a last straw.

CRTC Decision is Foundational to the Fate of the Nation

Net Neutrality is likely a very foreign concept to most Canadians. It is a critical issue in terms of free speech, fairness, consumer law, connectivity, productivity, fair trade rules and the overall 21st century competitiveness of the country.

It is essentially that all Internet users should have the same rights to use the technology within the law. Some service providers are charging for services they are not providing because the "throttle" bandwidth. That means they restrict bandwidth to customers under the discretion of the Internet service provider and without notice or adjustment of payment. Some of the big boys in the ISP world claim they need to do this for technical reasons but that is a factious argument since not all of the big boys do it.

The CRTC has been holding hearing on the issue. The outcome of these hearing will be a fundamental to the future of rights and freedoms as it will be to economic and community capacities of the country.

Michael Geist has a very good summary column in the Toronto Star. It is a good place to start to get you heard around the issues.

Krugman Speaks to His Concerns About the Recession

I have been wondering what is happening with the Canadian and Alberta economy in particular. There is lots of commentary on the recession, what caused it, where we are in the cycle, what will it take to get out of it. Since it is a global recession what one country does can impact another very dramatically. Protectionism and currency devaluations can bring short term advantages but be devastating long term.

I recently read a June 2009 interview by the UK newspaper The Observer and Nobel Prize winning Economist Paul Krugman that had some interesting observations I think are worth sharing. I also wonder if anything Krugman is saying has anything to do with the economic realities in Canada and Alberta?

Krugman had been warning about the possibility of an all out depression or a "lost decade" flat economy like Japan experienced. He said the first year of this crisis was "far worse that anything Japan went through" and suggested that "risk for long stagnation is really high." He also so emphasized that he thinks this recession is different and while fiscal tools like lowing interest rates and increasing government capital spending are happening,"...everything after that is speculation." That is a very clear signal that we live in interesting and uncertain time.

The Krugman response to the economic "green shoots" emerging like improving business confidence indicators and housing market bottoming in the US justifies optimism is that all this "...points to a levelling off, rather than actual recovery." He goes on saying "I hope I'm wrong but the question you always have to ask is: where do we think that this recovery's going to come from? It's not an easy story to tell."

Krugman postulate that we are into a 36 month downturn and we are a year into it and the rate of the downward trend is slowing. He notes not all countries and not all economies are the same. There are a range of government policy responses being tried in different countries. Some will come out sooner than others and the recovery will not be the same for each economy and rate of recovery will not be the same either.

Krugman thinks that USA stimulus program was not large enough and says there are discussion going on for an second round of American stimulus spending. He says "There is a possibility that we get some perk-up as the stimulus dollars start to flow and an almost mechanical bounce back in industrial production as inventories are built up. But then we slide down again. The idea that we sort of bounce along the bottom is all too easy to imagine."

He advocates more financial regulation for the American economy. He says what he wants coming out of this economic crisis is "...a stronger welfare state and a little more social democracy." He suggests the time is ripe for Obama to be pushing for serious health care reform and a better US social safety net.

I wonder what the aspiration for a better Canada and a better Alberta are coming out of this recession. I have said before that we better not squander this recession. It is an ideal time to make some fundamental changes. We have good financial regulation and a good heath care/social safety net. While improvements can always be made we are in good shape in Canada and especially in Alberta.

What I would like to see for Alberta, coming out of the recession, is a greater focus on investment in productivity. that is everything from enhancing our electronic connectivity all the way to a full range of literacy upgrading. I see a real need for a serious focus on economic diversification policies with emphasis resource based value added and new industry sectors enabled. We need to upgrade our faltering education system from top to bottom. I would like to see some serious stimulation of research and development programs focused in new green technologies. I think we need to get serious about natural capital by encouraging conservation efforts from energy use to wildlife habitat protection.

Alberta has a start in all these areas but we seem to be going through the motions instead of pursuing a passion. We need a real focus and some serious political, investor, industry and community support. We need to get some serious and committed champions who will get behind these efforts if we are to emerge from this recession better and stronger and more sustainable.

The time is right, and there is a fundamental realization that tomorrow is not a mere extension of yesterday in Alberta. I wonder who, if anyone in Alberta, will be stepping up to the plate and start making a difference in these areas.

TEDxEDMONTON Is Coming - What a Great Idea!

So Monday mornings are usually a catch up time, a time to get focused and to plan the week. This morning was that and more all because of a Retweet I noticed when checking Twitter. It was announcing a project called TEDxEdmonton. That is intriguing and puts a whole new mindset to my usual Monday morning.

UPDATE: Just heard from Michael Brechtel and he tells me the people behind this in Edmonton are him and Ken Bautista and Cam Linke. What is more they are apparently working on a Calgary TED event too coordinating with local organizers Jasmine Antonick, Alex Middleton and Sara Blue . This is bigger and better than I originally thought. Congratulations to all of you for coming up with this wonderful idea and pursuing it. Alberta will be better for your efforts.

If you don't know what TED is you need to visit and watch the videos on the stuff they do. It is fascinating cutting edge information. TED stands for Technology, Education and Design. I have often linked to TED events in this blog.

To get involved with TEDxEdmonton you can get on the mailing list at I encourage you to help make this most interesting and creative event a success. I am sure looking forward to it.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Stelmach Boots Boutilier Out of Caucus

So Boutilier was bounced out of caucus by the Premier. Quel surprise! What are we as citizens to read into all of this? What is the real motivation behind this move by the Premier?

Is it an internal party and caucus matter only? Is it a bigger issue about representative democracy versus leadership dominated politics? Is it about being a unified team (aka message mouthing sheep) as a governing party apparatus? Is it personal to Boutilier, since he has a very checkered political record and has not a very effective Cabinet level politician anyway. Could it be the last straw about Boutilier that goes all the way back to his questionable intervention while serving as Minister of the Environment and his ill-advised direct testimony "as an MLA" in a regulatory hearing on a Suncor oilsand project? Could it be because he supported Oberg in the leadership? Could it be all those thing...and more?

I'm betting all of that and more is behind Premier Stelmach last straw decision with the political future of Guy Boutilier as a Progressive Conservative. I expect Boutilier will be courted by the Wildrose Alliance and his Independent status will not last too long as he seek revenge by sitting as a WRAP MLA. Boutilier was one of the few caucus members to support "Ralph can't fire me because I know where the skeletons are buried" Lyle Oberg in his leadership bid for the Progressive Conservative Party.

Oberg you will remember besmirched the entire PC caucus with those comments. In a stroke of political theatrical brilliance Klein had the PC caucus expel Oberg from their ranks. Klein stayed "above the fray" and rightly so because Oberg's skeleton remarks insulted every other PC MLA in the caucus. Boutilier has only targeted the Minister of Health and since Stelmach made that appointment, the Boutilier challenge is directly at the Premier too. Stelmach picked up Guy's gauntlet and was a one-man bomb disposal crew as he personally dumped Guy from the PC caucus.

As for Guy, he got was was coming to him. It was incumbent on the Premier to fire him under the circumstances. I am all for more open debate and public discussion by governing MLAs on public policy but Boutilier was over the line and was asking for the obvious political consequences. It is entirely appropriate for an MLA to push politically for your constituency needs but it is about time, place and technique.

The timing tone and content of Boutilier's criticism of the Minister of Health and the personalization of his media comments, like accusing the Minister of "gibberish", went over the line. Stelmach has no choice but to boot him. Boutilier wants to talk to caucus who he implies are his "accusers." That was a request appropriately denied by Stelmach. The Premier is Boutilier's accuser and Stelmach is rightly in his rights as Boutiler's political nemesis. Stelmach has spoken on the issue of Boutilier's future with the PC caucus with great clarity. There is none! Move on!

Boutilier is no hero, nor is he an innocent victim, nor is he a martyr in this medieval morality play of partisan politics. He is merely a guy who doesn't get it and is quite frankly very late into the game of constituency representative democracy. For years he fiddled and frittered while his constituency, Wood Buffalo and particularly Fort McMurray, burned with growth pressures, infrastructure shortfalls and enormous safety and social crisis.

There are no winner is this embarrassment for all ofus who are of a PC persuasion - from the Premier down to mere members like myself. There are lots of loser however. The good folks of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo still have serious social, growth, infrastructure, safety and capacity problems. Now they have nobody in the critical government caucus meetings to keep them up keep up to date on what is really happening that impacts them. They are the big losers in all of this. Their continuing efforts to respond to these enormous challenges for their unique and hard pressed community are caught hard in these recessionary times. We now have many more Alberta communities facing challenges just like Fort McMurray. But that does not solve the problem nor fix the consequences of the systemic neglect inherent in the Fort McMurray reality of over two decades of gold rush growth in the oil sands.

Stelmach has done the only thing the partisan political circumstances allow him to do. He had to turf Boutilier, and for so many reasons. In the hothouse of partisan politics it was a decision that is totally justified. This result is more attributed to Boutilier's doing than Stelmach's. It is not a situation that enables a more enlightened discussion about presenting a more open and representative democracy. It is all about asserting leaderhisp in a climate that is all about raw power in politics. Guy played his hand and was trumped by ht ePremier. That trick is over but the game goes on. Guy, however, is no longer at the table and will no longer be dealt any political cards by the Stelmach government.

As for a better governance model, we have nothing to learn or applaud from the travesty of these recent events. It is time for citizens to act like owners of the oil sands, the water, the land, the air and the democracy that makes up Alberta. It is too serious a situation to leave to petty politics and partisan infighting...regardless of your political persuasion. Without a re-engagement in politics by Albertan these events will rule, become the norm and everyone loses. Please tell me citizens of Alberta that your sense of being Albertan and you sense of shared and personal responsibility for this place is greater than indicated by these offensive events.

I hope the lessons for Albertans is such that they will re-engage in the political culture of their province. Politics stinks because you and I have abdicated our shared responsibility and have allowed it to rot.

Friday, July 17, 2009

There Is a Crack in Everything-That is How the Light Gets In


The media reports about "cracks" in the PC Caucus coming out of recent comments by a PC backbench MLA who was critical of the Minister of Health are interesting. I am not going to deal with the merits of the comments. I am much more interested in the governing implications of the story. The politics of the situation are a large part of implications too.

The fact is a backbench MLA spoke out publicly, on behalf of his constituency, and criticized a change in government policy that directly affects citizens in his riding. This should be considered normal not objectionable behaviour by government, leadership and political parties. Otherwise what is the point of electing these people to represent us on a constituency basis? Cabinet Ministers are in a more difficult position because they have to actually represent the government. That can sometimes fetter their ability to speak out publicly.

There are always cracks in a political Caucus. They are supposed to be there. This is natural in a representative democracy and in Cabinets organized in departments with oversight committees like Treasury Board and Agenda and Priorities. In Klein's Caucus there was 1/3 on the right, 1/3 on the left and 1/3 who wanted to be on Klein's side. Most of them felt that they owed Klein their seats but that is not the case today. The left and right are smaller and the middle group does not owe their seat to Premier Stelmach, even with the large majority in the last election.

The more critical issue about "cracks" in a governing caucus is the role of power politics in the classic power structures of command and control leadership within a top-down governance philosophy. The classic command and control top down model demands that government politicians speak with "one voice" on all government policy. That one voice is often the leaders voice - regardless of the party. At least that is my experience.

We saw that "one voice" actually being that of a party leader happen last week. Premier Stelmach came out of a caucus meeting and said he was not raising taxes to cover the record deficits Alberta is facing. He did that in the face of contrary comments made by some of his Cabinet who mused about the possibility of raising taxes to cover budget deficits. He also said he was rolling back recent liquor taxes because "he was not comfortable with them." Why does the leader get to unilaterally decide to change the provincial budget by personal fiat after it is the law of the Province? This is not unique to Alberta but it should not be the acceptable norm in responsible "democratic" governance either.

The natural conclusion of a command and control top down policy decision making process is that it stifles public discussion and debate, especially by governing caucus members. I think this open public policy discussion, by governing politicians, is vital for a vibrant healthy democracy. It needs to happen vigorously and extensively before a policy decision is made or when a Minister unilaterally decides, by personal fiat, to change an existing government policy position. Anything less is not a meaningful way of practicing true responsible and representative democracy.

The command and control top down governance model means we end up with MLAs, especially government MLAs, only representing the government perspective to their constituents. MLAs are supposed to be the the best eyes and ears a governing political party can have. They are supposed to be sensitive and reflect the mood and mind of their constituency. But we hardly ever see or hear from them speaking out in that role. I am sure the behind closed doors caucus discussions are full of MLAs talking and debating about constituency concerns on various issues and proposed public policies. You would never know it given the tradition of caucus secrecy and the command and control "need" for one consistent voice coming out of caucus.

If you, as a politician, don't agree with a partisan policy position of your caucus you have few choices. Mostly shut up and toe the line or quit the caucus, or speak out and risk being kicked out of the caucus. Quitting means you don't get to fight another day and not toeing the line means you are deemed to not be "a team player." You will face pressures, discipline and other consequences from the party structure and precious little protection can come from your constituency.

I think political parties need to open up the internal party discussion and debate. They need to the trust the intelligence of the populace more than they do. We citizens are not so naive or stupid that we can't understand the political need for a governing party to balance conflicting perspectives and make trade offs of competing values. What we need, as citizens, in order to have more confidence in our government, is to see the actual political decision making process that is being used to strike that balance or to make that value trade off. We elect our politicians to make those balance choices and those value trade offs for us. But surely we ought to be entitled to see the reasoning and hear the discussion that was behind the choices being made on our behalf.

The closest thing we have to serve that need now is the political theatre of Question Period. That is more farce than informative. I want more government MLAs taking personal political positions in public on the policy issues of the day. I saw that public debate happen with Bill 44. Some social conservatives in the PC Caucus were actually speaking out in mainstream and social media and stating their positions and reasons in support of the legislation.

I did not see a single progressive conservative governing caucus member arguing against Bill 44 in public. My guess is they were silent because it was a government Bill and caucus already had the policy debate and the decision was a "done deal." But Bill 44 was only debated amongst the governing caucus members behind the closed doors of their private and secret caucus meetings.

Surely not everyone in the PC Caucus agreed whole heartedly with Bill 44 as written or amended. Will we ever know that for sure? Not likely. The PC Caucus and the PC Party apparatus just wants the whole Bill 44 fiasco to go away and to be forgotten. That is not likely to happen either. Not when there is a Facebook group like "Students Against Bill 44" with over 11,000 members still in existence.

The non-partisan and partisan public debate on the issues inherent in Bill 44 could and should happen before it hits a closed caucus meeting decision. I want to know that there was a debate, what issues were debated and the range of opinion that was under consideration. I want to see what was on the cutting room floor of the political drama. I am not satisfied with just get ting a pre-programmed press release about the final outcome. It is fine for a governing MLA caucus member to lose a battle, choose to stay in a caucus and to try and win another day in a mature political party process.

I respect politicians who authentically hold different political principles from my own. I especially respect politicians who spend their political capital and risk losing policy battles based on their principles. That is essential for a lively, vibrant, capable and confident political party. It is foundational to mature effective political leadership and core to the concept of responsible, representative and accountable democratic governance. All that is not possible in the current message massaging political machine of command and control top down governance models that dominate modern democracies these days.

Then add to the Bill 44 farce when the Premier declared a "free vote" for the PC caucus on Bill 44. What was free about this vote when, in the final result, any PC MLA who opposed Bill 44 on principle, and there were some, all ducked out of the free vote or they merely complied like sheep. Going along to get along and personal principles be damned is too often the default position of too many of our partisan-loyal politicians these days. Constituent concerns are, at best, treated as second class in this kind of political culture.

Excuses as to why PC MLAs did not show up to vote on Bill 44 third reading abound. Some have said "I was not on house duty that night" and "I had previous commitments" were amongst the most common. All weak and feckless excuses to avoid standing up for their political principles if you as me. The government knew it was going to invoke closure on the Bill 44 legislature debate and it did. It was not as if government MLAs did not know that and that the critical final vote on Bill 44 would happen that night.

Second, they would know when the vote would likely happen because they engineered the debate to happen late at night. The thinking there was undoubtedly that a late night vote meant that nobody would be following the debate and the MSM wouldn't care enough to cover it the next day. Wrong again, mostly because they did not expect the influence of the Internet and the power of social media. Hundreds of citizens were watching the debate as it streamed on line and they were actively engaged in Twittering all night long.

Finally I noted that the Premier came back to the Legislature about 12:30 am the night of the final vote on Bill 44. If he could make the effort to come back to the legislature to take advantage of the "free vote" why didn't those other government MLAs, who may have opposed Bill 44 on principle, come back and vote too? Was it about taking the easy way out and go along to get along? Or did they not believe the Premier when he said it would be a free vote. Where they afraid to vote against a government Bill as a PC MLA because it would result in "consequences?"

The Premier showed up and showed leadership that night. He was wrong in his position to my mind - but he at least showed up and voted. I always say the world is run by those who show up. The progressives in the PC caucus who were opposed to Bill 44 failed us and themselves when they failed, refused or neglected to show up and take a free vote stand against this ill-advised legislation.

This going along to get along is becoming the new normal in the world of command and control top down hyper-partisan "democracy." I hope the new networked collaborative and respective sharing of differences of opinion in open political discussion and with rigorous principled debate will be the basis of a revived representative democracy in Alberta. We sure need it. The "cracks" that are showing in any and likely all political caucuses, especially a governing party caucus, are a good thing for citizens and for our democracy. Remember what Leonard Cohen said:

"Ring the bell that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That is how the light gets in."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Research Shows Connected People Can't Live Without Social Media.

New research done this June by Anderson Analytics of 5000 U.S. social media users says that 71% "can't live without Facebook." Life without Twitter could be tolerated by 43% making 57% saying it is vital to their lives these days.

As for the most "valuable network" the study shows 75% touting Facebook, 30% naming the business centred LinkedIn and only 12% giving Twitter the #1 designation. Makes sense to me given the more social nature of Facebook overall.

Twitter is a much different social media animal that Facebook I think. It is more issues and activist oriented. That is especially true if you use a program like to organize you Tweets and messages in themes instead of just chronologically. Chief Marketing Officers are trending towards Twitter according to a recent Business Week story. Part of the reason is you can find and target different social network communities using Twitter. One CMO comment was the Twitter users are the "loudest" group online - a sentiment I share.

The Anderson survey estimates that 110 million Americans are regular social media users. That is 36% of the population. Men are more active in all three social media than women partly because men are less likely to be concerned about meeting strangers on line. Facebook has women participating than men 56% vs 44% but LinkedIn has more men than women 57% to 43% participants. The average social media networker will visit sites 5 days a week and about 4 times a day for an hour each and every day.

Social media is changing the nature of communications, relationships and information sharing. It is horizontal and community based with a richer definition of community than neighbourhood.

Harper has Become Tedious & Tiresome to Most Canadians

What is soon to be former Prime Minister Harper thinking saying he doesn't believe any taxes are good taxes. Jeffery Simpson's column in the Globe and Mail today puts that inanity in context.

Last week Mr. Harper went out of his way to take a moment of statesmanship coming out of the G8 and turn it into a cheap and mistaken partisan diatribe against his nemesis Michael Ignatieff. Harper is always quick to take a political shot regardless of accuracy in this case. His apology was clinical more than heartfelt.

He constantly misleads and misdirects media and public attention from the facts and serious issues of the day. He constantly changes political tack without personal tact. We have come to expect attach ads, cheap partisan shots, demagoguery and abuse disguised as "discipline" often applied to his caucus. Gamesmanship over governance is this man's default position as a political "leader."

We know we can't trust or believe him any more. The fact that this recent behaviour and character flaws only amount to a one day story shows just how much Canadians have tired of Harper and his bullying "style" Our experiment with minority government will likely end next election and hopefully Canadian voters will deliver us from this authoritarian autocrat.

It is time to return some respectful and capable leadership that is capable and committed to the greater public good and who sees government as a positive contributor to those ends. Today that is any federal party leader other than Prime Minister Harper.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Canadian, Please Should go Viral.

There is so much heavy stuff happening these days it is important to take stock of our benefits as Canadian. Here is an example of that Canadian spirit done with some serious whimsy. Check out "Canadian, Please." I love the lyrics, sentiment and the energy of these "starving artists" as they celebrate the glories of Canuckistan.

Thanks to Cathie Walker for putting the link on Twitter and making my day in the bargain.

Share the incredible lightness of being Canadian and forward the video far and wide. Don't be loud and proud in your email cover. Be moderately audible and pleasantly humble. Be Canadian, Please.

Will Climate Change Cause Border Wars?

The Economist has an article speculating about climate change creating border conflicts. What do you think? We already have our first phase of climate change refugees and more to come.

This is the single greatest threat and opportunity mankind has to prove the Prisoner's Dilemma is more than a game.

All of mankind - not to mention other species - are all in this together. What are you thoughts on if we are wise enough to conserve and preserve instead of consume and presume things will be alright?


Poll Says Canadians Fed Up with the Minority Government

Strange to release a politically based poll on Canadians attitudes toward government on a Sunday but that is exactly what Harris Decima did yesterday. The findings are dramatic. By a 3:1 ratio Canadians now prefer a majority government. "Canada's five year experiment with minority government appears to have sparked a desire for majority government to return." says Jeff Walker Senior VP at Harris Decima.

This is the early warning signs of the game changing attitudes that are emerging amongst Canadians and the role and relationship they want with their federal government. While the stomach for an election is still not there, the next election portents to deliver a very different result as Canadians want more accomplished by its federal government. Minorities are clearly not seen as the way forward.

The largest proponents of majority government comes from Atlantic Canada (72%) and Alberta (69%) with no region below 60% support. Conservatives and Liberals supports all feel the need for a majority government even more strongly, at 74% and 77% respectively.

The array of minority governments for the past 5 years are seen a done as much as can be expected by 60 % of those polled. Only 52% of Quebecers are pleased with the performance of the minority governments. 72% of Albertan, a Conservative stronghold, saying they are satisfied with the past accomplishments of minority governments.

So what does this mean going forward? Hard to say since a single poll is just a snapshot not a moving trend line and with no election expected it the near future the results are soft in determining any actual shifts in political power preferences . That said, these results are still intriguing as to what preferred outcomes are indicated for the next election.

Overall 24% want a Conservative majority and 30% want a Liberal majority. Quebec is the strongest for a Liberal majority at 36% and Alberta is big time for a Conservative majority at 47%. The votes are in Ontario and Quebec so those preferences are key to what might actually happen next election. Ontario votes are evenly split between ad Conservative and Liberal majority but Quebec' s preference for a Liberal majority is significant. The Bloc, NDP and Greens would all prefer a Liberal majority or Liberal minority over Conservative options.

So Liberals have work to do in Ontario and have to get other party faithfuls to want to defeat the Harper Cons to the point they shift the final results to a Liberal majority. Harper is in decline as his his party. Given time and a real threat of an actual election they could be the attitude of other party supporters - they want to get rid of Harper more than preserve their own position and all for the good of the country. It will be an interesting election when it happens.

July 14/09 update: Dave Breakenridge's editorial in the Edmonton Sun today adds some more context and heft to the recent poll showng a desire for a majority government. Worth a read. What do you think?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

David Emerson on the Premier's Council of Economic Strategy

David Emerson, the Chair of the Premier's Council on Economic Strategy for Alberta is interviewed by Adam Radwanski of the Globe and Mail. It is early days for the PCES but this interview outlines some of the mandate principles going forward.

I am looking forward to seeing what comes out of this process and what the government does with any recommendations. Lots of work to do and some serious forward thinking is badly needed.

I will be posting progress reports on the PCES from time to time.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Let's Not Squander This Recession but Use it to Revisit the Role of Government.

There are other elements to consider around the recent declaration by Premier Stelmach that there will be no tax increases on his watch. Deficits are also tax increases by other means because the pain is deferred to the future - usually to be repaid on someone else's watch. So it is arguable that running a deficit is a defacto tax increase just not on the current watch.

But there are other considerations too. The tobacco tax was not a money grab, it was a health promotion and prevention issue behind the tax increase last April. The research shows that more expensive smokes are and the less visible they are - like the elimination of the "power wall" displays, the less likely kids will start and get addicted to tobacco. There is also a health prevention argument around the liquor tax. Eliminating them both government reduces revenues to offset deficits (tax increases by other means) and increases the social and health risks associated with these legal but sometimes lethal products. I am not a prohibitionist just a realist.

The last additional point I think is worth noting about eliminating the revenue side from the fiscal took box of government is the issue of the role, efficiency and effectiveness of government. The old Klein approach of simple-minded across the board cuts and damn the consequences is not likely to be the Stelmach approach this time. However, there may be stuff government can do without, stuff we can do better and other stuff that needs doing particularly in a prolonged recession like we are in these days. This is the time to do that kind of revisiting and revamping of the relationships and roles we expect from government.

This recession is a perfect opportunity to revisit and redesign the role of government and our relations to it, as business, service providers and citizens. We can improve delivery and be clearer on what we expect of the public sector and our governance model. We can retool the private enterprise sector and community based social service sector too. The goal is not just efficiency, as important as that is, but it must be more focused on the effectiveness of the outcomes and how we achieve them using government as a vehicle.

This is a quest for better questions as much as it is better answers. We have the Governance Secretariat looking at these matters focused on agencies boards and commissions. We need the same thing to happen in the link between government and the social services sector and the private enterprise sector too.

Lets not squander this recession. Let's make sure we come out of it better focused, better equipped and better able to meet the challenges in the 21st century realities. It would be such a waste of an opportunity. We can't merely try to revive, restore and sustain the inadequate governance, economic, environmental, social and technological models of the past.

Premier Stelmach is hinting at this approach in some follow up comments to his no recent tax increase declaration. Lets hope he makes it more explicit and actionable.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Comparing and Contrasting WRAP Leadership Candidates

Politics is an ever changing world and party leadership contests are windows into the culture of change - not just the change events themselves.

The Wildrose Alliance Party is going through a leadership contest with two main candidates, Danielle Smith and Mark Dyrholm. The Calgary Herald ran separate pieces by each candidate but both entitled "Why I Want to be Leader of the Wildrose Alliance." Since they were published over a month apart I thought it would be helpful for Albertans to see them at the same time and side by side for contrast and compare purposes.

I would never join the WRAP but found the candidate pitches to be very interesting at a few levels. First both candidates are Calgary based so they provide some insight into the right-wing sensibilities in that city. Then they were both once active Alberta Progressive Conservatives but became disillusioned in what they saw as a progressive shift in the PC Party post Ralph Klein and they left to join the WRAP.

That reasons for leaving the PC Party is the third interesting insight from the comments of these leadership candidates. Post debt and deficit Smith felt the PCs "..slowly began to lose their way." As for Dyrholm, he blames Stelmach for "devastating the oilpatch" claiming he "torn up contracts" which I presume is a comment from Mark about the new royalty regime. That was nothing close to tearing up a contract if my assumption is right about Mark's statement. The Calgary "Patch" players have declared the royalty changes to be the new NEP and facts to the contrary will not dissuade them.

I am intrigued by other reason for wanting to lead the WRAP where I agree with them. Mark is criticizing the PC government for "eroded democracy with the firing of the Chief Electoral Officer because recommendations made were not one he (Stelmach) wanted to hear." I agree this is an important issue and with Mark's assessment of the implications too.

Danielle Smith bemoans the fact "Teachers fear being hauled before the Alberta Human Rights Commission under an amendment to the legislation that no one I know was asking for." Even casual readers of this blog for the past 3 months know how much I agree with that concern and oppose the PC government's stand on Bill 44.

Both candidates are staunch fiscal conservatives and like very small government. Smith is much more socially moderate than Dyrholm who touts his support for many very right-of-centre groups and his active role in the former federal Reform and Alliance parties - now known as the Harper Conservatives.

As I reflect on the WRAP leadership race I note they are former PCs who left mostly for what they say as a lack of fiscal discipline in the "conservative" side of the PC party. They both have concerns with some social justice issues, and that is a subject matter that appeals to the "progressive" side of the PC party. What might a rise in the political influence of the WRAP mean for the future of the Progressive Conservative Party if the fiscal cons gravitate to them and the social progressives disengage or go elsewhere?

My final thoughts was about what was lacking in the political consciousness of these candidates based on their published pieces. There wasn't any commentary from either of them on the environment or the need to provide for vulnerable people in our society as a society. The fact that these issues are not on the radar screens of these leadership hopefuls is a surprise. It will likely prove to be a fatal flaws for future electoral success with the greater Alberta population for whomever becomes the WRAP leader. Of course they both have time to adapt and tell us more about their position on these serious public policy concerns.

Ablonczy Gay Grant Doesn't Embarass HarperCons - They Do It To Themselves.

What kind of people are we electing to Ottawa? A HarperCon backbencher, Brad Trost, is floating a rumour that Diane Ablonczy has been stripped of her responsibilities for overseeing major stimulus finding in tourism - her portfolio.

The reason being given is she approved a grant ot the Toronto Gay Pride celebrations. Of course the official PMO spin was that she was eventually going to relinquish this responsibility to Industry Minister Tony Clement...who is conveniently in Italy at the G8 and unavailable for comment.

So a $100m stimulus fund for "Marquee Tourism Events" is not properly positioned in the Ministry of Small Business and Tourism but better administered in the Department of Industry??? And that this was done weeks ago but Minister Clement has been too busy bailing out General Motors to pay attention to his tourism duties. Sure thing. That is why Ablonczy's Small Business and Tourism Department is no longer in the small business and tourism business so far as stimulus finding goes. Right!

The Harper Cons have tried to blow smoke that they are learning to become socially tolerant and even perhaps a bit moderate and inclusive. Well that is as any thinking Canadian expected. It is more political positioning that heartfelt values for the neo-Cons mini-Rovarian Republican wanna-be Harper Caucus.

What kind of people have we elected and do they reflect the kind of Canada we are and aspire to be? We need an election to clean out the House of Commons and get rid of these reactionaries and homophobes. That kind of discrimination must not be accepted in Canada anymore.

Canadians are clear they want the minority Parliament to work and don't want election right now. Everyday the Harper Cons provide more reasons as to why we need an election sooner than later - even if we don't want one right now.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Budget Deficit + No Tax Increase = Serious Social Service Cuts for Albertans

Hunker down Alberta - and get ready for a raft of the public sector job cuts plus social services and community based program cuts. This is the only logical conclusion to come to based on the "no tax increase" announcement of Premier Stelmach today.

Given the game plan of the government, that stated with the Premier's reported comments today, of no tax increases, the multi-billion dollar budget deficit monster will only be tackled by program and staff cuts. Unless natural gas prices rebound dramatically, like right away, and they stay high for the rest of the year, Alberta has a chronic revenue problem. With a glut of natural gas on the market and stored oil supplies growing, prices for these commodities are not likely to escalate soon and not enough to deliver us from the fiscal evil we are facing.

Will there be a bunch of social services program downloading on municipalities too? This is going to be helpful just when as many as 60 Alberta municipalities are into formal dissolution processes that would terminate their municipal status. They are doing this because they can't sustain themselves on property taxes and current grant levels anymore. That should be interesting if social services downloading happens.

We have been told by our government that they are going to run some serious operational budget deficits right now and looking forward into the next few years. Cumulative deficits have a nasty habit of tuning into long term debts. We're Albertans. We know that because we have been there.

What a difference from February 2008, just before the last election, when Premier Stelmach said our PC government would never put Alberta back into a deficit position. Now he is saying deficits are back. The Premier's response to new deficits has been to reaffirm that there will be "no tax increases" on his watch. And to ensure the message hits home he is going the extra mile. He is actually reversing the recent tax increase on liquor that was passed in the April 2009 Budget.

News reports indicate that the liquor tax cut will cost the public purse $180m a year - just at a time when Alberta needs all the revenues it can get its hands on. This tax cut is even more unnecessary than Bill 44 was. It is enough to drive you to drink.

Media reports also quote the Premier as saying the liquor tax decrease can be in place this weekend. Funny how we cut a sin tax so assuredly and so swiftly but we can't figure out to ensure we are getting all our non-renewable energy resource royalites accounted for and properly collected.

What is going on? We have serious problems balancing the public purse. Understood!. We are running large deficits in health care. Shift happens! We have record deficits in our general accounts and they are getting larger. And our policy response is to absolutely rule out tax increases?

Not only that, but our official government policy is to go a step further to prove the point that taxes are not going to increase in Stelmach's Alberta. Damn the torpedoes. We have to put some serious emphasis to the political point about no tax increases. We have to announce an immediate reduction a liquor based sin tax? What gives? Is this the essence of the new fiscal plan for Alberta?

The only other option left, and that is actually within our control, is for Alberta us to get after the record deficit by government dramatically reducing social program spending. The biggies of health, education, children's services, seniors and social services can't be protected from cuts - especially with this brand of fiscal folly.

Our most vulnerable citizens, like the sick, elderly, children-at-risk and the disabled have just been put on notice that they are going to become even more vulnerable. Their caregivers, especially those community based not-for-profit agencies, have just been put on notice. They already have to squeeze their nickles until the beaver shits. More program and other cuts have yet to come, but rest assured, they are coming! So theses social service agencies better get a firmer grip on that nickle and start squeezing that beaver even harder.

This is ridiculous. All options need to be on the table to help Alberta address the fiscal force fields we are facing. Eliminating tax policy entirely as an budget option is all about pure political ideology and illogical fiscal policy. What is going on? I see half a policy step forward and three policy steps back these days in Alberta.

You are a wiser man than that Premier Stelmach. Reconsider your comments and conclusions. Do it right away before even more irreparable damage is done to the Progressive Conservative brand in Alberta. Bill 44 was bad enough. This is beyond the pale.


Alberta Must Fix its Own Fiscal House Now & Not Pass the Problems on to Future Generations.

Alberta's Fiscal Challenges!
I am confused by the fiscal messaging coming out of Alberta these days. Albertans are into some tough times and more to come from what we are being told. With chronic low natural gas prices and other adjustment in our budget assumptions we can’t expect to rely on resource revenues to sustain our program spending.

There are some other realities that have put us in an operating accounts deficit position. However, let’s be clear Alberta has billions stashed away in various accounts – other than the Heritage Fund. We are borrowing the short fall instead of using the cash reserves. I think that is a good idea given the extremely low interests rate these days.

We are told we have almost a $1B of deficit from last year, then $4.7B in this year and now ballooning to $6.2 B. We can expect an even larger deficit next year even after we cut $2B of spending and Health Minister Liepert is reported to say he doesn’t think you can make that kind of cut in the system in one year in a recession. Recently we have been told by Minister Liepert that our leaner more efficient new health care system will tack on another $1B of deficit this fiscal. That is ironically the same amount as health care premiums used to generate before we scraped them.

What Can Be Done?

Go To Ottawa for More Money!
Part of the deficit “solution” being considered by the Alberta government is to go to Ottawa for more money to help out cash strapped Alberta, particularly for health care. Ottawa has rightly told Alberta we must be a “have-not province” before that would happen. Alberta is far from being a “have-not” province so we will have to find our own solutions to the health care budget shortfall.

Since Harper is now known to be low-balling his own budget deficit estimates according to the Parliamentary Budget Office who predict a structural deficit will prevail until at least 2014 the likelihood of Canada bailing out Alberta are between slim and nil.

Lots of Room to Raise Taxes & Still be Competative!
Alberta’s taxes are also extremely low compared to the rest of the country. Perhaps our taxes are too low especially if we can’t sustain our quality of living and public services as a result. Minister Evans noted in a Calgary Herald Opinion Piece in May 2009 that “…if Alberta had the same tax system as other provinces, Albertans and Alberta businesses would pay between $10B and $18B more in taxes every single year….”

Ted Morton is recently quoted in the Calgary Sun saying Alberta will have to cut spending and raise taxes. “The shortfall is so big. We can’t keep loading debt on the next generation. That is not what conservatives do” according to Minister Morton.

Why Not Charge and Collect Responsible Royalty Rates?
Well let’s talk a bit more about intergenerational fairness and the fiscal realities of Alberta today. What if we actually collected the royalties owed by the energy sector and stopped the high subsidy rates. The Auditor General estimates the Alberta government leaves about $2B per year on the table from uncollected royalties in the conventional oil and gas sector every year from 2006. In addition we subsidize natural gas drilling between $1.5B to $3B in foregone royalties. We are doing this at a time when commodity prices and supply gluts tell us it is folly to drill for more gas because all more supply will do is ensure prices stay low and Alberta’s royalty take will continue to languish.

By not charging reasonable royalties and not collecting those royalty rents on the non-renewable resources owned by Albertans the government is irretrievably squandering the birthright of future generations of Albertans. That is something Minister Morton says Conservatives don’t do.

Eliminate Flat Tax or Keep it & Put in a Sales Tax!
The other thing we could do is to eliminate the flat income tax and return to a progressive tax model. Alternatively we can retain the flat tax but institute a sales tax based on consumption and add a progressive tax element back into our system and raise much needed funds. This would bring in enough money to cover the deficits and still leave Alberta as the most tax competitive province overall.

Can we Look Our Kids in the Eye if we Don't Resolve the Problem Now?
It was way back in 1994-94 when our government consciousness caught up with the fiscal sentiments of Albertans and took on the challenge to eliminate the accumulated debt and stop deficit budgeting. One of the key motivations of the people of Alberta at the time was the unfairness debt and deficit was to future generations. Debt and deficits were seen as mortgaging the future of our children. When the task was accomplished Premier Klein said “we can look our kids in the eye again.”

Well we have the same shame now in looking future generations in the eye as we fail refuse or neglect to charge and collect responsible and reasonable royalty rents from our non-renewable resource energy sector. By failing to require and enforce restoration and reclamation practices for roads, wells sites, seismic lines and other disturbances inherent in the development of the energy sector we leave a negative legacy for our children to contend with. By not having adequate protection and enforcement of land, water and air standards we put an additional burden on future Albertans.

The 2010-11 Alberta Budget cycle has just started. The news is not good but the solutions are in the hands and within the power of Albertans to take on, control as resolve “adults.” It will take political will to accomplish the tasks but Albertans forced the political will on its politicians before - in 1993-94 over debt and deficit. Will Albertans once again take personal responsibility to resolve and adjust to the current fiscal realities and choose not to delay or defer them as a burden on future generations?

On-Line Voting is No Panacea

The Enlightened Savage has Kirk Schmidt as a guest blogger on on-line voting. He does a very thorough and thoughtful analysis. I say that because his opinion is the same as mine. Give it a read if you are interested in citizenship and democracy.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Canada & Alberta Caucuses to Discuss High Speed Rail Between Edmonton and Calgary

The Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal are reporting that the Joint Canada-Alberta Caucus meeting being held in Calgary today will discuss the Alberta report on a high-speed rail link between Edmonton and Calgary.

This is great news. I am a big proponent of HSR for the Edmonton-Calgary Corridor for environmental, economic and social reasons. I was involved in the concept way back when I met with Jan Reimer and Al Duerr as the Mayor's of Edmonton and Calgary on the idea. In those days Japan was interested in participating in the project but it never got traction with the province. Now there are a number of potential options for a high speed rail link in the Alberta Corridor. This is an idea whose time has come and I know Premier Stelmach is a strong supporter of the idea as well and has been all the way back to his days as Minister of Transportation.

Alberta is trying to leverage is green image with the $2B commitment to carbon capture and storage and for a place of 3.5 m people that is an impressive investment. There is lots of good stuff to do in CCS but it is not as sexy as HSR would be as a global attention getter about Alberta getting green. Public Relations is not a justification for such a big policy decision but given how badly beat up the Alberta image is internationally, some positive environmentally PR that also enhances the economy at the same time would not hurt.

With 10m passanger trips between Edmonton and Calgary in 2006 and projections for that to grow significantly over the coming years means the need now is also partly political as a green initiative of the province. HSR is also an enormous economic generator as well as a providing societal benefit for the relationship of the closer integration and differentiation of the two cities. HSR has the potential to control growth in the corridor and ensure we don't succumb to sprawl as growth in the corridor expands.

Here is a link to the Market Assessement report recently done for the Alberta government. I will have to find some time to read it carefully. I recommend Albertans do the same.

It is audacious and bold but what better time to proceed on such an undertaking for Alberta than now? Build that train Mr. Premier.

Stelmach Premier's Council for Economic Strategy is a Smart and Timely Move.

It is a positive and profound move by the Stelmach government tap into some great minds and invite some fresh thinking into the future of Alberta. The Premier's Council for Economic Strategy differs significantly from the Klein era efforts in the Growth and Future Summits. Both events produced some worthwhile and interesting outcomes. But there was no real political will in those day to pursue anything forward thinking. It was all about reducing deficits and debt as fast as possible. The future would have to take care of itself as we focused only on the present fiscal agenda of the province in the Klein days.

I think the current Stelmach initiative is a forcus on foresight and that is significantly different. First it is intentional whereas the Klein efforts were mostly damage control or political response arising from musing of the former Premier. Second I assume there is positive political will to pursue the possibilities that will emerge from the PCES. Finally, the participant in the Stelmach process are past being impressive they are accomplished but also wise in the ways of the larger world and the changes that are bearing down on all of us.

There are 12 members of the PCES and they are all noteworthy and accomplished people with a range of expertise and a depth of experiences. Two PCES participants that are particularly impressive are Sir John Bell (Oxford and Stanford) and Juan Enriquez (Harvard) who are deeply involved in genetics and genomics but in very different ways. These are not the conventional kinds of minds one would by default apply to pondering the future of Alberta given their backgrounds. That is exactly why they are impressive appointees to the PCES.

I have met Juan Enriquez and been exposed to is fertile and curious mind over lunch and in other conversations. I have to admit I am very impressed with anyone who presents at a TED Conference and Juan has done so many times on a range of topics. A YouTube search of Juan Enriquez will give you a sampling of this man's mind.

Alberta is poised for a new era and ought to be leading toward that new era. We have an educated, diverse, young, healthy and prosperous population. We are sitting on the largest reserve of fossil fuel energy resources on the planet along with a stable government and easy access to the American market. Hewers of wood and drawers of water are not sustainble economic nor environmental presumptions for Alberta's future any more.

In the past this energy sector success has lead us to only consider the low hanging fruit of conventional oil and gas development. With the move to oil sands development and the synthetic oil and now synthetic natural gas coming from coal deposits we have potential for some adaptive foresight opportunities for the province. There are social and environmental consequences to growth as we have seen particularly form the last boom. A more integrated, full cost accounting and longterm lifecycle view has to become the new norm for defining progress and prosperity for Alberta.

What is also needed to secure a prosperous future for Alberta is a new mindset. That means we need to explore options beyond energy and options to look at energy in a new way, including new markets in addition to the Americans. A prime option for a new mindset about markets and opportunities is for Alberta to look seriously at India. My business partner, Satya Das, recently wrote a paper on the potential for an Alberta-India alliance you will find interesting.

I am very encouraged by the formation and composition of Premier Stelmach's Council for Economic Strategy. I am even more encouraged by its mandate to seek out and "develop ideas to ensure Alberta's continued prosperity and quality of life over the next three decades."

I see this initiative as a new pioneering spirit designed for the new times we are facing and about to face as a province. I plan to revisit the Growth and Future Summit reports but only for some background and context of past thinking. What we need is new thinking that may even be foreign to the typical Albertan consciousness. That is what I hope to see for the PCES and with men like Bell and Enriquez on board I am pretty confident that will happen.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Beware and Be Aware of the Political Back Story at the Calgary Stampede

The Calgary Stampede is in full swing and so is the political back story that happens concurrently with the midway, rodeo, pancakes, BBQ and bull riding. The Stampede time has a serious political dimension too. It is when the Alberta and Canadian political class converge on Calgary to party but also to position, plan and even posture a bit. The eastern political leaders like Ignatieff and Layton and May show ostensibly to show they value, "get" and embrace the west.

Many goofball pictures of out-of-character "city slicker" eastern politicians costumed up in in urban cowboy gear "grace" the pages of the newspapers and television newscasts over the years. Ironically no such picture as been so devastating as Calgary's own Stephen Harper for showing laughable unauthentic caricatures. My guess is shortly after that Harper hired a wardrobe and image consultant on the taxpayer dime.

Where politicians gather so will political consultants, lobbyists and various hangers-on and fast-track Wanna-Be's. The vast array of Stampede BBQ and breakfasts are meet and greet/grab and grin gabfests in the good old fashioned tradition of politics. There are other events that are more serious politically and they are mostly behind closed door meetings with, between and amongst the politicians go have made the pilgrimage to Calgary this week.

There are lots of private events and meetings with lobbyists and government relations consultants representing various special interests and politicians. But these meetings happen all the time and are simply part of Canadian political culture. Full disclosure, this is part of the work that I do professionally. I just never did it at the Stampede, at least not yet.

The more interesting political meetings will be the pure political events amongst politicians themselves. They are the joint Federal and Alberta caucus meeting and the Alberta Caucus Meeting on Monday. There are lots of Alberta-Canada complex political and critical policy issues in play between Ottawa and Edmonton. It seems, from an Alberta perspective, that there is no difference as to who is in power in Ottawa. Ottawa is still Ottawa even with a Conservative government in both jurisdictions. Shared partisanship seems to be irrelevant to finding effective resolutions on fed-prov issues and on US-Canada relations that impact Alberta.

In fact it is Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal, who seems more in tune and in touch with Alberta's aspirations. He is more informed and focused on our issues these days than Harper the Calgary Conservative. Will it make a difference in the forthcoming federal election? Who knows but Ignatieff's overt support for responsible oil sands development and insight into the Alberta angst and our importance to the country are being noticed in this province.

To be a fly on the joint Fed-Prov caucus meeting would be great fun. It would also be informative about where Harper sees his power and purpose in the months leading up to an inevitable election. Will we know what was said and what was the atmosphere in the room? Not likely. There will be media measured platitudes and strict speaking notes of having frank discussions and both sides having a better understanding of the issues and a mutual commitments to seek satisfactory solutions Blah, Blah, Blah.

The other critical political meeting that happens in Stampede week is the Alberta PC Caucus meeting. This is the real start of the next budget cycle. They get a serious sense of where things are at, what is happening in the province in a kind of SWOT analysis (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats). Some preliminary policy and political objectives are usually set at this caucus meeting. General guidelines are determined for the administration to start the next budget cycle and the next years fiscal/policy/planning process starts as a result of this PC Caucus meeting. The whole thing will start to gel at the Cabinet and Caucus retreats in the Fall when the administration comes back with their budget and policy suggestions for the government for the coming fiscal year.

So tomorrow the Alberta government process about the fiscal and policy planning for the province starts. Ever since the retreat from the royalty review recommendations, the province as become more and more strategically incoherent. Lets hope tomorrow they find their footing and start to figure out a consistent, comprehensive and comprehensible path forward for Alberta. It will not be easy in these uncertain time, but it will necessary for the people of this province to continue to enjoy a high quality of living in economic, social and environmental terms.