Premier Ed Stelmach spoke to an audience of over 300 staff and students at the University of Alberta this afternoon at an event hosted by the Campus Conservative Club. I have seen Premier Stelmach speak on a number of occasions, and though public speaking is not his gift, this afternoon was not his best performance. I have to admit that even as I was video recording the Premier’s speech, my mind wandered to other things like, what should I eat for lunch this afternoon?
It was a fairly unremarkable twenty minute speech and Premier Stelmach used most of his time justifying decisions that his party has made in government over the past three years. He did make some interesting comments, including criticizing the Province of Quebec for the amount of transfer payments that they collect and their low university tuition (see the third video). The Premier also made an interesting comment made about “the previous Premier” when referring to former Premier and gameshow host Ralph Klein. Feel free to watch the videos, and if you are able to get through the entire twenty minutes, let me know what you think.
I bet there are some people who were wishing this letter would have just been a cruel April Fools joke:
In a blistering, unprecedented letter to Premier Ed Stelmach, a key Progressive Conservative riding association says the party is “nearing the precipice of moral insolvency to govern.”
The Highwood riding board charged that the Tory party “is bereft of policy, planning, execution, follow-through and communication to the members of the party, and, most importantly, to the citizens of Alberta.”
Without a rebirth of grassroots participation, the letter says, “this party can expect no mercy from the electorate on the election day, which is just two short years away.”
Highwood PC MLA George Groeneveld was dropped from cabinet in January 2010 after serving as Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development since December 2006. After his departure from cabinet, Mr. Groeneveld told the High River Times:
“I was a little surprised to be removed,” he told the Times. “I was hoping for another year. But at the same time I was there three years, which is about par for a minister.” He said he is getting a “little long in the tooth” (a term his wife hates), he said with a laugh, and he thought that may have been a factor as well. The premier might have been trying to bring in new blood.
I used to believe that the toughest job in the Alberta cabinet was held by Health & Wellness Gene Zwozdesky, but lately I am starting to believe that it is actually held by Children and Youth Services Minister Yvonne Fritz. Following this week’s shenanigans and resignation over foster care funding, it is clear that something is not functioning properly in our government.
On Monday morning, NDP leader Rachel Notley held a media conference leaking a public document that outlined changes to foster care funding in the Edmonton region. Ms. Notley claimed that the plan was to cut foster funding, and called on Minister Fritz to rescuing the new funding formula. She did and insisted that she told department officials not to cut support. Paula Simons raised the issue in her Tuesday column: Was Minister Fritz sabotaged? Does the Minister actually have a handle on the decisions being made inside the Minister of Children & Youth Services?
Yesterday, Premier Ed Stelmach undoubtably breathed new life into the foster care issue by accusing the NDP of playing politics with the issue. While he may have been trying to save face, his point is somewhat well taken. Should Ms. Notley have brought the issue directly to Minister Fritz? Ms. Notley claims that if she had brought the issue directly to the Minister, it would have been buried (not an unjust assumption). At what point does this kind of political gamesmanship become irresponsible? Like so many issues raised in the Assembly, what was really accomplished when they devolve into this kind of weekly round-robin?
The PCs have dealt with competitive elections in the two major urban areas (Edmonton and Calgary), but the threat of a Wildrose insurgency across Alberta would be cause for great concern and is likely the reason behind Premier Stelmach’s posturing over rural over-representation.
Earlier this week, I posted the poll-by-poll results from the 2008 provincial election for Calgary and Edmonton, and (once again thanks to reader Alan Hall) posted below are the 2008 results superimposed over the proposed boundaries from the interim report of the Electoral Boundaries Commission. A listing of the interim ridings with the 2008 results and margins are also posted below. If the political environment continues to change before the expected 2012 election, the past electoral results could mean very little, but until that time, these maps provide an interesting view of the previous election and what could be in 2012:
The Katz Group launched a new website last week reframing their campaign for a new downtown arena as the centrepiece of a new “Arena District” north of Edmonton’s downtown core. The new website features a video interview with Katz Group President Daryl Katz. In the video, billionaire businessman Mr. Katz spoke emotionally about the potential for downtown Edmonton and the need for a conversation about the future of a revitalized downtown Edmonton. The website provides different types of social media, like Twitter and Facebook, to start this conversation.
While I liked the video, Mr. Katz avoided the most important question of the exercise: money. It is no secret that the Katz Group would like the City of Edmonton to loan upwards of $400 million towards a new downtown arena, likely making it the largest non-transportation-related one-time investment that our municipality will have ever made (Councillor Don Iveson recently explained the funding request issue more articulately than I ever could here and here).
Aside from the political spin, I welcome a wider public conversation and am excited about the potential for a real debate about downtown. There are those people who are stuck in the 1980s and 1990s mentality that downtown Edmonton is a barren wasteland of warehouses and closed down rail yards, and then there are those Edmontonians who have moved on and seen the evolving character of our downtown core. The Katz Group campaign could generate competing ideas and a real discussion about what kind of face Edmontonians want our downtown to wear.
Downtown Edmonton (what I describe as the area between 100 Street and 124 Street) is a drastically different place than it was ten years ago. From the time when I first lived downtown in 2003 to when I moved back in 2009, I am excited by the changes that I have witnessed. New condo developments in the Oliver and Grandin have created a new identity in those neighbourhoods. People are moving into the core of the city and enhancing its diversity. Walk down Jasper Avenue west of 109th Street on a summer night and you will bump into many people coming in from the restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. The 104th Street Farmers’ Market is a perfect example of the vibrant new identity of Edmonton’s downtown core.
The business district of downtown Edmonton is like many other commercial business districts: employees leave work and it closes down at 6pm. This is the purpose of a commercial district dominated by office towers. An arena is not going to change this. An arena district north of downtown developed on clear urban development concepts could help revitalize a rougher part of the downtown core.
I have heard many arguments about how a downtown arena could revitalize the area, but I have not been convinced that our current arena, Rexall Place, is as bad as its detractors would characterize it. Admittedly, I have only been inside Rexall Place about a dozen times over the past ten years (mostly during the Canadian Finals Rodeo). While this is the case, I don’t fully understand why it needs to be replaced so badly. As a friend pointed out to me yesterday, ‘because it is old’ isn’t a very good argument.
Although the idea of a downtown “arena district” intrigues me, any new development must be based in solid urban development concepts, and not in emotional appeals from politically and financially motivated individuals.
I welcome a real conservation about downtown Edmonton. Let’s start it!
As far as international events go, it is hard to beat the size of the Olympic Games. Over 80 countries from across the world will be participating in the Winter sports event that kicked off in Vancouver last night.
With hundreds of millions of dollars likely being spent on wining and dining, it might feel like a drop in the bucket for the Province of Alberta to spend nearly $15 million dollars to promote the province to attendees, including the sponsorship of six Rocky Mountaineer train cars and the Alberta Pavilion.
Unparalleled comfort in the premier business networking venue at the Games.
The Rocky Mountaineer expense is billed by the Government of Alberta website as an opportunity to “provide the premier business networking venue at the Games” for only $499 for a round-trip ticket from Vancouver to Whistler. Who will be networking with the elite business Olympians of the world? Premier Ed Stelmach and eleven cabinet ministers will be there to wine, dine, and “offer guests unparalleled comfort” during their stay on the Alberta train! While experiencing this luxury, most passengers on the Alberta train this week would probably have a hard time believing that Alberta is in the midst of “tough economic times” and that just four short days ago, these 12 elected officials tabled a provincial budget that included the largest deficit in Alberta’s history.
Sending Premier Stelmach, Tourism Minister Cindy Ady, and Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett makes sense, but what of the other nine cabinet ministers? Are Albertans well served by covering the costs of sending eleven cabinet ministers to the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games? What business could Agriculture Minister Jack Hayden, Justice Minister Alison Redford, Housing Minister Jonathan Denis, or Finance Minster Ted Morton have at the Winter Olympic Games? I am sure the “unparalleled comfort” of the posh train cars will live up to its reputation, but is it really necessary to have half of Premier Stelmach’s cabinet on site?
As Graham Thomson pointed out in his Edmonton Journal column this morning, other PC MLAs will joining them, but “nobody in government seems to know exactly how many backbenchers are going.” I do not oppose Alberta having a presence at these games, but modesty is virtue our elected officials should not forget.
“I would rather have seen any kind of travel budget being spent in Alberta,” Smith said. “They’re communicating to the wrong people.”
When was the last time Alberta had a Premier who spent this kind of money to sincerely communicate with Albertans? I am not talking about fancy videos commercials, visits to the Rutherford Show, or hiring expensive advertising companies to brand new messages. I am talking about actually travelling across this province and holding open town hall meetings outside of a highly managed and artificial election environment.
This feeds the perception that our elected officials are only accessible to those with political power or business interests. When was the last time Alberta had a Premier who allowed himself to be publicly accessible to any Albertan, regardless of political persuasion or income-bracket? When was the last time a Premier of Alberta hopped aboard a train filled with ordinary people of Alberta?
Alberta’s 2010 provincial budget, set to be released in 2 hours, is already making headlines. While Finance Minister Ted Morton has framed it as a “give up a little” budget, an Edmonton blogger almost caught a sneak peak of the budget documents:
For the second year in a row, Premier Ed Stelmach‘s government will run a budget deficit, this time estimated at $4.7 billion and total spending is estimated to be a record $38.7 billion. The PCs are counting on increased oilsands production to boost them out of the cycle of deficits before the 2012 election (I am sure they hope it will boost their party in the polls as well). Compared to the intense cut throat budget that many Albertans expected, this budget dealt a mixture of increases and decreases across the government. Overall, fourteen departments will be on the bitter end of cuts and eight departments will be seeing increases to their budgets in 2010.
With a 17% increase to its operating budget, Alberta’s health care system is the biggest beneficiary of this budget. Alberta Health Services will also receive a one-time infusion of $759 million for debt repayment (perhaps to the Royal Bank…). Since the 2008 election, health care has been one of the toughest files for the PCs, who have felt public pressure from across the province after the dissolution of the regional health authorities and bottom-line based system reforms. If replacing the blunt and controversial Minister Ron Liepert with the more gentler Minister Gene Zwozdesky was a first major step in the government’s health care public relations shift, this budget increase and debt repayment could be the second most substantial. The challenge will be to turn these budget increases into positive changes on the ground level.
The Municipal Affairs and Infrastructure budgets were also substantially increased, due to what I imagine to be the result of strong lobbying efforts by the AUMA and AAMDC.
Perhaps a statement on the level of political capital that Culture & Community Spirit Minister Lindsay Blackett has left after the Bill 44 controversy, that Ministry will reduce operating expenses by 15%. Among other cuts, Advanced Education & Technology will face a 6% budget decrease to program expenses after being on the better end of budget increases over the past five years. Changes to the student finance section of the Advanced Education budget include decreases to student scholarships by $3 million and grants by $51 million, and increases to student loans by (ie: increased student debt).
When Liberal leader David Swanncriticized the budget and the PCs for not “responsibly managing the public purse,” it may have sounded like a predictable opposition response, but it raises some important points about recent government budgets and the provincial government’s large dependance on natural resource revenues for income. Alberta is a resource-based economy, but the budget turbulence in recent years highlights why Albertans should be concerned about the lack of economic diversification in our province.
Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith (who will be releasing her party’s alternative budget tomorrow) criticized the budget and Finance & Enterprise Minister Ted Morton‘s credentials as a true fiscal conservative, but this budget is just another step in Minister Morton’s public moderation. Since the 2006 PC leadership race, Minister Morton has transformed his public image as the great right-wingfire-wall lighter to a competent and softer governor. This budget includes both cuts and increases, striking a kind of political balance. This was Minister Morton’s first budget and if he is able to survive his tenure in the Finance portfolio, he could be well positioned to be the leading candidate in the next PC leadership race.
Long-time Government spokesperson Jerry BellikkareplacesTom Olsen as spokesman for Premier Ed Stelmach (Olsen now becomes Alberta’s Olympic Spokesperson in Vancouver). Former MLA Jim Gurnett replaces Jerry Toews as Chief of Staff at the NDP caucus. Instead of laughing atsatire, PAB blogger David Sands leaves Twitter altogether. Taking a more open approach to the media than his predecessor, Health & Wellness Minister Gene Zwozdesky‘s cell phone number is now showing up on Government media releases.
Not your father’s NEP
With new Energy Minister Ron Liepert‘s mandate to reclaim PC dominance over energy sector support from Danielle Smith‘s Wildrose Alliance, the Liberals do not want to be left out. Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor is leading his party’s 180-degree policy change from their previous position that resource royalties are too low. On the policy change, Mount Royal University Professor Bruce Foster told FFWD:
“It seems as if the Liberals didn’t take the lead on this or didn’t distinguish themselves and now they’re playing catch-up,” he says.
The defection of Progressive Conservative Party Vice-President Policy and Resolution Shayne Saskiw to the Wildrose Alliance has raised questions about how much influence do PC Party members have on the actual policy that a government implements? According to Saskiw, not much.
“I was able to give their opinions on policy to the government, but the government was not acting on their advice.”
This is not a surprise, nor a new criticism of how responsive governments are to ordinary citizens – engaged or otherwise. Does anyone remember Premier Ed Stelmach campaigning on the PC Party platform of dissolving the regional health authorities and centralizing control into the largest employer in the province? It was not mentioned in the “Change that Works for Albertans” (PDF) document, nor do know of any PC candidates who campaigned on this policy position. Perhaps after nearly 40 years in government, the upper echelons of power at the Legislature feel that the election process is simply a formality. Perhaps the PC Party interpreted the 52% support they received in the election that recorded the lowest voter turnout in Alberta history equal a blank check mandate?
It would be wrong to suggest that policy does not matter, because it does. It is important to recognize that in many cases, the majority of challenges that a government will deal with during a term in office will be reactive. In these cases, it is important to recognize leadership and which elected official or officials will offer the kind of leadership that will be best suited to dealing with reactive situations. For example, mainstream business and economic forecasters were predicting smooth sailing ahead during the 2008 election when politicians were practically promising a jet-pack for every citizen. In 2010, the economic outlook is quite a bit more modest (though we are fairing better than our American neighbors).
During my time working with the Liberal Party until 2007, I remember it being normal for policies to be generated from the Official Opposition Caucus offices, rather than the party policy committees. Perhaps this is one of the problems with the traditional political parties in Alberta. They do consult with stakeholders and rely on well-educated researchers and analyst, but in the end, new policies became more about marketing and messaging instead of listening and generating a party membership driven policy apparatus.
This leads me back to Ms. Smith and a statement she made about Wildrose Alliance policy:
“Our party does not take a position on divisive social issues. We prefer to focus on those areas where we agree.”
This statement reflects a smart (and so far successful) strategy of positioning the Wildrose Alliance as the moderate conservative/conservatively moderate anti-establishment party in Alberta politics. I have been told that many of Ms. Smith’s financial backers in Calgary’s oil and gas sector would like to turn the page on the more hard social conservative views that the party has advocated in the past. Refusing to talk about divisive social issues is a smart political tactic, given the positions that her party has taken in the past.
During the 2004 election, the Alliance led by Randy Thorsteinson called for province-wide votes on abortion and same-sex marriage. There have also been questions about the influence that conservative members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have had on the development of Alliance policies.
This said, an elected official’s personal or religious views on social issues do not necessarily result in major government policy changes. During the 2001 election, Vegreville-Viking MLA Ed Stelmach responded to a questionnaire from LifeSiteNews in which he declared his opposition to abortion under any circumstances (his response to the 2004 election questionnaire is not published online). This was his position nine years ago and may continue to be his position today, but since becoming Premier three years ago, Stelmach has hardly been a champion in the fight against allowing women the choice to access abortions. Like Premier Stelmach’s, it would be extremely difficult for Ms. Smith’s party to enter a divisive debate on social issues and continue to hold their current mainstream support in the polls.
Tempering the more extreme elements in her party is going to be one of Ms. Smith’s largest challenges. In 2009, nearly 2,000 Wildrose Alliance members voted for social conservative candidate Mark Dyrholm. What happens if these “grassroots” dispute Ms. Smith’s position? Is Ms. Smith willing to cut them loose in order to avoid the damage of being labeled as the “scary conservative party?” If it reaches the point where push comes to shove, maybe policy will matter.
Since stepping into her new role as leader of the Wildrose Alliance, Danielle Smith has taken on more of a celebrity role than that of the leader of a party with 3 seats in a 83 seat Legislative Assembly. Ms. Smith is impressively politically savvy, and judging by the attention she has been receiving from the media, you would have a hard time believing that she is not the elected leader of Alberta’s Official Opposition.
Ms. Smith has faced some criticism for her confusing views on climate change and her former Chief of Staff felt the repercussions of an uneasy Twitter finger, but she has easily deflected questions about hard policy questions by telling the media to wait until her party’s upcoming policy conference or hiding behind the label of libertarianism.
Premier Ed Stelmach has labelled Wildrose Alliance policies as “draconian,” but in the context of his falling popularity, the Premier’s reaction smacked of desperation and political spin (however accurate his comments may have been). Even the recent cabinet shuffle was framed as a reaction to the increasing popularity of Ms. Smith’s party. The reaction of the Official Opposition Liberal Party was to launch of a YouTube video comparing Premier Stelmach and Ms. Smith to Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney (a strategy that top minds are still attempting to decrypt).
An American conservative blogger recently held Ms. Smith up as “a guiding northern star for the building anti-establishment movement in the GOP” and suggested that her “delivery reminds me of Sarah Palin when she’s at her best.” I recognize that these are the words of one individual with a website, but it is not the first time that I have heard conservatives speak of Ms. Smith in that manner.
Amidst this flurry of media attention, nearly no additional attention is paid to the actual opposition leaders elected by Albertans in the 2008 election as David Swann and Brian Mason continue to linger stalled in the polls in the unconvincing ranks of the opposition benches. I tend to believe this is symptomatic of the antipathy felt towards to traditional political parties in Alberta. This antipathy is likely why non-traditional groups like the Wildrose Alliance, Renew Alberta, and Reboot Alberta are attracting a growing number of Albertans into their ranks, while the traditional opposition parties are barricading their gates without taking stock of the decreasing value of their guarded treasures. While some people are holding out for change within the two traditional opposition parties (or simply asking them to get their acts together!), I tend to believe that it is likely too late.
With Premier Stelmach appearing politically weak and a provincial election expected in 2012, will the guardians of establishment conservatism in Alberta sit idly while their movement is fractured between the Wildrose Alliance and the Progressive Conservative Party? With this scenario in mind, is it too far fetched to foresee a scenario in the not too distant future where Premier Ted Morton welcomes Danielle Smith as the Finance Minister in a government formed by the newly merged Conservative Party of Alberta?
UPDATE: David Climenhaga has written a response to this blog post listing the top 11 reasons he feels Albertans should not support the Wildrose Alliance . Climenhaga’s list prompted the Alberta Altruist blog to pen a response.