What started off as a less than stellar week for Independent Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Raj Sherman, turned out to be not so bad for the Doctor turned politician.
Starting the week by failing to produce proof of the serious allegations he raised the previous week accusing the government of paying doctors to stay quiet about patient deaths. A similar, less sensational story, than Dr. Sherman’s story was uncovered days later by intrepid journalists at the CBC.
Dr. Sherman credibility was redeemed at a Friday morning media conference at the Legislature where he joined the leaders of Alberta’s four opposition parties in unity calling for the PC Government to launch an independent public inquiry into health care system. The opposition leaders wanted the PC Government to call a public inquiry to investigate over 300 cases of “compromised care” brought forward by Dr. Paul Parks in the 2010 Fall Session of the Assembly. PC leadership candidates Doug Griffiths and Alison Redford also supported the Opposition’s calls for an inquiry. Although Premier Ed Stelmach and Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky initially resisted the calls, they soon caved to the Opposition’s demands and will allow an investigation by the Health Quality Council of Alberta.
All four of the opposition parties were able to unite around Dr. Sherman’s message this week and this may be the final time they all share the same podium on this issue. The philosophical and political agendas of the four parties, especially the Wildrose Alliance, differ on the future of the public health care system.
A remaining question that Dr. Sherman has yet to answer is whether he will remain an Independent MLA after the Spring sitting of the Assembly. When asked earlier this year, Dr. Sherman said he would make a decision by the end of March, and may even seek the top job of one of the three parties looking for new leaders. Some political watchers have pointed out reasons why he does not have the qualities to be a party leader, yet last week’s redemption would still make him an appealing MLA for the opposition caucuses.
An annual event, politicos patiently lined up to listen to the Queen’s representative sit on a throne and read a speech (and then afterward network at a giant cocktail party under the Rotunda’s giant marble dome).
Typically, these speeches are used to present vague feel-good messages about the government’s legislative agenda during that session of the Assembly. With Premier Ed Stelmach having announced that he will resign in September 2011, there is little doubt that most of the real political action overt the next eight months will take place outside the Assembly. As the experience in the provincial cabinet was parred down with the departure of leadership candidates Ted Morton, Doug Horner, and Alison Redford, this government’s Legislative Agenda is appears to be as decisive as a lame-duck. Its only saving grace may be the Provincial Budget, to be presented by Finance Minister Lloyd Snelgrove on Thursday, February 24.
The government legislation prepared for the Spring Session (announced via media release last week) presents a mostly light agenda, including house-keeping amendments in the Livestock Industry Diversification Amendment Act, Alberta Investment Management Corporation Amendment Act, Securities Amendment Act, Rules of Court Statutes Amendment Act, Corrections Amendment Act, and the Victims of Crime Amendment Act.
Bill 1: The Asia Advisory Council Act,, tabled immediately following today’s Throne Speech, proposes to create what its title suggests, a council to advise on Asian trade. A watered down Education Act is expected to be tabled during the spring sitting and debate on the Bill is not expected to be concluded until the Fall sitting, when a new PC leader/Premier will decide its fate.
The most interesting piece of legislation presented by the government in this session may be the Alberta Land Stewardship Amendment Act, which the government hopes will quell dissent by rural landowners concerned that government is encroaching on their property rights. The property rights issue, spurned by the development of transmission line corridors and the passage of Bills 19, 23, 30, and 50, has drawn thousands of rural Albertans to town hall meetings over the past four years. The Liberals and NDP have tried to hone in on the issue, but the Wildrose Alliance appears to have shown some short-term success in making it one of their key political wedge issues.
Health care was the issue that defined the 2010 fall sitting of the Assembly which ended last November. Emergency debates, the ejection from the PC caucus of outspoken Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Dr. Raj Sherman, the allegations of a smear campaign started by Edmonton-Rutherford MLA Fred Horne, and the forced resignation of Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett made for some of the most exciting political Albertans had seen until Premier Ed Stelmach’s resignation announcement in February 2011.
Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky will do his best to keep the health care file under control during this political season. He has started off fairly well with the announcement that the provincial budget, to be tabled on February 24, will include the promised 6% increase in health care funding. He has also deflected some criticism of the AHS Board of Directors by appointing five new members, including former Capital Health CEO Sheila Weatherill, who all seem like appropriate choices. His biggest challenge will to actually prove that patient care can be improved under his guidance.
On the surface, the governing PCs will be talking about a Legislative agenda, but in reality their attention will be focused on choosing a new leader. It may be the hottest leadership contest in the province, but they are not the only party having to face the reality of a fairly fluid political environment.
With leadership contests in full-swing until Fall 2011 in three of the province’s five main political parties, Albertans may have to wait until 2012 to see another solid Legislative hit the floor of their Assembly.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul… …or robbing the Liberals and NDP to pay the Wildrose Alliance. The PC MLA-dominated Legislative committee responsible for allocating funds to Assembly caucuses voted to give in to Wildrose Alliance demands for increased caucus funding, but it came at the expense of the other three parties caucuses. While the 67 MLA PC caucus will barely notice the decrease, the slightest decrease in funding is the difference between a one more staff member or not for the opposition caucuses. Chalk this one up to another round of institutional micro-management and political games by Speaker Ken Kowalski.
Calgary’s new Political Minister Filling Ms. Redford’s former position as political minister for Calgary is long-time Calgary-Cross MLA and Minister of Children & Youth Services Yvonne Fritz.
The Provincial Government and North West Upgrading announced that a deal had been reached to begin the construction of the first phase of a new upgrader near Fort Saskatchewan. Premier Ed Stelmach called it “a bold step”, but that was not good enough for NDP MLA Brian Mason. Mr. Mason made the point of attacking Premier Stelmach, saying that despite past promises to keep upgrading jobs in Alberta, more jobs have moved to the United States.
Blakeman aims for Liberal leadership Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman announced yesterday that she is seeking the Liberal leadership. The four-term opposition MLA is the first candidate to enter the contest to replace outgoing leader David Swann. In her speech yesterday, Ms. Blakeman, the party’s Deputy Leader, explained that she had toyed with the idea of joining the new Alberta Party, but later decided to stay with her current party.
Ms. Blakeman is one half of an Edmonton political power couple with her husband Ben Henderson, who is the City Councillor for Ward 8.
Ms. Blakeman’s second V-log takes a creative angle at explaining the political spectrum.
Lukaszuk weighing his options A well-placed source has informed this blogger that Employment & Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk has been weighing his options about joining the PC leadership contest.
Second Alberta Party leadership candidate Calgarian Tammy Maloney has announced that she is seeking the Alberta Party leadership. Ms. Maloney is an entrepreneur, a former Oil & Gas business analyst and IESE MBA. She also worked for the Clinton Foundation in Nigeria. Ms. Maloney’s only other challenger so far is Hinton Mayor Glenn Taylor, who entered the contest two weeks ago.
Carter: smooth political operator
Edmonton Journal columnist Graham Thomson focused his latest column on the strategies of paid political operative Stephen Carter. Mr.Carter, who is known for his work for the Wildrose Alliance and Naheed Nenshi‘s campaign, is a high-profile hire on Ms. Redford’s PC leadership campaign. Watch out Rod Love, at this rate Mr. Carter is becoming Alberta’s next biggest celebrity political operative.
Morton country no more? An editorial in the Rocky View Weekly questions whether former Finance Minister Ted Morton will receive the kind of support from Airdrie-Chestermere Tories in the current PC leadership contest that he did in 2006. Five years ago Mr. Morton earned the support of 57% of PC members in that constituency, with 26% supporting Jim Dinning and 17% supporting Premier Stelmach. With the constituency now represented by Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson, it will be interesting to see if conservative voters in that area are still comfortable with Mr. Morton or whether they have found a new political home.
Nomination updates: Calgary Varsity and Edmonton-Centre The list of declared and nominated candidates for the next provincial election has been updated. The nomination contest to replace two-term Calgary-Varisty Liberal MLA Harry Chase looks to be an acclamation. The only candidate to step forward appears to be Bruce Payne, a Business Representative with Carpenters’ Union, Local 2103 in Calgary. Mr. Chase surprised many political watchers when he grabbed the seat from the PCs in a close election in 2004 and was re-elected in 2008 defeating PC Jennifer Diakiw.
Meanwhile, 26-year old Drew Adamick is seeking the yet to be scheduled NDP nomination in Edmonton-Centre. Mr. Adamick was the 2008 federal Liberal candidate in Cariboo-Prince George, where he placed third behind Conservative MP Dick Harris.
Justice Minister Alison Redford made an early morning debut on Twitter today, using her first tweet to announce that she is running for her party’s leadership. Minister Redford was first elected to represent Calgary-Elbow in 2008, unseating Liberal MLA Craig Cheffins. She has an impressive resume of international experience, helping set up legal structures in countries like Vietnam.
Since being elected to the Assembly, it is my observation that Ms. Redford sometimes becomes one of the most partisan PC Cabinet Ministers in Question Period, especially when sparing with former Liberal Justice Critic and Calgary-Buffalo MLA Kent Hehr.
New Environics Poll A new Environics Poll shows the PCs with 38% support of decided voters province-wide, compared to 26% for the Wildrose party, 22% for the Liberals, and 10% for the NDP. In Edmonton, the PCs are at 36%, with the Liberals at 27%, Wildrose Alliance at 18%, and NDP at 15%. In Calgary, the PCs are at 34%, the Wildrose Alliance at 31%, the Liberals at 24%, and the NDP at 6%. The poll is also reported to show the PCs sitting at 43% outside of Edmonton and Calgary, compared to 29% for the Wildrose Alliance, 15% for the Liberals, and 9% for the NDP. While these are interesting numbers, I have a difficult time putting to much weight in this poll now that Premier Ed Stelmach and Liberal leader David Swann have announced their resignation.
Will Alison Redford run?
Probably, but not yet. Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson is calling on Justice Minister Alison Redford to meet the requirements set by Premier Stelmach and resign from cabinet if she is planning to seek the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party. Despite hiring campaign strategist Stephen Carter last week, a number of Tory sources have told me that Minister Redford continues to be indecisive about whether or not to run.
Mr. Mar leaving Washington? Former cabinet minister and Alberta’s current Washington D.C. representative Gary Mar is said to be preparing a run for his party’s leadership. Earlier this week I tweeted that GaryMar.ca was registered on January 27, 2011, the day that Premier Stelmach announced his resignation. The domain name was registered by Todd Herron, a former Chief Information Officer and Assistant Deputy Minister of Health. Mr. Mar faces the challenge of either returning to Alberta to enter the contest or potentially being replaced as Alberta’s representative when a new party leader is selected in eight months.
A candidate from Coronation?
The online campaign to lure Battle River-Wainwright MLA Doug Griffiths into his party’s leadership contest continues. With Housing Minister Jonathan Denis declaring today via Twitter that he will not enter the contest, the well-spoken and idea-focused Mr. Griffiths could be the only candidate under the age of 45 to enter the contest.
Other Alberta Party candidates? Lisa Fox, stepped down as the federal Green Party candidate in Wild Rose this week telling the Cochrane Eagle that she is considering a run for the Alberta Party leadership. Another candidate based out of Calgary is expected to enter the race in the next few weeks.
Friends of Medicare tour
Touring with the Friends of Medicare, Independent Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Raj Sherman has been drawing crowds across the province. At a recent town hall meeting in Red Deer, Dr. Sherman told a packed crowd that solutions to the current crisis in emergency rooms starts with enhancing home care and long-term care for seniors, particularly those in the low and middle income groups. The next town hall meeting will be held in Medicine Hat on February 19, 2011.
Liberals hire new Communications Director Brian Leadbetter has been hired as the new Communications Director for the Official Opposition Liberals. Mr. Leadbetter will fill a vacancy that was created when former Director Neil Mackie had his contract terminated in January. Mr. Leadbetter was the Director of Government & Community Relations for Northlands from 2007 to 2010 and a Senior Communications Director for the City of Edmonton previous to that.
Social Credit policy renewal Acknowledging that there is room for improvement, the Social Credit Party is inviting Albertans to participate in their policy development process. According to the party website, reasonable, innovative suggestions will be formulated into policy proposals to be presented at the Party Policy Convention on March 26, 2011 in Innisfail.
More candidates step up I have updated the list of nominated and declared candidates for the next provincial election (please note the new link) to include Marc Power, who is seeking the Alberta NDP nomination in Calgary-North Hill, which will be known as Calgary-Klein when the election is called. Mr. Power, a software trainer and former co-chair of the NDP LGBT committee, was that party’s 2008 candidate in Calgary-Currie. North Hill is currently represented by PC MLA Kyle Fawcett, who was first elected in 2008.
Federal Edmonton-StrathconaNDP PresidentMarlin Schmidt is seeking his party’s nomination in Edmonton-Gold Bar at a February 24 selection meeting. The constituency has been represented by Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald since 1997.
UPDATE via Insight into Government Leduc Alderman Dominic Mishio has declared his intentions to seek the PC nomination against two term MLA George Rogers in the new Leduc-Beaumont constituency.
In Edmonton-Riverview, Arif Khan is the first candidate to declare interest in seeking the Liberal nomination to replace retiring MLA Kevin Taft. Mr. Khan is the western Vice-President of the Condo Store Inc. As noted in last week’s Alberta Politics Notes, the NDP are expected to nominate Lori Sigurdson in Riverview.
After two days of voting, the results have been tallied in the first poll asking readers of this blog who they thought should replace Premier Ed Stelmach as leader of Alberta’s PC Party. Thank you to the 813 readers who voted in this online poll.
Some people might be surprised by the strength of Battle River-Wainwright MLA Doug Griffiths in this poll, but as the PC MLA with the highest personal online profile it is not surprising that online political watchers would support the idea of him as the next PC leader (or as a friend said this week, “he would be the first PC leader who actually understands 21st century communications”). As a moderate Tory, Justice Minister Alison Redford would have some natural appeal to readers of this blog. As for Edmonton-Mill Woods MLA Carl Benito‘s support, I imagine that it was his unique position on tuition and property taxes that earned him those 76 votes.
Here is the breakdown of the results.
Who should PC Party members vote to replace Premier Ed Stelmach in their upcoming leadership contest?
Premier Ed Stelmach told the Fort Saskatchewan Record: “I got to thinking when I was interviewing the MLAs coming in and asking them for a five year commitment,” he said. “Another five years would put me close to 65 and I know there’s many politicians older than that and doing well, but that would have been 30 years of public service.
“Having served the constituency for many years. I feel good in terms of what we’ve been able to accomplish, in terms of improved infrastructure, whether it be Fort Saskatchewan, Vegreville or the communities in between.
“I know it’s time for a change and politics is demanding, and will be increasingly demanding, and that’s why I made the decision.”
Party insiders on the next leadership contest:
PC Party Executive Director Pat Godkin told Sun Media that “there is no timeline whatsoever” in place for a leadership contest.
PC Party President Bill Smith told iNews880 that “I think more along the lines we’re looking at spring and summer.”
Ralph Klein’s former Chief of Staff Rod Love told Global News: “You know there’s 68 members in the caucus, a lot of the names are well known about who might be in, who might be out.”
Deputy Premier Doug Horner told the St. Albert Gazette: “I was asked the question whether or not I would consider it and my response honestly is, well yeah, you’re going to consider it but it doesn’t mean I’m going to do it just yet.”
Finance Minister Ted Morton told the Calgary Herald: I have not made that decision. It is still, as I said (Tuesday), inappropriate for you guys to ask those questions and inappropriate for me to answer.”
Justice Minister Alison Redford told the Calgary Herald: “It might be something in the future that I’ll consider. Whether that is imminent or not I just don’t know at this time. That’s my honest answer.”
Culture and Community Spirit Minister Lindsay Blackett told the Calgary Herald: You always have to consider it,” he said shortly after hearing of Stelmach’s decision, “and see what level of support there is for you to try to do something like that. But I’m also mindful I’ve only been on the game for three years.”
Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel told CTV Edmonton: “I was a huge fan of the premier. He was a fine, fine man who was I think a great representative of the Province of Alberta. I wish him and his wife the best.”
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi told the Calgary Herald: “Right now I think it’s not time to think about politics. It is time to think about Premier Stelmach’s legacy as a really decent human being and a really dedicated public servant.”
Red Deer Mayor Morris Flewwelling told the Red Deer Advocate: “This government and Mr. Stelmach have done a good job of recognizing that municipalities are the engines of the economy. Stelmach came from municipal politics so he understood the revenue sharing and imbalance of revenue for municipalities.”
Opposition Parties comment:
Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith told the Edmonton Journal: “Make no mistake, the reason I ran for leadership of the Wildrose party was to replace Ed Stelmach as premier of this province… “I think it’s too late at this point for the PCs to recover any of their former glory. … We think the next election will be a time for Albertans to turn the page on this Tory dynasty. It’s been in power for 40 years and it’s a new chapter.”
Liberal leader David Swann told the Edmonton Journal: “Everything will be on a holding pattern in the ministries to wait until direction comes from the party leader. Without clear leadership — in fact, division at the top — for what really needs to happen in terms of fixing health care, there will be a polarizing from those who want to see more private services provided to pick up the gap and those who feel that the primary problem is in leadership and management.”
Alberta Party acting leader Sue Huff told the Edmonton Journal: “I think it’s time for Albertans to really decide what it is they want for the future, for their children, for their grandchildren, and decide if we really want extreme right-wing politics to decide the day.”
NDP leader Brian Mason told the Edmonton Journal: “The Alberta Tories can’t be trusted to protect public health care. They have repeatedly sought to bring in more private care under various leaders, and leaked documents show they are planning it again. They run the least competent government in Canada. That’s the real problem.”
It is not a secret that since entering the Office, Premier Stelmach struggled to define his leadership style. Under his Premiership, the general policy direction of his government sometimes appeared to be drifting towards numerous locations at the same time. The Progressive Conservatives have been in office for nearly 40 years and have become a natural governing party that in many ways creates and adopts policy as would a an amorphous blob.
With both his party’s popularity and personal approval rating having drastically dropped since the 2008 election, it would not be surprising to learn that more than a few PC MLAs and cabinet ministers were planning not to seek re-election if there was not a change in leadership. I have also heard that tension between the Premier and Finance Minister Ted Morton, and MLAs and the Premier’s Chief of Staff, Ron Glen, also heavily contributed to yesterday’s announcement.
I had a special relationship with the Premier that began in December 2007 when his lawyers threatened to sue me over my ownership of the URL edstelmach.ca. After forwarding the URL to the wikipedia entry of the last Social Credit Premier Harry Strom, I received a threatening letter from the Premier’s lawyer demanding that I cease and desist (and govern myself accordingly). The Premier may have been insistent that his name was his name, but when push came to shove they backed down (and helped me increase this blog’s readership by at least 500%). Without malice three years later, it turns out that I was closer than I thought with my Premier Strom comparison.
Likeness to Premier Strom aside, it would be unfair to say that Premier Stelmach has not achieved anything while occupying his current office. Always a class act, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshisaid it well in an interview with the Calgary Herald yesterday:
“Right now I think it’s not time to think about politics. It is time to think about Premier Stelmach’s legacy as a really decent human being and a really dedicated public servant.”
He promised and implemented the long-awaited Lobbyist Registry. His 2010 budget provided a five year commitment to stable funding for Health Care and Education, two departments that had felt the brunt of the budget cuts in the 1990s. His government established the Capital Regional Board, which started a long-overdue armistice that ended the regional turf wars between municipalities in the Edmonton region. His personal commitment to ending homelessness should also not be forgotten, as his government has supported the development and funding of municipal 10 year plans to end homelessness.
Many of these accomplishments have been overshadowed by the decision to raise and then again tinker with the natural resource royalties collected by the provincial government, which angered many in Calgary’s energy sector. The downturn in the economy and the return to deficit budgets also changed how many Albertans viewed the PC government, after years of being told that “deficit budgets were illegal” during Premier Klein’s tenure. The forced merger of the province’s nine regional health authorities into one mega-health authority known as Alberta Health Services also raised serious questions about proper planning and the value of centralization in Health Care. His government’s decision to challenge rural landowners over property rights and the construction of high powered electrical transmission lines also created conflict in areas of the province that had been PC strongholds for decades.
Premier Stelmach’s eventual departure does not automatically save the PC Party from their low support in the polls. The party now needs to select a new leader while facing an organized and well-funded opposition in the form of the Wildrose Alliance, who have leaned heavily on federal Conservative Party organizers to build their party machinery. The Liberals and New Democrats remain competitive in some Edmonton and Calgary ridings and the new Alberta Party announced this week that Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor had become their first MLA.
Although Premier Stelmach will remain leader of the government to oversee the next provincial budget, attention will now be turned toward his potential successors. Finance Minister Morton appears to be the early favourite and could even soon resign his cabinet post to focus on a leadership bid. An immediate Morton coronation could be postponed by the entrance of candidates such as former federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice, Advanced Education Minister Doug Horner, Justice Minister Alison Redford, or Treasury Board President Lloyd Snelgrove. It would also be interesting to see some younger talent, like Housing Minister Jonathan Denis or Battle River-Wainwright MLA Doug Griffiths throw their names in the race.
Regardless of Premier Stelmach’s departure and the leader the members of that Party chooses in the upcoming leadership contest, the big question is whether the PCs be able to redefine themselves as they approach 40 years as our province’s governing party? Will a new PC Party leader be able to satisfy Albertans’ new found appetite for political change?
UPDATE: The EBC appears to have removed the original link to the report, so I have replaced the above links with new ones provided by Enlightened Savage. You should be able to download the final report now.
Overall, I believe that the members of the Electoral Boundaries Commission have presented a fair report given the guidelines and political environment in which they were operating. I would have liked to see the commission merge some of the larger sparcely populated rural constituencies in the north of the province, but I understand the arguments for allowing exceptions in special circumstances.
Airdrie/Foothills-Chestermere: Large areas of Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson‘s former Airdrie-Chestermere constituency have been merged with Fiance Minister Ted Morton‘s Foothills-Rockyview riding to create Rockyview-Chestermere. It is unlikely that Mr. Anderson will challenge Minister Morton in the next election, so he may opt to run in the new Airdrie constituency.
North Calgary: There is a significant amount of shuffling in this area of Calgary. I’m not familiar enough with the area to say if it reflects communities of interest. I imagine that there will be an ample amount of confusion created when anyone talks about either Calgary-North Hill (singular) and Calgary-Northern Hills (plural). Anyone?
Edmonton-Centre: I was pleased to see that my riding remains intact. The boundaries make sense for Edmonton’s downtown constituency.
Edmonton-Glenora: Glenora has been shifted further west than was proposed in the interim report, moving more Tory polls into the constituency. They new boundaries also remove the NDP-voting polls north of downtown that were included in the interim boundaries report and cut out the Liberal-voting polls west of Mayfield road that were included in Glenora during the 2008 election. It could create a more favourable electoral situation for PC MLA Heather Klimchuk, who will face strong challenges from the Liberals and former NDP MLA David Eggen.
Edmonton-McClung: McClung has been split in two. I believe that the northern half is where former Liberal MLA Mo Elsalhy‘s stronger polls were located, so David Xiao might run for re-election in the new Edmonton-Southwest constituency in 2011. Elsalhy is planning on running again, so these changes could be good news for him.
Fort McMurray-Conklin/Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo: Independent MLA Guy Boutilier will have the choice of running in one of these two constituencies in the next election. Mr. Boutilier is widely expected to join the Wildrose Alliance at this weekend’s policy convention in Red Deer. Mr. Boutilier was elected as the PC MLA for Fort McMurray in 1997, 2001, 2004, and 2008.
St. Albert/Sturgeon: I am surprised that St. Albert has not reached the size to have two constituencies of its own. I was not surprised to see that the towns of Morinville and Legal are still included in Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock, though it would make much more sense for those communities to be included in a Sturgeon Valley riding that lumped in with a constituency that stretches all the way to Swan Hills.
Minority Report: Commissioner Allyson Jeffs wrote a minority report arguing for Edmonton and Calgary to receive more than the three additional constituencies awarded in this Final Report. The politically uncomfortable necessity of removing large numbers of rural seats in favor of new urban ones was solved when Justice Minister Alison Redford introduced legislation that increased the number of MLAs from 83 to 87. In 2003, Commissioner Bauni Mackay
penned a minority report opposing Edmonton’s loss of one-seat in that Final Report.
“The Stelmach administration’s sticky fingerprints are all over this report,” Blakeman says. “There’s been major tinkering with boundaries in Edmonton to reflect personal requests from Tory MLAs. Edmonton-Southwest, for example, is a mess.”
I was not surprised to hear rumours that Edmonton-Riverview might be on the chopping block when the final report of the Electoral Boundaries Commission is released in July (the interim report had kept Riverview largely intact). The Tories have been trying and have been incredibly unsuccessful in capturing enough support to elect an MLA in Riverview since it was created in 1997. With decisive margins, Liberal MLAs Linda Sloan and Kevin Taft have been successful in holding off Tory challengers including Gwen Harris, City Councillor Wendy Kinsella, Fred Horne, and local president Wendy Andrews. I have read and heard many arguments in favour of disassembling Riverview, the largest being that it does not make sense for a riding to span across the North Saskatchewan River, which should act as a natural boundary (under the current boundaries, three Edmonton ridings cross the River). It is silly to argue that an urban MLA cannot represent a riding divided by a river when many rural MLAs represent ridings that span across the province.
With three appointees on the five-member Electoral Boundaries Commission, the PCs may finally get their chance to put Riverview on the chopping block.
Large-scale changes to Riverview were not included in the Commission’s interim report, but there were large changes to other opposition held ridings. Much of Edmonton-Cadler may merge with Edmonton-Glenora, a change that could pit former Calder NDP MLA David Eggen against Glenora PC MLA Heather Klimchuk in a riding that also has a tradition of electing Liberal MLAs.
In Edmonton-Gold Bar, proposed changes in the interim report would give four-term Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonaldan 8-vote margin, compared to a 1,018 margin of victory under the current boundaries in 2008. While sometimes overly-eccentric, Mr. MacDonald is one of the hardest working Opposition MLAs in the Assembly. It should not be surprising that the PCs have their eyes on Gold Bar, a riding that has elected Liberal MLAs since 1986.
The changes proposed in the interim report are not entirely unkind to the opposition when looking at the 2008 election results. The interim boundaries reduce PC MLA Tony Vandermeer‘s margin of victory in Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview from 337 votes to 101 votes. Nominated New Democrat Deron Bilous is already gunning for Mr. Vandermeer’s job. The interim boundaries would have also helped Calgary-Elbow Liberal MLA Craig Cheffins defeat now-Justice Minister Alison Redford by 272 votes (instead, Mr. Cheffins was unseated by 419 votes in the current boundaries).
They are the most politically organized force province-wide, but it is understated how much of an advantage their 2006 leadership selection gave the PCs in 2008. Just over a year after their intensely competitive leadership race, large and fresh membership lists have the PCs a large advantage over their opponents, who had not developed these kind of large-scale lists.
The next election will present Albertans with new electoral boundaries and also a new political environment. The PC Party’s popularity has significantly dropped in the polls since the last election and its caucus has shrunk by a by-election defeat and MLA floor-crossings. David Swann is the first Liberal leader from Calgary since the 1970s and his party is nearly debt-free. The Wildrose Alliance is on its way to becoming well-organized and well-funded under the leadership of the politically-savvy Danielle Smith. The existence of the new Alberta Party is drawing support from many centrist and progressive political organizers. There is a general unhappiness and unease among Albertans with how the politics of governance is being operated in Alberta.
Even if some opposition-held ridings do get chopped and diced, the shifts in the political environment since the last election could make the could make any gerrymandering near irrelevant.
(Re)Enter Mister Fjeldheim. There has been a certain amount of attention focused on Alberta’s Chief Electoral Officer and his comments regarding his philosophy towards his newly re-inherited position. Brian Fjeldheim, who held the position from 1998 to 2005, was recently reappointed following the dismissal of his more activist successor-turned-predecessor Lorne Gibson. After re-assuming his role last week, Mr. Fjeldheim was a little more reserved when describing his role in advocating the importance of the vote to Albertans (60% of Albertans did not vote in the 2008 election). Dave Breakenridgeoffered some thoughts on Mr. Fjeldhiem’s comments in today’s Calgary Sun.
Open up the Elections Act. In the next few weeks, Justice Minister Alison Redford is expected to introduce legislative amendments to Alberta’s aging Elections Act. Minister Redford has said that the amendments will include some of the 182 recommended changes submitted by Mr. Gibson before his departure (but will not include fixed election dates). Of course, the recommendations included in the Bill will have be carefully chosen and measured for political impact by Minister Redford and her PC cabinet colleagues. Minister Redford’s amendments will likely include changes to how Returning Officers are chosen. During the 2008 election, it was revealed that the PC Party had provided lists of candidates for Returning Officers to the Elections Office (over half of the appointed Returning Officers had partisan connections to the PC Party).
Elections procedures can be improved through legislation, but democratic participation can be strengthened through meaningful engagement. In September 2007, the Government of New Zealand tried something completely different. As an innovative way to capture the views of the public on what a new Policing Act should look like, the Ministry of Justice launched an online Wiki. This Wiki allowed citizens from across that country to contribute their ideas and collaborate in the creation of new legislation.
What better way to reinvigorate our Elections Act than by opening up the amendment process to allow Albertans to collaborate by contributing their ideas for changes and improvements? What better opportunity to do things differently in than by allowing Albertans to invest their own ideas into the development of the important piece of legislation that will decide how their elections are structured? Is there a more meaningful piece of legislation that could be opened up to public collaboration than the Elections Act? Would this kind of online collaboration succeed in Alberta? There is only one way to find out.
Prior to entering elected office in 2008, Minister Redford cultivated an international legal career helping build democracies in countries around the globe (including as one of four international election commissioners appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations to administer Afghanistan’s first parliamentary elections in September 2005). Legislative amendments can improve structure, but opening up the Elections Act to real public collaboration could be Minister Redford’s big opportunity to create more meaningful democratic participation in Alberta.
Making it easier for students to vote. I am sure that there would be no shortage of Albertans who would contribute their ideas to an open dialogue on improving our Elections Act. The Council of Alberta University Students submitted a handful of recommendations (pdf) to Minister Redford last year when they heard about the upcoming legislative amendments. Each of the five recommendations have been adopted by Elections officials in provinces across Canada (though no jurisdiction has adopted all five). The recommendations would improve access to a voting demographic that due to its geographic transience, are likely to face barriers and challenges to participating in elections.
These are good recommendation, most of which would require minor administrative changes that are not anything that a little Alberta ingenuity could not overcome. Decreasing barriers to voting for younger Albertans will create a positive culture of participating in elections and could help create life-long voters – a group that is increasingly becoming a minority in Alberta elections. I hope to see some of these positive improvements included among Minister Redford’s amendments.
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?
Barring a stealth insurgency campaign, I anticipate that around 85% of Progressive Conservative convention delegates will support Premier Ed Stelmach in the leadership review vote this weekend. Why so high, you ask? Because this is a vote by dedicated partisans from Alberta’s PC Party. Premier Stelmach hashisdetractors, but I expect that the kind of party members who would pay hundreds of dollars to spend two days in Red Deer will predictably rally around the PC Party brand.
Billed as a policy convention, a quick look at the policy booklet reveals a fairly dry agenda for debate. It is likely that the liveliest excitement of the weekend may come from outside the convention where the AUPE, the Friends of Medicare, and other public sector groups are busing hundreds of supporters from around the province to a huge Stop the Cuts rally only blocks away from the convention.
On Saturday night, PC archetypes will herald the convention as a success of the grassroots, but I expect that little will change after the convention concludes. Regardless of potential icebergs on the political horizon, a strong showing of support in the leadership review will certainly solidify the resolve of Premier Stelmach and his supporters that they are steering their party, and the Government of Albertans, in the right direction. “Rearrange the deck chairs…“
Alberta’s Electoral Boundaries Commission is now into its third week of its first round of public hearings. My previous post on the Commission has generated some great discussion about the challenges of representing rural electoral districts and I am looking forward to an upcoming post by a guest contributor to this blog that will delve deeper into some of the issues raised in that discussion.
So far, it has been a relatively small number of Albertans who have presented to the commission, including MLAs Laurie Blakeman and Guy Boutilier, municipal officials including Cold Lake Mayor Craig Copeland, County of St. Paul Reeve Robert Bouchard, Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel, and a number of representatives from Liberal and Progressive Conservatives constituency associations.
These public hearings haven’t been overflowing with presenters, but I expect that interest will rise after the interim report and interim map are released in the coming months. The submission deadline for the first round of public hearings is on October 13.