Tag Archives: Allaudin Merali

Scandal, controversy, and electoral fortunes? What does 2013 hold for Alberta politics?

Alberta Politics in 2013

Alberta Politics in 2013

What does 2013 hold for Alberta’s political leaders? Do their performances in 2012 shed any light on how the next year will play out?

Saved from defeat by controversial comments made by social conservative elements of the Wildrose Party, Premier Alison Redford led the Progressive Conservative Party to its 12th consecutive electoral victory since 1971. Under her leadership, the Tories have sent signals suggesting their intention to build a new electoral coalition centred around moderate conservatives and liberals, a response to the loss of their hard-conservative base to the Wildrose Party.

As I wrote earlier this month, the Redford Tories have been consistently slow in responding to emerging political crises and scandals, giving the opposition Wildrose Party the opportunity to define the media narrative each time. The Tories will need to shed their geriatric reflexes and become quicker at managing crisis communications less they be defined as old, tired, and corrupt over the next three years.

On the horizon, an expected sixth consecutive provincial budget deficit and tension with Doctors’ and Teachers’ unions could be the defining political issues of the next few months. The election of an NDP government in British Columbia could also reopen discussions around the development of the Northern Gateway Pipeline from Bruderheim to Kitimat.

Old and corrupt is exactly what Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith wants the Tories to look like in 2013.

In advance of the April 2012 election, the Wildrose was at its strongest in the public opinion polls when the newspaper headlines trumpeted tales of Tory corruption. Her new 17 MLA caucus, which has now faced against the Tories on the floor of the Assembly,  is battle ready to continue its permanent negative campaign against the Tories in 2013.

The question is whether the Wildrose Party can transform itself into more than just a conservative political war machine. Can the Wildrose Party led by Ms. Smith transform itself into a government-in-waiting?

Optimists in the Liberal Party will tell you that the fact their party won any seats in the 2012 election is proof that Raj Sherman has earned the right to remain party leader. The Liberals did survive the election with five MLAs, but the former Tory MLA led the party to its worst electoral showing in more than twenty-five years.

Deprived of its long-held official opposition status, the newly rebranded Liberalberta Party now faces the difficult challenge of figuring out where it fits in Alberta’s new political landscape. Popular Calgary MLA Kent Hehr and party president Todd Van Vliet clashed earlier this month over what the future direction of the Liberal Party should be. The next year will show indications whether Dr. Sherman’s rag-tag caucus can survive the three years until the next election.

New Democrat leader Brian Mason wants to build a bigger tent. The NDP, electorally stuck within Edmonton city limits for the past twenty-years, is hoping to take advantage of the electoral decline of the Liberal Party to expand his own party’s base of support. While the NDP is expected to form government in British Columbia and is on an electoral upswing in Ontario, Alberta has historically not been fertile soil for even moderate versions of the social democratic party.

Currently the longest-serving party leader, Mr. Mason told the Calgary Herald in a year-end interview that he plans to lead his party into the next election in 2016. The next election would be Mr. Mason’s fourth election as party leader and will mark his twenty-seventh year as an elected politician.

While experience is important, and sometimes irreplaceable, party supporters will need to ask themselves whether Mr. Mason is the leader who can bring the NDP to the next level in Alberta. With a newly expanded and younger caucus, New Democrats will be forgiven if they look to Rachel Notley, David Eggen, or rising star Deron Bilous, to be a fresh face for their party in the next election. An inspiring leadership race with a new generation of candidates could give the NDP a significant boost in Conservative-dominated Alberta.

The next 365 days could be interesting for Alberta’s political scene.

Happy New Year!

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There is little doubt in my mind that the title for story-maker of the year on Alberta’s political scene in 2012 is held by CBC investigative reporter Charles Rusnell. A serious investigative journalist, Mr. Rusnell uncovered some of the defining political stories of the year from Allaudin Meralli‘s and Lynn Redford‘s expense claims to the unfortunately named “Tobaccogate“. These stories shaped the political debate in Alberta at critical moments in 2012. (EDIT: I mistakenly gave credit to Mr. Rusnell for uncovering the controversial payments to MLAs for serving on a committee that rarely met. Credit for this story belongs to Scott Hennig).

Wildrose MLAs stage walk out during dramatic tobacco conflict.

Question Period at Alberta's Legislative Assembly

Another hour of Question Period in Alberta’s Legislative Assembly. Another circus event for political watchers.

Theatric and dramatic antics dominated this afternoon’s hour-long Question Period in Alberta’s Legislative Assembly.

To start the drama, the official opposition Wildrose Caucus raised a point of personal privilege claiming that Premier Alison Redford misled the Assembly by claiming she did not choose the law firm involved in a $10 billion lawsuit against the tobacco industry (the Premier’s ex-husband is a partner at a law firm awarded a government contract in the lawsuit).

Soon after raising the point of privilage, Assembly Speaker Gene Zwozdesky overruled and denied Danielle Smith and her Wildrose MLAs an opportunity to ask any questions related to the Premier’s alleged conflict of interest in the tobacco lawsuit. In response, most of the 17 MLA Wildrose caucus stormed out of the Assembly Chamber in protest (the dramatic effect was lessened when a number of Wildrose MLAs quickly returned to their seats in order to ask questions not related to the tobacco conflict claims).

In a bizarre twist, Speaker Zwozdesky held up a Government of Alberta press release as evidence that the Premier did not mislead the Assembly because the final decision to select the law firm was signed by her successor, then-Justice Minister and current Agriculture Minster Verlyn Olson. The Speaker then declared that it matters not whether the Premier selected the law firm, she did not mislead the Assembly because her successor signed the contract.

(I just had a Bill Clinton flashback).

Gary Bikman Shill

Wildrose MLA Gary Bikman’s handmade signage.

Taking full advantage of the attention of the Twittersphere and the Press Gallery, the Wildrose Party cried foul and complained that the ruling was an affront to democracy (Cardston-Taber-Warner MLA Gary Bikman wrote “SHILL” on the back of his notebook, leaving political watchers to suspect the message was directed at Speaker Zwozdesky). Tories claimed the rookie Wildrose MLAs simply did not understand the rules of Westminster-style parliamentary procedure.

Meanwhile, New Democrat leader Brian Mason escalated his party’s call for Premier Redford to step down (a demand which she is unlikely to acquiesce). Liberal leader Raj Sherman clumsily attempted to tie the Premier’s decision not to step down with the suspension of Gary Mar, Alberta’s envoy to Hong Kong, earlier this year. Premier Redford suspended Mr. Mar from his duties overseas after allegations that former Tory leadership candidate used his title to raise money to pay-off his political debts (he was reinstated after the election).

Since entering office, Premier Redford has tended to initially respond slowly to political crises confronting her party and respond decisively once the issue has become a political problem. Whether it be the infamous No-Meet Committee, the never ending MLA pay issues, the Allaudin Merali expense fiasco, the Tories default strategy appears to be to ignore the issue in hopes that it will disappear.

It has been five days since CBC investigative reporter Charles Rusnell first reported on the Premier’s alleged conflict of interest and the Tories are still stumbling through a public relations debacle that should have been easy to resolve.

Whether or not Premier Redford is in an actual conflict of interest, the Tories are doing a good job looking guilty and the opposition is only happy to help them on their way.

“transparency” is hard when your party has been in power for 41 years.

Premier Alison Redford Alberta

Premier Alison Redford

Surrounded by dozens of Tory MLAs at a late-afternoon press conference, Premier Alison Redford announced plans to make the expense claims of all cabinet ministers, MLAs, and government officials publicly available on the internet.

After a summer of scandals and embarrassing revelations, ranging from the overflowing expense accounts of former regional health authority executive Allaudin Merali and current University of Calgary board chairman Doug Black, the suspicious hiring of former cabinet minister Evan Berger, and the cancellation of funding to a long-promised police college in Fort Macleod, Alberta Tories must be desperately thirsty for anything that could be cast as a good news story.

The new rules place limits on the purchase of business class airline tickets and a ban on expensing alcohol. What format the expense disclosures will be made available online is still unknown. As I wrote about last month, not all online transparency is created equally (or accessibly). As has also been pointed out by political reporters online, the new rules are unclear if there will be sanctions for employees who break the new expense rules. It is also unclear if the rationale behind any special exemptions, made by the Treasury Board, will be made public.

Yesterday’s burst of transparency comes one week after Premier Redford and Finance Minister Doug Horner were widely criticized for only not releasing the full data from the quarterly provincial fiscal update which predicted a potential $3 billion deficit. Earlier in the summer, it was announced that Elections Alberta investigations into illegal donations to the Progressive Conservative Party would also remain secret.

Perhaps trying to create a positive defining narrative for Premier Redford’s government, which has been largely absent since the April 2012 election, Ontario-based public relations and issues management expert Stefan Baranski has been tapped to work with the Premier. A Principal with Counsel Public Affairs, Mr. Baranski founded ontarionewswatch.com and served as senior advisor to PC leaders Tim Hudak and John Tory, and Premier Ernie Eves. In 2010, he served a Director of Communications and chief spokesperson for Toronto mayoral candidate George Smitherman.

Earlier this year, Calgary-Centre Conservative Member of Parliament Lee Richardson left Ottawa to join Premier Redford’s staff as her Principal Secretary. I am told that long-time Tory and Volunteer Alberta executive director Karen Lynch recently joined Premier Redford’s staff as her director of tours and schedules.

new alberta health services chairperson’s tory and wildrose connections.

we gonna roll this truckin convoy

We gonna roll this truckin convoy…

The President and Co-CEO of a billion dollar oil and gas transportation and trucking company headquartered in Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith‘s Highwood constituency has been appointed as the new chairperson of Alberta Health Services.

The previous board chair, Ken Hughes is now Energy Minister and the Progressive Conservative MLA for Calgary-West, so one would easily suspect that Stephen Lockwood‘s connections to the Tory Party are at the root of his appointment as AHS chairperson.

Stephen Lockwood Alberta Health Services

Stephen Lockwood

While Mr. Lockwood admits having made financial contributions to Mr. Hughes recent election campaign, the chairperson and founder of the company be runs – the Mullen Group – have been vicious critics of the PC Party and large financial supporters of the opposition Wildrose Party.

In 2007, Mullen Group founder Roland Mullen and his son, Murray Mullen, were two of the loudest opponents of Premier Ed Stelmach‘s decision to revisit Alberta’s natural resource royalty regime. Their opposition to the royalty review extended so far that the billion dollar company laid off 100 staff during the heat of the debate. Perhaps not surprisingly, in 2008, the father and son donated a combined $25,000 to the Wildrose Party. In 2009, they donated $5000 each to Ms. Smith’s leadership campaign and continued to donate to the Wildrose Party over the next few years.

AHS has been a lightning rod for criticism by opposition parties since it was created by the PCs following the 2008 election. Recent criticism over the decision to close the Little Bow Continuing Care Centrein the southern Alberta village of Carmangay has raised questions about the Tory government cutting funding for facilities and programs in rural constituencies that elected Wildrose MLA’s in the April 2012 election. As if the firing of former President and CEO Stephen Duckett in 2010 was not enough of a public embarrassment, the firing of AHS Chief Financial Officer Allaudin Merali and resignation of board member Sheila Weatherill earlier this summer has done nothing to help the already damaged public image of the province-wide health authority.

Mr. Lockwood’s stated goal in yesterday’s Government of Alberta media release was to achieve something called “Total Albertan Satisfaction“, but in reality his goal will be to provide stability and improve public perception of AHS in the eyes of Albertans.

But perhaps most interestingly, by appointing a chairperson from Calgary who runs one of the largest employers in the town of Okotoks and whose founders are financial supporters of the Wildrose Party, the Tories may have put Ms. Smith and her party in a precarious situation of having to temper their non-stop attacks against the AHS superboard. Or maybe not.

is edmonton’s former capital health board being targeted by a calgary-led witch-hunt?

Witch Trial Alberta Health Services

The Alberta Health Services investigation into former Capital Health executives.

Are executives of the former Calgary Health Region, now comfortably occupying senior positions at Alberta Health Services, campaigning to discredit the work done by executives of Edmonton’s now-defunct Capital Health Region?

AHS President and CEO Chris Eagle announced earlier this week that, following the Allaudin Merali expense-claims scandal, an Ernst and Young audit would expand to include expense-claims from all former executives of Edmonton’s Capital Region Heath Authority. This expenses audit could include investigations into former Capital Health President and CEO Sheila Weatherhill, who recently resigned from the AHS Board of Directors, and potentially Ethics Commissioner Neil Wilkinson, who served as Capital Health’s board chairman until 2008.

Despite calls from critics to expand the expenses audit, it will not investigate former executives from Alberta’s other now-defunct regional health authorities.

Before it was dissolved, Capital Health was widely seen as an example of innovative regional health care in Alberta for its pioneering of Health Link and creation of the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute and the Edmonton Clinic at the University of Alberta. The targeting of only Capital Health officials in this expense-audit could be seen as a campaign to discredit their many successes of Capital Health by officials from the former Calgary Health Region, which was mired in a financial deficit.

Some current Alberta Health Services senior executives who were employed or connected with the former Calgary Health Region include President & CEO Mr. Eagle, Executive Vice President and Chief Development Officer Bill Trafford, Chief Operations Officer Chris Marzukowich, Chief Medical Officer David Megran, and Senior Vice President (Communications) Roman Cooney. Even the AHS senior vice-president in charge of the Edmonton zone, Mike Conroy, held several senior management positions with the Calgary Health Region.

For many years, the Calgary Health Region benefited from political proximity to both Premier Ralph Klein, and former Provincial Treasurer Jim Dinning, who later served as chairman of the health region’s board of directors. Prominent politically connected directors appointed to serve on the Calgary Health board included Premier Klein’s constituency president Skip MacDonald and Progressive Conservative Party vice-president Scobey Hartley.

In some circles, it is suspected that the creation of the provincial health superboard was a reaction to the political brazenness of former Calgary Health Region CEO Jack Davis, who was known to use media attention to leverage increased funding from the provincial government. As CEO of Capital Health, Ms. Weatherill used considerably more tact than her Calgary counterpart, relying on official channels to lobby the government.

In its final year of existence, the Calgary Health Region recorded a $85 million deficit and Mr. Davis went public to get more money from Premier Ed Stelmach’s government before the 2008 election, which threatened to make it an campaign issue. Shortly after the Tories were re-elected in 2008, the regional health authorities were dissolved and Health Minister Ron Liepert created Alberta Health Services. The dissolution of the Calgary Health Region led to Mr. Davis receiving a $4 million retirement package (Ms. Weatherill was paid about $2 million under her supplemental executive retirement plan).

Expanding the expense-claims audit beyond the Capital Health Region could reveal similarities and contrasts in expense-claims, but more dangerously for some, it could dive into the annals of PC Party patronage. The regional health boards across the province were notoriously stacked with appointees who also happened to be card-carrying members of the PC Party.

Among the prominent Tories appointed as chairman of the former regional health authorities included cabinet minister and PC election campaign manager Marvin Moore in the Peace Country Health Authority and former cabinet minister, Ernie Isley, who served as chairman of the Lakeland Health Authority, which posted a $4 million deficit in 2002.

allaudin merali’s extravagant expenses and severance package a blow to alberta health services, redford government.

The highest echelons of Alberta Health Services are once again being rocked by a firestorm of public criticism after it was revealed that AHS Chief Financial Officer Allaudin Merali had claimed more than $345,000 in expenses to the former Capital Health regional authority.

Allaudin Merali Alberta Health Services

Allaudin Merali

Mr. Merali was fired by AHS hours before the Canadian Boardcasting Corporation aired the story about how he claimed thousands of dollars on lavish meals at restaurants, bottles of wine, catering, and an expensive phone for his Mercedes Benz car. Shifting quickly into damage control mode, AHS soon after released Mr. Merali’s expense claims on their website.

Making the controversy even more outrageous, Mr. Merali is expected to receive a severance package from AHS after his employment was terminated with cause (even AHS CEO Chris Eagle does not have this provision included in his contract).

The story was uncovered by intrepid CBC reporter Charles Rusnell, who has become one of Alberta’s star investigative journalists after uncovering cases of pork-barrel politics and scores of illegal donations made by public institutions to the Progressive Conservative Party.

The controversy claimed a second high-ranking AHS official yesterday as former Capital Health CEO Shiela Weatherill resigned from the AHS board of directors. Seen as a voice of credibility after her successful time as the CEO of Capital Health until it was merged into AHS in 2008, Ms. Weatherill was appointed to the AHS board after the departure of controversial former AHS President and CEO Stephen Duckett in late 2010. Ms. Weatherill was Mr. Merali’s boss when he served as CFO of Capital Health, when many of the expense claims were made.

Fred Horne Alberta Health Minister

Fred Horne

Questions are also being raised about the role of Alberta’s current Ethics Commissioner, Neil Wilkinson, who served as chair of the Capital Health board of directors during Mr. Merali’s time as CFO of the former regional health authority.

The controversy is a blow for Premier Alison Redford‘s PC government, which was swept into office earlier this year after promising to breath new life into the four decade old government. To his credit, Health Minister Fred Horne responded quickly to the controversy and promised that future expenses for public officials at that level will be made public on a quarterly basis. With the damage already done, the largest measure of response the government has is to ensure this does not happen again.

As others have already pointed out, public funds used to fill these types of extravagant expense claims only take money away from where it belongs – on the front-lines of our public health care system.