Premier Dave Hancock, who is serving as the PC Party’s interim leader, has said he will not endorse any candidate as a condition of his temporary position in the Premier’s Office. Former Premier Alison Redford, whose scandal-filled departure triggered the leadership race, is not expected to endorse a candidate (it is unlikely that any of the leadership candidates would accept her endorsement). Ms. Redford remains the MLA for Calgary-Elbow.
Assembly Speaker Gene Zwozdesky and PC Caucus Whip George VanderBurg are expected to stay neutral in the contest because of their positions in the Assembly. Although these are legitimate reasons, it is not a requirement. Former Speaker Ken Kowalski set a precedent by endorsing candidates in the 2006 and 2011 PC leadership races.
It is suspected that Mr. Fraser’s decision to not join his colleagues in endorsing the front-runner is a reflection of the support Mr. McIver has in south east Calgary. It is expected that Mr. McIver’s campaign has sold a significant amount of PC memberships in south east Calgary’s sprawling suburbs, the area he represented on City Council and dominated in the 2010 Mayoral election.
Coincidentally, the previous MLA for Mr. Fraser’s south east Calgary riding, Art Johnston, was the only candidate to endorse Ms. Redford in the PC Party’s 2011 leadership race.
Update: MLA Ms. Johnson has endorsed Mr. Prentice’s candidacy, raising his total MLA endorsements to 50 out of 59 PC MLAs.
A six-month investigation by Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald reporters based on death records unsealed after a four-year legal battle revealed a startling number of unreported deaths of children in care of the province between 1999 and 2009. The investigation found 145 foster children have died since 1999, nearly three times more than the 56 deaths revealed in government annual reports during that time. According to the report, at least 74 of these 145 children who died while in foster care were Aboriginal or Métis.
While this story raises serious questions about transparency and why the government would keep these numbers from the public, there are still unanswered questions about how this number compares to other provinces and how it compares to children not in foster care.
Human Services Minister Dave Hancock argued against holding an emergency debate, claiming that the government had acted to protect the privacy of the children and their families by not releasing the full number of children who died in foster care. Mr. Hancock also claimed that recent legislative changes made by the government, including the creation of the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate, would ensure these numbers would not be kept secret in the future.
After a brief legislative wrangle over whether to hold an emergency debate, Assembly Speaker Gene Zwozdeskyruled against the idea.
Wildrose official opposition leader Danielle Smith: “These truly disturbing revelations not only mean that something is seriously wrong with how vulnerable children are cared for in this province, but that there are major gaps in how incidents are being reported. We must get to the bottom of what it is and begin the long process of fixing the system. If we aren’t reviewing these deaths and doing everything we can to learn from them, we are failing Albertans and risking the lives of vulnerable children.”
New Democrat MLA Rachel Notley: “This government is more concerned with protecting themselves from their own record on kids in care than in actually protecting those kids. But these kids deserve better—and so do Albertans. With this government’s cuts to the services that families living in poverty depend on, more children will likely end up in government care. We need to ensure that the system isn’t failing these kids.”
Liberal opposition leader Raj Sherman: “If the number of deaths of children in care was underreported, then the number of children seriously injured while in government care was very likely underreported as well. What is very clear now is that this Conservative government has failed in its most basic duty to protect some of the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society, children at risk. Only a fraction of the 145 deaths were deemed worthy of an investigation. In cases where reviews were completed, recommendations were not followed.”
As leader of the party that has formed government in Alberta since 1971, Premier Alison Redford cannot take any position less than one that directly addresses this issue. Anything less will raise serious questions about the competency of the current government.
Regardless of the original reasons why these deaths were unreported, it is important that the government come forward and provide a clear explanation as to why these cases were kept secret. As Albertans, we have a responsibility to protect our most vulnerable citizens, particularly those in care and especially children.
“Regardless of how people feel about the decision of the AHS board, I don’t think anybody would want me or a colleague to interfere with the terms of their employment they’ve agreed to. It’s a decision for the AHS board.” – Health Minister Fred Horne on Alberta Health Services performance pay (Edmonton Journal, March 28, 2013)
Health Minister Fred Horne did exactly the opposite yesterday when he issued a statement calling on the Alberta Health Services Board to withhold performance pay for its executives. In response, AHS board chairman and trucking magnate Stephen Lockwood rebuked the minister’s statement and the appointed board voted to move forward with the performance payments at a meeting in Calgary.
When it comes to picking his battles, I am not sure that Mr. Lockwood could have picked a issue where he was more off-side with public opinion.
But will this burst of independence last? The political showdown could come to an abrupt end this morning, when the government is expected to hold a press conference in response to AHS’s decision to approve the payments. The Calgary Herald’s Don Braid writes that Mr. Lockwood’s time as board chair could end today.
Of course, this is not the first time the government has demonstrated its influence over the supposedly arms-length agency.
This week Edmonton-CentreLiberal MLA Laurie Blakeman was recognized in the Legislative Assembly as being the “longest-serving member to serve exclusively in opposition in Alberta’s history. Ms. Blakeman was elected on March 11, 1997 and, as Speaker Gene Zwozdesky noted, she has served continuously since that time for a total of 5,876 days over the course of five-terms.
Ms. Blakeman surpassed David Duggan, who served in opposition from June 28, 1926, to May 4, 1942, for a total of 5,790 days. A historical irony is that had Speaker Zwozdesky, who was first elected as a Liberal in 1993, not crossed the floor to the Progressive Conservatives in 1998, he would now own this new record.
According to my estimation, the longest-serving opposition MLA who did not serve exclusively in opposition, is Walt Buck. Mr. Buck represented Clover Bar in the Social Credit government from 1967 to 1971 and in the Social Credit opposition from 1971 until 1982, as an Independent MLA from 1982 until 1984, and as a Representative Party MLA from 1984 until his retirement from politics in 1989. Mr. Buck recently passed away.
Here are some other Alberta Legislature milestones:
Longest-serving Premier: Ernest Manning, Social Credit (1943-1968, 25 years, 195 days)
The commencement of this year’s first sitting will be unusual in that it will lack the traditional pomp and circumstance that comes with a Speech from the Throne. Lieutenant Governor Donald Ethell will not be invited to deliver a traditional Speech from the Throne today. The lack of Throne Speech or accompanying flagship legislation will mean a focus on the provincial budget, to be tabled on March 7. This, of course, is a deliberate move by the Tories.
Finance Minister Doug Horner will table the provincial government’s 2013/2014 budget on Thursday, and many political watchers are wondering what the document will include.
Over the past two months, Minister Horner and Premier Alison Redford have managed to communicate that Alberta has a revenue problem, a pipeline problem (also known as the unfortunately named ‘Bitumen Bubble’), and finally a spending problem.
The Premier mused about tax increases, and then ruled them out. All these mixed signals will make this week’s budget announcement a highly watched spectacle.
The continuation of the sitting also means that a handful of private members bills left over from last year’s sitting will return to the Assembly floor for debate this spring. These bills were introduced last year by opposition and backbench government MLAs.
Watch Premier Redford focus on her strengths, like advocating on the national stage for a Canadian energy plan and for opening new markets for Alberta’s oil – like the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. As demonstrated throughout her first year in office, Premier Redford is much more effective at being a provincial advocate than being a provincial politician.
Do not expect to hear cabinet ministers or government MLAs make many comments about the fiascos that wreaked havoc for the Tories last fall. Ongoing investigations by Chief Elections Officer O. Brian Fjeldheim, retired Justice John Vertes, ethics commissioner Neil Wilksonson, and Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton will give the Tories a legitimate excuse to say “no comment.”
Will the Wildrose drive the agenda?
In the fall sitting of the Assembly, the newly minted Wildrose Official Opposition ran circles around the large Tory majority. It seemed like every day Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and Airdrie MLA Rob Anderson would have a new scandal or leaked documents to throw at the Tories like a live grenade.
Mirroring the tactics of the federal Conservatives in Ottawa, the Wildrose have brought a more aggressive and hyper-partisan approach than Albertans are used to from their opposition parties.
The official opposition launched a new website and series of radio ads to coincide with the budget debate, asking for Albertans feedback on the fiscal situation. While it is hard to fault the official opposition for their outreach, it is difficult to imagine the Wildrose will change their conservative ideological bent based on this mini-public relations campaign.
Lost in the fray during the fall sitting, these two parties need to remind Albertans that they are still there. Can the New Democrats and former official opposition Liberals succeed in reasserting themselves in the Assembly? I would not count them out.
The four-MLA NDP caucus just finished their province-wide “Broken Promises Tour”, highlighting what leader Brian Mason claims are a string of broken promises from the Tories since last year’s election. Liberal leader Raj Sherman has come out with a string of media releases criticizing the Tories.
Both parties hope that a provincial budget harsh on public services will remind Albertans of the differences between their parities and the governing Tories. The centre-rightish Liberal Party saw a mass exodus of supporters vote for Premier Redford’s Tories in last year’s election to block the Wildrose from forming government. It worked too well for the Tories, leaving the Liberals with a small five MLA caucus.
Last fall, the Wildrose Official Opposition danced circles around the governing Tories. Daily attacks from the Wildrose left the Tories stumbling and stammering to respond. New faces in the Premier’s Communications Office have already brought a more aggressive and partisan tone to their media releases and responses to opposition criticism online. This sitting, expect to see the Tories to counter the Wildrose attacks by taking a more aggressive approach to defending Premier Redford’s political agenda. That means dirt, mud, and more dirt.
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.
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.
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 Rusnellfirst 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.
The Wildrose Party is running a permanent negative campaign against the long-governing Progressive Conservative Party. Not taking time to break after their defeat in the May 2012 election, Danielle Smith and her 16 Wildrose MLAs are pushing hard to make Alison Redford’s Tories look corrupt and un-conservative.
Taking a more aggressive approach than their predecessors in the official opposition benches, the Wildrose have stunned the Tories into a stammer. Relentlessly berating the Tories for taking new approaches towards capital financing, the Wildrose Party are doing their best to cast the Tories as Conservatives in Name Only (CINOs). Gary Bikman, the Wildrose MLA from the deep rural south Cardston-Taber-Warner constituency, has started referring to the Tories as the “Progressive Party” on his Facebook Page.
The opposition is limited in the tactics available to them, so Wildrose MLAs use the “open-mic” available in Question Period to launch unrelenting attacks against Tory cabinet ministers. Taking a cue from the federal Conservatives in Ottawa, preambles to questions asked by Wildrose MLAs are now typically little more than negative partisan attacks. Considering the strong connections between the Wildrose Party and the Ottawa Conservatives, it is not surprising that they would adopt a similar strategy.
Here is a sample of a typical question asked by a Wildrose MLA during Question Period:
Mr. Speaker, this government has mismanaged our ___________ for years: illegal donations from ___________, outrageous expenses on ___________. Albertans are saying that they’ve had enough of the abuse from this government and enough of living in the most oppressive, intimidating environment that anyone could find themselves in. Will the Minister of ___________ finally recognize that years of systemic waste, abuse, intimidation, and disrespect on the part of this government have led to this crisis situation and immediately change his course of action and start addressing the obvious concerns of Albertans?
Short translation: “Mr. Speaker, can the Minister tell me why he is so awful at his job?”
Anyone who has watched Question Period will know that it always includes a certain level of partisan rhetoric, but the level the level of partisan rhetoric has dramatically increased since the Wildrose MLAs formed official opposition this year. For example, earlier this week Two Hills-St. Paul-Lac La Biche Wildrose MLA Shayne Saskiw was called out for insinuating that the Premier’s sister, Lynn Redford, was a criminal (our justice system still operates under the presumption of innocence in this country).
It is a cynical approach towards politics. Not winning by offering better ideas or stronger leadership but by dragging your opponents deeper into the mud.
Speaker Gene Zwozdesky and Vermilion-Lloydminster Tory MLA Richard Starke have pleaded for decorum in the Assembly. But with the opposition MLAs unlikely to change their tactics, not all members of the Tory cabinet are willing to be great contributors to a reasoned debate.
Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk, who has been charged as the Question Period attack dog, strikes back at the Wildrose MLAs with ease. The Deputy Premier recently accused Ms. Smith of throwing her party’s candidates and Albertans under a bus. As any veteran opposition politician can attest, the Tories have not been in power for forty-one uninterrupted years by “being nice.”
Albertans tired of the rhetoric from this year’s elections should settle in and accept the reality that the negative campaign did not end on April 23, 2012. This campaign will continue until at least the next election.
It is unclear where the Liberal Party fits in the new political environment and despite its dismal showing at the polls last month and it is disputable whether changing leadership at this time will improve that party’s electoral fortunes. Dr. Sherman’s biggest advantage in the June vote may be a lack of anyone else interested in taking up the unenviable position of trying to rebuild Alberta’s Liberal Party.
With only four other MLAs in the Assembly, the Liberals would have a small pool to draw from if Dr. Sherman were to leave. One of those MLA’s, David Swann, already served as leader from 2008 until 2011, and another, Laurie Blakeman, was defeated in the 2011 leadership contest.
Ms. Blakeman spent the past month campaigning to become the Speaker of the Assembly, which if she had won would have, for all intents and purposes, bumped the group of Liberal MLA’s down to 4. Ms. Blakeman was unsuccessful in her bid and was defeated by Edmonton-Mill Creek PC MLA Gene Zwozdesky, who himself crossed the floor from the Liberals to the PCs in 1998.
Calgary-Buffalo MLA Kent Hehr demonstrated ambition for higher office during his short-lived run for Mayor of Calgary in 2010, but has not publicly displayed interest in his party’s leadership position. I have little insight into whether Calgary-McCall MLA Darshan Kang would be interested in the role.
A few long-time Liberal partisans have shared their frustration with me, suggesting that if long-time Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Hugh MacDonald had not decided to retire in the recent election, he would be in an ideal position to claim the party leadership. Mr. MacDonald placed second in that party’s 2011 leadership contest and many of his supporters continue to see Dr. Sherman as an outsider to their party.
Other Party Leadership Reviews
It is expected that PC Premier Alison Redford will face a leadership affirmation vote at her party’s annual convention next year. After leading her party to re-election, winning 61 of 87 seats, it is likely that her leadership will be strongly affirmed in the vote.
Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith, now Leader of the Official Opposition, is required to face a leadership affirmation vote every three years, which means the next vote would be held in 2013 at the latest. Under section 8.4 of the Wildrose Party constitution, Ms. Smith leadership also faces conditions of term-limits:
8.4 The Leader shall be limited to holding the office of Leader of the Party for the longer of two terms of the Legislative Assembly or eight years, unless endorsed by a two-thirds majority to continue for an additional four years at the Annual General Meeting immediately preceding the expiry of the allowed term.
As the Opposition Caucuses and Parties reorganize following electoral changes caused as a results of the April 23 election, there will be a number of staff and role changes in Assembly. The new Assembly will convene for the first time to elect a new Speaker on May 23, 2012 and listen to the Speech from the Throne on May 24, 2012.
This new Speaker will be selected by sitting MLA’s through a secret ballot and because this election is traditionally not a whipped vote, it can sometimes lead to interesting and unexpected results. When Mr. Kowalski was selected as Speaker in 1997, many political observers believed it was the Liberal and NDP MLA’s who helped him defeat Premier Ralph Klein‘s preferred choice, then-Dunvegan MLA Glen Clegg.
A recent listing on the Government of Alberta website shows that Dr. Sherman’s long-time adviser Jonathan Huckabay will return to his role as Chief of Staff of the Liberal Caucus Office. Mr. Huckabay entered that role earlier this year when former MLA Rick Miller resigned to focus on his election campaign in Edmonton-Rutherford. When the election was called, Mr. Huckabay stood as a Liberal candidate in Edmonton-Manning, where he placed fourth with just over 1,000 votes.
Recently the party’s candidate in Cypress-Medicine Hat, Jon Mastel is Dr. Sherman’s new Executive Assistant.
Senior Communications Advisor Earl J Woods announced in a blog post last week that he would be leaving the Liberal Caucus, where he has worked for six and a half years (if you are looking to hire a great writer, contact Mr. Woods).
For the first time since 2001, someone other than Hugh MacDonald will serve as chair of the important Public Accounts Committee, which has ability to scrutinize government spending. Mr. MacDonald served as the MLA for Edmonton-Gold Bar from 1997 until the recent election when he chose to retire from the Assembly. While he sometimes appeared to be relentlessly focused on discovering scandal in the Tory government, Mr. MacDonald was easily one of the hardest working MLA’s under the Dome.
The role of Public Accounts Committee Chair traditionally falls to a MLA representing the Official Opposition Caucus, meaning that one of the 17 Wildrose Party MLA’s will fill this role when the new Assembly convenes next week. Second-term Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson, who will also serve as Official Opposition Finance Critic, could be a powerful force in this important role. Calgary-Fish Creek Wildrose MLA Heather Forsyth served as the Wildrose representative on the committee before the election.
Rumours abound about who might end up in Premier Redford’s new cabinet, which is expected to be appointed next week. While Tory stalwarts such as Dave Hancock, Doug Horner, Thomas Lukaszuk, and Doug Griffiths are almost certainly in line to keep a spot at the cabinet table, the retirement and defeat of a number of Tory MLAs and cabinet minister may have opened spots for new faces at the table.
We ask (nay, demand) our public office holders to do their very best 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. A $134,000 base salary does not seem unreasonable to me.
Electing a new Speaker
The first order of business when the Assembly convenes this Spring will be the election of a new Speaker for the first time since 1997. Candidates in the running include Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman and Tory MLA’s Gene Zwozdesky, Wayne Cao, and Mary Anne Jablonski.
Premier’s new Chief of Staff
Premier Alison Redford appointed Calgary lawyer Farouk Adatia as her Chief of Staff. Mr. Adatia replaces Stephen Carter, who was temporarily replaced by Elan McDonald in March 2012 (Mr. Carter took a leave of absence to work on the PC Party campaign). Mr. Adatia was the unsuccessful PC candidate in Calgary-Shaw in the recent election and had previously attempted to win the PC nomination in Calgary-Hawkwood.
Mandel to Smith: Pick up the Phone
In the most bizarre story of the week, Ms. Smith told the media that she had asked Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi to “broker a peace summit” between herself and Mayor Stephen Mandel. Over the past three years, the Calgary-based Ms. Smith has publicly opposed some high-profile decisions made by Edmonton City Council.
Mayor Mandel quite correctly responded to Ms. Smith’s “peace summit” comment by saying if she wanted to talk with him she could pick up the phone. One can only imagine how this relationship would have started if Ms. Smith had actually been elected Premier last week.