James Cameron & the Avatarsands. Premier Ed Stelmach is facing criticism for acting like a “starstruck teenager” after receiving an invitation to take film director James Cameron on a tour of Alberta’s oil sands. While I doubt that the Ed “Hollywood” Stelmach label will stick, the Premier’s response does show how eager the PCs have become in taking any opportunity to challenge the international criticism of Alberta’s energy beach. (Will fish be on the lunch menu?)
Brian Mason’s “Just trust me” tour. NDP MLA Brian Mason made two announcements this week in his and MLA Rachel Notley‘s “Earning your trust” tour across Alberta. In CalgaryEdmonton last week, the NDP leader announced a fiscal plan, pledging that an NDP government would balance Alberta’s budget in one year. The NDP leader also announced support for the construction of a post-secondary institution in the Town of Hinton. The NDP are not going to form government or gain wide-spread support in Alberta anytime soon but I have to give that party’s two MLAs credit for being the only party on their side of the political spectrum to be making policy announcements.
There is an important political question about how much the Wildrose Alliance, which has endorsed the Envision Edmonton lobby group, is using this issue to promote their own political agenda. Bonnyville Mayor Ernie Isley told the Bonnyville Nouvelle in a recent interview that ‘his goal in life is to do everything possible in the next two years to elect a Wildrose government next election.’ ‘everything possible.’
Legislature Staffers standing in the municipal election. Two political staffers at the Alberta Legislature are trying to make the jump to municipal politics this fall. NDP Caucus Research Director Sarah Hoffman is challenging Edmonton Public School Board Trustee George Rice in Ward G. Wildrose Caucus staffer James Johnson is running against City Councillor Jane Batty in Edmonton’s downtown Ward 6.Calgary-Buffalo Liberal MLA Kent Hehr dropped out of the Calgary Mayoral contest last week.
Next Provincial Election. I have started a list of candidate nominated to stand in the next provincial election (I have also created a link to the list in the bar above). By my count, the Wildrosers have nominated 9 candidates, the NDP 2, and the Liberals will nominate their first candidate on October 2. I will try to keep the list up to date, so please email email@example.com if there are additions to the list.
Environment Minister Rob Rennerresponded bytelling reporters that his scientists have told him that the amount of compounds detected in the Athabasca River are “not a concern and are of insignificant levels.” Liberal leader David Swannand NDP MLARachel Notleyjumped on the opportunity and offered theirsupport for Dr. Schindler’s report. Wildrose Alliance MLAs have remained suspiciously silent on this important environmental debate.
“When Fort Chipewyan residents demanded the government look into whether oilsands activity was contributing to the community’s high cancer rates, they were denied. They were denied because the government’s monitoring system — R.A.M.P. — indicated that there was no impact.”
“We’ll have the scientists sit down and compare the data. Some of the measurements, I couldn’t explain to you, but let it be discussed scientist to scientist.”
Considering that the provincial government’s current strategy to clean up the oil sands appears to revolve largely on public relations campaigns, it may take much more than simple reassurances from the Premier’s “top men” to resolve this issue:
The 2010 Spring session of the Alberta Legislature wrapped up yesterday with little fanfare. Ending a month and a half earlier than the increasingly pointless Legislative calendar had scheduled, Premier Ed Stelmach‘s PCs seemed happy to cut short one of their roughest sessions in decades. Here are some thoughts on how each of the parties fared during the 2010 Spring session:
Entering their 39th year in office, the Progressive Conservatives caucus appeared to list from left to right and back again during this session. The massive cuts expected in the 2010 budget never emerged (and the cuts that did take place were largely overshadowed by funding to health care and education). Their flagship bill, the Competitiveness Act, is already becoming largely forgotten in the minds of most political watchers and did not have the public splash impact that was likely intended.
Their political machinery is still well-financed, but the PC Party leadership appears disconnected from mainstream Albertans. Premier Stelmach’s weak public speaking skills were crutched by some of the cabinet ministers who were shuffled into new positions in February and have made an impact this Spring. Most notably, Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, Finance Minister Ted Morton, Housing Minister Jonathan Denis, and Solicitor General Municipal Affairs Minister Hector Goudreau have performed fairly well in their new roles. In the Health Care file, Minister Zwozdesky appears to have spent much of the past three months travelling the province attempting to extinguish the fires set by his predecessor (now -Energy Minister Ron Liepert). While his style has brought a much friendlier tone to his position, there are still remains unanswered questions around issues ranging from seniors’ pharmacare to the future of Alberta Hospital Edmonton.
As criticisms have increased from outside the Legislature, it appears that a few PC backbenchers are increasingly unwilling to read the puff-ball questions that they regularly line up for. Whitecourt-Ste. Anne MLA George VanderBurg, Lesser Slave Lake MLA Pearl Calahasen, and Grande Prairie-Wapiti MLA Wayne Drysdale have asked some pretty tough questions and have noticeably got under the skin of some cabinet ministers during Question Period.
Premier Stelmach and his cabinet ministers will undertake a province-wide tour over the summer to talk with Albertans (and try to win back the hearts and minds of PC supporters who have flocked to the Wildrose Alliance). The optimist in me hopes that the tour will actually be effective in reconnecting our elected government officials with Albertans.
The very public departure of Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor and his verbal lashing of Dr. Swann in the media seemed to be the most memorable moment for the Liberals during this session, though internally, they are probably better off without Mr. Taylor. The Liberals won a reprieve from negative attention when a motion by backbench PC MLA Verlyn Olson temporarily removed the independence of Public Accounts Committee chairman Hugh MacDonald. While I believe Dr. Swann’s performance actually improved after Mr. Taylor’s departure, similar to their federal counterparts, the provincial Liberals biggest weakness is their focus on daily tactics, rather than long-term strategy to form government.
With the addition of former PC MLAs Rob Anderson and Heather Forsyth, the WRA caucus was boosted to third-party status for the first time. Ms. Forsyth’s Mandatory Reporting of Child Pornography bill was passed on third reading (I cannot remember any time that an opposition MLAs private members bill was passed into legislation). The Wildrose Alliance was faced with the challenge of not becoming the NDP of the right and have been strategic in what issues they chose to focus on (ie: opposing the centralization of regional health authorities into Alberta Health Services).
With three MLAs in the Assembly, seatless leader Danielle Smith has spent the majority of her time during this session criss-crossing the province, speaking to town hall meetings, trade shows, chambers of commerce, and anyone interested in meeting with the newly anointed Dauphine of Alberta politics (a very smart decision in my mind).
Outside the Legislature, the NDP appear to be stalled in the polls and have not been able to capitalize on the destabilization inside the Liberal Party. At their 2009 convention, Nova Scotia NDP organizer Matt Hebbadvised his Alberta cousins to build a bigger tent of supporters and to act like a party of government by taking a pragmatic and constructive approach to politics. “Act like a party of government, don’t talk about it,” was Mr. Hebb’s message. Judging by the daily outrage and ankle bitting during Question Period, it does not appear that the two MLAs have heeded Mr. Hebb’s advice.
Independent MLAs Guy Boutilier and Dave Taylor now share the lonely northwest corner of the Assembly floor. It was suspected that Mr. Boutilier might join the Wildrose Alliance caucus (his 2008 campaign manager has joined the WRA), but he may be too much of a wildcard for a party that is riding high in the polls and posturing to form the next government. More recently, there have been rumors floating that Mr. Taylor would like to acquire the leadership of the newly reorganized Alberta Party and reshape it into his own image (knowing the people involved in the Alberta Party, this might not be a welcoming prospect).
Since the 2008 election, five of 83 MLAs have forced the changing of seating arrangements on the Assembly floor. There has not been this much movement across the Assembly floor between elections since the early 1990s, which saw some significant Liberal by-election victories, a New Democrat cross to the PCs, a PC leave to sit as an Independent, and a handful of right-leaning Liberals cross to the PCs. It is also the first time since 1989 that an opposition party other than the Liberals or NDP have had more than one MLA in the Assembly (the Representative Party elected two former Social Credit MLAs in 1986).
This was the final session for long-time Canadian Press reporter Jim MacDonald, who will be retiring from his role in May. After 27 years working for Canadian Press, Mr. MacDonald has become an institution in the Press Gallery. During my time as a spokesperson for the Council of Alberta University Students from 2006 to 2007, Mr. MacDonald was always the most nerve-racking reporter in a media scrum – always asking the toughest questions and not taking spin for an answer. He will be missed.
On a final note, I feel the need to recognize Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid, who is normally a very good columnist, but during this spring session has written some excellent columns about politics in Alberta.
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?
As is tradition here at daveberta.ca, I have created an annual list of Alberta MLAs who have caught my eye over the past year (see the 2008 MLA review). Due to a large grouping of MLAs who through sheer numbers appear almost indistinguishable as they sit in the backbenches of the 72 70 MLA Progressive Conservative caucus, this list focuses on the handful of MLAs who caught my attention for various reasons:
Kyle Fawcett: (PC Calgary-North Hill) I am really puzzled by this one. In February 2009, backbench MLA Fawcett was one of Premier Ed Stelmach‘s proudest cheerleaders, evangelizing the Premier on the floor of the Legislature as:
…a man of extraordinary vision, someone who fails to fall into the trap of regressive thinking during challenging times. He is a steady hand at the wheel of the ship in turbulent times. When others retreat, he has the optimism to search for the light at the end of the tunnel, the beacon of hope that all Albertans aspire to. He has the dogged determination to push forward to establish this province’s place in the new world paradigm when the negativity of others is enough to stop progress dead in its tracks.
Eight months later, Fawcett took a complete 180 degree turn and criticized Premier Stelmach for doing “very little, I believe, to instil confidence in at least people in Calgary that he has the leadership capabilities to lead this province.” He soon after apologized and was quietly punished for his outspoken behaviour. It appears that Fawcett wants to be the class rebel and the teachers pet at the same time, but has ended up wearing the dunce cap instead.
Doug Griffiths: (PC Battle River-Wainwright) A year of lateral moves from being shuffled from parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to parliamentary assistant to the Solicitor General makes me wonder if the PCs are blind to talent. Griffiths knows how to use social media effectively by actually providing value and allowing citizens outside the Legislature to get a peek at what personal beliefs and driving motivations have led him to seek office. With alternatives to the near 40 year governing PCs gaining support, independent-minded Griffiths may be in a position to decide whether he wants to stay in the backbenches or join something new.
Ken Kowalski (PC Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock) As Speaker Kowalski celebrated 30 years as an MLA, he also demonstrated his political vintage by outright banning MLAs from using social media such as Twitter and Facebook during Question Period. While I agree that MLAs should respect the institution and proud traditions of the Legislature, rather than outright banning the medium, Kowalski had the opportunity to explore how new technologies could be used to reconnect citizens to their democratic institutions. I offered to help Speaker Kowalski better understand the uses of social media, but I did not receive a response. #fail
Hugh MacDonald (Liberal Edmonton-Gold Bar) Last year, I characterized MacDonald as “obsessed with discovering scandal,” and this year I say the same, but with a slightly more endearing tone. While he does come off as a little nuts, MacDonald is easily one of the hardest working MLAs in the Legislature – spending countless hours digging through files in the Legislature Library and as Chair of the Public Account Committee. AIMco, AHS, and PC MLA extra pay and bonuses have been among MacDonald’s targets in 2009, but I am still not sure if he would know what to do if he uncovered a scandal that stuck.
Len Mitzel (PC Cypress-Medicine Hat) Haven’t heard of Len Mitzel? Not surprising. The backbench MLA has found his niche as the PC caucus’ designated American conference attendee. Over the past year, Mitzel has attended conferences on behalf of the Government of Alberta in Montana (again and again), San Angelo, Laredo, Denver, and Boise, meaning that he likely understands more than most MLAs the important economic relationship that our province has with the western United States.
Rachel Notley: (NDP Edmonton-Strathcona) Notley has proven to be a consistently good parliamentarian. She is intelligent, articulate, and has worked hard to provide a clear voice for her constituents on the floor of the Legislature (on a wide range of issues). Lord only knows why NDP members have not demanded that she become the leader of her party.
Kevin Taft (Liberal Edmonton-Riverview) Freed from the burden of leading Alberta’s Liberal Party, Taft has returned to a more familiar role as Official Opposition Health Critic. Having written and researched extensively about public health care in Alberta in his pre-political life, Taft has proven to be a formidable opponent to Premier Stelmach and Minister Liepert over the past year.
It only took two days into the fall session before the offensive hyperbole started to fly and the rotten culture inside Alberta’s Legislative Assembly is now out in full force. Sixth Grade students visiting the Assembly may easily mistake the men in dark suits as grown ups, but that description is harder to believe when you hear some of the words coming out of their mouths.
Representing the Progressive Conservative Association, Aboriginal Relations MinisterGene Zwozdesky was a friendly ambassador. As the long-time MLA for Edmonton-Mill Creek (he sat as a Liberal from 1993 to 1998 and as a PC from 1998 to the present), these kind of town halls are old hat for the political veteran. Zwozdesky presented a largely scripted pro-government message in his response to questions from Jespersen and the Paul Kane students. His interactions with the other MLAs on the panel were similar.
After the forum, I had a really good discussion with Notley about the challenges in reinvigorating politics and civic engagement in Alberta. While she thought I may have been a little hard with my criticisms of politicians, we both agreed that what exists now in terms of political infrastructure isn’t resulting with a politically engaging population. From the perspective of an opposition MLA, I can understand how it quickly becomes a chicken and egg scenario. In our parliamentary democracy, can an already existing political movement invigorate citizens to engage in politics, or will citizens need to already be engaged before a political movement can begin to succeed? I believe that it comes down to values and the mechanisms that citizens feel they can join to express them.
Since becoming leader of the Alberta Liberals and the Official Opposition last December, I have noticed a marked improvement in David Swann‘s public speaking skills. One of the things I like about Swann is his sincerity, and while in a public speaking engagement one year ago it could have been mistaken as awkwardness, it’s now starting shine through. As the MLA for Calgary-Mountain View, Swann is much lesser known in Edmonton than previous Liberal leaders (four of the six Liberal leaders over the past 25 years have been from the Edmonton area), so this forum provided a good opportunity for him to speak to Edmontonians.
Fresh from what he described as a “jet ride” victory in the Calgary-Glenmore by-election, Wildrose Alliance MLA-elect Paul Hinman relied heavily on memorized talking points, but was the second most articulate speaker after Notley. On-air, Hinman presented a reasonable message of conservatism that likely would not have scared away many voters, and he addressed the issue of the politics of scaremongering while on-air.
My more interesting reflections on Hinman are generated from our discussion afterward, when he spoke in the tone of a much harder version of anti-government conservatism. I believe that government can play a positive role in society, but it was clear that Hinman didn’t as we conversed about the roles of individuals, community, and government in irradiating poverty and homelessness (it eventually culminated with Hinman very calmly accusing me of being a socialist).
Overall, the town hall was a positive experience. I really believe that there is a lack of solid political discussion happening in Alberta and I hope that CityTV and other television stations host more live-discussions and debates in the future.
After spending one evening this week at the Wildrose Alliance leadership forum, I’ve spent a good part of this weekend at the other end of the political spectrum as a media observer at the 43rd annual Alberta NDP convention in Edmonton. I will post some more detailed thoughts soon, but until then, here are some notes from the convention:
– Nova Scotia NDP campaign manager Matt Hebb spoke on Friday evening about the electoral situation that led to the current NDP majority government led by Premier Darrell Dexter. I took some notes from Hebb’s talk and will include my thoughts in a future post.
– The Democratic Renewal Project has made their presence known at the convention. A policy resolution directing the party leader to initiative public negotiations with the leaders of the Alberta Liberals and Green Party to conclude a tactical electoral alliance has proposed by the Edmonton-Rutherford and Edmonton-Whitemud NDP Associations. It will be debated on Sunday morning and will likely be defeated.
– Leader Brian Mason took a direct shot at the DRP in his Saturday afternoon speech to delegates by challenging the assumption that vote splitting is not the reason the NDP does not have more MLAs in the Legislature. Mason announced intentions for the NDP to run a full slate of candidates and a plan to target resources on 12 ridings between now and the next election.
– Mason also announced the NDPs plans to hold a number of health care forums across Alberta starting on September 29 in Calgary and September 30 in Lethbridge. Other forums are expected to be held in Edmonton, Grande Prairie, and Fort McMurray.
Edmonton Pride Parade revellers waved rainbow flags Saturday afternoon as they booed and yelled “shame” at Edmonton-Glenora MLA Heather Klimchuk, the first government minister to participate in the annual celebration.
As the Service Alberta minister spoke to a crowd of thousands at Sir Winston Churchill Square, the shouts were louder than she was.
The boos were in response to the provincial government’s passage of Bill 44 nearly two weeks ago. The bill made controversial changes to Alberta’s Human Rights Act by giving parents the right to take their children out of classes dealing with sexual orientation, human sexuality and religion.
Critics argued the new law put teachers in danger of facing human rights complaints and created a second tier of rights.
So far, Opposition Liberal and NDP MLAs Laurie Blakeman, Kevin Taft, Brian Mason, Bridget Pastoor, Kent Hehr, David Swann, and Rachel Notley have spoken against Section 9 of Bill 44 (the controversial education opt-out), and Calgary-North Hill PC MLA Kyle Fawcett has spoken in support of the Bill as it is.
While they didn’t succeed in getting their amendments to Bill 44 passed, congrats to opposition MLAs Laurie Blakeman, Kent Hehr, Rachel Notley, and Kevin Taft for their particularly well-spoken and colourful contributions to last night’s/this morning’s debates.
On another point, I wonder if any other provincial legislature watchers in Canada have a Twitter hashtag as active as #ableg?