Tag Archives: Ralph Klein

Firing the Election Commissioner is bad for democracy and bad for Alberta

In an unusual but not unheard of piece of political theatre, New Democratic Party leader Rachel Notley was removed from the Legislative Assembly today when she refused to apologize for accusing the UCP government of obstruction of justice as it dissolves the independent Office of the Election Commissioner.

Rachel Notley Alberta Premier NDP

Rachel Notley (Source: Facebook)

Notley knew what she was doing, and did not take it lightly, as she was willing to be thrown out of the Assembly for a day in order to make her point. This is the first time in recent memory that a leader of the official opposition has been removed from the Assembly.

Meanwhile, Premier Jason Kenney was on a plane to Texas safely avoiding controversy when his United Conservative Party government introduced the omnibus bill.

Bill 22: Reform of Agencies, Boards and Commissions and Government Enterprise Act, a 174-page omnibus bill, is packed with legislative changes, including major changes to Alberta’s public sector pension plans, cuts to historical and sports groups, and dissolves the Office of the Election Commissioner. That last move in effect fires Commissioner Lorne Gibson and likely shuts down his years-long investigation into the UCP’s 2017 leadership campaign that has already led to more than $200,000 in fines.

The Election Commissioner’s investigation is related to illegal or irregular donations to the so-called Kamakaze campaign of Jeff Callaway, the former Wildrose Party president whose brief run for the UCP leadership is considered to have been a stalking-horse for front-runner Kenney. The RCMP are conducting a separate on-going investigation into the UCP leadership campaign.

Jason Kenney Alberta Politics

Jason Kenney (Source: Daveberta.ca)

Kenney’s campaign closely collaborated with Callaway’s campaign, and Matt Wolf, now the Premier’s Executive Director of Issues Management, played an intimate role. But that’s not the shady backroom business that is being investigated by the Commissioner or the RCMP.

The Office of the Election Commissioner was created in 2017 because it was determined that the Chief Elections Officer did not have the resources or political independence to launch thorough investigations into violations of Alberta’s election finance laws.

Wildrose MLAs argued against the creation of his office and UCP supporters have both despised and dismissed Gibson’s investigations, but it is the timing and brazenness of the firing that was shocking.

Before it was tabled for First Reading in the Assembly, Government House Leader Jason Nixon moved to fast-track Bill 22 by severely limiting debate to one hour at each stage in the Legislative process.

Finance Minister Travis Toews has framed dissolving the Office of the Election Commissioner, with its $1 million annual budget, as a money saving decision. But at the same time, the UCP government is spending $2.5 million on a public inquiry to intimidate its political opponents and is providing a $30 million public relations subsidy to the oil and gas industry through the creation of Canadian Energy Centre Ltd.

The UCP are changing the rules because people involved in the party broke the rules and were starting to get caught. Kenney knew that firing the Election Commissioner would be unpopular, but he is clearly willing to spend significant political capital to end the investigations into the Kamikaze campaign. It is a cynical move that is bad for democracy and bad for Alberta.

Notley asks LG to not give Royal Assent to Bill 22

Lois Mitchell

Lois Mitchell (Source: LG website)

Notley has asked Lieutenant Governor Lois Mitchell to not sign Bill 22 when it passes third reading.

It is clear that the best interests of Albertans would be served by allowing the Office of the Election Commissioner to continue its investigations into violations of Alberta’s elections laws, an unlikely outcome if Bill 22 passes, but it is both a serious request and a risky and potentially ineffective political move to ask the Lieutenant Governor to intervene (as she is likely to decline, or worse, simply not respond to the request). 

That said, the Lieutenant Governor does have a power known as reservation, which has rarely been exercised over Canadian history, and probably for good reason. The powers exist in Section 55 of the Constitution Act, and explained plainly, it means the Lieutenant Governor may adopt one of three courses of action in regard to any legislation passed by the Assembly: they may assent, they may “withhold” assent, or they may reserve their assent for “the Signification of the Queen’s Pleasure.”.

I am aware of two examples in recent history in which a Lieutenant Governor opted to withhold Royal Assent to a bill passed by a provincial legislature.

John C Bowen Alberta Lieutenant Governor

John C. Bowen

In 1937, Lieutenant Governor John Bowen refused to give Royal Assent to three bills passed by Premier William Aberhart’s Social Credit government, including the Accurate News and Information Act, which would have forced newspapers to hand over the names and addresses of their sources to the government, and to print government rebuttals to stories the provincial cabinet objected to. The unconstitutionality of the three bills was later confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada.

In 1961, Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor Frank Bastedo opted to withhold Royal Assent for a mineral rights bill, which was later approved through an order-in-council passed by the federal cabinet in Ottawa.

There have been two recent cases in Alberta’s history where Lieutenant Governor’s have publicly mused about withholding assent.

Ralph Steinhauer Alberta Lieutenant Governor

Ralph Steinhauer (Source: Alberta Lieutenant Governor on Flickr)

In 1977, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Steinhauer, the first person of Aboriginal heritage to be appointed to the post, considered withholding Royal Assent and publicly spoke against Bill 29:The Land Titles Amendment Act.

The bill introduced by Premier Peter Lougheed’s PC government was designed to prevent Aboriginal land claims in the northern Alberta, including the oilsands producing areas.

And in 2000, Lieutenant Governor Lois Hole publicly suggested she might have a long talk with Premier Ralph Klein before granting Royal Assent to Bill 11, a controversial health care bill.

And in one of the most odd-ball political plays including the  Lieutenant Governor: the Kudatah. Opponents of Notley’s NDP government collected signatures for a petition to present to the Lieutenant Governor to hold a a plebiscite on the carbon tax and Farm safety laws or else they would enact a secret clause in the Elections Act to overturn the results of the May 2015 election (or something like that). With everything else that is going on lately, I don’t think Albertans need or want a repeat of that.

Kenney’s Alberta Autonomy Panel given questions answered 15 years ago by Klein’s Strengthening Alberta’s Role in Confederation Committee

Things are getting pretty weird in Alberta.

Deep cuts to the provincial budget are resulting in the cancellation of public services and job layoffs across the province, and the fallout from the federal election continues to dominate the political discussion. And chaos – organized chaos – reigns, as Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government dramatically shifts the political narrative on an almost daily basis.

Preston Manning

Preston Manning

But things got really weird last week when elected councillors of the County of Wheatland, a 8,700 person rural municipality east of Calgary, voted for a resolution calling for a possible Alberta independence vote. The councillor who introduced the motion is Jason Wilson, who according to his online biography also sits on the board of the local UCP association.

Yesterday, Kenney stood at the podium at the now one-day Manning Networking Conference in Red Deer to announce the creation of a “Fair Deal” panel that will look at ways to give the province more autonomy.

Kenney’s panel is both a continuation of his personal political campaign against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who’s Liberal Party was re-elected with a large minority government, and a reaction to the frustration felt by many of the 70 per cent of Albertans who voted for Andrew Scheer’s Conservative Party.

While some of the frustration felt by Albertans is legitimate, regional and partisan grievances are deeply intertwined in this province. With the UCP essentially operating as a provincial-wing of the federal Conservative Party, it is hard to believe that this panel would exist if Scheer had not snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on October 21.

Panel members include former Reform Party leader Preston Manning (who has openly warned about separatism), former one-term Progressive Conservative MLA Donna Kennedy-Glans (who recently wrote a blog post asking if Trudeau has committed treason), current UCP MLAs Drew Barnes, Miranda Rosin, and Tany Yao, Fraser Institute senior fellow and University of Alberta academic Moin Yahya, Canada West Foundation board chair Oryssia Lennie, former Alberta Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations Jason Goodstriker, and Peter Lougheed’s son Stephen Lougheed.

Donna Kennedy Glans MLA Calgary Varsity

Donna Kennedy-Glans

The panel will be given a $650,000 budget to hold seven town hall meetings to consult with Albertans on a prescribed series of issues that have been bees in Conservative partisans’ bonnets for decades, including:

  • withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan and creating an Alberta Pension Plan (something that was hinted last week and could have a big impact on the migration of interprovincial labour to Alberta),
  • replacing the Canada Revenue Agency by establishing a provincial revenue agency,
  • ending contracts with the RCMP and creating a provincial police force (the RCMP are currently investigating allegations of fraud in the UCP’s 2017 leadership contest),
  • opting out of federal programs like pharmacare,
  • forming an office of a Chief Firearms Officer (a Wildrose Party policy), and
  • creating an Alberta Constitution.

The panel’s mandate letter talks a lot about emulating Quebec, including implementing a rule that municipalities and school boards require the approval of the provincial government before they can enter into agreements with the federal government. This could be used by the Kenney government to cut off potential cooperation between municipalities and the federal government on projects like affordable housing, public infrastructure and climate change initiatives.

The panel and its town hall meetings are both a relief valve and a steering wheel meant to allow Albertans to vent their frustrations while allowing Kenney to attempt to keep ahead of the crowd. Or at least that’s probably the plan.

Premier Ralph Klein

Ralph Klein

Kenney frequently boasts about the size of his electoral mandate, so it is notable that none of the autonomy polices to be considered by the panel were included in the UCP’s incredibly thorough election platform just six months ago.

The panel’s mandate and the questions it is being tasked with asking are remarkably similar to the questions asked by the MLA Committee on Strengthening Alberta’s Role in Confederation created by premier Ralph Klein in November 2003.

Chaired by Edmonton-Rutherford MLA Ian McClelland (a former Reform Party Member of Parliament) and co-chaired by Red Deer-North MLA Mary Anne Jablonski, members of the committee included Calgary-Fort MLA Wayne Cao, Lac La Biche-St. Paul MLA Ray Danyluk, Wainwright MLA Doug Griffiths, Calgary-Currie MLA Jon Lord, Calgary-North Hill MLA Richard Magnus, St. Albert MLA Mary O’Neill, and Banff-Cochrane MLA Janis Tarchuk.

The MLA committee was created in the wake of the infamous 2001 Firewall Letter, signed by right-wing luminaries Ted Morton, Tom Flanagan, Rainer Knopff, Andy Crooks, Ken Boessenkool, and future prime minster Stephen Harper, and in response to small but loud fringe groups like the Alberta Independence Party and the Separation Party of Alberta.

And, like many of the initiatives started in the final few years of Klein’s tenure as premier, it was a meant to create a distraction from what had largely become a rudderless government. 

Ian McClelland

The mandate letter of the MLA committee was filled with much more flowery and hopeful language than the doom-and-gloom fear of separatism included in the mandate letter of Kenney’s panel. But the real mandate of the MLA committee was to travel the province to gauge support for the Firewall manifesto – a similar mandate of Kenney’s panel.

The MLA Committee on Strengthening Alberta’s Role in Confederation held 12 public hearings between January and March 2004 and here is what they recommended:

Pension Plan: “The Committee believes that withdrawing from the CPP and creating a separate Alberta pension plan is not in the best interests of Albertans. That is not to say that the CPP should not be improved for Albertans and all Canadians. The Committee further recommends that Alberta develop and advocate further CPP reforms that will end the intergenerational inequity, and move the CPP to a fully-funded foundation.” (Page 19)

Tax Collection: “Collecting our own personal income taxes would be a costly venture. One analysis suggests that set-up costs would be $30-40 million and that annual administrative costs could be between $70 and $160 million (including the costs of an additional 1,000-2,000 full time positions that might be required). By comparison, the administrative fee paid by Alberta under the TCA is less than $5 million annually. The Committee is also concerned that individual Albertans and businesses in the province would incur higher out-of-pocket costs in complying with two separate tax systems. This consideration alone makes the idea impractical. The Committee recommends that the Government of Alberta reach a new Tax Collection Agreement with the federal government that addresses Alberta’s concerns and provides increased tax policy flexibility.” (Page 21)

Mary Anne Jablonski

Police Force: The Committee recommends that the Government of Alberta commission a detailed study of policing alternatives to the RCMP in advance of the 2007 cost review. This analysis should include a careful examination of costs, efficiencies, and levels of service. … The Committee further recommends that appropriate municipal stakeholders be consulted in the cost review negotiations in 2007, and that consideration be given to inclusion of such stakeholders on the Alberta negotiating team.” (Page 25)

Senate: “The Committee recommends that the Government of Alberta, through the Council of the Federation, encourage the Premiers to consider a process that would see the Prime Minister fill Senate vacancies from lists of provincial nominees. In Alberta’s case, the list should be generated by a Senatorial election.” (Page 29)

Intergovernmental Relations: “The Committee further recommends that the Government of Alberta re-establish an office in Ottawa. Close proximity to, and face-to-face contact with, federal decision-makers would improve relations between our governments and would help ensure Alberta interests are accurately and efficiently conveyed and addressed.” (Page 58)

Our Future:The Committee also recommends that the Government of Alberta work towards fixing the underlying structural problems of our Canadian institutions that feed the flames of western alienation. The Committee further recommends that the Government of Alberta establish a fund for use in pursuing those legal challenges deemed to be necessary and desirable for safeguarding Alberta’s Constitutional jurisdiction.” (Page 59)

The MLA committee and its final report rejected the Firewall manifesto and was quickly forgotten after Paul Martin’s Liberals lost their majority in June 2004 and Klein’s PCs had their knuckles rapped in November 2004. But unlike Klein’s committee, which resulted in some fairly moderate and milquetoast recommendations, many of the panel members appointed by Kenney yesterday and the political environment they exist in are much more ideologically driven and politically divided.

This weird ride doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon. There’s more chaos ahead.


Alberta to reopen office in Ottawa, again

In his speech to the Manning Centre, Kenney announced that the Alberta government will open offices in Ottawa, Quebec, and British Columbia. It is unusual and unclear why the Alberta government would need offices in other provincial capitals or in Ottawa, where Albertans just elected 34 Members of Parliament to represent their interests. But an office in the federal capital is not unprecedented.

The Alberta government opened an office in Ottawa in 1939. The Ottawa office was closed in 1996 and its last executive director, Gordon Olsen (brother of War Room CEO Tom Olsen), relocated to Calgary. A government review conducted in 2000 concluded that technology allows people to research information just as easily without a full-time office in Ottawa.

In 2004, Klein publicly mused about opening an Alberta government-funded office in Ottawa for the province’s elected Senate nominees, but the unpopular idea died quickly.

Premier Alison Redford reopened the office in 2013 and Calgary energy lawyer Alan Ross was hired as Alberta’s representative. Premier Jim Prentice closed the office again in 2015.

(Photo source: Facebook)

Alberta is blue, but what else is new?

The results across Canada were a mixed colour of red, orange, green, blue, and bleu as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is returning to Ottawa to form a new Liberal minority government. But the results in Alberta were anything but mixed.

The Conservative Party earned 69.2 percent of the total vote in Alberta in Monday’s federal election, which is 3 percent higher than the party’s previous high-water mark of 66.8 in Alberta in the 2011 federal election.

It is no surprise that the vast majority of Albertans voted Conservative and that nearly all of the province’s elected Members of Parliament are also Conservative. This has happened in virtually every election since I was born, and about 25 years before that too.

Conservative candidates were elected or re-elected in most ridings in ranges from 70 percent to over 80 percent. It appears that Battle River-Crowfoot remains the strongest Conservative voting riding in Canada, with 85 percent of voters in that riding supporting the Conservatives.

Conservatives also dominated in Alberta’s two largest cities, earning 69 percent in Calgary, and 63 percent of the vote in Edmonton, which voted overwhelmingly for the Alberta NDP in the recent provincial election.

The Conservative Party and its predecessor parties have dominated Alberta for decades, and the Conservative have represented the majority of Alberta’s federal ridings since 1958, and have held all of the province’s seats from 1972 to 1977, 1977 to 1988 and 2006 to 2008.

This election has once again reminded Canadians of the regional divides in our country but it should also not be a surprise. Regional division is a feature of Canadian politics and our First Past the Post electoral system exaggerates these divides.

NDP hold Strathcona

Heather McPherson NDP Edmonton Strathcona

Heather McPherson

New Democratic Party candidate Heather McPherson was elected in Edmonton-Strathcona, making her the only non-Conservative MP in Alberta and the only woman elected in the Edmonton area serving in the House of Commons.

While the NDP convincingly held off Conservative challenger Conservative Sam Lilly and Liberal Eleanor Olszewski, this election further exposed fractures between the provincial and federal NDP in Alberta.

McPherson’s opponents delighted in a decision by Rachel Notley to withhold her endorsement of McPherson until days before election day but it appears to have had no impact on the results in the riding. McPherson finished with 47 percent of the vote, four points ahead of now-former MP Linda Duncan‘s results from 2015.

Liberals lost.

Amarjeet Sohi Edmonton

Amarjeet Sohi

Liberal MP and Minister of Natural Resources Amarjeet Sohi was defeated by Conservative Tim Uppal in Edmonton-Mill Woods, Randy Boissonnault was defeated by Conservative James Cumming in Edmonton-Centre, and Kent Hehr was defeated by Greg McLean in Calgary-Centre, leaving the Liberals with no seats in the House of Commons from Alberta, and likely no representation in the new federal cabinet from Alberta.

The Liberals saw their province-wide vote total in Alberta cut to 13.7 percent, down from 24.6 percent in 2015. The personal unpopularity of Trudeau in Alberta, fuelled by angst and frustration with the current economic situation and the consistently low international price of oil, made it very unlikely that the Liberals would do well in Alberta in 2019.

Despite Sohi’s loss in Monday’s election, the congenial and personally popular politician is frequently named as a potential candidate for Edmonton’s 2021 mayoral election if Don Iveson decides not to seek re-election.

What could a Liberal minority government mean for Albertans?

The prospect of the Liberal minority government influenced by the NDP and Greens could lead to the introduction of new national programs that will benefit Albertans – including universal pharmacare and dental care, and expanded childcare coverage – and the prospect of real electoral reform that could ease some of the rigid political divides we saw in Monday’s election.

Trudeau announced today that his government plans to move ahead with the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project, despite delays caused by court challenges from First Nations communities. Because the construction of the pipeline project does not require any votes of Parliament, the minority situation is not likely to impact the construction of the project.

Oil pipeline aside, the Liberals are expected to push forward on their climate change plans, including the introduction of a federal carbon tax in Alberta next year. In what could be a sign of changing times, New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs announced his plans to create a provincial carbon tax, dropping his opposition the federal carbon tax.

Kenney still campaigning…

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is showing no sign he plans to end his campaign against Trudeau, announcing this week that he has sent a letter to the prime minister outlining the Alberta government’s demands, including a plan for a resource corridor and changes to the equalization formula (none of which Trudeau campaigned for ahead of Monday’s election).

Kenney has announced plans to hold a series of town hall meetings to gauge voter frustration following the federal election. This could be similar to the MLA Committee on Alberta’s Role in Confederation created by Ralph Klein and chaired by Edmonton MLA Ian McClelland in 2004, which travelled the province to gauge support for the Firewall manifesto (the committee’s final report rejected most of the manifesto’s proposals).

The town halls are both a relief valve and a steering wheel that allows people to vent their frustrations while allowing Kenney, as Klein would say, to try to keep ahead of the crowd.

Former Alberta MLA defeated in BC

Former Alberta MLA Alana DeLong was defeated in Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, finishing second with 25% behind NDP MP Alistair MacGregor. DeLong served as the Progressive Conservative MLA for Calgary-Bow from 2001 to 2015. She ran for the BC Liberals in the 2017 provincial election on Vancouver Island as well.

Is Alberta separatism on the rise? No.

The results in Alberta and bot-driven promotion of the #wexit hashtag on Twitter have fuelled a surge of media interest of Alberta separatism, an idea that has no wide-spread support in this province.

Many Albertans are feeling a real sense of frustration with the federal government, as Monday’s election results demonstrate, but there is no evidence that Albertans are flocking en masse to separatism. None.

WAR ROOM ENGAGE! Kenney hires former UCP candidate Tom Olsen to run the Canadian Energy Centre

The Alberta government’s much talked about energy war room now has its General. Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced yesterday that Tom Olsen has been hired as the managing director of the newly incorporated Canadian Energy Centre. The $30-million publicly funded private corporation is part of the UCP’s “fight back strategy” to counter claims made by critics of the oil and gas industry that Premier Jason Kenney said will target politicians, media and other opinion leaders, and could include satellite offices overseas.

Joe Ceci Calgary NDP

Joe Ceci

Olsen was most recently the United Conservative Party candidate in the downtown Calgary-Buffalo riding in the 2019 provincial election, where he finished 9 per cent short of unseating former New Democratic Party finance minister Joe Ceci. But despite his recent electoral loss, Olsen has been a fixture of Conservative politics in Alberta for more than a decade.

After years as a columnist and reporter for the large daily newspapers in Calgary and Edmonton, Olsen jumped into politics when he was hired as Premier Ed Stelmach’s spokesperson in 2007. (Olsen’s brother, Gordon Olsen, worked in senior roles in the Premier’s Office while Ralph Klein occupied the office).

While some Albertans will remember Olsen for his role in the Northumberland beach photos fiasco, he also oversaw the launch of the first version of the war room.

In 2008, the Alberta government launched a website called “For the Record” that was dedicated to correcting what the government determined was incomplete or incorrect information in the media. “It’s not a forum to argue philosophy and spin. . . it’s not debating the rightness or wrongness of a particular issue. It’s about factual information,”Olsen told the Calgary Herald in December 2008. “I don’t see it as government policing journalists.”

The Alberta Government’s short-lived “For the Record” webpage.

It was the government policing journalists, and it did not last very long. The government website posted six corrections to news stories from various media outlets between November 2008 and December 2010. The website briefly became a source of controversy when Olsen insisted the Globe & Mail be referred to as the Toronto Globe & Mail. The website was later edited to drop Toronto from the newspaper’s name.

Following a wholesale purge of Stelmach’s senior communications staff, Olsen was whisked off to Vancouver to handle the Alberta government’s public relations during the 2010 Winter Olympics, which included the renting of the luxury Rocky Mountaineer train and the distribution of free iPads to journalists and VIPs.

Sonya Savage

Olsen later worked as a lobbyist for groups including the Calgary Residential Rental Association, Greyhound and the national group representing Pay Day Loan companies. He found himself back in the Progressive Conservative Party fold when he became Vice-President of Communications during Jim Prentice‘s brief time as party leader.

Savage, a former pipeline lobbyist and now a member of the war room board of directors along with Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer and Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, said this week that the war room will include a rapid response centre, an energy literacy unit and a data research unit. Former Postmedia columnist Claudia Cattaneo was hired in August 2019 by the government to write the Energy War Room Strategic plan.

Earlier this year, Postmedia hired Kenney’s former chief of staff, Nick Koolsbergen, to lobby the UCP government on ways the Toronto-headquartered newspaper company could be involved with the war room. 

In an interview with the Postmedia-owned Financial Post, Postmedia President and CEO Andrew MacLeod said that the lobby effort was part the company’s effort to find new revenue streams and that it had no relationship to editorial decision-making (meanwhile, the front cover of the Postmedia-owned National Post today featured a paid political advertisement attacking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau).

Andrew MacLeod Postmedia CEO President

Andrew MacLeod

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, a lobby group that represents many of Canada’s oil and gas companies, is also registered to lobby Alberta MLAs, the Minister of Energy and the Premier’s Office to share and advise on best practices for the war room to counter misinformation. 

Postmedia’s past relationship with CAPP is no secret, but these group’s business relationships with the war room could be.

As CBC’s Michelle Bellefontaine reported today, as a private corporation the Canadian Energy Centre will be exempt from freedom of information requests, meaning that Albertans might not ever know how much of the $30 million is paid to Postmedia, CAPP or whichever UCP-connected PR firms are hired to work for the publicly-funded private war room.

Regardless of which PR companies or Toronto-based newspaper company gets hired, Olsen will have his job cut out for him. The first order of business for the new Canadian Energy Centre might be playing defence for the Alberta government’s $2.5 million public inquiry into anti-oil campaigns – an effort that has been criticized as a witch-hunt by groups like EcoJustice and the venerable Amnesty International.

While it may be easy for Kenney to dismiss NGOs and suggest that the 4,000 Albertans participating in the climate strike protest outside the Legislature were communist sympathizers, Olsen’s war room will have a harder time dismissing its greatest opponent – the free market.

Many major international oil and gas corporations have withdrawn their investments in Canada’s oilsands over the past five years, and the UCP’s decision to scale back the Alberta government’s climate change commitments certainly will not help how our province is perceived internationally.

Conservatives howled loudly this week as a major Norwegian pension fund withdrew investments in four Alberta-based oilsands companies. The move was described by UCP supporters online as hypocritical, as Norway continues to make investments in its own off-shore oil and gas platforms. The move may have been hypocritical, but those are the types of decisions that countries like Norway can make when they have $1.1 trillion saved in the bank (something for Albertans to think about when they consider how much past governments have squandered our wealth).

Olsen’s biggest challenge might be to prove that the war room is more than a $30-million public relations subsidy to Alberta’s oil and gas companies.

Public attitudes toward fossil fuels and climate change are shifting dramatically, and Alberta risks becoming increasingly isolated on energy and climate issues on the national and international stage. Judging from the Alberta government’s numerous high-profile efforts over the past two decades to correct what it saw as misinformation about the oilsands and fight environmental advocates outside the province, the war room might be an example of the UCP preparing to fight the last war.


A short history of Alberta government  advertising campaigns and initiatives aimed at critics of oil and gas companies (I am sure I have missed a few):

2002: the Alberta government announced and later scrapped plans for an anti-Kyoto Accord advertising campaign in Ontario after focus group testing proved the messaging was unpopular among Torontonians.

2008: the Alberta government launched a public relations campaign targeting critics of the oilsands outside of Alberta, which included a 20-page glossy brochure entitled Alberta’s Oil Sands: Balance. Opportunity. This campaign included a North America and European speaking tour by the Premier.

2010: the Alberta government rolled out a slick $25-million “Tell It Like It Is” oilsands promotional campaign that included advertisements in London’s Piccadilly Circus and New York City’s Times Square. The multimedia blitz includes CDs and DVDs about “Alberta’s Clean Energy Future” and “A conversation on oilsands and the environment” – which features commentary from provincial experts.

2012: the Alberta government announced it was spending $77,000 on a pro-Keystone XL Pipeline advertising campaign during the Premier’s visit to Washington DC and hired lobbyists to directly lobby US officials.

2012: the federal Conservative government assigned Canadian diplomats to lobby Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. in order to counter campaigns launched by an environmental advocacy groups targeting the oilsands.

2013: the federal Conservative government launched a advertising campaign directed at American politicians ahead of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s trip to the United States. The ad campaign described Canada as a “world environmental leader” on oil and gas development.

2018: the Alberta government spent more than $23 million promoting its KeepCanadaWorking advertising campaign in support of the expansion of the Trans Mountain PIpeline from Alberta to British Columbia.

Kenney campaigns for federal Conservatives in Ontario this weekend

With Ontario Premier Doug Ford nowhere to be seen in this federal election, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is pinch-hitting for federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer in Ontario this weekend. Kenny will be spending a few days campaigning for federal Conservative candidates in the Ottawa region and Greater Toronto Area, a trip paid for by the Conservative Party of Canada.

It is not unusual for a provincial premier to campaign in support of their federal party of choice.  Rachel Notley shared the stage with Thomas Mulcair at a campaign rally in Edmonton in 2015 and Ralph Klein campaigned in Calgary with local Member of Parliament Bobbie Sparrow in 1993 and Progressive Conservative Party leader Jean Charest in 1997. But it is quite unusual for a premier to be campaign for their federal party of choice in another province.

Premier Ralph Klein

Ralph Klein

It is perhaps less unusual because the premier in question is Jason Kenney. As a federal cabinet minister he was praised by fellow partisans for his role in expanding Conservative Party’s outreach into New Canadian communities that had previously been the strongholds of the Liberal Party, a strategy that appeared solid until its collapse in 2015.

And while Kenney is currently the Premier of Alberta, he very much remains a national politician and one of the leaders of Conservative movement in Canada, frequently speaking at partisan fundraisers and events hosted by right-wing think tanks like the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Manhattan Institute.

Kenney’s interest in the federal campaign is no surprise. Much of the United Conservative Party campaign in Alberta’s recent provincial election focused on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who Kenney had pledged his efforts to defeat in the October 21 federal election. And it is probably the worst-kept secret in Canadian politics that Kenney still harbours federal leadership ambitions. Ambitions that could be realized sooner than expected if Scheer stumbles in this election.

This is the first federal election in decades that both the federal and provincial Conservative parties in Alberta are marching in lock-step. The creation of the United Conservative Party in 2017 was just as much about the merging of the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties as it was creating harmony between the dominant provincial and federal Conservative parties.

This campaign trip to Ontario is not Kenney’s first, but it is much more extensive than his previous visits.

Rajan Sawhney

Kenney made an appearance at a fundraiser earlier this year in Brampton-North, where his former ministerial staffer Arpan Khanna is running for the Conservatives. Khanna managed Kenney’s Toronto office during his time as Minister of Multiculturalism and Minister of National Defence.

Flying to Ottawa today, Kenney launched his campaign tour with Conservative candidates Brian St. Louis in Nepean and Abdul Abdi in Ottawa-West Nepean.

While Kenney’s Ontario itinerary does not appear to be publicly available, UCP sources tell me that he is scheduled to spend the rest of the weekend canvassing door-to-door with Markham-Stouffville candidate Theodore Antony, attending a BBQ for Brampton-Centre candidate Pawanjit Gosal, headlining a rally with Vaughn-Woodbridge candidate Teresa Kruze, and attending an event at the Canadian Coptic Centre in support of Conservative candidates in Mississauga, among about ten other appearances.

Kenney is not the first Alberta politician to spend some time campaigning in this region of Ontario. Alberta’s Minister of Community and Social Services Rajan Sawhney was in the area over the summer to campaign with Conservative candidates Sean Weir in Oakville North-Burlington and Ramandeep Singh Brar in Brampton-South.

If the federal Conservatives have any chance of forming government, it is believed that this is the region where that party will need to gain seats from the Liberals.

While Kenney campaigns in Ontario, he is also acutely aware of how this sort of intervention can go awry. Kenny was one of the senior Conservative Party officials who scolded then-Alberta premier Ralph Klein for contributing to his party’s defeat in the 2004 federal election.

Two days after that election was called, Klein publicly mused that his health-care reforms could possibly violate the Canada Health act, a statement which senior officials in the Conservative Party said helped Paul Martin’s Liberal Party shore up support in Ontario.

There’s pretty much unanimous consensus in the federal party that these remarks weren’t helpful,” Kenney told the Calgary Herald in 2004. “Suggesting the Alberta government was prepared to announce violations of the Canada Health Act two days after an election was giving the Liberals a big fat one over centre plate.”

Few politicians can sustain themselves in a permanent campaign-mode like Kenney can. Anyone who has been paying attention to Alberta politics over the past few years can attest that he hasn’t stopped campaigning since his jumped into provincial politics in 2017. He is a career politician who can probably out-hustle almost any of his peers, but he also carries a few suitcases worth of political baggage on his trip east.

On the issue of gun control, which the Liberals raised at the beginning of the campaign, how will Kenney’s decision to publicly endorse vigilante gun justice in rural Alberta play in suburban Ontario? Kenney will be speaking to crowds of friendly Conservative voters, but I would not be surprised to see the Liberals bird-dog Kenney on this issue during his Ontario tour.

Kenney has also spent much of the past two years fanning the flames of western alienation against Ottawa and other provinces over the national equalization formula and the expansion of oil pipelines – but mostly against Trudeau. He has also launched a crusade against climate change and environmental groups who he and his supporters claim are funded by nefarious foreign sources.

While Kenney is certainly not a separatist, he is trying to do what many past Alberta premiers have done in order to position themselves as the province’s great defender against the political interests of Central Canada.

Stoking western alienation will help solidify Kenney’s support among Conservative voters at home but it could also poison Alberta’s relationship with Ottawa even further if Trudeau’s Liberals are re-elected on October 21. This could help explain why no Alberta premier has parlayed their provincial success to federal politics – something Kenney may want to consider as he hits the campaign trail in Ontario this weekend.


Notley plays coy about her federal vote

Rachel Notley Alberta Premier NDP

Rachel Notley

Former Alberta premier Rachel Notley, now leader of the official opposition, continues to play coy when asked who she is planning to vote for in the October 21 federal election. “When we get closer to the election, I’ll make a decision in my own riding about which candidate’s best able to represent the needs of Albertans and the people in my riding of Edmonton-Strathcona,” Notley told CBC.

This comment will certainly not be helpful for the federal NDP in Edmonton-Strathcona, where the popular Notley remains MLA for the provincial riding of the same name. Heather McPherson is hoping to hold on to the seat held since 2008 by retiring NDP MP Linda Duncan. Many of Notley’s close supporters helped propel McPherson to a narrow victory over Paige Gorsak in a November 2018 nomination contest.

While I would be surprised if Notley did not vote for McPherson on October 21, it does demonstrate the deep distrust between the provincial and federal wings of the NDP in Alberta over issues like the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. While some former NDP MLAs defeated in the April 2019 election have been actively campaigning for federal NDP candidates, Notley and her current 24 NDP MLA caucus remain nowhere to be seen on the federal campaign trail in Alberta.


The kamakaze campaign that just won’t die

CBC investigative reporters have dived deep into the allegations of fraud and misuse of voting kiosks by Kenney’s campaign during the 2017 UCP leadership contest. According to CBC, the RCMP, which has been tight-lipped on the status and focus of its investigation, will only say it continues to investigate allegations of fraud as it relates to the 2017 UCP leadership race.

Janice MacKinnon

MacKinnon Report endorses Jason Kenney’s political agenda, doesn’t fix Alberta’s big revenue problems

The report and recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta’s Finances, known widely as the MacKinnon Report, after the panel’s chairperson – former Saskatchewan cabinet minister and history professor Janice MacKinnon – was released yesterday.

Jason Kenney Alberta Politics

Jason Kenney

The report is an endorsement of the United Conservative Party government plan to implement deep cuts to public sector funding, a wide-range of drastic changes to how Alberta’s public services are delivered (or delivered at all), and the use of legislative tools to interfere with the collective bargaining process.

When reading the panel’s report and recommendations, it is important to remember this is not a neutral or academic document. The MacKinnon Report is very much a political document written by political people who were appointed because they share the government’s vision.

Despite her past political affiliation as an NDP cabinet minister in Saskatchewan, MacKinnon’s fiscal conservative views make her more likely to feel welcome in the UCP or the Fraser Institute than in a party led by Rachel Notley or Jagmeet Singh. For decades MacKinnon has been a champion of fiscal conservatism and more recently provided an enthusiastic endorsement that was prominently displayed in the UCP’s election platform.

The MacKinnon Report calls for funding freezes or cuts to public services across the board, including increased privatization of health services, changing the funding formula for Alberta schools (and likely introducing more private and charter schools), increasing government control of post-secondary institutions and lifting the current freeze on tuition fees, and downloading more infrastructure costs on municipalities.

Premier Ralph Klein

Ralph Klein

In yesterday’s press conference announcing the report, MacKinnon suggested that “fewer hospitals” could be a solution to cutting the health care budget, which should raise giant red flags in rural communities across Alberta. During her time as Saskatchewan’s finance minister, 52 rural hospitals were closed as a result of budget cuts.

The report’s suggestion that the government scale back capital investments could also spell trouble for the much-needed new hospital in southwest Edmonton, which was announced by the previous New Democratic Party government in 2017.

The recommended cuts and creation of legislative mechanisms to interfere with the collective bargaining processes are likely designed to create strife with public sector unions whose members would be directly impacted by these cuts – a group that the UCP is eager to pick fights with.

For anyone who grew up or lived in Alberta in the 1990s, it may feel like deja-vu.

When premier Ralph Klein and treasurer Jim Dinning imposed drastic cuts on public services, Albertans were told that balancing the budget and paying down the provincial debt was necessary to get Alberta’s fiscal house in order. At the time, a young anti-tax crusader named Jason Kenney cheered on those cuts, going so far as to tell the Western Report that “Education will be the toughest area to cut, but it will also be the most important. If the government backs down on this one, then the entire Klein revolution will fail.”

Successive governments, both Progressive Conservative and NDP, spent decades trying to fix the damage those short-sighted cuts had on Alberta’s communities, public infrastructure and public services.

The “blue ribbon” panel was created to provide an endorsement of Premier Kenney’s political program, and, if its recommendations are adopted, could be the most radically ideologically conservative agenda Albertans have seen in decades. It is a far cry from the technocratic conservative agenda meticulously implemented by former prime minister Stephen Harper, who Kenney served dutifully in Ottawa.

Unlike Harper, there is no indication that Kenney is interested in half-measures or incrementalism.

Alberta still has a big revenue problem

The narrow mandate of this panel was a missed opportunity to actually address the fiscal challenges facing Alberta, which includes issues with revenue ranging from low taxation and over-dependence on oil and gas royalty revenues.

Rachel Notley Alberta Premier NDP

Rachel Notley

The report briefly mentions that over-dependence on unreliable natural resource revenue is an issue, but the panel was specifically told not to provide recommendations to fix the revenue problem – only spending. Both MacKinnon and Finance Minister Travis Toews repeated the government’s well-used talking points during yesteday’s press conference – that Alberta has a spending problem and not a revenue problem.

The report frequently compares public sector spending in Alberta with British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, but only when it comes to government spending. The big problem with comparing Alberta with our provincial counterparts on the spending side is that our revenue – generated through taxes – is significantly lower than every other province.

If Alberta had the same level of taxation as BC, which is the second lowest in Canada, then Alberta could have no deficit and could be collecting billions of dollars in additional revenue each year. 

By not addressing the revenue challenges faced by the Alberta government, the MacKinnon Report shows it was created to justify the spending cuts and privatization of public services that the UCP was likely already planning to implement. Remember, this is a political document.

It’s hard to criticize the MacKinnon Report without also laying some criticism at the feet of the past PC and NDP governments who did not fix Alberta’s revenue problems when they had the chance. Had the NDP been as aggressive in fixing Alberta’s long-standing revenue problems as the UCP will be in attacking government spending, we might not be reading the MacKinnon Report today.

Postmedia gives Albertans one more reason to drink on this May Long

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon announced through press release and a video on YouTube that the “war on fun” being waged by the “nanny state” was coming to an end as the government relaxes alcohol restrictions at festivals and in parks, including lifting the annual ban on liquor in provincial campgrounds over the May long weekend.

Kenney referenced prohibition-era laws in the video, but the May long weekend ban at some provincial campgrounds was only first imposed in 2004, when Ralph Klein was premier of Alberta. Klein had supposedly sworn-off alcohol by that point in his political career but he could hardly be described as a prohibitionist.

We are confident that this proactive approach will aid in making some of Alberta’s most popular provincial parks safer and more enjoyable places for families to camp on long weekends,” said then-Minister of Community Development Gene Zwozdesky in the press release announcing the temporary liquor ban.

The 2004 government press release reinforced the reason for the ban: “During the 2003 May long weekend, there were a total of 239 recorded liquor-related enforcement action occurrences in Alberta’s 68 provincial parks, including written warnings, charges, arrests and evictions.”

Campers in parks across Alberta will find out quickly whether this or future May long weekends result in a return to the alcohol-fuel chaos that led to the ban in the first place. 

Giving Albertans another reason to drink this weekend is Postmedia Network Inc.

The company that owns the Calgary Sun, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Sun and Edmonton Journal and dozens of other daily and local newspapers in Alberta and across Canada has hired a lobbyist to “to discuss ways Postmedia could be involved in the government’s energy war room.”

The registered lobbyist hired by Postmedia is Wellington Advocacy CEO Nick Koolsbergen, who served as United Conservative caucus chief of staff and the party’s campaign director in the April 2019 election. Koolsbergen announced on Twitter days after the election that was leaving the UCP to “to spend some time in the private sector.” He soon after announced he was starting a new lobbyist company with former federal Conservative staffer Rachel Curran.

During the election campaign, Kenney pledged to fund a $30-million “war room” to respond to critics of the oil and gas industry, including environmental groups and Bill Nye (the Science Guy). The energy war room is essentially a $30-million public relations subsidy for some of the wealthiest corporations operating in Canada’s oil and gas sector.

Energy Minister Sonya Savage is reported to have said more information about the war room will be released soon. Criticism of the new UCP government is expected to increase as Nixon moves to repeal the entire Climate Leadership Plan implemented by the previous New Democratic Party government led by Rachel Notley.

It would appear that Postmedia is fishing for a cut of the war room advertising money, likely for its “Content Works” division, which creates advertisements in the style of an editorial or news article. Literal fake news funded by taxpayers. The whole thing stinks.

Postmedia’s conservative editorial bias is well-known. Despite attempts by some local editors-in-chief to maintain local autonomy, the Toronto-based company has in required its newspapers to publish prescribed election endorsements of Conservative parties across the country.

This is not the first time Canada’s largest media company has become involved with oil and gas industry advocacy. In 2014, it was revealed that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers made a pitch to Postmedia Network’s board of directors to create an “Energy Channel Sponsorship” for Postmedia newspapers to “amplify” CAPP’s “energy mandate.”

Some of the largest energy companies have been accused of spending $1 billion to undermine efforts to combat climate change over the past decade.

And as Postmedia is positioning itself for a role in the war room, its CEO Paul Godfrey is one of the key players agitating for funding from a new $595 million federal government media fund.

So this weekend as you relax in your lawn chair in one of Alberta’s beautiful provincial parks, forget about toasting a monarch who has been dead for 118-years, as Kenney and Nixon did in their video. Instead, raise a responsible drink or two for efforts to combat climate change, the freedom of the press, and for those poor reporters working for Postmedia who are just trying to do good journalism despite the best attempts of their bosses in Toronto.

Rachel Notley’s focus on Calgary, Andrew Scheer coming to Alberta, and Stephen Mandel goes to Alaska

With five days remaining in Alberta’s election campaign, here is a quick look at what I have been watching today:

Notley woos Calgary

NDP leader Rachel Notley is expected to spend a lot of time in Calgary during the final five days of the campaign. Today she spoke about her pledge to expand Alberta’s $25/day childcare program at a press event today and spoke at a rally in central Calgary in support of Calgary-Mountain View candidate Kathleen Ganley and Calgary-Varsity candidate Anne McGrath this evening.

The NDP campaign has revolved around Notley, who is the party’s strongest asset, with signs showing her name and smiling face appearing as frequently as local candidate’s in electoral districts across Alberta.

While the 20 to 30 per cent province-wide lead that the United Conservative Party held months ago appears to have evaporated into a 6 to 10 per cent lead, most polls show the NDP are still in second place in Calgary. With the NDP appearing to hold a healthy lead in Edmonton and the UCP dominating in rural Alberta, the narrative in the final week of the campaign has become all about Calgary.

But the regional divide is only one part of the picture. As Jason Markusoff noted in his Maclean’s election newsletter, some polls suggest there is a significant divide in party support among men and women, with one poll showing the UCP leading among men by 16 points and the NDP leading among women by 1 point. The prominence of nasty social conservative comments raised in this campaign, like the ones made by UCP candidate Mark Smith from Drayton Valley-Devon, has likely contributed to this gender divide.

Scheer comes to Alberta

Federal Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer will campaign with UCP leader Jason Kenney at a event in Calgary tomorrow, which is expected to include a big focus on the Notley, Justin Trudeau and the carbon tax.

Scheer’s appearance comes days after Kenney has threatened to enact legislation to shut off the flow of oil and gas to British Columbia if that province’s government opposes the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. Such a move would almost certainly be unconstitutional, which is why the NDP passed but never proclaimed the law, and would likely foster more opposition to Alberta’s efforts than create support.

But back to Scheer… it is somewhat unusual to see a federal Conservative party leader campaigning in a provincial election in Alberta.

For most of the past three decades, there have been deep political divides between the various dominant provincial and federal Conservative parties in Alberta. Many political observers may have forgotten that even Progressive Conservative premier Ralph Klein personally campaigned for the federal PC Party candidate running against Reform Party leader Preston Manning in the 1993 federal election.

It is important to recognize that the merger of the PC and Wildrose parties in 2017 was just as much about uniting those two parties as it was creating a dominant provincial conservative party that would march in step with the Conservative Party in Ottawa. With this in mind, Kenney remains very much a national politician with ambitions beyond the Premier’s Office in Edmonton.

Scheer’s appearance on the campaign trail will come the day after it was revealed that his campaign chair, Hamish Marshall, allegedly threatened to sue the UCP over voting security during the party’s 2017 leadership race. CBC reported that email addresses fraudulently attached to party memberships were used to cast ballots in the party’s leadership race and there were virtually no safeguards against the practice.

Alaska, ho!

Alberta Party leader Stephen Mandel has proposed the creation of a rail-pipeline corridor to Alaska. The creation of a northern corridor to transport Alberta’s natural resources is not a new idea in Alberta politics.

In 1972, PC cabinet minister Dave Russell publicly suggested that Alberta should annex parts of the North West and Yukon territories: “It makes sense in view of transportation and pipelines,” Russell told the Calgary Herald on April 19, 1972.

Notley and Kenney visit Lethbridge on Day 2 of Alberta’s election, UCP appoints Jeremy Wong in Calgary-Mountain View

Photo: Lethbridge NDP candidates Maria Fitzpatrick and Shannon Phillips, and UCP candidates Nathan Neudorf and Karri Flatla.

Where the party leaders go during the first few days of the election campaign can sometimes give a good indication of where the parties are focusing their resources and what message they want to send to voters.

Alberta New Democratic Party leader Rachel Notley announced the election call in central Calgary, where the NDP hope to create a battleground in this election. Today, Notley started the second day of the election in Edmonton and later travelled to Red Deer to campaign with MLAs Kim Schreiner and Barb Miller, She finished her day in Lethbridge to speak at the Canadian Union of Public Employees provincial convention and will be in the city tomorrow to support MLAs Shannon Phillips and Maria Fitzpatrick.

United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenny started the campaign in Leduc, south of Edmonton, and kicked off his party’s campaign at the office of Edmonton-City Centre candidate Lily Le. The UCP are hoping to make gains in Edmonton in this election. Today, Kenney also headed south to Lethbridge to support candidates Karri Flatla and Nathan Neudorf.

Alberta Party leader Stephen Mandel spent the first two days of the election in Edmonton, where his party hopes to capitalize on his name-recognition as mayor of the city from 2004 to 2013. And Liberal Party leader David Khan was in Calgary, where he is expected to focus on his race in Calgary-Mountain View.

That both Notley and Kenney visited Lethbridge in the first few days of the election signifies how much both parties feel how important and competitive the city’s two districts could be in this election.

Lethbridge’s electoral history is more liberal-leaning than most of the surrounding region in southern Alberta, likely due to the influence of the University of Lethbridge and Lethbridge College and a large number of public sector workers in the city. Even during Ralph Klein’s time as premier, the Liberals either won a plurality of the votes or match the PC vote in the city’s, mostly due to the large margins of victory earned by Lethbridge-East MLAs Ken Nicol and Bridget Pastoor.

As the Liberal vote collapsed in 2012, Phillips came close to winning in Lethbridge-West in 2012,. The NDP swept both districts in 2015 with significant margins. As Minister of Environment and Parks, Shannon Phillips has been a key player in Notley’s cabinet and a strong advocate for the city in the Legislature. This makes Phillips a target for the UCP and the reason why Kenney travelled to Lethbridge to re-announce his plans to cancel climate change initiatives like the carbon tax.

Here is a look at the voting history of the two Lethbridge districts over the past 26 years.

Here is a list of the candidates running in the two Lethbridge districts, as of March 20, 2019:

Lethbridge-East
Alberta Independence: John McCanna
Liberal: Devon Hargreaves [Facebook, Twitter]
NDP: Maria Fitzpatrick [FacebookTwitter]
UCP: Nathan Neudorf [Facebook]

Lethbridge-West
Alberta Independence: Ben Maddison
Alberta Party: Zac Rhodenizer [Facebook, Twitter]
Liberal: Pat Chizek
NDP: Shannon Phillips [FacebookTwitter]
UCP: Karri Flatla [FacebookTwitter]


UCP appoints Jeremy Wong to replace Caylan Ford

The UCP announced that it has appointed Jeremy Wong as the UCP candidate in Calgary-Mountain View following the resignation of star candidate Caylan Ford earlier this week. Wong ran against Ford for the nomination in December 2018. He is a pastor with the Calgary Chinese Alliance Church and recently completed a Master of Public Administration at the University of Calgary.

The UCP now have three candidate vacancies remaining, with nominating meetings scheduled to take place in Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood on March 21, Edmonton-Ellerslie on March 23, and Edmonton-Mill Woods on March 24.

Tax On, Tax Off: Kenney calls for tax cuts for corporations, Greens call for PST in Alberta

United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney says his party will cut Alberta’s corporate income tax down to 8 per cent from 12 per cent, which would give Alberta by far the lowest corporate taxes in Canada. Alberta’s current corporate income tax rate for corporations earning more than $500,000 in annual income was increased from 10 percent to 12 per cent by Rachel Notley‘s New Democratic Party government after the 2015 election.

Jason Kenney Alberta Politics

Jason Kenney

Kenney’s call to cut corporate income taxes is not surprising, as his party sees significant cuts to both taxes and government spending as a solution to the Alberta government’s fiscal woes.

Kenney’s ideological aversion to taxes and public spending in general is well known going back to his time as a spokesperson for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation more than 20 years ago.

Next to the criminal law power that we wield in Parliament, the power to collect taxes is the most significant and potentially destructive power. Some have said that the power to tax is the power to destroy,” Kenney said as a Reform Party MP in Ottawa in December 1998. 

Lowering the corporate income tax this low is not an original idea, but it is unclear what advantage cutting corporate income taxes this low would really give Albertans.

The Alberta Corporate Tax Amendment Act introduced by Revenue Minister Greg Melchin in 2002 set a target of 8 per cent for the corporate income tax rate, but the Progressive Conservative government never let the rate dip below 10 per cent.

Kenney has also pledged to repeal the provincial government’s carbon tax, cut the minimum wage, and has mused about cutting personal income taxes for those paying into the highest tax brackets by reimposing the 10 per cent flat tax.

Joel French Alberta

Joel French

Notley’s promise to increase corporate income taxes in 2015 to fill the gap left by plummeting oil and gas royalties led to the most notable exchange in that election’s leaders’ debate, when PC Party leader Jim Prentice got in trouble for sharply responding to Notley’s that “I know math is difficult.” The “math” comment was received poorly, to say the least, and the reaction from Alberta’s corporate leaders helped the NDP soar in the polls until election day.

Albertans gave this government a strong mandate to act on its promises: That was to ask top-income earners to pay a little bit more for the betterment of all and to ask corporations who benefited the most during stronger economic times to contribute fairly to rebuilding our province,” Finance Minister Joe Ceci told the Globe & Mail shortly before the corporate income taxes were increased in 2015.

It is notable that even under Notley’s NDP government, Alberta’s corporate income taxes today are still lower than the 15.5 per cent they were when Ralph Klein became Premier in 1992 (which was then the third-lowest corporate income tax rate in Canada). Notley’s NDP also lowered the small business tax rate from 3 per cent to 2 per cent, which is also significantly lower than the 6 per cent rate when Klein became premier. But this is not necessarily something to brag about in a province that continues to struggle with its chronic over-reliance on royalty revenues.

As noted by Public Interest Alberta executive director Joel French in a May 2018 opinion-editorial in the Edmonton Journal, “Applying the tax system of any other province to Alberta would raise us a minimum of $11.2 billion in additional annual revenue, more than covering the projected $8.8-billion deficit in this year’s budget.

With a young and growing population, slashing the corporate income taxes that help fund the day to day operations of government, like the public education and public health care that Albertans depend on to preserve our high quality of life, sounds short-sighted.

With a lack of policy proposals and campaign promises coming from the NDP during this pre-election period, this is another example of Kenney and the UCP dominating the media coverage going into the provincial election.

Carl Svoboda Green Party Alberta Calgary Edgemont

Carl Svoboda

Meanwhile, the Green Party of Alberta has strapped itself to one of the third rails of Alberta politics by calling for the creation of a Provincial Sales Tax. Many political watchers and economists have called for the creation of a sales tax to help diversify the government’s revenue sources, but politicians of all stripes have been extremely reluctant to take a position in favour of a PST in Alberta.

The other parties are terrified to mention a sales tax other than to denounce it, but the Green Party is not. It is time for Alberta to start acting like a normal province and bring in a sales tax,” said Green Party public finance shadow critic Carl Svoboda, who is running in Calgary-Edgemont.

In another political universe, this might have been something championed by the NDP, but not in Alberta in 2019.

With no MLAs in the Legislature, the Alberta Greens may have little to lose by calling for the creation of a PST, but by taking this position they do open the door to a much-needed PST debate a little bit wider.

Child poverty in Alberta drops by half in two years

Alberta has the lowest child poverty rate in the country at 5 per cent, having managed to cut its rate in half in just two years, between 2015 and 2017. University of Calgary economist Ron Kneebone told The Star Calgary that the the national Canada Child Benefit and the Alberta Child Benefit were the biggest reasons for this improvement.

Elizabeth May comes to Alberta

Speaking of the Green Party, federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May will visit Alberta later this week with stops in Calgary on March 7 and Edmonton on March 8, 2019.

Premier Rachel Notley delivered a pre-campaign speech at a rally in downtown Calgary (photo credit: @SKGreer on Twitter)

Notley is the Alberta NDP’s strongest asset. Don’t expect to see ‘Team Kenney’ logos on UCP lawn signs.

Photo: Premier Rachel Notley delivered a pre-campaign speech at a rally in downtown Calgary today (photo credit: @SKGreer on Twitter)

As has been widely reported this week, the Alberta New Democratic Party has purposely shifted the focus of their political material onto their greatest asset, Premier Rachel Notley. The NDP began replacing the NDP logo with a Rachel Notley logo on their social media images back in April 2018, but the party recently highlighted this focus with the launch of their new RachelNotley.ca campaign website.

The move has been attacked by critics of the NDP, who claim the party is nefariously attempting to distance itself from its unpopular federal cousins. The NDP are probably trying to distance itself from the Jagmeet Singh-led federal NDP, but there is nothing nefarious about it. Campaigns always try to play to their strengths and downplay their weaknesses. This is why the NDP campaign will put Rachel Notley front-and-centre and the UCP will not be featuring Jason Kenney logos on their election lawn signs.

Putting the focus on party leaders is nothing new in Alberta politics.

A PC Party advertisement from the 1971 Alberta election.

In 1971, much of the Progressive Conservative Party’s advertising and messaging revolved around Peter Lougheed. The “Lougheed Team” focused on the party’s young and dynamic leader and the impressive slate of candidates that surrounded him.

While Alberta politics have certainly changed since the 1970s, Notley frequently evokes the memory of popular Lougheed in her media statements and campaign speeches.

Ralph’s Team’ was a slogan the PC Party used in the 1990s, putting the focus on their popular party leader, Ralph Klein. And the federal Liberal Party attempted a similar move when they placed ‘Team Martin’ logos on their campaign signs and material during the 2004 election.

As Postmedia columnist Keith Gerein wrote last week, the two main party leaders have divergent popularity among their parties own supporters. While her party is behind in the polls, Notley remains wildly popular among NDP voters.

United Conservative Party has a massive lead in the polls, but party leader Jason Kenney is much less popular than the party he now leads, which which is why Albertans will probably not spot any “Team Kenney” logos when the election is called this spring.

Almost all NDP MLA’s should know they have Notley’s leadership to thank for their electoral fortunes in the 2015 election, the same might not be said of UCP candidates and their leader in 2019. If the UCP’s strong support holds, many of that party’s candidate could be elected despite their leader’s lower approval ratings.

Any leader who’s popularity falls below that of the party they lead inevitably becomes vulnerable to leadership challenges and caucus revolts, as Don Getty, Ed Stelmach, Alison Redford, and in the dying days of his premiership, Ralph Klein, discovered. Conservatives in Alberta have been ruthless with their party leadership and rarely tolerate weaknesses that could jeopardize electoral success.

It is yet to be seen whether Kenney will fall into this category, which will probably depend on what the UCP caucus looks like after Election Day. If the UCP caucus is large, Kenney’s leadership could be secure. But as Stelmach and Klein discovered, large caucuses are impressive but can be unruly and difficult to manage. If he does fall into the traps sprung by previous Conservative premiers, look to UCP MLAs Jason Nixon, Nathan Cooper, Leela Aheer and former Wildrose leader Brian Jean to be eyeing the Premier’s chair.

Rachel Notley on the other hand might not be as vulnerable, even if the NDP is defeated in 2019. If her party does better than expected in 2019, even electing 25 or 30 MLAs, the NDP caucus and members may come to the conclusion that Notley remains their strongest asset and could be their best bet at returning to government in 2023. They could encourage her to remain party leader.

As an opposition leader, Notley would be fierce and lead an actual government-in-waiting, not something Albertans are used to having. It would also signal whether the NDP will remain in its centre-leftish position or embrace a more aggressive progressive agenda advocated by some members.

While Notley remaining in the party leadership beyond a 2019 loss may go against some of the common popular opinion about former premiers, past NDP premiers Allan Blakeney of Saskatchewan and Dave Barrett in British Columbia both led their parties into elections following defeats. Barrett even went on to have a career in federal politics and nearly became leader of the federal NDP in 1989.

I am probably getting ahead of myself, as this year’s election has not even been officially called, but scenarios like these are certainly something that many political watchers are thinking about.

Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky speaks to Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid in the Legislature Rotunda in 2011. MLA Dave Taylor is seen in the background.

Former Speaker Gene Zwozdesky has died at age 70. The “Wizard of Zwoz” started as a Liberal and became the PC Party’s charm machine.

Gene Zwozdesky, the former Speaker of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly, has died of cancer at the age of 70.

Known for being incredibly approachable and having the ability to lay-on the political charm in a grand way, Zwozdesky became known in the latter part of his time in elected office as the “Wizard of Zwoz” for his seeming ability to reverse unpopular decisions made by his cabinet predecessors. But while Zwozdesky is known to many Alberta political watchers from his time in the Progressive Conservative cabinet and later as Speaker of the Assembly, he started his political career in the opposition benches as a Liberal.

Gene Zwozdesky Alberta MLA

Gene Zwozdesky’s official MLA portrait photo in 1997.

A teacher and champion of Alberta’s Ukrainian musical and cultural heritage, Zwozdesky was first elected to the Legislature in 1993 as Liberal in Edmonton-Avonmore.

Zwozdesky defeated five other candidates to win the Liberal Party nomination that year, taking the nomination on the fifth ballot with 660 votes out of 757 votes castLed by former mayor Laurence Decore, Zwozdesky easily unseated two-term New Democratic Party MLA Marie Laing as the Liberals swept the capital city.

He was easily re-elected in the renamed Edmonton-Mill Creek district in 1997, holding his vote share in an election that saw Liberal vote decline from its high-water mark in the previous election.

Respected by his opposition colleagues for his work as treasury critic, community development critic, caucus whip, and co-chair of the party’s outreach committee, Zwozdesky was seen as a contender for the party leadership to succeed Decore in 1994 and Grant Mitchell in 1998, but chose to decline the leadership on both occasions.

In 1997, Zwozdesky was briefly a candidate in the Speaker election following Stan Schumacher‘s retirement but was convinced by his caucus colleagues to withdraw from the contest. It is believed that the 18 Liberal MLA votes in that Speaker election helped secure Barrhead-Westlock MLA Ken Kowalski’s win over Premier Ralph Klein’s preferred choice, Dunvegan MLA Glen Clegg.

In 1998, he left the Liberal caucus and crossed the floor to the PC caucus less than one month later. The official reason for his departure was said to be a disagreement with new party leader Nancy MacBeth over fiscal policy, but it was widely suspected that Klein had been personally trying to recruit Zwozdesky. He was appointed to cabinet as Associate Minister of Health and Wellness in 1999, a shrewd political move to create a foil to counter opposition criticism of the PC government’s Bill 11: Health Care Protection Act, a bill that opponents argued would have increased the privatization of Alberta’s public health care system.

Gene Zwozdesky (second from the left) with PC candidates Carl Benito, TJ Keil and Naresh Bhardwaj, and Premier Ed Stelmach at a Feb. 2008 campaign event at Jackie Parker Park.

Gene Zwozdesky (second from the left) with PC candidates Carl Benito, TJ Keil and Naresh Bhardwaj, and Premier Ed Stelmach at a Feb. 2008 campaign event at Jackie Parker Park.

Zwozdesky was re-elected as a PC candidate in Edmonton-Mill Creek in 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2012. He served as Minister of Community Development from 2001 to 2004, Minister of Education from 2004 to 2006, Associate Minister of Infrastructure from 2007 to 2008, Minister of Aboriginal Relations from 2008 to 2010, and Minister of Health & Wellness from 2010 to 2011. In his roles as Minister of Education and Minster of Health, he was generally seen as a calming force appointed for the purpose of providing stability in the wake of a disruptive predecessor.

As Health & Wellness Minister, Zwozdesky was given the nickname “the Wizard of Zwoz” by the media after he entered the role with a full-court charm offensive. 

Only three weeks into the job he’s the Wizard of Zwoz, a minister who can reverse unpopular health-care policy with a wave of his BlackBerry,” wrote the Calgary Herald’s Don Braid in February 2010.

In this role, Zwozdesky was responsible for mending the fences smashed by his combative predecessor, Ron Liepert. While he was only in the role for a short period and largely continued to support the PC government’s ideological creep towards privatization in health care, he did oversee important labour negotiations and the swift departure of Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett following the “cookie” controversy.

He was dropped from cabinet when Alison Redford became premier in 2011 and following Kowalski’s retirement in 2012, Zwozdesky was elected Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. His only challenger in that contest was Edmonton-Centre Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, who was a rookie in the Liberal caucus when Zwozdesky mounted his first campaign for the Speakership in 1997.

While generally seen as a fair Speaker of the Assembly, Zwozdesky had some partisan blindspots, most notably when he ruled that Redford did not mislead the Assembly over the tobacco-gate scandal. He was highly criticized for that decision. 

He served as Speaker until his defeat in the 2015 general election to New Democrat Denise Woollard.

Although it had become clear by the final week of the last election that a giant NDP wave was going to splash through Edmonton, it was difficult to believe that Zwozdesky would lose re-election. But when the votes were counted in Edmonton-Mill Creek, the six-term MLA fell 5,174 votes behind Woollard, ending his 22 year career in Alberta politics.

Following the 2015 election, Zwozdesky helped the new class of NDP and Wildrose Party MLAs transition into the Assembly and then gracefully stepped away from the political spotlight following the election of Medicine Hat MLA Bob Wanner as Speaker. And while a political comeback was unlikely for Zwozdesky after 2015, he continued to stay connected to his political past, being elected as President of the Alberta Association of Former MLAs in 2018.

Photo: Gene Zwozdesky speaks to Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid in the Legislature Rotunda in 2011. MLA Dave Taylor is seen in the background. (Photo source: Dave Cournoyer)

24-hours in the life of a student leader the day tuition was removed from legislation

Photo: ACTISEC President Jon Hoffman, Public Interest Alberta executive director Bill Moore-Kilgannon, Liberal MLA Dave Taylor, NDP MLA Raj Pannu, and CAUS Chairperson Dave Cournoyer in the media room at the Alberta Legislature on May 9, 2006.

This week’s news about the Alberta Government extending the tuition freeze and legislating the formula to increase tuition reminded me of the day I came very close to being kicked out of the Legislature.

Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt introduced Bill 19: An Act to Improve the Affordability and Accessibility of Post-Secondary Education in the Legislative Assembly this week. If passed, Bill 19 will implement a new framework that will regulate tuition and mandatory non-instructional fees and provide a new measure of fairness for students enrolled at Alberta’s colleges and universities.

Bill 19 will cap each post-secondary institutions average tuition and apprenticeship fee increases to the Consumer Price Index and allow the minister to regulate mandatory non-instructional fees and international student tuition. It also gives student leaders a more meaningful voice in the process.

These are significant changes but, closer to the heart of this writer, Schmidt is bringing Alberta’s tuition policy out from behind the closed doors of the government boardrooms and returning it to public light in legislation.

In 2006, I was elected Vice-President External of the University of Alberta Students’ Union and chosen as chairperson of the Council of Alberta University Students, an organization that represented undergraduate students from the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, and the University of Lethbridge. It was a interesting time to be a student leader in Alberta. The price of oil was high and political change was in the air.

After 13 years as premier, Ralph Klein was approaching the end of his time in office, and he was backtracking on a pledge made during a 2005 televised address that Alberta would have the most affordable tuition in Canada.

It happened that May 9, 2006 was an exciting and dramatic day to step in a new role as chairperson of CAUS. Then-Minister of Advanced Education Denis Herard announced he would introduce Bill 40: Post-secondary Learning Amendment Act, which would remove the tuition formula from the Post-Secondary Learning Act and move it into regulations. The formula as it then existed was complicated and needed to be reformed, but removing it from legislation meant that future changes to how much tuition could be raised in Alberta would be made in a closed door cabinet meeting, rather than required to be debated in front of the public on the floor of the Legislative Assembly.

The leaders of Alberta’s student movement were concerned that removing the policy from legislation would lead to further increases, rather than the affordability Klein had promised.

We decided that a quick response was best.

My first full-day as CAUS chairperson started with an early morning press conference in the media room in the basement of the Alberta Legislature Building.It was my first time participating in a press conference of any kind where I would be front and centre.

I was joined by Public Interest Alberta executive director Bill Moore-Kilgannon, ACTISEC president Jon Hoffman, and the Advanced Education critics from the Liberal and New Democratic Party critics, Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor and Edmonton-Strathcona MLA Raj Pannu.

It was a big deal at the time that the Liberal and NDP critics joined us at the press conference, and it may have been the first time the two parties had ever participated in a press conference together. I remember there were some moments of heated dispute between staffers from the two opposition caucuses about which critic would speak first, and I recall the issue was settled in favour of Pannu because the NDP Caucus had booked the media room for the press conference.

The media room was packed with reporters as we read our statements arguing for transparency and accountability of the cost of education. It was the first time I had ever done something like this and it was nerve racking. Without the help of Moore-Kilgannon (who is now Minister Schmidt’s Chief of Staff) and the incredibly resourceful Duncan Wojtaszek, then-executive director of CAUS, I am not sure I would have even had my talking points straight.

It was political maneuvering on our part to hold the early morning press conference. We hoped to pre-empt a press conference that the minister of advanced education was scheduled to hold on the same topic later that morning. Little did we know that Herard would never show up to his own press conference.

After our media event ended we did a few more interviews and later joined the representatives from the University of Calgary Students’ Union for a tour of the Legislature. While on the tour, NDP Caucus staffer Tony Clark rushed to tell us that the minister had canceled his press conference and snuck out of the building before the media could track him down.

With that news in hand, we held an impromptu media scrum on the third floor of the Legislature. It wasn’t until I spotted Klein walk past our scrum that I realized that we had planted ourselves right outside the doors of Room 307 – the Premier’s Office – which was apparently considered a major security violation.

To our surprise, after the scum ended and the reporters disbursed to file their stories, U of A SU president Samantha Power and I were escorted by Legislature security to the front doors of the building. The guards gave us a stern talk about why we weren’t allowed to hold a scrum outside the Premier’s Office. After some heated negotiations, we convinced the guards that evicting us and presumably banning us from re-entering the building would result in us holding another press conference on the Legislature steps minutes later.

I didn’t believe that day could get any more exciting but I was proven wrong when CAUS received an urgent call from the Minister Herard’s office. He wanted to meet with us as soon as possible.

We met with the minister a few hours later in a conference room at the Delta Hotel in downtown Edmonton. The meeting was memorable but completely underwhelming. The minister listened to our arguments why keeping the tuition policy in legislation would ensure transparency and accountability for students but he offered nothing more than platitudes and strange metaphors in return.

Herard’s short time in cabinet would be remembered for his desire to “cross the wisdom bridge” and “build an army of mentors.”

Eight days later, Progressive Conservative MLAs voted to remove the tuition policy from legislation by passing Bill 40. The minister was shuffled into the backbenchers later that year when Ed Stelmach entered the Premier’s Office.

At the press conference early that morning, I told the assembled media that students were prepared to wait until the next time the legislature met to have a new policy implemented, so that the policy would be embedded in an act of the legislature. If the tuition policy was not in legislation, it was no good to us, I said.

I never expected the policy to ever be returned to legislation. And while the fight to lower the cost of and eliminate tuition fees needs to continue, 12 years later the tuition policy is finally out from behind closed doors and back where it should be – enshrined in legislature. And it is a big deal.

Minister Christina Gray with Lynsae Moon, co-owner of the Nook Café.

253,900 Albertans got a raise this month

Labour Minister Christina Gray with Lynsae Moon, co-owner of the Nook Café. (Photo: Government of Alberta)

Alberta’s minimum wage jumped to $15 per hour on October 1, 2018, making our province the first in Canada to reach this mark. The New Democratic Party promised to raise the minimum wage as part of its platform in the 2015 election and quickly began a 3-year phased increase to the minimum wage shortly after Premier Rachel Notley formed her government.

Rachel Notley Alberta Premier NDP

Rachel Notley

The $15 minimum wage will make life more affordable for women, single parents, families and everyone who has been working a full-time job or more but is still struggling to put food on the table and pay their rent,” Labour Minister Christina Gray said in a September 28 press release.

According to the Alberta Low Wage Profile, the number of employees with average hourly earnings of less than $15 per hour in Alberta decreased from 292,400 in 2016 to 253,900 in 2018. The profile also shows that Alberta has the lowest percentage of low wage earners among the Canadian provinces, followed by Saskatchewan.

The phased-in increase to minimum wage is a challenge that business owners who pay poverty level wages had been forced to confront. And not surprisingly, business owners and their lobby groups have taken issue with the increases since they began after 2015.

Some business owners have warned that pay increases could lead to increased costs for consumers. There is no doubt that an increase to the minimum wage will increase costs for employers, but I am sure they have already found many Albertans will not mind paying a little bit more knowing that the employees who serve their coffee, prepare their lunches, or stock their grocery store shelves are paid better than they were last month.

The leaders of Alberta’s two main conservative parties, Jason Kenney of the United Conservative Party and Stephen Mandel of the Alberta Party, have floated the idea of a lower minimum wage for workers under the age of 18 or workers in the service industry.

Stephen Mandel Health Minister Alberta Edmonton Whitemud MLA

Stephen Mandel

Mandel went into detail with his proposal to lower the minimum wage for certain Alberta workers, lowering the rate to $13.60 an hour for workers 17 and under and to $14 an hour for servers who earn tips.

It makes little sense to penalize or devalue the work of the lowest paid workers in Alberta because of their age or the industry they work in. This kind of thinking presumes that most young workers are just earning pocket money to buy V-Bucks for Fortnite and not saving to pay for post-secondary education, helping pay the bills at home or trying to raise their own families.

Around 63 per cent of minimum wage earners are women, more than 37 per cent of minimum wage earners are parents, including around 14,300 who are single parents.

A pay cut for low wage workers could be part of Bill 1: The Free Enterprise Act, which Mandel announced at a gathering of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce earlier this month would be the first law passed by an Alberta Party government. He was mum on what else would be included in this bill, but as the NDP have already lowered the small business tax rate from 3 per cent to 2 per cent, it is possible Mandel would like to see the tax completely abolished.

Kenney initially played coy on the topic, saying he had no plans to roll back the $15 per hour wage but in a speech to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce last week he went into detail about his willingness to adopt a system of lower minimum wages based on age or industry.

Jason Kenney Alberta Politics

Jason Kenney

While Kenney was not specific about how far be would roll back wages for young workers, recent UCP leadership candidate Doug Schweitzer, who is now the party’s star candidate in Calgary-Elbow, said last year that he would cut Alberta’s minimum wage by 18.7 per cent from $15 per hour to $12.20 per hour, because it is the “right choice for Albertans whose livelihoods count on it the most.

Kenney also stated he plans to repeal labour law reforms implemented by the NDP, which updated many Alberta laws not changed since the 1970s. It is not clear whether this would include the occupational health and safety code updates, or other changes expanding compassionate care leave, maternal and paternal leave, holiday pay, and the clarification of termination and temporary layoff rules.

While most media attention is focused on small and medium sized businesses who have had to increase their staff salaries, poverty level wages are not just unique to the private sector.

Support staff including educational and financial assistants, library clerks, maintenance staff, secretaries, typists and custodians who work for the Living Waters Catholic School District in Edson, Whitecourt and Slave Lake are on strike because they were fed up with irregular working hours and low salaries. Some staff members have been turning to their local food bank to make ends meet, according to the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the union representing these workers.

Doug Schweitzer Calgary Alberta Conservative

Doug Schweitzer

The $15 per hour minimum wage was a step in the right direction, but it is still lower than the what is considered to be a living wage in some of Alberta’s urban areas.  Vibrant Communities Calgary estimated in 2017 that the Living Wage in Calgary is $18.15 per hour, the Edmonton Social Planning Council says a living wage in the province’s capital city is $16.31 per hour, the City of Grande Prairie estimated $17.35 per hour, while in 2016 Central Alberta Poverty estimated that the living wage in Red Deer and Central Alberta was between $13.71 and $14.10 per hour.

Increasing the minimum wage is not a silver bullet to eliminating poverty in our province, but raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour will make a big difference in the lives of a lot of working Albertans. 


While the current crop of conservative political leaders have decried the wage increase for Alberta’s lowest paid workers, conservative politicians in the recent past have praised increases to the minimum wage:

This increase to Alberta’s minimum wage is good news for Albertans,” said Premier Ed Stelmach in June 2007, when the minimum wage was raised from $7 per hour to $8 per hour.

Minimum wage offers protection for workers,” said Minister of Employment, Immigration and Industry Iris Evans, also in June 2007. “It sets the minimum rate of pay that employers must meet and ensures that workers, especially women and youth, who traditionally are in the lower income occupations, are making a better wage.”

We want to ensure that Albertans earning the minimum wage are as protected as possible during these changing times,” Minister of Employment and Immigration Hector Goudreau said in March 2009, when the minimum wage increased from $8.40 per hour to $8.80 per hour.


RAGE against the Government

Luke Ouellette Alberta MLA Innisfail-Sylvan Lake

Luke Ouellette

In light of Kenney’s comments this week about decreasing the minimum wage for young workers, the UCP leader also floated the idea of creating a Minister responsible for de-regulation and cutting red tape. This is not a new idea.

In November 2004, Premier Ralph Klein appointed Innisfail-Sylvan Lake MLA Luke Ouellette as Alberta’s only-ever Minister of Restructuring and Government Efficiency. Known by the nickname the “Ministry of RAGE,” the department quickly became an oxymoronic joke because was a government bureaucracy created for the purpose of cutting government’s bureaucracy.

Aside from some responsibilities related to the Alberta SuperNet that were previously handled by another government department, it was never clear what exactly the RAGE Ministry ever accomplished. And before Albertans could ever find out, the position was eliminated and, in December 2006, Ouellette was appointed Minister of Infrastructure and Transportation.

History will show that the Ministry of Restructuring and Government Efficiency was most notable for eliminating the Office of the Minister of Restructuring and Government Efficiency.

Preston Manning had a plan for carbon pricing, but Kenney and Ford choose to blow hot air over carbon tax

If the Alberta government could tax all the hot air at today’s anti-carbon tax rally in Calgary the deficit could be paid off.

Preston Manning

Preston Manning

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney and Ontario Premier Doug Ford will hold a joint “Scrap the Carbon Tax” rally in downtown Calgary this evening on the second leg of the Central Canadian Premier’s anti-carbon tax tour of Western Canada.

With the PC government of Manitoba set to cancel its own carbon tax plan, Canada’s conservatives are mostly united against the national carbon tax.

Kenney hopes to turn Alberta’s 2019 provincial election into a referendum on the NDP government’s carbon tax. And federal Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer hopes to turn next October’s expected federal election into a referendum on Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax.

It wasn’t too long ago that carbon pricing was an idea embraced by Canadian conservatives. While he may disagree with the way Rachel Notley’s government has implemented a carbon tax, Conservative movement godfather Preston Manning offered five pieces of advice on how to sell the idea of carbon pricing to Canadians in a November 2014 opinion-editorial published in the Globe & Mail.

Even if you are a progressive, it is worth listening to Manning on this issue because he does make some good points. Here are Manning’s five pieces of advice from 2014 and my impressions on how the NDP and opposition conservatives have reacted:

Rachel Notley Alberta NDP leader

Rachel Notley

1. Avoid using the word “tax” in conjunction with pricing pollution or greenhouse gas emissions.

The NDP government launched the program as a Carbon Levy, but it did not take long for conservative voices in the opposition and opinion pages of the province’s Postmedia-owned newspapers to rebrand it as a carbon tax. Alberta governments in the past have tried to brand new taxes with different names, such as the Health Care Premium introduced by Ralph Klein and the Health Care Levy proposed by Jim Prentice before the 2015 election.

2. Ask, “Out of whose mouth will our message be most credible?”

Manning raised the point that politicians, political staff and lobbyists typical rank at the very bottom of the public trust scale, so the government will need to find different voices to promote the program. The NDP did very well at the launch of the Climate Leadership Plan, uniting environmental and industry leaders in a way that no Alberta government has done before.

The NDP government earned a lot of praise for their Climate Leadership Plan from economists, environmental and industry leaders, and even a mention from former United States President Barack Obama in his speech to the Canadian House of Commons in 2016. But they did not necessarily do an effective job selling the program, especially the carbon levy, to Albertans.

Graham Thomson CBC

Graham Thomson

As Graham Thomson explained in his new gig as a political columnist for CBC, the carbon tax is “the kind of thing opposition politicians can demonize in 10 seconds while the government needs five minutes worth of graphs and charts to explain.”

You can find lost of Albertans who are supportive of the carbon tax but will admit to being a little confused about how it actually works.

3. In selling an unfamiliar concept or policy solution, start where the public’s head is, not where yours is.

“In broaching climate change with the public, don’t start by making scientific declarations to people who rarely read or think about science,” Manning wrote in 2014. “Far better to start with the climate change effects our audience is already aware of, particularly in resource-producing areas, and then present the science to help explain. For example, start with British Columbia loggers’ awareness that winters are no longer cold enough to kill the pine beetle, or Alberta drill crews’ awareness that it’s taking longer for muskeg to freeze and allow drilling each fall.”

I believe there is broad recognition in Alberta that climate change needs to be addressed but the sharp downturn in the price of oil and the continued political wrangling over the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline have distracted the public’s attention on energy and environmental issues. The opposition was successful in branding the carbon tax as damaging to the economy at a time when many Albertans had lost or were on the verge of losing their jobs, especially in Calgary and some rural areas.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

The NDP government also may have made a strategic error by arguing the Climate Leadership Plan would create the social license needed to convince British Columbians that a pipeline expansion is needed also knee-capped the carbon tax when the project stalled. Tying the carbon tax to the pipeline was a gamble, and it, so far, does not appear to have paid off.

We are also in the era of Donald Trump and conservative politicians across Canada have interpreted his success south of the 49th parallel as a license to engage in a similar angry populist tone. Conservative strategists in Alberta seem to believe that Ford’s victory in Ontario is the key to success and plan to embrace a similar campaign here in Alberta. Whether the abandonment of moderate conservatism in favour of populist rhetoric and climate change denial will lead to success in the long-term is yet to be seen.

4. Be honest about the ultimate costs to consumers.

Manning argued that “it’s possible to make environmental levies “revenue neutral” by reducing income taxes” and the initial argument from the NDP government that the cost of the carbon levy would be “revenue neutral” was confusing, unconvincing and quickly debunked.

A carbon tax does not need to be revenue neutral and the NDP bought into a naturally conservative idea by arguing so from the beginning. The NDP should have been up front about the cost while also reminding Albertans that we already pay some of the lowest taxes in Canada and our government is desperate for additional revenue to fund our public services.

Drew Barnes Wildrose MLA Cypress Medicine Hat

Drew Barnes

After decades of rich oil and gas royalties pouring into public coffers, the Alberta government became over-dependent on oil and natural gas royalties to pay for a large portion of the daily operations of government.

5. Be balanced – Canadians love balance.

It may have been poorly communicated but I believe the Climate Leadership Plan is actually a fairly balanced and largely conservative initiative. By their very nature, carbon pricing is a free market idea and it was embraced by Conservative partisans until their opponents implemented these policies.

Despite being demonized as a leftist ideological wealth redistribution program, the plan listened to industry leaders in allowing for significant growth in the oil sands while providing incentives to decrease carbon footprint and increase energy efficiency.

Manning wrote in 2010 that “[t]here is no inherent reason why conservatives should be ambivalent on the environment, since conservation and conservatism come from the same root, since living within our means ecologically is a logical extension of living within our means fiscally, and since markets (in which conservatives strongly believe) can be effectively harnessed to environmental conservation.”

But today’s Conservatives not only have abandoned their support for carbon pricing and have used some of Manning’s advice as a manual to attack government action on climate change. Conservatives are united against the carbon tax, but remain silent on how or if they even have any ideas to address climate change.

The shift to green conservatism that Manning advocated for years ago has been ignored in favour of more open denial and skepticism of climate science which continues to be an accepted line of thought in Canada’s conservative movement. In Alberta, UCP MLA Drew Barnes helped fund a film promoting climate change denial, one recently nominated candidate, Randy Kerr, was found to have openly questioned climate science on social media, and nine UCP MLAs signed a published letter that compared the carbon tax to the Holodomor – the 1930s genocide that saw up to 7 million Ukrainians killed.

We know that today’s Conservatives oppose the carbon tax, and many of them outright deny the existence of climate change. It is yet to be seen whether they will propose an alternative to the carbon tax that is more than angry politicians and hot air.