In the Eye of the Storm

Here we are in the eye of the storm, a place of relative calm surrounded by a ring of thunderstorms (known as the eye wall). We passed through one eye wall to get here and we’ll have to pass through another eye wall to get out.

This won’t be easy given the man who put us here, Jason Kenney, will be in office for another three years and is determined to stay the course. He says he didn’t go through all the work of uniting the Wildrose and the Progressive Conservatives to “preside over a broken status quo.”

Ruby Slippers: one way to get out of a storm

He spent the first nine months of his term ripping up Rachel Notley’s progressive agenda and replacing it with policies that reduced corporate taxes and increased costs on everything from car insurance to school fees; and to put the icing on the cake, he cut education, healthcare and social programs to the point where everyone is feeling helpless and confused.  

But fear not, Mr Kenney predicts 2020 will be a “turnaround year” for Alberta, one in which he will make headway on his promise to deliver jobs, the economy and pipelines.  

There’s just one catch: Jason Kenney has no idea how he’s going to do it.

What? Why? How? Huh?

He’s made it clear his focus isn’t on the “how” but the “why”.

In an year end interview Mr Kenney said his government needs to communicate not just “what” it’s doing—he campaigned on delivering a smaller, more effective public service and a balanced budget because a rising tide lifts all boats—but also communicating the “why”.

He says conservatives are notoriously bad at explaining the “why” to the public, but once they explain the “why” and the people see the benefits of reform, they’ll support it.

This raises a number of questions.

Albertans already know “why” Mr Kenney implemented an austerity budget, he said the MacKinnon Report demonstrates Alberta’s public services had to be cut to fall into line with those of other provinces in order to deliver a balanced budget in 2023.  

If that’s not the “why” he’s talking about then please, enlighten us.

The real problem is that the people are not seeing the benefits of reform and Mr Kenney has no idea how his austerity budget will deliver these benefits given that the economy is driving by the energy sector and it’s impacted by global prices set by players and events outside of Alberta’s borders.   

To further confuse things, in a recent interview Mr Kenney said the future of conservatism lies in embracing the growing “reform conservatism” movement. This is an American movement which says the market isn’t always right and a growing economy doesn’t necessarily benefit everyone.  

Kenney says he’ll revisit “reform conservatism” after he’s got Alberta’s economy firing on all cylinders.

This makes no sense. How can Kenney fix the economy with old style conservatism (a rising tide lifts all boats) and then keep the economy going with reform conservatism (a rising tide does NOT lift all boats)?

But it does illustrate that Mr Kenney has no idea what he’s doing.   

This also explains why he’s throwing distractions at us left, right and centre. In addition to the $30 million war room, the $2.5 million public inquiry into anti-Alberta activities, the Fair Deal Panels, and the budget panel, there are 7 open engagements covering everything from farmer-led agricultural research to photo radar, 6 expert panels to advise on everything from auto insurance to curriculum reform and 14 panels who’ve finished their work and submitted their recommendations to the government for review. This is on top of the 16 engagements that were completed in 2019.  

(We’re reminded of the words of the Chinese philosopher Lin Yatang who said: “Those who are wise aren’t busy, and those who are too busy can’t be wise.”)

The UCP famously said “We understand that in order to be a compassionate, caring society, we must be prosperous first.” One can’t help but wonder what will happen when Kenney’s plan to move the needle on jobs, the economy and pipelines in 2020 comes up empty notwithstanding his $4.7 billion cut in corporate taxes and his promise to eliminate red tape—a promise described as hypocritical by the CEO of Prosper Petroleum who has taken the UCP government to court to force it to approve an oil sands project.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that we’ll have to fight our own way out of the eye of the storm; standing up for the public services that protect our families, our friends and our neighbours.

We won’t be able to sit around waiting for Jason Kenney to click his ruby slippers and magically whisk us back home.     

Posted in Economy, Energy & Natural Resources, Politics and Government | Tagged , , , , | 53 Comments

What Did I Miss?

Ms Soapbox just returned from a week in British Columbia.  As you might expect, the residents of BC are more interested in their own issues than what ails the richest and whiniest province in the country. Consequently, the only Alberta news we received from the local news outlets was the horrific crash of Flight 752 and its devastating impact on the city of Edmonton.

The downing of Flight 752 puts everything into perspective. Having said that, we cannot ignore what’s happening to our province as a result of the UCP government. So while it feels disrespectful to mention Alberta politics in the same breath as this tragedy, I can’t help but wonder, what did I miss while I was away?

Posted in Disasters, Uncategorized | 42 Comments

2020 The Year We Push Back

Kudos to the citizens who parse Jason Kenney’s policies and winnow the truth from the lies. 

This takes tremendous courage given the government’s thin-skinned and overly aggressive response to criticism.  (Check its Twitter and Facebook posts, they’re replete with attacks on anyone and everyone from Calgary’s mayor to doctors, academics, journalists, union leaders and ordinary citizens).

One would expect such an over the top reaction from the Kenney government to have a chilling effect on free speech and public discourse. 

However, the opposite is true. 

Push back

When the government’s $30 million/year War Room went after the Medicine Hat News for publishing a column critical of the War Room’s activities, the paper said bring it on, its subscriptions surged and its writers, Jeremy Appel and Scott Schmidt (I’m sure there are others) gained loads of new followers on social media.     

When it singled out Steven Lee, a young environmental activist with the 3% Project, in a story featuring a parent irked by Mr Lee’s presentation. Mr Lee said he was disappointed that all the War Room could muster given its mega budget was “the normal messaging everyone else already does”.

When the War Room reacted to an op-ed by environmental activist Bill McKibben, Professor Andrew Leach took it to task for publishing rubbish (my word, not his). He urged the War Room to correct the misinformation it presented as fact.  As Professor Leach delicately put it, “Words are important, and it seems that perhaps they were not chosen carefully enough.  I’m sure it could not have been intentionally done to mislead, and I expect you’ll want to correct the record.” 

This is significant

This push back from academics, journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens is extremely significant.  Why? Because they are fighting to protect our democracy. 

Jason Stanley, in How Propaganda Works, says it’s a fundamental principle in a democracy that all citizens can participate equally in debating the policies that affect them, and the political discussion is reasonable and rational.

Falcons symbolize wisdom, vision and protection.

The Kenney government violated this principle when it earmarked $120 million over four years to aggressively protect the energy industry from criticism and set up a $2.5 million public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns.  It moved from simply promoting the energy sector (as it would promote any other sector of the economy) to attacking industry critics in a politically charged forum as a matter of ideology—anyone suggesting the oil sands are contributing to climate change is anti-Albertan—they are fair game and the government will use the weight of the state to stop them.         

That’s why the push back is so significant.  Citizens are reminding us that War Rooms and anti-Alberta energy inquiries and ad hominem attacks on critics are not normal; they’re an attack on democracy. 

They know the government and its supporters will respond with both barrels. 

And yet, they refuse to remain silent. 

They’re fighting back against the government’s efforts to silence them.  They’re fighting back to protect public services like education, healthcare and support for our most vulnerable.  And they’re showing up at goof ball panels which are nothing more than a distraction from the government’s failure to address a flawed fiscal structure.     

Citizens have taken strength from the government’s attempt to marginalize them. 

This gives me tremendous hope.

Posted in Politics and Government | Tagged , , , , | 60 Comments

The Book List

The year 2020 is almost upon us. 

We know there are tough times ahead.  But we need to remember we’re not alone.  Others much smarter than us have traveled this path and documented what they’ve learned.  They can offer insights to help us understand what we’re experiencing and if we’re smart (and lucky) avoid the disastrous mistakes other political leaders have made in the name of god and country.

I’m talking about books. 

If ever there was a time to learn what knowledgeable political scientists, historians and observers have to say it’s now. 

So, I’d invite you to send in the names of one or two books you’d recommend for the Soapbox Book List.

I’ll start by recommending Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom, a piece of contemporary history that explores the rise of authoritarianism and populism in Russia, the UK and America.  To quote the blurb on the book flap, Snyder sets out the stark choices before us—between equality and oligarchy, individuality and totality, trust and lies—and offers a way forward.  

It’s well worth a read.

What would you recommend?

Posted in Education, Politics and Government, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 68 Comments

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

The politicians are on break (thank god) and so are we.

The Soapbox family and Rudy the rescue dog would like to wish you and yours a peaceful and happy holiday.   

And here’s the traditional photo of the mutt under the Christmas tree.  Those of you with a discerning eye will notice Rudy is plumper and furrier this year.  But then again, aren’t we all.

Talk to you next year!

Rudy the Rescue Dog
Posted in Celebrations, Humour, Vacation | Tagged , | 45 Comments

Is This a Time for Hope?

It’s hard to find hope when so many Albertans are hurting.  It’s even more difficult when you realize Alberta’s own government is the source of their pain.        

Nevertheless, there is cause for hope. 

I saw that eye-roll.  Let me tell you why I’m hopeful.        

The Notley opposition  

Alberta is blessed with an extremely capable and skilled Opposition that is holding the Kenney government to account.

Let’s take the budget as an example.  Mr Kenney says the purpose of his austerity policies is to balance the budget.  Well, Ms Notley has proposed an alternative budget that will get him there without pitting Albertans against each other and picking fights with other governments.  Ms Notley would reverse Mr Kenney’s $4.7 billion corporate tax cut and ask the top one percent (those earning over $315,000/year) to increase personal income taxes by one percent.  This would allow the government to maintain public services, invest in infrastructure, help diversify the economy and achieve a balanced budget by 2023/24 (one year later than Mr Kenney’s budget) with $1 billion less in accumulated deficit.

Rachel Notley with Irfan Sabir, Kathleen Ganley and Joe Ceci

Fat lot of good the Notley budget will do us, you say.  Mr Kenney will never concede his austerity policies are doing more harm than good.  Perhaps, but Ms Notley’s point is the budget is a matter of choice.  Mr Kenney could reverse these cuts but he chooses not to do so. Albertans forced to endure the consequences of his decision (and that’s all of us by the way) will remember this when they mark their ballots in the next election. 

Admittedly, this ray of hope is like a light at the end of a long tunnel but it’s magnified by other signs of hope in the here and now.    

Professionals are speaking out

Alberta’s professionals are standing by their professional ethics and calling out the Kenney government when it crosses the line.

U of C law professors raised serious concerns that the Alberta Inquiry into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns violates the rule of law and procedural fairness as well as our constitutional right to freedom of expression.  Political science profs continue to take the Kenney government to task for heavy handed behavior that labels critics as a group to be targeted.    

Journalists at large and small papers (hello Medicine Hat News!) are covering everything the UCP does; including the government deploying its $30 million war room to single out and publicly denigrate the work of a young activist—he found the experience to be “intimidating” but shows no signs of backing down.     

It’s critical for a healthy democracy that professionals publicly hold the government to account.  The historian Timothy Snyder says this creates a form of “ethical conversation” that isn’t possible between an individual and a distant government. 

If the UCP government refuses to participate in this conversation, so be it.  The ethical conversation educates the public who are growing uneasy with a government that promised to fight for the people, but now appears more interested in running roughshod over their rights and freedoms. 

Albertans are speaking up

In the old days Albertans were reluctant to criticize the conservative party.  Not anymore.    

This week alone I’ve met Albertans who are quick to express their anger and frustration with the UCP government.   They include a young tech entrepreneur who’s shocked the UCP trashed NDP policies supporting the tech sector, a hairdresser whose life became more expensive under the Kenney government, a business owner concerned that Kenney’s divisive rhetoric has led some Albertans to believe Alberta will be better off without Canada, and nurses anxious about their futures.       

Albertans are showing up in person to argue against Kenney’s fair deal.  They’re filing submissions and signing petitions.  They’re marching along side of teachers and healthcare workers outside the UCP AGM.  They’re writing their MLAs and flooding the mainstream and social media with stories about personal hardship caused by Kenney’s austerity budget. 

The polls show Mr Kenney is in trouble; if this continues nothing will save him.

Until that day comes, let us reach out in hope to those less fortunate and support them through these difficult times. 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

PS The traditional Christmas blog complete with the dog under the Christmas tree will appear on Dec 25, 2019.

Posted in Alberta Health Care, Economy, Education, Politics and Government | Tagged , , , | 29 Comments

The Fair Deal Panel (The Circus Comes to Town)

On Dec 10 the circus rolled into town.  It called itself a “Fair Deal Panel Town Hall” but like the Ringling Brothers, its purpose was to distract Albertans from their troubles by dazzling them with spectacle.       

It took place on a bitterly cold week night, somewhere in the boonies well past the Calgary airport.  It was sold out.   

There were about 350 chairs in the auditorium.  At least 70 seats were empty when the event started.  A middle-aged man told us this was because “the union” bought up all the tickets.  Mr Soapbox asked whether he had any proof.  He said someone at the front of the room told him so.  When all else fails, blame the unions, eh?

The moderator introduced the Panel and the topic.  Albertans can be forgiven for assuming the town hall was a farce given the Panel includes three UCP MLAs, a former progressive conservative MLA and Preston Manning, the founder of the Reform Party, and the government justified the exercise with faulty assumptions (no, Alberta is not “the biggest contributing province to Canada’s prosperity by far,” Quebec and Ontario are bigger). 

Mr Soapbox made the wry observation that this was the “biggest collection of grey hairs and bald heads” he’d seen in a while.  He was right, there were more older people than younger people, more men than women, and way more whites than visible minorities.    

The submissions

Ms Soapbox assumed two minutes would not be enough time to make a submission.  She was wrong…and extremely grateful when the moderator pulled the plug on the separatist raging against the Laurentian elites and Gerald Butts who’d indoctrinated the nation on climate change.        

Fewer than 40 people made submissions.  They could be (roughly) grouped into the following categories: 

  • I’m a proud Canadian (“Canada First”)
  • I want a fair deal, either Kenney’s fair deal or a different fair deal
  • I’m a separatist
  • I’m not sure
  • Odd balls who wanted to decriminalize sex workers, change the federal regulations governing the sale of ammonites, or put CPP payments into escrow until this was sorted out. 

The Canada First people and the Fair Deal people made roughly the same number of submissions, about 35% each.  Two separatists presented submissions, but many fair deal people said they’d consider separation if they didn’t get a deal.  Five people made not sure/odd ball submissions.    

Canada First Submissions

The Canada First people are worried about losing their CPP and the impact the Alberta pension plan would have on labour force mobility between the provinces.  They said if Alberta collected provincial income taxes this would increase bureaucracy and red tape.  Some presenters were heartbroken that we were even having this conversation, others were adamant that they loved Canada, united and strong.    

The guy who said appointing a Chief Firearms Officer was a nod to the gun lobby was met with applause and boos, one from the guy behind me who took offence to the suggestion he was about go out and shoot somebody.    

The presenter who won my heart was the woman who said she was more concerned about getting a fair deal inside Alberta for kids’ education, seniors’ pharmacare and the vulnerable, because “I’m human, I’m not a jerk.” 

Fair Deal Submissions

This group was all over the map.  

Some were satisfied with the deal outlined in Mr Kenney’s mandate to the Panel.  Others wanted Kenney’s fair deal plus an Alberta immigration system, an Alberta Employment Insurance plan, and the abolition of equalization, guaranteed free trade across Canada and a Triple E senate. 

Another group demanded all of the above plus restrictions on the prime minister’s power, an overhaul of the Supreme Court of Canada, and a referendum on the Clarity Act (which requires a clear majority before a province can start negotiating on separation).     

Some Fair Deal proponents suggested their objectives could be achieved by “turning off the taps” and stopping the transport of goods from the Port of Vancouver to the rest of Canada.   

One fellow noted if Alberta had its own police force it could slow down Ottawa by refusing to enforce “bad laws” within Alberta.  Silly me, I thought this was an attempt to circumvent any investigations into allegations of corruption around Mr Kenney and the UCP leadership race.     

Many Fair Deal proponents said they wanted Alberta to fight for a fair deal and simultaneously prepare for separation.  They were annoyed Mr Kenney gave up the option to “walk away” by saying he was a nationalist. 

Separatist submissions

The Separatists were clear.  Alberta is the doormat of Confederation.  It’s in crisis and must separate.  It should enact the firewall now and consider its options which including joining the USA.  The sooner the better.

It’s a wrap

Many speakers had not had their turn at the mic when the moderator called time. 

It didn’t matter.  We’d heard enough.

The Canada First proponents are resolute and heartbroken.  They say the Panel lacks credibility and is being used by Mr Kenney to exacerbate divisions within the province and isolate Alberta from the rest of the country.    

The Fair Deal proponents are furious.  They’re convinced the Trudeau government wants to kill Alberta’s energy sector.  They accept Mr Kenney’s argument that it’s government policy not global oil prices that drive Alberta’s economy.  Interestingly no one believed this when the PCs and Harper Conservatives were in power during the previous oil busts.   

And the Separatists would be gone tomorrow if it were possible.   

Next steps

The Panel said it wouldn’t prejudge the outcome. However, it also said many of you are angry, partly because you’re not getting a fair deal from the federal government and our purpose is to define and secure a fair deal.  If that’s not prejudging the outcome, I don’t know what is. 

These town halls are nothing more than bread and circuses.  The ringmaster’s panel will write a report that confirms what the ringmaster has been saying all along, it’s all Trudeau’s fault.   

Albertans will divert significant time (measured in years) and resources (measured in millions of dollars) attempting to fix what one presenter called “a crisis in the making”. 

In the meantime, the Separatists will gain momentum. 

Conclusion: The circus is not worth the price of admission.

Posted in Politics and Government | Tagged , , | 53 Comments