Speaker’s Corner

Ms Soapbox is working on a project that will keep her busy for the next couple of weeks. Rather than allow The Soapbox, a virtual Speakers’ Corner, to fall silent, she’d like to invite her thoughtful readers to share their views on issues of concern; God knows, there are enough of them.

Perhaps you’re worried about the UCP government’s assault on democracy with Bill 1 (criminalizing peaceful protest) and Bill 10 (using the covid crisis to give ministers extraordinary new powers), or its failure to address climate change, or its campaign to undermine public health and public education.

Maybe you’d like to see meaningful support for Albertans struggling with the impact of Covid-19 (no, we can’t wait for the Feds to pay for it all), or maybe you’re just tired of Kenney’s hypocrisy—how can he sing the praises of Erin O’Toole who said there will be no Energy East pipeline ever but refuse to give Trudeau his due for rescuing Alberta’s energy sector by buying TMX (estimated cost: over $12.6 billion)?

Or maybe you want to talk about federal politics or … Donald Trump?

Tell us what’s troubling you the most and why. Ms Soapbox promises to read your comments and respond (albeit a little more slowly than usual).  

Welcome to Speakers’ Corner. The Soapbox is all yours.

Posted in Uncategorized | 21 Comments

Thoughts on the Death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday Sept 18, 2020 at the age of 87. She was appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and had been battling cancer in one form or another since 1999. She vowed to remain on the bench as long as she was capable of doing her job “full steam”. Sadly, she ran out of steam last Friday.

Her intelligence, wit and empathy will be greatly missed as the Supreme Court tilts even further to the right (Republican appointees will outnumber Democratic appointees six to three after President Trump appoints her replacement).

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Americans are right be deeply distressed by this harsh reality, but Canadians are equally upset.

Why?

It’s not as if the decisions of the US Supreme Court are binding on Canadian courts (contrary to what some Canadians think, Canada’s Constitution is not a pallid reflection of the American Constitution).

Something Chimed

To my mind, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death chimed in our hearts because she personified the last line of defence against slippery governments that promise prosperity, but deliver pain in the name of free market ultra-conservative ideology.

Even Canadians who weren’t paying attention finally understand there’s a catch when a conservative politician says ‘in order to be a caring society, we must be prosperous first.’

Actually there are two:

First, some people will never be prosperous enough, they’ll always want more.

Second, no matter what the government does to “unleash” the economy; be it lowering taxes, gutting environmental and O&S protections, hobbling unions, privatizing healthcare, education and public services, stripping women and minorities of their rights and eliminating public criticism by making peaceful protests illegal, prosperity continues to elude us and most citizens are worse off.

The only way to change these oppressive laws (assuming there’s no election on the horizon) is to challenge them in court.

Legal challenges take time and money. They bounce from one level of court to another and at each level those fighting to protect the people, the environment and our democratic institutions take their chances with whoever is sitting on the bench. If their case is heard by a panel of judges who are predisposed to rule in favour of corporations and their wealthy owners then all is lost.  

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death reminds us just how bad things can get if such governments remain unchecked. Historian Nancy MacLean’s term “Kochtopus” (to describe Charles Koch’s influence over America’s democratic institutions) comes to mind.

None of us is a Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but every one of us can do something to ensure our next government is not a bunch of free market conservative ideologues. Pitching in a few bucks or some volunteer time to support a party that values public services, the environment and our rights and freedoms is a lot cheaper than having to fall back on our last line of defence, the courts.

Posted in Crime and Justice, Law, Politics and Government, Rich and/or Famous | Tagged , , , | 49 Comments

Decision Day for Dr Day

Mr Justice Steeves’ decision in Cambie Surgeries Corporation v. British Columbia (Attorney General) reads like a Scott Turow novel, albeit at a slower pace.

It includes all the major elements of a legal thriller: a law suit with white hats and black hats, ordinary people desperately searching for ways to alleviate their pain, entrepreneurs seeking financial gain, a constitutional battle that may forever change Canada’s universal public healthcare system, all of which lands before a wise and thoughtful judge who meticulously considers the evidence presented in a trial lasting 194 days which included the oral and written testimony of 36 physicians, 17 patients, 40 experts and 75 witnesses, and delivers an 880 page decision in support of public healthcare.

The characters

The plaintiffs are Dr Brian Day, the Cambie Clinic, the Specialist Referral Clinic which provides assessments and referrals to Cambie, and some physicians and patients associated with those clinics.

Dr Day founded the Cambie clinic. He’s a staunch advocate for private healthcare and doesn’t come across as a sympathetic character.  

Dr Day

Dr Day’s argues it’s unconstitutional to deny patients, who can afford to pay, the option of obtaining private healthcare in the face of lengthy waits for such care in the public system.   

He is not advocating for reducing wait times or increasing funding in the public system. And he admits that allowing patients to pay for medical services at private clinics will not reduce public wait times.  

The defendants are the BC government, the federal government, and doctors and other advocates who argue laws which preserve the universal public healthcare system and ensure that access to care is determined by need, not the ability to pay, are not unconstitutional.

They also argue that allowing a parallel private healthcare system to emerge would undermine the public healthcare system by increasing costs and reducing capacity, and would exacerbate the inequity of access.

Law prof Lorian Hardcastle posted an insightful blog on the constitutional aspects of the decision this morning.

For a quick Soapbox take on the case read on.    

The business of private clinics

Private healthcare clinics are a lucrative business that chew up a lot of resources.

Dr Day testified that 100 surgeons are affiliated with the Cambie Clinic. They’re supported by a staff of 95 employees (nurses, front office staff, cleaners, etc).

The Cambie Clinic charges patients a facility fee that covers salaries, overhead and operating costs. The facility fee goes into general revenue, and a payment, similar to a dividend, is made to the doctors affiliated with the clinic. This payment is in addition to whatever the doctors receive from the BC government for their work in the public sector.

Doctors working at the Clinic and other private sector clinics earn two to four times more for procedures they perform in the private sector than for those same procedures in the public sector. One doctor said that in 2016/2017 he earned $240,000 in government billings compared to approximately $950,000 in private clinic billings.

Not surprisingly, some doctors say they’ve reduced their time in the public sector to spend more time in the private sector.

The details of how doctors’ work is tracked and how their payments are calculated remain a mystery. Dr Day, the man in charge of Cambie, was unable to provide an explanation or documentation showing how this was done.

Not all experts are the same

Justice Steeves noted that experts for both the plaintiff and the defendant strayed beyond their areas of expertise at times, however he highlighted a number of serious concerns with many of Dr Day’s experts that resulted in their opinions being given little or no weight.  

Dr Day took it upon himself to communicate with four of his experts in a way Justice Steeves said amounted to “counselling them to ignore, if not violate, their primary duty” as experts (namely to assist the court and not be an advocate for either party). Dr Day’s communication with these experts “so tainted their evidence” that Justice Steeves gave their reports and testimony no weight.  

Similarly Justice Steeves gave no weight to some of Dr Day’s healthcare economists because their reports were (1) simply commentary prepared for CD Howe, (2) consumer information prepared for the Frontier Institute or (3) reports prepared for the Fraser Institute by someone who was “minimally” qualified as an expert on health policy and whose work suggested a “very narrow philosophical interest.”

Interestingly, Justice Steeves noted that Dr Day himself was evasive and argumentative and rejected the doctor’s evidence where it was contradicted by other witnesses or documentation.

Suffering

While it is true that elective surgeries are not, by definition, treatment for life-threatening conditions, the challenge facing patients attempting to access diagnostic and surgical procedures is fraught with physical and mental distress and cannot be ignored.

The testimony of patients appearing for both the plaintiffs and the defendants was heartbreaking.

The longer we fail to address the issues caused by a lack of timely access to the public healthcare system, the more desperate people will become and the more willing they will be to latch on to a private healthcare solution.

The sequel

Dr Day says he’ll appeal Justice Steeves’ decision. And if he loses at the next level, he’ll likely appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Everyone who supports Canada’s public health system should thank their lucky stars that the decision the Supreme Court of Canada will be reviewing will be the magnificent 880 page decision issued by Justice Steeves.

Posted in Alberta Health Care, Economics, General Health Care, Law | Tagged , , , , , , | 43 Comments

Alberta’s School Re-Entry Plan: It is what it is

These are unprecedented times, and they’re not being made any easier by Jason Kenney’s callous justification for his government’s half-baked School Re-Entry Plan, or Dr Hinshaw’s Order 33-2020 which was intended to clarify questions around masking and social distancing in schools but muddied the waters even more.

“It’s inevitable”

On Sept 1, Jason Kenney gave a press conference that was intended (presumably) to assure parents they could safely send their children back to school in the middle of a pandemic.

His message, carefully crafted by his team of issues managers and PR professionals, was:  

  • infections (which result in illness and sometimes death) are “inevitable”
  • such “inevitability” is no reason to close schools
  • schools must assume “a certain risk” (which Kenney couldn’t or wouldn’t quantify)
  • it’s “essential” schools open because experts say kids need to be in school
  • his government has put in place certain “protocols” based on the advice of Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Hinshaw, and others, and school boards should consult with Dr Hinshaw who will respond on a case-by-case basis to outbreaks (she’ll be swamped, but who cares, it’s just a pandemic, right?).  

Mr Kenney’s message of inevitability shows zero leadership or accountability. It is eerily reminiscent of Donald Trump’s response (“it is what it is”) to the Covid-19 death toll in the US. It speaks to resignation and defeat. It is not the legitimate foundation of a viable School Re-Entry Plan.   

Mr Kenney

Order 33-2020

Mr Kenney’s press conference came on the heels of Dr Hinshaw’s Order 33-2020.

Prior to Dr Hinshaw’s Order, we’d understood that masking was required in schools for grades 4 and up where social distancing could not be maintained; however Order 33-2020 says (we think) that it’s okay for kids not to wear masks even if social distancing can’t be maintained as long as kids sit quietly at their desks and aren’t facing each other.

Say what?

Shaun Fluker, a law prof at the University of Calgary, is not surprised by the criticism of the government and Dr Hinshaw’s rules on masking and social distancing. He says Order 33-2020 is poorly drafted, apparently inconsistent with the government’s earlier messaging on its Covid-19 website and Hinshaw’s own Order 26-2020, and the timing—it was dropped on the beleaguered public the Saturday before the start of classes—raises the suspicion that “the heavy hand of politics” was involved in its drafting.

Yep, you can say that again.   

At the very least

These are confusing and unsettling times. Albertans have every right to expect clear, consistent, thoughtful leadership from their government and their medical experts.

Dr Hinshaw’s last minute about face on the masking/social distancing rule for school children, together with Mr Kenney’s insistence that infections are “inevitable” and his refusal to provide significant funding to allow schools to reduce class sizes (some of which are in the mid to high 30s) to combat Covid-19 in schools, has resulted in a lack of trust in both the Chief Medical Officer and the Kenney government, precisely at a time we need them the most.

School children, teachers, staff, their families, and all Albertans who will be impacted by the Kenney government’s ill-conceived, underfunded School Re-Entry Plan deserve better because contrary to popular opinion becoming ill and dying of Covid-19 is not inevitable.

Not by a long shot.  

Posted in Alberta Health Care, General Health Care, Law, Politics and Government | Tagged , , , , , , , | 37 Comments

The Day of (Fiscal) Reckoning

Jason Kenney’s warning came just prior to the government’s economic update announcement. He said “when we get through all of this there will be a fiscal reckoning”.

Reckoning. It has a biblical ring and in this context the implication is that no matter what calamity is visited upon us, we had it coming and we deserve to be punished.  

Judgment Day

Economic Update

On Aug 27, the Kenney government set the stage for the fiscal reckoning by opening the Legislature with a prayer. The Speaker asked the “Lord, the God of righteousness and truth” to “grant [Alberta’s elected representatives] the guidance of Your spirit.”*

It’s unclear which god the government was calling upon but as a result of his/her/their guidance the Kenney government is facing a $24.2 billion deficit this year and an accumulated debt of around $100 billion.

This in and of itself isn’t the end of the world—Alberta’s debt as a percent of GDP will be 22.3%, this is comparable to BC at 22% and Sask at 20.8% —however finance minister Toews made it clear that the path to a balanced budget and reduced debt was cutting expenses (aka an austerity budget) and not increasing revenues by reversing the government’s decision to cut corporate taxes or, heaven forbid, considering a provincial sales tax.  

Myths

Finance minister Toews introduced the economic update with an epic myth.

He said before Alberta was blindsided by covid-19 and the OPEC+ oil price war, Alberta’s economy was on the upswing thanks to the government’s job creating corporate tax cut and red tape cutting efforts.

This is not true.

Between Aug 2019 and Feb 2020 Alberta lost 24,400 jobs and not one major corporation relocated to Alberta to take advantage of the Kenney corporate tax cuts and its red tape free business environment. In fact, one major corporation chose to grab its tax savings and run to the US.

Furthermore, the government’s effort to cut red tape made Alberta even less attractive to investors.

Global investment managers like Blackrock are pulling out of Alberta because of its lack of environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance. Morningstar, a global investment research firm, lays the blame at Kenney’s doorstep saying that by cutting staff at the Alberta Energy Regulator and weakening environmental monitoring and oversight  “the Alberta government has become the oil patch’s own worst enemy.”

So no, the Kenney government’s economic policies did nothing for Alberta’s economy before calamity stuck.   

The sinners

The day of reckoning requires a bad guy, someone who must be punished for his transgressions.

In this case it’s the NDP. Mr Toews says if the NDP had cut spending as recommended in the MacKinnon report, the UCP would have inherited a $3.7 billion surplus, not a $6.7 billion deficit when it came to power.

Given that Mr Toews is trying to explain the $24.2 billion deficit that exists today, not the $6.7 billion deficit that existed the day the UCP came to power, it would be helpful if he included the impact of his government’s decision to decrease revenue by $4.7 billion in corporate tax cuts, $1.5 billion in equity investment in KXL, an additional $6 billion tied up in KXL loan guarantees, and the millions of dollars wasted on the war room, and the (non) public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns, to say nothing of the loss of efficiency and manpower resulting his government ongoing battle with Alberta’s doctors and teachers in the middle of a pandemic.

There is only one bad guy here and it’s not the NDP.

Judgment Day

The NDP finance critic, Shannon Phillips, made an insightful observation when Mr Toews presented the economic update. She said crisis is an opportunity for leadership but instead of leadership, the Kenney government is returning to the scene of old battles and old ideas.

She’s right.

This government’s retreat to yesterday’s failed policies is shocking given how much the world has changed over the last six months.

And while it may be too much to expect the UCP to adopt a provincial sales tax, there’s no excuse for the government ignoring the advice of an economic expert like Mark Carney, now with Brookfield, the world’s largest money manager, who says the transition to a net zero economy (where carbon emissions are offset or eliminated) is not only vital for climate sustainability, it presents “one of the greatest commercial opportunities of our time.”

One would think a net zero economy deserves a closer look, however instead of showing leadership the Kenney government prefers to do what Dr Lindsay Tedds describes as doubling down on thoughts and prayers.

All we can do is hang on. Yes, our children, the sick, the old and the vulnerable will suffer under the austerity measures that will be imposed by the Kenney government, but there will be another day of reckoning. It will occur in 2023 when Albertans will have the opportunity to reckon with the UCP government and vote them out of power.

That will be the sweetest reckoning of all.  

*Alberta Hansard, August 27, 2020, p2587

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

What Alberta’s School Re-entry Plan Teaches Us About Trust

On July 21, the UCP government announced 750,000 students will return to school in September under the government’s re-entry plan Scenario 1.

Scenario 1 means in-class learning under near-normal daily operating conditions with health measures.

These measures include two free reusable masks per student (mandatory for grades 4 and up where physical distancing is not possible), masks plus a discretionary face shield for staff, frequent cleaning, 466,000 litres of hand sanitizer, two thermometers per school, putting students into cohorts, and allowing schools to stagger start times for classes, recess and lunch.

Scenario 1 does not include capping class sizes at 15 or even 20,  presumably because this would require hiring additional teachers.  

Education minister, Adriana LaGrange, said her government is “determined to do everything we can” for the safe return of our students, teachers and staff.

Dr Hinshaw and Minister LaGrange

Dr Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer, said “we are committed to doing everything possible” to protect the health and safety of students, staff and family.

They both stand resolutely behind Scenario 1.

And yet Albertans across the province have taken to the streets demanding more funding to support additional safety measures. Unlike Ms LaGrange and Dr Hinshaw, they are not convinced that Scenario 1 does “everything possible” to keep our children, staff and families safe in the midst of a pandemic.  

Why the lack of trust?

It will be fine, trust me

When Ms LaGrange announced Scenario 1, she assured Albertans it reflected the input and support of “school authorities” and “education partners”. She failed to mention that throughout the process she refused to meet with the Alberta Teachers Association (gasp! the dreaded union).

By excluding the ATA she made three serious mistakes.

First she signaled her government’s contempt for the ATA which represents 32,500 teachers in the province, second she chose to ignore the best advice available on how to structure the teaching environment in a way that minimizes the risk of contracting covid-19, and third she threw away an opportunity to include teachers in the roll-out of the re-entry plan which would have given it additional credibility.  

Ms LaGrange finally agreed to meet with the ATA in the third week in August. The ATA expressed concerns around the need for increased physical distancing through reduced class sizes, funding for better protective equipment and better plans for screening and testing students and staff.

It is extremely unlikely the ATA’s concerns will make it into the re-entry plan.

No really, you can trust me

Sadly, we’re having trust issues with Dr Deena Hinshaw as well.

This is not surprising given all that Premier Kenney has done to marginalize Alberta’s chief medical officer. Never was this more evident than when Mr Kenney lifted the state of emergency without consulting Dr Hinshaw prior to announcing his decision. She was blindsided at a press conference by a reporter asking her to comment on Mr Kenney’s decision.

Dr Hinshaw says she supports the government’s re-entry plan because it’s been proven by the Canadian Pediatric Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics and others that the “safe return to school is critical to the physical and mental health and well-being of students and families.”

She added (1) if children are infected, they’re more likely to be mildly sick, (2) childhood infections don’t seem to drive community transmission, and (3) young children appear to be less likely than adults to infect others.  

All of this is interesting but it does not address the issue.

No one is disputing the experts’ position that returning to school is critical to the physical and mental well-being of students and families. And most of us are not in a position to comment on whether young children are less likely to infect others than older children or whether childhood infections drive community transmission.

However, given Dr Hinshaw’s commitment to do “everything possible” to protect the health and safety of students, staff and families, we’d really appreciate her expert opinion on whether the government’s Scenario 1 re-entry plan meets this standard.

No, we don’t trust you

And then there’s Jason Kenney.

He says the school re-entry plan is part of Alberta’s plan to relaunch our economy, but unlike other elements of Alberta’s recovery plan this one is not supported by a significant investment.

As far as we can tell the funds allocated to the plan are nothing more than (1) the return of funds stripped out of the education budget in the spring when Ms LaGrange fired 20,000 education assistants and staff, (2) giving permission to school boards to tap into their reserves and (3) accelerating capital spending already in the budget.     

Compare this to Mr Kenney’s generous gift of $1.5 billion in equity and $6 billion in loan guarantees to TC Energy’s KXL pipeline.

It appears the health and well-being of 750,000 Alberta students, 32,500 teachers, countless associated staff and their respective families don’t stack up against the iffy promise of 6,800 direct and indirect jobs in the oil sector.

Perhaps the real reason Albertans have taking to the streets to protest Scenario 1 is that they don’t trust a government that believes we must be a prosperous society before we can be a compassionate caring one.

Posted in Alberta Health Care, Economy, Energy & Natural Resources, General Health Care, Politics and Government | Tagged , , , , | 57 Comments

A “Marathon Session”

The Alberta Legislature is adjourned for a month.

For this we are truly grateful because no matter how Jason Kenney tries to dress up his performance—he says he’s well on his way to delivering on almost 70% of his campaign promises—he has not delivered on the promise of “jobs, economy, pipelines.”

And no, making a risky $1.5 billion equity investment and providing a $6 billion loan guarantee on the American segment of the KXL pipeline does not count.

Promises, promises, promises

Kenney’s campaign promises went up in smoke because he missed the memo, the one that said major oil companies want to own only the cheapest, cleanest reserves.  

Case in point.

Last week Total, a global energy company, announced it was taking a $9.3 billion asset impairment charge on its Canadian oilsands assets because (1) the oilsands are high cost investments in a low price environment and (2) they meet the definition of “stranded” assets under Total’s commitment to become a net-zero emissions company by 2050 or sooner.  

Total’s announcement comes on the heels of similar announcements by BP and Royal Dutch Shell which wrote down $17.5B and $22B respectively.*

It dovetails with the long string of announcements by investment banks like Deutsche Bank which pledged to align their credit and investment portfolios with the goals of the Paris Agreement in order to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

Net-zero emissions by 2050. Sense a pattern here?

Hypocritical?

Rather than reverse its plan to deregulate the energy sector as much as possible under the guise of cutting red tape (and instead introduce legislation that aligns with the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050) the Kenney government reverted to form: it had a temper tantrum.

Kenney’s energy minister, Sonya Savage, blasted Total’s “highly-hypocritical decision,” saying Total had dismissed “the leadership of Canadian producers who are doing their part with active strategies that have reduced emissions.”

Really?

If Canada’s producers are doing their part with “active strategies that have reduced emissions” then why are they complaining that the federal government’s aid program (LEEFE) is too restrictive because it includes a requirement to report on climate change and what the company is doing to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. If Savage is right, the LEEFE requirements should be a slam dunk, so what gives?       

Kenney doubled down the attack on any institution critical of the oilsands by demanding that Deutsche Bank “share with us the factual basis upon which these decisions were made.”

Given that Deutsche Bank is an international investment bank that holds $2.5 trillion in assets, it’s highly unlikely its CEO knows who Kenney is, let alone is quaking in his boots waiting for Kenney’s call. But go for it, Jason.  

Promises made, not delivered

Kenney is patting himself on the back for wrapping up “a marathon session that saw 34 bills passed to make life better, diversify our economy and get Albertans back to work.”  

He itemized some of the bills he deemed noteworthy including Bill 32 which “restored balance” in the workplace by stripping employees of many of their workplace rights.

He failed to mention that his government’s behavior undermined the democratic process or that his government’s policies pitched the government against doctors, teachers, parents, seniors and other vulnerable groups, municipalities, universities, rural Albertans, urban Albertans, the LBGTQ+ community, nature lovers, environmentalists and just about everyone else.

Which leads one to wonder whether Kenney’s pugilistic stance is façade to paper over his government’s failure to deliver on his campaign promise of jobs, a booming economy and pipelines.

Then again, it may be just a reflection of the man.

*The Economist, July 18, 2020, p51

NOTE: Ms Soapbox will be on vacation for the next two weeks, but she promises to read your comments and respond from time to time.

Posted in Alberta Health Care, Climate Change, Economics, Energy & Natural Resources, Politics and Government | Tagged , , , , , , | 45 Comments

Alberta is Not for Sale

“Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” — Gordon Gekko in the movie ‘Wall Street’

Our Covid numbers are rising, GDP is falling and the UCP government is burying us in a blizzard of announcements promising a relaunch strategy that will return us to “normal”.

The challenge for Albertans is to find a way to keep up with the barrage of UCP changes to legislation, regulations, and policy that, under the guise of progress are dragging us backwards.

One way to sort through the flak that pours into your media feed every day is to read it with two principles in mind: mutuality of interest and follow the money.

Mutuality of interest

The UCP and corporate Alberta share a mutuality of interest.

The UCP depends on corporations and their well-heeled shareholders and executives for financial support to stay in power. Corporations support political parties that free them from regulatory oversight (aka “red tape”) and suppress organized labour because these policies drive down costs and increase profits.

(Sorry all you ordinary Albertans who voted for the UCP after Kenney’s blue pick-up tour of Alberta; you’re not part of the equation).     

The clearest examples of mutuality of interest are Kenney’s “job creating” tax cut and Bill 32, an act to “restore balance in the workplace.” The job creating tax cut did not create any jobs. Bill 32 does not restore balance; it makes things worse by undermining unions that advocate for greater equity in the workplace.

Nevertheless, both policies are a success in Kenney’s world because they reduce corporate costs and increase profits which lead to hefty dividends. If shareholders are happy, corporations are happy; if corporations are happy they reward those who made them happy.  

One hand washes the other, you know.

Follow the money

Given this mutuality of interest, it’s not surprising that following the money invariably leads us to the private sector.

Sometimes the money trail is picked out in klieg lights, sometimes it’s more subtle.  

It’s obvious Kenney’s $1.5 billion equity investment and $6 billion loan guarantee to the KXL pipeline bought him a heap of goodwill from TC Energy, its shareholders, and investors, even though energy leaders like Suncor’s CEO chortle when asked whether KXL will ever be completed (some experts put the likelihood of completion at less than 50%).

The money trail is less obvious when it’s obscured by rhetoric about boosting the economy and/or saving taxpayers money.

Two quick examples. Kenney’s decision to repeal former premier Lougheed’s coal development policies to allow open-pit coal mining in the fragile Eastern slopes is hailed as a boon to Alberta’s economy when in fact it’s a retrograde step that undermines everything Kenney has said about Alberta being a global leader in energy and the environment. But the Australian coal mining companies love it, right?    

Under the guise of saving taxpayers money, Kenney will fully or partially close 20 parks and transfer 164 more to third-party managers. If managers can’t be found, the parks will be sold. Given that a mere 6.4% of Alberta land is protected, it’s difficult to see how selling public land to potato farmers and other business ventures will produce a meaningful increase in revenue.

But Kenney’s focus is not on increasing revenue or protecting endangered species and Alberta’s watersheds, let alone promoting recreational fishing and camping; these policies will be a success if they ingratiate the UCP government with the coal industry and other business enterprises.   

Sometimes the money trail is disguised as a matter of “choice”.

Kenney is promoting more “choice” in healthcare by funneling taxpayers’ money into the privatization of healthcare, be it the Babylon Telus app which replaces real physicians with virtual ones or a policy that will increase private surgeries from 15% to 30% by 2023. If history is anything to go by this will slow down access to public surgeries and increase the cost of private surgeries.     

Some good news

Albertans are becoming increasingly aware that the objective of the UCP government is not to serve them but the corporate sector that keeps them in power.

They reacted by increasing their financial support for the NDP. For the first time since 2017 the NDP raised more money than the UCP. In the second quarter the NDP raised $1,032,796.85 while the UCP raised $642,677.29. More than half the NDP donations were in amounts of $250 or less, while almost two-thirds of the UCP donations were over $250.

The day Kenney was elected he declared, “Alberta is open for business.”

A year later Albertans are pushing back. It turns Alberta is not for sale after all.

Posted in Alberta Health Care, Economy, Energy & Natural Resources, Environment, Politics and Government | Tagged , , , , , , , | 41 Comments

Police Surveillance of NDP Cabinet Minister Shannon Phillips

As Ms Soapbox read the decision of retired superintendent Paul Manuel, formerly of the Calgary Police Service, in the disciplinary proceedings against two members of the Lethbridge Police Service who conducted unauthorized surveillance of an NDP Cabinet Minister at a breakfast meeting with four stakeholders, a thought crossed her mind: “When did having a meeting with a government cabinet minister become illegal?”

The Facts

In April 2017 Sgt Carrier was having a meal with two junior officers at a Lethbridge diner. He spotted Shannon Phillips, then NDP Cabinet Minister responsible for parks and environment, having a breakfast meeting with four stakeholders.   

They were in the booth behind him and he overheard Phillips discussing a proposal to create a new park in the Castle region. He texted Acting Sgt Woronuk to join him because Woronuk, like Carrier, enjoyed camping, fishing, hunting and off-roading in the Castle area and, like Carrier, did not support Phillip’s environmental policies. (It’s unclear where the two junior officers stood on NDP policies).

Shannon Phillips

Another officer was invited to join them but by the time he got to the diner Carrier and Woronuk had left.    

Carrier and Woronuk both took photos of Phillips and her party. Carrier also took a “selfie” of himself and Phillips, with the other stakeholders in the background.  

As Carrier and Woronuk left the diner, Woronuk said he’d hate to see Phillips drive away from the restaurant and there be a reason to stop her. Carrier said just because she was a politician didn’t mean she’d get special treatment, she’d get a ticket.  

They left in separate cars. Carrier parked near the diner, caught up on reports and monitored the area for “prostitution-like activities.” He saw Phillips leave at 11:35 AM. He returned to headquarters at 12:06 PM.

Woronuk set up surveillance from his car. He saw a stakeholder leave in a blue Mazda and followed to see if the driver committed a driving infraction. He ran a licence plate search through the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) “for assistance in case he lost the vehicle” (this is how Woronuk identified the owner as Harvey Locke, whether Woronuk knew Locke was a well-respected conservationist is not clear). Woronuk sent Carrier a screen shot of the CPIC search in a text.  

Woronuk lost the Mazda after five blocks; the other officer drove around the area looking for it but failed to find it.

The next day, using the name “Mike Corp”, Woronuk posted a Facebook photo of Phillips and the stakeholders and a long caption criticizing Phillips, the NDP government, and Harvey Locke. Woronuk was off duty at the time.  

Phillips brought a complaint to the Calgary Police Service. The CPS investigation resulted in Carrier receiving a two-year warning and Woronuk receiving a one-year warning.  

In the course of the CPS investigation, Woronuk submitted an Explanatory Report saying he’d identified Locke through internet searches. He omitted the fact he’d identified Locke through an unauthorized CPIC search.  

When Woronuk’s CPIC search came to light a second, a collateral investigation was commenced by the Medicine Hat Police Service (MHPS).  

On July 9, 2019 Carrier and Woronuk were charged with numerous counts of disciplinary misconduct relating to allegations of unauthorized surveillance and traffic enforcement. The officers entered “deny pleas” to all counts.   

On June 24, 2020, after almost a year of “hard-nosed negotiation” the officers entered “Admit” pleas to some of the charges—Woronuk admitted to corrupt practice (using his position for the personal advantage of himself or another), discreditable conduct, deceit and insubordination. Carrier admitted to discreditable conduct (being an accessory) and neglect of duty (failing to report Woronuk’s unauthorized CPIC search).

Penalty

The presiding officer at the MHPS hearing said all the right things: a police officer has extraordinary powers and an abuse of such powers is unacceptable. Policing must be conducted in a fair and unbiased manner. It is important that the public has utmost trust and confidence in the police service. Etc.

He characterized this case as one where the police officers put their self-interests ahead of their oath in office, (it’s not clear what exactly the officers hoped to accomplish by engaging in unauthorized surveillance and issuing traffic tickets to a citizen who’d just met with an NDP cabinet minister).

The presiding officer found that Woronuk targeted Phillips because he didn’t support Phillips’ policies and targeted Locke solely because he’d attended a meeting with Phillips. He said Woronuk admitted he had “no lawful reason to conduct his CPIC search and was motivated to do so by his personal and political views…” and that “the seriousness of … Woronuk’s misconduct cannot be understated…”

Woronuk was not dismissed, he was temporarily demoted to Constable 1st Class for two years. This would result in a loss of wages of $19,000.

With respect to Carrier, the presiding officer spoke about the importance of proper supervision, particularly in the rank of sergeant. He noted Carrier’s conversation with Woronuk outside the diner was “tacit approval” for Woronuk to proceed with his traffic enforcement plans and that Carrier failed in his duty as a supervisor by not addressing Woronuk’s actions with Woronuk after he’d discovered what Woronuk had done.

Carrier was temporarily demoted to Senior Constable Level II for one year. This was a wage loss of $11,600 and would impact his pension.    

Why weren’t these officers dismissed?

Because in Alberta, the police investigate themselves under a statement of principles developed by the Alberta Law Enforcement Review Board in 1993. These principles, unlike the law governing termination of employment in the private sector, include an obligation to consider extenuating circumstances like:

  • length of service (here 23.5 years for Carrier and 19.5 years for Woronuk),
  • previous good record (yes, in both cases)
  • whether it was an isolated incident (yes)
  • premeditation (none)
  • provocation (Phillips was found not to have provoked the officers, however the presiding officer made a point of noting “…the members were motivated to act by what they perceived as an injustice with the proposed restrictions being placed in the Castle area.”)

Yes, we’ve reached the point in Alberta where imposing restrictions on camping, fishing and ATV-ing are considered an “injustice” by people entrusted to enforce the law.

So that’s it.

Woronuk engaged in unauthorized police surveillance of citizens and a minister of the Crown, his supervisor Carrier tacitly agreed to it, they got caught and will be temporarily demoted.   

As you might expect the NDP and the public don’t think this is good enough so Justice Minister Schweitzer asked ASIRT (Alberta Serious Incident Response Team) to look into the matter. Every single one of ASIRT’s 22 investigators, as of 2018, were current or former cops.*

And we’re right back to where we started.  

ASIRT cops and former cops will be investigating a case previously investigated by the Medicine Hat Police Service (and adjudicated by a retired Calgary Police Service cop) which was originally investigated by the Calgary Police Service.

What the Justice Minister should have said was, enough, the unauthorized police surveillance of Albertans and a minister of the Crown will be investigated by an independent body.  

Why? Because it’s the only way to rebuilt public trust.  

*G&M July 16, 2020 p. A10

Posted in Crime and Justice, Law, Politics and Government | Tagged , , , | 46 Comments

Kenney’s Recovery Plan: A Failure to Launch

Pfffft!

That’s the sound of Jason Kenney’s recovery plan as it sputters and lands like a limp balloon in the corner of the room.

Mr Kenney promised Albertans a “bold and ambitious plan,” a “game-changer” that will send a clear message to the world that Alberta is the best place to invest…then he delivered the same old, same old.

The plan

The plan offered $10 billion in infrastructure funding, however all but $1B of it was already spoken for in the Feb 2020 budget and the $1.5B equity investment and $6B loan guarantee for Keystone XL. Tsk tsk, it’s not really part of the recovery plan if you were going to do it anyway.

Then there was the drop in the corporate tax rate to 8%. Again, this isn’t new, it’s simply an acceleration of a tax cut scheduled to go into effect a year and a half from now. We all know how well the first one worked out: corporations used it to buy back shares, pay down debt, pay out dividends, or pocket the savings and hightail it to Denver. The one thing they didn’t do was create new jobs.

Mr Kenney explaining his recovery plan

The promise to diversify the economy is short on specifics and relies to some degree on the diversification policies implemented by the Notley government which were subsequently chopped by Kenney when he came into power.  So we’re making up for lost ground? 

The verbiage around advancing Alberta’s position as a leader in ESG (environmental, social, and governance criteria) is nice but there’s nothing concrete about how to do it. The one thing that does come through is Alberta’s enduring persecution complex: two of the four pillars of the ESG strategy promise to correct “mischaracterizations” and the inappropriate “targeting” of Alberta’s energy sector. Can we talk about the industry just once without whining?    

The most disingenuous commitment is the government’s promise to “continue to invest heavily in our most important resource—our people.” This is not a promise to increase investment in affordable daycare, affordable housing, or the healthcare and education sectors; it’s a promise to create an “investment promotion agency” called Invest Alberta to identify prospective investors and provide them with “concierge service” to help them navigate regulatory hurdles.  

What can I say: Trickle down economics is alive and well in Alberta.   

The moonshot

If Kenney really wanted to deliver a true game-changer, he would have given serious consideration to advice from people like Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan who said now is the time to go for the “moonshot” and develop a vision and a strategy to transition to a low carbon economy without leaving anyone behind,*  and to “follow the money” which people like Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, and Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, say is being invested in companies and jurisdictions committed to net-zero by 2050.  

Lastly, Kenney would stop clinging to the pre-Covid status quo and recognize the world is changing fast. The post-Covid normal is being driven by people who demand a more equitable and prosperous future for everyone not just the top one-percent; people whose conviction in the importance of addressing climate change has not wavered.  

We didn’t need the New York rating agency, Fitch, to downgrade Alberta because Kenney’s recovery plan lacks details, continues to rely on volatile natural resource revenues, and fails to put forward a planned path toward economic recovery, we can see that for ourselves.

Pfffft!  

*ARC Podcast interview : Peter Tertzakian and Jackie Forrest with Mr O’Regan   

Posted in Economics, Economy, Education, Energy & Natural Resources, General Health Care, Politics and Government | Tagged , , , , , | 38 Comments