Why Is It Always Someone Else’s Fault?

When Jason Kenney convinced Albertans that our economy is solely dependent on fossil fuels (diversification is a luxury, remember) and government policy, not the global marketplace, drives our economy; he needed a scapegoat when our economy failed to grow. Cue Rachel Notley and Justin Trudeau, although with the passage of time, even UCP supporters must realize it’s getting harder and harder to blame Rachel for any of this.     

If this strikes you as a stupid way to run a province, join the club.

Recently the Kenney government escalated the “blame someone else” rhetoric to something more dangerous. It characterized the federal government’s pending decision on Teck Resource’s application for the Frontier oilsands project as a litmus test for national unity.

Mr Kenney

If the feds reject the recommendation of a joint review panel* that the Frontier project be approved, Mr Kenney will argue this is proof the feds don’t care about Alberta (and the Wexiters will go berserk but that’s another post for another day).

Bargaining is a two-way street

Ironically, Mr Kenney has an opportunity to help the feds decide in Teck’s favour, but he won’t take it.

When asked about the feds’ pending decision, the federal Environment minister said the feds are looking for “concrete action on climate change” and hinted Alberta might want to reconsider its position on the federal carbon tax.

This did not sit well with the UCP government.

Apparently it’s okay for the UCP to “bargain” with the feds (the UCP promised to hold a referendum on removing equalization from the Constitution Act in Oct 2021 if there wasn’t substantial progress on TMX and Bill C-69 isn’t repealed—equalization isn’t remotely related to TMX or Bill C-69) but it’s not okay for the feds to “bargain” with the UCP by asking the province to do more to help Canada meet its net zero greenhouse gas emissions target by 2050 in return for the feds approving a project that will generate an additional 4 megatonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

What makes the UCP government’s position even more irrational is the industry is prepared to help Canada meet its net zero GHG target by 2050—Cenovus, CNRL, and MEG made similar commitments and Suncor promised a 30% GHG reduction by 2030.**

Heaven forbid that Mr Kenney should step off his ideological perch to forge a sensible compromise.

Federal approval is not enough

To make this standoff even sillier, consider the fact that Teck’s CEO said Frontier will need 3 Ps to go ahead if it’s approved: pipelines, partners and prices. The TMX pipeline must be finished, not just started, Teck needs partners to share the risk of this $20.6 billion investment, and it needs oil prices to rise…a lot.

A quick peek at Teck’s most recent investor presentation is instructive here.

Teck is a huge mining company. Its key priorities are expanding the Quebrada Blanca copper mine in Chile, upgrading the supply chain for its steelmaking coal business, improving its innovation program and cutting costs. The Frontier project is not a key priority, it is merely one of many “future options”.

This is not surprising given that energy is Teck’s least profitable business unit. Gross profit by business unit in 2018 was: 62% coal, 22% copper, 18% zinc and minus 2% energy.

So when the Teck CEO says if Frontier is approved that’s no guarantee it’s moving ahead, he means it.    

But that’s not how Mr Kenney will paint the picture. Even if the feds approve Teck, Mr Kenney will find a way to blame them if Teck decides to forgo Frontier in favour of more profitable ventures elsewhere.

Mr Kenney has painted himself into a corner. He’s convinced Albertans that our economy will be driven by nothing but energy for a long time to come and that energy investment is driven by government policy and not global markets. Therefore, when his energy-centric government policies fail to produce the desired result because multi-national players would rather invest elsewhere, Kenney needs someone (other than himself) to blame for Alberta’s faltering economy.

Trot out Trudeau (again). And just in case Albertans are starting to understand that an economy that puts all its eggs in one basket is not sustainable in the 21st century, Mr Kenney will amp up the emotion but accusing Trudeau of sticking it to Alberta just for the fun of it.

The longer Albertans continue to believe Mr Kenney’s rhetoric, the harder it will be for us to move ahead.

*Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA)

**ARC Podcast, Jan 24, 2020  

Posted in Economy, Energy & Natural Resources, Politics and Government | Tagged , , , , | 55 Comments

In Search of Efficiencies in Higher Education…or something…

“The greatest waste now confronting us is not one of money but of human possibilities.” – John Maynard Keynes  

Ms Soapbox is concerned that the recent announcement by Mr Nicolaides, the minister of Advanced Education, has brought Alberta another step closer to squandering its human possibilities.

Mr Nicolaides announced the implementation of a new “outcomes-based” funding model for 26 post secondary institutions, which will tie a percentage of an institution’s operating budget to performance measures. The percentage will start at 15% and increase to 40% by 2022-23.

Mr Nicolaides said this “outcomes-based” system is necessary to ensure post secondary institutions remain accountable for the investment taxpayers make in them. It will provide more clarity to taxpayers on what the funding is meant to accomplish.  And it will ensure schools compete against themselves to achieve these goals.

Does anyone have any idea what he’s talking about?

No, of course not. Words like “accountable”, “investment”, “clarity” and “compete against themselves” are meaningless unless you see them in context.  Mr Nicolaides hasn’t provided much in the way of context, but he has discussed a few specifics.     

Mr Nicolaides and Mr Kenney congratulating themselves

20 performance metrics

Each institution will have up to 20 performance metrics, the metrics will be weighted to take into account the type of school, and if the school does not hit its target it will receive funding in proportion to what it achieves (80% of a target yields 80% of the funding for that target).

As someone who worked in the private sector for over twenty years, 20 performance metrics is way too many. The corporations I worked for issued four to five performance metrics annually. These would cascade down from the performance metrics the executives set for themselves. They usually included the following: (1) health, safety and environment, (2) overall corporate performance, (3) business unit performance, and (4) a personal performance metric. These four or five metrics were individualized by three or four targets that were measurable and relevant to my specific role.   

Institutions assessed as a whole

Institutions will be assessed as a whole, not based on individual programs or departments.

Hmmm. The University of Calgary has 108 undergraduate programs, 15 graduate study programs, an open studies program for degree and non-degree holders, and 63 continuing education programs. Pity the poor schmuck who gets stuck with coming up with the school-wide performance assessment given this range of programing. And good luck running the performance assessment document up the flag pole through the various levels of leadership, including the Board of Governors, who will be keenly interested in seeing the document before it’s delivered to the minister.    

3 year funding agreements

Funding agreements will be in place for 3 years instead of being renewed annually.

This is good news for an institution that gets full funding because it provides funding certainty for the next three years, but it’s bad news for an institution that did not get fully funded in year one because any improvements it makes over the next two years will not count.

Performance targets

The new outcomes-based model will tie funding to successfully meeting performance targets, including improving services, increasing efficiencies, developing innovative programs and research and connecting graduates with jobs.

These are wonderfully vague targets that any administrator with an ounce of creativity should be able to meet.   

Metrics

Possible metrics include graduate employment rate, median graduate income, graduate skills and competencies, work-integrated learning opportunities, administrative expense ratio, sponsored research revenue, enrolment (including potential targets for domestic students, international students and under-represented learners).

Some of these metrics are completely within the institutions’ control and are not problematic per se; but others like graduate employment rate and median graduate income are dependent on the economy which, contrary to what Mr Kenney says, is not driven by government policy but by global markets.

And while we’re on the topic of goofy metrics, how would one assess graduate skills and competencies other than by counting the number of students who graduated and who, by definition, have the skills and competencies required to graduate in their field of study.   

The purpose of post secondary education

Instead of thoughtfully considering the role of post secondary education in today’s rapidly changing world—and it’s not to ‘add value’ to students before spitting them out into the market place—the UCP government decided to graft a corporate performance management tool onto Alberta’s institutions of high learning.  

Fear not, Mr Nicolaides says, the details of his outcome-based funding model will be hammered out in consultations with educators and students by Apr 1, 2020. That’s just a little more than two months, folks.  

Ms Soapbox says good luck with that.

Posted in Education, Politics and Government | Tagged , , | 44 Comments

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 , , , , | 64 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