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

Promises Made, Promises Kept…or Not

The UCP government continues to tell Albertans it’s delivering on its promise of jobs, economy, pipelines, when in fact it’s not.   

The latest example of this Orwellian doublespeak is the UCP government’s “promises made, promises kept” report.  This is the second PMPK report.  Like the first one it lists a bunch of actions to support the government’s assertion that it’s meeting its campaign promise to get Albertans back to work, to renew the economy and make life better for all Albertans. 

Like the first PMPK report it’s a misleading piece of puffery. 

The government says of the 375 campaign promises it made, 162 have been kept or are well underway.  The 94 promises it says it kept in this PMPK report are in addition to the 68 promises the UCP says it kept in the first PMPK report.    

This is all a little confusing because when the first PMPK report was issued Mr Kenney said the UCP had kept 58 not 68 promises, but you know, math is hard.      

In any event Mr Kenney gave us a simple metric.  He summed up the second PMPK report by saying he’s already delivered on 43% of his commitments.   

This bold statement caught Ms Soapbox’s eye.    

She’s worked for decades with the CEOs of publicly traded companies who loved to make bold statements about how well they were delivering on their promises to shareholders.  If they said they’d delivered on 43% of their commitments it was Ms Soapbox’s job to check the facts to make sure they’d delivered 43% and not 32% or 14%, because a CEO who makes a misrepresentation (lies about a material fact or omits a material fact) would be in violation of Canadian and American securities laws.   

Suffice it to say that if Mr Kenney were a corporate CEO he’d be in big trouble.    

Getting Albertans back to work

Mr Kenney’s PMPK report is divided into four parts.

Thirty-nine items are listed under the heading “getting Albertans back to work.”  They include The Carbon Tax Repeal Act, the Job Creation Tax Cut, the Red Tape Reduction Act, the Farm Freedom and Safety Act, and legislation that undermines unions, cuts employee benefits and the minimum wage for youth.    

The securities law question would be:  Did the 39 things Mr Kenney listed in the PMPK report actually get Albertans back to work?  Given that the latest Stats Can report shows Alberta’s unemployment rate jumped to 7.2% which is a full percentage point higher than it was in Nov 2018 (the total unemployed in Alberta is now 182,500), the answer is no.        

And while I recognize that turning the economy around takes time, Mr Kenney has been clear that it’s government policy, not the global price of oil, that’s responsible for Alberta’s economic downturn.  Since he’s loath to blame his own policies he’s blaming Rachel Notley and Justin Trudeau.  The blame game might work in politics; but it wouldn’t work for the securities commission because he promised his policies would create jobs and they did not.          

Making life better for all Albertans

The 53 items listed in this section range from blatant misrepresentations to ridiculous throwaways (were Albertans worse off under the old regulation that made anyone holding a bottle of beer stay inside a fenced-in beer garden). 

The most egregious misrepresentation in this section is the assertion the UCP kept its promise to maintain or increase health and education spending by allotting $20.6B to health and $8.2B to education.  By failing to account for population growth and inflation, the health and education budgets were in fact cut not maintained.  Thousands of health professionals and teachers will be laid off and the province’s ability to care for its sick and educate its young will be negatively affected. 

The securities law question would be: Is it true that the UCP is maintaining health and education spending?  Answer: No; because it failed to account for population growth and inflation and that’s a material omission.  

Standing up for Alberta

This section contains 15 items, including filing lawsuits to challenge the federal carbon tax and Bill C-69, firewall items like lifting the cap on the fiscal stabilization fund, and launching the anti-Alberta energy public inquiry.   

But it’s the promise to build “an interprovincial coalition supporting jobs, pipelines and the energy industry” that would catch a securities lawyer’s eye. 

The UCP government says it’s met this promise by hosting the Stampede Premiers Meeting and engaging in something labelled “Ongoing”.  However this fails to acknowledge that Mr Kenney backed away from putting the item on the agenda at the recent Premiers Meeting.  He discussed things he knew the premiers would agree with, rather than taking the opportunity to build support for jobs, pipelines and the energy industry as he promised.    

The PMPK report omitted a material fact, that Mr Kenney failed to deliver on his promise to build a coalition when he had the opportunity.  Heck, he didn’t even say he had little side conversations on the subject.       

Commitments well under way

Under securities laws all that’s required of the 55 commitments in this section is that they be “under way”.  Obviously, if they’re “under way” they’re not a “promise kept” because they’re still in process.  But like many corporations, the government wants to give Albertans an idea of what it’s got in the hopper. 

Fine, but how does the government explain its backtracking around who or what is involved in the establishment of its $30M War Room.   

In the first PMPK report the War Room fell under the heading “Standing up for Alberta”.  The “promise kept” was substantiated by a press release dated June 7 that said the government was meeting with industry to discuss combining resources and creating a platform to combat misinformation about Alberta energy. 

In the second PMPK report this “promise kept” became a commitment “under way”, supported by a watered down announcement dated Oct 9 that said the government “started the process of creating the Canadian Energy Centre to fight for the oil and gas sector”.  

Apparently all that happened between June 7 (“promise kept”) and Oct 9 (“under way”) was a name change.    

A securities lawyer would ask what happened to the promise of industry participation?  And the promise to create a government/industry platform?  Did industry tell the government this was a stupid idea and refuse to participate?  Under securities law this would be a material change that must be disclosed under the obligation of continuous disclosure.  It wasn’t. 

We’re not surprised

The second PMPK report includes some good news—for example the Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction Act (TIER) has been accepted by the federal Liberal government—however it also demonstrates Mr Kenney has fallen short of his campaign promise to get Albertans back to work, to renew the economy and make life better for all Albertans. 

He may say he’s delivered 43% of his commitments, but no amount of Orwellian double speak will make it so.

Posted in Politics and Government | Tagged , , , , , | 28 Comments

Fair Deal Panel Registration

The Fair Deal Panel is coming to Calgary on Dec 10. If you plan to attend you’ll need to register. Here’s the link: https://www.alberta.ca/fair-deal-panel.aspx

Hope to see you there!

Posted in Politics and Government | Tagged | 28 Comments

The Day We Demonstrated Outside the UCP AGM

“Public services are under attack.  What do we do? Stand up, fight back!” – Protest cheer

Ms Soapbox, her husband and her good friend from Edmonton joined the public school teachers, healthcare workers, and deeply concerned Albertans at the huge rally outside the Westin Hotel where the UCP were holding their AGM.    

Over 1000 people showed up on a bitterly cold Saturday to protest the UCP’s budget cuts and loss of public sector jobs. 

While the UCP delegates debated the wording of various policy proposals*—should parents be the major stakeholder in a child’s education (yes), should Alberta uphold the principles of the Canada Health Act (no)—the protesters listened to speakers, shared their stories, and marched around the hotel taking care not to set foot on hotel property because heaven forbid they got too close to the UCP members gathered inside.

Jason Kenney blew off the demonstration, saying if people weren’t protesting, he wasn’t doing his job properly.  

Part of the huge crowd that showed up on a freezing cold Saturday

This was a dangerous mistake on his part because Albertans will not stand by while he bulldozes public services in the name of free market conservatism.

Every protester represents at least five like-minded Albertans who were unable to attend the rally.   These people will make their UCP MLAs’ lives a misery as the impact of these cuts are felt in their individual ridings. 

And these MLAs (who Mr Kenney described as the most talented and competent and impressive caucus and cabinet he’d ever had the honour of serving with) will have nothing to say in defence of Mr Kenney’s Grand Plan. 

Why?  Because Mr Kenney offered nothing to alleviate the suffering and turmoil that will result from his austerity budget.   In his AGM speech Mr Kenney said:  

  • Let’s put the budget cuts into perspective.  It’s just a “modest 2.8% reduction” in operating costs over 4 years.  Mel McMillan, professor emeritus, Dept of Economics U of A says the real cut is 14.7% when you factor in inflation and population growth.   
  • The UCP is keeping its promise to protect healthcare and education; the healthcare budget is increasing and the education budget is flat.  How does he explain the loss of 500 FTE nursing jobs (this equates to 750 nurses), 1000 HSAA healthcare workers jobs, 300 public school teaching jobs in Calgary alone, 200 U of C jobs, and between 4,900 to 5,900 AUPE full time jobs lost by 2023
  • Mr Kenney will deploy every legal, economic and constitutional tool at his disposal to get a fair deal from Canada.  Fine, but any plan to wring more money out of the feds that involves amending the constitution requires the support of other provinces and any plan involving litigation triggers the judicial process.  Both will take years and are no help to an unemployed Albertan today.
  • The Fair Deal Panel will come up with solutions.  It’s considering opting out of federal programs and replacing federal services with Alberta’s own tax collection services, RCMP, and APP.  Not only does this duplicate existing federal services and increase our costs, it will take years to accomplish, once again doing nothing for the unemployed Albertan banging on his MLA’s door.
  • In 1905 when Alberta became a province someone produced a document entitled “The Province and People of Destiny.”  It said Alberta “is destined to become the brightest gem in great empire that encircles the world.”  A land of opportunity for “every kind of effort and enterprise.”  Mr Kenney said we’ll get through this because “we are and always will be that province and people of destiny.”  Flowery words, but of no use whatsoever to an unemployed oil worker and his unemployed partner, a nurse, and their children who’ve lost their teachers and are struggling to learn in overcrowded classrooms. 

When the UCP MLAs looked out the window and saw hundreds and hundreds of us streaming by they should have felt a shiver run down their spines because their leader has given them an impossible task: defend the austerity budget (which further increased unemployment by attacking the public sector) with a pipedream that depends on bullying the federal government and other provinces into bailing Alberta out until the oil boom returns.  And if that doesn’t cut it the MLAs can fall back on Mr Kenney’s platitude that Albertans are people of destiny who can get through this because Mr Kenney says they can.  

Given a choice between Jason Kenney’s UCP who imposed a brutal austerity budget and thinks it can fix the economy by bluffing the feds and provinces into bailing it out, and Rachel Notley’s NDP who implemented the sustainable economic policies and caring social programs we need to carry us into the future, who do you think we’ll vote for in 2023? 

*With thanks to @kieranleavitt and @MBellefontaine who provided live Tweet coverage of the UCP AGM

Posted in Economy, Energy & Natural Resources, Environment, Politics and Government, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 47 Comments