Rats!

Susanonthesoapbox is under the weather.  Stay tuned.

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Principles vs Politics

The Wildrose Opposition spent the last three weeks berating the NDP government for not spending millions and millions of dollars fast enough.

Wait, what?

The Wildrose says farmers are being “held to ransom” because they’ve had to delay the 2017 planting season waiting around for AgriInsurance adjusters to declare their crops partially or completely destroyed.  The Wildrose is also peeved that some farmers received less than 100% reimbursement.

The Wildrose has a solution to this catastrophe:  simply instruct the insurer to do a “blanket assessment based on a nominal site visit and pay out what is owned to our hard-working Alberta families.”

This is an amazingly stupid solution.

No one is “owed” insurance payouts

The Wildrose is a proponent of efficient business practices.  Its mantra is privatize, privatize, privatize.

Nevertheless, it’s urging the government to turn the insurance business upside down by making payments based on an inspection of a “nominal site” and extrapolating the damage to what…?  The remainder of the farmer’s fields, every other farmer in the area, every farmer in the province?

Not only does this violate the legislative framework on which AgriInsurance is based; it may violate the fundamental principles of insurance including the principle of indemnity (an insured cannot be compensated for an amount exceeding his actual loss), the principle of proximate cause (an insured cannot be compensated for a loss caused by, say, poor farming practices, instead of inclement weather), and compromises the duty of utmost good faith (which prevents fraudulent claims and misrepresentation).

The Wildrose solution is predicated on its breathless assertion that Alberta farmers are in crisis.

But they’re not.

5% does not a crisis make  

Mr Carlier, the minister of Agriculture and Forestry, responded to the Wildrose hysteria with some facts:

  • AgriInsurance has 120 adjusters in the field
  • By March 24, they processed 95%, yes 95%, of the eligible unharvested acres benefit claims, only 4 claims remain to be processed
  • $32.3 million dollars have been paid out to farmers
  • If a farmer is unhappy with the way his claim has been handled he can contact the minister (NOTE: a disgruntled farmer can also appeal the adjuster’s decision to a commission made up of farmers and if he’s not satisfied with the commission’s decision take it to court).

So why is the Wildrose in a flap?  Is there something about the Wildrose’s devotion to conservative values that we’re missing?

Principles vs politics

Wildrose MLA Grant Hunter describes conservative values by invoking a definition provided by Ed Feulner, the founder of the Heritage Foundation.  Heritage Foundation promotes conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.

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Wildrose MLA Grant Hunter

Feulner believed every government program ought to have limits for budgetary reasons and because governmental overreach would result in a loss of freedom.

He suggested the true value of conservative ideas lay in how they were applied to the problems of the day.

The Wildrose met this specific problem of the day by ignoring conservative values, creating a false crisis, and demanding the government rip up legislation and twist the principles of free enterprise.

Why?  To secure the support of their rural base.

In other words, notwithstanding all their talk about principles, the Wildrose is happy to take a page from the Progressive Conservative playbook in which rule number one is take care of your friends and supporters and they’ll take care of you.

Something worth remembering when 2019 rolls around.

Sources: Alberta Hansard, Apr 4, p 520; Apr 18, 644; Apr 19, p 666 and Apr 20, p 711

Posted in Disasters, Economy, Politics and Government | Tagged , , , | 19 Comments

Happy Easter!

We will have plenty of time in the coming weeks to talk about the miserable state of the world (it’s getting pretty scary out there, isn’t it?) but today I want to talk about my favourite celebration, Easter.

Hot cross buns, painted eggs, bunnies; what’s not to love?

wilson-eating-rabbit-1200

Beyond the obvious symbols of Easter, there’s this.

Easter is the perfect celebration.

It focuses on life, death, rebirth and renewal.  Its name can be traced back to Ostara, the Germanic goddess of fertility.  It’s tied to the vernal Equinox which is why it’s celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the 20th of March and not a fixed date.  It incorporates elements from many religious traditions including the Jewish celebration of Passover.

Most importantly, it symbolizes the belief so eloquently expressed by the late Labour MP, Jo Coxthere’s more that unites us than divides us.

Let’s hold on to that thought as we face the challenges ahead.

May you have a peaceful and joyous Easter.

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The Whole Gay Thing

Recently Brad Trost and Jason Kenney made some troubling comments about the whole gay thing and the progressives just won’t let it go.

Trost, a “full spectrum” conservative, believes in all three conservative values: social conservatism, fiscal conservatism, and democratic populist conservatism.  He recently shared his views on “the whole gay thing” in a campaign video.

Let’s consider what Brad’s campaign manager said on Brad’s behalf.

The whole gay thing     

“Brad is not a big fan of the gay lifestyle but what you do in private is your business.” 

This is offensive.  Being gay is not a lifestyle choice, it’s a state of being that is protected from discrimination under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which incidentally also protects people from discrimination based on race, religion, gender, age and physical and mental disability.  Following Brad’s logic, he’s not a big fan of the Charter either.

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Brad Trost CPC Leadership Candidate

“But what you literally do in the middle of the street needs to conform to some basic community standards.  Brad’s concern is that parts of the Gay Pride parade have become so overly sexualized; behavior which is so inappropriate for public viewing that it’s unbelievable.”

People attend Pride parades to show support for the LBGTQ community.  Complaining about “what goes on in the middle of the street” is as silly as planning a vacation in Provincetown and complaining you’re surrounded by gay guys in speedos when you get there.

If you don’t support the cause, don’t go to the parade.  If you do support the cause and see something that shocks your sensibilities, there are laws against public indecency.  Find a policeman and lodge a complaint the way you would if you caught a drunken sports fan urinating on a lamppost after a hockey game.

“If you want to have a parade, have a parade, but don’t ask taxpayers to subsidize it.  The fact that we’re going out and borrowing money that future generations are going to have to pay back to subsidize a parade makes no sense to Brad.”

Not subsidizing the Pride parade while continuing to subsidize other parades is discriminatory and a violation of the Charter (see above) and the amount of money Brad would save for future generations by not subsidizing a Pride parade is minuscule.

Trost is running for the leadership of the federal Conservative party. This is a campaign video.  It reflects Trost’s social conservatism while at the same time highlighting his appalling lack of understanding of basic human rights.

Outing gay students  

Jason Kenney is a guarded and reticent about the whole gay thing.

Periodically he makes statements that sound like he’s catching up to the 21st century.  For example, he criticized the Conservative’s opposition to same-sex marriage as being obsolete and failing to reflect the law or social custom.

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Jason Kenney “Yet to be named” Conservative Party Candidate

However, his response to the NDP government’s legislation supporting a student’s right to create a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding and support.

Kenney says teachers, principals, and counsellors should use their discretion to decide whether to tell parents their kids joined a GSA.  He says this is okay because “most parents are loving and caring, seeking only what is best for their children.”

He’s wrong.

Researchers for the Family Acceptance Project identified more than 100 ways families react to their LBGTQ children; roughly half of these behaviors were not accepting.  They include physical and mental abuse, banishing LBGTQ kids from family events, making them keep their identity a secret, saying God will punish them and blocking their access to LBGTQ friends, events, and resources.

Unless Kenney is prepared to send teachers home with the kids they’ve outed to protect them from rejecting behavior he’s significantly increased the risk that outed kids will attempt suicide, suffer from depression, or turn to illegal drugs.

He’s also increased the risk that teachers and school boards will find themselves on the wrong end of a lawsuit because there’s no way to predict how the families of outed kids will react.

Conservative social values

Nineteen years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a Christian college could not fire a teacher simply because he was gay.

Some Alberta politicians toyed with the idea of invoking the Constitutional “notwithstanding clause” to allow Alberta to continue to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

Jason Kenney, then a federal MP, railed against the decision in Parliament.  He made a prediction:  protecting the rights of LGBTQ people would open the door for a far right, populist party with conservative values and an anti-LBGTQ ideology.*

Sadly, it appears that he was right, both on the provincial and federal levels.

And that’s why progressives won’t let go of this whole gay thing.

*Alberta Hansard, April 3, 2017, p 482

Posted in Education, Law, Politics and Government | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

A Pollster Finally Gets It Right

We see chaos, Nik Nanos sees trends.

Mr Nanos heads up Nanos Research, a leading Canadian research company and official pollster for CTV News, the Globe and Mail, and Bloomberg News.  Last week he spoke at the Merv Leitch Lectures Series sponsored by the University of Calgary.

His topic—politics in the age of voter rage and the tyranny of small swings in public opinion—was a wake-up call for anyone concerned about the impact of populism on the democratic process.

Mr Nanos described three trends; all are troubling and one is downright dystopian.

NOTE:  the comments in italics are Ms Soapbox’s reflections on Mr Nanos’ speech. .        

“the angry tail”

Brexit and Trump demonstrate the obvious:  social and economic change make people angry.  Angry people will support politicians who say the system failed you, the “unholy alliance” of lobbyists, politicians, and bankers and “others” who don’t look like you are to blame, and only I, an outsider, can fix it.

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Mr Nik Nanos

A small margin of voters—Mr Nanos calls them “the angry tail” wagging the democratic dog—can have a disproportionate impact on an election.  A politician who persuades 5% of the voters to switch their vote creates a 10% swing in his favour.  (Trump would have been just a bad dream if 60,000 voters switched to Hillary).

The angry tail can mobilize behind any politician who portrays himself as anti-Establishment.  Right leaning, beer drinking, cigarette smoking Nigel Farage attacked David Cameron’s integrity.  Left-leaning former bookseller Martin Shulz attacks Angela Merkel for being too cozy Trump who’s anti-democratic and anti-Europe.

Canadians are not immune to populist politicians, particularly when they feel uncertain about the future.

Conservative politicians across Canada are working hard to mobilize “the angry tail”. 

Kellie Leitch has been endorsed by white supremacists and attended (unintentionally) an event sponsored by an anti-Muslim group, Kevin O’Leary plans to eject asylum-seekers by running roughshod over their Constitutional right to due process and Brad Trost doubled down on his discomfort with “the whole gay thing”. 

Here in Alberta Jason Kenney doesn’t step up to a microphone without his “Alberta is a disaster” talking points and says it’s okay to out students who join Gay-Straight Alliances if the decision is left in the hands of a teacher who can’t possibly know how the family will react.

Education and fake news

Mr Nanos says exit poll data following Brexit and the US election suggest educational attainment may be more useful than income level in predicting voter support for the Establishment—voters with higher levels of education are more likely to vote in favour of the Establishment than those with lower educational levels.

Yes, this is a blanket statement; we all have highly educated friends who supported Trump because he was better than the status quo.  Nevertheless, it is a statistical trend that can’t be ignored.     

Mr Nanos says fake news blurred the distinction between fact, opinion, and misinformation.  Main stream media exacerbated the problem by, for example, interviewing “Leave” supporters in front of a bus emblazoned with false slogans promising to fund the NHS with the £350 million a week saved by withdrawing from the EU.

Mr Nanos reminds us that populist leaders are showboats.  Trump was a regular fixture in the wrestling world (he owned WWE Raw).  In Trump’s mind inciting a crowd to chant “lock her up” was like yelling “kill him” at the bad guy in a wrestling match.

Mr Nanos says Trump’s detractors took him literally but not seriously whereas his supporters took him seriously but not literally.

Ms Soapbox agrees that populist leaders like to reduce politics to a battle between good and evil but thinks this assessment is too glib.  Trump treated “lock her up” as a chant, but he’s treating “build that wall” as a promise.     

The bots

Invoking dystopian movies where humans fight for survival against “bots”, Mr Nanos explains how political bots impact democracy by distorting the news and public opinion.

Fifty-two percent of all traffic on the internet in 2016 was not human.  One-fifth of Hillary’s supporters and one-third of Trump’s supporters were bots.  Trump’s bots responded to CNN polls after each debate and skewed the results so Trump could say he’d won.

Public opinion is shaped by the news media, which in times of limited resources relies heavily on social media to identify trending issues.  Lord only knows how much damage the fake pizzagate/child sex ring stories inflicted on Hillary Clinton’s campaign.   

Some parting thoughts

Mr Nanos says unless we address the fundamental problems of income inequality and the lack of access to education and a living wage, populist politicians will continue to whip up support through xenophobia, racism, and sexism.

 Mr Nanos identified some disturbing trends which make it more difficult to make an informed decision about political candidates and what they stand for.   

Perhaps the best way to move ahead is to ask yourself: is the candidate asking me to choose between fiscal conservatism and human rights?

If so, choose human rights.

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What Does a “Free Enterprise” Leader Look Like?

Jason Kenney promises to return Alberta to prosperity if Albertans vote for his Wildrose/PC “free enterprise” party.

Given the paucity of information around what his “free enterprise” party stands for, we are left to assume Mr Kenney will emulate corporate “free enterprise” leaders if he ends up in the premier’s office.

What does a good “free enterprise” leader (also known as a CEO) look like?

Inspirational leadership

Free enterprise CEOs have vision.

Suncor’s CEO, Steve Williams, says Suncor strives to be a trusted steward of valuable natural resources which leads “the way to deliver economic prosperity, improved social well-being and a healthy environment for today and tomorrow.”

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg acts on his vision to give back to the community.  He will donate 99% of his wealth to charities that improve health and education and build stronger communities.

Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly acknowledged he was gay so people would understand a person is not defined solely by sexuality, race or gender.

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Mr Jason Kenney prospective leader of the “Free Enterprise” Party

Mr Kenney has half a vision at best.  He promises to rid Alberta of its “accidental government” but unlike the corporate CEOs is silent on social issues.

This is a problem because an inspirational premier recognizes that he/she is responsible for the entire portfolio, not just the financial bits, and is prepared to address the challenge of managing social issues as well as economic ones.

Teamwork

Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet Inc, defines his job as ensuring everyone in the company has great opportunities, feel like they’re making a meaningful impact and contributing to the good of society.

Page strives to work with people, not against them.

Mr Kenney on the other hand has nothing but contempt for the NDP and the federal government.  His lack of respect for the Progressive Conservatives during the leadership race was “palpable”.  His willingness to “play nice” with the Wildrose will be sorely tested when he takes on Brian Jean in what will be a bruising leadership race.

A premier who understands the value of teamwork can accomplish much.  One whose path to victory starts with the destruction of one political party and the hostile takeover of another is doomed to fail.

Strategic leadership

A leader’s mettle is tested in times of hardship.

Murray Edwards, Chairman of CNRL, refused to panic in the face of low oil prices.  Instead of implementing massive layoffs, CNRL reduced costs, kept its teams together and its culture strong.  It focused on sharing knowledge so it would be ready to take advantage of future opportunities and recently acquired Shell’s oilsands assets for $12.7 billion.

Mr Kenney, on the other hand, says he’ll emulate Ralph Klein—balancing the budget by cutting staff.  This didn’t work when Klein tried it and it won’t work now because it’s impossible to deliver a balanced budget without slicing and dicing the “front lines” and creating an even deeper hole in public services.

Do the math:  The government employs 207,678 full time equivalent (FTEs) employees.  The bulk of these are in AHS (79,450), Education (62,317), Advanced Education (33,588), Justice (7,554) and Child and Community Services (5,907).*  That’s 188,816 FTEs in total.  Assume 25% of these are not front line workers and they earn $100,000/year, cutting them would save the government $4.7 billion.

That won’t balance the budget so let’s fire 50% of the remaining 18,862 FTEs who aren’t in health, education or child/community services.  That saves $943 million.  We’re still $4.6 billion short.  And we haven’t accounted for the drop in revenue that will result from lowering income and corporate taxes.

Mr Kenney’s strategy, while consistent with that Ralph Klein, shows no imagination, no foresight and very little humanity.

Transparency/honesty

Securities laws require corporations to file documents describing how they’ve performed in the past and how they expect to perform in the future.  CEOs who riddle these documents with material misstatements or omissions violate securities laws and are punished.

Mr Kenney has not revealed his plan to bring Alberta back into prosperity but continues to describe Alberta’s economy as a disaster (it’s growing by 2.6%) and the NDP government’s policies as anti-growth policies (the climate leadership policy is responsible for two pipeline projects being approved).

Sadly, the securities laws do not apply in the political realm and politicians, even those who espouse “free enterprise” values, are free to say whatever they wish.

The “free enterprise” premier?

Challenging times require inspirational, visionary leaders who demonstrate creativity and compassion.

Mr Kenney’s promise to be the leader of the “free enterprise” party doesn’t cut it.

*Alberta Fiscal Plan 2017-20, p 121

Updated Mar 30, 2017 to correct math $1.9 billion savings for non health, education, child/community services employees should have been $943 million savings.

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The Alberta Budget: Door No. 1, Door No. 2 or Door No. 3?

Before you let the Opposition parties scare you to death with apocalyptic warnings that Alberta is “drowning in debt”, “driving over a fiscal cliff” and “unfairly burdening future generations” read this article by U of C economics prof Trevor Tombe.

Tombe points out that the amount of debt per se is meaningless.*  The relevant metric is the debt-to-GDP ratio.  By that measure, Alberta is doing better than all the other provinces and will continue to do better right through to 2020.

In fact, Alberta could run a $6B deficit forever and assuming the economy continues to grow, we’d be just fine.

The problem with this budget and the shadow budgets offered by the Opposition parties is that they don’t address the elephant in the room:  continuing to rely on royalty revenues leaves Alberta firmly stuck on the royalty roller coaster.  Sure the ride up is exhilarating but the ride down is awful, especially when you can’t see the bottom.

Tombe says there are three ways to avoid deficits:  (1) develop new sources of revenue, (2) cut spending further or (3) a combination of the two.

Which option did the government and the Opposition parties choose?  Door # 1, door # 2 or door #3?

Door #3 with a bump

The government created new revenues by introducing progressive income taxes, increasing corporate taxes, increasing the emissions levy and introducing a new carbon levy.

joe-ceci

Mr Ceci Finance Minister

They cut spending by reducing executive compensation in public agencies and freezing salaries for MLAs, political staff and government and agency managers.  They reduced waste by identifying $200 million in savings.

But they also increased spending to fund job creation plans, provide a “shock absorber” for Albertans impacted by the recession, fund the Climate Leadership Plan and fill the operational and capital gaps left behind after decades of PC austerity.  The result—a $10.3 billion deficit and growing debt.

Door #2 with a twist

The Wildrose say they’ll balance the budget within three years by cutting spending and revenue and filling the revenue gap by “sustainably growing the pie of our provincial economy” (whatever that means).

They’ll cut operational spending by $2.6 billion, freeze wages and leave positions vacant if someone leaves (attrition is expected to save $312 million—assuming it’s not offset by increased overtime).

The Wildrose will eliminate the carbon levy and explore cutting personal and corporate taxes but don’t commit to do so (presumably because tax cuts will negatively impact their balanced budget target.)

Forget the doors, the party is dead  

The Progressive Conservatives promised to balance the budget in two years but offered little beyond wage freezes and holding the health budget to population growth.

But none of this matters because the PC party died over the weekend and the new guy will replace the PC budget with something more to his liking.

Door #3 in one form or another

The Alberta Party is open to exploring all options but its budget mirrored the WR and PC budgets with its focus on wage freezes, reducing taxes and continued reliance on royalty revenues.  This is surprising given Greg Clark’s earlier comments that he’s prepared to entertain a sales tax.

The Liberals did not present a shadow budget but issued a press release expressing their concern with rising debt and the continued reliance on volatile royalty revenues.  They called for “an adult conversation about spending AND revenue”.

Sales tax anyone?

Neither the government nor the opposition parties presented a way to avoid deficits in the future, no doubt because the best way to avoid a deficit would be to replace royalty revenues with a predictable sales tax and in Alberta PST stands for Political Suicide Tax.

But the political climate in Alberta is changing.  The election of Jason Kenney to lead the united right crystalized the distinction between the free enterprise conservatives and the social progressives.

It’s only a matter of time before Albertans demand a meaningful discussion about the PST so they can decide for themselves whether to run deficits to fund the services they demand but aren’t willing to pay for or join the rest of Canada and implement a sales tax.

*Prof Tombe also points out that the government’s assertion that it’s holding spending growth below the combined rate of inflation and population growth is not true. 

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