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Saturday, February 27, 2010

does downtown edmonton need a katz arena district?

The Katz Group launched a new website last week reframing their campaign for a new downtown arena as the centrepiece of a new "Arena District" north of Edmonton's downtown core. The new website features a video interview with Katz Group President Daryl Katz. In the video, billionaire businessman Mr. Katz spoke emotionally about the potential for downtown Edmonton and the need for a conversation about the future of a revitalized downtown Edmonton. The website provides different types of social media, like Twitter and Facebook, to start this conversation.
I expect that this website is the beginning of a larger political campaign that will unfold before the 2010 Edmonton City Council elections. In October 2009, the Katz Group retained the services of Peter Elzinga, former MP, MLA, and Chief of Staff to Premier Ralph Klein from 1998 to 2004, for activities related to a "downtown Edmonton redevelopment project." Until December 2009, the Katz Group had also acquired the services of lobbyist Joan Forge, who served as Premier Ed Stelmach's communications shop during the 2006 PC leadership race.

While I liked the video, Mr. Katz avoided the most important question of the exercise: money. It is no secret that the Katz Group would like the City of Edmonton to loan upwards of $400 million towards a new downtown arena, likely making it the largest non-transportation-related one-time investment that our municipality will have ever made (Councillor Don Iveson recently explained the funding request issue more articulately than I ever could here and here).

Aside from the political spin, I welcome a wider public conversation and am excited about the potential for a real debate about downtown. There are those people who are stuck in the 1980s and 1990s mentality that downtown Edmonton is a barren wasteland of warehouses and closed down rail yards, and then there are those Edmontonians who have moved on and seen the evolving character of our downtown core. The Katz Group campaign could generate competing ideas and a real discussion about what kind of face Edmontonians want our downtown to wear.

Downtown Edmonton (what I describe as the area between 100 Street and 124 Street) is a drastically different place than it was ten years ago. From the time when I first lived downtown in 2003 to when I moved back in 2009, I am excited by the changes that I have witnessed. New condo developments in the Oliver and Grandin have created a new identity in those neighbourhoods. People are moving into the core of the city and enhancing its diversity. Walk down Jasper Avenue west of 109th Street on a summer night and you will bump into many people coming in from the restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. The 104th Street Farmers' Market is a perfect example of the vibrant new identity of Edmonton's downtown core.

The business district of downtown Edmonton is like many other commercial business districts: employees leave work and it closes down at 6pm. This is the purpose of a commercial district dominated by office towers. An arena is not going to change this. An arena district north of downtown developed on clear urban development concepts could help revitalize a rougher part of the downtown core.

I have heard many arguments about how a downtown arena could revitalize the area, but I have not been convinced that our current arena, Rexall Place, is as bad as its detractors would characterize it. Admittedly, I have only been inside Rexall Place about a dozen times over the past ten years (mostly during the Canadian Finals Rodeo). While this is the case, I don't fully understand why it needs to be replaced so badly. As a friend pointed out to me yesterday, 'because it is old' isn't a very good argument.

Although the idea of a downtown "arena district" intrigues me, any new development must be based in solid urban development concepts, and not in emotional appeals from politically and financially motivated individuals.

I welcome a real conservation about downtown Edmonton. Let's start it!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

alberta's proposed new electoral boundaries (interim report)

The Electoral Boundaries Commission has released their interim report including maps of the proposed electoral division boundaries for the next election. Here are the proposed maps of Calgary, Edmonton, and Alberta-wide.

The second round of public hearings on the new boundaries are set to begin in April.

UPDATE (February 27, 2010):

Overall, I feel that the interim maps are a fairly good report from the Electoral Boundaries Commission. Given that the Commission had a legislative mandate to increases the number of electoral districts from 83 to 87, the members of the Commission likely had a much easier time deciding boundaries than had the number stayed the same or decreased. Here are some thoughts:

- I am pleased to see that the City of Grande Prairie would now have its own fully-urban riding and that Fort McMurray now has two districts.
- Edmonton received an additional electoral district, which places the Capital City at the same position it was before it lost a district during the 2003 boundary review. I would have liked to see Edmonton receive at least two new seats.
- Are voters in the Capital Region outside of Edmonton disenfranchised? I have always questioned the reasoning behind clumping Edmonton's bedroom communities like the Town of Morinville into electoral districts with Barrhead and Westlock, and Sturgeon Valley with Athabasca. Having grown up in Morinville, I can attest that there is little commonality between the three communities (I would estimate that around 90% of Morinville residents commute to work in Edmonton or St. Albert). It would make more sense to include these communities in a Sturgeon Valley district that included common communities in the Capital Region (the same can be said of Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville).
- From a political perspective, these interim maps would pose a political challenge to some incumbent MLAs. For example, Battle River-Wainwright MLA Doug Griffiths may have to face-off in a nomination contest with Drumheller-Stettler MLA Jack Hayden. The additional electoral district in Fort McMurray could also make it easier for Independent MLA Guy Boutilier bid for re-election.
- Once again, the Poland of Alberta's electoral map, Edmonton-Calder would disappear as it is merged with Edmonton-GlenoraEdmonton-North West, and Edmonton-Le Perle. This would pose a challenge to current Edmonton-Calder PC MLA Doug Elniski and former NDP MLA David Eggen (who many people expect to seek election in 2012).

Once again, the second round of public hearings begin in April 2010, so if you do not like what you see in these maps, show up and let yourself be heard!

alberta politics notes 2/24/2010

- As Bill 1, the Alberta Competitiveness Act is this sessions flagship piece of government legislation. With all the focus on "competitiveness," has anyone wondered what happened to the Premier's Economic Strategy Committee that was announced last summer? (their website has not been updated since July 2009) The committee included former Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan, former MP David Emerson, and former Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge.
- Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier announced that he will not be seeking re-election in October. Bronconnier was first elected as Mayor in 2001. Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel has yet to make his electoral intentions public.
- Alberta could hold its fourth Senate election since 1989 along-side the municipal elections this October.
- Edmonton City Council approved the Municipal Development Plan this week. Councillor Don Iveson has posted some remarks on his blog.
Lethbridge-East MLA Bridget Pastoor scored a win for the Liberal Opposition this week when the Assembly approved her motion to "...urge the Government to establish an independent Commission to review the current salaries and benefits for Members of the Legislative Assembly..." It is important to note that as this was a Private Member's Motion, it is non-binding.
- Facing charges of cocaine-possession and drunk-driving, former Edmonton-Strathcona Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer is expected to plea-bargain when his case reconvenes in March.
- In my previous post, I mentioned the low-voter turnout in the 2008 provincial election. Here is a map showing voter turnout in ridings across the province (only 4 out of 83 ridings had a turnout larger than 50%).

Monday, February 22, 2010

alison redford's big opportunity.

(Re)Enter Mister Fjeldheim.
There has been a certain amount of attention focused on Alberta's Chief Electoral Officer and his comments regarding his philosophy towards his newly re-inherited position. Brian Fjeldheim, who held the position from 1998 to 2005, was recently reappointed following the dismissal of his more activist successor-turned-predecessor Lorne Gibson. After re-assuming his role last week, Mr. Fjeldheim was a little more reserved when describing his role in advocating the importance of the vote to Albertans (60% of Albertans did not vote in the 2008 election). Dave Breakenridge offered some thoughts on Mr. Fjeldhiem's comments in today's Calgary Sun.

Open up the Elections Act.
In the next few weeks, Justice Minister Alison Redford is expected to introduce legislative amendments to Alberta's aging Elections Act. Minister Redford has said that the amendments will include some of the 182 recommended changes submitted by Mr. Gibson before his departure (but will not include fixed election dates). Of course, the recommendations included in the Bill will have be carefully chosen and measured for political impact by Minister Redford and her PC cabinet colleagues. Minister Redford's amendments will likely include changes to how Returning Officers are chosen. During the 2008 election, it was revealed that the PC Party had provided lists of candidates for Returning Officers to the Elections Office (over half of the appointed Returning Officers had partisan connections to the PC Party).

Elections procedures can be improved through legislation, but democratic participation can be strengthened through meaningful engagement. In September 2007, the Government of New Zealand tried something completely different. As an innovative way to capture the views of the public on what a new Policing Act should look like, the Ministry of Justice launched an online Wiki. This Wiki allowed citizens from across that country to contribute their ideas and collaborate in the creation of new legislation.

What better way to reinvigorate our Elections Act than by opening up the amendment process to allow Albertans to collaborate by contributing their ideas for changes and improvements? What better opportunity to do things differently in than by allowing Albertans to invest their own ideas into the development of the important piece of legislation that will decide how their elections are structured? Is there a more meaningful piece of legislation that could be opened up to public collaboration than the Elections Act? Would this kind of online collaboration succeed in Alberta? There is only one way to find out.

Prior to entering elected office in 2008, Minister Redford cultivated an international legal career helping build democracies in countries around the globe (including as one of four international election commissioners appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations to administer Afghanistan's first parliamentary elections in September 2005). Legislative amendments can improve structure, but opening up the Elections Act to real public collaboration could be Minister Redford's big opportunity to create more meaningful democratic participation in Alberta.

Making it easier for students to vote.
I am sure that there would be no shortage of Albertans who would contribute their ideas to an open dialogue on improving our Elections Act. The Council of Alberta University Students submitted a handful of recommendations (pdf) to Minister Redford last year when they heard about the upcoming legislative amendments. Each of the five recommendations have been adopted by Elections officials in provinces across Canada (though no jurisdiction has adopted all five). The recommendations would improve access to a voting demographic that due to its geographic transience, are likely to face barriers and challenges to participating in elections.

These are good recommendation, most of which would require minor administrative changes that are not anything that a little Alberta ingenuity could not overcome. Decreasing barriers to voting for younger Albertans will create a positive culture of participating in elections and could help create life-long voters - a group that is increasingly becoming a minority in Alberta elections. I hope to see some of these positive improvements included among Minister Redford's amendments.

Coming Soon: New Maps.
Alberta's Electoral Boundaries Commission is due to release its interim report by February 26, 2010.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

breakfast with the new alberta party.

I had a very interesting meeting over breakfast at the SugarBowl on Saturday morning with some of the members involved in the new Alberta Party. Most Albertans probably did not even know that an Alberta Party even existed. Most Albertans would probably be surprised at what a busy couple of months it has been for the tiny political party that has so far occupied a historical footnote worth of activity.

At a meeting in Sylvan Lake in early January 2010, members of Renew Alberta and the board members of the Alberta Party met to flesh out ideas on how they could work together. While the little-known Alberta Party has found itself in the "right-wing" category for most of its existence, I am told that by January 2010, most of the more socially conservative members had left that party to join the Wildrose Alliance. This left a tight-knit group of people from central Alberta, old Reformers with a centrist bent, on that party's board. After meeting to discuss the 'merger' with Renew Alberta, the members of the Alberta Party board voted first to unanimously to suspend their party policies (many of which were developed in the 1980s) and second to welcome members of Renew Alberta to join their board, starting a fresh.

Former Green Party Deputy Leader Edwin Erickson was collecting signatures to create a new 'Progress Party,' when he was approached to join the Alberta Party and run its leadership late last year. He was soon after acclaimed as Leader. Erickson is well-known in central Alberta for his opposition to the new transmission line laws (Bill 46, Bill 50, and Bill 19) and he placed a distant, but strong, second when running in the Drayton Valley-Calmar in the 2008 election.

Erickson was joined at our Saturday morning breakfast meeting by two new Alberta Party board members. Chris Labossiere is a successful businessman and is the former VP Communications for the Edmonton-Whitemud Progressive Conservative Association. He left the PC Party in 2009 after the Bill 44 controversy. David King is one of the few Albertans still involved in politics who was around the last time a change in government happened. As the MLA for Edmonton-Highlands from 1971 to 1986 and Minister of Education from 1979 to 1986, King was closely involved with building the PC Party under its first Premier Peter Lougheed. King was also one of the founding forces behind the similarly named, yet differently focused, Reboot Alberta.

The co-chair of Renew Alberta, who will be heavily involved as a spokesperson for the new Alberta Party, is Chima Nkemdirim, a lawyer from Calgary who until the last election was involved with the Liberal Party as campaign manager for Calgary-Buffalo MLA Kent Hehr. Taking a look at the list of the new Alberta Party board members revealed a healthy mix of very urban and very rural, and young and old with diverse political and community backgrounds. I know many of these people and have a lot of respect for what they are doing (I am told that the full list of board members for the new Alberta Party will be released when the new website is fully launched in March).
With the old party policies suspended, the new Alberta Party plans to focus their energies not on selling party memberships or building constituency organizations (at least now), but on 'The Big Listen' - a conversation with Albertans. Critical to their success is the need for 'The Big Listen' to be more than an exercise in faux-populism. We have seen a brand of faux-populism from the traditional political parties where they travel the province to "listen to Albertans" or hear "what Albertans want," only to return with a pre-determined partisan or ideological policy stance. In many ways, "listening to Albertans" has turned into an exercise in market research and brand development, rather than sincere governance. If the new Alberta Party is to be successful, "The Big Listen" needs to be a real exercise in collaborative policy development and ideas generation.

I was told that the new Alberta Party is planning to go beyond the traditional dreary town hall meeting to help supporters to host smaller and more intimate meetings in living rooms and seniors centres across Alberta. One of the ideas proposed at the breakfast meeting was the use of technology to create a collaborative atmosphere online where citizens can contribute beyond the on-going 'Big Listen' meetings.

As explained to me, the immediate goal for the people involved with the new Alberta Party is not to form government or to create another top-down leader dominated party, but to help change the culture of governance in Alberta. To "turn fear into hope and isolation into collaboration" by re-engaging Albertans in the way they are governed. If you think this sounds a bit like the language of ChangeCamp, you are correct. Some of the people involved in the new Alberta Party have also been involved or attended ChangeCamp in Edmonton, CivicCamp in Calgary, and Reboot Alberta.

Over breakfast, the example of Nokia was brought up. Responding to changing markets, the Finnish mobile phone company adopted an overlying strategy geared towards collaboration with their customers, rather than purely focusing on competition with other mobile phone companies. When this idea is applied politically, it is a large step away from the traditional confrontational mentality of annihilating your opponents at any cost. It should not be, but it is a novel idea, and not one that any of the traditional political are offering in any sincere way.

Throughout our discussion, the underlying theme I sensed from Erickson, Labossiere, and King was a desire for more accountable, transparent, and honest governance and a greater role for citizen engagement in how Albertans are governed. Essentially, an engaged, reformed, and accountable government reflective of the citizens of this province.

I have already heard harsh criticisms from friends in the PC, Liberal, and New Democratic parties that a new Alberta Party will only serve to split the centrist vote in the next election even further, helping the Wildrose Alliance to win more seats. There is a chance of this, but I have a difficult time seriously discussing vote splitting when 60% of Albertans did not vote in the last election. The traditional political parties have proven that they are uninterested or incapable of renewing themselves beyond what is politically most convenient in the short-term - and that is not good enough. As I wrote in response to comments in my previous post, maybe the new Alberta Party will flop, but maybe they will make politics more interesting (and more positive) for the average Albertan. I'm open minded and willing to give them a chance.

(You can find the Alberta Party online on Facebook and on Twitter)

Friday, February 19, 2010

peter, goldring "re" "hangs" louis, riel.

With commas as renegade as his description of Louis Riel, it is no wonder that Edmonton-East MP Peter Goldring missed the incredible syntax and grammatical errors in this December 2009 constituency mail-out.

Peter Goldring's Louis Riel pamphlet

Thursday, February 18, 2010

alberta party and renew alberta merge.

A very interesting new development in the increasingly shifting sands of provincial politics: the Alberta Party and Renew Alberta have announced that they have merged (read more about Renew Alberta in this week's SEE Magazine). Their newly launched splash page promotes 'The Big Listen,' an upcoming conversation with Albertans, and includes a message from Alberta Party leader Edwin Erikson and Renew Alberta co-chair Chima Nkemdirim:
The joining of these two parties demonstrated the power of conversation. Over one weekend, two very different groups of people met to explore the vision we have for our province. We started by listening to each other, and in doing so we found remarkable commonality and we overcame our doubts. This is how the future of Alberta politics will be written.

Albertans – whether young or old, urban or rural, labourers or professionals – have more in common than our current politicians give us credit for. While they would divide us along the political spectrum and pit us against one another, we refuse to ignore our shared history and our mutual values.

So where are our policies? As of today we have none. Unanimously our Board has decided to suspend our old policies and has committed to building new ones through face-to-face conversations, around the province, starting March 1st. The Alberta Party’s Big Listen is an Alberta-wide convention, with your kitchen table as its venue. By the time the next provincial election is announced, our party will reflect what your friends, your family – and you –have told us you’re looking for.

The Alberta Party has a strong legacy in Alberta and its roots run deep and wide. But we’ve never been more excited than we are today. We’re thrilled to join with the Renew Alberta movement, and we look forward to your help in getting all Albertans a better government.

We’re listening.

Edwin Erickson
Leader Alberta Party

Chima Nkemdirim
Co-Chair of Renew Alberta
More to come, I am sure...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

alberta politics notes 2/16/2010

- As Anarchist Day Camp showed up in Vancouver, opponents of the Winter Olympic Games have claimed victory against Alberta's tarsands by forcing Premier Ed Stelmach to postpone his opening speech at the Alberta Pavillion.
- Energy Minister Ron Liepert wants your children to learn more about Alberta's energy beach.
- Ken Chapman has some words for Quebec Premier Jean Charest on the oilsands.
- Can Alberta redesign its economy?, asks Todd Hirsch, senior economist with the ATB Financial.
- Speaking of redesign, the Left needs to define itself beyond the bottom line, according to Parkland Institute Executive Director Ricardo Acuna.
- Missed by most media outlets, Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith hired a new Executive Assistant. Shannon Stubbs, former Progressive Conservative Party VP Outreach and 2004 candidate in Edmonton-Strathcona, joined Smith's staff two weeks ago.
- The Liberals took exception to CBCs The House ignoring them in their Alberta-focused show on February 6. They have since posted an interview with David Swann on their website.
- Calgary-Buffalo MLA Kent Hehr wants to know what exactly Justice Minister Alison Redford's new role as "political minister for Calgary" means for Albertans.

Monday, February 15, 2010

alberta's great family day debate of 1989.

The annual Family Day long-weekend is something that many Albertans look forward to. The many Albertans who take the holiday on the third Monday of February for granted may be surprised to know that the idea of creating Family Day generated some controversy when it was first introduced in 1989. It may be his greatest legacy as Premier, but when Don Getty introduced the Family Day Act on June 1, 1989, it generated some intense debate on the floor of the Legislative Assembly. Here are some quotes from the debate, care of Hansard:

June 5, 1989
Laurence Decore (Liberal: Edmonton-Glengarry): "It seems to me that when your province is in difficulty, when you know that you're going to be experiencing the lowest economic growth rate in Canada, something should be brought forward to excite and energize and stimulate Albertans. The family day Act doesn't do that."

June 6, 1989
Kurt Gesell (PC: Clover Bar): "The promise of the throne speech of love of family, home, community, and province facilitates these choices. The family day Act is an excellent start, and forms part of the measures stressing the importance of Alberta families. I want to applaud our Premier for the introduction of this initiative."

June 7, 1989
Don Tannas (PC: Highwood): "Government alone cannot create a true family day. It can merely provide the opportunity for others to make it a family time, and therefore it is an important step to bring focus to the fundamental importance of the family, through family day. Many of our Christian denominations emphasize having at least one day a week devoted to family activities. A family day once a year provides an ideal opportunity for all families to focus on themselves, to look at reconciling their differences, to take joy in their common ancestry, to participate in shared activities, and to focus on all the members of their extended family on a day other than a family funeral. No, Mr. Speaker, a government cannot do it by itself. Family day must grow in the hearts and minds of all Albertans, and I'm proud that this government has taken this important step."

June 8, 1989
Ray Martin (NDP: Edmonton-Norwood): "I'll stand up in the Legislature and give them credit if it's anything close to what we're doing in Bill 201. I point out that just like your so-called family day, Mr. Speaker -- I recall them running that Bill down, but then for once they did the right thing and brought it in, the midwinter holiday. So I'm hopeful after the eighth try that they might take a look at a Bill like that. Again, government members, if you don't understand the problem and you think everything's okay, you're just not listening to the public."

June 19, 1989
Norm Weiss (PC: Fort McMurray): "I hope we'd see such things as family cards for family days, as we see for Valentine Day and Father's Day and Mother's Day and instances like that."

Bettie Hewes (Liberal: Edmonton-Gold Bar): "We still are beset with runaways, with dropouts, with an increase in teenage pregnancy. Yet it doesn't seem to me our Family Day will in any way help those problems that are a consistent source of stress in family life in Alberta and an increasing source of stress. Mr. Speaker, I ask the Premier and the members of the Legislature what Family Day will do to alleviate the need for respite for young families who've been encouraged to keep mentally or physically handicapped children at home." ... "This government's commitment to strengthen family life has yet to materialize. With regret, Mr. Speaker, this particular family Act doesn't accomplish it in any way."

Derek Fox (NDP: Vegreville): "It's not enough to pay lip service to the family in Alberta, just to say, "Well, we love the family; therefore, everything's going to be wonderful for families in Alberta" or "We're going to name a holiday Family Day, and everything will be wonder- ful for families in Alberta.""

Premier Don Getty (PC: Stettler): "The members opposite from the Liberal and ND parties are surely a hesitant, fearful, timid group, unable to bring themselves to look at something in a positive way. I guess they've been in the opposition that long that they just can't turn around their minds in a positive, thoughtful way and think of the kinds of things they could have raised to support Family Day and talk about the exciting things that will happen in the future in Alberta on Family Day. Instead we heard a series of complaints and fears, and that's really sad."

"We will have this thinking of Family Day, thinking of the importance of the family. Both the NDP and the Liberal members said: will people participate; will they actually get together as families? Their view is: force them to; use state control in some way. Force litem to. Make it the law that you've got to get together. Now, what kind of nonsense is that? Surely that's the kind of centralist, socialist thinking that is so wrong and the reason why they're where they are, Mr. Speaker."

Marie Laing (NDP: Edmonton-Avonmore): "...all too often the member of that family that is forced to work is the mother or the woman, because they are employed in the retail trade. So we have to say: what kind of a Family Day do you have when the mother has to be at work and cannot be with her family?"

August 10, 1989
Mr. Weiss: "...the proposed amendment, as introduced by the hon member, certainly would create chaos. She went on to say, and I quote how would it help battered women, those sexually abused? I would like to say to all hon members of the Assembly that I really don't know. Does any body know? But maybe just the reality of knowing one day has been designated as Family Day will shock both sides of a broken family into the realities that there are problems in this world, and as a realist we don't run from them, we try and work towards improving them and bettering them from all sides It's not just "empty rhetoric" as quoted by the hon member."

Mr. Decore: "It is that not everybody is allowed to celebrate the holiday. The moms and the dads and the grandmothers and the grandfathers and the uncles and the aunts and the children aren't able, many of them, to come back to that family unit to participate in that Family Day. Therefore, the Act isn't fair; it isn't fair to the thousands of people who must work."

Bob Hawkesworth (NDP: Calgary-Mountain View): "'s really a shame to me that they would miss the real opportunity that this Bill could provide to create a genuine Family Day, not just some bogus, poor substitute for something that we once had once a week in this province. It's a shame to me and a tragedy to me that this government over the years has failed to act in this important way. I think it's highly regrettable. Here is some small
way that they could rectify an injustice."

August 15, 1989
Premier Getty: "...the hon. Member for Edmonton-Centre [daveberta note: the MLA at the time was William Roberts] has such a hesitant, fearful, timid view of the capacity of the people of Alberta that he would want in some way to pass legislation that forces people to do certain things. It's the socialist, state-control thought, and it's wrong. It has been wrong in the past, and it's wrong now. You have to have faith in the people of the province that they will develop this family day, that they will work. The government merely provides the framework; it's the people who do it. It's not people against their employers. Surely they're all the people of Alberta. They work together, and together they're going to develop family day. I know that someday in the future that poor, timid, hesitant Edmonton-Centre MLA, wherever he will be in those days, probably . . . Well, no, I won't even speculate, because we'd probably have to help him to the food bank."

February 1, 1990
Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid wrote about the first Family Day: "The premier failed to consider a few realities of modern family life - little things like children, work, school and day care. These matters refuse to vanish just because the couch potatoes in the legislature want another holiday and the premier waves his wand."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

happy valentine's day, love ted.

Alberta's new Finance Minister Ted Morton was so twitterpated by the popular response from his PC colleagues towards his first provincial budget this week, that immediately after his budget speech I am told that he penned a short love poem. The following is a romantical reinterpretation of Minister Morton's poem:

Budget Love

Your skin glows like the Budget, blossoms Budget as the Budget in the purest hope of spring.
My heart follows your Budget voice and leaps like a Budget at the whisper of your name.
The evening floats in on a great Budget wing.
I am comforted by your Budget that I carry into the twilight of Budgetbeams and hold next to my Budget.
I am filled with hope that I may dry your tears of Budget.
As my Budget falls from my Budget, it reminds me of your Budget.
In the quiet, I listen for the last Budget of the day.
My heated Budget leaps to my Budget. I wait in the moonlight for your secret Budget so that we may Budget as one, Budget to Budget, in search of the magnificient Budget and mystical Budget of love.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

all aboard the alberta winter olympic train.

As far as international events go, it is hard to beat the size of the Olympic Games. Over 80 countries from across the world will be participating in the Winter sports event that kicked off in Vancouver last night.

With hundreds of millions of dollars likely being spent on wining and dining, it might feel like a drop in the bucket for the Province of Alberta to spend nearly $15 million dollars to promote the province to attendees, including the sponsorship of six Rocky Mountaineer train cars and the Alberta Pavilion.

Unparalleled comfort in the premier business networking venue at the Games.

The Rocky Mountaineer expense is billed by the Government of Alberta website as an opportunity to "provide the premier business networking venue at the Games" for only $499 for a round-trip ticket from Vancouver to Whistler. Who will be networking with the elite business Olympians of the world? Premier Ed Stelmach and eleven cabinet ministers will be there to wine, dine, and "offer guests unparalleled comfort" during their stay on the Alberta train! While experiencing this luxury, most passengers on the Alberta train this week would probably have a hard time believing that Alberta is in the midst of "tough economic times" and that just four short days ago, these 12 elected officials tabled a provincial budget that included the largest deficit in Alberta's history.

Alberta Train - Vancouver 2010 OlympicsAlberta Train
Sending Premier Stelmach, Tourism Minister Cindy Ady, and Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett makes sense, but what of the other nine cabinet ministers? Are Albertans well served by covering the costs of sending eleven cabinet ministers to the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games? What business could Agriculture Minister Jack Hayden, Justice Minister Alison Redford, Housing Minister Jonathan Denis, or Finance Minster Ted Morton have at the Winter Olympic Games? I am sure the "unparalleled comfort" of the posh train cars will live up to its reputation, but is it really necessary to have half of Premier Stelmach's cabinet on site?

As Graham Thomson pointed out in his Edmonton Journal column this morning, other PC MLAs will joining them, but "nobody in government seems to know exactly how many backbenchers are going." I do not oppose Alberta having a presence at these games, but modesty is virtue our elected officials should not forget.
Alberta Train - Vancouver 2010 OlympicsAlberta Train
Time and money well spent?

Would Alberta's cabinet ministers travel time be better spent flying elsewhere? Perhaps Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Iris Evans' first mission to Washington DC in her new role this week would be more effective if she had some backup from her colleagues? Alas, no one wants to fly to DC during a winter blizzard!

Other Provinces?

When compared to our provincial neighbours, Alberta's elected officials look like the rich kids whose parents picked up the annual tab for their spring break in Mexico. The Province of Saskatchewan is spending $4.1 million on their pavilion and Premier Brad Wall has committed to keep their political presence low at the Winter Games. Premier Wall will be joined by Tourism Minister Dustin Duncan and Enterprise Minister Ken Cheveldayoff. The Province of Manitoba is spending $6.4 million and sending a two-person team of Premier Greg Selinger and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson.

What about the real Alberta train?

Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith raised an interesting point this week while criticizing the expense:
"I would rather have seen any kind of travel budget being spent in Alberta,” Smith said. “They’re communicating to the wrong people.”
When was the last time Alberta had a Premier who spent this kind of money to sincerely communicate with Albertans? I am not talking about fancy videos commercials, visits to the Rutherford Show, or hiring expensive advertising companies to brand new messages. I am talking about actually travelling across this province and holding open town hall meetings outside of a highly managed and artificial election environment.

This feeds the perception that our elected officials are only accessible to those with political power or business interests. When was the last time Alberta had a Premier who allowed himself to be publicly accessible to any Albertan, regardless of political persuasion or income-bracket? When was the last time a Premier of Alberta hopped aboard a train filled with ordinary people of Alberta?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

alberta budget 2010: striking a balance?

Alberta's 2010 provincial budget, set to be released in 2 hours, is already making headlines. While Finance Minister Ted Morton has framed it as a "give up a little" budget, an Edmonton blogger almost caught a sneak peak of the budget documents:

Low security gives blogger sneak peek at Alberta budget website (see Mack's blog for more).

Alberta Budget 2010 (updated at 9:50 p.m.)

For the second year in a row, Premier Ed Stelmach's government will run a budget deficit, this time estimated at $4.7 billion and total spending is estimated to be a record $38.7 billion. The PCs are counting on increased oilsands production to boost them out of the cycle of deficits before the 2012 election (I am sure they hope it will boost their party in the polls as well). Compared to the intense cut throat budget that many Albertans expected, this budget dealt a mixture of increases and decreases across the government. Overall, fourteen departments will be on the bitter end of cuts and eight departments will be seeing increases to their budgets in 2010.

Ted Morton Budget 2010Mayor Stephen Mandel & Minister Doug Horner Budget 2010

With a 17% increase to its operating budget, Alberta's health care system is the biggest beneficiary of this budget. Alberta Health Services will also receive a one-time infusion of $759 million for debt repayment (perhaps to the Royal Bank…). Since the 2008 election, health care has been one of the toughest files for the PCs, who have felt public pressure from across the province after the dissolution of the regional health authorities and bottom-line based system reforms. If replacing the blunt and controversial Minister Ron Liepert with the more gentler Minister Gene Zwozdesky was a first major step in the government's health care public relations shift, this budget increase and debt repayment could be the second most substantial. The challenge will be to turn these budget increases into positive changes on the ground level.

The Municipal Affairs and Infrastructure budgets were also substantially increased, due to what I imagine to be the result of strong lobbying efforts by the AUMA and AAMDC.

Perhaps a statement on the level of political capital that Culture & Community Spirit Minister Lindsay Blackett has left after the Bill 44 controversy, that Ministry will reduce operating expenses by 15%. Among other cuts, Advanced Education & Technology will face a 6% budget decrease to program expenses after being on the better end of budget increases over the past five years. Changes to the student finance section of the Advanced Education budget include decreases to student scholarships by $3 million and grants by $51 million, and increases to student loans by (ie: increased student debt).

Individual department business plans give more detail on income and expenses across the government ministries.
Lindsay Blackett Budget 2010Mary Anne Jablonski Budget 2010

When Liberal leader David Swann criticized the budget and the PCs for not "responsibly managing the public purse," it may have sounded like a predictable opposition response, but it raises some important points about recent government budgets and the provincial government's large dependance on natural resource revenues for income. Alberta is a resource-based economy, but the budget turbulence in recent years highlights why Albertans should be concerned about the lack of economic diversification in our province.

Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith (who will be releasing her party's alternative budget tomorrow) criticized the budget and Finance & Enterprise Minister Ted Morton's credentials as a true fiscal conservative, but this budget is just another step in Minister Morton's public moderation. Since the 2006 PC leadership race, Minister Morton has transformed his public image as the great right-wing fire-wall lighter to a competent and softer governor. This budget includes both cuts and increases, striking a kind of political balance. This was Minister Morton's first budget and if he is able to survive his tenure in the Finance portfolio, he could be well positioned to be the leading candidate in the next PC leadership race.

Monday, February 08, 2010

the myth of high government spending in alberta.

Here is some recommended reading before tomorrow's provincial budget announcement:

Concerning the Frequently Repeated Myth of High Government Spending in Alberta

macewan university - the future of story conference & alberta's political narrative.

I had a great time participating in the Future of Story Conference organized by MacEwan University's School of Communications this weekend (you can read tweets from participants at #futureofstory). I was lucky to be invited to join a panel discussion focusing on "the political narrative" that was led by writer Curtis Gillespie and included panelists Michael Phair (Edmonton City Councillor from 1992 to 2007) and Patricia Misutka (Chief of Staff to Mayor Stephen Mandel). Our discussion topic led to some very interesting conversation about the role (and dangers) of narrative in politics and the differences between narrative, spin, and ideology.

Opening the discussion, I offered my thoughts on how the political narrative and mythology of Alberta has been translated into how Canadians from other provinces see us (a topic that I have recent written about). A sincere glance at our province will make it easy for anyone with common-sense to debunk the myth that Alberta is a cultural, societal, and political monolith.

Michael Phair spoke about the political narrative that dominated the run up to the 1995 municipal election. At the time, it was largely believed that Edmonton was falling behind and needed to elect a new and "business-friendly" Mayor. Two mayoral candidates, including Bill Smith, adopted this narrative as central to their campaigns and in October 1995, he was successful in unseating two-term Mayor Jan Reimer. Upon entering office, Mayor Smith discovered the limitations that municipal governments have to creating immediate economic growth and attracting businesses. This political narrative pigeon-holed Smith, who over his three-terms in office was typecast as solely being the "business Mayor" or "cheerleader" for Edmonton. Mr. Phair pointed out that this narrative overshadowed many of Mayor Smith's accomplishments - including the leading role he played in ending smoking in bars and restaurants in Edmonton. Interestingly, current Mayor Mandel, who arguably has just as much business background as his predecessor, has successfully avoided being overshadowed by this political narrative.

Patricia Misutka gave a really good example of how the vacuum of leadership from the provincial and federal orders of government has allowed municipalities across the world to become leaders in environmental and sustainability initiatives. Having attended the ICLEI World Congress in Edmonton last summer, I completely agree.

The panel also generated some interesting discussion on the challenges of differentiating political narrative and political ideology. When describing the various political narratives that Alberta's Progressive Conservative Party has been successful in creating since they were first elected in 1971, a number of audience members pointed out that the root of the political narrative that defined Premier Ralph Klein's government was rooted in the ideology of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. I argued that Premier Klein's decision to embrace a harder-line fiscal conservative agenda was less based on sincere ideology than it was in ideology of convenience. It was pointed out by one of my fellow panelists that the first politician to begin crafting that narrative in Alberta was Liberal leader Laurence Decore. As is fairly well-known in Alberta political circles, Premier Klein understood that Albertans were embracing that narrative and he embraced the idea and branded it as his own. Under this narrative, his party was re-elected in 1993, 1997, and 2001. Arguably, after the deficit and debt has been paid off, Premier Klein's government drifted through the 2004 "Kleinfeld" election until his retirement in 2006.

One of the biggest challenges facing the government of Premier Ed Stelmach is its lack of defining purpose, or political narrative that Albertans will embrace. In the absence of any dominant narrative, there are a number of citizen groups and political parties competing to craft their own political narratives (or spin) around the upcoming provincial budget, including the Taxpayers federation, Join Together Alberta, the Parkland Institute and the Wildrose Alliance. This weekend, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy hosted a Conference on Alberta's Future, where among many things, crafting various shades of blue political narratives for our province were discussed (you can read more about it here, here, here, here, and here). In a couple of weeks, citizens involved in Reboot Alberta will gather in Kananaskis to discuss other new ideas in crafting a new political narrative for our province. We are only two months in and 2010 already looks like it is going to be an interesting years for politics in Alberta.

Overall, The Future of Story conference generated some excellent discussion about the future of the craft of storytelling and brought together over 250 interested and passionate storytellers to share their ideas.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

alberta's speech from the throne (2007 to 2010)

The Third Session of the 27th Alberta Legislature opened today with the Speech from the Throne. These speeches are usually feel good documents filled with rainbow and unicorn statements and little on actual details, so I have decided to save any analysis for the Provincial Budget announcement next week. Instead, I have created some interesting word-clouds of this year's Throne Speech and other speeches since Premier Ed Stelmach entered his current role. They give an interesting perspective of how the focus of the Speeches have evolved since 2007. (Thanks to Mack Male for the inspiration).

Speech from the Throne 2010

Speech from the Throne 2009

Speech from the Throne 2008

Speech from the Throne 2007

the bill 44 debate lives on(line).

Mack Male has compiled an impressive collection of the Twitter activity that happened during the Bill 44 debates last year in the Alberta Legislative Assembly. Mack has archived a spreadsheet of the activity and a word-cloud of the content (as seen above). In May 2009, Ken Chapman wrote a great blog post on the effect that the online debate on Bill 44 had on citizen engagement in Alberta. I know many people who left the PC party after Bill 44 was passed into law. Many of them are now involved in Reboot Alberta.

With the Speech from the Throne this afternoon and regular sittings of the Assembly beginning next week, MLAs may have another controversial legislative session ahead of them.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

fiscal conservative in name only.

Last Fall, the Liberals caught the attention of political watchers when they released a YouTube video painting a scary picture of Premier Ed Stelmach and Danielle Smith versions of fiscal conservatism. It had nothing on this video from a campaign in California.

does question period really matter?

You may be forgiven if you turned off your radio or closed your web browser when you heard or read about the curfuffle raised by two of Alberta's opposition parties over the amount of questions in Question Period, but if you had taken a second look, you would have seen something edging on the bizarre. This morning, Wildrose MLA Paul Hinman and NDP MLA Brian Mason held a joint media conference (and in an even more bizarre twist, Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman would later join them).

Although the three MLAs raised some legitimate questions about their situation, I believe that there is a larger and much more important question: Does Question Period really matter?

Anyone who has watched Question Period in Alberta's Legislative Assembly can easily observe that most Government MLAs use their allotted time to read positive pre-written questions to Ministers, who then respond with pre-written softball answers. From another angle, some Government MLAs have been known to act as a faux-opposition, asking questions crafted to dilute the questions asked by actual Opposition MLAs.

Across the aisle, Opposition MLAs use much of their time to launch loaded questions crafted to illicit embarrassing responses from Government Ministers. Question Period is the bread and butter of Opposition MLAs. It is where they get the chance to score political points fit for the 6pm news. Some MLAs, including Mr. Mason and Liberal MLA Dave Taylor, have become particularly effective at crafting made for television moments in Question Period.

During their news conference today, the NDP Opposition released a chart (see above) comparing the amount of time that Opposition MLAs get to ask questions in Assemblies across Canada. I was not aware that most Assemblies allot Opposition MLAs the entirety of Question Period. While this appears to make sense to me, I wonder if this difference makes Question Period any more relevant to the general public in other provinces? Would the debate in our Assembly be more relevant to ordinary Albertans if Opposition MLAs were able to ask 18 questions instead of 7? Is Question Period theatre without an audience?

In a better world, Question Period would matter, but the issue raised by the Opposition MLAs today points to the larger problems facing our traditional governing structures and the increasing disconnect between citizens and their democratic institutions.