Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Building Fort McMurray: Divisive politics don't add up

Those of you who know me know that I wear my hometown of Fort McMurray on my sleeve. Although I now live in Edmonton, I maintain a keen interest in the affairs of Fort McMurray. The success of Fort McMurray and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is, I firmly believe, vital to our continued prosperity as a province.

If you follow my non-Albertatory account on Twitter, you'll know that I tweet regularly on McMurray and oilsands issues. And you'll also know that I often find myself getting into lengthy exchanges with now-former Wood Buffalo Regional Councillor John Vyboh.

With the exception of the Montreal Canadiens, John and I don't see eye-to-eye on much of anything. I campaigned for/supported candidates he was running against in the provincial elections of 1997 and 2001 (when he ran for MLA as a Liberal, and lost both times), and the municipal elections of 1998 and 2010 (when he ran for Mayor, and lost both times). Needless to say, we're usually on opposite sides of any debate.

Yesterday, Premier Ed Stelmach and half of the Alberta cabinet were in Fort McMurray to talk to a variety of local stakeholders and the public as part of the ongoing cabinet tour. I firmly believe that Premier Stelmach has, in terms of support for Fort McMurray and the Wood Buffalo region, been the best Premier since Peter Lougheed.

Vyboh was tweeting throughout the day about how he was disappointed and wanted to see more action from the provincial government. This pattern of criticism towards the provincial and municipal governments, incidentally, has become fairly regular since his most recent election defeat.

I challenged his assertion that Fort McMurray and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) have been constantly short-changed by the provincial government when compared with the amount of economic output in the region. During my time working in the Alberta Legislature, I was always impressed at the level of interest in Fort McMurray expressed by PC MLAs from across the province. Even though I was but a lowly communications staffer, I was always ready to entertain discussions on McMurray issues with my colleagues and did so regularly. Based on these experiences I absolutely believe that, contrary to spin from some disgruntled individuals, this Premier and his caucus are more committed to Fort McMurray and the region than any government in a generation.

That said, an opinion alone does not a compelling case make. I promised to dig up some numbers to back up my opinion, and was quite interested by what I found.

I should note that there are some difficulties in identifying with pinpoint accuracy the total amount of revenue that a particular region generates. I'm not an accountant, nor do I have gobs of time to unearth every piece of relevant data. So I build my case with the biggest ticket items when it comes to revenues and spending to get a general idea what's really going on with respect to provincial investment in Northeastern Alberta.

Revenues are represented by the amount the Government of Alberta collects in oilsands royalties (not region-specific, but the bulk of oilsands production occurs in the RMWB). Since 2006, provincial coffers have been boosted by oilsands royalties to the tune of $11.462 billion.

Spending includes operating grants to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, the two local school boards, Keyano College, and the Northern Lights Regional Health Authority (now part of AHS). I should note that I don't have specific health grants to the Wood Buffalo region for 2009-10 since I couldn't find it on AHS' website, so I've allocated the same amount of funding from the previous year to make a rough calculation. Since 2006-07, operating grants to the 5 largest entities in Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo total close to $1.698 billion.

Spending also includes major capital projects like new schools, health facility upgrades, new bridges, affordable housing units, sewer upgrades, and the ongoing twinning of Highway 63. Those projects total almost $2.422 billion.

Finally, spending includes grants from programs like Community Spirit, MCFP, CFEP, and CIP. That comes to roughly $7.4 million.

All these spending numbers total $4,126,915,000, while the oilsands royalties collected by the province total $11,462,000,000. So roughly 36% of what the province collects in oilsands royalties are returned to the Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo region.

Now some would consider that a short-changing, but I disagree. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, at an estimated 103,000 residents, represents 2.76% of Alberta's population. And yet it receives about 36% of the value of oilsands royalties back from the province.

I know that oilsands royalties aren't the only source of revenue for the Alberta Government, but royalties from all energy sectors together do provide a sizeable chunk of the government dime. The royalties collected from all sectors from 2006-07 to 2009-10 total $41,896,100,000. Divide that by the $4,126,915,000 in previously mentioned spending and you're look at just under 10% of royalty dollars collected across Alberta being directed to a region with less than 3% of the population. I'd say that's a ratio that shows this government has a solid commitment to investing in the Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo region.

There was another set of numbers I stumbled upon that I also thought painted a more accurate picture than Vyboh and other boo-birds are trying to paint. Alberta Finance and Enterprise produces something called the Blue Book. Within it, I was able to find how much the Government of Alberta transferred in grants and operating funds to the major entities I listed above. I searched within this data for the fiscal year 2009-10 to see how much the government transferred in grants and operating funds (not capital projects) to the largest municipalities in the province. I thought this would be useful because it would likely help prove my point that the provincial government is indeed paying special attention to the needs of Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo and funding accordingly.

Here's what the province transferred to the following municipalities in 2009-10:

City of Calgary: $483,301,069
City of Edmonton: $513,718,734
City of Grande Prairie: $30,993,482
City of Lethbridge: $50,533,354
City of Medicine Hat: $38,801,180
City of Red Deer: $51,955,422
Strathcona County: $37,450,977
Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo: $178,993,103

And here's what that works out to on a per capita basis:

City of Calgary: $451.04
City of Edmonton: $656.56
City of Grande Prairie: $617.07
City of Lethbridge: $583.13
City of Medicine Hat: $635.08
City of Red Deer: $576.74
Strathcona County: $453.89
Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo: $1,732.18

I don't mean to start a war between municipalities on how much they're getting from the province here - I think we all understand the economic benefit for the entire province that is generated by the Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo region and, I hope, appreciate why the province has been giving it extra financial attention.

Part of the reason behind wanting to dispel the spin that Vyboh and others of his mindset have been presenting is because of what is expected to be his next political move. As I mentioned above, Vyboh has twice been an Alberta Liberal candidate in Fort McMurray and has long been identified as a federal Liberal supporter. During the last municipal election in the RMWB, though, a number of supporters of the local MLA threw their support behind Vyboh's bid for Mayor. Although they were political foes in two elections (three if you count the 1998 municipal race), they came together against a common enemy: RMWB Mayor Melissa Blake.

Mayor Blake, to her credit, doesn't play the politics of division. I have always found her to be proactive and well-respected leader who is able to build positive relationships with stakeholders and other levels of government to deliver results for her region. Voters in RMWB clearly agree, returning her to the Mayor's chair with over 73% of the vote. Vyboh's politics of division were soundly rejected with only 22% support and the concurrent defeat of his ally from the previous Council, Mila Byron.

Vyboh is now turning his attention to provincial politics and is expected to seek the Wildrose Alliance nomination to serve as running mate to local MLA Guy Boutilier in the new Fort McMurray-area constituency. This convenient ideological shift is opportunistic, if not laughable. But I also think it is doomed to fail. RMWB voters have shown that they are more interested in the new generation of leadership growing in their community. One that builds relationships and works collaboratively to further the community's interests rather than personal agendas. And, as illustrated above, those kinds of positive relationships are greatly benefiting the citizens of the RMWB.

I've asserted that, contrary to what Vyboh and his boosters are spinning, that the provincial government CLEARLY sees the need for increased investment in the Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo region. Although no amount of provincial investment and attention will be enough for some who are either trying to win a seat in the Alberta Legislature or hang on to the one they already hold, I think the numbers speak for themselves.

Fort McMurray and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo have done very well by Premier Ed Stelmach and his government. I hope the next Premier will continue to show the same leadership for my beloved hometown.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Do as I say, not as I do

The purpose of this blog is mainly to talk about provincial politics in Alberta. But, once in a while, the author has to make an exception.

One of those rare occasions was thrust upon me last night when I caught wind that Linda Duncan, our local opposition MP and the darling of Edmonton's chattering class, might be using her taxpayer-funded office to coordinate NDP activities.

In an e-mail from the U of A Campus NDP (who, as an aside, should probably clean up their distribution list), a lengthy list of local door knocking opportunities are promoted and campus New Democrats are urged to help out.

The contact person for all door knocking in Edmonton-Strathcona is Erica Bullwinkle, a long-time New Democrat who I've heard is also Linda Duncan's campaign manager. That's not the egregious part, of course. The offensive bit is the contact e-mail listed if you want more info or to sign up:

For those of you unfamiliar, accounts are the official, taxpayer-funded e-mail accounts that every Member of Parliament has to conduct their constituency work (read: not coordinate party door knocking).

Here's a part of the e-mail in question for context:

Date: Wed, 9 Feb 2011 14:56:51 -0700
Subject: U of A Campus NDP Meeting and Volunteer Requests

Hello fellow campus New Democrats!

The U of A Campus NDP is planning to re-coordinate our efforts to get
New Democrats seen and heard on campus. If you're interested in being
involved in the club, including planning strategy and bringing in
speakers from the provincial and federal NDP, come to our upcoming

Thursday, February 17th at 3 PM
SUB 4-20

Also, it is quite likely we will have a federal election called in the
next month or two. Help your Edmonton NDP candidates get ready! Here
are some ways you can help get rid of Stephen Harper's Conservatives
and put progressive MPs in their places:

Re-elect Linda Duncan in Edmonton-Strathcona

Upcoming door-knocking sessions (open to everyone, regardless of
experience level):

Canvass in Windsor Park, Saturday February 12, 1pm: Please meet at
home of (name and address omitted).

Canvass in Garneau/Strathcona, Sunday February 13, 1pm: Please meet
at the home of (name and address omitted).

Canvass in King Edward Park, Sunday, February 20, 1pm: Please meet at
the home of (name and address omitted).

For more information or to sign up for any of the above sessions,
contact Erica Bullwinkle at

This begs the question: just how much partisan NDP efforts are being coordinated through Ms. Duncan's taxpayer-funded Parliamentary office?

Regardless, this is a shocking misuse of Parliamentary resources. Ms. Duncan and her campaign team should know better than to blatantly operate NDP party activities from what is supposed to be a public, non-partisan office.

I guess they've been so busy accusing Conservative Senators of running campaigns on the public dime, they forgot to enforce their own righteous indignation on themselves. Ooops.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Long Goodbye

I said when I started blogging again that I wouldn't merely be a party cheerleader and that I'd sometimes be frank about some of the goings on in the party. Today will be one of those days.

Ed Stelmach's proposal to step down and have a leadership vote in September is a terrible idea. For the party, for the government, and for his reputation.

His reasoning has been well-published in the media. He wants to complete his legislative agenda in the spring session. He wants to give candidates lots of time to sell memberships and raise money. It's the same timeline we used last time.

Respectfully, these are all easily rebutted.

While I wholeheartedly respect his desire to put his final stamp on the government of Alberta, he rang a very clear bell when he stepped up to the microphone cast week and told us he was resigning. And you can't unring the bell. A series of natural events have now been set in motion that will culminate in the election of a new leader. The acceptable timeline for the occurrence of such events depends on the mood of party members and electorate. The more they are looking for change, the faster it must happen. And, in our current circumstances, 8 months is just too long. Period.

Frankly, passing the last of one's legacy bills should not take up 4 months of debate in the Legislature. Pick a handful of key legislative items that you want in place, get them and the budget passed after a month or two, and adjourn. Trying to squeeze every last sitting day out of this administration's tenure looks desperate and does a disservice to the next PC leader who will surely want to move quickly to put their own stamp on government.

This extended timeline also does a disservice to the party. Where the Premier suggests a summer-long campaign to let candidates sell memberships and raise money, I firmly believe that summer would be better spent with a new leader and cabinet team hitting the road and introducing themselves to Albertans and outlining their priorities. And while raising money for leadership candidates is nice, raising money for the party as a whole is far more important. Every dollar raised for a candidate is a dollar that is NOT going to the party to help fight the next election. And we need that money more than any election since 1993. Delaying the race will weaken our financial position as a party, and I don't think that's the legacy one should be aiming to leave.

Many defenders of the September timeline will say that an 8 month timeline is what we operated on in 2006 and it's just fine now. I'm not sure if those folks have taken a peek at the current political volatility in Alberta, but it's worth a ponder. Our opponents have planned an entire campaign against the PC Party based on Ed Stelmach as Leader. That rug has now been yanked out from underneath them and given us a window of strategic advantage. The longer we drag out our leadership race, though, the more opportunity we give our opponents to define our next leader before they can define themselves. If you disagree, I invite you to look up historic examples filed under Dion, Stephane and Ignatieff, Michael.

On top of all of this, I think our Constituency Associations are also going to suffer implications from a delay in electing a new leader on two fronts.

First off, every Constituency Association in the province has to be "re-founded" before the next election. This is because the upcoming electoral boundary changes require new associations in place with all of the logistical hoops that go along with it: distributing funds from existing accounts, transferring memberships, electing new boards, etc. Although this is a process we go through every 8 years in Alberta, it still takes an extraordinary amount of time and effort on the part of both party staff and local volunteers. These are people who will now be otherwise occupied until the conclusion of the leadership race. The longer it goes on, the less time we're giving ourselves to complete this important pre-writ work.

More importantly, we need to nominate candidates in 87 constituencies. This was work that was supposed to be completed by this summer, but will obviously be put on hold as long as the leadership race is going on. Local boards and the party office simply won't have the resources to run candidate nominations while we're in the middle of the race and, before that's even considered, the new associations need to be formed anyway. In days gone by, the PC Party would rarely nominate candidates more than a few months before an election. It wasn't considered necessary. I long disagreed with this practice and was thrilled when the Premier said we wanted candidates in place early so they could start knocking on doors now. The need for this kind of proactive approach to nominations remains, but dragging out the leadership race only delays the nomination process to the point where we may only have a few months before an election to nominate our candidates. This is especially true since many potential candidates wont commit until they know who's the Captain of the ship. Meanwhile, the opposition will have had their candidates at the doors for months. Why would we put our candidates at a disadvantage unnecessarily? There is zero advantage here. None.

The worst part of this, in my opinion, is the damage this risks to Ed Stelmach's reputation. As I pointed out in my first entry last week, I think Ed is one of the most honorable and decent people who will ever serve in the Alberta Legislature. The September timeline he's proposing, though, does him no favours. The goal for any departing leader, regardless of circumstance, should be to leave with their organization in a position of relative strength. I worry that the consequences outlined above will erode much of the goodwill Ed Stelmach has earned and the good work he has done. Instead, people will be focused on a perception that the Premier's inner circle are desperately clinging to their jobs as long as possible. That perception may be untrue, is probably the worst way to leave office, and is not deserved for the Premier and his team. But the longer this race drags on, the more fuel is thrown on that fire. Why subject yourself to that?

So to any PC MLA, Executive, Constituency President, or regular ole member like me who is reading this: please, consider what a September leadership vote could do to our party going forward.

We have the ability to get this done sooner so we can move on with all of the important work that needs to be done before we ask Albertans to renew their trust in us. Talk to the people who can make this happen - implore them to do what's best for our party. Pass the budget, pass the last few legacy bills, adjourn this spring, and call a leadership vote for June.

Let us get on with founding our 87 local PC Associations to build our party at the grassroots level. Let us get on with nominating the best possible team of men and women to fly the PC flag in the next election and in the Legislature. Let us get on with raising the money we need to fight a winning campaign in every corner of the province. Let us look forward to the future, not cling to the past.

Let us get on with choosing Alberta's next Premier.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Is the Alberta Liberal Party worth saving?

With the resignation of Alberta Liberal Leader Dr. David Swann today, some tough questions are being raised about the viability and the very future of the Official Opposition.

While some in the media (and many in parties who would love to cash in on the demise of the ALP) are preparing the funeral rites for the longest standing party in Alberta politics, I wouldn't be jumping on that bandwagon just yet.

The title of this blog asks the basic question: Is the Alberta Liberal Party worth saving? My answer, which may surprise some, is yes. But hear me out...

There's no question that the last few years haven't been the greatest for Alberta Liberals, but its a far cry from the darkest times the party saw when they were completely shut out of the Legislature. And they do have some things to be happy about, namely the fact that they've finally recovered financially from the Cadillac campaign that Nancy Macbeth ran in 2001.

Naysayers would have you believe that the Liberal brand is pure poison in Alberta and would be a waste to try and revive. But an objective look at some numbers should tell you otherwise.

In order to be successful, political parties need an identifiable voter base, brand recognition/definition, and money. Simple as that.

Liberals in Alberta can consistently count on the support of at least 25% of Alberta voters these days. In the 2008 election they scored 26.37%, 29.4% in 2004, 27.33% in 2001, 32.75% in 1997, and 39.73% in 1993. You have to go back to 1986 to find a time when Liberal support was below that 1/4 mark (just over 12%). Federally, Liberals have done poorly in the last two elections in Alberta (11% in 2008 and 15% in 2006), but before that enjoyed a decent level of support with 22% in 2004, 21% in 2000, 24% in 1997, and 25% in 1993.

My point is that, generally speaking, at least one in every four Albertans is willing to mark their ballot for a Liberal candidate. That's not enough to win an election (unless you're in some kind of Euro pizza parliament), but it is something that an organized party with a good leader can build on.

That ability to build leads into that next requirement from above: brand recognition/definition. This is Canada and, in Canada, the Liberal brand is everywhere. Although they haven't been formally affiliated with Alberta Liberals for some time now, the Liberal Party of Canada has dedicated provincial wings in every province and territory of this country. And Liberals exist as a provincial party in every province and the one territory that doesn't run on consensus government. They are the ONLY brand that is that widespread provincially. Voters know that the Liberal Party is out there and they know, generally speaking, where they sit on the political spectrum (this hovers around the centre depending on province and leader). In a province that has tens of thousands of people arriving from other parts of Canada every year, being a political brand that they knew "back home" can be a very powerful asset.

The third requirement, money, is directly related to the first two items I talked about. If your supporters know who you are and, more importantly, if you know who your supporters are, you can raise money. Raising money is made easier, of course, if you have a strong leader and good team of organizers. And contrary to popular belief, there are some VERY smart organizers in federal Liberal circles in Alberta. They haven't been very active with the provincial party over the last two elections, but that doesn't mean they're lost to the cause. With the right leader and a mandate to thoroughly harvest and develop Liberal supporter lists, they could build viable constituency associations through most of the province and raise a respectable amount of money in the process.

And, with these three things in place, the Alberta Liberals can again become a force in provincial politics. The task is undoubtedly daunting, but not impossible. And considering much of the required party infrastructure (albeit skeletal in nature) exists, it may be an easier task than trying to build an un-established and yet un-defined party to occupy the same place on the political spectrum.

So if I'm a prominent progressive Albertan thinking of running to lead a political party, I have to ask myself where I focus my efforts. I can try to my stamp on something that is still in its infancy and trying to be all things to all people. Or I can bring my vision to an established brand that is well-known with a measurable and dependable level of support, and that has the infrastructure and skilled operatives who can work to broaden that support and raise money from said supporters if I'm the right leader.

Not that I ever expect myself to be in that hypothetical position, but I know where I'd be directing my efforts if I were.