January 1st 2020
All went well with our New Years eve dinner party – lamb tagine with couscous, roasted bok choy in ginger soy and a nice caramel like pudding with middle eastern flavours.
Our friends discussed the coming decade – Boris, The Donald, Trudeau and the general state of the world – as well as good places to eat here in Edmonton. There are lots of good places now, not like when we moved here in 1986. It is a real restaurant renaissance and it is good to see. Beira was our discovery in 2019.
Lazy day today as we start to gear up for re-entering the world of work.
If one can have a literary hero – someone whom one admires and sees as a legend – then my choice would be Alan Bennett. In part this is because he is a fellow Yorkshireman (I am from Bradford and Alan is from Leeds), but more it is about the fact that he found an authentic and clear literary voice early in his life and has developed and matured that voice, so that now it is clear and focused.
Each January for the last many years, Alan publishes a diary in the London Review of Books (listen to Alan read it or read it yourself here). Droll, full of the dry humour I love from the North and insightful.
His plays are an inspiration. Whether we look at the Madness of King George, Kafka’s Dick, Allelujah!, A Question of Attribution, The Habit of Art, The Lady in the Van, or The History Boys, we are talking about a major British playwright here. As he would say, not Shakespeare, but close to a Breakspear.
Alan has also written marvelous biographies, all of which I have. He came close to dying from cancer and in 2019 had open heart surgery and suffers now from arthritis. But he is still with us and still making me smile. His large volume – Untold Stories, published in 2005 – provides in depth insights into his character, approach to writing and a strong account of his upbringing. Many aspects of his childhood and early life parallel mine.
Alan and I met in Harrogate in 2002. He was doing a reading from his work for a charity event which I had something to do with. We had dinner at a wonderful Harrogate hotel (The Crown) in which he had filmed (many years earlier) a brilliant piece in which he speculated why some of the people who took lunch and afternoon tea were there. This was also the hotel that Agatha Christie retreated to during her disappearance.
One his achievements is a series of seven one person monologue pieces with some acting which he wrote for television – Talking Heads. With great actors like Thora Hurd and Patricia Routledge, it was a smash success and also an excellent series of short stage pieces.
In person Alan is exactly the same as he is in any TV or radio interview – what you see is what you get. He is blunt and focused. For example, he writes extensively in Untold Stories about turning down both a CBE and a Knighthood. On the CBE he turned it down because the Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher and he “didn’t want anything from that woman’s handbag”!.
Now 85 and getting less agile, he his still writing and still thinking and seeing. Let’s hope there is at least one more great stage piece to come.
Today would have been my mothers 93rd birthday. She is no longer with us in person, but will never leave me in spirit.
She was an inspiration – a creative, smart women who never once got in my way if I was engaged in learning, creating, inspiring. The only time she was angry with me was when I was wasting time, doing nothing when I could have been reading, listening to music, playing the violin or not engaging in meaningful conversation or doing something that created laughter or connections with others.
She was not politically active in the sense of being a member of the Labour Party as I was growing up, but she was acutely aware of politics and social events. On the day Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, she came home from work (the public library in Bradford) crying and shared what she felt this event meant for us all – a loss of hope, of imagination in government, of social change.
She had her challenges. Mother suffered from mental illness for many years and was, on a cycle, hospitalized and subject to treatment which we referred to as “the shocks”. She would get depressed, disoriented, angry (but never violent) and did not respond to the (rather pathetic) drugs the doctor prescribed. Her eventual cure was education and achievement – she fulfilled her life-time ambition of securing a degree and a teacher qualification, taught as a supply teacher and rarely had but a moment of mental health challenges again.
She was also funny. She loved to laugh and, like her mother, had a wry sense of humour.
She died, as she wanted, in her own home of a massive heart attach. My brother found her when he visited and her life was over all too soon. She leaves my brother, sister and I with wonderful memories and many aspects of our character. All three of us miss her. All three of us cherish her memory.
I dont know why, but we always watch the Golden Globes and The Oscar ceremonies. It is certainly not because I want to hear a bunch of rich people lecture me on climate change, Donad Trump or Borish Johnson – I can lecture myself. But it is more becuase I want to discover movies or TV that may be worth watching.
For example, until last night at the Golden Globes I had not heard of Dolomite is My Name with Eddie Murphy or Bombshell with Charlize Theron. But I will find them and watch.
I have already watched Judy (excellent), Knives Out (fun), The Irishman (good, long and in need of an edit), The Two Popes (really excellent work), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (fell asleep), Booksmart (yawned and gave up half way), JoJo Rabbit (hilarious). I am still waiting to see The Joker, Marriage Story, Parasite, The Farewell, Little Women and 1917 – the latter especially.
James Martin (the chef whom I admire and follow on Twitter) reports that The Gentleman with Hugh Grant is also a “must watch” fun gangster movie.
One problem with the host of these events is that they get in the way – Ricky Gervais was essentially obnoxious, but we all know (and really hope) that this was the last (and 5th) time he was doing this. He wasn’t wrong about some of the things he said, though I suspect the next time he’s on Graham Norton’s couch sitting next to Dame Judy Dench she’ll punch his lights out! The speeches are also always disappointing. Phoebe Waller-Bridge (picture above), who won 2 awards, was smart and there were one or two focused pieces, but by and large a mess. Brad Pitt was funny – he wanted to bring his mother, but he is reported to be dating anyone he stands next to and thought a picture of him stood next to his mum could be “awkward!”. Olivia Coleman was on her way to being pissed (again).
But I will watch next year. And probably the year after…you never know…
Let’s take a walk around the world and see what is happening..
Iran admits it shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet with fifty seven Canadian’s onboard, including many from Edmonton. Tragedy, made worse by the fact that the Iranian’s were acting following the murderous action of an out of control President of the United States. The victims are victims of a phony war between the US and Iran – they were innocent. All in this city will take quite a while to grieve.
Also grief world-wide over the continuing fires across Australia, with now well over three quarters of a billion animals dead as well as at least twenty-eight humans. With many friends in Australia, the suffering of all on a daily basis (especially those with breathing related illnesses like asthma) is unbearable. All made worse by a governments whose attitude to climate change is beyond stupid. The price of big coal buying a government is death, destruction and dismay. Australia is now a totally different place from the place I visited in May 2019 and passed through briefly in December.
Meantime, Megan Markle is starring in a soap opera. It’s a cross between Days of Our Lives, All My Children and East Enders. Some say that Megan wants out of her royal duties so that she can play herself on The Crown. Others than she is following in the fine footsteps of Princess Margaret and Diana. While yet others think she is the new Wallace Simpson or Yoko Ono, breaking up the truly hypnotic dynamism of the Windsor’s (not). The reality is that Harry, Megan and Archie are getting out before they become growingly irrelevant and trying to do something really useful with their lives. Some hope they will live in Canada for part of the year (Tim Horton’s have already offered free coffee for life, which would push me to live in LA – worst coffee you can actually buy) while others have suggested that Harry and Megan are eying up property in LA. Charles has already made clear he wants a slimmed down royal family if Elizabeth ever passes away (she is 93) and William, George are already lined up for succession. Harry and Megan have no real place in this pantomime.
Speaking of pantomime (we enjoyed Cinderella in Edmonton), we are getting near some actual voting in the US primaries. Jo Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Peter Buttigieg (with a growing interest in Tom Steyer) will soon experience reality in the Iowa caucuses. Voting is on February 3rd and I am as excited as a rabbit in a stew.
Vladimir Trumpkin continues to show signs of dementia, aided by Moscow’s Mitch McConnell. As we approach the new Washington pantomime, not starring John Bolton or Mick Mulvaney, Mitch is preparing to play Ugly Sister. Ivanka is not cast in any part other than fly-by-night wannabe someone important but can’t quite make it. Her husband, Jared Cushionmaker, who is responsible for the US’s middle-east peace strategy (seems to be going well, don’t we all think?) is off on a new project designing handbags for the Oscar celebrations (he might as well be). The villain is being played by Nancy Pelosi.
As we come to the end of the pantomime season over here, Brexit is happening over there. Borish Johnson has got his Brexit Bill through the commons and it is now in the Lords, who will no doubt mess with it, send it back to the commons who will simply ignore the Lords and the deal will be done. Britain will be out of the EU by the end of the month and then all the bullshit will start all over again focused on the trade deal. Meantime, almost going unnoticed, Northern Ireland’s assembly (Stormont) is back in business after a three year hiatus. Sinn Fein and the DUP finally agreed to settle their differences and start working together again. Thank goodness.
The Golden Globes came and went and largely went by without too much fuss. Ricky Gervais was obnoxious but right, Joaquin Phoenix (outstanding in The Joker) was rambling but right, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge was right and nice while Olivia Coleman was on her way back to the bar. All in all a pointless, but fun night – more panto with better costumes.
Let’s take a walk around the world and see what is happening..
The Queen (93), Prince Charles (71), Prince William (37), Prince Harry (35), Megan Markel (38), six corgis (7,9,11,and 12) and various onlookers and courtesans agreed that Harry and Meg’s can live in Canada for part of the year and begin to transition to become tax payers in both countries, which will be welcome as both the UK and Canada need to have more revenue to pay down growing debts. Megan will be looking to buy property and is keeping an eye on real estate in Toronto, Vancouver, Vancouver Island and Muskoka. Tim Horton’s is offering free coffee for life and Prime Minister Just-in-time Trudeau is offering to pay for their security. What can go wrong? A lot said Prince Phillip (98), who is known to angry at these developments – so angry in fact that he is thinking of taking up driving again. Phillip has offered to drive the couple to Heathrow.
The impeachment trial of President Trump is getting nearer the start-up gate, as Nancy Pelosi (80) is about to transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate. Moscow Mitch McConnell (78) has promised the Donald, his Lord and Master, that all will be well and that he will not be impeached. Donald wants the whole thing done with and is suggesting that the Senate simply dismiss the case as having no evidential base. The President faces two charges – abuse of office and obstruction of justice. Apparently, it is not an offence to lie on a daily basis, belittle veterans or be a dangerous idiot.
McConnell is an interesting character. He has been an elected official since 1977, following his discharge from the army reserve as being unfit to serve for medical reasons (poor vision). Many think this is a good description of his time as Senator for Kentucky – he is unfit for service and has poor vision – and he faces a real challenge in the election in November from within the GOP. Kentucky ranks 44th in the US for healthcare, 38th for education and 39th for economic growth (45th for fiscal stability). It hasn’t changed much since Moscow Mitch became a Senator.
In Alberta, teachers and unions expressed disappointment and anger (but not surprise) at a wage arbitration which gave them zero wage increases for the next two years. This means that teachers, over a ten-year period, have received no wage increases for nine years and in just one year (2015) secured a 2% rise. In this same period inflation in Alberta has been around 12%. Simple math: the buying power of a teachers take home pay has fallen significantly. Meanwhile, oil and gas workers who have been able to retain their jobs (and we all recognize many have not, as companies seek to reduce labour costs and invest in technology or exit Alberta), have been able to stay 9% ahead of the cost of living. Teachers matter. They change lives every day. We need them to support and develop one of the best educational systems in the world.
The Oscar nominations are out and already there are complaints about the lack of diversity – no women directors, too few black actors, not enough LGTBQ2+. I also noticed a real absence of Welsh language films, not enough tap dancing and a total absence of films about toilets. Really. The Oscars used to be about the recognition of quality, irrespective of gender, colour, religion or sexual orientation. We will soon have a conversation about quotas. What those complaining need to recognize is that the decision for the Oscars (unlike the Golden Globes) is a peer review process. If you want to change, then the very people you all work with need to change. There are some excellent films around this year, 1917 is one of them. Little Women as a film is a bit of a mess, despite some quality performances.
Prime Minister Trudeau has grown a beard. It’s a multi-colour experience, with hints of grey, black, brown and beaver. It’s a sign of him trying to be serious. For many, especially the Wexiteers (Western Canadian’s seeking to separate from Canada – I know, even I can’t believe this is a thing, but they are a registered Federal (no irony) political party), it makes no difference. For these people, he still talks nonsense. In fact, the beard makes it more difficult for the Wexiteers to take him seriously. Nonetheless, he was statesman like and showed real leadership this week in his measured response to the downing of the aircraft which killed so many innocent people, many from Edmonton.
Let’s take a walk around the world and see what is happening…
It has been very cold in Edmonton, with some days at -50c. We don’t stop doing things – we have the underwear – but no one needs this kind of cold. A seven-day spell of this is enough. Meantime, in Nannup Australia, a small town in Western Australia some 175 km south of Perth, forty Emu’s have taken over the town. Wish they were here – it would be a sign that things are warming up.
In Russia there has been an unusual coup. This time led by the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin (67). He is basically working to stay in full control of government after his fixed and last term as President ends in 2024 (he has basically been in control since 2000). He wants to be Big Boss for Life and has already been in power for more years than Stalin. He is reengineering government to permit this. The government of Russia resigned en masse this last week, which is a rare event in any country, so as to make way for the reforms he wants to implement. Let’s hope Trump is not paying attention. The President of China is now there for life – we don’t want this trend to catch on.
Speaking of regime change, the British Labour Party (remember them?) is in the midst of a leadership election. Five candidates are vying for the top job – Lisa Nandy, Rebecca Long Bailey (currently running second in the polls, but only just), Sir Keir Starmer (the bankers choice and leading in the polls) and a lawyer (former Director of Public Prosecution for England)), Jess Phillips and Emily Thornbury. The final voting is on February 21st. The issue is whether or not the new leader will champion the same policies as Jeremy Corbyn or whether we will see a new version of the Labour Party. Long-Bailey is a Corbynista (and a solicitor and a Catholic) and Starmer isn’t – he’s a kind of new Blair-like character. I joined the party in 1965 – the current version is not the party I was a member of. I left in the 1970’s to join Plaid Cymru as a political advisor – much more fun.
Staying in Britain, Megxit (the tabloid’s press term for Harry and Megan’s exit from the royal family duties) continues to preoccupy a lot of pages in the gutter press. Megan may face her father in court in a law suit she brought over the publication of a private letter from her to her dad. Looks like her dad sold it to the media. Oh dear. Megan is in Victoria, Canada with Archie and Harry is still negotiating their departure in London. Rumours abound. My favourite is that the Meg-Harry Duo will become King and Queen of Canada – just what we need! A close second is the rumour that British potato geneticists are working on developing the Sussex Royal potato – rivaling Jersey Royals. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have spent just six hours in the county of Sussex. They also will not be moving to Sussex, New Brunswick.
Brexit is days away. The big debate – should Big Ben ring out its big bongs to indicate that the deal is done. It will cost quite a lot of money (£500,000) and will be heard by very few – just the thing Brexit was intended to stop.
All new version of The Apprentice – The Impeachment Boondoggle starts on Tuesday in Washington. A new cast with the same focus: Donald Trump. We can expect wall-to-wall coverage of this, despite the fact that it will be as dull as ditchwater and as exciting as a bucket of rhubarb peelings. One phrase which we will not hear in this edition is “you’re fired!”. I am thinking of taking up knitting.
Let’s take a walk around the world and see what is happening…
The year of the rat begins tomorrow (I know some of you think it was November 2016 when Donald Trump was elected President of the USA), but significant cities in China are locked down because of the outbreak of the coronavirus which has already killed twenty-six people, with many more under treatment. The virus cannot be caught from drinking six bottles of Corona, but can be passed from one human to another. It is a variant of the SARS virus, which we Canadians happen to know a lot about. Let’s hope it doesn’t become a world-wide scare, as SARS did.
Next week is Brexit Bye-Bye week. The legislation has completed its passage through parliament and received royal assent. It has also been signed by the EU President. While Big Ben will not ring out the event on 31st January, people across Britain will celebrate (or not) in their own way – some will cook kippers, others will have Black Pudding Festivals and no doubt some will roll a cheese down a hill and chase after it.
Staying in Britain, a team of researchers based in Leeds has been able to reconstruct the voice box of an ancient mummified Egyptian priest and reproduce the voice he would have used. His first words spoken after 3,000 years of silence were “you can’t be serious! Brexit! WTF!!” – well that’s what we think he said: he spoke in hieroglyphs.
The Director General of the BBC, Lord Hall of Birkenhead, is stepping down early so he can compete in Strictly Come Dancing. Despite strong public support, I will not be offering my services. But I nominate Dr. Sir Lenny Henry – the comedian, philanthropist, Open University graduate, documentary maker and actor – to take over and bring back fun and joy and get rid of the political correctness and “wokeness” which now permeates the BBC.
Meghan and Harry are back together with Archie and, according to reports, are looking at a property in Kitsilano on the waterfront in Vancouver. Good luck to them. Reports that Harry is training to be a Barista at Delany’s on Denman Street have been denied by official sources, though Meghan is back with her voice coach. They are having significant legal problems over their attempts to trade mark and protect the Sussex Royal brand and may in fact have to rebrand – perhaps MegHarry or No-One-Really-Cares-But-Here-It-Is or Just Royal Stuff may work, who knows.
The Apprentice (Senate Version) is underway in Washington and, as predicted, is about as exciting as pouring second hand gravy into a sink filled with bacon-bits. Trump’s thumbs are receiving treatment as he tweets up a storm, but meanwhile Ivanka is looking serene having spent a few days at Davos wasting everyone’s time talking nonsense – a skill she learnt from her father. At Davos, Trump rubbished climate change and, as he is a stable genius (according to him), no one took his ideas seriously. As it becomes clear that the US is rapidly becoming a third world country with more poor people now than China and a rapidly expanding divide between rich and poor, Trump’s “economic miracle” would not get past the Vatican Miracle Commission.
In the Vatican, there has been a fuss over a book published by Cardinal Robert Saraha (74) – who is amongst those who could succeed Francis – which he claims was co-authored by Pope Benedict XVI. The book champions priestly celibacy and appears at a time when Pope Francis (so many Popes..) is considering permitting priests to marry in regions with dramatic shortages of clergy. Benedict’s private secretary has said that, while the Pope Emeritus did contribute to the book, he is not the co-editor of the collection of papers it contains. Fuss, scandal and intrigue. It’s all about positioning. Cardinal Sarah is Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (a.k.a Catholic Thought Police) and a very conservative voice amongst the College of Cardinals. He is a member of Dignitatis Humanae – the right wing of the Church.
This week Pope Francis – who only has one lung (one was surgically removed when he was a teenager) – met Vice President Mike Pence. Pence was raised Catholic but switched to being an Evangelical Protestant when he calculated there were more votes to be had with this label. Pope Francis gave Pence a copy of his encyclical Laudato Si, which demands that the world deal with climate change. The irony was lost on Pence, but not on the rest of us.
In Canada, Prime Minister and Beard Grower Justintime Trudeau bought Doughnuts in Winnipeg. He got s**t for it. He bought “luxury” doughnuts from “Oh” Doughnuts ($47/ dozen) rather than shitty doughnuts from Tim Hortons ($10/ dozen) which taste like cardboard and are a perfect match to the coloured water they sell as coffee. He bought from a local Canadian company. While Tim Horton’s has its HQ in Toronto, it is actually owned by a Brazilian investment company (hedge fund) and is part of the Burger King empire who are a pretty poor employer, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The parent company did not help franchise holders offset minimum wage increases, which help stimulate the Canadian economy and take employees out of poverty. Well done Prime Minister – support good Canadian owned companies and don’t eat poor quality food.
Let’s take a walk around the world and see what is happening..
Greta Thunberg is a smart young lady who gets up the nose of stuck-up alpha male politicians like Steve Mnuchin, US Treasury Secretary. At Davos he said that she should get a degree in economics before talking about climate change. This kind of nonsense comes from a man who is among those presiding over the decline of the US as a super-power, driving families into poverty, creating a class of super-rich and driving the US into the biggest deficit and debt levels it has ever seen – the US government debt rising by $3 trillion since Trump became President and he treasury secretary. He should be asked to give his BA in Economics from Yale back, since he clearly does not understand the real economy of the country he helps govern. He should also recognize that climate change is more than an economic problem – it’s a problem for humanity. We are all qualified.
Soon it will be Brexit Day – the day the UK officially exits the EU, kind of. There is a period of agreed hanging around and waiting to see what happens next (the transition period). But celebration – nah. It’s one of those events like having a boil pierced or a bunion removed or waiting for a cake to rise.
In Britain, the Labour Party leadership election convulsion continues. One candidate – Jess Phillips – has dropped out, realizing that rational policies that people may want to vote for are not what the party faithful seem to want. Since it became a cult, the party now is determined not to be in power for at least a generation. The policy platform is about as practical as the Catholic church taking over the licenses for strip clubs around the world. Sir Keir Starmer remains front runner by a “long-mile” and Rebecca Long-Bailey is a distant second though she has gained the support of Britain’s largest Trade Union. Sir Keir has been asked to step aside so that an woman can win.
The Coronavirus continues to worry us all. New cases have now occurred in Canada, UK, France and the US and many other cases have been reported in a variety of countries. The death toll is rising. When wandering around Vancouver, one sees more and more people wearing face masks and some are seeking fashionable hazmat suits. Even in Thunder Bay last week there were a few people at the airport wearing face masks – the most exciting thing to have happened in Thunder Bay since someone there started baking Persians (a cinnamon bun with pink icing, not people from Iran). A pandemic has not yet been declared by the World Health Organization, but one suspects such a declaration is just days away. What can we do to protect ourselves? Nothing. Stay healthy is the key strategy here. SARS killed 800 people world-wide and dramatically affected travel and trade, especially in Canada. This looks similar.
Donald Trump continues to lie, cheat the world and act as a Mafia boss while also playing his role as President of the United States, Tweeter of the Month and the Kremlin’s Employee of the Year. The US Senate, demonstrating its inability to take itself seriously, will soon see off his impeachment in a coming partisan vote that even General Franco would have been proud of. It is a sign of the real decline of common-sense and democracy in that country. All made worse by those he has surrounded himself with – lackey’s, cronies and ambitious men with no sense of guilt. All the adults in the cabinet room have left the building. Only the delinquents are left.
Meghan and Harry have gone quiet. Living in British Columbia does that to you. You are so busy been seen to be busy while not actually doing much that it wears you out. No doubt they are sushi hunting, whale campaigning and bacon bashing.
In tennis the wonderfully talented teenager Coco Gauff (15) was defeated in the fourth round of the Australian open by Sofia Kenin. Coco played really well (even winning the first set in her game with Kenin), showing all the skills she demonstrated in her remarkable run at Wimbledon last year. In her run in Melbourne she defeated Naomi Saka (the defending champion) and Venus Williams. She is my real hero of the week – resilient, focused, skilled and determined. With good mentoring and coaching, she will be the new champion in the women’s game in the years to come.
Staying with sporting heroes, Kobe Bryant (41) died tragically when his helicopter crashed in California killing him and all on board. A smart man, he played 20 seasons with the Lakers and did great work in health and education. One of the greatest players of all time and certainly the greatest of his generation. RIP Kobe Bryant.
Each year around 3,500 Canadians die of the flu. In the US the number is around 12,000 and in the UK the figure is app. 13,000. One major cause: too few people get the flu jab. Some of the people now really concerned about the Coronavirus have not had the flu jab, yet the flu is a much bigger threat than this new virus. The anti-vac’s movement has much to answer for (like most of Gwyneth Paltrow’s claims, the anti-vac’s rationale is based on total nonsense and magical thinking) – they pose a threat to us all, especially children. Get the vac’s and wash your hands frequently. If you’re sick (especially coughing a lot), stay home. Rant over.
In the US, President (at the moment) Trump and Israeli Prime Minister (at the moment) Benjamin Netanyahu announced a plan to give large parts of the Middle East to Israel and to grant a number of non-adjacent spaces for use by the Palestinians in exchange for $50 billion and the Palestinians agreeing to be subject to apartheid from their controlling government – the State of Israel. No one took this seriously, except the two indicted leaders and Jared Kushner. The “deal of the century” was dead on arrival and will go down in history as a folly aimed at distracting the world from what is really happening. Sadly, it will make matters worse in the Middle East rather than better. The big thing missing from the plan is Palestine.
On the US border with Mexico in California, part of the brand-new border wall (“beautiful border wall – the best ever in the history of border walls – a wall better than any wall builtby any President anywhere”) fell over in a windy breeze and fell on the Mexican side. The Mexican’s who found it are selling it for scrap.
In Canada the Progressive Conservative Party (which is very conservative and not at all progressive) is seeking a new leader. They are looking for someone who could defeat Justin Trudeau and someone who does not have a beard. The most likely person to defeat Trudeau – Rona Ambrose – has made clear she is not interested. We are left with the second, third and lower tiers. Peter McKay is the front runner. First elected to parliament in 1997, he left in 2015 to focus on his new family and getting rich. He doesn’t speak French (or Welsh or Spanish), despite the fact that he has dedicated much of his life to federal politics and has no particular views, policies or ideas of any kind. He will fit right into the Tory party leadership. He is not very studious – more of a hockey player than a reader; more of a “just heard this in the coffee shop” than a policy wonk; more of a Tim Horton’s doughnut’s guy than someone who would support a Canadian company. The party’s last leader was a US citizen and “fuzzy” about his past work experience. No change here then.
In Alberta we are getting ready for the real first big austerity budget from our United Conservative Party (UCP) government. Be prepared for more nonsense and stupidity. More cuts to health, education and social care. More “Give Away’s” to oil and gas. More attacks on nurses, teachers, doctors, social workers and public servants. More blaming everyone for the growing deficit and debt which the UCP are directly responsible for. More privatization – coded in health and education in terms of “choice”. This is a truly neo-liberal populist party which has not an ounce of understanding of the impact of the decisions they make. No compassion, no tolerance for risk, no attempt to engage in meaningful dialogue and no economic sense. To say that many in Alberta are shocked at the level of nonsense and crassness the UCP demonstrate on a regular basis is an understatement. One person who voted for the UCP said, as she lost her medical benefits due to a UCP decision, “I voted for them to make cuts, but I never expected any of the cuts to affect me!”. Well precisely.
Nicholas Parsons, the actor and broadcaster who hosted BBC Radio 4’s “Just a Minute” for what seems like 300 years has died at the young age of 96. Gifted, swift witted and insightful, he also made this program one the great listening experiences of any weekend. When Humphrey Littleton hosted “I am Sorry I Haven’t a Clue” – without doubt the funniest show since Monty Python – and Nicholas had his show, weekends were complete. Add in a series of re-runs of “Round the Horn” and the BBC radio 1978 version of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy narrated by Peter Jones with and you were in heaven.
balance the Provincial budget, by which they mean only spend the “revenues” they secure through taxation, royalties and other means. The second, linked to the first, is to better align government spending by Department with the spending levels seen for those services in other Provinces, no matter that Alberta’s economy is different and that GDP per capita and taxation levels are different. The third is, as rapidly as possible, privatize significant sections of the currently public services offered to citizens.
In pursuing these strategic intentions, the government is happy not to engage in any meaningful consultations and dialogue with those who may be impacted by these strategies or with those who have policy alternatives. They are also unwilling (some may say incapable) of looking at an evidence-base which shows that these strategies are either likely to fail or based on a poor (yet deliberate) misunderstanding of the situation Alberta faces. Finally, they expect sections of the public service to engage in industrial action – work to rule or strike – in response to their actions. Indeed, they are hoping for a full-on confrontation since this will accelerate their move to privatization and, in their view, garner support for union busting.
These three strategies come directly from the neo-liberal new public service playbook and are proven failures all over the world.
So as to balance the budget any sensible government would do two things: (a) maximize revenues; and (b) control spending. This government dramatically reduced revenues through tax breaks and the removal of the carbon tax and is not considering increasing revenues through either a sales tax or increased royalties from natural resources licenses. The government is pursuing “trickle down” economics – something even the IMF accepts does not work. When we look at revenues, Alberta has by far the lowest government revenues of any jurisdiction in Canada at just 13.6% of GDP (BC is at 18.9%, Ontario at 17.6%).
Alberta’s net debt is currently $43.7 billion – an increase of $7.09 billion over the previous year. Our net debt to GDP ratio is projected to be 11.8% – by far the lowest in Canada by any calculation. Our net debt per capita is also low at $8,379. As a comparator, Ontario’s net debt to GDP ratio is 401% and net debt per capita is $24,282. We do not really have a debt problem when these numbers are compared either to other jurisdictions in Canada or to competitor jurisdictions around the world. It is true that our spending on government programs looks to be higher than other Provinces (except Newfoundland and Labrador) at $12,915 per capita (BC spends $10,947) but then our wages for all employees in Alberta are higher. The real number to look at is progamme expenditure as a percentage of GDP and here we spend less than any other Province (15.7%).
The idea that we have to balance budgets is a ploy and a manufactured problem. We do need to manage spending and be efficient, but we also have to respond and meet social needs. Corporate largesse and tax breaks for the rich and already wealthy will not lead to job creation as employment numbers clearly suggest. What is needed is a revenue increase through a sales tax, an increase in oil and gas royalties and higher corporate taxes.
On the spending side, spending needs to be reduced on non-core functions (war rooms, overseas travel to “attract investors”, task forces and advisory panels) with more money going to services which Albertan’s value – health care, senior care, care for those with disabilities, education and infrastructure. Alberta’s population is still growing and investments in people, support for those in need and the payment of a decent wage do more to stimulate and grow an economy than tax breaks for the already wealthy.
So as to reduce economic risk and ensure the effective management of public expenditure, Alberta needs to halt all talk of privatization in health, education and social services. Study after study shows that privatization both increases costs, reduces efficiency and increases social risk. Further, laying off public service personnel in favour of private providers who will walk away if profits fall poses a real economic threat and risk to service quality. Sweden rapidly privatized parts of its K-12 system in the name oif school choice. Not only did quality fall (as measured by PISA and Sweden’s own testing system), the private players “gamed” the system by manipulating and inflating the performance of their schools. When profits fell, the private players walked away, leaving the Government to pick up the pieces. Similar things have happened in the US and the UK. In healthcare, privatization leads to loss of cost control, increased wait times in the public system and poorer systemwide outcomes.
In short, the Alberta government is intent on pursuing strategic intentions which have been shown as failures elsewhere in the world all on the basis of a misunderstanding of the challenges Alberta faces. To make matters worse, the Government of Alberta is systematically disengaging from public debate or real engagement with those who disagree with their steamroller approach to public policy, as all who have tried to have authentic policy conservations with Ministers and MLA’s will attest. We don’t actually have “government by the people for the people”, we have a government of selected interest steered by the few for the few.