Led by Premier Jim Prentice, members of the PC cabinet try to get away from the issue of gay-straight alliances in Alberta schools. Actual Alberta politicians may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: The real Mr. Prentice, Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman and caucus rebel Thomas Lukaszuk.

The spectacular incompetence exhibited by the Prentice Government in its effort to curry favour with social conservatives by scuttling an opposition MLA’s private bill to protect gay-straight peer support groups in Alberta’s schools is breathtaking, reminiscent of the Redford Government’s lowlights.

This is “new management”?

Late yesterday, Premier Jim Prentice tried to press the pause button on the roiling controversy, which had seen prominent members of his own party protesting and threatening to quit, by placing third reading of the government’s Bill 10 “on hold, pending further consultation with Albertans.”

This flip will satisfy no one.

Albertans who supported Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s Bill 202 will be furious that the parliamentary manoeuvre stops her proposed policy dead in its tracks, leaving the Legislature nothing to vote on.

Social conservatives who saw the government’s replacement Bill 10 as an opportunity to sneak in a Trojan Horse that could further entrench “parental rights” in Alberta law and policy will feel cheated.

The day before – with Mr. Prentice still out of town on his better-planned mission to promote pipelines to his skeptical Central Canadian counterparts – the government tried to amend its scribbled-on-the-fly legislation so that students could have their GSAs, as long as they didn’t mind petitioning the evangelical minister of education and meeting in the basement of a run-down mall across town.

That gambit flopped, with the prominent likes of former Tory Senator Ron Ghitter, star Calgary Stampeders running back Jon Cornish and TV comedian Rick Mercer assailing the Prentice Government – or, worse, mocking it – for its tortured efforts to placate its social-conservative base.

The Prentice Tories’ short-lived off-site solution, immediately labeled “segregation” even by Alberta’s normally compliant mainstream media, was generally seen as likely to further marginalize already marginalized young people who deserve better.

But that was Wednesday. Today is Friday and everything is different again.

The colloquial advice to people who find themselves in a situation like this is to stop digging while their heads are still above ground. Yesterday’s development suggests the premier is trying to do that by calling a halt to his government’s inconsistent performance – which was helpfully chronicled yesterday by blogger Dave Cournoyer in a post that’s already out of date.

But given the powerful voter sympathy for Ms. Blakeman’s bill, which seems to have taken the PCs completely by surprise, Mr. Prentice should probably brace himself for another wave of public revulsion. If that happens, perhaps Albertans should also get ready for more flip-flopping by the premier.

All this would be hilarious is the consequences were not potentially tragic.

The really interesting question about all this is why Mr. Prentice – known as a skilled politician – has blown it so spectacularly on a mere private member’s bill disliked by a few of his most troll-like supporters? The circumstances suggest there has been a confluence of three influential factors:

First, Mr. Prentice must have lacked data. Certainly his initial moves strongly suggest he had no idea of the depth of support in Alberta for LGBTQ young people.

Alberta’s Tories are known to poll like crazy, and the answers they get help them form their responses to a variety of questions. So the level of public support for Ms. Blakeman’s bill shouldn’t have caught them off guard. They obviously failed to instruct their pollsters to ask the right questions.

I’ve been arguing for a long time that ordinary Albertans who don’t hold fundamentalist religious views that treat such things as working on the Sabbath, deciding to switch to the worship of Baal, or being born with the wrong sexual preference as grievous sins are sick and tired of the persecution of sexual minorities.

This would explain voters’ visceral reaction to the PCs’ effort to court social conservative votes by replacing Ms. Blakeman’s bill with their own mean-spirited napkin scribblings.

Second, regardless of Mr. Prentice’s reputation for careful planning, he obviously doesn’t do well flying by the seat of his pants.

This was first illustrated by his apparently off-the-cuff promise during last summer’s Tory leadership campaign to implement term limits for MLAs. He badly fumbled his response when pretty well everyone dumped on the idea as unconstitutional, although not badly enough to derail his candidacy.

There are politicians who exhibit grace under fire. Mr. Prentice isn’t one of them. Nor is anyone in his caucus – except perhaps former leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk, one of only three Tory MLAs to vote against the premier’s wishes. The other two were Doug Griffiths and recent recruit Ian Donovan.

Premier Prentice’s inability to deal with the unexpected turned what could have been a minor irritation into a major gong show.

Third, he’s been getting extremely bad advice from someone.

OK, the government’s decision to go after social conservative votes made sense after the apparent unravelling of the Wildrose Opposition last month. When the possibility progressive voters would vote Wildrose for the sake of change seemed to evaporate, the risk in wooing the hard so-con right decreased as well.

That was the context in which the government decided the idea of derailing Ms. Blakeman’s bill was a good idea. But someone in the government clearly saw an opportunity to use the perceived need to respond to Bill 202 to score some additional policy points for both the social conservative and market fundamentalist factions within both of Alberta’s conservative parties.

So the authors of Bill 10 tried not only to scuttle the easy formation of gay-straight alliances in schools sought by Ms. Blakeman, they ambitiously attempted to use the controversy generated as cover to sneak in another legal opening to “parental rights.”

The term is social conservative code for laws inspired by the U.S. religious right designed to weaken the curriculum for all children, enable sexuality and AIDS education to be censored or eliminated, and pave the way for school voucher programs that divert money from public to private religious schools. These “rights” have nothing to do with the fundamental rights protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and encouraged by Bill 202.

It seems likely this hidden social conservative agenda – pushed by someone, presumably within the cabinet – is why Mr. Prentice stayed his disastrous course as long as he has.

Since bloggers are not invited to cabinet meetings, it is impossible to know for certain who came up with this idea. Perhaps it was Mr. Prentice’s own. Perhaps it was one of the members of his cabinet who publicly espouse social conservative beliefs, such as labour minister Ric McIver and the minister of education himself, Gordon Dirks.

Regardless of whom, it turned out to be a disaster. Combined with a lack of clear understanding about what the public really thought and the premier’s inability to respond intuitively to a rapidly changing situation, it created the first major crisis of his government.

The only good news for the government in this mess has been that the principal opposition party’s ranks are as thick with social conservatives as the PCs’ own, leaving Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith unable to effectively exploit the government’s floundering.

For all opposition parties, one lesson stands out: Use surprise to seize the initiative. Keep this premier off balance. He doesn’t think clearly when he’s rattled.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

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  1. But is it really a disaster, David? What he did accomplish was to avoid having to vote on Laurie’s Bill. If he calls an early election for the spring, before the next budget, he will still have prevented Albertans from seeing how his caucus would handle Bill 202… and still might win four more years with which to achieve what wants. I’m worried with the Prince of Smooth screws up so completely as he has here… that he hasn’t really screwed up. Although progressives now feel we’ve won something, what we’re actually satisfied with is “more of the same” and with kids who need GSAs having nowhere to turn.

  2. If Prentice wasn’t so busy doing Trans Canada’s job of promoting pipelines, and humoring the likes of Chis Christie, maybe he could do the job he was elected to do – mind the province.

    Why is it no one seems to think it’s strange that a Premier of a Province is acting as a oil and gas lobbyist, when that job should rightfully be done by the companies themselves? Who is he employed by?

    Why don’t we just elect the CEO of Trans Canada Pipeline as our premier? I don’t think anyone would notice the difference.

    1. re Athabascan said: (“Why is it no one seems to think it’s strange that a Premier of a Province is acting as a oil and gas lobbyist, when that job should rightfully be done by the companies themselves? Who is he employed by? “)

      History, analysis, explanation as to why AB politicians serve BigOil, at the links below.

      Alan Warrack and Lougheed’s response to BigOil vs BigOil’s recent dominance of AB politics.

      Andrew Nikiforuk on contemporary premiers vs Lougheed re control of AB petro-resources

      Toward the end of Laurie Adkin’s article is a discussion of petro-power in AB, e.g. Redford’s oath of loyalty to BigOil.

      AB Petro-state? by Ian Urquhart
      Key piece as to why Prentice is BigOil’s salesman:
      Urquhart documents the petro-donations to WRP as response to Stelmach’s royalty review.

      Klein’s AB is Post-Democracy by Frank Dabbs

      Nikiforuk on Lougheed’s approach to oil resources in contrast to Klein, Stelmach, Redford, now Prentice.

    2. Prentice/PCAA and WRP… owned by BigOil.

      There was another path that Lougheed had the toughness and decency to pursue. Serve the public good. Do what’s right for the general welfare of the citizenry. No pedestal. But in the main, he didn’t subordinate the needs of the citizenry to the lobbying of the vested interests.

      Nikiforuk excerpt: “Peter Lougheed originally put Alberta on a Scandanavian path, but oil interests and the indifference of a lazy citizenry let it go.”

      Excerpts below from Nikoforuk provide context.

      (And, IMO, a big factor: almost 3 decades and counting of market fundamentalist propaganda (especially in the print MSM of AB) has convinced a majority of Albertans that there is no alternative but to drop on bended knee and kiss BigOil butt.)


      Andrew Nikiforuk is, of course, not the only author to report on the history and nature AB’s political and governance framework, but he’s the most prolific. And has invested the most effort in pointing out how Lougheed’s policy contrasted with the all the rest, pre-Lougheed, and post. Prentice has Lougheed talents but Prentice’s politics are corrupt. Serving and representing the vested interests rather than being a representative serving the citizenry, the public good, he’s continuing the corporatist mode of governance launched by Klein’s administration. Public policy determined by negotiations over interests among society’s powerful groups. Citizens marginalized. The legislature a facade of democracy.


      Nikiforuk excerpt: “Alberta’s cruel spouse, Big Oil, won’t allow it. [Tyee] ”


      excerpt: “Peter Lougheed originally put Alberta on a Scandanavian path, but oil interests and the indifference of a lazy citizenry let it go.

      Lougheed advised Albertans to behave like an owner, collect their fair share, save for the rainy day, go slow, add value and govern wisely. This remains a radical agenda for an ailing province.”


      This excerpt from Nikiforuk about how Lougheed’s AB didn’t succumb to BigOil, but post-Lougheed did. History below.

      As the Tyee has reported, only one country has escaped the oil curse, and it is Norway. Karl explains why.


      Unlike Alberta, Norway held a broad debate over the appropriate use of oil revenues. It reorganized its bureaucracy and strengthened environmental protection. It created the highly-efficient Statoil, and defined explicit roles for public and private companies. It sustained a diversified economy, reined in borrowing, and established an oil fund invested abroad worth $900 billion.

      “It even protected the state’s non-oil fiscal capacity by resisting the strong temptation to lower taxes and permit oil revenues to replace its normal revenue base,” explains Karl. “By bringing its oil fortune under strict control, it was able to ward off the insidious rent seeking that followed in the wake of oil discoveries elsewhere.”

      Peter Lougheed originally put Alberta on a Scandanavian path, but oil interests and the indifference of a lazy citizenry let it go.

      Lougheed advised Albertans to behave like an owner, collect their fair share, save for the rainy day, go slow, add value and govern wisely. This remains a radical agenda for an ailing province.
      But don’t expect the next leader of Alberta, or the Wildrose Party, to champion it.
      Alberta’s cruel spouse, Big Oil, won’t allow it. [Tyee]

  3. “on hold, pending further consultation with Albertans.” implies that was some consultation to begin with.

    Kill Bill 10, reintroduce Bill 202, pass it, and move on.

  4. 202 puts one group’s freedom above another group’s..bad policy, bad politics. Lukaszuk is just a grand stander who wants a reason to leave the PC caucus because he can no longer bully people around…

  5. Citizenry of Alberta is disengaged, disenfranchised, disillusioned and the reat plain ole uniformed living in a fools paradise, enjoying our pickup trucks and watching our loserish hockey team’s games.

    With regards to Scandinavian countries and oil….they have gone socialist for 40 years…got their society healthy, strong, educated and have saved like 900 billion dollars in their trust funds. Now IS the right time for private healthcare competition, low taxes and corporate welfare…why? The peoples needs have been met first and that society has become happier, stronger and smarter and once that has happened, all people can contribute far more to the success of corporations because they are not a burden on society anymore because they have been raised people out of poverty and illiteracy and unhealthy habits. That is good sound moderate policy.

  6. Dave you said: “The really interesting question about all this is why Mr. Prentice – known as a skilled politician – has blown it so spectacularly on a mere private member’s bill disliked by a few of his most troll-like supporters?

    Ans: PC MLAS and PC Premiers are more interested in keeping power at any or all costs. They always shoot down sensible bills proposed by the opposition parties, because they dont want the public recognizing any of the opposition parties for anything useful or sensible….because votes and power perception are on the line.

    This time it has back fired massively. Their bill 10 divides society and allows discrimination by board authorities as they see it fit.

    We have a new PC Premier that has just showed he does not care about social issues that affect people. He is trying so hard to hurt the Wildrose by stealing their conservative thunder that this time, they have put their hand in a pitbull’s mouth. Prentice is stuck in the middle and he and the PC’s its a good chance they are going to wear the Lakes Of Fire 2.0 badge. If the media were balanced and fair, that would be the case.

    I also have a feeling this is possibly a manufactured political situation to make the PC party look good, when and if they decide to eject Minister Dirks to look more progressive before the next election and use the social conservatives for their own political ends pre election. To do all this, they need to create a manufactured controversy and they conveniently have the very solution to fix it at a time of their choosing. What do you think Dave? The 3 PC mlas were mere outliers and just want to get even/ re elected, so they are really insignificant.

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