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FILDEBRANDT: Drew Barnes shows courage in drawing a line in the sand with Ottawa

Barnes’ unplugged statement didn’t just break with the political orthodoxy, but with the strict message discipline that strangles MLAs in both of Alberta’s major parties.

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On the very day the Wildrose Party was finally and officially dissolved by Elections Alberta, one of the last Wildrosers of the old school did something that would do honour to the traditions of his old party: he spoke freely.

Drew Barnes is the UCP MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat, but served a term and a half before that as a Wildroser. He came in a strong second place against Brian Jean in the 2015 leadership race, and was a prominent front-bencher under both Brian Jean and Jason Kenney. Today, he is a senior member of the province’s Fair Deal Panel, traveling around the province listening to advice about Alberta’s next steps within the federation.

He’s kept a relatively low profile in this job until word came down from Ottawa that the Liberal government there was preparing an “aid” package to mollify Alberta in the event that they kill the $20 billion Teck Frontier oilsands investment. It is stunningly tone-deaf that the Liberals would even consider such a devastating move against Alberta at a time when support for breaking away is at an all-time high.

On Friday afternoon, Barnes issued a statement that almost surely was not approved by the communications staff in the Premier’s Office:

“As a longtime Albertan & member of the Fair Deal panel it is clear that federal interference in approving Teck’s Frontier application will drastically heighten Albertan’s desire to hold a referendum on independence.”

Barnes was only a few characters away from declaring his own support for independence if Ottawa kills the Teck Frontier investment.

“I ask Premier Kenney & the UCP government to turn down any comparative scrap of compensation offered to Albertans to negate Albertan’s opportunity to fully develop our best in the world oil and gas industry.”

This second part of Barnes’ statement could end up putting the Tory government in a bind. They most certainly want the Teck mine to go forward – and have used strong language to that affect – but they were most likely prepared to (grudgingly) accept an aid package as a consolation.

‘Were’ prepared.

Barnes told the Western Standard that beyond his opposition to accepting a penny of any ‘aid package’, that he would fight for there to be a vote in the legislature on it. Holding a vote in the legislature on accepting Ottawa’s guilt-money could prove potentially divisive, if the Tories are willing to accept it. If Barnes manages to gain traction with his refusenik campaign, Kenney may just decide to go along.

But doing so will draw a line in the sand with Ottawa. As I said in the space on Thursday, this would trigger a game of chicken with Ottawa. Would Trudeau really be willing to plunge a dagger in the heart of Alberta’s economy, if Alberta was not willing to put a band-aid on the wound as it said “thank you”?

Barnes’ unplugged statement didn’t just break with the political orthodoxy, but with the strict message discipline that strangles MLAs in both of Alberta’s major parties. He may have some support for his position in the UCP caucus, but it won’t make for a particularly fruitful political career if any of them speak out. The pressure will likely come down hard and fast on any other MLAs thinking of speaking their minds on the subject, unless the government decides to listen to Barnes.

Canadians regularly complain that their MPs and MLAs are potted plants just doing what they are told, but normally support the leader of their respective parties when they try to silence independent elements that speak out of turn. Albertans willing to draw a line in the sand with Ottawa should encourage the few representatives willing to speak up on their behalf.

Derek Fildebrandt is Publisher of the Western Standard, and President & CEO of Wildrose Media Corp.

Opinion

MORGAN: Alberta needs less talk, and more action from Kenney

“Premier Kenney needs to pick a lane and to stick to it with authority.”

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Support for the United Conservative Party under Premier Kenney’s leadership has collapsed. Exclusive polling for the Western Standard has the UCP languishing at an abysmal 26 percent support while the NDP is at 41 percent while the new and still leaderless Wildrose Independence Party has climbed to 9 percent province-wide. This trend is nothing less than catastrophic for the UCP and they will need to make some major changes if they hope to be re-elected in 2023.

With nearly two years in power now, it is tough to point to any concrete changes or policies from the Kenney government. While Jason Kenney talked a great game at campaign time, we have seen little follow-through. Where is the promised democratic reform through citizen’s initiated referenda and recall legislation? Where is the fiscal conservatism and moves to get the budget under control? When will the government act on even one of the Fair Deal panel recommendations?

While Premier Jason Kenney continues to try to be everything to everybody, he is losing support on all fronts. The NDP-left will never learn to love the UCP, yet Kenney remains reticent to take on the government unions which are opposing all efforts at fiscal reform or efficiencies. Kenney has talked tough with unions, but won’t act. It’s time to take a stand and start cutting spending, not just haircuts. We are running out of money and taxpayers are running out of patience. It won’t become any easier for waiting.

On the democratic reform front, Kenney needs to implement the promised referenda and recall legislation. It has been nearly two years and this doesn’t need to be studied any longer. We know what we need and we know what we voted for. Give it to us already.

On the Western alienation front, Kenney has been at his most disappointing. This again has been clearly indicated in the recent polling commissioned by the Western Standard. Support for independence is exploding to new records in Alberta. While the UCP was not elected with a mandate to pursue independence, they were elected as a party expected to stand up to Ottawa. It is time that they did it.

Ottawa has more control over Alberta today than when Jason Kenney came to office. Tough talk is clearly not working.

No more panels. No more “expert” studies. No more kicking the can down the road. Albertans want some leadership and they want somebody to protect Alberta’s interests from an increasingly hostile federal government.

We have made it clear that we want a provincial pension plan. I doubt that I will see it implemented before I am old enough to collect it, and I am only 49 years old.

Why more study on whether or not we want a provincial police force? We know we want it. Now start working on what it will take to create it. What did we get? The province commissioned yet another study.

Where is the Alberta Chief Firearms Officer we were told we would get? How hard is it to appoint somebody? Instead, we got an Alberta Firearms Advisory Committee. More talk.

We are getting a referendum on equalization at least, but Kenney has made clear that there will be no ‘or else’ consequences if Ottawa and the other provinces fail to make reforms.

We are living in tough times. Citizens want to see leadership and that means seeing leaders making tough, definitive decisions. Wishy washy approaches to issues aren’t acceptable.

Premier Kenney needs to pick a lane and to stick to it with authority. If you oppose lockdowns, don’t impose them. If you support lockdowns, do it unapologetically and do it in full. Trying to appease both sides only alienates both sides.

Talk is cheap and we are tired of hearing it. If the current government can’t discover how and where they want to actually act on things, they will be replaced in the next election, and I fear for what that replacement may be.

Cory Morgan is the Podcast Editor and a columnist for the Western Standard

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Opinion

OUELLETTE & SHAW: Freedom of expression is under attack in Canada

“While Canada is a relatively free country, the pandemic has exacerbated our pre-existing shortcomings in terms of freedom of expression.”

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Our freedom of expression is under attack. In recent years, there’s been a significant trend toward censorship in the media, in academia, and among the general population. The controversy at the University of Ottawa over the use of the N-word is one example among others. Why do we need to worry about this trend? For one thing, an attack on our freedom of expression is also an attack on our standard of living.

The virtues of freedom of expression are widely recognized: It improves the quality of our democratic institutions, facilitates the exchange of ideas, and leads to sounder, more transparent public policies.

But aside from these benefits, there is also a strong link between freedom of expression and economic growth. This is confirmed by the economic literature and by many academic papers from different researchers at Stanford UniversityDartmouth College, and the University of California, Berkeley, who all arrive at the same conclusion: The exchange of ideas stimulates innovation, and innovation is one of the main engines of economic growth and rising living standards.

Encouraging the exchange of ideas and the protection of freedom of expression is therefore intuitively beneficial, and this is confirmed by the scientific literature. But concretely, what would the average Canadian stand to gain if our governments put in place public policies encouraging greater freedom of expression?

According to our calculations and our econometric model, individual Canadians would be an average of $2,522 richer each year. Obviously, this amount wouldn’t be deposited directly into one’s bank account, but rather, a gradual increase in our living standards would result from the effects of more freedom of expression.

In the sample of 132 countries used in our study, Canada is among the top 15 per cent in terms of freedom of expression. But while it is true that we live in a relatively free society, taking this good ranking for granted would be a mistake.

Indeed, governments have a lot of room to grow when it comes to improving freedom of expression, especially if we compare ourselves to Norway, the top country in the ranking. There, it is standard practice for politicians to make constant efforts, encouraged by citizens, to better protect freedom of expression.

In contrast, in Canada, and especially in certain provinces like Quebec, the government can arbitrarily decide to subsidize one media outlet rather than another, which can potentially hinder media independence and lead to biased and less reliable information. Not to mention that it is increasingly difficult to obtain information from our governments through requests for access to information, which hampers proper public debate. This situation should alarm us.

In order to improve the country’s performance in terms of freedom of expression, thereby also improving our standard of living, we have three recommendations:

  1. Favour media independence from government by limiting arbitrary subsidies and, in their place, creating a regulatory and fiscal framework favourable to all media;
  2. Encourage Canadian public universities to protect freedom of expression in order to truly allow their researchers, professors, and students to express themselves freely without risk of reprisals;
  3. Increase the information and data available to the population by reducing the need to make requests for access to information, in order to facilitate public debate.

While Canada is a relatively free country, the pandemic has exacerbated our pre-existing shortcomings in terms of freedom of expression. We must not allow the current situation to become the new normal. For the sake of our standard of living and the wealth of our country, we must do more to promote and protect the freedom of expression of all Canadians.

GUEST COLUMN: By Miguel Ouellette, Director of Operations and Economist, and Maria Lily Shaw, Economist, Montreal Economic Institute

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Opinion

FILDEBRANDT: Kenney culls Rehn from the herd, but none of it adds up

“If Rehn was the sacrificial lamb, it raises even bigger question about why his head was on the block, and not the other six.”

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The Great Snowbird Scandal has finally claimed its first real political victim. On Thursday morning, Jason Kenney fired Lesser Slave Lake MLA Pat Rehn from the UCP Caucus. But none of it adds up.

Rehn – for all his political sin of travelling to Mexico during his own government’s lockdown – was just one of seven snowbird MLAs.

Former Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard was forced to resign from cabinet –a demotion to be sure – but she still remains comfortably in the UCP benches. Jeremy Nixon, Jason Stephan, Tanya Fir, and Tany Yao all still enjoy full membership in the UCP Caucus.

Why is Pat Rehn the only one to be exiled to northwest corner of the legislature – otherwise known as ‘Siberia’?

Publicly at least, Kenney’s statement on the unilateral firing did not mention the Snowbird Scandal at all.

“The most important job of an MLA is to represent his or her constituents,” Kenney wrote in his statement. “It has become clear that Lesser Slave Lake MLA Pat Rehn has failed to do so. He has made no meaningful effort to work in his constituency, or properly to represent his hard-working constituents.”

“I have repeatedly asked Mr. Rehn to be more present in his constituency. He has ignored calls from me, UCP Caucus leadership, and his constituents to do so.”

So the Snowbird Scandal had nothing to do with it, on paper at least. He was fired because he was an absentee MLA not working very hard, according to Kenney. It’s a curious reasoning that requires some scratching below the surface.

The Slave Lake Town Council issued a scathing letter on January 5 with a laundry list of sins committed by Rehn, including their claim that he doesn’t live in Slave Lake. In fact, they allege that he mostly lives in Texas, something Rehn denies.

While Texas would be a bit far aboard, I have a spoiler for readers: many, many MLAs and MPs do not reside full-time in their constituencies.

Even Jason Kenney himself does not live in his Calgary-Lougheed constituency. In fact, there is pretty strong evidence that he didn’t quite live in Alberta for much of the time that he was a Calgary MP.

It doesn’t really matter, so long as an MP or MLA works hard for their constituents, and earns their support come election day. At the end of the day, constituency boundaries are largely arbitrary lines on a map, drawn up by political appointees.

But for Pat Rehn alone, it appears to have mattered to Kenney.

Kenney official reason given – that he wasn’t working hard or around the constituency – holds no water.

Most backbench MLAs – especially those on the government side of the house – have remarkably little of importance to do. They read cue cards with pre-scripted puffball questions and pablum speeches written by staffers when the legislature is in session. When the legislation is not in session, their biggest job is to show up and be seen kissing babies at their local legion.

Most complaints about Rehn from his constituency is that he wasn’t kissing enough babies. Is that alone really cause to fire an MLA from the caucus?

For those not born yesterday, something clearly doesn’t add up.

So why was Pat Rehn really fired by Kenney?

Western Standard reporters have obtained some interesting documents that appear to cast a new shadow over Rehn. Our reporters will do their due diligence with these documents before we discuss them publicly, but if they are what they appear to be, then this is the real reason that Kenney sacked Rehn.

We can only hope that Kenney did his due diligence with these documents first.

But even if these documents prove the worst possible scenario, Rehn deserves a chance to explain himself fairly.

If the UCP had kept its promise to pass recall legislation, then his constituents could judge for themselves. But, they could also decide to pass judgement on the other six snowbirds.

Was Rehn just a sacrificial lamb for the other six Snowbird MLAs? A Mainstreet Research poll conducted for the Western Standard found 68 per cent of Albertans want Kenney to fire all seven (known) Snowbirds. Alarmingly, 41 per cent even wanted Kenney himself to resign over the matter, including 21 per cent of those who voted UCP last time.

If Rehn was the sacrificial lamb for this scandal, it raises even bigger questions about why his head was on the block, and not the other six.

Perhaps Rehn was a rogue and this was a convenient opportunity to cull him from the herd.

One way or another, we don’t know the whole story. I’d be surprised if we know half of it yet.

Derek Fildebrandt is the Publisher of the Western Standard

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