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Stephen Mandel to lead Alberta Party; probably won't take Tory insider's advice to go 'ultra-left'

Stephen Mandel (Photo: David J. Climenhaga)

Ian Brodie -- chief of staff to Stephen Harper for a spell back in the bleak days the Conservatives ran the country -- had some advice for the Alberta Party yesterday, just hours before the party's members chose former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel as their leader.

To wit: If the Alberta Party wants to win seats in 2019 in what is bound to be a race between Premier Rachel Notley's New Democrats and Opposition Leader Jason Kenney's supposedly United Conservatives, they must "campaign against oil," as the headline writer of Brodie's opinion piece on the CBC website accurately summarized his argument.

Or, as Brodie himself tendentiously put it in the piece published hours before the Alberta Party announced Mandel's selection as leader, "if Notley continues her move to the centre on pipelines, there might be room for an ultra-left party in Alberta politics."

There's a sly suggestion here that the Alberta NDP is pretty far to the left too. This is nonsense, of course, as is becoming increasingly obvious to ever-larger numbers of Albertans.

What's more, being on one side or the other of the debate about whether the fossil fuel economy has a future is not really a right- or a left-wing thing, as I am sure Brodie, nowadays a University of Calgary professor, understands perfectly well. He is, after all, a bright, even erudite, guy, for all that he has served the wrong side of the economic policy argument in a variety of important roles.

The real point of the veteran Conservative political operator's piece, I would suggest, was to tempt the Alberta Party to take a position that will make it irrelevant in the 2019 Alberta election, thereby improving Kenney's chances of defeating the NDP.

Brodie, by the way, also proffered the same advice to the Alberta Liberals led by David Khan, giving the same reasons. But his main target was clearly the Alberta Party because it is more likely to drain more Red Tory votes from the UCP than Blue Dipper votes from the NDP. This is especially true with Mandel at the helm, as was expected well in advance of last night's coronation.

So this argument, coming from this well-placed Conservative source, suggests that notwithstanding the prevailing narrative to the contrary, the UCP and its Ottawa auxiliary over at the Conservative Party of Canada understand perfectly well that a successful Alberta Party under Mandel would principally threaten them.

It also suggests that they understand the NDP is much more competitive than the current media storyline makes it seem. That narrative, as we have all heard repeatedly, is that the Notley government's departure from office is only a matter of when the election is called, a notion Brodie understandably tries to reinforce in his CBC piece.

Being a smart guy, I'm sure Brodie also understands that Mandel is unlikely to take the bait. After all, at 72, Mandel wasn't born yesterday. Still, come the campaign, the new Alberta Party leader may try to sound just a little greener than the oil-soaked elite consensus at the Alberta Legislature nowadays.

I confess that, up to now, I've thought it pretty unlikely the Alberta Party could even get on the radar, no matter who its members chose as leader. Hitherto, the party has appealed to no one except media, professional pundits and a few people better described as political cultists than political activists.

The fact that a connected Conservative like Brodie is offering bad advice to the Alberta Party as it tries to transform itself into the new Progressive Conservatives suggests that the strategic minds behind the UCP don't want that to happen.

We shouldn't get too excited about this, though. Mandel won by an impressive 66 per cent … but it was only 66 per cent of an unimpressive 4,613 votes.

Do you remember the days when more than 130,000 Albertans signed up and turned out to choose Ed Stelmach as PC leader and premier in 2006? Or when it was considered a huge comedown that only a few more than 23,000 voted in the 2014 party election that chose the late Jim Prentice as leader after Alison Redford's catastrophic tenure?

Mandel is going to have to interest more than 4,613 Albertans to realize the dream of forming an Alberta Party government.

He won't do that, obviously, by declaring war on the oil industry.

Pharmacare advisory committee a good step, but a tiny one

The pharmacare advisory committee mentioned in the Trudeau government's budget yesterday is a positive step forward, but Canada is still a long, long way from having an actual national prescription drug plan.

So it's incumbent upon pharmacare's many supporters to keep the pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers to actually implement a prescription drug plan like every other country in the industrialized West except the United States, which is disastrous when it comes to the way it organizes health care.

As The Globe and Mail correctly reported yesterday in its coverage of Finance Minister Bill Morneau's budget, "national pharmacare could represent significant savings for both patients and the government." These savings are variously estimated from about $5 billion to about $12 billion per year. Alberta alone would save more than $1 billion annually.

It would also, of course, save the lives of many Canadians who must now choose between paying the rent and feeding their children or getting the prescription drugs they require to survive.

A way to save $11 billion a year for taxpayers while ensuring all Canadians can have the pharmaceutical drugs they need if they are ill? A way to reinvest in health care and make a good system better? What's not to hate about that if you're a profit-drenched multinational pharmaceutical company, a huge insurance corporation, or an operative for a neoliberal advocacy group like the Fraser Institute or the Canadian Taxpayers Federation?

So count on it that the usual suspects will be lobbying furiously against a national pharmacare plan behind the scenes and in public. Given the Liberals' past modus operandi, there is a significant chance the party will lose interest in the plan after it wins next federal election.

If we are ever to have pharmacare in Canada, no matter whom we elect, we will have to keep our politicians' feet to the fire.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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