[Editor’s note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a PhD in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to politicians, the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]
Dear Dr. Steve,
After the release of the Ontario auditor general’s report on the Greenbelt shenanigans, a pressing question: Which government would win a corruption competition, Alberta’s or Ontario’s? I live in “On-Tory-O” and believe this proves: “We’re number one.”
Thanks for your letter.
Did you know that certain political cultures have 49 different words for corruption? Or perhaps that is 49 bank accounts. At any rate, it’s a question of definition. And Dr. Steve sees differences between Ontario and Alberta.
First, Ontario. Auditor general Bonnie Lysyk found Premier Doug Ford's Greenbelt scheme, which opened up a swath of previously protected land to development, was a mess and biased in favour of big developers. This was equivalent to revealing that your carton of lumpy milk may not have seen the inside of a cow recently, and that bears are prone to defecating amid stands of timber.
Lysyk’s report made the Ontario permitting process sound like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, except that getting a Golden Ticket meant forking over a bunch of gold to Willy Wonka’s chocolate fund, and everybody who got a ticket was essentially Veruca Salt.
This affair is a sumptuous layer cake of gooey chocolate sleaze. Like the fictional Chocolate Factory, there were goodies everywhere. It wasn’t just the money to be made by insiders developing the newly available land; there was also the fact that the developers themselves lobbied for the move and dictated which areas should be opened up, with 92 per cent of the land eventually going to attendees of a September 2022 schmooze where developers met with the Ontario housing minister’s chief of staff, Ryan Amato.
Premier Doug Ford’s defence is that he’s just an ordinary guy who loves a drink and a joke and doesn’t have a clue what his own government is doing. Governments do stuff all the time. You can’t expect a regular Joe to keep up with all of it. And anyway the housing will fill a need.
But Ford has promised to take swift action — except of course the kind of action that would make any difference, such as reversing the Greenbelt decision. It’s like a burglar promising the judge that he will never steal this particular bag of diamonds ever again and meanwhile, judge, how about a great deal on this lovely set of diamond earrings?
So, Eric, this looks like old school, analogue corruption with rabbit ears, vacuum tubes and fine wooden cabinetry.
And Alberta? What’s happening there is arguably corruption too, indicative of a too-cozy relationship between resource extractors and government. But Dr. Steve thinks something different is going on in Wild Rose Country.
Premier Danielle Smith’s government recently announced a halt to green energy projects in the province. Wind and solar projects already underway and attracting considerable investment were obliterated like a cartoon cat under a falling piano. There was no sensible case to be made for the move — some tried bravely and failed miserably — and in this case profit was destroyed rather than generated. It was a sort of reverse the typical model — instead of funnelling money to cronies, it was taking money away from people they don’t like. As political moves go, you could describe it as crude.
This is the key difference, Eric. Smith’s move isn’t really about corruption. It’s about ideology. Premier Smith is — how to put this politely? — a bit of a loon. Her previous advocacy for wacky medical treatments and creative interpretation of the law has not exactly left the Alberta premier with the reputation of a modern Marcus Aurelius. This move too stinks of the fanaticism of a leader who sees tail pipe emissions as heavenly clouds of glory and believes the Dodge Ram 1500 can trace its roots back to Ezekiel's divine chariot.
Dr. Steve has a theory about this (don't be fooled by his mail-order degree — Dr. Steve is a deep thinker.) The theory: Left-of-centre governments like the BC NDP have been disciplined by years of public suspicion. Decades of Marxist ideology — and perhaps more importantly, fear-mongering about the threat of creeping Marxism — have led voters to view leftists as revolutionaries-in-waiting, just itching for the chance to confiscate our cars and air conditioners and barbecues and send us all to collective farms where we will sit for endless lectures about what assholes we are before being sent to dig for runty carrots and dessicated potatoes.
Therefore governments like John Horgan's and David Eby's strive to project an air of pragmatism in order to allay such fears. Meanwhile, right-wing governments are often viewed as strict, no-nonsense stewards of the public purse who, if they err, err on the side of freedom. Thus a political leader like Smith gets more slack, despite revealing herself to be as blindly dogmatic as any Trotsky-worshipping sophomore.
Of course, the Alberta government says the exact opposite. In response to planned federal regulations that will require Canadian power plants to be net-zero emissions 2035, Alberta Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz threw down the oily gauntlet. “They will not be implemented in our province, period,” she said last week. “We've seen the federal government put ideology before common sense, affordability, and reliability once again.”
Alberta says the feds are ideological? That’s like the bitumen-soaked mallard calling the crude-drenched pelican black. But it fits. After all, if you're an Alberta politician, you don't want to kill the oil-covered goose. Go after windmills instead. Those things are killers.