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Opinion: Take Back Alberta wields 'disproportionate' power in provincial politics – Calgary Herald

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Few Albertans know who Take Back Alberta (TBA) is. But the political organization, created in December 2021 by David Parker, is an increasingly influential presence in conservative politics playing a disproportionate role within Daniele Smith’s United Conservative Party government.

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And, having shown an ability to organize and fundraise, it will be a clear factor in the 2023 provincial election.

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However, it is not a normal third-party group: it was a fierce opponent of public health measures related to COVID-19, participated in the Coutts border blockade, funded the Ottawa Convoy and supports like-minded organizations. Simply put, TBA is a force in Alberta politics that is growing more powerful.

A UCP victory in the 2023 election would solidify and legitimize the group as the non-elected power behind the government.

It already has a string of successes. Its organizational skill was a significant contributor to the defeat of former premier Jason Kenney in the May 2022 UCP leadership review. Its support of Danielle Smith helped her win the UCP leadership and become premier in October 2022. At the October 2022 UCP AGM, its members won all the elections to the UCP board, so it now has half of the UCP board positions.

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Last week, in an amazing show of strength, it assembled more than 500 people to attend the AGM for the Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre constituency association and took over the board, winning 28 of 30 seats that were up for re-election. This could lead to the UCP nomination being reopened and Tim Hoven replacing former cabinet minister Jason Nixon as the candidate.

It has also had policy success. Already, the Smith government has fired former chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw, publicly apologized for COVID-19 restrictions, directed Justice Minister Tyler Shandro to “take any necessary legislative or regulatory steps to prohibit discrimination on the basis of COVID-19 vaccination and/or booster status,” and appointed Preston Manning to lead an inquiry into the harm caused by federal and provincial government public health measures during COVID-19.

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There was also a serious allegation that the Smith government contacted Crown prosecutors to drop charges related to the Coutts blockade and other violations of public health orders. Smith herself said she did so, but then backtracked and said she only contacted the Justice minister.

It was previously reported that TBA had approximately 30,000 members. Its fundraising capacities are impressive. Its goal, as stated on Dec. 14, 2022, by Parker, was to have 10,000 members paying a $4 monthly fee, while hoping to get 99 businesses to donate $500 monthly to the organization. If targets are being met, this would mean at least $89,500 per month for the organization.

TBA is registered with Elections Alberta as a political third-party advertiser, which means it cannot advertise during elections. However, it can use its growing war chest in other ways during the 2023 provincial election, including get-out-the-vote efforts and campaign research, as well as donating money to like-minded third-party advertisers. TBA will act as a powerful third-party organization to undermine the NDP and boost Smith’s agenda (which it helped to craft).

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So what would a Take Back Alberta government look like?

Here is a possible list. Shift its organizational skills to municipalities and school boards. Increase individual freedom in education (school vouchers, which are being pushed by the Alberta Parents’ Union) and health care (more private delivery options). Legislative steps to weaken Alberta’s public health authorities to prevent future COVID-19 restrictions. Compensation to those who suffered harm for violating COVID-19 public health guidelines. Implementation of an Alberta autonomy agenda (creating Alberta provincial police to replace RCMP, Alberta tax collection agency to replace Revenue Canada, and an Alberta pension plan by pulling out of the Canada Pension Plan). Using the Sovereignty Act and, if struck down by the courts, a referendum on Alberta’s separation from Canada.

This is not hyperbole or fearmongering. These are all statements coming from Take Back Alberta.

If Take Back Alberta succeeds, it shows how a relatively small but well-financed, organized and highly motivated group can transform a province, and not for the better.

Sarah Biggs is with Olsen-Biggs Public Affairs. Duane Bratt is a political science professor at Mount Royal University.

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Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford to testify at committee probing Chinese government interference

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff has agreed to testify before one of the committees investigating the extent of the Chinese government’s interference in Canada’s elections — and what the Liberal government knew about it.

“While there are serious constraints on what can be said in public about sensitive intelligence matters, in an effort to make Parliament work, [Katie] Telford has agreed to appear at the procedure and House affairs committee as part of their study,” says a Tuesday statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

The decision clears a logjam at the procedure and House affairs committee (PROC), where Liberal MPs have been filibustering over the past two weeks to stall a vote on calling Telford to appear.

The committee resumed Tuesday morning and voted to call Telford to appear for two hours between April 3 and April 14.

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Katie Telford is ‘a critical witness’ on election interference: Conservative MP

 

St-Albert Edmonton Conservative MP Michael Cooper introduced a motion to force the prime minister’s Chief of Staff Katie Telford to testify at committee on election interference.

Committee member and Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who first floated the motion, said that while Liberal MPs should answer for their actions in obstructing the committee, he’s pleased with Tuesday’s decision.

“It’s critical that she testify. She’s the second most powerful person in this government, arguably. But not only that, she played an integral role in the 2019 and 2021 election campaigns on behalf of the Liberal Party,” he said.

“She is a critical witness to get to the heart of the scandal, which is what did the prime minister know, when did he know about it and what did he do or fail to do about Beijing’s interference in our elections?”

Liberal MP Greg Fergus said he wasn’t willing to call her to testify, but Telford volunteered.

“It allows us to move on to other business,” he said. “The tradition is not to have political staff come before committees. It should be ministers who are really responsible for this. It makes a lot of sense. It’s been a long-standing tradition of the House and one that should be broken with great hesitation.”

A man with brown hair, wearing a dark overcoat, white shirt and blue tie, steps off an elevator.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau steps off the elevator as he arrives on Parliament Hill, Tuesday, March 21, 2023 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The approved motion also invites the national campaign directors for the Liberal and Conservative parties during the 2019 and 2021 federal election campaigns to testify. It extends the invitation to Jenni Byrne, adviser to Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, and Tauscha Michaud, chief of staff to former leader Erin O’Toole.

Public and political interest in foreign election interference has intensified since the Globe and Mail alleged that China tried to ensure that the Liberals won a minority government in the last general election. The newspaper also published reports saying Beijing worked to defeat Conservative candidates who were critical of China.

Back in the fall, Global News reported that intelligence officials warned Trudeau that China’s consulate in Toronto floated cash to at least 11 federal election candidates “and numerous Beijing operatives” who worked as campaign staffers.

Trudeau has said repeatedly he was never briefed about federal candidates receiving money from China.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) calls foreign interference activities by the Chinese government the “greatest strategic threat to national security.”

An independent panel tasked with overseeing the 2021 election did detect attempts at interference but concluded that foreign meddling did not affect the outcome.

Conservative motion fails in House

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh took credit for Telford’s decision to appear on Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, Singh said his party would back the Conservatives in passing a motion compelling her to appear before another parliamentary committee — the standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics — if the government didn’t stop filibustering in committee. The PMO announced Telford’s appearance not long after.

“I forced the government and I made it really clear today they had a choice. They could stop the obstruction in committee, allow the witness to testify or we would support the motion,” Singh told reporters Tuesday. His party has a confidence-and-supply agreement with Trudeau’s Liberal minority government.

New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh rises during Question Period, Tuesday, March 21, 2023 in Ottawa.
New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh rises during Question Period, Tuesday, March 21, 2023 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Conservative motion was defeated in the House of Commons Tuesday by a vote of 177 to 145.

NDP MPs voted on the side of the Liberals. They were booed by the Conservative bench.

Speaking to journalists after the vote, Conservative MP Andrew Scheer took a swing at Singh.

“I’ve served with several NDP leaders. I served in the house with Jack Layton, Ed Broadbent, Alexa McDonough and Thomas Mulcair. I’ve never seen an NDP leader like this, selling out longstanding principles that that party used to stand for, in exchange for who knows what,” he said.

The former Conservative leader went on to lambaste the government for staging what he called a “theatrical display” at committee before climbing down and agreeing to let Telford testify.

“Now the prime minister is expecting, Justin Trudeau is expecting a gold star for exhausting every attempt to delay and block Ms. Telford from testifying,” he said.

“None of this takes away from the urgent need for a full independent public inquiry.”

Singh said he’ll also still push for a public inquiry into the allegations of election interference.

“I’ve said clearly, both publicly and privately, that … we need a public inquiry and we need questions answered in the meantime,” said Singh,

“Absent a public inquiry process, the only process that we have is the committee work.”

 

Conservatives want a ‘partisan show’ in committee, says minister

 

“The Conservatives have wanted to vandalize committees,” said Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc. “Many of the questions that they pretend they want to ask Ms. Telford are protected by national security confidences.”

The Liberals floated making the vote on the Telford motion a confidence matter, but Trudeau shut that down — pushing off speculation about an early election for the time being.

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s Office also released the mandate for former governor general David Johnston‘s position as independent special rapporteur on foreign interference.

The terms of reference say Johnston will report regularly to the prime minister and must make a decision on whether the government should call a public inquiry by May 23, 2023. The PMO says the prime minister expects Johnston to complete his review by Oct. 31, 2023.

The Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois have pushed back against Johnston’s appointment, arguing that he is too closely linked with the prime minister.

Trudeau has shot back by accusing Poilievre of attacking Canada’s “institutions with a flamethrower.”

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Trudeau retreats, and retreat is his best political strategy

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question from the opposition during Question Period, March 21, in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau retreated on Tuesday so that his chief of staff, Katie Telford, will now testify before a parliamentary committee. But it turns out retreat is a good plan for his Liberals.

Despite the chatter, Mr. Trudeau was never going to trigger an election simply to stop Ms. Telford from testifying. That would be a nutty political calculation.

The Liberals had already spent a lot of political capital blocking the opposition demands for Ms. Telford to testify, filibustering at the committee and taking a beating from commentators and painting themselves into a corner.

Retreat, on the other hand, provided some technical political advantages.

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Ms. Telford’s appearance at the procedure and House affairs committee, when it comes, could still be tricky, though she won’t be telling all about the PM’s intelligence briefings on Chinese interference in Canadian elections.

But it was getting harder and harder to avoid ever since the NDP, the Liberals’ parliamentary allies in a confidence and supply agreement, broke with the Liberals and supported the opposition demand to have Ms. Telford testify.

The Conservatives had presented a motion in the House of Commons demanding she appear that was coming to a vote Tuesday night.

But once the Liberals conceded, and Mr. Trudeau announced that Ms. Telford would testify, the NDP voted against that motion. And the Liberals avoided umpteen hours of hearings including testimony from 30 cabinet ministers, officials and political party representatives.

Mr. Trudeau’s opponents can crow that he blinked – and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said he had flip-flopped after weeks of pressure – but retreat was good for the Liberals.

There will still be the spectacle of the Prime Minister’s chief of staff refusing to reveal much about what the Canadian Security Intelligence Service told the PM about Beijing’s efforts to influence Canada’s elections in 2019 and 2021. Mr. Trudeau told reporters that there are lot of things about intelligence that Ms. Telford, much like officials who have previously testified, won’t be able to say in public.

The Conservatives know that. Perhaps what they really want to ask Ms. Telford – also a key figure in Liberal election campaigns – is whether CSIS warned campaign staffers that they suspected Liberal candidates might be compromised by ties to Beijing. (Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford answered a similar question on Tuesday by telling reporters that CSIS briefed his chief of staff about MPP Vincent Ke last fall, but only in vague terms.)

But at this point, the Liberals are almost hoping that the Conservatives will have their knives out for Ms. Telford when she testifies.

Mr. Trudeau keeps saying that Canadians don’t want to see Chinese interference become a partisan issue. The Liberals accuse the Conservatives of turning the issue into a political circus, but the truth is they hope the hearings will look like one.

At any rate, Ms. Telford was always going to end up having to testify, at least to avoid something worse. The Liberals suffered damage in a vain attempt to prevent it. Mr. Trudeau should learn a lesson about the value of retreat.

While the opposition parties howled for an inquiry, Mr. Trudeau named former governor-general David Johnston as a “special rapporteur” – prompting both the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois to argue that Mr. Johnston’s friendship with the Trudeau family makes him unfit for the role.

But now the timeline that Mr. Trudeau has given to his “special rapporteur” presents the opportunity for another retreat. Mr. Johnston has six months to issue his final recommendations but a surprisingly short time, until May 23, to come up with recommendations on whether there should be another process – such as an inquiry.

You would think that in that brief period, Mr. Johnston can only look around at all the perplexing questions hanging over the Canadian polity, and realize he has little choice but to recommend some step that will be seen as providing a truly independent review that offers some transparent answers.

Mr. Trudeau should hope so. That’s the place where all of this has to go. The Prime Minister would be better off backing out of the corner he is in quickly, and getting to that place with less damage.

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Foreign interference: Conservatives forcing vote on new study

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In an effort to keep the foreign interference story at the forefront, and to do an apparent end run around the Liberal filibuster blocking one study from going ahead, the Conservatives forced the House to spend Monday debating a motion instructing an opposition-dominated House committee to strike its own review.

Monday was a Conservative opposition day in the House of Commons, allowing the Official Opposition to set the agenda, and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre picked a motion that, if passed, would have the House of Commons Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee embark on a fresh foreign interference study. The motion is set to come to a vote on Tuesday.

The motion also contains clear instructions that the committee—chaired by Conservative MP John Brassard— call Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford to testify under oath, followed by numerous other officials and players believed to have insight surrounding allegations of interference by China in last two federal elections.

Among the other names the Conservatives are pushing to come testify: Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, authors of the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol reports for the 2019 and 2021 elections James Judd and Morris Rosenberg, respectively, and former Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation officials.

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Also on the list: many federal security officials who have already testified and told MPs they are limited in what they can say publicly, current and former ambassadors to China, a panel of past national campaign directors as well as the representatives on the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) task force from each major party.

Trudeau’s name is not on the witness list, but that could change down the line depending on the trajectory of the testimony and how the story evolves. In order to fit in what would be more than a dozen additional hours of testimony, the motion prescribes that the committee meet at least one extra day each week regardless of whether the House is sitting, and have priority access to House resources.

All of this was sparked by The Globe and Mail and Global News reports citing largely unnamed intelligence sources alleging specific attempts by Beijing to alter the outcomes of the 2019 and 2021 campaigns and what the opposition thinks is an insufficient response by the Liberal government.

Officials have repeatedly asserted the integrity of both elections held, despite China’s interference efforts.

WILL NDP BACK THIS? IS A CONFIDENCE VOTE COMING?

The Conservative motion dominated Monday’s question period, with two central questions swirling: How will the NDP vote? And will the Liberals make it a confidence vote?

So far the NDP have not tipped their hat in terms of their voting intention, with signals being sent that the caucus is still considering its options, while expressing some concerns with the motion’s scope and witness list.

During debate, NDP House Leader Peter Julian said that while the motion has some positive elements, others are curious. He pointed to a motion the New Democrats will be advancing later this week, asking for a public inquiry into foreign interference efforts broadly, as better addressing Canadians’ calls than focusing in just on China.

The Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois wouldn’t have the votes to see it pass without them, and one-by-one Conservative MPs have risen in the House to put more pressure on the NDP to vote with them.

“While this motion is a test for this government, it is also a test for the NDP,” said Conservative MP and one of the party’s leading spokespeople on the story Michael Cooper, kicking off the debate on Monday.

“The NDP has a choice: They can continue to do the bidding for this corrupt Liberal government, propping up this corrupt prime minister. Or, they can work with us to protect the sanctity of the ballot box and the integrity of our elections by working to get the answers that Canadians deserve… We will soon find out what choice they make,” Cooper said.

The New Democrats have been in favour of an as-public-as-possible airing of the facts around interference, including hearing from Telford and other top staffers, as they’ve been pushing for at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC).That effort though, has been stymied by close to 24 hours of Liberal filibustering preventing the proposal from coming to a vote.

If the New Democrats support Poilievre’s motion, it’ll pass and spark this new committee study.

But, if the Liberals want to shut this effort down, Trudeau could declare it a confidence motion and tie NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s hands, unless he’s ready to end the confidence-and-supply agreement, which is coming up on its one-year anniversary.

The premise of the pact is that the NDP would prop-up the Liberals on any confidence votes in exchange for progressive policy action. Part of the deal predicates discussions between the two parties on vote intentions ahead of declaring a vote is a matter of confidence.

In weighing whether this is confidence vote-worthy, Trudeau would likely be assessing whether risking an election call over an election interference controversy —which could be the result of a failed confidence vote given the Liberals’ minority standing—is the right move.

Asked by reporters on Monday whether the prime minister will be designating the vote a matter of confidence, Government House Leader Mark Holland wouldn’t say.

“We are having ongoing discussions and dialogue. I think that it’s not helpful to jump to the end of a process when we’re still having conversations, Holland said. “I understand the temptation to go to the end of the process when we’re still in the middle of it…We’re in a situation right now where we continue to have these discussions.”

In weighing whether this is confidence vote-worthy, Trudeau’s top advisers would likely be assessing whether risking an election call over an election interference controversy —which could be the result of a failed confidence vote given the Liberals’ minority standing—is the right move.

Decrying the motion as “heavily steeped in partisan politics” with the objective of playing “games with what is an enormously serious issue,” Holland suggested that some of those listed by the Conservatives, including Telford, were not best placed to speak to concerns around foreign interference in the last two elections.

“It is not a move aimed at trying to get answers, or trying to get information,” Holland said.

The Liberal House leader also echoed the prime minister’s past position that calling staffers who can’t say much, and other officials who have already testified, to come and say again that they’re unable to answer more detailed questions due to their oaths to uphold national security, won’t help assuage Canadians’ concerns over China’s interference.

POILIEVRE ONCE OPPOSED STAFFERS TESTIFYING

During his time as democratic reform minister under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, Poilievre was opposed—as the Liberals are now— to having staff testify at committees.

Asked why it is so important from his party’s perspective to have Telford appear, Poilievre said last week that because she’s been involved with Trudeau’s campaigns, from his leadership bid through the last two federal elections, she would be aware of all of the intelligence briefings he’d been provided. He did not acknowledge that, like the prime minister, she too would be restricted in speaking publicly about them.

“She knows all the secrets. It’s time for her to come forward and honestly testify about what happened. What was Beijing’s role in supporting Justin Trudeau? And how do we prevent this kind of interference from ever happening again in Canada?” Poilievre said.

This move comes after Trudeau’s pick of former governor general David Johnston as the special rapporteur to look into foreign interference and provide recommendations to further shore up Canada’s democracy became highly politicized over Conservative and Bloc Quebecois questioning of his impartiality and potential conflict of interest given his connections to the Trudeau family and foundation.

On Friday, Trudeau said the Conservatives are politicizing the important issue of Canadians’ confidence in elections, while defending his pick as “absolutely unimpeachable.” He sought to explain why he’s gone the route of tapping an independent investigator and asking for closed-door national security bodies to review the facts.

“Canadians aren’t even sure if this government is really focused on their best interests or is in the pockets of some foreign government. That’s something that needs to be dealt with extraordinarily seriously,” Trudeau said. “And the partisan nature of politics means that no matter what I say, people are going to wonder— if they didn’t vote for me— whether or not they can trust me. And that polarization is getting even more serious.”

Pointing to Poilievre’s past cabinet position, Trudeau noted: “He was in charge of the integrity of our elections. He was in charge at the time, of making sure that China or others weren’t influencing our elections. He understands how important this, or he should.”

 

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