Saturday, September 15, 2007

Enough bullshit. The confabulations of Link Byfield.

This is the first post in a two part series. Links for all documents referred to in this post can be accessed at my bookmarks.
Although never explicitly mentioned, the Wildrose Party of Alberta was introduced to the public on June 15, 2007, by Link Byfield, in a piece published on his website entitled "Enough talk. It's time to go political." A better title would have been "Yet more Reform bullshit from a federalist confabulator", for that is what "Enough talk" amounts to.

"Enough talk" is written in a rather grandiose tone; the main purpose of the piece being to set out Byfield's vision for a political realignment in the province of Alberta. The article features Byfield guiding us along a new political continuum - a 20 year journey which begins with the Reform Party of Canada, and their federal reform agenda, continues through the publication of the "firewall letter" (the discussion of which leads to a retrospective revelation from Link Byfield on how the letter spelled the end for the federal Reform movement), and then, as we approach the present, branches off in a new direction mandated by another of Byfield's visions in which the real reason for Reform's failures is revealed to him. According to Byfield, Reform failed because the Reformers were contesting the wrong elections, for the wrong level of government! That's right. "Enough talk" tells us that in order for the Reformers to have effected the changes they believed in, they should have been running provincially, not federally.


As a prior supporter of Reform, I had no idea I was wasting my vote on a bunch of dunderheads who were seeking election to the wrong level of government. I feel violated.

But wait, there is no need for despair. Link Byfield's final revelation not only contained the reason Reform failed, but also provided Byfield with a vision on how Alberta could succeed, and the political vehicle we need to get us there.

Brace yourselves, I'm about to disclose it.

Fellow Albertans, according to Link Byfield, the thing we must do is create and support ......... another provincial Reform Party!

Wow. I never saw that one coming.

So there you have it. The right wing federalists in Alberta have provided a roadmap forward. It is much the same as the previous one, and the one before that, and the one before that. Nevertheless, Link Byfield is nothing if not optimistic, and is presently seeking support for his efforts to bring about provincial Reform Party IV. As Albertans, we therefore have a decision to make. We need to decide whether to support this latest incarnation of Reform, or not. In my view, choosing Byfield's approach would be a complete waste of time, but it is an option before you.

The other option you have is to choose to be a thinking citizen, and say this to Mr. Byfield and the rest of the federalist Reformers: "Enough bullshit!"

I urge you to reject Byfield's approach in its entirety. Link Byfield is a Canadian federalist, who bases his political positions on pipe dreams and hallucination, while ignoring the abundant evidence and documented facts that completely contradict his concoctions at every turn. For example, in spinning his tale in "Enough talk", Byfield manages to conveniently ignore one of the central tenets of Reform - one Preston Manning has gone to great lengths to emphasize throughout his career - namely, that Reform should stay out of provincial politics altogether. The founding fathers of Reform would never agree that pursuing reform at the federal level is hopeless, nor would they agree that Reform should evolve into a provincial party - yet these indisputable facts never get mentioned in "Enough talk", probably because Manning's principled stance, if acknowledged, would constitute a major obstacle for the unprincipled opportunists behind the Wildrose Party to overcome. Better to simply ignore reality, in the hope that Albertans have forgotten what really happened.

This essay is my answer to "Enough talk". My intention is to refute the specious arguments Byfield advances, and expose him for the posturing popinjay he has clearly become. There are many problems with the arguments in "Enough talk", but I will focus on the three most egregious ones: (i) Byfield's use of historical revisionism in describing the motives of the authors of the Alberta Agenda, (ii) his reliance on logically fallacious arguments in dismissing Alberta independence as a viable solution to the problems posed by Canadian federalism, and (iii) his failure to advance any cogent argument to justify replacing, rather than co-operating with, the Alberta Alliance.

This post will deal with the first of these problems. The latter two problems will form the basis of the second post in the two part "Enough bullshit" series.

The following passage from "Enough talk" contains the core rationale behind Byfield's decision to pursue reform at the provincial level. It is probably the most important passage in the article:

The key to reforming Canada lies in the Legislature of Alberta

Alberta, as everyone knows, gave birth to the Reform Party a generation ago.

That era is gone. It ended in January, 2001, when six noted Reformers in Calgary penned a famous “firewall letter”.

This was the first admission by Reformers that federal reform can’t come from Parliament. The initiative must come from provinces.

Best-known of the six were Stephen Harper, Tom Flanagan and Ted Morton, three of the best public policy minds in the country.

The firewall letter urged Premier Klein to use all the constitutional means at his disposal to distance Alberta from Ottawa, by opting out of the Canada Pension Plan, ending the provincial RCMP contract, collecting provincial income tax directly, and more vigorously challenging Ottawa in court over environmental and health interference.

Since they wrote that letter, the whole structure of “fiscal federalism” (federal subsidies to weaker regions) has come increasingly under attack by policy groups across Canada.

They say regional wealth transfers are bad for all provinces, not just the stronger ones. They also kill any incentive for have-not regions to take responsibility for their own future.

Ontario is even more harmed by the federal system than Alberta, but is too politically mired in left-liberal conventional thinking to force the issue.

The only province with the spirit and resources necessary to force change is Alberta.

But it must come from the Legislature. That’s where the constitutional power of the province resides.
This script represents a significant departure from the generally accepted political orthodoxy in Alberta. Let's be clear on what Byfield is saying. He is claiming that Stephen Harper, Tom Flanagan, and Ted Morton - along with the other authors of the firewall letter - intended their letter to signify the end of the federal Reform movement - that, from the date the letter was written, Reformers should have focused, and should be focusing, on the Legislature of Alberta, not the Parliament of Canada, as the institution that can reform Canadian federalism. He goes so far as to characterize the firewall letter as an admission: "This was the first admission by Reformers that federal reform can't come from Parliament. The initiative must come from provinces". Well, since the firewall letter contains no such explicit admission, I assume Byfield means the letter amounts to an implied admission, on the part of the authors, that they now viewed federal Reform efforts as futile, and Alberta Reformers should hereinafter turn their attention to Edmonton.

I found this theory fascinating when I first read it, because, to my knowledge, no other political scientist or pundit has ever characterized the firewall letter this way. From what I can see, it is widely considered to be a proposed plan of action for responding to the Chretien government's ongoing harassment and demonization of Alberta. The letter is really about how to build and secure a prosperous future in Alberta in spite of an "aggressive and hostile" government in Ottawa:
We believe the time has come for Albertans to take greater charge of our own future. This means resuming control of the powers that we possess under the constitution of Canada but that we have allowed the federal government to exercise. Intelligent use of these powers will help Alberta build a prosperous future in spite of a misguided and increasingly hostile government in Ottawa. ...

It is imperative to take the initiative, to build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction.
No broad themes regarding the futility of pursuing reform at the federal level are contained in the letter, nor were such themes read into this letter by anybody else, and, in what is most certainly an unusual development, the authors themselves have never, in the 6 years since it was published, argued that their letter was intended to convey the message that Byfield is claiming it contains. In my view, the letter doesn't even amount to a general condemnation of Canada or federalism. It is a condemnation of the kind of centralized and hostile federalism practiced by the Chretien government only:
We are not dismayed by the outcome of the election so much as by the strategy employed by the current federal government to secure its re-election. In our view, the Chretien government undertook a series of attacks not merely designed to defeat its partisan opponents, but to marginalize Alberta and Albertans within Canada’s political system.

One well-documented incident was the attack against Alberta’s health care system. To your credit, you vehemently protested the unprecedented attack ads that the federal government launched against Alberta’s policies – policies the Prime Minister had previously found no fault with.

However, while your protest was necessary and appreciated by Albertans, we believe that it is not enough to respond only with protests. If the government in Ottawa concludes that Alberta is a soft target, we will be subjected to much worse than dishonest television ads. The Prime Minister has already signaled as much by announcing his so called “tough love” campaign for the West.
Properly read, all references to the federal government contained in the firewall letter are clearly references to the government of the day - being the Liberal government lead by Jean Chretien. The corollary to this is that if the government in Ottawa is not hostile and aggressive, the steps outlined in the firewall letter would not be necessary.

Byfield has provided no quotes from any of the authors that would constitute evidence that his interpretation of what they intended was in fact what they intended. If the authors of the firewall letter truly meant to say that participating in federal politics was futile, wouldn't it have made sense to ask them if this is what they meant, rather than simply constructing an argument on a foundation that is possibly false?

Since Byfield neglected to confirm his theory about the meaning of the firewall letter with the authors, perhaps he consulted other evidence in the public domain to support his position. Perhaps the authors have done or said something that would support Byfield's interpretation. Since Byfield dealt primarily with Ted Morton, Tom Flanagan, and Stephen Harper, I will do likewise.

Ted Morton has been politically active since authoring the firewall letter. In fact, within a couple of months of writing it, he accepted a position in Ottawa as "Parliamentary Director of Policy and Research" for the Canadian Alliance. The Canadian Alliance was a federal political party that believed, as one of its core principles, that Ottawa could be reformed if Westerners elected the Canadian Alliance federally. If Morton had given up on Ottawa - as Byfield would have us believe - why would he waste his time participating in such a party?

Since 2004, Morton has turned his attention to the provincial scene. Even there, he has never expressed the sentiment that "reform can't come from Parliament". In fact, he campaigned for the federal Conservatives in 2006, and publicly stated on the evening of their election victory that the Harper government would be of significant benefit to Alberta and Albertans:
"[Alberta] will have significant influence," said Ted Morton, who is a member of Ralph Klein's government in Alberta, but who also belongs to the so-called Calgary school of right-wing thinkers who helped shape Mr. Harper's political views.

"You have a prime minister from Alberta who understands Alberta and Alberta's interests and how they fit in Confederation, and you're going to have several cabinet ministers from here as well and the most experienced core of MPs," Mr. Morton said.
How is any of this consistent with Byfield's theory that Morton is of the view that "federal reform can’t come from Parliament"? It seems that once the federal Liberals were replaced by "a prime minister from Alberta", Morton was quite bullish on the importance of Ottawa's role in understanding and representing "Alberta and Alberta's interests and how they fit in Confederation".

Now, those that support Byfield's thesis may attempt to point out that Morton has been a strong advocate of the Alberta Agenda since first co-authoring the letter. This is true, but a careful examination of what he is actually saying about the firewall reveals that he is taking the polar opposite view on reforming federalism than the one Byfield attributes to him in "Enough talk". For example, consider a Morton opinion piece that was published in the Globe and Mail just after the federal election in 2004. In "Whither the West: Firewalls or Bridges", Morton clearly supports the idea that federal reform must take place at the federal level, and that the problem in achieving federal reform lies in the fact that it is the Liberals who form the government:
Monday's election results were a bitter pill for most Western Canadians. Not only did Harper and his new Conservative Party fail to make the necessary break through in vote-rich Ontario, but the so-called "party of national unity" had once again used the regional divide-and-conquer strategy to bring their stray Ontario sheep back into the Liberal fold.

For Westerners, all the old policy irritants remain (Wheat Board, gun registry) or get worse (Kyoto). All the structural reforms sought by Western reformers for the past 20 years-Senate reform, a public vetting of Supreme Court appointments, democratic reform of House of Commons-will remain frozen in the netherworld of think tanks and policy forums.
Clearly, Morton is suggesting that if the Conservatives had won the election, "all the structural reforms" to Canada that the West has been seeking would be on the front burner. This passage, written 3 years after the firewall letter, reveals Morton's true state of mind: he believes that federal reforms must be achieved at the federal level, and if the federal government is Conservative, we can expect the reforms to move forward. This quote completely contradicts Byfield's theory that Morton believes pursuing reform at the federal level is hopeless. What Morton really believes is that having a provincial government pursuing the Alberta Agenda would be of benefit when there is a hostile and aggressive Liberal government in Ottawa. He refers to this as the "or else side of the equation":
In 1985, Bert Brown, my fellow Senator-Elect, plowed into his barley field Alberta's message to Ottawa: "Triple E Senate or else." That was 20 years ago. The West's complete failure to make any progress on Triple E Senate reform since then is directly linked to our lack of progress on the "or else" side of the equation.

Why would the beneficiaries of the status quo-Ontario and Quebec-agree to meaningful Senate reform if there are no costs for ignoring the issue. The Liberal Party knows that it can easily form governments without any support from Alberta or the West. They've done so for decades, and did again last Monday.

So, if we cannot achieve more Western influence within Ottawa-the purpose of Senate reform-we should pursue reasonable policies to reduce Ottawa's influence in the West: withdraw from the Canada pension plan and create our own provincial pension plans; collect our own income taxes; cancel our contracts with the RCMP and create our own provincial police forces; take control of our health delivery systems; and use the notwithstanding clause when nine, non-elected judges in Ottawa try to impose their notion of good public policy on our democratically elected governments.

Media pundits like to characterize this as the radical "firewall agenda." Of course, it is anything but radical. Each of these policies is already in place in either Quebec, Ontario or both.

"Triple E Senate or else." For many Westerners, it's time to start working on the "or else."
Morton's view is that when the Conservatives are in government, federal reform will happen because the Conservatives support federal reform; when the hostile Liberals are in government, they will be reluctantly forced to accept federal reform, "or else" face the Alberta Agenda, which will lessen Canada's influence in Alberta.

It doesn't matter which federal party is in power. The Alberta Agenda is a coercive means to effect reform of the federal government, but Morton still believes federal reform must come from Parliament, and he would clearly disagree with Byfield's opinion that "federal reform can’t come from Parliament. The initiative must come from provinces."

What about Tom Flanagan and Stephen Harper? Have they, since 2001, been of the view that federal politics is an irrelevant political pursuit for reform-minded Westerners? Stephen Harper is the Prime Minister of Canada, and Tom Flanagan has served as his Chief of Staff and principal advisor. He was the national campaign director for the Conservative Party of Canada in 2004, and was a senior campaign advisor in the 2006 election. As such, he would have had input into and knowledge of the Conservative Party's policy documents throughout this time.

If Tom Flanagan and Stephen Harper were of the view that "federal reform can’t come from Parliament", and the initiative for reform "must come from provinces", it is passing strange that they would play such prominent roles in a party that published and campaigned on a wide array of policies to reform the federal government.

From page 5 of the Conservative Party's 2005 Policy Book:

Provisions on Senate Reform and federal electoral reform.

From page 6:

Provisions on reforming the courts and scrutinizing judicial activism.

More from page 6:

Provisions on "Open Federalism", which deals with respecting provincial jurisdiction, and limiting federal intrusions into provincial jurisdiction vis-a-vis the spending power.

From page 7:

Extensive provisions on reforming how the Canadian federation operates - both in terms of distribution of powers and fiscal capacity - with one of the express goals being to "alleviate the alienation felt by citizens of the West".

Now, having read this, can anybody sensibly claim that Tom Flanagan and Stephen Harper were of the view that "federal reform can't come from Parliament", when they are campaigning for Parliament on an agenda that emphasizes considerable federal reform?

I won't bother reproducing the sections of the Conservative Party's 2006 Campaign Platform that also touch on these themes. I have a couple of links to the document in my public bookmarks. Suffice it to say that the same extensive federal reform agenda can be found on pages 42 through 44.

Assuming Flanagan and Harper were sincere in what the wrote, published, and campaigned on in the last few years, it is abundantly clear that they hold the polar opposite view to that which Byfield is attributing to them when it comes to pursuing reform at the federal level.

There is one final piece of evidence that I wish to adduce - straight from the mouth of Stephen Harper. On the night of his 2006 election victory, he was quoted thus:
In his victory speech, Harper told supporters "The West has wanted in, the West is in now."
Now, the phrase "the West wants in" has been around since the Western Assembly held in Vancouver in 1986, which gave birth to the Reform Party. It has always been synonymous with the pursuit of federal reforms by pushing an agenda at the federal, not provincial, level. If Harper honestly held the belief that Byfield is attributing to him, why on earth would he say such a thing? In using this quote, it would appear Harper not only believes in the pursuit of federal reform at the federal level, but that, in electing him, federal reform has essentially been achieved - or will be achieved in his mandate - making the Alberta Agenda completely superfluous.

Given the foregoing, one has to wonder what has gotten into Link Byfield. Maybe he actually believes what he wrote. In fact, I think he does. Such is the essence of confabulation.
This is the first part of a two part rebuttal of Link Byfield's June 15, 2007, article entitled: "Enough talk. It's time to go political." The final part, when published, will be linked to here.