Alberta Deputy Premier Doug Horner

In Alberta, apparently, being in power for nearly 40 years means never having to say you’re sorry.

How else can one explain the bizarre reaction of Alberta’s Conservatives to the revelation earlier this week that fully a quarter of their MLAs gratefully accepted rounds of golf in British Columbia, Rod Stewart and Lady Gaga concert tickets, West Coast fishing trips and what have you from a well-heeled collection of billionaires, billionaires’ lobbyists and billionaire corporations?

The price of all this largesse to the Alberta Conservatives who benefited from the billionaire generosity? Zip, zero, zilch, nada, nothing.

The reaction by Conservative MLAs to the publication of their public disclosure statements by Ethics Commissioner Neil Wilkinson, and the revelation contained therein that fully a quarter of the 68-member Tory caucus accepted freebies in 2009 from resource companies, telecommunications corporations, lobbyists, governments and the odd bazillionaire acting on his own? Basically they said, “What? Whaaaat?”

In other words, Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative caucus had a collective Archie Bunker moment.

For those of you too young to recall Archie Bunker, our text today is the ever-helpful Wikipedia, which as I tell my students just before their eyes glaze over, is 90 per cent right, 90 per cent of the time: “Archibald ‘Archie’ Bunker is a fictional character in the long-running and top-rated American television sitcom All in the Family … He is a veteran of World War II, reactionary, bigoted, conservative blue-collar worker and family man, played to acclaim by Carroll O’Connor.”

What made Archie funny, of course, was that he never understood what the problem was when he was saying or doing something outrageous. “What? Whaaaat?”

I guess you could say that’s what made the Tory reaction to the short-lived Freebiegate funny too.

The premier being out of the country on a freebie trip to India, it fell to Deputy Premier Doug Horner to explain the Tory take on all those freebies. “What? Whaaaat?” he said. (No he didn’t, I just made that up.) What he actually said was: “There is no scandal here.”

“The rules state very clearly that MLAs are allowed to accept gifts as a result of social obligations or protocol up to a limit of $400,” Mr. Horner told the Edmonton Journal, noting that the ethics commissioner “has not ruled that there is anything unethical or scandalous there.” He argued that when MLAs are invited to “build relationships” with bazillionaires and lobbyists. “That’s what our job is intended to do.”

Apparently the 15 Opposition members of the Legislature don’t see it that way, because none of them reported taking any gifts over $400. But what do they know? They sure as heck haven’t been in power 40 years!

So when Education Minister Dave Hancock got great tickets to a Rod Stewart concert from a lobbyist, he explained that the lobbyist in question was an old pal. So what’s the big deal? “If anybody thinks that a couple of tickets to Rod Stewart makes a difference how I do public-policy decisions, then they’ve got a problem,” he huffed. (Daveberta.ca blogger Dave Cournoyer cheekily Tweeted Hancock to ask him to name his favourite Rod Stewart hit. Hancock did not see the need to reply.)

So when Finance Minister Ted Morton accepted a West Coast salmon fishing and golfing trip from a secretive billionaire construction magnate, he explained that “it’s a good idea for ministers of the government to spend time with people that are influential, find out what they’re thinking.” So what’s the big deal? He added, “I’ve done exactly what the ethics commissioner requires,” and walked off in a huff.

So when Energy Minister Ron Liepert took airplane tours in Alberta from development companies and a trip to the Middle East from the government of Qatar, he tried to make a reporter tell him what she would have done in the same circumstances. So what’s the big deal? A huffy exchange ensued.

It seems that about the only Conservative who broke the mold was Edmonton-Mill Woods Conservative Carl Benito, best known for promising to donate his entire MLA salary to high school students from his riding and then, uh, forgetting… He donated $6,000 instead, somewhat less than his MLA salary.

It turns out, according to his disclosure statement, that Benito was behind on his municipal taxes on four rental properties in Edmonton. But instead of shaking his head and wondering what was the big deal, Benito blamed his wife!

Other than that moment of comedy, however, the Conservative reaction was essentially, “what’s the big deal?”

A powerful sense of entitlement inevitably comes with being in power for four decades. Hard-right market fundamentalist Tories like Liepert have it. Red Tories like Hancock have it. Pretty much the whole Tory caucus has it.

Like Archie Bunker, they just don’t get it.

This post also appearson David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...