Archive for the ‘Community, Neighbours, and Local Government’ Category

Democratic Reform — can’t we be more upbeat?

April 11, 2012

“Democratic reform” is a term that doesn’t often excite most citizens. And most citizens view those excited by democratic reform as having a masochistic streak.

The term makes it sound as though we have failed, or have at least let our democracy fall into disrepair. The term suggests that we need to redeem the status quo with some pretty serious restoration or some incrementtal improvements, to get us back on track.

Let’s shift our focus. Instead of thinking about “reform”, why don’t we think about AiD — an “Adventure in Democracy”.

The democracy we are familiar with is essentially 175 – 200 years old. It’s held up pretty well in the face of immense technological and social changes. It’s time for us to adopt a more modern view of democracy itself, at which point the challenge is not to cut out the corrupt, or restore the familiar, or make incremental improvements to the status quo.

The way our political mechanisms work reflects the pre-democratic conviction that sovereignty flows from the top down — citizens are not really moral enough, or educated enough, or social enough to really participate in the decision-making process, so we should only allow limited citizen participation (consultations, and advisory boards, and letter-writing, etc.) and leave the decision-making to the ‘proper authorities’, the elected representatives who have become moral enough, or educated enough, or social enough through the experience of being elected (or perhaps, through the experience of belonging to a party that does their thinking for them).

There is a model of government called “subsidiarity”, which says that decisions should be made as close as possible to the people who will live with them, and the person or people at the very top should decide exactly where decisions are made. Democracy represents a model of government in which decisions are made as close as possible to the people who will live with them, and the people who will live with them decide exactly where decisions are made.

Every Albertan is also a Canadian, and also a citizen of a city, town, or village, or rural municipality. It is not for the government of Canada to decide how the decision-making pie is sliced, and it is not for the government of Alberta to make that decision, and it is not for our local council to make that decision. All of these elected representatives are our servants, and they must let citizens decide which servant will do which work.

We don’t need to reform democracy, in order to improve on the status quo, or correct our previous errors.

We need to think of democracy as an adventure into unknown — and incredibly rich — territory. We shouldn’t think of our work as ‘reform’, and the drudgery that needs to be done ‘to clean up’. We should think about creation and invention, faithful to the ideas of:
• freedom from tyranny (and from being a tyrant);
• harmony
• the rule of law;
• natural equality;
• citizen wisdom; and
• education; and,
• forward-looking wisdom without certain knowledge.
(my thanks again to Paul Woodruff).

Particularly at this time, we don’t want politicians telling us how they would ‘reform’ the system. Left to their own devices, that could prove to be very self-serving. We should welcome input from every candidate and every party, but now is the time that citizens should claim the primary role of inventor of the democracy to come.

The sky’s the limit for good ideas — great ideas. However we have arrived at the felt need to do good work to promote democracy, let’s make the most of the opportunity.

To promote the conversation, think of
• the electoral process, including how we choose our representatives (first past the post, or proportional representation, or some other means); who is entitled to vote; means of representative accountability (such as recall);
• the role and organization of parties; campaigning, including financing elections, advertising, using new technology (robo-calls);
• the role and organization of the Legislative Assembly and the role and organization of caucus (including party discipline); the purpose of Committees; the Officers of the Legislative Assembly, setting M.L.A. pay;
• citizen participation (citizen initiatives) and decision-making (for example, when the Constitution of Alberta is amended [yes, there is a Constitution of Alberta]) — Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy, and whiste-blower legislation.

One of the choices available to Albertans in this election is to be the last out of the past as far as democratic processes are concerned (the most sophisticated expression of the old way of doing politics), or we can be first into the future, exploring 21st century ways of living democracy.

Alberta’s current election is about local government as well as provincial government

April 11, 2012

In many circumstances, and on many occasions, local government is more important to citizens than is the provincial government. EXCEPT..

The provincial government frames everything that local government can or cannot do.

Between now and April 23rd, Alberta’s voters should spend a lot of time thinking about their property tax bill, the condition of streets and cul-de-sacs, appropriate policing, municipal parks, local infra-structure to support a strong local economy, and the list goes on… What your municipal council is able to do depends a lot on the largess of the provincial government.

The relationship between the provincial government and local government is outmoded and dysfunctional. Citizens bear the brunt of this reality, in terms of: service limitations; taxes that pay for questionable supervision and layers of management, instead of service; the cost of lost opportunities; and, (dis-)satisfaction. Whether the service is provided locally or provincially, the same taxpayer pays for it all. Whether the elected representative serves locally or provincially, they are servant of the same citizen. The citizen is no richer or smarter on the day s/he votes for a provincial representative than on the day s/he votes for a local representative.

For the good of us all, the relationship between our local government (community) and our provincial government (community) needs to be re-framed. We won’t get specific programs or policies right until we have the framework right.

There is a good argument to be made that local government is more important to our well-being than is the provincial or federal government. It is certainly true that local government has more seniority (it’s been around longer), is closer to citizens, and operates in a more organic (natural) way than does the provincial or federal government. Local government appears to have an advantage, as well, in operating without the oppressive conformity of the party system.

It is not helpful to have a provincial government that approaches its relationship with local government in a patronizing way.

Voters should go to (here) for some thoughtful discussion starters about the relationship between local government and the provincial government. Mayor Nenshi offers a city perspective. Almost everything on the site is just as relevant to towns, villages, and rural municipalities (perhaps with slight modification). The relevant party positions are consolidated and provide a good basis for voters to start a conversation with candidates. Party positions should be read with a watchful eye for patronizing language, a predisposition to the provincial agenda rather than local agendas, and a fixation on quantities and means rather than quality and ends.

Full disclosure. I think the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta had the most comprehensive and modern take on the relationship, about five years ago. I worked with the public school trustees who developed the ideas, so I have a vested interest in the model they adopted.

1. Local government is (at least) as important to citizens as is the provincial government. Ask your candidates if s/he believes this.

2. The relationship between the provincial government and local government should be treated as a respectful partnership. When such a partnership works well, individual citizens benefit: so does the local community and the provincial community. Each partner has something vital to contribute, and it is not for the provincial government alone to decide, or change, the terms of the partnership. Ask your candidates if they believe the respectful partnership should be embodied in a written covenant — a local government charter?

3. A local government charter should structure the relationship of every municipality with the provincial government. There may be different provisions differently applied, to recognize very different circumstances but, Mayor Nenshi, while I love Calgary and Edmonton, I think Lethbridge, and Hinton and Provost — and all other municipalities — are just as entitled to certainty in their relationship with the provincial government as are the two big cities.) Ask your candidates is they believe every municipality should have the benefit — and the responsibility — of a local government charter.

4. The terms of the partnership should be determined, and amended, by Albertans (who are citizens of both the province and the local municipality). Citizens might reasonably be concerned, even if the provincial government agrees to a local government charter, that such a charter might be developed unilaterally, even after ‘consultations” with local government. (How many times have we heard citizens say, “The government invited us to talk, but they sure didn’t listen.”) Perhaps the wise government would make a commitment that a local government charter will be jointly developed, and will not be enacted unless a) the AUMA and the AAMD&C formally agree to it; or, b) the people of Alberta decide, in a referendum where they have a choice between the local government charter preferred by the provincial government and the one preferred by locally elected representatives. Perhaps citizens should put the politicians on a strict deadline. For example, perhaps if there isn’t agreement on a local government charter within three years, the citizens will choose one or the other. Ask your candidates is they agree with the idea of joint development of a local government charter, and citizen endorsement.

5. Thereafter, a conventional piece of provincial legislation can be easily and unilaterally amended at any time in the future. In other words, even a local government charter could evolve over time to embody a provincial government’s very patronizing outlook. Perhaps a wise provincial government would make a commitment that a local government charter, once adopted, would not be amended except with the agreement of Albertans, in a referendum. Ask your candidates is the agree that the provincial government should not be able to amend a local government charter unilaterally.

On a visit to Claresholm a few years ago I passed a big billboard alongside the highway. The message was: “Less Ottawa, more Alberta.” The sponsor was mixing apples and oranges, rejecting the distant politicians and mandarins in favour of the nearer community. Today the message might well read: Less Edmonton more Claresholm”. I believe in Alberta. Alongside many Albertans, I worked for 40 years to make a success of our province. I believe that, in the past 20 years, we have weakened local communities and weakened Alberta at the same time. There are ways to make our communities stronger and thereby make our community of communities stronger. This election is about the future of villages, towns, and cities — it is about the future of local communities, as much as it is about the future of Alberta.

(Next, revenue sharing.)

Edmonton – City of Creatives, or Spectators – City of Producers, or Consumers?

October 12, 2011

The unfolding developments surrounding the proposed new arena and entertainment district represent a significant fork in the road for Edmonton.  The discussion is almost entirely about the project itself, and its immediate impact, physically, economically, and socially.

Some very interesting questions, and the longer term future, are not being discussed:  perhaps they are not even being considered.

What are the essential characteristics of the world’s great cities – not necessarily the largest ones, but the ones that are known, respected, and attractive?

Is London, or Geneva, or Stockholm, or Paris, or Beijing, or Singapore known for the teams they host?  Is any of these cities famous because of its sports fans, or because of the after game night life?  Does the quality of life in Stanford, or Oxford, or Rome or Sidney suffer because they don’t host championship professional sport?

Basically, the new arena is a proposal to keep Edmonton on the same trajectory it has followed for 50 years, and infuse new energy into the trajectory.

Perhaps Edmonton’s trajectory should be deflected.  Perhaps instead of encouraging more spectating and entertainment, we should be encouraging more participation and productivity.  Perhaps instead of encouraging more low income employment in the food/beverage and entertainment industry we should be encouraging post-secondary education, research and development, and innovation.  Perhaps instead of further encouraging a consumer economy we should be encouraging a creative/productive economy.

The new arena involves more than $100M of community money, from the City and from the province, in the form of immediate and long-term support.  It is also private enterprise that depends on a non-compete provision.

Perhaps instead of putting $100M into maintenance and acceleration of Edmonton’s current trajectory, we should be considering using the money to deflect our trajectory in a somewhat different direction.

Could we use $100M to fund annual global awards, like the Nobel prizes, that would draw the best and the brightest into our community every year, and bring the eyes and ears of the world with them when they come?

Could we use $100M to fund annual trade fairs, like the Hamburg fairs, that would focus attention on design, and manufacturing techniques and technology, and focus the world’s attention on Edmonton year in and year out?

Could we use $100M to create a trans-polar “toll-road in the sky” that might make Edmonton the North American air traffic gateway to Europe and Asia?

Could we use $100M to make Edmonton the world’s premiere “winter city” – and improve the quality of life for all Edmontonians while attracting people here from every northern zone city in the world to see and enjoy how we live?

If/When we say “yes” to a new arena, are we consciously, deliberately, and happily continuing the current trajectory?  Does that trajectory really represent the best that Edmonton can be?  Is it truly the case that a better professional sport facility is one of the key building blocks of a world city?  Or are we building a coliseum precisely because we are in decline and want to be distracted?

On Leadership — Peter Lougheed and Luis Urzua (Part 3)

April 6, 2011

MacGregor Burns wrote a great book on Leadership.  He made two important arguments that many have since adopted.

Burns proposed that there are three stages of leadership:  transmissional; transactional; and transformational.  Transmissional leadership is Joe Stalin (or the boss) saying, “Do this or I will fire you (or worse).”  Transactional leadership is Stephen Harper saying “If you do this for me, I’ll do that for you.”  Transformational leadership is Nelson Mandela saying, “We are going to recreate South Africa as the rainbow nation and each of us, whether black, or white, or mixed race, is going to be transformed – different in the result than we are now and in some important way, better off.”

Burns argued that both transmissional and transactional leadership are insufficient and inherently undermine democracy.  He thought that transformational leadership is essential and inevitable (but perhaps not imminent).

The second important insight that Burns had was that “leadership” is not really the label for the characteristics of the person who is the leader.  It is really the label for the characteristics of the relationship between the ‘Leader’ and the ‘followers’.  Burns characterized progress as being like a ricocheting bundle of energy that bounces back and forth between parallel rails ascending upward.  As Gandhi is reputed to have said:  “Sometimes I am the leader of my people; and sometimes they lead me.”

(Perhaps we should study leadership less and citizenship more, including both effective leadership and discerning followership.)

My personal experience with Peter Lougheed, and my reading about Luis Urzua support Burns arguments.

Transformational leadership:

• is all about relationships;

• respects every person, and helps each person grow and lead as best they can;

• moves people to a place where they may be better off, and changes them in the process;

• does not leave the sick, or wounded, or destitute, or grieving behind;

• is democratic;

• offers hope to the larger community, beyond where transformation is being worked.

Whether in a place as blessed as Alberta in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s and ‘80’s, or in a place as bleak as a deep and shattered mine in 2010, transformational leadership is what we need, and sometimes discover.  We need to look for it more often, and look for it inside ourselves and in our neighbours.


By Now, These Protests Should Surprise No One.

February 3, 2011

On February 2nd the Edmonton Journal carried an interesting commentary by David Brooks, of the New York Times.

The context is provided by events in Egypt.  Here are just a few of his comments.  They are directly applicable to Alberta.

“(Citizens) invariably say that their government has insulted their dignity by ignoring their views.  They have a certain template of what a “normal” (province) looks like — with democracy and openness — and they feel humiliated that their (province) doesn’t measure up.”

“Moreover, the (citizens) tend to feel enormous pride that they are finally speaking up, even in the face of (intimidation).  They feel a surge of patriotism as the people of their (province) make themselves heard.”

“The experiences of these years teach us a few lessons.”

“…Second, those who say that speeches (and Twitter, and Facebook) have no influence … have it backward.  The climate of opinion is the very basis of the (astonishing reform).

“Third, for all the pessimism and nervousness that accompanies change, most (provinces) that have experienced uprisings end up better off.”

“(Politicians) always underestimate the power of the bottom-up quest for dignity, so they are slow to understand what is happening.

“Then, desperately recalibrating in an effort to keep up with events, they inevitably make a series of subtle distinctions no one else heeds.  The (current) administration ended up absurdly (saying that it would) initiate a reform agenda.  Surely there’s not a single person in the government who thinks (it) is actually capable of doing this.

“The point is, there’s no need to be continually wrong- footed.  If you start with a healthy respect for the quest for dignity, if you see (entrenched governments) as fragile and democratic (reforms) as opportunities, then you’ll find it much easier to anticipate events.”

“Over the past decades, there has been a tide in the affairs of men and women. People in many places have risked their energy and imagination and reputation for recognition and respect.  Governments may lag, and complications will arise, but still (people) will march (and organize new ways of doing politics).  And, in the long run, we should be glad they do.”

Everything in quotes, above, was written by David Brooks, about Egypt.  I have changed only a few words, and his description seems to apply to Alberta, although with considerably less desperation and risk.  The quest for democracy — and our dignity as a community —  is not 1/2 a world away.

A Local Government Charter for Alberta

February 3, 2011

Calgary’s new mayor, Naheed Nenshi, has called for a charter for Edmonton and Calgary.

The idea is a good one, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.  Across the province, all local (municipal and public school) government should enjoy the benefits of a “charter” relationship with the provincial government.

Until about 20 years ago, the relationship between the provincial government and local governments was generally characterized as a (more or less) “respectful partnership”.  Among other features, local government had access to a broader range of taxes, with two benefits.  They could respond to local mandates; and, they could tax more generally or more pointedly, whichever represented good public policy.

“Local mandates” are the things desired locally that local people have the capacity to do for themselves.  It is another way of saying, “self-government”.  It is another way of saying that the people who are closest to the issue and most likely to live with the issue are the people who should make a decision about the issue, act on their decision, and live with the consequences.

Broadly speaking, local government has had its capacity and its worked sucked up, by (and to) the provincial government, in the past 20 years.  School boards have had no general right to tax since 1994:  very often, they can’t keep community schools open in the evening if they want to.  For municipal government, general taxation is narrower now than it was 20 years ago, and the result is a heavier and heavier burden on residential properties.  For both school boards and municipal governments, more and more funding comes to them in envelopes, with conditions attached.

Many Albertans would be surprised to know that, according to the provincial government, locally elected representatives are not accountable to their electorate:  they are accountable to the provincial government.  In Calgary, Mayor Nenshi could not be removed by an unhappy electorate, at least not between elections:  he could be removed by the Minister of Municipal Affairs.

Local elections, according to the provincial government, are a useful means by which the public advises the provincial government who should be part of local government, subject to the will of the Provincial Government.

No wonder people in rural Alberta fight so tenaciously to hang on to electoral dominance of the Legislative Assembly.  They are sophisticated citizens and they are under no delusions about the flow of decision-making and resources.  In the context of the current provincial political culture, local government is being marginalized, trivialized, and disrespected.  And this has nothing to do with demographics.  Calgary and Edmonton are feeling the pinch as much as is any town or village.

One possible response would be to reconsider local government (both small and large), and give it more responsibility and more resources.  We can grow the capacity of local government.  We can restore meaningful local self-government.  We can do more to ensure that decisions are made, as close as possible, to the grassroots.

In September, 2007 the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta met with Premier Stelmach and made just such a proposal.  A copy of the Local Government Charter they proposed can be found at:

The Charter proposed by the PSBAA took the form of an amendment to the Alberta Act, with the proviso that subsequent amendments could only be made following a majority vote by Albertans in a referendum.

The principles embodied in the Local Government Charter included:

1. Local elected government (including counties and municipal districts, cities, towns, and villages, and public school divisions and districts) are an enduring feature of civil democracy in Alberta and cannot be abolished by unilateral action of the legislature. (Separate school systems have independent and pre-existing constitutional protection.)

2. Locally elected government is not a third order of government, independent of the provincial government. Local government is an integral part of the provincial order of government but, like some other “branches” of government, it enjoys some constitutional protection. Local government is, therefore, an agent of the Crown in Right of Alberta.

3. The Government of Alberta may make laws relating to the organization and operation of locally elected governments, subject to two general limitations. They may not disestablish or remove any locally elected government, or unilaterally change the boundaries of any local jurisdiction; and, any provincial laws affecting locally elected governments must be reasonably justified in a free and democratic society and conducive to effective local government and the promotion of civil democracy.

4. Locally elected governments are accorded reasonable local autonomy, including the right to adopt bylaws strictly of local application and the right to borrow money.

5. Local elections must be determined by local voters and locally elected representatives may only be removed by the local electorate or by a court: the number and compensation of local representatives is solely a matter of local determination.

6. Employees of locally elected representatives are accountable solely to the local community as represented by the locally elected representatives.

7. Locally elected governments may levy taxes within their jurisdiction. As well, or alternately, they may enter into a revenue-sharing agreement with the Government of Alberta and/or with adjacent local governments.

8. Alberta may delegate any matter which it considers to be a provincial jurisdiction to locally elected governments, in which case the government of Alberta is obliged to ensure that appropriate resources are also provided to accomplish the delegated matter.

9. Locally elected governments are entitled to own property and to enjoy all the associated rights, without interference by the provincial government (except by a process of expropriation including due process and just compensation).

10. Comprehensive revenue sharing (between locally elected governments and the government of Alberta) will be implemented.

11. No amendment to the Local Government Charter is effective unless and until the substance of the amendment(s) is approved of by a majority of Albertans voting in a plebiscite. (This follows the model of the Constitution of Alberta Act, 1990, enacted by the Legislative Assembly of Alberta.)

The idea of a Local Government Charter certainly merits discussion across the province.  The principles put forward by the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta may be a good place to start.

How Tweeting Can Fuel a Revolution

February 2, 2011

Andrew K. Woods is a Climenko Fellow at Harvard law school and co-editor of the forthcoming book, Understanding Social Action, Promoting Human Rights.  He is also the author of a very thought provoking commentary in today’s Edmonton Journal (Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011).

Basically Woods argues that, although social media such as Facebook and Twitter represent weak social ties, that is enough to fuel a revolution because REVEALING THE STATUS QUO MAY BE ENOUGH TO CHANGE IT.

Woods reminds us “about a phenomenon called pluralistic ignorance — situations in which people keep their true preferences private because they believe their peers do not or will not share their beliefs.”  “…In such situations, rapid shifts in behaviour can occur with the mere introduction of information about actual peer preferences. Acting on this authority — the authority of one’s peers — is a powerful phenomenon.”

“Here, then, is the power of Facebook (and other social media). Not only does social networking give demonstrators a tool for quick co-ordination, but it reveals important information about peer preferences. It offers a platform to say “you are not alone; see you in Tahrir Square (Cairo).” And tipping points can be as tiny as a tweet. That small, silly act is what in politics we call solidarity. It is the basis for all social movements.”

Let me add some thoughts of my own.  For many years political parties and agents, and the media, stereotyped us, labeled us, and isolated us from each other.  In one party, “workers” were the insiders and “employers” were the others, to be feared.  But in another party, the opposite was true.  From party to party and from time to time different labels were used and each of us, as citizens, were encouraged to accept the labels we were given, live by the label, be isolated from fellow Albertans by the label, and be fearful of others because of the label.

What social media sometimes does is cause us to disregard labels, relate to others as persons, discover that our previously private preference is widely shared, whether we are rural or urban, north or south, employee or employer, young or old….

Perhaps, in Alberta, the ‘sudden’ outpouring of conversation (some of it only 140 characters in length) about democracy, integrity, collaboration, imagination, energy, reflects the excitement of our discovery that, beyond the labels, our peer preferences are similar, and powerful, and constructive.

We are not isolated.  We are a community.  And the strength of our community grows as we share our previously private beliefs.

10 Signs of Community

February 2, 2011

Loren B. Mead of the Alban Institute, an ordained Episcopal priest in the U.S.A. wrote something about Christian congregations that I think can be modified slightly and applied to communities.  My thanks to Rev. Mead.

In a community that represents strong democracy –

1.    Strangers meet on common ground

Can we dare to assume that strangers bring gifts, not threats?  Can we think about the possibility of a community governed by the values of hospitality?

2.    Fear of the stranger is faced and dealt with.

We do have fears about people who are not “like us”.  We have all sorts of stereotypes, and prejudices, all kinds of stories about “others”.  Can our communities be safe places, where we can reach across boundaries, where we can explore unfamiliar conventions?  Can we enjoy a culture that is characterized by diversity; can we believe that diversity makes for greater strength for our community and for ourselves?

3.    Scarce resources are shared, and abundance is generated.

Peter Block and John McKnight write about the “abundant community”.  Can we shake off the fear that we are riding a downward spiral?  Can we live and practice the politics of hope – the conviction that we are riding an upward spiral, creating a spirit of abundance sufficient for everyone – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts?

4.    Conflict occurs and is resolved.

The people of our community don’t agree about many things.  Some of the conflicts are deep and abiding.  But we need to live together, and work together.  Can we be civil, even when we disagree?  Can we build bridges, even when disagreements remain?  Can we practice reconciliation as thinking changes?  Can we forgive?

5.    Life is given colour, texture, drama, and a festive air.

We should be celebrating our life, our community, our history, our work, our prospects.  We need to be constantly telling a story about our community that is bigger than we are, not to exaggerate but to aspire to greatness.

6.    People are drawn out of themselves.

Locked doors, barred windows, silent hallways and empty streets in the evening represent isolation.  How can we, as a community, draw people out from behind closed doors and into community?  How can we make hospitality and the public square so tantalizing that people want to be part of it all?  How can we train people to be leaders in hospitality?

7.    Mutual responsibility becomes evident, and mutual aid becomes possible.

Welcoming new neighbours, taking a casserole to a stressed family, in many ways we  take responsibility for one another, because we know that personal responsible and mutual aid are the sure signs of a strong community.

8.    Opinions are audible and accountable.

Modest political systems need to be opened up to courage, and candor, and accountability.  They need to be opened up to participation by all members of the community.  Communities need to acknowledge, and respect, the minority and the opposition.

9.    Vision is projected and great projects are undertaken.

“Without Vision, a people perish.”  Such visions can’t be only for leaders:  they must include a role for everyone in the community.  Powerful visions can’t shift from day to day:  they need an enduring character that is matched by persistence.  At the same time, they aren’t etched in stone:  they are dynamic.  Communities have a vision.

10. The power of people is constantly acknowledged, and people are protected against the vampires of their power.

Strong communities need checks and balances within and among all their governing structures, and citizens must be well aware of the checks and balances and how they work.  The checks and balances are not only a guard against unwarranted assumptions of power:  they also mark the boundaries of the space in which we enjoy our freedom.

What does it mean “to lead”? What is leadership?

January 31, 2011

This is one of the big questions facing members of the Alberta Party, and the Progressive Conservative Party, right now.  In fact, it is a question that every Albertan should be thinking about.

“To lead” is often thought to be the work of “the leader”, and we tend to think of “the leader” as one person — man or woman — with ego, charisma, and other strengths and virtues so notable that the leader can carry the entire project, party, company, community on his/her shoulders.  The big recurring problem is that, when the project, party, company or community stumbles or fails, it is the leader’s fault, and the perceived solution is to remove the flawed leader and find the next charismatic leader – the one who has no flaws, until performance under pressure reveals flaws once again.

The perfect paramount leader is not a solution to the challenge of leadership.  On the contrary, the search for the perfect paramount leader is dis-utopian, for two reasons.  First, there ain’t no such animal.  Second, in the search, we project our hope in the wrong direction.  We weaken our community and our democracy.  Personally, I don’t believe that we are better off for having had almost 15 years of ‘strong’ leadership in the person of Premier Klein.  The comment is not directed at the man:  it is directed at what Albertans accepted – and live with — as the consequence of being deferential to a ‘strong’ leader.

An American political scientist, MacGegor Burns wrote a great book – Leadership –that made some very important points about leadership, and what it means. “to lead”.  (The book won the Pulitzer prize for non-fiction, years ago.)

Burns made two arguments that are worth considering carefully.

First, he said that “leadership” is often a label applied to the characteristics or person of someone who is said to be “a leader”.  Burns argued that “leadership” is actually a label for the relationship that exists between the leader of the moment and the followers of the moment.  If the trajectory of the “leader” is one rail line leading upward, the trajectory of the community is a parallel rail line leading upward, and “leadership” is the description of the relationship between the leader and the community.  Burns described “progress” as a sort of projectile ricocheting back and forth, first off one rail and then off the other.  He quoted Gandhi, to the effect that Gandhi felt himself sometimes the leader of his community and sometimes the follower of his community.

Leadership is a description of the relationship that exists between the leader of the moment and the community.

It seems to me that, what follows from Burns argument is unsettling for all of us.  As a community, we cannot look to others “to lead” us.  There are occasions when each and every one of us – even the most humble — must be prepared to lead.  There are occasions when each and every one of us – even the most prominent – must be prepared to follow.  Whether as leaders or as followers, we must be discerning in the way we fulfill the role.  I would argue that we should not be studying “leadership”.  We should be studying “citizenship”, because citizenship embodies both leadership in the right moment and followership in the right moment.  I have been in schools where the custodian was the moral leader of the community, and rightly so.  I have been in the Cabinet room when the Premier deferred to the most junior Minister in the room, and rightly so.

The second argument Burns made about leadership was that we have experience with three kinds of leadership, and we should prefer/expect/demand one of the three instead of two others.

Burns described leadership as being:

1.     Transmissional – “I am paramount:  do as I say or you will be punished.” Or,

2.     Transactional – “Let’s make a deal:  do what I ask and I will do what you want.” – lobbying, and backroom exchanges without an enduring relationship.  Or,

3.     Transformational – “Let’s commit to an enduring relationship, and work together, and change ourselves, and improve our circumstances and the circumstances of our community.”

For Burns, and for me, transformational leadership is the highest rung we have yet attained.  And we don’t spend enough time on that high rung.

For all Albertans, particularly for those active in the Alberta Party and the Progressive Conservative Party, the challenge of the next few months (and years) will be to:

1.     avoid, discourage, and reduce the role of the paramount leader;

2.     seek leadership that is selfless and works off the leadership capacities of the entire party/province;

3.     create and maintain a party environment in which every party member is encouraged to develop and display imagination, self-discipline, moral courage, energy, a commitment to posterity;

4.     develop a strong sense, within the party as a whole, of shared responsibility for leadership; and,

5.     develop a strong sense, within the party as a whole, of servant leadership for the province.

The citizen who is truly loyal to the community will not submit to, or advise, or condone arbitrary, or unjust, or mediocre measures. (paraphrasing an ancient Roman)  The citizen who is truly loyal to the community will sometimes lead, and sometimes follow, and rarely accept a paramount leader.

Some Thoughts on Provincial/Local Revenue Sharing, Part I

November 16, 2010

I am a passionate believer in local self-government, and I worry that provincial and state governments all across North America are undermining its viability.  Sometimes, perhaps, provincial and state governments are completely unaware they are doing this.

Personally, I describe my model of democracy in Alberta as – “bi-cameral, with a twist”.  It has two chambers (like the Parliament of Canada, or the American Congress), but the two chambers relate vertically, not horizontally.

I see myself, and my neighbours, as self-governing both locally and provincially.  We want both our local community and our province to work well, which means that we (citizens) must be careful about which responsibilities we assign to which of our servants.  We must also be careful to ensure that each of our servants gets the necessary resources to discharge their responsibilities, and they must have the assurance of stability and protection from egregious unilateral intervention by their alter ego.

I believe that the people of Alberta should make the important decisions about what work gets done by which aspect of government.  Perhaps we could make such decisions by way of referenda.  It should not be for the provincial government to make such decisions unilaterally and then impose them on local government, sometimes with little or no notice and no negotiations whatsoever.

I also believe that, depending upon economic conditions, local government should get the resources necessary to do the work we (citizens) assign to it.  In addition, diverse revenue streams should flow to local government, to smooth the ebb and flow, and an independent party, including representatives of the provincial government and local government, should manage the terms and conditions of the flow; again, so that the flow is not subjected to unilateral political adjustments.

(I digress to say that it always astonishes me that we rely so heavily on taxes on property to fund services for people.  I am astonished that the provincial government has access to such circumstance responsive taxes as income tax, resource revenue, gaming revenue, etc., and local government does not.  I am astonished that local government is constantly a supplicant at the seat of the provincial government.  I am astonished that the provincial government can claim to be debt free while local government has considerable debt.  I am astonished that the provincial government can prevent local government from saving, yet unexpectedly withhold money that has been voted by the Legislative Assembly.  I am astonished that the provincial government can impose its priorities on local communities, whether for schools, or roads, or cultural facilities, with no reliable knowledge of local circumstances and – perhaps – the personal agenda of the local government M.L.A. being the driving force behind decisions to fund or not.)

For a long time, I have felt that rural voters are fierce in defense of their control of the Legislature precisely because they know that local decision-making has been sucked up by the provincial government, for many many years.  Community decision-making is being curtailed and undermined.  More and more decisions are being made by the provincial government.  It should come as no surprise that the more politically attuned of our citizens would want to maintain effective control of the Legislative Assembly.  Would all of us be more ready to enjoy representation by population if our self-government was organized to be more respectful that some people want to live in small communities, some want to live in large communities, some in rural communities and some in densely settled urban areas.  All of us, irrespective of the size of the community that we live in, want to be able to enjoy significant self-government in the community of our choice.  If that is taken away from us, we will look to control further up “the food chain”.