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Election Day, Plus 1 — why I am a democrat

April 24, 2012

The Alberta provincial general election of 2012 is history.

Congratulations to Premier Redford and her kitchen cabinet — the group of men and women who developed the plan, and maintained the self-confidence and also the faith in Albertans to persevere when the going got tough.

Thanks, also, to every candidate — of every party — for putting his or her name forward, including the candidates whose views of Alberta are dramatically different from mine. My thanks to their families, and the supporters who advanced their cause.

Because of issues like conscience rights, this was a campaign in which voters could see that different candidates and parties had different perspectives about Alberta, different values, different approaches to the political process, and different visions of Alberta’s potential. The myth that Alberta is “right wing” appears to have been thoroughly rejected, so that the Progressive Conservative Party can govern from the centre.

That is not to say that the 1,000s of Albertans who voted for the WRP can or should be marginalized. Premier Redford knows that most of these votes were not ideologically driven, even though the voters gathered under the banner of ideology. Her job now — and her colleagues’ job — is to acknowledge the genuine hurt and feelings of disrespect that drove many Albertans to the WRP, and show respect — draw these Albertans back into the exciting flow of the mainstream.

The election results give Premier Redford a clear mandate that could be described as pragmatic, centrist, and hopeful, perhaps even imaginative.

It appears that, for this election, Albertans decided their crucial choice was between being judgmental (punishing the Tories for scandalous abuses) or being prospective (affirming the vision of the future that optimized the province’s potential). I interpret the election results to indicate Albertans chose the future.

Every election offers voters the opportunity to focus on one or two things. I had hoped that this election would focus on the old way of doing politics. I hoped that Albertans would vote, in large numbers, for candidates who were committed to a new way of doing politics. It seems to me that Albertans decided, in their wisdom, that the idea of turning away from the old way of doing politics was an idea not quite ready for prime-time. Or perhaps Albertans were ready for new ways of doing politics but decided it was more urgent to spike the guns of ideologues. The election results were not what I expected. I choose to hope that time will show positive outcomes.

So, we are reminded of something that was obvious before yesterday. Thousands of Albertans are angry about the scandalous behaviour of the Tory party in the not too distant past. (This, rather than ideology, explains many of the now opposition seats.) To-day, Premier Redford is Premier for these angry Albertans, as well as for all others. She has a moral as well as a political obligation to address their anger and assure them they are respected. The political story of the next four years will turn largely on this issue.

We also know three things we didn’t know yesterday.

1. Premier Redford has a fresh and clear mandate, to be pragmatic, centrist, and hopeful, perhaps even imaginative.
2. Alberta has turned its back on the myth of being “right wing” and isolationist, and is ready — like in football — to play a wide open game up the middle of the field.
3. The public has engaged in this campaign in ways unseen in Alberta since 1935. The engagement will not abate — it will grow — so the momentum for new ways of doing politics is picking up. (On this point, the election results are deceptive.) Parties like the Alberta Party and the Evergreen Party need to continue promoting an alternate and more healthy way of doing politics. They need to continue experimenting and risking as they do so. They need to continue making a path for fellow Albertans, including M.L.A.s in other parties who want to practice new ways of doing politics. They need to operate with an ‘open source’ commitment to sharing everything they learn and know. They need courage, and they need to be encouraged.

Congratulations Premier Redford. It was quite an election. It provides opportunity and energy for Alberta to grow and for democracy to grow in Alberta.

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Left or right — Looking the wrong way at the Alberta election

April 22, 2012

The Edmonton Journal (Saturday, April 21st, 2012) carried a column with an interesting headline: Divided Left Wasted Glorious Opportunity. (here)

The columnist is missing the great story about the election — the emerging story about the future of politics in Alberta. The headline is firmly grounded in the past.

The historic description of politics as being left or right originated in France more than 200 years ago. The description is irrelevant to politics today. We have fiscal conservatives who are social liberals. We have religious conservatives who are civil libertarians. The terminology is almost meaningless: it will be completely meaningless by the time the next provincial general election rolls around.

It is quaint and unproductive to think of the left, or the right, coalescing. Such coalitions are irrelevant in the face of an even greater change that is coming.

The dominant model of electoral politics — the adversarial party model, dominated by paramount leaders — is almost unworkable, it is becoming more unworkable every day, and it cannot be redeemed. Given changed attitudes, values, and expectations, and changes in technology, and many other changes, the electoral-party model we understand is already being abandoned by many, including many people who have already abandoned old-style parties in favour of something different and more promising.

The ill effect of “uniting the left” can be considered in light of the alternative — uniting the right. At the moment, it is quite likely that either the Wild Rose Party or the P.C. Party will have the most seats after the election. The same thinking that promotes uniting the left would promote a coalition of the Wild Rose and P.C. parties — and that is very likely to happen. Strategic voting for the P.C.s, in order to “block” the Wild Rose, increases the likelihood that the “hard right” will dominate both parties, seek to combine in some formal way (as happened federally) and dominate the government for the next four years. (Which might not be as bad an outcome as its detractors might fear: the “hard right” is as amorphous, internally conflicted, ideologically paralyzed and tension filled as is the “hard left”.)

One of the major problems of the existing party system is precisely that all the historic parties are implicated, even the ones that have never been the government. For comparison, think of the N.H.L. Every team in the N.H.L. buys into the culture of the N.H.L., even if they finish last in the league, because they benefit from revenue sharing and the small patronage that is thrown their way (for example, first pick in the draft). Similarly, opposition parties that have been around for a long time adopt the dominant political culture and conventions, insist on hanging on to the names and chants that were storied long ago, and play by the rules in the hope that, next year, they will win the Cup.

Thousands of Albertans are joining new political organizations, because they have a new vision of what can be, a new vision of what politics can accomplish, and new ideas about how to do politics. They imagine the emergence of true democracy, from the ground up, rather than what is called “subsidiarity” — decisions made as close as possible to the grassroots, and it is the paramount leader at the top who decides how close to the grassroots the decisions get made.

For these Albertans, uniting the left is a trivial goal, because the terminology is meaningless and counterproductive. For these Albertans, getting behind one of the “outs” in order to put an “out” in, is simply delaying what needs to be done. The Liberal Party, for example, is every bit as committed to the idea of the paramount Leader as is the Wild Rose Party or the Progressive Conservative Party.

People who really believe that the old style of politics has failed beyond repair, people who really value the opportunities facing Alberta, people who really believe in working with neighbours to make good things happen — these people will look past the well-established parties. They will look at the new organizations that are trying to do politics differently. They will look at the organizations that put their emphasis on the local candidate rather than the provincial leader. They will look at the organizations that make candidates accountable to the constituency rather than to the paramount leader. They will look at the candidates who:
• present themselves as whole people who are prepared to be the servants of those who elect them;
• are trying to be collaborative, rather than confrontational;
• are trying to be inclusive, rather than exclusive and divisive;
• are evidence-based decision-makers, rather than ideologues.

Uniting the left… how passe. Let’s unite the cooperators, the innovators, the doers, the compassionate, the justice-seeking, the respectful. And let’s invent a new and more fruitful way of practicing democracy without an obsessive unhealthy attention to electoral success.

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 citiesmatter.ca (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.)

Conscience Rights — with thanks to Graham Thomson and Danielle Smith

April 10, 2012

Alberta is in the midst of a great election campaign. Voters and the media are talking to each other, and listening to each other, and sometimes politicians join the conversation. Ideas are being tested, and sometimes changing, and all of us are being informed.

Graham Thomson’s column in today’s Edmonton Journal is a good example (see previous post).

His exchange with Wild Rose leader Danielle Smith provides some clarification about positions. The exchange also raises further questions.

Ms. Smith seems to be downplaying conscience rights as a matter of much concern for voters. Her argument is that the mechanics of operationalizing conscience rights make them more theoretical than real.

But, a provincial government could always use the “Notwithstanding” provision of the Charter (section 33) to override the Saskatchewan decision. Professional codes of conduct are always subject to provincial law, so the issue for government — and for voters — is not whether the government needs to get involved. The issue is whether the government wants to get involved.

As Ms. Smith makes clear, she is most often going to follow the direction set by her Party. If the Wild Rose party forms the government, as they have these wide-open conversations and set the direction for the government and the province, what arguments will Ms. Smith bring to the table, about ends. She says she is not going to be pre-emptory, and I accept that. But she is also not going to be silent — at least, I hope not. What personal leadership will she offer?

With all of her ‘clarification’ about process, Ms. Smith has not been any more clear about whether she herself favours or is opposed to legislating conscience rights. In the absence of any clear statement from her about her personal position, we have to believe that she would accept and implement whatever the Party decides. If the Party can find a way of overcoming the Saskatchewan decision, where would Ms. Smith go with conscience rights? If the Party decides to explore invoking the “Notwithstanding” clause, where would Ms. Smith stand on that issue, and then where would she go with conscience rights?

Grahams, give her another call.

Smith’s learning to adjust (Edmonton Journal, 10 Apr 2012, PageA12)

April 10, 2012

Smith’s learning to adjust
GRAHAM THOMSON gthomson@edmontonjournal. com
Edmonton Journal
10 Apr 2012

If public opinion polls are correct and Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford is piloting the political equivalent of the Titanic, the Wildrose Party is the iceberg and Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith is the tip bobbing telegenically on the…read more…

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A conscience is a costly freedom, worth nothing if it is free

April 9, 2012

The concept of “conscience rights” has burst upon the Alberta election campaign in the past few days. This is not the same thing as having freedom of conscience. Freedom of conscience is already guaranteed by the much maligned Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In fact, “freedom of conscience and religion” is the first right guaranteed by the Charter.

As “conscience rights” are being promoted, they would apparently entail a legislated assurance that individual citizens could follow their own conscience to the extent of refusing to provide public services that are at odds with their own conscience. Doctors, it is suggested, should be able to refuse to provide abortions or birth control information or prescriptions, if the doctor, in good conscience, objects to abortion or birth control practices. A Marriage Commissioner, it is suggested, should be able to refuse to marry a gay couple, or an inter-racial couple if, in good conscience, the Commissioner believes that homosexual or inter-racial unions are wrong. A high school teacher, it is suggested, should be able to exclude an unveiled teen-aged girl from his/her classroom if the teacher believes, in good conscience, that post-pubescent girls should not be seen unveiled in public.

Given that we have freedom of conscience in Canada, the doctor, the Marriage Commissioner, and the teacher, and every other citizen, already have three options available to them if their conscience runs up against public policy and law. First, they can arrange their affairs to avoid the issue: For example, the doctor can practice outside the public health care system, or engage in a practice that doesn’t touch on the conscience issue; the Marriage Commissioner can decline the appointment; the teacher can seek work in an all-boys school. Second, they can practice civil disobedience, disobey the law, and publicly accept the consequences as a means of engaging a public debate about right laws. Civil disobedience is not disobedience in secret, with the intent of avoid the consequences. Civil disobedience is disobedience in public, with the intent of bringing bad law into disrepute, or ridicule, or dis-function. Third, they can obey in the meantime, and seek to have the law changed. The course of action any citizen would follow would depend upon how strongly s/he feels about the issue in the circumstances.

What, then, might be gained by instituting conscience rights? Any why haven’t we seen more of this before now? The concept is ill-formed and problematic.

It is not clear whether the concept is intended to be unconditional, or conditional. An unconditional conscience right would mean anyone could act freely in any situation on the simple declaration that they are exercising a “conscience right”.

There is an ancient east Indian sect, known as thuggees, who performed ritual murder. An unrestricted conscience rights would presumably allow a thuggee to express his conscientious belief that ritual murder is the right thing to do (freedom of conscience), and then commit ritual murder in compliance with his conscience (a conscience right).A conditional conscience right would entail the government deciding that conscience should trump public policy and the law in only some situations, and the government would be the arbiter of conscience rights.

The reference may seem ludicrous, for the simple reason that, while both church and secular society believe in conscience, both church and society also believe that the individual conscience is not, by itself, a constantly reliable determinant of action in the public sphere. The Judeo-Christian tradition does not believe that everyone’s conscience is equally “good”. So, in the Christian tradition, a framework is constructed by which the to judge if conscience is good or bad. (The framework is sometimes built on Scripture and sometimes on Church dogma, but it is there for every Church.) Since no organized society or theocracy recognizes unrestricted conscience, the introduction of conscience rights in Alberta would almost certainly depend upon the government (assume for a moment that it is Wild Rose) deciding on some limited number of situations in which conscience should trump public policy and law. Making the list would be an interesting political exercise. When a society, such as Alberta, includes faiths other than Christianity, including people who have no ‘faith’, then the construct might have to be built to respect a wider range of beliefs. But perhaps the list would not be more general. Perhaps Christian but not Muslim, perhaps Protestant but not Roman Catholic, perhaps evangelical but not liberal, perhaps citizens certified by government approved clergy, but not others. Perhaps the list would recognize conscience in some fields, such as medicine, but not others, such as housing.

For example, evangelical Christians have a strong sense of what constitutes good conscience or bad conscience. They also seem to have a strong sense of judgement — a strong sense that s/he who acts wrongly should be judged. It is hard to imagine that such citizens would want an unrestricted conscience right, although they may well want a conscience right that reflects their own views about which issues are important and what is right action in the context of the issue. But, of course, other citizens would say that if the conscience right is not unrestricted it should reflect their view of what issues are important, and what is right to do.

As the earlier reference to thuggees suggests, there is a reason why freedom of conscience (and freedom of speech) does not carry with it the unreseved right to follow our personal conscience or act on our speech. An unrestricted “conscience right” would convey rights to people of no conscience as well as those of very sensitive conscience. It would convey rights to those with a culturally developed conscience very much in accord with common experience in Alberta as well as those that might be very different from what is common in Alberta.

There would likely be considerable tension between conscience rights and human rights. Does the human right to housing trump the conscience right to deny housing to unmarried couples, or inter-racial couples, or vice versa? Does a father’s conscience right to keep his adult unmarried daughter isolated from the world trump the daughter’s right to freedom, or vice versa.

The only real value of a conscience is when exercising it is such a fragile experience that we must pay close attention. When the government explicitly allows citizens to act as they wish in any or all circumstances, without regard for the consequences, simply on the basis that the citizen claims a conscience right, society will be in deep trouble.

I support the right of any citizen to try to persuade me that birth control (for example) should be delisted. I applaud the citizen who will engage in civil disobedience to call attention to a law or public policy /she believes is wrong, and accept the consequences. I do not believe in giving anybody’s conscience a “get out of jail free” card. As human beings, we deserve better.

What happens post-election — Part II

April 9, 2012

The upcoming Alberta provincial general election offers voters a choice of perspectives on the province’s political course for the future. Each perspective can be measured by a few linear standards, including:
• selfish-ness – community (with an emphasis on economics, or government activity, or social justice);
• adversarial and demonizing politics (power is a zero sum game) – collaborative politics (power grows as it is shared) — this is sometimes characterized as exclusive – inclusive politics;
• ideology – aspiration and evidence-based decision-making;
• fear – hope;
• government as necessary evil – government as servant leader;
• maintenance of the status quo (last out of the past) – exploratory (first into the future).

The election itself is still two weeks away, and two weeks is an eternity in the course of a campaign.

What voters need to bear in mind is that who is elected in each constituency is far less important at 10:00 p.m. on election night than it is 6 months or 2years later.

In a party dominated system, the purpose of an election campaign is, first and foremost, to hold incumbents (individuals and parties) accountable. If the electorate does not have the courage to hold people and parties accountable for what they have said and done (or not said and done), then the incumbents will not respect the voters. It’s that simple.

The second purpose of an election is to endorse a vision of the future — provided the vision is matched by a commitment to principled means. (Otherwise, politicians will operate on the basis that the end justifies the means, which makes for very bad government.)

Citizens get mediocre government — or worse — when they go past legitimate accountability and become emotionally bent on punishing a party, or when they vote for “the lesser of two evils”, out of fear

Some Albertans talk of voting Tory to prevent the Wild Rose party from forming a government. This is likened to other Albertans voting Wild Rose to prevent the Tories from forming a government. They are said to be mirror image positions, but they are not. Agree with the party or not, the Wild Rose has had three years to develop what they want to do if they form the government. The energy may have been negative initially, but there is a huge infusion of positive energy. An 11th hour rush to the Tory party, in a desperate bid to prevent the Wild Rose party from forming the government, will represent nothing but negative energy; it will likely fail; and it will play into the culture of confrontation and ‘we-they’ politics. In the event the Tories are re-elected on the basis of blocking Wild Rose success, they will likely not understand or acknowledge the reason for the victory; they will continue to worry about the right wing and continue edging right in a thoughtless way; they will not have increased respect for the electorate; and, their sense of entitlement will only be further entrenched.

Whether it is a minority government that lasts 18 – 24 months, or a majority government that lasts 4 – 5 years, what Alberta desperately needs is a dramatic change of the tired, toxic, and outmoded political culture. And change is coming. Albertans have let the genie of change out of the bottle. In the next 2 – 4 years, and thereafter, M.L.A.s, the media, civic organizations and the general public will engage politically in very different ways, and to very different effect. No provincial government is going to get the free ride from Albertans in the next four years that we have given them for the last 20 years.

What centrist and thoughtful Albertans need to do, what Albertans who care about community and democracy need to do, is have a little conversation with themselves before voting, along these lines.

“I reject corruption, arrogance, and entitlement. I reject extremism and ideology. I reject confrontation and intimation. I reject nostalgia for the past.

“I want to be proud of my M.L.A. in 2 years. I want an M.L.A., whether on the government or alternative (opposition) side, who LISTENS before speaking, someone who is promoting:
• community and justice for all;
• a new collaborative way of doing politics;
• creative ideas, and evidence-based decision-making;
• hope;
• government (and M.L.A.s) as servant leaders;
• exploration of new opportunities for our province and our people.”

Such candidates will be hard to find among the old-line parties, because, like the Tories, the other parties are completely immersed in the game, and have some sense of entitlement (like revenue sharing in hockey) even though they always finish out of the play-offs. “Hard to find” is not “impossible to find”. There are candidates in every party who are committed to a new way of doing politics. Such candidates are more likely to be found in the new parties, the ones with no long history of playing the old game. Such candidates are more likely to be found with parties that have no experience with paid committee work, or government funding for constituency offices, or the old boys’ network.

Albertans are seeking to decide wisely, without certain knowledge of the future. Self-confidence and courage are required — to vote for the future we prefer, rather than against the future we fear.

What happens post-election — part 1

April 7, 2012

The Alberta provincial election campaign is entering territory rarely seen — in Alberta or anywhere else. Not only is a political dynasty about to be upset, but an entire political culture is being challenged. The upset will likely be accomplished on April 23rd. The challenge to the old style of doing politics will enjoy another success, but needs more time to work through to its completion. Look for the next election in Alberta to be just as interesting as the upcoming one.

There is a foreshadowing that the long-governing Tory party is imploding, and it appears that the knives are coming out. (Calgary Herald column here) The rush to blame illustrates three problems that people within the Tory party are wrestling with. One is personal, one is institutional, and one is cultural.

At a personal level, it doesn’t help the Tories that “key insiders” are now panicking, and slagging their party Leader in this way. In addition of course, key insiders, who are blaming the party’s leadership selection process for their current turmoil, determined the party’s leadership selection process and, as the column rightly notes, they have had ample time to undo their error since it was first used almost a decade ago. The ‘naive’ Ms. Redford didn’t impose the selection process on these smart politicos.

At an institutional level, Ms. Redford has had three challenges, since the day she decided to contest the leadership of the party. As I wrote on April 4th, Tory stalwarts did not choose Ms. Redford. Thousands of Albertans joined the party because it was the government party, and they wanted to drag their government, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. They did what they wanted to do, and then they returned to home, work, and community, leaving Ms. Redford to contend with old-timers who wanted to bolt for the door and return to the comfort of the last century. So her most difficult challenge has been to keep the party in the 21st century. In spite of what thousands of Albertans indicated they wanted to see as the direction of the party, they party has not responded in good faith. Ms. Redford is bright, imaginative, disciplined, energetic, and hard-working. And it appears that she is losing the second challenge.

The third challenge that the Tory party faces is a cultural one. There is something happening just beneath the surface of the political process. Candidates, party workers, the parties and the public are trying to understand the past and the future, and they are trying to decide where they feel more comfortable; they are trying to decide which one to bet on. Does each voter, does the electorate generally, want to be the last out of the past, or the first into the future? For the Tory party, the question is simple: does the Tory party want to compete with the Wild Rose party to be the most sophisticated expression of the old way of doing things, or do they want to be a tentative and exploring party that tries to figure out a dramatically new way of responding to voters and doing politics?

It appears that Ms. Redford wants to be first into the future. But, because of the way the party is imploding under the baggage created by years of direction from old-style M.L.A.s and party mandarins, the centre will not likely hold for another two weeks. For the Tories, the best case scenario at this point seems to be a minority government. Regardless of the outcome, following the election, the Tory party will be filled with recriminations, defections, and wasted energy. Look for a battle royale over leadership, organization, policy, fund-raising, etc. It will likely go into a “blue funk” and decline.

In this situation, at this time, Alberta’s voters have to be wise about the future, without knowing what the future will bring.

Is the Tory party glad to be here, or would they rather be somewhere else?

April 4, 2012

One of the big questions Albertans must wrestle with in the lead-up to the election is this — Did the Progressive Conservative Party enthusiastically choose Alison Redford to be its new Leader, and does she, and will the Party, welcome new attitudes, new values and policies, new ways of organizing, and new decisions? And if she does, and the party does not, will the party establishment and culture change Alison Redford, so that she conforms to well-established — but out-moded — ways of thinking, doing things, and relating to the public?

Does the party want to be the first into the future, or the last out of the past?

The evidence is clear. Ms. Redford was not the choice of the Party stalwarts. Only one sitting M.L.A. (since retired) supported her campaign. With few exceptions, the high profile party insiders were working for other candidates. Ms. Redford won because thousands of Albertans who are not committed to the P.C. Party joined and voted for her. Basically, they wanted to drag their government into the 21st century, and she was the closest representation of the 21st century that they could find among the leadership candidates. The P.C. party has not come enthusiastically into the 21st century: Albertans dragged it here, kicking and screaming. And then Albertans turned back to home and work, and community, and left the Party to its own devices.

A year ago, Ms. Redford faced three daunting tasks. 1. Win the leadership. 2. Cobble together a modern looking Cabinet from the caucus she inherited, substantially change the culture of the party, and completely rebuild the party organization, with new personnel and a new political culture. 3. Campaign and win an election.

Winning the leadership was the easiest of the three tasks. The most difficult, and the one that takes the longest, is the 2nd task — substantially changing the culture of the party and completely re-building the party organization, with new personnel and a new political culture. The third task is difficult primarily because the jury is still out on the 2nd task.

For example, making Ron Liepert Minister of Finance, likely in exchange for his promise to retire at this election, was probably a shrewd move. It may have been old school politics, but it had the redeeming value of sidelining one of the toughest examplars of the old way of doing politics.

But what about making Gary Mar Alberta’s agent in Hong Kong, without a competition? Was that a matter of sending a possible challenger 1/2 a world away, or was it a matter of providing a golden handshake, or was it something else? Mr. Mar has a lot to commend him as the province’s agent in Hong Kong. The problem is that the appointment lost its lustre when it was not done transparently, and simply fuels speculation that it is more of the old school of politics.

There are other examples: the Minister of Municipal Affairs intimidating the President of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association; the Premier’s Chief of Staff doing the same thing; the government retreating from a public inquiry into the possible bullying of doctors; the ‘no-meet’ committee payments; (former) M.L.A. Hector Goudreau’s letter to a school board, implying intimidation; the youthful staffer Tweeting about Danielle Smith’s family; the decision to strip constitutional rights away from Protestants in St. Albert, in order to give them to Roman Catholics. Any or all of these things could happen in the life of any party. Some of them have been retracted, or apologized for. I commend Ms. Redford for this. The difficulty for Albertans is that the retractions and apologies have been specific to the event: they have not addressed the bigger — and perhaps longer lasting — matter of a substantial cultural change.

As she deals with specifics, Ms. Redford has not made clear that she recognizes and is prepared to deal with the underlying issues — the sense of entitlement and the deep attachment, within the P.C. party, to confrontational politics and intimidation. The Gary Mar situation did not conclude with Ms. Redford making an enduring commitment to open competition for future appointments. It didn’t conclude with the Premier bravely dealing with the fundraising dinner directly: the effort, instead, was to make sure “the buck stops somewhere else”. The Minister of Municipal Affairs was never publicly told that, regardless of the narrow interpretation of his words, bullying local government is unacceptable and won’t happen in the future. Mr. Goudreau may not have been bullying the school board at all; he may simply having been warning them that some of his colleagues were bullies. In shooting the messenger, Ms. Redford did not deal with the message. The young staffer was hired to work in the Premier’s southern Alberta office. What was she told about the standards for staff? What messages did she pick up from co-workers that led her to believe her Tweet was appropriate and would be “helpful”? If a Redford government will strip constitutional rights away from one minority group that has enjoyed them, should property owners and civil libertarians be concerned that the same may happen to them on another occasion?

Albertans have seen some hopeful — and tentative — direction from Ms. Redford since her election as Leader, but the trajectory is not clear. If any similar events happen after the election, will there still be powerful forces in the Tory party arguing for confrontational politics, personal attacks, and intimidation? Are Albertans going to elect candidates who have already “been there” so long, and “done that”, so often, that they will continue to resist change, and resist it fiercely? Will Ms. Redford be more prepared to say, “the buck stops here”.

Is she prepared and able to fight for a new way of doing politics? Can she, with the help of others, overcome the inertia of momentum in the Tory party as we know it today?

Finally, it is important to note that politics is complex. Very intelligent, imaginative, energetic and thoughtful people can fail at politics when the very process is poisoned by partisanship, ideology, a sense of entitlement, and arrogance. Many Americans, and more than a few Canadians had high hopes — naive hopes — about what President Obama could achieve in four years. They didn’t consider the limits of the President’s power in the face of complex systems, hidden alliances, the power of money, and vested interests.

Voters must not turn away from making a decision on election day. They need to remember that there is much more to consider than is superficially apparent. Voters are trying to be wise about the future without certain knowledge about the future.

Bill #4 opens a Pandora’s box

February 22, 2012

Bill #4, is a very problematic solution to a very simple problem.  Morinville will get secular public school education.  This is long past due, and Sturgeon School Division is the appropriate provider.

With Bill #4 the Redford government is acknowledging that Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division has been acting unconstitutionally for the past 18 months.  The Redford government is saying, “at a time of our choosing (forget the parents and students), this will not continue.”

But the fact is, the Redford government has sacrificed the interested parents and their children, for more than 15 months, in order to create a distraction.

Morinville could have had genuinely public school education at any time, by simple Ministerial Order transferring jurisdiction for Morinville from the Greater St. Albert public school jurisdiction to Sturgeon School Division.

The Redford government has strung this issue out, not in order to solve the “Morinville problem”, but in order to play a constitutional shell game in the City of St. Albert.

With the introduction of Bill #4 the Redford government has taken the first transparent  step toward unilaterally disestablishing the only operating Protestant separate school jurisdiction in Alberta.  For all practical purposes, the rights of Protestants to establish separate school education in any local community will be completely extinguished when Bill #4 is given Royal Assent, since there are no Protestant separate school regions in Alberta and the proposed new Education Act only allows separate school establishment in the context of a corresponding separate school region.

Individual members or informal groups of the Protestant faith may regret this development, but the church courts themselves are apparently accepting, either because they have no interest in Protestant separate school education or because they accept the argument that all separate school education in Alberta should be Roman Catholic.

There is a good case to be made that the Bill is unconstitutional, for two reasons.

The School Ordinance of 1901 is the constitutional foundation of separate school education in Alberta.  It does not make provision for using changing demographics to justify disestablishing separate school education.  The current School Act does make provision for separate school electors to conduct a plebiscite and decide to disestablish their own jurisdiction, but the Redford government was certainly not prepared to leave their chosen solution to the uncertain outcome of a plebiscite among Protestant school supporters.  (Perhaps citizen democracy is a good thing in theory, but not in practice.)

Since the proposed new Education Act provides only one means of establishing a separate school district, and that process relies upon a so-called separate school region, and since there are no Protestant separate school regions in Alberta, and can’t be when St. Albert Protestant separate school district is dissolved, Bill #4 eliminates forever the possibility of Protestants being able to establish a separate school district anywhere in Alberta.

The fact remains, the legislation, once Assented to, will be operative — and presumed to be constitutional unless and until it is challenged in court, which is costly, time consuming, and requiring of courage.  As a Minister told a small group about a decade ago — “I’m the Minister of Education.  I can do whatever I want until the Courts say no.  Don’t hold your breath.”

On the one hand, the Bill is another unfortunate exercise in government, by a Party that makes decisions in secret, acts unilaterally, and moves in haste to forestall debate.

The Redford government is ending Protestant separate school education in Alberta without asking the Protestant electors of St. Albert what they think of the move — because the Redford government knows best.  The Redford government brought this forward in secret because it does not want informed public debate until after the fact (in the hope that discouraged Albertans will turn their attention to other matters).

Most likely, the Redford government will make sure that this Bill is passed within a week.

The Bill is an elaborately constructed ruse that sacrificed parents and students for 18 months so that the government could “deliver” to a different constituency in a different place.  The Bill is likely unconstitutional, because it disregards the effected minority and because it extinguishes any prospect for Protestant separate school education anywhere in Alberta in the future.  The Bill is another example of the Redford government proceeding in secret, acting unilaterally, and without regard for effected citizens, and acting in haste to forestall public debate.

On the other hand, with Bill #4 the Redford government reminds us of section 51 of the 1901 School Ordinance (“The Lieutenant Governor in Council may by order notice of which shall be published in the official gazette declare that on and after a day therein to be named any district shall be disorganized and thereupon the same and the board thereof shall cease to have or enjoy any of the rights, powers and privileges vested in such corporations by this Ordinance…”)

 

The Redford government is asserting its constitutional right to disestablish any school board, including any separate school board, unilaterally  — including all separate school jurisdictions in the province.  The operative provisions of the Bill do not set out any objective criteria for dissolution.  Particularly, the electors of the separate school district do not have to demonstrate support for dissolution, by a plebiscite or any other means.

For those who favor the separation of Church and State, and the end of separate school education, the precedent will be very helpful.