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.

A life well lived — thank you Earl

April 3, 2012

On Thursday afternoon, at 2:00 p.m., at Strathcona Baptist Church, there will be a celebration of the life of Dr. Earl Hawkesworth, who died last week at the age of 96.

So many death notices convey the same information, and we are unmindful, unless the person is family, or a friend, or currently in the news.

Earl’s passing should be noted by all Albertans, for two reasons.

Thirty-five years ago he was Deputy Minister of Education (1971 – 1982). Prior to that he had been a superintendent, school principal, and classroom teacher. He led a wonderful life, and he was at the centre of many educational developments that have stood Alberta in good stead for years.

He was also a great representative of a model of public service that is far too scarce in this day and age. It is appropriate, in the middle of an election campaign, to remember and honour the importance of the public service to the success of our political process and representatives. It is important to consider the appropriate relationship of the public service to the politicians — if the public interest is to be well served.

In 1971 — the last time the government changed in Alberta — the incoming Progressive Conservatives ‘inherited’ a very professional public service, with a reputation for integrity, independent and expert advice, and a deliberate and careful partisan neutrality. Alberta’s public service was well regarded around the world. Public servants came here from Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia to understand the workings of the Energy Resources Conservation Board (led by Dr. Govier). Thailand modelled its secondary school system on Alberta’s junior and senior high schools. There were many other examples of Alberta’s public service having a world-wide reputation.

There were, undoubtedly, many reasons for this. Some of them stand out in my mind.

1. Public service, like elected office, was thought of as a vocation. The rewards were not primarily monetary, for M.L.A.s or for Deputy Ministers. No one argued that the pay and benefits had to be atmospheric in order to attract the best and the brightest.
2. Senior public servants were forbidden to belong to a political party (not the government party and not any other), and they were discouraged from attending or participating in partisan political events. No one argued that the Deputy should be at the Minister’s campaign headquarters on election night, or that senior managers should “cut some slack” for juniors in the department who wanted to moonlight on the governing party’s campaigns.
3. Public servants were expected to give honest advice, and the best possible advice, to Ministers. There was no ‘gilding the lily’, or giving the Minister what s/he wanted in preference to the best possible advice. Advice was evidence and experience based, not ideologically driven. In any case, the Minister was responsible for the decision, and the Department would make the Minister’s decision work.
4. Politicians made political statements, and answered questions about politics and policy. Departmental communications people made statements about administration and expert knowledge.
5. Deputy’s were, first of all, experts in the work of the department, and then they were systems managers. Forty years ago, no one argued that deputies would serve the government better if they were management specialists, without deep knowledge of the department’s work.

Earl was my Deputy Minister for the first two years I was Minister of Education. He was a man of deep integrity. He loved the effect of education on students, opening them up to the world, revealing attitudes, talents and skills that made for good people and good citizens. He had a deep respect for teachers and for teaching, partly because he had done it and knew it isn’t easy. He believed deeply in public service and in the common wealth. He treated everyone with respect. He had a gentle personality, and a good sense of humour, and a backbone of steel. Initially, he was one of my many mentors. We became friends. If he thought I was making a mistake, or doing wrong (and they are two different things), he was clear and direct, but he didn’t harangue. When his views were known it was for the Minister to make the decision. (I think that, if I’d gone far astray, Earl would have resigned.)

During the time that Earl was Deputy the government initiated Early Childhood Services, bi-lingual education, special education programs, Native education programs, Designated Community Schools, and many other initiatives. He oversaw the end of Departmental examinations (in 1972 – ’72), and then laid the groundwork for Diploma Exams and Provincial Achievement Tests eight years later. (My standard defense is that Provincial Achievement Tests today are a perversion of what was intended 30 years ago.)

Earl was a great man, and a great standard-bearer for the public service of that day. As we celebrate his life, we might pause for a moment to think about what kind of public service we want in the future, and how we want our public service to relate to our political representatives.

The Tories in Alberta, at 41 — a tipping point?

April 2, 2012

One of the most interesting aspects of the Alberta general election is that Progressive Conservatives have governed the province for more than 41 consecutive years. If the Tories are returned in the upcoming election, they will establish the record for the longest consecutively governing party, either federally or provincially, in Canadian history.

Along with the shot at the record go voter concerns about past performance, tiredness, arrogance (and a sense of entitlement), focus (future or past?), the party culture, and adaptiveness.

Assuming for a moment that the concern is completely legitimate and so important that it should drive the election, the concern may mislead voters. If the voters are so pre-occupied with the (currently) governing party, they may cast their votes elsewhere and thereby elect an ill-considered alternative. The agenda may be to “throw the rascals out” on election day. That is only accomplished by throwing another set of “rascals” in, and the cure may be worse than the disease.

So we need to consider the task before us, one step at a time.

Is the current government good for another term, or does it need to be replaced? Criticism is heard, but is it valid? Voters need to ask themselves some tough questions. No blogger, expert, or elder statesman can answer any of these questions for a voter: the answer for each voter is found in her or his own values, experience, perception, and goals.

Has the government made decisions for which it should be judged harshly? In that case, not voting on election day is not a harsh judgment: the vote must go to another candidate and party. Which one, because an election cannot throw out one “rascal” without throwing another in.

Is the governing party tired, arrogant and bullying? Does it have the attitude that it is entitled to govern? Do Tory candidates have the attitude that they are entitled to have someone carry their bags, and entitled to appoint friends and supporters to various positions? Has the bullying and trash talk that is much reported about in the press originated with the P.C. party as an institution, or has it been the work of individuals acting alone and contrary to the spirit of the party? Does the Tory party recognize the challenges facing Alberta? Does the party recognize the failure of the old way of doing politics? Is it committed to new and productive ways of doing politics? Does it have a new vision for Alberta at the beginning of the w21st century, and does it have new ideas for dealing with new circumstances and new opportunities? Does it have the energy and the will for a new style of politics, a new approach to issues and decision-making, and a new relationship with voters?

The P.C. party is like the famous metaphor of a super tanker in the middle of the Pacific. There is so much mass and so much inertia of momentum that it will take time to change direction, even after the captain has given the order. But, according to the metaphor, the direction can be changed and the ship can be brought safely to another harbour.

Arguably, the metaphor is not appropriate, for a couple of reasons. The metaphor takes as given that the entire crew is working together, and that the engine room will respond promptly to the bridge. The metaphor takes as given that the captain is clear about conditions and gives orders confidently – orders that aren’t going to be changed. If these two conditions are not met, the ship will hesitate, weave (or sail in circles), and list. Cargo and passengers will be damaged and injured.

After reflecting on the metaphor, we should reconsider the Tory party.

Party insiders did not elect Alison Redford to be Leader. Thousands of Albertans who are not committed Tories joined the party and elected her as Leader. Thereby, they dragged the party kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Having done that, they returned to their homes and gardens and jobs, leaving Ms. Redford to carry on. At that point, many party insiders wanted to contain Ms. Redford and take the party back to the good old days and the good old ways. Gary Mar was appointed as Alberta’s agent in Hong Kong. Was this a merit appointment, or an “insiders favouring insiders” appointment? The promised public inquiry into the intimidation of doctors was subtly amended. Was this a matter of turning our backs on the past or was it fear of what would be revealed? The Tory government extinguished the constitutionally provided separate school rights of Protestants in St. Albert. Should landowners be concerned that property rights may be the next to be compromised?

Ms. Redford has worked with some supporters within the party, but it is clear that the “ship” has mass and inertia of momentum and crew members that are resisting her efforts.

Ms. Redford has also made some mistakes, and she has corrected some.

In this, she is like Alberta’s voters.

The voter must try to be wise without knowledge. Who knows what time and circumstances will bring, in 6 months or 3 years. The voter must try to make the wise choice on Monday, April 23rd.

Do the nominated candidates, the advertising, the messages, and the organization on the ground suggest that the party exemplifies
• values;
• an understanding of Albertans;
• an understanding of democratic politics; and,
• an understanding of the issues and opportunities
that the voter feels comfortable with.

As unknown issues arise in the months to come, would you feel reasonably confident that you can predict, in general, how the Tory party would respond? If you reel reasonably confident about your ability to predict, would you feel comfortable if the prediction came true?

Perhaps there is more to democracy than a paramount Leader

April 2, 2012

One of the issues that is developing in the Alberta provincial election campaign is about the role of individual M.L.A.s, and the Party Leader. The issue emerges most clearly with media reports about the P.C. Party, but we can see similar evidence from Wild Rose, Liberals, and N.D.s

Alison Redford, Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, said last week that the outgoing Party caucus (including many who are up for re-election) had made a mistake in its handling of M.L.A. pay for the so-called “no-meet committee”, and she announced that all Tory M.L.A.s would return all the pay (since the committee last met) or be excluded from the Tory caucus. Media coverage and public conversation has focused on whether Ms. Redford should have admitted the mistake and changed tack, as she did, or should have done it sooner. Was the admission/correction a smart move? Would it have been brilliant if done two weeks earlier?

For me, the problem with this focus is that it further entrenches the idea of the “paramount Leader”, it further marginalizes collaborative decision-making – in caucus – and it excuses individual members of the Tory caucus from responsibility for fixing what was broken.

In a strong democracy, I don’t think Ms. Redford would have presumed to impose the Leader’s will on caucus: I think she would have canvassed the caucus, made the argument that the public expected a different outcome, and persuaded the caucus – perhaps with the help of some caucus members themselves — that they should collectively admit the mistake, correct it as best they could, and sanction anyone who broke from the consensus.

As it is, we may never know if any member of the caucus agreed with her. Perhaps no member of caucus has his/her own moral compass; perhaps they are all relying on the Leader’s moral compass. Perhaps every member of caucus is simply too cowed by the authority of the Leader to stand up and be counted. Perhaps we can expect a Tory caucus to follow the lead of the Leader on every issue. Perhaps Albertans don’t care about the moral compass, or strength of character of individual M.L.A.s. Perhaps we don’t need M.L.A.s, but only a Party Leader.

Or perhaps many (most, all?) members of the Tory caucus agreed with Ms. Redford’s expressed position. It would have been great to see – or hear – a chorus of them agreeing with her position, and saying they had come to the same realization at about the same time.

In the absence of such a chorus, Albertans may want candidates to make a clear public statement – before election day — expressing agreement or disagreement with Ms. Redford’s solution, and a commitment to making it happen after the election.

This issue – I’ll call it the paramount Leader problem – arose for me just after Ms. Redford was elected Leader of the Tory Party. As a candidate, she had made a commitment that, if elected Leader, she would restore approximately $100 Million of funding for K – 12 education in Alberta. I’m a former Minister of Education who believes that education has been seriously underfunded since 1994. I applauded the idea of restoring $100M of funding. And the money was restored. The problem is, it wasn’t restored because caucus had seen the error of its ways. It wasn’t restored at the end of a heartfelt debate. It wasn’t restored because a majority of the government caucus voted in favour of the restoration.

The problem, for me, is that I believe we are wrong to entrust such decisions to one person. The wrong doesn’t haunt us when we approve of the direct outcome. (I completely approved of the $100M for k-12 education in the example cited.) But what do I say when the paramount Leader unilaterally makes a decision I disagree with profoundly? How can I oppose unilateralism on one issue, when yesterday I approved of it on another issue?

In the same vein, I wonder why we need individual M.L.A.s if one person can make a unilateral decision without reference to M.L.A.s. Why are we going to vote for 87 M.L.A.s on election day if we only need – and value – one decision-maker? Personally, I prefer the wisdom of crowds: I prefer strong democracy.

Do we want to maintain the party culture built on the Paramount Leader and the subservient caucus? Do we want to maintain the party culture in which one person’s moral compass is sufficient for everyone? Do we want to maintain a party culture in which no one else needs to have a moral compass because everyone can rely on the Leader’s?

In summary, I don’t believe that the end justifies the means. Democracy depends upon many people contributing to, contesting about, and collaborating over public policy issues and questions of right and wrong. We are not well served – even when we like the decision — by the hoary political culture that makes a paramount Leader the focus, and belittles the role of M.L.A.s. We are not well served when the decision of one Leader absolves every other politician from their responsibility for not having seen the wrongness of what they were doing.

An Important Provincial Election in Alberta

March 28, 2012

Every provincial election is important.  Sometimes we don’t appreciate the importance of an election until years later.  The election of 1993 returned a government that many Albertans thought had been ‘tired’ and was suddenly invigorated by a new leader – Ralph Klein.  It wasn’t until years later that we came face to face with the consequences of blowing up hospitals, reducing the number of medical and nursing students, regionalizing health care, centralizing control of education, eliminating regional planning commissions…

Almost 20 years later Albertans are considering whether to re-elect a now 42 year old Progressive Conservative government.

On the way to casting a ballot, citizens will be considering five different types of questions.

  1. Is the current government good for another term, or does it need to be replaced?  Criticism is heard, but is it valid?  Is the governing party tired, arrogant and bullying?  Does it have the attitude that it is entitled to govern?  Do Tory candidates have the attitude that they are entitled to have someone carry their bags, and entitled to appoint friends and supporters to various positions?  Has the bullying that is much talked about in the press originated with the P.C. government as an institution, or has it been the work of individuals acting alone and contrary to the spirit of the party?  Does the Tory party recognize the challenges facing Alberta?  Does it have new ideas for dealing with new circumstances and new opportunities?  Does it have the energy and the will for a new style of politics, a new approach to issues and decision-making, and a new relationship with voters?
  2. Did the Progressive Conservative Party enthusiastically choose Alison Redford to be its new Leader, and will the Party welcome new attitudes, new values and policies, new ways of organizing, and new decisions, or will the Party establishment and culture change Alison Redford, so that she conforms to well-established ways of thinking, doing things, and relating to the public?
  3. What is the role of an M.L.A., and how does the role do justice to the interests of individual voters, the interests of the local community, the interests of the province as a whole, and the interests of the Party the M.L.A. belongs to?  What should we consider when evaluating and comparing candidates?
  4. When thinking about the next government, could any Party other than the Progressive Conservatives govern well? What is the role of the Party Leader?  What should I consider when evaluating and comparing Party Leaders?  What is the role of any Party other than the government Party?
  5. What issues are important to us, as individuals, as family, as community?  What are the important values reflected in the issues?  What are the consequences if the issues are handled well, or badly?  What should I weigh before I cast my ballot?

During the course of the election campaign I intend to blog about each cluster of questions.  I would like these posts to be part of a conversation with you.    What values and issues and questions are important to you?  Looking ahead, how do you evaluate the prospects for each of the parties?  Is there a candidate – or more than one – whose campaign and election prospects you are specially following, and why?

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.

Bill #2 (Alberta) – the 2012 Education Act: Part Two

February 15, 2012

The new Education Act suffers in comparison to all the announcements of its coming.  Ministers and M.L.A.s talked about a “new paradigm”, framing the conditions for a system that would anticipate the future and nurse it to reality.

The new Act simply doesn’t deliver.  Ordinarily, Albertans could overlook the hype and be glad to see an important piece of legislation “cleaned up”, “sharpened”… — choose your adjective for modest incremental improvement.

The problem is that the Government of Alberta itself – and insistently — raised the subject of the 21st century being radically different from the 20th.  The Government of Alberta, through the Inspiring Education process, encouraged Albertans to think about education in new ways, and repeatedly assured us that startling insights could be harnessed.  The new Act, we were told, could assuredly be – would be — quite different from the familiar School Act.

It is a mixed blessing that Albertans bought the government’s line.  Albertans were persuaded to see that we can’t continue educating as we have done in the past.  They were persuaded to imagine a variety of new, positive, and possible educational outcomes, as well as a variety of new ways of organizing to provide education.  They were persuaded to believe that Alberta could be “first into the future”.

The new Education Act suggests that we are going to be “last out of the past”.

Having been awakened, by the government and others, to the virtual certainty of great change, Albertans are now frustrated by the government’s lack of imagination and lack of courage.

Have you read Sir Kenneth Robinson’s latest book on what is coming to education? (Out of Our Minds:  Learning to be Creative)

Are you familiar with what is happening in Finland?  (Pasi Sahlberg – Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?

Have you watched Sebastian Thurn, on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkneoNrfadk&feature=player_embedded)?

There are three quick and effective measures of innovation in any piece of legislation.

First, does the legislation contain new words or phrases that are important enough to be defined for the purposes of the legislation.  The proposed Education Act has two such words or phrases:  “bullying”, and “non-school building” are not defined in the current School Act.  Their context in the Act makes clear that they simply acknowledge longstanding practice:  they are no springboard to the future of education.

Second, does the legislation have Parts and Divisions that suggest a new way of looking at the subject?  The new Education Act has 2 new Parts (Opportunities for Learning; Responsibilities and Dispute Resolution), yet the sections contained within the Parts are lifted almost entirely from the existing School Act.  Aside from legislating Bullying Awareness Week, and creating a Student Advisory Council, and implementing a Complex Education Needs Tribunal there is nothing new.  Bullying Awareness Week can be celebrated without a legislative mandate, the previous Minister created a Student Advisory Council without the need of legislation, the Complex Education Needs Tribunal is an incremental improvement on a system already in  place.

What is really interesting about Part 3, Division 1 (Responsibilities and Disputes Resolution:  Responsibilities) is that the responsibilities of students, parents, boards, and trustees are specified (basically, these are consolidations of what is found in the current Act).  The one critical actor left without specified responsibilities is the provincial government, notwithstanding the fact that for three years, throughout the Inspiring Education process, the government insisted that its role was “assurance”.  The bullied might be more comforted if the government accepted responsibility for assuring freedom from bullying, perhaps by assuring that gay-straight clubs could operate in any publicly funded school in the province.  Parents might be more comforted if the government accepted responsibility for assuring access to secular public education, on a timely basis, and in schools that are safe, healthful, and well-maintained.  The parents of special needs students might be more comforted if the government accepted responsibility to assure funding for high cost special programs.

As a reader digs into the proposed new Education Act, are there any hidden gems?

Section 51(1) extends natural person powers to school boards.  That is hardly an innovation, since municipal government has had the same benefit for more than 15 years.  Nevertheless school boards have been lobbying for this:  they should be grateful, shouldn’t they?

The problem is, the innovation is put forward in section 51(1) and rudely snatched away in section 51(2)  “With respect to any right, power, or privilege exercisable by a board, the Minister may , by regulation, (a) prohibit or restrict the use of the right, power, or privilege; (b) provide that the right, power or privilege is to be exercised subject to any terms or conditions prescribed in the regulations.”

The Minister, without reference to the Legislative Assembly, can compromise the natural person powers of a school board, at any time, and in any way, and without any need to justify the compromise.  Tomorrow, he could make it illegal for them to be doing something that is might be legal for them to do today.

The corresponding section in the Municipal Government Act says this:  “6.  A municipality has natural person powers, except to the extent that they are limited by this or any other enactment.”

The corresponding section of the Business Corporations Act says this: 16(1)  A corporation has the capacity and, subject to this Act, the rights, powers and privileges of a natural person.

The introduction, in the new Education Act, of “natural person powers” for school boards is nothing but cynicism writ large.  If the provincial government treated corporations the same way, the reaction would be immediate, immense, and unbearable for the provincial government.

The provincial government is not easily going to loosen its grip on school boards.

Yet, in the face of uncertainty, when the future cannot be known with confidence, experience and the natural sciences all confirm that the most intelligent way to confront the future is with diversity.  As Willis Harmon once noted — in uncertain times, the best thing to do is decentralize (decision-making), disperse (resources), and diversify (responses).  One only wants a highly centralized system when one is convinced that the central authority will be 100% correct, 100% of the time, about 100% of the issues.  To put it another way, said Harmon, we don’t engineer survivability, in nature or in build systems, by making key components bigger.  We introduce redundancy.  Nature has not improved our eyesight by working on one better eye in the middle of our forehead:  she has given us two eyes.  NASA doesn’t improve the shuttle by concentrating on one computer:  they connect redundant computers.

The proposed new Education Act should be rejected in principle.  It embodies two principles, both of which are wrong.  In principle it is mediocre, and we should expect better from our provincial government, especially when they themselves set a higher bar, especially when public conversation and evidence from other jurisdictions makes clear that we can do better.  In principle, it faces us squarely into the past, rather than into the future.  It is wrong that we should stifle our imagination and use our considerable resources to be the last out of the past, when we need to be – and can be – the first into the future.

Bill #2 (Alberta) – the 2012 Education Act: Part One

February 14, 2012

In 2008 the then Minister of Education initiated a province-wide conversation about the future of K – 12 education in Alberta.  The department contributed to the conversation by providing a structure – Inspiring Education – and Albertans contributed by providing content.

Although many of the participants felt that the government’s management of the Inspiring Education process was biased in favour of self-interest, and that this bias was reflected in the wrap-up, nevertheless the conversation was valuable.

From it came ‘standards’ by which to draft new legislation.  These standards were never codified and agreed to in a formal way, but it would probably be fair to characterize public consensus around the following points.

  1. The new Act should be clear about the foundational principles.  (As the Minister of the day said, the new Act should be principle-based.)
  2. The legislation should oblige the government to uphold foundational principles, without discretion to abdicate responsibility.  The government itself claimed that its primary responsibility was to “assure” needful outcomes.  (The legislation should hold the government’s feet to the fire, as much as the government sometimes holds others’ feet to the fire.)
  3. The new Act should represent a commitment to the future (with all the attendant risk and uncertainty), rather than to the past.  (Albertans want to be first into the future, rather than last out of the past.)
  4. The role of the provincial government, as reflected in the new Act, should be to declare the goal and set the direction (by looking at the stars), and the role of the school operators should be to cover the ground and achieve the objectives that move us toward the goal(s).
  5. The new Act should provide a legislative framework for oversight for all types of educational delivery, with as much operational freedom as is useful for good government, sufficient boundaries to be clear about public purposes and goals, and openness to as yet unimagined types of educational delivery.

Assuming agreement about the ‘standards’, the next important focal point should be on principles.  What principles should be clearly expressed in the new Act?  Again, based on the Inspiring Education conversations, the following suggest themselves.

  1. The new Act should explicitly acknowledge and commit to the principle that public education is the preferred institution for education, recognizing that public school education is unique for three reasons:  1)  it is inclusive without pre-conditions of any kind and it is inclusive of all who are students and of all adults as part of the community that governs it; 2)  it is a deliberate model of a civil democratic community, so the government of public school education is democratic and public school education exists to promote an understanding of, and commitment to, democracy; and, 3)  local democracy and local community are the ground from which springs every other community and democratic understanding.  Public school jurisdictions should be given meaningful natural person powers.
  2. The new Act should explicitly acknowledge and commit to the principle that the public interest in assuring education for every child is not only for the benefit of the child:  education serves the public purpose of creating and sustaining our society, and the provincial government controls education for the purpose of assuring that children are exposed to ideas and practices of good citizenship in a civil democratic society;
  3. The new Act should explicitly acknowledge that public school boards are a local general purpose government, dealing on a daily basis with the mandate of more than a dozen provincial government departments, and their range of freedom should reflect this.
  4. The new Education Act should embody democracy, including the following ideas:
  • all participants are worthy of trust;
  • inclusion, respect, and diversity, without pre-conditions of any kind;
  • the people who will be most effected by decisions are the people who should have most responsibility for making and implementing the decisions, and public school jurisdictions should have the capacity to accept mandates from local electors and accomplish locally determined mandates;
  • open, transparent government, at all levels; and,
  • elected representatives are accountable to their electorate, not to other elected representatives.
  • all participants(for example, students as well as teachers) are producers of education, not merely consumers of it.

The Education Bill introduced to the Alberta Legislative Assembly today (February 14th) should be tested against these standards and principles.

Probably the first thing that strikes a reader of the Bill is that it is very similar to the current School Act.  It relies upon concepts and organizational structures that are more than 100 years old.  Most notably, it relies upon well-used words and phrases because they have been tested in the courts (often more than 60 years ago), and their meaning is well known to anyone who wants to continue living and working in the historic paradigm.  The government’s stated reason for rejecting new ideas and new language is that newness represents risk for the government, since the ideas and words have not been tested in the courts.  In its organization and language the Bill represents an explicit rejection of new ways of thinking, new models, new language.

The second thing that might strike a reader is that there is no declaration of aspirations or principles within the body of the Act.  Some of the “Whereas” clauses allude to aspirations and principles, but “Whereas” clauses are advisory only; they are not decisive.  The Whereas clauses may make all of us feel good, but they are not in any way binding.  There is no description, in the body of the Act, of the intended outcomes that the provincial government or local school operators are accountable for assuring.  Consequently, the entire Act is procedural:  it focuses on means, without regard for ends.  The Minister and the department can direct or sanction any school operator at any time, for any reason, because, in the absence of ends statements in the Act the Minister and department can enforce whatever end they choose, and their choice can change from day to day.  On the other hand, in the absence of clearly stated expectations in the Act, the Minister and the department can decline to assure anything.  For example, the general public may believe that every child is entitled to access a public education that is non-denominational in flavour, and the Minister may agree that such access is fundamentally important for every child, while at the same time declining to act in a timely fashion to assure it.  Or, the  Minister may say that safe and healthy schools are essential to good education, while the government defers school renovations.

The Act treats all delivery systems as being essentially equal.  There is only a procedural definition of public school education, or of any other form of education.  There is nothing suggesting that public school education is the preferred means of education, and no statement that public school education is important to the attainment of public policy.  There is nothing to make clear that a necessary work of education is to create and sustain a civil democratic society.  There is no statement that the government of education is to be democratic.

More, in an upcoming post.