Posts Tagged ‘government’

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.

Democracy — Challenges for Alberta

February 21, 2010

On the matter of democracy, Alberta faces some exciting challenges.  There is a wider and increasing awareness that our democratic practices are very imperfect, and need to be improved.  There is an increasing expectation that democracy needs to function better than it does.  There is frustration with the current political culture in Alberta, and a willingness — even a determination — to change the political culture and practices.

All of this seems to reflect a growing realization that democracy in Alberta — and elsewhere — is an unfinished revolution.

We need to attend to three essentials.

The First Essential

We need to absorb the truth that democracy is self-government.  Democracy is a system of self-government in which everyone, first of all, has the right and the responsibility to participate in making the rules about self-government, and the rules protect the minority.  Sovereignty originates with the people, who grant it to the government.  Democratic governments are not a party to the social contract; they are the product of the social contract.  Leaders and representatives are servant leaders:  they are not paramount leaders.

It would be wise to consider limiting the power of parties, and party leaders.  It would be wise to consider giving the electorate more frequent opportunities to be directly involved in decisions, and a better means of controlling rogue representatives.  It would be wise to consider different forms of voting.

The Second Essential

We must reject the politics of fear and adopt the politics of hope.  We need to reject the politics of confrontation and intimidation, and adopt the politics of collaboration.  We need to reject consumer politics and adopt the politics of participation.

It would be wise to consider how to make government more transparent.

The Third Essential

We must decide what we mean by community, and whether our decision-making community varies depending upon the political decision to be made.

I remember seeing a large billboard near Claresholm.  It read:  “Less Ottawa; more Alberta.”  A confusing message.  Does the sponsor mean “less Ottawa; more Edmonton”, or “less Ottawa; more local decision-making — in Claresholm, or in Calgary”?

It would be wise to consider how much decision-making should be made in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta and in provincial government departments, and how much should be made in the local community, by municipal councils and school boards.  It would be wise to consider revenue sharing, so that local government has the resources to effect the decisions made locally.

As a new member of the Board of Directors of the Alberta Party, I look forward to the Big Listen.

Government and community, self-government and self-determination

December 1, 2009

Discussion is picking up on the topic of new framework legislation for education in Alberta.

The first question is not about education:  it is about community.

For more than 125 years Albertans have lived in levels of community — the neighbourhood or village or town; the city or county or M.D.; the province; the country.  In the province, we have governed ourselves — we have practiced self-government — simultaneously in the local community and in the provincial community.  For many many years I knew this as the “respectful partnership” that existed between the government of the provincial community and the government of the local community.

The purpose of these two levels of community, the purpose of this respectful partnership is not to make work for elected politicians.  The purpose is to allow citizens to make some important decisions among a smaller population and across a smaller geographic area, while making other important decisions among a larger population and across a larger geographic area.

In a democracy, “government” is shorthand for “self-government“, and self-government means “self-determination“.  The community that can make some decisions for itself, even if the decisions lead to mistakes, and use its resources to act on its decisions, is self-determining, that is, self-governing.

The term “respectful partnership” (between the provincial government and the local government) has fallen into disuse, because the working relationship is no longer a partnership:  it is the relationship of supplicant to provider.  (Some observers would also say that the relationship is no longer respectful.)  Across all Ministries, the provincial government is centralizing more and more decision-making.  Every such movement reduces the number and significance of the locally made decisions.  In addition, the provincial government is more and more in control of the purse-strings.  So, the local community has to go to the provincial government to ask for permission and resources to do what people themselves — in the local community — want to do.  Locally, there is less self-determination and less self-government.  As this happens, the local community itself is weakened.

From the perspective of the provincial government, none of this is “anti-community”, or undermining self-government and self-determination.  From the perspective of the provincial government, the provincial community — all 3.6 million of us — is the only community that counts.  It is not as though they favour large communities, and have a bias against small communities.  The mayor and Council of Calgary feel just as shackled as the mayor and Council of Claresholm.

And, indeed, the provincial government may be right that local communities should no longer be self-governing and self-determining.  Perhaps with developments in transportation and communications technology we are all one community for all purposes.  Perhaps we can be self-determining and self-governing exclusively through the voices and votes of 83 men and women in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta.  Perhaps there are no local priorities in Provost that differ in any significant way from the priorities of Peace River.  Perhaps there are no conventions that are more central to life in Coaldale than in Calgary.   Perhaps the people of Edson have exactly the same vision of the future of community — and how to achieve the vision –as do the people of Edmonton.

Personally, I still hold — and strongly — that many decisions should be made in the local community, by the people who live in it.  There are some decisions about which I want to be in community with my neighbours, the people I share immediate space with.  There are some decisions about which I want to be in community with all Albertans.  (There are some decisions about which I want to be in community with all Canadians.)

There is another reason why I believe it is important to favour substantial self-determination and self-government for local communities.  In times of rapid change, turmoil, and uncertain outcomes, the best decision-making model is a decentralized one.  Some decisions may be badly made or implemented.  Some will be well-made and implemented.  The more independent decision-making in play, the more likely it is that decisions appropriate to the circumstances will succeed and thrive.  Bascially, in times of rapid change, turmoil, and uncertain outcomes, one only wants decision-making to be highly centralized if one is 100% certain that 100% of the decisions will be 100% correct 100% of the time.  No provincial government has that track record.  You can decide how close the Government of Alberta comes to approximating that record.  (Think of health care, Bill #44, etc.)

In any case, we the people have the opportunity to consider this issue again, in the context of new framework legislation for education in the province.  Do we want the government of Alberta to acknowledge, in legislation, that local communities must continue to be self-governing, or should we start to think of school boards as representing a local public which is simply one stakeholder group among many?  Do we want local communities to continue practicing self-determination, or do we want all local communities in the province to be equal supplicants to the provincial government? When the elected representatives of local communities make decisions, should they be accountable to the local electorate, or should they be accountable to the provincial government?

All of these issues, and more, are up in the air right now.  In the year ahead, the way we deal with local self-government for schools will determine the future of local communities generally and across the province.  This will determine the future of municipal government and it will determine the future of economic and social well-being for all of us, for years to come.

Is Alberta a community of many communities, or is it one single community of 3.6 million people?  Are all political decisions to be made in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, or are there political decisions that should be made in smaller communities?  Would we be wise to have all political decisions made in the Legislative Assembly, or should some decision-making be decentralized?

Now is the time for citizens to think about self-determination, self-government, and community.  Now is the time to talk among ourselves, listen to our neighbours, inform ourselves, form a conviction, and talk to our elected representatives — school trustees and M.L.A.s