Friday, April 20, 2012

Alberta's Dull Election

Alberta’s election has caused some excitement. The potential routing of a party that has held on to government for forty one years, the ramblings of a Christian pastor running for office repeating what the Catholic church has said for years (that homosexuality is a sin and will result in hell unless the sinner repents), odd comments which the liberal left have interpreted as racist – all good media fun. There has also been excitement about strategic voting and the media seem infatuated with the idea of a minority government in which Raj Sherman (until recently a senior conservative but now transformed into a liberal) or Brian Mason (the thinking man’s thinking man) could hold the balance of power.

Facebook, twitter and You Tube have been deployed to fear monger, bring to life whispers and rumours and help drive some energy. Advanced polling numbers look strong and there could be a turn out higher than the all time low of the last election in 2008, where just 41% of the voters could summon up enough energy to get off the couch and vote – down 5% from four years before. If turnout is higher, then at least the media hoop-la has served a purpose.

What has not been talked about are critical policy issues, at least by the two main parties. We do not know what the real strategy for economic development and the oil sands looks like from the Wild Rose and only have vague hints and clues from the Conservatives. We have some suggested additions to health care from the Conservatives and some tweaks to the system from the Wild Rose, but no substantial debate. On education, the Wild Rose policy document makes clear that we are in for major changes – massive reduction in the size of the Ministry of Education, substantial change in how funding occurs, competition for schooling and more charter schools and massive changes in assessment. All we have really seen from the Conservatives is a promise of more schools – more of the same. No substantial debate.

I ran a constituency fight during the first general election of February 1974 in the most marginal seat in Wales (there were two general elections that year). The Alberta election has been a cakewalk in comparison to that general election. There were stories that some Labour cabinet Ministers were in the pay of the KGB, sex scandals around leading figures on both sides (orgies, homosexual trysts, bestiality), wild statements from candidates north, south, east and west and policy gaffes that were simply outrageous. We had homophobic, anti immigrant and racist candidates for whom this was their platform. We also had the pleasure of a candidate from the Monster Raving Looney Party whose platform included “the environment – let’s get rid of it! Its too big and difficult to keep clean!”.

So when I look at the Alberta election and the great brou ha ha over odd comments, I see it all as pretty dull. Albertans need to get out more and see more of the world. They need to see raw politics. There is more mud slung at a single sitting of Prime Ministers Questions in the UK House of Commons than we see in a year of politics here in Alberta. If the most exciting thing that happens is a Christian pastor’s blog repeating what Catholic priests told me virtually every day at school (an all boys school) then we are in trouble.

A great election in Alberta would involve substantial, meaningful debates about policy and programs. It would involve a systematic media analysis of the issues with conversations about these platforms with those most affected by them. It would involve us looking not just at the leaders (another media preoccupation), but at the front bench and caucus and to understand what the composition and dynamics of government will be like. While there has been some attempts at this, leader-envy and fascination have got in the way of a serious understanding of Alberta’s future and the role Government should play, if any, in that future.

When I taught high school we ran a mock election. One of my special needs students said to me as we were counting the ballot papers, “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in”. She is likely right. There will be all sorts of commentary on Tuesday morning of next week as pundits and the literati try and make sense of what happened at the election the day before. But campaigning and governing are different things. There is an inertia in government that is overwhelming and a dynamic in caucus that is inhibiting.

Whatever happens, Alberta will be fine. It’s a resilient place that has handled all sorts of governments over the last forty one years conservative, wild rose like, liberal. As my therapist told me “the situation is hopeless, but not serious”. Get used to it.

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