Saturday, December 19, 2009

Public Assets

Over the past week both the government of Canada and the government of Ontario have begun looking into the possibility of asset sales to help with their budget deficits.



Given the scale of the deficits - an expected $55 billion for the federal and approaching $30 billion for Ontario - the decision to examine this option is unsurprising. It is also an extremely bad idea should it be taken past the examination phase, however.

In the case of AECL there are issues with giving away the growth potential of the business, but the real objection lies in the area of intellectual property. The CANDU reactor patents, while there has been a dearth of recent sales, have generated revenue in the past and there is a real prospect of significant growth in nuclear power over the next decade. The recent bankruptcy of Nortel, which the government should have prioritized supporting ahead of American auto makers, meant that a number of patents were sold off at fire sale prices. The liscencing fees that Canadian governments and companies will now have to pay to access those technologies will cost considerably more than a support package would have. To repeat the mistake with AECL would be simple incompetence.

The Ontario case provides an even more powerful case for retaining the assets. The LCBO generates approximately $1.5 billion in net revenue, and the OGLC another $600 million. In other words the structural hole in Ontario's budget would be at least $2.1 billion larger next year, and every year going forward. Both the liqour monopoly and the lottery are cash cows that support the program spending of other departments, and to sell them off in order to make one year's defecit smaller is like accepting a pay cut in order to shrink this month's credit card bill!

The deficits themselves are bad enough, though the current low interest rates will most likely put off the real pain from them for at least 6 months or so until they start to rise significantly again. These proposed asset sales will not raise enough money to cover the shortfalls even for this year, and will cost our citizens money even in the short term, much less the long term. They are, in short, political optics masquerading as policy - and a damned bad policy at that.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Excellent Questions

I strongly recommend that those who live in or are interested in Alberta read the following post by Mr. Cournoyer on his "Daveberta" blog:

He poses with clarity several of the issues that have been irritating me for some time. Well worth the time to read!

Also Sue Huff of the Edmonton Public Schools created this new blog, opening with some fundamental questions for the majority of Albertans who didn't vote in the last provincial election - why not and what would inspire you to do so?

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Response to Reboot

I want to post some initial responses to Reboot Alberta.

To begin I want to thank Dave King, Ken Chapman and the other organizers for making this event happen; and to thank Bryna and Xanthe for their great work keeping everything running so smoothly. I would also like to thank everyone who attended for providing an impressive combination of intensity and goodwill that made the open-ended organic format of the weekend work so well. Reboot Alberta turned out to have been perhaps the single most interesting conference or event I have ever attended.

At the first session on Saturday someone said “There is a real feeling that the existing parties are failing to address our needs” during the preamble to their remarks. This is as good a starting point as any for how and why this disparate group of people gathered in Red Deer on the Grey cup weekend to talk politics, policy and citizenship. The variety of interesting and articulate people at Reboot was exceptional. There were current and former elected officials, ranging from school trustees to cabinet ministers, partisans of all parties from both the elected and back room crowds, commentators and business people. This diverse crowd of interesting and articulate people gathered together to explore how public life in Alberta might be improved and what it means to be ‘progressive’, if anything. I was impressed by the respectful intensity of the weekend – everyone had something to offer but everyone also wanted to hear what others had to say and the result was an extraordinary experience.

There were a great many sessions running, and obviously I only participated in a small minority of them. There are three that I did participate in that I wanted to talk about, starting with the session on “What is a progressive”. The variety of the weekend was certainly visible in this sessions, which included a PC and Liberal who had rarely sat at an event together without coming to (verbal) blows who warily found that in many respects their concerns matched, if not their prescriptions. The session felt in many ways like we were looking for the walls of a dark room – we knew they were there but not where they were or how they were laid out. In the end there was a broad consensus on a few issues but no definition of what a progressive might be.

I also participated in two sessions around the idea of creating a new political party here in Alberta. Both sessions were large and lively, especially as they included people of every viewpoint on the matter – for, against, and uncommitted or waiting to see what form such a party might take. All of these positions were discussed and many ideas about what parties are and should be were fielded. In the event it looks like the people behind the Renew Alberta initiative are going to move forward with the creation of a party. For what it is worth I wish them luck, these kind of initiatives are essential for the health of our system. It was interesting to see the depth of dissatisfaction with the functioning of our existing parties, whether it be the culture of entitlement in some or of defeat in others, even from those who are committed members of one or the other.

The last session I participated in that I wanted to mention specifically was one on how to improve Alberta through the operation of the existing political system in the province. Thirteen of us (out of 90 or so!) decided that this was the mechanism of change we wanted to discuss, and that group ranged across the political spectrum and generations. I was struck, powerfully so, that this group of highly partisan type A personalities proceeded to have one of the most respectful, on-topic and frank discussions I’ve ever been a part of. No-one so much as interrupted, which is a level of civility I rarely see even among friends! The other striking thing about this session was that we all shared a great many concerns about the functioning of the system, even those from the government or governing party. Unfortunately solutions for these issues within the context of the existing system were thinner on the ground and we were essentially forced to concede that changes are needed.

That session brought out many of the issues that everyone at the event seemed to feeling. There was a lot of dissatisfaction with the ‘dumbing down’ of politics and public life, and the nastiness that seems to have increasingly crept in. This is perceived by many, myself included, as a part of the general devaluing of our systems and institutions in general, even by those who are a part of them. I would argue that this is one of the most important areas for us to address, whether you define yourself a ‘progressive’ or anything else. As an element of that is the notable dissatisfaction with the way parties work – whether the frustration of those both within or without the existing ones or those engaged in starting new ones, whether the Wild Rose or the Renew Alberta people. The range and importance of these issues is certainly sufficient to explain the turnout and the passion at Reboot Alberta.

Finally there is the question of what, if anything, will come of the weekend. Firstly Reboot connected a number of people who otherwise would not have met, provided many short term benefits in terms if ideas and conversation. In the long term who knows what those ideas and connections will lead to? Secondly the fielding and discussion, in a very open and extended format, of a wide variety of interesting ideas provided a lot of learning opportunities. Perhaps even more importantly the format and people at this event generated a lot of energy - people left brimming with energy and ready to take action, whatever their field of endeavour. Finally, in addition to the other potential benefits, the experience was so singular that efforts are being made to maintain contact through a Reboot Alberta virtual community, an effort I certainly support and will be a part of. In short there is a very real potential that Reboot Alberta may have introduced an ongoing variable to public life in Alberta, and I am looking forward to seeing how that variable impacts the game.

Some other responses to be found here:
Alex Abboud -
Chris Labossiere -
Dave Cournoyer -
Andrew Mcintyre -
DJ Kelly -
Alberta Altruist -
Johnathan Teghtmeyer -

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Modernizing the Party

Jason Morris wrote a blog entry on some changes he would like to see in the political process, the link is in my last post. One of his proposals was to vest more power in what he called the ‘super caucus’ – essentially nominated candidates as well as elected members. The idea is interesting, and reflects something I have long wanted to see at the Federal level. The idea serves two purposes: empowering local associations of the membership regardless of the current status of a seat and widening the pool of talent available to party leaderships. Both are good things, and I think that this is an idea every party should be pursuing, especially as it entails relatively little disruption in the existing process.

One of the basic ideas I would like to see enacted here in Alberta is the creation of a neutral 3rd-party election authority, along the lines of Elections Canada or Elections BC. This body would be created to take control over managing elections, hiring elections officials and the management of district boundaries. The removal of all of these things from the partisan realm is simply good management, as it removes several obvious conflicts of interest and creates stability in the management of these important logistical matters.

Perhaps more importantly I agree with Mr. Morris and many others that it is time for a major renovation of the political party, and there is no reason not to start here in Alberta. Political parties are a practical response to the requirements of democratic, in particular representative-style, government. From the beginnings of their modern form in 18th-century Britain they have been criticized for promoting ‘faction’ or partisanship over good governance. In fact the pamphlets known as Cato’s Letter’s by Gordon and Trenchard, dating from the early 1720’s, concerned with promoting and defending freedom of conscience and speech, spent a considerable amount of time on the issue. Perhaps ironically over this lengthy series of pamphlets there are very few debating points on the issue of parties, even today, that are not dealt with.

( Cato’s Letters: I recommend these highly, the writing is excellent and many of the issues retain their interest. In addition these were central documents in the evolution of both British and American thinking, with a contemporary impact as substantial as Locke’s. My apologies for the digression!)

What are the dominant characteristics of our parties today? First of all they are, relative to the population, small. This small size makes them, to greater or lesser degrees, closed clubs with a fixed membership. Secondly their membership is not representative of the electorate, being on the whole wealthier, older and whiter. Thirdly they are very much, and avowedly, top-down organizations that make little effort to engage with and empower the bulk of their membership, focusing instead on their elites. This makes them rigid, as well as reinforcing the preceding characteristics.

The changes in our information environment and the rise of social media threaten organizations like this with going the way of Eaton’s. Already the federal parties are trying to use social media, online forums and improved databasing; the issue is that they haven’t yet actually changed their cultures. One of the topics I most look forward to discussing at Reboot Alberta this weekend is how the political party as we know it can be reformed to make it more responsive to and representative of citizens, through the use of these new tools and media. It is my belief that we now have the opportunity to flatten the organization of our political parties, increasing the access for and importance of the individual members.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Political Labels

This post is largely in response to the growing dialogue surrounding Reboot Alberta, the site for which is here:

In particular This blog post from Chris LaBossiere:
and this one from Jason Morris:
both speak to issues I have been giving some thought to lately and are worth responding to.

In essence Mr. LaBossiere's post has contributed to the conversation I have been having with myself about how to define political orientations and positions in our increasingly complex political firmament. Mr. Morris' post relates to my other major intellectual engagement with our political system these days - how do we modernize the structure of the political party to provide a better, more open and effective organization through which our citizens can contribute to the body politic? More on the latter in a post tomorrow, today I want to deal with the question of definitions.

The left/right dichotomy is over two hundred years old at this point, dating as it does from the National Convention of 1791, and over the years these terms' meanings have grown and changed constantly. Originally strictly referring (via seating arrangements relative to the chamber's speaker) to the political loyalties of the members, either royalist or montagnard. With the growth of economic factors in politics the terms grew to accommodate these ideas as well during the 19th century.

Where does that leave us today? In short it leaves us with an old, inflexible and ineffective terminology in general use for describing one another's political views. The result is a hampered dialogue, in which the label assigned frequently fails to convey any useful information, or at least insufficient information. We are in a similar position to a cook whose labels all read "bitter" or "sugary" - we have some information but not enough to make anything beyond the most basic dish.

This tool reflects some of the scholarship from the world of political science by marking out people's views on two axes - Authoritarian/Libertarian and communitarian/capitalist. By adding only one more variable a much more useful set of descriptors is created, but as Mr. LaBossiere points out the result still doesn't allow for much individuality. That, fundamentally, is the challenge for Canadian political institutions and representatives - they now exist in a highly individualized and open information environment. As a result citizens are demanding increased attention and, dare I say it, flexibility from their leaders and representatives. The era of the loyal voter, or the one-issue voter, is drawing to a close in Canada and other democracies simply because people are now able to engage with their interests and make choices in a much more flexible way than ever before.

For myself I am in most senses a 19th-century liberal - interested in the greatest possible individual liberty and minimal interference in the lives of its citizens by the state, while still believing that there are spheres appropriate for government action and believing that in those spheres government can accomplish much good. As a result, depending on the issue, I can swing from 'left' to right' quite dramatically; sometimes I am hard to pin down on even individual issues. For example I am a great believer in universal public health care, both on the principle that all citizens should have access to quality care and on the basis that universal provision, via the economies of scale, has proven to be cheaper and more efficient than any other method. Left and right in the same response.

One of the elements I most look forward to at Reboot Alberta is a discussion with a number of people whose thoughts I have enjoyed and been stimulated by about these topics.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Women's Ski Jumping and VANOC

Today the legal effort to use the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to force the IOC and VANOC to allow the women to compete was essentially ended when their appeal was dismissed by a judge in Vancouver.

As I understand it the fundamentals of the case are as follows. All Olympic events are required by the IOC to have some form of world championship, either via single event or series, as well as national qualifiers to reach that level, to establish international seeding and Olympic eligibility. Women's ski jumping has so few participants and such a limited formal structure that these requirements were not met, and as a result the event was not allowed in. In an attempt to get around the IOC's refusal a number of the athletes and their representatives filed for an injunction from a Canadian court to force VANOC to allow the event over the IOC's objections.

the requirements of the IOC for inclusion were simply not met. Many other sports, including the case of Karate, which is near and dear to my heart, have been unable to get in for one reason or another - but this is an entirely separate kind of case. Ski jumping is in, the issue here is that there are either not enough participants to create the same competition structure that other athletes must pass to qualify or there is no organization to administer the same. Both of these are issues that can be addressed in order to assure access to future games, and the IOC has said as much.

While I am in general a passionate advocate of insuring equal treatment regardless of gender this does not seem to me to be a gender treatment issue. Women's ski jumping wasn't disallowed because it was for women, it was disallowed because every other athlete going to Vancouver had to compete for the right to go, and these ski jumpers would not have had to do so.

In a Twitter exchange with Senator Grant Mitchell he asked me:
@SenMitchell So what. Why can't we see past the bureaucratic to the just and equal?

This is a good point, and something we should always aspire to do - keep our eye on the principle and not get lost in the process. That said I still believe that the inclusion of women in every event shouldn't be a goal that trumps the ideal of elite competition which to me lies at the heart of the games. Set out a process by which every athlete in a given sport qualifies the same way, and once the best in the world gather may the best woman on the day win. Allowing some athletes in 'by the side door' in order to balance the number of men's and women's competitions demeans the accomplishments of the athletes concerned. In addition, since the IOC's decision was made based on clear criteria which the athletes could have met I fail to see how any of their rights were violated - they were simply asked to meet the same standards as other athletes.

Interestingly this line of thought is taking me into thinking about the Title 9 debate in the United States. As I would have to say I would have been a supporter of Title 9 the fact that my view of this case is somewhat different intrigues me. I shall have to come back to this again.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Remembrance Day

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day, and I wanted to post this list of events that will be happening around the city of Calgary.

- The Military Museums, 4520 Crowchild Tr. S.W. Ceremony begins at 10:40 a.m. Free parking and admission. Always a large event, so come a little early to get parking nearby/ a good spot.

- Jubilee Auditorium, 14th Street and 16th Avenue N.W. Doors open at 9:30 a.m., service begins at 10 a.m., followed by a small ceremony at the Memorial Park Cenotaph, 4th Street and 11th Avenue S.W, at 11 a.m. There will be a more extensive service and wreath laying ceremony at the cenotaph at 12:15 p.m.

- Naval Museum of Alberta, 1820 24th St. S.W., 11 a.m. ceremony on HMCS Tecumseh Drill Deck.

- CPR service, Gulf Canada Square, 10:45 a.m.

- Battalion Ridge, overlooking Westhills Towne Centre. Ceremony with scouts from Dover and Victoria Park starts at 9 a.m.

Personally given the importance of the day and the meaning it holds for me given my family history I prefer to attend a public event, as a statement of sorts. To my mind it is most important to remember, but it is also important to remember together. If the purpose of the day is to memorialize sacrifice then it is also important to think about what sacrifice for the common good can mean, so it seems appropriate to do so as a community standing together. This year I will be volunteering at the Military Museums ceremony as well, in order to contribute a little bit to making that event run smoothly.

Both of my grandfathers volunteered in 1939/40, and it was the middle of 1945 before either of them returned to their homes. They spent longer in uniform during the war than I have spent working on acquiring a PhD, voluntarily giving up a large chunk of their lives and accepting considerable danger because they felt it was the right thing to do. We take our safety and prosperity sufficiently for granted that we often fail to consider the obligations imposed by our privileges - the responsibilities that are the twins of our rights.

Come on out tomorrow and join other members of our community remembering those who have accepted their responsibilities to us, and paid a price for doing so.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The PC AGM and Alberta

Been a busy week buried in the late 1920's, but this weekend's Alberta PC AGM is too interesting not to say something about. I'm still waiting to hear from the people I know who were there, but interesting commentary is starting to appear. A few examples, to be amended once the weekend is over and the commentators have time to mull things over.

David Climenhaga:
Dave Cournoyer:
Before -
After -
Alex Abboud:
Ken Chapman:
Chris LaBossiere:
Duncan Wojtaszek:

My personal view is that the leadership 'review' was always something of a manufactured story, given that Premier Stelmach was recently elected to an overwhelming majority and the PC party here in Alberta certainly doesn't need any self-inflicted wounds at this time. The Premier's 77+ % support was actually lower than I had expected, but in a free vote it qualifies as an overwhelming win. Of course the people voting are those who are shelling out the $400 or so to attend the convention, and are members of the party and have a vested interest in the success of the government.

What is really going to be interesting about this weekend's event going forward is whether or not the PCs are able to move forward with any sense of unified purpose or clarity. The party has, along with the government, appeared limp and lost for several years. With a new challenger arising on its home turf the Alberta PCs will, along with the opposition parties, have to take stock and tighten themselves up. Has the AGM helped the party do that, or are a number of the people the party is going to need moving forward still drifting away to either disengagement or other parties?

As a final point it is worth noting that calling the Wild Rose Alliance a 'mortal threat' or anything along those lines to the Alberta PC government is like calling the Colorado Avalanche the Stanley Cup champions based on October's play. Far too early, and these are the games that count the least. It is years to the next provincial election, folks, so lets see where we are in the weeks to come and how that moves forward.

Besides, the government can hardly look much worse after the disastrous budget numbers, the H1N1 mismanagement, the rising unemployment and general communications incompetence of the last few months. Much like Toronto's suffering Leafs they almost have to get better - don't they?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Stelmach's response to the Pembina Report

The batting around of numbers in political discourse is an ongoing source of frustration to me, since the context that gives the number relevance is often (or even usually) omitted. This is especially prominent in discussions of economics or economic policy, where to put it crudely there are a lot of numbers to choose from.

For a recent example, and some demystification, I strongly recommend this post by Aaron Braaten on his excellent blog.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

More Climate Change Policy Conversation

Just a quick post to share some information.

First of all a link to Jeffrey Simpson's article in today's Globe and Mail regarding Canada's policy toward the upcoming Copenhagen climate change conference. To quote -

"Once before, Canada went to a climate-change conference, at Kyoto, and made promises it could not and did not keep. It would appear a repeat performance is in the making. Or, to put things differently: new government, same script."

The article is worth a read.

On a more inormative note a report is now available on the topic from the Pembina Institute/Toronto Dominion Bank/David Suzuki Foundation & can be found here:

For other policy nerds the math which supports the above report, from MK Jaccard & Associates, can be found here:

Thanks to Trish Audette of the Edmonton Journal for pointing me to the links.

Minister Prentice's response to the report was certainly not positive - "The conclusions [the report] draws are irresponsible" - but he hasn't advanced any data or analyses on behalf of the government. It is my profound hope that the government provides us with something more interesting than the obviously empty platitudes that have been advanced for the Copenhagen delegation. I am not wedded to any particular policy at this point, but I have become actively interested in doing research into the sustainability of our current economic models. I would also like to point out that Climate Change, or global warming if you will, is only a small part of the sustainability question. I look forward to a positive program from Minister Prentice at the earliest date!

Globe article on Mr. Prentice's response:

*Late Edit* Read some thoughts on this from Ken Chapman on his blog here:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Reboot Alberta

In ironic counterpoint to the exasperation of my last point I have booked myself a trip to Red Deer in November to take part in the Reboot Alberta event.

This event has the potential to be a very interesting thing, building on the success of events like Change Camp Edmonton ( and Civic Camp Calgary ( The statement of intent reads "a weekend for Progressive Albertans to spend some time together for creating and exploring a new public policy map for the next Alberta. It will be an open-ended experience for progressive thinking Albertans to consider what their political voice should be in the next Alberta. It will be about how to get the progressive voice heard in the governance and politics of our province."

I am excited to see what develops at the event, especially in terms of finding ways to increase people's day-to-day engagement with their government and the development of good public policy.

Reboot Alberta site:

Ken Chapman (organizer)

Dave Cournoyer (mentions it in his blog)

Off to a Good Start, Apparently

Nice to see that the Alberta Legislature is opening with intelligent and mature debate on the issues. (Sarcasm Alert)

Premier to Brian Mason: "I'll take the word of this nurse [Min. Fritz] over the word of a bus driver any time" (via @davecournoyer and @JProssa)

an obviously unworthy ad-hominem attack, which led to an amusing question via twitter:

@BreakenNews @davecournoyer I wonder why he didn't identify himself as a university drop-out.

Wouldn't it be nice if our elected representatives could keep their eyes on the public-interest ball as opposed to venting their partisan passions on one another?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Security Certificates Extinct?

While catching up on The Economist this morning I found this little article on the failure of Canadian Security Certificates law to pass muster with the courts.

It has been my opinion that the certificates are fundamentally flawed as a legal mechanism, and so their tenuous future is to my mind a good thing. The Anti-Terrorism Act already covers the procedures necessary, and is not an egregious exception to the general practice of our common law. What did catch my attention was the last paragraph, for several reasons.

"This is not a government that admits its mistakes, so there will be no public repudiation of the certificate programme for use in catching terrorists. It will be quietly discarded. But that may not be the last Canadians hear of it. One of the former detainees has publicly mused about suing the government now that he is free."

That summary is, sadly, quite accurate, and the lawsuit will more than likely be successful.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Stimulus and Partisanship

I had this article brought to my attention this morning:

It is worth diving into the comments section as well, there is some interesting by-play there.

I share the author's serious concerns about the systemic obfuscation regarding the stimulus spending. Whether or not there are partisan abuses of the system is hard to say, given that it is almost impossible to ascertain what money is in fact spent, or committed, and what stage of planning the projects concerned are at. Based on my research there are certainly enough gaps to be concerned, but not enough information to be definitive.

Obviously it is my opinion that this information should be easily and freely available - in as much detail as possible. Sadly this government appears to oppose, as both Conservative and Liberal governments have in the past, free access to public information. What the Harper government has managed, however, is to promote stonewalling to an art form. Given the reform roots and the passionate cries for transparency and grassroots engagement that informed that movement under Mr. Manning it is particularly depressing to see the lengths to which Mr. Harper and his government are going to prevent just such transparency.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Following the Wrong Road

The progress of Bill C-25, which will end the so-called 'two for one credit', though Parliament troubles me. Bill C-25 would end the common practice of giving criminals a two-for-one credit for time served in jail before being sentenced. Instead, the bill would have judges give them a straight credit for time served. The political optics of getting 'tough on crime' in this way are sufficiently obvious that they can be passed over without elaboration.

That said the idea that 'criminals need to be in jail' is both simplistic and incorrect. Obviously I am not talking about serial killers or sexual predators here, and my feelings about things like the Karla Homolka case are undoubtedly very close to the of Minister Van Loan. This class of criminal makes up a tiny percentage of the people brought before our courts, however, and as the exceptions are a truly terrible sample on which to base the rule.

Two issues are problematic with this bill: the lack of costing and the absence of discussion or planning for what this means for our correctional system. Apparently the bill has been costed, but the numbers can not be released because of cabinet confidentiality. This is completely unacceptable - the lawmakers of the land are being asked to vote into law a bill that the government doesn't want them to see the numbers for? Not to mention it is difficult to see how cabinet confidentiality applies in this case, as the bill is an open matter before the house and no national security interests are at issue. That being said data from Statistics Canada indicates that the bill will lead to at least a 10 per cent increase in the federal prison population, and costs well over $100-million a year.

The cost is, of course, just a number. In point of fact it isn't, unless the Cabinet knows something that they don't want us to know, a terribly large number either. More important than the dollar number is the increase in the prison population. What this bill completely fails to discuss is what correctional services across the country are supposed to do with these new inmates, or how to reduce the numbers in the future or prevent recidivism among those convicted of crimes.

Moving beyond the problems I have with the particulars, or more accurately the lack of particulars, are the flawed principles that motivate it. What our government is proposing to do, in a smaller and less explicit way, is to follow the path blazed in the United States over the past 20 years. The process of mandatory sentencing and restrictions on options other than prison has led to a situation where there are now 2.3 million people incarcerated and another 5 million or so on parole or probation in the United States. To put his in perspective approximately one in every 18 men in the United States is behind bars or being monitored - an outcome that simply screams failure.

Restricting the Criminal Justice system's options is not actually helpful, as the administration of justice is as complex as the people the system serves. The government has not made a case that the 'two-for-one' practice is a serious flaw in the system. More importantly this bill strikes me as advancing an agenda of unthinking rigidity in the administration of Justice, the failed results of which are visible south of the border.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Profit, Regulation and Responsibility

The last few years have put several of our economy's weaknesses on prominent display. Lack of basic regulation, excessive lending/borrowing (on the assumption of permanent growth!) and a series of issues with corporate governance have all been themes that have impacted the last few years' recession. This article from Sunday's New York Times discusses a few of the themes as related to private equity firms and the case of Simmons Mattresses. (my thanks to @abraaten for bringing the article to my attention)

It is important to move past the knee-jerk negative reaction to the operations of Equity Firms and other financial sharks - they are an important part of the economic system. That said there are glaring problems with corporate governance and basic regulatory standards revealed in this case study. Make no mistake, I am a great fan of the competitive capitalist model - without pressure from some kind of constraint there is no efficiency in any undertaking. That said there is also no such thing as a completely free market, unless piracy counts I suppose.

The question isn't the false dichotomy of regulation vs. deregulation, the issue is what the details of regulation will be. Fundamental ignorance about the complexity of the system leads to pointless discussions about straw-man issues.

We as Canadians and Americans need to elevate the conversation about our economy, and how societal concerns are expressed in its organization, whether those concerns be environmental, cultural, financial or personal.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Help Alberta's Bears

Canadian Parks and Wildlife Society (CPAWS) has a petition going to Premier Stelmach about protecting our Grizzly bears. Given that they are an umbrella species the fact that last year's census put the adult population at 500, approximately 1/2 of a healthy population, is a serious sign of the challenges facing our foothill and mountain ecosystems.

Sign the petition on the CPAWS website or write a letter to the Premier and your MLA today!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Devolution or Dysfuntion?

I saw this article today and I found it profoundly troubling on several fronts.

Provincial governments are elected based on an avowedly narrow and exclusive mandate - their job is to advance the interests of their population without any requirement for regarding the interests of others. The Alberta government's entire electorate resides in Alberta, after all. Parochialism is also a risk - one has only to look at the Alberta government's ludicris speculation about a provincial cap-and-trade system in years past. It is unrealistic to expect provincial governments, which lack the information, the inclination or the mandate, to develop good national policy.

The dysfunction in Ottawa is the result of Stephen Harper's style of politics, not the minority government system as Roger Gibbons proposes. No compliment should be taken there by the opposition parties, who have also done themselves no credit, but the responsibility lies with the power - on the Harper conservatives. Harper has not proven willing to work with Canada's moderate majority, or with the restrictions and subtlties of Wesminster democracy.

More troublingly Harper does not appear to appreciate the importance of a strong federal government. The actions taken by provincial leaders that Gibbons is lauding are taken to fill a gap left by Harper's weak and divisive leadership. Historically the Premiers' provincial protectionism has been an impediment to progress. The fact that premiers from the former "regions" are beginning to recognize the importance of national standards is a progressive move toward better governance, but certainly not one that indicates a declining role for the national government.

In my view the increasing complexity and scale of the challenges facing Canadians requires increased leadership and engagement from the Federal government. That even the provinces see it and are acting collectively simply damns the absence of leadership from the top, it doesn't point the way to a better future.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Coderre Quits

Denis Coderre resigned this morning as the Liberal Party's defence critic and Quebec lieutenant for the leader. This follows on the brouhaha over Coderre's decision to prevent Martin Cauchon from running for the Liberal nomination in the riding of Outremont, a riding Cauchon had previously represented while serving as a cabinet minister. Link

In my view allowing contested nominations with any interested candidates should be the unwavering rule, so I opposed Coderre's decision on principle. In addition it is inexcusably stupid, as Cauchon is an experienced and capable candidate who won the riding three times before deciding not to run again in 2004. Why would you turn away strength? The answer of course would seem to be advancing personal or factional interests over that of the party as a whole. As a result I think you have to view Coderre's resignation today somewhat differently than much of the media spin.

Firstly Mr. Coderre, having made a poor decision and been overruled, should have resigned and I give him credit for that. Secondly this is a victory for the Liberal party as a whole, since it indicates that the will of the membership and the election-readiness of the whole is being placed above factional interests. In my view the victory of the Outremont membership and the positive message to the party as a whole are worth far more than the a few news cycles of bad press.

Open nominations are, to my mind, one of the foundations of democracy. The Conservative refusal to allow such, especially given that my MP is the singularly useless Rob Anders, is one of my largest problems with the party right now. If you are unable to win a nomination meeting held by the membership of your own party what on earth qualifies you as the best candidate before the electorate, the vast majority of whom belong to no party at all?

Excellent Blog post on the Issue by Jeff Jadras Here

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Carbon Capture Report

Now that I am back in Calgary and back to working as normal it is time to start posting here again.

I'd like to start up again by linking to this report on the science behind the carbon capture technology that Alberta is making such a large commitment to. Munk_Centre_Paper.pdf The Munk Centre for International Studies released this report by Graham Thomson of Edmonton yesterday. (As an aside thanks to Dave Cournoyer for keeping this issue prominent on his Daveberta blog!)

I think this paragraph from the conclusion sums up the importance of this report:

"The Bottom Line: Given the paucity of groundwater information in Canada and lack of
national water standards, the push to accelerate CCS could pose real risks to our
groundwater resources. In sum, the marriage of a brave new technology with a political
fix for an immediate climate problem could have negative long-term consequences for
Canadian taxpayers and water drinkers without stabilizing the climate. To move forward
on the sequestration of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide in underground saline
aquifers without strong regulations, clear liability, effective oversight, sound science and
a transparent decision-making process would be sheer folly."

It is my view that the issue of emissions, not simply those into the air but also into water and soil, are going to be one of the central issues of the next 50 years. Moderating our impact on the environment around us while maintaining or improving our productivity and standard of living is already a central challenge. The fundamental issue I have with the proposed carbon capture technology is that it proposes to attack one issue by shifting the problem into another area - without any real understanding of how moving the carbon into the ground might impact soil and especially water tables. Clean water is already a growing issue in large areas of Alberta, and one we as a polity have not dealt with in a coherent and effective manner.

The political impetus behind the carbon capture initiative is undeniable, but is not necessarily a bad thing. Ultimately political action on emissions is what we need, but what we have to do is ensure that the political pressures are channeled into making good policy. At this point Carbon Capture is not that policy.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ah, Winston!

I just spent a chunk of my day that I should have been working watching a rather well-done biopic of Winston Churchill called "Into the Storm", apparently made for HBO. Quite well done, and it inspired me to once again go and listen to some of his speeches. Quite a bit more entertaining than my current work on tipping points in the gold standard exchange system, at any rate!

That said perhaps the rise of Obama, something that was certainly not the most likely political outcome even a couple of years ago, has served to remind everyone about the power of language when deployed by a good speaker. So many of our public figures these days are poor orators, and it is my view that our public life suffers for it. Public figures communicate less than they should, in part because they do it poorly and know it. (yes, I'm looking at you misters Stelmach, Harper et. al.) When they do speak many people listen less than they should, because, to be frank, the listening isn't worth the trouble most of the time.

Some work on rhetoric, in the classical sense, seems to me to be something that would have a healthy impact on the body politic. I can always hope, right?

A good selection of Churchill's speeches can be heard and downloaded here:

Friday, August 14, 2009

Bill 44 still waiting...

Well, it appears that in addition to the uncertainty it creates for teachers Bill 44 is also going to be enacted at an uncertain time. link

It now looks like the law will not be proclaimed until 'October or November', some 6 months after the legislature passed it. While I am certainly in favour of this piece of bad law not being enacted, it is capricious on the part of the government to delay proclaiming it. Either it is a piece of legislation they believe in and is ready to enact, or it should never have been approved. Delaying its proclamation simply magnifies the uncertainty already being felt by those who may be impacted, as now they cannot even be sure when the rules change.

For those interested in the issue I include a link to Ken Chapman's blog, where he continues to keep close track of the Bill 44 issue as it moves forward with his 14 August post. link

It looks to me like the government is doing one of two things. Option one is that they are, belatedly, working through the potential legal fallout of the bill with their lawyers. Option two is that they are holding off until after the Alberta PC AGM this fall, at which they can either genuinely debate the issue, or perhaps push through a motion of support from the party. Both would seem to involve the government engaged in doing something that should have been done before Bill 44 was ever brought forward for 3rd reading.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Citizenship and extradition

Today's post is a response to a series of exchanges over twitter regarding the Diab case. For those not familiar with the case here is a link to the National Post Editorial about it yesterday. In essence a Lebanese-born Canadian citizen has been accused of being involved in a bombing in France 29 years ago.

Here is the bulk of an exchange:

@dominionpundit Why are people so eager to strip citizenship, especially before trials? If he is convicted let him serve his sentance.

@theRoundhouse good pt. but, Canadians need to be vigilant to ensure govt enable our country to be a safe haven for terrorists.

@dominionpundit I would agree, but why not wait and see if there is actually any reason to discuss it first?

@theRoundhouse not comfortable w terrorists landing here,get citizenship,leave to terrorize under my flag, tarnishing my citizenship brand.

@dominionpundit Diab case, if sustained, relates to an event in 1980, so nothing to do with 'your flag' & all citizens must be equal to govt

@theRoundhouse I should say, even natural born Canadians should not expect AUTOMATIC clemency req from our govt when arrested for terror

@theRoundhouse re Diab.event was before he was granted Cdn cit.if convicted,means he lied on imm app.hence,loss of Cdn cit.

@theroundhouse If we have extradition treaties,Cdn cit(born here or not) shld be extradited for trial(pedo in Thailand, terrorism elsewhere)

@theRoundhouse Cdn cit shld not b getoutof-international jail free card if ur sought for crimes abroad. (assuming legal system is fair) no?

There are several issues in play during this exchange, and I want to deal with them separately, The first is citizenship. Citizenship to me is both a legal state and a principle. If you are a Canadian then you enjoy the rights and privileges thereof, as well as the obligations. I do not recognize any distinction between 'natural born' and naturalized citizens - either you are a Canadian or you are not. To think otherwise is to invite the creation of a caste system, in which some are more equal than others. The last thing any Canadian wants is for the government to be able to decide whether or not they are, in fact, a Canadian and thus worthy of access to those rights and privileges.

In recent years, starting under the Martin government and worsening under the Harper government, there has been a devaluation of Canadian citizenship. Among the chattering classes this has become a popular topic for conversation, and you see it regularly in the blogoshpere. Another person discussing this today:

The second issue is that of extradition. In this @domionpundit and I are in complete agreement - where Canada has an extradition treaty we are obligated to give up any citizen charged with a crime. In cases where there is no treaty we are not so obligated, and such cases need to be examined individually to determine if there is both reasonable cause for extradition and reasonable expectation of a fair trial.

The third issue is the idea that terrorism is somehow a crime sui generis. Organized terrorism is closest, in organizational terms, to organized crime, and needs to be tackled in the same manner; combining efficient enforcement with the elimination of its root causes. Terrorism is also not new, despite some of the rhetoric in circulation these days. Even Western Europe & North America have historical experience: during the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th anarchists assassinated a President of the United States, a King of Italy, a President of France and a Premier of Spain within a few years of one another, among many other bombings and attacks. No constitutions were suspended or Patriot Acts passed, and the threat was dealt with within the existing laws.

Finally there is the question of government responsibility. The Canadian government is responsible for the protection of all Canadian citizens, regardless of their identity or the date of their citizenship. That doesn't mean that Canadians should be protected from foreign prosecution, of course. It also doesn't mean that Canadians abroad should expect to be rescued when they travel abroad - in the other countries of the world Canadians are aliens, though hopefully legal ones! In the event of a foreign country arresting a Canadian our government should represent us, and ensure that we are given due process and protected from violations of the law as it stands in that country and internationally.

In situations such as Mr. Diab's that means that he is free on bail while awaiting his extradition hearing for a trial in France sometime next year. Should he be convicted he will serve his sentence, and upon his release be free to return to Canada. In the case of Mr. Abdelrazik it means that the Canadian government should have been pushing for his return years ago, and certainly that he should have been brought home to Ottawa as soon as he set foot in the Canadian Embassy in Sudan 2 years ago. In the case of Omar Khadr, held in Guantanamo Bay, it means that our government should be pushing tirelessly to see him either released or charged with a crime and tried in a legal civilian court.

The idea that the government gets to choose which citizens to help is profoundly frightening. It is perhaps less frightening to me, as a white anglo with a safe name, but it is frightening nonetheless. Either citizenship applies to us all or we accept the creation of a stratified society in which, as Orwell said, some are more equal than others.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Crime and Conservatives

In the course of my daily prowl through the news and blogs online I came across this, posted last week by David Climenhaga. link

Perhaps unsurprisingly it matched a few thoughts of my own I was considering for this blog, and thus I may as well put it out there today. First of all I would like to point out that my MP is Rob Anders, and a better way to drive moderate conservatives, or anyone politically aware, away from the Conservative Party of Canada would be hard to imagine. That said he has won the riding here by significant majorities since replacing Harper in this seat. As a testament to the power of the CPC brand here in Alberta, and the failure of the Liberals to make inroads, there could hardly be a better example.

Mr. Anders sends out regular public mailings, both the parliamentary '10-percenters' and Constituency notices. There are only ever two topics for these mailings - crime and attacking the Liberals. The latter have focused on the 'just visiting' campaign and threatening me with Liberal tax hikes, both of which I find offensive but are not relevant to this post. What fascinates me, much like Mr. Climenhaga, are the mailings on crime and the criminal justice system.

Every single one of the mail-outs on crime is a ridiculous straw man. Every one. "Criminals don't register their guns, why should you", or variations on the theme of 'do you think criminal should be punished or immediately released without penalties'. I think all Canadian parties agree that there should be consequences for breaking the law. I would also think that appealing to criminal behaviour to justify ignoring laws you may not like isn't the strongest argument you could make.

Many people will remember the attacks on Paul Martin (link) that stemmed from this mindset. Mr. Martin, whatever his manifold failings as Prime Minister or leader of the Liberal party, is a father and a grandfather. The suggestion that he, or anyone in Parliament, does not wish to see child pornographers caught and punished is both a disgusting personal attack and mendacious.

In short I am profoundly irritated by the simplistic efforts of conservative politicians to pretend that only they understand and have correct views on crime and the criminal justice system. No single party or group is the sole source of truth or good ideas on any complex topic! Even more importantly the distinctions between positions that these sort of mailings appeal to is almost entirely fallacious. The real differences in policy terms at this time, between the Liberals and Conservatives especially, is very small. The substitution of rhetoric for fact in an attempt to create a distinction is both unpleasant and misleading.

*For those who are interested the recent Statistics Canada release on crime is here.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Boutilier's Banishment

Yesterday Mr. Stelmach took the unusual step of expelling a member of the government caucus.

Interesting and unusual in itself, the real importance of the event may be whether or not it indicates a larger issue. On the face of it Boutilier's comments, while definitely uncomfortable for the government, hardly seem indicative of a serious opposition to the PC party. The man is, lest we forget, a former cabinet member of the party that just expelled him from caucus. In addition the criticisms he is making certainly echo those of his constituents. The inadequacy of Fort McMurray's infrastructure is a commonplace, both in the city itself and in Alberta politics. To my mind Mr. Boutilier's job as an MLA required him to say more or less what he said.

What I find interesting is that this move seems atypical for the Stelmach PC government. For one thing it is an open admission of, and invitation to, conflict - the one thing this government studiously avoids. Good luck finding an official mention of Bill 44 or the public outcry about that bill in any government publication.* The government's RSS feed doen't even list Bill 44 as one of the achievements of the last session!

In addition the PC party has worked hard to maintain itself as the biggest tent possible. The gap between Ted Morton and Jim Dinning in philosophical terms is much larger than that between most PCs and Liberals. This move is unusually decisive and divisive.

Opponents of the PCs are already taking this move as either the beginning of the end, with David Swann posting "the friendly farmer image is gone, now we can see the tight fisted control of this administration " on twitter, and a liberal blogger posting an entry on the viability of the PC party in Alberta . This of course builds on the pressure by the Wild Rose Alliance, and its implications for the right wing support of the PCs. (see Daveberta's entry of July 13th here:

On the whole it appears that the strain of the recession combined with the inertia and lack of vision, or at least common vision, within the PC party after 37 years in power may be coming to a head. There is enormous energy in Alberta, but it doesn't owe anything to the government and hasn't for some time. The last several Alberta elections have seen the PCs run successfully on a caretaker agenda of 'don't rock the boat and we won't screw it up'. Should their image of bland certainty start to fade there may be the groundwork for real political change here in Alberta.

It would be well, however, for opponents of the PCs to remember the strengths of the government. In addition to their almost unwieldy majority (which may in itself be the cause of the Boutilier issue) the PCs have the fundraising, the relationships and total control over the apparatus of the province. All that, in addition to the habitual loyalty of a large percentage of the electorate.

The political weather may be changing, as a lot of challenges are coming to a head in the PC party here in Alberta. The most important element of that potential for change lies within the PC party at this time, however, and the real interest to me in the Boutilier affair is where it leads the factions within the party and the caucus over the next few months.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


The topic of partisanship and the role of parties in the system appears to be getting more attention in Canada, though mostly of the negative variety. The dominant reason is that our parties give the impression of being less and less successful in representing us. I just read a good article on this disillusionment:

Currently less than 1% of Canadians belong to a party. (recent membership drives may have raised that to just over 1%, but the basic point stands) In addition party membership is, as anyone who attends party events can tell you, heavily stilted toward middle age and later. In short parties in Canada are, to a large extent, exactly what those who do not belong characterize them as - establishment in-groups.

More important than that, however, is that parties are closed shops these days even to their members. Membership is often little more than paying $10 to be able to vote in a leadership or nomination contest, as well as being added to the inevitable fundraising list. Unsurprisingly this extractive model of membership doesn't grow membership or engender loyalty, so without outside elements like personal charisma or ideological conviction the party organization simply doesn't work.

I think that this is an important topic, and I intend to return to it at length in the next week or so. The changes in information technology, and the success of relatively 'flat' and open organizations like Google seem to me to point the way to a much more successful vision of party organization. Engagement and grassroots involvement don't have to be limited to tired catchphrases, as they all too often are these days. Canadians are engaged in their communities and causes, the question is how to modernize the political process to enable it to partake in that energy!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Electronic Voting

The subject of electronic voting, with its promise and hazards, is an interesting one. As we move an ever-expanding amount of our personal logistics like shopping and paying bills online it is inevitable that as a society we will start examining the mechanics of exercising our franchise virtually. (As opposed to virtually exercising the franchise, which may describe a lot of voting behaviour already!)

Kirk Schmidt, making a guest appearance on the Enlightened Savage's Blog on 30 June, posted an excellent summary of the practical issues with taking voting online. I found it well worth the read - interesting, thorough, and thought-provoking. Recommended!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Times changing in Iran?

Many of us that take an interest in politics and public affairs have been captivated by the unrest in Iran following the general election there. Strong feelings are evoked by the images of people taking to the streets in defiance of a system which they feel has cheated them of their voice. The fundamental question to me is what exactly are we seeing? Without delving into the complicated history of the 1953 and 1979 revolutions there are a few important elements to keep an eye on.

Iran is a complex society that we in North America tend to think of in caricature, if at all. The image of the fanatical mullah conveys little sense of the size, historical depth or ethnic diversity of Iran. To put it another way we are discussing a place with over 70 million people, a settled history dated back over 9000 years, and with constitutional recognition of 4 regional languages in addition to Persian. In large part it is elements of this complexity that have created the confrontations we are seeing on our televisions.

That large population is also young, with around 2/3 of Iranians under the age of 30. Increasingly that population is urban, and women are playing an ever-increasing role in the workforce and the professions. In short Iran is undergoing a period of demographic instability, combined with a political system dominated by the men who either made or participated in the revolution of 1979. In other words men who were politically active before more than 2/3 of their citizens were even alive.

Within that profound generational power gap there are also several other political flashpoints. As the population has grown it has migrated to the cities, with over 60% of the population living in urban areas now and that number is expected to rise to 80% by 2030. This has created frictions between the now-preponderant population centers and a political system divided into 30 (theoretically) equal provinces. In addition the concentration of the oil resources that provide 45% of government revenue in a few provinces heightens the division between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.

In short there are a great many internal divisions and interest groups within the country. Dividing the people we see on TV into ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’ is both inaccurate and unhelpful. The politics of Iran are no more black and white than any other political jurisdiction's. The theocratic nature of the regime does tend to evoke dichotomous language from both critics and supporters, however. It is also worth remembering just how much control the Supreme Council (of Clerics) possesses. They select or vet candidates for all offices, and all state structures report back to the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, or the Council of Guardians. The position of President, while important, is not equivalent to his American counterpart or our Prime Minister.

With all that said we are witnessing a repressive regime being pressured toward change. This is not an easy process, and building pressure tends to lead to repression, which in turn tends to lead to violence. At this point the Iranian security forces have exercised restraint, and provided they continue to do so without losing their cohesion and loyalty to the state this unrest will likely subside. It will subside having left a lasting impression on the mindset of the country, however, particularly on the young and urban workforce who feel excluded by the regime. This election may thus serve as a source inspiration and motivation for those seeking to create change in Iran. If the shooting starts the impact may be considerably more immediate.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Politics is really Logistics, Folks.

The minority Parliaments of recent years have been reflective of the changed circumstances in Canadian politics. In addition to the in the electoral map the political reality is that we have now joined the Americans in living in a state of permanent campaign. What interests me is how poorly Canadian political parties have adjusted to this, in organizational terms. Traditionally in Canadian politics campaigns have been viewed as a unique activity, which they are, and as something separate from the day-to-day realities of political life, which they are not - if in fact they ever were.

This view that campaigns were a sui generis activity has crippled the Liberal Party in recent years. The party has failed to create a central database, resulting in the fragmentation and hoarding of the available data. The drawbacks to that are obvious, and exacted a heavy penalty in organizational terms. In addition building an ongoing relationship between the organization (as distinct from the candidate) and its supporters has not been a priority. The absence of such a relationship has resulted in seriously reduced membership numbers, with the concomitant drag on fundraising. This is especially significant given the $1100 individual donation cap, which rules out the traditional Canadian political fundraising tactic of large corporate and individual donations.

These are all failings of basic organizational performance, which the current leadership and the membership of the party appear to have acknowledged. The hiring of Rocco Rossi as national director and the acclimation of Alfred Apps as party president has placed a pair of strong organization-builders at the top. They have a great deal of work to do to make their organization competitive again.

That said the Conservative party is currently considered to be the organizational standard in Canadian politics. They have done a better job of this that the others, but even their ‘success’ needs to be put in perspective. Their ‘machine’ has only managed minority governments, despite a crippled Liberal party and marginal NDP and Bloc. Even the ‘vast’ conservative fundraising effort only brought in $4 million in the 1st quarter of 2009. That is enough money to franchise and open one Tim Horton’s shop, maybe two in smaller locations. Hardly overwhelming, and the fact that the Liberals raised under half that number is an indictment of them, not a compliment to the Conservatives. Currently no Canadian party can count even 1% of the population as members.

In short all Canadian political parties are struggling to manage their organizational challenges as well as the communications and data challenges presented by a web 2.0 society. Acquiring and managing data as well as building up an engaged membership who are willing to contribute time and money is an ongoing process. It is essential to view the politics as an ongoing or organic process, not one of periods of stability punctuated by elections.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Politics and Social Media

The wireless revolution, with devices like the Blackberry and the Iphone making it possible to walk around in constant touch with the internet in addition to the ubiquity of cellular phones, constitute a sea change in the way people communicate. Here in Alberta the recent debate over Bill 44 (see post below) energized a politically aware population to reach out to one another via the new ‘social media’ of Twitter, Facebook etc. What was revealed was that these media had the power to bring together hundreds of people, both specialists and non-specialists, in direct contact in real time. This new information environment is going to change the way politics in Canada works.

There are a number of elements to this process of change, but for today I want to concentrate on two. The first is the importance of information management. The single greatest advantage of these new digital communication media is also their greatest weakness – essentially limitless access to information. On the up side this means that it is possible to access information about events or individuals with ease. On the other hand it is difficult to track the importance of a given piece of information, given the sheer mass of data.

To cope with the drawbacks inherent in the sheer scope of the available information a few things are necessary. The first is proper use of modern database technology, with which the social media world is a treasure trove of data as well as another platform for discourse. The second is the ability to dedicate the time to learning how to use the technology and to understand the players who are important to the issues that matter to you. This will allow you to sift the wheat from the chaff with greater ease.

To take advantage of the up side you need to get your voice out there, and contribute to the discussion. There is enormous potential to build relationships with potential supporters and allies, and to keep an eye on the thinking and actions of your political rivals. Recognize the strengths of these media, and attempt to add content and respond constructively to those who reach out to you. Press releases are best done elsewhere – link to them in social media, don’t treat them as content.

That leads me to the second major area I wanted to talk about today - messaging. With the move into the information-rich environment of social media the importance of a clear and coherent message becomes magnified. It is possible, via twitter and Google, for a potential policy resolution to be leaked, the research inspected and thousands of decisions made before the document is even announced. It also means that everyone on your team is now a part of your communications staff, whether you want them to be or not! As a result politicians and political parties are going to find that the value of a powerful vision and solid communications preparation are magnified.

The development and rapid spread of social media is an evolutionary challenge for the inhabitants of the political jungle. Those who are able to develop clear and compelling visions and then build strong relationships will prosper. Those who treat social media as an annex to traditional non-interactive mediums will be punished by receiving less information and fewer new allies. In blunt terms the first party to understand and develop the potential of social media to meet and develop its supporters will have a lasting advantage over their competition.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Be Concise!

Mental note - I can see from looking at my previous post that too much time in the academic world is ruining my prose. I will work on brevity in future.

Bill 44 Creates a Window of Opportunity

I opposed Bill 44 as a piece of poorly thought out and unnecessary legislation which is open to several forms of abuse. There may or may not be an entry on this blog regarding that - while I have written one the bill has been passed, and so in another sense has the relevance of that discussion. What is left to discuss is the impact on, and outlook for, the prospects for increased citizen engagement here in Alberta. Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of the process of Bill 44 here in Alberta is the discussion it has engendered about the engagement of people in the political process. For those looking for information on Bill 44 itself or the debate regarding it please see Ken Chapman's excellent breakdown on his blog, and you can check out all the twitter action via the #Bill44 hashtag. Not coincidentally it is this lively online conversation that engendered the thinking behind this post.

Alberta is not known for its lively grassroots democracy these days. The exact whys and wherefores of that are a debate in and of themselves, but among the front runners are the entrenched one-party system here and the voter placidity engendered by several decades of prosperity. The result was an election with (off the top of my head) 41% voter turnout. This pitiful turnout resulted in 501,000 votes for the PCs, 251,000 for the Liberals and 81,000 for the NDP. In terms of seats in the Alberta legislature the counts are PC-72 Lib-9 and NDP-2. These results go a long way to explaining why the PC party is content with the status quo. (Or perhaps they are the status quo?) Both of the opposition parties are small and organizationally impoverished, which is another chicken-or-egg conversation.

The upshot is that the PC party still operates in fundamentally the same way as it did during the early 1990s. Communication is limited and decidedly non-interactive, and consultation even within the PC party itself is limited. There were a series of hopeful moves by the government after Mr. Stelmach won the election, as the PCs moved towards taking advantage of the new Web 2.0 world with promising moves like the creation of mypcmla. This momentum seems to have petered out, a symptom of which was the departure of the caucus’s new social media guru. Instead what happened was a conversation within the twitterverse and blogosphere that was overwhelmingly negative to Bill 44, and the government was unable to introduce its own view effectively to defend its legislation.

Efforts to do just that failed, and the Culture Minister, Lindsay Blackett, simply came across as dismissive and condescending. During the Bill 44 conversation on twitter Blackett posted this to his Twitter feed "finally got to some of the opposition's misinformation in the Leg today... I don't expect the media will pick-up on it." He followed this petulant post with another during the debate itself "is amazed at the continued fearmongering by the opposition, intelligent people who read the bill can see through it." Referring to concerns about your legislation as misinformation or fear mongering while implying quite directly that those who disagree with you are lacking in intelligence is not using the new medium to open a conversation. What is depressing is that this knee jerk was all the reaction we got, and it was of less value than a traditional press release. A priceless opportunity wasted for the government to speak to citizens and engage with them.
What this process has revealed about the government's attitudes toward dialogue and improving communication is not pretty. That said the current culture of complacency in Alberta politics has done the PC party a world of good, so there is a very rational argument to be made for the status quo. Several people I know who work for the party have talked about increasing voter engagement, but when push came to shove and their ideas needed backing the support they received has ranged from tepid to nonexistent. To quote another twitter commentator "AB_Baby@wunderbar @trasie #ableg I said something similar earlier. the govt keeps the silent majority silent by refusing to listen time after time"

In contrast to that feeling of estrangement as I write this on the 3rd of June there are 3300+ members of the Facebook group “Students Against Bill 44”. A number of those people are not Albertans, but the group may constitute one of the larger issue-based gatherings of voters this year none the less. The topic twitter feed (#Bill44) climbed as high as 6th on the list of most active tags during the final week leading up to the passage of the Bill. A Calgary Herald story regarding the Bill has attracted over 1200 comments on the website as I write this. In short there is a very considerable public involvement in responding to this bill. Interestingly several PC MLAs informed me that the correspondence they had received on the subject was in the area of 2-1 in favour. This contrasts with the overwhelmingly negative response on twitter and Facebook, and forces us to consider why this difference exists and what it means for citizen engagement.

I would argue that the divergence between the submissions to government MLAs and the majority expression in the online discussion is indicative of the extent to which most Albertans have become detached from the “formal” political process. Fewer than half of registered voters even bothered to cast their ballots in the last provincial election, and given the labour mobility in this province you would expect a considerable body of unregistered voters as well. As an aside, on the issue of alienation, there is also the question of to what extent those who disagree with the government would be willing to take the time to communicate with their MLA if they feel ignored or dismissed. This to my mind is the real issue with statements like those of Mr. Blackett quoted above – such things serve to widen the gap between people and their representatives.

That being said I think there is a very real opportunity here to build on the momentum created by the discussion of this bill. I mean momentum not in a partisan sense, but in the sense that there are a large number of people trying to become active citizens. It presents all elements of the Alberta political spectrum with an opportunity to learn from and educate in turn the people of the province. It behooves us all to make the effort to get out there and try. There are several members of the government caucus who ‘get it’, and kudos are due to Mr. Elniski and Mr. Denis. It is my hope that more of our representatives in the Legislature and organizations and individuals outside it as well will work toward developing modern communication strategies and learn from one another!