Wednesday, June 3, 2009

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!


  1. Good post - and I don't think too long. Thx for the link to my blog. I have added you to my blogroll. Lets keep in touch and fighting Bill 44 fallout.

  2. The MLA definition of correspondence may need to be examined. I get the impression that email is not included. I know a number of people, including myself, that have not had their email read or acknowledged weeks after sending comments and concerns about Bill 44.

  3. Most MLAs will view constituency correspondence as confidential unless told otherwise, with the exception of petitions. That said I haven't recieved many responses from them either, and given the ease of sending a form letter back via email that is most unimpressive.