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?