I had a great time participating in the Future of Story Conference organized by MacEwan University‘s School of Communications this weekend (you can read tweets from participants at #futureofstory). I was lucky to be invited to join a panel discussion focusing on “the political narrative” that was led by writer Curtis Gillespie and included panelists Michael Phair (Edmonton City Councillor from 1992 to 2007) and Patricia Misutka (Chief of Staff to Mayor Stephen Mandel). Our discussion topic led to some very interesting conversation about the role (and dangers) of narrative in politics and the differences between narrative, spin, and ideology.
Opening the discussion, I offered my thoughts on how the political narrative and mythology of Alberta has been translated into how Canadians from other provinces see us (a topic that I have recent written about). A sincere glance at our province will make it easy for anyone with common-sense to debunk the myth that Alberta is a cultural, societal, and political monolith.
Michael Phair spoke about the political narrative that dominated the run up to the 1995 municipal election. At the time, it was largely believed that Edmonton was falling behind and needed to elect a new and “business-friendly” Mayor. Two mayoral candidates, including Bill Smith, adopted this narrative as central to their campaigns and in October 1995, he was successful in unseating two-term Mayor Jan Reimer. Upon entering office, Mayor Smith discovered the limitations that municipal governments have to creating immediate economic growth and attracting businesses. This political narrative pigeon-holed Smith, who over his three-terms in office was typecast as solely being the “business Mayor” or “cheerleader” for Edmonton. Mr. Phair pointed out that this narrative overshadowed many of Mayor Smith’s accomplishments – including the leading role he played in ending smoking in bars and restaurants in Edmonton. Interestingly, current Mayor Mandel, who arguably has just as much business background as his predecessor, has successfully avoided being overshadowed by this political narrative.
Patricia Misutka gave a really good example of how the vacuum of leadership from the provincial and federal orders of government has allowed municipalities across the world to become leaders in environmental and sustainability initiatives. Having attended the ICLEI World Congress in Edmonton last summer, I completely agree.
The panel also generated some interesting discussion on the challenges of differentiating political narrative and political ideology. When describing the various political narratives that Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party has been successful in creating since they were first elected in 1971, a number of audience members pointed out that the root of the political narrative that defined Premier Ralph Klein‘s government was rooted in the ideology of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. I argued that Premier Klein’s decision to embrace a harder-line fiscal conservative agenda was less based on sincere ideology than it was in ideology of convenience. It was pointed out by one of my fellow panelists that the first politician to begin crafting that narrative in Alberta was Liberal leader Laurence Decore. As is fairly well-known in Alberta political circles, Premier Klein understood that Albertans were embracing that narrative and he embraced the idea and branded it as his own. Under this narrative, his party was re-elected in 1993, 1997, and 2001. Arguably, after the deficit and debt has been paid off, Premier Klein’s government drifted through the 2004 “Kleinfeld” election until his retirement in 2006.
One of the biggest challenges facing the government of Premier Ed Stelmach is its lack of defining purpose, or political narrative that Albertans will embrace. In the absence of any dominant narrative, there are a number of citizen groups and political parties competing to craft their own political narratives (or spin) around the upcoming provincial budget, including the Taxpayers federation, Join Together Alberta, the Parkland Institute and the Wildrose Alliance. This weekend, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy hosted a Conference on Alberta’s Future, where among many things, crafting various shades of blue political narratives for our province were discussed (you can read more about it here, here, here, here, and here). In a couple of weeks, citizens involved in Reboot Alberta will gather in Kananaskis to discuss other new ideas in crafting a new political narrative for our province. We are only two months in and 2010 already looks like it is going to be an interesting years for politics in Alberta.
Overall, The Future of Story conference generated some excellent discussion about the future of the craft of storytelling and brought together over 250 interested and passionate storytellers to share their ideas.