The Alberta PCs are struggling to shake off the emerging political narrative that they are next Social Credit dynasty. After 36 years in office, Social Credit collapsed under the weight of its own Byzantine-antiquity when its era came to an end in 1971. The apparent rise of the Wildrose Alliance since last Fall has become a dominant theme in the media and there has been continuous speculation that the current political establishment may be facing its strongest challenge in decades.
It will take more than just a change of characters to change politics in Alberta. Supporters of the current political establishment will praise the government for holding traveling consultation meetings and online surveys, but a top-down style of governance is engrained in the current political culture.
Transportation Minister Luke Ouellette told Alberta’s municipalities two years ago that a $2 billion Green Trip fund would be created to support urban public transportation projects. Two years later, Minister Ouellette told the municipalities that they will still not get access to the Green Trip funds until they come up with something “innovative.” City of Airdrie Mayor Linda Bruce told the Calgary Herald that “[n]obody has heard anything” about when or if the funds will be distributed. Alberta’s cities need build the kind of transportation infrastructure necessary to deal with the realities of urban growth.
In June 2008, then-Infrastructure Minister Jack Hayden announced the construction of a 650-car parkade near the Alberta Legislature (along with around $200 million to renovate the long-empty federal building). Instead of encouraging more single-occupant vehicle traffic into the already congested downtown core, it would have been much more “innovative” for the province to have worked closer with the City of Edmonton to develop of better strategy in fitting the Government Centre buildings into the city-wide public transportation plans.
Edmonton-Rutherford PC MLA Fred Horne has spent the past few weeks traveling across Alberta promoting the proposed Alberta Health Act. The value of these “stakeholder consultations meetings” is being questioned by participants, including Town of Redwater Mayor Mel Smith:
He came away confused, saying the workshop heard from such differing points of view that the discussion became meaningless, suffering from such a “lack of substance” that it didn’t address anything. “To be honest, I’m just not sure how much I did get out of it,” said Smith who considers himself a Progressive Conservative supporter but who for a moment sounded a tad skeptical if not downright cynical: “I’m not sure this wasn’t one of their steps to say that we’ve had consultations and then they’ll do what they like.”
As the Tory ‘Political Minister for Edmonton‘, Education Minister Dave Hancock is playing defence on teacher layoffs in Calgary and Edmonton. In a recent blog post, Minister Hancock called on the Public School Boards in the province’s two largest cities to stop the layoffs, claiming that they do not need to happen. This is a symptom of the dysfunctional relationship that has evolved between the Provincial Government and the elected School Boards. Every three years, School Board Trustees are elected under a more specific mandate than a provincial government, which has its own political agenda (and controls the purse-strings). Crying “tough economic times,” as Minister Hancock did in his blog post, is a tired argument for a Cabinet that can afford to easily drop $200,000 on an oilsands public relations campaign.
It is one thing to send Cabinet Ministers across the province to meet with pre-selected groups, but it is something completely different to change the culture of politics and prove that these meetings were more than just political lip-service. It is likely not intentional or malicious. It just might not be reasonable to expect actual open governance from political leaders who have become accustomed to wielding their large majority in the Assembly like a giant stick.
At the New Kids on the Politics Block event earlier this month, I had the chance to speak with Danielle Smith for about half-an-hour. I am not sure if she has what it takes to change Alberta’s political culture, but I was thoroughly impressed with how engaged and interested she was during our conversation. In a political discussion she can speak confidently and in full sentences.
It is impossible to predict the results of the next election or when Albertans will elect a new party to office. It is becoming more evident that a growing number of Albertans are becoming cynical of the same old-style political culture. It might be in 2011, or maybe in 2015, but it is only a matter of time before a big meteor smashes through. Who knows what will survive when the dust settles?