Thursday, June 21, 2007

Our recent column published last Sunday in LaPresse has generated some email interest. This is the last LaPresse column until the fall now:

If money bought happiness, Albertans would be among the happiest people on earth. But they aren’t. Heading into the summer, this remarkably prosperous province is beset by anxiety.

Ralph Klein liked to say that after defeating the debt and deficit he “wanted to put his feet up for a while and enjoy the accomplishment.” He did, and we allowed it for too long. We became focused on the past instead of preparing for the future. As a result some important things are missing in Alberta today. The most obvious ones are leadership, stewardship and citizenship.

There is a shift in Alberta from the feel good sloganeering of the “Alberta Advantage,” past a general grumpiness, into genuine angst about the future direction of this province. For too many this new wealth that is being generated is not reaching them. Not only that, their cost of surviving, not just living, is on the increase. Pressures are mounting and the consequences are not happy ones for many ordinary Albertans. So much so, that in a bye-election on June 12, Calgary voters elected a Liberal to fill Klein’s vacant seat.

Albertans aren’t alone in their discontent. Across the country we can see an uneasy feeling that our political class isn’t up to the task of responding intelligently to the needs and aspirations of citizens, or to produce the trans-partisan leadership necessary to achieve this country’s potential.

When we look to Quebec, we have the spectacle of Jean Charest playing chicken with oppositions on his budget and the infamous "tax break for the middle class” that may (or not) trigger an election. The so-called fiscal imbalance in Quebec is shown to be a myth if equalization money from Canada can be used for a tax reduction when it is supposed to provide for equivalent public service levels. The ADQ and PQ parties are both on record as opposed to his cynical budget ploy by Charest. They say the tax break Charest wants would be better public policy if it were provided in the form of a debt repayment. That way the interest saved could be added to operating budgets through enhanced general revenues and that way serve the needs of Quebecers for generations.

That level of pessimistic leadership, and the resulting loss of citizen confidence, is evident in national politics too. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Quebec gambit of buying Charest’s victory with Ottawa tax money is backfiring.

The personal power agenda of the Prime Minister has alienated and aggravated just about anyone who he needs and wants within his sphere of influence. The confrontation with Nova Scotia and Newfoundland regarding the Atlantic Accord is a fight within the same partisan family. It is far removed from confident and competent leadership and governance.The Prime Minister has even managed to devalue his political stock in Ontario with his legislative agenda to add and redistribute new House of Commons seats. That is now perturbing Ontarians even more as Harper moves to realign the seat distribution in a way that undermine their power and influence and short changes the largest voter group in the country. With all the levers of power at his disposal for over 16 months and with no real threat of an election, unless he wants one, Harper has not been able to move beyond his political support ranking of the last election. Loyalty to his leadership from the Reform/Alliance side of the Conservative Party of Canada is eroding and his personal trustworthiness and political integrity is in decline as well.

Given that the big issue is going to be the environment and the fact it will continue to grow in importance this summer, Harper will become increasingly less relevant given his lack of traction, trust and tenacity on those issues.

The limits and limitations of partisan and adversarial politics are all too clear. Among citizens and their institutions, we are steadily abandoning hierarchical and paternalistic models of organisation and interaction. More and more, citizens live in a collaborative and consensual world that is built on relationships and networks, whether in the home, the workplace, or in their leisure pursuits. The very idea of Canada is a sense of inclusion and belonging; the ability to accept one another’s differences and make the most of collaboration on the interests and issues – environment, health care, education, social cohesion – we have in common.

Our tribal politics are far removed from the day-to-day reality of how citizens engage and interact with one another. Unless our political class changes its ways, the summer of discontent may last a very long time indeed.