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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Alberta Election Reform Should Not Limit Free Speech

The existential anxiety I feel when I agree with Lorne Gunter amuses and alarms me. His column today goes beyond my usual cognitive dissonance. It actually astonishes me because I can’t even find a quibble with what he says - never mind any significant disagreement with him.

The election reform we need to restore citizenship and participation in Alberta’s democratic process is not going to be achieved by putting a limitation on free speech. The contest of how to correct the system so far sees Stelmach’s trial balloon of limiting third party election spending and the Alberta Federation of Labour’s counter punch of demanding big business donation bucks are taken out of politics too.

The story line is there is too much political muscle vested in special interests like labour and business. Those big money guys are the problem. Why? Because they can buy influence via paid advertising in the election process. I don’t buy that. I also don’t buy that political parties should be the only serious players in politics at election time. If any group has too much power over the process it is the political parties, not business and labour.

The problem with our lack of political engagement in our democracy is not about who has and is exercising monetary muscle. It is more about that what is being said at elections. What problems being presented in platforms. What solutions are being offered by the political class. For the most part the content and context of elections are not meaningful to the population.

Political parties try not to lose elections rather than win them. They play super safe by doing pointless polls, run obtuse focus groups, then media train the personality out of the leaders by shrink-wrapping them into a message bubble so they will be politically safe. Elections are supposed to be about choices and consequences. Instead of making election politics about practical purposes and people they become personality contests focused on tactics, gaffes and shallow media events.

There are some changes that need to be made in the election process that deals more with openness and transparency of who exactly is trying to buy influence over me. People who show up and think about the issues and how to cast their vote are not stupid. Those who don’t bother to get informed or to vote effectively abdicate their democratic rights to those who do vote. As a result the no-shows have made a decision that they don’t want to count in the future political direction and decisions that impact their lives. So be it but paid advertising is not likely to change the opinions much less the behaviours of the pathologically disengaged “citizen.”

The solution for that democratic dilemma is not the elimination of third party advertising or abolition of certain financial support sources for elections. I would be trying to expand both elements and also be encouraging individual donations and citizen political participation as a way to get political parties and leaders to become more open to new ideas.

We need more candidates who are able to be bolder, braver and come forward with more engaging and meaningful policy promises. they need to be able to clearly articulate a relevant practical political platforms they intend to keep. I think if there is going to be a focus on election reform, it is not so much about how free speech is being exercised but to ensure we know who exactly is “talking” to us to influence our vote.

The AFL gambit of not disclosing that they were behind the anti-Stelmach TV ads hurt the NDP who could have used the money. It also hurt the Liberals who got caught in a backlash because they were presumed to be the source of the ads and they got blamed because for many Albertans they were seen to be in bad taste and too negative. The irony is, as Gunter points out, that while Stelmach may be trying to limit such ads, he actually benefited significantly from the AFL negative TV ads at the end of the day.

There is some positive, serious and significant election reform going that will not likely get front page headlines because it is not deemed to be newsworthy. It is the recent Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta effort to amend and fix its own leadership selection process. It is one of the most open and democratic processes in the country today but still needs improvement. I suggest this effort is a more important and meaningful step at significant political reform.

The Alberta Liberals and NDP are poised for leadership changes as well. They might we well advised to look at their own party processes and shortcomings before they jump into any exercise or bandwagon to limit free speech masquerading in the guise of enhancing our democracy.