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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Tailing Ponds and the Tale of Two Leaders: Stephen Harper and Ed Stelmach

Readers of this Blog will know I am no big fan of Prime Minister Harper. However, when he gets things right, I have to take my hat off and give credit where credit is due.

Harper Gets It:
The Prime Minister sure got it right in Edmonton the other day when he commented on the death of 500 ducks in the Syncrude oil sands tailing pond. He said the obvious when he commented "There were supposed to be systems in place to prevent this particular kind of event and obviously we're greatly disappointed, and troubled that we've seen what has occurred here." So what happened?

He shows he gets it with this comment, "I'm not here to make any excuses for the particular event that occurred in the last few days. It's a terrible event. It's not going to do anybody's image any good." So are we just going to spend money on PR to “improve” our image?

Then Harper put the incident in the larger context when he said, "Part of our responsibility as an emerging energy superpower is to be good stewards of our environment and also to become world leading on the environmental side of the business." Stewardship is the key issue here, not just growth at any cost.

Alberta - Not So Much:
The Alberta government response so far has not been as clear, consistent or as correct as it should be. Ed Stelmach is one of my favourite politicians but he seems to be vacillating and not showing that he “gets it” about the significance of this event. The GOA seems to be focused more on parsing the "facts. " Albertans are all about the greater symbolic significance of the demise of these ducks in these man-made toxic tailing ponds. The facts can be dealt with, but are they really all that critical determining how our political leaders need to respond to this "tragic" event.

Insuring and Assuring are Insufficient Responses:
The focus on the facts falls into the “insurance” level of pubic accountability. It is the lowest level of meeting the public's expectations for good governance. Screw ups happen and with the insurance approach to consequences the guilty are simply slapped with a fine - in this case of up to a million dollars. This fact of a fine has also been noted. Will a fine, of even a million dollars, change a corporate culture where the potential offender made a net profit approaching $300m in the last quarter?

The next public expectation level is for an “assurance” that public policy, industry practices and actual performance aims to prevent the repeat of such events. The failure to perform, the failure to monitor, the failure of timely notice to government, the potential failure to account and be transparent are some of facts that can and will be dealt with. This usually creates a governance culture of increased government regulation, monitoring, auditing reporting and enforcement. That increases government accountability and enforcement is obviously needed but is it enough to fix the stewardship problem?

It is an approach that too often results in industry merely complying with the new regulations as the stewardship standard. There is no incentive for project developers to raise the stewardship bar or to invest in new and better approaches. It is more about creating a corporate and political culture that worships the status quo.

Albertan's Know We Must Be More Responsible Stewards:
Albertans know we have a special responsibility to be global leaders in responsible sustainable development and also ensuring environmental stewardship - especially around oil sands development. A $25m PR campaign is not the way to prove this to the world. The indications are that the GOA has shelved its PR campaign aimed at countering ENGO messages about dirty oil ands. That image has already become the world-wide normative consciousness about Alberta's ecological values.

You can’t change values, earn respect or prove integrity with PR and paid advertising campaigns. We have to be more worthy and substantive than that if Albertans are going to regain the respect and trust of others in this interdependent globalized reality.

Why I Believe in Ed Stelmach:
Ed Stelmach made two very important and telling value statements during the PC leadership contest. He said “The environment trumps the economy” and “Leadership trumps issues.” Those two comments did a whole bunch to cement my conviction that his values were just what we needed for Alberta’s next leader.

Now, as the elected Premier of Alberta with an overwhelming mandate, Ed Stelmach knows he has to show us that he is serious about walking that talk. Good farmers are also good stewards of the environment. Ed Stelmach is well known as a good farmer. He has proven himself to be a capable leader. He can also be a good steward. It is time for Ed Stelmach focus on using his life experiences, his leadership skills and his stewardship values to ensure Alberta's economic, environment and social future.