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Friday, July 17, 2009

There Is a Crack in Everything-That is How the Light Gets In

UPDATE JULY 18: THE MLA BACKBENCER REFERRED TO IN THIS POST IS GUY BOUTILIER. ON FRIDAY NIGHT JULY 17 HE WAS EXPELLED FROM THE PC CAUCUS BY PREMIER STELMACH. THAT PUTS MORE CONTEXT ON THIS BLOG POST.

The media reports about "cracks" in the PC Caucus coming out of recent comments by a PC backbench MLA who was critical of the Minister of Health are interesting. I am not going to deal with the merits of the comments. I am much more interested in the governing implications of the story. The politics of the situation are a large part of implications too.

The fact is a backbench MLA spoke out publicly, on behalf of his constituency, and criticized a change in government policy that directly affects citizens in his riding. This should be considered normal not objectionable behaviour by government, leadership and political parties. Otherwise what is the point of electing these people to represent us on a constituency basis? Cabinet Ministers are in a more difficult position because they have to actually represent the government. That can sometimes fetter their ability to speak out publicly.

There are always cracks in a political Caucus. They are supposed to be there. This is natural in a representative democracy and in Cabinets organized in departments with oversight committees like Treasury Board and Agenda and Priorities. In Klein's Caucus there was 1/3 on the right, 1/3 on the left and 1/3 who wanted to be on Klein's side. Most of them felt that they owed Klein their seats but that is not the case today. The left and right are smaller and the middle group does not owe their seat to Premier Stelmach, even with the large majority in the last election.

The more critical issue about "cracks" in a governing caucus is the role of power politics in the classic power structures of command and control leadership within a top-down governance philosophy. The classic command and control top down model demands that government politicians speak with "one voice" on all government policy. That one voice is often the leaders voice - regardless of the party. At least that is my experience.

We saw that "one voice" actually being that of a party leader happen last week. Premier Stelmach came out of a caucus meeting and said he was not raising taxes to cover the record deficits Alberta is facing. He did that in the face of contrary comments made by some of his Cabinet who mused about the possibility of raising taxes to cover budget deficits. He also said he was rolling back recent liquor taxes because "he was not comfortable with them." Why does the leader get to unilaterally decide to change the provincial budget by personal fiat after it is the law of the Province? This is not unique to Alberta but it should not be the acceptable norm in responsible "democratic" governance either.

The natural conclusion of a command and control top down policy decision making process is that it stifles public discussion and debate, especially by governing caucus members. I think this open public policy discussion, by governing politicians, is vital for a vibrant healthy democracy. It needs to happen vigorously and extensively before a policy decision is made or when a Minister unilaterally decides, by personal fiat, to change an existing government policy position. Anything less is not a meaningful way of practicing true responsible and representative democracy.

The command and control top down governance model means we end up with MLAs, especially government MLAs, only representing the government perspective to their constituents. MLAs are supposed to be the the best eyes and ears a governing political party can have. They are supposed to be sensitive and reflect the mood and mind of their constituency. But we hardly ever see or hear from them speaking out in that role. I am sure the behind closed doors caucus discussions are full of MLAs talking and debating about constituency concerns on various issues and proposed public policies. You would never know it given the tradition of caucus secrecy and the command and control "need" for one consistent voice coming out of caucus.

If you, as a politician, don't agree with a partisan policy position of your caucus you have few choices. Mostly shut up and toe the line or quit the caucus, or speak out and risk being kicked out of the caucus. Quitting means you don't get to fight another day and not toeing the line means you are deemed to not be "a team player." You will face pressures, discipline and other consequences from the party structure and precious little protection can come from your constituency.

I think political parties need to open up the internal party discussion and debate. They need to the trust the intelligence of the populace more than they do. We citizens are not so naive or stupid that we can't understand the political need for a governing party to balance conflicting perspectives and make trade offs of competing values. What we need, as citizens, in order to have more confidence in our government, is to see the actual political decision making process that is being used to strike that balance or to make that value trade off. We elect our politicians to make those balance choices and those value trade offs for us. But surely we ought to be entitled to see the reasoning and hear the discussion that was behind the choices being made on our behalf.

The closest thing we have to serve that need now is the political theatre of Question Period. That is more farce than informative. I want more government MLAs taking personal political positions in public on the policy issues of the day. I saw that public debate happen with Bill 44. Some social conservatives in the PC Caucus were actually speaking out in mainstream and social media and stating their positions and reasons in support of the legislation.

I did not see a single progressive conservative governing caucus member arguing against Bill 44 in public. My guess is they were silent because it was a government Bill and caucus already had the policy debate and the decision was a "done deal." But Bill 44 was only debated amongst the governing caucus members behind the closed doors of their private and secret caucus meetings.

Surely not everyone in the PC Caucus agreed whole heartedly with Bill 44 as written or amended. Will we ever know that for sure? Not likely. The PC Caucus and the PC Party apparatus just wants the whole Bill 44 fiasco to go away and to be forgotten. That is not likely to happen either. Not when there is a Facebook group like "Students Against Bill 44" with over 11,000 members still in existence.

The non-partisan and partisan public debate on the issues inherent in Bill 44 could and should happen before it hits a closed caucus meeting decision. I want to know that there was a debate, what issues were debated and the range of opinion that was under consideration. I want to see what was on the cutting room floor of the political drama. I am not satisfied with just get ting a pre-programmed press release about the final outcome. It is fine for a governing MLA caucus member to lose a battle, choose to stay in a caucus and to try and win another day in a mature political party process.

I respect politicians who authentically hold different political principles from my own. I especially respect politicians who spend their political capital and risk losing policy battles based on their principles. That is essential for a lively, vibrant, capable and confident political party. It is foundational to mature effective political leadership and core to the concept of responsible, representative and accountable democratic governance. All that is not possible in the current message massaging political machine of command and control top down governance models that dominate modern democracies these days.

Then add to the Bill 44 farce when the Premier declared a "free vote" for the PC caucus on Bill 44. What was free about this vote when, in the final result, any PC MLA who opposed Bill 44 on principle, and there were some, all ducked out of the free vote or they merely complied like sheep. Going along to get along and personal principles be damned is too often the default position of too many of our partisan-loyal politicians these days. Constituent concerns are, at best, treated as second class in this kind of political culture.

Excuses as to why PC MLAs did not show up to vote on Bill 44 third reading abound. Some have said "I was not on house duty that night" and "I had previous commitments" were amongst the most common. All weak and feckless excuses to avoid standing up for their political principles if you as me. The government knew it was going to invoke closure on the Bill 44 legislature debate and it did. It was not as if government MLAs did not know that and that the critical final vote on Bill 44 would happen that night.

Second, they would know when the vote would likely happen because they engineered the debate to happen late at night. The thinking there was undoubtedly that a late night vote meant that nobody would be following the debate and the MSM wouldn't care enough to cover it the next day. Wrong again, mostly because they did not expect the influence of the Internet and the power of social media. Hundreds of citizens were watching the debate as it streamed on line and they were actively engaged in Twittering all night long.

Finally I noted that the Premier came back to the Legislature about 12:30 am the night of the final vote on Bill 44. If he could make the effort to come back to the legislature to take advantage of the "free vote" why didn't those other government MLAs, who may have opposed Bill 44 on principle, come back and vote too? Was it about taking the easy way out and go along to get along? Or did they not believe the Premier when he said it would be a free vote. Where they afraid to vote against a government Bill as a PC MLA because it would result in "consequences?"

The Premier showed up and showed leadership that night. He was wrong in his position to my mind - but he at least showed up and voted. I always say the world is run by those who show up. The progressives in the PC caucus who were opposed to Bill 44 failed us and themselves when they failed, refused or neglected to show up and take a free vote stand against this ill-advised legislation.

This going along to get along is becoming the new normal in the world of command and control top down hyper-partisan "democracy." I hope the new networked collaborative and respective sharing of differences of opinion in open political discussion and with rigorous principled debate will be the basis of a revived representative democracy in Alberta. We sure need it. The "cracks" that are showing in any and likely all political caucuses, especially a governing party caucus, are a good thing for citizens and for our democracy. Remember what Leonard Cohen said:

"Ring the bell that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That is how the light gets in."