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Thursday, August 05, 2010

Who Can Albertans Trust to Tell the Truth About Their Oil Sands?

Interesting columns and commentary around the ENGOs, industry and government efforts to influence public opinion around oil sands development.  Our recent values based research along with some ordinary opinion polling is feeding the conversation.

The manic messaging is becoming more important to the self interests of the various combatants rather than any fidelity to the facts in the public interest.  The public is at a loss of who to believe and what to believe about the reality of oil sands development with all the over heated hype coming from the various camps.

The credibility of all the players in this puffed up PR game is eroding rapidly.  The game being played around the oil sands is not focused on the facts and helping Albertans as the owners of the oil sands to be more informed, aware, interested and engaged on the issues and seeking solutions.  It is more about special interests being more concerned with protecting institutional reputations as opposed to doing the real work on the ground to fix the problems first.

Who Can We Trust?
Who is the everyday Albertan supposed to believe and trust anymore?  This is not a superficial question for government and industry and even activist environmental groups.  They of these self-interests all depend on the public trust and confidence to be able to do their work and to do their jobs, presuming that is to serve the public interest.  That is the key foundational question that is emerging in the minds of many Albertans. Who is representing the public interest and who are we to believe when all we see are stunts, glossy advertising and questionable content and selective information presented as facts.  Where is the adult conversation happening about the complexity, opportunity and responsibility around oil sands development?

The media, including pundits, commentators and bloggers, are also subject to suspicion.  We are as much part of the problem as anyone else. Where is the wider lens we need to better deal with the complexity of the oil sands from an integrated economic, environmental, social, and public policy approach.  Where is the wisdom we need to actually properly and responsibly develop the oil sands on a rational, integrated and long term trustworthy perspective?

What Do Albertans Value?
We have recently done another conjoint survey on values research on what values Albertans want politicians and policy makers to apply when making public policy and political decisions that impact our lives.  It is apparent that Albertans do not feel they are getting these values addressed these days.  The most important attributes for government to make decisions from everyday Albertans were Accountability, Integrity, Fiscal Responsibility, Honesty and Transparency.

If these are the most important public policy values of Albertans then anyone trying to influence opinions or resonate with our hearts and minds better be sure to demonstrate in actions - not just words - that they are authentically meeting these higher standards of behaviour that citizens expect.

What I see happening now is an attitude or political autism that is all spin and PR.  The combatants seem to be unable to read the social cues of their audiences.  As a result Albertans will dismiss for a number of reasons, including suspicion over motives that are seen as exploitative and naive self-interest, a lack of competence and judgment, a lack of respect for other points of view, ideology being more important than creating informed opinion and a default to hostility towards opponents instead of being helpful to the public interest.

We All Know Oil Sands Are Important
There are 89% of Albertans who see the oil sands as a very or extremely important element in our future prosperity.  Anyone in government or industry who fails to address this in a broader, integrated and more authentic context than we are seeing now is risking political power and their business investment.

There is a serious and growing credibility gap in what is being said to citizens, what citizens consider important and perceptions about what is actually happening in the areas of concern.  This is a recipe for disaster and extremes.  There are major gaps between existing legal and policy frameworks and actual delivery of results.  There even bigger gaps between aspirations and perceptions of reality and actual performance in many areas of concern to Albertans around oil sands development.  I call these differences "The Big Betrayal Factor" once citizens see the disconnect between what they believe to be happening and what is actually going on in their name around oil sands development. 

It is just as likely that Albertans will turn off and tune out of politics and public policy processes even more because they are so angry and resentful of the conventional way things are done.  The other possibility is there will be an electoral revolution where Albertans will say they have had enough and throw out all the conventional power hungry types for something entirely different.  One thing for sure we can't continue in the status quo and hope to realize our potential as a province and as a people.  Change, Change  Change it what I hope for.