Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Progressive Reflections on the Alberta Elections

The local elections in Alberta last night were significant, maybe even momentous.   The single-minded media focus on the culture wars between the right wing parties for political power shifted last night.  This happened in many municipal mayoralty contests around Alberta but nowhere more dramatically than Edmonton and Calgary.  As someone who has been focused on getting the progressive voice of Alberta back into the political culture, I have to say last night was gratifying and encouraging.

Elections all over urban Alberta last night sent a strong message to the other orders of government that this province has a new progressive narrative that is forward thinking, intelligent, vibrant and very very energized.  The significant increase voter turnout in the big cities shows that people want change and it is not good enough to merely offer a choice between very right-wing Progressive Conservative Party agenda and extremely right wing Wildrose Alliance Party agenda. 

There was the emergence of a progressive political agenda in evidence in these municipal elections.  It came to life in many parts of urban Alberta last night.  I know that progressive political agenda came to life in the Mayoralty contests in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Hinton and County of Strathcona. 

The Mayor and entire town council of Rimbey were sent packing.  It was discovered through FOIP that they were using taxpayer funds to go to conservative related fundraising dinners and incurring other inappropriate expenses.  They were all replaced by some progressive thinking Albertans who want values in their local government and value for their tax dollars. I am sure there are other examples but I have not had time to research them yet.

The contests had different contexts but the consequences are the same.  The old hierarchical, command and control, top down, power broker model of politics in Alberta is no longer acceptable in much of urban Alberta.  I’m betting that rejection of the outmoded model of politics will translate into Alberta provincial politics both urban and rural.  It is sure not a preferred governing model for the not-for-profit, NGO and the rest of the voluntary sector in the province.

Nowhere was this more evident that in the Edmonton and Calgary mayoralty campaigns.  Progressive candidates for Mayor trounced the status quo and conventionally hide-bound conservative candidates in both cities.  Progressives found new ways to enhance the typical election campaigning by networking and creating communities of ideas and issues through social media.  

Progressives found a new, young, articulate, cosmopolitan candidate in Calgary and stuck with a revered forward thinking imaginative candidate in Edmonton.  The revitalized progressive citizen realized these two men they could believe in and trust.  These two candidates came to their campaigns with forward thinking, creative ideas for a modern vibrant and sustainable city.  They outline their ideas in platforms that resonated with the aspirations that progressives want for their cities.  They were pushing towards designing and delivering a better tomorrow while the opposition candidates wanted to hit the pause button to stop progress, or in some cases, go to rewind and take us back 50 years in our thinking.  Nenshi and Mandel both showed grace and dignity in the face of some very nasty but unfounded personal smears and slanders in some vicious but anonymous campaign attacks.

Calgary progressives showed up in droves (50%+ turnout) to send a message to the presumptive (and past?) power brokers that they really don’t own or run that town any more.  Nenshi’s enormous and dramatic win as an outside progressive underdog undid and devoured the Harper Cons election machine that ran the McIver campaign.  Then it defeated and devastated the old Klein cum Dinning election machine that recruited and promoted Higgins.  Those “front-runner” campaigns never saw this comeuppance coming.  Watching the coverage I could tell both conservative based campaigns were obviously shocked on election night by the severity, size and soundness of their rejection by the revival of progressive Calgary voters.

In Edmonton the full court press by Envision Edmonton was intended to undermine Mayor Mandel.  It didn’t just fizzle – it imploded and then burst into flames.  The Envision Edmonton effort in citizen participation unraveled in scandal.  The admitted fraudulent dirty-trick political activities by a key Envision Edmonton volunteer sealed the demise.  The man who managed the Envision Edmonton petition drive fraudulently posed as a Seattle newspaper reporter and deceitfully created a controversy that destroyed the credibility and respect for an otherwise laudable effort at citizen engagement.

He falsely accused Mayor Mandel of personal and political corruption in the potential redevelopment of the municipal airport lands.  Instead of undermining Mandel he energized progressives to actively support the Mandel campaign.  When they showed up on Election Day they made a big difference in the size of the Mandel win and the size of the wreckage that was wrought on the Dorward campaign.  Sadly, I think the deceit and dishonesty of the Envision Edmonton impostor was a cause for voter concern about the integrity, ethics, honesty, accountability and transparency of the entire Envision Edmonton airport effort.  Envision Edmonton made matters worse by refusing to distance and denounce this perpetrator for his dirty tricks and fraudulent actions.  He also unfairly implicated the Dorward campaign under similar suspicions because Dorward was the Envision Edmonton endorsed candidate for Mayor. 

Dorward said, in a post-election CBC radio interview, that he does not think that the Envision Edmonton meltdown or the fraudulent blogger hurt his campaign.   Perhaps he is right.  We will never know for sure but I think it did.  Consider for a moment that Envision Edmonton pushed the fact that the 90,000+ signatures on their petition needed to be heeded by Edmonton City Council.  Well, only 58,000 voted for Mr. Dorward.  Where did the rest go or did they really care about the airport issue in the first place?  Did Dorward pick up many new votes as a result of the scandalous anonymous and inaccurate attacks on Mandel?  Many people sign a petition with no intention of being really engaged on the issue.  Do these low voter numbers for Dorward compared to the number of petition signatures show that, or was it a more serious rejection of his campaign?  Don’t know but it does matter, especially if you want a working democracy based on integrity, honesty, trust, transparency and accountability.

So what does this all mean for changes I see coming towards a more progressive political culture in Alberta?  Some things are clearer than others.  For sure dirty trick and fraudulent politics will not be tolerated.  It will cause a significant portion of voters, and progressive citizens in particular, to take offence and rise up to oppose such tactics.  There is a need for a more refined level of media literacy especially in the new and digital media world.  There is a growing group of Albertans who know that it is just not enough to denounce these activities…you have to show up, expose them and defeat those who engage and acquiesce in the perpetration of such incorrigible activities.  Progressives did that in Edmonton and Calgary, on-line and at the ballot box.  

There is also a new value set that is emerging in Alberta.  Many progressives will want a hand in writing that new narrative and want to help design and deliver the next Alberta That new narrative is not going to be about continuing a simple-minded conservative ideology bent on perpetually lower taxes as a way to chase/attract foreign investment then coupled with royalty give-aways.  It is going to be about the current generation paying its way and leaving asocial, environmental and economic legacy to the future we can be proud of.

The new narratives are in the hearts and minds of progressive thinking citizens who see themselves coming back to democracy and electing servant leaders not political power brokers.  They see the economy working for the society not the other way around.  They see the economy and society embedded in the environment and that we must work in harmony with the ecosystems of the plant instead of just trying to engineer our way around Mother Nature.

The winning progressive candidates for Mayor in Edmonton, Calgary and other cities campaigned to create communities that are vibrant, diverse, dynamic, inclusive, conscious, meaningful and imaginative. They wanted to ensure public policies and local politics integrate economic, environmental and social concerns based on shared political and other cultural values. These progressive candidates see a positive role for government that creates a shared means to protect property, provide effective institutions and quality infrastructure to support and sustain citizens and their families.  They seek to make municipalities that are responsible, safe, caring and compassionate societies where individuals can realize their personal potential and in turn contribute in ways that advance their lot in life and also add value to the greater good. 

Progressives are not prepared to stand back and allow the contemptuous policy approach of many fiscal conservatives who see the marketplace as the only public policy option.  Too many fiscal conservatives are not trying to get value for taxpayer dollars in ways that advance our society.  They mostly want to cut taxes to levels that will starve vital public services like education and health care.  Without sufficient taxpayer provided resources these sectors simply can’t do their jobs.  By pushing a tax policy designed to under fund public services they ensure these public services will fail to perform.

The next step is for the libertarian or ultra-conservative dogma to kick in and demand that the private sector comes to the “rescue.”  Historically that has been a failed and expensive strategy because the taxpayer inevitably has to bail out the private operator. Remember the recent bankruptcy of the private surgical clinic in Calgary we spent millions to sustain as a case in point?  That is not an isolated case and we must not allow it to become the norm.

As part of the Reboot Alberta progressive citizen’s movement I have to marvel how fast and far this idea of a progressive Alberta political culture has come in one short year.  The proof is in the increased voter turnout and the progressive election results in Edmonton, Calgary and many other Alberta communities.  Progressives are coming to life again all over Alberta.  I am encouraged by this and know it is not too late for Albertans to take back the political agenda of the province - and it is about time.  The stage is set. The times are a-changin’ and the progressive Alberta voter has to come back to democracy and seems focused on taking back control of the political culture and agenda of our province.  I saw that return to citizenship start to happen on October 18 in local elections all over Alberta.

If you want a progressive political culture in the Next Alberta register now for RebootAlberta 3.0 at