Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Albertans Are Waking Up and Looking for Viable Political Options

My reading of the recent Environics poll of the political mood of Albertans shows that we are well into our winter of discontent- at least politically.  Alberta voters have been a somnambulent since the 1993 election.  Back then we found two politicians (Decore and Klein) who captured the public concern about Alberta's debt and deficit problem.  The next election was about massive cuts or brutal cuts. In fact we did both kinds of cuts and we entrusted Klein more than Decore to undertake the dirty work.

Albertans are once again waking up politically and we are not too pleased with what we are seeing.  We are in uncertain economic times, difficult social times, and now we are being targeted internationally as  environmental bad guysover the "dirty" oil sands.  This means there is a new volatility in the Alberta political culture.  Daveberta has a blog post that shows the shifting tides and times in Alberta politics comparing December polls in 2008, 2009 and now.

What this trending tells me is Albertans are looking for policy options and political alternatives.  Our discontent has been brewing for some time. Politically we are told the Wildrose Alliance Party is the only viable alternative to the Progressive Conservatives.  The other traditional political parties, the Liberals and NDP, are apparently being passed over by the public as potential agents of change.  Equally as interesting, according to Environics, is 17% of us  are "Undecided" about voting intentions.   That too is a significant sign of the shifting political sands in Alberta.

The current political narrative is also interesting.  The media has covered the rise of Danielle Smith as the face and focus of the Wildrose, but has done almost nothing to expose and explain the WAP policies.  The rush to the right by the PCs in an attempt to catch up to the Wildrose (or head them off?) leaves many of us with  a sense of despair  about the future direction of the province.  The predominant political options are personality based. We get to choose between a young smart, urbane and articulate Smith versus the nice guy, over-his-head, inarticulate and very tentative Stelmach. But what about their governing philosophies and their visions for the future?  When will that be considered and become part of the political conversation so can get beyond the pedantics of personalities?

The Environics poll has another vital piece of data that needs context.  Stelmach's government has 34% support has stopped bleeding politically.  But the bloom is off the Wildrose who seem stuck around 30%.  Neither is strong enough to form a majority government if we believe this poll and it is the on-going reality.

We are living in economically uncertain times with the province anticipating the largest budget deficit in our history.  We are into a shaky slow recovery tied directly to the fortunes of a seriously failing and faltering American market and threats of a double-dip recession.  Even with that reality, Albertans have relegated the economy to the #2 spot of top policy concerns, down to 16% from 27% last Spring.  The Alberta environment issues gets lots of media coverage but only 7% of Albertans think it is our major issue and only 8% of us are focused on oil sands development and royalties as the biggest thing on our policy plate.

What has happened is health care has vaulted to the #1 issue for almost half of Albertans.  Some 47% of us think that it is the most serious policy issues we face now - compared to 27% who thought so last Spring.  That  sudden, dramatic and intense concern over health care is a potential game changer and could be a government changer too if is becomes a ballot question.

I think this focus on the politics of health care is more than a function of hyper media focus.  It goes deeper - much deeper.  Health care is an issue that integrates our personal concerns for care when we and our family need it and into a bigger-than-self compassionate concern for others who also need health care help.  When it comes to health care we are all in it together and alone.

The lack policy transparency, the suspicion of some hidden privatization political agendas and the real and growing fear of continuing erosion of  our highly valued Canadian health care system is making us all very nervous. The politics of health care is drawing our attention, triggering our fears and making us wonder what is really going on...and we are questioning who are to believe any more!

Health care is in systemic crisis, regardless of the denials by the political powers that be. There is a growing suspicion that some people with political influence and  power are intentionally undermining the effectiveness of the publicly funded health cares system to insure it will fail.  Once that public system failure is self-evident, the theory goes that private insurance will be promoted as the saviour of the failed public health care system.  Such is the conspiracy theory, but if it exists, are we enabling privateers to use public funds for private privilege because of political indifference of citizens?

There is no viable progressive political alternative in the Alberta these days. There is no trusted countervail to the reactionary right wing tendencies of the PCs and the even more extreme Libertarian views of the Wildrose Alliance.  But moderate and progressive is the political values space where most Albertans see themselves.  Our Alberta based random sample research shows over 60% of Albertans hold Accountability, Integrity, Honesty, Fiscal and Personal Responsibility, Transparency and Clarity as the most important bundle of values we should use to evaluate our government's performance.   This is not rocket surgery but we are far from seeing those values articulated in our political culture today.  Nor are we seeing an attractive alternative political party emerge that speaks authentically to these majority Albertan values today.

I think that political alternative shortcoming is about to change in Alberta.  This is partly because the political events surrounding Dr. Raj Sherman and his dogged determination to expose the political and administrative fault lines in our health care system.  He is the lightening rod that is attracting public attention, focusing our fears, capturing our imagination and giving us political context so we can begin to understand what is really going on.

But the future of health care in Alberta is not about Raj Sherman. We now need to focus on what has become a broken system and we need to get it fixed - right and right away.  We don't need the kind of anti-intellectual, anti-expertise of so-called "common sense approach" characteristic of the Klein era amateurs who were running health care based on Fraser Institute ideology.  We need professionals and public servants with expertise, integrity and a public policy perspective to take over the mess and to look past the next election with their solutions.

Albertans have been looking for a galvanizing political issue and a trustworthy proponent of the public interest.  I think the Environics poll shows health care is the galvanizing issue and Dr. Raj Sherman has become the trustworthy exponent of the public interest. We need a broader and better public discourse around a new narrative for Alberta and a viable progressive political alternatives to deliver on the promise and potential of the next Alberta.

Could that new narrative and promising new way of doing progressive politics be articulated and exemplified by the Alberta Party?  Could the Alberta Party emerge as the viable political alternative that actually aligns with the values of most Albertans?  I have to say it is early times but the numbers of people who are approaching me these days with a genuine curiosity about the Alberta Party, and who are joining up, is making me quite optimistic.  The times they are a-changin' and only time will tell if it is change for the better or the worse.  Over to you Alberta.  Informed engaged active voters hold the keys to the future.


  1. Ken, what you left out in the description of the cuts besides being massive and brutal, they were self-serving, arbitrary, naive, and done without any concept of the implications they would have for the future. For every $1 held back for infrastructure expenses in the 1990's it now costs $1.50. The state of health care and other issues that will be bubbling to the surface is what the majority of the voters chose.

  2. Don Henderson3:32 pm

    Ken. I frequently read your posts and am always interested in and respect your point-of-view. What are progressive politics? One half of the PCAA name is progressive. The word progressive in politics is often linked to progressive taxes, as in ever increasing taxes. Does it result in overgenerous social programs such as occur in Quebec? And big, intrusive and over-regulated government as in Ontario? Is akin to the U.S. Democratic Party? Is there an existing party you can refer to a an example?

  3. What about the party headed by a doctor? I've been out of country for six weeks, but surely David Swann should be a player if health care is the central issue.

  4. Anonymous6:02 pm

    The only way we'll ever get freedom from government controlled health care is through Danielle Smith. And it's time to allow us to pay for health care like they do in the USA. Period.

  5. Check out post on the same subject by Duncan at

  6. Well said, Ken - I, and perhaps representative of other Albertans, am looking for a party and a leader with the core values that you mentioned, but also a leader and party that puts the needs of people first, a leader who serves rather than seeks power, a leader who protects and supports the most vulnerable, a party that views education as an investment, not an expense, a future-orientated party and leader.

  7. srmoran43@gmail.com1:13 pm


    As ever an insightful and interesting column. It is clear that the sick care system is broken and needs serious attention. I am dismayed, however, that nowhere in your comments did the issue of how much we are spending on this system come up. Alberta's fiscal crisis (you allude to the large deficit) is directly traceable to the uncontrolled growth in health care spending. Over the past 11 years, overall government expenditure has increased about 30% on a constant $ per capita basis. Health care expenditures have risen 74% and account for 76% of the total increase. Education and seniors and community support together account for 25% of the increase. All the rest of government, all of it, actually decreased 1%. During this same period, tax revenue has been essential constant.
    This is more complex than fixing a broken health-care delivery system. We also need to figure out how to pay for our system in a way that doesn't bankrupt the province.


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