Sunday, January 18, 2015

2015: The Year for Acting Politically

Here is a draft of a piece I did emerging from my guest spot at the Summer Conference for the Alberta Teachers Association.  I am often invited to attend ATA events as a "friendly critic and critical friend of the ATA" as a former President likes to call me.

Summer Conference includes the ATA leadership cohort from across the province.  They looked collectively into their professional and political role in Alberta's public education policy going forward.

This "post" was inspired from the ATA event last August.  That was in the heat of the PC leadership process and just before the oil price changes gathered momentum.  You will see from the content it was written after the October by-elections.


Politics was a key message this year for ATA Summer Conference participants. Politics pervaded the Conference program. PC Leadership candidates were invited to attend and speak but Thomas Lukaszuk was the only one to show up. Opposition Education Critics all attended, spoke civilly and shared insights on their approaches to education policy.  

I got to “interview” Lukaszuk and moderate the Opposition Critic panel.  I also got to observe and add commentary in Political Engagement sessions.  As a result I learned a lot about the political positioning and thinking of the ATA.  I got to listen to those members charged with bringing the voice of teachers into the complex public policy process of the province.

My special privilege was when I was asked to make some wrap up comments at the end of the Conference.  My closing comments were based on Martin Luther King’s speech on Power and Love.  He said power without love is reckless and abusive. Love without power is sentimental and anemic. King’s conclusion was that we need power and love not power or love.

Since the Summer Conference, there have been lots of political power plays in Alberta.  The PCs have selected a new leader.  There was a significantly diminished level of citizen participation than in previous contests.  There was a serious controversy over electronic voting irregularities.  Then there were accusations of ethical lapses by the winning candidate over giving “free” memberships, paid for by others.

The “new management” leader selected a Cabinet that had unelected and controversial Ministers in the key portfolios of Health and Education.  This exercise in political power caused two additional, costly but interesting by-elections.

More power based politics emerged in one of the by-elections.  Ethical breach allegations of conflict of interest were formally filed against the appointed Minister of Education.  The Alberta Party and Wildrose both accused him of conflict of interest by using his Ministerial power for private benefit during his election campaign.

Robocall tactics came from federal politics and to the Alberta by-elections.  This time, anonymous social conservatives targeted robocalls at Wildrose supporters in all by-election campaigns.  Their message belittled the Wildrose party leader’s values for pursuing moderate policies on sexual preference issues.  

In politics, power is often applied in ways that is reckless and abusive.  And when it comes to the values of many care givers, including educators, the love they have for their work is embraced as a calling.  So they are often seen, and even become, sentimental and anemic…and therefore ineffectual in getting what they needed for themselves and those in their charge.

The repulsion of power politics coupled with a genuine love of their work (aka their "calling"), educators often get badly treated by the dynamics of politics. They tend to get abused in the power-based public policy development and deployment process.

My closing message to teachers was to stay professional but also to dust off their citizenship duties.  Get informed, get engaged, then get on with politically active citizenship. Start making a real difference on issues that are important to you.

Being a professional in a publicly funded education system puts some legitimate limits on advocacy activities.  But citizenship is a justifiable distinction and a strong basis for individual advocacy and values-based activism.

I suggested teachers, acting as citizens, have a lot to offer our declining democracy.  They have special training and skills that can help others understand and interpret information (aka seeing and understanding propaganda).  They have analytic abilities and high degrees of literacy that can help marginalized groups access and understand politics and political messaging.

My engagement plea was for teachers to join a political party and volunteer to help a candidate in an election campaign.  If you want to have real influence the leverage of your time is via political partisanship.  Access to power is easier and only 2% of Canadians belong to parties so the "power" is significant.

You don’t have to subsume your values to the party ideology but research which party is closest to your values.  Great parties encourage and enable active dialogue on values.  This is because good political parties recognize political decisions are values trade-offs.  Policy design and political priorities are, at their essence, moral choices.

Democracy necessitates a dynamic diverse dialogue and an informed debate served by a wise set of elected and listening decision makers.  None of that happens without engaged citizens who want to synergize Power and Love.

When you reflect on the potential of a progressive values-based society like I just described, it occurs to me that I have also just described a very good school.
Yes teachers, as citizens, have a lot of skills, talents and qualities to help integrate the concepts of power and love.

Our democracy and our society needs great classroom teachers but that does not mean they can't  also become active and effective citizens outside of school.  that said, 2015 is indeed the year for educators to begin acting politically - especially if there is a snap election coming.