Sunday, April 05, 2009

Reflecting On Alberta's Democratic Deficit

Anyone who has paid attention to politics in Alberta for any length of time has to wonder aloud about how the province got into a state where it has effectively been one party rule for so long.

Today, it is virtually impossible to get elected without being some variety of Conservative, and even more depressingly, it seems as though the only alternatives that show up with any regularity are regularly even more extreme instances of right-wing politics than the current incumbents. Center and left-leaning political parties seem to be doomed to the political wilderness here - and nobody seems to really understand why this is the case.

In Alberta Views April issue, are some truly troubling letters-to-the-editor that should cause anyone living in a democracy pause.

There are two letters in particular I wish to draw your attention to:

First, is the leading letter, which discusses a movement to address some serious issues around a small, regional hospital in Beaverlodge. The author writes:

One of the organizers found a great deal of community reluctance to confront the local MLA on the issue, saying "I've encountered an immense fear within my community that sounds like this: If this debate takes place in the legislature or if we organize a grassrots movement to oppose these reforms we risk offending rural Conservative MLAs

Think about this for a moment. We are talking about MLAs - people who are duly elected to act as our representatives to the provincial government. Their duty is to their constituents first, not to the party, and certainly not to the aggrandizement of their egos. A citizen should never fear political debate in this way - the implication is that one has to curry favour with your MLA to get them to do their job? This is wrong on so many levels, and abusive to the interests of the population in general.

It tells us something of the attitude that has evolved within conservative Alberta - MLAs see themselves not as representatives to the government, but rather purveyors of the governing party's mood towards their respective ridings. A chilling thought indeed.

The second letter tells us something about the conservative attitude towards electoral democracy. It describes their experience as a scrutineer for one of the opposition parties during an election a few years ago, and I have heard anecdotally similar stories in recent years:

While I was expecting to be received by the Returning officer with professional indifference, what I wasn't prepared for was open hostility to the fact I had dared to be there in the first place. I was told to sit in a chair at the far side of the hall and not to move unless she said so. During the day, as voters trickled in and cast their votes, her partisanship was blatantly apparent ...

Considering that Alberta recently fired the man who proposed serious change to make our elections run better, one can only imagine the sense of entitlement that has permeated both our governing party and the degree to which they have taken control over the very levers of democracy.

It is little surprise indeed that Alberta's voters stay home in droves rather than making the trip out to the polls. Ironically, I can find very few people who claim to have voted for the current Stelmach government, yet it sits with a majority as large as any that Ralph Klein presided over - and Stelmach hardly has the personal charm that Klein seemed to possess.

One last thought - the key leadership of the federal Conservatives comes from Alberta as well, and under Harper, they exhibit the same aura of thin-skinned, unwillingness to think for themselves that their brethren in Alberta demonstrate. It is a sad state of affairs, indeed.

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