Archive for June, 2008

Barber poll: Your blogger earnestly seeks democratic consultation

Your blogger: Before & After

One of the hallmarks of our modern democracy is that our leaders consult us frequently and vigorously on non-essentials, and try hard to ignore us on topics that really matter.

Do you think we should have a wild rose on our redesigned Alberta license plates, or some other symbol, perhaps a bison or an oilcan? By all means, let the government know what you think. Indeed, they will facilitate the process, running for months a Web page soliciting all our opinions on this essential matter. Stand by for a news release from the government on what we have asked for. (Indeed, the news release production of the Stelmach government since the March election is prodigious. The actual news contained therein? Very little.)

On the other hand, if you think development of the Athabasca tarsands a matter of actual importance to the future of our province, is not worth the environmental risk, well, the government would be just as happy if you’d shut the [BLANK] up, thank you very much! Moreover, they’d like you to know as little as possible about what’s happening up there just in case you might develop an opinion contrary to theirs. (Chinese “guest” workers being robbed blind by … uh … someone. Oh horrors! We had no idea … and neither should you!)

Of course, our modern democratic leaders fear our opinions. So while they strive to keep us in the dark and feed us you-know-what, like the proverbial mushrooms, they also spend a lot of time, effort and treasure polling us to find out what we think. They want to know not just things like do we support public health care – it’s pretty obvious that most of us do – but are we onto them yet. That is, have we figured out what they’re up to (again) in that department? If we have, well, like that previous premier whose name escapes me at the moment, the Third Way gets dropped for a while, until the moment seems propitious to introduce the Fourth Way.

So, in the spirit of modern democracy, I am going to poll my loyal readers about something appropriately trivial, but important to me. To wit, the state of my facial hair. (This concern reflects the times in another way as well: it is thoroughly narcissistic!)

Two weeks ago, in a weak moment, I chopped off a beard of 30 years’ duration. The results were … uncertain.

Alas, my profound hope that my 26-year-old face would emerge was dashed. As a result, I am not sure whether to return to the status quo ante tonsor, as it were, or to go the whole way and remove the mustache as well.

And so, dear readers, I refer you to the poll at right. Please examine the pictures above and cast your vote. Should I leave things as they now are? Re-grow the beard as quickly as possible? Or lop off the sorry mustache that remains?

I promise you this. I will pay serious attention to your vote. And, like Stephen Harper or Ed Stelmach, I may even do what you suggest…

You have until one minute to midnight on Aug. 1 to vote.

Saint City News column: ‘What’s another 40 years in the wilderness for NDP?’

This column ran in yesterday’s edition of the Saint City News.

At the end of last spring’s provincial election campaign, Alberta’s opposition parties surpassed the Biblical record of 40 years in the Wilderness. At last weekend’s New Democratic Party convention in Calgary, Alberta’s perennial third party took steps to ensure the opposition’s banishment from the legislative Promised Land goes far beyond mere Old Testament proportions.

Perhaps you missed the story. It rated only one miserable paragraph deep inside the Globe and Mail, and not much more in the local dailies. “Members of the Alberta NDP have voted against a proposal that the party should co-operate with opposition parties in future provincial elections,” spake the Globe. “At the party’s annual meeting in Calgary, 95 per cent of party delegates rejected the proposal….”

I was there. If anything, I think the Globe over-estimated support for the motion Saturday. Personally, I’d put the nay vote at around 98.7 per cent.

Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, expended a lot of political capital on this proposal. In the end, it appears to have got him precisely nowhere. The poor guy didn’t even get to speak to his own motion! Someone called the question before he made it to the microphone. His idea of an alliance between the New Democrats and the Liberals went down to a swift and ignominious defeat.

On Sunday, McGowan made the points he’d been unable to make the day before. He tried a sports metaphor: “If you ignore your weaknesses, you’ll never win the game.” He tried a 12-step-program analogy: “You can’t start down the road to recovery until you admit that you have a problem.” He tried tough love: “We didn’t finish second or third in most ridings, we finished fourth or fifth.”

In response, he received polite applause and tolerant smiles.

In truth, unlikely as it seems in the wake of Ed Stelmach’s crushing victory, nowhere is it written that the NDP or the Liberals can’t make a credible showing in Alberta. Who would have thought two years ago that Barack Obama would be the front-running candidate for president of the United States?

Liberals and New Democrats could almost certainly give Albertans a dose of change if they would work together, if only temporarily. Last March, their platforms were not so different, and together they represented a spectrum of opinion that is probably held by a majority of Albertans.

But to succeed, they’d have to listen to the lonely likes of McGowan, who modestly proposed “a collaborative, representative task force of Alberta New Democrats be mandated to investigate a variety of options for political co-operation with the Alberta Liberals and/or the Alberta Greens.”

It was just such a game plan that in 1990 brought the NDP to power in Ontario under Bob Rae. Ontarians wanted change. They were sick of Grits and Tories, Tories and Grits. But they never would have given Rae a chance if the NDP hadn’t first proved it could play with the big kids.

In 1985, the NDP did just that. They signed the famous “Liberal-NDP Accord,” a collaboration – if not quite a coalition – that gave the NDP the credibility needed to be considered a potential government by Ontario voters.

The accord may have seemed like a disaster to Ontario New Democrats in 1987 when it ended and the Liberals won a landslide. But three years later, when the seemingly popular Liberals arrogantly miscalculated and called a snap election Ontarians didn’t want, the New Democrats (even to their leader’s astonishment) formed a majority government.

Alberta’s NDP would benefit even if they tried for an understanding with the Liberals and were rebuffed. At least then they could say, “Well, we tried to give you what you wanted.” Who knows? Alberta voters just might give them a chance. This is the birthplace of the CCF, after all, the Reform Party once appealed to many NDP voters, and Stelmach’s popularity is bound to wear thin eventually.

But there’s no danger of this happening any time soon. Stelmach’s Conservatives are safe in electoral paradise. As one of McGowan’s tiny band of supporters lamented before the question was called: “We’re in danger of becoming a cult, rather than a party.”


Saint City News Column: High gasoline prices should fuel new ideas about public transit

This column ran in yesterday’s edition of the Saint City News.

The full political impact of high fuel prices has not yet been felt.

Right now, retail gasoline prices near $1.30 per litre seem like more of a novelty than a tough new reality. They’re the cause of headshakes and rueful smiles, “can-you-believe-it” comparisons. They haven’t caused panic and rage – yet.

However, if fuel prices stay high, as seems increasingly likely, this will not last.

Cheap petroleum has been the bread and circuses of our era. First, it’s kept us entertained. Gasoline at 39 cents a litre made a $40,000 SUV seem like a bargain, and a drive to see Grandpa on Vancouver Island an entertaining jaunt. That made tourism a profitable industry.

It’s also literally kept our food cheap by sustaining our industrial-scale model of agriculture. Why grow lettuce in Alberta when it was nothing for a reefer truck full of greens to motor from Mexico to Morinville?

It’s made a middle-class lifestyle sustainable by encouraging long commutes. (Work in downtown Edmonton; live in St. Albert? No big deal!) The North American model for building cities was based on cheap fuel for half a century. This is why comparisons to higher fuel prices in Europe do not hold water.

As the Romans knew, depriving the masses of their cheap food and entertainment spelled political trouble. In that regard, nothing has changed. Politicians at every level in Canada should be afraid, very afraid!

They had better get cracking if they want to find solutions that won’t make more radical changes sound like a good ideas to large numbers of people. Ask yourself: How long is it going to be before someone in Ontario realizes that selling off Petro-Canada wasn’t such a great idea? How long before a new National Energy Program will be sold in Central Canada as a matter of vital national security?

So it’s a good thing, at a local level, that our mayor has been talking about efficient public transit to Edmonton. As long as he’s doing more than talking, that is.

Mayor Nolan Crouse is right to say a light rail commuter line is the way to go. But face it, building the needed infrastructure will take a decade or more. Meanwhile, right here in St. Albert, we need to look for ways to make our transit system less dysfunctional.

That means breaking out of the public transit business model that says the more you use, the more you should pay. Letting riders travel for less than the full cost of their trip is not just a subsidy when it allows society to save money in other places, and to achieve goals like a more sustainable environment.

First, though, in St. Albert the time has come to admit that our community is just too small to run an efficient public transit service into a major metropolitan area all alone.

St. Albert Transit runs a passable commuter system for a few hours each morning and evening. But it can’t do it at a price as low as Edmonton Transit. And it can’t do it outside a few core hours. Within our small city, the bus system is very poor.

So the first step to a sustainable transit system – and some relief for commuters strapped by high gasoline prices – is for city council to recognize that using our own resources will never provide a public transit system that serves St. Albertans well. We need to start negotiating a deal with Edmonton Transit that will result in lower fares and better service.

As part of a more efficient metropolitan transit system, we could also experiment with ideas to encourage ridership. Like Calgary and Halifax, we could eliminate fares on key commuter routes – maybe even one from St. Albert. Like Windsor and Detroit, we could offer free fares on smoggy days to help decrease air pollution.

Longer term, a provincially financed Capital Region transit system is the only way to create the modern, rail-mounted transit system that our mayor envisages. On our own, we will not get very far.

As gasoline prices creep toward $1.40 and beyond, municipal politicians who recognize this reality will be rewarded. Those who do not will pay the political price.