Terry Price, President of Public Interest Alberta
Sometimes when things look their worst (e.g., the looming third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, misguided actions by an incompetent UCP government, a prolonged Polar Vortex and cabin fever everywhere), better days may be approaching not too far down the road.
There are a number of potentially positive developments and reasons for optimism about our ability to make a difference in the weeks and months to come.
- The emergence of vaccines is definitely a source of legitimate hope about progress on the pandemic front, despite the slow implementation and worries about troubling variants;
- The UCP government’s belated and begrudging actions to enforce necessary lockdown policies have finally helped to bring infection numbers down, at least for a time;
- The defeat of Donald Trump and election of Joe Biden as U.S. President have given hope in a variety of ways. Plus, Biden’s quick and broad use of executive actions has at least reduced some of the most noxious and troubling of Trump’s policies, with the promise of much more to come;
- The failure of the Trump-inspired insurrection in Washington on January 6 provides a shocking and compelling reminder of the dangers of authoritarian populism, their threats to democracy and the urgent need to both protect and strengthen democracy for the future;
- The willingness of Canada’s federal government to continue to use substantial public borrowing in order to support public services and programs in these challenging times has opened doors to improving public services in a number of areas; and
- A growing consensus that our political and economic systems must respond to the crisis of climate change as a top priority, with sustained and effective policies at all levels, offers renewed hope for meaningful action on these vital issues.
The UCP: Wrong about everything
In Alberta terms, the greatest reason for optimism has definitely been the growing recognition that Premier Kenney’s UCP government is an unmitigated disaster, on almost every front.
They have done so many things wrong, it almost seems that they have some kind of political death wish. We have watched their abject failure to respond effectively to the pandemic crisis, their utterly misguided economic policies which have made the situation much worse, their fixation on supporting the oil and gas corporations that borders on being obsessive-compulsive and ignores all other sectors, including workers within the O & G sector, their determination to push ahead without any consultation with backward-looking policies (more coal mines? In 2021? Really?), their unrelenting attacks on public services and public employees precisely at a time when people want and need more from their governments, their ongoing assault on democracy featuring drastic legislated restrictions on the right to protest, silencing critics of an horrendous attack on workers’ rights in Bill 32, their risible attempts to discredit environmental and civil society organizations through the use of a “War Room” and a bogus public inquiry, and their angry and arrogant response to any criticism and petulant refusal to change course or back down (until the outcry over MLA ‘COVID-19 travel’ and the coal fiasco reached a point where even they had to change course, however belligerently and reluctantly.) Note: Language arts teachers and writers, please excuse the run-on sentence, but the list of missteps just kept growing.
In fact, the UCP probably don’t have a death wish, and there is a much more obvious explanation for their remarkable string of mistakes and failures: Premier Kenney and his UCP cronies are simply wrong about basically everything. Kenney’s extreme market fundamentalist ideology, his devotion to wealthy and corporate interests and his back-to-the past policy agenda have been precisely the opposite of what Albertans need, especially in light of the combined effects of the economic downturn, the growing problems in the oil and gas industry, and the pandemic.
Instead of stronger support for public services, massive and broadly-based economic investment and an emphasis on cooperation, collaboration and compassion, we got tax cuts for big corporations, a doubling-down on fossil fuels with a billion-dollar-plus gamble on the Keystone pipeline, takeovers of public pension plans so that they can dictate investments made by these funds, major layoffs in health care and education, absurd fights with doctors, radical attacks on workers’ rights in Bill 32 while laying off 28 000 education workers - largest mass layoff in Alberta history, relentless blaming of the federal government, and lectures about how government can’t interfere with individual freedom.
Kenney is a prisoner in a cage of his own design, and because of these ideological and policy shackles, not only does he not have any answers to Alberta’s deep problems, but everything that he is likely to do will only make the situation worse. More tax cuts for corporations? More subsidies for fossil fuel industries? More austerity (i.e., budget cuts to reduce spending, thereby cutting more jobs and destroying our access to and the quality of public services)? More programs to transfer pension funds to Alberta’s underperforming investment agency? Creating an Alberta police force? Flirting with independence?
The shifting tide
No government, even one as convinced of its own righteousness as Kenney’s crew, can continue to be popular after making so many egregious errors on almost all of the key issues, particularly in this time of intersecting crises. Their fall from grace is clearly at hand. Recent polls show them running well behind the NDP and public criticism is rampant, even among long-time right-wing supporters.
They are clearly rattled, and for the first time, are backing down on decisions in the face of opposition that they previously would have simply ignored. Premier Kenney’s U-turn on his initial decision not to punish MLAs on the COVID-19 travel issue was both stark and telling.
The supposed reversal on the coal policy (we need to see the details to be sure) after the huge public backlash was also very instructive. Energy Minister Sonya Savage’s public climbdown included the statement, “An important part of being a responsible government is to admit when you’ve made a mistake and to fix it, and that’s what we’re doing.”
If that’s the new plan, then they need to get ready to admit to and fix a multitude of mistakes. But of course, while they may well get better at ‘admitting,’ they won’t be able to do the ‘fixing’ – because they simply are fundamentally opposed to the policies that will make a positive difference. Clearly, that will have to be someone else’s job – and someone else is waiting in the wings.
Opportunities for making a difference
Because of the UCP’s unwillingness and inability to do what is necessary, things are going to get worse before they get better. At the same time, opportunities for effective advocacy are going to get much better in the coming months.
Frustrations with the UCP will continue to grow, the backlash will spread, and people will be looking for opportunities for action. The vaccines will eventually play an important role in reducing the pandemic to more manageable levels, and people will be able to engage in more face-to-face and effective advocacy efforts.
It is important that as individuals we put some of our efforts into working on the opportunities in the electoral process, supporting candidates and parties in the lead-up to a provincial election in two years. And that involves convincing those individuals and parties of the need for clear policies that go in the opposite direction from those of the UCP and address needs that have been ignored. These include: supporting, strengthening and extending our public services to meet the needs of all Albertans; effective public funding to pay for these improvements; a just transition to a more diverse, balanced and inclusive economy; effective policies to address the immediacy of the climate crisis; and strengthening and democratizing Alberta’s political system.
An additional and important opportunity is coming up soon, in the form of Alberta’s province-wide municipal elections in October. As engaged citizens, we need to identify, support and work hard for progressive individuals with significantly more diversity of the representatives who are prepared to run for our local councils and school boards, and who will promote needed progressive policies at the local level for the next four years.
Perhaps more importantly, progressive individuals and organizations need to be focused in the coming months on preparing and implementing systematic plans for advocacy action to engage and mobilize Albertans in efforts to make a difference on these issues. We must act to take advantage of the opportunities that are going to become more apparent as the pandemic lessens and things open up, and as the inevitable frustration with the failed UCP policies continue to grow.
Public Interest Alberta is working hard to ensure that those opportunities for action will be there for you to engage in, and we will be cooperating with our many allies and partner organizations in unions and civil society to help make them happen.
I genuinely believe that better days are ahead for those who care about public services, our public institutions and the public interest, especially if we enthusiastically work together to fight for the changes that we want and need.
So, I encourage you to stay safe, but also to seek out opportunities to work with Public Interest Alberta and all of its allies and supporters in making these changes happen.