I’ve been involved in politics for a long time, so I suppose it’s only natural that a number of my friends and colleagues are asking me what the new Alberta government is likely to do in so many areas. The short answer is, I don’t know. I have my hopes, I have my fears, but not having been involved in the 2015 election I really don’t know.
What I do know is this. Ideology makes for bad government, or more accurately making decisions based on ideology makes for bad government. Now before the comments section lights up like a Christmas tree (which would be three comments, based on my past experience), hear me out.
I get that every party, even those in the centre, come into government with their own firmly held beliefs, which is really what ideology boils down to. What I’m saying is that good government flows when those governing step outside their beliefs, consult widely, listen and then act on what they hear. Act to figure out what makes sense for the province. Government gets particularly good when they consult with experts in the area they’re about to legislate in and give genuine weight to what they find out.
The key here is to understand that this is true whether or not the government’s pre-existing beliefs are correct. I’m saying that even if their ideology is spot on, their government will be stronger and more successful if they proceed as if nothing is set in stone and all ideas are open for fulsome discussion with the public, within their caucus, within Cabinet and most importantly with the public service. Even good ideas can be better and plans can always be improved.
Of course, even greater benefit is delivered if you do that in circumstances where the pre-existing ideology is not correct. If the government’s ideology has them heading down the wrong road, how valuable is it to have off ramps, stop signs and, even better, U-turns? Pretty damn valuable.
The reason why this is so important becomes evident when you consider the difference between the goal and the path to achieving the goal. It is not ideological to want to end poverty. The left wants to do that, but so does the right and those of us that tend to hang around in the middle somewhere. The path to accomplish that goal is where we differ. We don’t agree on the “how”. And what you believe about how to achieve a goal, tends to be where you’ll find ideology.
As an aside, I always found it ironic that there was no greater slur we could hurl at an MP eager to share what he/she had learned about whatever issue they were studying in Parliament, than to accuse them of having been “Ottawashed”, or “we elected you to represent us in Ottawa, not Ottawa to us”. What they were really saying was, don’t try to challenge what we believe. Sadly, though never articulated, it was: we aren’t interested in facts that don’t support what we believe. It was a truly disheartening culture. The NDP may face that very phenomenon with their base, which is what makes governing with facts, rather than ideology, so challenging.
So how does ideology work in practice? Let’s start with ending poverty. How do you end poverty? Do you fund public daycare, provide free public transport so everyone can get to work and increase the minimum wage to wherever it has to go so that a single parent working 40 hours a week will be above the poverty line? Or, do you focus on measures to strengthen the economy generally, so that the private sector can create jobs that will lift their new employees out of poverty?
Different ideologies suggest different paths to address the same problem. The goals are often similar, but the beliefs on how to achieve the goals are usually different. Which approach above, if either, would work? I’m not suggesting we tackle that today. That’s the stuff of great debates and memorable university classes. When you’re 19 and full of ideas it’s all great fun.
But governing is an entirely different exercise. Decisions have to be made. Even not deciding is a decision. And decisions have consequences, which are sometimes disastrous. The National Energy Program was one such decision. It gutted the Alberta energy industry, destroyed businesses – and the resulting stress destroyed marriages and families. If you didn’t live through it, you may not understand how vivid the memories are of those who did.
The National Energy Program was very much driven by ideology. The details matter, but I’d make a hash of trying to set them out fairly. The takeaway is that the government of the day had a belief that higher Canadian ownership of our resources was not only desirable but necessary, that energy prices needed to be lowered for the benefit of Canadian industry and consumers and that government should receive more revenue, primarily through taxes.
The government didn’t consult widely before announcing the program and they didn’t listen to the negative feedback from experts, the industry, Alberta MP’s or even from their own Alberta candidates and organizers.
The Trudeau government appeared to believe that all of the naysayers were exaggerating what the negative effects would be and that the energy industry could easily weather any adverse impact because they were so profitable. Or perhaps those were just talking points. Either way, they pressed ahead.
What actually happened is well-documented. While the plan was to redistribute wealth between the regions, what actually happened was the wholesale destruction of wealth. Investors fled the jurisdiction before the ink was dry on the policy. A massive political fight followed, but the Liberals in Ottawa had a majority and ultimately prevailed. The industry was crushed and Albertans as a whole paid the price, both those who were well off and those living near the poverty line. Based on my personal experience, those well off lost more, but the losses to those who could least afford them were more devastating. It took more than a decade for Alberta’s economy to come most of the way back (in fairness, due in part to low global energy prices in that period – although that is unfortunately similar to what is going on in the markets today).
Returning to 2015, what can we hope for in Alberta? We can hope that whatever the new government of Alberta sets as its priorities, they consult on how to get there; that they consult widely and they listen with an open mind; that they approach change with a measured approach. Listen to the experts. Listen to the public servants who have lived with these issues and programs their entire career. If you want to improve the lives of Albertans, make doing so your only goal. Be aware of your bias, and factor that into account when you’re weighing the options.
Alberta may well be the best jurisdiction to experiment with increasing the minimum wage by 50%. It may provide the definitive results needed to show that such a policy works, or that it kills jobs and sometimes the entire company. Wouldn’t you like to know? I suppose I would, but not at the expense of those working in the businesses that would be affected.
This government was elected to govern, not to test ideology. The voters asked the PC’s to leave, and not politely. The desire was so strong, that the main question for many voters, if not most, was “who has the best chance of defeating the PC in my riding?”. That’s who they voted for – and why. It was not an endorsement of any ideology. It was a vote against, not for. It’s not yet clear whether the new government understands that.
So what will the new government do with this mandate? Will they seek the best “how” or will they govern ideologically? If they do, will it be the ideology that the party and its new key advisors have espoused over the last few years?
There are a lot of questions as there always are with regime change. In this case the answers may well determine whether the NDP govern 4 years or if this is the start of the next Alberta “dynasty”.