Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Instead of Angry Alberta, How About Petulant Conservatives?

A curious trend on social media has emerged with the #NotAngryAB hashtag trending on Twitter. It has been cornucopia of pet videos and scenic shots of Alberta landscapes. In the broader context, it is an election year both provincially and federally and the aspiring provincial opposition has been doing its best to ratchet up the animus against the current incumbent governments. Today the price of oil is $7 lower than it was when the Progressive Conservative party was counting down the last few days to its election loss in May 2015. This is but one of many things that the opposition, and reportedly the majority of the province are angry about in 2019.

The anger that the opposition, and by opposition I should narrow that to the United Conservative Party, seems to come from what could be construed as either a sense of entitlement or a resistance to change. For much of the last year, the party has had a commanding lead in provincial opinion polls but that somehow does not seem enough to content the presumptive government-in-waiting. The sense of entitlement manifests itself in two ways: 1) the assumptions that they ought to have been in government for the last four years and that the largesse of oil revenue that the province had enjoyed for much of the last 50 years ought to be restored, perhaps because Albertans are prepared to make the promise that they really, REALLY will not piss it away this time and 2) that the province of Alberta is owed some degree of insulation from the changes that have been occurring recently. Whether it is the empowerment of Indigenous peoples as partners in the development of natural resources, the diversity and tolerance that have become prevalent in the province over the past few decades, the pesky souls with that environmental consciousness that muddies the discussions about extraction and custodianship and that provincial government that does do things the way previous governments did.

So with the cat videos providing the thin edge of the wedge for discourse on anger or the lack of anger in Alberta, I'll quote Pema Chodron about "an essential choice that confronts us all: whether to cling to the false security of our fixed ideas and tribal views, even though they bring us only momentary satisfaction, or to overcome our fear and make the leap." It has been clear throughout the brief life of the United Conservative Party that they are replete with fixed ideas. It has been apparent in their opposition to Gay-Straight Alliances in public schools, and other social policies that they have opposed. As far as tribalism is concerned, the favour they have gained from racists in the province, not to mention the positions of authority that those with racist points-of-view have had within the party do not indicate that the ascension of a United Conservative Party would not be regarded as a hopeful breath of fresh air.

The rise of the UCP and their quiver of fixed ideas will herald an era of unresponsive, incapable government with a mandate to setback social policy rather than respond to the changes that are occurring and are beyond the control of the provincial government. UCP leader Jason Kenney does not have experience in an economic portfolio under his belt and his aversion to current provincial polices indicates that he will conduct a slash of spending that will be motivated by visceral attachment to dogma or disdain for anything done by the Notley government because it was the NDP.

The anger that has been expressed on the part of conservatives in Alberta and in other jurisdictions over the last few years -- the United States, United Kingdom and Ontario to name the most vivid recent example -- has been aimed at change. In each case, governments have been granted powers to resist change and each of these governments have demonstrated their quixotic responses in fashions that are clearly worthy of ridicule. Jason Kenney may be a more polished politician that the likes of Donald Trump, Teresa May and Doug Ford but that polish does not extend to bestow on him the aura of a visionary or an innovator. He did not gain the leadership of the UCP by virtue of an engaging and invigorating grassroots campaign. He got the position by virtue of the name recognition and the political capitol he has accumulated through the course of his 20+ year career.

As the vanguard of a political party pushing for a regression to past values and tired entitlements Kenney, the UCP and other angry Alberta conservatives seem too preoccupied with harbouring their grudges and plotting a return to an old world order to focus on diversifying the economy of Alberta. Perhaps they are merely averse to admitting that the oil industry with remain moribund indefinitely, but the United Conservative Party do not conduct themselves as a group of forward-thinking innovators who are capable of acknowledging that change is inevitable and generate policies that help Alberta adapt, and encourage and invite entrepreneurs and new businesses to set up shop. Instead, they will double-down on oil and insist that someone at the federal level pour good money after bad.

The United Conservative Party does not, despite its relative youth as a political entity, strike me as a group that possesses the mentality of a start-up. The do not seem connected to the innovators and the influencers who have a vision to take Alberta into a future that is built on inclusion, economic diversity and an interest in supporting the innovation, risk-taking and entrepreneurship that is required to pave the route forward. Instead, they are more inclined to ensure the security of the old ways and they will recommit themselves in an initiative that will ultimately fritter away resources and political capital that they have in shorter supply than they think.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Stagnant Versus Exploring Leaders

It is 2019, yet it seems to be a time when people are more inclined to look at the world in black and white rather than in greys or with an awareness of nuances and details. It is hard to tell if it is the majority that think and act this way, merely those in power or if, despite our best of intentions and aspirations, the vast majority of us regress to a simplistic view or response when push comes to shove.

In recent years, outmoded ideas that ought to have been consigned to the same dustbin as polio have re-emerged at a time in when progress whether they be about race, gender, religion, or the comfort that we ought to be entitled to at this very minute, regardless of the short-term and long-term expense. People of this mindset, and it goes without saying that there are business and political leaders who have decided to thrive on espousing a "you're either with us or against" mindset or narrowing their vision and consequently public discourse to battles over ill-defined mutual exclusions.  The economy and the environment can co-exist. Bicycles and pedestrians are not a threat to automobiles. Admitting a flaw or a weakness will not compromise your character. Such fallacies have too much influence on us today.

After a period of progress and positive change, more and more people are assuming that ideas and beliefs are fixed absolutes and there is significant investment of emotion, money and energy in ideas, despite the fact that they have, at best, a limited shelf-life. We must not blanket ourselves in ideas and assume that we can take indefinite comfort in them, or fix an iron-firm grip on them and their certainty despite the rapid pace of change that we have experienced throughout our entire lives. the things we merely believe are regarded as knowledge and sacrosanct because of the comfort certain ideas provide. All too often, we fail to regard ideas and beliefs as things that have an impact on others and a fixed shelf-life that ultimately includes decay. However, when ideas or beliefs are challenged -- whether by opposing opinions or by reality -- there is an escape to over-simplistic thinking or a tactical mission to get one's way.

The overlooked options in the face of such challenges are discussion, reflection and exploration.

There may have been a time and a space when these things could be done, but we live in a time when it all seems or actually is, too fast paced. Beyond that is the reality that given the penetration of social media into each moment of our lives, that there is a lack of private forums to safely discuss and get our heads around the changes that are occurring and weigh the pros and cons or even determine what we can be certain about. Instead, we have the mounting evidence that the more public the forum, the more rigid and intractable the positions people adopt.

At the start of 2019, with elections to anticipate federally in Canada and provincially in Alberta and an electoral debacle that is asking to be undone in the United States, people can anticipate convening in a forum where the positions politicians adopt are stagnated and inflexible. Adapting to the realities that are encountered during an election and acknowledge a change of policy or approach would be tantamount to weakness. While Kim Campbell might get ridiculed for saying that "[an] election is not the time discuss serious issues," there is incredible accuracy in the statement.

A few days ago I reopened Marshall McLuhan's Hot & Cool (1967) and rediscovered the following passage:

"I am an investigator. I make probes. I have no point of view. I do not stay in one position.

Anybody in our culture is regarded as invited as long as he stays in one fixed position. Once he starts moving around and crossing boundaries, he's deliquent, he's fair game.
The explorer is totally inconsistent. He never knows at what moment he will make some startling discovery. And consistency is a meaningless term to apply to an explorer. Ig he wanted to be consistent, he would stay at home.

Jacques Ellul says that propaganda begins when dialogue ends. I talk back to media and set off on an adventure of exploration.


(This passage is particularly dated by McLuhan's use of "he." There have been at least two evolutions in the use of personal pronouns in the past 50-odd years. McLuhan, however, had the insight to explore these changes and make light of how those knotty little pronouns have proven to be more temporal than we ever might assume. I digress --)

Perhaps an election is not the time to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan. Somehow though, it is a good time to talk about other things. (My apologies for not barraging you with hyperlinks to the greatest hits from the campaign trail.) Let me say, however, that as erratic as Donald Trump has been, he has been consistent. The same consistency and the same stagnant, fixed point of view can be attributed to an infamous line of politicians over the last two years alone: Nigel Farage, Doug Ford, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Andrew Scheer, Maxime Bernier, Kellie Leitch, Mike Pence, Theresa May and Jason Kenney have thrived by adopting fixed, narrow, unconstructive, positions bereft of policy or innovation in favour of the best sequences from a propaganda playbook. None of these leaders have demonstrated a capacity for proposing policies that respond to the changes that are impacting society, the economy or the environment. Amongst this pantheon, there are a few who cut and run when heavy-lifting was required. Amongst these warriors exerting every last effort they can to preserve a fading status quo, Kenney is compelling because he seems to be campaigning with from the assumption that the premiership of Alberta is, by birthright or some ancient fiat, the domain of conservatives.

Those political leaders who choose to sit still and shun the responsibility to examine the changes that are occurring and drafting policies to address them are a threat. They may be worthwhile examples to follow if we are examining tactical abilities on the stump. Away from the gamesmanship of the campaign trail, however, these "leaders" embody a version of leadership that is detached, self-interested, and oblivious to the distant early warnings that exploring, vigilant leaders are more often attuned to. Whether a threat is 10 minute, 10 months or 10 years away, the likes of these stagnant leaders loathe to observe, explore, dialogue and direct in favour of calculating, strategizing and last minute fear-mongering.

Given the pace of change we currently encounter, more and more of us are seeking certainty. Lip-synching along with right-wing politicians espousing family-values and saving tax dollars is not the certainty voters ought to settle for.