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Smith speech good politics, potentially good policy



Premier Danielle Smith’s televised speech to the province on Tuesday probably achieved the No. 1 goal Smith and her UCP had for the dinner-time address: It stopped their bleeding in the polls caused by Smith’s serial stumbling in her first weeks as Alberta leader.

She looked human and competent (not monstrous or wacky). If she has horns, they didn’t show.

The best thing that can be said about Smith’s early performances in office, is that she established low expectations. Albertans aren’t expecting much from her now, so if she looks even barely competent, she’ll impress.

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And at the very least in her Tuesday address, Smith looked as if she had the potential to grow into being premier. That means she will have surpassed the competence level many voters gave her credit for, following her obsession with a sovereignty act during the months of the UCP leadership race and her fixation on refighting the COVID-19 pandemic during her first seven weeks in office.

Two of the many emails I received from readers are indicative of what I mean.

“Hey, Smith does know about issues other than separation and COVID,” wrote one reader from St. Albert.

In fairness, Smith has never raised the spectre of our province leaving Confederation. Calling her pledge to increase Alberta’s autonomy a veiled threat separate is an NDP campaign concoction.

Still, my St. Albert correspondent made a valid point: Smith’s Tuesday address revealed that she can wrap her mind around basic governance concepts (the things like inflation that matter to ordinary Albertans), rather than just the fringier nuggets like human rights for vaccine refusers.

In a nutshell: Smith looked more like a premier on Tuesday, less like a sensationalist radio host.

That was a big plus for her.

Another reader said, “I didn’t really like her before, but her speech has at least made me reconsider.”

That’s huge. In this day and age of cancel culture, with its agree-or-be-silenced mob rule, most politicians don’t get a second chance.

Perhaps that reader was the only person in Alberta willing to think twice about Smith. However, if she was voicing a wider sentiment, the UCP at least have a chance to perform well in the upcoming legislative session and be rewarded by voters.

Fair or unfair, the UCP are still the default choice to lead Alberta, meaning voters (at least in Calgary, the smaller cities and rural Alberta) will vote right-of-centre so long as the right-of-centre party is halfway competent and united.

If voters are prepared to forgive Smith for her errors to date, and judge her and her government on what they do going forward, that is bad news for NDP plans to retake Alberta.

Politically, then, Smith’s speech seems to have served its purpose of stopping her party’s slide in the polls.

Will it achieve its more direct policy goal — to help blunt the effects of inflation? I’m less sure.

The suspension of the gasoline tax for at least six months is a good thing. It comes off everyone’s tax bill immediately, at the pump, without any huge bureaucratic intervention. (Unlike the federal carbon tax, which sucks billions out of consumers’ pockets, then costs billions in bureaucratic oversight to repay billions to everyone, no matter how much tax they paid.)

On the other hand, Smith’s monthly cheques to seniors and families earning under $180,000 a year, could end up fueling inflation by increasing the amount of spending money consumers have. Those cheques could end up increasing the amount of money in circulation that then ends up chasing goods and services and bidding up prices.

That’s how federal pandemic supports caused the current inflation.

But unlike federal pandemic relief, the Alberta amounts are much, much smaller and spread out over six months.

So perhaps Smith’s speech will end up being both a political and a policy triumph.

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Ministers decline request to testify on Afghan aid blockade as desperation grows



Three Liberal ministers have declined invitations to testify in the Senate as the upper chamber probes why Canada still won’t allow humanitarian workers to help in Afghanistan.

Aid groups say Ottawa has told them that paying people in Afghanistan or buying goods there could lead them to be prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws.

Many of Canada’s allies have found carveouts so that aid workers don’t get charged with supporting the governing Taliban, which is designated as a terrorist group.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has no explanation for why Canada hasn’t fixed the issue.

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The Senate’s human-rights committee will launch hearings into the issue on Monday and invited three ministers to attend, but all of them said they had prior commitments at the time of the planned meetings.

The United Nations says six million Afghans are now categorized as being at risk of famine, while another fourteen million are in critical need of food.

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When politics wasn’t a team sport



It has all been downhill in America since the first six presidents. Western civilisation was never the same after ancient wisdom gave way to the sentimental Gospel. Roosevelt should have stayed out of that damn fool war in Europe and the Pacific. People are breeding too much. The state must stop them.

I like Gore Vidal so much that I involuntarily smile when I see the spine of his essay collection, United States, in my bookcase. Even before his dotty late phase, though, he was a reactionary kind of liberal. If his 1968 debates with the conservative William Buckley Jr still grip us, it is because of the two men’s underlying oneness, not the superficial Democrat vs Republican framing.

Best of Enemies, James Graham’s otherwise fine play about the duel of the drawlers, might have made more of this. I fear much of the audience leaves with the sweet notion in their heads that Vidal would today have been a woke ally. The play wants to suggest that his showdown with Buckley was a trailer for the culture wars, the partisan spite, of now. I have come around to the opposite view.

The debates marked the end of something good, not the start of something bad. It was the last time being politically hard-to-place was normal.

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Put it this way. If you tell me what you think about, say, the return of the Benin bronzes, I can infer with some confidence your views on public spending, the EU, rail strikes, immigration, working from home, climate change, Meghan Markle and much else. Nothing connects these subjects. It should be possible to be a small-government Remainer who thinks imperial loot is better off in western museums and who loses sleep to visions of a burning planet. But such a person would stand out now. To take a more concentrated example, lots of people should be anti-lockdown and pro-vaccine mandate. How many do you know?

I have aired Ganesh’s First Law of Politics before, but allow me a recapitulation. People do not work out their beliefs and then join the corresponding tribe. They join a tribe and infer their beliefs from it. The sense of belonging, the group membership, is what hooks people, not the thrill of being right or pursuing a thought on its own terms. Politics has become a team sport, goes the line on this. But even that is too kind. Sports fans are sardonic and irreverent about their own team. It isn’t so central to their identity as to require consistent adherence.

We have lost all sense of how weird it is to seek connection with others through politics. And how new. Watching Buckley and Vidal is a reminder of a less needy age. The former had his own credentials as an apostate of the right: his loose line on marijuana, his Catholicism, his Spanish-speaking intellectualism. Nor was the audience at the time much easier to place. Millions of whites were pro-New Deal and anti-Civil Rights in a way that stumps modern notions of “progressive” and “conservative”.

Noting the change since then is simple enough work. Accounting for it is trickier. One theory suggests itself. The rise of politico-cultural blocs more or less tracks the decline of church membership, trade unions and marriages that go the distance. An atomised population began to cast around for other kinds of belonging, didn’t it?

The mid-20th century voter was heterodox, yes, but heterodox in the way that someone with strong roots could afford to be. With such a firm social anchor, there was less need to seek emotional security in a political tribe. As I’ve used two metaphors for the same thing there, let us keep them coming. A rudder, a bedrock, a cornerstone, a north star: people used to find these things in their personal relationships. In their church, family, factory or town. As modernity scrambled those things, mostly for the good, the need to subsume oneself into a group was going to have to be met some other way.

That turned out to be politics. We live with the wicked results all the time now. The perverse consequences of ostensibly desirable change: Buckley would call this a conservative insight. And I, though a Vidalist, always thought he won those debates.

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Can coal be a pivot toward ‘normal politics’ in Alberta?



“Normal Politics”: I encouraged my students to embrace and practice this type of politics. Bernard Crick, a British political theorist, imagined this concept decades ago. He believed healthy democratic politics demanded empathy for your political opponents and searching for policies able to reconcile or bridge competing positions. At its best, normal politics is about finding or creating and implementing consensus. It invites political opponents to recognize they have some shared values and to work together to realize them. 

Sadly, normal politics rarely characterizes politics in today’s democracies. Its antithesis is too common in political debate. In Alberta recently, the executive director of Take Back Alberta, an interest group that helped propel Danielle Smith into the premier’s office, accused the New Democratic Party of promoting a “toxic and disease-ridden ideology.” Such extremism slams the door on Crick’s hopeful view of politics.   

With the legislature back in session, I don’t expect to see a lot of normal politics on display. But, in her recent television address, Premier Danielle Smith told Albertans she “must be humble, listen and continue to learn from you.” Alberta’s coal debate issue gives her an exceptional opportunity to back that commitment up with meaningful action.   

Coal has been one of Alberta’s most contentious issues over the past several years. It’s an issue where a consensus exists, a consensus that could be strengthened. As hard as it may be for some residents of the Crowsnest Pass to accept, most Albertans don’t believe coal mining should have a future anywhere in the Rockies and foothills of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes. Impressive majorities of Albertans have said as much in public opinion polls, the Grassy Mountain coal mine hearings and the Coal Policy Committee consultations.  

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Smith’s government should listen to and implement this consensus. In this legislative session, the premier should introduce legislation guaranteeing that coal mining proposals in our southern Rockies and foothills cannot be revived.  

But I think Crick would want the premier to go one step further. I think he would invite her to try to broaden the consensus, to try to bridge the gulf between coal mining opponents and supporters. Identify positions those camps share; build on them. Community prosperity in southwest Alberta is an obvious candidate here.  

So far Alberta’s debate about coal has offered thin gruel when it comes to what economic future could be built in southern Alberta without coal mining. The UCP and NDP alike must pay serious attention to nurturing in the southwest the range of economic activities central to Alberta’s developing post-industrial society.  

What does this perspective recommend? Begin to craft a regional development strategy. Several paths lead in this direction. One would be to establish a Southern Alberta Sustainable Economic Opportunities Forum. Invite leaders from Alberta academia, business, the federal government, First Nations, labour and municipalities to join it. Task them with thinking about how, without coal, healthy and prosperous livelihoods may be delivered to the people of southwest Alberta. Or, strike an all-party legislative committee, chaired jointly by the UCP and NDP, to do something similar. If this venture bears fruit, it could be replicated for other regions in Alberta.  

Coal offers Smith the opportunity to pivot toward normal politics and show her commitment to listening to Albertans is genuine. Coal has opened the door to privileging conciliation in politics. If the premier goes through that door, she may be able to deliver what all sides of Alberta’s coal debate seek: good, healthy livelihoods for the people of southern Alberta.  

Ian Urquhart is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alberta. 

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