Every so often, the editorial staff of the Toronto Star likes to toss a few stones westward, as was the case with an op/ed article, written by former Calgary Herald managing editor Gillian Steward, published today.
In the article, Steward -- oft-time writer and researcher for the Parkland institute and some-time compatriot of provincial Liberal leader Kevin Taft -- alleges that oil money has undermined democracy in Alberta. It starts by noting that, by golly, things are real good for the Alberta government:
"The Alberta government tabled a $37 billion budget last week that featured per capita spending three times the average level of other provinces.Alberta's (frankly) disgustingly low voter turnout is often pointed to as evidence that, galldurnnit (galldurnnit isn't a word - ed) Albertans just don't believe in democracy.
Not that many Albertans are likely to notice. After all, only 41 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the recent provincial election. If elections don't catch most people's attention, it's hard to imagine that the day-to-day dealings of the government will."
Of course, one might have suspected that maybe, just maybe, the Star's editorial staff might have thought twice about where Steward is going with this. After all, Alberta isn't the only province that just endured a historically low voter turnout. In the 2008 Ontario provincial election, only 52.6% of eligible voters cast ballots.
Admittedly, it's a full 11 percent better than Alberta's turnout. But Ontario and Alberta aren't the only jurisdictions to experience declining voter turnout. The country, as a whole, has experienced a nine% decline in voter turnout since Confederation in 1867 -- although the 64.7% turnout in the 2006 federal election was a nearly 4% improvement over 2004's turnout.
In Ontario's particular case, however, the province doesn't have any oil money to blame for their decline. So one wonders what else could be responsible?
There is an answer to this. But first, back to Steward:
"Premier Ed Stelmach's Conservatives won 72 of 83 seats, which left the opposition – nine Liberals and two New Democrats – reduced to a tiny island surrounded by a sea of gloating government members.They may not have much money, resources, or many people, but they certainly have plenty of excuses:
That the opposition is practically dead on its feet is no exaggeration. They have just endured a draining election campaign and are now expected to take on one of the most powerful governments in the country. They have so few people and resources, not to mention money, that they will barely be able to keep up with the government's agenda."
They insist their long history of defeat isn't due to their own failings. Among other things, they blame Alberta's first past the post voting system, allegedly unfair campaign laws that bilk them out of chump change, and oil money.
"This is not the first time there has been such a lopsided election result. In 1982, Peter Lougheed's Conservatives won 75 of 79 seats. In 2001, Ralph Klein won 74 of 83. But at least then most people turned out to vote. After this election, some are wondering if Alberta has become North America's first post-democratic state; a well-educated, wealthy jurisdiction where most people don't give a fig about democracy.Which of course, is musing a little on the hysterical side.
Peter McCormick, a political science professor at the University of Lethbridge, says Albertans seem to believe that democracy is obsolete and elections irrelevant. Another political-science prof told me that Alberta is proof that the Chinese are right: you can have capitalism without democracy. He was joking, but not entirely."
In fact, Albertans do turn out to the polls when there's an actual contest, as was the case during the 2006 federal election, when 55% of Albertans turned out to vote. Still not exactly numbers to be proud of (nor are the federal numbers), but more significant still.
"The drift from a one-party state to almost complete apathy has been going on for some time. But in the West this disaffection with democracy is purely an Alberta phenomenon. British Columbia had a 60 per cent turnout during its last provincial election and is also the first province to establish a working citizens' assembly to explore alternatives to the first-past-the-post electoral system. In 2005, British Columbians were asked in a referendum if they wanted to change the way they elected their political representatives."If only the issue really were the issue in the decreasing voter turnout in Albertan elections and the increasing marginalization of what passes for an opposition here.
Historically, whenever the Albertan government has been replaced, it's been done by either an entirely new party (as was the case with the United Farmers of Alberta and Social Credit party) or by a new incarnation of an old party (which was the case with the Progressive Conservatives).
One explanation for this is especially intriguing: that, as a party continues to try to defeat the government and, in successive elections, continues to fail, Albertans come to judge that particular party as unfit and unable to govern. As time draws on, the opposition parties become increasingly irrelevant, and often reinforce this themselves by offering platforms of policies that simply don't appeal to Albertans, and don't reflect Albertans' interests as viewed by them.
One thing can be said about Albertans' low voter turnout: the landslide victories it tends to produce certainly does suggest an implicit approval of the government and its policies. To assume this would be folly, but it's hard not to give the idea serious consideration.
Then there is, of course, the other elephant in this particular room: Ontarians, in the course of the very election that drew the lowest voter turnout in their history, voted down Mixed Member Proportional plurality in a referendum. Whatever the problems in Ontario -- that other province experiencing historically low turnout -- it clearly has little to do with the first past the post electoral system. Those Ontarians who do vote seem to like it just fine.
"Saskatchewan residents are fiercely political. In the 2007 provincial election, which saw the NDP turfed in favour of the right-wing Saskatchewan party, 75 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot. Manitoba had a 57 per cent turnout in 2007."Of course, the prospect of electing a new government -- as Saskatchewan did in 2007, and Manitoba was expected to do (but didn't) -- may have had more than a little to do with the increased voter turnout.
"Stelmach said after the election that Albertans are "just happy with life, most of them." Could it be that with oil at almost $120 a barrel, more jobs than people to fill them, and relatively low taxes, Albertans believe there is nothing more for the government to do?If $120/barrel oil really is what Albertans think is "as good as it gets", it certainly wouldn't be out-of-line to be a little bit disappointed in the lack of political vision in the province.
That was certainly Klein's vision. He often talked about wanting "the province to be on autopilot ... capable of running itself." That brings to mind a well-oiled machine, which of course describes Alberta in more ways than one."
But Albertan politics have always had a distinctly conservative, small-government flavour -- not one that all of Alberta's governments have embodied them.
But Ralph Klein isn't alone in favouring small-government models wherein things largely run themselves and citizens govern themselves. In fact, such principles are at the very heart of "strong democracy" models that are at the basis of demands for things such as proportional representation -- a demand that Steward scarcely masks here.
"It's well-oiled because petroleum taxes, royalties, permits and land leases account for a third of all government revenues and all those multi-billion surpluses. With a source of income like that, the government doesn't need to worry so much about keeping voters, particularly taxpayers, on side."Except at election time. And of those voters who actually choose to cast ballots in Canada, the current government has been overwhelmingly chosen.
"So the money will flow, for the next year at least, and there will be very few objections. And why would the government listen anyway when it knows most Albertans are too busy, or too happy, to notice much of what it does?"Except that Albertans seem to be extremely happy with the siting government -- after all, they keep returning it with overwhelming landslides.
Even those who support the government will quickly admit that, no, not everything in Alberta is perfect. But none of it is as bad as the province's minority left-wing opposition insists it is.
Democracy isn't what's irrelevant in Alberta -- the opposition is. The sooner that it recognizes this and adjusts in order to produce a relevant option for Albertans, the sooner its irrelevance will end.