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Saturday, May 02, 2009

bill 44, evolution, & hyper-partisanship in alberta.

When the controversy over Bill 44 and evolution erupted earlier this week, I wasn’t sure whether it was just a continuation of NDP leader Brian Mason’s weekly outrage, the result of a clumsy communications strategy, or actually a real issue. Turns out, it's all of the above.

Although I have a hard time believing that Education Minister Dave Hancock has an agenda to undermine Alberta's science curriculum, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that certain MLAs in the governing caucus do. In March 2008, Albertans re-elected the Progressive Conservatives with a large 72-MLA caucus, with a number of socially conservative ideologues in their ranks.

While it's likely that the outrage over Bill 44 is largely the result of a poor communications strategy (including Premier Ed Stelmach bringing up the evolution example himself), the genesis of the controversial amendments are politically suspect. Are the controversial sections of Bill 44 simply concessions that Hancock needed to make in order to appease his social conservative caucus-mates? The governing PC caucus consists of nearly all the MLAs in the Legislature, and because of this many legislative concessions and debates occur in closed-door Caucus meetings, rather than in public debate on the floor elected Assembly. This isn't the first time in recent memory that social conservative politics made headlines by influencing government policy (earlier this month, the PC caucus decided to de-list transgendered medical operations).

Three years ago, now-Sustainable Resource Development Minister Ted Morton introduced a Private Member's Bill that would have banned any mention of homosexuality from Alberta's educational curriculum. The longest-serving PC MLA, Speaker Ken Kowalski proudly placed "While human beings can create laws, the laws of God must take precedence” as the first bullet point in a campaign advertisement during the March 2008 election.

When an apology isn’t enough.

Liberal MLA Dave Taylor used some pretty tasteless language in the Legislature this week. While it was only a matter of time before a heckler like Taylor said something that he would regret, he accepted responsibility for his comments and publicly apologized on the Assembly floor the next day. However, it appears that Taylor’s public apology wasn’t enough for some members of the Legislature.

Seconds after Taylor's public apology, Premier Stelmach presented a letter to the Legislature shaming the opposition MLA and Liberal leader David Swann. The letter was posted on the Premier's official website shortly after that. It appears that Stelmach saw Taylor's screw-up as an opportunity to make an example of the vocal critic, but no MLA, including Stelmach, has a track record to boast moral superiority in the Legislature. While it may have been posted during a fit of hyper-partisanship, there is no reason that this letter needed to be posted on the Premier’s official website after Taylor apologized.

Once again, we see more of the same old politics, and more of the same old games.

A couple weeks ago, a Calgary journalist suggested to me that 'at some point, we're going to have to start treating political ideologues like religious nutcases.' Maybe we have reached that point.


Anonymous said...

"At some point, we're going to have to start treating political ideologues like religious nutcases."
Wow, that's all kinds of offensive to all kinds of people. This journalist sounds like a real man of the people.

Anonymous said...

Start treating nutcases like nutcases. It's about time.

kenchapman said...

Good post Dave. You have it right. This Bill 44 stuff harkens back to the defeated Morton Private Member's Bill that was defeated and is a concession/appeasement to the social conservative PC caucus members who are disgruntled at having to accept homosexuality as a protected human right.

Anonymous said...

Good Saturday morning post, Dave. There is one reoccurring theme among Ed Stelmach's PC party since the last election and it is their inability to clearly communicate a message. There are social conservatives in Stelmach's caucus and cabinet but this issue is nothing that cannot be resolved with a strong and clear communications plan. It's almost embarrassing to watch.

Anonymous said...

You're certainly right that Stelmach can be hyper-partisan. Funny how he tried to pretend he was opposed to Liepert keeping opposition MLAs out of government house for an announcement, when he has presided over and engineered equally exclusive tactics. But he gets away with it and comes off seeming oh-so responsible.

Also true that the Premier's communications seems a bit off. Hard to tell if this the problem stems from the hacks in his office (Olsen, Stanway) or the management of the PAB - or both. Or maybe just from the fact that the Premier isn't the brightest bulb on the tree when speaking on his feet. But the evolution stuff may have been raised before the Premier mentioned it, and certainly would have been had he not.

If it's true that the parental rights issue was thrown in to appease the social conservatives for writing in protection on the basis of sexual orientation, they seemed to give up too much. The sexual orientation stuff is just symbolic. Importantly symbolic, but still just symbolic. Hancock and others are trying to claim that the parental rights stuff doesn't introduce anything new, but I've heard from a couple lawyers who disagree.

bigcitylib said...

Anon 11:44 and all,

There seems to be a disconnect between the language of the bill and what tories are saying about it. The bill says you can pull your kid from a class where the content is explicitly about 'religion. To get to Stelmachs statement that it would apply to classes mentioning Darwin,you would have to define evolutionary theory as being explicitly about religion. Does Stelmach et al really intend to go there?

Christine said...

bigcitylib: I think Stelmach has already gone there, unintentionally or not.

Anonymous said...

While I am adamantly opposed to this bill, a part of me wants to see it pass so that the Christian far-right can take the province to a Human Rights Tribunal when a teacher violates their religious rights by talking about evolution and dinosaurs in science class.
Imagine the irony of the Christian far-right using a HRT and Ezra Levant defending the free speech of the teachers. It'd be a terrible bill but an interesting soap opera

Anonymous said...

Umm, Ken, it's a cosmetic change only. The supreme court read in sexual orientation in 1998. The addition of it in words is of no change at all. Right thing to do though, just in principle.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and pretty much every politician has an ideological bent of some sort. Few are "tolerate everything stand for nothing". What's wrong with it, no matter if you're left, right, or centre? This is a democracy.

Sponge Bob Stelmach said...

I agree with Anon 4:45 above. Nothing wrong with having beliefs and sticking to them. If anything, this province needs a bit more partisanship - tends to liven up political debate which gets people interested and active in their government.

And Dave, you are not exactly clean in the 'hyper-partisan' department. If any other politician other than Brian Mason were leading the charge on this, you wouldn't be sneering quite so much.

Anonymous said...

It didn't need to be posted there, but you are implying that the Premier put it up on his website. I'm pretty sure he doesn't manage his own website, as he's a bit busy these days.

As for the partisanship, agree with above. Good to see him punching back occasionally. Usually government only plays defence, and Opposition attacks. Once in a while, good to press the advantage.

Heck, he may have done Swann a favour sending the letter in the first place.

Gail said...

Taylor's a hack and Stelmach should stop pretending that he is all high and mighty righteous.

In the last election Albertans rejected all the political parties on the ballot. Over 60% of Albertans thought that not voting was a better option than voting. This is a clear verdict for all MLAs.

Anonymous said...

"In the last election Albertans rejected all the political parties on the ballot. Over 60% of Albertans thought that not voting was a better option than voting. This is a clear verdict for all MLAs."

Oh yeah. Nice verdict, if you mean to say 60% can't be bothered to make a decision and sit on their butts with a self-righteous smirk on election day.

Anonymous said...

Those 60% were obviously happy with the current government. Not a great way to show it by not voting, mind you, but they were clearly happy with the conservative direction and not reactionist blogs like this.

Ian said...

Dave: It's worth pointing out I think that Dave Hancock is on record (I have the link somewhere) as not really being for the opt-out clauses, but I doubt he's about to stop Steady Eddie.

Art said...

I don't really care if Hancock and Blackett are "really" opposed to bill 44. They are the key defenders of it. If the so-called 'moderates' can't stop stupid and dangerous legislation like this what good are they?

It's further evidence (not that some of us need it) that you can't reform the Conservatives from within, you have to defeat them.

Where do I make my donation to Brian Mason?

Aardvark said...

This issue is very revealing of the power exercised in the Tory party by Ted Morton and the social conservatives. While Ed Stelmach is very proud of his ethnicaly diverse caucus, it's clear that the (ethnicaly diverse part of) caucus was willing to cave in to the social conservatives on "parental rights" in exchange for dropping their attempt to take away protection against hate speech, or "freedom of speech" according to Morton and Ezra Levant.

Dave Hancock and Lindsay Blackett, the so-called "Red Tories", have also shown they can't be trusted to stand up for their principles. Both have willingly accepted the role of defender of this social conservative milestone in the fight against secular public education.

If Danielle Smith is able to whip the disorganized Wildrose Alliance in to something resembling a real political party, it will put real fear in Tory hearts, and they will need Morton more than ever. His power in the PC party can only increase in the months to come.

All the more reason why citizens need to see past the disingenuous blandishments of the those such as Ken Chapman who call for progressives to "work from within" to influence the Tory government. It's a dead end - the social conservatives are in control.

Anonymous said...

Ken Chapman is a federal Liberal. Enough said.

Who in the Progressive Conservatives follow Morton?

tjk said...

A couple things:

Talk to those who study elections and voting intention and they'll state that the undecided will break just the same as the general populace voted. Especially PoliSci profs. I'm not saying this is correct, I'm just throwing it in for thought. The unvoting masses don't suddenly show up to oppose the voting mass.

I'd also like to point out that automatically assuming any objection that may be tied to socially conservative thought IS being forwarded by social conservatives is a mistake. Often a libertarian critique will be very different yet object to the same issue.

Don't overestimate the social conservatism in the PC ranks. You'd see a lot different party (as well as an additional functioning and electorally competitive centre-just-slightly-right wing party) if the speculation were true.

Amanda_K said...

Great post Dave.

Anonymous said...

The business model of Alberta politics is broken. When provincial politicians act like a bunch of chimpanzees, Bill 44 notwithstanding, they should not be surprised when citizens confirm their irrelevancy by not showing up at the ballot box.

Any other business that loses its customers goes bankrupt. Not so for Alberta PC's. In this case it merely consolidates their power.

A credible centrist alternative with a credible leader is the only way.

ALP refugee said...

Anon 10:33:00 AM

You mean David Swann and the Alberta Liberals right? These are the guys taking Stelmach to task for the "evolution-optional" legislation? Oh, that's right, they haven't said anything on the matter.

looking for the light said...

Daveberta, I would like to raise an issue with you, and maybe you can tell us where you stand once and for all.

The recent decision by the ALP to maintain the status quo (proud 100 year tradition of not being in power for 97 years) has left so many people hopeless. This is true of so many people but particularly of young people. I've heard a lot of talk....people saying "let's give up on this province and move somewhere more '20th century'.

The ALP had been my last hope, but they decided to put themselves up on a martyrs cross. Now, some people say, the great hope is a more moderate wildrose alliance.

Do you think there will ever be hope of a new popular movement that could inspire young moderates to want to stay here?

Anonymous said...

A more moderate Wild Rose Alliance? Good luck with that...these guys (especially Thorsteinson, whose family and company gave the WRA $150k last year) are still around.

Moderate-rose Alliance
By Jason Markusoff 04-28-2009 COMMENTS(8) Inside Alberta Politics

Before word got around that small-business advocate Danielle Smith was being courted to seek the Wildrose Alliance leadership (see here, here and below), party president Jeff Callaway gave me a curious signal that Wildrose was looking for not only a new face, but a new posture entirely.

When I spoke with him hours after Paul Hinman's i'm-leaving announcement, Callaway told me the party hopes to attract somebody that appeals to the party's core values: "fiscally conservative and socially moderate"

Socially moderate? "That's the evolution of our party," Callaway told me.

Smith, a libertarian (and former Herald writer and Fraser Institute researcher), may fit that bill, but past leaders Randy Thorsteinson and Hinman don't.

Abortion: Thorsteinson led the SocCreds in the 1997 and urged Klein to stop taxpayer funding of abortions. He continued to proclaim his pro-life stance during the 2004 campaign, urging a public referendum on the issue.

Same-sex marriage: "I'm very glad that Albertans haven't bought into it. We are considered rednecks and that means we're independent and we don't buy into the rhetoric," says Hinman. Same-sex unions are "unhealthy," he adds. "Thirty years from now, society will look back and shake its head."

Anonymous said...

Alain Saffel said...

Some days I wonder if I moved to Alabama instead of Alberta.

daveberta said...

Does the education opt-out clause in Bill 44 make you proud to be an Albertan?

If you're among the growing number of Albertans concerned about the negative impact that Bill 44 could have on our education system, please contact your MLA and let them know.