Friday, March 26, 2010

Alberta in 2030 - What's Your Vision?

Nation, 20 years is a LONG time.

Think back to what your life was like in 1990. Think about how you got from place to place - the mode of transportation. The route. The amount of time it took. Think about the communities that your friends and family live in today - were they around 20 years ago? What did the land they now live on look like in 1990? Was it farm land? The site of an older building or community, since knocked down? Were there even roads leading to the area? Where did you - or your kids - go to school? Is the school still there? Does it look radically different? Where did you play? Who was your doctor? Do they still practice? How did you get information - from an encyclopedia? From the public library? Did you have a bank card? Did you own a personal computer? Had you even heard the word "internet"? How did people get ahold of you when you left the house? Did any of your friends even own a "cordless phone", to walk around the house? Loonies were new, and you still carried $2 bills. The average price of a single family home in Calgary was under $130,000. How many television channels did you have?

In politics as well, 20 years can be an eternity.

20 years ago, Calgary had recently sworn in Al Duerr to his first term as mayor. Rookie MLA Ralph Klein was Alberta's Minister of the Environment, and Don Getty was the Premier, having just won his 2nd General Election with a 59-seat caucus, facing a 16-member New Democrat Official Opposition led by Ray Martin. Brian Mulroney was barely a year into his 2nd term as Prime Minister, leading a majority government of Progressive Conservatives. The Meech Lake agreement was dying, we were a year from the introduction of the 7% GST, and Jean Chretien had just won the leadership of the opposition Liberal Party of Canada.

That was 20 years ago. Today, life as we know it is much different. In some ways, it's better. In some ways, infinitely more complicated.

What I want to know, from you - the E.S. Nation - is what you want Alberta to look like 20 years from now.

In 2030, Alberta will celebrate its 125th birthday. Babies born today will be adults. Today's elementary school students will themselves be doctors, lawyers, mechanics, politicians, preachers and parents.

What will their world look like? Where will they live? Where will they go to school, and work, and how will they get there? Where will they recreate?

We engaged citizens, today, are the builders of that world. We can help create the Alberta in which our children, and their children, will thrive. But before we do that, we need to figure out what we want that future Alberta - that shining city on the hill - to look like.

So, I put it to you: What is your vision for Alberta in 2030?

You don't have to have an answer for everything, by any means. Maybe you just want to talk about the education system of Alberta in 2030. Maybe you're a nurse, and you really want to talk about health-care delivery. Maybe you just want to talk about democratic reform, or water storage, or sustainable practices, or the economy. Maybe your primary interest is in how our society in 2030 will interact with and incorporate our First Nations brothers and sisters. That's fantastic - please contribute to the vision.

You can respond in the comments box below, or via email to amishbuggyracing (at) gmail (dot) com. Responses will be reposted into the text of this post, or as separate posts themselves.

Remember: We did not inherit this province from our forefathers. We borrowed it from our children. Let's articulate a vision for the kind of province we want it to be in 20 years - for ourselves, and for them.

And then, let's build it.

- E.S.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Why I Don't Care About Coulter...

Nation, I don't want to dwell too much on the Ann Coulter faux-persecution ego-stroke tour that's been going on in this country for the past few days - it has gotten far too much press already.

Is what Coulter spews actually "hate speech", directed at Muslims and at anyone unfortunate enough to be considered a "liberal" by the universe's grand arbiter in such matters (Ann Coulter)?

I don't know. Maybe. Probably not. It's certainly offensive - but when Ann talks about liberals, she's talking about ALL Canadians, really. I mean, Rob Anders would be considered at MOST a liberal Republican in the U.S. - Most of the "scary, right-wing Tories" (as classified by our country's left) would probably fit best in the Democratic Party down south, and be victims of Ann's wrath. Everyone to the left of them (most of Canada's 35 Million citizens) would be hardly worthy of Ann's sneering derision. Heck, she even looks down on the former independent candidate for Calgary-Egmont.

As far as the "free speech" issue goes, what it boils down to is this: If Ann Coulter isn't inciting hatred (I don't think she is), then she's free to be as ignorant and wrong as she chooses.

My understanding is that this is a freedom that Ann exercises with great aplomb, as often as possible.

So she's got a lot of practice exercising her freedom to be ignorant, wrong, and untruthful.

People who have a problem with her opinions and mistruths also have an inalienable freedom - that of plugging their ears, staying home, ignoring what she says, or going to watch the Hitmen play at the Saddledome. I'd suggest they try any of those options, rather than denying Ann her right to come off as an intolerant, bigoted, small-minded idiot. (I'm not saying Ann IS those things - that'd be a personal attack, something she'd never lower herself to. I'm just saying she comes OFF that way)

I DID want to weigh in, though, on exactly what the big issue with Ann seems to be: Who IS this person, this polarizing figure?

Well, I'm going to answer that question with a question.

You know why I always loved and respected George Carlin? It wasn't because I agreed with everything he said - far from it. Some of it was downright offensive. But when Carlin WAS saying offensive things, he was also offering intelligent insight, logic, rational analysis of the issues at hand... and he knew what he wanted to say next, and after that, and after that... Carlin was a foul-mouthed, sacrilegious, take-no-prisoners, unapologetic, nihilistic philosopher for the 2nd half of the 20th century.
He made you think "what a jerk!" - and then, later, "but he DID have a point..."

Compare Carlin, then, to Michael Richards - who, you ask? Cosmo Kramer, from Seinfeld. When he realized his career had effectively died with the show that made him famous, Richards' increasing desperation to recapture the attention he so craved led him to the stage, where - after several failed attempts to parlay his fame into lucrative gigs and big audiences, he went to the last, desperate ploy in the "get attention playbook" - there's no such thing as bad publicity. He went onto a stage, with a live microphone in hand, and started spewing vile, racial vitriol in an effort to get noticed.

It worked.

He got noticed - and then buried.

Richards failed in his attempt to get noticed as a reinvented, edgy comic because when the cameras turned to him, and he started his racial ranting - he had nowhere to go. It wasn't part of a routine. It wasn't something he could later wrap-up on the same stage to show us the folly of racist thinking, or that - as Carlin famously pointed out in what was arguably the crown jewel of his life's work - "there are no bad words... bad thoughts, bad intentions, and WORDS...". It was just a shocking statement, for shock's value, and with no foresight put into it, and no exit strategy. Richards wanted people to notice him, but wasn't forward-thinking enough to know that he'd have to have somewhere to carry the thought to turn it from ignorant outburst to a fully realized thought that added to the conversation or taught his audience something. He was Jerry Springer, without the Final Thought. "Entertainment" for the most base of our impulses, without any higher motive. People walked away thinking "what a jerk!" - and that was all.

Ann Coulter is the Michael Richards of American political discourse. A one-trick pony who lost her meal ticket when Bill Clinton left office, so she now says shallow and shocking things, whether she believes them or not, about liberals and religious minorities to get attention. And she's getting it, and the paycheques and notoriety that come with it.

She's the political equivalent of Vince McMahon, writing scripts featuring necrophelia on a pro wrestling show, hopeful of shocking someone enough to get mainstream media coverage.

Her ignorant, shallow and offensive act is a rash on the public civic consciousness.

The best thing we can do is to ignore her, take a shot of rationalism, stop scratching, and hope she'll go away when we stop feeding her apparent egomania.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Catching Up: Reboot 2.0

Nation, I know that I'm near-hopelessly behind on the stack of "things to blog about" that are piling up on my desk... it would be easier to just do a few paragraphs about each issue and call it a day, but barely scratching the surface has never really been my style, if it could be helped.

Today's topic: Reboot Alberta 2.0, which was held in Kananaskis Country at the end of February.

I went into Reboot with a great deal of optimism: It was a rare opportunity to meet with more than a handful of civic-minded people who almost all shared the same basic progressive values as I did - in Party-level politics, all too often the meetings are more about gaining and holding onto power than on bringing out the best in ourselves to improve the quality of governance for all. At least among those parties with a chance to actually win. It was ALSO a VERY rare opportunity to go into a political event and not be, at 31, the youngest person in the room.

Having not attended to first Reboot due to geographical, scheduling, and fiscal restrictions, I wasn't EXACTLY sure what to expect from the "non-conference" format. The first night was fairly uneventful, as far as the formal program went: I found myself getting Twitter messages, asking where I was, and eventually I got the word out that the "happening place to be" was precisely where I was already sitting (cramming last-minute with print-outs of the "what is a progressive" blog posts), at Woody's Pub. It wasn't long before I was far from alone, and after talking politics, hockey, and all things in between with a great group that included, among others, bloggers DJ Kelly, MasterMaq, Bingofuel, and theRoundhouse, we wandered over to the opening night reception to rub elbows with the "old people" and catch the end to a VERY frightening men's hockey semifinal game. Upon the conclusion of the game, we ended up - yep, you guessed it - back at Woody's, albeit this time with some of the old-timers and late arrivals in tow. My role in the evening's discussions wrapped up at about 2 am, when I decided discretion was the better part of valour, and called it a night.

The next morning, the whole Reboot crew - bright-eyed and bushy-tailed - spent the morning session discussing what it meant to truly "listen" to someone. My table threw a fly in the ointment by pointing out that often when people complain they're not being "listened to" by their elected leaders, what they MEAN is that they're not being OBEYED. This session has taken a lot of flack from some of the attendees in the weeks since, but I've got to say that I found it a worthwhile exercise. Maybe my perspective would be different if I had attended Reboot 1.0 - but I didn't, and it's not. One of the big challenges, not just for my party but for ALL political entities, is to give people a reason to stay engaged after they're taken the trouble to write, or come in to the office. Give them something that they can take home and say "that fella might not do what I said, but darn it, he was sure listening to what I had to say!". It's a small thing, but absolutely critical - and I'm glad we talked about it.

One of the inherent dangers in getting a big group of self-styled progressives in the same room is the often cataclysmic battle of egos that results from having a room full of people who are all absolutely convinced that they're the smartest and most visionary person there (this potential for b.s. power conflict is outweighed only by a room full of people convinced that they're the most pious and moral folks in attendance). I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find that this was almost a total non-factor among the Reboot participants. There were plenty of differing opinions, backgrounds, egos and agendas - but overall, the group chemistry was pretty good. People from different partisan backgrounds, former rivals, and folks with very little in common outside of Reboot itself were generally friendly, helpful, and respectful. I think this is due more to the knowledge that we were all there working toward the same end - a more progressive future for this province of ours - than to any fealty to the (imaginary) Marquis of Queensbury rules of political discourse.

We returned from a lunch recess to split up into groups based on the four streams that came out of Reboot 1.0. Surprising no one, I went into the "reform through existing parties and structures" group, along with 2 current PC MLA's and a plethora of former (and future)candidates from across the spectrum. It was a good mix of people from virtually every federal and provincial party, and although we got off to a slow start - unsure what the goal of the session was - we eventually found our feet, and by the end of the 2 hour session we were talking about real, tangible changes that could be made within government and within existing parties to advance the "secret, hidden progressive agenda" of long-term planning, accountable governance and citizen engagement.

When we could hear ourselves, that is - the "form a new political party" group, which was essentially an unofficial "Alberta Party" convention, was a wee bit loud. Ironically, it was observed that the Alberta Party higher-ups, who had recently announced the Big Listen, were doing most of the talking - not their intent, but enough for an ironic curl of the lip.

After another recess, the group came together for a swanky buffet meal that tickled the tastebuds and wrecked absolute HAVOC on my diet. Once dinner had been served, we were "treated" to an abridged Dance of the Seven Veils by Ken Chapman (thankfully, not to its usual conclusion) and then given the results of the Progressive Values survey that had been held several weeks before. This was an eye-opener, as we were learning for the first time what it was that brought us all together - we had heard snippets from fellow participants around our table discussions, or during informal chats at Woody's, but nothing so formal as this presentation, which to sum up was "here's what most of you believe is important from your leaders".

After dinner, what seemed like the entire group headed over to Woody's for a night of fun (had by all) and dancing (by some - but definitely not by me). There was a LOT of great discussion had after dinner, and well into the wee hours of the morning. The organizers had presented us with a challenge - how do we go forward from here and engage our fellow citizens? - and my voice was raw and my ears ringing from the boisterous and scintillating conversations that were had, for hours, over the din.

Sunday morning led to the final session, where we determined actual measurable steps that could be taken by citizens, political parties and governments to show a commitment to the progressive values that had been laid out the night before. Our table spent a lot of time talking about the future, and when the time came for us to present our thoughts, the Enlightened Savage was pressed into service as our discussion group's voice, which led to my expression of a thought that had been buzzing in my head since Friday afternoon...

"If you ask a candidate what this province is going to look like in 20 years, what their vision is for the future, and they don't have an answer for you, then they're not worthy of your consent to be governed."

It turned out to be a pretty popular statement.

Overall, I found the Reboot experience to be VERY worthwhile. I made some new friends, made a LOT of contacts from across the political spectrum, got some great advice about my own aspirations from people who had been in my shoes before, and met a lot of the bloggers that I read on a daily basis (one participant seemed rather surprised that I was the Enlightened Savage - I think she was expecting someone taller, or was perhaps taken aback by my devastating, Ethan Hawke-esque looks). I feel that good progress was made in determining what a progressive Albertan voice sounds like, what a progressive Albertan values, and how a progressive Albertan should engage with her or his fellow citizens. What comes NEXT is ACTION.

All that said, though, in my conversations before the event and since, there have been some very real and valid criticisms of the format: By virtue of the fact that it's held in a real location, whether it be in the resort of Kananaskis or the decidedly UN-resort-like Red Deer (like Reboot 1.0 was), the bottom line is that some people who WANT to attend are going to be unable to GET there. Some people who want to attend, and live near enough to make the trip feasible, won't be able to afford to convention fee, or stay in the same hotel as other participants - this is especially true of students.

The possibility of holding events simultaneously in multiple locations and connecting remotely (like Wrestlemania 2) has been brought up, and I think it's worth considering. The format doesn't allow for a constant video feed to keep people in the loop while sitting at home, because it's not a "one speaker, 300 listeners" kind of conference - much of the discussion is held in smaller groups, where a stationary webcam would be useless. Participants would lose some element of their anonymity, in that their words on camera would be broadcast to the world, but - take it from someone who knows - there are worse things that losing your anonymity.

There is absolutely a critical social element to the event, which is something that doesn't translate well the those following along on Twitter. I recall my own frustration following Reboot 1.0 on Twitter, KNOWING that I was missing out on context and side discussions that made what I was reading actually coagulate into something usable. For this reason, I was a little more tolerant than some who would read the big "Tweet Board" at the front of the room when a non-participant would go off on a tangent over something that would get posted without context, completely missing the point. A few months ago, that would have been me. :)

For this reason, I think satellite events are the way to go, rather than trying to find a way for people to be fully involved from the comfort of their own homes - have a mini-event at the local p/s campus, or public library, where a moderator gets the same agenda as the "big conference", the same themes are explored, and all the satellite events dial in via webcam during the plenary sessions to share what their tables, in High Level or Medicine Hat or Drayton Valley, came up with.

This way, the participants in these satellite events will still have the benefit of the social component of the event. The costs will be SUBSTANTIALLY lower for participants who can't afford to attend the "big conference", as in many cases they'll be paying for coffee and a share of a $50 room rental.

Staying at the same hotel as the other participants isn't a huge deal, either - I didn't sleep on-site. I'd like to think I managed to have a lot of good discussions without sleeping in a room next to a fellow Reboot-er. Attendees of the big conference don't need to stay in the same hotel, provided it's not in a one-hotel place like Kananaskis Village (and even then, there was another hotel 15 minutes away that was $30 less per night than the hotel at the Village). Remember, the first Reboot was in Red Deer, where (as anyone who has driven through Gasoline Alley knows) there are rooms with cable tv and jacuzzis in the hotel for $59 per night.

Carpool discussions were being had in the forums section of the Reboot website in the days before the event.

So, there are ways to make this work - whether you're attending the big conference, or one of the proposed satellite conferences. I'd urge the organizers to get on the satellite idea, to make this extremely (IMHO) worthwhile experience accessible for all.

Case in point?

I LOVED my time at Reboot 2.0.

But unless the next one is in South-East Calgary, and registration is $20, I won't be able to make it.

Which would be a shame.

Because Reboot is a GREAT THING - even though I haven't yet been added to the blogroll, despite my February 20th "What is a Progressive?" blog post.

... and that's all I have to say about that.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Catching Up: Alberta's Speech From The Throne

Alright, Nation - a month has passed since the Speech from the Throne was delivered by Lt. Governor Norman Kwong. A lot, obviously, has happened SINCE then.

But, in the interest of going back and finishing the blog posts that I've been trying to get rattled off over the past month, we're going to start at the beginning of the backlog - which is my analysis of the Throne Speech.



The speech was somewhat light on specific details - but most Throne Speeches are. The Throne Speech is designed to give a basic outline of the direction in which the government plans to take the province over the next 12 months (or, alternatively, to throw in a red herring about changing the lyrics to O Canada so people don't look at the rest of the speech too closely - but I digress). The REAL details come in the budget. So, I won't belabour the point that the details in the speech are a bit fuzzy.

Alberta Capital Bonds were announced early on in the speech. I've got to say that while I'm not in love with the fact that we NEED to borrow money from Albertans to pay for vital infrastructure, I'd rather go about it THIS way than through raised taxes. At least by raising money through bonds, the people of Alberta will be able to decide for themselves if they wish to participate. Is this debt? Absolutely, it is. And I hate that it's needed. But, I can't think of a better way to address our current infrastructure needs - right now, TODAY - than through the issuing of Alberta Capital Bonds. All things considered, if we HAVE to assume debt, I'd rather owe that money to Albertans than to China.

The Sustainability Fund is brought up several times in the speech - and with good reason. Alberta went into this recession with money in the bank, and we were one of the only jurisdictions to have to foresight to squirrel money away - probably because our history has taught us that what goes up will inevitably come down, especially here in Alberta. The fact that the government had the foresight to put money away, like most of us have to, is to be commended. What I have yet to see, though, is a firm commitment to replenish that money - or even grow the account larger in the future. You can't stop thinking about the next rainy day just because there are drops falling right now - focus on today, but keep planning for tomorrow.

There is mention of "living within our means" in this speech. It's hard to write about this knowing, as I do, what the subsequent budget contained, but I will try to come up with a suitable mix of reaction and context: We absolutely HAVE to live within our means. As I mentioned recently in response to a commenter on another post, there is no such thing, in my estimation, as "government money" - it's MY money, and YOUR money, and our politicians have an obligation to treat that money with the same respect when spending it as they do with our democratic franchise when exercising it.

Okay, bad example. But still...

There are areas on the "government spending map" that look like fiscal black holes - money goes in, and then utterly and completely disappears. And the holes are never filled - they're still sitting there, yawning wide open, waiting for more dollars to fall into their gaping maw. We have to, as a province, have a discussion amongst ourselves about what we think is important government spending, and what is not. And it needs to be an exhaustive discussion, with specifics. The 2 biggest "black holes" are education and health care, by far. Yet, if we have a series of town hall forums or surveys, they'll come up as the highest priority areas for spending - and with good reason. I have absolutely no issue with those priorities. But then, the discussion needs to be taken one step further: What, SPECIFICALLY, in Health Care is a high priority for spending? Research? Administration? Centralized hospitals, or smaller, regional health centres with trauma and urgent care capacity? Preventative medicine? Chiropractic? Dental? Massage therapy? Nutrition? Health workforce replenishment? More beds? More doctors? We need to have this discussion, and a similar one about education, because throwing more money into the black holes is not sustainable - it will ALWAYS be needed, along with much more. The money will run out long before the need - so, we have to have a rational discussion about what we expect from these government departments and how we feel services should be paid for. Marking our "x" next to a candidate and their party's "vision" once every 4 to 5 years is a shirking of our personal responsibility to make this system work.

In the short term, the stable funding mentioned in the Throne Speech will at least allow the Health system to plan for the next few years. Which is good.

Gang reduction strategy? Sounds good to me. More cops? Great. More child care spaces? I'd settle for BETTER child care spaces, but the population is growing in this province (just not in the Savage household any time soon), so I'm sure the added spaces will be more than useful.

Affordable housing units? Very good - there are a LOT of "working poor" in the province, particularly in Calgary, who end up stacked like cordwood in ratty apartments because they're caught in the cycle of needing to work 60 to 80 hours per week to make ends meet, and can't take the time or money to train for something that pays better. 11,000 units will be helpful, but I don't know if it goes far enough. The construction of these units, by the way, also keeps tradespeople employed, and paying taxes - so this isn't money that's just being flushed. It's important, though, that we avoid the natural inclination to "ghetto-ize" certain neighbourhoods, by putting large quantities of affordable units smashed together into one place (District 9, anyone?). It's not societally productive to marginalize those most in need of help, and hiding them on the wrong side of the tracks so the upper middle class can forget that they're there. The children of those families deserve better than an urban apartheid. It bodes well that they've put notorious Red Tory Jonathan Denis on this file.

The government wants to help us save for retirement. Sure, I can get down with that. There are important questions to be answered, though - chief among them, is "where does the seed money for the system come from?". Will the CPP just send the amounts contributed from Albertans so we can set up an Alberta Pension Plan? Don't count on it. And let's not forget that the entire public pension system is going to be under immense strain once the Boomers start turning 65 and retiring en masse... which should be right about... now. (Boomers born 9 months after our boys started coming home from Europe should be turning 65 in Feb. 2011 - children of troops from the Pacific theatre will be turning 65 next summer)

Regarding the "new vision for education" mentioned in the Throne Speech - I don't know what the new vision will look like, but I saw the trial balloon that was floated regarding fine arts education, and it was absolutely terrible - high school music and drama courses would be GUTTED under the proposed changes. There might be something in the new vision that undoes the damage, but seeing will be believing.

Fostering economic growth in the North through infrastructure building makes good sense, and I'm glad to see this commitment being made. These aren't just the oil fields of today - it's also the grain belt of tomorrow.

The competitiveness review is coming out soon, and the Throne Speech talks about this. I can not emphasize the following statement enough, so rather than bolding it, increasing the font, or underlining it I'll just say it with a typically long-winded E.S. preamble: Predictability and stability are key for the royalty regime. Set the number, set the system, and then CARVE IT IN STONE. No more tweaking - even if it's a tweak that will work better for producers AND for Alberta. Set the system, announce that this is how it's going to be until whenever - 2020, 2030 - and then walk away.

Businesses that are looking at making billion-dollar commitments spanning decades want to know exactly what the regime is going to be. We don't need to "Roll back" the premiums to the Klein-era levels - we just need to stick by whatever levels we DO set. A percent here or there is not as important to these companies - and to their financial backers - as knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, exactly what the regulatory environment is going to be in the long-term. If you build it - and then leave it alone - they will come. We've got the infrastructure, the educated workforce, and (most importantly) the OIL. But it's no wonder why some companies hesitate to invest, when they know that waiting 6 months might get them a better deal - or that investing now, with a razor-thin margin - might come back to bite them if the regime changes 6 months from now. Removal of that uncertainty is the single best way to encourage investment in Alberta's energy sector.

The speech then talks about protecting the environment without crippling the economy (good), and about energy conservation (VERY good).

Then we get to the traditional "Alberta's place in Confederation" section of the Throne Speech. In a nutshell: "To heck with you guys and your superior attitudes, we're not kids anymore!". Most notable in this year's version is the statement that the government is going to loudly complain to the Feds when transfer payments for things like health are lower to Alberta than promised, or than to other provinces - in essence, Alberta will pull what is referred to locally as "A Bronconnier" to make sure we get a fair share back from Ottawa, which - when considering what we put IN, is the least that Stephen can do.

Those are my thoughts - what are yours?