Rebooting Alberta: Instant Reaction

The afternoon at Reboot Alberta is drawing to a close. So far, I have had some fascinating conversations – both inside and outside of the formal sessions – with a number of old friends and new acquaintances.

We began this morning by choosing topics for discussion during three consecutive time slots. After breaking for lunch, we moved into a session with four breakout groups – one around each of the major themes for action identified (phrasing largely mine): “reinvigorating the existing political system (including parties)”, “a new political party if necessary, but not necessarily a new political party”, “creating new movements and initiatives for change (outside of formal political structures)”, and “working through existing initiatives for social change”.

This morning, I participated in sessions titled “What Exactly is a Progressive”, “Defining a Progressive Vision for Alberta”, and “How Do Progressives Bridge the Gap Between Rural and Urban?” All three sessions were very engaging, and thought-provoking. In particular, I enjoyed sitting back and listening during the “rural/urban gap” session; it was informative to listen to the perspectives of Albertans from rural areas and small towns.

This afternoon, I sat in on the “new political party if necessary, but not necessarily a new political party”. Most of the discussion ended up around the Renew Alberta initiative. The group, some of whose organizers are present, is collecting signatures in order to register as a political party. I’ve expressed reservations about the merits of starting a new party (here and here), but I will say that there a number of insightful comments – some in support of the idea, some raising questions or offering caution. What is evident is that almost everyone in the room is unsatisfied with the status quo, and looking for solutions.

With the play-by-play out of the way, I’ll comment on three themes – values, social change, and political parties. I’ll write more about Reboot Alberta a few days from now, when I have had time to further reflect.

On Values
I feel like there is general consensus in the room on values. There has been a lot of discussion in my sessions about values, and about what defines a progressive, and a progressive vision. I’m very pleased with this; values must be the foundation of everything we pursue, and want to see accomplished. Some of the major themes that have emerged are around the necessity of conversation between political parties and citizens, of valuing diversity – in the economy, in our culture, and of being open to new ideas, new practices, and new institutions.

On Social Change
Successful social change is the result of a number of different converging efforts. It’s not the sole initiative of a political party, or a handful of concerned citizens or social groups. To achieve lasting, meaningful change, many different people and groups need to converge and work in concert. I hope this gathering has helped foster connections that will help make that happen.

On Political Parties
The question I feel many people are asking (including myself) is ‘what is the best avenue for achieving our change?’ Is it a new political party (or parties?) Is it redoubling efforts with an existing party or parties? Is it affecting public opinion that guides political decisions? There is interest in the Renew Alberta concept; I haven’t fleshed out my thoughts on it, but I will be watching efforts towards change both outside and inside the current system as this weekend progresses and comes to a close.

Also Worth Reading:
Chris LaBossiere: Pushing Ropes and Herding Cats; I Just Rebooted Myself…and It Feels Good
Daveberta: Rebooting Alberta 2:11pm
Reboot Alberta on Twitter
DJ Kelly: Look Out Alberta, You’re About to Get “Rebooted”
Atypical Albertan: Progressives Gather to Reboot Alberta


Alberta 3.0: Thoughts on the Way Forward, Reboot Alberta, and the Next Ten Words

I’ll be attending Reboot Alberta this weekend. When approached about attending, I didn’t know what to make of the idea; in some manner I still don’t. A number of the blog posts thus far have been thought-provoking and insightful (particularly those by Rick Schneider and Jason Morris). So that’s encouraging. But most importantly for me, I trust the word of the organizers I know, and I believe it will be a good forum for those like myself who are concerned about the challenges, and excited about the opportunities, facing our province.

Ken asked me if I would share my thoughts on Reboot Alberta. As I said, I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. Nonetheless, I shall do my best to explain.

Without getting into semantics too much, I don’t believe Alberta needs a reboot; it needs an upgrade. A reboot implies that problems exist, but the current system will suffice to handle them. I respectfully disagree. I believe the system, and most importantly, the paradigm around which we’ve based it, need to evolve. The world is changing, and what worked for us in the past is no guarantee for future success. So let’s examine where we’ve come from, and where we need to go.

Albertan Democracy Has Failed
A scribbling at the Global Youth Assembly in Edmonton. July 2009.

Our history since 1905 can be, in an overly simplistic manner, divided into two broad periods:

Alberta 1.0 (1905-1947): A largely agrarian, rural-based province built around traditional values.
Alberta 2.0 (1947-present): Leduc 1 ushers in the age of oil that continues today in this province. The province is increasingly urbanized, with no signs of that trend abating.

The Future: Alberta 3.0
At some point, through design, necessity, or some combination thereof, Alberta 3.0 will emerge. It will be based around a new paradigm. We have the ability to set that shift in motion. I’m going to talk about the principles I see as being important to the next paradigm, because they dictate what kind of province we want to build, and how we will to do it.

What will Alberta 3.0 look like? First, that the key word in every facet is diversity. In the economy, this means that we are noted for success in a multitude of different industries, not just one or two. Socially and culturally, this reflects the differences and strengths amongst our citizens. Politically, it speaks to greater competition and options, as well as a larger number of players who take on meaningful leadership roles. The dangers of relying on one dominant industry are well-known. The dangers of embracing one dominant political group are similar; stagnation and cronyism set in, but there’s no logical place for people to turn if they are frustrated with the status quo. Empowering a greater number of decision-makers can help address this.

Second, Alberta 3.0 will be built around the belief that “we are all in this together“. This is both paramount and essential. Alberta 3.0 isn’t about one person getting ahead, it’s about everyone getting ahead. It’s about valuing community, and about using what we have been given to help those of us who are less fortunate. Homelessness, poverty, and addiction – to name three – are problems all of us must help address, not something we can ignore in good times or especially in bad times. In Street Fight, Cory Booker, on the campaign trail, says “to he who much is given, much is expected”. With that, I would agree. We should be judged as much by what we give back as by what we earn.

This may seem like a fundamental shift, but it’s not. While the myth of the individual in Alberta may currently prevail, the truth of community has a long, proud history. The value we place on small towns and communities is in large part due to the neighbourliness and mutual support they offer. Our history is shaped in large part by the resilience of minority and immigrant groups, from our Aboriginal groups emerging now from centuries of hardship, to successive waves of immigrants – from Ukranians a century ago to Africans today, who supported each other and became integral parts of Alberta’s history and of our present day culture.

The idea of community has roots in Henry Marshall Tory’s convocation address at the University of Alberta in 1906, 13 months after we became a province:

The modern state university has sprung from a demand on the part of the people themselves for intellectual recognition, a recognition which only a century ago was denied them. The result is that such institutions must be conducted in such a way as to relate them as closely as possible to the life of the people. The people demand that knowledge shall not alone be the concern of scholars. The uplifting of the whole people shall be its final goal.

The idea that we are all in this together does not just apply to those of us who are here now. It’s about recognizing the responsibility we have to future generations as well.

Which brings me to the next key point – we must value sustainability. Sustainability for me encompasses three areas – social, economic, and environmental. Ensuring our communities and social fabric are strong, our economy is diversified and resilient, and our environment is well-preserved and maintained.

Calgary Tower
What kind of future do we build for downtown Calgary, and a time that oil may go bust for good?

I talked about the value of community already. On the economy, are we prepared for an instance where oil and gas go bust for good? What have we done with our good fortune and our success? Have many profited, or just a few? And regardless of how many profited, what have the many benefited from it?

Mildred Lake Mine
How long will the oil age last, and what will we have done with its spoils?

Over the past couple of years, the plight of former manufacturing centres, notably Detroit and its auto industry, have been front and centre in the news. The decline of manufacturing in the “rust belt” states has been on-going for a few decades, as outsourcing, foreign competition, and depletion of resources combined to pose a serious threat to their existing economic model. Detroit, with its hollowed out city core, and failing flagship companies, is in dire straits. We look at them and think, ‘this could never happen to us’. I’m sure the same thing was said there during the ‘what’s good for GM is good for America’ hey-day of the auto industry.

I spent time last week in a couple of other “rust belt” cities. I’ll focus on one of them – Pittsburgh. Long associated with the steel industry, Pittsburgh is finally starting to get its due as a center that has transitioned to the modern economy, while holding onto remnants of the old economy as well. The excellent report “Pittsburgh: The Rest of the Story” details the city’s comeback. The full report deserves a read, but in summary, there are three key points. First, despite the fact that its old industries were shrinking, it didn’t abandon them; instead, it modernized them to the greatest extent possible. Second, the recovery effort was well-coordinated, and involved government, the community, and business. Third, intentionally or not, business and community leaders of the past had put into place many pieces that would contribute to Pittsburgh’s comeback. The old business elite, led by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, built great buildings, endowed foundations, as well as cultural and arts groups, and helped build leading universities. Pittsburgh’s emergence as a health services and biomedical research hub is in great part due to grants from foundations and the universities created during the good times.

Pittsburgh built a legacy during its golden age. What have we built in Alberta? Our Heritage Savings Fund is relatively small, and may be drawn down shortly. We have strong universities, but we are cutting funding to them when times get tough. Do we have anything approaching the legacy of other golden ages?

At home, we’re starting to get this. People such as Edmonton writer Satya Das, through his recently-released book “Green Oil”, have argued for using the oil sands to build a future base of wealth (while simultaneously making them as green as possible). This represents a fundamental shift from the past, and is incredibly encouraging. One day, perhaps, we will be judged not just by how we ourselves profited, but also by how we set up the next generation to succeed.

This brings us to the environment. On October 15, I wrote this for Blog Action Day:

So if the modern world is an age of abundance, what is the post-modern world? Is it a world of scarcity? Not necessarily. It is, however, a world of limits. We must recognize that we can’t continue to grow and consume without regard for the resources we are consuming.

Fundamentally, post-modernism will be about doing more with less. It’s about responsibility – the responsible stewardship of natural resources and land, the responsible use of public resources.

Astotin Lake
Elk Island National Park. One of the many great natural places in Alberta.

I believe this applies to Alberta 3.0. Efficiency, stewardship, and responsibility are key. How we manage our resources needs to be the new benchmark, not how fast and in what quantity we bring them to the marketplace. We must prioritize protection of the environment and wilderness, because this affects our quality of life, and because it’s often irrecoverable. Our environment shapes us, as much if not more than we shape it. We must respect it, because major changes to the environment can create major unforeseen problems.

Finally, I want to cover politics. The first, and most important principle, is that politics must be taken seriously. This applies to government, public officials, and citizens alike. I believe we get the government we deserve, for better or worse. If we drop out and don’t participate, there’s a good chance we won’t like the government we get. If we get engaged, that’s a different story. It takes time to understand the issues, to discuss them, and to advocate on them. It takes a seriousness from officials to treat each other, the institutions, and citizens with respect. It takes work to govern well, and to hold our government accountable. Politics must be treated as a serious, necessary, and ultimately worthwhile endeavour for everyone from the senior levels of government, to the citizen who tunes in simply to cast a(n informed) vote on election day, and everyone in between.

Morning Session
Citizens coming together to address the issues is a good first step.

Further on politics, I worry that for some, a new political party, and/or a change in parties in power, is all we need to fix our problem. For me, it’s neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. History is littered with challengers who railed against the status quo and achieved power, at which point they realized the status quo works pretty good for those in charge. To achieve true change, we need a bi-partisan effort to focus on the characteristics of the system; fixing that will in time resolve any problems with the players inside of it.

Note that I said “bi-partisan”, not “non-partisan”. Partisanship is not necessarily a bad thing. Our parliamentary system, with a “government” and an “opposition”, is based on the concept. Partisanship can ensure different opinions are heard, a fundamental characteristic of democracy. In short, partisanship on values is a good thing, as long as it’s rooted in respect for different views; partisanship based on parties, individuals, or institutions – and independent of values – is a bad thing.

The system dictates who is in charge, and how decisions are made. If we want less partisanship, we need a bi-partisan effort, because we will only accomplish this when people on all sides of the debate, and in all parties, are demanding the same high standards.

What are the Next Ten Words?
For me, all of the above is a framework. It outlines the principles for a way forward. But it’s not even close to what we need. If we never get beyond buzzwords like “sustainability” and “engagement”, we won’t get anywhere. What we need is the next ten words.

I couldn’t think of a good real-world example to use here, so instead I turn to The West Wing.

Episode 6 of Season 4, titled “Game On” focuses on the Presidential debate between incumbent President Jed Bartlet, and his challenger, Governor Ritchie. Here is the key scene from the episode:

Governor Ritchie, many economists have stated that the tax cut, which is centrepiece of your economic agenda, could actually harm the economy. Is now really the time to cut taxes?

You bet it is. We need to cut taxes for one reason– the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.

Mr. President, your rebutal.

There it is.

That’s the ten-word answer my staff’s been looking for for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while… every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost
always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words.

(Update: you can watch the clip here)

What I’m looking for is to move beyond the short answers, and to have serious, nuanced conversations about the challenges and opportunities ahead. I have some ideas to start with, and I’m hoping to connect with others who do as well. “Sustainability”, “engagement”, “green energy” are all nice words on paper, but ultimately meaningless if not understood within a specific context, and even dangerous if approached dogmatically. Conversations such as those at Reboot Alberta can be a starting point. That’s what I hope to accomplish this weekend.

Thoughts On the Great LRT Debate

I’ve been thinking a lot about urban development. Not just because it’s one of my main interests (and has been for a good decade and a half), as well as a key function of my day job, but because of the debate surrounding one of the biggest issues facing Edmonton – LRT routes.

On Friday, City Council is slated to make a decision on alignments for the Southeast and West legs of the LRT network, complementing the existing and planned lines to reach other parts of the city. The Southeast leg appears to be heading for approval with little dissent; the west, on the other hand, elicits strong feelings from many parties.

The route following Stony Plain Road is the recommended one, but previously considered routes along 107th Ave or 87th Ave could be brought back for consideration. There are points in favour and against all three options, and their projected ridership is all in the same range. In the end, it comes down to which of the three options is most amenable to your goals for the city. The planners did their job on the issue; it’s now up to the public officials to make the ultimate decision.

That being said, the debate amongst the public has missed some key issues, in my mind. Leaving aside the hyperbole on both sides, I’ve been surprised by how many people treat as self-evident some notions – particularly the idea that light rail will automatically spur a lot of redevelopment, and that it is an economic driver (the fact that the land development opportunities evaluated for this process is based largely on projects already approved or going through the application process also isn’t well understood). I’m going to give that idea a cursory examination.

The O-Train
The O-Train at the Bayview station near downtown Ottawa.

I am a strong proponent of light rail and of a well-designed urban form, but as with every issue, I think the most important thing is that it’s done properly, and that an informed as possible decision is made. This is especially true with light rail, since it’s a pretty much irreversible decision. It’s not easy to pick up the tracks and move them 5 or 10 blocks if you realize you made the wrong decision.

Here follows my contribution to the debate.

Does LRT Contribute to Redevelopment?
There are many instances where light rail has contributed to redevelopment; it certainly appears to be a better use of public funds than sports arenas or any number of other mega-projects. But there are also cases where the investment hasn’t followed, leading one to believe that light rail is not a sufficient condition.

For example, this forthcoming study on light rail in the Phoenix area shows that that region saw property values around light rail stations increase when the areas were rezoned to allow for greater density. Property around stations that saw no rezoning didn’t increase – around one station property values actually decreased.

Second, and most importantly, looking purely at the impact of light rail ignores the fact that some development likely would have occurred even in the absence of light rail. For example, in Dallas, property values for commercial property around light rail stations have risen 24%; for residential properties the increase is 32% this decade. However, city-wide, property values went up 11% and 19%, respectively, in areas not served by light rail. Minneapolis constructed a new light rail line at the beginning of this decade. Between 2000 and 2004 (when it opened), property values around the new stops rose 83%; the city-wide average for that time frame was 61% (stats from the report found here). Now, there could be other factors driving the difference as well. For example, it’s possible that light rail was built in areas that are desirable for other reasons, or that other desirable amenities (good schools, appealing public spaces, etc.) are also now present. But light rail is certainly a factor.

What I wonder is whether development spurred by light rail would have largely occurred anyways, perhaps in other areas of the region. This becomes germane when we consider Edmonton’s situation. There are already revitalization efforts underway in The Quarters, Alberta Avenue, and the Fort Road area, to name three. Is Transit-Oriented Development in the west going to attract development that would not have happened otherwise in Edmonton, or is it simply attracting development that would likely occur elsewhere in the city (and making it on average 20% more valuable than it would otherwise be)? When looking at the economics, let’s also remember that light rail comes at a significant capital cost as well; the operating costs, however, can be lower if it’s popular and widely-used.

What is undeniable is that light rail is a city shaper. Done properly, it can affect where development dollars flow and alter the built form.

Transit Mall
The MAX Light Rail stops by Pioneer Square in downtown Portland.

What Gets Built Matters

This ties in to my penultimate point from the previous section. The development that comes with light rail has to be the type of development there is a market for. Ideally, to my mind, it would be an under-served market. As I alluded to before, there are several areas making a push in the multi-unit market targeting empty nesters. In addition to Fort Road and the Quarters, downtown still has a good amount of vacant and underutilized land, Century Park is still being built, and there are an assortment of condo and high-rise projects in the works throughout the city.

I think supply has shaped Edmonton’s development patterns as much as anything, but I also think there’s a limited demand for 1-2 bedroom condos. Most people, if they have a family, want a space amenable to children. Many empty-nesters want single-family homes as well. Unfortunately, we tend to build the former in older neighbourhoods and in redevelopment projects. If we continue to, families are going to either look elsewhere to live, or suck it up and live in a low-density, outlying area where they can actually get family-friendly housing. Family-friendly housing would also be in concord with the goals of many of the communities that will be served by LRT – west end communities along Stony Plain Road are concerned with preserving their schools, and in attracting families. Development in this area should largely respect this.

Other Factors Matter
Travel time on transit obviously matters a lot, and affects the success of a station and any related project. This report makes a compelling argument for the importance of linking destinations in planning light rail. Zoning and the development permit process are also critical. I mentioned the example of Phoenix, where zoning affected the change in land values. The development process also matters a lot. What can be built, and how easily it can be accomplished, drives what ends up being built. As do other amenities in the area. Expecting that running a light rail line through an area will automatically produce benefits is a mistake.

Thoughts On West Jasper and Stony Plain Road

About a month and a half ago, Dave and I went out to Stony Plain Road to take a look at the area prime for revitalization. There are already plans and actions in the works. The area has been designated a business revitalization zone, and a full revitalization strategy has been developed. You can see some progress already – the block between 150th-151st St is improving. The south side features a noted Portugese bakery and Revolution Cycle. The north side features new tenants such as Derks Formal Menswear, The Haven Social Club, and the United Way. There is also a cluster of sex shops, but progress doesn’t happen overnight. As you move west from there, you start to see more pawn shops and payday loans stores.

Stony Plain Road
New tenants such as the United Way have moved in on Stony Plain Road between 150th-151st St.

You can see my photos from the trip here. Walking around the area, it struck me that transit service was one of the smaller concerns. The revitalization strategy seems to back this up. Residents are more concerned with safety, businesses appropriate for the community vision, and

My impressions are pretty straightforward:

– The most crucial challenge is developing an identity for West Jasper/Stony Plain Road. Successful areas have an identity, whether it’s through their design and architecture, residents, activities, or some combination thereof. The identity of the West Jasper area doesn’t really come through. As an example, Alberta Avenue is making strides by tying in with the arts community. Where is Stony Plain’s story going to come from?

– There are some design challenges that aren’t easily fixed. For example, 100th Ave effectively cuts off the neighbourhoods south of the area from the main commercial strip. The communities north of the strip lack connectivity, both with Stony Plain Road (the two areas feel disconnected), and internally, you continually run into dead ends trying to navigate it.

– There is little brownfield space. We’re not talking about redeveloping empty space (ie. Century Park). Most of the area is already occupied. Some of it is underused, and some of it is used by businesses the residents would rather drive out. The piecemeal ownership of the area makes it more challenging to coordinate development and to execute an overarching strategy.

That being said, there is progress being made, and any critiques I make are not intended to slight the efforts of residents and businesses to improve their community. But I still believe that LRT won’t be a magic elixir, nor is transit service the biggest challenge for the area.

Gentrification, or Uplifting of the Whole?
With all the talk of LRT (or anything) as a redevelopment tool, what gets lost sometimes is what happens to the residents if redevelopment is successful? Do they benefit from rising property values, or are they pushed out of the neighbourhood? And what happens if they don’t gain? It’s unlikely that redevelopment will help address the root causes that drive crime – addiction, poverty, to name two. What’s more likely is that these residents are going to be displaced to another area in the city. If West Jasper revitalization is successful, if it doesn’t help give the current at-risk residents a hand up, they’re going to be the at-risk residents at the centre of another area’s revitalization effort 10 years later. Revitalization is good, but it doesn’t necessarily decrease our obligation to address social problems and provide services.

In the End, the Economy Matters
Many of the land development opportunities identified for Edmonton’s proposed LRT corridors are projects where zoning has already been approved (the Strathearn Heights project for the SE, and the Vision for the Corner for the West, to name two). It’s thought that LRT development will spur projects like this to go ahead. That may be true, but something else will – an economic upturn. Both of these projects were approved in 2008, around the time the economy slowed down. Suddenly, the market for housing (especially condos) wasn’t what it was a couple of years earlier when they started working their way through the development process.

And this gets to the heart of the biggest issue for driving and sustaining development. We need to increase productivity and grow our economy. If we can attract and develop business, that will drive the need for more commercial/office space, and therefore more residential space to house new workers and residents. The goal of attracting business also ties into our development plans. What kind of businesses and residents we (want to) attract affects what we need to build. If we intend to have a young work force (or be a city of retirees), we might want to focus more on multi-unit housing. If we want to attract more families, we need to make sure we’re building housing suitable for their needs (be it single-family or multi-family). Similarly, industrial and oil field service companies, for example, are going to want different types of space (and in different locations) than a bank or law firm, and a start-up tech company may very well want something different than the aforementioned four groups.

As James Carville famously said, “it’s the economy, stupid“.

It’s not as simple as building, and waiting for them to come. We need to make sure we’re building to attract and retain people and businesses, and to continue to grow into the city we want Edmonton to be. Light rail should be a big part of this, and can help shape a city, if not deliver the growth some advocates feel it does. But done right, it will get a city closer to its broader goals and ambitions.

Books I Read: Where Men Win Glory

Remembrance Day in Canada, and Veterans Day in the United States is this Wednesday. With on-going wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, this day takes on greater resonance.

A couple of weeks ago, I read Jon Krakauer’s compelling new book, “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman“. Tillman was a starting safety for the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League and a rising star, who, in the spring of 2002, declined a contract extension and instead walked away from the NFL to enlist in the military. He became the first and only athlete from a major professional sport to do so. Two years later, he was killed in Afghanistan in an incident of friendly fire.


The title of the book only tells part of the story. The life of Pat Tillman is certainly a big part of it. Tillman, his younger brother Kevin (who enlisted alongside him, and served in units with him right up until his death), and Pat’s wife Marie are central characters in the book. Through them (Pat wrote religiously in his diary), we get a glimpse into the life and mindset of a soldier, and of how it affects their loved ones as well. The book also covers the history of Afghanistan, starting in the 1970s. Early on, the book alternates between sections about Tillman’s life and the developments overseas, leading up until the decision to enlist. As much as the book is about Tillman, it’s also about Afghanistan, and how American decisions over the previous three decades contributed to the present day situation.

The two stories converge in 2002 with Tillman’s enlistment. From then on, the story focuses on three angles:

– The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on a macro level
– The Tillmans’ involvement in those wars
– The mindset of Tillman, mostly as told through his diaries, with some focus on Kevin and Marie as well.

Krakauer pulls no punches when examining the wars and the actions of the pentagon. He investigates and criticizes their attempts to spin the Jessica Lynch capture and Tillman’s death into good PR. He is critical of their strategies, offering that the leadership ignored advice of their subordinates which would have greatly increased the chances of an early, decisive victory. He goes into painstaking detail to try and recreate the precise series of events of the day where Pat Tillman perished.

He continuously draws on Tillman’s writing, both to frame situations, and to better understand Tillman. This aspect of the book is fascinating. It gives the reader a glimpse into Tillman’s thoughts, and how they evolved from enlistment (he felt a sense of duty) to the frustration of being away from his wife, and of having to serve in Iraq (which he felt was an illegal war). Reading it, I wondered if it could serve as a reasonable proxy for how other soldiers feel and think as well? I’m interested to see how it compares to “The Unforgiving Minute” once I’ve read it.

If you like feel-good books, this is not for you. While fascinating and well written, it’s ultimately also pretty depressing. There are protagonists, but no winners. The wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq don’t resolve themselves in this book, and they likely won’t for years after. In all likelihood, both will result in stalemates at best, with lots of damage done to all parties involved. The Tillmans enlisted for the honourable reasons, Pat’s life was ended, and Kevin’s and their family’s was devastated on that fateful day in April 2004.

All this being said, if you want to read more about these on-going conflicts, and about how soldiers think and how their lives are affected, this is definitely worth a read.

Also worth reading: Drew Magary’s review.

State of Alberta: At a Crossroads

Let’s dispense with the drama of this coming weekend. Premier Ed Stelmach will almost certainly survive the leadership review at his party’s convention. I’m guessing he’ll earn 75-85% support, and that’s the last we’ll hear for about leadership challenges for a while. For the reasons why, I will point you to Duncan’s blog. He does a much better job than I can of explaining what will likely happen (and why) this weekend.

There is, however, one factor Duncan didn’t cover that I feel will help the Premier this weekend – there’s no obvious successor in the party. The Premier would find himself in a more difficult predicament if the party had someone else to turn to. In this case, the options are Ted Morton (does he appeal to moderates?), Dave Hancock (does he appeal to conservatives, and to anyone outside of Edmonton?), Brett Wilson (is he serious, and is he electable?) and, beyond that, well, it’s a tough question. Within Cabinet, there don’t appear to be many options that scream “leadership material”.

Successful governments tend to have strong ministers surrounding the first minister, many of whom seem capable of taking over the reins some day. In the early years of the Tory dynasty, Lougheed surrounded himself in Cabinet with what was seen as many of Alberta’s best and brightest. In the Klein cabinet, there were always Ministers seen as potential successors. Some of them were felled (Mar) or damaged (Norris, Oberg) by the time the race to replace him actually happened, though it didn’t stop the latter two from running. In Premier Stelmach’s cabinet, the strong ministers seem to be missing. Maybe they’ll develop over time – first-term MLA and Minister of Justice Alison Redford is highly regarded, and Parliamentary Assistants such as Doug Griffiths, Janice Sarich, Diana McQueen, and Raj Sherman have the pedigree for leading cabinet positions. But at this moment in time, there is a lack of depth at the top ranks of the party in terms of potential leaders.

So where does that leave the Tories? They’ll get through this weekend without any maor infighting. But they’re immediately faced with continuing public frustration over their handling of the H1N1 vaccine rollout, and with, for the moment, a surge in support for the Wildrose Alliance Party. Factor in that the Alliance surge seems to be coming mostly at the expense of the Tories, and there is cause for concern.

It’s too early to tell if support for the Alliance is firm, but I think we can say that, for the time being, the Tories’ free ride is over. They have a party that appears willing and quite possibly able to challenge them. Recently, I outlined what I think the Alliance needs to do to cement their support, and how the centre-left can make a stronger push for government. Both of those scenarios depend on the Tories continuing to lose touch with voters, opening up space for a challenger (or two) to move in and occupy on the political spectrum. Governments, it is said, tend to defeat themselves. This normally happens through scandal, atrophy (and losing touch with voters), or a lack of ideas. The Tories seem okay on the first one, veering towards potential problems with the second, and in trouble on the third.

Another challenge they face is one faced by all parties in power – particularly those who have been in power for a long period of time – is that it’s tough to gauge how committed their supporters are. Certainly, there are lots of committed Tories in Alberta, but it’s likely that a good number of supporters were attracted to the party and stuck with them because, to put it bluntly, it’s better to be on the winning side (the Liberal Party of Canada is faced with this problem as well). If the Alliance continues to poll well, and to look like a real alternative, that will test the level of support from more conservative Tories. If the centre-left picks up steam, that will test the commitment of more moderate supporters, particularly those in more urban ridings. Can the Tories continue to hold the middle, or will they be pulled in one direction or another? More importantly, how long will voters continue to give them a chance? I suspect that much of the support you see for the Alliance in polls at this moment is an expression of frustration with the status quo (be it the governing party itself, or the overall political climate). The Tories can probably win most of these voters back, but the longer they wait, and the more comfortable voters get with the idea of supporting someone else, the more challenging it will be to win them back. There will be a point of no return when a given voter decides they’ve had enough, and will either stay home or vote for someone else. When that happens, only something dramatic (think trading in Getty for Klein) can swing them back. I don’t think most voters have reached that point, but they’re getting closer every week.

So that’s where I see Alberta politics at this moment. We’re at a crossroads. In the coming months, and couple of years before the next general election, something will give. Maybe the Alliance will fizzle, or maybe it will continue to establish support. Maybe the centre-left will regroup and start to build momentum, or maybe it will continue to in-fight, eat its own, and further splinter. Or maybe Paul Wells’ first rule of politics will hold, and the status quo will assert itself. I’ve been wrong before, but I think we’re rapidly approaching a point of no return where the status quo will crumble. It will depend on a number of factors – some out of our control (oil and gas revenues), some within our control (do progressives or conservatives put forward the stronger vision for Alberta?) In any case, I think we’re heading for a realignment of some sorts in Alberta over the coming two elections, and 5-10 year time frame.

Worth Reading on This Topic:
Daveberta: Stelmach Tories Diving; What’s Going to Happen at the PC Leadership Review?
Chris LaBossiere: Running up the Middle…to the Right of Centre
Ken Chapman: Is Alberta About to Enter an Empire of Illusion Stage Politically?

State of Alberta: What’s the Matter With Progressives?

In 2004, American writer Thomas Frank published a much-celebrated book, titled ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas?‘ The book focuses on how the once populist, progressive state morphed into a bedrock of conservatism, and why, in the author’s view, people voted against their own economic self-interest to support a Republican Party whose economic policies did little for struggling individuals, and a lot for big companies who don’t need a hand up.

I think of my home province of Alberta whenever I think of Frank’s book. The conventional wisdom, both inside and outside the province, is that Alberta is a really conservative place. But do the facts bear it out? On the surface, yes. Albertans vote for Conservative parties, and have since the Great Depression. But do they really endorse conservative policies? What follows are some of my thoughts on the subject. My first State of Alberta post examined the challenges facing the Wildrose Alliance. Today, I try to make sense of the centre-left, and offer some advice.

How to Describe Alberta Politics?
I won’t dispute that the myth of Alberta being conservative is well-entrenched. If pressed, most Albertans would likely identify as such. But is it really conservative? As prominent conservatives Tom Flanagan and Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledge, it differs from the Tory tradition that we generally associate with conservatism. Certainly, Alberta’s penchant for suddenly throwing out a government in favour of a new, unproven alternative, is just about as un-Tory as you get.

Alberta politics is, and has traditionally been, more populist than Tory. The initial success provincially of the United Farmers and the Social Credit Party were based on populist sentiment (as was the Reform Party federally in the late 1980s and 1990s). Flanagan and Harper summarize the Alberta position when discussing Albertans and Quebec Nationalists:

They are nationalist for much the same reason that Albertans are populist — they care about their local identity and the culture that nourishes it, and they see the federal government as a threat to their way of life.

I would agree, and say that “populist” is a better definition than “conservative”.

Do Albertans Endorse Conservative Policies?
Not really. First, our provincial government spends more on average than other provinces (most of whom are led by ostensibly centre-left governments), and in 2008 the government was rewarded with an increased majority after bringing in a record-sized budget the year before. Industries such as agriculture and oil and gas are, or have been, major beneficiaries of government subsidies.

Also, Tory government prior to the Klein years pursued a big government agenda that could at most be described as “Red Tory” if not downright “Liberal”. Understanding that politics overall were more centre-left in that period, they still pursued crown corporations, strong government investment in areas such as education, culture, and the arts, and the Getty government intervened in the private sector at a rate that would shock the Obama administration.

Most positions Albertans hold are not incompatible with centre-left ideas. A good template is found south of the border. Gary Hart, the former Colorado Senator and candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, wrote a memo outlining how the Democrats should target (and can win) the west instead of focusing attention on the south. Most, if not all, of the points in the memo are applicable to Alberta, and would form the basis of an agenda people could get behind.

Is the Liberal Brand Beyond Repair, and Totally Unelectable?
Many people think so, and probably with some justification. A lot of Albertans, when asked, would probably say they will never vote Liberal. They may believe that at this exact moment in time, but politics (and people) change. Six years ago, many people would have said they’d never endorse the new Conservative Party of Canada, or vote for a party led by Stephen Harper. Many of those people also likely voted Conservative in 2006 and/or 2008. 10 years ago, many Nova Scotians would have balked at the idea of giving the New Democrats a majority government. Earlier this year, they did precisely that with no hesitation. In 1987, the Progressive Conservative government in New Brunswick was wiped out – they lost every seat, and were being outflanked on the right shortly thereafter by the Confederation of Regions Party. They went up to 3 then 6 seats in the subsequent two elections before winning a commanding majority in 1999. We could continue with examples, but I hope the point is made: parties and voters change. What is the case now will not always be so.

Certainly, the Liberal brand (and party) has issues it needs to overcome if it wants to challenge for and form government. Here are a few that I believe are not insurmountable, but also don’t receive the attention they deserve. In most of these cases, you could also use the term “New Democrat” for “Liberal” as an appropriate proxy.

The Tories Have Owned the Centre
Like most parties that win and hold on to government, the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta has been pretty adept at holding the centre. In practice, they have been more of a “governing” party, the way the federal Liberals were for years, than a “conservative” party. Many of their urban MLAs would not be out of place in the Liberal Party. There has not been, quite simply, a lot of space on the political spectrum for the opposition parties to occupy.

Liberals Move Away
Andy brought this point up when we were discussing the issue a while back, and I think it’s well founded. It was based on anecdotal evidence more than anything, but it seemed to us that a disproportionate number of active Liberals we knew from University had moved away. Instead of working to build up the provincial party (and the federal party in Alberta), they were plying their trade in Ottawa, or Toronto, or in a couple of cases, the United States. It’s understandable in some cases, as there are a lot more opportunities for a Liberal wanting to work in politics there than here, but it’s kind of a circular problem. Liberals leave because of opportunities elsewhere, hurting the effort to build a bigger base here in Alberta.

They Haven’t Separated Themselves From the Actions of the National Party.
While the National Energy Program didn’t kill the oil boom (oil prices collapsed worldwide in the 1980s), it certainly didn’t help the situation and almost certainly made it worse. Would it kill people to admit this was a bad idea? Also, provincial Liberals and New Democrats should push back any time their national party leadership demonizes Alberta. The federal Liberal party has been especially bad for making Alberta a punching bag at different times. Where have Liberals, especially the provincial leaders, been in standing up for their province? People are unlikely to support a party they don’t see as representing them.

Fiscal Responsibility Has Been Conceded to the Right
The term “fiscal conservative” has become synonymous with good financial management. This sends the message that Conservatives are to be trusted with budgets (and government), and that progressives are somehow not up to par. Progressives need to push back against this. I, for one, support government being “fiscally responsible”. That means balancing the books when possible, but it’s not adverse to Keynesian spending, or preserving social programs. It’s about what’s doing best for everyone; true fiscal conservatism doesn’t allow for that flexibility, so I for one would like to brand myself as a “fiscally responsible”, not “fiscally conservative”.

Progressive Keep Looking for a Miracle Cure
This Toronto Star editorial, “Ailing Liberals Keep Looking for a Miracle Cure“, also applies to progressives in Alberta. For some, it’s the thought that creating a new party will cure all that ails the centre-left (I find proponents of this to treat the perpetual, inherent unelectability of a Liberal or New Democrat party as self-evident, and ignore any diversity amongst voters who are disenchanted with the current government). For others, it’s the idea that a charismatic leader will come along, and dramatically transform politics in Alberta. Well, it’s not that simple.

An idiom I heard more than once a year ago was that we needed “our Obama” to shake things up. A charismatic leader helps a lot, and may even be necessary. But it’s not sufficient in and of itself. People forget that Obama for America was a long-term campaign. It was functioning for about a year before the first caucus in the primary, and had been running for nearly two by general election day. More importantly, the progressive movement in the United States had been gathering momentum for a number of years. Organizers and other volunteers cut their teeth on Dean for America, bloggers rallied around Ned Lamont‘s primary challenge against Joe Liebermann, and the 2006 mid-term elections saw a Democratic surge. Obama’s campaign was in many ways an extension of the work already happening. It took it to a new level, and brought in new tactics, technologies, and people, but it by no means emerged from the abyss. Progressives were already beefing up their organizations across the country by 2007. Progressives, Liberals, New Democrats, would be well served to spend their time building a base of support and establishing roots throughout the province if they wish to win government some day.

Some lessons on movement-building, and how it disappeared in Alberta after the second World War, can be found in Alvin Finkel’s history of the labour movement in Alberta.

This is, of course, to take nothing away from the Albertans who have worked or volunteered their time for the Liberals or the NDP. Almost all of the ones I have the pleasure of knowing are talented and committed people. But it’s hard to win a battle with a small army.

It Wasn’t That Long Ago That the Alberta Liberal Party Was the Government-in-Waiting
I was too young to really understand politics in the late Getty/early Klein years, but even into the 1993 election, the Liberals were thought to have a chance to win. The old adage seemed to be true, governments defeat themselves, and a mistake-prone Getty government, further constrained by falling resource revenues, seemed to be a spent force.

So an interesting happened. The first party to see a resurgence, in the 1986 general election (Getty’s first), was the New Democratic Party, who with 16 MLAs formed the largest opposition since the Social Credit in 1971. In 1988, Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore took over as Liberal leader, and his party’s vote surged (ahead of the New Democrats) in 1989. Decore saw his party’s standing surge afterwards, largely because he had keyed in on an issue that mattered to people – the mounting provincial debt, and the importance of fiscal management.

Now, it’s important to digress for a minute. The conventional wisdom is that parties have formed government in Alberta from the right. That is simply not the case. The United Farmers and SoCreds both came to power as populist movements, pushing many issues associated with the left (the UFA even co-operated with the Labour Party in urban ridings). Similarly, in 1971 Lougheed’s party was more progressive than the governing Social Credit. Decore resonated not because he attacked from the right, but because he found the centre. Deficit-fighting and balanced budgets became the norm in this period everywhere – even centre-left governments (Roy Romanow’s NDP in Saskatchewan, Bill Clinton’s Presidency, Tony Blair’s “New Labour”) embraced it. Just like the Alberta Tories have generally held the centre (and therefore government), so too did Decore position himself to win by grabbing the centre, until the Tories took it back. It took the emergence of populist, centrist Ralph Klein (and a major Decore gaffe) to turn the tables. Take away those two things, and the Liberals probably win in 1993. Disenchanted with the governing party, voters turned to two established parties, not a new party. Even more astounding to the conventional wisdom, they turned to two centre-left parties, not a right-of-centre one.

Recent history shows that voters will give centre-left parties a chance, and the Liberal brand is not by definition toxic. This is good news for progressives. There is reason to think that Alberta is not nearly as conservative as it would appear to be on the surface, and there is room for a progressive movement to be built and to grow.

The bad news, of course, is that there is much work to be done to realize the movement’s potential.

Diversifying One BioMile at a Time

I’m a big proponent of economic diversification, so naturally I was interested in this story coming out of Drayton Valley, Alberta. The city has secured the commitment of CLIB 2021, a German collaborative, to open an office as part of the BioMile, an initiative to create a biotechnology park.

It’s worth reading the full background on the BioMile, but here’s a bit I really like:

Rather than view the closure of the Weyerhaeuser’s Drayton Valley OSB facility as a detriment, we have been working to create new opportunities in using the wood bio-mass in new and innovative processes. Despite the loss of tax revenue and jobs that resulted from the OSB closure, we believe that the Bio-Mile will pull our community through these hard times.

Oil and gas, along with forestry, is still a big part of the local economy. These industries may yet prove to be drivers of the economy in the coming years, or they may not. Drayton Valley, and the Grande Alberta Economic Region of which it is a part, are playing it smart by reaching out to emerging industries, and finding ways to turn potentially bad situations (such as the Weyerhauser closure) into opportunities. I especially like how many of the BioMile initiatives tie into the forestry industry – using the present to build a stronger future. The BioMile is by no means assured to be a success, but it’s a positive step. The successful communities going forward are going to be the ones that invest in emerging and successful industries, and that have a diversified base to work from.

Meanwhile, in Edmonton, we will be welcoming a new City Manager in January. Simon Farbrother, whose career started in the region, has served as Chief Adminstrative Officer for the City of Waterloo since 2005. In his time there, he was one of the drivers behind the Intelligent Waterloo initiative. The city has become a hub for technology and innovation, notably as the home of Research in Motion (RIM). This has been driven in part by the presence of the University of Waterloo, which is recognized for its strong math, physics, and computing science programs. Having been involved in Waterloo’s success, I’m optimistic that Farbrother can help spearhead similar initiatives in Edmonton.

Now, this is not to say that Edmonton (or any city) should necessarily strive to be a tech hub, or a hub for bio-industries. Those strategies may be right for Waterloo and Drayton Valley (respectively), but every city is different. The lesson is to use your existing strengths, whatever those may be, to work at diversifying your local economy and ensuring you are better prepared for the future. I’ll be watching Drayton Valley with interest, and hoping to see other communities follow suit.