Op-eds | May 16, 2013

Warnings from what Albertans think

by Trevor Harrison

As Albertans watch the Stanley Cup playoffs with their own two hockey teams once again on the outside, a recent report published by Parkland Institute shows similar shared grief and angst over the state of politics in the province.

The report, which I co-authored, uses data from an extensive survey of Albertans conducted by the Population Research Laboratory at the University of Alberta in June 2012 to examine attitudes toward governance and how to possibly improve the processes of political decision-making.

What did we find? Happily, Albertans are strongly united on three points.

First, 97 per cent of Albertans agree that voting is important, though this result contrasts with a persistently low turnout at the polls — only 57 per cent in 2012.

Second, 84 per cent of Albertans also strongly support limits on election spending. This result was obtained before it became public knowledge that Edmonton billionaire Daryl Katz and associates had made a bulk contribution of $430,000 to the Conservative party.

While Elections Alberta has found that this particular contribution was within the bounds of legal acceptability, the survey finding suggests there might be a discrepancy between the official ruling and public opinion on this issue.

Third, our study also found — perhaps surprisingly to critics viewing Alberta from afar — that 62 per cent of Albertans view protest groups as an important part of democracy.

This finding is especially worth noting at a time when governments, both provincially and federally, seem more interested in shutting down their critics than engaging in meaningful debate.

Beyond these areas of agreement, however, our study also found Albertans at odds on several issues. This is perhaps not surprising: the study was conducted one month after the 2012 Alberta election, among the province’s most contentious in recent years.

While the governing Conservatives came out on top, now 42 years in office and counting, they faced a strong electoral challenge from the other parties and severe skepticism from many Alberta voters.

Of particular concern, a sizable number of Albertans believe the government does not care what they think.

This expression of political alienation is especially prominent among supporters of the Wildrose and New Democratic parties, nearly half of whom subscribe to this belief.

This result should concern all Albertans, including government supporters. Political alienation, perpetuated over time, is corrosive of democracy and the legitimacy of government institutions, and can erode the co-operative spirit upon which societies rely.

But what is the solution to political alienation?

Except on the issue of limiting election spending, we found considerable division on measures that might improve the political process.

Several traditionally populist measures drew only marginal support. Indeed, only recall of elected officials received a plurality of support (51 per cent agreed), followed by that of direct voting (48 per cent), while proportional representation, often touted as a solution to the tyranny of the first-past-the-post electoral system, gained the support of only 44 per cent of Albertans.

We also found strong differences along party lines, with Conservative party supporters most opposed to proportional representation and direct voting (less than 40 per cent supporting either), while 61 per cent of New Democrats favoured proportional representation and 65 per cent of Wildrose supporters favoured recall.

In turn, these differences were filtered through several other factors, notably age, education and place of residence (that is, rural-urban).

Nothing that has occurred since the survey was conducted suggests the concerns expressed by Albertans have diminished or that political divisions have lessened. Indeed, in the aftermath of budget 2013, feelings of political alienation likely have increased.

With its massive cuts to all areas of the public service amid continued economic prosperity for the corporate sector, the budget has sparked a wave of political unrest — note the recent wildcat strike of correctional officers — that might prove to have negative long-term consequences.

If the role of politicians is to engage citizens in a thoughtful and honest discussion of the challenges we face and possible solutions to those challenges, the results of our study point in some measure to the failure of the governing Conservatives to bridge divisions within the province, perhaps the most significant divide — as recent polls also suggest — being between the government and the people of Alberta.


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