Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Alberta municipal elections review


Calgary mayor-elect Naheed Nenshi has said he was interviewed by "the evangelical newspaper." Whatever Nenshi was referring to, his remarks - punctuated by giggles -suggest someone who sees evangelicals as an oddity to be humored. I doubt that his rendering of the questions that were put to him were word-for-word accurate; Nenshi's account is extremely plausible for a non-evangelical imagining what evangelicals are like, which is, in fact, what's somewhat concerning for an evangelical. The attitude seems to be, everyone is entitled to their place in the freak show: "they're people too;" evangelicals may be deviants, but let's not marginalize them any more than, say, the cross-dressing community because we're all God's, or Allah's, children.

A harsh hostility to secularism and "diversity" is, of course, not the only alternative to Nenshi's attitude. Instead of just promulgating Nenshi's facile "I'm everybody positive" line, one could try to acquire a knowledge level of the "Other" that approaches that of an "insider" such that one could say, for example, one was interviewed by someone with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, or Focus on the Family Canada, or whoever it actually was as opposed to some depersonalized one of them. Fact is, a politician whose language suggested he or she had, for example, read the Purpose Driven Life (by pastor Rick Warren) would receive a lot more evangelical interest even if he or she said, "I don't agree with Rick Warren with respect to X and Y," than a politician like Nenshi, who, being agreeable, might say he agrees with someone like Warren but would never bring up Warren by name since the whole evangelical culture is terra incognita to him.

The situation south of the border is rather different. The PBS documentary God in America is not titled "God in North America." The race for the US Senate seat up for grabs in Kentucky got some increased national attention recently when Democrat Jack Conway (left in photo at right) attacked Tea Party-endorsed Rand Paul (right at right) for his youthful anti-Christian libertarianism in a TV advertisement Jon Chait called the "ugliest political ad of the year." Liberal pundits have jumped at the chance to follow Chait in condemning Conway, since it provides an opportunity to burnish their credentials as independent of the Democratic party. I have to agree with Harvard academic Theda Skocpol that the ad is nonetheless fair game. One would think with all the ads out there that fail basic fact checks, an ad that appears to be accurate with respect to its salient point would not be topping the list for most unacceptable. The Republican establishment advised James Dobson that Paul was a libertarian but Paul's people lobbied Dobson hard to change his endorsement from the GOP establishment candidate to Paul and were successful. Had Paul not done this and even accused his primary competitor of misleading Dobson, Paul's blasphemous college pranks - which Dobson would have taken very seriously had he known - would not be an issue. Ugly might thus better describe Rand's reaction: calling for Conway to be disqualified from standing for election and pandering by substituting the substantive knowledge I suggest above with a "pop culture" quote from scripture.

All this to say that Nenshi's election is indeed contrary to the stereotype of Calgary as Harperite heartland but Calgarians do not demand social conservatism out of their politicians like voters in the US South do. Albertans are not especially fiscally conservative either. Alberta has a far larger government than its personal and corporate tax revenues could possibly support. As MLA Doug Griffiths as pointed out, those revenues wouldn't even cover the Health budget, which is but one department. The province nonetheless enjoys a windfall of natural resource revenues that has fueled government expansion. It's true that "Conservative" candidates win easily across the province (aside from central Edmonton) at the federal level. But this is in large part due to regional alienation sentiments (and a taste for "patriotic" foreign policy that doesn't apply sub-nationally) that cannot be so easily inflamed at the provincial level, and even less so at the municipal level. So it is that candidates who would be "Liberal" provincially and/or federally routinely beat "Conservative" candidates in both Edmonton and Calgary municipal elections.

Nenshi's Masters in Public Policy from Harvard helps him in a race where the electorate is voting for an individual instead of a party, as it should, since the status of high school drop-out that one particularly famous former Calgary mayor held is not especially salutory when Alberta already has one of the highest dropout rates in the country. I should also acknowledge that I would have few Nenshi conversations to take issue with were Nenshi not open enough to not object to a guy following him around with a camera and releasing footage under a minimally restrictive Creative Commons license. While there appears to be some Obama-like hype around Nenshi, it is presently too early to dismiss Nenshi's election a "mistake," as Calgary government MLA Kyle Fawcett tweeted. The way Nenshi won, from relative obscurity to victory in just a few weeks despite not having held office before, should encourage quality candidates to get involved in municipal politics.


Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal has, unsurprisingly, interpreted the re-election of Stephen Mandel (right) and the likes of Don Iveson as meaning the capital city has overcome its "fear of innovation" amongst other things. For someone who has supposedly been liberated to innovate, Simons' analysis is distinguished by its lack of originality. A continued small-l liberal conceit is that conservative finger-wagging about "responsibility" is ultimately reducible to a fear of moving forward. One of David Dorward's (at left, photo credit Ed Kaiser, Edm J) campaign themes was getting the funding for a massive LRT expansion well sorted before jumping into deficit financing and/or years of double-digit tax increases. This point is rather conveniently avoided by the thesis that the municipal vote is reducible to a referendum on the airport or some pie-in-the-sky notion of "how we see ourselves as a city." It's as if only narrow and small-minded people talk about prosaic details like the number of calories in a veggie plate relative to a chocolate sundae. "Think big" ergo "spend big," - tomorrow will take care itself if you see the glass as half full. At bottom it's the same tax-and-spend (non-)argument we've heard for years.

Graham Thomson, meanwhile, uses his column to draw a line from the municipal election to a future provincial crackdown on "freedom of the press." His logic
- the Wildrose Alliance supported Dorward for mayor
- Danielle Smith, Wildrose leader, is running in Okotoks-High River
- William "Bible Bill" Aberhart represented this area in the 1930s
- as premier, Aberhart tried to censor the press and was a hypocrite with respect to MLA recall.
That Thomson should manage to get this absurdity printed in Edmonton's paper of record is a testimony to his skills at sophistry. Perhaps conscious of the enormous chasms his "reasoning" is leaping, he says "readers took me to task" for not drawing links like this earlier and he's just innocently "making the connection as a reminder that sometimes Alberta politics takes dramatic and unexpected turns." Right.

St Albert pundit David Climenhaga muses about the implications of the "decisive defeat" of David Dorward. In fact had Calgary's mayor-elect received Dorward's 34% of the Edmonton vote, Calgary's mayor-elect would still be mayor-elect. In other words, Dorward beat both Ric McIver and Barb Higgins yet few are saying both of those two Calgary contenders went down to "decisive" defeat. Dorward's result was actually reasonably strong given how late his campaign got going and the fact he was on the minority side of the galvanizing airport issue. Incumbents are re-elected close to 90% of the time, such that had the election been at all close it ought to be interpreted as a wake-up call to the incumbent. On that count, Kim Krushell, the well-regarded Ward 2 incumbent, had such a squeaker of a win that it can hardly be said the airport issue didn't have any traction. This ward 2 race is far more suitable for being characterized as a referendum on the airport than the mayoralty race. Also of interest is the fact that former Alberta Alliance candidate Tony Caterina swamped Brendan van Alstine in Ward 7 despite the fact #toncat was only partially an incumbent and Ward 7 is prime NDP territory. Last, but not least, is Kerry Diotte's success in Ward 11. Perennial "almost but not quite" candidate Chinwe Okelu thought his gap behind Diotte would have been tighter that it ended up being. As someone who had some Wildrose support, Diotte's win is another counterpoint to the contention that the tea leaves of the municipal election suggest the Wildrose Alliance will find no purchase in the capital city.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of creative commons licensing, looks like you have failed to credit the author of the Nenshi photo you use.

Brian Dell said...

If you click on the image it should open a new tab such that you'll see that it is hosted on Wikimedia Commons with the title Naheed_Nenshi_victory.jpg

One can then go to
to see attribution and licensing information (author is Ted Buracas).

I realize that this is an indirect way of attributing but it is generally accepted practice on Wikipedia. If, for example, you go to Naheed Nenshi's Wikipedia article, you will see the image in question and a video that I uploaded to the Commons of Nenshi without attribution within the article. One can nonetheless click through for licensing info.

That said I do miss attributions sometimes. Lately I've been trying to give an inline attribution whenever commercial rights are not known to have been released although technically even attribution isn't good enough absent a fair use rationale.