Monday, February 08, 2010

Manning Centre misses opportunity

In his book Don't Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff provides a metaphor for conservatives as the strict father figure, where as liberals are the nurturant parent. Upon first reading I have to admit I didn't completely buy the metaphors as a way to collectively describe the baskets of conservative and liberal viewpoints.

While I am loath to pigeonhole myself and others using simplistic labels, I am definitely more likely to be described as a liberal than a conservative. So when I found myself at this past weekend's Conference on Alberta's Future, hosted by the Manning Centre for Democracy, I was excited to get a sense of what the vision for our future looked like through the eyes of conservatives.

It really was a shame then that I left without hearing the big picture vision.

Please don't get me wrong, I appreciate the opportunity that I was given to be there and I applaud Preston Manning and the centre for putting the event on. No matter what your political stripe is, it's important to encourage civic engagement and discussions on big picture ideas. I just felt like the vision, a sense of what the ideal Alberta looks like, wasn't delivered. In fact the session titled "Vision for the Future of Alberta" ended up being an election style debate between PC MLA Kyle Fawcett and WAP leader Danielle Smith over who can do a better job pandering to oil and gas interests. Interestingly the first speaker to mention "Quality of Life" was former Liberal MLA Mike Percy, well into the second day.

What I learned most from the weekend, I learned by comparing this event to my experiences at the Reboot event I attended in Red Deer in November. What I learned is that Lakoff's view of conservative ideology as the strict father figure holds some truth.

That conclusion comes not necessarily from what was said, rather it comes from how the event was conducted.

In the leadup to the Reboot conference, delegates were asked about what topics they wanted to discuss at the event. At breakfast on the first full day we were given dot stickers with which we could vote on the suggested topics to determine what would be discussed. From that point on people picked the tables they wanted to be at and discussion ensued.

The day before the Alberta's future conference, I was emailed an agenda filled with predetermined subjects and preselected speakers. I applaud the organizers for bringing in challenging speakers like Percy and Pembina Institute's Marlo Raynolds, but in the end very little time was given to hearing from delegates. After 30 minutes per topic focussed on the speaker, there was a mere 20 minutes provided for discussion and it was based on whether you agreed or disagreed with the speaker. In essence, the entire topic was dominated by the agenda set forward by the speakers.

By the way, I would use the word "experts" instead of speakers, but the men who presented on Health and Education in Alberta are economists (one of whom is from BC). Hardly experts in the field.

The intent of the event was not to bring concerned citizens together and provide them with an opportunity to share their vision for what might be possible in Alberta in 25 years. From what I could tell, the intent was to bring people in one room to get them on-message as far as what the Conservative playbook should look like over the next few years (oh yeah, and so Manning could unofficially, yet overtly, place his support in the WAP camp). I heard a lot about the need for greater privatization, freer markets, smaller government, decreased spending and robust growth in the oil and gas sector, but to what end? What is the Alberta that we will create by implementing these ideologies?

In what can only be summed up with "Whaaaaa?" the day concluded with a presentation of the summaries of the table discussions, where the group voted on them. I would love to tell you what we were voting on, but I hadn't a bloody clue. Somehow without knowing what was being discussed at any other table but mine, I was supposed to endorse these documents as accurate representations of the discussion... and at the same time endorse them to be "taken forward to Albertans," whatever the eff that means. These votes garnered a weaker turnout than the last provincial election!

I decided to abstain from the votes, not that it mattered since father knows best anyway.

In the end I think these tweets summed up the strict father feeling best:
  • @ChrisLaBossiere - I can't help but feel I wasn't being asked for my opinion or ideas as much as being polled or herded through someone elses. #projectab
  • @djkelly: ORDER! ORDER! (The most overheard phrase at #projectab)
I guess my ultimate conclusion is this - as we think about how we need to reengage people and reinvent our democracy, will the strict fatherhood model really provide us with the change we are hoping for?

If you are interested in other progressive takes on this conference read:

For some more conservative views on the event try:

1 comment:

AWGB said...

I totally disagree with this statement: By the way, I would use the word "experts" instead of speakers, but the men who presented on Health and Education in Alberta are economists (one of whom is from BC). Hardly experts in the field.

I read the program, and they presented on the issue of cost-effectiveness in Health Care and Education - not on the latest trends in knee surgery or educational psychology. When you need to understand issues of costs and benefits or efficiency in the use of resources, you don't call in an elementary school teacher as the expert, nor do you call on an RN to crunch the cost data. Sure, these people might add perspective to the data concerning the nuts and bolts of operations, but it's the economists who are trained in a discipline that constantly deals with how scarce resources are allocated in society. Further, it does not follow that someone geographically located in one province cannot be an expert in a subject area in another province. It can certainly diminish their understanding of the subject matter, but it ought not to disqualify it.

Here's where I agree with you: The Manning Event was a consensus-building mechanism aimed at converting people to the cause, much like an evangelical tent meeting, something I'm sure Preston has a lot of experience with. I have been to one event where Preston Manning said, matter of factly, that public opinion on any subject can effectively be swayed at a cost of a few million dollars, depending on the issue. It was a glib remark that was lost on most people, but it shows a latent cynicism on his part: that Joe Q Public is a data point to be manipulated. And this is precisely what the Manning Centre is doing. They are preaching of the wonders of the gods of the Free Market, Limited Government (or is it governance), etc., etc., and are painting this as the path to social nirvana in Alberta. It is about evangelizing the Thatcherite/Hayekian branch of economics as the values we "should" pursue, but this is by no means a positivist or "values neutral" economics. We already had a revival of this when Sir Roger Douglas brought his little book from New Zealand to Alberta to give to Uncle Ralph. The sad reality was that a general oil boom brought natural gas and oil revenues into the public coffers and made Uncle Ralph look like a genius. It was easy - just have your guys in finance issue a very conservative royalties forecast, and come out with a surplus each year, much to your surprise. The point of the matter is that Uncle Raph may have saved some money here and there by demolishing hospitals and privatizing huge portions of the government, but on the other hand, the gods of Oil and Natgas did most of the work. (Watch the Budget coverage today to see how Natgas, and not government policy, balances the books).

Economics can only tell you what is more efficient, and assumes that humans value efficiency over, say, human rights or dignity. When an economist uses the word "could", then listen to him or her, especially if presented with an array of options or solutions. When they interject the word "should" in their analysis, it is personal opinion based on a set of values and assumptions the wider society may not share. The Manningites are preaching a social gospel that may not jive with the broader society, but that is not going to stop them from trying to convert us all.