The Alberta experiment with authoritarian government

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Premier Jason Kenney and Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer announce Bill 13, the Alberta Senate Election Act. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

Imagine living in a place where liberalism and democracy have dissipated, and given way to authoritarian government. Imagine a jurisdiction where open discussion is out of the question and debate unworthy. Imagine the state sees enemies -- identified as liars or worse -- and decides they must be defeated using all means possible.

This is the portrait right-wing German political theorist Carl Schmitt presented in The Concept of the Political, a 1932 pre-Nazi treatise where he categorized politics as a combat to the finish between friends and enemies.

Those on the same side -- "friends" -- had to recognize that their actual and potential adversaries on the other side were actually enemies and not just opponents with differing views of the good.

Seeing the world as a coalition of our friends versus collective public enemies -- and then dismissing attempts to reconcile conflicting views as a utopian waste of time -- is what autocrats, false populists, dictators, tyrants, and intolerant right-wing regimes have in common.

Now think of Alberta, where Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party (UCP) generate fear and anger ranting about imagined enemies of Alberta.

In a video, former prime minister Stephen Harper welcomed delegates to the UCP second AGM, running from November 29 to December 1. Harper vilified the outgoing NDP government as having "empowered those who wanted to see this great engine of Canada's economy fail, and capitulated to a Liberal government in Ottawa that put roadblocks against our Alberta economy."

In the hostile world imagined by Harper and Kenney internal enemies include the "Liberal" mayor of Calgary as Kenney calls Naheed Nenshi, as well as NDP opposition leader Rachel Notley.

The UCP regime fired the elections commissioner investigating UCP electoral corruption, who had already dished out $200,000 in fines to UCP candidates, and had still to report on the corruption surrounding the Kenney UCP leadership campaign.

On camera during the 2019 Alberta election campaign, Kenney signed a giant pledge to support public health care, and has now brought in measures to fire 750 nurses and other frontline workers -- overall 5,900 public servants this year -- with thousands more job losses to follow.

Kenney ignores union contracts, has seized control of public sector pensions, and fires workers, because unionized workers are public enemies for him and his party.

City of Edmonton councillors talk about how 2,000 jobs will need to be cut because Kenney abolished the city charter financing arrangement. Calgary also had its charter financing revoked and has already announced 250 departures.

Outside enemies are plentiful and vary according to the humours of the premier. Prominent are the Ottawa Liberal government that bought a pipeline to assure continued access of Alberta diluted bitumen to the West Coast; Quebec which approved the reversal of Enbridge Line 9 so that now 50 per cent of its imported crude oil comes from Alberta; B.C. (home since 1953 to the Trans Mountain pipeline built by B.C. Hydro) which has an ocean coast line and precious marine life it is determined to protect; and Canadian environmentalists opposed to climate change.

An Alberta Federation of Labour study estimates that the Kenney budget cuts just introduced will kill more jobs than the oil price collapse of 2014-16 and create a Kenney recession. These spending reductions are estimated by economist Mel McMillan to be nearly 15 per cent over the next four years, after accounting for population growth and price inflation.

Premier Kenney's approval rating in Alberta has fallen from 60 per cent in September to 42 per cent at the end of November, according to polling done by Leger Marketing.

Once Albertans discover that the UCP finance minister was wrong to describe economic diversification is a "luxury"; that the tax credits for film production and tech expansion created jobs and should not have been eliminated; that Kenney's $4.7-billion corporate tax cut has not stopped energy companies from laying off employees; that Energy Efficiency Alberta had generated $850 million of business in the two years before the UCP shut it down; and that cuts to health, education, and public university funding impact daily lives in every way -- expect approval ratings to decline even further.

In the meantime the temptation to proceed against Kenney and the UCP as the enemy needs to be resisted, hard as that may be given his program will increase the incidence of mental illness, and that for many, it threatens psychological as well as physical well-being.

Emotionally fuelled partisan rhetoric puts citizens off, distracts from bringing forward what matters to people, and plays into the government's hand. 

Documenting and laying out what is going wrong, and addressing the issues facing Albertans is a better strategy for civil society, and, especially, the official opposition NDP.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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