Dissent is in the Air
For 40 years, the Progressive Conservatives have ruled Alberta with relative ease, quashing dissent through intimidation, fear and old-fashioned backroom politicking.
Opposition, political or otherwise, has, for the most part, been ineffective in countering the Tory’s well-crafted narratives.
“Tories were ‘doers’ and ‘knockers’ were opposition people,” veteran political reporter Sheila Pratt told a crowd at a recent forum hosted by the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association (RMCLA). “And you didn’t want to be in the knocker crowd.”
Pratt, along with University of Calgary political science professor Tom Flanagan, and RMCLA members Dan Shapiro and Kelly Ernst, led a discussion about dissent in the province.
Critics, or “knockers,” were cast as communists by the Tory government. Opposition party members were whiners and complainers. The downtrodden were tagged as victims of the week.
The not-so-subtle message: Be a team player, don’t rock the boat and everything will be all right.
“Arguments about how dissent disrupts harmony are often used by those in power to further entrench their power and suppress minority views,” says Shapiro, a director with the RMCLA.
“It’s no coincidence that the explicit policy of the Chinese Communist Party is to promote a harmonious society with themselves at the top and little or no resistance from those at the bottom,” he says.
Countries such as China or Libya exert more “formal” means of squashing dissent by restricting free speech and opposition parties, says Shapiro. “But in Alberta, it’s the informal forms of constraint that we should be most concerned with,” he says. Those “informal forms” include the threat of lost funding and perks to discourage people from speaking out.
Pratt contends the Tory government’s “informal” tactics ultimately created a culture of fear in the province. Sources inside and outside the government increasingly became reluctant to speak on the record, she says. It was by now well known that dissent was not tolerated. The “fear factor” was weaving itself into the fabric of the province.
“You wonder if it’s a deliberate tactic to silence critics, or is it just the natural evolution of a party that’s run the province for so many years?” says Pratt.
Even average Albertans — Marthas and Henrys if you will — attending political events hosted by emerging political parties, such as the Wildrose Alliance and the Alberta Party, have been fearful of having their names in print, says Pratt.
“If people are that afraid, a new party could never take hold here,” she says. “Then I thought, ‘Maybe that’s the point.’”
In fact, that is the point, or rather the result, of Alberta’s “peculiar pattern of one-party dominance,” which ultimately leads to “unattractive features,” says Flanagan.
“A party in that position tends to become complacent, and more than that it can become mean, vindictive and secretive, engage in a lot of nepotism and patronage, and can be intimidating,” he says. Though none of this should come as a surprise to anyone, he adds. “That’s what politicians do,” he says. “They are by nature mean, vindictive and given to patronage and intimidation when they get into power.”
But cracks are now showing in the Tory fortress. The Conservative party backtracked on its oil and gas royalty framework after outcry from the petroleum industry, the Tories’ prime benefactor.
Frustrated Tory MLAs, such as Rob Anderson and Heather Forsyth, jumped ship to the surging Wildrose Alliance, which has been sucking support from the Tories and now, according to polls, is within striking distance of the government.
Then along came Dr. Raj Sherman. Last year, Sherman, then a Tory MLA, openly criticized the government’s handling of the emergency room crisis in the province. Sherman’s Tory colleagues, in turn, openly questioned his mental stability before finally booting the dissident surgeon from caucus.
The Tories’ whisper campaign against Sherman began to take hold among some of the public and media. But soon the narrative began to crumble as former and current Alberta medical professionals emerged with similar concerns about Alberta’s health care system and tales of government threats and intimidation.
Meanwhile, in rural areas, the Wildrose Alliance, with the aid of a well-spoken lawyer, effectively capitalized on landowners’ fears about several land-use bills introduced by the government. Tory MLAs and cabinet ministers now face angry, booing crowds in what once was the Conservative motherland.
It all became too much for the Tories to handle. A whisper campaign of a different kind emerged: The caucus was ready to revolt against its controversy-prone leader, Premier Ed Stelmach.
Ted Morton, a die-hard fiscal conservative, resigned as finance minister rather than introduce yet another deficit budget. It was only then that Stelmach announced his resignation.
All this has happened for one reason, says Flanagan. “They are afraid of the Wildrose party,” he says. “You have to make politicians afraid of you and to do that you have to create an effective opposition that challenges them.”
Now with four opposition parties continually hammering away at the Tories — sometimes in unison — dissension may be in vogue. Even amongst the Marthas and Henrys.
“Look where we are today… this isn’t going to stick,” says Pratt. “We have four opposition parties out there today. We have a number of MLAs who left the Tory party and have gone to other parties. Maybe things are changing.”
The driving force in society is not love but fear.