Stop the madness: How we do politics matters
While I’m no St. John writing from my exile on Patmos, time and distance have given me a unique perspective on the political landscape in our province, and deference towards those who would lead us. It has taken the long way around to begin to understand our political culture, and myself, in a better light. It is humbling. Years in politics and in the public eye have taught me something essential: ‘how’ we engage in politics is every bit as important as ‘who’ we vote for. How we see and engage with our elected officials matters, it sets us on a trajectory that can build up our province, or hamper progress.
Anger, vengeance, and bitterness between the electorate and candidates do not strengthen us or our province. Today, from my place back in the private sector, and still serving my community, I can see that there is a better way. I know, I’ve lived it and it leaves a mark.
Everybody’s foray into politics is unique. Mine began as a long held sense that I could serve my province well, and came into fruition when prominent members of my community approached me to consider representing our community. A career in the news room prepared me to address current affairs, engage with policies, government, and interpret complex issues. But even more than that, to represent my community and riding in the Alberta Legislative Assembly was a gift. I was overwhelmed by the support I received and was honoured to have a seat in our Legislature. I dove in head first with all I had, but back then I could never have predicted what I was in for.
It was in 2015 that my colleagues and I faced an unprecedented opportunity that few of us could have expected. In a province with divided Conservatives, we were presented with a merger proposal to fix everything; a plan to reunite that certainly didn’t end that way. I was part of a group of nine who agreed to put down our swords and unite conservatives. For the good of our movement and province, we took a deep breath and crossed the floor from the Wildrose to the Progressive Conservative benches. The plan failed dramatically. Everything fell apart. I was naive to think it was the right move and too unaware to clearly ask if we should. In the end I made a mistake that deeply hurt those I was set on representing. Today I wish I could reach out personally and apologize to every one of those people. To them, and to all Albertans, both those that supported our attempt and those who did not; the motives we had were naively optimistic and profoundly misguided. I am sorry.
The backlash was sharp. I remember the names. We were called the nefarious nine, floor crossers, traitors, turncoats, and many more not worthy of any ink. I still remember, I was out on my morning run with my dog before church one Sunday morning, and jogged by my re-election sign spray painted with one word: “Judas.” I was undone.
I remember wanting to explain myself, to help make sense of the story, to apologize. But the story was out of my hands. While some were applauding unity, it did not matter. It was like a prairie grass fire. I found myself on the business end of a sharp political culture in our province that moves rapidly and indiscriminately.
The formula is clearer to me now. I watch others step forward to be candidates, from all political backgrounds, and instead of preparing to represent well, they find that they are stepping headlong into a toxic fight. Anyone close to politics in Alberta has seen how this unfolds. Each side looks to punish and pummel the other. Make the public hate them more than you. Half-truths are pushed, figures skewed, and all with a constant barrage of social media scree let loose to bury an opponent. It may or not be totally true, it may not be good, or right, but if it gets the job done then it serves its purpose. Pile on the other side at every opportunity. It is painful and dehumanizing. When it is no longer about the issues, but only about scoring the crushing blows needed to win the battle, then we’ve already lost the war.
Politics should be about the citizens we serve (polites), but instead it can easily become consumed with the lure of of battling and belittling others (politik). I realized that no matter how many thousands of doors I was knocking on to talk with real people, logical discussions could not counter the emotional narrative. Politicos know this and execute the game plan. They race to be the first to capture our emotions and the party that can get the most people to hate and mistrust the other, wins. Politicking has hurt our ability to put forward the best ideas and mutually beneficial solutions. Why solve a problem with cogent reasoning when a jerry can of gasoline and a match will do? In the end Albertans risk getting burned.
Today conservatives are largely together again under the United Conservative Party of Alberta. Through it all I have learned that how we do our politics matters. So here’s what I know: Jason Kenney and Rachel Notley are good people who deserve the utmost respect. All candidates have a story that help us understand where they are coming from. One may have better ideas than the other, and we should vote accordingly. Politics will always attract those who are simply eager for new ladders to climb, these opportunists reveal themselves in time if they repeatedly fail to elevate our political discourse. Conversely, and thankfully, our province is also made up of profoundly remarkable people who should serve as politicians and representatives. Too often, sadly, these potential statesmen and stateswomen never run because they operate at a decidedly human level. Truthfully, these are the people we need.
Is your candidate the type of person you would want around the table when important discussions and decisions are being made? If there were no talking points, would they be thoughtful? Do they have character? Do they excel at scornful twitter remarks, or thoughtful engagement with those around them? Do they elicit mutual respect? If there were a crisis in your community, would they be someone we all called? These are the questions that should shape how we engage with our candidates.
This election we have a chance to vote for the betterment of our province, to ensure the right people sit in our Legislative Assembly. We have a fine set of candidates and solid ideas before us to set our province back on track. But take it from someone who has been there, people matter and it is up to us to call out the best in them, not to act as judge, jury, and executioner. There is no such thing as a perfect politician. If you’re looking for one, you won’t find them, so be kind. Use your best words and encourage the best ideas. Torched earth politics do not make a province, good people do. How we engage at this most pivotal moment in our history matters, because our province deserves the very best way forward. Patmos is not all it’s cracked up to be and this election is not about sending anyone there. Together, we will find our way back.
Bruce McAllister is executive director of Rocky View 2020, a landowner advocacy group, and former MLA for Chestermere-Rocky View.