Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

HACKETT: Municipal Leadership Caucus event shines light on election issues

I’ll start off by saying this isn’t some kind of sick April Fool’s joke.

Despite this column arriving on that particular day, I in fact assure the events I’m about to describe happened as I tell them.

The Alberta Municipalities decided that as part of their annual Spring Municipal Caucus, they would invite members of the media to speak to community leaders as part of a panel, for about an hour. Fantastic idea, I say, I hope they find some knowledgeable and intelligent journalists to inform those leaders about issues of the day, in particular the upcoming election.

Somehow and miracles never cease, an invitation to participate in that event landed on my desk.

No chance – was my initial reaction. Nobody wants to hear what I have to say.

Against my better judgment, I agreed. The introverted half of my brain was severely overruled by the sure, why not let’s give it a go side or the, it’ll be a fun and new experience side.

(I’ll say that the nerves really kicked into high gear when I found out my fellow panelists, legendary pollster Janet Brown, Jason Maskoroff, a diligent and hard-nosed political reporter, as well as Keith Gerein, a columnist for the Edmonton Journal who has covered absolutely everything in this province.)

When I arrived at the conference room in Edmonton earlier Friday, I just about turned around and went home. That’s a lot of people (it was only 350 people, but to me, that’s a lot).

I’ve never done anything like that before, I’ve been on stage twice in my life in front of that many people, both of them were graduations and people were smart enough to not give me a microphone.

Before our panel, premier Danielle Smith addressed the caucus and it was very interesting. After we spoke, NDP leader Rachel Notley did the same. I’ll unpack both of those speeches in a few paragraphs.

As a complete surprise to myself, as soon as the bright lights turned on and the conversation started as part of our panel, the nerves melted away and I just talked, sharing some of the concerns I felt we have in our community here in Red Deer and Central Alberta. I caught a bit of a groove and I wasn’t even the one who made a joke that people didn’t laugh at (biggest shocker).

I tried to express to the people in the room that their constituents are nervous about the future of our province and they want a clear path forward, with a stable and credible leader.

I feel like the biggest issue for people right now is affordability/ cost of living and that was said enough times by the panel and the two party leaders, I don’t think it’s lost on them either. Healthcare is major as well, especially in our riding and it remains to be seen what action will come beyond the $1.8 billion promise of a new hospital.

We talked a lot about how for potentially the first time in our province’s history, the election will be a two-party race and the challenges that brings.

What if people don’t want to vote for the UCP and the NDP, what are their alternatives? If they do have a candidate beyond those two parties in their region, is it worth voting for them and potentially spoiling a vote if that candidate doesn’t win? A two-party system doesn’t leave a lot of leaway for t

hose people who are unconvinced about the two options. So, do they simply not show up? Do they vote the way they always have, because that’s the easiest thing to do? It’s a real question and a real concern among many people in this province, on both sides of the aisle.

For those parties who don’t have a seat in the legislature, they don’t have a lot of campaign finance money, to fund staff, ads or big dockets of candidates. They likely won’t even get a spot at the leadership debate. What kind of blow will that deliver to our democracy, is only a question that will be answered in May.

In saying that, it was interesting to hear premier Smith and Notley talk on the same stage, a few hours apart. Smith wasn’t asked about scandals within her party, I think the municipal leaders who were able to get a question in focused on the issues facing their community and what the province plans do about them. Infrastructure and funding for social programs came up a few times for those who questioned Smith.

She touted a lot of the government’s spending from the 2023 budget and how it will reshape the province. She talked about stable, predictable investments, the potential for an FCSS funding increase.

Her focus was clear– here is what we’ve delivered in a short time, we are prepared to follow through on all this and more if we are elected in May.

Interestingly, Janet Brown brought this up in part of one of her answers. That the UCP is on track to spend more than what the NDP had proposed to spend by 2025 back when they were in power.

Which leads to Rachel Notley. The audience didn’t quite get as much time to grill her, which would have made for a better contrast.

Notley addressed the failings of her government from 2015-2019, something that people in this region are all too quick to (fairly) point out. She admitted her party has learned from the mistakes in their past and believes they can provide a way forward that Albertans will be proud of.

We can’t really know to what extent that is true until the rubber hits the road of course. There are a lot of skeptics. She talked about policy and investment too and some of the financial framework in which the party will make that happen. Again, which will be met with skepticism.

One councillor from Drayton Valley, and I sincerely apologize for not getting his name asked an interesting question of us during the panel. He more or less asked, what’s will all the divisiveness, can’t we just get the two leaders together for a cup of tea, to really see if we can find some common ground?

That struck a chord for me because one of the notes that I made before the presentation is that I hoped during this campaign, whenever it kicks off, that we could see more positivity from our leaders about the future of Alberta, rather than a nasty, divisive campaign that further divides us.

Just by hearing the attack ads on the radio on the drive back from Edmonton, I might be looking at the world with the wrong pair of prescription, rose-coloured glasses.

Ultimately, I think when people go to the polls in May, not much of this will matter. People vote with their heart– they vote emotionally even when they try and attack the problem rationally. How that plays out, will be nerve-racking yet fascinating to watch over the next two months.

Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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