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Hackett: The unwanted gift of political policies


Did you ever get an unwanted gift?

One of those things that you immediately wondered about was how fast you could re-gift it, sell it on Facebook Marketplace, or drop it off right away at Value Village.

It happens every year for me at Christmas — my dad sends a box of items that he collected during my childhood and have been sitting in his basement for years. These aren’t family heirlooms or precious items, but things he might have picked up in the impulse lane at Canadian Tire — just because.

In the vein of “it’s the thought that counts” he’s batting 1.000. He loves gift-giving, and I love him for it. But I think he finds the whole thing truly funny and now does it as a long-standing goof.

And I find it somewhat irritating and frustrating.

This extended metaphor is a long way of saying that the whole experience is a bit like how I feel about the provincial government right now and the federal government shouldn’t escape criticism either.

I’ll focus just on a few of the more recent announcements.

You don’t want an Alberta Pension Plan? Well, we’re doing it! (Even though the province has said it will go to a referendum, they have spent millions exploring the plan and haven’t released any details about what the feedback has been from citizens.)

You don’t want a Provincial Police Force? Well, we’re doing it! (But calling it an “independent agency” that is an extension of the powers sheriffs already have, even though the sheriffs union says they were not consulted on those changes.)

You don’t want political parties in municipal elections? Well, we’re doing it! (Minister of Municipal Affairs Ric McIver said at the Alberta Municipalities conference that new legislation is coming on this, because it is more or less already happening.)

At first, I believed this was bad governance, but the more I think about it, the more I believe this is Premier Danielle Smith playing another smart political game.

Propose so much legislation that it muddies the waters for citizens. It makes it hard to keep track of which policy is where and what is getting passed or just proposed.

Not only that, but propose 15 different policies and collect “feedback” from citizens and when those citizens unilaterally reject the changes, the government backs off the policy and says they “listened to the will of the people.”

So, overall, they pass maybe one or two of the things people didn’t really like and can point to 13 different occasions when they were willing to listen and change course because of citizen feedback.

Doug Ford has made this his entire political strategy in Ontario, and it has worked wonders for him. Ford proposes some whimsical policy nearly once a month and waits to see how people react before he cancels or pushes ahead with it. It’s easy to claim you are “for the people” when you can say you made a change based on feedback or citizen reaction.

It’s political 3D chess, really.

Former Calgary councillor Jeromy Farkas speculated on this approach by Smith on the Ryan Jespersen Real Talk podcast earlier this week.

“The reason politically, at least as a bargaining chip, that the pension plan is useful is that it builds her brand. The fact that it is on the table as something unpopular… it’s not going to fly because a majority of UCP voters are opposed to it, that’s the real reason it won’t fly. It’s a bargaining chip,” Farkas said.

“If you throw out 10 unpopular things and you only really intend to get done three or four, the other six that you are talked down on or compromise on, it only builds your credibility as somebody who is willing to listen to feedback… this isn’t a bug, it’s a feature of that strategy.”

It has only been seven months since Smith was elected premier, although she served in the role after a leadership review in 2022.

Still, that’s enough time to propose a ton of ideas that she didn’t campaign on (like the three parts of legislation mentioned earlier), that are also widely unpopular in poll after poll. She has proposed several policies that are more popular in polls, like a pause on renewable energy development or a shift in “parental rights policies” (which many see as an attack on 2SLGBTQI+ rights, yet was a popular policy in polling).

There also has to be some truth to the notion that these policies appease some of Smith’s base – those who helped usurp Jason Kenney and then helped her get selected as leader and also helped her win the general election.

Some of these ideas were talked about at the UCP convention and if Smith faces a leadership review, she can point to all the legislation her government is working on as progress on those pitches.

Yet, as a government and leader, I think while it is essential to understand the will of the people, ultimately, they voted you into power; you also have to see the bigger picture and understand the broader implications of certain policies.

To an extent, that’s where I think the strategy of overloading the legislature with bill after bill of unwanted policy starts to irritate the citizens.

It’s a tightrope act, to be sure.

I think it also assumes something about the electorate: that they are not smart enough to see the game that’s being played, that they’re being used as pawns in a policy game rather than treated as engaged and informed citizens.

Ultimately, in the legislature, as it stands right now, the United Conservative Party has all the power. Because of their number of seats in the legislature, they are free to pass any policy they like.

Smith knows this, and it seems like she’s using it to her advantage. Whether you like it or not.

Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate and a Regional Editor for Black Press Media.

Byron Hackett

About the Author: Byron Hackett

Byron has been the sports reporter at the advocate since December of 2016. He likes to spend his time in cold hockey arenas accompanied by luke warm, watered down coffee.
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