Debating the debate
After four weeks of relentless campaigning, an endless barrage of partisan advertisements and arguments, and one damning ethics commissioner report, Monday’s provincial election in Alberta will come down to one question: How much anti-LGBTQ bigotry, conspiracy theorizing and American culture war nonsense will voters put up with in the name of keeping corporate taxes low?
Based on the flurry of recent polls that show Danielle Smith’s United Conservative Party either in the lead or close to it, the answer will almost certainly be “too much.” This shouldn’t be too surprising given the well-documented fondness in Alberta for not paying taxes and the NDP’s curious decision to announce a tax hike as one of its key platform commitments. This fed into the pre-existing narrative — one the NDP has done almost nothing to complicate — about the party’s general hostility to business and the economy, facts be damned. To revive James Carville’s famous slogan from the 1992 Democratic presidential campaign: it’s still the economy, stupid.
This is understandably frustrating for anyone with a conception of politics that extends beyond their own bank balance. Smith has allied herself with people like Artur Pawlowski, whose long track record of anti-LGBTQ comments include a recent sermon where he told supporters of abortion and trans rights that he would “hunt you, every step of the way.” She has attracted candidates who compare trans kids to fecal matter and insist schools are showing children pornography in classrooms. And perhaps most infamously, she has compared vaccinated Albertans to supporters of Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler.
She’s also surrounded by powerful backroom operatives and activists who push things even further than she does. David Parker, the home-schooled leader of Take Back Alberta, has said that “a small fringe minority with unacceptable views has taken over all of your institutions, your legal system, your medical system (and) your education system. They’ve taken over your churches, to some degree.” Ironically, he’s not referring to his own supporters, who believe and say things that clearly place them at the ideological margins of Alberta society. Parker, for example, thinks women who put their careers before having kids are part of a “war between the pro-humans and anti-humans.”
We’ve seen this movie before, of course, with Donald Trump. He was objectively worse than Smith, who at least believes in things like a woman’s right to choose and the LGBTQ community’s right to exist. Trump’s supporters, meanwhile, threatened (and then committed) the sort of rhetorical and literal violence that still remains — for now, at least — offside here in Canada. Americans, to their everlasting discredit, elected him once, almost re-elected him in 2020 and may well return him to office in 2024. For all the right’s self-serving mewling about cancel culture, we clearly live in a world where saying and believing objectively terrible things is not automatically disqualifying — especially if you're promising to cut taxes for rich people.
The same seems to hold true in Alberta. Some voters will try to look past that uncomfortable truth, just as millions of Republicans did with Trump’s racism, homophobia and anti-science ramblings. They’ll focus on things like the tax cuts, smaller government and other ideological hobby horses. They’ll tell themselves (as some UCP campaigners have been telling them, apparently) that Smith will be gone in short order anyways, replaced by a leader who can more reliably advance their economic interests without stirring up a shitstorm in the process.
This is, to be kind, a bit naive. To be less kind, it’s completely delusional. Once you validate this sort of casual cruelty, it only invites and endorses more of it. These voters need only watch Pawlowski’s press conference from Wednesday when he stood on the steps of the legislature and railed against the LGBTQ community and the UCP’s apparent betrayal of his interpretation of reality. They should think hard on why Smith thought it was a good idea to meet with this man, much less promise him the things he claims to have been offered. And they should ask themselves: when push comes to shove (and it always does lately with conservative leaders in Alberta), who do they think Parker and Take Back Alberta will side with?
In time, Smith may have to apologize for inviting that element into the conservative coalition and handing it the reins of power. But as we’ve seen with Trumpism’s continued destruction of America’s political landscape, by the time those apologies are made, it’s already far too late to do much about it. We have one chance to stop that from happening here in Alberta. Let’s hope the voters use it.
Debating the debate
After last Thursday’s provincial leaders’ debate in Alberta, I got in a bit of hot water for tweeting that Danielle Smith had won the exchange cleanly (I stand by that assessment, for what it’s worth). No, that doesn’t mean she always told the truth or played fair, but those have never really been the standards by which political debates are judged. Instead, they’re about who can tell a better story — and who looks more like a leader and premier to the average voter. On that score, Smith came out ahead.
I’m not happy about any of this, of course. And I think it’s yet another reminder of why we need to rethink the way we approach the idea of political debates. What would serve democracy better than a one-hour debate is multiple issue-oriented debates, each with subject matter experts there to fact-check in real time. At the end of each round, they could clarify misstatements, call out the lies and bullshit, and give viewers a more accurate sense of who deserves their vote.
As voters and citizens, we deserve this. It would improve democratic outcomes and the general awareness people have of key issues and the solutions parties are proposing to them. There’s just one problem: no conservative candidate would never, EVER agree to it.
They’ve spent too long demonizing experts, attacking the media and generally undermining the concept of a mutually agreeable fact set to participate in this sort of exercise. Instead, they’d probably attack the organizers as elitist gatekeepers and any journalists who dared participate as partisan hacks and stooges.
But maybe it’s time to call their bluff here. Maybe it’s time to dare them to refuse to participate — and reveal their fear of the sunlight of truth and information. If democracy is going to survive the threats that are mounting against it, from the spread of disinformation to the forces actively undermining or destabilizing it, we need to start investing more heavily in these sorts of exercises.
Yes, climate change costs money
On Wednesday, I wrote about the failure in certain quarters — most notably the Parliamentary Budget Officer — to fully and fairly account for both the cost of climate change and the cost of abandoning our efforts to tackle it. Ironically, one of the best examples of these costs comes from the state that seems most determined to ignore them: Florida.
As Bloomberg noted, Florida has faced climate-related damages from hurricanes and other weather events equivalent to four per cent of its GDP since 2017. Residents there are footing the bill in a number of ways, most notably in the form of insurance costs that are triple the national average — triple! — and a new law that will require previously underinsured Floridians to take out flood insurance. “That policy will affect new policy holders in federally designated flood zones immediately, but all 1.2 million policy owners anywhere in the state by 2027.” As those flood zones expand, so too will the number of people affected.
The challenge here, of course, is that most elected officials in Florida refuse to help their constituents connect these dots. Worse, they’re actively discouraging people from connecting them and effectively putting them in physical and financial danger in the process. One can only hope the voters there wake up before it’s too late.
On Tuesday, the latest episode of the Maxed Out podcast dropped, and it featured my interview with Adam O’Brien, an avowed “bitcoin maximalist”and the CEO of Bitcoin Well. I think it offered a revealing look at the way cryptocurrency enthusiasts look at the world — and why we might not want to share that view.
As some of you have already noted, we didn’t get into the emissions and climate side of the debate. Spoiler alert: they’re really bad. Here’s a fact sheet from the White House on the climate impacts of crypto — one that helps explain why it’s proposing a new 30 per cent tax on so-called “mining” operations. It’s long overdue, in my opinion.
If you missed it, I wrote about the need for a climate election and the Alberta NDP’s surprisingly good economic record last week.
And, as always, please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter (@maxfawcett) or by email at [email protected]