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Method in the Madness

The UCP’s plan for Alberta

An abridged version of this article was published in the Edmonton Journal on May 31, 2024.

So much has been happening in our politics recently that Albertans can be forgiven for feeling disoriented. Every week it seems there is an announcement that turns things upside down. The government is moving aggressively on a number of fronts simultaneously, overwhelming the capacity of Albertans to absorb it all. It is easy to focus on the details of the latest bombshell as previous pronouncements quickly fade into the background noise. But it is important to take a step back to see what patterns emerge in the chaos. When we do, we find that the government’s flurry of activity is not merely incompetence, bullheadedness, or wild-eyed populism. There is something more methodical going on.

A short list of initiatives since last May’s election reads like an agenda that would take a decade to complete. When the ballot boxes had barely been emptied, the newly elected Smith government resurrected plans for creating an Alberta Pension Plan and a Provincial Police Force. They quickly proceeded with plans to break Alberta Health Services into four pieces, significantly destabilizing the health-care system. Then they announced the creation of a new crown corporation, The Canadian Centre of Recovery Excellence (CoRE), to conduct their own “research” into addiction recovery, despite existing arms-length entities currently conducting respected research into addictions.

Most recently we have seen Bill 18 and Bill 20 — a pair of bills that target institutions and function to centralize authority. Bill 18 blocks municipalities, health-care agencies, post-secondary researchers, and other public bodies from receiving federal funds without the province’s permission, constructing a regime so bound in red tape that public bodies will need more than the oversized stunt scissors to cut through it. Bill 20 reaches deep into the governance of municipalities, offering sweeping powers to cabinet to remove councillors and change or repeal bylaws; it also re-institutes big money into municipal politics by legalizing corporate and union donations as well as establishing (in Edmonton and Calgary) political parties.

Bill 21, ostensibly a course correction to enable the province to respond more effectively to assist municipalities facing natural disasters, instead centres on the consolidation of at-will provincial powers to override their municipal counterparts where they may be “at cross purposes” with the province. The Association of Alberta Municipalities notes that this is the third bill in a row on which they have not been consulted, even as the changes introduced portend profound implications for municipal authorities, intergovernmental relations, and democratic norms.

And we cannot forget the launching of more than a dozen lawsuits against the federal government for breaching provincial jurisdiction and picking fights with the federal government at every opportunity, even if it means walking away from millions that would benefit Albertans.

Public response to these initiatives has been vocal, and policy experts have offered pointed critiques of the moves. We can see several themes emerging in these reactions. A number of these moves are viewed as running counter to the wishes of Albertans. Polls show many, such as municipal political parties and an Alberta Pension Plan are opposed by a large majority of Albertans. Announcements such as Bill 20 are seen as anti-democratic. An array of advocates point out that these policies are either not grounded in evidence, rely on misleading data and misinformation, or are aimed at undermining existing research and evidence-based policies. For some, these moves smack of early-stage authoritarianism and a desire to silence and punish opposition.

These critiques are both valid and poignant. But like the policies they analyze, there seems to be a lack of binding coherency. On the surface, the policies of the UCP appear designed to pick fights rather than work toward a concerted vision for the province. As the inventory of offences against good governance grows exponentially, any sense of coherence or discernable through-line becomes lost in the noise. This, as they say, is a feature, not a bug. Yet, if we zoom out and try to see the big picture, a clear image emerges: these policies are part of an overt ideological agenda being implemented by sowing chaos in the system. This agenda aims to undermine institutions and remove barriers to achieve a minimalist, low-tax, fossil fuel-dependent, corporate-friendly “utopia” (or dystopia).

Take the example of the dismantling of Alberta Health Services. It is easy to see it as simple retribution for the pandemic policies that so angered Smith and her base, or as further paving the way for privatization. Both may well be true. When we consider the rhetoric of the “Refocusing Health Care” initiative alongside 2020’s Bill 30, it appears as a piece with the UCP’s goal to remake health-care delivery along a corporate model. But taken together with the slate of bills introduced by the Smith government, the transformation of AHS begins to reveal its essential purpose: fragmenting and disarming an alternative forum for decision-making authority, as it erodes public confidence in and reliance on a foundational institution imbued with intrinsically social democratic values.

We see a similar multi-dimensional project at play in post-secondary and research. Step one is to systematically starve the system of resources through funding cutbacks. Step two is to restrict institutions’ and researchers’ autonomy and academic freedom through Bill 18, to denigrate the work of these researchers as “woke.” Third, to establish and elevate a government-created network of pseudo-experts to promote everything from ideologically influenced research to misinformation. We see this in their COVID reviews, the restrictive rules on renewable energy, and the creation of CoRE. They are constructing alternative institutions to challenge and subsume existing research institutions.

We can also see it in Danielle Smith’s language. On CBC’s Power and Politics, she lamented that the federal government was funding only “certain types of opinions, certain types of researchers and I don’t think that’s fair.” She goes on to say “I have heard enough from some of our academics about how difficult it can be to access some of that funding” and to assert that Bill 18 is about creating “balance” at universities.

The move on municipalities in Bill 20 is similarly designed to neuter their ability to chart any path independent of the province’s wishes. The federal deals negotiated with municipalities are transgressive not just because they bypass the Province, but crucially because they enable local authorities to chart different policy paths — and ideological directions — to the current provincial government. Enough of these have begun to accumulate (on housing, climate, addictions, public health) that it begins to expose the fissures in the UCP’s worldview. The ideologically narrow, evidence-eschewing approach to these challenges favoured by successive UCP governments may just be proven wrong. Linked to the reassertion and consolidation of provincial authority over emergency powers in natural disasters, these legislative moves reinforce the deepening perception by municipalities that they are being actively stood down.

The consistency across these examples lays bare the UCP’s real agenda. They are taking the necessary steps to eliminate barriers to pursuing their libertarian, small-government agenda. They starve and cancel when they can and denigrate and delegitimize when necessary. If neither of those tactics works, they centralize power to silence critical voices and barricade any alternative paths. This is unprecedented and, we fear, only the beginning.

Many have argued that longtime libertarian Danielle Smith has changed, surprised at her big government, social conservative turn. But Danielle Smith’s ideology has not changed. She still wants small government, private delivery of public services and an unrestrained free market. What Albertans hadn’t counted on was her willingness to use chaos and confusion to achieve those ends.

Going forward, it is not enough for us to merely call out specific policies for their autocratic, undemocratic, and chaotic nature, though that remains essential. We must also speak up about — and out against — the end goal that all this chaos serves.


Note: images related to this post were AI-generated.

Rebecca Graff-McRae

Rebecca Graff-McRae completed her undergraduate and doctoral studies at Queen’s University Belfast (PhD Irish Politics, 2006). Her work, which interrogates the role of memory and commemoration in post-conflict transition, has evolved through a Faculty of Arts fellowship at Memorial University Newfoundland and a SSHRC post-doctoral research fellowship at the University of Alberta. She has previously worked with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and Edmonton City Council.

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Jason Foster

Jason Foster is the director of Parkland Institute and an associate professor of human resources and labour relations at Athabasca University. Jason is the author of Gigs, Hustles, & Temps (2023) and Defying Expectations: The Case of UFCW Local 401 (2018), as well as co-author of Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces (2016). His research interests include workplace injury, union renewal, labour and employment policy, and migrant workers in Canada. He is committed to sharing research to as broad an audience as possible, so that it might contribute to policy change and making people’s lives better.

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