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A lesson in how a political battle is fought

A separate Alberta pension plan to replace the Canada Pension Plan? A provincial police force? A new provincial bureaucracy to collect income taxes in place of the federal revenue agency? These ideas were not mentioned during the provincial election
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A separate Alberta pension plan to replace the Canada Pension Plan? A provincial police force? A new provincial bureaucracy to collect income taxes in place of the federal revenue agency?

These ideas were not mentioned during the provincial election last spring. Yet they are to be considered over the winter by Premier Jason Kenney’s “fair deal panel.”

That’s despite the case that none of them would unequivocally benefit Albertans. They are more likely to add costs to individuals and to the province. They would certainly add bureaucracy – a contradictory move for a government that has advertised a commitment to “red tape reduction.” As a political gesture, they would amount to Albertans complaining about the rest of Canada by hitting themselves in the head.

Kenney’s purpose is unknown. He could be using the “fair deal panel” to make noise in a battle with Ottawa and to give angry Albertans a chance to let off steam.

Or he could be helping a determined group advance a private agenda they have been lusting after for years — ultimately perhaps even taking the first steps toward entirely eliminating the CPP. Why let a good crisis go to waste? Too much opportunity for money, prestige and power is at stake.

So far, the “fair deal” effort is draped in hazy, emotionally charged language. If that remains the main appeal, a much closer look is warranted. But a lot of things that a lot of political parties and governments do should be examined carefully.

One informative way to look at them is to read the newly published Power Play (University of Alberta Press, $32.99).

The book examines events leading to the City of Edmonton’s decision to provide most of the funding for the Edmonton Oilers’ new arena. The city also provided incentives for associated real estate developments planned by Oilers owner Daryl Katz and others.

Was the deal worthwhile? Opinion will always be split. The costs and benefits can’t be fully quantified.

City politicians and arena boosters wanted to boost municipal prestige, revive building in the city centre and keep the Oilers in Edmonton. How much is an NHL franchise worth in social benefits? How much development in the city centre needed a new arena as a catalyst? Would the Oilers really have left if held to a less lucrative deal?

No one knows for sure. Refighting an old battle isn’t much reason to read the book. Nor is the recounting of how the politically allied old-boys group running Northlands Coliseum was displaced by a coalition led by a billionaire but incorporating prominent developers and the city’s mayor.

The book’s real value lies in detailed recounting of how a big political battle was fought.

Proponents of the arena deal were operating on articles of faith – of course an NHL franchise is needed to be a “world-class” city; of course a downtown revival needs a spark like a new arena; of course an NHL team is so important to local culture that a big price is worth paying.

There are analogies all through provincial budget planning now; for example: of course a corporate tax cut will create jobs, and everyone knows that, don’t they?

The book outlines constant appeals to such conventional wisdom. It implicitly raises the question of whether politicians act on a strong information base in such cases, or whether they make decisions on gut instinct and a strong pull toward going along with a crowd.

And tactics used in the arena battle have become standard for every party in every province and in Ottawa.

The public was carefully kept out of decision making except for token and occasionally misleading efforts at consultation and polling.

Relevant information was not made public, particularly the Oilers’ financial statements and a study saying the site eventually chosen for the arena ranked well down among a list of several alternatives. Other reports were made public but had sections removed from view.

There was intense manipulation – from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s vague claims and implied threats, to the disparagement of arena deal skeptics as being anti-hockey or ignorant about business. Media figures were either cultivated directly, or fed a constant stream of comments from “experts,” some with undeclared agendas.

At every turn, transactions with the public and even with municipal councillors were based more on emotional messages than on hard facts.

The NHL and its owners have become highly skilled at playing those games. Political parties practise similar methods at ever more sophisticated levels. Keeping those methods in mind provides a useful checklist when assessing what all politicians and their allies are saying, and are trying to sell you.