The recent “revelations” that the provincial Tories do not take kindly to anyone who disagrees with them is nothing new to opposition members.
First there was Little Dougie Griffiths’ petulant, fot-stomping letter to the AUMA after a perceived slight from Linda Sloan. And now, a letter from Hector Goudreau, the soon-to-be-retired-by-the-electorate MLA from Dunevegan-Central Peace has emerged, whereby Goudreau sternly lectures the Holy Family Catholic School Division to play nice, or they won’t get their school repaired.
The letter from Goudreau was only surprising in that it was so badly written. Rural Alberta folks know that you don’t question your PC MLA if you want anything from the government.
The Goudreau letter reminded me that I wrote an article for the late, lamented SEE magazine back in 2008 about how the Tories keep the rural folks in line. It’s still pretty interesting reading (I think), so here it is again.
We called it the Fear Factor.
We Alberta Liberal MLAs found many Albertans were terrified to talk to members of the Official Opposition caucus. A lot of rural Albertans would rather be seen with Klansmen than with Liberals.
What were they afraid of? You name it.
They were afraid of losing their government contracts.
They were afraid of losing funding for their pet project.
They were just afraid of the Tories, period.
Here’s and example, just one of many.
A rural group came to Edmonton a while back to bend the ear of a minister. From there, they had made an appointment to talk to the corresponding Liberal critic (or ‘shadow minister’, as we so pompously started to call ourselves when we thought we could form a government). While the critic’s office was in the Annex building, that wretched Soviet architecture-style building that houses MLAs and staff, that was no more than a two-minute walk from the minister’s office in the Legislature, the group insisted on meeting in the critic’s constituency office some distance away. Why? They were afraid that the minister might see them walking over to the Annex to consort with the enemy. This was not an isolated incident.
After nearly 40 years with the same party in power, the majority of people in this province have never experienced anything other than Conservative rule. The Tories have become so ingrained into the psyche of Albertans, particularly those in rural Alberta, that the Progressive Conservative Party and the Government of Alberta have become one in the same, a two-headed beast that giveth and taketh away, and one you most definitely do not want to piss off.
The Conservatives have convinced rural Albertans that a vote for a Tory is a vote for a playground, or a newly paved road, or a spiffy new government building. Many rural Albertans are convinced that if you were to elect a Liberal, funding for your town would disappear faster than arts funding from Stephen Harper.
In order to give the impression that they are the only party out there, the Tories go to great lengths to marginalize opposition MLAs, mostly by pretending they don’t exist. My favourite story of the death-grip the Tories have on rural Alberta involves the Big Valley Jamboree down Camrose way, the Woodstock for the country crowd.
We had never been invited to Big Valley, although our PC brethren were, as a matter of course. One year, to our shock, we received invitations. I didn’t go (camping and country music are as appealing a mix to me as … well, I can’t think of a less appealing combination) but one of our MLAs, Rick Miller, did.
Our MLA met with one of the organizers at a Big Valley hospitality tent. The organizer, mistaking him for a Tory, admitted that the organizers had mistakenly invited Liberals, and wanted to know if he thought it was OK? Our guy, naturally, told him it was a great idea, and thanked him.
Our MLA wrote a nice thank you note to the Big Valley people, encouraging them to invite opposition MLAs again. Apparently, it did not sit well with the Tory powers that be, and we were not invited back.
It’s one thing to be not invited to an event, but it’s an entirely different thing to be de-invited to an event.
All MLAs were invited to a feedbag sponsored by an Alberta food producers group. It was to be held at the Old Timer’s Cabin, and was to feature a smorgasbord of Alberta-produced products, which means beef and beef related foodstuffs. I eagerly signed up for this one (note to readers: if you want an MLA to attend your event, promise food), as did a number of other Liberal MLAs.
Some time later, a flunky from the organization phoned me to say that the invitation was a mistake, that opposition members were not invited, and that I should not come. This is like inviting someone to a wedding, then changing your mind and telling them they can’t come because some of the other guests don’t like them. I can only imagine what kind of pressure came to bear on this organization to force them to actually go through the humiliating process of withdrawing invitations. (I should say that, to the best of my knowledge, Edmonton’s big time organizations were very fair to opposition MLAs, frequently because we were the only ones who regularly showed up at events.)
As the 2007 election approached and the government was shifting into full bully mode, many Tories began to ignore the professional courtesies that are part of the MLA’s unwritten code of conduct. Being introduced at an event is a Big Deal to an MLA. If you go to a large dinner or a major public event, and the MC does not recognize your presence, you might as well not be there. Classier ministers always made sure to introduce even Alberta Liberal or New Democrat MLA in an audience. (I will always remember being introduced at a public meeting by then-minister Yvonne Fritz shortly after I was elected.) Less classy ministers – which is to say, most of them – would introduce their Tory brethren (even when they weren’t there, which happened regularly), but ignore opposition MLAs.
Event MCs, often Tory sympathizers or insiders in this town, often did the same thing.
Does this sound petty? To you, perhaps, it is. But to a politician who depends on the goodwill of the voter for his job, it’s a very big deal. Odd as it may sound in this cynical age, it is still a big deal to many people to have an elected official show up at an event. Who didn’t show up is as important as those who did.
That’s the life of a politician, reason no. 287 why I’m glad I’m out of it.