Alberta residents are preparing to vote in the municipal election. Understandably though, municipal issues are seldom ones that tug at the heartstrings or appeal to our more abstract interests and beliefs. Debates about snow removal and traffic congestion certainly have their place, but they are not the sort of issues that convince voters something big is at stake.
But Canadians do not have to look very far to find elections, both real and hypothetical, where the debates engage fundamental ideological principles, where heartstrings are twanged, and voters can believe that a tipping point is at hand.
The most immediate example is the mid-term elections in the United States where campaigns are intensely ideological, loud and raucous, often incoherent, seldom civil, but nonetheless pull into focus dramatically different visions of America’s future. There is nothing pretty about the mid-term elections, but neither can it be denied that their outcomes could leave a mark on American life for decades to come.
Many observers from outside the United States view American election campaigns with distaste, if not something close to revulsion, but their intensity is evidence of a raw, sometimes crude but always engaged political culture. American elections are a blood-sport, not for the faint of heart, or small bank accounts.
Between the local immediacy of the Calgary municipal election and the tumultuous tableaux unfolding south of the border, we are also confronted with two Canadian elections that have yet to be called, but nonetheless provide the grist for a growing cascade of political commentary.
First is the next Alberta provincial election, unlikely to be called before the early winter of 2012, but already the subject of intense speculation because of the creation of the Wildrose Alliance. These early speculations are important because they raise fundamental questions about the province’s future, questions that go beyond the composition of the next government to include the appropriate role of government in the economy, Alberta’s place within Confederation, and pros and cons of dramatic spending constraints.
Albertans anticipate, and expect, that the next election will count and big challenges of the day will be addressed. The same anticipation applies to national politics where all the parties have declared that they don’t want a fall election, and are on a war footing just in case.
Partisan rhetoric, already at a frustratingly high level, is being ratcheted up even more. The parties are searching for some ideological definition beyond the gun registry, and in so doing they are echoing many of the American mid-term election themes. The economic debate over further stimulus versus fiscal constraint provides platform for a deeper and broader debate about the proper role of government in Canadian life.
True, there is no Canadian Tea Party, and no sense that any of the parties are abandoning their relentless search for the middle ground, but voters are already being told that the choice among parties clinging to the ideological centre is extremely critical, that the next election will be one to tell our grandchildren about.
So if the municipal election does not get the blood racing, Calgarians have only to turn to the ideological blood lust south of the border, partake in breathless speculation about the next federal election, or engage in more subdued speculation on Alberta’s electoral future.
All in all, a good time for political junkies of all sorts.
Who needs hockey?
Dr. Roger Gibbins is president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation.