There has been lots of healthy discussion these days about local politics, especially now, as our community is being scrutinized because of a petition and by ministerial order.
There are significant differences between policy and politics, and knowing these differences usually leads to good politics and good policy – but this only happens in a perfect world. In the real world, policy and politics are in constant conflict.
So what are the differences?
To put it simply, policy is about ideas. Politics is about interests. Interests can be defined as competing ideas. Hence, politics is about how to put particular ideas into action. In a democratic society like ours, some good ideas and policies often clash with other good ideas dear to other people in our political space. Our community is our political space.
Because of the coal mines, past and present, our community is very diverse. Unlike many other small Alberta towns which tend to be quite homogenous in their makeup, we have people who came here to work in the mines from every corner of the world. This may be a little exaggerated, but not much. This is also what makes our community a very interesting place to live.
Crowsnest Pass is a community which has always been passionate about politics. Those who study our local history know this to be true. Our different interests are dear to us, whether it is the ski hill, the swimming pool, hockey arena, fire department, old hospital, new hospital, our seniors, our young people, you name it – we are passionate about it.
This passion for local politics can be presented to the outside world as something negative. Our propensity to resort to petitions to defend our interests can be interpreted as disruptive behavior.
I would argue that while our behaviour can be seen as disruptive, it can also be understood in a positive manner. While we may not be easy to govern, we are a people who care deeply about our community and we are always ready to defend our particular interests.
We may not always agree with one another, but we always come together in times of need. One of the reasons I love this community is because of its spirit. Since coming to Canada as a teenager from Poland in 1975, I have lived and worked in every part of our province and I can genuinely say there is no place like the Crowsnest Pass when it comes to generosity and friendliness.
This does not make us saints, we do have our moments, but we are good people.
So, while we may be good people, governing us has never been easy and it requires special skill. Not everyone has this skill, and you don’t have to have a lot of schooling to know this.
Some people, like Ralph Klein for example, are born to be politicians and know, almost instinctively, what to do. Others hone this skill through trial and error. A good majority of us, however, will simply never make good politicians. Local municipal politics is usually an entry point into our political system and it is here where many an aspiring politician has discovered that this sort of thing is really not for them.
Political history shows good policy makers seldom make good politicians. Think about the recent leaders of the federal Liberal party. Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff are both very accomplished university professors with many excellent policy ideas, but neither could connect, politically, with the Canadian public.
Much the same is happening in our community today. We have some very good people on our council, but our community has never been in a bigger political mess than it is today. We should not doubt their good intentions to make our community better, but the entire experience has lacked political skill from day one.
Today we find ourselves under municipal inspection because we have experienced too much policy work which was not accompanied with the requisite political skills.
Writing policy is never enough. People must be sold on the merits of the policy and this is done through politics and politics is all about communication. In a small community like ours, communication is not about announcements or newsletters. Rather, communication is a dialogue and argument on the merits of a particular policy initiative. People need to be brought on board, and the more contentious the policy proposal, the more essential it is that people be brought on board before changes are made.
Some, of course, will argue if this is the case then change will never come. Well, in a democratic society, politics is the cost of doing business. Even the best policy is sometimes ditched because it is not politically expedient and the political cost outweighs the benefits of good policy. Given no emergency, gradual change is always preferable to an abrupt and unnecessary upheaval.
So while our little community may seem dysfunctional, it really is not. I just see a lot of people standing up for what makes this community great and what makes this community vibrant. The unique spirit and work ethic of the Pass has taken us through many hardships and I believe we will get through this turmoil, and emerge even stronger than before.