Every day Alberta’s political culture reaches another dangerous low. The baseline keeps slipping in a petrostate where ethical standards of conduct disappear from the landscape faster than woodland caribou.
Thirty years ago most citizens, including me, expected their leaders to exercise good judgment, moral integrity and civic competence. And if the leaders were found to have failed, we expected them to resign.
But these days all shame has disappeared from politics. Trump is an avatar of the era, but far from the only example. Character doesn’t matter anymore. Might and bluster are the methods of choice when political parties act and talk like cartels.
The pandemic propelled this shift because that’s what pandemics do. They destabilize weakened systems and accelerate political rot.
The latest travesty in Alberta concerns an incredible recorded conversation between former talk show host and now Premier Danielle Smith with self-avowed extremist and insurrectionist Artur Pawlowski.
The talk took place a month before his trial for inciting protesters at the Coutts blockade in February 2022 at the height of the convoy madness. The CBC found the tape on social media.
During the 11-minute conversation the 50-year-old Pawlowski, an anti-masker and anti-vaxer, whined to the premier about his criminal charges related to inciting violence in Coutts. It seems the courage of his convictions had waned, and now he was pleading for amnesty like some wayward MAGA disciple back from storming the U.S. Capitol. In fact he wanted the government to call off “its dogs.”
Smith, who denies she has tried to influence the outcome of Pawlowski’s case or anyone else’s, and threatens to sue the CBC for defamation, promised amnesty to COVID protesters during her leadership campaign. When she did that, she forgot that she lives in Canada and not the tattered republic of the United States — such clemency is not hers to grant.
The fact that Smith says she didn’t know that premiers don’t have the powers of governors speaks to the altered reality of Alberta politics.
Incredibly, Smith began the conversation by expressing sympathy for Pawlowski’s criminal plight: "I've been watching your public advocacy for many years," she said. "I'm sorry to hear what they've been putting you through."
But who really created Pawlowski’s predicament? As the Crown alleges, the pastor broke the law in Coutts and elsewhere, yet now he expected the premier to deliver a get out of jail free card.
Here’s what Pawlowski did in Coutts. He openly encouraged protesters to take the law into their own hands, saying, "For freedom to be preserved, people must be willing to sacrifice their lives. This is our time."
He added something about the bloody battle of the Alamo, which didn’t happen in Canada but in Texas.
Pawlowski then left the scene in a BMW and was later charged with mischief and interrupting the operation of essential infrastructure under Alberta's Critical Infrastructure Defence Act.
A crown prosecutor later described the scene: "He went to Coutts, lit a match, and left the place."
Ironically, in 2020, Alberta's then-premier Jason Kenney originally passed the law eventually applied to Pawlowski in order to deal with “urban green left zealots” and Indigenous railroad blockaders.
It mandated “stiff penalties for anyone who riots on or seeks to impair critical economic infrastructure” and now the act was reluctantly applied to an urban religious right-wing zealot.
Lawlessness, however, starts at the top in Alberta. For example, a lot of oil companies who cheered on the pipeline protecting law have not bothered to pay their taxes — about $250 million — to municipalities for years.
Kenney publicly excused the law breaking because they were oil companies and “you can’t get money from a stone.”
In real democracies premiers don’t champion pipelines or put the rich above the law but that’s what happens in a petrostate, where power genuflects to the money. But don’t worry. Premier Danielle Smith has a solution: provincial cabinet ministers will send reminders to those in arrears.
What Pawlowski openly represents
But back to Smith’s recorded chat with the aggrieved Pawlowski, during which she explained she’d been asking prosecutors if there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction, and whether that would be in the public interest.
"I assure you that I have asked them that, almost weekly, ever since I got started here," Smith said in the recording.
“I’m very sympathetic,” she assured the man who told protesters to be willing to die for their cause. About his prosecution, she opined, it “was a political decision that initiated this but it can't be a political decision to end it. That's what I'm finding very frustrating."
Now let’s look at the insurgent that the premier wants to go bat for in the judicial system and says she openly admires. After all, a politician should be judged by the company she keeps.
Pawlowski is a professional agitator and street pastor. His Calgary church is called the Cave of Adullam, where King David sought refuge from King Saul. He preaches regularly against homosexuality and abortion. He once claimed that the 2013 southern Alberta floods were God’s way of displaying wrath against homosexuality. Last week he called Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley an “evil murderer.”
During the pandemic the radical pastor held maskless gatherings and anti-vax rallies with tiki torches. Until recently he served as president of the Independence Party of Alberta. It believes that “Alberta must appropriate all federal powers (unilaterally if necessary), leading up to the formation of a new Alberta national government.”
Now sample some of Pawlowski’s tweeted self-importance and conspiratorial mindset. After his abrupt removal from the leadership of the Independence Party of Alberta last week, he claimed he had been a victim of another conspiracy.
“They realized the party has become too dangerous to the establishment, and they had to sabotage it before the election. The Independence Party of Alberta has been infiltrated by evil people and this treachery has revealed their intentions.”
On it goes until the big wrap-up. “Remember in the end of the day the treachery of Judas Iscariot is rewarded with silver coin that is attached to a big tree and a strong rope.”
Talk like that underscores the need for a reality check on how far Alberta’s political culture has slid from one of basic, shared democratic principles.
Then and now
In fact, here is how far that baseline has shifted.
Thirty years ago, if a premier was shown to have held a conversation with a criminally charged extreme separatist, and she sympathetically told him she was discussing his case and others’ with officials in the judicial system, that politician would have been hounded from office.
But not in Alberta today.
Thirty years ago when protesters believed in something and then broke the law to honour that belief, they accepted the legal consequences of their civil disobedience. They didn’t call their political pals and ask for amnesty. They went to jail and affirmed accountability for their actions.
But not in Alberta today.
In a democracy there cannot be one law for the premier’s friends and supporters and another law for the rest of us — yet the media now treats this principle as political minutia.
That’s how far baselines have moved.
Corroded by oil money
It’s not as if Danielle Smith sneaked into office under a cloak of concern for maintaining good government for the benefit of all.
She lobbied not for the poor but the rich. The Alberta Enterprise Group represents some of the wealthiest, most powerful and most entitled people in the province.
As a lobbyist Smith pressed hard for oil companies on the issue of multibillion-dollar cleanup liabilities including abandoned wells and other infrastructure.
The liabilities total about $260 billion and the industry doesn’t want to pay for the cleanup.
For more than three decades the industry has successfully avoided putting any money aside to clean up its uneconomic wells and pipelines despite laws stating the polluter must pay.
Instead big companies merely dumped their poorly performing wells on small companies, and then small companies dumped these liabilities on taxpayers as poor orphans. Captured regulators let it happen, and captured politicians of all ideologies turned a blind eye because Alberta, after all, is a dysfunctional petrostate where money calls the shots.
Lobbyist Smith came up with another industry scam to hide what had been going on. Why not lower royalties by some $20 billion to encourage companies to do what they are legally required to do? That’s what Smith asked the government in 2021. And that’s what she advanced once premier.
Political scientist Duane Bratt has a word for what I just recounted: corruption.
Royalties are paid because, as Lougheed used to say, "Albertans are the owners." Diverting royalty payments to companies to clean up their own mess is corruption.— Duane Bratt (@DuaneBratt) February 9, 2023
Thirty years ago if an industry lobbyist became premier and quickly tried to implement a scam to get taxpayers to pay for that industry’s environmental mining liabilities, the public, too, would have readily called it corruption.
But not in Alberta today.
And 30 years ago if a political party had passed a law to prevent any changes to Alberta’s debased royalty regime for a decade, it would have been viewed as a betrayal of the public interest and evidence of more corruption.
But not in Alberta today.
A baseline ballot question
In 1995 the wise fishery biologist Daniel Pauly noticed something small but important in human affairs. He observed that one generation of biologists would marvel at the size of the fish catches. But as catches declined and the size of fish got smaller, that next generation of biologists embraced diminished catches as the new normal.
The baseline shifted until there was less and less left in the sea but plastic.
Pauly argued that shifting baselines could apply to any good thing such as biodiversity, the clarity of water, the greenness of a country, the health of a democracy, the competence of our leaders and the integrity of political parties.
As time goes by, people lose track of how badly things have been diminished, noted Pauly. In other words they can’t remember when the fish once were big or political leaders behaved with integrity.
“We transform the world and don’t remember it,” said Pauly in a recent Ted Talk. “We adjust our baseline to the new level and don’t recall what was there.
“Every generation will use the images they got at the beginning of their conscious lives as a standard. They will extrapolate forward and the difference then they perceive as a loss. But they don’t perceive what happened before as a loss. You will have a succession of losses and then people want to sustain the miserable leftovers.”
Political baselines have degraded greatly across Canada’s troubled democracy — just think for a moment about Justin Trudeau’s meddling in the SNC-Lavalin scandal.
But Alberta’s baselines are particularly slippery because they are lubricated with oil.
A government that runs on oil dollars comes to represent oil; a state the runs on taxes represents its citizens. And over time, citizens of a petrostate forget the true price democracy demands of them.
The U.S. political scientist Terry Karl said it this way: “Oil revenues are the catalyst for a chronic tendency of the state to become over-extended, over-centralized and captured by special interests.” Think Venezuela, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Karl added that gushing oil revenue not only detaches the government from duly representing its citizenry but produces a citizenry “less likely to demand accountability from and representation in government.”
And that’s the reality that Alberta faces today.
This coming provincial election, the ballot question should be nothing less than democracy itself.