Thursday, October 8, 2015

A window on power and influence in Alberta politics

This week saw the publication of a new book entitled Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada. You can download the entire book for free from Athabasca University Press.

The premise of the book is that Alberta’s economic reliance on oil revenues has created a symbiotic relationship between government and the oil industry. Cross-national studies have detected a correlation between oil-dependent economies and authoritarian rule, a pattern particularly evident in Africa and the Middle East. Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada sets out to test the “oil inhibits democracy” hypothesis in the context of an industrialized nation in the Global North.

The first chapter I read was Ricardo Acuna’s “A Window on Power and Influence in Alberta Politics.” Acuna uses Joe Overton’s theory of the window of political possibility to examine how political discourse has been narrowed in Alberta. The Overton window basically suggests that only a subset of all policy options are considered realistic at any one time.

It is possible to move the window by flooding public discourse with specific messages. For example, if a right-wing lobby group repeatedly says that tax increases will kill jobs and this gets picked up by media, tax increases can slowly begin to appear as unthinkable. Acuna’s analysis specifically looks at how right-wing think tanks and the oil lobby have used flooding to shape public policy around oil royalties.

A particularly salient point in the chapter is how the anchoring of the Overton window on the far right in Alberta leads to political disengagement.
When public policy is seen as inevitable and economic theories are seen as truth, people have no reason to engage with the political processes that impact their lives. This trend is reinforced by messaging from the far right that con- sistently labels government and politicians as irrelevant, inefficient, and self- serving. Voter turnout and participation in political parties in Alberta are both likely to continue dropping for the foreseeable future, further abandoning the realm of public policy to the energy industry and think tanks (p. 309).
It will be interesting to see if the election of New Democrat government in Alberta has any appreciable impact on the Overton window during their first term.

-- Bob Barnetson

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