September 28, 2012 at 10:14 pm  •  Posted in Dave's Blog by  •  0 Comments

There can be legitimate reasons for that. Perhaps a small, well-organized interest group with the capacity for making a lot of noise wants something that’s not in the interests of the greater population. Perhaps a government is constrained by legislation, or by some legitimate prior deal it has made that gives another party the legal right to do something other than what the people want. Think oil and gas leases or grazing leases, or even water rights. And occasionally, maybe what the people want is just bad public policy. Governments – and individual politicians – are elected, in part, to make sometimes unpopular decisions because it’s the right thing to do. Think GST.

But here’s the thing – anytime you have a legitimate reason for acting contrary to the wishes of the people, it should be easy for you to defend your position and be honest about it. That’s not the same as winning the people over. They might be furious at you for your decision – angry enough to vote you out of office in the next election. (Think GST). They leave the meeting mad as hell at you for not doing what they wanted, but they understand exactly why you’re not, there’s no hidden agenda, and you have their respect.

As long as you’re not trying to foist a sales tax on them, they’ll probably forgive you and vote for you again. Why? Because everybody understands they can’t always get their way, but nobody understands why their politicians won’t just tell them the truth.

Then there are the times when politicians merely pretend to listen. 

On Tuesday night in Bragg Creek, Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Minister Diana McQueen did an awesome impression of a politician who merely pretended to listen. She wouldn’t give the people what they want. And she either could not, or would not, give them a respectable reason why.

This, of course, is the continuing saga of the West Bragg Creek logging proposal, a pig by now so smeared with lipstick that its ears are painted red. Having failed two years ago to convince the residents of Bragg Creek that the logging was absolutely crucial to stop the pine beetle – it wasn’t – the government is now trying to sell this as a wildfire suppression plan. The townsfolk – and a lot of concerned Calgarians and even one man whom I met from Brooks who regularly uses the West Bragg Creek recreation area – weren’t buying what the government was selling in August, and they aren’t buying it now, either.

The issue for the residents and the users of the recreational area is not whether, but where and how the area should be logged – selectively vs block-cuts (clear-cutting), and well away from the area’s extensive trail network.

Enough “citizen engagement” – a fancy way of saying “fuss” – was raised at the open house put on in August, that a chastened collection of bureaucrats from the SRD side of the ministry agreed to further consultation.

One thing led to another. A meeting was arranged with McQueen for a group representing Bragg Creek residents and West Bragg Creek recreation users. Agreement was reached to hold a workshop on September 8 and 9 involving all stakeholders including Spray Lake Sawmills, the company with the lease to log 700 hectares in West Bragg Creek.

The purpose of the workshop would be to develop some fire suppression options for the minister to consider that would also be more acceptable to the area users and residents than the plan SRD presented at the August open house.

Rules of engagement were established. An independent facilitator was brought in to keep everyone on task and no ideas were ruled out of order. At the end of the weekend, the participants had developed four options and had even ranked them in order of how much support each option had at the workshop. These four were given to McQueen along with the SRD logging proposal that went over like a felled tree at the August open house.

Fast forward to Tuesday, and another open house in Bragg Creek, attended by McQueen and one of the assistant deputy ministers from the SRD side of her department – the one who apparently didn’t have the answers to a slew of relevant and utterly forseeable questions from the audience. It was announced that the minister had smooshed the five options into three “hybrid” proposals which she was about to present for the audience’s further input. Oh, and furthermore, she said, SRD had heard the people and absolutely understood the need to protect the trail system.

Then they rolled out the three “hybrid” proposals, none of which bore any resemblance to the options the workshop participants had given McQueen.

True, each option showed an intention to preserve 50 metres of trees on either side of every trail – although, under questioning, it was admitted that nobody from SRD had actually gone out into the woods to make sure the trails are where the maps said they are, and yes, maybe some parts of the trails would have to be relocated, and, sorry, we weren’t paying attention when Spray Lake logged right up to and across some of the trails running through Maclean Creek, but we’ll do a better job next time.

But each option the minister presented proposed to log a bigger total area than the proposal pooh-poohed in August.

Hilarity did not ensue. Indeed, much of the audience dug in its heels and became opposed to any logging whatsoever.

Throughout the nearly three hour meeting, McQueen was spectacularly unable or unwilling to credibly defend her position. Weak protestations about the government’s commitment to fire suppression were shot down by audience members who pointed out none of the options would actually protect the villagers from fire as effectively as another road out of town would. She couldn’t or wouldn’t produce so much as a single e-mail to support her claims that she had talked to a lot of other people and a lot of businesses other than the sawmill that were in favor of the logging plan. And neither she nor her assistant deputy minister could put a dollar value on the ecotourism and recreational opportunities the plan threatens.

At the end of the meeting, soothing noises were made about how “we hear you” and “we’ll do some more work”.

You know, I’m sure that Henry VIII probably started out as a pretty good king – young (18), fit, eager to lead his people and do the right thing. But by the end of his reign he was fat, bloated, paranoid, corrupt, diseased, murderous, uninterested in the wishes of his subjects – and he died in debt.

I do not wish to unfairly compare the 41-year reign of the Progressive Conservatives in Alberta to Henry VIII. To the best of my knowledge, Alison Redford hasn’t ordered any of her opponents beheaded.

No….in this province, the government only chops down trees.

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