I figure my American readers need someone to laugh at given the nauseating campaign they’re enduring right now. So, here, laugh at some Canadian political theatre. At least this clown isn’t calling for the extermination of Mexicans.
Or, at least, that’s my best attempt to describe this surreal chain of events, which David Climenhaga describes as “political performance art.” And honestly, it’s kind of difficult to disentangle the timeline here, because Conservative lobbies–ranging from the Wildrose Party to various far right-wing media outlets–all uncritically dove in face first to a character that represented the anxieties of Alberta’s shiny new progressive government. The corresponding mess ought to leave any reasonable person with at least a mild headache, and no janitor is paid enough to clean it up.
What is this political performance Climenhaga refers to? Why, it is none other than the lovechild of confirmation bias and political opportunism: Bernard the Roughneck.
Blue. Blue as far as the eye can see.
In Canada, blue is the colour associated with right-wing politics.
Alberta has a reputation as the Bible belt of Canada, in part because we’ve elected nothing but right-of-centre governments for the better part of 80 years. The last 44 years was the same party, over and over: the so-called “Progressive” Conservatives, who tried to straddle that line of social progressive and fiscal conservative. As the very concept is inherently contradictory, they never met any rational criteria for ‘successful.’ Born-and-raised Albertans, however, were largely accustomed to PC governance, a never ending cycle of cuts to both social programs and taxes to the rich.
The PC’s attitude of “screw you, I have mine,” became exceedingly clear with the Premiership of Ralph Klein, who famously declared the province to be debt free and held this as his point of honour–despite the fact that schools were full-to-bursting with no supports for students with disabilities, the wait time in our hospitals was upwards of 12 hours if you weren’t literally bleeding out in the lobby, social services had ludicrous caseloads, and homeless shelters tried to keep the lights on with hamster wheels. Klein’s so-called cost saving measures may have put the province in the black, but it did so by leaving a lot of people on the periphery.
But it was, at least, the best province to buy a boat in.
In 2015, the PCs figured Jim Prentice was going to be their leader for the upcoming provincial election. Prentice was an arrogant snob, and managed to disgust the cohort of Albertans who never benefited from PC policy but nonetheless reflexively voted PC (don’t ask me why, I’ll never understand). This cohort needed a 2nd place winner with which to place their protest vote. This cohort split in twain: Some voted Wildrose, a further right-wing party, others the New Democratic Party (NDP).
Though the Albertan Liberals had a few superstars in Legislature, such as the esteemed Laurie Blakeman (who will always have my undying respect–not sarcasm), their leader David Swann had a lacklustre campaign in comparison to Rachel Notley’s NDP. The cohort of genuinely progressive Albertans threw most of their weight behind the NDP, and in combination with part of the protest vote, ended up electing Alberta’s first openly progressive Legislature in over eight decades.
This being Alberta, the doomsayers began working overtime before Notley even finished her acceptance speech.
Brimstone and Hellfire
It cannot be understated that conservatives will whine and whine and whine and whine any time a tax is imposed on them. And Alberta’s mainstream media, being largely in the payroll of conservative lobbyists, has amplified this whining to a provincial scale. It’s like a mainstream media endorsement of Dudley from Harry Potter, that scene where he protests about his birthday gift count.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, my new tax bracket’s last increase was $140/year, and that was introduced under the PCs. The NDP are only targeting incomes exceeding $120,000/year, which is why I really cannot be arsed to even pretend to care about the latest tax complaints. Boo hoo, your 4th lifted pick up trick with chrome rims is making the budget tight. To make sure the picture is clear, when Albertans complain about the new tax structure, we’re not talking about putting the weight of the province on single moms here.
You wouldn’t know if your only news source was mainstream media. Because here’s a neat trick for print news: As long as you label a column “opinion” and refrain from making knowingly libelous accusations about people, you can publish something that withers under fact-checking and claim immunity from the consequences.
Guess what happened to every “Opinion” column in print news across the province.
It was in the best interests of the oligarchy to convince you that the same austerity which had gotten the province in its current mess would be the saviour of our economic woes. And so, daily, for the past 18 months, Every. Single. Opinion. Column. has been an endless font of brimstone and hellfire towards the NDP’s Keynesian strategy to run deficits to keep infrastructure moving during the recession.
You could fill several volumes with an analysis on the criticisms leveled at the NDP, but here’s a short sample: The NDP are too “academic,” didn’t understand what it was like to get their hands dirty, too white collar, too meek, too female, that sort of thing. And here’s one criticism that is at least vaguely connected to reality: The NDP are slow. That is because–and I was kind of shocked when I realized this–the NDP take the time to do their homework before diving face first into something. Conservatives tend to hear “committee” or “panel” or “task force” and think “waste of money.” But every report produced by the committees is thorough, detailed, and full of data. And if the committee shows that something won’t work, the NDP don’t do it. I was ecstatic! A government that makes evidence a point of policy!
It does move slowly as a consequence. I’m okay with this. I would rather a government take the full 3 hours to finish the exam and do it properly than take a government that rushes through in 30 minutes and hopes for the best.
The conservative lobby is desperate to convince you the sky is falling. But if you look at the facts, Alberta is still the fastest growing economy in Canada, despite what the media continues to say. Hey, it’s just an opinion.
If you instead rely on the perception of the average person on the street, you run the risk that any given opinion offered isn’t actually informed by civil sector outcomes. But if you want to lay claim to the reality based community, you have to swallow the basic fact that the NDP’s strategy is doing exactly what it is supposed to: Keep the province running despite the disaster started by the PC’s negligence. No amount of whining changes this observation.
But you might not know that, if you see what the MSM did next.
Enter Stage Right
Bernard first appeared in an interview with Alberta’s alt-right news site, Rebel Media, back in January 2015. Bernard was an oil patch worker, he said, and was “devastated” by the conditions in the oil patch which resulted in massive layoffs, leaving thousands without work. Unshaven, unshowered, still wearing his hardhat despite making a media appearance far, far away from the oil patch, he was an honest, hard working guy, and those damned environmental protesters ruined his life.
Bernard the honest, hard working Roughneck, is telling us his livelihood is all dependent on government policy (and not the oil magnate signing his cheque), so it must be true! And now, we have a government that’s willing to play ball with environmentalists, so obviously everything is going to collapse.
Somehow we’ve granted reactionaries a monopoly on the idea of “hard work,” and so it is often the bludgeon used against us “lazy” Socialists. Bernard was working hard, and Notley’s carbon tax was stealing his money!
February 2016: The guvment done ruined my job
Bernard, so the story goes, lost his job a few months after the NDP were elected–despite the fact that the NDP hadn’t yet actually changed any substantial policies concerning the oil sands until winter. Rebel Media* ran the headline: “No, he’s NOT an actor: Bernard, the outspoken roughneck has a new message for anti-pipeline protesters.”
The conservative lobby scooped up The Roughneck (source: Climenhaga) without hesitation. The MSM was jubilant. The oil lobby launched a renewed campaign of sky-falling hysterics with The Roughneck as their posterboy, and the Wildrose were all to happy to represent his concerns in Legislature. The alt-right smugly claimed the socialists were ruining everything. The MSM’s daily pounding for austerity was finally validated. Here he was: Average, hard working man, screwed over by the ‘dippers, all their fault.
Climenhaga writes: (emphasis mine)
Mainstream media reporters on the Hill took the bait hook, line and sinker when Mr. Hancock – again dressed in his blue boiler suit and red hardhat, streaks of dirt apparent on his face – dramatically declared: “I’m not a guy from Calgary in a suit. I’m not a guy who’s knowledgeable about public policy or the processes that go on in buildings like this. I’m a roughneck…”
So Bernard wants to position himself in contrast to the lofty, theoretical, academic NDP. He taps into the anti-intellectual streak that seems to run rampant in the province’s conservatives. He sells himself as being Joe Everyman, having no background or expertise, just his gut–and for other Joe Everymans, his gut is good enough. After all, they’re all twisted at the extra taxes**, so the NDP must be doing something wrong. All he knows is what’s in front of him, and that’s the way it should be.
As it turns out, Bernard is played by a Neal Hancock. And while it is true that Mr. Hancock did indeed briefly work in the oil patch, it can hardly be said that he’s your average joe when he’s got a degree in political science and public communications from Bishop University. He’s not a down-to-Earth man trying to provide for a family–he’s an actor trying to convince you he’s a down-to-Earth man providing for his family knowing full well what kind of traction that has with the neoconservative lobbyists. His background in political frickin science ought to hint to you that he does, in fact, know exactly what goes on in buildings like Legislature. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have the degree.
In other words: the Conservative posterboy was caught on camera lying through his teeth. In the same breath he maligned formal education, he covered up his own degree. While blasting taxation for publicly funded programs, he started collecting income from a publicly funded program. And he represents himself as being a forward-thinking, gut’s-all-I-need, all whilst calculating from the explicit political training he received at Bishop University, the same strategies reactionary groups always accuse the NDP of using: “They’re too theoretical, too academic, too in the clouds. You’d think differently if you got your hands dirty!”***
The dynamic at play here is that conservatives want to seize this idea that they are the practical, average people, people who know what’s in front of their face, but they also insist this is all that is necessary for governing strategically. Were that the case, why did “Bernard” need to go to university? Either your gut is adequate for governing, or you concede that you do need some education and expertise to make effective decisions–in which case, all these characterizations of the NDP as being out of touch nerds are a tad hypocritical.
Of course, if we start talking about actual policy instead of mudslinging, then you’ve got the uphill battle. The numbers are in and Alberta is performing fantastically in spite of the recession, which is exactly what Keynesian economics claims to do.
So, the question I have to ask Alberta’s huckabilly anti-intellectual right-wing is:
Mr. Hancock played you for suckers, and he fucking nailed it.
P.S. Rachel Notley is the only Premier Alberta has had who knows how to ride a horse. Suck on that, anti-intellectuals.
*I will not be linking directly to Rebel Media, as it is a hive of villainy and scum.
**Interesting point of observation: The NDP were only hiking up income tax on incomes exceeding $120,000/year. Not all oil field workers even hit that threshold. In fact, the last report I read said the average salary was about $85,000/year, which means neither the federal nor provincial income tax increases actually affected most of them. Try pointing out to them the single strongest predictor of whether or not they’ll be employed in the patch next year is the price of oil and that it’s dirt cheap right now because of Saudi Arabia, not Rachel Notley.
***I could probably expand on the “arrogant academic socialist” trope in contrast to the “honest down-to-earth werkin man” trope into its own post. The truth is that any character trying to insist these are mutually exclusive statuses should be immediately suspect.