The most political activity ever seen on the University of Calgary campus took place over two days last week.
The CBC debate program counterSpin came to MacEwan Students' Centre March 5 and 6 to record four episodes focused on Alberta's political issues. Fifteen guests, representing political parties, interest groups and the media gathered with roughly 100 audience members to debate energy deregulation, Western alienation, health care privatization and Ralph Klein's record.
"I was thrilled with the shows," declared counterSpin host Avi Lewis. "One of the reasons we love to get out of Toronto is that we get a chance to break down regional sterotypes. People outside of Alberta don't know that there are progressive voices within Alberta, and don't know that there's a spectrum of debate in Alberta."
Debate on all four issues was lively and divergent, reaching a fevered pitch on Monday night's program on Western alienation.
"There is a tradition of robbing resources out of the west and funneling them into central Canada," stated Ken Boessenkool, panel member and author of Alberta Agenda. Fellow panelist and member of the Council for Canadian Unity Michele Stanners countered: "There are people all across this country watching right now and asking, 'What is their problem?'" she said, pointing out Alberta's "obscene wealth" and high standards of living as arguments to counter the notion that Alberta is underprivileged.
Post-secondary issues were touched on during the Tuesday night taping of "Evaluating Ralph Klein's Record." The Conservative government was alternately criticized for a misuse of funds gained since Klein's cutbacks in 1993 and praised for having the "guts" to make those cuts.
"I'd like to thank Ralph Klein for making those cuts, for having what it takes to recognize the hard times and to do something about it," said one unidentified audience member. "If a family falls on hard times, they have to cut out certain things. The government did exactly the same thing and it's worked out in the long term."
Other members of the audience involved in the education sector disagreed and condemned the government for Alberta's high student-to-teacher ratio, the cost of post-secondary education and the trend towards privatization.
With the exception of a smattering of politically-aware university students, the capacity crowds were composed primarily of members of the general community.
"I was a little disappointed by the lack of university students," said Lewis. "But I was thrilled with how full the room was on both nights. I think that might speak to the poverty of debate in this town, and the amount that the government has managed to steer away from it. Politics today is not about policy and it's not about conflicting visions of the world. It's about shutting down debate, engineering the circumstances of every political moment so that no real debate can take place. People have not stopped caring or arguing about politics, but the opportunities for general debate are shrinking."
Lewis credited the audience with shattering the sterotype of the right-wing-blinkered Albertan and responding positively to the information and ideas presented in the forums.
"That is the stated goal of the show," declared Lewis. "To present issues through getting the best guests and framing the shows in the least predictable ways; to genuinely counter the spin through debate; to give people a sense of what the best facts and arguments are out there on either side and to let them choose. I expected to find a full spectrum of debate here in Alberta and I was really pleased that I found exactly what I expected."