The politics of Bighorn Country: 'Hysteria followed by more hysteria'

When did we as a society become such a bunch of thin-skinned, cantankerous, fragile whiners? I mean, look at the meltdown everybody seems to be having over public hearings on the Bighorn Country recreation plan.

Environment minister's 'misspoke' moment deserves 'a good mocking,' Graham Thomson writes

Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips has been under fire since announcing that she was cancelling open houses on the Bighorn parks proposal scheduled for Sundre, Red Deer, Drayton Valley and Edmonton. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

When did we become so hysterical?

When did we as a society become such a bunch of thin-skinned, cantankerous, fragile whiners?

I mean, look at the meltdown everybody seems to be having over public hearings on the Bighorn Country recreation plan.

When Alberta announced In November proposals for new provincial parks and recreation areas in Bighorn Country — east of the Jasper and Banff national parks — critics acted as if the government was about to shut down all development in the area and confiscate everybody's off-road vehicles.

Emotions grew heated and the government said there were nine documented incidents involving harassment of seven government employees.

That led to Environment Minister Shannon Phillips announcing this week she was so concerned about public safety she was cancelling four upcoming open houses on the recreation plan.

She was immediately accused of using political hysteria to shut down democracy. She made things much worse by becoming a victim of her own overheated rhetoric when she told reporters the RCMP was investigating two cases of harassment.

When reporters checked with police and discovered that wasn't the case, the United Conservative Party accused her of lying and demanded she resign.


Let's unpack all of this layer by layer.

The government's plans for Bighorn Country are basically codifying what has been in place for 35 years with some extra restrictions on off-road vehicles. This is not a government conspiracy to deny the rights of the public or of industry.

The Alberta government wants to protect the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains near Nordegg. (Government of Alberta )

Phillips did a dismal job justifying why she was shutting down the open houses. By being vague on details of the reported harassment she looked like she was trying to find an excuse to avoid public discussions.

But her claim that the RCMP were investigating was clearly a mistake. Phillips would know you don't tell reporters there's a police investigation unless you are certain that is the case because the media will immediately check with the police for details.

A few hours later she said she "misspoke" but not before the UCP accused her of lying. Party leader Jason Kenney tweeted the "time has come" for her to resign.

If nothing else, Phillips deserves a good mocking for using such an Orwellian term as "misspoke."

Why can't politicians simply say they made a "mistake"?

Phillips is no doubt the target of such an overheated response from the UCP because she herself tends to get overheated when talking about the UCP. Ask Phillips for the time of day and she'll find a way of accusing the UCP of being a magnet for bigots and a hotbed of climate-change deniers.

Kenney's 'misspoke' moment

But for Kenney to demand she resign is to invite comparisons to his own "I misspoke" moment. That happened last November when he told reporters he didn't have the authority as leader to revoke the membership of controversial UCP member John Carpay (who happened to be a personal friend).

But the previous month, Kenney proudly announced he had personally ordered the removal of another controversial party member (who apparently didn't happen to be a personal friend).

The UCP eventually explained that Kenney "misspoke" in October.

But, of course, he's not resigning.

In the Bighorn Country example we have hysteria followed by more hysteria. It is tiring and tiresome.

There's always been some hysteria in politics as parties chronically try to demonize each other. But we seem to have devolved into our own little political hell where the toxic echo chamber that is Twitter has infested our real-life political discourse.

Only a fool would try to pin down when it started.

So, let me try.

When the NDP won a surprise victory in 2015, many conservatives lost their minds. We saw the rise of the ridiculous "kudatah" faction populated by overwrought but inept right-wingers who wanted to nullify the election results.

That was followed by the overwrought but not inept "Alberta Can't Wait" movement, the rise of Kenney, and the death of the Progressive Conservatives.

All this premised on the argument the NDP won the election by accident, didn't deserve to govern and was responsible for the province's recession.

We've been on a downward spiral ever since.

It's not just the fault of shell-shocked right-wingers.

Just as conservatives use overheated rhetoric to accuse the NDP of destroying the economy, the NDP accuses the UCP of plotting to undermine public education, gut public health, and destroy the public service.

The hysteria is only going to get worse.

A provincial election is coming.

Oh, by the way, Happy New Year.

About the Author

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.