UCP Recall promise-fire MLAs

Recall elections date back to the Roman Republic and have supporters on both ends of the ideological spectrum, from James Madison to Karl Marx. The initiative for responsive democracy has unified voters in Alberta, but they should reject it as a distraction.

Citizens of various inclinations have banded together to protest the hypocrisy of senior United Conservative Party (UCP) officials who ignored their own recommendations and went on Christmas vacation. One minister resigned, five  Members of the Alberta Legislative Assembly (MLAs) face minor disciplinary action, and several staffers were fired (with generous severance packages).

In the February 2020 Throne Speech and in Premier Jason Kenney’s 2019 electoral campaign, the UCP promised to enact recall elections. Rather than wait years, voters could petition for swift removal. 

Kenney has characterized recall elections as an “instrument of accountability.” However, British Columbia is the only province with a recall act, and it has proved feckless. Of 26 petitions, not one has (officially) succeeded.

Despite this most recent Alberta example of the hypocrisy of politicians and justified public outrage, the bigger issue is that of short-termism and our descent towards mob rule. 

Amid cancel culture and intense scrutiny, public officials already walk on eggshells – lest they become another Derek Sloan or Stockwell Day. Do we want to embolden the mob with another brick to throw?

As economist Thomas Sowell has written, “The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.” By worsening the tendency of politics to devolve into mob rule, we risk regime uncertainty, infrastructure neglect, and capital flight.

A recall act would exacerbate a vulnerability of Western politicians: short political-time horizons. Edge of Chaos author Dambisa Moyo offers a critique of the short-termism embedded in liberal democracy and how it stifles economic growth. 

In behavioural economics, present bias refers to people’s preference for payoffs closer to the present when contemplating tradeoffs between two future moments. Immediate gratification trumps what is best for future generations. Since politicians are usually in office for five years or less, they curry favour with the electorate and campaign donors rather than address long-term policy concerns.

Consider Social Security in the United States, which Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman referred to as “the biggest Ponzi scheme on Earth.” This widely supported but unsustainable policy epitomizes voters’ predilection for populist pandering.

To circumvent this political myopia, Moyo proposes extending term limits to better align with economic cycles (five to seven years). Singapore’s public-sector corporate governance, for example, increases accountability and rewards politicians for long-term thinking. This includes bonuses or clawbacks based on economic performance.

Politicians face difficult choices, and recall elections worsen the tyranny of majority rule. Restraining social-service spending in the face of unprecedented national debt, for example, would be prudent but could be unpopular enough to spark a recall. 

Consider Colorado, where in 2013 voters in two districts for the first time recalled their state senators. Neither had been accused of malfeasance, illegal activities, or misconduct. The recall was politically motivated; the senators had voted to limit gun rights.

Political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels of Princeton University say the public has a hard time attributing responsibility in times of crisis. Voters often reward or punish representatives for things they are not responsible for, such as natural disasters. Former President Donald Trump took heat for COVID-19, which originated outside the United States. Similarly, Barack Obama suffered from the 2008 financial crisis, which preceded his inauguration.

The ability to recall a politician is alluring, but be careful what you wish for. Western society suffers from condensed news cycles, daily swings in opinion, and the vagaries of political correctness. We need politicians and policies that ignore the ephemeral news stories and contemplate long-term consequences. Recall elections sound wonderful in theory but are deleterious in practice.

Caitlin Rose Morgante is a columnist for the Western Standard

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