Advocacy has an impact, though it may be unseen

Q & A

May 20, 2020 Dennis Theobald, ATA Executive Secretary

Question: The Alberta Teachers’ Association is always asking teachers to write, phone or email their MLA or various cabinet ministers or the premier whenever government screws them over. Well I’ve done my part, and all I’ve gotten back are lame, canned responses and no action. What’s the point?

Answer: Bear with me here. My daughter Claire, when she was quite young, got herself a bearded dragon, a small, rather prickly lizard that, as lizards go, was really quite charming. Well, one day she discovered her Beardie, who had appeared to be perfectly healthy the night before, on its back in its terrarium, four feet pointing skyward and its little forked tongue poking out of the corner of its mouth. Claire was naturally quite distraught, not only over the passing of her beloved reptile, but at the thought that its death was somehow her fault, either by some direct act or inadvertent negligence, and by the suspicion that if only Beardie had received some veterinary attention, he might have survived. 

Shortly afterward, my daughter had the opportunity to discuss her concerns with a friendly veterinarian. The vet asked her some questions and determined that Beardie had been well-cared for. He then observed that bearded dragons lived in the wilds of Australia and that they were on the menu of anything that could fit them in its mouth. It followed that if you were a bearded dragon, in a dangerous neighbourhood, and you were sick or weakened, the last thing you wanted to do was advertise that fact to someone else who might decide to make a snack of you. So the little guy, who was getting on in lizard years and had probably been sick for some time, was doing what came naturally — putting up a brave front, conveying that nothing was wrong, and hanging tough until he could hang on no longer. At that point, there was nothing to be done.

Government politicians are a bit like bearded dragons, although perhaps without the charm. They are under constant pressure in the political wilds from their opponents, the media and interest groups; they are concerned always with their survival to and through the next election; and, as a result, they are loath to show weakness or admit that they could possibly be wrong, unless and until they have no other option. 

Therefore, it is unlikely that your individual letter or phone call is going to result in a politician undergoing (or admitting to) some road-to-Damascus conversion. However, your expression of interest and concern does have impact. It is noted and registered and often read by the minister him or herself. While you might get an entirely unsatisfactory boilerplate response, your expression of concern may help convince the government to mitigate the application of problematic policy or avoid taking similarly offensive action in the future. It will certainly help the Association by reinforcing the credibility of its representations on your behalf. You will never know what you have prevented from happening and, in a few rare instances, your letter or phone call together with those of hundreds of your colleagues might even cause the government to reverse course, although you will never get credit for it.

I know this because, in my journey to Barnett House, I spent some time helping to manage correspondence for Gary Mar and Lyle Oberg, both education ministers under former premier Ralph Klein. My job in government was to practise what might be described as “repressive tolerance”— to politely and rather blandly defend the government policy in a way that did not encourage or energize those opposed to it, all in the hope that eventually our correspondents would give up and go away. (I was really good at this, and could suck the oxygen out of an issue more effectively than a halon fire suppression system. I could probably give the premier’s director of issues management and his buddies a tutorial, but I’m not sure I want them to be any better at their jobs.)

If you want to have an impact, start and then don’t stop advocating. Sign a petition or send an email. Better yet, mail a letter — handwritten is best — place a phone call or set up a meeting. Blind copy your own MLA, the premier, the opposition critic. Remember, you do not have to be in possession of every fact or offer a detailed solution — that is the government’s job. What you need to do is, politely and professionally, tell your story and share your concern as a voter and citizen.

Above all, channel your own inner Beardie: you’ve only lost when you’ve given up. ❚

Questions for consideration in this ­column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at Barnett House ( 


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