08/01/2014 11:22 EDT | Updated 10/01/2014 05:59 EDT

Bread, Circuses and the Great Alberta Licence Plate Debate

Alberta Government

Poor Premier Hancock. Remember him? He tried to pull off the "bread and circuses" gambit--and kicked over a hornet's nest.

The phrase "bread and circuses" was coined the Romans. It refers to the political strategy of distracting the population from failed government policies and inadequate leadership with "bread" (trivial benefits) and "circuses" (amusement).

Mr Hancock hoped to distract Albertans from the government's inability to make any headway whatsoever on major issues (healthcare, environment, education, justice, a $17 billion debt by 2017) with a circus. Out of the blue Mr Hancock and his side-kick Mr Griffiths announced that Albertans would be getting a nifty new licence plate and they'd be allowed to vote for their favourite designs, lucky us!

Each of the designs features mountains, prairies and sky. None of the designs includes Alberta's 30 year old slogan--Wild Rose Country. It will be replaced with (try googling that at 80 kpm). Our floral emblem, the Rosa Acicularis (commonly known as the wild rose) would also disappear.

This circus will cost $15 million (half the cost of upgrading the mouse, mould and asbestos ridden kitchen at Foothills Hospital) and a $5 hike in annual registration fees.

We are not amused

Did the "bread and circuses" gambit work? You bet it did. But not exactly the way the Tories expected.

The public flocked to the government's website to check out the new plates. The site received 500,000 hits in one day. This is an all time record and five times more than the hits generated by the June 2013 flood.

A recent Insights West survey shows that more Albertans (60%) are following the Great Plate Debate than actually voted in the last election.

Unfortunately for the circus master, the survey also revealed that the majority of Albertans are opposed to removing the Wild Rose Country slogan. Never mind. The government said Albertans will "get used to the idea pretty quickly once the plates are affixed to vehicles."

Albertans also questioned the government's motives and integrity. Was this a petty attempt by the Tories to stop giving the Wildrose party free publicity? Why yes it was. Although most Albertans didn't make the connection until the PCs made it for them.

Albertans wondered whether we were bereft of competent designers. The design was produced by an American firm and according to a sharp-eyed Albertan is a knockoff of Montana's Sweetgrass Hills. Great, now we're plagiarizing another country's geography.

Blog continues after the slideshow:

New Alberta Licence Plate Designs

The media fell for the gambit hook, line and sinker. The Great Plate Debate generated more media coverage than Albertans' right to a fair trial (infringed by cuts to legal aid funding and changes to Traffic Court), the cumulative effects of environmental pollution from the oilsands and the $637 million in deferred maintenance required to fix up hospitals and clinics across the province.

Fight "circus" with "circus"

The Wildrose party is having a field day. They've set up an alternative licence plate design competition offering the successful designer a $500 prize and a contribution of $2500 to the charity of their choice.

This triggered a backlash from the design community who say it is "unethical" to expect "people in the creative field to be doing design work for no payment."

Does no one remember the Great Canadian Flag debate of 1964 where Canadians were invited to submit a design for a flag to replace the Union Jack? Ms Soapbox's charming submission--a beaver sitting on a log--was rejected, likely because it looked like the beaver sitting on a log on the back of the Canadian nickel. Ms Soapbox was a child, forgive her lack of imagination.

Success even amid failure

Mr Hancock's attempt at "bread and circuses" backfired because it showed us how petty the PC party really is. However even a backfire is successful if it draws the public's attention away from the critical issues facing the province--mounting debt, no long term energy strategy, inadequate healthcare, education, infrastructure--all of which are the direct result of years of inept PC government.

And did you notice when the "circus" rolled into town? Right in the middle of the PC leadership race just when the candidates were busy floating promises of more schools, more roads, more hospitals and no debt in [fill in the blank] years...without answering the critical question--just how do you intend to pay for all this?

Maybe Mr Hancock isn't a simpleton after all. Clearly he understands the meaning of the Latin phrase Panem et Circenses. Here's hoping that Albertans understand its modern day translation: "Oh look, shiny object!"

(Or if you're a dog: "Squirrel!)