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Alberta's Changing Politics

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  • Alberta's Changing Politics

    There is an increasing sense that the 40 year-old Progressive Conservative government of Alberta is on its last legs. Rather than wondering whether a change in its leadership can save the disintegrating regime, many Albertans are now asking who will succeed it.

    Perhaps the Wildrose Alliance Party (WAP), which is more popular currently than the Conservatives? But many Albertans may be only temporarily lending their support to WAP, while they assess its leadership, policies and organizational skills. And while the growth in WAP support has been fast, it appears to have plateaued - the combined support for the (temporarily defunct) Greens, Liberals and New Democrats exceeds that of either the Conservatives or WAP.

    So, how could those three progressive parties work together to win in 2012? First, we have to acknowledge that most Albertans do not see the NDs, Liberals or the Greens as a potential government. Surveys consistently show the Alberta NDP has 8 - 9 % of the electorate in its camp, but that of course means that it has no chance whatsoever to win by running alone against the other parties. Yet it stubbornly rejects the idea of electoral cooperation.

    As for the Liberals, the name itself, although a proud historic one in other parts of Canada, is unfairly associated with the much-maligned “National Energy Policy” of the federal Liberal Party, which is, of course, completely separate, temporally and organizationally, from today’s provincial party. Furthermore, the party’s leader, Dr. David Swann, has so far been unable to electrify the province with any compelling new vision for Alberta.

    Although Albertans are more supportive of environmental concerns than many other Canadians, no opposition party has been able to own this issue. So what's a progressively inclined voter to do? Green Party supporters, disappointed that the party has been disqualified from running next time, are hoping their Vision 2012 movement can present enough independent candidates (50% of the seats plus one) to morph into an official party.

    Some people think that the newly revived Alberta Party can attract the moderate majority and win government. They think they can organize from scratch, raise money, find a charismatic leader and attractive candidates, and create exciting policies in time give them a chance in the next election, which is expected for 2012.

    This is optimistic, to say the least. Where will the Alberta Party get its votes? The obvious answer is that it will fragment even further the existing middle-of-the-road vote and guarantee a conservative party’s victory.

    Surely centre-left voters don’t want a repetition of 2008, where 12 victorious Conservatives won with less than the combined total of their Green, Liberal and New Democrat opponents. In other words, if those parties had worked together, today’s opposition would be twice as big. So had twice as many opposition members been elected as a result of a cooperation strategy in 2008, more otherwise apathetic or hopeless voters might go to the polls in 2012 believing their votes can make a difference.

    Traditional party members may say that the number of opposition members doesn’t matter - the only goal that’s relevant is one more than half the seats in the Legislature (i. e., a majority win). But we know that many voters will not support perceived fringe parties: they tend to stay home instead of casting a futile ballot.

    New party supporters insist they won’t bleed off Liberal or New Democrat votes. They say they’re after the 60% of the electorate who didn’t vote. But so is everybody. The idea that another party won’t further fragment the non-right wing vote and help the Conservatives or Wild Rose win is preposterous.

    There is another way - combine rather than split the progressive vote, as the Democratic Renewal Project has suggested. A “non-compete” agreement among the progressive parties to allow the strongest of them in each constituency to run unopposed by the others could work. If this can’t be negotiated – and things aren’t looking good for this option at this point – then DRP would recommend the progressive candidate in each riding who has the best chance of winning and voters could place their support strategically to produce a new Legislature with more progressive MLA’s than conservative ones. Then a coalition government could legislate mutually acceptable policies, including electoral reform - some form of Proportional Representation - to bring about a permanent democratic renewal for Alberta. Never again would we have, as at present, a government winning 87% of the seats with only 52.6% of the votes!

    And where does the Alberta Party sit on cooperation? It has no interest in political cooperation - their organizer told me that he thinks the DRP’s strategy is deeply mistaken. Vision 2012 (the unaffiliated Greens) agrees in principle with a cooperative approach, but their only hope of finding 44 candidates (50% of 87 ridings plus 1) lies in many of the constituencies where other progressive parties also are strong. Unless they reach some sort of agreement with the Liberals (recall the NDP still opposes cooperation), we’re doomed to more conservative seats because of centre-left vote-splitting.

    There are other groups who want political change, but it’s unclear how they would fit into a cooperative, progressive electoral strategy. For example, RebootAlberta. The impetus for this reform movement first came from disillusioned “Red Tories” who discovered that changing the sclerotic, regressive government party from within was impossible. Their initial efforts focused on changing the political culture of Alberta so that progressive ideas and political change become respectable in this province, which has an image as a right-wing monolith. Some of their supporters hived off into the Alberta Party, but many of us hope that the “Reboot3” conference in November will discuss other avenues for electoral action, including DRP ideas.

    Only if progressives in Alberta unite rather than fight with each other, can we win: working together can ensure a secure, sustainable future for all Albertans.

    -- Phil Elder