The Battle for Alberta

Monday is election day in Alberta. Normally, this is a ho-hum affair, the suspense being not about who will win, but about by how much the governing Progressive Conservative party will win. The PCs first won government in 1971. Starting with their first re-election campaign, they have won more than 60 seats in every campaign (the total number of seats available growing over that time from 75 to 87 today). The lone exception, 1993, is seen as the high water mark for competitive elections in this province. Even then, once the dust settled on election day, the PCs had won 51 seats, 19 more than the opposition.

All this back story is a way of saying that exciting provincial campaigns, where the outcome is truly in doubt, are extremely rare in Alberta. The upstart Wildrose Party is leading in all the polls, and it’s a realistic possibility that they will form the next government. If nothing else, it has been encouraging, and exciting, to see a truly contested election happen. It has also, however, been in many ways a disappointing election. The absence of debate on important issues, and focus instead of namecalling and fear-mongering, doesn’t fill me with confidence for the future, regardless of who forms government. An election is an important milestone in politics and government, but it’s not the only thing that matters. If we can’t have a rational discussion of candidates, parties, and ideas during a campaign, I don’t know if it’s going to get better after the fact.

Danielle Smith
Danielle Smith, possibly our Premier-designate after Monday’s vote.

In the hysteria, some important things have been lost. Energy, the foundation of Alberta’s economy, has received scarce attention. Critique of Wildrose has focused on a few extremist candidates who would likely never get into cabinet, rather than the policies and people who may actually be central to their government. People have embraced the PCs as a positive alternative, without critically analyzing how similar the two parties are in terms of some of their members’ beliefs, and the likely outcomes. It’s also received scant attention from the public that Premier Redford is unlikely to survive even if she wins another (slim) majority government. If she does, it will likely be by making compromises with the party establishment, moving it back towards the “conservative” side, and further away from what “strategic” PC voters think they’re getting – or avoiding by defeating the Wildrose.

We’ve also ignored the fact that almost every government moves towards the centre upon taking office, whether they campaign on the right or left. In terms of ideology, the Saskatchewan Party and federal Conservative Party are likely better comparisons for anticipating a Wildrose government than assuming a throwback to the Social Credit or Klein PC days. Whether or not this is a good thing is a matter of one’s view, but it’s the frame through which they should be examined. Truth is, like with the PCs, almost every Albertan would find some outcomes they like, and some they don’t (the balance of good vs. bad would vary greatly depending on your view). But the sky will not fall Tuesday morning if they’re elected. If they are as extreme in government as some fear, they’ll get tossed out next election. That’s how politics works.

Now, I do hope people get out and vote, regardless of who it’s for. More importantly, though, is for people to own their votes. If voters hold their nose and vote PC because they’re scared of Wildrose, they should be prepared to live with, and own the fact that they will still be getting a conservative government (one more so than they may expect). I won’t have any sympathy for the Aviva Zimmermans of the world if they’re unhappy with what they’d get out of four more years of PC government. If you vote for the Wildrose, it’s important that, as a supporter, you hold them to their pledges, especially the one on accountability, as that’s one of the fundamental tenets of their argument for change. If you support the Liberals, NDP, or Alberta Party, it’s important to ensure that the MLAs who are elected are being a positive force for change in the Legislature, rather than just hecklers and conspiracy theorists, as opposition MLAs often have been in this province.

No matter who you support, however, the most important thing is to not disappear for four years, but to keep working in your community, and through the political system, to help realize the change you want to see happen.

Alison Redford, campaign stop
Alison Redford during the campaign. Her time as Premier has brought forward a lot of positive initiatives, but she’s weighed down by her party’s record.
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

Now, I have mixed feelings on every party. I think the PCs have brought in some legitimately good policies and initiatives in recent years. In this respect, the governments of Premiers Stelmach and Redford have been a notable improvement over their predecessors. That said, inheriting a government more than 30 years old comes with inherent drawbacks. A culture has developed around government that promotes cronyism, a lack of transparency, and bullying the opposition. Were Premier Redford building a party from the ground up, I suspect I’d quite like the product. Her time in office, however, speaks to just how hard it is, despite her best efforts, to reform a party – and government – that is so entrenched. Should she continue on, there’s no guarantee the task will get easier.

As for the Wildrose, it’s probably clear to most readers that I don’t see eye to eye on many policy issues with them. I do, however, support most of their accountability pledge. I also have a lot of time for Danielle Smith. She’s a policy-minded leader, and I think that a Wildrose government under her leadership will surprise many with how they’d approach some issues.

The Alberta Liberal Party looks like a group that’s run out of steam, politically-speaking. That said, I respect the fact that they’ve put forward some controversial ideas in their platform, like raising taxes, and eliminating post-secondary tuition (the latter I disagree with, by the way). It’s important to have parties willing to push the boundaries, and encourage debate on important issues, no matter how unpopular they may be.

The NDP has proven to be an effective opposition, always raising important perspectives and flagging key issues to hold the government to account on. Losing this contribution would be a bad thing.

Finally, it’s no secret to many that I’ve been an Alberta Party supporter for the past year and a half. My endorsement for a party is for them. Despite running candidates in fewer than half the ridings province-wide, a vote for the Alberta Party would be an endorsement of community-driven politics, and a message that we can do politics in a better, more inclusive and collegial manner. My support is driven in large part by the genuine commitment I see to citizen engagement, and a more collaborative approach to politics, as well as the high regard I have for many of the people involved in the party. Nonetheless, I feel like the party will need a more defined (or better articulated) set of values and policies going forward in order to be a true competitor for government.

Glenn Taylor - Alberta Party leadership candidates
Glenn Taylor, leader of the Alberta Party, hopefully an MLA-elect tomorrow night.
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

There are also good candidates running for every party. On the PC side, losing bright minds like Dave Hancock and Doug Griffiths would be a bad thing. Whether or not Wildrose forms government, I hope Danielle Smith wins her seat, as she’d bring an important perspective to the Legislature. I’ve also gotten to know Shannon Stubbs through mutual friends and involvements over the years, and have a tremendous amount of respect for her. In a Wildrose government or opposition, she’d be a strong contributor.

Incumbent Liberal MLAs like Laurie Blakeman, David Swann, and Kent Hehr would be valuable members in opposition, contributing to debate and representing their constituents well. In a minority government, I’d be optimistic about their ability to affect change, and support reasonable legislation.

On the NDP side, Rachel Notley is a lock to hold her seat, which is a good thing, and I hope David Eggen is returned to the Legislature as well. He was a strong performer in his first term from 2004-08, and has demonstrated his ability as an advocate in leading Friends of Medicare since. I’ve always been impressed with Shannon Phillips, in the almost 10 years since we’ve known each other. While we haven’t always agreed, I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for both her ability and conviction. She’s the kind of person we need more of in politics, and I hope voters in Lethbridge-West agree.

I’m also hoping for an Alberta Party breakthrough, as there are a number of candidates who would be assets to their constituents and the province as a whole in the Legislature. Both Michael Walters and Sue Huff are true community-oriented leaders, and would bring a collaborative, positive approach to politics. Michael’s history as a community organizer and Sue’s work on the Edmonton Public School Board bear witness to the quality of work they’d do as MLAs. I consider both of them friends, and have been proud to support their respective campaigns over the past several months.

Glenn Taylor, the party leader, is a respected former Mayor of Hinton, and in the time I’ve gotten to know him, has proven to be a thoughtful leader with an eye for bringing people together. Tim Osborne, who I know more by reputation than personally, would be a great addition to the Legislature. His background in the social sector, and passion for helping people at risk and in need, is important to have, especially with a government who has an eye on balancing the budget (which will almost certainly involve spending cuts). Having people like Tim in the legislature would be important to balance this out.

On the whole, I’d be happiest with a minority government – whether it’s led by the PCs or Wildrose – that has representation from all five parties. It would give us a chance to see which parties and MLAs are seriously committed to working together, and getting results for Albertans. In other words, which ones are true representatives, and which ones are just politicians. I also hope the outcome provides opportunity for all five parties to engage in some self-reflection and growth. For the established parties – PC and Liberal – a chance to reflect on what they stand for and why they exist (especially in the former’s case, since they are no longer the automatic ‘governing’ party). For the NDP, to consider whether they want to occupy a more moderate space, like their federal cousins, or pursue their traditional path of being the conscience of government. For the new parties – Wildrose and Alberta – to prove themselves to voters, and define where exactly they stand when they have to make the tough decisions of being in elected office. If this can all happen in a majority government setting, great. But I think it’s much less likely to happen should that be the result.

We’re in the midst of a transition period in Alberta politics. Whatever comes out of it, I hope we see a truly competitive political arena with two viable governing parties emerge, not one where dynasties rule for a generation or two before crumbling and giving way to another. I hope we move towards a more civil and collaborative approach, where citizen engagement isn’t a token effort, but a bedrock for politics. I hope tomorrow’s election is another step towards the Alberta 3.0 I wrote about two years ago, and still believe we will move towards – whether we embrace it or not. Most important of all, I hope everyone who votes doesn’t assume their work is done for the next four years once they’ve cast their ballot, and continues to work hard to build a stronger province. Whoever wins, we’ll get the government we deserve – either through or action or our inaction. I hope it’s through the former.

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2 Responses

  1. The important issues were lost because the PCs decided from the get go to run a dirty campaign. Their two issues weren’t stumbled upon. They were well thought out and were used to keep WR on the defencive and away from their own weaknesses and corruption over the years. Hopefully Monday we can get rid of that type of politics. I can almost assure you that Danielle Smith will keep her nose to the grindstone as well as her MLAs. I voted the PCs in for the first time and I’m just as happy to escort them to the door. They were right when they said they were not your Father’s PCs. I am that Father and I don’t identify with this bunch in the least.
    In four years I hope you’ll have more faith in the WR but remember 40 years can’t be undone in 4.

  2. Humbled by your thoughts. I feel similarly but am not such a wonderful writer. Thank you.

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