State of Alberta: What’s the Matter With Progressives?

In 2004, American writer Thomas Frank published a much-celebrated book, titled ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas?‘ The book focuses on how the once populist, progressive state morphed into a bedrock of conservatism, and why, in the author’s view, people voted against their own economic self-interest to support a Republican Party whose economic policies did little for struggling individuals, and a lot for big companies who don’t need a hand up.

I think of my home province of Alberta whenever I think of Frank’s book. The conventional wisdom, both inside and outside the province, is that Alberta is a really conservative place. But do the facts bear it out? On the surface, yes. Albertans vote for Conservative parties, and have since the Great Depression. But do they really endorse conservative policies? What follows are some of my thoughts on the subject. My first State of Alberta post examined the challenges facing the Wildrose Alliance. Today, I try to make sense of the centre-left, and offer some advice.

How to Describe Alberta Politics?
I won’t dispute that the myth of Alberta being conservative is well-entrenched. If pressed, most Albertans would likely identify as such. But is it really conservative? As prominent conservatives Tom Flanagan and Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledge, it differs from the Tory tradition that we generally associate with conservatism. Certainly, Alberta’s penchant for suddenly throwing out a government in favour of a new, unproven alternative, is just about as un-Tory as you get.

Alberta politics is, and has traditionally been, more populist than Tory. The initial success provincially of the United Farmers and the Social Credit Party were based on populist sentiment (as was the Reform Party federally in the late 1980s and 1990s). Flanagan and Harper summarize the Alberta position when discussing Albertans and Quebec Nationalists:

They are nationalist for much the same reason that Albertans are populist — they care about their local identity and the culture that nourishes it, and they see the federal government as a threat to their way of life.

I would agree, and say that “populist” is a better definition than “conservative”.

Do Albertans Endorse Conservative Policies?
Not really. First, our provincial government spends more on average than other provinces (most of whom are led by ostensibly centre-left governments), and in 2008 the government was rewarded with an increased majority after bringing in a record-sized budget the year before. Industries such as agriculture and oil and gas are, or have been, major beneficiaries of government subsidies.

Also, Tory government prior to the Klein years pursued a big government agenda that could at most be described as “Red Tory” if not downright “Liberal”. Understanding that politics overall were more centre-left in that period, they still pursued crown corporations, strong government investment in areas such as education, culture, and the arts, and the Getty government intervened in the private sector at a rate that would shock the Obama administration.

Most positions Albertans hold are not incompatible with centre-left ideas. A good template is found south of the border. Gary Hart, the former Colorado Senator and candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, wrote a memo outlining how the Democrats should target (and can win) the west instead of focusing attention on the south. Most, if not all, of the points in the memo are applicable to Alberta, and would form the basis of an agenda people could get behind.

Is the Liberal Brand Beyond Repair, and Totally Unelectable?
Many people think so, and probably with some justification. A lot of Albertans, when asked, would probably say they will never vote Liberal. They may believe that at this exact moment in time, but politics (and people) change. Six years ago, many people would have said they’d never endorse the new Conservative Party of Canada, or vote for a party led by Stephen Harper. Many of those people also likely voted Conservative in 2006 and/or 2008. 10 years ago, many Nova Scotians would have balked at the idea of giving the New Democrats a majority government. Earlier this year, they did precisely that with no hesitation. In 1987, the Progressive Conservative government in New Brunswick was wiped out – they lost every seat, and were being outflanked on the right shortly thereafter by the Confederation of Regions Party. They went up to 3 then 6 seats in the subsequent two elections before winning a commanding majority in 1999. We could continue with examples, but I hope the point is made: parties and voters change. What is the case now will not always be so.

Certainly, the Liberal brand (and party) has issues it needs to overcome if it wants to challenge for and form government. Here are a few that I believe are not insurmountable, but also don’t receive the attention they deserve. In most of these cases, you could also use the term “New Democrat” for “Liberal” as an appropriate proxy.

The Tories Have Owned the Centre
Like most parties that win and hold on to government, the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta has been pretty adept at holding the centre. In practice, they have been more of a “governing” party, the way the federal Liberals were for years, than a “conservative” party. Many of their urban MLAs would not be out of place in the Liberal Party. There has not been, quite simply, a lot of space on the political spectrum for the opposition parties to occupy.

Liberals Move Away
Andy brought this point up when we were discussing the issue a while back, and I think it’s well founded. It was based on anecdotal evidence more than anything, but it seemed to us that a disproportionate number of active Liberals we knew from University had moved away. Instead of working to build up the provincial party (and the federal party in Alberta), they were plying their trade in Ottawa, or Toronto, or in a couple of cases, the United States. It’s understandable in some cases, as there are a lot more opportunities for a Liberal wanting to work in politics there than here, but it’s kind of a circular problem. Liberals leave because of opportunities elsewhere, hurting the effort to build a bigger base here in Alberta.

They Haven’t Separated Themselves From the Actions of the National Party.
While the National Energy Program didn’t kill the oil boom (oil prices collapsed worldwide in the 1980s), it certainly didn’t help the situation and almost certainly made it worse. Would it kill people to admit this was a bad idea? Also, provincial Liberals and New Democrats should push back any time their national party leadership demonizes Alberta. The federal Liberal party has been especially bad for making Alberta a punching bag at different times. Where have Liberals, especially the provincial leaders, been in standing up for their province? People are unlikely to support a party they don’t see as representing them.

Fiscal Responsibility Has Been Conceded to the Right
The term “fiscal conservative” has become synonymous with good financial management. This sends the message that Conservatives are to be trusted with budgets (and government), and that progressives are somehow not up to par. Progressives need to push back against this. I, for one, support government being “fiscally responsible”. That means balancing the books when possible, but it’s not adverse to Keynesian spending, or preserving social programs. It’s about what’s doing best for everyone; true fiscal conservatism doesn’t allow for that flexibility, so I for one would like to brand myself as a “fiscally responsible”, not “fiscally conservative”.

Progressive Keep Looking for a Miracle Cure
This Toronto Star editorial, “Ailing Liberals Keep Looking for a Miracle Cure“, also applies to progressives in Alberta. For some, it’s the thought that creating a new party will cure all that ails the centre-left (I find proponents of this to treat the perpetual, inherent unelectability of a Liberal or New Democrat party as self-evident, and ignore any diversity amongst voters who are disenchanted with the current government). For others, it’s the idea that a charismatic leader will come along, and dramatically transform politics in Alberta. Well, it’s not that simple.

An idiom I heard more than once a year ago was that we needed “our Obama” to shake things up. A charismatic leader helps a lot, and may even be necessary. But it’s not sufficient in and of itself. People forget that Obama for America was a long-term campaign. It was functioning for about a year before the first caucus in the primary, and had been running for nearly two by general election day. More importantly, the progressive movement in the United States had been gathering momentum for a number of years. Organizers and other volunteers cut their teeth on Dean for America, bloggers rallied around Ned Lamont‘s primary challenge against Joe Liebermann, and the 2006 mid-term elections saw a Democratic surge. Obama’s campaign was in many ways an extension of the work already happening. It took it to a new level, and brought in new tactics, technologies, and people, but it by no means emerged from the abyss. Progressives were already beefing up their organizations across the country by 2007. Progressives, Liberals, New Democrats, would be well served to spend their time building a base of support and establishing roots throughout the province if they wish to win government some day.

Some lessons on movement-building, and how it disappeared in Alberta after the second World War, can be found in Alvin Finkel’s history of the labour movement in Alberta.

This is, of course, to take nothing away from the Albertans who have worked or volunteered their time for the Liberals or the NDP. Almost all of the ones I have the pleasure of knowing are talented and committed people. But it’s hard to win a battle with a small army.

It Wasn’t That Long Ago That the Alberta Liberal Party Was the Government-in-Waiting
I was too young to really understand politics in the late Getty/early Klein years, but even into the 1993 election, the Liberals were thought to have a chance to win. The old adage seemed to be true, governments defeat themselves, and a mistake-prone Getty government, further constrained by falling resource revenues, seemed to be a spent force.

So an interesting happened. The first party to see a resurgence, in the 1986 general election (Getty’s first), was the New Democratic Party, who with 16 MLAs formed the largest opposition since the Social Credit in 1971. In 1988, Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore took over as Liberal leader, and his party’s vote surged (ahead of the New Democrats) in 1989. Decore saw his party’s standing surge afterwards, largely because he had keyed in on an issue that mattered to people – the mounting provincial debt, and the importance of fiscal management.

Now, it’s important to digress for a minute. The conventional wisdom is that parties have formed government in Alberta from the right. That is simply not the case. The United Farmers and SoCreds both came to power as populist movements, pushing many issues associated with the left (the UFA even co-operated with the Labour Party in urban ridings). Similarly, in 1971 Lougheed’s party was more progressive than the governing Social Credit. Decore resonated not because he attacked from the right, but because he found the centre. Deficit-fighting and balanced budgets became the norm in this period everywhere – even centre-left governments (Roy Romanow’s NDP in Saskatchewan, Bill Clinton’s Presidency, Tony Blair’s “New Labour”) embraced it. Just like the Alberta Tories have generally held the centre (and therefore government), so too did Decore position himself to win by grabbing the centre, until the Tories took it back. It took the emergence of populist, centrist Ralph Klein (and a major Decore gaffe) to turn the tables. Take away those two things, and the Liberals probably win in 1993. Disenchanted with the governing party, voters turned to two established parties, not a new party. Even more astounding to the conventional wisdom, they turned to two centre-left parties, not a right-of-centre one.

Recent history shows that voters will give centre-left parties a chance, and the Liberal brand is not by definition toxic. This is good news for progressives. There is reason to think that Alberta is not nearly as conservative as it would appear to be on the surface, and there is room for a progressive movement to be built and to grow.

The bad news, of course, is that there is much work to be done to realize the movement’s potential.

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15 Responses

  1. Great post. I lived through the Decore years and now I am wondering what the Decore gaffe was? I remember the momentum was growing and then he became ill.

  2. The gaffe was abortion. He was pro-life, and stated that he would close free-standing abortion clinics in the province. Klein said he wouldn’t, and won, despite a large number of his caucus being pro-life.

  3. Thanks for this, Alex. Great post and I was thinking about it for my bike ride home.

    A few immediate questions come to mind.

    First, if a Liberal renewal was to happen, why wouldn’t it have happened by now? Fifteen years is a long time to build up a base and move forward. I think this indicates a deeper problem. Talent is not being attracted to that brand and there are deeper, inherent problems in the party. Money and Talent follow serious contenders.

    I think if a renewal was to happen, it would have happened by now. Even Liberal MLAs have said that the next hope is in a new party.

    Second, I know you made a comparison to the Democrats and how they were playing the long game, but the Democrats were never really out of the picture the way the liberals are. I would sooner compare the Alberta Liberals to the green party in Canada than the American democrats. Clinton was 8 years prior to Obama. Decore is almost 16 years ago, and he was never premier.

    Third, I’m reading Vivone’s book right now and he makes the point that right out of the gate, the Liberals haven’t been, and never will be, elected in rural Alberta. I don’t think he writes off all opposition parties, just the liberals for federal connections that you have already highlighted. Thoughts?

    You know where I stand; I’d rather invest my time and energy in creating a progressive alternative than spending my energy trying to revive the current parties.

  4. Andy,

    You are absolutely right, and in act highlighted what might have been the defining moment for me about Klein.

    He stood up and said that an abortion is between a women, her doctor and her God. Not the place for government. I have never seen the issues (which is of course very polarizing for the extremes) handled so adeptly by a politician, leaving room for social conservatives to at least stomach the argument, and pro-choicers obvisouuly happy.

    Ralph had the knack for speaking “Everyman” language, and Decore simply fell into the common trap of advisers, focus groups and over-think.

    IMHO.

  5. Clarence, Andy is correct. I’d add to that that from accounts I’ve read, he appeared to have offended both the pro-life and pro-choice sides.

    Michael, thanks for your comments. An interesting thing I’ve observed is that it tends to be progressives who are the ones writing off the Liberals’ chances and diminishing their brand. (On a related note, let me know when you get to the part in that Vivone chapter where Grant Mitchell says “if the party doesn’t like its leader, why should the public?” and what you think about that) Though to be fair, conservatives tend not to say its the Liberals that are they problem, they tend to say the province won’t vote for a centre-left party regardless of what it’s called. As you can tell from my post, I think neither side is correct.

    Since we’re talking about Vivone, notice how early in the chapter he talks about the Tory’s broad base across the political spectrum, which I also mentioned in my post. That’s been the biggest impediment to any viable alternative. Vivone is silent on the issue of other parties, so I don’t think we can infer he assumes another party would be competitive in rural ridings. But regardless, here’s the thing. A party doesn’t need to be competitive in every riding. They should aim to compete everywhere, but they only need to win about 50 seats to have a comfortable majority. There’s no reason a centre-left party can’t compete in the smaller-medium sized cities. In a lot of jurisdictions, it’s there and in the suburbs that elections are won.

    I don’t agree with your syllogism regarding why a Liberal revival hasn’t happened so far. By the same line of argument, I could ask “if there was really interest in a different progressive alternative, wouldn’t it have happened in the 17 years since the Klein government first aggressively cut spending?”

    In my post I cover a number of reasons why I think the Liberals haven’t rebounded yet. Doesn’t mean they won’t, or can’t. History is full of examples of parties that were out of power for a longer time, regrouped around an appealing group of candidates and message, and took power. The Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta is one (yes, they did exist before Lougheed). The Liberal Party in BC is another. Want more? How about the NDP, who just won government in Nova Scotia for the first time in their nearly 50 year history? Or the Liberal Party of Ontario, who ended 42 years of Tory rule in the mid-1980s? Who beat them? The NDP, who had been around in some form (counting the CCF) for 50-some years but had never won government. The Liberals under Jean Lesage formed government in 1960 in Quebec following losses in 5 of 6 elections prior to that (all but one of those losses were blowouts, seat-wise). I could go on…

    My point about the Democrats and the progressive movement was meant to emphasis the importance of building a broad base of support, and in engaging and developing volunteers and organizers. The Democrats were pretty much dormant in parts of some states, and uncompetitive statewide in some. They were closer to the ALP than the ALP is to the GPC. Many factors have put them on the upswing, but the aformentioned campaigns were a big part.

    My thoughts are that people want good government, whether it’s the Progressive Conservative Party, Liberal Party, Alliance Party, New Democatic Party, or Pink-with-Purple Polkadot Party. Name is secondary to message and results.

    I remain unconvinced that a new centre-left party is any better bet to succeed than an established one. My model for a progressive resurgence is this: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080721/moser

  6. Great post Alex. As someone who considers himself progressive, it is easy to get disheartened about the current state of Alberta politics. You’ve certainly laid out a good number of things to think about!

  7. A tremendously sensible post, and great comments.

  8. [...] them. Recently, I outlined what I think the Alliance needs to do to cement their support, and how the centre-left can make a stronger push for government. Both of those scenarios depend on the Tories continuing to lose touch with voters, opening up [...]

  9. I went to their convention in Edmonton last year to look around. I listened to more people who were interested in being martyrs than actually rejuvenating their party and moving forward. In the midst of a leadership convention with 3 current or former MLAs, there was only 200 people at the convention and throughout the race just over 7000 memberships were sold. The name is certainly not the only issue, although always having to justify yourself as an Alberta Liberal and explaining that you do not take orders from the federal party has got to be tiresome.

    I can keep waiting for the revival to happen, but I think it is more likely the liberals are going to go the way of the Socreds (who are still around and awaiting a revival themselves).

    There are examples of party revivals like you listed, but what about new, grassroots alternatives? I think progressives in Alberta need to look to the Reform party and how eventually they toppled the dynasty.

    I’ll let you know how my thoughts change as I finish Vivone’s book.

  10. I don’t consider the Reform Party a good model. While they consistently won a bunch of seats in the west during the final 3 elections they contested (as Reform, then Canadian Alliance), the seats they won were usually won by the Progressive Conservative Party prior to Reform’s creation. They failed to fully replace the Tories as a viable right-of-centre national party, leading to a decade of fragmented politics on the centre-right that helped the Liberals win three majorities in a row (the Libs probably would have won in ’93 regardless, but future success was less assured. They eked out a majority in ’97 and got a gift in the form of Stockwell Day in ’00).

    Reform’s two successes as a party were: 1) pushing the fiscal conservative agenda onto the national scene (though as mentioned in my post, this was a trend throughout the industrialized west at the time), and 2) campaigning against the Charlottetown Accord, which was ultimately defeated. 22 years after its founding, precious few of the old Reform Party goals have been accomplished, and that’s with one of their original members approaching his 4th year as Prime Minister. It should also be remembered that the Reform/CA only became a serious contender for government when it merged with the PCs.

    This deserves a full treatment at some point, since it’s a fascinating “What If?’, but looking at where the movement ended up, it’s debatable whether or not the Reform movement was actually good for conservatism in Canada.

    Question to think about: what if progressives invested all the energy in an existing party that they currently spend trying to convince people that the existing parties are damaged goods and a new party is the only way to go?

  11. Just finished reading this: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080721/moser

    Texans could either vote R or D. Albertans have 5 major choices at the moment (green party still polled at 8% even thought they aren’t in the picture). It’s a lot easier to build a resurgence when anyone who is upset with R, such as the young hispanics, has no where to go but D.

    With a divided right, maybe there is a chance for a liberal surge, but I think we will have to see what role federal politics play in this picture. The WAP has “stand up to Ottawa” language prominently featured on its material.

    We haven’t even touched the topic of the DRP or Strategic Voting. Thoughts there?

  12. Michael – Texans could have tried to reform the GoP from the inside (a common tactic), or they could have supported independent candidates, or a third party (which, admittedly, has less tradition in the US than in Canada). In Alberta, I’m not sure how adding a 5th (or 6th) choice improves the chances of a progressive resurgence. I feel like you and I are at an impasse on this topic. We have the same goal in mind, but have different opinions on the merits and likelihood of success of the various possible strategies.

    DRP: not opposed to it. It might help win a few more seats, but doesn’t come without risks. For example, 1+1 does not always equal 2 when merging parties (the PCs and CA found this out), and the DRP doesn’t directly address the issue that the Libs and/or NDs need to grow their overall base of support to win. Calgary Grit wrote a good piece on this in response to Michael Byers’ suggestion that the federal parties cooperate: http://calgarygrit.blogspot.com/2009/11/proposals-certain-to-go-nowhere-fast-on.html

    Strategic Voting: it will always happen in some form. For me, it’s an individual’s choice how they wish to cast (or not cast) their vote. There are positives and negatives to strategic voting, or to voting for a party not in contention to win. Voters should understand the ramifications of all scenarios (for example, is it better to have a Liberal or ND who you agree with some of the time, rather than a Tory you disagree with almost all the time?)

  13. 1. I think Albertans are conservative in a few ways: they prefer government not interfering with their lives, they want sensible spending (i.e. no deficits), they want low taxes, etc. However, line any individual or group, reputation often hides the truth. Many think the provincial tories are conservative so they keep voting for them, and the provincial tories do a good job of not drawing attention to their non-conservative policies. I think with them running deficits now, though, this reputation will suffer (or at least Ed Stelmach will).

    Also when you’re benefiting form something, it’s easy to turn a blind eye (e.g. Alberta spending leads to benefits for Albertans; federal spending is often seen as helping Ontario and Quebec at the expense of Albertans—see the equalization program).

    Albetans are relatively conservative, but they aren’t purely principled (no one is) so a non-conservative government can hold power. It would be much more difficult to claim power de novo however. I think any change in government will come, in the near future (20 years) from a party that espouses key conservative policies (controlled spending, low taxes, limited regulation on individuals, etc.). A centrist party that espouses these would be sufficient (i.e. the Alberta Liberals could be the new government).

    2. The NEP didn’t make the oil price collapse worse for Alberta; if fact it helped. The NEP included both a price ceiling and a price floor. Once the boom collapsed, Alberta benefited from the price ceiling. When Mulroney killed the NEP, it actually hurt Alberta. But Albertans were against the idea in principle already and didn’t notice or care at that point.

    I agree though on your broader point that the provincial parties should disavow the NEP and, more generally, separate themselves from their federal siblings.

    3. On the topic of the Reform party, in addition to fiscal management and the Charlottetown Accord’s defeat, I think it can be credited with the broader approach to National Unity that Canada follows (including the clarity act which was partly based in Stephen Harper’s writings), more liberal economic policy, and bringing democratic reform issues to the fore. Not bad for an opposition party, but their goals have been largely lost since the parties merged.

    4. I remember 3 moments vividly from the 1993 provincial election: (1) Decore arguing in a debate for “brutal cuts to spending” while Klein responded with “deep cuts”; (2) Klein discussing abortion in a debate and effectively arguing for individual choice in the matter finishing with it being a matter for “a woman, her doctor, and God”; (3) election day newsbroadcast with them showing Klein and Decore voting, and Decore saying that he expected to win (he won 32 seats).

    I think (1) highlights that a challenger party needs to be on board with some conservative policies, but not necessarily all of them (2). And that Decore had a real chance of winning (3). He in fact led the polls for months at a time before Klein was chosen as the new leader.

    - Mustafa Hirji

  14. [...] as a political party. I’ve expressed reservations about the merits of starting a new party (here and here), but I will say that there a number of insightful comments – some in support of the [...]

  15. Ralph had the knack for speaking “Everyman” language, and Decore simply fell into the common trap of advisers, focus groups and over-think.

    Decore was actually very pro-life, so I think that characterization of him is way off. He spoke from the heart and the mind that day, and it cost him an election. Klein was the political opportunist, in that situation. Good for him, I guess.

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