State of Alberta: At a Crossroads

Let’s dispense with the drama of this coming weekend. Premier Ed Stelmach will almost certainly survive the leadership review at his party’s convention. I’m guessing he’ll earn 75-85% support, and that’s the last we’ll hear for about leadership challenges for a while. For the reasons why, I will point you to Duncan’s blog. He does a much better job than I can of explaining what will likely happen (and why) this weekend.

There is, however, one factor Duncan didn’t cover that I feel will help the Premier this weekend – there’s no obvious successor in the party. The Premier would find himself in a more difficult predicament if the party had someone else to turn to. In this case, the options are Ted Morton (does he appeal to moderates?), Dave Hancock (does he appeal to conservatives, and to anyone outside of Edmonton?), Brett Wilson (is he serious, and is he electable?) and, beyond that, well, it’s a tough question. Within Cabinet, there don’t appear to be many options that scream “leadership material”.

Successful governments tend to have strong ministers surrounding the first minister, many of whom seem capable of taking over the reins some day. In the early years of the Tory dynasty, Lougheed surrounded himself in Cabinet with what was seen as many of Alberta’s best and brightest. In the Klein cabinet, there were always Ministers seen as potential successors. Some of them were felled (Mar) or damaged (Norris, Oberg) by the time the race to replace him actually happened, though it didn’t stop the latter two from running. In Premier Stelmach’s cabinet, the strong ministers seem to be missing. Maybe they’ll develop over time – first-term MLA and Minister of Justice Alison Redford is highly regarded, and Parliamentary Assistants such as Doug Griffiths, Janice Sarich, Diana McQueen, and Raj Sherman have the pedigree for leading cabinet positions. But at this moment in time, there is a lack of depth at the top ranks of the party in terms of potential leaders.

So where does that leave the Tories? They’ll get through this weekend without any maor infighting. But they’re immediately faced with continuing public frustration over their handling of the H1N1 vaccine rollout, and with, for the moment, a surge in support for the Wildrose Alliance Party. Factor in that the Alliance surge seems to be coming mostly at the expense of the Tories, and there is cause for concern.

It’s too early to tell if support for the Alliance is firm, but I think we can say that, for the time being, the Tories’ free ride is over. They have a party that appears willing and quite possibly able to challenge 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 space for a challenger (or two) to move in and occupy on the political spectrum. Governments, it is said, tend to defeat themselves. This normally happens through scandal, atrophy (and losing touch with voters), or a lack of ideas. The Tories seem okay on the first one, veering towards potential problems with the second, and in trouble on the third.

Another challenge they face is one faced by all parties in power – particularly those who have been in power for a long period of time – is that it’s tough to gauge how committed their supporters are. Certainly, there are lots of committed Tories in Alberta, but it’s likely that a good number of supporters were attracted to the party and stuck with them because, to put it bluntly, it’s better to be on the winning side (the Liberal Party of Canada is faced with this problem as well). If the Alliance continues to poll well, and to look like a real alternative, that will test the level of support from more conservative Tories. If the centre-left picks up steam, that will test the commitment of more moderate supporters, particularly those in more urban ridings. Can the Tories continue to hold the middle, or will they be pulled in one direction or another? More importantly, how long will voters continue to give them a chance? I suspect that much of the support you see for the Alliance in polls at this moment is an expression of frustration with the status quo (be it the governing party itself, or the overall political climate). The Tories can probably win most of these voters back, but the longer they wait, and the more comfortable voters get with the idea of supporting someone else, the more challenging it will be to win them back. There will be a point of no return when a given voter decides they’ve had enough, and will either stay home or vote for someone else. When that happens, only something dramatic (think trading in Getty for Klein) can swing them back. I don’t think most voters have reached that point, but they’re getting closer every week.

So that’s where I see Alberta politics at this moment. We’re at a crossroads. In the coming months, and couple of years before the next general election, something will give. Maybe the Alliance will fizzle, or maybe it will continue to establish support. Maybe the centre-left will regroup and start to build momentum, or maybe it will continue to in-fight, eat its own, and further splinter. Or maybe Paul Wells’ first rule of politics will hold, and the status quo will assert itself. I’ve been wrong before, but I think we’re rapidly approaching a point of no return where the status quo will crumble. It will depend on a number of factors – some out of our control (oil and gas revenues), some within our control (do progressives or conservatives put forward the stronger vision for Alberta?) In any case, I think we’re heading for a realignment of some sorts in Alberta over the coming two elections, and 5-10 year time frame.

Worth Reading on This Topic:
Daveberta: Stelmach Tories Diving; What’s Going to Happen at the PC Leadership Review?
Chris LaBossiere: Running up the Middle…to the Right of Centre
Ken Chapman: Is Alberta About to Enter an Empire of Illusion Stage Politically?


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.

Books I Read: Ralph Could Have Been a Superstar

Since first hearing about it earlier this summer, I have been looking forward to reading Rich Vivone‘s book “Ralph Could Have Been a Superstar“. There has yet to be much of a post-mortem in print on the Klein years in Alberta, and as an insider to government I anticipated that Vivone would have much to say on the topic.

Rich Vivone spent 25 years in Alberta politics, from 1980-2005. For the first five he was the executive assistant to David King, MLA and Minister of Education. For the next twenty, he published the newsletter “Insight into Government”, reporting on activities in the Legislature and government.

His book is part memoirs and history of his years in politics, and parts a critique of the players past and present, along with recommendations on how to make things better.

I picked up the book at his book launch in Edmonton last Wednesday, and read it over the past few days.

Rich Vivone speaks at his book launch for "Ralph Could Have Been a Superstar".

The book launch itself was an interesting event. Rather than reading from the book, Vivone talked about how he got involved in politics (David King was a university friend, and convinced him to come work for him at the Leg), his impressions of the Wildrose Alliance win in the Calgary-Glenmore by-election (might be a flash in the pan), his thoughts on apathy in the province (the Tories encourage it, the opposition parties will merge, and once there is a one-on-one battle with the Tories, and people think the result could go either way, they’ll turn out), among other things. While I don’t agree with all of his arguments, they are certainly interesting and thought-provoking.

The Q&A was the most interesting part. People asked more about apathy and disengagement, and about what made politics in Alberta competitive for that brief window in the late 1980s and early 1990s (okay, the latter was my question). It also became a forum for people to talk about why they were frustrated with politics, and why they had given up after years of investing time and energy in the political system. This all culminated in David Carter, former Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, taking the floor and saying that while Lougheed and Getty came down on any MLA who talked about “power” or using it to their advantage, that went out the window with Premier Klein. In his words, and he said we can quote him, “Ralph was a dictator”.

Rich Vivone signs copies of his book and speaks with attendees at his book launch for "Ralph Could Have Been a Superstar".

As the Q&A/discussion was happening, I found myself thinking ‘is this the road to improving democracy in Alberta?’ By that, I don’t mean holding a series of book readings, but getting citizens together and giving them the opportunity to voice their concerns and frustrations. One of the drivers of apathy, in my opinion, is isolation, the instance where one isn’t connecting with others. Another is the feeling that nobody shares your concerns, and that your concerns won’t be listened to or given any thought. If we have more forums where people who are frustrated with politics in this province (and this country), can come together, it would be a positive thing. The dialogue coming out of them might lead to the ideas and actions that will change politics for the better.

Anyway, I promised a book review, so I should get to that. I have no reservations about adding this to my short list of ‘must-read’ books about Alberta politics. Mark Lisac‘s “Alberta Politics Uncovered” is the other one I definitely recommend. Vivone’s book is a series of essays which can be read as stand-alone pieces. They include a piece on his impressions of Premier Klein, an overview of the Getty years, topical pieces on the Oil Sands, Health Care, Scandals, the plight of the Alberta Liberal Party, Education and Children’s Services, and the issue of apathy. He closes with a piece on the failed Jim Dinning leadership campaign, and finally with an open letter to Premier Stelmach.

The book is worth reading for the anecdotes and historical value alone. It’s impossible to condense 25 years of experience into 250 pages, but Vivone does a good job of covering the major issues of his time. He also considers the causes of some of the dominant issues and events in Alberta politics, and in some cases prescribes solutions to them. I don’t agree with his analysis, but he makes an argument and attempts to justify it.

There are two themes I take umbrage with. First, I think he too easily lets the general public off the hook. He correctly surmises that the media and the powers that be have taken actions (intentional or not) that discourage participation, but doesn’t focus enough on the general population’s willingness to ignore politics, or to not engage and scrutinize the actions of the government and opposition parties. Second, his concept that “Ralph Could Have Been a Superstar” is somewhat undermined by his analysis of Ralph’s character and tenure as Premier. I agree with him that Ralph’s first term was his most successful (in terms of accomplishing his agenda, regardless of whether you agree with the aims or not) and he increasingly lost drift afterwards. However, he also describes this as a trait in Ralph’s personality – he needed a clear, concise goal to pursue. This, and an unwillingness to pursue largely controversial measures, held him back from pursuing and achieving greater things. (Note: Don Martin‘s book “King Ralph” also talks about Klein’s struggles with confrontation). Similar depictions colour the chapters regarding Jim Dinning’s loss in the 2006 leadership race, and the (so-far) unfulfilled potential of Premier Stelmach’s tenure. In a nutshell, what I feel Vivone is arguing is not that Ralph (or Ed) Could Have Been a Superstar, but that someone leading a government with tons of political capital and no serious opposition should be able to achieve more. It’s a story not so much about Ralph or Ed (or Jim), but our collective unfulfilled potential as a province.

Whether you agree with Vivone’s take on politics or not, this book, as I said, is a must-read if you’re interested in Alberta politics. Albertan or not, you will gain insight into where Alberta has come from politically in the past thirty years. Understanding our politics and where we’ve come from is key. If we want to make politics in the future better, we need to understand the history and circumstances that have led to where we are.