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The Next Four Years: Part Two

In the first part of my election post-mortem, I wrote about some broader trends. This post will focus on each of the five main parties who contested the election.

Tory Challenges
With a strong mandate, the Tories nonetheless have some challenges ahead of them. They campaigned on a more progressive platform than in elections past. Many, including myself, see this as a good thing. I for one will consider their government a success if they implement greater powers and authorities for municipalities (such as city charters for Edmonton and Calgary), and continue with strong social policy such as the 10 year plan to end homelessness, and the promised action on child poverty.

Premier Alison Redford
Dave Cournoyer/Flickr

Yet, while the progressive wing of the party seems ascendant, there is still a conservative base that must be tended to. And here in lies a potential risk. The PCs received a mandate from voters who are likely, to some degree, out of step with the base of the party. There will be pressure to keep the base who wants a more ‘conservative’ approach happy, while also delivering on the policies promised in the campaign. Making it more complicated is the potential of stagnant, or even declining, resource revenues.

While I do know of Liberal activists who have moved over to the PCs, I wonder how many of their voters will stay actively involved in politics between elections, or would even consider committing themselves to the party. Without the active support of this base, it will be a significant challenge to deliver the kind of government Premier Redford wants to.

One of their advantages is that there is no serious challenger to them on the left right now (as we’ll get to). However, they can’t count on a divided, somewhat moribund left forever. Strategic voting is a short-term proposition too. It usually only works once (as Paul Martin learned). If Wildrose is a serious threat next election, it will be because they have proven themselves to be a competent, credible force in the Legislature. There won’t be the same fear of the unknown that exists now, and future bozo eruptions aren’t guaranteed either.

Wildrose Challenges
If Wildrose is to become a more serious threat for government, it is going to have to peel off more of the fiscal conservative wing of the PCs. Just-elected Fiscal hawks in the PC caucus like Ric McIver, the former Calgary Alderman, and David Dorward, former Edmonton Mayoral candidate, are the types of candidates the Wildrose will need to be able to attract. It will also need to find a way to keep socially conservative voters in the tent without this being a key part of its message.

Your Choice For Change

It will also have to manage the expectations of supporters, volunteers, MLAs, and donors, who may not be thrilled to commit to four years (at least) in opposition. Many of its key campaign staff came from Conservative offices in Ottawa, and they may well find it more desirable to spend the next few years in government there than in opposition at home. Without strong performers in caucus (largely supported by good staff) and a motivated donor and volunteer base, it’s hard to imagine Wildrose growing – or even sustaining – their current success.

It will also need to make inroads into the Edmonton region, and into the medium-sized cities and rural areas in north of it. While it can succeed from a base in Calgary and the south, it’s hard to imagine the party forming government without having at least a few seats solid seats in that area.

Factors outside the control of any party may play to their favour. If the PCs deliver on greater authority for cities, that may – ironically – make the provincial government’s approach to municipalities less of an issue in future elections (since cities will be less dependent on them). Furthermore, should the large infrastructure projects Wildrose opposed this time (such as the Royal Alberta Museum and a new Edmonton arena) become controversial, they may indeed be catalysts for a smaller-government message in the region. For example, if either project end up going heavily over budget, they would hardly be the first of their kind to do so.

Additionally, the next federal election will occur in October 2015, roughly 6 months before the next provincial one. Should the NDP (or a left-centre party/coalition) form government, a more parochial approach to defending Alberta’s interests (likely to be articulated by Wildrose) may resonate more than the nationalistic approach preferred by Premier Redford.

As noted earlier, there are threats to the export of our natural resources, and those could have all sorts of unanticipated effects. Suffice to say, the key issues and political landscape could change dramatically in the next four years, possibly shifting towards Wildrose’s core message.

There are, also, three left-centre parties that have significant challenges ahead:

Liberal Survival
In many ways, the Liberals outperformed expectations. Few expected them to win five seats. However, the five elected are all incumbents. Their vote was also very efficient. Outside of these ridings, they weren’t competitive anywhere else. They lost two seats in Edmonton where incumbents retired, and while they finished second in three ridings, none were particularly close.

Also of concern is that few – if any – unsuccessful candidates offer a base to build off of. As it stands, the party feels like one in significant retreat, defending its few strongholds, which will almost certainly give way should the incumbent step aside, like in Edmonton-Riverview, Edmonton-Goldbar, and Calgary-Varsity this time.

At this point, there isn’t much reason to believe they will recapture the centre-left voters who have moved to the PCs, barring a sharp turn by that party back towards the right. Having lost many activists and organizers since the 2008 campaign, hopes would appear thin for a resurgence any time soon. Their best hope for rejuvenation would appear to be some sort of ‘unite the left-(centre)’ movement, which may sacrifice their name and brand, but infuse their ranks with activists from other parties. As it stands now, I’m not convinced all of their MLAs will make it to the next election. How much fun is it going to be for some of them to sit in a smaller caucus? Is it that far-fetched to assume they may lose an MLA or two to resignation or floor-crossing? (I don’t find it far-fetched to think Kent Hehr may try municipal politics again). When I look at the decline of the SoCreds in the ’70s and ’80s, it feels like the path the Liberals could easily follow – losing seats as incumbents retire, until one day the remaining 2-3 are just wiped off the map.

NDP Movement
Colby hit the nail on the head – while doubling the size of their phone booth is a success, it also points to the fact that that’s the kind of party they perceive themselves as – one who will occupy the back corner of the Legislature.

That said, unlike the Liberals, they have something to build off of. Newly-elected David Eggen and Deron Bilous are young and have a strong record in their communities. The success of Shannon Phillips in Lethbridge-West, Marlin Schmidt in Edmonton-Goldbar, and Cindy Olsen in Edmonton-Manning could all lay the groundwork for victories in the next election. They have surpassed the Liberals in many other Edmonton ridings, and would arguably be better poised to pick up left-leaning voters should they turn away from the PCs.

What happens with their leadership could also speed this process up. After 10 years at the helm, Brian Mason could step aside, particularly with both Rachel Notley and David Eggen presenting themselves as credible options to take over. Either would present a new, dynamic face for the party, giving them a chance to grow the base that Mason and Raj Pannu before him have held on to and cultivated.

They could also be poised to ride the coattails of their federal cousins, should their success continue. There is also the risk, though, that unpopular actions from the federal NDP could tar them by association.

Alberta Party Next Steps
It’s important to maintain perspective, in particular noting that the Alberta Party has only existed for 26 months. That said, as a supporter, I was incredibly disappointed in Monday’s results. While I’m proud of the effort everyone (in particular many of my friends) put forward, I was disappointed that many candidates and campaigns who worked hard and smart for months in advance were dealt results far worse than they deserved. I was disappointed that, for whatever reason, the party’s message never made it into mainstream debate. Most of all, I was disappointed in myself for not doing more to help the party and candidates I support.

That personal reflection aside, it points to some of the challenges the party will face in becoming a viable force. While the party has policy, it does not have a well-defined niche on the political spectrum. I support the goal of changing the process and culture around doing politics, and making it more inclusive, but this can only go so far as being a part of any party’s message. Voters will want more defined policies – certainly, the major criticism I’ve heard of the Alberta Party so far is that people don’t know what it stands for. With the PC Party now occupying much of the Alberta Party’s natural policy space, this will be more challenging.

What the Alberta Party is looking for.
Dave Cournoyer/Flickr

It’s also going to continue to face the challenge of convincing voters it is a viable option. Barring a by-election win or two, it’s unlikely to be in the leaders’ debate again in 2016. For the time being, most voters will likely presume the Liberal Party or NDP to be the default centre-left alternative to the PCs and Wildrose. More resources, and a full-slate of candidates, are necessary steps towards this. Finally, the party’s biggest strength right now is a committed, talented base of activists and members. Keeping them involved, engaged, and motivated (and then growing this base) is necessary.

The work of building a strong grassroots organization and strong constituency associations needs to continue, but a more clear, concise, macro-level message and approach needs to develop in conjunction with it. A by-election win or two would be critical for establishing the party’s credentials, and gaining inclusion into the leaders’ debate. Talented candidates like Michael Walters, Sue Huff, Glenn Taylor, Danielle Klooster, and Tim Osborne, need to be willing to keep building their profile and support locally, while Taylor (or another leader) is able to simultaneously do this for the party province-wide. Frankly, more money is the most crucial thing at this point. Being able to have a full-time leader spend 2-3 years on the road getting to know Albertans and building support (like Danielle Smith just did) would go a long way towards success in the next election.

Should it be able to continue to attract strong candidates and organizers, I don’t think that a foothold in the legislature in 2016, then a jump to official opposition (or even government) in the subsequent election is completely far-fetched. At the very least, it could position itself well to pick up centre-left voters looking for an alternative to the PCs. But a lot of things happening now have to continue, and be scaled up. Doing that takes significant work, even with a lot of talented people on board.

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The Next Four Years: Part One

With the Alberta election results now 36 hours old, a bit of reflection and thought on what may be in store for Alberta. In a similar vein, I’d encourage you to read Colby Cosh’s short post-mortem, and Calgary Grit’s thoughts on where we go from here. This post focuses on some broader trends across the political sphere. The second part will focus specifically on the five main parties.

Predicting the future in politics is a messy business. Nonetheless, here are some trends and things I’ll be watching in the next four years.

Realignment May Be Under Way
While the PCs were much ridiculed for their “Not Your Father’s PC Party” ad, there is some truth in it. The PC Party is a less conservative party than it has been for most of the past two decades. There is perhaps no better example of this than long-serving Cabinet minister Dave Hancock who, while highly regarded by most (including myself), seemed like an outlier – politically-speaking – in the Klein years, and now seems perfectly at home within Premier Redford’s caucus.

Danielle Smith

Naturally, their main competition now comes to them from their right, rather than their left. While the NDP and Liberals hold pockets in Edmonton and Calgary, and Wildrose saw some success in Calgary, the PCs are the leading party in both cities. Wildrose strength is based in rural areas towards the centre and south of the province, and in medium-sized cities and the outer-ring of Edmonton and Calgary.

Of the high-profile PC incumbents who went down to defeat, only two were from urban areas (Morton in suburban Calgary and Mitzel in Medicine Hat). The next cabinet figures to be heavy once again on Edmonton and Calgary MLAs.

Without reliable exit polling (or polling at all), it’s difficult to say how exactly this shift has occured. It seems highly likely though that many former PC voters (or those who stayed at home because the PCs weren’t conservative enough for their liking) make up the Wildrose base. Commensurately, many former Liberal voters have likely moved over to the PCs. I know a handful of former Liberal activists and staffers who were actively supporting the PCs even before the election. The new PC base is far more urban and moderate (leaning liberal) than before.

Conventional wisdom has been that to win a provincial election, you need to win 2 out of Edmonton, Calgary, and rural Alberta. Since the mid-’80s, this has been true. The PCs dominated by consistenly winning in Calgary and the rural areas. Their success in Edmonton dictated whether their victory would be a landslide, or merely a strong majority.

That said, I’ve long thought that if Alberta were to have a true two-party system, it would likely be more of an urban-rural split. One party (the more ‘left’ of the two) would be strongest in the urban cores of Edmonton and Calgary. The other (the more ‘right’ of the two) would be strongest in rural areas. Suburban areas and medium-sized cities would be the swing ridings, holding the balance of power more often than not.

Albertans are More Moderate, Content, or Both
I could also call this the homeostatis theory. While some of the rejection of Wildrose may have come from unfamiliarity and inexperience, it seemed largely a reaction to them being too conservative (especially on social issues) for many Albertans’ liking.

Furthermore, like with the two recent PC leadership races, voters seemed to be responding to something, rather than being proactive in endorsing a vision. The endorsement of Premier Stelmach enforced a more cautious, status quo route than either Jim Dinning or Ted Morton offered. Premier Redford’s victory moved the party to the left, but I think much can be owed to asserting the direction under way, versus the reassertion of an older political guard that was associated with Gary Mar’s campaign.

Alison Redford, campaign stop
Dave Cournoyer/Flickr

In this campaign, I wonder how many casual observers would have tuned in, and/or felt motivated to vote (Tory) without the “bozo eruptions” from the Wildrose campaign.

Or maybe Albertans are just content with the way things are, and are likely to endorse the least threatening option to it.

Change Takes Time
In retrospect, we perhaps overestimated the likelihood of a party forming government so early in its history. Most political parties and movements need time to gain traction before they can seriously contend for or form government.

In neighbouring Saskatchewan, both the-then dormant Progressive Conservatives, then the new Saskatchewan Party (starting from a base of dissafected PC and Liberal MLAs) broke through in their third general elections (’82 and ’07, respectively). In British Columbia, the Liberals re-emerged, supplanting Social Credit in 1991, then came close to winning in ’96 before earning a landslide in ’01.

Closer to home, the last party to seriously threaten the PC dynasty also saw incremental growth. The Liberals went from no seats in 1982 to 4 seats in 1986. They won 8 seats in 1989, good for third standing in the Legislature, but did finish second in popular vote (going up from 12 to 28%). They led in the polls for much of the time leading up to the ’93 election, where they ultimately finished second with 32 of 83 seats, and just under 40% of the popular vote). Of course, the PCs themselves won 6 seats (and doubled their popular vote to 26%) in the ’67 election before they won government in ’71.

On the federal scene, long-time observers will remember that the Reform Party contested the 1988 election in 72 western ridings, finishing second in several of them. Their 1993 breakthrough came 6 years after their founding convention, and 7 after the initial major gathering of the movement. More recently, the NDP breakthrough in Quebec came in Jack Layton’s fourth election as leader, by which point he’d been working to establish a base in the province for 8 years. On a national scale, you can see the incremental growth in each of his elections as well (same for the Conservative Party over that period of time).

The lesson is, while change can appear to happen quickly, there is usually incremental growth and years of work behind it that isn’t given the attention it may deserve.

Senate (Reform) is Not a Concern for Many
As Colby pointed out, as many as 1/3 of voters who cast a ballot for their MLA may not have bothered casting a Senate ballot at all. Long a passion of Alberta’s political class, the Senate election received barely any political attention at all. Most of the media coverage was of the “oh, by the way, there’s a Senate election happening too” variety. One would think that if ALbertans felt strongly about an elected Senate, they would have been clamoring to cast ballots in it. Perhaps if the Liberals and NDP bothered running candidates (instead of opposing elected senators and the Senate itself, respectively), we’d see more interest in it.

Alberta’s Election by the Numbers

I spent some time looking over last night’s election results. Here are some of the numbers and trends for each of the five parties that I found interesting.

Three or Four-Way Races Never Materialized
Calgary-McCall and Lethbridge-West were the only ridings where the top 3 finishers were within 10% of each other:

Calgary-McCall – Liberal 36% Wildrose 30% PC 29%
Lethbridge-West – PC 36% NDP 29% Wildrose 26%
PC Dominance
PCs were first or second in all but one riding (Calgary-McCall).

Of the 27 ridings they lost, they were within 5% of winning 6, and 10% of winning an additional 5.

They have the only candidate Their only candidate who earned more than 60% of the vote (Dave Hancock, Edmonton-Whitemud). (Update: it was pointed out that Rachel Notley earned more than 60% in Edmonton-Strathcona. Thanks for the correction).

Wildrose Growth
Outside of Edmonton, Wildrose finished no worse than second in all but three ridings (Calgary-Buffalo and Mountain View, won by the Liberals, and Lethbridge-West, won by PC with NDP second).

Wildrose finished second in 8 Edmonton ridings. The closest they came to winning a seat was Edmonton-Mill Woods, where they finished 11% back.

In 72 of 87 ridings, PC and Wildrose finished 1-2 in either order; only 29 of them were decided by 10% or less either way.

In those ridings, the PC’s won 9 by less than 5%, and an additional 11 by less than 10%. Wildrose won 3 by less than 5%, and an additional 6 by less than 10%.

Wildrose were within 10% of winning an additional riding (Calgary-McCall) won by the Liberals.

Liberal Collapse
While the Liberals held on to 5 seats (all incumbents), the closest they were to winning their 6th seat was 14% back (Edmonton-Mill Woods, where they finished 3rd). They finished second in only 3 ridings (Edmonton-Riverview, Rutherford, and McClung), where they were, respectively, 16, 20, and 24% back.

The highest vote share earned by a first time candidate was 23% for Arif Khan in Edmonton-Riverview.

They earned less than 20% of the vote in 7 of 16 ridings that they won 2 elections ago (2004) – Calgary-Currie, Lethbridge-East, St. Albert, and Edmonton-Decore, Glenora, Ellerslie, Manning (this also applies to Castle Downs, which they lost in ’04 on a judicial recount). Of the 8, they finished 3rd in 4 of them, and 4th in the other 4.

NDP Consistency
The NDP won back the 2 seats they lost in 2008 (Edmonton-Calder and Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview), in addition to holding their 2 incumbents.

They had two other candidates come within 10% of victory – Marlin Schmidt finished 4% back in Edmonton-Goldbar and Shannon Phillips finished 7% back in Lethbridge-West.

In addition to Schmidt and Phillips, the NDP finished second in Edmonton-Glenora (13% behind Tories). Cindy Olsen in Edmonton-Manning nearly joined them, finishing 25 votes out of second, though 15% behind the winner.

Alberta Party Baby Steps
The highest vote share earned by an Alberta Party candidate was 16.99% (party leader Glenn Taylor, West Yellowhead). Highest total of raw votes earned by a candidate was 1673 (Michael Walters, Edmonton-Rutherford).

No AP candidate finished first or second. Taylor and Danielle Klooster (Innisfail-Slave Lake) finished 3rd in their respective ridings; Walters and Tony Jeglum (Lacombe-Ponoka) finished 4th.

Reboot Alberta: The Argument

I’ve had some time to reflect on Reboot Alberta after posting my initial thoughts Saturday night and participating in the Sunday morning session. On the drive home Sunday afternoon, I felt good. I thought about the many smart, talented people who are passionate about our province that I had the privilege of connecting with – some are old friends, many are new ones. I thought about what I had wanted to get out of the weekend, and what had transpired over the previous 36 hours. I thought about the sense of community I felt in the room all weekend. The respect for people and for different ideas that was constant. The pride in Alberta and the desire to make our home even better – whether one lives in a condo in downtown Edmonton or on a ranch by Picture Butte.

I thought about what might come next from this movement, where it might go one month, one year, or one decade in the future. I thought about how I might play a role. But most of all, I thought about The Argument.

Now, I don’t capitalize “The Argument” to convey a universal truth. Far from it. As some readers might know, either because I’ve linked to them on the web or cited them in conversation, there are two pieces I look to for inspiration in progressive politics. On a more micro level, the revival of progressive politics and the Democratic Party in Texas over the past few years. The second is the more macro level progressive movement in the United States this decade. The story of this is told in many books and articles I’ve read, but best of all in the book by journalist Matt Bai, titled The Argument.

The book’s subtitle is “Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics”. Focusing on the period between the 2004 re-election of President Bush, and the 2006 mid-term election when the Democrats gained control of both houses of congress, Bai tells the story of wealthy donors, previously unheralded bloggers, and regular citizens from across the country who were united in cause, and spurred to action by common ideas and sentiments. First and foremost was a profound worry about the direction of their country. They also, by and large, shared a dislike for the centrism that the Democratic Party had come to embrace since the ascendancy of Bill Clinton in 1992. You could see it in 2003, when previously dispirited activists embraced the insurgent campaign of Howard Dean for his party’s nomination for President. They embraced his fierce opposition to the war in Iraq, his support for universal health care, and, as Bai recounts, they roared when he delivered the line “I’m Howard Dean, and I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party!” (he borrowed this line from the late progressive Senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellestone). Following the Dean campaign, they pushed for a stronger progressive agenda, forming new organizations, taking to blogs and the web to connect with like-minded citizens, and supporting challenges to the establishment in the form of candidates such as Ned Lamont, who took on incumbent Connecticut Senator Joe Liebermann. Bai’s central point, though, was about the paradigm-shifting efforts of progressives, especially the effort to develop a new “argument” for a changing America. It strikes a chord with me, and in particular what I talked about in my pre-Reboot Alberta post.

So what does this have to do with Alberta? First and foremost, the need, which we engaged in to some extent, to agree on and articulate “the argument” for our future. Second, I saw signs of both models I mentioned above. I connected with “progressives” of all backgrounds. Just like the American activists, who were stereotyped as urban, young, and liberal, this weekend showed there are Albertans of all ages, locations, and backgrounds who care about progressive issues. They were brought together through some connection to the organizers of the event, and many had initially connected, or gained in stature, through their participation in mediums such as Twitter, or through blogs. In this, I was reminded of a story from “The Argument” that I have often cited in the 20 months since I first read it. In this passage (pages 73-74 of the hardcover edition), Bai tells the story of a Moveon.org house party in suburban Virginia. He is talking to a politically frustrated, liberal in her mid-forties, which he follows with this passage:

Everyone at the party was roughly Linda’s age. This illustrates one of the great misconceptions about MoveOn’s membership. Establishment Democrats and hostile Republicans assumed that any online forum – whether it was MoveOn or the blogs or the Howard Dean supporters who connected through Meetup.com – had to consist of tech-savvy kids who would do anything to avoid studying for exams, nost of them concentrated on the coasts or in college towns with lots of storefront salons offering body art. It was a fundamental misunderstanding of the new progressive movement. In fact, about half of MoveOn’s members were over fifty, and many of them lived in the most ordinary, conservative suburbs you could conjure up, just like this one. The point was that they had been so isolated for too long, entirely disconnected from one another and despondent over the rise of Republican extremism and the drift of Washington Democrats toward a kind of mushy middle. If college kids wanted to commiserate with someone over the fear and misery of life under Bush, all they had to do was walk across the hall. For affluent boomers, there was MoveOn.
What MoveOn had done, along with popular lefitst blogs like DailyKos and MyDD, was to establish a virtual clubhouse for like-minded liberals clustered in hostile places. They spent their days at corporate jobs with co-workers who probably voted Republican or who would rather talk about the upcoming football game or their kids’ soccer league than about Iraq. They came home to colonial houses with neatly trimmed lawns and alarm systems and oversized refrigerators, to neighbours they barely knew expect to wave to now and then. They put their kids to bed – and then, under the halogen lamp of a home office, they flipped on the computer and spent a few minutes in a welcoming place, among faraway friends who felt as culturally and politically destitute as they did. It was where they belonged.

Never before or since have I read the power of web-based social networks so well articulated. As I mentioned above, much of these same characteristics – the isolation, the frustration, were present among some attendees. Now obviously it’s not a perfect analogy – I’m not comparing our government to the Bush administration; they are light years better, to put it mildly, and continue to advance progressive policies on some fronts, as they have since the days of Premier Lougheed. This passage is really about the power of community. Similarly, Reboot Alberta was, to my mind, not so much an expression of frustration or opposition to a single person or entity, but an expression of collective frustration – that we can all do better, whether it’s as citizens or organizations, political or not.

The myth of a conservative Alberta is well-entrenched, but the truth is that our province has a long, proud history of being progressive on many fronts. It was in Alberta that, in 1917, Louise McKinney became the first women elected to a legislature anywhere in the British Empire; she was also one of Alberta’s Famous Five who pushed for the advancement of Women’s Rights and legal recognition. In 1951, William Hawrelak, son of Ukrainian immigrants – was elected as Mayor of Edmonton – the first Mayor of a major Canadian city not of Anglo or Franco heritage. On the policy front, Edmonton and Calgary were ahead of the curve on light rail development in the 1970s, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Edmonton’s recycling program put it on the cutting edge of cities. Also, if you’re interested in electoral reform, Alberta first employed multi-member districts in 1921 (in Edmonton, Calgary, and Medicine Hat), and continued that practice until the 1950s. What I sensed from people was a desire to embrace that tradition. How this happens is a challenge. There was talk about new movements, individual actions, reinvigorating parties, or starting new political parties.

It is within this context that DJ Kelly made what was, for me, the most profound comment of the weekend:

But it was during the discussion result presentations that it dawned on me: what would happen if we took all four of these ways forward AT THE SAME TIME?

Any one of these ways forward could effect change. However taking all four paths at the same time could all but guarantee the desired change.

So this brings us to the key questions. Where do we go from here, and where do we all fit in? The latter question, in particular, is one I’ve been struggling both before and after the conference. But I have come to three realizations.

First, I am far less concerned with who is in power than I am with ensuring we have good government and that good policies and laws enacted. I’m not blindly for or against any party. Frankly, I think all of them have good points (and have advanced good policies), but from time to time they do things I disagree with. That will be the case with anyone or any organization; the key is whether the good outweighs the bad.

Second, what I am concerned with is spending my time and energy effectively. I am more than willing to devote my efforts to any initiative that aligns with my values, that enjoys the support and involvement of people I respect, and that shows a good probability that my time will be well-spent and I will be able to help make a difference.

Third, I am open to any option – new or existing – that meets the criteria outlined in the previous point.

I look forward to continuing what we started in Red Deer this past weekend – in whatever shape and direction it takes on. We Albertans have an exciting future ahead of us, if we’re willing to put in the work to build it.

Rebooting Alberta: Instant Reaction

The afternoon at Reboot Alberta is drawing to a close. So far, I have had some fascinating conversations – both inside and outside of the formal sessions – with a number of old friends and new acquaintances.

We began this morning by choosing topics for discussion during three consecutive time slots. After breaking for lunch, we moved into a session with four breakout groups – one around each of the major themes for action identified (phrasing largely mine): “reinvigorating the existing political system (including parties)”, “a new political party if necessary, but not necessarily a new political party”, “creating new movements and initiatives for change (outside of formal political structures)”, and “working through existing initiatives for social change”.

This morning, I participated in sessions titled “What Exactly is a Progressive”, “Defining a Progressive Vision for Alberta”, and “How Do Progressives Bridge the Gap Between Rural and Urban?” All three sessions were very engaging, and thought-provoking. In particular, I enjoyed sitting back and listening during the “rural/urban gap” session; it was informative to listen to the perspectives of Albertans from rural areas and small towns.

This afternoon, I sat in on the “new political party if necessary, but not necessarily a new political party”. Most of the discussion ended up around the Renew Alberta initiative. The group, some of whose organizers are present, is collecting signatures in order to register 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 idea, some raising questions or offering caution. What is evident is that almost everyone in the room is unsatisfied with the status quo, and looking for solutions.

With the play-by-play out of the way, I’ll comment on three themes – values, social change, and political parties. I’ll write more about Reboot Alberta a few days from now, when I have had time to further reflect.

On Values
I feel like there is general consensus in the room on values. There has been a lot of discussion in my sessions about values, and about what defines a progressive, and a progressive vision. I’m very pleased with this; values must be the foundation of everything we pursue, and want to see accomplished. Some of the major themes that have emerged are around the necessity of conversation between political parties and citizens, of valuing diversity – in the economy, in our culture, and of being open to new ideas, new practices, and new institutions.

On Social Change
Successful social change is the result of a number of different converging efforts. It’s not the sole initiative of a political party, or a handful of concerned citizens or social groups. To achieve lasting, meaningful change, many different people and groups need to converge and work in concert. I hope this gathering has helped foster connections that will help make that happen.

On Political Parties
The question I feel many people are asking (including myself) is ‘what is the best avenue for achieving our change?’ Is it a new political party (or parties?) Is it redoubling efforts with an existing party or parties? Is it affecting public opinion that guides political decisions? There is interest in the Renew Alberta concept; I haven’t fleshed out my thoughts on it, but I will be watching efforts towards change both outside and inside the current system as this weekend progresses and comes to a close.

Also Worth Reading:
Chris LaBossiere: Pushing Ropes and Herding Cats; I Just Rebooted Myself…and It Feels Good
Daveberta: Rebooting Alberta 2:11pm
Reboot Alberta on Twitter
DJ Kelly: Look Out Alberta, You’re About to Get “Rebooted”
Atypical Albertan: Progressives Gather to Reboot Alberta

Alberta 3.0: Thoughts on the Way Forward, Reboot Alberta, and the Next Ten Words

I’ll be attending Reboot Alberta this weekend. When approached about attending, I didn’t know what to make of the idea; in some manner I still don’t. A number of the blog posts thus far have been thought-provoking and insightful (particularly those by Rick Schneider and Jason Morris). So that’s encouraging. But most importantly for me, I trust the word of the organizers I know, and I believe it will be a good forum for those like myself who are concerned about the challenges, and excited about the opportunities, facing our province.

Ken asked me if I would share my thoughts on Reboot Alberta. As I said, I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. Nonetheless, I shall do my best to explain.

Without getting into semantics too much, I don’t believe Alberta needs a reboot; it needs an upgrade. A reboot implies that problems exist, but the current system will suffice to handle them. I respectfully disagree. I believe the system, and most importantly, the paradigm around which we’ve based it, need to evolve. The world is changing, and what worked for us in the past is no guarantee for future success. So let’s examine where we’ve come from, and where we need to go.

Albertan Democracy Has Failed
A scribbling at the Global Youth Assembly in Edmonton. July 2009.

Our history since 1905 can be, in an overly simplistic manner, divided into two broad periods:

Alberta 1.0 (1905-1947): A largely agrarian, rural-based province built around traditional values.
Alberta 2.0 (1947-present): Leduc 1 ushers in the age of oil that continues today in this province. The province is increasingly urbanized, with no signs of that trend abating.

The Future: Alberta 3.0
At some point, through design, necessity, or some combination thereof, Alberta 3.0 will emerge. It will be based around a new paradigm. We have the ability to set that shift in motion. I’m going to talk about the principles I see as being important to the next paradigm, because they dictate what kind of province we want to build, and how we will to do it.

What will Alberta 3.0 look like? First, that the key word in every facet is diversity. In the economy, this means that we are noted for success in a multitude of different industries, not just one or two. Socially and culturally, this reflects the differences and strengths amongst our citizens. Politically, it speaks to greater competition and options, as well as a larger number of players who take on meaningful leadership roles. The dangers of relying on one dominant industry are well-known. The dangers of embracing one dominant political group are similar; stagnation and cronyism set in, but there’s no logical place for people to turn if they are frustrated with the status quo. Empowering a greater number of decision-makers can help address this.

Second, Alberta 3.0 will be built around the belief that “we are all in this together“. This is both paramount and essential. Alberta 3.0 isn’t about one person getting ahead, it’s about everyone getting ahead. It’s about valuing community, and about using what we have been given to help those of us who are less fortunate. Homelessness, poverty, and addiction – to name three – are problems all of us must help address, not something we can ignore in good times or especially in bad times. In Street Fight, Cory Booker, on the campaign trail, says “to he who much is given, much is expected”. With that, I would agree. We should be judged as much by what we give back as by what we earn.

This may seem like a fundamental shift, but it’s not. While the myth of the individual in Alberta may currently prevail, the truth of community has a long, proud history. The value we place on small towns and communities is in large part due to the neighbourliness and mutual support they offer. Our history is shaped in large part by the resilience of minority and immigrant groups, from our Aboriginal groups emerging now from centuries of hardship, to successive waves of immigrants – from Ukranians a century ago to Africans today, who supported each other and became integral parts of Alberta’s history and of our present day culture.

The idea of community has roots in Henry Marshall Tory’s convocation address at the University of Alberta in 1906, 13 months after we became a province:

The modern state university has sprung from a demand on the part of the people themselves for intellectual recognition, a recognition which only a century ago was denied them. The result is that such institutions must be conducted in such a way as to relate them as closely as possible to the life of the people. The people demand that knowledge shall not alone be the concern of scholars. The uplifting of the whole people shall be its final goal.

The idea that we are all in this together does not just apply to those of us who are here now. It’s about recognizing the responsibility we have to future generations as well.

Which brings me to the next key point – we must value sustainability. Sustainability for me encompasses three areas – social, economic, and environmental. Ensuring our communities and social fabric are strong, our economy is diversified and resilient, and our environment is well-preserved and maintained.

Calgary Tower
What kind of future do we build for downtown Calgary, and a time that oil may go bust for good?

I talked about the value of community already. On the economy, are we prepared for an instance where oil and gas go bust for good? What have we done with our good fortune and our success? Have many profited, or just a few? And regardless of how many profited, what have the many benefited from it?

Mildred Lake Mine
How long will the oil age last, and what will we have done with its spoils?

Over the past couple of years, the plight of former manufacturing centres, notably Detroit and its auto industry, have been front and centre in the news. The decline of manufacturing in the “rust belt” states has been on-going for a few decades, as outsourcing, foreign competition, and depletion of resources combined to pose a serious threat to their existing economic model. Detroit, with its hollowed out city core, and failing flagship companies, is in dire straits. We look at them and think, ‘this could never happen to us’. I’m sure the same thing was said there during the ‘what’s good for GM is good for America’ hey-day of the auto industry.

I spent time last week in a couple of other “rust belt” cities. I’ll focus on one of them – Pittsburgh. Long associated with the steel industry, Pittsburgh is finally starting to get its due as a center that has transitioned to the modern economy, while holding onto remnants of the old economy as well. The excellent report “Pittsburgh: The Rest of the Story” details the city’s comeback. The full report deserves a read, but in summary, there are three key points. First, despite the fact that its old industries were shrinking, it didn’t abandon them; instead, it modernized them to the greatest extent possible. Second, the recovery effort was well-coordinated, and involved government, the community, and business. Third, intentionally or not, business and community leaders of the past had put into place many pieces that would contribute to Pittsburgh’s comeback. The old business elite, led by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, built great buildings, endowed foundations, as well as cultural and arts groups, and helped build leading universities. Pittsburgh’s emergence as a health services and biomedical research hub is in great part due to grants from foundations and the universities created during the good times.

Pittsburgh built a legacy during its golden age. What have we built in Alberta? Our Heritage Savings Fund is relatively small, and may be drawn down shortly. We have strong universities, but we are cutting funding to them when times get tough. Do we have anything approaching the legacy of other golden ages?

At home, we’re starting to get this. People such as Edmonton writer Satya Das, through his recently-released book “Green Oil”, have argued for using the oil sands to build a future base of wealth (while simultaneously making them as green as possible). This represents a fundamental shift from the past, and is incredibly encouraging. One day, perhaps, we will be judged not just by how we ourselves profited, but also by how we set up the next generation to succeed.

This brings us to the environment. On October 15, I wrote this for Blog Action Day:

So if the modern world is an age of abundance, what is the post-modern world? Is it a world of scarcity? Not necessarily. It is, however, a world of limits. We must recognize that we can’t continue to grow and consume without regard for the resources we are consuming.

Fundamentally, post-modernism will be about doing more with less. It’s about responsibility – the responsible stewardship of natural resources and land, the responsible use of public resources.

Astotin Lake
Elk Island National Park. One of the many great natural places in Alberta.

I believe this applies to Alberta 3.0. Efficiency, stewardship, and responsibility are key. How we manage our resources needs to be the new benchmark, not how fast and in what quantity we bring them to the marketplace. We must prioritize protection of the environment and wilderness, because this affects our quality of life, and because it’s often irrecoverable. Our environment shapes us, as much if not more than we shape it. We must respect it, because major changes to the environment can create major unforeseen problems.

Finally, I want to cover politics. The first, and most important principle, is that politics must be taken seriously. This applies to government, public officials, and citizens alike. I believe we get the government we deserve, for better or worse. If we drop out and don’t participate, there’s a good chance we won’t like the government we get. If we get engaged, that’s a different story. It takes time to understand the issues, to discuss them, and to advocate on them. It takes a seriousness from officials to treat each other, the institutions, and citizens with respect. It takes work to govern well, and to hold our government accountable. Politics must be treated as a serious, necessary, and ultimately worthwhile endeavour for everyone from the senior levels of government, to the citizen who tunes in simply to cast a(n informed) vote on election day, and everyone in between.

Morning Session
Citizens coming together to address the issues is a good first step.

Further on politics, I worry that for some, a new political party, and/or a change in parties in power, is all we need to fix our problem. For me, it’s neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. History is littered with challengers who railed against the status quo and achieved power, at which point they realized the status quo works pretty good for those in charge. To achieve true change, we need a bi-partisan effort to focus on the characteristics of the system; fixing that will in time resolve any problems with the players inside of it.

Note that I said “bi-partisan”, not “non-partisan”. Partisanship is not necessarily a bad thing. Our parliamentary system, with a “government” and an “opposition”, is based on the concept. Partisanship can ensure different opinions are heard, a fundamental characteristic of democracy. In short, partisanship on values is a good thing, as long as it’s rooted in respect for different views; partisanship based on parties, individuals, or institutions – and independent of values – is a bad thing.

The system dictates who is in charge, and how decisions are made. If we want less partisanship, we need a bi-partisan effort, because we will only accomplish this when people on all sides of the debate, and in all parties, are demanding the same high standards.

What are the Next Ten Words?
For me, all of the above is a framework. It outlines the principles for a way forward. But it’s not even close to what we need. If we never get beyond buzzwords like “sustainability” and “engagement”, we won’t get anywhere. What we need is the next ten words.

I couldn’t think of a good real-world example to use here, so instead I turn to The West Wing.

Episode 6 of Season 4, titled “Game On” focuses on the Presidential debate between incumbent President Jed Bartlet, and his challenger, Governor Ritchie. Here is the key scene from the episode:


MODERATOR
Governor Ritchie, many economists have stated that the tax cut, which is centrepiece of your economic agenda, could actually harm the economy. Is now really the time to cut taxes?

RITCHIE
You bet it is. We need to cut taxes for one reason– the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.

MODERATOR
Mr. President, your rebutal.

BARTLET
There it is.

That’s the ten-word answer my staff’s been looking for for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while… every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost
always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words.

(Update: you can watch the clip here)

What I’m looking for is to move beyond the short answers, and to have serious, nuanced conversations about the challenges and opportunities ahead. I have some ideas to start with, and I’m hoping to connect with others who do as well. “Sustainability”, “engagement”, “green energy” are all nice words on paper, but ultimately meaningless if not understood within a specific context, and even dangerous if approached dogmatically. Conversations such as those at Reboot Alberta can be a starting point. That’s what I hope to accomplish this weekend.

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.

State of Alberta: Wildrose Blooms

This is part one of a three part series on the state of politics in Alberta I’m running this week.

Danielle Smith was elected leader
of the Wildrose Alliance Party on Saturday. Earning over 75% of the roughly 8300 votes cast, Smith takes over the fledgling party with a strong mandate.

Smith and her party have been on the receiving end of a lot of publicity, mostly positive, since their surprise win in the Calgary-Glenmore by-election last month. In polls released over the past few weeks, the party finds itself second only to the governing Tories, having lapped the Liberals and NDP before electing a leader or putting forward policies.

Danielle Smith

Four months ago, Danielle Smith first caught my attention, after she delivered what I thought was a very savvy speech at her party’s AGM. She subsequently performed well throughout the campaign, and at the one forum I took in.

Things are going pretty well for Danielle Smith and the Wildrose Alliance right now, but they could also quickly go off the rails. Here are some key issues and questions I see that need to be addressed between now and the next election.

Will Danielle Smith Try to Get Into the Legislature Before the Next General Election?
The next general election is likely to be held in 2012, and will be held no later than the spring of 2013, 3 1/2 years from now. That’s a long time for a party leader to be out of the legislature, and it will be a challenge for Smith to stay prominent in the public eye until then.

With only one MLA, who was only elected a month ago, the chances of Smith running for a seat appear to be in the hands of MLAs from other parties. She would likely run for any opening in Calgary, but will she run outside of her home city if the opportunity presents herself? I see the argument for her trying to win a seat, but I also see an argument for her spending her time criss-crossing Alberta while selling her party’s message, and focusing efforts on the questions that follow.

Can Smith Surround Herself With Talented Candidates?

The party can’t succeed if it’s perceived as a one woman show. It’s imperative that Smith surround herself with capable candidates.

A cautionary tale can be found in the story of Mario Dumont. Dumont, leader of the right-wing Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ), came within a whisker of forming government in Quebec in 2007, instead forming the official opposition in Quebec’s first ever minority government situation. It was assumed by many that he was the Premier in waiting. Instead, 18 months later his party was decimated, returning to third place status, and 2 1/2 years later, he is out of politics and hosting a talk show.

Of the many problems that plagued Dumont, one was the perceived lack of quality MNAs and candidates surrounding him. Smith could fall prey to the same problem if she can’t attract strong candidates. Smith’s team could in large part make or break her attempt to challenge the Tories.

Can They Build an Organization in Time to Compete?

Smith and other WAP boosters have talked about challenging for government in 2012.

As of right now, they have constituency associations in about half of the ridings throughout the province. I imagine many of those are rumps. It’s going to be a significant challenge for the party to build strong constituency associations across the province in a matter of a couple of years. This might be worth watching as a sign of party strength. If we see a grassroots effort from people setting up and participating in constituency associations, it’s a sign that support for the party is real, not just a passing fad.

What Do They Stand For?
The million dollar question for a party with limited policy currently on the books. Smith’s overwhelming win gives her the mandate to pursue a big-tent conservative agenda. Had social conservative Mark Dyrholm done better, there would be more pressure on her to give social conservatism a prominent role. In any case, I see both sides as needing the support of the others – Smith needs them as part of her big tent, and social conservatives probably still see the party as the best avenue for their issues. What will Smith be willing to give them, and what do they want to stay in the tent?

As for other policies, Smith’s campaign website might provide some insight.

The Road to 44?
If the party is serious about forming government, where do they find the support to do so? Are there enough disenchanted Tories (or even Liberals, New Democrats, or Greens) willing to come over? How much appeal do they have for the 60% of voters who stayed home.

A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep?

I feel like Alberta politics is in flux right now. I’m not convinced the support for any party is firm, especially the Wildrose Alliance. I do think they are well-poised to firm up and continue to attract support in the coming months, but their success will depend in large part on how they respond to the questions listed above. It will also depend on the actions of the other parties, but those are topics for another day.

Related:
Daveberta: A Wake Up Call For Alberta’s Political Establisment
Ken Chapman: Smith Wins Wildrose Leadership: Now What?

Be the Change

FDR Shirt

That’s me, sporting my FDR t-shirt. I was incredibly excited to find this in Portland a couple of months back. FDR is one of my political icons; while he was far from perfect, his accomplishments in ushering in the New Deal, and in guiding the United States through most of World War II (he died in office in April 1945, about 4 months before the war officially ended) rank up there with any other President before or since. If he is not the greatest president, he is certainly near the top. I’ve always admired his dedication to helping everyone, especially the less fortunate, and the courage he showed in bringing in dramatic reforms to American society.

The lessons of FDR are useful now. Not only are we facing significant upheaval in our economic system, but we are a society in flux. Additionally, dissatisfaction with, and cynicism about, government run high.

If you’re concerned with any of those issues above, and live in or near Edmonton, Alberta, then you should come to Change Camp on Saturday. The idea, in a nutshell, of Change Camp is to get citizens in a room to discuss their concerns, and hopefully to come up with some ideas about how to go forward. It’s a citizen driven initiative; participants throw out topic suggestions at the beginning of the day, and “vote with their feet“, choosing sessions based on what interests them. For more specific details on the event, I suggest checking out the official website, as well as Daveberta‘s post, along with the slideshow/audio contained within.

All the above sounds great on paper, but what should we really expect? Well, that’s a good question. As a participant-driven event, most of what we get out of it will depend on what we’re willing to contribute in terms of topics and discourse about them. Don’t let the weighty slogan of “how do we re-imagine government and citizenship in the age of participation?” discourage you. At the root, Change Camp is an event about bringing people together, and talking about their ideas and concerns. I picture it more “college kids in a dorm discussing the world” – informal, broad, and collaborative – than “Kingston Conference“. Sure, there will be people in attendance with a specific agenda, but I suspect most people are attending because of a general interest or concern regarding citizenship, government, and politics.

I’m not sure what to expect in terms of outcomes, but I see the process itself as being valuable. It’s the kind of get-together I suggested here (in paragraphs 6-7) needs to happen more often; citizens coming together to discuss, learn, and collaborate. One event or idea likely won’t change the world, but many in aggregate may bring about large-scale change, or plant the seeds for future changes. Change will only come about when citizens take the initiative, and get involved to bring it about. Being passive or dropping out of the system won’t get us anywhere.

If you’re interested in government and citizenship and want to connect with others who are, I hope you’ll join the 170 other citizens who have already signed up, even if it’s just to stop in for a bit.

If you do, feel free to come find me; I’d love to chat. I’ll be the guy in the FDR t-shirt.

Event Details:
ChangeCamp Edmonton
Saturday, October 17, 2009 from 9am to 4:30pm
Registration at 8:30am
Maple Leaf Room, Lister Conference Centre, University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Follow on Twitter: #yegchange

I’ll also be writing intermittently throughout the day on this site.