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7 Thoughts About The Alberta Party

This won’t be recognized as big news by most people, but it could very well be the catalyst for big events in the future. The Renew Alberta movement and the Alberta Party have come together, and will be relaunching with a project called “The Big Listen” to set out the Alberta Party’s new policies.

I have a few thoughts on this, and I’ll share them here:

1. I agree with points 1-3 in Calgary Grit’s post on the subject. In fact, you should give his entire post a read.

2. To reiterate one of CG’s points, I have a lot of time for the people involved with this. That is, frankly, the biggest reason I’m paying attention to this initiative. If they can get some of these people to run for them in the next election, even better.

3. Different options are good, and I hope the Alberta Party will be successful in bringing new ideas into the political forum.

4. Do I support or agree with the Alberta Party? That’s hard to say, given that they effectively have no policies right now. I do support the concept of “The Big Listen” and hope it is successful. That said, the practices of “consulting” and “listening” to the public have been so often abused in the past that one could be forgiven for being a skeptic. I believe the Alberta Party is sincere about this, so I hope that open consultation and participation becomes a standard practice in the party. In any case, I think the most important thing is that the role of “the Big Listen” and where the party goes after that is well understood by people.

5. Transparency is a good thing, so it would be nice to put some names and faces to the Alberta Party (and Renew Alberta as well). Right now, no one is identified on the website except Alberta Party leader Edwin Ericksen and the Renew Alberta co-chairs. I give my friend Chris LaBossiere a lot of credit for disclosing his role on the Alberta Party board (you should also read Chris’ post on the Alberta Party). No other members of the Alberta Party board or the Renew Alberta organizing committee are identifiable. For the record, you can find the Tory, Liberal, and Wildrose Alliance boards listed on their websites.

6. The two biggest challenges I see for the Alberta Party, or any party for that matter, are differentiating themselves from the other options on the ballot, and attracting strong people to the party, especially as candidates. There is progress on this already (see points #2 and #4).

7. An idea about how politics can be done differently: Start acknowledging when other parties have good ideas. They all do. So there’s no reason to completely reinvent the wheel as far as policy goes. Conversation should talk about what we do well already, not just things that should be improved.

Sunday morning update: Dave King notes his role with the Alberta Party board in his latest blog post.

Ken Chapman’s take on the Alberta Party deserves a read as well, as does Jane Morgan’s blog posts where she asks some tough questions about the Alberta Party. Finally, Daveberta writes about his breakfast with the new Alberta Party.

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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: 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.