Alberta Politics

Tiny Alberta Progressive Parties need to get their act together

Alberta Progressive PartyWhat do the Alberta Liberals, New Democrats, Alberta Party and Green Party have in common?

None of these parties will form government after the next election.

Premier Alison Redford
Alison Redford

As Albertans prepare for another electoral showdown between two conservative parties – the long-governing Progressive Conservatives and the opposition Wildrose Party – many non-conservative voters and voters looking for an alternative are left confused and frustrated about their options.

If you are lucky enough to live in one of the nine constituencies already represented by a Liberal or New Democrat MLA, or the small handful of other constituencies they have a realistic shot at winning, your ballot options may be simpler. But if you live in a constituency where the two parties are competing for the same small pool of votes, or more likely their support is almost non-existent, you may not be looking forward to the next election.

Hordes of traditional Liberal and NDP voters became ‘two-minute Tories’ when they joined the PC Party to vote for Alison Redford in that party’s leadership race in 2011. Many of these temporary Tories then helped save the PC Party from electoral defeat in the 2012 election by stopping the right-wing Wildrose from forming government.

Kent Hehr MLA Calgary-Buffalo
Kent Hehr

The big-tent PC Party rewarded their new electoral coalition of progressive voters by turning on the issues dear to them – slashing funding to colleges and universities, passing drastic anti-labour laws and attacking front-line public sector workers. Since the last election, through their actions or their silence, PC MLAs have done near everything in their power to alienate the very people who saved their political dynasty.

So, unless you are the type of progressive voter who enjoys being punished for your vote, your realistic options for the next election may feel limited. Other than swallowing your pride and voting for the Wildrose Party, what are the options for progressive voters?

The NDP are in the midst of a leadership race to replace outgoing leader Brian Mason. The Liberals are feeling good after their weekend annual general meeting and selection of new president, Shelley Wark-Martyn (who was a cabinet minister in Bob Rae’s Ontario NDP government in the early 1990s). Alberta Party leader Greg Clark penned an open letter to the Liberals, asking them to join his party.

Janet Keeping Alberta Green Party
Janet Keeping

But regardless of the good feelings and potential for minor electoral gains, none of these parties are in a position to form government in the next election. And this is a big problem. While the moderate and progressive opposition parties compete in a handful of constituencies in Calgary, Lethbridge and Edmonton, the two conservative parties are competing in a province-wide campaign.

Calgary-Buffalo Liberal MLA Kent Hehr‘s  proposed a party merger in December 2012 and was quickly dismissed by Liberal and NDP stalwarts. A new party could provide an attractive home for long-time PC voters looking for a less conservative alternative to the Wildrose Party. Although this may sound like a sensible option, personality conflicts remain to largest roadblock to a merger.

Some parties have already proposed ideas to help progressive candidates win. Green Party leader Janet Keeping has decided to run in Calgary-Fort rather than challenge Liberal MLA David Swann in Calgary-Mountain View in the next election. This argument assumes that support between parties will automatically carry over to a single candidate, which is not always the case.

David Swann Liberal MLA Calgary-Mountain View
David Swann

It seems that a bigger problem is our winner-takes all first-past-the-post electoral system that creates results that are not a fair reflection of how Albertans voted. For example, in the last election, PC MLA David Dorward was elected in Edmonton-Gold Bar with only 33% of the votes cast in that constituency (49% of the voters in Gold Bar voted NDP or Liberal).

For now, we are stuck with the current system, but change the system to single-transferable vote or proportional representation system and we might not be having this same conversation.

In a province as young, dynamic and prosperous as Alberta, there is little excuse for not having a progressive party able to compete on a province-wide level – for government! If progressive voters cannot rely on the small opposition parties to figure it out on their own, they need to begin demanding an alternative from the parties and their stalwarts who are standing in the way of real progress.

22 replies on “Tiny Alberta Progressive Parties need to get their act together”

Heck yeah man.

As progressives and members of the mentioned parties, we need to make this an unavoidable topic of determined engagement.

Keep up the great work.

Happy to hear you promoting Proportional Representation. I think that it is a much better solution than merger proposals.

If the progressive parties merged then each former party would be fighting for their priorities within a larger merged party, the hope being that their former supporters would unite behind a merged party and not abandon them for watering down their ideals.

Under a PR system each party would be represented in the legislature by a percentage of MLAs roughly equivalent to their percentage of the popular vote (there are a number of different PR systems that could be used to achieve this). This would mean that the negotiations on legislation would play out in a much more transparent format than behind the closed doors of the merged party. Yes, minority governments would be more likely, but minority governments generally govern more closely to the will of the people rather than imposing just one ideology.

Yes, there are similar policies from several parties on a number of issues, so legislation around those policies should be easier to pass, while the parties would also be free to advocate on the policy areas where they have differences and try to build support for their ideas.

“Vote splitting” would be eliminated and voters could support the party that best matches their ideals.

I’m hopeful that the right NDP leadership candidate will excite people to join the NDP and make sure that in two elections there is a real progressive choice for a new government. Rome wasn’t built over night and the wild rose haven’t been around for very long but with the right leader, caucus, and momentum people are thinking that they can take government. This isn’t about branding it’s about commitment and hard work.

This is exactly how the oiligarchs and the social cons like it. PR would be great but I can’t see it happening unless the few progressives left in the PC party take over and push it. And what would they have to gain by doing that?

Hey Dave,

Another great article. Quick question: Are you going to add a link to the top of your page about the NDP leadership race too? As you said previously, it will be a lot more interesting and it’s not a foregone conclusion. It would be nice to see some recognition for the orange party that could!

“begin demanding an alternative from the parties and their stalwarts who are standing in the way of real progress.”

I’m pretty sure it’s this demand that led to the Alberta Party…further fragmenting the political scene. The problem we’re having is that the NDP actually do stand for something meaningfully different (though less so now than 10 years ago), and the Liberals just refuse to acknowledge that they have no future in Alberta. So onwards with the endless line of conservative governments.

Agreed. Agreed. Agreed.

So… what do we do about it? You pose the million-dollar question on everyone’s minds (“Other than swallowing your pride and voting for the Wildrose Party, what are the options for progressive voters?”), though your response is a non-answer.

We voters “need to begin demanding an alternative from the parties and their stalwarts who are standing in the way of real progress”? Really? Forgive me if I find this suggestion vague and ineffective.

From the very beginnings of the PC dynasty, voters have consistently pressured the Liberals, NDP, and Green Party to be more effective. As you mention, however, stalwarts from these organizations will never merge, never compromise, never change. Their stubborn refusal to adapt to the needs –nay– demands of progressive Albertans has now given rise to the fledgling Alberta Party.

Instead of collaborating, these would-be contenders squabble over ringside seats to the championship bout. Voters can always complain that their chosen champion aren’t joining the actual fight. The champions’ response? “This is who we are. If you’re not a true fan, vote for someone else.” AND THE VOTERS DO, until only ‘true fans’ are (voting) left.

The problem is clear, Dave. What’s the solution?

As someone who was quite involved in the so-called “cooperation” debates within the NDP, I have to disagree that personalities are the obstacle. The non-conservative parties we have in Alberta exist in nearly every province and federally, and the 2 major non-conservative parties (the NDP and Liberals) have long (and very different) histories and present realities, both in their constituencies and their politics.

You bring up some legitimate problems, Dave. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that we’ll have another conservative government (of one sort or the other) after the next election. However, politics isn’t just about the next election. Those of us who want a non-conservative or even a progressive government need to work in the reality we’re given. Those who passionately want change need to work for it. That’s no guarantee we’ll get it, but I can guarantee that if those of us who want to see change don’t work for it, it’ll never come.

The answer is simple: vote Wildrose. Let me explain. If Wildrose wins the next election the PCs collapse, there is a left-wing merger, and a notable progressive leader like Nenshi seeks the leadership. Then, we challenge for government two election from now (maybe sooner). If the PCs win the next election, the Wildrose and the PCs continue fighting for all the media attention and donor money, and nothing changes. Let Wildrose have their day, so we can have ours.

Are we STILL all pretending that the Alberta Party and their 17,000 votes are somehow relevant?

That’s cute.

I don’t agree with Joel French’s statement that “politics is not just about the next election.” The Liberals, NDP, and Alberta Party all look irrelevant to most voters and potential political activists because they all did poorly in the last election. Few people are joining these parties and the NDP, according to its own reports to the chief electoral officer, lacks active constituency associations almost everywhere outside of Edmonton and even within Edmonton is essentially dormant in a variety of constituencies. These parties are lying to themselves and everyone else about building for the future. While even a coalition of the parties may not be a candidate for government until the next bust in oil prices, the fact is that without building such a coalition, none of them is ever going to be a candidate for government until the oil runs out. The Liberals and NDP have rather similar policies, with the Liberals last time out having run on a slightly more left-wing platform than the NDP, much as is happening in Ontario at the moment. That speaks more to the NDP’s decision (largely wrong, I think) that they are of more interest to people as a centrist party than as an anti-capitalist party than to any significant shift in the Liberals’ milquetoast policies. But, in any event, having adopted a fiscal framework that is to the right of even what the Lougheed government stood for, the NDP have no ethical reason for failing to cooperate with the Liberals. If these parties wait much longer, the notion that governments are supposed to intervene in the economy to represent the interests of the masses against the classes, fast disappearing in Alberta, will have gone the way of the dodo. If either of them gets to govern, it will be as a right-wing party like the discredited and now defeated recent NDP government in Nova Scotia.

Agree completely with the sentiment of this article.

As long as the situation is such that its introduction would primarily benefit the parties who are not in power, proportional representation will not happen. So, from the perspective of one looking for more progressive government in Alberta, it really isn’t worth discussing.

Also, I completely agree with Mr. Finkel’s comments about the “not about the next election” mindset. When one measures success in terms of abstract, imagined future elections, getting one’s ass handed to him/her in the current one will be more justifiable. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” as one commenter said above, but Alberta’s progressive parties have been at it for a solid 30 years. I think it’s probably time to stop playing the long game.

In sum, all four of these parties are (a) almost completely irrelevant to the province’s politics, and (b) virtually identical ideologically. Given this reality, I think its frankly absurd to not seriously consider merging.

Neal is correct. The Alberta Party came about because members of the Libs, Greens, NDs, WR, and yes, even the PCs were frustrated by the cult mentality in those parties and “their stalwarts who are standing in the way of real progress.”

Alberta Party attracts other people who have never been politically involved in any party because of those same reasons. That attitude is still there in those parties, and the Alberta Party is still here, not large, but continually attracting those Albertans who are ready to leave all the partisan labels behind and work together for an opportunity to make something better.

Adam: Yes, the Alberta Party is still relevant, even more so now. We are doing something, what about you? Why don’t you help?
That would be really cute.

One thing I haven’t seen any info on regarding proportional representation would be how the individual ridings are represented. Right now, the candidate with the most votes in a riding represents that riding. With PR, that might not be the case.
I can’t speak for Edmonton or Calgary ridings but for rural ridings, it is important to know who your MLA is. It’s all fine and good to say that the Assembly reflect the overall vote percentages but how you determine which riding gets which party is a fairly big unknown.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who says I’d back PR but only if my constituency is guaranteed a MLA from the governing party.

I urge my NDP friends to make co-operation with other non-conservative parties an issue in their leadership contest. I urge my Liberal and Alberta Party friends to persuade their leaders to reconsider their rejection of co-operation. As Dave points out, Green Leader Janet Keeping has made the first move in her commitment to cooperate with other non-conservative parties, but unless she has others to cooperate with, we’ll all just be doing the same thing over again and getting the same results.

A response to Darren: In Germany and New Zealand, they use a mix of proportional representation and first past the post to achieve both a legislature that represents absolutely the division of support among parties PLUS individual areas. Half the seats are determined solely by the results in constituencies on a first past the post basis. The other half are distributed in a way that tops up each party’s support to its percentage of the vote. And so for example, if you had an election where every seat went to one party that had 60 percent of the vote (that happened in one election in New Brunswick), that party of course would have all of the constituency seats. The other parties–in the New Brunswick case, the Conservatives had 25 percent of the vote and no seats, the NDP had about 10 percent and some cranky anti-bilingual folks had 5 percent. Let’s say there are 100 seats. In the mixed system, the Liberals would receive 50 seats from constituencies plus 10 as their top-up. The Tories would get 25 seats, the NDP 10, and the Confederation of Regions cranks 5 seats.

Frankly, though, whether there’s a mixed system or straight PR, each party has an incentive when it puts together its list in rank order to: a) have gender balance; b) have representation from all regions; c) have representation from all age groups. Comparisons of parliaments based on PR, mixed or not, and parliaments based exclusively on FPTP always show that the former are far more representative of the whole population than the latter, particulary in the area of gender equality.

I disagree about “merging” the so-called progressive parties: the Alberta Party, the Alberta Liberal Party & the NDP. I have seen no evidence, outside of a few Edmonton and area constituencies, and perhaps one or two elsewhere, that their combined vote total is any threat to the right-wing domination of the Alberta electorate.

For example, let us look at northwestern Alberta. Seven ridings: Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley, Lesser Slave Lake, Grande Prairie-Smoky, Grande Prairie-Wapiti, Peace River, and Whitecourt-Ste-Anne; two “rurban” (mixed urban & rural) & five rural. Firstly the Alberta Party: they got zero, count ‘em, zero votes in any of these seven ridings in 2012. Of course, this could be because they ran zero, count ‘em, zero candidates in NW Alberta, but that is somewhat beside the point. The new “fresh alternative” had no presence in the northwest, and still doesn’t.

Then we have the NDP & the Liberals (full disclosure: I am a long-time, card-carrying New Democrat). In the 2012 election, the most these two parties could muster together in these seven ridings was 11.8% of the popular vote. The NDP’s highest vote proportion was in Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley, at 9.6%, and the Liberals’ highest was in Peace River, at 6.5%. Between them, the highest was also in Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley, where the Liberals & NDP together managed to collect 12.3%.

In the meantime, the two right-wing parties, the PCs and the Wildrose Alliance (as they were then called), were neck & neck in all seven ridings, with vote percentages for Wildrose ranging from a low of 28.4% in Peace River to a high of 43.3% in Whitecourt-Ste-Anne. The PCs’ vote percentages ranged from 45.1% in Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley to 55.7% in Peace River. Taking these seven ridings together, the PCs drew 48.5% and the Wildrose pulled in 38.7%.

Why does the right dominate Alberta politics so completely? This is after all not new; before the PC dynasty begin in 1971, Albertans had elected Social Credit governments for decade after decade. I would argue that there are several factors that contribute to this phenomenon.

Firstly, at least in the booming oil & gas-based economy of northwestern Alberta, there is an element of “dance with the one what brung ya” to this. The breakneck exploitation to get all the oil and gas out of the ground right now before it spoils has given a lot of young, often relatively unskilled people financial security and luxury goods; those with skills, like certified tradespersons, are making out like bandits. Why would they want to do anything that might change that, such as elect someone that might put the brakes on?

Secondly, I think the pace of work in the oilpatch acts as a form of voter suppression: oil & gas workers are so busy they have no time for anything other than working, eating and sleeping, often for 15 days at a time; during their time off, they then have to play catch up with their families, their home chores (yard work, repairs, etc.), and so on. There is no time for them to give any thought to politics, and voting is just not a priority. In my opinion, the same applies to their spouses and partners left behind, keeping up with their kids’ school, after-school activities, and other family matters while the oilpatch worker is away. Low voter turnouts in this region would tend to support this idea, since low turnouts tend to favour the right.

Finally, some pundits have speculated that the recent influx of Newfoundlanders, Maritimers, Ontarians, and others from the rest of Canada and all around the world might serve to realign the Alberta political consensus, as they come from places where the governing party has been known to lose elections from time to time. But despite the fact that so much of Alberta’s population growth had been from in-migration and not just natural increase, the political picture has not changed one iota. Why could that be? Could it be that many of the people who come to Alberta share its values and outlook? Could Alberta be something of a sump into which the rest of Canada’s conservative voters drain, eventually swinging the political axis of the rest of the country more to the centre-left? Certainly worth a thought.

As a dedicated, lifelong New Democrat, I despair of any real evolution in Alberta politics in my lifetime; maybe it will happen, but only after the last droplet of oil and the last molecule of natural gas are pulled from the ground, and the bottom falls out of the Alberta economy.

I disagree with the comment about the pace of oilfield work being a deterrent. Most of the people I know in the oilfield have some time here and there. Heck, during spring breakup, people are scrambling for work. I’ve never heard “I work too much, I can’t vote” as an excuse. Usually the excuses are pretty standard “I don’t vote, my vote doesn’t count, all the parties are crooks, etc”. The company I work for makes time for employees to go vote and those who want to vote, do vote.

In my mind, who votes for what party depends a lot on whether people rely on government funding or not. I’m not talking about the use of government services, but the direct benefit of government spending. Ridings with large schools/universities, government operations and large health care operations would likely vote Lib or NDP since their income or financial support comes directly from the government. Look at where the Libs/NDPs are strongest, in Edmonton where there are a lot of provincial government workers and students. Increased government spending means higher wages and more financial support.
In the rural areas, there are fewer people who live off government revenues, most sink or swim by their own resources. To them, increased government spending means higher taxes and more money out of their pockets.

As for newcomers bringing change to Alberta politics, what might be happening is that they’re coming to Alberta because they like the politics and don’t want it to change. Maybe they’re looking for a place where the conservative fiscal philosophy rules and they can keep more of their hard earned money.

Oh here we go the same dumb arises keep thing that 4 NDP seats and 5 lib seats will equal 9 seats. 4 plus 5 in this case equals zero seats. Albertans will wholly reject amalgamations as a desperate political gimmick, and in the on the flip side, the Tories know this and you can bet your bottom dollar they are covertly stoking this to collapse all left parties through an unfruitful amalgamation. Some of you gimmicky and naive amalgam lists have to re-enter your body in this dimension. What we need is a normal political spectrum. We need NDP on left, Liberal on the center and conservatives on the right, a normal spectrum like all other provinces. Progressive parties can grow by launching their political ambitions at the Tories since almost 500,000 progressive voters are there. Fighting each each other is a waste of volunteers time, waste of donors money, and amalgamations are just a waste of energy and which only in the end aids the Tories and will disenfranchise and already jaded public, that will lose what little tolerance and respect it has for progressive parties.

Some of you were once in the Libs or ND, but could not get along because of differences. You Greens and AP types need to get back to the parties you came from, grow up and check your baggage at the door and face the fact that your well intentioned divisiveness is immature, childish, gimmicky and amateurish. Grow up and check your baggage at the door.

“What do the Alberta Liberals, New Democrats, Alberta Party and Green Party have in common?

None of these parties will form government after the next election.”


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