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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

the left in alberta: comfortably marginalized?

A couple of weeks ago, I focused on the buzz around the right-wing Wildrose Alliance leadership contest, and candidate Danielle Smith in particular. This post focuses on Alberta's opposition parties on "the left" - the Alberta Liberals and the Alberta NDP. As I have already written posts dealing specifically with the state of the Liberal and NDP parties, I have decided to take a look at the state of the institutional "political left" that they claim to represent.

Some people may argue that the centrist-left Liberals shouldn't be included in the same category as the pseudo-socialist left-wing NDP (and vice-versa), but it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the two parties and the challenges and character flaws that they both face.

Since the 2008 provincial election, the Democratic Renewal Project, a group consisting of both NDP and Liberal members, has been calling for something to change. While I don't agree with their solution - a temporary electoral coalition between the two parties that would push for proportional representation in our elections - I do respect that they are willing to break from traditional party lines and publicly call for change.

While the DRP holds hope that the two opposition parties can work together for positive change, I strongly believe that certain MLAs and individuals in the establishments of the two parties are too comfortable in the dysfunctionality of the current situation to work towards a real solution. In effect, I am becoming more convinced that as neither party in their past or current existences have proven that they are able to effectively bring political change to Alberta, their destruction is necessary for political change to take place. As long as the two parties are limited by their own partisan blinders to winning a combined total of 9 to 20 of the 83 seats in the Assembly, they will remain a tiny opposition.

I haven't seen much evidence that the left as a movement has pride in Alberta. From a historical/political myth-building context, it appears that the political left doesn't fit naturally in the narrative of Alberta's story. As Mark Lisac wrote in his book 'Alberta Politics Uncovered: Taking Back our Province' there are a large number of mainstream Albertans who self-identify as 'conservatives.' The left has allowed itself to be defined by Alberta's narrative - the mythical land of rodeos, cowboys, red meat, and oil rigs - an image which urban academics, labour unions and environmental activists don't easily fit into.

There are many reasons why the left continues to electorally and politically spin its wheels in Alberta, including lack of broad organizational capacity, self-interested party "leaders," and an bizarre defeatist martyr complex, but many Albertans involved in opposition politics simply don't show pride in their province. If I were a leader of an opposition party in Alberta (yes, I'm gawking too), I would constantly wrap myself in Alberta’s flag. At every opportunity, I would talk about how proud I am to be an Albertan - proud of our history, proud our beautiful province, and proud of what our future holds. I would talk about how strong our province is, the strength of Albertans hard working character, and I would emphasize the reality that Alberta isn't going to realize its full potential if we allow the same tired politicians to control our Legislative Assembly.

Instead of being defined by its criticism of the governing PCs, Alberta's opposition parties on the left should prove to Albertans that they stand for something that is more than a reaction to the actions of the governing party (or the other opposition party). By continuing to chase the flavour of the week, both opposition parties are allowing themselves to be marginalized by Alberta's cultural and political narratives.

Days after the PCs steamrolled over the Liberals and NDP in the March 2008 election, I offered some advice to the two opposition parties:
Party archetypes in both camps really need to put aside their biases and prejudices and take a serious and objective look at why their parties are not connecting with Albertans.
A year later, I am convinced that the party archetypes in both parties are continuing down the same road that has led to their sequestration to the opposition benches. At the moment, it's difficult to see much hope for Alberta's Liberals and NDP. I continue to hear from a growing number of disgruntled politically moderate Albertans displeased with the governing PCs and unimpressed with the opposition parties which leads me to believe that Alberta's political left better start standing for something real or be destroyed. Failing to do either is killing democracy in this province.


Aaron said...

You're onto something, Dave, with the Alberta pride. It's nearly impossible to hate the "other" when you see that they also love Alberta.

Bob McInnis said...

Dave, you hiot the target but missed the bull's eye. I feel the disfunctional satisfaction has lead to irresponsible representation. Not being effective lowers expectations for and from the parties on the left. Not much is expected from citizens or leadership and that is exactly what is deliverd - not much. Losing 1/2 their seats in the last election doesn't seem to have been a wakeup call. ND's bark and yip the same as before and Libs traded professor taft for Dr Swann and continue to muddle along. The opposition seems to have lost all will to even imagine the mantle of leadership of the province and are back to biting, bitching, and baiting. That might explain why the last Environics poll still gives PCs 56% popular vote.

Chris LaBossiere said...

Excellent post Dave.

I particularly like the point that is being made on how the opposition parties for whatever reason seem to alienate many of the centrist voters by coming off as “anti-Albertan”.

I for one resonate with the entrepreneur, cowboy, red-meat thing. It’s not that I am a red-neck by the typical standard, but it is part of our ethos to be more independent of government intervention in our lives, and for whatever reason that translates into a more conservative vote.

That said, if we look at our American friends, they are fiercely patriotic/proud across all political spectrum's, and the Democrats (left) are still able to gather support without offending the nationalistic feelings of their followers. They do that because they are American first. "Draped in the flag" if you will.

I think the foundations/leadership of each left party are too self interested in the status-quo as you mentioned and I doubt they will get past this to provide a viable alternative for Albertans. Also, I honestly I don’t think either are centrist enough to attract the attention of the average Albertan on issues of individual fiscal responsibility and statism.

For me, I would simply be pleased to see some real leadership from the PC's on social issues. They seem to be veering right, at a time when it is simply not the will of the majority.

Either way, a stronger opposition from the left, either within the PC party or outside of it, would provide a good service to Albertans.

Anonymous said...

Now we just need someone with the time, energy and connections to spearhead a "new left" in Alberta. You seem like a good candidate Dave, time to get on it! :)

Darren said...

What the Tories use during each election is the "us versus them" seige mentality by painting Ottawa as the bad guy and saying only the Tories will stand up to Ottawa. There are enough examples of where national interests were counter to Alberta's and all the Tories have to do is bring those up and say they're the party to stand up to Ottawa. You never see the ALP say that and that's thair biggest image problem. People aren't sure that when push comes to shove an ALP government will stand up to their Federal counterparts (assuming a LPC government). So the Tories define the enemy - which is a textbook election strategy - and the ALP does nothing to separate itself from the defined enemy. The ALP needs to break that connection (perceived or otherwise) to the LPC. They need to prove they'll put Alberta first and if that means defending the Oilsands against another Green Shift-style carbon plan (as an example) they need to do it.
And I'm not sure if it's a "redneck" versus academic issue. Believe it or not, most "rednecks" believe health care and education are important and that there needs to be some degree of government programs.
I think it's more a tax generator-tax consumer issue. Any party has to realize that if you're going to increase spending on things like health or education it's got to come from somewhere. We've seen over the past few years just how unreliable royalty revenues can be so the only real stable, semi-predictable source of government revenues is individual and business taxes. Saying "we need to boost education funding" sounds great when your a teacher or student but not so great when you're a small or large business owner because it will be you footing the bill.

Anonymous said...

Avenue Magazine has an in-depth article coming out in October in regards to the future of the left.

Christopher Spencer said...

The 1921 United Farmers of Alberta and the 1935 Social Credit Parties achieved government in the first campaigns they contested. The 1971 Progressive Conservatives were a reconstituted group under Peter Lougheed which grew from six seats to government in four years.

In essence, the strategies both the Liberals and the New Democrats are pursuing have never succeeded in bringing political change in Alberta.

Perhaps that's one of the reasons why qualified voters are simply dropping out of the electoral process, not bothering even to cast ballots.

I agree with you completely, Dave. Tweaking platforms or changing leaders is not going to help the cause of progressive Albertans. But opposition politicians seem to enjoy the self-righteousness of not having to compete, in a serious way, to form a government.

A said...

Everyone loses (big and small business included) when education and health and other "social" programs aren't funded properly. And not just in fluffy unquantifiable ways. A top-notch educational system improves our competitive advantage: an investment in the future, if you will.
And a top notch health care system saves everyone time, money, stress, and productivity. Not that we've had one lately to prove the point, but it's still a point worth making.

As are all yours, Dave. Until someone gets their act together,I fear that we're not going to hear measured, resonant arguments founded in a competing vision for a better Alberta coming from the non-PC corners of the spectrum or the Legislature.

John said...

A good article again Dave; I enjoy the comment.

finn said...

Good post. I think you're right about the pride thing. I always thought Nick Taylor was a natural choice for liberal leader in this respect, though interestingly it was a technocrat (Lawrence Decore) who got closest to the premier's seat.

Jim Whitelaw said...

The issue is much simpler than lack of Alberta pride or ineffective leadership. The plain fact is that most Albertans just aren't buying what the left is selling. No amount of "lipsticking the pig" of socialism will help; Albertans will continue to reject it on fundamental principles alone.

Sue Huff said...

Thanks for this, Dave. Great discussion. Personally, I can't breath in a negative, angry space very long. It's energy-sucking and I can't imagine where the NDs/Liberals find the strength to continue to rail against the Goliath. I would love to see party labels wiped out and people start listening to each other. Good ideas are not the sole property of one ideology. I think the public is tuning out, dropping out, refusing to vote (have you read, Seeing by Jose Saramago, by the way? Brilliant, but I digress)...they are refusing to vote because of the apparent hopelessness of the current political situation. I hope the future holds some bright young minds with the courage to make decisions. Where's our Obama??? Hey, Dave, is it you??

Anonymous said...

If only Jim Whitelaw was even remotely correct. Sadly there is no more socialistic provicial government in all of Canada than the governing PCs of Alberta. We have the highest spending per capita BY FAR. Rather than adhere to a "dog eat dog" ideology, the PCs continue to implement left wing ideas, albeit in right wing ways. Implementing bad ideas like P3 schools and roads, removing regulated rates from monopolistic basics like electricity and trying to privatize things like health care.

All that ends up happening is the PCs friends make scads and scads of money off of Joe Albertan's tax dollars at a disgusting rate. Where do you think all of those oil revenues went? They paid for these ridiculous forays into private delivery of public services. It's no wonder we're broke, Albertans aren't brave enough to do without their safety nets (by voting say WRAP), but are in fear of the parties best equipped to manage them (those like ND and Libs that came up with the ideas!)

Sheila said...

There is a lot to be said for your prescription for more "Alberta Pride" in the opposition rhetoric. I think the parties would do well to do that.

Having said that, I continue to believe that your prescription still smacks of the quick fix too many on the Alberta left still dream of. There is no quick and easy solution that will magically convince half the population to abandon the Tories.

The NDP and (especially) the Liberals still have a long way to go to build up their ground games. It's tiring, boring work raising money and selling memberships, but it's the only thing that works. There is no magical communications solution that will avoid all the painstaking work too many on the left want to avoid.

hatrock said...

"Archetypes" eh Dave?

How Jungian of you.

But again, you nailed it. The Liberals actually have a prime opportunity to trump the PCs on the economic right side of the equation AND ESPECIALLY on the social libertarian side. But they don't. Decore could have pulled it off, and maybe Dave Taylor.

For now, many captialistic-libertarians have their eyes on Danielle Smith.

Anonymous said...

According to Naheed Nenshi, partisan labels are irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

I prefer this take on the left.

Curmudgeon-at-Large said...

There is a total leadership vacuum at all levels of government, because true leadership would tell us unacceptable truths and gain no followers. Instead, we have the blind leading the blind into the abyss.

In less than 20 years, it will be obvious that our capabilities to use up our planet have outrun our capabilities to manage our behaviour as a species. Then there will come a crash of our civilization that will make the petty problems of managing our current issues with undemocratic decision-making and unequal opportunities seem like paradise.

Enjoy what we have now; after us, the deluge.

Brian Dell said...

The "left" should probably start by acknowledging the fact that the provincial government is not all that "right wing" in terms of how well public sector and other unionized employees are doing (it's a bit difficult to sell revolution to someone with two cars in the garage) and the level of public spending on social services. If Stelmach does not make any cuts in the name of deficit fighting, there simply won't be much room to attack from the left.

Wrapping one's self in the flag won't be very convincing if one does not also demonstrate a natural identification with the mentality of the "typical" Albertan. Where the "left" goes wrong is not recognizing that Alberta is what it is because it was founded not by a British born aristocracy but by peasants from central, northern, and eastern Europe who laboured to build this province far from distant Ottawa. As such, Albertans have little time for establishment wisdom and don't the have the reserve many easterners do about a lot of policy proposals, who see see most public debates as just another round in a tired battle of vested interests going back centuries. Albertans know civilization would not collapse overnight if EVERYTHING were on the table, since less than 100 years ago everything was more or less just getting started from scratch. When I lived in Ontario, I noticed that what was different from Calgary was not so much what was said but what was not said. Some guy whips out some out-of-the-box idea and Calgarians reckon on giving it a shot. Ontarians are skeptical: they reckon there are institutional forces at work as opposed to just individuals and one has to battle those malign interests. So in Ontario the specifics of whether a new idea worked or not often got lost.

So it is that the political left in Alberta should avoid talking up "structural" oppression and instead talk up particular injustice. For want of a better example, I'd note the view of the "old left" of last year's Russia-Georgia war versus the view of the "new left", the latter represented by the UK Guardian. The Guardian did not just see a conflict over oil, or malevolent American interests, or some sort of macro theme like that. The paper saw a developing humanitarian crisis, mostly created by Russian indifference to the actions of Ossetian militias behind the front line. That's it. No need for pontificating about grand geopolitics. Take a stand and make an issue out of it without losing people by getting abstract.

A better way to phrase this may be to simply make issues in Alberta about citizens. Show how something does not help particular citizens. Don't go railing on about the corporate agenda or any variant of "the Man" because too many Albertans remember when there was no "Man" in charge here: it was just wide open spaces, and anybody who came up with a good idea would get a hearing. Keep that optimistic focus and serve up genuinely good policy; don't just try to protect the status quo from innovation.

roblaw said...

You make some good points Dave, but, if you want my $.02.. if the Liberals want to make headway, they will never do it in Alberta by identifying themselves in any respect as a "left" or even a "centrist left" party.

As we can truly see Provincially (see BC, see Alberta)and federally (see government spending under Martin and Harper), the lines between right and left in this country are blurry to the point of becoming quickly irrelevant for anyone other than the NDP which continues to refuse to understand the fundamental reality that broad-based socialist policies don't work.

I think the Liberals would be well advised to do two things:

a) Don't elect leaders who are devoid of attraction to average Albertans;

b) Start dissavowing identification with notions of left and right, and re-brad the party as a party concerned with what works for Albertans. Go ahead and identify those things that the Conservatives may have done right (so you're not automatically alienating anyone who has ever voted PC), and say the Liberal party is a party of what works.. not a party of "isms".. there is a time for government support of the less able and a time for government demand for personal accountibility.

I've learned a bit ranting on the blogs, and fundamentally, most of us want the same things.. and there are points of view of great validity from the "right" and the "left" and only a government devoid of imagination or married to useless ideology refuses to admit that. So - Liberals - open your minds to admitting that fundamentally, Albertans have not been a bunch of stupid sheep in voting conservative, but suggest the time has come to take the next step, to something more profound and more imaginative..

And you might find people warm to such an idea. You know, there was a time where the only two parties in BC were hard-right Social Credit and NDP.

Anonymous said...

I'm just hoping we can bankrupt the ALP once and for all with the Calgary-Glenmore byelection. The ALP itself might appreciate being put out of its misery.

Has anyone noticed that the Liberal Renewal project just kinda vanished? The one topic that had the most hits by far was the thread on name change...even after they locked the thread from further discussion. They even claim to have produced a report...anyone seen it or have a link?

A said...

Just going to draw some attention to a point buried in the middle of the post that undermines the whole "daveberta gives more tips to save the ALP" interpretation...

"I am becoming more convinced that as neither party in their past or current existences have proven that they are able to effectively bring political change to Alberta, their destruction is necessary for political change to take place."

Bye-bye for now.

Anonymous said...

The 'wrapping yourself in the Alberta Flag' bit will only get you so far with the voters. They're going to want to know what your policies are, and at the end of the day, the left's position on the political spectrum forces it to espouse policies that just aren't that interesting to average Albertans. Take their position on oil and gas royalties, for example: the Liberals' policy was to raise the royalty rates even higher, as dictated by their tax and spend ideology. You just can't sell that to Albertans, no matter how much you say you love the province.

Christel said...

Great post, Dave.

JerryMacGP said...

I think the point being missed by many, Dave C. included, is that many of the key features of Alberta culture that are seen as part of the province's narrative are themselves anti-progressive and reactionary. The "git-'er-dun" approach to worklife, which allows employers to keep their workers on the job long past what would be acceptable anywhere else in Canada, and thumbs its nose at workplace health & safety, employment standards, and so on; laughable environmental regulation and wildlife protection; the myth of self-sufficiency that keeps us from truly creating and enhancing co-operative public interest enterprises.

If many leftists (myself included) lack pride in Alberta, is it any wonder? This province's political culture is the laughingstock of North America; and the mentality of the "typical" Albertan is summed up by "the rules don't apply to me". This is why as a transplanted Nova Scotian (although born in Ottawa) who has lived here for over 20 years, I still refuse to allow myself to be identified as Albertan.

What is to be proud of? Tailings ponds in Fort Mac? Useless government MLAs that are nothing more than trained seals? A health minister that acts like a bull in a china shop? Hah!

Merlin Durken said...

A marginalized Left assumes a politically charged population. I submit that far and away people are not that engaged, in any of the Alberta parties anyway -- they just belong to a particular swimming club. Political engagement by the Conservatives involves renewing their 'season's pass' to the pool they use when the annual bill for their dues arrive. Because people have an opinion and tend to get noisier while expressing them it just seems like they have thought about the things they talk about. It tends not to be rational, or necessarily cogent.

"What's in it for me?" could be viewed as a political position/statement, much in the same way an anthropologist might view the institutionalized human interactions at a bank as 'culture', but negative culture isn't culture, in the same way sitting quietly in a banquet hall with a thousand others isn't a political momentum. Acquiescence isn't a political position, it's a negative political position. No argument and gainsaying isn't politics. Chanting "We're Party Number One where in the hell is Two?" isn't a political statement, it's a schoolyard taunt.

If a schoolyard taunt is what passes for political engagement in Alberta the Left isn't marginalized... it's just enduring the presence of a clutch of boisterous jocks and their adoring, mute acolytes at a morning assembly while the teachers are huddled sharing a last cigarette in the staff room. Unsupervised, the rabble seems loud and annoying, unless you're 'engaged' in their mild misbehaviour as well.

Recapping your social studies reading homework by choice instead of jostling your neighbors and blurting mindlessly to your mate two rows up isn't marginalization.

Anonymous said...

Do you think that the opposition party leaders haven't tried to wrap themselves in the Alberta flag? Do you think they aren't aware of dominant naratives and how difficult it is, as "opposition" parties to position themselves favourably in those narratives? Do you think they don't consider ideas for how to alter or undermine those narratives? It wouldn't be hard to take your little script and find versions of it strewn throughout history. And that's just those that somehow get on the record. Lisac's basic observations have been around for years and years.

And this brilliant advice to define themselves by what they stand for rather than reacting to the governing party and chasing the flavour of the week. Wow, that's original. It's also naive in its one-sidedness. There's virtually no evidence that your "let's propose a positive alternative" strategy has ever really worked. People love to think that sort of thing is what motivates them to switch votes and defeat sitting governments, but there's precious little evidence for it. The fact that lots of people can be turned off when they hear "negative hyper partisanship" (or whatever your pet term is) doesn't mean it can't and doesn't have the desired (net) effect. Political change is more often about kicking the bums out. No sign that fundamental political dynamic is threatened - Obama's rhetorical bullshit notwithstanding. And so it's a delicate balance for opposition parties to be "oppositional", including reacting to what government is doing and proactively offer positive alternatives. They're both essential parts of opposition parties' democratic mandate, and they're both essential to success.
Sorry Dave, but the fact (the necessary fact) that opposition parties chase stories, hound the government for its missteps, be "oppositional" etc. has very little to do with allowing themselves to be "marginalized by Alberta's cultural and political narratives". If the supposed narrative precludes criticism, that's not a narrative opposition parties can or should want to be a part of. To the extent that's part of the narrative. They have to slowly work on changing that narrative, replacing or challenging it with one where offering constructive criticism and even being forcefully oppositional is fully compatible with being a proud Albertan. That's the real work of democracy. That's the mandate of good opposition parties.
I certainly agree that party "archetypes" [sic] in opposition parties need to take a hard look at themselves. That's an ongoing task. But the advice you provided is partly old news and partly just naive, inconsequential drivel. It's easy to say "put aside your biases"; "offer positive alternatives"; wrap yourself in the flag"; "stand for something real"; or whatever. But what does that really mean? Is this anything new? From my spot on the sidelines, both opposition parties have been standing for real things for decades. I've heard so many constructive alternatives that they're just white noise. And I've often heard them talk about how great Alberta is. They probably do it a lot more but it doesn't make the media story.

Even if the existing parties are destroyed, what would rise from the ashes? Nothing fundamentally new, because the game and the challenge of winning would remain the same. And nothing you've offered here provides any new insights on how to get the job done. Hey, wait a minute, why don't they they TWITTER it?

daveberta said...

Thanks for all the comments. There is some pretty good dialogue happening, and it’s clear that there is no consensus about why the opposition parties aren’t connecting with Albertans. These are the kind of discussions that aren’t being held within the political parties that should be happening.

I’m not claiming that wrapping themselves in the Alberta flag is the solution to all the oppositions challenges (they have a lot more challenges than that), but I do think that it would be a good start. They need to take a look at how they’re being defined, and I don’t believe that Party members and insiders have taken the kind of introspective look at the culture of their parties and Alberta’s political culture since the last election.

Both opposition parties have had opportunities to take a different track, but as far as I can tell, they are unwilling to admit what caused their defeats in the last election. Both the Liberals and NDP lost have their MLAs in the last election, but what have they done inside their political parties to over come this challenge?

Our political parties aren’t responding or connecting with Albertans in a meaningful way. This is as much a fault of the Liberals and NDP as it is the PCs, but they need to change if they don't want to continue along a course of irrelevancy.

Anonymous said...

Where's the ALP renewal report Dave? They claimed to have produced it 2 months ago. Have you seen it and do you think it even exists? I notice they shut down after the majority of postings became Viagra spam. An omen perhaps :)

daveberta said...

Anonymous: Thanks for the comment. I'm actually not sure where the ALPs renewal report is. I emailed Mo Elsalhy a couple of weeks ago about it, but have yet to hear back. Will investigate further.