Can the Left Survive?

After decades of Tory dominance, Alberta politics might be so far to the right that there’s little chance for the left.

The Legislature Annex was built in 1951 by and for Alberta Government Telephones, who then sold it to the provincial government in 1966. It is mere steps northeast of its elegant and historic parent structure, the legislature building, a proximity that does the annex no favours; it is a dispiriting building, not least because its colour schemes and utilitarian shape give it the appearance of being a 12-storey homage to the common portable toilet.

Worse even than resembling a giant outhouse is that although the annex is next door to the legislature, it might as well be in Siberia, given how removed it feels from the locus of power. It is the Gulag Archipelago of Alberta politics, which is why it currently houses the two-MLA New Democrat army and the nine-MLA Liberal horde. As the parties that make up Alberta’s left, a term that is itself subject to regular debate, the New Democrats and the Liberals have no home but this exile.

And a poor home the annex is, in so many ways. The day I visited Dr. David Swann, the still wet-behind-the-ears leader of the Alberta Liberal Party, construction workers were jackhammering away at the front door of the main entrance directly below the second-floor meeting room where the Liberal caucus was receiving a briefing from the Alberta Forest Products Association. It was intensely loud at times, so much so that it was difficult to hear what the AFPA representatives had to say. The noise, coupled with the decay of the building, lent the proceedings a Fawlty Towers air, which was rather unfortunate given the overall level of intelligence and curiosity the caucus brought to the meeting.

When I was able to meet one-on-one with Swann, we returned to his office, where the only repairs underway are those to the Alberta Liberal Party. Swann was elected Liberal leader December 13, 2008, and he inherited a party hobbled with fewer MLAs and party members than ever to carry it, a fact that has yet to dampen his spirits. A tall, slender, bespectacled man, he has spent his life trying, largely with success, to make his actions a direct reflection of his convictions. Few in the media or the legislature doubt his integrity; the question more often asked is whether he has the ability to make a Lazarus out of the Liberals.

I began by asking Swann about public terminology often used to describe his party, such as left wing. “I have a reaction to phrases like the ‘left’ in relation to the Liberal Party of Alberta,” he said. “Because, in fact, we are more to the right than the Conservatives, in terms of fiscal policies. Being a Liberal means being a centrist, not the right or the left, in that it reflects the best of the free enterprise system and also the best of social supports for people. So I wouldn’t say we’re a party of the left or a party of the right.”

The notion of the Liberals being to the right of the Stelmach government is purely situational, given that both the Liberals and the NDP, not to mention the far-right Wildrose Alliance, all believe the PCs to be profligate spenders. That the NDP might consider itself to the right of the Stelmach government in terms of fiscal restraint is simply indicative of how critical the opposition parties are of Tory spending.

In a province such as Alberta, where the right has dominated for so long, defining the left is a topic seldom discussed in the land. And so what, precisely, is the left in Alberta?

“In Alberta,” says Ricardo Acua of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan political think-tank at the University of Alberta, “it’s an incredibly small circle of people who I would say are active on the left.” In some ways, says Acua, politics in Alberta is rather the opposite of how people define their faith. Even people who never go to church might still say they are Catholic or Anglican or Baptist, yet in politics people who have voted Tory for 30 years still might not define themselves as right-wingers. Others think it’s not even a pertinent debate. “I’m honestly not sure the terms right and left even apply anymore,” says Swann. “I talk to younger people all the time, and they tell me that they don’t think that way, that they just want to see their public interest for the long term reflected in a political party, and they don’t care what it’s called.”

Before the Liberals can effectively change the perception some people have of the party, Swann must tackle the $400,000 debt the Liberals face. “That’s going to be one of my major points of focus over the next few years, making the party debt-free,” says Swann. “One of the best ways to do that is by combining it with another goal, which is to triple our membership [from 6,000 to 18,000].”

At one level, aiming to triple party membership in three years might seem Panglossian, but the more provocative interpretation of his goal is how troubling it is that, in a province with more than two million eligible voters, a mainstream opposition party would consider it a positive sign to have 18,000 members. Given that pessimistic optimism, it’s fairer to ask a broader question, a question more germane to the province at large: Are there bigger forces at work? Can it actually be the case that the Liberals, and by extension the NDP, are manifestly incapable – year after year, decade after decade – of offering a decent electoral alternative to a Tory party that has had its own share of problems? Or is it possible that the decades-long losing streak of the parties to the left of the PCs is not actually wholly due to intrinsic Liberal and New Democrat ineptitude, but rather is a sign that something is malfunctioning deep down in the engine room of the province in which these parties operate?

Democratic Deficiencies

Albertans have consistently embraced politically conservative dynasties of one shape or another. The Liberal Party did govern Alberta from 1905-1921, of course, but that was something of an anomaly; the Liberals were appointed to govern the new province by the then-Liberal federal government.

Whatever the mix of reasons, it has always been difficult for the broader left to gain an ideological foothold in this province. The most successful incursion from the nominal left was made by former Liberal leader Laurence Decore, who fought Ralph Klein hard in the early 1990s. Decore was a pragmatic Liberal, a Chretienite, and to call him a left-winger is something of a stretch. Klein himself was, famously, a card-carrying Liberal Party member while mayor of Calgary, and the irony is heavy that during the 1993 election campaign, Decore and Klein were two Liberals espousing what was essentially the same centre-right platform. The Klein PCs won, the centre-right Liberals broke through to 32 seats, and the Ray Martin-led NDP was utterly erased.

It’s been a struggle for both the Liberals and the NDP since that 1993 election, and yet – perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not – it has been since that election that Alberta’s democratic participation rates have eroded dramatically. Elections Alberta reports that voter turnout has dropped in every single election since the 60.2-percent turnout in 1993, decreasing to 53.8 percent in 1997, to 52.8 percent in 2001, and to a then-record low of 44.7 percent in 2004. On the face of it, one might assume that the 2008 election was a massive vote of confidence for Ed Stelmach and the Tories. But was it? He captured 72 of 83 seats, a stunning though dispiriting result to some. But a closer look at the numbers leads to some unsettling conclusions, not just for the left, but for all Albertans. The voter turnout in 2008 was a shamefully low 40.6 percent, though even that number is misleading since 10 percent of Albertans didn’t even bother to register, let alone vote. In other words, only 37 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. Almost two-thirds of Albertans entitled to participate in deciding who would govern us chose not to. Even by the declining participation standards of most western democracies, this number is alarming.

Furthermore, if one closely examines the percentage of the popular vote in Alberta during the supposed rampantly popular years of the four Klein majorities – with the last Getty government and the new Stelmach government as bookends – the democratic deficit is revealed: the percentage of the popular vote the Tories received in those six elections is precisely 50 percent. In those same six elections, from 1989-2008, the popular vote of the parties to the left of the PCs was a shade under 43 percent. And yet despite this small gap in popular vote between Albertans of a more conservative bent and those of a small-l liberal bent, the gap in seats won in the legislature is disproportionate. A seven-percent PC advantage in the popular vote resulted in 64 seats on average for the PCs versus 19 on average for the Liberals and NDP combined.

What this means is that millions of Albertan voters over the years have never had their preferences represented in the legislature. Despite the endless run of success the PC party has had in Alberta, its success has largely been a function of two things: vote-splitting on the left and the vagaries of our first-past-the-post electoral system. Half of all Alberta voters since 1989 have not voted for the PCs, and yet those millions of votes cast have not once resulted in a different or even a minority government.

The solution to this democratic deficiency, according to the NDP, is proportional representation (PR), a democratic principle which matches the percentage of votes candidates obtain in elections and the percentage of seats they receive. Despite its advantages, it’s unlikely Alberta will see PR, or a hybrid such as New Zealand’s PR and first-past-the-post electoral system, any day soon, given our province’s risk-averse political nature. But there’s no doubt, after examining the relative closeness of the popular vote in the last six elections, that any system that paid respect to the vote of every Albertan would likely have resulted in at least one and possibly two minority governments, or even a Liberal-led coalition government in 1993. Priorizing the votes of individual Albertans might also have the added benefit of enticing a few more of them to come out and mark a ballot.

During our interview, Swann laid out a policy platform that seemed nothing if not sensible and directed towards the betterment of the lives of all Albertans. But these are just words, I responded. Even if a rural conservative rancher was upset with the Tories, what could possibly motivate him to switch his vote to the Liberals? If the Liberal platform is so sensible and compelling, then why don’t people vote for the party?

He pauses for a moment. “We’re just not getting our message out,” he says. “We have to convince Albertans that we are strong and credible. We have to do a better job identifying key areas that will make a difference for people, and give them hope that change is possible. Our job is to convince people that we’re the ones who can deliver that. We haven’t done it yet. I’m positive that part of the low turnout in the last election was because people generally just don’t think change is possible. We haven’t inspired anyone to believe that change is possible. Yet.”

The NDP also struggles to convince Albertans it can govern, though its platform is more distinct and progressive than the rather imprecise Liberal platform. The NDP has had no trouble laying out four distinct planks even as it struggles for airtime and head space in the minds and hearts of Albertans. The party’s website articulates these four priorities right on the homepage: “Making life affordable; Green energy plan; Big $$ out of politics.” And, of course, “Full value royalties.” Agree or disagree, a voter knows where the NDP stands.

The Influence of Big Oil

The oilpatch is not just a behemoth dominating the Alberta economic landscape (about 50 percent of our economy in direct and indirect terms, says Acua), it also dominates our political culture. It is, therefore, of singular importance to the left in Alberta, although the challenge the oilpatch presents is not likely to change for at least the next decade or two. If the political atmosphere were to change (both literally and figuratively), it would be naive to believe that any business trying to make a profit – such as a wind-power company – still wouldn’t support the party that is the most business-friendly. And if looking forward is problematic for the left, looking back is even worse. Despite being well past its due date as any sort of real indicator of federal or provincial relations, the three-decade old National Energy Program created during the Trudeau years is still frequently referred to as a good reason to not trust Liberals, or any party that favours redistribution or centralization. The Alberta PCs benefit so deeply from using it as a symbol of Tory backbone resisting central Canadian (read: left-wing) power grabs that we’ll surely continue to see it invoked.

That’s about yesterday and tomorrow. Regarding today, the challenge for the left in Alberta is to make inroads into the oilpatch and somehow convince the industry that it can be trusted to run the economy, to manage this valuable energy resource so that both environmentally concerned citizens and business leaders feel the province is moving in the right direction.

“That’s a difficult prospect,” says Acua. “Albertans, for the last 40 years, have always understood that their interests and the interests of the oilpatch are about the same. I think the only way for the left to make an impact on the influence the oilpatch has in Alberta politics is for them to turn the province against the oilpatch.” Not in an inflammatory way, stresses Acua, but simply to continue to help Albertans take the long view, to understand that the drift of history is inexorably moving away from fossil fuels and that if we don’t follow, we’re dead in the water.

“I think the NDP are getting it,” says Acua. “And they see that the economic downturn is in many ways an opportunity for us to build something greener and more sustainable. They’ve focused on a long-term strategy. I’m not sure the Liberals have done as good a job. Their challenge is getting their message out there. I think Swann is also pretty clear on this, on environmental sustainability and where we should be going. But both parties really struggle, I think, to be relevant to Albertans on this question.”

“There’s just no doubt,” Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason says later, “that many of the oil companies are paying less overall now than they were before the royalty review. I’ve been told this, off the record, by people in the oil patch. Of course, the oilpatch has essentially funded the success of the PC party for decades, but interestingly what you’re starting to see signs of now is that the oilpatch is doing what it’s always done. When they don’t get precisely what they want, they tend to move to a party even further to the right. That’s why so many of them are now putting money into the Wildrose Alliance.”

“I think when it comes to the oilpatch,” says Rachel Notley, the NDP MLA for Edmonton-Strathcona, “I see the business sector generally as part of a community, as opposed to being the thing that drives community values. They’re one partner, but overall when we measure the effectiveness of a polity, the question is, simply, how to make sure the best interests of the greatest number of people are served. That should always be the measure. And it can actually be a pretty exact thing.” She adds that right now, the government just isn’t prepared to stand up against the one large and forceful component of our economy. “Economic activity is a tool for improving the well-being of the community. It’s not an end in and of itself.”

That, says Notley, is the real definition of the left and, particularly, how it ought to define itself in interactions with industries such as the oilpatch. “Government in its correct form is the mediator, but it’s ultimately driven by public interest, and it should measure its effectiveness in that regard, and the effectiveness of everything it does, on that basis. It should do that, and it should be transparent and accountable, and those things are currently what we do not have in Alberta.”

When I put it to Notley that she is saying precisely what the Stelmach government would say of its own activities, and that they would insist they have begun to hold the oilpatch accountable to a stricter royalty scheme, she guffaws: “Everybody knows they pay less now than they did before the review process started. It would be ridiculous to say that.”

Anyway, says Notley, the whole issue around the oilpatch and royalties and the downturn in the economy is a bit of a red herring. “We can’t sit around and hope that things are going to get bad enough that that’s what will lead to the left having a greater presence in Alberta. We have to be more positive, more proactive. We have to give people a reason to vote for us, instead of hoping people find a reason to not vote PC.

“I think [that one reason is] going to be the environment,” she says, echoing what Swann had told me earlier. “It will be a positive base for growth. Environmental obligations are going to force us to restructure. People are behind this, they’re aware of it in a way that the government just can’t see. We are so incredibly behind the consensus of the rest of the world here, even with other right-wing governments. There’s going to be a major cultural shift, and I just don’t think the Tories have the capacity to reinvent themselves that way. It’s not there.”

Disillusioned Public

It would appear the Liberal party and the NDP have chosen similar strategies to move forward, namely trying to forge individual relationships with Albertans. Swann spent the summer criss-crossing the province to attend one small function after another in the hope of meeting as many people as possible to solicit feedback on the state of the province, and the party itself. Mason and Notley have formed a tag-team to get out and consult outside their standard support networks.

The ongoing attention to bricks and mortar is crucial to party-building, to be sure, but, says Acua, “as harsh as this might be to say, one of the real moments of opportunity the left now has is the economic downturn. The PCs have had to run a deficit. People are losing jobs. It’s awful, but why are we here today? Because of the lack of foresight and planning from the PCs. The opposition needs to hammer this point home, that this is what happens when we put all our eggs into one basket. This is the time for those parties to step up and make themselves relevant.”

For some, the economy and the democratic deficit make having a relevant left increasingly urgent. As Murray Dobbin wrote in an editorial on the on July 9, society at large faces a troubling future if progressive activists don’t soon begin effecting real change in the doing of politics. Dobbin invokes the American rabbi Michael Lerner, who has written widely about the troubling implications of consumer culture and who believes the time is right for a new kind of spiritual progressive politics, though he is referring more to human spirit than religious spirit. A “politics of meaning,” Dobbin calls it. And that is precisely what many in Alberta say this province is missing, and which makes the work of the broader left so much more difficult here.

Progressive politics are made more difficult in Alberta not just because the citizenry has lost faith in the ability of politics to make effective improvements to society, but because the progressive activists themselves have lost faith in their own ability to make a difference. David Cournoyer writes a well-informed blog on Alberta politics called Cournoyer briefly worked as a communications co-ordinator for the Alberta Liberal Party, but has since become disillusioned with legislative party politics, arriving at the conclusion that it isn’t equipped to solve Alberta’s political malaise. Cournoyer believes the left sometimes goes so far as to make defeat its default position, that they “wear their defeats as badges of honour.”

Notley believes Albertans with progressive tendencies have become so cowed by decades of defeat that they have retreated into non-partisanship, that they have become “issue-by-issue activists, because they see that as the only possible way to achieve any sort of success. What that means is that there’s no larger ‘home’ for people on the left.” Social movement organizations, writes Dobbin, “are in some ways trapped in the single-issue incrementalism that fails to inspire all but a relative handful of politically conscious followers.”

The lack of partisanship of the left in Alberta means there is a lack of cohesion and momentum, which translates into a broader absence of passion. This absence of passion has infected even the right; the landscape of Alberta politics is not conducive to political fervour of any stripe in the current moment. There is a dispiritedness to Alberta politics at present, a disconcerting kind of apathy. “Something’s broken,” says Cournoyer. “And it’s going to take some time to fix it.”

“The challenge for the opposition in Alberta,” emphasizes Cournoyer, “is not changing the minds of the people who voted, but in reaching the people who didn’t bother to vote. It’s the far bigger pool, and that’s where the left needs to be focusing.”

Black is White

Accepting that Albertans are an inherently conservative lot, it might be the memory of Laurence Decore that points a way out of our current electoral infirmity – for the Liberals, the New Democrats and Albertans generally. Fiscal restraint has long been the hallmark of conservative politics, whereas big government and heavy spending have always been trotted out by the right to condemn the left. But in Alberta circa 2009, black is white and up is down. It’s the Tories who have spent every penny we’ve earned in this province and who are now running a deficit budget. It’s the Tories who regularly overshoot their own spending estimates, which is odd given their heritage and given that there’s hardly a government in the western world that isn’t preaching fiscal restraint in this economic climate. Here in Alberta, the Liberals and the NDP are trying to claim the fiscal restraint badge as their own – and this was precisely the centre-right approach Decore took as Liberal leader in 1993, an approach that nearly saw him installed as premier.

“Not only that,” says Acua, “Decore was successful because he wasn’t a screaming lefty and because he’d operated in government at the same level as Klein (mayor). He and Klein essentially ran on the same platform, and it was only rural Alberta that won Klein that election, because Decore won Edmonton and quite a bit of Calgary.”

That was the last time the window of change was open in Alberta. And yet it would seem it’s only now that the Liberals and the New Democrats are starting to fully exploit the fact that the Tory party’s soft underbelly is not their social agenda (which is an electoral cul-de-sac in Alberta) but the discrepancy between their fiscal policy and their fiscal record.

Adding nuance to the scene is that outflanking the Tories from the right is a game the far right is starting to horn in on, with the Wildrose Alliance emerging as a real threat to the Tory majority. “I think that’s going to really affect things in the next election,” Mason tells me. “The Wildrose Alliance is emerging and getting a lot of oil money behind it. Splitting the vote on the right could make this a truly multi-party province for the first time in 70 years.”

Swann echoes Mason’s predictions, at least in broad terms. “The next election is going to see significant change,” he told me, though he is hardly optimistic in the short term. “I see Alberta heading towards more chaos first, sadly, more suffering, more preventable deaths, more professionals leaving the province and more brain drain. I have a feeling it might get worse here before it gets better.”

When I left the Legislature Annex after my discussion with the Liberal leader, the same gang of construction workers that had disrupted the Liberal caucus meeting earlier that day were still hard at work trying to repair the front entrance. Men in hardhats were hacking away at various tile and metal elements, sweating heavily and looking frustrated by the ugly sturdiness of the building. They had blocked off one side of the doorway, and when I’d come in a few hours before, it was only by approaching from the left that one could gain access to the opposition offices. This meant that escape from the gulag was, at least at present, possible via just one door, which lay to the right. Choosing one side or the other was out of the question until it was fixed. And by the look of things, that wasn’t going to happen any time soon.

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