Provincial Merger, I agree…

If one looks at most provinces, one will see that each of them has a multiple party system. While there are periods where they fall into a pattern of two parties, the general rule is simple: most Canadian provinces have three or four major parties. In New Brunswick, in the 1990s, four parties fought each election: Liberals, NDP, PC and the Confederation of Regions Party (CoR). In 1991, the Confederation of Regions Party even became the Official Opposition. My home province, Ontario, has had three major provinces since the 1950s. Even BC and Quebec have moved from periods of three party contests to two party rule and back again. So, it is not a surprise that today, both provinces have three or four parties that usually poll over 10% or hold seats in the Legislative House.

From the examples provided, one can see that those major political parties cannot necessarily be classified by a simple Right-Left spectrum analysis. Since the Quiet Revolution, parties in “la Belle Province” have fought for control or about the place of Quebec within Confederation. In the 1960’s to the 1970’s, this meant that the Liberals, Union Nationale and the Parti Québécois fought about concepts like Sovereignty and Nationhood. This fight eventually led to the death of the Union Nationale; however, it was not the end of third parties in Quebec. The Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) formed in the 90’s and provided a real challenge to Quebec’s political conversation. Most recently, we have seen the rise of the Coalition Avenir Québec and Québec Solidaire. This means Quebec now has four parties that hold seats in the Assembly: two nationalist Parties, a federalist one and another one which is in between.

With that being said, no Province in this country has six political parties. Well, that is no Province except Alberta. However, given the arguments given by each party, one would struggle to see why we do have six parties. For, all opposition parties make the same argument: the PCs/Tories are incompetent and we can do better. Yet, I have never heard any opposition party offer a credible alternative. The Wildrose claims that they can do a better job just by cutting government waste. The problem, however, with those policies could be the results. The Klein Government – a PC Government – was the last Government to implement an austerity budget and they left the Province without any new infrastructure for more than a decade. This produced an infrastructure deficit that the province is still digging its way out of. Or put differently, the problems with the Government of Alberta are extensive. They include the way that Alberta collects taxes, the way the Province administers programmes and the priorities of the Government of Alberta. Therefore, cutting government will not solve the problem.

The truth is that Wildrose’s solutions are not credible. They lack the sophistication that comes with a strong understanding of public policy. With that being said, the same accusations could also be levelled at the centre and centre-left opposition parties. So, it should not be a surprise that on May 15th, 2012, I wrote a blog entry called “Plus ça change: More proof for the need to change Alberta’s Provincial Party Landscape” (http://wp.me/p15ulC-42). In it, I argued one thing; Alberta cannot sustain six provincial political parties. My feelings in this matter have not changed.

In Alberta, the only certainty is saying that we have a party of the Right, the Wildrose Party, and one Party on the Left – the NDP. From there, one can say that the rest – the PCs, Liberals, Greens and Alberta Party – lurk somewhere in the middle. None of them have a clear stance, on anything and each of them drowns out the other. The PCs move from being a part of the right, centre-right or centre-left to hold onto Government and everyone else seems to reorganize themselves around the most recent PC move. This structure means that multidimensional parties with sophisticated solutions cannot exist.

To alleviate this issue, I made an argument six months ago: the four parties of the centre or centre left should merge. While, the premise is simple, it will lead to a number of interesting outcomes. For example, such a reorganization will mean that all voters will have to re-examine their political beliefs.  Some would leave for the right wing remnant; while, others might move to the left or centre of the spectrum. As has happened in Quebec, BC and on the right-wing of the spectrum federally in the 1990’s, the residual provincial parties will become multipolar and multidimensional.

However, this reorganization will not destroy the essential truth of the Province of Alberta: our province has two forms of conservatism: Noblesse oblige and Laissez-faire. The Laissez-Faire feelings are populist in nature. They come from a farmers’ search for independence. Consequently, Laissez-Faire elements reside in the rural areas of the province. While, the Noblesse Oblige elements can be found in the city. For most of Alberta’s history, the two different elements were represented by different parties. This obviously changed with the rise of Mr. Klein, someone who could speak to both sides. Therefore, it is not a surprise that both forms of Conservatism took refuge in the Progressive Conservative Party for a time.

With the rise of the Wildrose Party that time is over: now again, the Province of Alberta has two different forms of conservatism represented by two very different parties. Depending on how one calculates the numbers, one can easily see that the Conservative Elements in this Province can hold between 60% and 80% of the provinces’ electoral vote count. Given our first-past-the-post voting system, if non-Conservatives want to have a voice, those non-Conservative Parties need to stop splitting the vote. They need to provide a smaller set of choices; they need to have a single brand. Therefore, in a provincial context, it makes sense to merge the NDP, the Liberals, the Green Party and the Alberta Party.

Operationally, this can be done. Each of the National Movements – the Federal Greens and NDP, the Liberal Party of Canada – could work with new Party. They could recognize the Party as their provincial affiliate or change their Constitutions to make the change more permanent. Either way, it is within their power to make the change.

What is more interesting is whether or not, the constituent components of each party can recognize the need for a change. If one looks at the by-Election in Calgary Centre, I have my doubts. Let us be clear, for a number of reasons, I don’t advocate the change to the Federal Party Structure. However, it does provide an interesting, illustrative example.

In the dying days’ of the Calgary Centre Federal Campaign, progressives had a choice: they could have elected a candidate who did not support the Federal Conservatives. Media reports said that this was the riding to watch because it was the only one that could provide real change. Given that on Election Day, there was less than 4% between the Conservative and the Liberal Candidate; one could say that the media was not wrong. When given that choice, the Green Party Candidate could have signalled this reality to his supporters. He could have said that it was more important to have Green’s values represented in Parliament than it was to have him elected. The Green Party Candidate could have abandoned his partisan desires in favour of sending a “true message” to the Harper Conservatives. That message would be a simple one: if you continue on this path, you will lose power. It would happen, one MP at a time, if it was necessary; but it would happen. Chris Turner, the Green Candidate, could instantly have become a Statesman. He would have become a candidate in any part of this country, running for any Party. Just by putting Country before Party, he could have become legendary.  However, he didn’t.

This simple action seemed to support my feeling: non-Conservatives in Alberta would not be selfless enough to recognize that compromise and acceptance would be the only way out of our provincial dilemma. For the solution is simple: Federal Liberals, like myself, would have to embrace provincial Liberals, New Democrats (Federal and Provincial), Greens (Federal and Provincial) and members of the Alberta Party.

Then Kent Hehr spoke. Or as a friend of mine suggested, I heard him. For this Liberal MLA has been arguing for quite some time that some “reorganization” needs to take place. To me, this was obvious and I was glad that others felt the same way. While, I was not surprised that Raj Sherman, the Liberal Leader, and Brian Mason, the NDP Leader, said that the proposal was a non-starter; I was glad to see that some members of the non-Conservative Political Establishment could see the writing on the wall.

For, the proposed change is substantial. The Alberta PC party would likely become a bit more centrist; given that the PCs would have to look beyond its right flank. With a right and a left flank, the Governing Party of Alberta would have to speak to a new, inclusive vision of this province. This would mean that Alberta’s politics would be more accountable; but more importantly, it would become more responsive to the needs of all Albertans.

With that being said, recognizing the need for change is not the same thing as becoming that change. Therefore, what should we non-Conservatives do? Just look at the re-integration of the Canada’s Federal Right. If one remembers, one will know that the Reform Party and Bloc Quebecois were created/driven by splits within the Mulroney PC coalition. In forming the New Conservative Party, it was necessary for the participants to have conversations and an institutional push. In our case, if Alberta non-Conservatives are going to create a merged political party, we need to create the extra-party framework that will hold us together.

This will mean working on a joint policy platform and a philosophical underpinning for it. This means non-conservatives need to step up. While many, like me, need to affirm their public support for such an endeavour, we have to do more than speak.

Therefore, I am proposing a simple thing: we organize around Mr. Hehr. Mr. Hehr could become our rock and our foundation. Through and around him, we could organize coffee parties or the creation of joint riding associations. Through and around him, we could challenge the Provincial Party Establishment in each party to get them to move. Given some of the talk surrounding Mr. Hehr’s recent article, this blog post might seem like an obvious response. However, as I noted in May 15th, 2012, none of this is obvious or predictable. We need to work to get to the point suggested.

The only question is can we do this? Only time will tell.

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