COURTESY OF THE ALBERTA PARTY

Party, Started

Author Curtis Gillespie introduces a new political party, the Alberta Party

By Curtis Gillespie

When Dave Taylor, independent MLA for Calgary-Currie, announced on January 24 that he would join the Alberta Party—a somewhat lonely “floor crossing,” since the party held no seats in the Legislature—he and his new colleagues may have thought it would be big news. This was, after all, a new political party gaining momentum with the public and in the media, a party that had now snared its first MLA, giving it a presence in the Legislature and, more importantly, a higher platform from which to spread its message of moderation. Taylor, and party heavyweights such as former leader Edwin Erickson, interim leader Sue Huff and president Chris LaBossiere, would have been justified in thinking the party was going to be the week’s big story in Alberta politics, with reams of columns and opinion pieces heralding the arrival of the Alberta Party as a legitimate contender for power.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

The day after Taylor joined the party, Premier Ed Stelmach announced his retirement, triggering all manner of speculation about behind-the-scenes power struggles at Tory HQ between hardline right wingers—as represented by Ted Morton—and the party’s red-Tory wing, led, somewhat incongruously, by Stelmach. The Premier’s resignation was followed within the hour by Morton’s indignant declaration that it would be “inappropriate” to discuss his own interests in the party leadership, an indignation he heroically suppressed the next day when he announced he was resigning as Minister of Finance to run for the party leadership. A few days later, floating a political life raft before he’d even dipped his oars into the leadership race waters, he suggested he’d be willing to amalgamate the Tories and the Wildrose Alliance in order to carry the right-wing vote on what he called a “mothership,” a term the media accepted as if gift-wrapped for the inevitable spaceship and alien abduction jokes that followed. Wildrose leader Danielle Smith labelled Morton’s suggestion patronizing and “delusional.” As if this weren’t enough of a circus, Liberal leader David Swann resigned a week after Stelmach, making him the rare political party leader to have stepped down without ever having contested an election.

And so where did this leave the Alberta Party? Yesterday’s news? Or, viewed through a different lens, the only provincial party left standing that hadn’t alienated itself from Alberta’s vast swath of disaffected voters through obvious extremism (Wildrose), heedless incompetence (Tories), irremediable ineffectiveness (Liberals) or plain old irrelevance (NDP)? Sure, no one really quite knew, then or now, precisely what the Alberta Party was. But in the days and weeks that followed January’s political upheaval what the party seemed to have going for it most was everything it’s not.

Hey, you’ve got to start somewhere.

The serious work of forming the new version of the Alberta Party, which until a couple of years ago had been a vaguely right-of-centre fringe party, began in 2009 when the Renew Alberta movement announced it was going to create a new centrist political party. Renew Alberta was essentially a group of activists whose only common affiliation was a commitment to political change. It was co-chaired by Chima Nkemdirim, the organizer and social-media guru behind Liberal MLA Kent Hehr’s 2008 and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s 2010 victories. Nkemdirim is now on the Alberta Party board.

Through various channels, including the November 2009 “Reboot Alberta” conference—the activist expression of commentators such as Michael Brechtel and lawyer and former Tory Ken Chapman, both of whom are now tied to the Alberta Party—Renew Alberta found and talked with members of the Alberta Party prior to forming their own party. Renew Alberta and the Alberta Party realized their similarities outweighed their differences, principally on the issue of democratic deficit. The Alberta Party executive met in early January 2010 and named Edwin Erickson—formerly of the Greens—as party leader, giving him a mandate to unite Renew Alberta and the Alberta Party. In February 2010 the activist group and political party merged, agreeing, in policy terms, to start again from scratch.

In essence, a whole bunch of people upset and frustrated with Alberta politics got together and decided to use an existing party, the Alberta Party, as their vehicle of change. It needed a new engine and a steering wheel, but a brand new car was too expensive and so the group settled for the used one with the great hood ornament: the perfect name.

In welcoming Dave Taylor as their first MLA, the party essentially hired someone to test drive their new vehicle. Taylor did, however, have to pass through a scrupulous process to join. “He was interested in us from the start of our renewal process, and also because he’d sat as an independent for nine months,” interim leader Sue Huff said. “But of course we had to use due diligence. We pulled up his Hansard record, and the local constituency board put him on the hot seat. Yes, he came from a partisan place in the past [Taylor sat as a Liberal from 2004 to 2010], but now he’s enjoying the chance to do things differently. There’s a lot of alignment between us.”

Chris LaBossiere, now the Alberta Party president (and a disaffected Tory who sat for years on MLA Dave Hancock’s constituency executive), was the first person invited to the new party’s board. I met with LaBossiere at his office (he’s co-founder of Yardstick Software, an online exam and training firm) and he recalled the energy and excitement of starting the party. After taking care of the legalities, they kicked everything off with “The Big Listen,” a series of province-wide kitchen table sessions featuring three topics for discussion: What are the pressures and challenges you face as an Albertan? What are your hopes and aspirations? What are you grateful for? The process led to two principal outcomes: the mood and vision of Albertans were condensed into a lodestar to guide the party’s inaugural policy convention, and The Big Listen evolved into the party’s brand and symbolic raison d’être.

“The Big Listen was an evolution, for sure,” LaBossiere told me as we sat at his high-tech conference table, replete with dropdown wall screens and in-table keyboards linked to hidden computers. “It really came out of Michael’s past work [Michael Walters, the party’s provincial organizer and only paid staff member] with the Greater Edmonton Alliance. One part of the process was to genuinely listen to people’s hopes, fears and pressures, but the other part was a fantastic organizing tool because it helped us realize that no matter our partisanship, we mostly shared the same values.”

At first, The Big Listen was more flickering flame than wildfire. “One of the first ones was in Grande Prairie,” LaBossiere said. “There was me, a friend, a journalist and three members of the public. It was pretty humbling.” But the events grew in enthusiasm and support to the point that over a thousand Albertans across every demographic and political stripe attended. People expressed passion, enthusiasm and deep concern for where the province is headed. And what they said led to the creation of a platform of ideas to discuss at the Alberta Party’s policy convention in November 2010, where the real work of creating a modern political party was to begin.

There were perhaps 200 people in the David Thompson ballroom of the Red Deer Holiday Inn around 9:00 a.m. on November 13, 2010, when the Alberta Party policy convention kicked off. But the room seemed considerably more packed than that, given the rather bizarre nature of the space itself, which was more two-lane bowling alley than convention hall. Tables were shoehorned into back wings and the podium faced the narrowest and least populated part of the entire room. The unorthodox setup meant many of the seated delegates had to rely on video screens at either flank of the stage and listen via an unreliable sound system—a rather ironic development given that the convention’s motto was “The Listening Continues.”

After opening remarks, LaBossiere stood to welcome the crowd. “There are over three million Albertans,” he said, pausing for emphasis, “who have found a reason not to be here today.” The crowd laughed good-naturedly. Erickson spoke next and delivered a heartfelt if folksy message about stepping down as leader so that the party could move forward. He talked about formerly belonging to the Green Party, and the fact he attended the Reboot conference because “if we were serious we had to go back to the grassroots.”

Although the day would prove to have an endearingly amateurish feel to it, authenticity and passion were on ample display. The word “slick” was never going to be applied to these proceedings, and that was just fine with the brain trust behind the nascent party. “We’re not just running around saying we’re going to do this and going to do that,” Erickson said during a break. “We mean it. That’s why we’re taking the time to develop the process, to build it from the ground up. It’s real.”

Real, yes, but detailed? Perhaps not yet. In breakout sessions on education, the environment, democratic renewal, healthcare and the economy, the policy discussions were marked more by process and big tent inclusiveness than by detail and implementation strategy. Long on passion for change, short on strategic insight, the sessions hewed more to zealous activism than the crafting of policy for a future government. Comments that became too detailed were invariably steered back to overarching principles and “honouring The Big Listen” (a concept repeated often throughout the sessions). Overall, the feel was more “What exactly do we stand for?” than “What policies will reflect Albertans’ beliefs enough that they’ll vote for us?”

Having said that, it’s fair to point out that in less than a year the Alberta Party went from an idea to a reality to a legitimate provincial political force, partially because it was thrust into a spotlight that was switched on far sooner than its organizers likely ever predicted. Being under this spotlight means their organization will be scrutinized in a way that hasn’t yet happened. For instance, the party has not added to the policy work begun in November; as of early April, the policy document on their website was comprised of essentially the same material used as a launch pad for the November discussions.

I asked interim leader Sue Huff if the party had further developed the broad policy “directions” they’d settled on at that convention. “Not yet,” she said. “But we have formed a committee for each policy area, and they’ve been tasked with fleshing out the policy directions and turning them into campaign-ready platforms.” Similarly, the work of organizing associations in every constituency is ongoing. As of early April, the party had 44 constituency associations, though the plan, said Huff, is to have formed all 87 by the end of May.

With provincial politics in a state of disarray, time is obviously of the essence—especially when the media and public alike are wondering where the disaffected centrist vote is going to go. The Alberta Party has the rare opportunity to become a viable alternative to occupy the spot history shows most Albertans tend to inhabit—namely, close to the centre, or, in the old parlance, red Tories and Decore Liberals. It’s a place marked by fiscal conservatism and pragmatic social liberalism. (Peter Lougheed, anyone?)

The Alberta Party believes this centrist place is where most Albertans want to hang out. And they say none of the other parties are paying attention, citing a provincial voter turnout that dropped from 60 per cent in 1993 to 40 per cent in 2008. The Alberta Party, their narrative runs, is trying to create a home for moderate Albertans, a space to be heard, to vote, to participate. The plan, Huff said, is simply to “develop policy and create constituency associations through the theme of real engagement. People are building here what they can’t build elsewhere, and it’s meaningful and tangible and that makes them proud. We’re more interested in engagement than winning seats; people are too cynical about politicians focused on winning rather than on working with the people and for the people. We’re building trust and faith—one person at a time—that we are what we say we are and that we’ll do what we say we’ll do.” This, Huff added, is why the Alberta Party’s fundraising, so far, has been from individuals and not corporations. Party policy does, however, allow for contributions from corporations and unions in its leadership race, and contestants must declare all donations at least twice prior to the vote.

This is all well and good except for two significant problems. The first is that the Alberta Party is being shuttled back and forth between the spotlight and the darkroom. Their big news—Dave Taylor’s jump to the party—was only news for a day, as it was instantly overshadowed by the three-ring PC/Wildrose/Liberal circus. The AP will have the advantage, of course, of a leadership contest this month, a process that invariably boosts interest regardless of a party’s inherent strengths or weaknesses, particularly if it chooses an articulate and dynamic leader (Exhibit A: Danielle Smith).

The second problem and bigger dilemma—or virtue, depending on who you talk to—is the party’s high-minded idealism in both philosophy and policy, a lofty stance that still appears to favour focusing inward (process and philosophy) rather than striking outward (strategy and critical engagement). “The most common attack on us is that we’re too idealistic and naive,” said LaBossiere. “There’s some cynicism in the media. I don’t blame them. To us it’s a reminder that people have lost faith in parties and politicians. But what we’ve realized is that people  feel locked out.”

I asked Erickson as well if he felt the party was too idealistic. “No, not at all,” he said. “In fact, I think we’re very pragmatic. I don’t think we’re being idealistic at all. We’ve gone to Albertans and asked them what to build, and now we’re trying to build it for them. That, in my estimation, is pragmatism.”

Building good policy is central to a party’s success, of course, but so too is a strategy for ensuring your policy outshines that of your opposition. At the Red Deer convention, I asked Erickson if he was worried about countering the other parties. “Alberta is famous for grabbing onto a new idea and running with it,” he said. “We do it every 30 or 40 years! We’re overdue. And I just don’t think it’ll be the Wildrose. They’re too extreme. Albertans are telling us that they themselves are moderates, not extremists. Moderation will win in the end.”

Erickson added that “of course” some people will vote for the Wildrose, but that the majority of Albertans would not, in the end, accept them. I asked if he and his fellow executive were worried their party might diffuse the collective energy by splitting the centrist vote just when it might finally be poised for an electoral breakthrough via vote-splitting on the right. This is a possibility real enough to cause Liberal leader David Swann to seek collaboration with all parties to the left of the Tories in 2010—an approach the Alberta Party turned down. “The way things are going, there might be a minority government after the next election—but we’ll be part of it,” Erickson said. “The NDs will be around forever, but, as sorry as I am to say this, I think the Liberals are on their last legs. There are a lot of good people in that party, but 100 years is a long time to get your
act together.”

I asked LaBossiere if he feels the Alberta Party can sustain its idealism in the face of electoral realities, and, assuming they convince Albertans they’re electable, if they can play the game well enough to actually win.

“I think so,” he said.

This answer can be read as the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen when they try to deploy strategy, or whether they will in fact adopt a strategic approach. Tellingly, the party has hired an organizer from the 2008 Obama campaign team to come to Alberta to help train volunteers in campaigning. The party has also named Chima Nkemdirim, the Nenshi campaign chief, as its head of election readiness.

Of course, the choice of leader will be crucial. As of early April, four candidates had entered the race: Calgarian and former oil and gas business analyst Tammy Maloney, Calgary businessman Randy Royer, Hinton mayor and former provincial NDP candidate Glenn Taylor, and Chris Tesarski, president of a junior oil and gas company in Calgary. Huff is not eligible to run, due to a party directive that the interim leader cannot stand for the permanent leadership. The deadline for nominations is April 18, and the vote will be held at the party’s May 28 convention. Whoever wins the leadership, he or she will dictate the balance between principle and pragmatism.

Though the search for the correct blend of idealism and pragmatism continues inside the Alberta Party, the evidence to date suggests that idealism, or at least a taste for the high road, will remain the predominant ingredient. This would be a non-issue if the Tories had just secured a new five-year mandate with a popular leader; the Alberta Party would then have the luxury of having a few years to test for the best mix. They do not now have that luxury.

This, however, only seems to have reinforced the approach that brought the early adopters to the party to begin with. This idealism seemed best summed up in the keynote address by Satya Das at the Red Deer convention. Das, a well-known Edmonton progressive author and consultant, spoke passionately about ideals and goals for Alberta, invoking Nelson Mandela and Gandhi (including Gandhi’s seven deadly sins, one of which was “politics without principle”). It was a talk long on inspiration and short on expediency, and it ended on a note that veered perilously close to parody when Das recommended the new party should “make truth your guiding light.”

“Feel-good” to the core, it was the kind of highbrow homily that any self-respecting Tory strategist would view purely as an exploitable weakness. In a sense the Alberta Party is challenging Albertans by saying “We think you want to live up to these ideals and we’ll help you prove it.” Fair enough. But politics remains, finally, a competitive process with tangible reward: winning matters, because winners make the policy. The only real options for the Alberta Party, as Graham Thomson wrote in the Edmonton Journal last November, are to start thinking seriously about forming government or to become another “doomed fringe party.”

There remains an obvious dedication to and even a fondness for “process” in the Alberta Party—process designed to promote moderation and idealism. These are admirable principles and our province could use them, but one wonders if the gem of idealism isn’t cubic zirconia the party ought not to be tempted by, particularly given that the Wildrose won’t even glance at baubles and the Tories have already demonstrated that the only principle they believe in is power. It’s not wrong to focus on process, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. Political windows open and close with finger-lopping rapidity, but the pressure to take advantage of them is even more acute in Alberta, where such windows open only once every generation or so.

The Alberta Party has given itself a good foundation and, mostly due to the inherent failings of every other party, has a legitimate chance to step through today’s open window and inspire real political change. But strategic political action, informed but not ruled by idealism, also seems a worthy focus. That means pointing out and exploiting the weaknesses of the other parties—not at a personal level, but on policy and performance—while also focusing on the current and promised merits of your own. Contrast is a simple and valuable tool that people understand.

This path seems to be in direct opposition to the party’s philosophy. Chris LaBossiere told me, “I won’t comment on Wildrose policy differences from ours,” only that he feels his party has “demonstrated process differences that are unique” and “does not want to get tactical” on policy creation. Sue Huff said the party is “more interested in engagement than winning seats.” The unwillingness to engage, via contrast and criticism if necessary, was perhaps best expressed by former Tory MLA and Lougheed-era minister Dave King, now éminence grise of the Alberta Party. In a January blog post, responding to the shenanigans at the Legislature, King wrote: “The future of the Alberta Party does not lie in belittling or berating or beating the PCs or the Liberals or the NDs or the Wildrose at the task they have set themselves—whatever that task is. Our future lies in knowing and remembering and completing the task we have set for ourselves—creating a movement of citizens who trust their fellow citizens and are prepared to offer themselves as the means by which progressive and democratic government can come to Alberta.”

Regardless of one’s political affiliations, one can only hope that King’s call for trustworthy and democratic government comes to pass. And perhaps it is too much to ask a party as newly minted as the Alberta Party to alter the idealistic outlook they’ve proudly adopted. But contrary to what many inside the Alberta Party may believe, the biggest danger they face is not that they’ll end up standing in the wrong place. It’s that they’ll miss an open window because they’re too busy admiring the view.

Curtis Gillespie has earned three National Magazine Awards for his non-fiction. He lives in Edmonton with his wife and two daughters.

 

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