An Immodest Proposal

Why Alberta progressives must stay the course.

By Evan Osenton

It is a melancholy object to those who drive through Alberta’s great cities or travel in its countryside, when they see the sidewalks, the franchise coffee outlets and suburban stoops crowded with desperate citizens, followed by one, two or three others, all bearing grievances and importuning oblivious passersby to elect a government that gives a damn. These citizens, instead of reaping the rewards of civil society, are forced to employ most of their time in strolling to beg affordable residences for their helpless parents, or braving 12-hour lineups for a professional opinion on their stomach- or backache (not both), or landing a daycare space for their children, who as they grow up will turn jughound for want of other work, or leave their dear native province to take a nursing position in Saskatchewan, or sell themselves to the Chinese.

I think it is agreed by many Albertans, certain senior members of the oilpatch notably excepted, that this prodigious number of disenfranchised citizens is, in the present deplorable state of the province, a very great additional grievance; and, therefore, whosoever can find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making citizen’s votes return a majority of useful members to the legislature will deserve so well as to have a public building, highway overpass or mutation of Athabascan fish named for him, or her: preserver of the province.

As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years upon the deficiencies of our leaders, and maturely weighed the various schemes of the progressive opposition parties, I have more often than not found the latter prudent in their computation. And yet they do not please the government, nor do they earn sufficient seats come polling day to threaten the Conservatives’ 40-year power-monopoly. And so new laws range from pointless to homophobic, a once-in-ten-generations resource bonanza is sold at cost and essential services wither and brown, as an unwatered fern.

What is cruelly worse: that centre-left parties have for two decades combined to coax fully 40 per cent of the Alberta electorate’s support, often 45 per cent, sometimes 50 per cent and—in elections that the PC mythmaking office omits as it composes paeans to Alberta’s Monolithic Conservatism—a higher percentage of the popular vote, combined, than the PCs, who nonetheless amass massive seat majorities and, bizarrely, grow delusions of having received a mandate to dismantle civil society (1989 election: Lib/NDP combined: 55 per cent; PCs: 44.3 per cent) (1993 election: Lib/NDP combined: 50.7 per cent; PCs: 44.5 per cent).

I propose to provide for the opposition, and to the good citizens of this province, a radical idea that will deny the PCs another four (or 40) years of mismanagement; to forestall the continued aborting of democracy, casting of mental health patients into gutters and jails, farming out of healthcare to flim-flam outfits rendered stupid by greed, firesale of every last hydrocarbon, and hunting of the last grizzly by senior ministers themselves, who, their work done and the province spent, will decamp to gated communities in Canmore or sprawling ranch-house/bunkers outside Casper, Wyoming, to count their golf clubs, and, ultimately, recant on their deathbeds.

There is great advantage in my idea, in that it precludes progressives the nuisance of long conversation, unpleasant self-reflection, difficult-question-answering, hard-swallowing, and, significantly, the risk that changing a bad situation might induce a worse alternative.

The number of souls in this province being usually reckoned three million and one half, of these I calculate there may be about one million citizens who will vote in the next election; from which number I subtract a minimum of 450,000 who are likely to vote for one of the progressive parties, extrapolating from a 20-year average, although I apprehend there could be many more next election given the present distresses of the province; but the lower number being granted, there remain 550,000 Albertans of a conservative and potentially more “wildly” conservative inclination.

The question, therefore, is how one of the progressive parties might seize the government joystick.

The question, therefore, is how one of the progressive parties might seize the governmental joystick, steer the province toward fiscal, social and environmental responsibility, give it back to its citizens—which under the present situation of affairs seems utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto and presently proposed, for they can neither institute rep-by-pop without holding office themselves, nor hardly count on a fair redistribution of seats through routine gerrymandering (a.k.a. “electoral redistribution”). And they cannot “buy” the legislature, as certain groups are wont (permitted by the laxest electoral funding laws in the nation; also unlikely to change under the current beneficiaries), pocketing enough politicians to ensure that the poor stay poor, the rich enjoy civil society at nary a cost, and the Heritage Fund languishes, useful as a bag of dust in a post-oil world.

I shall now dutifully propose my own thoughts, which I trust are liable not to the least objection. I have become certain that a majority of Albertans, after being ignored, deceived and suffering a dearth of services though they have paid handsomely for them, will finally and presently experience a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome epiphany, whether they be steaming-, roasting-, baking- or boiling-mad; and the democratic spirit will prevail, and the PCs will after some 40 years be denied another turn, and that the progressive parties will enter excited debate, and that one shall rise well above the other, woo even lifelong right-wing ideologues and fulfill Alberta’s grand narrative by winning a jaw-dropping majority.

Now, I have been assured by a very knowing person of my acquaintance that not all Albertans share my clarity. Indeed, it has been given to much public consideration that of the 550,000 likely conservative voters, insufficient numbers will next election cross that Saharan divide between right and centre in Alberta, and that the progressive parties will in fact need do much more than simply shout the same ideas, bemoan the same incompetencies, and wait for the entire political culture of the province to tip violently leftward, as a ship stricken by a common-sense iceberg. There are those who say that no centre or left party in Alberta, under any scenario, from pestilence to sweetheart sale of public hospital to the premier’s drinking mates, will ever attract sufficient support on its own so as to form a majority, and that such parties instead must change, adapt, grow up, evolve—indeed, take steps as will ensure they finally honour, come election day, the roughly half of Albertans who invariably and invisibly strike an X for a party left of the PCs.

The same clarity-deficient Albertans propose, then, that the progressive parties need co-operate and form a coalition, combine their efforts under the folds of an enormous, inclusive and invariably well-funded tent—people with different ideas, to be sure, but united in a larger vision of a wealthy, healthy, civil and environmentally sustainable society. 

To be frank, this idea is unsound. Its adherents are pitiable in their idealism. And they are, sadly, growing in number. Thus let me be unequivocal in stating my proposal: that a progressive party will prevail in an Alberta election on its own and will do so presently. That this is in fact inevitable. That by rejecting co-operation, by doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, Alberta’s progressive parties are in fact poised for a renaissance (one of them, anyway). That their current behaviour is the definition of sane; better, that it breathes wisdom and patience. That, in fact, doing nothing but what they have always done is the courageous course.

I must confess: a madman can whip up an intoxicating vision for Alberta in his kitchen of delusions. Reader: purse not for the steaming ladle, for it sloshes with thin rhetorical gruel. Though those who call for evolved thinking from Alberta’s progressive parties are thrifty in their logic, their exploding popularity demands a response. And so I shall flay their arguments, reduce them to shambles, assure you of their wanting state.

A very worthy person, a true lover of his province, and whose virtues I highly esteem, was lately pleased in discoursing on this matter, and he conferred disagreement upon my scheme. An articulate principal of a group called the Democratic Renewal Project (www.drproject.ca), he believes citizens deserve a more responsible government, and that it will come only from co-operation among the progressive parties.

Clarity-deficient Albertans propose that the parties form a coalition. This idea is unsound.

The disadvantages of his proposal are obvious and many. With due deference to so excellent a thinker and deserving a patriot, I cannot be altogether in his sentiments. For as to these parties, from my frequent analysis, their policies are too different, as schoolboys given to continual physicality and those given to reading books; and to conjoin them would be disagreeable and futile. With humble submission, to even compare them dishonours history and gives offence to those who have spent decades beating their heads against flat surfaces, trying to elect one or the other party. Some scrupulous people might even be apt to censure comparisons as a little bordering upon cruelty.

But, then, let us humour fools. Says the DRP of the opposition parties’ policies: “Stated positions overlap on key issues, including health, a green economy and education.” And: “At a recent DRP workshop in Edmonton, 15 people joined two sessions that explored whether the provincial Liberals, NDP and Greens shared common values. [A] professor of political science at Athabasca University read eight quotations from party websites regarding policy and invited a group of political activists to indicate which party had produced each quotation. Their scores were only slightly better than what random guessing would produce.” And: “We should focus on what we have in common rather than emphasize our differences, so that we can change the direction of Alberta politics.”

And this, the most malodorous poppycock, from the DRP’s main agitator himself: “I cannot tell the programs of these parties apart, either even though I teach and write Western Canadian history. If they cannot persuade me that they are something more than rival tribal groupings, alike in most respects that matter, how can they convince average Albertans who increasingly tune out provincial parties…?”

Need I cap such gushing delusion, or merely let winds disperse the mist? For the academic exercise, then.

As for our schools, the parties have wildly different policy. From the Liberals’ website: “Support the Learning Commission’s recommendations for class sizes… eliminate school fees and parent fundraising for essentials… introduce a school nutrition program to ensure at-risk children a healthy start every day… enable a “community schools” program, under which community supports such as healthcare, childcare, after-school care and social services can be integrated under one roof.” And from the NDP’s: “Implement Learning Commission recommendations by imposing caps on class sizes… eliminate fees and fundraising for learning essentials… provide healthy and nutritious breakfast and lunch programs where needed…make sure parents of 6–12 year olds have access to affordable after-school care.”

These platforms are as black and white; as nightsoil and cake. But, for the DRP supporters: Look at the sentence order, the emphases, the words themselves—critically, the Liberals would merely “support” the Learning Commission’s recommendations, as though feebly clapping from the sidelines, while the NDP would boldly “implement” them; and while the NDP would lavish breakfast and lunch on schoolchildren, the Liberals would sensibly demand of tots that they provide their own noon repast. Would you call the difference in plan price, surely in the low millions, insignificant? Are they so “alike”?

As for their environmental policies: the Liberals promise “stronger greenhouse gas emissions regulations and enforcement… more effective environmental compliance and oversight of land reclamation… a water management plan to ensure that current and future needs are balanced… a plan to invest increased oil and gas royalties into green energy, with an emphasis on moving Alberta away from coal power… and a land use framework that curbs urban sprawl and safeguards valuable farmland.” Indeed, these are reasonable proposals—and about what you’d expect from centrist enviro-dullards. With respect, have the Libs no sense of urgency? Will “plans” and “emphases” halt the Doomsday Clock? See the NDP’s site for some refreshingly radical proposals.

As for healthcare, the Liberals “will strengthen and improve sustainable public healthcare, not dismantle it.” The NDP “led the fight against repeated attempts to introduce for-profit healthcare [and] wants to deal with rising costs and shortages of services by focusing on innovation and efficiency within the public health system.” Nowhere does the NDP explicitly say—as do the Liberals—that they’d stop short of “dismantling” public healthcare. True, the NDP’s past is pure, but would innovations “within a public system” preclude the dismantling of the system itself? Note the weasel word “efficiency.”

Best of all, consider the integrity gap. The NDP raises funds from unions (and some corporations), while the Liberals woo corporations (and take money from the odd union). As the NDP notes, Big Oil and private healthcare “dig deep” for the Liberals—that those closeted neocons should have the chance to festoon their paymasters with private rewards…! Adds the NDP: “No wonder the Liberals want to give Big Oil a break on the cost of royalties.” No wonder, indeed. A sober man senses the lie in a party’s stated policies and instead trusts its sworn competition. But in fairness to the Liberals, the NDP is so beholden to Big Labour that they, as government, would mandate unionization, pro-Lenin chanting in elementary classrooms and burlap breech-cloths for every Albertan. In sum, the parties are so unlike as to render efforts at co-operation utterly futile. One may as well unite the Koreas…!

I can almost hear the DRP cobbling a response from the ruins of its logic. The fact remains that the Liberals and NDP have fundamentally different ideas and could never compromise them. Let us briefly pretend, however, that no such chasm exists, and employ our thoughts to the DRP’s strategy to compost our grievously stale leaders. I am not in the least pained upon discussing its suggestion—a perfectly legal non-compete arrangement between the parties come next election—because it remains, as an idea, as a dessert in the Calgary Tower revolving restaurant: that is to say, pie in the sky.

Again, I shall allow the DRP to bury themselves under their own illogic: “In a ‘non-compete’ arrangement, the Liberals and NDP agree on a fair division of seats across the province. A ‘fair division’ means more than simply allocating each seat to last election’s second-place winner. The non-compete agreement creates the possibility of significant increases in the number of seats held by each party, and sets the stage for an overall electoral victory for the ‘united alternative.’ With strategic co-operation, we give progressives, particularly disillusioned non-voters, a reason to believe their vote will count. People want a real contest rather than a foregone conclusion. By attracting and supporting single winnable candidates in winnable ridings, we eliminate vote-splitting among progressives.”

Ignoring, briefly, the foolish notion of Liberals and NDPers agreeing about who has the best chance in a given constituency (humility and pragmatism have no place in politics), let’s pretend they’d co-operated in 2008. The progressive parties—simply by running but one candidate per riding, without earning even one extra vote—would have gained 12 seats: two in Calgary, nine in Edmonton and one in Lethbridge. Fully 17 more seats were winnable (i.e., were lost by only a few hundred or a thousand votes) had there been real incentives for progressives to vote. So, add a hundred votes here, a thousand there, introduce a 29-seat swing, and the result is…? Another loss for progressives. Ed Stelmach & Co. triumph with a gaping 43 to 40 seat margin. All that effort to produce the same result…! 

“Co-operation” shimmers all the more tantalizingly when one indulges in speculation about a split right vote. Indeed, some will tell you that after 40 years of watching the left self-flagellate, the Alberta right will in 2012 grab a cat-o’-nine-tails and mimic. I beg to differ. But let’s stupidly assume that the nascent Wildrose shaves but 30 per cent of the 2008 PC vote in select ridings. Several more PC MLAs lose, including Laura Shutiak, Robin Campbell and Energy Minister Ron Liepert—and not to the WA, but to the Liberals. In other words, if the progressive parties agree not to run against each other in 2012, hold or slightly improve their support, and the Wildrose pulls 30 per cent from the PCs in even a few ridings, then a “united alternative” can form the next government, likely with a combined 50 per cent of the popular vote. (The WA and PCs can then spend the next 40 years in opposition, arguing over who prostrates before the free market the more deeply.)

So goes the DRP fantasy. However, that tens (or hundreds) of thousands of disgruntled PC supporters will next election day tick a WA box instead of a PC box seems unlikely—as I prove earlier, a violent lurch from right to centre or left appears the safer bet. Yes, there are the hundreds of thousands of dollars flowing from corporate Calgary to the WA’s war chest, the WA’s surge in the polls, their charismatic leader, their carnival- barker-esque appeal to Albertans’ worst impulses—“No taxes!” “Damn the feds!” But from neocons to libertarians…? As Occam dictates, the simplest outcome—wild swing left, all support to one party—is the most likely.

Let’s humour the co-operationist but once more. While coalition governments are common throughout the world (e.g., France, Ireland, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Japan, Israel, New Zealand), they are, truthfully, exercises in “selling out.” Notably, while Andrea Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union govern Germany in coalition with Horst Seehofer’s Christian Social Union, and Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats long shared power with the Greens, tales of compromise squelching rabid ideology in Germany are common as schinkenwurst. (As Germans say of politicians: er würde sogar seine Großmutter verkaufen: he would even sell his own grandmother.)

A great inheritance: the knowledge that one’s parents stuck miserably and doggedly to principle.

Also consider that with the exception of the 1940 Alberta election, in which Liberals and Conservatives united as the “Unity Movement” and won 42.5 to Social Credit’s 42.9 per cent of the popular vote, and the 1919 election, in which the United Farmers of Alberta and the International Labour Party entered into a pre-election agreement in which UFA didn’t contest urban seats and the ILP didn’t run in rural ridings, there is no history of co-operation in Alberta whatsoever. (Wheat Pool, UFA, CCF, credit union movement and federal Reform/PC merger notwithstanding, one might even say that co-operation is simply un-Albertan.)

But suppose the progressive parties co-operate in 2012—ha!—and form a coalition government (nonsense). They will hardly be delivered from evil. Historic foes forced to work together, debate bills, gnash teeth, compromise, share small rooms…! The bad feelings would not be tempered by the improvements to public life, nor by the surge in tourism, nor even by the great satisfaction of listening to the PCs howl from the opposition seats or, years later, of seeing a particularly ineffective former PC member bussing tables at Moxie’s Classic Grill.

Many other disadvantages to a coalition might be enumerated. But I am studious of brevity. Besides, I can think of no one objection that could possibly be raised against my proposal.

As to myself: I have been wearied for years by vain and idle government, and by ideas from opposition left to languish in the legislature as a half-bottle of merlot is left untouched by the family dog, who instead gobbles the greasy napkins. At length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal for instilling a more competent government, which is wholly new, entirely feasible—for what is more feasible than changing nothing about oneself?—affords no expense and incurs no danger of hard work.

I am not so violently bent upon my own opinion as to outright reject any idea proposed by readers which shall be found equally simple, inexpensive and effective—including an effort to effect co-operation between centre and left. But before something shall be advanced, I desire its author will be pleased to consider one point. How will they get Liberals and NDPers to even agree to a time at which to meet? Or to a location? Or to agree even to the communication medium through which to express frustration at decades of vote-splitting, to find common ground (as if it existed!) or tentatively broach co-operation?

I desire that those who yet insist that co-operating/coalitioning would restore a competent government consider their children; that an awareness that one’s parents risked all in aid of realizing their best hopes and dreams is, of course, a worse inheritance than the knowledge that one’s parents stuck miserably and doggedly to principle. I would remind them that moral victories are the superior kind, and that being on the right side of history—even if history never comes to pass—is the rosier legacy.

I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in promoting this necessary work, holding no party membership and having no motive than upholding my duty to my province by advancing the public good, calling for provision for children, the sick and the elderly, relieving the poor, saving some forests and rivers for animals, and allowing ample pleasure to the rich—who I ultimately envision to be all Albertans. I should add that my wife and I have as yet no children of our own; though the first would surely arrive all the sooner if the supposedly more citizen-friendly political parties would presently get their acts together, one way or another. #

Evan Osenton is associate editor of Alberta Views and a long-time Albertan. He offers apologies to Jonathan Swift’s descendants.

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