For a debate to be effective, the opposing teams must clash. If an issue or a problem is to be thoroughly discussed, arguments on all sides must be raised. This is the value of the opposition in a democratic parliament – to debate the issues, to raise objections to bad policy, to be a watchdog in the interests of minorities and those who disagree with the policies of the party in power, to criticize and offer alternatives. Different points of view can result in unexpected solutions. Not in Alberta. We don’t know what it means to have an opposition with teeth because we’ve never had one. We have never valued, encouraged or elected a really effective opposition in the provincial legislature.
Since Alberta became a province in 1905, Albertans have seemed to be of one mind. In the election of that year, 21 of the 25 seats in the Legislative Assembly went to Liberals. At elections that mark the three great turning points in the province’s history–1921, 1935 and 1971–Albertans rose up in one wave against the government in power and swept in another party holus-bolus. In 1921, the Liberals were defeated by the United Farmers of Alberta, not even a political party but a farmers’ organization which hadn’t had a single candidate in the previous election but which, nonetheless, won 38 seats. The UFA increased its majorities and controlled the Legislative Assembly for 14 years.
Then, in 1935, the farmers were wiped out. The Social Credit came from nowhere to capture 56 out of 63 seats, and the UFA could not hold on to a single seat. Social Credit reigned undisturbed for 36 years, passing the crown in 1943 from father to spiritual son, Aberhart to Manning, until the Conservative upset of 1971. Having never formed a government in the province, the Conservatives swept to power under Peter Lougheed’s leadership. They took two-thirds of the seats and confirmed their hegemony in subsequent landslide elections by winning over 90 per cent of the seats.
The UFA rejected bipartisan politics in favour of group government, in which the government’s role is administration not policy information. For the farmers, gaining power meant being able to pass legislation favourable to themselves. Since agriculture was the basis of the economy, what was good for the farmers was good for all Albertans – or so they thought. Such group government works in the interests of the people, but it assumes all the people have the same interests. This assumption of unanimity has some basis in fact. After all, Albertans have been united in their economic interests. In the early years, Albertans were wheat farmers and cattle ranchers, and after World War II, many of us depended for our livelihoods, directly or indirectly, on oil and gas.
Neither the UFA nor their Socred successors saw the point of an opposition. The 1945 Social Credit Report of the Subcommittee on Post-War Reconstruction states “under no circumstance should there be a parliamentary opposition. An opposition does nothing positive other than challenge the administration, an action which, in reality, is counterproductive.” This document, T.C. Byrne argues that Alberta’s Revolutionary Leaders, “shaped the subsequent history of the province.”
“Plebiscitary democracy” is how political theorist C.B. MacPherson labelled the system in his classic Democracy in Alberta. Under this system, the voters hold a plebiscite every four or five years on who is to govern. Once the decision is made, the left-over remnant called the Opposition is little more than a symbol.
Granted, in more recent history there has appeared to be an opposition in the Alberta legislature. For example, in the early years of the Lougheed era, 1971 to 1976, the Conservatives held 49 seats and the Socreds 26, enough MLAs to debate the issues, to criticize and offer alternatives. However, the Socreds really didn’t function as an opposition. In the first place, there was no discernible difference between its policies and those of the Conservatives. Lougheed was a fresh, new face in government, and as he said, the Socreds were “tired” after 36 years in power. The campaign slogan was “A Time for a Change,” and photographs of Lougheed and his cohorts showed them running arm in arm, like the first-string line of a football team. But after the election, he carried on much as the Socreds had, promoting the Conservative free enterprise agenda. So what role was there for the opposition? They could hardly propose alternatives to policies they agreed with.
The opposition MLAs saw their role solely as representing the concerns and reflecting the views of their constituents. On controversial issues, they did not think they should engage in debate, vigorously arguing the issue that the truth might prevail. Nor did they believe in voting according to their conscience. They believed they should poll their constituents and vote according to the majority result. As for the electorate, G.C. Archibald’s 1979 study, The Role of the Opposition: An Alberta Case Study, indicated that voters believed that opposition parties criticize even when they have nothing constructive to say and that a larger opposition in Alberta “would only waste time talking”.
This consensus mentality has continued in the Klein era. In their 1995 survey, University of Calgary professors Keith Archer and Roger Gibbins found that 80.8 per cent of a representative sample of Albertans favoured Klein’s deficit elimination policy even though many of them, especially seniors and the poor, were hurt by the cuts. In last spring’s provincial election, the Klein Conservatives captured 20 of 21 seats in Calgary, and the city’s lone voice in the opposition, Liberal MLA Gary Dickson, won his inner city riding by only 200 votes. Province-wide, the Conservatives took 63 out of 83 seats, a more than comfortable majority.
In spite of what appears to be an extremely unified and coherent political culture, there has always been a great diversity of opinion throughout the province – and the popular vote had reflected this diversity. In 1959 for instance, at the height of its power, the Social Credit won 94 per cent of the seats in the legislature but garnered only 56 per cent of the popular vote. In Politics in Canada, political scientist Dave Humphreys presents this as a serious flaw in our electoral system. “Is the will of the people being expressed, when the total vote, 56 per cent equals 61 seats?” he wonders. “It may seem incredible that 44 per cent of those who vote can vote against the government and come up with only four seats in a 65-seat legislature. Yet that is exactly what happened in Alberta.”
Today, that solid block of Tories sitting in the legislature doesn’t really reflect the political differences among Albertans. The popular vote indicates Albertans are not united: 51 per cent of the province’s voters opted for the PCs; the remaining 49 per cent split among Liberals, New Democrats and Social Credit. In Edmonton, Ralph’s Team won two seats, the same number as the New Democrats, while the Liberals took 15 seats. It was not the first time Edmonton voters rejected the governing party. In 1986, Edmontonians elected enough New Democrats to form the Official Opposition. In 1989 and 1993 they did the same for the Liberals.
The contrarian voters of Edmonton save Alberta from remaining a one-party province. Edmonton has always had a diverse culture. It has been the seat of government, the intellectual centre of the province from the 1908 founding of the University of Alberta, an agricultural centre, the Gateway to the North, and a service base for the oil industry. This varied economic base has given rise to a diverse political culture, reinforcing the idea that economic interests shape our political behaviour. Where one industry dominates, voters may believe it is in their best interest to support a government that favours that industry. But should any interest group determine the policies of the government? Even though oil is perceived to be the backbone of our economy and is strongly associated with the province’s well-being, the interests of the oil industry are not the interests of all citizens. Ideally, government might create the kind of society that is good for all people to live in and implement policies for the greater good of all. An effective opposition has a vital role to play in that process.
Alberta’s Legislative Assembly did not sit in the fall of 1997. Government business was conducted by cabinet, by warrants and orders-in-council. All elected representatives, particularly the opposition members might have liked to play a role in making those decisions. But in the words of Dr. Raj Pannu, New Democrat representative for Edmonton-Strathcona, they were “locked-out.”
The free enterprise agenda of Klein’s government is not much questioned, even though many Albertans dispute it. While Edmonton does its best to provide some opposition in the legislature, there is not much real debate on social issues. If the dissenting elements in this province cannot mount an effective opposition in the legislature, how can their positions on issues be heard?
C.B. MacPherson defines democracy as “government responsible to and infused with the will of ‘the common people,’ those whose claim to consideration is their common humanity rather than their estates, their life and labour rather than accumulated wealth or hereditary status.” The party system allows for the representation of diverse interests through both the party in power and the opposition and is a safeguard against a permanent, irresponsible oligarchy.