Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Progressive Reflections on the Alberta Elections

The local elections in Alberta last night were significant, maybe even momentous.   The single-minded media focus on the culture wars between the right wing parties for political power shifted last night.  This happened in many municipal mayoralty contests around Alberta but nowhere more dramatically than Edmonton and Calgary.  As someone who has been focused on getting the progressive voice of Alberta back into the political culture, I have to say last night was gratifying and encouraging.

Elections all over urban Alberta last night sent a strong message to the other orders of government that this province has a new progressive narrative that is forward thinking, intelligent, vibrant and very very energized.  The significant increase voter turnout in the big cities shows that people want change and it is not good enough to merely offer a choice between very right-wing Progressive Conservative Party agenda and extremely right wing Wildrose Alliance Party agenda. 

There was the emergence of a progressive political agenda in evidence in these municipal elections.  It came to life in many parts of urban Alberta last night.  I know that progressive political agenda came to life in the Mayoralty contests in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Hinton and County of Strathcona. 

The Mayor and entire town council of Rimbey were sent packing.  It was discovered through FOIP that they were using taxpayer funds to go to conservative related fundraising dinners and incurring other inappropriate expenses.  They were all replaced by some progressive thinking Albertans who want values in their local government and value for their tax dollars. I am sure there are other examples but I have not had time to research them yet.

The contests had different contexts but the consequences are the same.  The old hierarchical, command and control, top down, power broker model of politics in Alberta is no longer acceptable in much of urban Alberta.  I’m betting that rejection of the outmoded model of politics will translate into Alberta provincial politics both urban and rural.  It is sure not a preferred governing model for the not-for-profit, NGO and the rest of the voluntary sector in the province.

Nowhere was this more evident that in the Edmonton and Calgary mayoralty campaigns.  Progressive candidates for Mayor trounced the status quo and conventionally hide-bound conservative candidates in both cities.  Progressives found new ways to enhance the typical election campaigning by networking and creating communities of ideas and issues through social media.  

Progressives found a new, young, articulate, cosmopolitan candidate in Calgary and stuck with a revered forward thinking imaginative candidate in Edmonton.  The revitalized progressive citizen realized these two men they could believe in and trust.  These two candidates came to their campaigns with forward thinking, creative ideas for a modern vibrant and sustainable city.  They outline their ideas in platforms that resonated with the aspirations that progressives want for their cities.  They were pushing towards designing and delivering a better tomorrow while the opposition candidates wanted to hit the pause button to stop progress, or in some cases, go to rewind and take us back 50 years in our thinking.  Nenshi and Mandel both showed grace and dignity in the face of some very nasty but unfounded personal smears and slanders in some vicious but anonymous campaign attacks.

Calgary progressives showed up in droves (50%+ turnout) to send a message to the presumptive (and past?) power brokers that they really don’t own or run that town any more.  Nenshi’s enormous and dramatic win as an outside progressive underdog undid and devoured the Harper Cons election machine that ran the McIver campaign.  Then it defeated and devastated the old Klein cum Dinning election machine that recruited and promoted Higgins.  Those “front-runner” campaigns never saw this comeuppance coming.  Watching the coverage I could tell both conservative based campaigns were obviously shocked on election night by the severity, size and soundness of their rejection by the revival of progressive Calgary voters.

In Edmonton the full court press by Envision Edmonton was intended to undermine Mayor Mandel.  It didn’t just fizzle – it imploded and then burst into flames.  The Envision Edmonton effort in citizen participation unraveled in scandal.  The admitted fraudulent dirty-trick political activities by a key Envision Edmonton volunteer sealed the demise.  The man who managed the Envision Edmonton petition drive fraudulently posed as a Seattle newspaper reporter and deceitfully created a controversy that destroyed the credibility and respect for an otherwise laudable effort at citizen engagement.

He falsely accused Mayor Mandel of personal and political corruption in the potential redevelopment of the municipal airport lands.  Instead of undermining Mandel he energized progressives to actively support the Mandel campaign.  When they showed up on Election Day they made a big difference in the size of the Mandel win and the size of the wreckage that was wrought on the Dorward campaign.  Sadly, I think the deceit and dishonesty of the Envision Edmonton impostor was a cause for voter concern about the integrity, ethics, honesty, accountability and transparency of the entire Envision Edmonton airport effort.  Envision Edmonton made matters worse by refusing to distance and denounce this perpetrator for his dirty tricks and fraudulent actions.  He also unfairly implicated the Dorward campaign under similar suspicions because Dorward was the Envision Edmonton endorsed candidate for Mayor. 

Dorward said, in a post-election CBC radio interview, that he does not think that the Envision Edmonton meltdown or the fraudulent blogger hurt his campaign.   Perhaps he is right.  We will never know for sure but I think it did.  Consider for a moment that Envision Edmonton pushed the fact that the 90,000+ signatures on their petition needed to be heeded by Edmonton City Council.  Well, only 58,000 voted for Mr. Dorward.  Where did the rest go or did they really care about the airport issue in the first place?  Did Dorward pick up many new votes as a result of the scandalous anonymous and inaccurate attacks on Mandel?  Many people sign a petition with no intention of being really engaged on the issue.  Do these low voter numbers for Dorward compared to the number of petition signatures show that, or was it a more serious rejection of his campaign?  Don’t know but it does matter, especially if you want a working democracy based on integrity, honesty, trust, transparency and accountability.

So what does this all mean for changes I see coming towards a more progressive political culture in Alberta?  Some things are clearer than others.  For sure dirty trick and fraudulent politics will not be tolerated.  It will cause a significant portion of voters, and progressive citizens in particular, to take offence and rise up to oppose such tactics.  There is a need for a more refined level of media literacy especially in the new and digital media world.  There is a growing group of Albertans who know that it is just not enough to denounce these activities…you have to show up, expose them and defeat those who engage and acquiesce in the perpetration of such incorrigible activities.  Progressives did that in Edmonton and Calgary, on-line and at the ballot box.  

There is also a new value set that is emerging in Alberta.  Many progressives will want a hand in writing that new narrative and want to help design and deliver the next Alberta That new narrative is not going to be about continuing a simple-minded conservative ideology bent on perpetually lower taxes as a way to chase/attract foreign investment then coupled with royalty give-aways.  It is going to be about the current generation paying its way and leaving asocial, environmental and economic legacy to the future we can be proud of.

The new narratives are in the hearts and minds of progressive thinking citizens who see themselves coming back to democracy and electing servant leaders not political power brokers.  They see the economy working for the society not the other way around.  They see the economy and society embedded in the environment and that we must work in harmony with the ecosystems of the plant instead of just trying to engineer our way around Mother Nature.

The winning progressive candidates for Mayor in Edmonton, Calgary and other cities campaigned to create communities that are vibrant, diverse, dynamic, inclusive, conscious, meaningful and imaginative. They wanted to ensure public policies and local politics integrate economic, environmental and social concerns based on shared political and other cultural values. These progressive candidates see a positive role for government that creates a shared means to protect property, provide effective institutions and quality infrastructure to support and sustain citizens and their families.  They seek to make municipalities that are responsible, safe, caring and compassionate societies where individuals can realize their personal potential and in turn contribute in ways that advance their lot in life and also add value to the greater good. 

Progressives are not prepared to stand back and allow the contemptuous policy approach of many fiscal conservatives who see the marketplace as the only public policy option.  Too many fiscal conservatives are not trying to get value for taxpayer dollars in ways that advance our society.  They mostly want to cut taxes to levels that will starve vital public services like education and health care.  Without sufficient taxpayer provided resources these sectors simply can’t do their jobs.  By pushing a tax policy designed to under fund public services they ensure these public services will fail to perform.

The next step is for the libertarian or ultra-conservative dogma to kick in and demand that the private sector comes to the “rescue.”  Historically that has been a failed and expensive strategy because the taxpayer inevitably has to bail out the private operator. Remember the recent bankruptcy of the private surgical clinic in Calgary we spent millions to sustain as a case in point?  That is not an isolated case and we must not allow it to become the norm.

As part of the Reboot Alberta progressive citizen’s movement I have to marvel how fast and far this idea of a progressive Alberta political culture has come in one short year.  The proof is in the increased voter turnout and the progressive election results in Edmonton, Calgary and many other Alberta communities.  Progressives are coming to life again all over Alberta.  I am encouraged by this and know it is not too late for Albertans to take back the political agenda of the province - and it is about time.  The stage is set. The times are a-changin’ and the progressive Alberta voter has to come back to democracy and seems focused on taking back control of the political culture and agenda of our province.  I saw that return to citizenship start to happen on October 18 in local elections all over Alberta.

If you want a progressive political culture in the Next Alberta register now for RebootAlberta 3.0 at


  1. Anonymous7:02 am

    Progressive = left wing, socialist

  2. Anonymous8:01 am

    I have two comments, perhaps questions.

    1. I'm not familiar with the debt-load of other Alberta municipalities including Edmonton and Calgary. However the debt-load of my municipality is concerning, arguably unsustainable. Many of the "progressive" platforms require significant spending, maybe that's okay. How can these platforms and plans be achieved in a fiscally responsible manner? I follow the writings and thoughts Meredith Whitney whose recent report predicts financial crisis for state governments. The financial crisis is linked to debt-load of governments.
    2. In my community, there is a growing immigrant population. In my opinion this is positive. They are an important and valuable part of our community’s social network. Because the immigrants are not Canadian citizens they cannot vote. How can their interests and values be represented in a municipal election?

  3. Anonymous8:34 am

    Interesting read Ken. Can you give an example of why you consider the Wildrose as "extremely right wing"? I've read their policies and I just don't make that same connection. They seem to offer more avenues for citizen input than any other party ever has.

    Are you suggesting yet another completely new political party be formed under the auspices of Reeboot Alberta...with a full policy time for the next election?

    Can you broaden your definition of a "Progressive citizen"?

  4. Ken, I hope you are right about progressive forces starting to be evident outside the two big cities as well. Otherwise, there is little hope until we can force redistribution of the electoral boundaries to more accurately represent the population (i.e. reduce the over-representation of rural ridings).

    Certainly a very exciting set of election results though, as you say. Especially in Calgary!!

  5. Sure - The social conservatives press for Bill 44 are from the WAP. The belief in the marketplace as a superior solution to for all public policy purposes. The sense that the individual rights are so dominant that one is a part from a larger society. The demand that growth be the major measure of well-being and faith over science is a way to make public policy decisions. Government is the problem and taxes are a constraint on individual freedoms instead of government being a collaborative sense of citizenship and taxes are part of providing for a caring and compassionate society, personal and social security and designing responsible progress. Lots more but you get my drift.

    A new party has been formed the Alberta Party. go to for more info.

    Go to and click on What's a Progressive to answer your third point.

  6. Anonymous9:59 am

    Excellent article. It feels very good to be able to have an impact, finally. The media in Canada, and Alberta is part of the problem without a doubt - they try to control the message according to what their affiliations are, which is usually Conservative.

    Everyone keeping in touch re Calgary via #yycvote on Twitter, I think that will go on for a long time, it's the Calgary voters touchstone.

    Thanks for this analysis.

  7. Anonymous12:25 pm

    I think you missed the boat. People tend to vote for self interest or because they like someone not for deep thought political reasons. In Edmonton the issue is property value. In doing home flier delivery I counted 187 recently built and lived in homes with lock boxes and sherrif notices but no real estate signs indicating the homes were on the market but not public. Probably to reduce the panic in any give neighborhood. People bought the homes at the peak of the market and were now gone because of the job situation. The result is that in spite of the issue of high property tax and city hall quietly suggesting that the tax could double in the next 5 years, the vote went to the tax and spend group. In short the city has to create jobs to get the house prices back up or they are in serious financial trouble should they be transferred or lose their jobs.

  8. JD Galt1:39 pm

    Mr. Chapman,

    I think you are incorrect in your assessment of the impact of these elections.

    In Calgary Mr. Nenshi replaced Dave Bronconnier a progressive who once ran for the federal Liberal party against Rob Anders. Calgary replaced one progressive with another. Additionally, Ric Nciver and Barb Higgins split the right wing vote which gave Mr. Nenshi the opportunity to run up the middle.

    In Edmonton Mr. Mandel should be ashamed that there wasn't a plebiscite on closing the airport. With all of the signatures that were collected by Envision Edmonton there should have been a plebiscite supported by City Council. Regarding the Dorward campaign it is quite remarkable that he received 58,000 votes when running a campaign for just a few months. Perhaps you haven't run an election campaign but to get 58,000 in a matter of weeks is outstanding. Mayor Mandel should be very concerned in the next election if someone sets out a one to two year campaign plan.

    I am confused by your comment about Red Deer. The sitting mayor is a progressive who one by but a small margin over a woman who ran a virtually invisible campaign. Had there been a true conservative candidate with a solid campaign plan that candidate would have won.

    Overall everything is pretty much the status quo so I am not sure where you see this progressive liberal surge coming from.

  9. Anonymous8:15 pm

    Many libertarians also press for Bill 44.

  10. You've defined it well, Ken. Current political parties are not filling the growing desire by the public for a new form of engagement. Nenshi studied at Harvard's JFK School of Government. Having studied there myself, I know he is equipped with the right tools to handle policy formulation for the complex problems facing Calgary.
    Hopefully the Alberta Party or Reboot Alberta will be able to give the boot to the old political guard in this province and refresh the Alberta political scene. I don`t see the PC`s, WAP`s, Lib`s, or NDP`s filling that growing need.

  11. Anonymous11:42 am

    Bill O'Reilly, Fox News blowhard, did some piddly graduate work at the Harvard School of Government too. Lots of people roll through Harvard who aren't particularly spectacular, and the education on offer there isn't measurably better than that on offer a lot of other places. From what I can tell, Nenshi's a bright guy, but let's get over the "Harvard" issue.

    Virtually everyone these days is progressive, putting aside Glenn Beck and the U.S. Tea Party idiots. The term has lost almost all meaning. It's absurd to have Beck try to capture the evils of "progressivism" on his chalkboard, but it's not all that more helpful to attempt to capture its virtues in a progressive blog. This idea that it provides some sort of basis for a coherent political/policy programme (or party) probably needs some examination. There's something to it - don't get me wrong. It just doesn't get us very far. The devil is in the policy details, and some vital differences exist within that amorphous idea that can't be re-booted away.

    While I suspect that I would disagree with Mr. Galt (above) on a lot of political issues, he had detected some pretty deep flaws in Mr. Chapman's analysis of the significance of the municipal elections. When you scratch the surface, and control for your variables (as they teach you to do at Harvard I think) there's very little real evidence here of any abiding cultural or ideological or political shift. That's not to say that things aren't changing or can't change, perhaps even in the direction(s) Chapman indicates. But it is to say that Chapman's analysis is probably more about boosterism, or perhaps just the old fashioned problem of seeing things in a way that supports your pre-existing view of things, than any real evidence.

  12. Great comment Anon at 11:42. I admit to a dash of progressive boosterism in all this due to my volunteer work in Reboot Alberta. And I extrapolate from the municipal election to the potential for provincial impacts. I do have some serious science in the form of recent random surveys of Albertans that I can use to support my arguments. Come to Reboot3.0 and hear all about it.

    The research we have done and I just sat through an 90 minute presentation this morning by Michael Adams of Environics on updated value trends in Canada with lots of Alberta based data. It all shows the Harper/Harris and Fraser Institute inspired governing philosophy of Danielle Smith of the Wildrose is not aligned with the core Canadian and Alberta values.

    So what we need is a viable political alternative that is aligned. We do not see that being offered to us yet.

    Thx for the comment

    I don't think progressive means the same value set in Canada as in the US and we are the dominant group by numbers in Canada. Michael Adams great book Fire and Ice outlines lots of the differences.

    As for the Harvard education - it is not a guarantee of a "spectacular" mind but it is still a valuable credential.

  13. Anonymous8:05 pm

    Extrapolating from municipal to provincial politics is very iffy proposition. Calgary's had relatively progressive mayors and councillors for years, but elect horribly right-wing provincial and federal politicians. It's very questionable whether Mandel deserves the label (which he probably wouldn't want), and Edmonton has definitely had more progressive mayors in the past. In the case of Nenshi, we have to remember that he only got a plurality - absent Higgins getting in the race, we may be talking about Mayor McIver. Nenshi also seemed to get some traction with his schtick about audits and accountability. He seemed to ride McIver's wave better than McIver did, and it wasn't a very "progressive" wave, at least not on any meaningful definition of the term. So there are important contingent factors unique to the race which make any attempt to trace this to broader, deeper "progressive" movements (especially ones that link to other orders of government/politics) very suspect. This isn't to say that he didn't run a very good campaign and that he's not genuinely got some "progressive" ideas. I'm sure he does. I also think his energy and innovative, fresh style probably helped boost participation, which is itself important, but there's still very little evidence of a big progressive shift underway. Survey evidence that the Reform/CPC/Harris/WRA values don't necessarily align with Canadians' or Albertans' real values or preferences has been around for a long, long time. There's not necessarily anything fundamentally new there.

    So I agree that we need a viable political party or parties aligned with or speaking to those values. But we have two parties that for the most part (with some exceptions at the margins) attempt to position themselves in that space. It's the PCs and the Liberals. They both compete for the centre, and no re-booted alternative is going to offer anything fundamentally different in terms of overall policy position or orientation than what is already being offered. Even the movers and shakers of the fledgling Alberta Party admit they have to take out the ALP. So maybe some new Alberta Party will try to split the difference between recent incarnations of PCs and Libs, and become a determinedly Centrist party, instead of Centre-Right vs. Centre Left. But when you look at party competition and ideological/cultural shifts over the long term, it's not at all clear that a new "Centrist" alternative would do much for progressive values in Alberta. Now it could be that the ALP just isn't viable. They appear to be largely incompetent, based on recent campaigns and performance. They may not be able to connect, or they may have a brand problem, but their fundamental problem isn't "aligning" with Albertans values or policy preferences. political positioning one.

    Adams' work is OK, but if "progressive" is to have any real, practical meaning (other than some sort of diffuse rejection of...something not progressive), it has at least something to do with the traditional L-R spectrum. In practical policy terms "progressive" policy in the U.S. does looks a lot like "progressive" policy in Canada, despite lots of really important other differences, some of which Adams gets at least mostly right. In Alberta progressive seems to be used for a bunch supposedly non- or post-partisan ideas around democratic engagement or something. But if so, there's not enough to hold any sort of movement together over the long term. It's basically Apple Pie or Hockey - everyone likes it.

    Anyhow, keep up the good work. Efforts to engage people in making Alberta better is good work - even if I'm not entirely convinced of the case being made.


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