Reboot Alberta

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Laurie Blakeman & Her Post-Conventional Party Politics

The past is littered with examples inability for Alberta's progressive political parties to individually mount an effective alternative to the ruling Conservative dynasty.

Laurie Blakeman, as Alberta's longest serving MLA, has seen a lot of changes.  She recognizes the political status quo for progressives will only preserve the power-based status quo for Conservatives. She is now walking her talk about changing the attitudes of establishment progressive partisans.

The October 2014 by-elections were very telling.  By-elections are usually opportunities to send the sitting government a message of discontent. There was plenty of discontent with the Conservatives.  Prentice still won all four seats, three in Calgary and one in Edmonton.

While Prentice won his own seat handily there were some interesting but still unsuccessful challengers in other ridings.  That said, there are no silver medals in politics.

The Wildrose did very poorly given the funds it spent, its strong Calgary presence and a star candidate. The Wildrose leader and most others crossed the floor o the Prentice Conservatives in a surprising and conniving move.

The NDP had its leadership contest during the by-elections thanks to Prentice high-handed political approaches.  They had no traction in Calgary but had a good second place showing in Edmonton Whitemud.

The Liberals did poorly all over coming in 4th and splitting the vote in Calgary Elbow. That Liberal vote split arguably elected a religious SoCon Conservative candidate over the strong second place showing of the Alberta Party leader.

The Liberal Party leader resigned shortly after the by-elections.  Blakeman offered to be an interim leader on conditions that she be authorized to engage in talks with the Alberta Party around cooperation and possible merger.

She failed to convince her Liberal Party Board to go that route. The Liberals selected David Swann as interim leaders.  He is a well regarded former leader who resigned upon realizing that he could not move Alberta Liberals forward.

Conversations between Blakeman and the Alberta Party continued with the Greens added. What emerged was that Blakeman's candidacy in Edmonton Centre would not be contested by the Alberta Party or the Greens.

They would do more than endorse her.  The Greens and Alberta Party actually nominated her as their own candidate in the same constituency. While she is officially a Liberal on the ballot, all her campaign materials will carry the logos and messages of all three cooperating progressive parties.

The NDP will have nothing to do with this approach.  They believe that they are the true progressive alternative for Albertans and in 2015 their time has come.  With their new leader they promise to run a full slate of 87 candidates.  That will be true I expect, even if many are parachuted in and merely filed as "paper candidates" with no hope of winning nor with any real connection to local constituencies.

So what does this innovative Blakeman three-way candidacy mean?  Ideally it's the triumph of a commitment to shared progressive values over individual partisan brand loyalty.  Perhaps it demonstrates that progressive Albertans can co-create a new political space.  That they can move towards becoming a viable alternative citizen-based political movement aspiring beyond Official Opposition status.

Progressives gathered together before when they realized the threat of the Wildrose in the last Alberta election.  They showed up strategically on election day rallying behind Premier Redford, whom they mistakenly believed to be an authentic progressive.

Progressives will show up to oppose a common enemy.  Perhaps we have a new common enemy in the Prentice Conservatives.  The success of the citizens-based political movement over allowing Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in Alberta schools is a case in point.  This initiative was started and sustained by Liberals Kent Hehr and Laurie Blakeman through Private Members Bills. It received emboldened support from all progressive parties and many community groups.

There was a  public outcry over the Prentice Conservatives bullying procedural tactics used to kill the Blakeman GSA Bill 202.  The back-of-the-napkin ineffectual and offensive replacement government Bill 10 was soon "paused" for more public "consultation." The sustained opposition kept the issue alive over the Christmas break.

Prentice, as his first action when the Legislature resumed,, was to present and pass a new more acceptable Bill 10, very akin to the original Blakeman Bill 202.   A clear progressive citizen-based political victory.

Redford was run out of office by the Conservative Caucus.  Prentice was elected as the "new management" leader under a cloud of a suspicion over electronic voting and other irregularities.

Prentice is proving to be a Harper-like politician with a Klein inspired short-sighted economic agenda of brutal cuts to public spending.  Is it possible that a combination Harper/Klein Conservative government philosophy that only wants to cut government spending not increase revenues will reawaken passive progressives?

Could the Blakeman/Alberta Party/Green creative candidacy approach be the beginning of a progressive political coalition? Could this meeting of progressive leadership minds show the way forward for a merger of the Liberals, Alberta Party and Greens? Who knows.

The well known truth is that the current approach of the traditional progressive parties is not working. If we want to change the government, we progressives will have to change ourselves first. I now see some hope of that happening.....on both counts.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

2015: The Year for Acting Politically

Here is a draft of a piece I did emerging from my guest spot at the Summer Conference for the Alberta Teachers Association.  I am often invited to attend ATA events as a "friendly critic and critical friend of the ATA" as a former President likes to call me.

Summer Conference includes the ATA leadership cohort from across the province.  They looked collectively into their professional and political role in Alberta's public education policy going forward.

This "post" was inspired from the ATA event last August.  That was in the heat of the PC leadership process and just before the oil price changes gathered momentum.  You will see from the content it was written after the October by-elections.


Politics was a key message this year for ATA Summer Conference participants. Politics pervaded the Conference program. PC Leadership candidates were invited to attend and speak but Thomas Lukaszuk was the only one to show up. Opposition Education Critics all attended, spoke civilly and shared insights on their approaches to education policy.  

I got to “interview” Lukaszuk and moderate the Opposition Critic panel.  I also got to observe and add commentary in Political Engagement sessions.  As a result I learned a lot about the political positioning and thinking of the ATA.  I got to listen to those members charged with bringing the voice of teachers into the complex public policy process of the province.

My special privilege was when I was asked to make some wrap up comments at the end of the Conference.  My closing comments were based on Martin Luther King’s speech on Power and Love.  He said power without love is reckless and abusive. Love without power is sentimental and anemic. King’s conclusion was that we need power and love not power or love.

Since the Summer Conference, there have been lots of political power plays in Alberta.  The PCs have selected a new leader.  There was a significantly diminished level of citizen participation than in previous contests.  There was a serious controversy over electronic voting irregularities.  Then there were accusations of ethical lapses by the winning candidate over giving “free” memberships, paid for by others.

The “new management” leader selected a Cabinet that had unelected and controversial Ministers in the key portfolios of Health and Education.  This exercise in political power caused two additional, costly but interesting by-elections.

More power based politics emerged in one of the by-elections.  Ethical breach allegations of conflict of interest were formally filed against the appointed Minister of Education.  The Alberta Party and Wildrose both accused him of conflict of interest by using his Ministerial power for private benefit during his election campaign.

Robocall tactics came from federal politics and to the Alberta by-elections.  This time, anonymous social conservatives targeted robocalls at Wildrose supporters in all by-election campaigns.  Their message belittled the Wildrose party leader’s values for pursuing moderate policies on sexual preference issues.  

In politics, power is often applied in ways that is reckless and abusive.  And when it comes to the values of many care givers, including educators, the love they have for their work is embraced as a calling.  So they are often seen, and even become, sentimental and anemic…and therefore ineffectual in getting what they needed for themselves and those in their charge.

The repulsion of power politics coupled with a genuine love of their work (aka their "calling"), educators often get badly treated by the dynamics of politics. They tend to get abused in the power-based public policy development and deployment process.

My closing message to teachers was to stay professional but also to dust off their citizenship duties.  Get informed, get engaged, then get on with politically active citizenship. Start making a real difference on issues that are important to you.

Being a professional in a publicly funded education system puts some legitimate limits on advocacy activities.  But citizenship is a justifiable distinction and a strong basis for individual advocacy and values-based activism.

I suggested teachers, acting as citizens, have a lot to offer our declining democracy.  They have special training and skills that can help others understand and interpret information (aka seeing and understanding propaganda).  They have analytic abilities and high degrees of literacy that can help marginalized groups access and understand politics and political messaging.

My engagement plea was for teachers to join a political party and volunteer to help a candidate in an election campaign.  If you want to have real influence the leverage of your time is via political partisanship.  Access to power is easier and only 2% of Canadians belong to parties so the "power" is significant.

You don’t have to subsume your values to the party ideology but research which party is closest to your values.  Great parties encourage and enable active dialogue on values.  This is because good political parties recognize political decisions are values trade-offs.  Policy design and political priorities are, at their essence, moral choices.

Democracy necessitates a dynamic diverse dialogue and an informed debate served by a wise set of elected and listening decision makers.  None of that happens without engaged citizens who want to synergize Power and Love.

When you reflect on the potential of a progressive values-based society like I just described, it occurs to me that I have also just described a very good school.
Yes teachers, as citizens, have a lot of skills, talents and qualities to help integrate the concepts of power and love.

Our democracy and our society needs great classroom teachers but that does not mean they can't  also become active and effective citizens outside of school.  that said, 2015 is indeed the year for educators to begin acting politically - especially if there is a snap election coming.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Does Jim Prentice Need a New Mandate?

The spring 2015 election rumours are rampant amongst the chattering class in Alberta politics.  Of course all the reasons given to go early are pure politics and nothing to do with good governance.

Some reasons for an early election, instead of honouring the legislated fixed election date, is the "new management" under the new Premier needs his own mandate from Albertans.

Other reasons are the oil price decline needs Albertans to go to the polls to provide Prentice with the power to make the "tough choices" (a.k.a. draconian cuts) about programs and to keep taxes low.

Finally I believe the new Premier wants an election to enable him to clean house and get rid of the remaining progressives in his caucus. An election is the fastest way to do that by culling the herd.

A New Man Needs a New Mandate:
Why a new mandate?  Prentice won the PC leadership and consequentially became Premier of all Alberta.  He ran in the context of a very recent ( April 2012) and successful Redford election with a majority government.

He also knowingly inherited the fixed election date period of March 1-May 31 in every fourth calendar year of office.

The PCs have a clear mandate and a majority government elected less than two years before they decided to dump Redford. He inherited a 66 seat majority government elected with 44% of the vote that crushed the WRP momentum.

His own leadership win was "decisive" with 17,963 of the 23,386 of memberships counted.  We know more memberships were sold or given away by the Prentice campaign so there is a cloud over his "win." Not all eligible members were able to vote due to serious and suspicious electronic voting irregularities.

As for the PC Party mandate, Prentice has (or at least had until recently) the overwhelming support of the party executive, the caucus and the party establishment.  The PC caucus members were almost unanimous in their support for Prentice as leader.    

Alberta citizens were able to participate in this leadership selection by simply buying a PC membership (or getting a free one from Prentice's campaign) and voting for any one of three candidates.  

The fact that the general population overwhelmingly choose not to participate in this PC selection process, compared to previous contests, can be seen as indifference to the outcome. It could be seen as a general public acceptance that any of candidates offered could continue governing the province for the rest of the legislated mandate.

What if the low participation rate is because Albertans stayed away from the PC  selection process in protest? Even that clearly means they were prepared to accept the winner as their Premier in the context of the PC 2102 campaign platform and election victory.  

Then consider the dramatic shift in the polling results away from the Wildrose to the PCs since Prentice's victory in September 2014.  This shows Albertans now support his Premiership over the WRP regardless of the Redford legacy.

His recent polling results are at least as good, if not better, than the Redford 44% election support in 2012.  Again evidence that Albertan's do not see the need for a "new mandate" for the "new management" Premier. "He's da man!"

Budget Pressures Due to Oil Prices:
This is hardly a reason for a general election.  In fact it is just the opposite.  We need certainty in governance and leadership in such volatile economic times.  Oil prices started dropping in June of last year, when Prentice was announcing his candidacy.  They became more significant starting in September, when Prentice was selected PC leader.  It is not as if he didn't see this coming.

Prentice is not a new kid on the political block.  He is an experienced and seasoned politician, elected federally in June 2004 until November 2010 when he mysteriously resigned the Harper government.

In that time he served as Harper's Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Minister of Industry and Minister of the Environment. All vital portfolios and significant experience for dealing with Alberta's policy choices and fiscal plight in the light of falling oil prices.  We don't need him to win an election to prove is political bona fides.

Again his leadership success on October 27th by winning all four by-elections shows Albertans are not ready to dump him or even send him a discouraging word about his least not so far.

We need certainty in provincial leadership and management to deal with the pending budget issues.  This is not new to Alberta or Albertans, notwithstanding Prentice's hyperbole to the contrary about the fiscal issues.  We have been down this road before.

Hopefully with Prentice's experience, and others in the recent PC political past, we can avoid making the same policy mistakes of previous resource revenue downturns. Time will tell but in any event oil price volatility is not a reason for an early general election.  

Prentice's Purge of the Progressives:
Prentice has taken the PC party significantly to the right in the political spectrum. This is especially evident with the floor crossing of the majority of the Wildrose caucus.  He has been described by Danielle Smith, the former Wildrose leader and floor-crosser, as the "first Wildrose Premier."  How much more proof do you need of his shift to the right?

The "retirement" of progressives like Hancock and Hughes was allegedly for being too close to Redford.  The demotion of people like Lukaszuk and Griffiths plus the announced retirement of Pastoor, (with others to come?) it is pretty clear the "P" in the PC party is being systemically removed by Prentice.

An early election gives Prentice a way to tell remaining progressives there is no future for them in his government,  He can also give the WRP crossers the chance to try and win nominations as Prentice Conservatives before other inside progressive candidates can get organized.

The other pure political reason for an early election is to kill the rest of the WRP as a political force.  They would not have time to select a new leader with an early election call, in fact may be trying to select a leader in the middle of an election.

That is Harper-esque politics at its lowest.  It is sadly ironic for the WRP to be subjected to such tactics given the past support the enjoyed from the Harper caucus members. The death of the current WRP would be the culmination of Prentice becoming the de facto WRP hard-right Premier of the province.

Change to a Progressive Political Culture:
The centrist Alberta Party, the centre-left Liberals with the leftist NDP do not have the funds or other resources to mount a strong offence against Prentice in the short term. The non-aligned progressives who voted Redford in fear of the WRP are in a dilemma.  The Prentice PCs are clearly no longer destined to be a big-tent party that includes progressives.

The Liberals and NDP are not a preferred progressive alternative choice or they would have done better in the 2012 election and in the October by-elections. The NDP is an Edmonton-based party and the Liberals are in serious internal decline loosing 3 seats in 2012 and with 2 of the current MLAs leaving for federal politics in the next election this year.

The Alberta Party showed they can campaign and do well in the Calgary Elbow by-election coming in a strong second.  However there are no silver medals in politics.  They have a lot of organizing and fund raising to do to be a contender but they are making progress on both fronts.

However, given Prentice is not going to lose the next election, the Alberta Party is a smart parking place for a progressive protest vote against the Prentice Conservatives. Full disclosure: I am on the Provincial Board of the Alberta Party.

What will happen about an early election call is anyone's guess, including Prentice, who says he is keeping the option open. To go early would require the Lt. Gov to call it or for Prentice to call the Legislature back and amend or repeal the fixed election dates law. Integrity, accountability and transparency would suggest the latter course is the better approach, but again, who knows and does Prentice really care about those political values?  

If we do have an early election it will be for purely partisan political reasons and not sound public policy purposes.  Hopefully progressive Albertans will take such self-serving partisanship seriously and judge the "Wildrose Premier" accordingly.

The best way to show displeasure for Prentice opportunism in making such a partisan anti-democratic early election decision is to get out and vote for a new progressive movement.

To my mind that is the Alberta Party.  While it is new it is young, energetic and full of  new ideas and public-interest thinkers.  With proper support, it would legitimately aspire beyond becoming a replacement opposition.  It could and should aspire to become a progressive party capable of offering a viable alternative the first "WRP Premier" approach to the governance of the province.

Time will tell if any of that happens too...but in the true spirit of Don Quixote, I remain faithful to an Alberta Aspiration that is hopeful for her progressive future.