Aug. 22, 2012 - Issue #879: Is The Party Over?
The Party’s Over?
A rush to the centre has one political party re-evaluating
With a rare rush to the centre in the spring provincial election, the Alberta Party is undertaking a process to examine how it can best influence politics in the province, including the question of whether it should exist at all. A survey sent out to members in advance of the September 22 AGM asks if the party should become a think tank, merge with another party or simply fold. It's a recurring question of tactics for the political parties looking to change the situation and finally oust the Tory dynasty.
"I think frankly we're open to whatever it takes to change the dialogue in Alberta," explains Brian Thiessen, president of the Alberta Party. "That's the starting point. And if you're going to do that you have to confront the tough questions too and if your membership says you're doing it wrong and we want to quit then you should put that to them."
It's a question that any politically active Albertan who is not a Progressive Conservative asks themselves at some point during their political involvement: should they work from the outside of political process as an advocate or think tank, or should they participate in the political process as a party or a candidate? The Alberta Democratic Renewal Project, which created the project Change Alberta for this past election, has advocated the centre and left parties work together by either not nominating candidates in each other's electable ridings, or more recently encouraging voters to strategically vote for the strongest progressive candidate in each riding. In a post-mortem blog post by organizer Alvin Finkel, he writes, "It will be a shame—and irresponsible—if each organization barrels ahead as if nothing has changed with the 2012 election."
According to Thiessen, the 2012 election has changed the political climate to be more open to the idea of cooperation than in the past. "The underpinnings of the argument of conservatives has been that progressives couldn't win in an election and I think they did; they determined the election," says Theissen. "The premier made a lot of promises to progressives in the last election and they carried that election and those promises will be difficult to deliver based on the membership of the PCs."
This spring's election saw a surge in the fear of a social conservative victory, and a leader in Alison Redford who was willing to capitalize on that fear. Borrowing promises from her more progressive competitors' playbook, the PCs managed to capitalize on the fear-mongering of the socially conservative competitors and edged out the centre-left title holders. "After she was elected leader she restored the education funding. Not too long after that she returned funding to transgender surgeries. So it sort of takes some of the ammo from the traditional support from Liberal and New Democrats for those sorts of things," says Jonathan Sharek who served as Laurie Blakeman's campaign manager in Edmonton-Centre.
The share of votes between the Liberals, New Democrats and Alberta Party in the 2012 election came to 21 percent of the popular vote, compared to the 39 percent the Liberals and New Democrats accumulated in the 2008 election. "As it was when you had more conservatives, it was already challenging on the left for the Liberals and the NDP," says Liberal and regular political blogger Dan Arnold. "The fact that the new premier, fairly or unfairly, is seen as progressive, it squeezes out the real estate for them. It will cause a bit more reflection."
Arnold believes that reflection should be equal in the meeting rooms of the Liberal party. The Liberals lost 16.5 percent of the vote they held in 2008 falling to 9.9 percent. "It's hard. They're going to have to look really carefully, there are some strong indicators that the plan is not working," echoes Sharek. "The incumbents that won, really it was their own names that did it. Laurie won, it wasn't the Liberal candidate in Edmonton Centre. So there needs to be some honest conversation about the branding."
But there is little evidence to suggest the party is interested in such reflection. Party executives were not available for comment, but at the AGM held this summer Liberal leader Raj Sherman received a 94 percent approval rating. And with a reluctant reaction to the Liberals' offer of unity talks in 2010, there may be reluctance to begin that process again.
In July 2010, under the leadership of David Swann, the Liberal party sent out an open invitation to talk. "Let's Talk" was advertised in the two major dailies, and invited Alberta's progressives to sit down and talk about a process toward unity. The fallout was swift. A few days later party president Tony Sansotta, who had signed on to the letter, resigned, stating, I have reflected on the events of the past several days and have come to the conclusion that the Alberta Liberal Party needs a different kind of President to work with the Leader." He stated his purpose with the party was to elect Liberal candidates and build strong constituences.
The Alberta Party, at the time was just coming out of its own merger process with the Renew Alberta project joining with the Alberta Party, the first party AGM would be on its way in November. The NDP was more forthright in its rejection, with leader Brian Mason stating the party's purpose was to elect more New Democrats in the next election, which they did end up doing.
"There's definitely a question of whether the memberships are willing to work together and give up a bit of their own identity and brand for the greater cause," says Arnold. "Albertans in general would be all for a merger but the people in the trenches, living as Liberals, wouldn't want it."
And as the Liberals discovered with the 2010 offer, uniting is more than simply agreeing to work together. There are logistics and power strugles to work through. "If there was a merger both sides would want to be the lead," says Arnold. "And you've got a lot of Liberals who have been in the party for so long they'd rather lose as Liberals than be something else."
With one party leaderless, another with a name that resonates without the baggage of a federal party and two very different processes of governing membership, the ability to come together would be a difficult and lengthy process. And that does not even touch on the negotiating of party policies between the groups. Sharek, despite his uncertainty in his personal future with the party, still sees the Liberals as holding the best policies for his beliefs. Thiessen, who is optimistic the Alberta Party will remain a political party, also makes clear where he thinks each party's strength lies were unity proposals to proceed. "Speaking as a member, I think it should be broader than [a merger]," says Theissen. "I think the progressive parties should unite under one group, and I think the Alberta party is the best venue for that. So I think it would be great if the NDs, Greens, Liberals joined under one roof."
The road to unity would clearly be a long one for any political party. Currently on the federal level two of Canada's largest unions are in a year-long process to undertake such a merger, a year-long process that may eventually fail at each union's membership vote. But if any political party here in Alberta were to accomplish such a task, the Alberta Party might be the one to do it. Already having negotiated the process of merging the civil society Renew Alberta with the established but low profile Alberta Party, the membership has experience navigating the process. For many Alberta Party members the dedication to the idea of "doing politics differently" only proved itself in this past election despite the inability to capture a seat.
"We never once went to the negative or adversarial side and I found that very uplifting. We were very positive and welcoming to everybody and I'm realizing you can do politics that way. It's not always us against them," says Jacquie Lycka, Alberta Party candidate Sue Huff's campaign manager.
A recurring theme with Alberta Party admirers is the difference in process. Mark Zaugg, an Alberta Party member who has already announced his intension to run in Calgary East in 2016, believes the Alberta Party has a better operating system. "It's all about involving the individual," says Zaugg. "I feel like I'm a part of it rather than someone standing at the top saying this is what our policy is going to be."
To undertake a full examination of the party's purpose and method of operating is in keeping with the grassroots, participatory nature the group has established up to this point. It's possible that in the four years between the next provincial election that process will lead to a more consolidated centre-left vying for the leadership of the province.
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