If Alberta’s opposition parties hope to end the Progressive Conservatives’ nearly forty-year rule of the province, they will have to put aside their differences and run a cooperative campaign.
Increasingly, Albertans believe that a forty-year, one-party stranglehold on the province’s government works against their best interests. Opposition voters are tired of seeing their votes split too many ways and are beginning to think that cooperation among the Green, New Democrat, and Liberal Parties is the most logical way to escape one-party gridlock.
In last year’s Alberta provincial election, the Conservatives won 72 of 83 seats with only 53.6 per cent of the vote. Yet the combined vote of these three opposition parties exceeded the Tory total in 12 constituencies that elected Conservatives. If these parties had abstained from opposing each other in these seats, the number of opposition MLAs now could be more than double, with the Liberal caucus at 18 members or more.
There’s also convincing reason to believe that if Alberta voters saw cooperation amongst the opposition parties, voter turnout would increase (in 2008, it was a record low of 41 per cent), making even more constituencies winnable. Anecdotal evidence suggests one reason for the poor turnout was a sense that voting against the apparently invulnerable Conservatives was a waste of time.
Yet, opposition party elites have so far shunned cooperation, saying that their platforms are dramatically different. They’re not. Upon close inspection, their platforms converge on the most important issues such as the green economy, regulation of the environment, health care, social justice and fiscal accountability – issues Albertans say they care about most.
Conventional wisdom says that parties must run a full slate of candidates across the province – a strategy that clearly favours big parties with big money. But for small, indebted parties such as the Liberals, NDP, and Greens, doing things the old way has only resulted in “surprise” failures, election after election. Voters might wonder if those parties would rather see Tories elected to power than candidates elected from any opposition party but their own.
This dismal, recurring scenario suggests that if the parties cannot see what great benefits cooperation could bring Albertans, it’s for ordinary citizens to pressure them to do otherwise. That a small number of opposition party activists could yet again hold the province hostage to the same old losing scenario is unacceptable.
The stark reality is that a new government in Alberta will only come about when the Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens start working cooperatively. This means allocating a substantial number of seats (at least 42) to agreed-upon sole candidates who would be in much stronger positions to challenge incumbent Conservatives.
Cooperative reform would involve a two-election strategy to galvanize the discouraged non-voting electorate with the knowledge that we can build a
healthy democracy in Alberta.
In 2012, the opposition could earn thirty or more seats. Then the floodgates could open: by 2016, such an umbrella group could gain a majority in the Legislature so that proportional representation and other progressive reforms could be enacted by a one-term coalition government.
As things stand now – without proportional representation – the opposition parties hold only 13 per cent of the seats even though they got more than 47 per cent of the popular vote. This is what “democracy” in Alberta will continue to look like if the parties don’t start talking to each other.
Recall that strategic voting and cooperation has been successful in the province before. There was Joe Clark’s “Anybody but Reform” success in the federal riding of Calgary Centre where Liberals and New Democrats crossed party lines to help him win. Or Linda Duncan’s federal victory last year in Edmonton Strathcona where the “Liberals for Linda” movement helped convince voters that only NDP Duncan could beat the Conservative candidate.
Why shouldn’t that kind of cooperation work again? Many believe it can. The three opposition parties would be well-advised to heed a growing grassroots group of citizens called the Democratic Renewal Project, which advocates inter-party cooperation, but in its absence plans to loudly endorse individual candidates in Alberta constituencies where strategic voting will make a difference.
A perfect opportunity to test this strategy has just arisen in Calgary-Glenmore, whose MLA recently resigned to become a judge. The Calgary Democratic Renewal Project has written to the leaders of the Greens, Liberals and New Democrats asking them to agree to a “non-compete” stance in the upcoming byelection.
We await their answers. After two generations of one-party monopoly – long past any party’s stale date – it’s high time for old-style partisan politics to give way to the new, united, alternative.
First published in the Calgary Herald, April 27, 2009