Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A night with the Alberta Democratic Renewal Project

Tonight I attended a panel put on by the Alberta Democratic Renewal Project here in Calgary. http://drpcalgary.wetpaint.com/

I should be clear that while I am not a supporter of the ADRP or their specific aims I certainly endorse their passion for Alberta. In addition I’d spent the rest of the day mired in re-working a chapter section on the development of the Bank of England’s 1925 American credit for the return to gold, so some political debate and contact with other human beings was more than welcome. In brief the ARDP is an organization devoted to two goals. In the short term a cooperative alliance or non-compete agreement among opposition parties here in Alberta, which they refer to as progressive parties. The ultimate purpose of this alliance, and their second goal, is to institute a system of proportional representation here in Alberta.

The panel consisted of three speakers: Dr. Avalon Roberts (former Liberal Candidate), Dr. Phil Elder (of the ADRP) and Dr. Doreen Barrie (University of Calgary) standing in for a panelist trapped in Edmonton by the weather. Each panelist spoke for 15 minutes to an audience of approximately 50 people. Typical of most such events the crowd was decidedly monochromatic, well off, well-educated and older, but what the group lacked in variety it made up for in lively engagement. The formal Q & A lasted longer than the talks, and many people stayed later to continue conversing. I don’t know whether the event generated any support for the ADRP, but it certainly succeeded in generating a worthwhile and engaging couple of hours.

As I couldn’t take notes I will simply note some of the themes discussed by the panelists. Dr. Roberts and Dr. Barrie both moved over similar territory; the focus was on declining voter turnout, increasing disengagement from the process, the travails of the current opposition parties and the inadequacies of the provincial government. Dr. Elder spoke on the ADRP’s plans and reasoning, which I will omit as you can find the basics on their website above. The one statement he made that I need to set out is the assertion that the opposition parties here in Alberta have broadly common policies. Questioners of note included Donn Lovett, formerly of the Alberta Liberals and now involved with MLA Dave Taylor, The President of the Alberta Liberal Party and MLA Harry Chase. When he spoke Mr. Chase seemed to be saying that he supported the ideas of the ADRP, but they could never work because of the NDP’s unwillingness to work with the Liberals. Mr. Sansotta’s stepped up later to address a critic of the ALP with some humour, but regrettably did not address any of the issues raised by the panel or other commenter's. Mr. Lovett made a couple of trenchant points about the layout of the Alberta electorate, and the requirements as he saw them of a successful party in the centre.

I had to ask a few questions. To begin I took exception to the repeated assertion that politics in Alberta is moribund or unchanging. What other jurisdiction in Canada has two new parties like our Wild Rose and Alberta Parties, not to mention activist groups like Reboot and the ADRP itself all coming forward at once? Secondly I pointed out that disillusionment might well have more to do with the inaccessibility of parties, and the tiny percentage of the population that belong to one, than the length of the current government. I couldn’t resist noting that most opposition candidates in Alberta are already ‘paper’ candidates, so the plan of the ADRP really only has relevance in perhaps 12-20 ridings in the province, even accepting (which I certainly do not) that the opposition vote could be united. Finally the idea that the Liberals, NDP and Greens share common policies demonstrates far more about the failings of those organizations to define themselves than it does about their commonalities.

So what do I think at the end of the night? For myself I am not sold on the virtues of proportional representation as a system. Provided the basic political culture is healthy it seems like a solution looking for a problem, and if the culture is unhealthy there are a whole new crop of potential abuses – every system has them. As for the idea of non-compete agreement, well, I oppose it on grounds of both principle and practice. To begin with the ADRP is so far from the consciousness of the mass electorate as to be a minor factor in voting intentions at best, so even if such an alliance were signed it could not deliver the votes to one candidate. I also don’t believe that the parties are in fact interchangeable, certainly not to their supporters. In addition I as a voter oppose the limitation of my options, and view diversity of competition as a healthy thing. Besides, with the rise of the Wild Rose it won’t just be the centre/left vote that splits in the next election, will it? All in all I feel that the ADRP’s plan is a poor substitute for a well-organized and well-executed opposition party or two.

That said I think having groups like this coming alive and working to raise awareness and engage people with the system, and trying to change the system, is an essential element of that healthy political culture I talked about earlier. I wish the ADRP people all success in bringing their plan before a wider audience, I just hope that it isn’t adopted!


  1. The issue of "choice" is often raised in terms of non-compete agreements. But in Alberta the majority of the electorate chooses not to vote despite the fact that they have, in theory, more choices than almost any other provincial electorate. I suggest that that is because, unlike other provincial electorates, they lack the one choice that is essential: the chance of electing a new government with different priorities. That is especially true of progressive voters.

    In most democracies, pre-electoral coalitions with non-compete agreements regarding candidates have become quite common, both on the left and the right. That is because in most countries and sub-jurisdictions, it is impossible for any one party to form a government on its own, and the electorate rightly wants to know who plans to partner with whom. In recent regional elections in France, for example, there were successful coalitions that included all parties from the Communists to the liberals. These coalitions took over 50 percent of the vote and formed most of the regional governments even though the biggest party in the coalition, the Socialists, had only 29 percent of the vote. With the main right-wing party receiving 35 percent of the vote, most regions would have elected right-wing governments if the more left-leaning parties had not recognized that their voters support them as a bloc even more than they support any one element among them. Interestingly, while France has run-off votes in each seat so that there is no necessity for a first-ballot party agreement, most of these regional agreements WERE first-ballot agreements.

    In the state of Kerala in India, which has the same size population as Canada, a Left Front of many parties has, over the past 50 years, implemented policies that have given this otherwise poor state social statistics--life expectancy, infant mortality, number of girls age 18 to boys age 18 (in other places in India, as in China, boys vastly outnumber girls because baby girls are murdered since they will end up serving their husband's family rather than aiding their parents in old age; in Kerala, people look to the state, not their kids, to support them in old age or if they become disabled or unemploye).

    In Norway,though it has PR, in the last two elections, the Social Democrats (essentially liberals), the Greens, and the socialists, have made pre-electoral coalitions so that the electorate knows what it will get if they elect these parties.

    The point is that voters want to know what policies they get if their votes translate into creating a new government or maintaining the existing government in power. The commonalities in the Liberal, NDP, and Green platforms reflect a vague understanding of this reality. The NDP has policies to the right of what many of its members might like to see because there is a recognition that, at the present time, moves towards real socialism have no purchase with the electorate. So their policies are a first stage.

    Green policies, focused on the environment, are also meant to be a first stage, though not of socialism, but of a sustainable economy.

    The Liberals, by contrast, in putting forward progressive but not system-challenging policies, have no desire to see a second stage.

    So it is almost irrelevant that the small memberships of these parties are different in their thinking, and in any case that's easily exaggerated. From my contacts with Alberta Liberals, I would say that a majority, if they lived in Manitoba or Saskatchewan, would be New Democrats because the NDP in those provinces is the big-tent small-l liberal party.

    Alvin Finkel,
    Edmonton Chaper,
    Democratic Renewal Project

  2. Thanks for the lengthy response Alvin. I have to disagree with you on a couple of your fundamental points, starting with choice. What people choose to do, or not do, with their franchise is a seperate issue from the choice presented to those who choose to vote; I favour a diversity of views being available to the voter. In adition Albertans have always had the option to choose a new government - not enough of us chose to do so to make a change. That is at least as much a critique of the opposition as anything else.

    Are there issues with the basic fairness of Alberta elections? I think the answer is yes, and that the creation of a proper, thrid-party Elections Alberta unbeholden to any political party or current government is an essential. I don't think that the data supports a thesis that the system has grossly distorted the outcomes of our elections, however.

    As for the question of coalitions they are of course a natural and useful part of parliamentary government. If you are in fact correct in your analysis that the three opposition parties in fact share the same views then a coalition makes sense. I differ with you there, and if, as you say, most Alberta Liberals would be NDP members elsewhere then I think that speaks more to their issues appealing to the electorate than it does the viability of a coalition.

  3. Interesting posts indeed!
    All movements start with ideas that, if reasonable and/or emotionally appealing, attract followers. Like a planned prairie grassfire in mid August, it gains momentum if its promise is fertile. The political malaise in AB needs such a grassfire--the DRP is the match. We're up against two forces here: the pragmatics of politics and the psyches of voters. Isn't it easier to change political pragmatics than voters' values? Even if the Liberals or NDP come up with something dynamically different that captures the imagination of progressives, the collective psyche of at least half of the electorate is traditionally tied to right-wing values. And values, like personality traits, change at glacial speed. No matter how rational and beneficial the progressive policy, changing right-wing values is a daunting task. So it seems to me that a more auspicious plan is a strategic coalition that could at least provide an effective opposition in 2012. What I'm saying is that we have to be politically savvy about psychological mindsets--and statistical probability. Above all, we need to be audacious about this. We can unite the other half of progressive-thinking Albertans (most of whom don't bother to vote) if we present them with an option that is clear, uncomplicated, and offers hope. I think the DRP provides such an option, but it will require a dedicated team if it hopes to ignite progressive politics.