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!