Alberta Liberals doomed in an un-party state
Only movements gain power in this province
The next two years will be decisive for the Alberta Liberal Party. Will it gain a piece of the action in reshaping the province’s political landscape? Or will it finally pass into the oblivion of its successors in power, the United Farmers of Alberta and Social Credit?
UFA and the Socreds were movements that seemed to come out of nowhere and fade as abruptly. Their first premiers ran in byelections, having not expected to win at the time.
But change was foreseen by some in the preceding governments, who defected to them.
To some extent, the Progressive Conservative win followed this pattern. Peter Lougheed did not expect to win in 1971. He had chosen the PC label, because it was not a force in the province, and he could use it to build a new movement from the ground up.
Ernest Manning, Alberta’s longestserving premier, saw change coming. He proposed to Opposition leader Lougheed a merger: a “Social Conservative” movement of free enterprise with a social conscience. Manning would then retire in favour of Lougheed.
Lougheed accepted the proposal, but interests in both parties torpedoed it. Socreds chose a leader to follow Manning and were defeated in Calgary and Edmonton by the PCs. On Manning’s advice, premier Lougheed reached out to rural areas the PCs have held since.
Though many of their followers thought along party lines, the founding leaders of the UFA, Socred and PC governments saw beyond partisan lines in the Alberta context. So did Sir Frederick Haultain, whose Territorial Council preceded Alberta’s creation in 1905.
The one group that didn’t get it was the Liberals and their media supporters, who languish in a perpetual opposition their belief says we need in a democracy. Despairing how Alberta can have change without a strong opposition, they confuse party politics with democracy.
Alberta Liberals will never again form government as a party. Not because of the ghosts of Trudeau or the national energy policy. Not because the Liberal label is too toxic, can’t raise money, or attract candidates. These are rationalizations for failure to look beyond partisanship.
Progressive Conservatives have maintained a 40-year hold not because Albertans favour a oneparty-state but because they do not care about parties. Alberta is an un-party state that gives rise to movements. As long as Alberta Liberals think as a party, they place themselves outside those possibilities.
Albertans inherited a parliamentary system we never really made our own. To fail to elect an opposition may be unparliamentary but is hardly undemocratic. If it were, city councils, community leagues, professions and unions would all fail to make the grade.
Haultain, father of responsible government in Western Canada, saw no reason to transplant eastern parties here. As Territorial Council leader from 1897-1905, he proposed creating a province with a non-partisan form of government.
The federal Liberal government disregarded his suggestions and drew provincial and constituency boundaries of Alberta and Saskatchewan so Haultain, a Conservative, could not become premier of either.
Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier appointed Liberal lieutenant-governors in both provinces and told them to appoint Liberal premiers. Alberta lieutenant-governor George Bulyea asked Alexander Rutherford to form a government before elections were called. After the advantage of three months incumbency, Rutherford’s Liberals won at the polls.
This may be a factor in Alberta Liberals’ later failure. Theirs was the only Alberta government to come to power as a party: a party with federal favouritism.
Haultain’s suggestion had to wait a century for Nunavut to adopt a nonpartisan system where members sit in a semicircle facing the Speaker rather than in drawn battle lines. In the meantime, Alberta Liberals outlasted UFA and Social Credit largely as dispensers of federal Liberal patronage till the provincial and federal party wings were separated.
North-south cleavages in the PC caucus, mirrored in the rise of the Wildrose Alliance, create a brief window of opportunity. Alberta Liberals must move strategically and proactively to benefit. It is not enough to hope that vote splitting between the PC and Wildrose parties will favour Liberal candidates by default.
Let us look at ways this could play out in the next election.
Scenario 1 — Liberals win 15 seats in Edmonton, Wildrose Alliance 15 around Calgary. The ruling PCs maintain a comfortable majority, but are internally shaken. They move immediately to change leaders, and the new premier manages to entice two members of each of the other parties with offers of cabinet seats. He then goes back to the people as a re-branded “party for all Alberta,” and regains the old government hegemony.
Scenario 2 — Liberals win 15 seats in Edmonton, Wildrose 20 in southern Alberta. Again the PCs seize the initiative with a new leader and an immediate approach to Wildrose with offers of cabinet seats and spending cuts. Whether the PCs can re-absorb Wildrose or the latter manages to reshape provincial conservatives, as Reform/Alliance did at the federal level, the result is the same: conservative hegemony with a strengthened anti-government base.
Scenario 3 — Liberals and Wildrose each win 15 to 20 seats in their respective territories, PCs hold a narrow majority. This time, Liberals and Wildrose seize the ball, announcing they’ll co-operate to hold government accountable. Avoiding attacking each other, they focus on government and electoral reform, putting social and spending issues to free vote.
Faced with the common front, PCs do not change leaders until the obligatory review period. PC ministers send feelers across the floor as public support erodes. In the next election, Liberals and Wildrose announce they each seek to form a government: if that does not happen, they will work together in government as they did in opposition.
What could be areas of agreement between Liberal and Wildrose?
1. Decentralization of government: restoration of taxing powers to local school boards and regional health authorities, and local plebiscites on related spending issues.
2. Legislative reform: more free votes, enhanced all-party committees, and agreement to curb excessive partisanship in debate, enhancing powers of officers of the legislature.
3. Electoral reform: equitable constituencies and boundaries, fixed elections written into the Alberta Act so they cannot be overridden by executive prerogative.
4. Recognition that Liberals and Wildrose are not competing for the same parts of the electoral map or the ideological spectrum. In the PCs, they have a common adversary.
Four decades ago, with no seats in the legislature, Alberta Liberals spurned a proposal to become a moderating force in a merger with the Socreds. Reaction from rank and file forced Liberal leader John Lowery to resign, and Social Credit narrowed its base and faded into oblivion.
Lougheed’s Conservatives ended 36 years of Socred rule in the 1971 election that won both the Edmonton and Calgary urban vote. They spent their first term reaching out to the rural base Liberals had refused. This picked up the Socred support Manning had earlier tried to re-direct in his 1960s “Social Conservative” proposal to Lougheed.
The rise of the Wildrose Alliance in and around Calgary creates a threeway split in the electorate that makes more difficult the 1971 formula of bringing together the two cities. Difficult but not impossible, if members of Wildrose and the Liberals think beyond party lines.
They also have to look beyond provincial borders. In Ontario, 42 years of Tory rule ended in 1985 when Conservatives lost their majority. A truce between rival Liberals and New Democrats toppled the PC minority and ultimately gave each a five-year turn in office.
Willingness to think strategically and join such an arrangement can give Alberta Liberals their first input into governance in 88 years. It’s a chance that may not come again.