Al­berta Lib­er­als doomed in an un-party state

Only move­ments gain power in this prov­ince

Edmonton Journal - - OPINION - DAVID WATTS

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.

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