Monday, July 23, 2007

A Wildrose by Any Other Name...

Nation, I have been watching with unbridled curiosity to see what would come of the latest off-spring of populism in Alberta politics, the Wildrose Party. Avid politi-philes in Alberta know that watching for the "next big thing" in Albertan provincial politics is often as exhaustive and, ultimately, unsatisfying as waiting for Canada to qualify for the FIFA World Cup - history tells you it HAS to happen, EVENTUALLY - but you just aren't seeing it as too likely to happen while you're young enough to enjoy it.

Indeed, Alberta's history is replete with parties that promised to be "the next big thing", and ended up as footnotes in a Wikipedia article. Many of these parties have garnered attention in their formative stages, had lots of media momentum coming out of their foundings, and then quickly dropped off the radar as their policy platforms were high-jacked by extreme elements, or they realized that running a full slate of candidates is prohibitively expensive, or societal trends marginalized the party's key issue(s) before it could get elected to more than a handful of seats.

I thought that, on the 1-month anniversary of the Wildrose Party's founding, I'd take an in-depth look at this party, and see whether it is showing signs of being the political juggernaut that its supporters claim it is on the cusp of becoming, or of being the latest in a long line of also-rans in the "one party state" that is Alberta.

There is certainly a "buzz" in political circles about the Wildrose Party at this time, with some self-described "pundits" all-but declaring that the Tories check under their beds each night for the soon-to-be-governing Wildrose-ers. Indeed, this could in fact be "the Big One", if the Tories fail to keep to the straight-and-narrow, and fail to drastically improve their communications strategy. Laughably, these "columnists" (some in print, some "citizen journalists", aka bloggers) suggest that the Wildrose breakthrough could come this Fall, in a provincial election that they contend is being pondered exclusively due to Tory fear of the Wildrose Party.

I can tell you that the Tories are watching the Wildrose Party, to see what they do. But at this time, the Tories fear Wildrose like a fat kid fears a cup-cake.

The problem is, at this point, Albertans don't even know who the Wildrose party IS. They are, at best, vaguely aware of the new party. But Henry and Martha have no idea for what the Wildrose Party stands. Which makes sense, because many supporters of the new party have no idea for what it stands, either. They have stated that they won't come out with a policy platform until their membership votes on a platform - good, common political sense, but in the meantime, they're being trumpeted as a contender without a single plank in their platform. Electing this party before a policy convention (and the special interest groups trying to high-jack said convention) would be writing a blank cheque - something Albertans are loathe to do. A POTENTIAL force? Sure. But with no clear policy (besides protecting Alberta's interests where they are at odds with Ottawa's), Wildrose has as much chance of being Alberta's next governing party as does the NDP (that is to say, "none").

Case in point: Link Byfield, an officer of the new party, recently wrote as follows:

The small alternatives of the past were not broadly based, and focused on the wrong things. They offered either separation or more right-wing government. Most Albertans have never wanted either, and still don’t.

Okay, so that's a big supporter of the new party, a member and officer, and a media person (and, it needs to be said, a SENATOR-ELECT for Alberta) analyzing the political climate in Alberta to be one that doesn't want separation, and doesn't want the government to move to the right. In other words, be fiscally responsible, and socially progressive - like the Klein Tories (like them or hate them, the current Tory party is NOT the party of Ralph Klein). With a charismatic leader and policies that fall into that grey area ("fiscally responsible and socially progressive"), the government benches could be had.

So, Link believes that Wildrose is destined to be that party... in his words, again: "Most Albertans have never wanted (more right-wing government), and still don't." So, the Wildrose Party, in Link's opinion, isn't going to be a right-wing, socially conservative entity.

Then we run across reports that many at the party's founding meeting were concerned with the fire-breathing complaints that the current PC's aren't "socially conservative enough", and don't represent "family values" (a euphemism for "they tolerate queers and abortionists"). As Alberta PC's nearly learned the hard way during their own recent leadership race, the more people with the same taste who pay to get into the dance, the more likely you'll be dancing to their music, like it or not, by the end of the night. The PC's were nearly driven to the far right, socially, because a lot of social conservatives bought memberships to support a particular leadership candidate. This is the danger of grass-roots politics, which is one of the touch-stones of the Wildrose Party's stated principles.

And therein lies the danger for this party as a whole.

Alberta, on the whole, is not a socially conservative province.

Insert gasps here.

There. I said it. Are you happy now?

The reality is that the most popular leader this province has had in decades was a social liberal. He was repeatedly re-elected, by ridiculous margins, because most of the province's voters agreed with either his fiscal conservatism (at first) or his socially liberal attitudes, or both.

Henry and Martha want to keep the money they earn, and to be left alone. They don't want to be lectured about how they SHOULD be living, or how they SHOULD feel about certain social issues, or to be made to feel guilty... if they want that sort of thing, there are plenty of churches to which they can go that would happily supply it. They want their government to tax them as little as possible, waste even less, and leave them the heck alone.

BUT... social conservatism is still a VERY vocal minority. SoCons have tried, and failed, to win the hearts and minds of Albertans through the Alberta Alliance Party on the provincial stage. They then tried to win control of the PC Party, and narrowly lost. Not the type to wander lost in the desert for 40 years (ironically, if you know your Bible), they now see a potential vehicle for their particular view of how Alberta SHOULD be: A new political party, getting media coverage, without a previously-established platform and espousing the value of grass-roots, bottom-up policy-making. "Hey," they think, "if we all buy memberships and vote on the party platform and policy initiatives, we can make this party stand for whatever we want".

And, in all likelihood, they will.

I don't know how to stop this from happening, without betraying the ideology of grass-roots politics, which I agree with more often than not. But I know that if some of the smart and good-intentioned people already within the Wildrose Party can't come up with something to stop this from happening, they're very likely to end up with a party that looks suspiciously like Republican Lite. And unless every centrist and left-of-centre voter in the province stays home on election day, that party will fail to win election.

A party founded in the hope of improving life for all Albertans deserves a better fate than to be crushed by the politics of self-interest and activist minorities. Those kinds of politics just drive a wedge between us as citizens, and polarize us in a way that isn't healthy for a community OR a democracy. Rich vs. poor, white vs. coloured, urban vs. rural, Christian vs. not-so-much, it all boils down to an ugly, ugly state of affairs in our society.

The Alberta of 2007 won't elect a socially conservative party. Link Byfield knows this. Hopefully, the rest of the Wildrose Party keeps that in mind as well.

For more information on the Wildrose Party, visit their website here.

- E.S.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for putting out some reasoning as to the "why" of yet another new political party aiming to be to the right of the PCs. I couldn't understand it. To me, it seems like this is Alberta Alliance redux.

In my opinion (disclosure: I am a PC supporter), the Wildrose Party would be doomed if it was taken over by social conservatives. Heck, it is probably doomed anyway. But even with the foiled attempt to take control of the PC Party through supporting one particular candidate, where are they now? Divided. That's what. There are social conservatives under the PC banner, just as there are social liberals. So, if the Wildrose Party was taken over by this group, they would not just be a small slice of Alberta 2007, they would be, at best, a slice of a slice.

Unless the current administration did something to truly piss off social conservatives, I don't think this plan would work out. In addition, not all social conservatives are the same. There is a big difference between the typical so-con in southern Alberta and the north.

"Republican-lite" might work reasonably well in southern Alberta, but not in the north. You have people living in each area with considerably different histories and cultural backgrounds. Very few people move from North Dakota/Montana to Peace River/St. Paul versus moving to Cardston/Airdrie.

All I can think of is the core of this group is some of the same people (in mindset if not in particular individuals) that formed the Alberta Alliance. Some of them are... for lack of a better description... just grumpy. The Alberta Alliance won a seat in 2004, but instead of being able to build on that achievement, is now splintering. I think of their memebership collectively as an amateur handyman that is always starting a new project without first finishing the last one.

Enlightened Savage said...

Fair ball... playing Devil's Advocate for a moment, though...

The "amateur handyman" analogy is one that I heard used to describe the Reform Party at one point. Arguably, those amateur handymen went on to end 13 years of Liberal rule in Ottawa.

The basic principles of the Wildrose Party, as stated on their website, are as follows:
1) Protect Alberta's economy from raiding by the Federal Government.
2) Ensure that policy reflects the priorities of ordinary Albertans, rather than special interests, and
3) Hold elected members accountable for the promises they make.

In fairness to the PC's, I heard concerns raised by PC Party Members at their AGM in May that their own party was losing sight of those very same things, along with several others.

The appearance of "autocratic rule" by the PC Party executive is a dangerous first step, as party members were the first to notice it, but eventually (without changes) it will be seen by the population at large as indicative of the party's attitude - namely, that is has a right to rule as it sees fit, rather than a mandate from the people to rule them as THEY see fit. The distinction should not be lost on anyone who saw what Paul Martin's leadership did to the Liberals, on a national scale.

I agree whole-heartedly, though, that if this party and its good intentions are high-jacked by the far-right elements in Alberta, or by Alberta Alliance members looking for another shot at the PC's, this party will quickly be discarded into the dustbin of history. If, however, it can keep its focus on good public policy and common sense, rather than ideology and dogma, it could very well be the force for change that its founders envisioned.

- E.S.

Anonymous said...

Fair point. However, it is also equally relevant that Reform was only able to oust the Liberals when they set aside their differences with other conservatives (namely PCs) and joined together.

Another way of saying it is that the fragmentation of the small-c conservative vote enabled the Liberals to rule uninterrupted for 13 years. Although the motives were good, Preston & co. share some of the blame for that.

My fear is that a strong Wildrose Party takes enough votes aways from the PCs (or alternatively, the PCs take enough votes from Wildrose - whatever you prefer) that neither forms the government, and instead we see either the NDP, or "NDP-lite" (Alberta Liberal Party).

If the threat of a strong alternative motivates the PCs to make some changes to how they run their party (as they are already making changes to how they run the government), I think that is a good thing.