Sunday, January 27, 2008

Alberta Liberals: Yesterday's Opposition, hoping to be Tomorrow's Government

The Alberta Liberals have been Her Majesty's Official Opposition for a long, long time. They have served in that capacity uninterrupted since 1993 (from 1982-1993, the NDP was the Official Opposition, and the Liberals were a non-factor), and have the distinction being the only political party to serve as the Official Opposition to the UFA (1921 to 1935), Social Credit (1935 to 1967, when the PC's became the Official Opposition) AND the PC dynasties. The Liberals last sat on the benches of power in this province in 1921. Even the most basic understanding of our province's political history leads one to recall that no party has ever been returned to government once being shown the door by Alberta voters.

That was then, this is now.

As I said, the Liberals have been the Official Opposition for 14+ consecutive years now. Altogether, in Alberta's 102 year history, the Alberta Liberals have been the Official Opposition for 60 years. Something interesting began happening though, about 4 or 5 months ago... they started getting GOOD at it.

Many parties in opposition (the pre-Taft Liberals were no exception) make the mistake of taking their title too literally: "My job as the opposition is to oppose. If the government says the sky is blue, I must argue that it's mauve." The function of the Opposition in our system of government is to amend, moderate, propose alternatives, and ensure that the government never forgets that, although they received more votes than anyone else, there were a lot of votes cast that were NOT in favour of the governing party or its policies - and those citizens aren't necessarily all morons or "undergraduates" (thanks, Ralph...).

Of late, the Alberta Liberals have shifted from the party of contrarianism, trotting out dogmatic opposition to anything the government says or does, to the party of constructive debate ("we like this plan's intent, but you'll notice in your press package we're releasing a plan of our own, which we think is better in several key areas...". The sad political reality is that this is probably timed to coincide with the election. If, in fact, it is evidence of a philosophical shift in the Liberals towards constructive opposition, this is a very important step indeed. The unfortunate truth is that most opposition parties only show their hand come election time - "This is what we propose, this is what we think should be adopted as public policy - remember that when you vote in a month". Much MORE helpful to our democratic society would be a continuous stream of suggestions, alternative proposals, and the like coming from Opposition benches that, rather than trying simply to insult or embarrass the government, or push a particular dogmatic view of the world based on the over-simplified "political spectrum", could be used to strengthen policy and laws, for the benefit of all. A government based on coalition and pooling of ideologies and talents, rather than an adversarial "you have power but we want it, so screw you and your party, the worse things get around here, the better it will be for us come election time" style of government versus opposition parry-and-thrust we experience today.

As I said, the Liberals, smelling election, have begun unveiling planks of their election platform. Today, we're going to take a look at what the Liberals have done in the past while, what they say they stand for, and how they'll fare come election time.

In The Past 4 Years...

The Alberta Liberals more than doubled their seat total from 2001, with 16 elected members in the 2004 General Election, and a big win in Calgary Elbow in the recent by election there. With 4 sitting members in Calgary (formerly known as "Fortress Tory"), the Liberals are well-poised to capitalize on feelings of discontent with the provincial government within the city. Fundraising, long this party's greatest weakness, started to become a little less of a monumental concern, as potential donors realized that they may be donating to a party with a puncher's chance of forming government, rather than spending perpetuity as the Opposition.

The Liberals led the charge for more affordable housing and rent controls, as the cost of living in the Greater Calgary and Greater Edmonton areas skyrocketed to keep pace with the economy. Taft wrote a largely ignored book titled "Democracy Derailed", which outlined why the Tories, in Taft's professorial opinion, didn't deserve the reigns of power any longer. He also challenged newly-elected PC Leader and Premier Ed Stelmach to a public debate about the housing crisis, but was turned down. The Liberals demanded that the new royalty regime include a 20% hike to the royalties paid by producers to provincial coffers.

The Western Tiger

In September of 2007, leader Kevin Taft unveiled what he described as a "complete re-think" of the Albertans and Western Canadian economy, the blueprint for which he named "The Western Tiger", after the Asian Tiger economic model of intergovernmental and cross-jurisdictional planning that worked so well in Eastern Asia in the 1970's.

Taft feels (rightly, in my opinion) that Albertans have become complacent and casual about the economy: "We've got the oil, we'll be fine". He argues that "good enough" doesn't cut it, and that many of the problems facing Alberta today - problems requiring millions and billions of dollars to address - could be dealt with if we seized the opportunity with which we are presented: A huge deposit of oil, in a "Western-friendly" part of the world, with crude pushing (now past) $100 a barrel, in a world where the price of oil is rising and alternative fuels have not yet taken over (they will - make no mistake. In my lifetime, Alberta's oil deposits will be met with a shrug and a "so what? nobody uses that stuff anymore").

The Alberta Liberals propose an economic co-prosperity sphere, where planning and resources are shared between all of the Western Provinces, so that rather than the largest chunk of economic pressure - and therefore inflation - being Alberta's blessing-and-burden alone, we spread it around.

Sure, it's nice to have the fastest growing economy in the western world. But if you can't get a plumber because he's working on the rigs, and you pay 5 times what your cousin in Regina pays for a plumber when you CAN find one, what do you care that the province can afford more roads? For that matter, think of how many roads the province could build if construction companies weren't so booked up that labour was costing double the normal rate? Wait for it... do the math... that's right. If we spend HALF the money, but the costs reduce by HALF, then we get ALL the stuff we would have gotten - minus the pollution and inflation, I mean. :)

Specifically, Taft mentions the process of upgrading Alberta bitumen - a task currently being performed in the United States to a large degree. He suggests that if processors in Alberta, BC, Saskatchewan, or Manitoba were to do the work, that would pay dividends of $600 Million per year in provincial and federal taxes, not to mention the economic impact of jobs, construction, etc. in the communities hosting the processors. More basic math, kids... if we help Manitoba make $200 Million more next year in provincial taxes... then when the time comes to scratch that equalization cheque, we'll be paying Manitoba... $200 Million LESS. A strong Manitoba, or Saskatchewan, helps make a strong Alberta. And this would cost us nothing - we're not doing the work anyway. We're just making sure (HOW, I'm not certain, and Taft's plan doesn't go into that detail) that the work is being done in Saskatoon instead of Texas.

Go to the Liberal website and see the speech for yourself. The video is sketchy, but the biggest problem isn't the camera work, it's the delivery of Taft himself. He's speaking to a room full of business people and Rotarians, and it seems like he's addressing a classroom of grade 10 students. Taft MUST put some serious space between the quality of his public speaking and the Premier's if he hopes to win the upcoming election.

What Do They Stand For?

For a full list, unfiltered by the Enlightened Savage, go here.

Still with me? Good. Here's a list of policies and initiatives backed by the Alberta Liberals.

  • Fixed Election Dates
  • Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform
  • Toughen lobbyist registry and conflict of interest rules (not exactly an issue that has Henry and Martha storming the Legislature gates, but whatever...)
  • Strengthen the Auditor General’s role
  • Reduce corporate and union donations to political parties to a maximum of $5,000 annually
  • Create a $500 Million endowment fund for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
  • Create Post-Secondary Endowment, to be allotted 25% of the nearly one-third of non-renewable resource revenues that would be set aside each year for savings and investment.
  • Elimination of School Fees for K-12, to be replaced by adequate gov't funding
  • Reduce greenhouse gases within five years through carbon sequestration
  • Harness wind and other zero emissions sources to produce enough electricity for every home and farm in Alberta within 10 years
  • Replace the natural gas rebate program with a program to help Albertans retrofit their homes to make them more energy efficient
  • Build affordable and energy efficient public transit, including funding new LRT lines and a high speed rail link down the QEII corridor (E.S. note - YEAH! I can go to Oilers games again!).
  • Protect in-stream flows before allocating any excess
  • Meter all connections to public water supplies to encourage water conservation
  • End the use of fresh water for oil well injection
  • Prohibit bulk sales of Alberta water
  • Establish an independent public inquiry, including an intensive audit, into the operations of the WCB.
  • Increase the number of child care spaces
  • Improve the stability and quality of the child care work force.
  • Relax restrictions on maternity and paternity leave in Alberta.
  • Encourage a more competitive, home-grown meat-packing industry
  • Implement strategies to address shortages of physicians and other health care professionals in rural areas.
  • Build the Heritage Fund to level that generated a constant (and growing) source of revenue outside of the tax base within 20 years
  • Re-regulate the electricity industry
  • Actively promote energy conservation, and encourage electricity generation from renewable resources and alternative energy sources.
  • Open more community health centres for non-life threatening health matters
  • Develop comprehensive incentives to attract and retain rural physicians
  • Set-up specialized surgical centres to reduce wait times
  • Emphasize education to improve wellness in communities and at home (E.S. note - anyone out there unclear on the fact that smoking causes cancer, and Big Macs will kill you? Didn't think so - education isn't the answer, we're already educated - making it easier for us to make healthy choices is the $70,000 Question...)
  • Submit the minimum wage rate to an annual review (E.S. note - does this mean in some years, minimum wage will get LOWER?)
  • Expand the range of tax tools available to municipalities (We pay more taxes, but it's the fault of the municipalities, so let THEM take the fall... good politics.)
  • Eliminate health care premiums
  • Cut a third right off the top of annual resource revenue, to be divided as follows:
    35 per cent in the Heritage Fund, 25 per cent in an Infrastructure Fund,
    35 per cent to create a Post Secondary Education Endowment,
    5 per cent to a Humanities, Social Sciences and Arts Endowment

How Will They Fare?

The policies above, championed by "The Progressive Party of Alberta", or "The Alberta Party", would stand a very decent chance of capturing the imagination of the public, and possibly winning an election.
The millstone around the neck of this party is their brand: "Liberal". With a capital "L". Like Trudeau. Any seats that the Liberals win in this province are DESPITE the brand, not because of it - and that's unlikely to change.

That said, the Alberta Liberals are well-positioned for this campaign. Stelmach is taking public blows from union groups, Team Taft has their fundraising ducks in a row, their policies are solid, and the appetite in North American politics these days seems to be for "change". They have a beach-head in Calgary, Edmonton remains strong traditional Liberal territory (although a Northern premier like Ed could do some damage to Redmonton's Liberal leanings), and a new party with some media-savvy has sprung up on the right to challenge the Tories in the rural south. It has all the makings of a perfect storm - one that could sweep the Liberals to power - or very near to it, at any rate.

If the Liberals continue to get their message out, Taft keeps control of his message and focuses on his platform instead of the Tories, and Tory voters stay home for whatever reason, the Liberals stand an excellent chance of meeting, or beating, their modern-era high of 32 seats.

What They Need To Do

1. Focus on the platform - screaming about Ed or Ralph or the Tories will remind voters of Nancy MacBeth - NOT a good thing.

2. Keep Taft front and centre - Dave Taylor is too acerbic for a "message of hope and change". Let Taylor, Taft's top lieutenant, criticize the Tories after the election. To capture the imaginations of Albertans, you don't have to tell them that their lives are horrible, you need to tell them how you're going to make them BETTER. Not better than the other guy will - just better, overall. Leave the other guy out of it.

3. Abandon the hope of attracting the left-wing vote. Voters who support the NDP aren't your ticket to power in Alberta, it's voters who support the Tories. Capture an NDP voter, you've gained 1 vote's worth of ground. If you convince a Tory voter to stay home, you've gained 1 vote's worth of ground. If you convince a Tory voter to vote for YOU, though, you've gained TWO vote's worth of ground - the vote the Tories lost, and the vote you gained.

4. Make the campaign about YOU - Day 1: Here's our plan for infrastructure. Day 2: Here's our plan for education. Et cetera... if the press ask you about the Tory plan for the environment, shrug off the question as meaningless - "it's yesterday's plan to address yesterday's problems in yesterday's Alberta... I'm here to talk about Alberta's future...".

5. Keep using Youtube, Facebook, etc. as well as you have been. Many people have eschewed traditional media for political information, due to a perception of bias. The unfiltered nature of the 'net and blogs gives you a chance to get your message out, and the public WILL take advantage. Buy from daveberta.

6. Seriously - consider a name change. Your brand isn't helping you.

So, let's break this all down. Nation: CAN the Liberals win this election? Yes, they can. WILL they win? Probably not. Will they do better than in 2004? Without a doubt.

SHOULD they win? You decide that for yourself...

More information on the Alberta Liberals is available at their website, here.


Herbert B. Patrotage said...

Though the Libs evidently have vast experience as the official opposition, I wouldn’t mind seeing WRAP star Paul Hinman as Leader of HMOO -- keeping Premier Taft in check.

Anonymous said...

Good post. You should know, however, that nothing so objective would come from HWBSNBQ (He Whose Blog Shall Not Be Quoted). He is too busy still working as the Alberta Liberal communications liason... even though they stopped paying him.