Alberta conservatives need these men

November 19th, 2004
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Common is the lament that Alberta’s strange political culture &mdash which historically has given preference to de facto one party rule &mdash works against strong opposition parties, leading to stifling political conformity. Indeed, a substantial part of the oeuvre of several provincial commentators &mdash particularly at The Edmonton Journal &mdash is devoted to the idea that most Albertans don’t want strong opposition parties.

While the congenital weakness of the political opposition in Alberta is seen as harmful by most pundits, they usually gloss over its origins. If briefly explored, these origins are usually linked to the obtuseness, gullibility and conformity of ordinary Albertans. Occasionally a subtle suggestion of excessive Christian credulity is thrown in. Little evidence of these shortcomings in the Albertan character is presented; they are simply assumed.

If the causal analysis is deficient, clear thinking about what would be the consequences of a strong opposition is virtually absent in the broader debate about Alberta politics. Still, its advocates don’t see a strong opposition as an end in itself; they envision a greater purpose.

We think that purpose is the creation of a more liberal or left-leaning Alberta. In Alberta, the main opposition party is nearly always to the left of the government. The assumption underlying all writings yearning for a strong opposition is that it would shift Alberta closer to the mix of policies, opinions, attitudes and worldview held by liberals.

If you question this, try to picture the opposite situation. We somehow doubt that, in an imaginary Liberal-run Alberta, today’s strong-opposition advocates would author essays calling for an opposition caucus of 30 evangelical Christians. But we’ll let that pass.

Would a strong left-leaning opposition lead to a more liberal Alberta? We think the opposite is more likely.

It’s commonly accepted that, after more than a decade as Premier, Ralph Klein has lost the “fire in the belly” that made him such an effective politician. He heads a government that is adrift and a caucus and party whose ideological identity has blurred. The usual reason given is that, having accomplished their mission to erase Alberta’s deficit and debt, the provincial Conservatives don’t know what to do with themselves.

Barely mentioned is that Alberta PCs themselves are not the same. The party has become bigger than a “big tent”; it happily welcomes legions of centrists, liberals and, if rumours are accurate, at least one former communist. Red Tories make up perhaps half of Mr. Klein’s current Cabinet &mdash the very size of which has shifted the government to the centre. There’s a stifling political conformity, all right: the conformity of principles-free centrism.

This endlessly expanding political canopy has attracted people who like to “do” politics the way others coach hockey or go fly-fishing. Policy isn’t a consideration, much less ideology. For them, it’s simply more fun being on a winning team than wasting their volunteer time on a tiny band of losers.

Alberta’s PCs positively groan under the weight of hobbyists.

In a “normal” setting featuring a strong opposition, such people would be more evenly distributed across the political landscape, leaving a minimal net impact on any party. Further, a strong opposition would attract many of the Red Tories. This purgative would allow the PCs to focus ideologically and become more policy-driven. The vying for power of two strong parties would demand that each competitor draw sharp distinctions to differentiate itself and motivate its supporters. The Conservatives could no longer afford to wave off 10% to 15% of the electorate to far-right or separatist parties. The threat of electoral upset would concentrate Conservative minds, promoting energetic policy development and strong, decisive leadership.

A smaller PC majority would certainly mean a louder opposition and bigger newspaper headlines. Paradoxically, it would probably mean more conservative policies as well. Strong opposition or weak, big majority or small, it’s still the government that makes the laws, sets the policies and runs the shop. A smaller Conservative majority would feature truer, bluer government benches, its members painfully aware their survival depended on satisfying their electoral base.

The last time the Conservatives faced a dire opposition threat, the Liberals’ leader, Laurence Decore, very nearly unseated the Tories by outflanking them on the right. The late Mr. Decore was instrumental in mobilizing public support to get rid of Alberta’s deficit. His winnable formula forced the PCs, after years of drift, to veer sharply back to conservatism under Mr. Klein.

So we find ourselves in rare agreement with certain counterparts at The Edmonton Journal, a paper that several decades ago famously declared itself the unofficial opposition to another powerful premier, Peter Lougheed.

Come next Monday’s provincial election, bring on a big, loud, strong opposition — to restore policy backbone and ideological character to the governing Conservatives.

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