This column ran in yesterday’s edition of the Saint City News.
At the end of last spring’s provincial election campaign, Alberta’s opposition parties surpassed the Biblical record of 40 years in the Wilderness. At last weekend’s New Democratic Party convention in Calgary, Alberta’s perennial third party took steps to ensure the opposition’s banishment from the legislative Promised Land goes far beyond mere Old Testament proportions.
Perhaps you missed the story. It rated only one miserable paragraph deep inside the Globe and Mail, and not much more in the local dailies. “Members of the Alberta NDP have voted against a proposal that the party should co-operate with opposition parties in future provincial elections,” spake the Globe. “At the party’s annual meeting in Calgary, 95 per cent of party delegates rejected the proposal….”
I was there. If anything, I think the Globe over-estimated support for the motion Saturday. Personally, I’d put the nay vote at around 98.7 per cent.
Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, expended a lot of political capital on this proposal. In the end, it appears to have got him precisely nowhere. The poor guy didn’t even get to speak to his own motion! Someone called the question before he made it to the microphone. His idea of an alliance between the New Democrats and the Liberals went down to a swift and ignominious defeat.
On Sunday, McGowan made the points he’d been unable to make the day before. He tried a sports metaphor: “If you ignore your weaknesses, you’ll never win the game.” He tried a 12-step-program analogy: “You can’t start down the road to recovery until you admit that you have a problem.” He tried tough love: “We didn’t finish second or third in most ridings, we finished fourth or fifth.”
In response, he received polite applause and tolerant smiles.
In truth, unlikely as it seems in the wake of Ed Stelmach’s crushing victory, nowhere is it written that the NDP or the Liberals can’t make a credible showing in Alberta. Who would have thought two years ago that Barack Obama would be the front-running candidate for president of the United States?
Liberals and New Democrats could almost certainly give Albertans a dose of change if they would work together, if only temporarily. Last March, their platforms were not so different, and together they represented a spectrum of opinion that is probably held by a majority of Albertans.
But to succeed, they’d have to listen to the lonely likes of McGowan, who modestly proposed “a collaborative, representative task force of Alberta New Democrats be mandated to investigate a variety of options for political co-operation with the Alberta Liberals and/or the Alberta Greens.”
It was just such a game plan that in 1990 brought the NDP to power in Ontario under Bob Rae. Ontarians wanted change. They were sick of Grits and Tories, Tories and Grits. But they never would have given Rae a chance if the NDP hadn’t first proved it could play with the big kids.
In 1985, the NDP did just that. They signed the famous “Liberal-NDP Accord,” a collaboration – if not quite a coalition – that gave the NDP the credibility needed to be considered a potential government by Ontario voters.
The accord may have seemed like a disaster to Ontario New Democrats in 1987 when it ended and the Liberals won a landslide. But three years later, when the seemingly popular Liberals arrogantly miscalculated and called a snap election Ontarians didn’t want, the New Democrats (even to their leader’s astonishment) formed a majority government.
Alberta’s NDP would benefit even if they tried for an understanding with the Liberals and were rebuffed. At least then they could say, “Well, we tried to give you what you wanted.” Who knows? Alberta voters just might give them a chance. This is the birthplace of the CCF, after all, the Reform Party once appealed to many NDP voters, and Stelmach’s popularity is bound to wear thin eventually.
But there’s no danger of this happening any time soon. Stelmach’s Conservatives are safe in electoral paradise. As one of McGowan’s tiny band of supporters lamented before the question was called: “We’re in danger of becoming a cult, rather than a party.”