Friday, December 19, 2014

On The WRP Collapse

Much has been made of the WRP's collapse in Alberta this past week.  Everything from speculation about the role of various people, to Ms. Smith more or less admitting that she was being undermined by the Social Conservative rump of the party.  

Back when the WRP was just getting itself going, and Ms. Smith was a mere candidate for the leadership, I had thought that the WRP was going to follow the same trajectory that Preston Manning's Reform party had back in the 80s.  Start off with some reasonable, if unrealistic dreams about a more open, democratic government; fall into the intellectual trap of libertarianism and get subverted by the far right religious nuts.  (... and yes, that's still visible today in Harper's CPC, just look across his front bench and the policies they have implemented - religious privilege and the associated discrimination, bigotry and racism are there)

In the 2012 election, the initial response of Ms. Smith to the "bozo eruptions", in particular the "Lake of Fire" nonsense, was naively libertarian.  "Oh, it's just an opinion.  He's entitled to that" - I've heard that before.  It is the chink in the libertarian armour that the religious right leverages every time.  It almost sounds reasonable: "Oh, but they're infringing upon our right to express an opinion".  As far as I was concerned, Ms. Smith was done as party leader at that point, the question was more one of time.

Even though Ms. Smith might be a (relative) moderate, the fact is that the religious right simply is not capable or interested in "moderate" anything.  They are sold on a particular worldview that includes imposing their theology on the country.

However, the point of this post is not to go on another rant about the impact of the religious right in Alberta politics.

Floor crossings happen in our political system.  I'm not going to make declarations about whether they are "good" or "bad".  I think in the big picture, we have to look at the consequences of the events which have transpired.

A total of 9 MLAs crossed the floor, following 3 other defections from the WRP in the last few months, giving the governing PCs control over 72 of the seats in the legislature, and leaving a total of about 16 MLAs sitting in the opposition benches.

Alberta has a long, troubling history of electing overwhelming majority governments, going back to the Lougheed era.  Under Ralph Klein, things got even uglier, with the majorities seemingly larger and larger and the legislature sitting for even fewer days each year.  Often just long enough to ram whatever legislation was on the agenda through the procedural hoops.  Few people in Alberta are aware of how much legislation gets pushed through without any kind of meaningful debate, although the rushed processing of Bill 10 last month might have finally opened a few eyes to the reality.

The nearly 30 seat opposition elected in 2012 was the first time in decades that this province has had any effective opposition at all.  Most of the time, the opposition benches have been occupied by an intrepid dozen or so MLAs and that's it.  Their voices muffled by the sheer volume that the PCAA has been able to push into the media.

What we should be concerned about in Alberta is the rise of "single party" politics and how it has stifled debate in this province.  People don't talk about politics.  It's almost considered subversive just to criticize the governing PCs in conversation.  Why?  Because until Stelmach, everybody "liked" Ralph Klein.  "Oh, he's not that bad, he seems like such a nice guy" would be the response to criticism.  Fortunately, neither Stelmach nor Redford were terribly likeable, and Prentice comes across as a bit too corporate, so hopefully this will start to thaw the chill on political debate in this province.

In our system of government, an active and vocal opposition is essential.  Prentice would have railroaded Bill 10 through if it hadn't been for a very loud public outcry against it, not just in the legislature, but on Twitter and in just about every other form of media.  The only thing that stands between a Premier with a majority and despotism is an active, informed and engaged opposition.  The Premier should feel uncomfortable at all times.  Every bill should be subject to amendment and improvement in the process.  Not just pushed through with whipped votes.

When the 9 WRP MLAs crossed the floor to sit with the governing PCs, they damaged their own party, but more seriously, they gave Prentice such overwhelming control over the legislature that he can effectively ignore public outcry over anything.  He knows full well that in a year's time, most people will have forgotten about today's outrage anyhow.

This is not good for our democracy.  We've seen that with how Harper has done things in Ottawa in recent years.  While he had a minority, Harper had to tread very carefully.  Now that he doesn't, there's precious little anyone can do to stop him.  Even the relatively sizeable opposition in Parliament is limited in what it can do.  In Alberta it's even worse.

It is my opinion that Alberta would have been far better served by all involved had the 9 WRP MLAs decided to sit as independents.  We are heading into an economic downturn the likes of which may make the 1980 crash look mild.  Having an overwhelming government majority will do us no favours in dealing with the resulting issues.


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