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by Phil Elder

Alberta’s political parties are tuning their engines and taking practice laps for the upcoming provincial election. With the latest poll showing the PCs at 53%, Wildrose at 16%, the NDP at 13%, Liberals at 11% and the Alberta Party at 2% (with the new Evergreen Party not included), it seems all over but the shouting. The only interesting question is which party will be a corporals guard Official Opposition.

But lets take a closer look. Strange things are happening. Several PC MLAs have defected to Wildrose. Former Minister of Finance Lloyd Snelgrove, no doubt unhappy about Premier Redford’s excluding him from her new cabinet, first announced he will not run again, and then peed in the pickles by deserting the PC caucus to sit as an independent. He’s also discussed some unspecified form of cooperation with Wildrose leader Danielle Smith.

Why couldnt he have had the grace to wait 2 months and disappear quietly? We may hear more from him or others in the Tory caucus So the good ship Lollipop has sprung a few leaks, even if Captain Redford doesn’t run her on the rocks.

Another possible complication for the PCs, apart from the inevitable vote-splitting with Wildrose, is foretold in the poll numbers just quoted. Adding the Green (Evergreen) Partys loyal core vote to the above numbers, the combined centre-left vote could total 30% or more. The plot thickens. What would happen if many anti-Tories decided to vote strategically for whichever progressive candidate in their riding, regardless of party, has the best chance to knock off the 2 right-wing candidates? This could produce some big surprises – remember Joe Clark winning in Calgary Centre on an anybody but Alliance strategic vote? Or Linda Duncan receiving cross-party votes in Edmonton Strathcona? Let us recall that in 2008 12 victorious Tories received fewer votes than the combined total of Green, Liberal and NDP votes in their constituency. They could be vulnerable this spring.

The Democratic Renewal Project (DRP) will soon unveil a web-based strategic voting initiative, changealberta.ca, for the provincial election. Modelling the campaign on such websites as Project Democracy in last years federal election, the DRP plans to recommend the most likely winner from the four centre-left parties in most of Albertas urban electoral districts.
Given poll and past election results, we expect that both New Democrats and Liberals will get the nod in Edmonton, and the Liberals in Calgary, but decisions will depend on continued research – there could be a few surprises.

Of course much can change during the campaign – its possible that PC/Wildrose gaffes could change the numbers, or that a particular issue, such as electricity deregulation that NDP leader Brian Mason is pushing, could galvanize voters. But the best bet is that if Premier Redford’s progressive paint job wears thin, opposition candidates could get a big boost from strategic anybody but PC/Wildrose voters. This election could be fun. Or it could be just a replay of the same old Tory you’ve changed, we’ve changed song.

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by Phil Elder

One critique of the Occupy movement claims it is unnecessary because Democracy is very alive and very well in this country … (Letter to the Globe and Mail, November 19). I only wish it were true. In fact, Canadian democracy has big problems. Politics is in disrepute and citizen engagement in politics voter turnout, political party membership and the number volunteering for political campaigns – is way down.

Why, and what can be done about it? These complicated questions deserve a book, but I think that the present electoral system and the Conservative governments disdain for Parliament and the rule of law are major contributors.

1. The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system grotesquely distorts election results in Canada, frustrating the will of the people and thereby discrediting democracy.

With FPTP, all votes for losing candidates are useless. In Albertas 2008 election, the Progressive Conservatives received 52.6 per cent of the votes, but won 87 per cent of the seats. Almost half the voters supported other parties but had to be content with only 13 per cent of the seats.

In New Brunswick in 1987, Frank McKennas provincial Liberals received 60 per cent of the vote, yet won all the seats. That means that 40 per cent of the voters supported parties which were totally excluded from the Legislature. These voters might as well have stayed home.

Under Kim Campbells leadership in the 1993 federal election, her Progressive Conservatives received 16 per cent of the vote, but won only two seats. Yet in the same election, the Reform party with about 19 per cent of the vote won 52 seats, 26 times more, because its support was heavily concentrated in one region, the west. No wonder voter turnout has declined (although bitter partisanship and posturing bluster by politicians have also contributed to our democratic malaise).

There is a remedy for these egregious distortions of the peoples will: change FPTP to some form of proportional representation (PR), so that each partys seat count corresponds more closely to the overall percentage of votes gained. This should greatly increase voter turnout, especially among supporters of smaller parties whose votes today are mostly symbolic, as all votes would be counted when calculating percentages to top up the number of constituency seats won.

2. The Harper government has repeatedly shown disdain for parliamentary tradition and the rule of law. For example, Mr. Harper told Conservative senators to refuse to debate a bill on climate change passed by the House of Commons, so it died. This breach of constitutional tradition showed contempt for elected MPs.

In 2009, Mr. Harper prorogued Parliament in mid-session, which killed all legislative bills in process. Then, he had the gall to accuse the opposition of refusing to pass this legislation. Part of the reason for proroguing was that the Conservatives were threatened with a potential contempt of parliament ruling from the Speaker of the House of Commons because of their refusal to provide documents ordered by the House of Commons concerning the treatment of Afghan detainees.

Consider Hon. Bev Odas decision to reverse the meaning of a CIDA policy recommendation AFTER officials had signed it, so that aid to church-backed aid organization KAIROS and its international relief work would not only be refused but it would seem that CIDA had so recommended. Reversing her earlier testimony at a Commons committee where she had claimed not to know who penned the extra word Oda revealed she had, in fact, directed an unnamed official to add the word not to the recommendation.

Yet the government backed her, even though she had apparently misled the House – traditionally grounds for a minister’s dismissal.

The Harper regime ignored a Commons motion demanding details about the costs of various plans to spend billions of tax dollars on corporate tax cuts, prison expansions and untendered stealth fighter jets. All expenditures are to be introduced into, debated and approved by the House of Commons. How can this be done if estimates are not provided?

Other examples exist, but the remedy seems obvious. Elect a different government. We had our chance (most of these examples preceded the last election), but elected a majority Conservative government anyway. Was the electorate asleep?

In fairness, other parties also have anti-democratic skeletons in the closet. But todays Conservatives consistently choose short-term partisan advantage over democracy, which is especially worrisome. It sometimes seems that were in the United States. Canadians are not alone in failing to perceive a gap between our democratic rhetoric and our politicians behaviour. For proof, see the powerful video pointing out the hypocrisy of American politicians who glorify the Arab Spring demonstrations, yet tell their own police to end the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Why have Canadian voters sloughed off these abuses of democracy? It seems cheap to suggest that we have just become fat and lazy. More probably, the increased pace of life and threats to our economic security have distracted us from our duties of citizenship.

It’s also partly because our educators don’t teach enough political history, so that students dont appreciate what it took to win our democratic system. Another reason is the shortened and increasingly superficial attention span of our communications media which rarely give sustained attention to serious issues. If the medium is the message, it seems that the message is that pretty visuals are worth more than a thousand thoughts.

Perhaps too, Canadians values have gone astray. Our former desire for social and distributive justice, and apparently the rule of law, has been warped by a neo-conservative con job about the glories of competitive individualism. But rugged individuals, untrammelled and free, never existed in the state of nature (or even in the state of Texas). In our original condition, we were a social and instinctively cooperative species. We must never forget this, in spite of the present sovereignty of greed.

So let our educators, and immigration officials, teach our rich democratic tradition and the rule of law and the protests and deep commitment which created them. Let the media stop dumbing things down and feeding a celebrity-obsessed popular culture. Let them resume fair but critical investigation and commentary about our collective project to live together more harmoniously and fairly. And let us all follow the golden rule, as politicians, leaders and citizens.

An edited version of this article appeared on troymedia on Nov. 21.

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Advice for Premier Redford

by Phil Elder

Last night I had the strangest dream that Premier Alison Redford hired me as a policy advisor. Heres what I told her:

1. Alberta needs its politicians to start an adult conversation about the budget. We also need our politicians to tell us what their parties promises will cost and how they will raise the necessary money. The public needs to know that we cant have the desired and necessary level of health, education, social or other important services without paying higher taxes.
It is childish to believe otherwise.
It is also foolish to spend our non-renewable resource patrimony on these recurring items. Instead, most of our billions of dollars of resource revenue should regularly go into the Heritage Fund. Tying annual expenditures to wildly fluctuating resource revenues is a mugs game, as Premier Kleins erratic lurching from
riches-to-rags-to-riches spending demonstrated.

2. It follows that we need to build a sustainable tax system to pay for necessary programs. That government is NOT best which governs and taxes least, in spite of the rhetoric of politicians like Danielle Smith, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (the latter contradicted himself by more than tripling the American federal debt). Remember Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: I dont mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization. Several possibilities exist. First, change the regressive flat-rate income tax, which favours high income earners, to the former progressive schedule. Second, start preparing Albertans for a sales tax, say 3%, to be harmonized with the GST. Third, shift more of the tax burden onto activities which we want to reduce, such as smoking, drinking, or emitting pollutants into our air and water.
Youll be accused of being a tax-and-spend socialist, or worse, but ask your critics whether they prefer medicare to be gutted, or a mediocre education system, or more homeless people walking the streets.

3. The existence of food banks and thousands of homeless people, in the richest province in Canada, is an indictment of your partys rule. Raise income support levels (like welfare and AISH) and stop financially penalizing people who show initiative while on these programs. Increase support for low-income and cooperative housing. Even better, consider implementing a guaranteed annual inco me, instead of just massaging uncoordinated anti-poverty programs. Restore the mental health programs instead of dumping people with psychological problems on the street where they eventually cost us way more than if we had treated them appropriately in the first place.
Try diversion instead of jail sentences for non-dangerous offenders (within provincial jurisdiction, of course).

4. Regarding our enormous natural resources, follow Peter Lougheeds advice that Alberta should act more like an owner. To me, this means the province should take control of the phasing of oil sands projects, to even out the boom-and-bust cycle which raises costs and uncertainty, and also launch a sophisticated re-assessment of the structure and rates of royalties.
I also recommend that approval of future projects be made contingent on the environmental and energy balance performance of proponents past projects. In addition, allow queue jumping of project applications for high-level performers.

5. Without publicly criticizing the oil patch, we can privately agree that they needed to be prodded into improving their environmental performance and that neither the Department of the Environment nor the ERCB has pushed them enough. Push them harder. Toughen performance standards. Increase inspection and enforcement staff. Set up the monitoring agencies that scientists have called for. Tailings ponds, air and water quality are especially worrisome.
Its a self-serving myth that the industry cannot perform better look at the innovative technologies which they are at last
developing. What energy companies value above all is regulatory certainty: theyre tremendously adaptable. If they can perform in unstable areas with
shifting requirements like Venezuela, Russia, Nigeria, Iraq or Libya, they can certainly excel in Alberta. And if they threaten to go elsewhere when you gradually, and with notice, raise the still-too-low royalty regime, well, the resources will still be here when they retreat from these riskier areas.

6. Its clear that international pressure for Alberta to deal with both environmental and climate change issues will increase and that a propaganda response is not enough. The measures just suggested would help here too, especially if you announce a gradual increase of the timid carbon levy – say 6-8% per year for the next decade. And spending billions of public dollars to capture and sequester carbon is a dubious use of public funds. See Daniel Yergins book The Quest for more on the enormous expense and time necessary to create an adequate CCS infrastructure.

7. Still on the subject of energy policy, why not initiate a significant feed-in tariff for renewable energy projects (although not at the overly-rich European scale)? Your officials could estimate the cost per gigajoule, so you can compare it with the rich benefits available to the conventional sector. I recommended this to a former Minister of Energy, who replied the government wants to leave pricing to the private market.
Think of where (or if) Canada would be if your illustrious Conservative predecessors like Sir John A. Macdonald (the CPR) or R. B. Bennett (Trans-Canada Airlines, the CBC) had decided to leave these nation-building initiatives solely to the private market. Pragmatism, not ideology, helped build our country.

8. I dont accept many of your colleague Ted Mortons ideas – Im not a social conservative – but hes entirely right that true conservatives should act vigorously to conserve Albertas environment. This implies a robust and binding province-wide regional planning regime, although one which respectfully considers the views of local citizens before approvals are given. With the proper legislative direction, regulators should be able to distinguish unacceptable impacts from exaggerated nimbyism.

9. In the long term, the level of political discourse in Alberta (and, I suspect, of political engagement) would rise considerably if you made compulsory the study of Canadian history, civics and applied ethics in high school.

Madam Premier, your other advisors will say that if you do these things, Albertans will desert you for Wildrose. I doubt it. Havent the elections of you and Calgary Mayor Nenshi shown that Albertans have evolved well beyond the redneck caricature of yesteryear? Of course, there will always be stubborn rear-guard defenders of the status quo, but let them trickle away. Youll pick up scads of new supporters.
Its time for all politicians to stop pandering to cheap sloganeering and one-line sound bites and have faith in our
innovative and sophisticated population. Treat us as adults and youll get a grown-up response.
Good luck.

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I suspect most members of the Alberta Democratic Renewal Project were

happy to see Alison Redford, rather than one of the party establishment,

win the Progressive Conservatives’ leadership.  She was the pick of the

bunch – smart, articulate, bold and female to boot.  All of these

characteristics mark a refreshing change.

At the same time, her victory will make the DRP’s job harder: remember

our desire to end perpetual one-party rule in Alberta and get a new

government with progressive policies and support for proportional

representation?  The popular take on Redford is that she’s a progressive,

so apparently malcontents like us can relax and be assured that we now

live in the best of all possible worlds.

I’m not so sure.  I’m not going to make cheap comments about the

Premier’s early mis-steps – confusion about cancelling certain electrical

transmission lines, or changing her mind about a fall sitting of the

legislature.  Inevitably there’s a steep learning curve for a new

incumbent and we should give her some breathing room.

I’m more worried about the same old bunch who helped Ed Stelmach

under-perform being included in the inner circle and indeed, about the

general party membership.  With friends like these, and a civil service

comfortable with the status quo, we can look forward to a great deal of

“Yes, Premier” kow-towing, followed by in-fighting, foot-dragging and

subtle sabotage of Redford’s initiatives.

Having read a bit of history (I’m thinking of President Kennedy’s

experience), and having been on Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s staff, I

know that moving a bureaucracy is harder than throwing a rhinoceros by

the tail.  Someone asked Trudeau how he was doing and he said he’d never

realized how hard it would be to get anything done.

It’s also possible that the Premier herself is not quite as progressive

as she appears.  If she were, one would think that she’d have joined a

more progressive party, not the same old gang with mothballs between

their ears.

Admittedly, in a perpetual one-party state, ambitious people tend to

flock toward the party in power, so they can “get things done”, or

“change the system from within.”  And how’s that worked out in the last

forty years?  Good intentions disappear without trace, as toeing the line

is necessary to advance one’s career.  Displeasing a well-entrenched

premier with strong party support led to Guy Boutilier or Raj Sherman

being kicked out of caucus.

So DRP’s job isn’t finished yet.  Odds are the “new” government won’t be

much better than the old.  For example, why couldn’t the two-day sitting

of the legislature have been three or four days, so as to pass the

premier’s intended increase in allowances for the severely handicapped?

Drafting the bill could have been done in half a day!

So how do we get rid of the same-olds in the next election?  We think

that strategic voting is the answer.  Remember when Joe Clark ran against

the Alliance in Calgary Centre?  Few people gave him a chance.  The

pundits thought that in Calgary, the home of the most conservative of

electorates, the Alliance would retain the seat.

But that’s not what happened.  Instead, nearly every friend of ours

(okay, that’s a small sample) crossed party lines to elect Joe, on an

“anybody but the Alliance” theory.  Apparently, many other people did

too.

The same thing could happen in the next provincial election.  We plan to

set up a website which will identify the non-conservative candidate in

forty or more electoral districts (constituencies) who seems to have the

best chance.  If centre-left voters accept our recommendation and vote

for this “winnable” candidate, even if that party is not their first

choice, non-conservatives (note the small “c”) could become the biggest

or second-biggest bloc in the legislature.  Think of the legislative heft

we would have.

Now purists might say that, with recent re-positioning, none of the

existing parties in Alberta is  “truly progressive.”  But in this

province, relative, not true, progressiveness may be all we’re going to

get.  We have to be pragmatic enough to accept this.  In any case, the

DRP has decided to identify individual winnable candidates from

Evergreen, Liberal, NDP, and maybe the Alberta Party, not to issue a

general stamp of approval on any party as such.  Maybe we will identify

acceptable candidates by their stands on environment/climate change,

medical and education policies (I’d also put in a plug for a guaranteed

annual income).

Another point on this slippery word “progressive.”  Given the

mainstream’s use of the word to describe Premier Redford and by extension

her government, we may have to find another descriptor to differentiate

our perspective from the PCs (and Wildrose).

Of course, the above may be just my opinion. There is a range of ideas in

the DRP about our best strategy and all ideas on this subject are

welcome.

Please comment!

Phil Elder

 

 

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The following column appeared in the http://www.connect2Edmonton.com website:

http://www.connect2edmonton.ca/guest-columnist/142

Saturday October 16, 2010

There is an increasing sense that the 40 year-old Progressive Conservative government of Alberta is on its last legs. Rather than wondering whether a change in its leadership can save the disintegrating regime, many Albertans are now asking who will succeed it.

Perhaps the Wildrose Alliance Party (WAP), which is more popular currently than the Conservatives? But many Albertans may be only temporarily lending their support to WAP, while they assess its leadership, policies and organizational skills. And while the growth in WAP support has been fast, it appears to have plateaued – the combined support for the (temporarily defunct) Greens, Liberals and New Democrats exceeds that of either the Conservatives or WAP.

So, how could those three progressive parties work together to win in 2012? First, we have to acknowledge that most Albertans do not see the NDs, Liberals or the Greens as a potential government. Surveys consistently show the Alberta NDP has 8 – 9 % of the electorate in its camp, but that of course means that it has no chance whatsoever to win by running alone against the other parties. Yet it stubbornly rejects the idea of electoral cooperation.

As for the Liberals, the name itself, although a proud historic one in other parts of Canada, is unfairly associated with the much-maligned “National Energy Policy” of the federal Liberal Party, which is, of course, completely separate, temporally and organizationally, from today’s provincial party. Furthermore, the party’s leader, Dr. David Swann, has so far been unable to electrify the province with any compelling new vision for Alberta.

Although Albertans are more supportive of environmental concerns than many other Canadians, no opposition party has been able to own this issue. So what’s a progressively inclined voter to do? Green Party supporters, disappointed that the party has been disqualified from running next time, are hoping their Vision 2012 movement can present enough independent candidates (50% of the seats plus one) to morph into an official party.

Some people think that the newly revived Alberta Party can attract the moderate majority and win government. They think they can organize from scratch, raise money, find a charismatic leader and attractive candidates, and create exciting policies in time give them a chance in the next election, which is expected for 2012.

This is optimistic, to say the least. Where will the Alberta Party get its votes? The obvious answer is that it will fragment even further the existing middle-of-the-road vote and guarantee a conservative party’s victory.

Surely centre-left voters don’t want a repetition of 2008, where 12 victorious Conservatives won with less than the combined total of their Green, Liberal and New Democrat opponents. In other words, if those parties had worked together, today’s opposition would be twice as big. So had twice as many opposition members been elected as a result of a cooperation strategy in 2008, more otherwise apathetic or hopeless voters might go to the polls in 2012 believing their votes can make a difference.

Traditional party members may say that the number of opposition members doesn’t matter – the only goal that’s relevant is one more than half the seats in the Legislature (i. e., a majority win). But we know that many voters will not support perceived fringe parties: they tend to stay home instead of casting a futile ballot.

New party supporters insist they won’t bleed off Liberal or New Democrat votes. They say they’re after the 60% of the electorate who didn’t vote. But so is everybody. The idea that another party won’t further fragment the non-right wing vote and help the Conservatives or Wild Rose win is preposterous.

There is another way – combine rather than split the progressive vote, as the Democratic Renewal Project has suggested. A “non-compete” agreement among the progressive parties to allow the strongest of them in each constituency to run unopposed by the others could work. If this can’t be negotiated – and things aren’t looking good for this option at this point – then DRP would recommend the progressive candidate in each riding who has the best chance of winning and voters could place their support strategically to produce a new Legislature with more progressive MLA’s than conservative ones. Then a coalition government could legislate mutually acceptable policies, including electoral reform – some form of Proportional Representation – to bring about a permanent democratic renewal for Alberta. Never again would we have, as at present, a government winning 87% of the seats with only 52.6% of the votes!

And where does the Alberta Party sit on cooperation? It has no interest in political cooperation – their organizer told me that he thinks the DRP’s strategy is deeply mistaken. Vision 2012 (the unaffiliated Greens) agrees in principle with a cooperative approach, but their only hope of finding 44 candidates (50% of 87 ridings plus 1) lies in many of the constituencies where other progressive parties also are strong. Unless they reach some sort of agreement with the Liberals (recall the NDP still opposes cooperation), we’re doomed to more conservative seats because of centre-left vote-splitting.

There are other groups who want political change, but it’s unclear how they would fit into a cooperative, progressive electoral strategy. For example, RebootAlberta. The impetus for this reform movement first came from disillusioned “Red Tories” who discovered that changing the sclerotic, regressive government party from within was impossible. Their initial efforts focused on changing the political culture of Alberta so that progressive ideas and political change become respectable in this province, which has an image as a right-wing monolith. Some of their supporters hived off into the Alberta Party, but many of us hope that the “Reboot3” conference in November will discuss other avenues for electoral action, including DRP ideas.

Only if progressives in Alberta unite rather than fight with each other, can we win: working together can ensure a secure, sustainable future for all Albertans.

— Phil Elder

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The following was released today to media and political leaders:

Pointing to opinion polls* that show combined support for the Alberta Liberals and New Democrats, plus the former Greens, slightly exceeds that of either the Conservatives or  the Wildrose, Phil Elder, Calgary co-chair of the Alberta Democratic Renewal Project says “Progressives have a fighting chance at forming government in Alberta but they need to roll up their sleeves and work together to win.”

Elder’s grassroots group is applauding the recent call by Alberta Liberal leader David Swann for progressive political parties to work together in the next provincial election. Elder says Swann’s call for multi-party cooperation is “courageous” and that an increasing number of progressive voters want to see it happen.

“Upon mature reflection, they understand that the logical strategy is for progressives to work strategically to defeat the right wing in the next provincial election.”

The DRP’s membership list has grown to 600 over the last few months and new names are being added daily, says Elder.

“Progressive Albertans are tired of the Conservatives’ forty-year rule and their own parties losing election after election,” Elder says. “It’s time for a monumental change – not a swing to the draconian right with the Wildrose but a return to the common sense progressive centre. We believe cooperation –  not a merger – is the way forward.”

Referring to Brian Mason’s rejection of the Liberal suggestion, Elder says the NDP leader should reconsider. “Of the moderate parties, the Liberals not only hold the most legislature seats, but the best bank balance and the highest standing in public opinion polls. By working with the Liberals, all Alberta progressive parties could increase their numbers. In any case, it’s members of the progressive-voting public who are beginning to push their parties to work together for change.”

* http://communities.canada.com/calgaryherald/blogs/insidealberta/archive/2010/05/11/tories-vs-wildrose-here-s-the-breakdown.aspx

Contact:
Phil Elder, co-chair:
Elder@ucalgary.ca
Phone 403-283-8085

Nancy Ginzer, media representative:
DRPCalgary@shaw.ca
403-233-8750

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Dear Editor,
RE: “Voters split on Tories, Alliance”, Herald, March 11

Lost amid the hoopla of the most recent public opinion poll on Alberta politics was the following.  The combined support for the Liberal, New Democrats and (even though temporarily defunct) the Greens is higher than for either the Conservatives or Wildrose.

Voters tired of the Conservatives and dubious about substituting an extremely conservative replacement should consider supporting an
electoral alliance of the three centrist parties, whereby they would agree that only one of them would run in winnable constituencies. (Greens would have to run as Independents.)

The reason why the federal Conservatives rule in Ottawa is that Mr. Harper managed to “unite the right.”  Why shouldn’t progressives take a
leaf out of his book and combine, instead of fragmenting the opposition vote and guaranteeing another conservative government?  We’ve had almost
40 years of that and it’s time for a 21st century alternative, not one from the 19th or 20th.

Phil Elder

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