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Types of cooperation

Neither a Merger Nor a War?

by ALVIN FINKEL

The media, as well as hyper-partisans in both the NDP and Liberal parties, lazily treat every suggestion regarding cooperation among political parties of the left and centre as a proposal for a merger. But federal NDP leadership candidate Nathan Cullen is burning a hole in that conflation of cooperation with merger. He has suggested that the NDP, Liberals, and Greens each choose a candidate in a constituency but that they then have a common nominating meeting in which one of the three is selected to be the only candidate of the centre-left in the constituency. That candidate would run under the banner of her or his party, but with the understanding that the three parties intend to form a coalition if between them they have a majority in the House of Commons.

This proposal has met with support from Green leader Elizabeth May, who does not necessarily endorse its details but feels that the parties need to pursue means of cooperating to insure the defeat of the Conservatives in 2016. She regards Cullen’s proposal as a refreshing effort to go beyond a destructive partisanship that insured that the three federalist centre-left parties, while together they enjoyed the votes of a majority of Canadians in the last three federal elections, did not get to form a government. Long-time federal New Democrat MP from Winnipeg, Patrick Martin, has also indicated his support.

Cullen’s parliamentary website boasts that “Nathan’s commitment to bipartisan work has helped him in negotiating a number of legislative initiatives through the House of Commons including a private member’s bill to restrict harmful phthalates in children’s products and a bill to set federal targets for greenhouse gas reductions.” That ability to get Liberals and New Democrats, along with the support of the Bloc Quebecois (the Greens were not in the last House) to support progressive legislation is meaningless now that the Conservatives have an absolute majority in the House. The war of Liberals and New Democrats during elections has made it largely irrelevant for the next four years whether or not they cooperate in the House. But it makes it that more crucial that they figure out ways of cooperating in the next election.

While Cullen is alone among the contenders for NDP leader to suggest a process for formal cooperation, the top two candidates, Thomas Mulcair and Brian Topp, have been involved in post-election efforts to form coalitions in the past. Topp, a shadowy fellow who has never been elected to office, was nonetheless key in negotiating the succesful coalition of the Roy Romanow NDP with the provincial Liberals in 1999 and both Topp and Mulcair were involved in the ultimately failed efforts to form a coalition of the two parties with Bloc support after the 2008 federal election. Mulcair remained vocal about the need for the NDP and Liberals to come to terms before the next election. But despite efforts by Ed Broadbent and Jean Chretien to produce a pre-election coalition, nothing came of the idea before the federal election. Afterwards, Broadbent and Mulcair both seemed to cool to the idea while Chretien appeared to support a merger.

The NDP now has a caucus of 59 members in Quebec. But, as Chantaal Hebert has commented in the Toronto Star, a newspaper that supported strategic voting on the centre-left in the 2011 federal election, the best-known New Democrat MPs in Quebec are Mulcair, a former provincial Liberal Cabinet minister, and Francoise Boivin, a former Liberal MP. Meanwhile, of course, the acting leader of the federal Liberals is Bob Rae, the former NDP premier of Ontario, while one of his key colleagues in his party’s caucus before the last federal election was Ujjal Dosanjh, the former NDP premier of British Columbia.

In Alberta, the centre-left, which won about 40 percent of the vote in the last two provincial elections, has weakened itself by finding no way at all to cooperate. The DRP is proposing to Albertans who want a progressive government that they vote strategically in the next provincial election, and when the election is called, will assess each seat to determine which party, if any, has the strength to defeat the Tories and Wild Rose if enough of the progressive vote moves over to that candidate. But Nathan Cullen has openly raised the possibility on the national level of a more effective way of insuring the defeat of Tory governments that represent only the famous “one percent.” His ideas deserve a close hearing from all progressives.

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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

 

 

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

The following letter was submitted by a former NDP candidate in Livingston-Macleod to the Edmonton Journal as an op-ed on July 14, 2010:

During his inaugural speech, President Barack Obama observed that it was now time to put aside childish things. Such was the dire nature of the times that adherence to outworn excesses and prejudices, and to self-limiting dogmas, could only result in further erosion of the social contract between government and the governed. After years of the venal and Machiavellian Dick Cheney, and the simplistic, swaggering stupidity of George W. Bush, the state of the union was crumbling. Going further down that road would see more damage done than maybe could ever be repaired.

This scenario looks pretty much like Alberta today. Forty odd years of Tory rule, which has long since ceased to represent small-c conservative interests, finds us mired in a dysfunctional democracy wherein governance is handed on to cronies and affiliates every four or five years with scarcely a nod to that vague body out there sometimes referred to as the electorate. Stand up the proverbial ‘blue fence post’ at election time and you’re more or less guaranteed your man in Edmonton. This has resulted in a governmental apparatus which has now become inseparable from corporate interests, especially in the oil and gas sector. When Syncrude snaps its fingers, our government twitches like a sack of maggots. What a sorry spectacle! And now we have become reviled on the world stage to boot, owing to our filthy habits.

This could all change rapidly in one of two ways. If we do nothing, there is an odds-on chance that the natural evolutionary trend in Alberta politics will see the ruination and collapse of the Tories, just like the Liberals, UFA and Socreds before them. This customarily happens about every generation or so when the ruling, rotting party of government is blown to smithereens. This time we see the Wild Rose poised to storm the palace gates, gleefully prepared to parade the heads of the vanquished along the torched avenues. If this happens we will be moving from mere political incompetence under the Tories to right-wing regression under the Palin-lite machine being built up around Ms. Smith. We will see everything we have worked for in our civilization since the Enlightenment pushed back that little bit further towards the darkness.

The other way could look quite different however, and I quote here the byline of the Economist magazine, which is the flagship periodical of true free-market liberalism, and which detests bloated, state-sanctioned corporatist dinosaurs that lock up capital in the hands of the few. The magazine considers itself to be in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” These are fine words. As a social-democrat, I can see this time in our history to be pivotal, a ‘severe contest’ indeed. As an NDP candidate in the last provincial election I was directed to vilify the Liberal Party arbitrarily, just as I would be expected to do the Tories. I chose not to. My Liberal opponent was a man of progressive views and great passion, and it was clear that we should have pooled our political resources prior to the election rather than further split our voting base. I call upon you and your organization, therefore, to consider the perils of blind partisanship and seek ways to engender a broad and inclusive movement of like-minded souls who would choose a rather different future for our province. Put aside for the moment the ‘childish things’ which serve to splinter and alienate persons of imagination and good will from one another in the name of dogma and party political process. If you don’t want us all to be smelling the horrible, hybridized stink of the Wild Rose for the next generation, then consider reaching out to your fellow Albertans in some real and substantive way. Put yourself out into the public eye as a man of flexibility, willing to reach out a hand of fellowship to all progressively-minded Albertans. See if there is indeed some way to work with other modernist parties to construct some political vehicle which might carry us all together into a renewed social contract in Alberta, and to keep the flame of civility, tolerance and good governance alive. Show yourself to be a man of the moment. History judges men by their ability to see beyond conventional expectations.

Phil Burpee
Pincher Creek, AB

Phil is a farmer and singer/songwriter who lives near Pincher Creek and has served as chair of the South Porcupine Hills Stewardship Association.

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

Dear Brian,

After 40 years of membership in the NDP in several provinces, I am severing my ties with the Alberta party and considering severing ties with the federal party as well. Your mean-spirited dismissal of Dr. David Swann’s gesture to unite progressive forces in this arch-conservative province depresses me immensely and leaves me little choice but to break with a party with which I have identified for my entire adult life.  If I ever return, it would be after you are no longer leader and when the party proves more willing to be strategic and to make being part of government in Alberta its objective. For now, I will make my political home in the Alberta Liberal Party, something I am proud to do after attending the recent provincial Liberal convention and finding that almost all of that party’s activists are at least as progressive as most NDP activists.

You suggest that Dr. Swann’s call for unity of progressive forces is an act of desperation. In fact, you know quite well that Dr. Swann has been calling for such a realignment since the disastrous 2008 election in which the NDP vote was less than a third of the Liberal vote. In any case, why do you not feel a sense of desperation about the terrible conditions to which Albertans are subjected because of permanent right-wing government? Do you actually believe any of the things that you say in the legislature or are you only willing to see changes in Alberta if the people of Alberta give the NDP a one-party majority so that it can implement its platform? That of course will never happen.

You claim that the Alberta Liberal party is a “train wreck.” In fact, it has erased its debt and its constituency organizations are mostly intact. By contrast, the NDP has a debt of $500,000 and a declining membership. It is clear from the Elections Alberta site that as of December 31, 2009, most NDP constituency organizations are moribund. Paid party officials, rather than local members, are listed as the president and chief financial officer for most of the constituencies. My own constituency, Mill Creek, had no annual general meeting or any other meeting in 2008 and again in 2010. It only met in 2009 at my insistence and the annual meeting became basically a battleground between supporters and opponents of cooperation with other parties. The latter won thanks to extensive interference by the party office at your behest but they have subsequently failed to keep a constituency organization alive. In short, the NDP has almost no institutional
existence in Alberta outside of a small number of constituencies.

The provincial Liberals held an open convention this past May in which a resolution for cooperation among progressive parties passed. None of the MLAs including the party leader attempted to steer the general membership in a particular direction. There was no effort to shun or shut out party members who supported cooperation. By contrast, at last year’s NDP convention, you led the debate against cooperation, and many party members were afraid to be seen talking to supporters of cooperation because of the intensity of the bitterness towards us that the leaders exhibited. It was such a small convention despite being open to all members and admission was
quite inexpensive; yet the party saw no problem in the fact that it now has few active members and went out of its way to make the party more fortress-like than ever.

I do applaud your and Rachel’s performance in the legislature. As in the 2004-08 legislature, it’s clear that the NDP members perform well above their numbers. But what impact has the NDP, working alone, had on legislation in this province over the past several decades? In my view, none. The litany of complaints about all government policies that both the NDP and Liberals continue to make demonstrates that nothing important is changing in Alberta. Governments, not oppositions, make legislation and no government is going to bend its legislation to appease a tiny opposition party which has no strategy to increase its numbers other than to do what it has done mostly unsuccessfully for 50 years. The NDP should have applauded and supported the significant shift to the left of the Alberta Liberals under Kevin Taft and David Swann. Instead it has made undermining  that party almost an obsession and rejected all efforts to effect electoral
cooperation with the Liberals or anyone else. You have become past master at demonstrating every contradiction in Liberal policy, though the even greater contradictions in NDP policy don’t seem to faze you.

In short, it seems to me that the current NDP leadership is so partisan that it has made its commitment to social change secondary to its commitment to keeping the NDP a completely separate entity. No one is calling on the NDP
to disband, but its leadership keeps confusing working arrangements with other parties, which are extremely common in most countries, with a merger. In the circumstances I do not want in any way to be associated with the
NDP.

I don’t consider this a personal matter and I will be sending this letter to many people both inside and outside the NDP. It is my clear hope that the small group of people who remain in the NDP will see the wisdom of removing
you as leader and replacing you with someone who is able to work cooperatively with others inside and outside the party, and to reinvigorate the party by looking at strategies other than the failed one that left the party with only 8.5 percent of the vote in 2008 and no willingness to even question why.

Sincerely,

Alvin Finkel,
Co-Chair,
Democratic Renewal Project

Dear Brian,

I have been a member of the NDP for over 30 years, donated to the party, and worked on countless election campaigns. This, then, is no idle comment. I must say I am disappointed in your spurning of David Swann’s olive branch of cooperation. Cooperation and pre-elections coalitions are common all over the world and should not be seen as a death threat to the NDP. Rather they are means by which odious governments have been successfully displaced and governments with alternative values and policies that benefit the public welfare have been implemented. Your approach, on the other hand, is more of the same narrow partisanship that now has lead to a dead end of the same old promises.

This is what you say, in your response to Swann’s ad: “our focus will remain on electing more New Democrat MLAs to the Legislature.” Nowhere here is there any promise or hope that the Conservatives will be turfed  and a new, progressive government installed. I know enough about politics in Alberta not to believe any talk that a NDP government will come or is  inevitable. This is not in the cards.

What, then, is your strategy for turfing the Tories? If you can’t answer this question with something other than vote for us you risk making the NDP irrelevant. As you are aware the talk of cooperation is in the air whether that be a coalition government in the UK or at the federal level. So I would strongly urge you and the NDP to think more strategically, to think and act more in the public interest. I believe most Albertans are viewing David Swann’s move favourably and that there is more to be gained by being less partisan.

In the end your approach is alienating to the general population and is alienating many of your own supporters. You need a more thoughtful, calibrated approach, one that is intellectually honest and speaks to practical means of ridding us of the Tories, not vague hopes that if you follow us a better tomorrow will surely dawn.

Yours,
P. Jay Smith