The Alberta Party, a centre-of-the-road progressive group, held its annual convention in Red Deer last weekend. The party has been around for more than 30 years, but for the first time it’s drawing significant attention. The convention drew an impressive 400 or so people, including former Progressive Conservatives.
It seems Jason Kenney’s desire to create a simple choice for Albertans in the next election is unravelling fast. Kenny’s idea was to unite the right and then wage (essentially) a two-horse race between the governing New Democrats and his newly-formed United Conservative Party (UCP). But his restructuring of the political landscape has had the unintended consequence of spawning more, not fewer political choices.
Dissatisfied rural members from the now-dismantled Wildrose party are plotting a return. And the Alberta Party seems to be attracting disgruntled ‘red’ members of the now-defunct PCs, who are abandoning the UCP and its socially-conservative agenda.
Conservative political pundits have been quick to pour cold water on the Alberta Party, pointing out that it’s financially strapped, severely lacking in experienced and high-profile candidates, and that its centrist agenda is too tepid.
But, contrary to popular belief, there is substantial centre ground in Alberta politics.
Polls conducted a few years ago by Reboot Alberta, an independent political forum, consistently demonstrated that a majority of Albertans self-identify as progressives. In other words, upwards of 65 per cent of Albertans are uncomfortable describing themselves simply as conservative.
There are plenty of historical reasons for this position.
Alberta was populated in the late 19th and early 20th century by rural homesteaders, people who came seeking new opportunities. Needless to say, the homesteading experience was trying. But as hard as it was, homesteading was also a shared experience. And as a result, there’s a considerable underpinning of openness and populism in the Alberta character.
Yes, early Albertans were conservative about private property rights. But the pioneer experience also left an indelible sense of public spirit that was derived, in part, from the commonplace volunteer barn-raising tradition.
Despite urbanization and vast changes in demographics, this community spirit and shared purpose remain at the core of Albertans’ values.
The hardship and dangers of homesteading in Alberta changed everyone. It created an enduring belief that wherever people came from, time and circumstances would mould an Albertan out of all willing newcomers.
So, in theory, the Alberta Party’s progressive message should resonate strongly with Albertans. And it should be particularly attractive to young Albertans who don’t identify with the province’s oil industry and its corporate-style conservatism the way previous generations did.
Regrettably, the political ground the Alberta Party is attempting to occupy is already overpopulated. The moribund political entities include the century-old Alberta Liberal Party and large portions of the left-leaning NDP, whose language and messaging is almost indistinguishable from the Alberta Party.
The truth is that the only successful unification of the Alberta centre was accomplished decades ago by former premier Peter Lougheed. Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative party was a big-tent political movement, with a mission to modernize Alberta. The party was successful for decades because it provided a natural home for the majority of Albertans.
The Alberta Party’s message risks being suffocated in the province’s fractured political centre. The Liberal Party, once a powerful force in the province’s politics, has never been able to overcome Albertans’ sense of betrayal by the federal Liberals during the 1970s and 1980s.
So the challenge is enormous but the opportunity is crystal clear. Convention delegates were almost unanimous in their belief that there’s a significant opening. The Alberta Party just might – if it holds the centre ground strongly enough – provide a home for the progressive majority in Alberta.
But before this can be accomplished, the fractured centre needs to be united behind a single political movement. Otherwise, the next election will be a slugfest between extremes of right and left.
Uniting the centre won’t be easy. But as with all political movements, it must start with a clear vision of where we’re going.
Paint a picture of a generous, inclusive and prosperous future rooted in Alberta’s one enduring natural resource – its people – and the Alberta Party could soon be knocking on the legislature door.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.