New times, new problems for opposition parties

In a climate where people want change, being in opposition is not easy

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RED DEER, Alta. Nov. 22, 2015/ Troy Media/ — It’s not easy being in opposition these days. Especially in Alberta and Ottawa, where radical change has elected governments with markedly different ideas about how to do business.

Voters have rejected the old way of doing government business, so how does an opposition (which represents that old style) successfully oppose the new?

That’s the challenge for the Wildrose Party in Alberta and the Conservatives in Ottawa. It even poses a challenge in Regina, where governing Saskatchewan Party Premier Brad Wall seems to have manoeuvred himself as an opposition leader who just happens to hold the reins of power.

In Ottawa, it’s way too early to tell if the Conservatives can morph from a decade of being increasingly autocratic government leaders to opposition defenders of democracy against government autocracy.

Suffice to say that adopting a slogan like “change of tone” will not be enough.

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose strode out to meet the press following her appointment and promised a more open and inclusive approach to federal politics by her party. She took three quick questions, then turned her back and walked away. It appears “change of tone” will not come easily.

But you have to give the Tories points for trying. Friday’s headlines hint at something more positive. The Huffington Post, for instance, reported that the Conservatives will give the “benefit of the doubt” to the Liberals on climate change.

If that’s the path forward, it’s a smarter one. It reflects the tone of the Liberal Party during the election campaign, when Justin Trudeau said he wanted to see the details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement before deciding to support it.

opposition parties
Rona Ambrose
Opposition parties have to get used to the new reality

The NDP under Tom Mulcair rejected the TPP out of hand. That’s a classic opposition move – but it’s one that did not resonate with voters, who have grown tired of government-by-competing-autocracies.

Compare this example with Alberta’s Wildrose Party statements on what governments should do about climate change.

On Thursday, Wildrose Leader Brian Jean suggested that because federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is promising a new national target for greenhouse-gas reductions we’re headed to a new round of the National Energy Program. Whoa, Nelly. Really?

From 1980-85, when that debacle occurred, the Progressive Conservatives under Peter Lougheed governed Alberta, and Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre, was prime minister. The NEP was a stun gun that froze investment in Alberta, killing thousands of jobs. It also killed Liberal Party prospects in Alberta for three decades.

Now, said Jean in a party release, the NDP are in charge and they “are more than happy to go along” with a new but eerily similar federal scheme.

Never mind where people may stand on the issue of what governments should do concerning the environment; this is about what opposition parties need to learn to talk convincingly to voters.

Last spring, Alberta voters rejected the tone and substance of us-versus-them governance. This fall, Canadians rejected the notion that ideologues can dictate a narrow viewpoint from a small office onto the country, with no accommodation for anyone else.

An opposition can no longer win hearts (or votes) by throwing stones.

Alberta is on the verge of economic crisis driven by low energy prices. Canada needs a policy on how to react to a global refugee crisis driven by sectarian violence and terrorism. The whole world is looking for unified leadership on preventing a climate disaster that we have all worked together to create.

We have elected political parties with policies of co-operation on these issues. An opposition party cannot succeed by simply refusing to co-operate.

Whatever core support Wall may have in Saskatchewan, he projects a minority view when he says he doesn’t want to co-operate on faster processing of Syrian refugees. The non-profits are already at the table with money and resources to bring them in.

How will opposition parties win debates now? Not by creating bogeymen of higher-priced electricity (which people can offset by being more efficient) or of potential loss of profits for large corporations with large pollution footprints. These tactics just won’t fly when people are looking for solutions, not excuses that solutions are just too much change.

In a climate where people want change, being in opposition is not easy.

Greg Neiman is a freelance editor, columnist and blogger living in Red Deer, Alta.

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