What Uber has done to the taxi industry, disrupting business-as-usual and causing an uproar, Laurie Blakeman is trying to do in the political marketplace. Her decision to wear three partisan hats in the upcoming Alberta election is just the sort of disruptive initiative in the political market that fits the model.
Blakeman’s novel idea is to represent three parties in the upcoming provincial election. Opponents will label her a hydra-headed monster who will ruin the chances of meaningful change and destroy the Liberal party. They will point out that, under the Elections Act, such a move is not possible, ask which party will receive money donated to her, etc., etc.
However, this is a creative, courageous and long-overdue move to shake up the political establishment.
For decades the Progressive Conservatives (PCs) have straddled the political landscape like a colossus, dismissing their opponents as free-spending socialists who lack the ability to manage money. But after Peter Lougheed stepped down, the combined vote of non- conservative parties began to grow, reaching a high of 51 percent in 1993 and averaging 40 percent since then. While the share of the popular vote does not have a bearing on the number of seats a party wins, it is a clear indicator of voter preferences.
Put another way, there is solid support for the values espoused by these parties although their representation in the legislature has often been negligible, averaging 18 percent.
Our first-past-the-post electoral system is to blame for producing a result that is often a far cry from the expressed wishes of voters. Sadly, another artifact of the electoral system is that it strips political parties of any incentive to cooperate with their rivals even if they are like extended family.
Over the years, there have been moves to merge parties, and attempts to reach agreement at the constituency level to run or not run candidates in select ridings. These have come to naught for a number of perfectly understandable reasons: Parties have distinctive priorities, values and world views. They have “brands” and brand-loyalty which, in some cases, spans generations. The only way they can implement their ideas is to win office, and this produces a single-minded drive to achieve that goal. The adversarial nature of our parliamentary system sets them up to be hyper-competitive. All these factors contribute to a disinclination to entertain any thought of merging or even any cooperation short of a merger.
Having said that, however, there comes a time, and this moment is arguably one of them, when it is necessary to put aside these considerations for the greater public good. Alberta has been ruled by the same party for over four decades, most of that time with a commanding majority of seats. Having seen an effective opposition party in action, Albertans will be disappointed if the legislature is once again reduced to its customary impotence. Although many Albertans didn’t support the Wildrose Party, they were impressed at the success their MLAs had in holding the government to account.
With both the Liberals and the Wildrose leaderless, the way is clear for the PCs to sweep the province with very little effort. NDP leader Rachel Notley’s position is the strongest among the opposition parties and it is no doubt her hope that her party will be able to make gains at the expense of her rivals. But this is also an opportunity for her to rise above partisan thinking and consider working with the other parties in this unprecedented situation.
Politics can be a very grubby business and we have certainly seen evidence of this in the last year. However, it doesn’t have to be. The leader of the NDP can engage in politics-as-usual, trampling her rivals when they are at their weakest, thus helping the PCs to retain their grip on power. Conversely, she can demonstrate that politicians can behave in an honourable way by considering even a minimal degree of cooperation. Party members in all non-conservative parties must also demonstrate more flexibility.
Laurie Blakeman has tossed a stick of dynamite onto the political landscape in the hope she will disrupt it. Let us hope that it stirs up reaction and touches off a debate about the sorry state of democracy in Alberta.
Doreen Barrie is a Political Scientist at the University of Calgary. She is the author of The Other Alberta: Decoding a Political Enigma.