Troy Media columnist
As the Progressive Conservatives swallow the Wildrose, there will undoubtedly be teeth gnashing and garment rending as commentators reflect on the health of democracy in Alberta.
Certainly the Conservatives’ electoral grip will only strengthen going forward, and Premier Jim Prentice can put the champagne on ice as his party plans for its 50th year in office in 2021.
The state of the opposition is nicely described by John Cleese’s classic Monty Python parrot skit: “it’s passed on, is no more, ceased to be, bereft of life. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible.”
This demise leaves Albertans in the uncomfortable position of living indefinitely in a one-party state, and thus we can expect a raft of proposals to resuscitate the opposition, to merge existing parties or create new ones to challenge the Conservative big tent from the left or right. All of this noise, however, may preclude a more constructive conversation about the future of democracy in the province.
The starting point for that conversation is to accept the reality of a one-party state, as Danielle Smith appears to have done, while also recognizing that a good measure of democracy can nonetheless exist. Here we can learn from the Americans who have been adept at using primary elections to replace electoral competition between parties with competition within parties.
In the South following the end of the Civil War it was next to impossible to elect anyone other than Democrats. Voters, it was alleged, would vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for a Republican. Yet democracy did not die with the death of party competition. It moved, or at least staggered, into the use of primaries to select Democratic candidates for state and federal office.
Since then, primary elections have become commonplace across the country, and in many cases are the only meaningful contests. Given that 96 per cent of incumbents in the House of Representatives win if they stand for re-election, the only true competitions take place in the primaries.
Maybe, then, Albertans can redirect their long-standing interest in democratic reform to intra-party reform. If Conservative candidates are virtually assured of election in the one-party province it has become, maybe we have to open up the nomination process to much broader public participation.
Now admittedly, this would mean that provincial elections would be a mere formality with respect to choosing a government, and the Legislative Assembly would cease to be a significant forum for political debate. But surely this point has been reached already?
If we’re clever, we could use provincial elections as a platform for citizen initiatives and referendums, as a new way to hold the government in check.
It is useful to note the absence of references to California, the largest state, in the recent mid-term elections. Congressional seats were locked down well before the election, leaving no hot contests to report, but there were numerous and vigorous referendum campaigns. Democracy in California has been redirected more than muzzled.
Now, some may be uncomfortable using the American south or even California as a democratic model. I would argue, however, that Albertans would be better off studying the American experience than beating their heads against the mantra “we need an effective opposition.”
A serious exploration of intra-party democracy might also counter some of the external criticism Alberta is bound to encounter as opposition parties expire. Those who describe Alberta as a petro-state will be happy to add “one party dictatorship.” We have to demonstrate that democracy is alive and well in Alberta; it has just found a new home.
Roger Gibbins is a senior fellow with the Canada West Foundation.