Guest Post: Whither Alberta’s NDP in the face of extreme, desperate, chaotic right and resurgent ‘centre’?

Posted on June 29, 2017, 12:43 am
11 mins

PHOTOS: Contingents from the Centre Right, the Far Right and the Further Right mix it up in the Alberta Legislature’s commissary. Actual Alberta conservatives may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Guest post author Barret Weber, Progressive Conservative Leader Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, Wildrose Finance Critic Derek Fildebrandt and Goldilocks, exiting, pursued by a bear.

Guest Post by Barret Weber

Much of the Alberta NDP government’s agenda has been carried out, leaving the governing party with lots of time to gear up for the 2019 election in the context of an increasingly disorganized and disoriented right wing and now resurgent and assertive “centre.”

The Notley government passed its two-year milestone in May. It has executed or is in the process of executing many of its campaign plans. These include banning union and corporate donations to political parties, “modernizing” the fossil fuel royalty system, and making changes to the income tax system. It also includes numerous changes to labour-related legislation – post-secondary, farm workers, non-unionized workers, etc. – among many other impressive accomplishments such as a steep ascent to a $15 minimum wage by Oct. 1, 2018, from $10.20 in 2014-15.

It is worth underscoring that the Notley Government has dedicated significant effort and political capital toward protecting non-unionized workers through such sensible changes as protective leave for employees tending to sick children in Bill 17: The Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act.

This partial list illustrates the accomplishments of a successful and busy government whose priorities are in the right places from a social justice perspective (leaving the pipeline debate aside).

Two years into its mandate, there are a number of things we know:

  • The government has faced an extremely difficult and at times belligerent official Opposition fixated on its own political fortunes above all else, often implying the NDP created the current budgetary and social program sustainability crisis.
  • The government also faces continued efforts by Progressive Conservative Leader Jason Kenney to “unite the right” by merging the PC and Wildrose parties. In fact, since the election of the NDP in 2015, we have witnessed a fascinating case study in the dismantling of the right wing before our very eyes in a fashion that maps well with similar changes occurring in the U.S. that gave rise to the Trump Presidency. After governing the province virtually unchallenged for decades, the PC Party is on a trajectory to destroy itself for no other reason than it lost one election since 1971. We can conclude that democracy is not something the Alberta right is that interested in.
  • Official Opposition leader Brian Jean largely agrees with Mr. Kenney. While he has a slightly more respectable and palatable reputation, given his performance in the Legislature and social media campaigns it appears he believes his electoral chances are best bet on stoking anger against government itself, no matter what its present leaders do or don’t do. Whether it be on even the most minor changes to labour law, royalties, or social services (after politicizing the tragic case of Baby Serenity for party gain), Mr. Jean has shown little interest in setting a more moderate or constructive tone in his rhetoric. Incidentally, he is well acquainted with such meaningless phrases as “Alberta is the best place in the world,” “let’s support Alberta oil over foreign dictator oil,” and so forth. These are not stances taken by someone intent on making sensible policy. This is ideology at it purest. You can tell because little meaningful action is required by such statements.
  • Alberta’s right wing is becoming more extreme, desperate and chaotic. Wildrose Finance Critic Derek Fildebrandt, perhaps the most senior loose cannon of the bunch, mused recently about the introduction of “right to work” laws in Alberta. He said: “What is not the legitimate role of unions is to take union members’ dues … and put them towards a political campaign.” It’s worth noting that Alberta’s labour movement has been largely silent in response to the anti-labour rhetoric now commonplace in Wildrose speeches. (Remember union thugs?)

We can deduce from these high-level facts that the right wing will not struggle for the centre over the next two years.

Mr. Kenney’s positions on gay-straight alliances, coal phase-out, taxation, climate change denial, and so forth are all hard right. It doesn’t appear he has any intention of introducing a progressive agenda in the 2019 election campaign unless the term “free enterprise” has any centrist meaning.

So we know the NDP will likely be struggling for the centre with figures other than Mr. Kenney, Mr. Jean, or social conservatives of their ilk.

Which brings us to the Alberta Party and recent broad efforts to “unite the centre.” In this light, senior NDP strategists must be wondering which they dislike more, efforts to unite the right or unite the centre.

With the Alberta Party we have considerably more solid information to go on. In its 2016-2017 and 2017-2021 shadow budgets, the party went to considerable lengths to distinguish its position from what it terms the “Pathway of Permanent Deficit, Unsustainable Debt” (i.e. its interpretation of the NDP approach) and the “Pathway of Slash and Burn” (how it sees the right’s pathway). In self-referential fashion fit for a self-proclaimed “centrist” party, it calls its own perspective the “Pathway to Prosperity.”

In its description of the right wing perspective – “Slash and Burn” – it uses the government’s and labour movement’s critique of the right to “bring the budget into balance immediately, [where] massive front line cuts of 19.7 per cent are needed.” It argues it was “years of this short-sighted ideology in Alberta that has largely contributing [sic] to the current economic crisis.”

Too bad it didn’t introduce this context when describing the NDP’s so-called “Pathway of Permanent Deficit, Unsustainable Debt.”

In the description of the NDP position, by contrast, the Alberta Party uses decidedly right-wing language, describing the perils of “big government” that “values the government sector above both the private and non-profit sectors.” The government, it concludes, “is focused on expanding public services, not delivering more and better services for less.” This is surely an arguable statement given today’s restraint in government spending, which has been more like a permanent feature of government in Alberta for years.

So the Alberta Party introduces the “Goldilocks and Three Bears approach” to public policy, wherein other approaches are reduced to porridge that is either too hot or too cold, while their recipe is “just right.”

Using an eclectic array of language from whatever perspective serves its momentary interest, the Alberta Party argues there is “another path.” It is, of course, “sensible” and “pragmatic.” The party claims it can somehow accomplish all its goals “by implementing common sense restraint without major cuts that would disrupt front line public services Albertans rely on.” Not only would the it phase out non-renewable revenue sources, it would also “investigate new stable revenue alternatives to replace royalty revenues in the long term.” It vows to invite input from Albertans on how this might happen.

The Alberta Party calls for income tax cuts, reduced corporate income tax rates, total elimination of small business taxes, tax incentives for industry, public sector austerity, and making the carbon levy fully revenue neutral.

Given this, it’s hard to escape the conclusion the Alberta Party’s so-called “Pathway to Prosperity” is little more than “Voodoo economics,” wherein, as Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman recently wrote, “cutting taxes on rich people will conjure up an economic miracle, so much so that revenues will actually rise.”

The Alberta Party message that is left is that tax cuts will cure everything that ails us. And where, might I ask, have we heard this policy prescription before? Surely not the left!

We should remember that Goldilocks eventually had to escape into the forest when the bears came home. “And she never returned to the home of the three bears,” the story concludes.

Barret Weber is a member of the Friends of Medicare and earned a doctorate in sociology from the University of Alberta.

4 Comments to: Guest Post: Whither Alberta’s NDP in the face of extreme, desperate, chaotic right and resurgent ‘centre’?

  1. Farmer B

    June 29th, 2017

    Barret, I will attempt to be brief.
    I do enjoy how NDP supporters characterize the creation of one unified party on the right as chaotic. My original support of the Wildrose more than 10 years came about due to the tremendous increase in government spending by the PC government in the mid 2000’s. Today I think both PC and Wildrose members realize their is greater value in working with each other rather than against each other. There is no doubt that I shake my head when I hear what comes out of Derek Fildebrand’s mouth some days but I will give him credit to the extent that he tells you what he is thinking.
    “Modernizing” fossil fuel royalties. A CBC article written on Jan. 3,2017. “The NDP had vowed before their election victory to make sure oil companies would pay more to taxpayers for pulling the resource out of the ground. After the review, however, the government admitted it changed it’s stance”. The fact is the fossil fuel royalties basically look the same as they did before.
    The part I like best though, is your comment on the Alberta party promoting “voodoo economics”. I think the Alberta Party’s proposal of making the carbon tax revenue neutral by lowering both corporate and personal taxes in a roughly equivalent amount to the amount of carbon tax collected makes perfect sense. You are increasing taxes on something you want taken out of the economy that being C02 and decreasing taxes on something you want more of in the economy that being income. The NDP would have us believe that we can continue to add over 10 billion dollars a year to our debt with no consequence and that miraculously someday the budget will be balanced. I have a more cynical view, I believe the NDP will continue to spend at an uncontrolled rate until they are forced to bring in a VAT and I am quite sure just like the carbon tax was introduced without Albertan’s voting on it the NDP will do the same with a sales tax in their second term. The Alberta Party in my mind is the only party that has put out a realistic plan for Alberta’s future.

  2. J.E. Molnar

    June 29th, 2017

    Weber provides a welcome, accurate and insightful take of the current political landscape of the right in Alberta. The analogy of Goldilocks is apropos. In my mind, it’s also a game of musical chairs — political style. Whatever right-wing party is left with the requisite number of seats to form a suitable “official opposition” to the New Democrats in the next election, will be the party that ultimately represents the regressive views of conservative Albertans intent on returning to “back-to-the-future” conservatism.

    “Voodoo” economics is equivalent to “on-your-own” economics whereby individuals and families are left to fend for themselves through user fees, higher taxes and less government assistance and services. These right wing parties that ignore social democratic reforms instituted by the NDP do so at their own peril. It’s hard to take away services/reforms/entitlements once they have been bestowed. Just ask Republicans in the American Congress as they grapple with a healthcare bill that attempts to replace and repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

    My guess is Albertans will ultimately choose the path of least resistance and vote progressively for the centre-left NDP.

  3. Gail

    June 29th, 2017

    I find this blog rather optimistic in the face of how disappointed I’ve become with the NDP’s performance. The minimum wage is a prime example for me since they promised to raise then backed off so it didn’t come into effect immediately. They’ve done nothing of significance in the environmental portfolio unless you count pipelines. Their performance in agriculture is baffling – they’re protecting the workers but keeping the undemocratic check-off groups that didn’t support the farm labour legislation, why? The bizarrely long saga of the education minister vs the charter religious schools is another one – although in fairness to the NDP they did eventually seem to figure that one out. Not to mention the fact they started talking about getting rid of daylight savings time (a sensible idea backed up by the data!) and now seem to be unable to even do that!

    It is discouraging to run into so many first time NDP voters in my area who are disappointed by the fact they voted for major change and haven’t gotten it. So I applaud the guest blogger for being such an optimist and wish I could feel the same.

  4. David

    June 29th, 2017

    It sort of seems that the Alberta Party intends to pick up where the PC party left off a few years ago, socially more liberal and a kinder, gentler face to fiscal conservatism. They seem to want to imitate Alison Redford from 2012 and we all know how that ended up. While she was as socially progressive as she presented herself, she seemed to quickly change into a more hard line fiscal conservative after the election was safely over. I guess it is not a surprise that some of Redford’s former crew is making it over to the Alberta Party from the PC’s

    In addition to borrowing the PC’s and their strategy, maybe the leader of the Alberta Party would also like to borrow Stephen Harper’s sweater vest as he probably no longer needs it. As the saying goes, something borrowed, something blue.

    I think the idea that many voters are looking for a moderate centrist party is probably correct and I think it is also correct Kenney, Jean or Fildebrandt are not interested in being moderate or centrist. However, after the Redford debacle I think voters also want a party that is moderate after the election, as well as before. This time, it will have to be genuine and not a the old PC bait and switch with a new party name to provide some cover.


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