Alberta: December 18th, 2014 — Some thoughts on the big-tent party

The  majority (9 M.L.A.s) of the Official Opposition in the Alberta Legislature have made the decision to abandon the Party of their election and join the government caucus (Progressive Conservative Party — P.C.).

This is largely an unexpected outcome of our first-past-the-post electoral system.

Both the government caucus and the incoming M.L.A.s are committed to a majority and right-of-centre government after the next election.  (For most of the current players, effective coalition or minority governments are unimaginable, notwithstanding the record of many north European nations.)  Both government and Wild Rose M.L.A.s undoubtedly worried that the electors inclined toward the right-of-centre might fragment, resulting in the election of centrists and left-of-centre M.L.A.s  (For many years the Progressive Conservative Party benefitted from fragmentation of the left-of-centre vote.)

I can remember smirking during a Social Studies class in high school, when the teacher tried to explain how the Communist Party of China could claim the country was democratic since everyone could choose from a slate of candidates, all of whom were members of the Communist Party:  it was a big-tent party.  It appears that in Alberta voters can choose whoever they want, as long as they choose a Progressive Conservative.

The Wild Rose supporters may be unhappy when the next election occurs (it is thought), but they won’t have any practical alternative to the (prospectively) overwhelming presence of the ‘new and improved’ P.C. Party.

It is virtually impossible to imagine this happening in an electoral system of proportional representation.  There would not have been the felt need, and the electoral law would probably preclude such abandonment.

The second reason for this political re-alignment was probably that the current political model is very adversarial, so a tactical aim is always to engorge the government caucus as much as possible, thereby creating the impression that anyone not with the government is marginal and immaterial.  (Remember the mantra of the Klein era:  if you’re not with us you’re against us.)

Both the Wild Rose M.L.A.s who have crossed the floor and the government caucus have acknowledged that the Legislature is completely (and forever?) partisan.  The Government doesn’t pay any attention to some M.L.A.s simply because of where they sit in the Legislature, and will pay attention to the same M.L.A.s if they sit inside the government caucus rather than outside it.  Consider that Premier Prentice lauded the crossing M.L.A.s for their principled positions, close association with the thinking of their constituents and hard work on behalf of those constituents, without explaining why none of that had yielded positive results as long as they were sitting across the aisle from the government.

Citizens also need to consider the implications of this move.  The P.C. caucus demanded total submission from the changelings.  One of the options might have been the creation of a coalition government, with a guarantee that some Wild Rose M.L.A.s would serve in Cabinet, and a looking-forward agreement about nominations in advance of the next provincial general election.  This experience does not respectfully acknowledge the perspective of more right-of-centre electors and M.L.A.s:  it demands their complete submission to the dominant perspective.  (It remains to be seen whether the complete submission of the Wild Rose M.L.A.s represents the complete submission of their electors, and like-minded electors in other constituencies across the province.)

The first-past-the-post electoral system is outdated and inadequate for dealing with the current and prospective political issues.  Its adversarial nature, its demand for complete submission, its pre-occupation with the next election (rather than the next generation), its commitment to simplicity, are all bad portents for our future.

We are given another — surprising and significant — reason to consider the benefits of proportional representation.


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