Sunday, June 5, 2011

What to Make of the Ideology of "Centrism"?

I'm going to attempt to be very careful in this blog about not overgeneralizing anything, so forgive the many digressions and such throughout. I also apologize in advance if I still overgeneralize, and I welcome criticisms or calls for clarification if I make any point that doesn't seem right or doesn't seem clear.

A couple of disclaimers: First, this main body of this blog is not meant to be specific to any one party, though I will address some party specifics at the end. Second, this blog is not meant to cover the various complexities of our political systems, including political strategy. It is meant to focus solely on the political ideology we know as "centrism" and the effect it has on our political process. Some of these such parties refer to themselves as being in the centre of the political spectrum and others claim to transcend the political spectrum. Both claims mean the same thing to me. And I'm pretty sure I've heard leaders of each of these types of parties in our province and country refer to their parties as both.

Although this blog is not going to be about any one party, I should name the parties I believe fall into this category. In Alberta, we have the Alberta Liberal Party and the Alberta Party, and nationally we have the Liberal Party of Canada. These three parties fit best, in my opinion, into the category of "centrist" parties. Though I do think, particularly with the rise of the Wild Rose Alliance, one could even include the Alberta Progressive Conservatives as centre-right. After all, they do attract a number of followers for the sole reason that they are the party that wins every election, and if you want to be close to power, you better buy your PC membership. Either way, it's not all that important whether we're including them or not.

I do not believe "centrism" is an absolute term. Within every party, there is a certain level of diversity. And typically the bigger a party gets, the more diverse its membership (both party membership and elected members) becomes. For example, the ideology of the NDP in Saskatchewan tends to be relatively centrist (one might identify it as "centre-left", but now we're getting very subjective). The Saskatchewan NDP has been in government for the majority of the past 65 years, and Saskatchewan is a province where there are only two major political parties. The NDP in Alberta is relatively small compared to its Saskatchewan relative. It also exists in a province where there are five political parties represented in the Legislature. While there is a certain amount of diversity of views within the Alberta NDP, I (and I think most people) would consider it on the left of our political spectrum. Part of that is subjective as well. It is easy to classify the Alberta NDP as "the left" because there are four other parties very clearly to the right of it and none further left. The NDP at the federal level has arguably moved to the centre of the political spectrum, or centre-left, though I would still argue it is the furthest to the left of any major party in our country.

Anyway, I digress. On to the main topic. I've been thinking about this concept of centrism quite a bit lately. Those who are regular readers will know that I was a federal Liberal for a few years before ending up in the NDP, so I've experienced what it is like to be in a centrist party. In Saskatchewan, where I was at the time, the federal Liberal Party is quite small, and I've found that settings like that tend to make a party quite malleable at the local level. So when I was a the Vice President of my Liberal riding association in rural Saskatchewan, I didn't really run into ideological disagreements with the membership or even the candidate at the local level. However, the bigger picture is quite different.

When we are talking about a much larger membership in a "big-tent" party, there tends to be, as the term would imply, a large amount of diversity of views. Party policies are determined by their membership in one way or another (I think differences in policy development between parties is outside the scope of this blog). So when policy is developed within a party, it is subject to being pulled to the left or to the right, depending on a number of factors, including the relative size of each "side" within the party and also often how organized each "side" is coming into a policy convention. That is not to say that each member of each party is necessarily on one "side" or the other. I use the term more as a reference point that could be looked at policy by policy, where most of the time it is easy to determine which side (the "yes" or "no" side) is the more progressive of the two on that given policy matter. That is also not to say that party members voting on policy at conventions determines how that party acts in the real political world. Party leadership and elected members have a great deal of liberty they can use within the bounds of their party's official policy, which is why we get accusations of "x" leader pulling a party to the left or to the right.

Okay, let's start getting to the meat (or tofu for you veggies out there) of it. One of the key tactics a centrist party will use to attempt to grow themselves is to tell everyone at any given place on the ideological spectrum they are welcome within the party. Their tent is large, so they have room for people who lean conservative, as well as people who lean progressive. If it is true that people at the far left as well as the far right felt welcome in such a party, it is possible for that party to grow quite quickly. Usually what happens is one side or the other gains the upper hand and pulls the party in one direction or the other, and the other side feels alienated and begins to leave for another party that better fits their views.

Now here is what has really got me thinking over the last little while. Let's assume for a second a "big-tent" party maintains its welcoming nature for people at every point on the political spectrum. The party becomes attractive to everyone, so much so that people begin leaving every other party to join this "big-tent" party. The party grows so large that it dwarfs all others on both the left and the right. The party wins a large majority government and leaves the parties on either side of it with few seats.

In my opinion, this scenario brings with it some problems. One of the major problems it brings is that the policy debate that would normally be much more vigorous in the Legislature or Parliament between larger caucuses of elected members with varying views is moved down to the party level. To be clear, I'm not saying the party would shut down Question Period and bill debate in the Legislative building and send it behind closed doors. However, if the large group of people within this "big-tent" party who are on the political left had elected a much larger caucus from a leftist party and likewise on the political right, political debate would matter a lot more in the Legislative building and a less within the party in question. That is not to say that every or any party is necessarily secretive about their policy development process. Party memberships are available to all Albertans and Canadians, and aside from financial barriers (not to downplay those; in some parties they are quite significant), party policy development processes are generally open to anyone who really wants to be a part of it.

However, the party policy development process is not the same, nor is it meant to be the same, as policy debate in a Legislature or Parliament. The large majority of Albertans and Canadians to not belong to any political party and probably won't for the foreseeable future. Instead, they count on electing people from election to election to represent their views in a Legislature. Most Albertans and Canadians have no idea how party policy processes work and are largely unaware of when or where they take place. The problem is not that people can't get involved in those processes. It's that they aren't (even if it is by choice) involved in those processes.

Party policy conventions, particularly for governing parties, become Legislatures unto themselves, only one does not need to be elected by anyone to be a part of it (at least not in the traditional sense). Instead of MLAs or MPs having determining policies of the government, that power is given, though not absolutely, to the delegates of the policy convention. It also, despite my earlier comment on the topic, can cost a fair number of dollars to attend these functions. When major policy debate moves primarily from a Legislature to a convention floor, it inherently becomes less democratic.

So what do these things have to do specifically with centrist parties? Don't all parties do this? After all, if the NDP won a majority government after Harper's 4-year reign of terror (perhaps a bit hyperbolic), wouldn't the government's policy debates be shifted, at least somewhat, to convention floors? Sure. However, these problems are less and less of an issue the narrower a party's political ideology is. When there is less diversity in the political views of both the membership and the elected caucus of a political party, or to put it another way, when there is broad agreement within a party of what that party stands for, the debate shifting from the public Legislative building to the party's convention floor becomes less of a problem. When it is a bigger problem is when a party has different camps along a large range on the political spectrum. As I mentioned earlier, policy debates on convention floors are often subject to complex factors that don't always result in an outcome that the majority of the party agrees with. Furthermore, major policy decisions can often be quite polarizing, and unless some kind of compromise solution is formulated, it can be a "winner takes all" affair.

Centrist parties usually distort the political views of the province or country in which they exist.
For example, when I was a member of the federal Liberal Party, my political ideology wasn't much different from what it is today. I was very clearly on the far left of the Liberal Party. However, my party was the same one that had started the war in Afghanistan I was strongly opposed to, and it was also the same one that pulled Canada away from supporting a just settlement in Israel-Palestine (yep, it started with Paul Martin - not Stephen Harper - if you check the UN voting record of Canada on General Assembly resolutions relating to Palestine). However, I continued to support the party, despite the fact that the New Democrats were clearly more representative of my views. I simply joined the Liberals because they were Canada's second-place party and in my view (in my early days), they were the only viable alternative to the Conservatives (of course, we all know better now). So I was out campaigning for a party that did not best represent my views. If the Liberal candidate in my riding won because of my efforts, then I would have helped elect someone who I clearly didn't agree with on what I personally see as two of the most major political issues in our country. I could have instead been helping to elect a New Democrat, with whom I would have been much more likely to agree on more issues with.

The point of everything I've said is this: centrist parties, particularly when they begin to gather momentum and grow, tend to distort our political system. As they gather more momentum from people on the left side of the political spectrum, they take away from parties that represent leftist views consistently. They do the same for the right of the political spectrum. I am not saying that no one belongs in a centrist party. There are some people who truly do not feel comfortable sitting themselves on the left or the right of the political spectrum. Centrist parties are probably good places for these people to be.

(Sidenote: The question then becomes this: what is the purpose of such a party? If the party does not want to necessarily represent progressive or conservative views, then why does it exist? Or is its raison d'ĂȘtre simply the pursuit of power? And if it achieves that goal, we run into the same problems I mentioned earlier.)

I suppose, since I call this a progressive blog and I would love to see a more progressive Alberta and Canada, I should now write about what I think all of these observations and musings mean for progressives. I believe the existence of centrist parties, particularly when we have a number of them, offers a huge opportunity for progressives. And I don't mean that in the sense that we should have non-compete agreements with them or merge with them or any other such, in my opinion, silly ideas. What progressives need to do in order to make the most of the opportunity centrist parties provide is convince the progressives who are a part of or support or are thinking of supporting such parties, to instead join a party that better represents their political views. That would do two things. First, it would increase the potential for real progressive parties to win more seats in the next election. Second, it would push those centrist parties further to the right. When the progressive voices begin to leave, as I believe happened to the Liberal Party of Canada between 2004 and 2011 and is probably still happening, the debate within the party necessarily gets more conservative. That's how Liberals can have a leader like Michael Ignatieff and not have major dissent (at least publicly) within their caucus or party leaders or activists.

Politics is a complex process, particularly in a place like Alberta, where right now no one has any idea what kind of results the next election will bring. The effect that I have just mentioned is happening to many parties. The Alberta PCs are bleeding support both left and right (which is part of why I think we need to include them as a "centrist" party in this sense, even though they are very clearly on the right). They have lost not only a lot of members, but also many key party activists and even some MLAs, to the Wild Rose Alliance. They have begun losing some of their "red" Tories to the new Alberta Party.

So what has this done to each of the parties? The PCs I think are being seen by some Albertans as moderate, in the relative sense. With the Wild Rose on the right, they are trying to ride a fine line, as centrist parties often need to do, on some policy points. The Wild Rose desperately wants to introduce more privatization into our health care system. The PCs, ironically, are half-resisting it. What the PCs have often done is given lip service to public health care and privatized it bit by bit. They are continuing to do that, but it isn't enough for those on the far right who would like to see the "free market" take hold of our health care. Interesting scenario it is.

The Alberta Party has attracted primarily "red" Tories and "blue" Liberals. It is difficult right now to see what effect, if any, they will have in the next election. And I mean that as I say it. They could have a relatively significant effect, or it could end up amounting to little or nothing. Time will tell. Either way, the ideology they are sticking to seems very Liberal-like. There are very few things on which they are willing to take any firm stand on. On most issues, it is very difficult to tell what they would do. That poses its own problems for the party. Not begin able to tell the public where you stand on many issues does not make campaigning easy. Though Barack Obama was able to pull it off...

The Alberta Liberal Party seems less relevant with each passing day. The conclusion of its leadership race will give Albertans a much better picture of what approach they will take in the next election. Raj Sherman has already made it quite clear that he would pull the party to the right and attempt to compete for the same ground the other right-wing parties (yes, I know I just called the PCs "centrist") are gunning for. I've heard he is looking back to the days of the Decore-Klein battle as a model, where the Liberals and PCs were competing for who would be willing to make the most cuts to the province's budget. If Sherman is successful, that makes my proposal even more necessary. With the right being more crowded than ever in our province, it is time for progressives to unite under the only true banner we have: the Alberta NDP. I am not going to make the case that this is the path to a majority progressive government in Alberta after the next election. However, I do believe that a progressive flock to the NDP in our province (not just in terms of votes, but also in terms of activists and donors) would be the best way for progressives to increase our collective voice in the Alberta Legislature. We can leave those indecisive ones and those on the right in their centrist parties to fight for that ground and focus on electing people we know we can agree with on the large majority of issues. If we do that, I think we'll have a very significant NDP caucus in the next Alberta Legislature. And if the impact of the current Alberta NDP caucus of two is any indication, a much larger caucus could give progressives a loud and clear voice in Alberta. Time is short between now and the next Alberta provincial election, so now is the time to start.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Why Does the Per-Vote Subsidy Make Sense?

I recently had a debate with a few friends on Facebook about whether or not Harper's scrapping of the per-vote public funding for political parties is a good or a bad thing. This is a slightly modified version of the comments I made in that debate, formatted to fit your screen (see how I did that?):

The argument has been made that losing these subsidies will hurt the Conservatives the most. It is therefore highly commendable that they would do this for the good of the country and at their own expense. While it is true that the Conservatives will lose the most money when they get rid of this subsidy, this does not hurt the Conservatives the most. Yes, they lose the most money. Conservatives already have a lot more money than anyone else, but this will crush the Greens for sure and possibly the Liberals. The NDP will also notice the effects. The Conservatives will continue to receive big money from big donors (and, to their credit, lots of small donations from recruited donors). I suppose the question then is this:

Should a party be elected because they can get more people to donate money to them or should a party be elected because they have the best ideas? Which might even beg the question, why is fundraising even part of our system? However, there are a ton of other questions that pop up with the concept of eliminating fundraising that are too complicated to get into in this blog (though it would be an interesting topic to explore). Does anyone know if there is a system in the world that doesn't use fundraising (ie. completely publicly funded)?

Our current system does not allow corporations or unions to donate money to political parties at the federal level (though they still do in Alberta at the provincial level). So why do the Conservatives have so much money if they don't get corporate contributions? Are they actually good at grassroots fundraising?

The answer is yes, they are very good at grassroots fundraising. It does help that they have way more large donors that can afford to give the legal maximum, but they also get lots of small donations. They had already built that structure when the rules were tightened back in 2003 and again in 2006, so they were ready for it. The other parties weren't.

Here is a link, courtesy of my favourite website,, that shows how much money each party raised in 2010, broken down by amount of contribution, so you can see how many large and small donors each party attracted last year (referring to the table near the bottom of the post, not the graphs):

You'll notice that the NDP had about 200 donors who donated close to the maximum, making up 0.4% of the party's total donations. The Conservatives had about 1600 donors in the same category. Of course it is normal, given that the Conservatives had a much greater TOTAL number of donors, that there be more donors in this category. However, it is most telling to look at what percentage of their total dollars that amount represents. It makes up a little over 10% of their total, or 20 times what this category makes up for the NDP. That's the part I dislike the most about these numbers, when it comes to what is fair and what isn't. But it is very significant as well that the Conservatives have over 130,000 donors who contribute less than $200 per year. The Liberals and NDP have about 61,000 and 49,000 donors in this category, respectively. So it is VERY clear that the Conservatives are much better at fundraising with both large donors and small donors.

The most useful question to ask, in my opinion, is this: what would be most fair when it comes to contribution limits? Most Canadians can't afford to contribute $1,100 per year to a political party. So why is that the maximum? If that isn't fair, then what should the maximum be? What amount can EVERY Canadian afford to donate, so that the playing field is level? How about $2? But maybe some can't even afford that. Perhaps it would be worth the health of our democracy to give the $2 to those voters who can't afford it and allow them to donate it to the party of their choice. In the grand scheme of things, it wouldn't cost much to taxpayers, and it would ensure that everyone can contribute to the political party of their choice equally. How would we go about putting a system like that in place? The answer? We already have it. It's called the per-vote subsidy. Every vote is a $2 (approximately) donation to a political party. All that is required for someone to make such a donation is to go out and cast a ballot on election day. Easy as that. Stephen Harper is about the scrap the most fair and democratic aspect of political fundraising our country has. I suppose at this point there's not much we can do other than deal with it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

My Recap of Canada's 41st General Election

Wow. What a long 37 days it was. I learned a lot and experienced a lot.

I took a leave from my regular job in the office of Brian Mason to work full-time on Ray Martin's campaign for the NDP in Edmonton East. Ray was running against incumbent Conservative MP Peter Goldring, one of the most obscure and absent (from Parliament and his own community) MPs on Parliament Hill. However, as Ray has said, whenever you decide to take on a Conservative in Alberta, you've got your hands full.

I was hoping my first post-election blog was going to detail the secrets of the NDP's stunning second success in Alberta. While it was a success in many ways - compared to 2008, we got almost 4,000 more votes, hundreds more sign locations, three times as many election day volunteers, and raised a lot more money - it was not in a success in the most crucial way; we didn't win. However, politics is not a short-term game. If you want to be effective in politics, you have to be in it for the long haul. Ray Martin knows that better than most. He was first elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1982. He remains the most successful Leader of Alberta's NDP to date, after he led our party to a 16-seat showing in the 1986 provincial election. He was out of politics from 1993 to 2001, when he was elected to the Edmonton Public School Board. He ran again in the 2004 Alberta election and won. In 2008, he ran for Parliament in Edmonton East and ran the 2nd-strongest NDP campaign in Alberta (next to Linda Duncan, of course).

The groundwork Ray laid for the NDP in Edmonton East in 2008, paired with Linda Duncan's win in Edmonton-Strathcona, set the stage for the riding to be a strong priority in the next election. In 2008, I was a Liberal. But I was living in Edmonton, and when I looked at the election results from 2006 and 2008, it appeared the Liberals were becoming less and less relevant, and my attempt to get involved with a Liberal campaign in 2008 did not happen due to the party's disorganization in its strongest riding in the province. Therefore, in the election aftermath, I began looking at the New Democrats to see who I could help win another non-Conservative seat in Alberta. That place was in Edmonton East.

I started getting to know Ray Martin about two years ago. I remember Ray saying in one of my first election planning meetings with him that he wouldn't be running if there was someone else who was ready to build on the strong showing he had in 2008 and really challenge the Conservatives in Edmonton East. He also told me that if he wasn't successful in his next run that this would be his lost try at it. He confirmed that on the night of May 2nd after the results came in. It is sad to see a fighter like Ray retire from politics, but I know he will still be around to help our team in Edmonton East build on his successes.

Though we didn't win in Edmonton East this election, I'd still like to tell the story that led to our successes in increasing the NDP's presence in every way in that area of Edmonton.

Ray is turning 70 years old this year, but he is still the strongest political fighter I know. He began knocking on doors to prepare for this past election about two years ago. He began his work by knocking on doors two or three days per week in the north end of the riding where the Conservatives get most of their support (in 2008, Ray won most of the areas in the souther half of the riding). Shortly thereafter, I started organizing teams of volunteers to drop leaflets in mailboxes. The issue the leaflets highlighted? Pensions. Not the most exciting issue for a 25-year-old student of international politics. However, over the next two years, I would learn that pensions are one of the most important issues to voters in Edmonton East, and in most, if not all, areas of the country. Our Canada Pension Plan (CPP) currently isn't enough for seniors to have a decent retirement. Instead Canadians are expected to come up with their own ways of saving money, at a time when most Canadians can't afford to or don't plan well enough to save anything (myself included). It's an issue I began hearing more about when it became my job to deal with the problems of marginalized Edmontonians in the provincial constituency of Edmonton Highlands-Norwood in the office of MLA Brian Mason. I also noticed when I started phoning voters in Edmonton East, that it was almost like a magic attention-grabber. When people on the other end of the phone asked what Ray Martin would do for them, I would tell them, "He is promising to strengthen your CPP." 90% of the time, that was exactly the kind of thing they wanted to hear. Political activists, particularly at the universities, like to talk about what we see as the huge issues of the day: Harper proroguing Parliament, the federal deficit at its largest in history, our country's foreign policy being taken so far where it was that the world is no longer interested in what Canada has to say. I include myself in those who like to focus on these issues. But the truth outside of the university bubble is that the large majority of voters don't care about any of those things, at least not to the extent that it would affect their vote. Rather, for most Canadians, the issues that determine their votes are health care, jobs, pensions, and crime.

If progressive activists want to start electing more progressive politicians in places like Edmonton, we need to start speaking the language of the average voter. That doesn't mean we need to stop caring about the issues that are the most important to us. In fact, connecting with other voters on issues they care about can start to open up opportunities to speak with them on issues you care about. If nothing else, speaking the language of the average voter can (as is obviously the goal) make them want to support a progressive politician, who in turn is more likely to share your goals of protecting our democratic institutions, handling our federal budget in a pragmatically progressive way, and working to strengthen Canada's role in the world. Most students don't know much and don't care much about health care or pensions, but what I have found is that they become more interesting when I talk to voters who care about these issues and who these issues affect on a day-to-day basis. When I talk to seniors who can barely afford to live in their own homes because they are living on fixed incomes and their cost-of-living continues to go up, it makes me care about pensions. When I hear from a constituent that he is burning through his savings and is on the verge of having to sell his home because he needs hip surgery and can't physically work a job until he gets it, but he has been waiting for the surgery for years, it makes me care about health care. These are social justice issues that people in Canada experience every day, and although we may not study them when we do a Political Science degree (in fact, I've always been frustrated that the "Politics of Health Care" class is always restricted to Health Sciences students), they are what our average voters care about, and they are the issues we need to focus on if we're going to win election campaigns.

Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent. I think I've said pretty much all I really wanted to about Edmonton East anyway. So I'll move to a bit of the bigger picture.

On May 2nd, Canadians elected a majority Conservative government with the NDP as a strong Official Opposition (at least as strong as any opposition in a majority government can be). I was obviously happy that the NDP won over 100 seats and that the Liberals, who I now see as conservatives who imitate progressives, have been decimated across the country, and particularly here in Edmonton where the NDP placed ahead of them in every riding. Whose fault is it that we elected a Conservative majority? Well, we could talk about a few different answers to that question. The first answer would be that only 40% of Canadians who voted actually supported the Conservatives. Our system never gives us a Parliament that represents the political demographics of our country. That is true nationally, but is even more true regionally. Take, for example, my home province of Saskatchewan. The Conservatives won 93% of the seats there with only 56& of the vote. New Democrats won zero seats there with 32% of the vote. Although 1/3 of voters in SK voted for a New Democrat, Saskatchewan has no NDP voice in Ottawa. It's also true in Quebec, where New Democrats won 77% of the seats with only 43% of the vote. The Bloc Quebecois, love them or hate them, won only 5% of the seats there with 23% of the vote. Without going into any more examples, there are also regions of the country where Conservatives (Newfoundland) and Liberals (Ontario) are underrepresented. Regional representation is very important and is essential to keep voters engaged in our political system. When voters don't feel represented by their politicians, as the voters in these regions I named are not, I am positive they are more likely to feel disenchanted with our political process. Of course we will never be able to make everyone happy even in a democratic system. But we could certainly get a lot closer to having a Parliament that mirrored our population than we do now.

The second argument about who is to blame for the Conservative majority focuses on how the progressive vote was split between the Liberals, the NDP and the Greens. I could go through the arguments about how I don't see the Liberals and Greens as progressive, but that's not really the point I'm trying to make. Rather, the point I would make is that nobody splits any vote. It's a fallacy. Some candidates win and many others lose. There is not one type of Canadian voter who votes for the Conservatives and a completely different type of voter who chooses between the other three. I talked to way to many former Conservative voters this election who decided to vote NDP to believe that. The decisions of voters, in the general sense, are complex. We can't expect voters to follow the rules we would like to set for them. Parties do set priorities. It isn't often that three parties decide to make the same riding a priority. However, it does happen. In Edmonton Centre, I wouldn't be surprised if the Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats all spent close to the maximum legal amount on this past election campaign. However, there are many Liberals who would vote Conservative before they would ever vote NDP, and there are actually many Conservatives (especially in Alberta) who would vote NDP before they would ever vote Liberal. These types of voters, who are not uncommon, defy the theory that a New Democrat and a Liberal running in the same riding are "splitting" the progressive vote. The anti-Conservative "strategic voting" sites have been a massive failure. Alice Funke of (my favourite political geek site) detailed why in a blog post called "Why the Conservatives Love the 'Strategic' Voting Sites" ( What I got out of her post is that the "anti" vote is much softer than the "pro" vote, meaning Canadians who have strong political opinions, rather than actually committing to what they believe in, largely stand back from the political process other than telling people to vote a certain way. They then focus on what one party has done wrong, rather than what another party may be doing right. It distorts the way our system was actually made to work. You vote for, and work to elect, the person you believe to be the best candidate. Furthermore, on election night the strategic voting sites got it all wrong. The first problem is that they don't have a lot of actual sway for most voters. The second problem is that they do sway some voters, and they can often sway them the wrong way for people who are actually looking to unseat Conservatives. We need look no further than Edmonton Centre to see why. I already mentioned how all three major parties ran strong campaigns in that riding. It used to be the Liberals' only real stronghold in the province (though Anne McLellan often won it by a slim margin). However, the Liberals in Edmonton have been trending downward in popularity for a few elections now, and the NDP has been trending upwards. The NDP also ran a candidate in Lewis Cardinal who already had a higher profile among people in that riding (especially since he ran a strong municipal campaign that overlapped much of the riding in 2007 that almost won him a seat on Edmonton City Council). All of the strategic voting sites told people to vote Liberal, primarily because of the results in the 2006 and 2008 elections, both of which went without a high-resource NDP competition. On May 2nd, Lewis Cardinal received almost 2,000 more votes than his Liberal competitor. I wonder how many people who actually lean more progressive voted Liberal to try to prevent Laurie Hawn from winning? Likely not enough to have changed the winner. However, I have no doubt that the election day results represent a somewhat distorted view of who the voters in Edmonton Centre believed their best candidate was. That may be particularly relevant if Lewis Cardinal decides to be the NDP candidate again. People who may have normally been supporters were identified as Liberal voters, lawns that may have otherwise taken Lewis Cardinal signs were dotted with Liberal signs, and volunteers who may have normally been in Lewis Cardinal's office were instead working on a Liberal campaign.

Understand this. Partisans will always use any argument they can to convince you to vote their way, no matter what. From that, I don't exempt myself. It is no secret that there is such thing as "the anti-Conservative vote" in all regions of our country. However, it is not as widespread as the strategic voting sites would have you think. I was working on the Ray Martin campaign this past election, where we could point to the 2008 results and say, "Hey, in 2008 this was a two-way race between the Conservatives and the NDP, and with us running the same strong candidate with a wealth of experience in this part of town, it is going to be a close two-way fight this time." We tried that line on every Green and every Liberal we found (to put it in context, the 2008 results were CPC 51%, NDP 32%, LPC 11%, GPC 6%). Sometimes it worked. It would have been difficult for the Liberal or the Green candidate to spin another way, so we found it effective. However, that sort of technique can be added to a long list of spin tactics that every political party uses to get more votes. It is not exceptional.

In this election, our team in Edmonton East did everything we could to win. It didn't happen. Yet. But we now have an even more cohesive team of progressive individuals who are committed to making change happen in that part of town. Many of us have already started talking about what the gameplan will be for 2015. A Conservative majority government is a scary thing. But it's a short-term thing. Four years does seem like a long time. And I won't disagree with those who say our country will undergo some terrible changes in that time. However, we are in that situation now, and we can't change it, so we have to deal with it. And we also have to make as much opportunity out of it as we can. The opportunity is in the fact that we now have four years to organize for the next election. Progressives no longer need to decide whether a "centrist" party is close enough to being progressive to earn their support. Every race in Edmonton had the New Democrats and Conservatives in first and second place (with the exception of Sherwood Park where there were two conservative candidates). So I'm going to spend the next four years (assuming I'm still in Edmonton) getting ready to take on Stephen Harper and the Conservatives again. And we'll be more ready than ever next time. I hope you'll join me.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My Thoughts on the Upcoming Federal Election

Today was a crazy day for me for many reasons, not the least of which was the confirmation of an upcoming federal election campaign, with election day being May 2nd or 9th. There are many takes on it being thrown around, so I wanted to make a few points and address a few others.

Many say an election will change nothing; the polls are at the same place they were on election day in 2008. While I completely understand the sentiment behind this, history does not support this statement. First, a lot happens an election campaign. With increased national attention on the political scene, new policy announcements by the various parties, and direct public debate at the national as well as the local level, things inevitably change. The 2006 federal election is a huge example of how our country's political landscape can change in the middle of a campaign. There was a Liberal minority government, and when the election was called, everyone assumed the election would produce the same thing; that's what the polls indicated. However, a lot changed throughout that campaign. Harper's Conservatives announced new policies throughout the campaign and garnered a lot of media attention. Paul Martin's Liberals never really did get their heads on their shoulders, and about halfway through the campaign, people began to predict that things were changing. Against what everyone predicted when the election was called, Harper's Conservatives formed government after election day.

Further re-enforcement can be found by simply looking at the statistics of the gaps between pre-election polls and election day results. The Globe & Mail did a great analysis of those statistics for elections dating back to 1980:

The dice need to be rolled at some point. There was going to be an election sooner or later. Our first election scare after the 2008 election was only about a month later. It has now been 2 1/2 years since the last election. Sure, many Canadians wish we only had elections every 4 years, but this is how our system works. Was it wise for the parties to roll the dice now? There are a few factors that play into that questions. I suppose it can be taken party by party.

Conservatives: Stephen Harper has been a minority Prime Minister since January of 2006. That's 5 years in a minority. He is again attempting to gain a majority Parliament but hasn't been able to make any major gains between elections. If that majority if ever going to be won, it would have to come from a fairly significant shift, the kind that doesn't come too often but is much more likely if the wind blows his way during the campaign. If he still can't get his precious majority, we can expect Mr. Harper to make his exit from federal politics sometime relatively soon after the election.

Liberals: Michael Ignatieff is not the sort of leader many Liberals thought he might be. There were big hopes for him when he was a leadership prospect, but now that he has made it out into the spotlight, even the Liberal base is unsure of the future of their party. Though I don't claim to know whether Ignatieff will prove even less popular than Stephane Dion, it is quite possible. Unless the Liberals come out of the election with at least some growth in their seat count, it is likely that Ignatieff will be moving on as well. And if that's going to be the result of his leadership, his party would rather know sooner rather than later so they can move on to their last hope in the foreseeable future: Bob Rae.

Bloc: Duceppe has been the Bloc leader for quite some time too. He has been able to maintain his popularity but still hasn't attained the sweep of the province he had his eye on in 2006. However, his party remains popular and is stable. They may not gain much in an election, but they look like they'll be able to hold their ground and continue to hold their 2/3 of the 75 seats in Quebec without much trouble. So Duceppe has decided his party will continue to vote on principle and not play the "election or no election" game the other parties are forced to engage in. Election or no election, it's not a big deal to them.

NDP: It's difficult to see where the NDP will go from here. The upcoming campaign is definitely a gamble of which no one will know the result until it's over. Jack Layton has been the party's leader for 3 elections already. Win or lose, this one is likely to be his last as leader of the party. What I have found most interesting is the way the NDP has been playing the lead-up to the election. Without many really noticing, Jack Layton has stolen the opposition spotlight for the past week. He has had everyone talking in the NDP narrative. The media has been looking at the federal budget through the NDP frames due to Layton's "shopping list" of what he wanted in the budget: more money for new family doctors and nurses, strengthened CPP, tax removed from home heating oil, more money for low-income seniors, and renewal of the home energy retrofit program. Harper threw Layton of few crumbs of the loaf he had asked for and, not surprisingly, Layton didn't take it. The question many are not asking at this point is this: where are the Liberals and the Bloc? The answer is that by deciding long before the budget was released that they would oppose it, instead of putting forward their own ideas, they got lost in the debate. For the last while, it has been what does Layton want and what is Harper willing to give. They have been the only two players talking about the issues in a substantive way. The strategy might even be looked back on as a game-changer if the narrative continues this way. Only time will tell. Either way, the horses are out of the gate, and the crowd is currently watching only two participants: Layton and Harper.

The last thing I want to say a few things about before finishing up is what the election will look like in Edmonton, since I have a much better idea of what politics looks like here than anywhere else. There are 8 seats in the Edmonton area. There are only 3 of the 8 seats in which any challenger came within 35% of the Conservative candidate (with the exception of Jim Ford, Tim Uppal's independent conservative challenger in Edmonton-Sherwood Park) in either the 2006 or 2008 elections. Those seats are Edmonton-Strathcona, Edmonton Centre, and Edmonton East. Two of these are clear two-way races.

Edmonton-Strathcona is currently held by New Democrat, Linda Duncan, who is being challenged by young Conservative, Ryan Hastman. Hastman has been working hard with a young, energetic team to attempt to recapture the Conservatives' only blight in the province. However, he is inexperienced both in politics and in the general sense. He runs a small web business in Edmonton and has worked in Harper's office. His resume gets no more impressive than that. Running against a high-profile environmental lawyer who has vast experience in her field throughout the world and has built her local political reputation over the course of three consecutive election campaigns, Hastman will have a tough time matching her on his first try. Both campaigns will no doubt be spending up to the legal limit. Despite the seeming mismatch, many factors come into play during an election campaign, and it is difficult to predict the outcome.

I have to disclose before getting into Edmonton East that I will be staff on the NDP's campaign in the riding. That said, I'll offer only some very general observations. Edmonton East is currently held by Peter Goldring, who has represented the area (with some boundary changes) since 1997. There is regularly speculation that he will retire (he is 66 years of age). In fact, rumours are that there are many in his own Conservative riding association who would like to see that happen. The riding had the 13th-lowest voter turnout in the country in the 2008 election at about 45%. Goldring won with 51% of the vote with NDP candidate (and former Leader of Alberta's official opposition) Ray Martin coming in 2nd at 32%. Martin decided to run again and was re-nominated in the fall of 2009. Given much more preparation in this election, it will be interesting to see if another riding can be stolen away from the Conservatives in the city.

Lastly, Edmonton Centre is the only other riding in Edmonton (and the province of Alberta) where anyone came anywhere close to beating a Conservative in 2008. The seat was formerly held by Liberal Deputy Prime Minister, Anne McLellan. Since then, Liberal support has begun to evaporate in that riding and around the city. In what is still the strongest Liberal riding in the province, the party's vote share has gone from 43% to 39% to 27% over the past 3 elections. Given the riding's volatility and the evaporation of Liberal support, the NDP has decided to run a high-profile candidate, Lewis Cardinal, with the hope of taking away the Liberals' last hope in Edmonton and setting up a clear Conservative-NDP narrative across the city (ie. where the NDP is seen as the only viable alternative). The riding has been announced as one of the NDP's 3 target seats in Alberta (along with the 2 already mentioned). It will be interesting to see what Cardinal's campaign can do to edge out the Liberals and take on Laurie Hawn there.

Alright, this blog is long enough, and my mind is starting to run in circles. I will no doubt be sharing more thoughts throughout the election campaign. It will be my first time being this involved in an election, so I'm looking forward to it! I've just realized this is probably my least partisan blog so far (not that I claim to be objective anyway). So let's hope we can bring some more progressive voices to Ottawa from Edmonton in this upcoming election! ;)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Non-partisan Activism or Partisan Politics?

That's often the question for progressives who believe strongly in social change, particularly those who have a strong passion for a specific issue. Studying in the Department of Middle Eastern & African Studies and being involved personally in advocacy for peace and justice in the Middle East for the past 2 1/2 years, it is clear to me that there is a disconnect between many progressives and partisan politics. By partisan politics, I mean attaching themselves to a political party and actively attempting to get one or more candidates elected to office.

On the surface, the disconnect makes sense. Groups of people who want to advocate on a specific issue but refuse to take part directly in partisan politics often have one of two reasons (or sometimes a combination of the two). Some feel our political systems are broken or illegitimate (often anarchists) and often believe mass popular movements should be used to influence the partisans in our parliaments. Others feel if they stay neutral, they can have influence over elected officials from every party.

Let's start with the first argument, and I'll use an issue of foreign policy because they are the strongest argument against it. Let's assume for a minute that our political systems are broken or illegitimate (I may even agree with the former but not the latter not so much). It's this time of year in 2003, and a US invasion of Iraq is imminent. Only there is one difference in this version of history: Stephen Harper (or Michael Ignatieff; take your pick) is the Prime Minister of Canada. He has announced, as they both did, that we should participate in the invasion. Hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Canadians across the country have decided to take to the streets in protest of the government's decision. According to polling, only 13 percent of all Canadians want our country to go to war. What happens? Prime Minister Ignarper (yep, just made that up) doesn't blink. Canada joins the invasion.

Would that have happened if Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff had been our Prime Minister at the time instead of Jean Chretien? Both were unequivocal in their support for the war. For both of them, it seemed the justification was "if the US is doing it, we need to do it too." This scenario is exactly what played out in Spain, where only 13 percent of the people supported the war, but the elected Prime Minister decided to join the invasion anyway.

Does that mean popular protest doesn't matter? Of course not. If hundreds of thousands of Canadians hadn't taken to the street immediately prior to the US invasion of Iraq, Chretien may well have hopped on the bandwagon too. However, the point is this: different leaders are influenced to varying extents by popular pressure. No matter how large, there can never be a guarantee it will change the minds of our leaders. Granted, that leader is likely to be tossed out of office in the next election, as happened in Spain, but the damage will already have been done.

Now let's take the second argument: if groups stay "neutral", they can influence elected officials from all parties. This one to me is much more clear. It blows my mind that members of organizations who advocate quite strongly on polarizing issues (in the sense that conservatives clearly stand on the opposite side as progressives) such as the issue of Palestine or greenhouse gas emissions attempt to stay neutral. Sure, there are some issues like health care or post-secondary education where conservative governments may make concessions given enough public pressure. However, on other issues we cannot expect the same. No matter how much talking, how many e-mails you send, how many banners you drop, or how many letters you write, your local Conservative MP is never going to call for peace and justice in Palestine. Your local Conservative MP is never going to call for implementation of an effective greenhouse gas reduction plan. Your Conservative MP is never going to speak out against our country joining a US-led war.

Assuming what I've said so far is true and it DOES matter a great deal which party (or ideology) our elected leaders come from, those who advocate strongly on issues where there is a clear divide between conservatives and progressives should draw a strong conclusion: they must do what they can to ensure we elect progressives, not conservatives. If we want an MP in Edmonton who will focus on creating green jobs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we want to do everything we can to ensure that Linda Duncan gets re-elected in Edmonton-Strathcona instead of her anti-environment opponent, Ryan Hastman. If we want an MP in Edmonton who will work towards peace and justice in the Middle East instead of unquestioning support for Israel, we want to put our best efforts into making sure Ray Martin gets elected instead of Peter Goldring in Edmonton East. If we want an MP in Edmonton who will stand up ensure our country does not join the US in unjust wars, we will do all we can to elect Lewis Cardinal instead of that warmonger, Laurie Hawn, in Edmonton Centre.

Lastly, the work does not stop at electing these progressive individuals (and hopefully even more than these three). Advocacy on progressive issues can be VERY effective when you're advocating to progressive politicians. And believe me, the advocacy should not stop. In fact, our progressive politicians need to hear our progressive views much more than our conservative politicians. I implied before that a New Democrat would take a stand for peace and justice for Palestine, but that is not always the case. On issues like Palestine, our New Democrat MPs need to hear from people EVERY DAY. That is when advocacy is effective. When a new development comes up in Israel-Palestine, our progressive MPs need to know the way progressives are seeing the issue. Some would say, "Well, progressive MPs should be out with us on the streets!" But if the people on the streets don't vote and don't participate in getting progressives elected, it is much more likely that your MP will find somewhere else to be where they can find people more engaged in the system. That's just how it works.

The overall message? Progressives need to put all the effort they can into electing progressive officials. Between elections, we need to be keeping the pressure particularly on our progressive elected officials to make sure they're staying true to their progressive principles.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Time for a Smarter Alberta

Sorry it has been so long since I've posted much of anything. When you live a busy life, blogs don't always fit in that well. Either way, I'm back!

I just finished watching a bit of Alberta Primetime, where Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan was debating former Klein-era Energy Minister Murray Smith. The topic was oil royalties in Alberta. For any newcomers to this debate, here are the basics. Natural resources in Canada are owned by the people of the province in which the resources are located. Thus, the oil in the ground in Alberta is owned by all Albertans, collectively. Oil companies extract oil from the ground, but the oil does not belong to them. The oil companies must first purchase the oil from Albertans before they can sell it to their customers. The Alberta government sets the price of the oil, and it is always a debate to decide what that price should be.

McGowan was making the case that Albertans are not getting a fair share of the profits from the oil resources they own. Instead, those profits are going straight to the CEOs of the big oil companies. Smith was arguing that Alberta's oil industry would start to collapse with an increase in royalties, and it would result in Albertans losing jobs.

There are a few different angles this debate can be looked at from:

First, what do these two men represent? McGowan heads an umbrella labour organization that represents about 140,000 workers in the province. His interest, it would seem, would lie in providing good, quality jobs to as many Albertans as possible. Smith was a top player in a political party (the Alberta PCs) that is funded by the oil industry. Today, according to my official sources at Wikipedia, he is "a current member of Energy Advisory Board of TD Securities Inc. He serves on various energy related corporate boards, and is President of a private consulting company, Murray Smith and Associates." It would seem that Smith's interests lay in seeing the big oil corporations making as much money as possible. In fact, it is difficult to see why Smith would have any interest in good jobs for Albertans, aside from the fuzzy feeling I'm sure it would give him.

Now, we can't conclude that Smith's ideas are bad for Albertans just because he has interests that run in the opposite direction (though some would say we could stop there). Luckily, the Parkland Institute has just done some great research on exactly this topic in their report titled "Misplaced Generosity" (

The formula used to calculate royalty rates is public, but it is not as easy as picking a percentage and going with it. The forumulas are quite complex. Actually, I had no idea how complex until I recently looked it up for myself on the Alberta government's website. Check it out here:

The Alberta government sets target ranges for how much royalty revenue they would like to collect each year. It almost never meets even the bottom of the target range. The Parkland report details that if the government was to pull in royalty revenues at the top of their own target range, our province would have had an extra $14 billion in revenue in 2008.

It is very clear that the large majority of Albertans are missing out on the profits of the resources we own. At a time when the Alberta government is making cuts to everything because it is spending more money than it is taking in, it is giving away billions of dollars worth of oil profits to their corporate friends at the tops of the office towers.

We can do better. Instead of rising tuition rates every year and obscene wait times in our hospital emergency rooms, we should be using the money from our resources to invest in educating people for the future of this province. We should be investing in medical staff to keep Albertans healthy. We should be putting money into public transit to make it easier to get around our cities and to clean up our environment. There are many things our province should be investing in, but we do not have a government that is fiscally smart.

So what are our options? After the last election, the Stelmach government committed to adopting a slight increase to oil royalties after the committee he set up to explore it came to the conclusion that our current rates were not smart. The big oil corporations had a hissy fit. They had funded the PCs for many years and always relied on them as allies. Almost overnight, the oil CEOs bought up a new political party called the Wild Rose Alliance. The first issue the now well-funded Wild Rose brought up was oil royalties. Coincidence? Definitely not. They began putting the pressure on the government to change its mind. And they did. The Stelmach Conservatives quickly put through a reversal of their decision to raise royalty rates.

Did anyone else support that decision? It may be a surprise to some, but the Alberta Liberal Party voted with the PCs and the Wild Rose to reduce royalty rates. Maybe it should be a surprise because the Liberals also receive truckloads of money from big oil execs. You think the Liberals are a sinking ship now? Their ship would have sunk a long time ago without the support of big oil. It will actually be interesting to see if that oil money follows all of the Liberals who are jumping ship to the Alberta Party, which is essentially a new incarnation of the same thing.

The only party that opposed the decrease to the royalty rates was the Alberta NDP, the only party that does not accept donations from big corporations. However, the party does receive money from labour organizations.

So what does that say about where interests lay? Well, just like the difference between AFL President Gil McGowan and Klein-Minister Murray Smith, one side has interests in keeping the corporate CEOs happy, and the other has interests in seeing more quality, well-paid jobs for Albertans. The PCs, the Wild Rose, and the Alberta Liberals are all in the pockets of big oil. The evidence is clear, and a look at the interests of all sides points to the same conclusion.

Albertans are not getting a fair price for the oil we own. And the only political party in our province saying that right now is Brian Mason's NDP.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Christianity and the Social Crisis

I'm often asked to explain how my political ideology fits in with my religious beliefs. I'll start with a bit of background. When I was very young, my parents were part of a small group of passionate evangelical Christians who left the Church of God in Lloydminster to start a new church called Lloydminster Gospel Fellowship. Today it is the city's most charismatic evangelical church. It belongs to the network of Canadian churches under the banner of the Pentecostal Assemblies Of Canada (PAOC).

I was very involved in that church, particularly during my teenage years and early twenties, roughly from 1997 to 2007. At my most active stage, I was in charge of leading the music there every second Sunday or so. Around 2007, I made a clean break from that church, primarily over its dogma and political leanings (to the right, of course). Most of my family still attends that church today, and a couple of them are staff at the church.

Despite most people's instincts to write off evangelical Christians as being lost forever in a right-wing political wasteland, there is hope. Part of that hope for me comes from history, and another part comes from my own experiences.

Let's take history first. After I got involved with the New Democrats, I began to research the history of the party. As I dug up information on the founders and early leaders of the NDP, I began to discover a recurrent theme; many of them came out of the social gospel movement, which was a social justice-oriented movement within evangelical Christianity. Such figures included J. S. Woodsworth, the first leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the predecessor to the NDP - it existed from around 1930 to 1961, when the NDP was formed) and Tommy Douglas, a Baptist preacher who became the first leader of the federal NDP and "Father of Medicare" in Canada. The movement was also very influential in the United States, where Martin Luther King Jr. took it and applied it to the civil rights movement.

Both Tommy Douglas and Martin Luther King Jr. were inspired by a book called "Christianity and the Social Crisis", written in 1907 by an American preacher named Walter Rauschenbusch. I read the book about 6 months ago, and it is as relevant today as it was when it was first written. The book still inspires some prominent evangelical progressives in North America, including Tony Campolo, founder of the "Red Letter Christians" movement in the United States, and Cornel West, prominent author and professor at Princeton University. The social gospel is not dead.

These progressive evangelical movements tend to be under the radar for almost everyone. The majority of Pentecostal churches in Canada (I can speak from a much more informed perspective about Pentecostal churches than I can about evangelicals as a whole) have a very conservative culture about them. I use the word "culture" for a reason. What most people outside of churches misunderstand is that the large majority of such churches have no coordinated effort to get people out to the polls to vote a particular way or to exert their collective political influence on Parliament. I won't say it doesn't happen, but in the many churches I have attended, I have never seen it done. What does happen is a much more subtle approach in which the church leadership, trained in networks of approved "bible schools" across the country, foster the creation or continuation of a conservative mindset amongst their congregations. The congregations develop a set of conservative values to which conservative politicians often appeal.

Part of what makes progressive politics a difficult thing for many evangelicals to grab a hold of is the culture of ignorance in many churches. I remember sitting in a church service where an active member of the church was sharing some thoughts in front of a couple hundred church members and ended it with a repeated call to "Stop watching CNN!" And it wasn't in the sense that CNN is not the right choice for your news. It was in the sense that you shouldn't care about what is in the news. He had the whole room clapping. I remember another time when I expressed to a long-time church member that I was out to "fix the world." His response was that we don't need to fix the world. Jesus will do that when he returns. I was shocked.

My impression of things is that they are changing, albeit slowly. Over the years since I left the church I was attending, two former pastors who worked there and many people I grew up going to church with (some still attending, some not) have expressed to me their concern with the way a political agenda is spread throughout churches without question. Many more people I know are starting to ask questions. It is a change that I have always seen as inevitable for many (not to downplay the amount of work is required to change things).

I say that because I have never known so much compassion as I knew in that church. Despite my political disagreements with the people around me when I was there, they cared as much or more for the people around them than they did for themselves. Most of them were the types of people who would be heartbroken to see their neighbour without food and would not for a second allow that person to go hungry. The connection that needs to be made is that we now live in a global neighbourhood. That connection is starting to be made. As travel becomes more accessible and connecting with people on the other side of the globe becomes easier and easier, those barriers are starting to be removed. Parents sheltering their children from the "corruption of the world" is no longer as easy as it used to be.

It is time that evangelical Christians began once again to apply the ideals of the social gospel to our society. The focus on individual wealth on the right does not have a monopoly on Christians. In fact, a society where the poor are taken care of and lifted up fits much better into the message of the gospels.

"Let others voice special interests; the minister of Jesus Christ must voice the mind of Jesus Christ. His strength will lie in the high impartiality of moral insight and love to all. But if he really follows the mind of Christ, he will be likely to take the side of the poor in most issues."

- Walter Rauschenbusch, from his 1907 classic, Christianity and the Social Crisis

Monday, February 7, 2011

Where Progressives Belong

I left off my last post saying I would write about why I picked the NDP over any other political party. I'm writing primarily about federal politics on the specifics, though the overarching principles will apply to each of the parties' provincial cousins in Alberta as well (the new Alberta Party falling under the Liberals and the Wildrose falling under the Conservatives).

I'll speak briefly, first, to the Conservatives, though I don't think I need to explain too much here, as there are very obvious contrasts. My mom didn't talk politics much growing up, but it was always obvious to me that my dad was a conservative. Though not overly political, he was very clearly a Reform supporter and still looks back fondly on that party. How I ended up a progressive was not anything to do with any direct political influence from my family. However, the principles of caring for people and being compassionate were clearly given to me from both my family and from the Pentecostal church I grew up in (I'm going to do a future blog about my views on politics and evangelical Christianity). I found those principles most clearly in progressive politics.

Because my principles of compassion were amplified every time I learned about more injustice in the world, I looked for remedies to those injustices as my primary factors in my political ideology. It was obvious to me early on that the conservative ideology lacked those principles. In fact, it was the whole idea of opposing conservatism (or maybe more accurately, neo-conservatism) that got me interested and active in politics. Somehow these people who wanted to solve all the world's problems using violence, cut poor people off of healthcare, and prevent any kind of environmental regulation where people were dying of cancer (to mention only a few things) had gotten into power in my province and country. Someone had to do something about it.

That was why, as I described in my "Political History of Joel" blogs, I initially joined the Liberal Party. I didn't fully explain why I left. A big part of it had to do with the leadership of Michael Ignatieff. When he became the leader of the party I belonged to at the time, I knew many progressives were critical of him. However, I always liked to think for myself, so I wanted to do my own research. I read three of his books ("Virtual War", "The Rights Revolution", and "Empire Lite"), as well as a critical book about him called "Ignatieff's World". I learned about his enthusiasm in supporting the American invasion of Iraq, his support for torture as a way to extract information from prisoners, and his positive judgement on extrajudicial killings, otherwise known as targeted assassinations. I also learned about his views of the United States as a benevolent empire that was using its imperialist tendencies for the good of the planet. After reading all of these things, I knew there was no way I could support this man.

My initial thoughts were that maybe I would remain a dormant member of the Liberal Party and wait until it got a new leader before becoming active again. However, there were two fundamental problems that made me dismiss those thoughts.

The first problem was that I didn't want to be politically dormant. I wanted to be as involved as possible, and I knew I couldn't stick to my morals and campaign for the Liberals under Ignatieff's leadership at the same time. I wanted to do whatever I could as quickly as I could to get the Conservatives out of power, but I would not do it by supporting a party with a morally bankrupt leader.

The second problem was that if a party could pick a leader this bad once, it could certainly do it again. As I learned more about both political history and about other prominent contemporary members of the Liberal Party, I found that they were good at masking their nastier traits. I had theorized that I might have still supported the Liberals if Bob Rae had won the leadership instead of Ignatieff. After that, I learned that the reason Rae had left the NDP for the Liberals was because of its tolerance of what he would call "anti-Israel" rhetoric, which is code for support for the human rights of Palestinians. When Ignatieff essentially took the same position as the Conservatives on Israel's invasion of Lebanon and later its invasion of Gaza, and there was no protest from inside of the Liberal caucus, I knew where the party stood. On the issue of justice for the Palestinians, which was and is my primary issue, the Liberals and Conservatives were on the same page - it was a non-issue.

At the NDP's federal convention in Halifax in the summer of 2009, I attended an early-morning talk by Libby Davies, MP for Vancouver East, and Kim Elliot, publisher of the progressive news site. They had just come from Palestine where they had witnessed the devastation unleashed on Palestinian civilians during Israel's invasion of Gaza. They spoke out clearly in condemnation of it, from a perspective of compassion for the victims. I had never heard a federal politician do such a thing. As I met more and more New Democrats, it seemed that almost all of them were on the same page as Libby (and myself). I began to understand that, on this issue, almost all New Democrats were in line with my position, and almost all Liberals were on the opposite side of my position (there are some exception within the Liberal Party).

Back to my point on Ignatieff being the leader of the Liberals. The Liberal Party is no doubt a party of diverse views and ideologies. Some view that as a good thing. But for someone who wants to be involved in progressive politics, that is a very difficult thing because the Liberal Party's positions on issues can be so unpredictable. Not only do their positions change when their leadership changes, but even leaders change their positions as they go. The first time I heard Michael Ignatieff speak as leader of the Liberal Party, he spoke very clearly in favour of implementing an intensity-based cap and trade system to lower Canada's greenhouse gas emissions (same sort of the plan the Conservatives always talk about). He now talks clearly about a cap and trade system with absolute caps (same sort of plan the NDP has talked about for years). There was no indication as to why he changed his stance. It just happened. The Liberal Party is a party that changes with the wind. It could take a progressive stand one day, but it could very well take the opposite stand the next.

I found with the New Democrats I didn't have to deal with that unpredictability. It has always been very clear to me where the party stands on all of the fundamental issues. Sure, policy evolves and is tweaked, but it is always in line with the principles of fairness for everyone. Corporate income tax cuts, though they may boost the GDP of the country, do not help poor and working-class Canadians. The Liberals have a habit of pushing for them regularly (until recently - Ignatieff is now saying he'll fight an election opposing them). There is a diversity of views within the New Democrats too, but it is among people who all have the same compassionate principles.

I don't want to be part of a party that sways with the wind in order to attain power. I want a consistent, progressive party that I can campaign for and promote with confidence every day of every year. I might not agree with absolutely everything the party says or does, but I can work within this party that shares my values and principles to fight for what I think is right. There are some progressives in the Liberal Party and many progressives outside of the partisan political process, but ultimately we need to be organized and united to realize our greatest potential. That is why the NDP is where progressives belong.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Political History of Joel - Part 3

It's time to complete the trilogy.

As an ardent anti-Conservative, my goal when I got to Edmonton was to get involved in an election campaign that could get rid of one of the eight Conservative MPs. My first choice was to get involved in a campaign with the Liberals, for a few reasons. First, it was what I knew. I had been working from the Liberal policy book for a while already and was comfortable with what it contained. I also knew the Liberal criticism of the other parties, particularly the Conservatives. And second, as unpopular as it was, I was a big fan of Stephane Dion's "Green Shift" policy of taxing polluters and compensating taxpayers with income tax cuts.

Lastly, I had met Stephane Dion a couple of times, been in a couple meetings with him, and attended a number of townhall meetings where he spoke. I appreciated his willingness to speak to large crowds of people without a teleprompter and to take unscreened questions from these large crowds. Most people don't question his sincerity or kindheartedness. In fact, some say it was due to how "nice" he was that he was unelectable.

The only reasons I could come up with for preferring the Liberals to the NDP were that Jack Layton read his speeches from a teleprompter and that the New Democrats wouldn't support what I thought was a reasonable plan to reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions. However, I wasn't put off enough to speak out against the NDP. My goal, again, was to remove Conservatives.

Moving on, I looked at the 2006 federal election results, and it seemed the Edmontonian Liberal who had the best chance of beating a Conservative MP was Jim Wachowich in Edmonton Centre, who was running against one of the most pro-war Conservatives, Laurie Hawn. I e-mailed the campaign indicating my interest in volunteering and detailing my past involvement with the Liberal Party. The 2008 election campaign started a while later though, and I didn't hear back from the Wachowich campaign. I wasn't sure what to do. What should have been the strongest Liberal campaign in the province would not answer my request to help them.

No other Liberal candidate in the area came anywhere close to beating a Conservative MP in 2006. I looked at the past election results again and saw that an NDP candidate named Linda Duncan had come fairly close to beating a Conservative incumbent in the previous election and was running again. I decided to find her campaign office, and when I did, I offered to put in some volunteer time. They signed me up for a shift of phone canvassing right away, and I came back the next week to help out. I only ended up putting in two hours of canvassing time between my busy university schedule and managing Greg Nyholt's campaign in Battlefords-Lloydminster, but that wasn't the last I heard from the New Democrats.

Jim Wachowich's campaign called me about two weeks before election day to ask me about helping them out. I told them I had already committed to Linda Duncan's campaign and that they were too late. On election night, I sat at home hitting the "refresh" button every 15 seconds or so on my internet browser until the full results were in for Edmonton-Strathcona. I was extremely excited when Linda won her seat, despite the overall disappointment of the Conservatives winning another term.

Not only did Linda Duncan win, but her team was efficient. They got back in touch with me again after the election and informed me they were continuing to organize for whenever the next election may be. I went out every time they had any kind of event. It was great to be in a place where progressives could win. I also got to know her campaign manager, Erica, who lived right down the street from me.

I knew Linda had an organization in place that could win (albeit by a small margin). I hadn't done much to help, but I felt I could do a lot more whenever the next election came around. I therefore looked back at the 2008 election results to see who else could beat out a Conservative MP in Edmonton. The next-strongest riding for a non-Conservative was in Edmonton East. The candidate was Ray Martin. I didn't know who Ray was at the time, but I e-mailed the Edmonton East riding association President listed on the federal NDP's website to indicate my interest in meeting with him.

My primary interest in federal politics was justice for the Palestinian people. It was one of the first federal issues I learned about and has remained my primary interest in politics since. So when Ray Martin called me to plan a time to meet for coffee, I told him my main interest was his position on Israel and Palestine. Ray and I met up shortly after that and had coffee for a while. I was impressed that he spoke so candidly about the issue I cared about without fear of the controversial nature of the subject in our political climate. He was not an expert on the issue, but he knew enough to have very clear and strong positions in favour of peace and justice for the Palestinian people. It seemed a rarity in Canadian politics (and still does). At the end of the conversation, I told Ray, despite the fact that I was still a card-carrying Liberal, that I wanted to help him get elected.

Ray put me in touch with his campaign manager, John. John wanted to know what experience I had, so I told him what I had done on the Kucinich campaign and also what I did during the 2008 election. I also told him I was still the sitting Vice President of the Battlefords-Lloydminster Liberal riding association. He told me he would love to have me help plan Ray's election campaign but that I would need to have an NDP membership (and therefore revoke my Liberal membership) before that happened. I understood and told him I would think about it. I wasn't sure yet if I wanted to formally jump ships.

It was the summer of 2009 when I got an e-mail from Erica, Linda Duncan's campaign manager. She said they were looking for a youth delegate to send to the NDP's federal convention in Halifax in August, and she was wondering if I wanted to go. I got very excited, particularly after I found out they would provide me with much support to get there. That night, sitting on my laptop in the U of A Students' Union Building, I e-mailed the Liberal Party, indicating that I was ceasing my monthly donation to the party and canceling my membership. I e-mailed the President of the Battlefords-Lloydminster Liberal riding association, telling him I was stepping down. I signed up for an NDP membership on the party's website. I signed up as a delegate on the party's federal convention website. And I booked myself a round-trip flight to Halifax for the convention. Finally, I e-mailed John and told him I wanted to start getting involved in Ray's election campaign, now that I had my membership.

In Halifax was where I met many very active New Democrats from Edmonton, including the former Leader of Alberta's NDP, Raj Pannu, and the current Leader, Brian Mason. I also learned a lot about how policy is made and changed in the party. I was surprised about how clear, transparent, and democratic the process was. The policy resolutions were debated on the floor where any of the 1400 or so delegates could express their thoughts to every else in the room before everyone voted on them. It excited me that I could see all of this happen in person, especially being brand new to the party. I also met some New Democrats who went to school at the U of A, and I really pushed the idea that we should make the campus a priority for the party. It didn't seem like any of the political clubs there were very active.

On my flight home, I had a layover in the airport in Montreal. As I got off the plane, I ran into Brian Mason again. He and I had the same layover and were waiting for the same plane. We had a bit of time, so he offered to buy me supper at one of the pubs in the airport. I was so impressed by how he was willing to sit down with me one on one after only meeting me once. We both talked about our past and I talked to him about my foreign policy interests. To my surprise, we were very much on the same page on those matters.

When I got back to Edmonton, I re-started the U of A Campus NDP, becoming its President and recruiting some active members and many interested students in the first week. I also attended the Alberta NDP convention in Edmonton about a month later, despite my lack of interest to that point in provincial politics. It was at that convention I started to get interested in provincial issues, including health care and the environment. Because I saw the environment as the most important provincial issue at the time, I attended the AGM of the Alberta NDP's Environment Caucus. There weren't many people at the meeting, and one of the co-chairs of the group was moving away. After expressing my personal concerns about the environment to the group assembled, they encouraged me to take on the position of co-chair, which would also put me on the provincial executive of the party. I was a little unsure about it, but I agreed to do it.

Since that rollercoaster of a start in the NDP, it has become much more clear to me why I belong in this party and not any other. Even though it was due to a number of circumstances that could very well have gone another way, I feel that I would have ended up in this party eventually anyway. There is no other party that holds my values like the New Democrats, and most of the active individuals involved in the party dedicate themselves to it for the greater good of people around them. This is pretty much the end of my "political history", but I'll detail further in my next post what things have solidified my sense of belonging in the NDP, as opposed to any other political party.

Peace. ;)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Political History of Joel - Part 2

I left off the previous part without fully explaining my membership in the federal Liberal Party. Looking back, I was always more progressive than the Liberal Party tends to be. However, I was living in Lloydminster, which is seemingly a political wasteland for anyone other than Conservatives. The progressives that do exist there tend to keep quiet and disorganized. The general culture in the city is quite apolitical. My letters to the editor were often printed in both local papers. There is a shortage of political discourse of any stripe there.

My choice of political party, then, was reliant on what I saw as the big picture. I saw the Liberal Party as being likely to form government again soon, since they were in power more often than not. They were second only to the Conservatives, and after all, I was not a partisan person. I was simply an anti-Conservative. Shortly after I bought my membership, the Battlefords-Lloydminster Liberal riding association got in touch with me and informed me of the nomination meeting that was happening in North Battleford. The candidate was a farmer named Greg Nyholt. The guest speaker that night was Ralph Goodale. It was the first time I had ever seen a Member of Parliament in person (which is telling of the 2 Conservative MPs, Gerry Ritz and Leon Benoit, who represent Lloydminster). Ralph came into the room and shook every hand, greeting everyone. There wasn't a big turnout, maybe 25 people, but it was the most political room I had ever been in in my home country.

Not too long after that meeting, I was informed of regular meetings the riding association was holding in North Battleford. I would drive up there from Lloydminster once ever month or two to meet with the 10 or 15 Liberals who were active in the riding. I got to know the candidate, Greg, a little bit after a while and we had many political discussions. I was probably the most excited person to be there at every meeting, probably more out of naivety than anything. But I was excited nonetheless and quite ambitious. Shortly thereafter, I became the Vice President of that riding association.

It was around this same time that the Democratic Presidential primary campaigns started in the United States. I don't think I had even heard of any of the candidates when the debates started, save for Hillary Clinton, of course. I decide to watch the debates very closely and even took notes during each of them. There were many candidates at the beginning (eight, I think). The front-runners were identified as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. Clinton seemed slimy from the start. Obama and Edwards seemed okay but were still clearly products of the big-money American political system. The only voice in the debates that really resonated with me was that of Congressman Dennis Kucinich from Ohio. I watched him closely and began following his campaign online.

Dennis was the only candidate calling for an immediate pull-out from both Afghanistan and Iraq, universal single-payer health care, just positions on the Middle East, among other things. These were all positions the other candidates seemed afraid to touch. When I saw a MySpace bulletin (remember MySpace!?) from the Kucinich campaign calling for interns to apply for positions on the campaign, I got excited. I was working full-time for my dad at the time, at his pet store in Lloydminster. It was late-November, approaching the busiest retail season of the year. It was therefore with a mix of shock, excitement, and worry that I read an e-mail message from a Kucinich campaign intern named Sanjay telling me to fly out to New Hampshire as soon as I could. I sheepishly approach my dad and told him what I had done. To my surprise, he saw the opportunity as one I could not pass up. It would be a real chance for me to be involved in politics, and he knew that was what I wanted. Thanks to my dad, I was on a plane to Manchester, New Hampshire, about a week later.

I worked on the Kucinich campaign for a full month in the cities of Manchester, Concord, and Keene. I got a lot of experience there doorknocking and talking to voters about their political views. I helped to set up two campaign offices in the state. I was put in charge of coordinating volunteers to go out doorknocking towards the end of the campaign. I also got to meet actual progressive Americans (not the Obama cheerleader types you see on the news) from all over the country who had come to New Hampshire to work on the campaign. All of the other interns were studying politics at universities all over the United States. It was that experience that made me want to study politics at the University of Alberta when I returned to Canada. The Kucinich campaign, in the world of American corporate politics, got 1% of the vote on primary day. But I had no regrets; the campaign had changed the way I looked at politics and altered the course of my life.

When I got back to Canada, Greg Nyholt asked me to be his campaign manager. The one he had lined up when he decided to run, Ryan Bater, had just come out of the 2007 Saskatchewan provincial election where he had run for MLA. He had lost the race but decided to seek the leadership of the Saskatchewan Liberals after the party's leader failed to win a seat. Ryan now leads the party.

All I really knew about campaigns was what I had learned in New Hampshire, but that seemed to be more experience than anyone else who came to the meetings could offer. I think they were all happy to see someone outside their usual circle get involved. And I was happy to be a part of any political circle. However, I had applied for university and was starting in September of 2008, so I moved to Edmonton before the 2008 federal election campaign even started. I would end up managing the campaign from my basement suite in Edmonton, to the extent that can be done, and making a few trips to the Battlefords during the campaign period. Getting involved in a federal election campaign in Edmonton proved more difficult than I had anticipated and would lead to me making a major shift in my political activities from then on.

But this is getting kind of long again, so I'm going to turn this story into a trilogy. Part 3 to come soon...

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Political History of Joel - Part 1

In the beginning...

Just kidding! Okay, I just got back a few days ago from the Alberta Federation of Labour's week-long school where I was asked by a number of people about how I got to where I am today in politics. I think something we in the political world need to do more is to tell our stories. There are so many people who I think don't understand how personal it can be for many of us. Not all of us were born into political life.

Anyway, on with the story (sorry, it's a long one - I'll do it in two parts):

The furthest I can trace back any significant interest I had in politics is September 11, 2001. I was just beginning my last year of high school. I was on the school bus on my way into Lloydminster from my family's acreage 5 miles north of the city when I heard on the radio that the World Trade Centre in New York had been hit by an airplane. I had no idea at the time what a World Trade Centre was. I got to school where my first class happened to be Mrs. Lang's history class. We watched the towers fall over and over for the full hour. I kept hearing the reporter on the television talking about al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and a bunch of other people I had never heard of. I did not understand why anyone from as far away as Afghanistan would want to do something like this to people far, far away in the United States. But I didn't like not knowing. I always got good marks in school. I prided myself in being informed, but I had no explanation for this. So I figured I should find out.

It took me a couple of years, but I slowly began reading books borrowed from the Lloydminster Public Library and purchased at the local bookstore, as well as watching online documentaries and reading the news. My search for insight into 9/11 got my deeply interested in the US political system, so that's where I directed my energies. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, I was appalled. I was thoroughly impressed that Jean Chretien had decided Canada would not participate in the invasion, much to the chagrin of the conservative twins: Stephen Harper and Stockwell Day.

I don't think I really understood much of the early reading I did, but a popular documentary came out in 2003 that explained 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq in terms I understood quite easily. I had watched the trailer for Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11 a number of times and couldn't wait for an opportunity to see it. However, I doubted it would come to Lloydminster. I was playing bass guitar at a bible camp near Prince Albert, SK, that summer, and after the week was over, the other band members and I drove into Prince Albert to go to a movie theatre. I don't recall what movie everyone else wanted to see, but I remember that they went to see it and I went by myself to see Fahrenheit 9/11. It was everything I had hoped for and piqued my interest even more than before.

The next major political event I can remember is the 2004 US Presidential election. I didn't know much about John Kerry, but I knew I preferred him to George W. Bush. And it was for this reason that I was shocked to hear from the pastor of my church at the time that he had been talking to one of his preacher friends in the United States who told him the country would be set back 20 years if they elected John Kerry instead of re-electing Bush. That made me start questioning my religious beliefs, but that's a story for another day. I didn't think there was any way the American people could re-elect such a terrible President as Bush. I guess I was wrong.

It was sometime shortly after that I began reading and listening to materials from Noam Chomsky. The first book I ever bought of his was Profit Over People. Flipping through the book now, I think most of what I read in the book went straight over my head. But the interviews with him I listened to, particularly one he did in 2002 with Evan Solomon on CBC, were much more palatable because they catered to people as ignorant as I was. The CBC interview that I was listening to over and over talked about the criminality of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, as well as a big chunk on what US support for the Israeli government was doing to the Palestinians. It was the first I ever really heard about that issue, but it has been one close to my heart ever since.

I don't remember the 2006 Canadian federal election very well, but I do remember being interested in the Liberal Party choosing a new leader to run against the terrible Prime Minister we had just elected. I couldn't believe we elected the man who wanted us to invade Iraq. I wanted to do my part to see the next election turned out differently. In the lead-up to the Liberal leadership convention, I purchased my first party membership to the Liberal Party of Canada. I didn't realize at the time the obstacles placed in the way of most of the party membership actually choosing who the leader is, but I was just happy to feel "included" in some way. It was at that convention Stephane Dion became the Liberal leader.


To be continued...