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" (http://parklandinstitute.ca/research/summary/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: http://www.energy.alberta.ca/Org/pdfs/OILFormulas2010.pdf

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.