Enough talk.
It's time to go political.

Since we began the Citizens Centre four years ago, we have been officially nonpartisan.

We have advanced certain political policies – and even politicians who champion them. But not political parties.

Parties bring a lot of complications with them. So we have stuck to policy and principles: provincial rights, Senate reform, and judicial restraint.

With your help, we have done this through newspaper columns, our web site and weekly emails, speeches, mass email campaigns, newspaper and radio ads, billboard campaigns and a national congress.

But we think we’ve taken it as far as nonpartisan advocacy can.

We think the time has come to switch strategies, and enter the political arena.

The key to reforming Canada lies in the Legislature of Alberta

Alberta, as everyone knows, gave birth to the Reform Party a generation ago.

That era is gone. It ended in January, 2001, when six noted Reformers in Calgary penned a famous “firewall letter.”

This was the first admission by Reformers that federal reform can’t come from Parliament. The initiative must come from provinces.

Best-known of the six were Stephen Harper, Tom Flanagan and Ted Morton, three of the best public policy minds in the country.

The firewall letter urged Premier Klein to use all the constitutional means at his disposal to distance Alberta from Ottawa, by opting out of the Canada Pension Plan, ending the provincial RCMP contract, collecting provincial income tax directly, and more vigorously challenging Ottawa in court over environmental and health interference.

Since they wrote that letter, the whole structure of “fiscal federalism” (federal subsidies to weaker regions) has come increasingly under attack by policy groups across Canada.

They say regional wealth transfers are bad for all provinces, not just the stronger ones. They also kill any incentive for have-not regions to take responsibility for their own future.

Ontario is even more harmed by the federal system than Alberta, but is too politically mired in left-liberal conventional thinking to force the issue.

The only province with the spirit and resources necessary to force change is Alberta.

But it must come from the Legislature. That’s where the constitutional power of the province resides.

Alberta - Land of periodic political earthquakes

Everything about Alberta is unusual – even odd.

The province probably has more hydrocarbons than anywhere else on earth, and the most entrepreneurial culture in Canada. Among all the provinces, it’s more inclined to think for itself, is more conservative, and more consensus-driven.

Albertans remain unique in electing only one political party for thirty years at a stretch (more or less), and then switching to a new one they’ve never tried before.
Despite a century of inmigration, the pattern has never altered. First came the Liberals (four straight wins). Then the United Farmers (three straight). Then the Social Credit (nine straight).

And, since 1971, the Progressive Conservatives (ten straight).

Alberta’s last upheaval was federal, not provincial. In 1993 Alberta switched in one election day from nearly all-Conservative seats (25/26) to almost all-Reform Party (22/26).

There are signs another shift may be building. It’s not inevitable. But with Ralph Klein gone and the Progressive Conservative Party is in a state of malaise, it’s distinctly possible.

The Alberta Conservative leadership race

During the four years that Klein lingered too long in office with nothing to do, the Conservatives began to quietly come apart.

Factionalism built up, unity broke down. When the leadership campaign commenced last fall, the bond between Calgary and rural Alberta – the alliance that has kept the Tories in power for 36 years – snapped. Calgary went en masse for candidate Jim Dinning. The rural areas voted heavily against him. That division remains a chasm.

At the Citizens Centre we threw our support to Ted Morton, co-author of the fi rewall letter – though we prefer to call it the Alberta Agenda.

Of eight leadership candidates, only Morton was pushing it.

He did far better than most people expected. He ran a strong second behind lead candidate Dinning in round one, drawing almost 26,000 votes province-wide (26%) to Dinning’s 29,000. Ed Stelmach was well back with 15%.

In the second and final round a week later, Morton rose to 41,000, Dinning to 51,000, and Stelmach to 52,000 on the first count. Stelmach won only when Morton’s second preference ballots were divided between the front-runners; but nearly one-third of the party would have preferred Morton.

Unhappy campers everywhere

Alberta’s political seismography is always hard to read. It’s never clear when occasional quiet rumblings from the right – such as the strong Morton showing in the leadership contest – prefi gure an earthquake.

Normally they don’t, so when the earthquake comes – as it eventually does – it’s always unexpected.

Still, certain things are clear enough.

Ed Stelmach is a weak leader who is focused on the Liberal threat, not on what could hit him from the right.

This is understandable.

The only right-wing party of any note, the Alberta Alliance, is virtually paralyzed. Leader Paul Hinman, though a good MLA, lacks the horsepower to take the province. Randy Thorsteinson, the party’s founding leader and current president, still acts like leader and controls the board.

Members quit in droves after the 2004 election.

Stelmach’s Tory leadership rivals are all waiting for him to lose Calgary seats to the Liberals in next year’s election so they can push him out and try again.

The annual Conservative convention last month was listless and poorly attended. Among the hundreds of no-shows were former premiers Peter Lougheed, Don Getty and Ralph Klein. The youth wing has disintegrated. Public approval ratings of both party and leader, though still high enough, are steadily eroding.

Few now expect much caucus turnover with the next election.

Most Tory MLAs are comfortably staying put, overdue democratic reforms within the party will not inconvenience them until after they’ve all been re-elected, and the Liberals seem to be winning Calgary by default.

Provincial operating spending will rise 12% this year, almost double the combined rate of infl ation and population increase, and credible people have warned that a Gettystyle provincial deficit is looming.

Resource activity is slowing down alarmingly, partly due to uncertainty about the new carbon taxes being introduced by Alberta and Ottawa.

Hanging unanswered above everything is the Alberta Agenda. And Morton is zipped up in Stelmach’s cabinet as minister of forestry, and can only talk about pine beetles.

The formula for success

Having watched many new political parties come and go, Albertans have developed a bad habit of saying, “They don’t work. We know that from experience.”

In fact, experience shows the exact opposite. In Alberta, only new parties succeed.

The federal Reform Party in 1993 was brand new. The Conservatives in 1971 were effectively new, never having had much provincial presence. The Social Credit was brand new in 1935, as were the United Farmers in 1921. In 1905 the Liberals were new because everyone was new. Alberta was new. Political success in Alberta depends on being new.

People and priorities

So why have so many new parties failed? (Ten centreright parties have run candidates since 1982, and most have disbanded.)

Priorities: Since the 1980s, there have been two kinds of new political party – separatist and small-c conservative. In every case voters have seen the separatists as too radical and the conservative alternatives as unnecessary. Both kinds have been selling products most Albertans don’t want.

People: Because the priorities have been wrong, new parties haven’t been able to establish the network of effective people necessary to win. In each case the party has amounted to the project or passion of one individual or a small, like-minded clique.

What set the federal Reform Party apart in the late 1980s, and the provincial Conservatives in the late 1960s, was the ability of their founders to establish large, committed networks of effective people, many of them completely new to politics.

In neither example was there any acute political crisis. In neither case was the original leader politically famous, though both came of credible, but largely forgotten, political parentage.

But by setting the right priorities in the right way they got the right people.

The right priority today

Although the Alberta Agenda is not a top-of-mind issue for many voters, it is very much a frame-of-mind issue for about half. The Alberta Agenda reflects their political values, even though their politicians don’t.

In 2001, 47% of Albertans polled supported constitutional restrictions on federal equalization, 75% said they have too little say about federal spending, and 43% said they were more dissatisfi ed with Canada than they were five years earlier (COMPAS).

In 2003, 45% of Albertans polled said they support replacing the Canada Pension Plan with a provincial alternative – more than were opposed.

The response a year later was almost identical (JMCK Polling).

In the same two polls, half of Albertans favored Alberta collecting its own personal income tax, with only one-third opposed.

In 2005, a Faron Ellis poll for the Western Standard magazine found 42% of Albertans supporting the statement “Western Canadians should begin to explore the idea of forming their own country.”

In a private professional poll for the Citizens Centre in January, 2006, 76% of Albertans said Ottawa takes too much money from the province, 68% said Klein should “strongly demand” major reductions, and 43% said he should threaten to separate over it.

So three parties are speaking for half the population, and nobody for the other half.

Thunderheads are building

Half the province wants something no parties will give. The Alberta Agenda’s only legislature support comes from the Alberta Alliance, a party with few members, no money, one MLA, and two leaders.

The most hopeful scenario is that Stelmach will lose so much ground to the Liberals in next year’s election he’ll be pushed out, and Ted Morton might replace him.

However, Morton still might not win the leadership, and it will take three years to find out.

Indeed, it seems to us highly unlikely that the party of Lougheed, Getty and Klein will ever elect a leader to opt out of the Canada Pension Plan and openly oppose the destructive amounts of money Harper is pouring into the Atlantic provinces, Manitoba and Quebec to get a majority.

To the Alberta Tories, it is downright unCanadian to complain about it. Wasting Alberta money and wrecking other regional economies makes them feel “stand-up proud” (to quote defeated leadership candidate Jim Dinning.)

The Progressive Conservatives have never questioned the fundamentals of Canada and probably never will. Yet that’s what Albertans want.

In our view, the only solution is a new party.

Only a new party can attract the network of new people necessary to launch Alberta – and through Alberta the whole of Canada – in a more positive, responsible and productive direction.

Alberta's next election is a year away - we must act now

There’s enough time – barely enough – to organize a party before Premier Stelmach goes to the people. (Klein’s last election was in November, 2004.)

How helpful it would be to have a handful of Opposition MLAs pushing the Alberta Agenda forward in the media and in the Legislature. If the government refused to act – and it might – the new party could itself form the government in 2012.

The Citizens Centre has already begun discussions with numerous interested individuals across the province. The response has been so encouraging that we are reserving space for a large Edmonton assembly – possibly a founding convention – in the fall.

We are including in our discussions the two leaders of the Alberta Alliance, and other politicians who support the Alberta Agenda.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many.

We must avoid needlessly competing with those on the same side of the fence.

Still, the highest priority must be to assemble a winning province-wide combination of people, policies, resources and momentum.

This winning combination plainly does not exist in Alberta today, and we see no prospect of it happening.

Unless we act now to make it happen.

The Citizens Centre, with supporters inside and outside of Alberta, can provide substantial start-up assistance to a new party.

If you agree, please help us do it renewing your Citizens Centre membership or making an additional donation by clicking on "Support" on the left-hand menu.