Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Parliamentary democracy in Alberta?

Ramblin' (Wild) rose  -- go for it.
No one should be starry-eyed about the political experimentation that goes on in Alberta.  I mean, who can take seriously a polity that doesn't even have a sales tax and has lived for generations on pissing away the oil royalties? Albertans live the same boom-bust cycle as the global petroleum market -- and blame the east in the bust phases, usually.

But they do experiment politically, and that has to be an inspiration when you contemplate the constipated state of political process in much of the rest of the country. Two recent Alberta political stories have appealed to me.

First the current one: the mass removal of much of the Wildrose Party legislative caucus, including the leader of the opposition, Danielle Smith, to the government party and the government benches.  Colby Cosh of Maclean's describes what's going on. What I like about it, natch, is that we see a group of MPs asserting that they are responsible actors, they have powers, they can act. This is not a merger of two parties negotiated by two leaders and their teams of apparatchiks, later to be ratified in some rigged-out mass party vote, and blindly obeyed by the cattle in caucus. This is a caucus of members strategizing about where they can have the most impact -- for their constituencies, for the province's interests as they see them, for their own political prospering too, no doubt.

The second, equally interesting experiment has been the backbench muscle-flexing that started a bit earlier within the (pre-Wildrose) Conservative party caucus. Apparently the government brought in a foolish bit of authoritarian, anti-gay, and generally impractical legislation, Bill 10. And it was stopped in its tracks, initially by opposition pressure, but then by the refusal of significant parts of the government caucus to stand loyally behind the goof-ups in the premier's office.

Now, it's complicated, because the Wildrose MLAs joining the government are apparently those who attacked it the hardest on Bill 10.  But that's the charm too. It seems plausible that part of the appeal of joining the government caucus right now is the lesson that you don't have to support the government to be in the government caucus.  The ex-Wildrose gang now in the PC ranks may be joining the government benches partly to flex their muscles more effectively when the government does dumb things. When you are on the government benches, you can change the government.

In other words, a little touch of parliamentary democracy may be coming to the Alberta legislature, courtesy of a growing number of members who don't see why, just because they got elected, they should hand over their brains and their influence to the hacks in the leader's office.

Meanwhile in Japan: there was an recent, very fast, very suddenly-called general election. The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, won a majority.  This was odd, in the Canadian perspective, (if anyone here ever paid attention to how parliaments work outside Canada) because Abe already held a majority. Indeed, he leads the LDP, which has governed Japan most of the time since the Second World War.

Abe called the election, not to fight the opposition, mostly, but to fight well-entrenched dissidents in his own party. In Japan the LDP is mostly always in power, like the Cons in Alberta, but Abe faced so much opposition from within his own Finance department and its supporters in his caucus that he could not implement the economic reforms he is convinced Japan needs desperately. The general election was held to strengthen his hand against the rivals in his own party. It seems to have worked.

Imagine Stephen Harper calling an election in an effort to prevent, I don't know, Tony Clement, from keep doing whatever Tony Clement was doing. Okay, don't, it's impossible. But you would know that cabinet ministers and MPs were NOT just a gang of cheerleaders for the boss.

Alberta may be becoming different. The Alberta Conservatives are going to win, anyway, maybe forever, so the best place for dissident ideas to position themselves... is inside the government caucus, where dissidents, it now seems, can actually accomplish things.

Here's what central Canada thinks of the Wildrose move. Yup, politicians failing to kiss ass to the party structures and the party bosses cannot be tolerated, writes Tim Harper in the Toronto Star.

Do you know that barbed line in the poem by Sylvia Plath: "Every woman loves a fascist." In Canada it seems to be every journalist and commentator who does. The only thing we hate more than the democratic deficit and the friendly dictator is anyone trying to do anything about it. But I'd say if Alberta starts to break out of that ice age, good on 'em.

Maybe the inevitable outburst of parliamentary affirmation in Ottawa won't come from Michael Chong's Reform Bill, but on the wildrose-scented breeze coming from Alberta. MPs don't actually need a Reform Bill to authorize them to act.

[slightly revised December 18]
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