Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

The Stephen Harper model for Wildrose power: Promise free votes and deliver the Borg Hive

| December 19, 2012

Alberta's Wildrose Party blossomed at the edges of the same muddy spring whence sprang the federal Reform Party of Preston Manning and Stephen Harper.

As is well known, the Reform Party went on to engineer the hostile takeover in 2003 of the old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, after renaming but not successfully re-branding itself as the Canadian Alliance.

By this mechanism the Reform Party evolved over a short time from a populist Prairie uprising into the most autocratic and secretive government in Canadian history, including wartime governments, under Harper's mailed fist.

As we watch the iron discipline exerted on Harper's obedient Conservative caucus this month in Ottawa -- passing massive "omnibus" budget bills and even whipping through unconstitutional and amateurish anti-union private member's bill with barely a whimper of protest -- it behooves us here in Alberta to cast our minds back to the promises the Reform Party made at its beginning.

Because, as we are now invited to forget, the Reform Party's platform in 1997 promised us high on its list of reforms that there would be more free votes in Parliament. This, said the party's platform that year, would have the effect of "reducing the power of party discipline over individual MPs and senators while strengthening the powers available to citizens."

This and many other pledges -- fiscal responsibility, a more civil political discourse, the promise of a competent and businesslike government -- all turned out to be fantasy or outright lies.

It is said here the free-votes promise -- which was not just broken, but turned on its head -- is a particularly useful litmus test for the likely future performance of a Wildrose Government, infested as that party is with the same cynical Reform Party operatives that plotted the coup that seized the national PC Party in 2003 and has held it ever since.

The Wildrose Party made the same promise, in almost exactly the same words, in the run-up to the 2012 Alberta election -- and is about as likely to keep it.

According to a Globe and Mail story published on April 9, two weeks before the election that saw PC Premier Alison Redford receive the mandate she had sought, the Wildrose Party was promising a government it led would permit free votes on any bill.

The Legislature, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said in a news release, would become "a place where Albertans' voices are heard."

This is not likely, given the way our Parliamentary system must operate -- unless the Wildrose Party proposes to ignore the Canadian constitution. But it may well prove to be an effective if meaningless promise to cynically manipulate Albertans who willfully refuse to understand the operations of our system of government -- of whom there are many.

As the Reform Party's Task Force on Democratic Populism promised back in 1996, "when a Reform MP speaks and votes in the Parliament of Canada, he or she represents: (1) the principles, policies and platform of the Reform Party of Canada on which the MP was elected; (2) the views and interests of constituents, in particular the consensus of a majority of constituents, if such a consensus can be determined; and (3) the application of the Member's own knowledge, judgment and conscience to the issues at hand. For Reform MPs, where (1), (2), and (3) are in conflict, it is (2) – the consensus of the will of the majority of constituents – which takes precedence.” (Emphasis added.)

Well, we know how that one worked out!

So let me make a not-so-bold prediction, things will turn out precisely the same way if Smith becomes the premier of Alberta.

A Wildrose provincial government would be as autocratic, dictatorial and tightly regimented as Harper's so-called Conservative government has turned out to be.

We have already had a hint of this in the promise by former Harper confidante and strategist turned Wildrose campaign manager Tom Flanagan to tightly control the messages emanating from Wildrose candidates in the lead-up to the next Alberta provincial election in 2016, or whenever it takes place.

Said Flanagan last month at the Wildrose annual general meeting in Edmonton: "The lesson for the future -- message discipline. You've got to stick with the script.” Count on it, given Wildrose's experience in 2012 with bozo eruptions by candidates, that this will be ruthlessly enforced.

Of course, in the Reform/Conservative/Wildrose mindset, there really is no contradiction between tough party discipline and "free votes." As Ted White, the former Western separatist and chair of the Reform Party's 1996 task force explained to a questioner who wondered why the party would bother developing policies if they were to be guided entirely by the opinions of constituents, there was nothing to worry about: "The people's views on all contentious issues would coincide with those of the party rank and file."

If this sounds suspiciously like the principles of author George Orwell's Ingsoc understood through the application of Doublethink, there is probably a sound reason for that. Or maybe the Borg Hive would be the more appropriate metaphor for the 21st Century.

Regardless, if the Wildrose comes to power in Alberta, as is already the case in Parliament, reality will be what the Party says it is.

Continuing on the same theme, White is now a Fraser Institute functionary.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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