With new governments in Alberta and Ottawa, Parkland Institute asks: What's left?

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Not many universities in the world can claim a full-blown left-wing think-tank. To its credit (and continued surprise for some, including its senior officers), the University of Alberta houses the Parkland Institute, a leading source of Canadian political economy research, and left animation of political life in Alberta and Canada.

In 1995 a far-sighted dean at the U of A Faculty of Arts, Patricia Clement, granted sociologists Gordon Laxer and Trevor Harrison modest start-up money and institute status. Today, Parkland is community-funded, and a roaring success. (Disclosure: I am a U of A grad and a supporter).

A research study by Queen's Law Professor Kathleen Leahy showing the gender inequities of the Alberta "detaxation" system is an outstanding example of the way Parkland works. In its original research, it speaks loud and clear to Alberta public opinion (Leahy showed what has gone wrong with the so-called Alberta advantage in low taxes), and its conclusions matter when parties set their policies.

Parkland studies showed how Alberta revenues from petroleum production remained low even after the Stelmach Progressive Conservative government modified the Alberta oil and gas royalties regime. Speaking truth to power with an article entitled "It's Time for Alberta To Stop Giving Away its Oil," Parkland caused major unhappiness in Big Oil boardrooms.

Senior petroleum executives were dismayed that Parkland used its University of Alberta credentials to poke around in the oil patch, and produce damning research. Coincidentally or not, the university commissioned an external review of its institute; unsurprisingly Parkland received top ratings from evaluators drawn from Harvard, Oxford and elsewhere for its high-quality work, community engagement and pertinence to public policy.  

With an NDP government in office since May, after 40 years of PC rule preceded by 30 years of Social Credit government, Parkland issued a wide challenge. For its 19th annual conference this past weekend, Parkland asked participants: "What's Left? Alberta and the Future of Canada." 

Opening the conference Friday night, Alex Himelfarb, former top Ottawa public servant, called on progressives to stop celebrating and start organizing. For the Alberta government to implement a progressive agenda, pressure from the left was an imperative.

Himelfarb explained that the role of government was to call business to account, and the role of civil society was to call government to account. Following the victory of the Trudeau Liberals, Himelfarb asked the some 600 attendees, "Are we going to spend the next two years celebrating the return of the long-form census?"

The conference heard in-depth presentations on Alberta labour, on participatory democracy, climate change, health care, taxation, social policy and beating poverty. Attendees included newly elected Alberta NDP MLAs. 

CBC National Insider panellist Kathleen Monk laid out the tasks facing the Canadian left following the defeat of the Harper government. Her message: partisan and social movement progressives worked together to Stop Harper -- now further collaboration is required.

The silos on the social movement left need to come down permanently, and the progressive infrastructure strengthened.

Monk was a player in the Engage Canada campaign mounted by Liberal and NDP supporters to "disqualify" Harper as a leader of Canada. It ran clever television ads in June, building up to the Canada Day health-care ad where viewers saw the Canadian maple leaf on the flag have a heart attack on screen as the message "Not There For You" appeared.

Maclean's political editor Paul "Inkless" Wells reported Stephen Harper made his early election call (August 2 for the October 19 voting date) to get "third-party" Engage Canada ads off the air.

Monk qualified that Harper call as a "strategic blunder." The long campaign gave Harper opponents the time they needed to build an offensive.

Like many other staunch NDP members, Monk continues to grieve the Orange Crush, the disappointing 2015 NDP campaign. She suggested that campaign insiders blamed outside forces beyond their control for the defeat, like the niqab issue for instance, while outsiders blamed insiders.

Drawing on findings from various Social Democratic parties meeting in Australia, Monk evoked a common short-coming experienced around the world by progressive parties: an inability to connect to voters through the airwaves at election time.

The partisan political left has been coming up short in the fabled air game that has been at the centre of modern politics since Kennedy defeated Nixon in the 1960 U.S. presidential campaign.

The 2015 federal NDP radio and TV advertising did not have the power of stories that for Monk "speak to the heart and stay with you." NDP ads pale next to the power of Engage Canada work, for example.

The historic high point for the federal party was its 2011 French-language TV ads featuring Jack Layton. In 2015 the magic did not reappear on air in either language.

Monk pointed out that it was Harper who had united partisan and movement progressives. What happens now that he is gone?

On social policy there have been some major successes in beating back the conservative agenda, same-sex marriage, abortion rights, among others, but on economic issues there is a long way to go. 

What's left? A major task. The partisan and movement left need to address jointly economic issues of wealth creation and re-distribution, taxation and trade, profits and wages, banking and investment, globalization and corporate economic domination, and come up with a progressive economic program worth fighting for together.

Alberta will be a test ground for working together with respect. There is no point in the NDP government validating corporate thinking by adopting it. And, as Kathleen Monk concluded, there is no point in the movement left validating corporate thinking by questioning the integrity of the Notley NDP government every time it falls short of expectations.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Mike Alexander/flickr

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