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Alberta still needs a 'city party' -- a role the NDP could fill

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Doug Griffiths

Here it is 2013, the Earth is about to become an urban planet, and the Progressive Conservative Government of Alberta and the Opposition Wildrose Party are locked in a titanic battle to win the hearts and minds of conservative rural voters.

What's wrong with this picture?

City folks? As far as both parties are concerned, we're just effete, latte-swilling, soft-handed condo dwellers who get along by mooching off the hard work of our horny-handed rural betters.

Worse, we're dangerously inclined to go out and vote for politicians like Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who -- quelle horreur! -- has squishy liberal values. The same could be said of Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel, although I'll bet he thinks of himself as a small-c conservative.

A week ago, Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths -- who would be as comfortably at home in one of our two rural right-wing parties as the other -- spoke for both parties when he accused the millions of Alberta city dwellers of spending all their time thinking up ways to purloin the wealth of the rural Albertans who toiled so hard to store all that currently undervalued oil and gas beneath their North 40.

"You could be asked by rural Albertans why 17 per cent of the population that lives in rural Alberta that has all the oil and gas revenue, does all the work, all the farms, all the agriculture and everything associated with it goes to support urban Albertans, who sit in high-rise condos and don't necessarily contribute to the grassroots of this economy," Griffiths told the Legislature.

Later, he said that wasn't what he thought, it was just the opinion of a couple of friends of his. But you get his general drift. Even having a big-city premier never seems to make much difference.

Alberta today is dominated by low-population rural ridings whose residents are going to vote for their beloved tax-and-spend conservatives, in one guise or another, as long as sufficient loot from city taxpayers and hydrocarbons keeps flowing their direction.

And it's pretty clear that out there amid the barley fields and pump-jacks of rural Alberta, Griffiths' remarkable slander of Alberta's beleaguered city folks isn't going to cost him many votes.

Meanwhile, here in the cities, we are undergoing yet another brutal course of the austerity treatment regularly prescribed by these two hayseed parties while we try to navigate our way through the potholed streets of the former Richest Places on Earth.

And what are our two supposedly progressive political parties, the NDP and the Alberta Liberals, doing about this? Oh, the'll take a gentle poke or two at Griffiths for his mean-spirited ignorance, but neither of them seem to be able to get out of the rut of imagining they can somehow, someday win a majority in this rural-dominated, rural-favouring province. 

Fat chance! 

I've said for years that this is a lost opportunity for the Alberta NDP in particular, which could recast itself as the party of Alberta's cities and thereby play a genuinely influential role in shaping policy in this province in a way that can benefit all its citizens.

It's a continuing tragedy that our four Alberta New Democrats -- every one in an Edmonton area city seat -- sacrifice the ability to build the party and have meaningful influence in order to play homage to the pipedream that some day, when the planets are all magically in alignment, enough old CCF voters are going to crawl out of the rural woodpile to finally swing things the way that God and Tommy Douglas intended.

So let's say it one more time, with vigour, that the Alberta NDP should recast itself as the City Party of Alberta and speak up plainly and forcefully Alberta's urban voters and demand that we and our tax contributions be treated with a little respect.

What kind of issues would work for the NDP in this context? Here are five, dragged back from the crypt one more hopeless time:

Public Transit and Public Works. Everyone knows how Alberta tax dollars flow to rural areas for irrigation projects, first-class highways, health facilities, Cadillac schools and a host of other costly benefits. Meanwhile, we need decent, efficient, safe, fast public transit in our cities, and roads we can drive on in a family car. But while transit helps the environment and saves a bundle down the line, it costs a fortune up front. The NDP should fight for it, not just half-heartedly pay it lip service. And while we're at it, how about a little help filling those potholes?

Social Services. When Tories cut social services, as they're doing once again, who pays? Urban taxpayers, that's who! We pay more for policing, health care, basic services required just to keep our fellow humans from freezing to death. We pay in crime, run-down neighbourhoods, foregone business opportunities and illness, physical and mental. Plus ever-higher municipal taxes, of course. Rural-based, rural-focused parties don't really give a hoot. 

Child Care. Can we afford childcare at a time like this? We can’t afford not to have it at a time like this! This is an urban issue if ever there was one. It's also a prosperity issue -- as a method of stimulating the economy, childcare dollars are worth about five times infrastructure spending. All the other parties will say, "stimulating the economy? What’s that?" But they're the parties that stand for rock-bottom hydrocarbon royalties, carbon storage boondoggles, endless contributions to the upkeep of rural electoral districts, and a flat tax that favours the rich.

Public Health Care. Decent hospitals and enough health professionals are an urban issue. Mental health facilities that work, where they're needed. Public health and emergency treatment facilities belong in every part of our urban communities. So do publicly run seniors' residences. So what are our rural parties doing again? One of them is kicking the crap out of health care and the other is demanding that it kick harder. All in the name of winning rural votes.

Public Education. Investment in public education obviously benefits the province. It pays dividends in terms of quality of life in our communities -- even the ones in the sticks. It eases the impact of unemployment, especially for young people. It helps urban working families. What a concept -- create vast long-term advantages for society by helping young people now! Caps on tuition, adequate funding for institutions, and schools where we need them add up to a terrific urban issue. If we can pay billions for carbon capture and drilling "incentives," surely we can afford to fund our schools and universities. What have we got? Bigger cuts in education than anywhere else!

The NDP could speak to these issues, and it could speak to them in a way that said specifically it supported urban areas and their citizens. The NDP could paint itself as what it is anyway, whether it likes it or not: the only political party in Alberta that looks out for, or cares about, issues and values that matter to city people, rich and poor alike.

The party wouldn't actually need to have to badmouth rural areas. But seeing as the folks out there aren't going to vote NDP anyway, they would hardly need to put a heck of a lot of effort into developing a platform for them either!

Alberta's city taxpayers get screwed. Street crime, sky-high municipal taxes, potholes, poor health facilities, doctor shortages, unplowed winter streets and pathetic public transit are all glaring examples. No Alberta party likely to form a government soon -- least of all the two rural parties that run this place -- will sacrifice rural votes to serve the people who really provide the energy, enterprise and creativity that make this province worth living in.

The NDP can speak for those of us who live in Alberta's cities, and improve its electoral chances too. Or it can wait for someone else to do it. Because -- trust me on this -- one of these days, someone will figure this out!

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

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