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Progress Alberta, new progressive advocacy group, will make waves … and not just with opponents

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Duncan Kinney

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Progress Alberta, a new group that describes itself as "a multi-issue, independent, non-profit advocacy organization," kicked off its mission yesterday by announcing that a new poll it had commissioned "shows that Alberta is more progressive than you think."

Indeed, according to the online survey in early December by Abacus Data, 60 per cent of Albertans identify themselves as being on the progressive side of the political spectrum, Progress Alberta said, with the caveat that that this perception doesn't necessarily translate into voting behaviour.

Still, that will surprise a lot of readers just the same who have fallen into the habit of accepting the mainstream media's narrative -- driven by all the Usual Suspects on the right -- about how Albertans view politics in general and the province's eight-month-old New Democratic Party government in particular.

True to what I suspect will become Progress Alberta's form, the left-of-centre advocacy group got an excellent news hit out of these survey results, which also indicated widespread support for such NDP policies as higher income taxes for high earners, the ban on corporate and union political donations, phasing out coal-fired power, and the introduction of a carbon tax (which had 47 per cent of respondents in favour versus 42 per cent opposed).

The poll -- for which pollsters were in the field between Dec. 2 and Dec. 7 -- also suggests that far more Alberta voters have a positive impression of Premier Rachel Notley than either of her principal political opponents. Of the survey's 1,000 respondents, 33 per cent had a positive impression of the premier, compared with 24 per cent who felt the same way about Wildrose Opposition Leader Brian Jean and 16 per cent who had a positive impression of Progressive Conservative interim Leader Ric McIver.

In other words, no matter what you’ve been persuaded to think up to now, it ain't necessarily so that the NDP's in deep trouble or opposed even on these specific issues by a majority of Albertans.

Interestingly, mainstream media picked up this story with almost as much enthusiasm as if it had come from the right-wing likes of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses or the Fraser Institute. Such market-fundamentalist advocacy groups, often purporting to be representatives of this or that segment of society, have been sucking the air out of democratic debate in Canada for three decades. But with groups like Progress Alberta on the scene, they had better get used to the idea that the marketplace of ideas may be on the verge of becoming more of a…marketplace.

It seemed to take the progressive left an awful long time to start implementing some of the approaches to marketing ideas that have worked so well for the corporate-financed right over the past several decades, but it is happening now and it may well change the landscape of political discourse in Canada even more than it was transformed in 2015’s astonishing elections.

The thesis in a nutshell of Progress Alberta’s news release yesterday was that "urbanization, in-migration, and generational change are all shifting the province's political attitudes and behaviour." This has been obvious for a while now to a lot of people who were paying attention -- arguably it was what brought Alison Redford to power and, when she didn't turn out to be exactly as promised, got Notley the same job. Indeed, the surprising part to some of us is that it took increasingly progressive Albertans so long to wake up and do something about the increasingly unprogressive Conservatives.

Still, it takes smart packaging and marketing to get the media to pay attention to such numbers, and that appears to be the strength of Progress Alberta and its youthful executive director, Duncan Kinney, a former Calgary Sun photojournalist and Alberta Venture editor with, obviously, a progressive turn of mind.

But while groups like Progress Alberta have the potential to shake up political discourse in this province, with limited funding sources on the left compared to the corporate right, they may also have a less comfortable effect on progressive advocacy in Alberta.

What will the impact of a high-profile new advocacy group be on, say, Public Interest Alberta, the Friends of Medicare or the Parkland Institute? After all, they will be chasing the same limited pot of funding.

The way Kinney sees it, they’re all great organizations. "We're not seeking to replace them at all but we're of the opinion that the more the merrier. The larger the ecosystem the more biomass it produces."

He also argues that "when it comes to a limited number of resources I think the change in election finance laws really changes how organizations are going to spend their money." And, it's true, a union or, for that matter, a corporation can't just hand $30,000 to the NDP anymore.

Like similar operations elsewhere in the political spectrum that do not have charitable status, Kinney won’t say where PA's funding comes from -- "that's up to the donors, we're going to respect their privacy."

But there is very little doubt that Progress Alberta will be doing more fund raising soon, and that is certain to shake up the cozy world of Alberta's traditional progressive advocacy groups, probably for the better.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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