Political rhetoric took a hard right turn in the 1980s in Canada, the United States, the UK and other Anglo-American democracies. Along with calls for spending cuts, reduced taxes, and smaller government, politicians on the right began to point fingers at “special interest groups” that were seen to be exerting undue influence on the political process and demanding excessive amounts of government funding. In Canada, by the 1990s, concerns over rising government deficits led to the labelling of organized labour, environmentalists, ethnic minorities, First Nations, welfare recipients and women’s groups as special interest groups.

A similar discourse emerged in Alberta during the 1993 provincial election. Fuelled by both the Ralph Klein Tories and the opposition Liberals, deficits and the accumulating debt dominated the election debates. Media pundits joked that they couldn’t keep straight which leader promised “savage cuts” and which promised “brutal cuts” in the crusade to save “taxpayers’ dollars.” What was clear, however, was that the demands of special interest groups were seen as severely compromising the province’s future. In contrast, “stakeholder” groups and “average Albertans” (or Canadians) were portrayed as supportive of the drastic deficit-busting political agenda of the Conservative government.

* * *

In 1971, Alberta’s Conservative party under Peter Lougheed defeated the Social Credit party that had been in power for thirty-six years. Lougheed’s victory came at a fortuitous time. Two years later, the OPEC crisis dramatically raised oil prices. Alberta, blessed with an abundance of oil and natural gas, was transformed over night. For the next decade, the economy and state expanded together.

The 1980s saw Alberta hit by a series of recessions, however, as world oil prices fluctuated wildly. The government propped up some failing industries and, in an effort to diversify the petrol-based economy, invested heavily in several other ventures. Diversification occurred, but the late 1980s saw several prominent businesses go bankrupt. The Alberta government was often left holding the bag.

In the midst of another recession in the early 1990s, public support for the Conservatives dived. The province was running ongoing deficits and accruing a growing debt. The government, led by Don Getty who had succeeded Lougheed in 1985, was coming to be seen as fiscally incompetent. The Conservatives seemed certain to go down to defeat to the Alberta Liberal party whenever an election would be held.

In the fall of 1992, however, Getty resigned and was replaced as party leader and Premier by Ralph Klein. Klein — a former television reporter and later mayor of Calgary — quickly and effectively tapped into Alberta’s populist past. He promised better management of the province’s resources, to get government out of business, and to deal with the accumulated debt. Klein’s Conservatives went to the polls a few months later and came away with a majority victory, a feat repeated in 1997, 2001 and 2004. Thus began what commentators quickly referred to as “the Klein revolution.”

The need to tackle the province’s deficit and debt was the cornerstone of government policies thereafter. The early 1990s was a time of ascendancy for neo-liberal policies everywhere, but the Klein government took special pleasure in seeing itself at the cutting edge of privatization, deregulation, and government downsizing. While much of the Klein government’s rhetoric focused on equal sacrifices for the common good, the reality was different. Klein took on nurses, teachers, advocates for the poor, and public sector unions, but received loud “paeans of praise from business and the conservative media.”

The Klein revolution marked a turning point in Alberta history. Populist mobilization in Alberta had a long history of focusing upon external enemies such as banks, railroads, or the federal government. Now, for the first time, the Alberta government mobilized support by focusing on social groups within the province that, it argued, had caused the fiscal crisis. Bad loans and the vagaries of world oil markets were forgotten. Attention shifted instead to the “special interests.”

The Klein government’s definition of “special interests” did not arise overnight, however. Alberta’s political culture had long fostered ideas congruent with rugged individualism, smaller government, and support for markets. By the early 1990s, public choice theory, with its emphasis upon “special interests,” had a considerable intellectual following in many industrialized countries. The Klein government formally imported these ideas by bringing to Alberta policy makers and consultants from outside whose advice in the face of opposition from “special interests” was to “not blink.”

Within Alberta, and Canada as a whole, “special interest” discourse had already been given a boost with the founding of the Reform party in 1987. From the beginning, the party’s strength was located primarily in Alberta and British Columbia. Under Preston Manning’s leadership, Reform argued for smaller government, increased reliance on markets, and a return to individual responsibility. Manning and his supporters popularized the term “special interest groups” and the idea of illegitimate influence the term implied. In his 1992 book, The New Canada, Manning wrote (p. 320):

    Political, economic, and cultural minorities have also organized “special interest groups” to represent them and help them participate in the political process.

    Although Canadians need constitutional, institutional, and political safeguards against the tyranny of the majority, Reformers believe that safeguards are also needed to protect Canadians against “the tyranny of the minorities.”

    As special interest groups are given more status, privileges, and public funding, they use their bargaining power to exact concessions from governments that are both economically inefficient and politically undemocratic.

Manning went on to list business lobby groups, along with linguistic and cultural minorities, as examples of special interest groups. In practice, however, Reform’s policies (and those of its successor, the Alliance party) were staunchly conservative and pro-business. In short, when the Klein government was elected in 1993, there already existed within Alberta’s political culture, and within Canadian political discourse, a fertile ground within which to nurture a specific interpretation of the current fiscal crisis and to label certain groups as its cause. In turn, the Klein government’s success in tackling the debt and facing down public servants, private sector unions, nurses, teachers, academics, and the poor later fuelled the Harris government’s “common sense” revolution in Ontario.

Measured by subsequent electoral results, it is clear the Klein government received considerable support from Albertans for its policies, including “standing up to” certain organized groups within Alberta. Since 1994, however, the Alberta government has rung up a constant stream of surpluses, running a small deficit only in 2002. These surpluses (billions of dollars every year), have occurred even while the province reduced its overall revenues through the introduction (in 2001) of a flat rate personal tax and through a series of reductions in corporate taxes and oil and gas royalties. As a result, Alberta’s accumulated debt, which was $22.7 billion in 1994-95, has now been all but eliminated.

It is in this context of transformed economic circumstances that public shifts in the notion of special interests must be understood. Populism’s appeal is a two-edged sword, and “special interests” is a term that is decidedly populist. The elimination of the deficit and the debt has removed a core reason for labelling and punishing special interests groups.

Thus, as we noted at the outset, concerns about undue influence of labour unions, environmentalists, ethnic groups and women’s groups have also abated. Having committed to a strategy of retrenchment and the targeting of special interests, the current Conservative government seems at a loss to formulate a new political discourse with which to construct a politically compelling vision of the future of the province. The theme-less election campaign of 2004 made this abundantly clear.

What is equally interesting, however, is the continued high level of public concern, across the province and across party lines, about the undue influence of big business on government, despite the absence of this theme in the media and in contemporary public rhetoric. The mutability of the term “special interests” can only be understood in the broader context of political discourse and its role in political struggle.

Discourse and political power

Recent decades have seen social theory take what is sometimes referred to as the “linguistic turn.” Summarizing the nuances of this turn is not our goal, if in fact this task is possible. In essence, structural theorists such as Roland Barthes broke with the idea of language as mere nomenclature to posit a more radical notion of language as a system of meanings.

They based their arguments on three points. First, language has both a synchronic structure (a linear history) and a diachronic structure (composed of a series of embedded oppositions). Second, words (or “signs”) themselves are composed of both a sound (“signifier”) and concept (“signified”). And third, signs are themselves highly malleable and can only be understood within a larger system of signification.

Thus, structuralists used language against itself to argue it was impossible to apprehend objective reality as the words used in its description are inherently subjective and contextually produced. Later deconstructionist theorists took these arguments even further in the direction of linguistic relativity, emphasizing the role of language in constituting human subjectivity. For example, Jacques Derrida, the best known of the deconstructionists, argued that signs and their meanings (which are never perfect) are composed of what he termed “difference”; not merely differences, but absences and exclusions, even of the linguistic element from itself.

Yet, if sometimes obscurely, the work of Derrida and others has also pointed to the inherently political nature of language; or, rather, the concept of discourse as both emergent from, and a means to, power.

* * *

These arguments are useful in de-constructing the term “special interests.” As already noted, the term draws some of its authority from an historical association with populism. New Right populism’s depiction of “special interests” builds upon a traditional opposition, that of “big interests,” but substitutes “special interests” as the power bloc opposed to “the people.” Likewise, Alberta’s historically constructed political culture provided the seedbed for the re-emergence in the 1990s of the language of populist politics.

In the neo-liberal discourse of the 1990s, the term was used to describe (and define) self-serving and illegitimate groups in direct opposition to “the common interest” or the “public interest.” Furthermore, because of their parasitic association with governments, “special interests” also stood in contraposition to “the market” — the “neutral” and “fair” arbiter of distributive justice. “Special interests,” this suggests, want “special privileges,” which “regular folk” are not able to obtain.

Our discussion of “special interests” discourse in Alberta shows that, despite the efforts of politicians and the media, the specific content of the term has remained highly malleable.

Attempts to define environmentalists, unions, women’s groups, and ethnic minorities as “special interests” have not been as successful in Alberta as have been labelling efforts directed at Aboriginal groups. In addition, while the political domination of the Conservatives has continued, the fact the governing party has not hung the label “special interests” on big business has not changed the public’s perception that this group exerts too much influence on the provincial government.

Even in the earliest days of the fiscal crisis” that gave birth to the Klein revolution, big business was the “special interest group” of greatest concern to Albertans. With the elimination of the deficit, and now the provincial debt, big business remains in the number one position on the public’s “too much influence on the government” list.