As Calgary MLA Karen McPherson left the Alberta NDP caucus to sit as an independent in the legislature earlier this month, she lamented what she referred to as the “growing polarization” in Alberta politics.
“We are missing the middle where we have more in common with each other than we are different. Albertans need political choices that inspire them, not scare them,” says McPherson in a statement she posted on Facebook to announce her departure.
The implication of her use of the word polarization, of course, is that the Alberta NDP government is now as far on the left as the UCP opposition is on the right, and that there is a huge gap in the pragmatic non-scary middle of the political spectrum.
This same sentiment was echoed in much of the Alberta municipal election coverage over the course of the last month, in particular with relation to the race for Calgary mayor between incumbent Naheed Nenshi and challenger Bill Smith. Pundits and commentators alike framed the supposed tight race as a contest between a leftist and a right-winger. Likewise, the morning after the election, numerous editorials and blog posts referenced the triumph of Alberta’s left-wing big city mayors over the UCP vision espoused by candidates like Bill Smith. Even UCP leadership candidate Doug Schweitzer framed the Calgary election in those terms, lamenting that “the left wing kicked our butt. NDP organizers were active and young people showed up in droves.”
The problem with this kind of framing is that it just doesn’t ring true. Neither Nenshi nor Iveson ran on platforms that could objectively be described as left-wing, nor has either of them done anything particularly radical while in power. Yes, both are on the younger side and socially liberal and good on social media, but politically they are both somewhere between the centre and the centre-right.
Iveson, for example, voted in favour handing the city’s drainage assets over to Epcor and supported proceeding with a public-private partnership for the valley line LRT project. Nenshi has a master’s degree from Harvard and focused much of his pre-politics work on promoting “corporate citizenship” and corporate social responsibility. Hardly radical left track records and credentials.
As for the provincial NDP, it is likely enough to point out that this is the party that recently promoted to cabinet a former Conservative cabinet minister and recent candidate for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party. It is a government that has refused to cut spending in public services while working to restrict spending growth to less than population growth and inflation. They introduced a carbon levy and a climate leadership plan while continuing to cheerlead for pipelines and oil sands expansion. They brought Alberta’s labour legislation up to the level of the other provinces while refusing to go as far as some provincial unions wanted them to. And they introduced progressive taxation and increased minimum wage while cutting small business taxes and working hard in bargaining with public sector unions to keep pay raises at zero.
If ever there was a textbook example of a governing party seeking to build a pragmatic big tent right smack in the political centre, Alberta’s NDP is it. In her quest for a non-scary middle Ms. McPherson will find an Alberta Party that opposes minimum wage increases and supports further cuts to personal and business taxes, and former PC MLAs Rick Fraser and Richard Starke.
As McPherson will soon discover, the problem in Alberta is not that the pragmatic political middle is missing, but rather the degree to which 40 years of far right spin and advocacy from the media and groups like the Fraser Institute and the Taxpayers Federation has fundamentally altered our political paradigm in Alberta.
Gone are the days of the ’70s and ’80s when our political spectrum consisted of Progressive Conservatives on the centre-right, Liberals in the mushy middle, and New Democrats on the centre-left. What we have in Alberta today is a far-right wing, a right-wing, and a centre-wing. The far-right set out 40 years ago to begin moving our political spectrum to the right in order to make their ideas seem less scary and radical. They have succeeded, and it continues to serve their policy and electoral ambitions whenever someone labels the likes of Nenshi, Iveson, and the provincial government as being left-wing.
The bottom line is that there is no missing political centre in Alberta politics, nor is there growing polarization between left and right. The centre is alive and well and holding power municipally across the province and provincially. What is missing in Alberta today is a political voice pushing ideas that are as far left of centre as the UCP is right of centre. It is unfortunate that, in the absence of that voice, Karen McPherson may never realize that her decision to leave the government caucus in search of some mythical middle will actually do more to increase political polarization and the strengthen the right than it will to strengthen the pragmatic centre that she just walked away from.