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Political Reform and the Alberta NDP: Some Machiavellian Speculations

Public discussion of Alberta’s new NDP government has focussed on its economic agenda items, such as the $15/hour minimum wage and the resource royalty review, but Premier Notley will also be looking at some important changes to the political system. Excuse me for being cynical, but in 50 years of studying politics I have seen that governing parties usually make systemic reforms designed to help themselves while hindering opponents. Sometimes they get the calculations wrong, but governments never set out to hurt themselves. So let’s look at this through the lenses of political strategy.

One proposed NDP reform is a reduction in corporate and high-end personal contributions to political parties. The limits are very high in Alberta—$15,000 a year for persons and corporations, and $30,000 in election years. These will come down to something closer to, perhaps even lower than, the federal limit of $1,500, perhaps with complete exclusion of corporate and union donations.

Wildrose will be happy to support a change, for it could cripple the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, who have long thrived on high-end donations while neglecting grassroots fundraising. Now out of power, they may soon be out of money. For the NDP, giving up union donations would be a small price to pay for delivering the financial coup de grâce to the party that governed Alberta for 44 years. In any case, the NDP will still be able to do individual fundraising among the unionized public-sector workers who make up the core of its support, while Wildrose also an effective system of grassroots fundraising.

But what about Wildrose, the NDPs other main opponent? It wouldn’t be very smart to cripple the PCs but do nothing to Wildrose, thus allowing it to grow into an even greater threat in coming years. Here the NDP also has a potential reform strategy, but it is more complicated and riskier than changes to party finance.

Alberta has long been characterized by population imbalance between urban and rural ridings. Calgary and Edmonton have more than half the population of the province but fewer than half the seats in the Legislature, which means that a rural vote is worth more than an urban vote. In the name of equality, the NDP government could try to reduce the differential, thus making life more difficult for Wildrose, which is now a predominantly rural party, having won no Calgary or Edmonton seats in the last election. That Wildrose won more seats than the PCs, in spite of securing a smaller share of the popular vote, was at least partially due to its relative popularity in rural ridings.

The mechanics of change, however, are difficult. Alberta laws do not stipulate the size of electoral districts. It has always been left to the Electoral Boundaries Commission to work this out. By law, a Commission must be appointed to determine new boundaries before the next election (2019 if the fixed-election-date law is followed). Premier Notley gets to appoint two of five members directly, balanced by two members chosen by the opposition leaders, while the Lieutenant Governor appoints the chair (normally a senior judge). If the NDP wants to be sure of getting a result that would hinder Wildrose by decreasing the importance of rural ridings, it will have to pass prior legislation to impose targets upon the Electoral Boundaries Commission. And that would touch off a battle royal in the Legislature, where Wildrose is the Official Opposition.

What will happen? Maybe not much. Attempts to politicize the drawing of electoral boundaries in Alberta have a stormy history of backfiring upon the government; and the NDP, while a mainly urban party, would not have won a majority in 2015 without its rural and small-city seats. Discretion may turn out to be the better part of valour for Premier Notley on this issue. We’ll have to wait to see what happens. “Predictions,” said Yogi Berra, “are always hard, especially about the future.”