But once in a while the odd thing happens …Once in a while the moon turns blue.
—W. H. Auden
Shock, delight, disbelief, euphoria, anticipation – all of these reactions were felt throughout the ranks of Alberta’s progressive organizations on the night of the remarkable May 5 election in our province. From unions to non-profits, from professional associations to anti-poverty activists and seniors’ advocacy groups, the positive and hopeful feelings are everywhere. Instead of just imagining what it might be like someday if we were to somehow elect a government that was committed to progressive causes rather than acting as agents of the wealthy and powerful – suddenly here it is, with no warning, actually in place, and with a majority. It is going to take some time for Albertans (and the rest of Canada) to get used to this seismic shift in our political world. Progressive individuals and groups are no doubt still getting used to the idea that not only will their new government not be trying to undermine public services and create opportunities for yet more privatization, but will actually be committed to stronger public services, more equitable taxation, and democratic reform. It is a lot to take in, but it probably won’t be that long until we move from the surprise of hopes fulfilled to expectations for action. And there are good reasons for high expectations. Premier Notley is clearly a gifted, committed, careful, once-in-a-generation leader, and her party’s election platform was positive, progressive, well thought out, and moderate. With only four incumbent MLA’s, the NDP caucus is obviously inexperienced in the ways of the legislature, allowing the right wing to take aim. As an example, note the contempt expressed by Morris W. Dorosh in Agriweek:"It is no disgrace to be a teacher, or a social worker, or a laborer, or a student. But these are not the occupations from which capable political leaders generally emerge. This is what the new NDP premier of Alberta will have to make a cabinet out of: nine teachers, seven nurses or medical assistants, five social workers, four full- or part-time union bosses, two NDP party apparatchiks, two students, two minor civil servants, an electrician, a bus driver, a yoga teacher, a shipper-receiver and at least one unemployed. And one lawyer, a labour lawyer, the premier."Can’t you just feel his disdain for such “ordinary” people? But then, we’ve heard it before, many times. It’s part of the reason for the election results. Of course, the reaction of many of us is just the opposite: Finally, after all these years of Tory legislatures packed with far too many apologists for the elites, market fundamentalists, ‘one-per-cent’ enablers, privatizers, union busters, corporate shills, de-regulators, and energy company promoters – finally a legislature that reflects the faces and interests of average Albertans. It’s about time. There is a lot of legitimate optimism, even recognizing the serious current financial problems of the provincial government (brought on as much by misguided government financial policies as by global economic forces.) After all, some important changes won’t come with large price tags. For example, we can expect badly-needed campaign and party finance reforms, including banning corporate and union contributions, much lower contribution limits, effective spending limits and strong disclosure and reporting requirements. This can be easily implemented with little cost and will have a profound impact in terms of leveling the playing field of politics. Other changes will require funding – better child care and early learning, more public long-term care beds for seniors, increased minimum wage, restoring cuts and making improvements to education and health care – but that’s what tax reform is for, and there are also funds to be “liberated” from unnecessary subsidies to highly profitable corporations, particularly in carbon capture and storage projects. Above all, it is going to make an enormous difference to have a government that is fundamentally committed to systematically finding ways to bring about a more equitable, fair and just Alberta for all. But there are definite cautions for progressive individuals and organizations as we approach the opportunities of the next four years. We should start by recognizing that this is not a “labour” government, nor is it “our” government as progressives. As the new Premier has rightly pointed out, her government is elected to govern in the interests of all Albertans. That does not mean that they should try to “be all things to all people,” but rather that they need to govern in the public interest, broadly and inclusively defined. It also means that progressive civil society organizations – unions, associations, not-for-profits and advocacy groups – must take nothing for granted, and must renew their commitment to advocating vigorously for the policies they believe in. In a speech to Public Interest Alberta’s Annual Advocacy Conference on April 10, 2015 (fortuitously in the middle of the provincial election campaign) Norwegian trade union leader Asbjorn Wahl warned of the pitfalls that too often face progressive groups when they are successful in helping to elect sympathetic governments. He described the case of Norway, where progressive groups became complacent and cut back on lobbying and advocacy, thinking that the battle had been won. The result was that the government did not feel “pushed,” they were lobbied effectively by wealthy and corporate groups, they moderated their policies, and eventually they were defeated and replaced by a regressive right wing government which rolled back many of the gains that had been achieved. Wahl stressed the need to support progressive governments when we are fortunate to have them in power, but also to keep up the pressure – to articulate clear policies, to meet often with representatives, to be active at the constituency and provincial levels, to systematically and effectively advocate, and to take nothing for granted. It is good advice, and we should heed it. Our advocacy methods will need to be adapted to the changed and more positive context – probably fewer rallies, and a lot more engagement of our members in meetings with representatives, committees and caucus groups. And of course it will be a dramatic change to be meeting with representatives who share many of our values, and who actually welcome and take into account our input instead of simply tolerating or dismissing it. Above all, we need to continue to do the hard work of democracy in smart and effective ways, but this time in a much more promising context, and with the potential for results that will help to transform this province in ways that will benefit all Albertans. Let’s get back to work.