Unity pact breathes life into politics: Liberals and NDP talk about not competing for ridings, but will it be enough to win?

Two months after their brutal pounding in the last provincial election, Alberta Liberals and New Democrats are looking ahead to the next election -- one they might fight together.

In an unprecedented move sparked by a proposal from the Alberta Federation of Labour, both the Liberals and NDP are considering joining forces in a "co-operative pact" to get more opposition MLAs elected -- and perhaps even form a government.

It looks like a bit of a longshot at this point -- with just 11 opposition members in the assembly -- but the two parties are desperate for a way to revitalize their sagging spirits and boost their electoral chances.

Gil McGowan, president of the AFL, drew up a five-page plan immediately after the March 3 election outlining how and why the centre-left parties could more effectively take on the Conservatives.

"We are proposing an agreement that would stop centre-left parties from running candidates against each other because vote splitting is keeping the Conservatives in power," says the AFL proposal that has three major components --

- 1) The Liberals, NDP and Greens would "divvy up" all Alberta ridings and agree not to run candidates against each other.

- 2) The parties would maintain their autonomy and run their own election campaigns but would agree on a list of "core priorities to act upon if they are able to form a government after the next election."

- 3) If they form government, the parties would look at major electoral reform, possibly adopting a system of proportional representation for future elections where political parties would receive a percentage of seats based on their percentage of votes.

Thus, with some sort of electoral balance injected into Alberta politics, the co-operative pact would be dissolved after having served its purpose.

"I'll be blunt, it's deliberately provocative because after the election in March it became clear to me that we need to do more than the usual post-election navel gazing," said McGowan. "We have to start thinking about new approaches because if nothing changes we're looking at another 40 years of one-party rule."

Both NDP leader Brian Mason and Liberal Leader Kevin Taft say the idea -- that stops short of advocating a merger -- is worth exploring.

"Everything's on the table at least for the Alberta Liberals," said Taft.

"Everything from the name of the party, the leadership of the party, policies, the structure of the party, and the possibility of reaching out to supporters in other parties, all of that is on the table right now. There's a lot of conversations going on."

Mason doesn't sound as enthusiastic as Taft, perhaps because he's afraid the NDP could end up being swallowed, deliberately or inadvertently, by the Liberals.

"I have my own views," said Mason, "but I think at this stage what I want to do is encourage party members to have that discussion and we need to work through this as a party to come up with an idea of where we want to go as a party."

Those discussions include a motion to be debated at the NDP annual convention in June asking the party to "investigate a variety of options for political cooperation with the Alberta Liberals and/or the Albertan Greens."

Interestingly, McGowan is calling his idea the United Alternative, the same name given to the successful unite-the-right movement in federal politics where the Reform and Conservatives joined forces to take on the Liberals. With the Liberals and NDP coming together, maybe we should call it "heft the left" or perhaps "mentor the centre."

There will be those, particularly die hard NDPers, who will call it the unholy alliance and there will be Liberals who would rather stay home or vote Conservative than vote for an NDP candidate.

McGowan is certainly aware of the furor his idea will unleash.

"From the right of the political spectrum we will be accused of trying to hijack the political process," says McGowan. "And from the left we will be vilified for 'selling out' and abandoning core principles. Harsh words will be spoken and more than a few relationships and friendships will be broken. But it still needs to be done."

Just how effective or successful would a centre-left United Alternative be? If you took the results from the last provincial election and combined the Liberal and NDP vote you might see a difference in a dozen seats. That would only bring a combined Liberal-NDP opposition to 23 seats, still far short of the 42 needed to form government.

McGowan argues in his proposal that a "co-operative pact" would actually boost voter turn out. "There's a strong argument to be made that if Albertans had seen a real, viable alternative to the Tories, more of them would have voted -- and voted disproportionately for that alternative."

Maybe. Or perhaps the reason only 41 per cent of voters turned out in March was because most people support the Conservatives.

If nothing else, McGowan's proposal does manage to spark some life into Alberta politics -- and perhaps gives the losers in the last 11 elections a glimmer of hope they won't be losers again in the next.

Edmonton Journal, Tues May 6 2008
Byline: Graham Thomson

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