Alberta ripe for a minority government

Let’s give ourselves a gift in the new year and for the first time in Alberta’s history elect a minority government. There’s no question we need a change. The provincial Conservatives have held the reins of power for 36 years — that’s way past the due date for any political party. Too much power for too long breeds arrogance and sloppiness.

What if the Conservatives won the most seats in the upcoming election but the number was so reduced that they didn’t have a majority? What if the number of seats won by Liberals NDs Greens and Alliance together outnumbered those won by the Conservatives? We would have a minority government just like we do in Ottawa and that could be a very good thing for Albertans.

It would force a Conservative government to actually pay attention to opposition MLAs. They would have to negotiate with them compromise on policy and bills if they wanted to remain in government. Opposition MLAs are elected after all — they have been chosen by voters to represent them. They shouldn’t be virtually shut out of the governing process as they are now.

Opposition MLAs would have to consider government legislation on its own merits and not simply oppose it for the sake of opposing. If all MLAs no matter what party they represent are forced to participate negotiate and compromise on important legislation then all elected representatives and by extension the people who elected them would be much more involved in the governing game.

Let’s not forget that in a democracy the people are (theoretically) the government. We elect people to represent us because we believe that we all have a right to participate in our own governance. And if the present government in Ottawa is any example minority governments tend to engage the electorate much more than a majority government.

We would be much more likely to keep an eye on the Alberta legislature because the government could quickly go down to defeat if it doesn’t take the opposition forces into account and work with them or strategize around them. The member you elected doesn’t just sit in opposition and watch the world go by; they actually matter in a minority government.

Minority governments also force cabinet ministers and government backbenchers to be much more articulate about why they want to enact certain legislation. They can’t simply take for granted that a bill will pass because they have the numbers to vote it into law. They must be able to convince opposition members and voters at large that there is a sound rationale for what they want to do and that the consequences have been well thought out.

During the November session of the legislature for example the government pushed through several contentious bills without giving the opposition sufficient time to debate hastily added amendments. Would it have been able to do that if it had been a minority government? Probably not. The government would have had to be much more respectful of the opposition both inside and outside the house.

So what are the chances we will elect a minority government? There are 83 seats in the Alberta legislature. A party needs 42 to form a majority government. Currently the Conservatives hold 60 seats the Liberals 16 The NDs four and the Alliance Party one. There is also one vacancy. Together the opposition holds 21 seats. If they can retain those and add at least another 21 we would have a Conservative minority government.

This is how it could play out. If the current trends hold the Liberals stand to pick up seats in Calgary and Edmonton. They may even win some in the smaller northern cities such as Grande Prairie where many people are fed up with bearing the burden of helter-skelter development. The NDs will likely hold their Edmonton seats and could even pick up one in Calgary. The Alliance Party could nibble at the fringes of the Conservative bedrock in the southern part of the province and pick up a few seats there. In central Alberta the Tory heartland many people have lost faith in the party since the scandal involving the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (EUB) spies. The Green Party is attracting a lot of the discontented and could pull off an upset.

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that Albertans would not once again elect an overwhelming majority of Conservatives. We’ve been a one-party state for a long time. But many Conservatives are tired and frustrated with their party and are just as likely to stay home as get out and vote. Opposition parties on the other hand are fired up and attracting new members and volunteers.

Alberta’s political landscape is fracturing. And that will make for a very interesting election.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary-based journalist who has covered Alberta politics since the Lougheed days.