Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Serving the Public, Opposing the Government

The Leader of the Opposition is perhaps the most difficult job in Canadian politics. It comes with a great deal of political responsibility but very little actual power. Perhaps when best able to influence government policy, when the government is in minority, there is tremendous pressure not to give an inch to the governing party in efforts to make things difficult. Not to mention in those instances every move is about just building enough support to get to government.

It's a thankless job, but the good ones report to their post and grill the government, propose alternatives, work constructively and manage their parties in a way to remain coherent enough to present a united front on different issues and a government-in-waiting. In fact, the aspect of being the government-in-waiting is often overlooked as the constitutional convention where the Governor General or Lieutenant Generals may call upon the Leader of the Opposition to form government when confidence is lost. This convention ensures stability and continuity. If the new government fails to gain confidence of the house an election is called. Enter Alberta.

In the past few months Jim Prentice (PCAA - Calgary-Foothills) has become leader of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta and Premier of Alberta. He oversaw a resurgence of the flailing party while weathering the attacks of Danielle Smith (PCAA - Highwood) then leader of the Wildrose Party, until December 17th, 2014. On that day Ms. Smith and eight MLAs of the Wildrose Party crossed the floor to join the government. Outside of a time of war I cannot imagine any possible time in Westminster history that a Leader of the Opposition joined the government.

When I heard this story I was conflicted on how I felt. On the one hand our system of government gives parliamentarians a great deal of discretion in determining who they align themselves with and who sits as government. Crossing the floor, changing parties and forming new ones is part of how parliament should work. On the other hand it is easy to see how Smith's move was a craven, crass bid for political power.

However, it was the news today that had me stunned about the state of Alberta's Loyal Opposition. Raj Sherman (ALP - Edmonton-Meadowlark), leader of the Alberta Liberal Party announced his sudden resignation as leader of the Liberal Party and Opposition. According to the story I read in the Edmonton Journal Sherman resigned for personal reasons, and I do not fault a man for leaving public life to deal with personal matters, but the impact must be considered.

Where does that leave Alberta? With an estimated two months until the next provincial Liberals the second and third place parties appear as though they will not have permanent leaders. The New Democrats are also under a new leader, Rachel Notley (ANDP - Edmonton Strathcona). 

The people of Alberta deserve an effective and strong opposition, especially because of the single-party nature of the province's politics. The PCAA has been in power since 1971 and appears poised to be re-elected this spring. Albertans deserve a strongly articulated alternative vision and a their government would be greatly improved if one party was not so closely tied to government. However, I fear that Albertans will not get that option in 2015. The Leader of the Opposition is a key component in our system and it has been far too neglected in Alberta to the detriment of the public life that province. Hopefully politically engaged Albertans can stand up and present multiple perspectives to reflect its dynamic and changing nature.

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