Reinvigorated political party tries new tactic: listening
Last month two fringe, centrist political groups, the Alberta Party and Renew Alberta, united under one banner. Still glowing from this union, the reinvigorated Alberta Party has a message for Albertans of all political stripes: We’re ready to sit down and listen.
The coming months will see party volunteers — which now stand at 100 — help organize more than 4,000 kitchen table-style meetings, coined the Big Listen , at homes across the province.
“Albertans have not been listened to for quite some time,” says Edwin Erickson, the Alberta Party’s new leader and a former, two-time Alberta Green Party candidate. Erickson, who left the now-defunct Green Party shortly before it imploded because of infighting over financial records, plans to use the thoughts and opinions heard at these meetings as the bedrock of the party’s policy.
“Our intention is to talk to people 10 at a time in their own homes, hoping that three or four of them will be interested enough that they would go and set up a meeting so we could talk to another 10 and get right down to bare basics and grassroots,” he says.
But do Albertans have anything left to say? Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, cautions that despite the discontent with the existing parties, Albertans are in no mood for yet another consultation project. “Most people here don’t care about politics as long as the money is rolling in, and most are going to leave when they retire,” he says. “This is a place to come and make money, not to stay.”
Erickson has a more optimistic view, and is confident the new party can create enough waves to change the political status quo. “As people begin to reawaken they will start to look at various choices, I’m hoping, and get re-engaged,” he says. “That’s the real problem here; our democracy has gone to sleep here.”
After placing second in the 2004 and 2008 elections in his Drayton-Calmar riding, Erickson felt he’d hit a wall with the Green Party. “The Greens were branded more as an environmental activist group than a political party,” he says. “I believe the party wasn’t too interested in getting elected.”
Erickson and his supporters moved on to form the Alberta Progress Party. In the process they came across the Alberta Party and discovered the two groups had similar goals. Rather than compete for the same piece of the pie, he joined the Alberta Party, becoming its leader in January.
While attending a social media conference in Red Deer last fall, Erickson met members of another political upstart with a moderate-centrist bent: Renew Alberta. “We came to the conclusion that we were trying to create a party that would be capable of forming government quickly,” says Chima Nkemdirim, co-chair of Renew Alberta and a former Liberal party campaigner. “It was a pretty easy decision for us to decide we should both try to do this together.”
The Alberta Party welcomed the Renew crowd into its fold and in February suspended its own policies to undertake the Big Listen experiment. “The big thing was that we really wanted to try to figure out how to engage people in the political process because so many Albertans are disengaged,” says Nkemdirim, a Calgary-based lawyer.
With the Liberals unable to capture the public’s imagination, the NDP having identified itself as an ideological party, and the Green party now defunct, there’s room for someone to create a viable alternative, says Nkemdirim. “There’s no textbook for building political parties so we’re kind of making it up as we go along.”
Along with former Green and Liberal supporters, the new party has attracted several conservatives including former Alberta education minister Dave King and Edmonton business owner and blogger Chris Labossiere.
“Once the Big Listen is over and we’ve put together some policies, we’ll probably have even more prominent people come on board,” says Nkemdirim. “There’s a lot of unhappiness out there right now.
That unhappiness cuts across all political parties, says Ken Chapman, an Edmonton-based political consultant and founder of Reboot Alberta , a citizen-based public policy group. The Tories, Liberals and NDP have lost all connection to the conversation going on in Albertans’ minds, he says. “There’s a mood out there for some significant change again and people are looking for viable alternatives and a chance for a whole new political culture to form here,” he says.
A card-carrying Conservative since the early 1970s, Chapman left the party last December “totally disappointed” with the philosophical direction the Tories were taking. Progressives inside the Tory caucus and cabinet were being ignored, marginalized and intimidated, he says.
Chapman says being unaffiliated with any party has been “very liberating,” but he likes what he sees so far with the Alberta Party, particularly the Big Listen. “It’s absolutely brilliant,” he says. “These are personal conversations with small groups of people about what their Alberta experience is, and really authentically listening to them.”
The intimate conversation concept is complex, time-consuming and will be dismissed by the other parties, says Chapman. It’s also a stark contrast to the “top-down, paternalistic” approach used by those same parties, he adds.
Only time will tell if the Alberta Party will be that viable alternative, says Chapman, adding there isn’t much time before the next election. “The trick is to get people re-engaged again in politics, where they believe their opinions matter, they have some influence and they’re actually being listened to by somebody,” he says.