The fundamental flaw of populist politics

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The recent Robyn Luff controversy in Alberta illustrates two much broader issues. One is that this MLA, like many Canadians, doesn’t understand how the Westminster-style parliamentary system works. The other is the remarkable persistence of the notion that MLAs are merely delegates of their constituents.

Luff, the Calgary-East MLA, complained about being forced to toe the NDP party line when it came to votes and talking points in the legislature. She abruptly quit the caucus earlier this month, claiming she was being bullied by other party members.

But as Premier Rachel Notley and numerous others have pointed out, our system of government is collegial; it requires teamwork and parties to act as a cohesive group regardless of whether they’re in government or opposition.

Party discipline is required because if the government loses an important vote in the legislature, it has to resign.

Lacking knowledge of our political system, many Canadians believed Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he accused the Liberals and New Democrats of treason in 2008.

Harper’s minority government was facing a vote of confidence six weeks after the October general election. However, he pre-empted the vote by asking the governor general to prorogue Parliament – i.e., to terminate the parliamentary session.

The Liberals and New Democrats had reached an agreement to form a coalition government, a perfectly legitimate move given that the Conservatives would have lost the vote. It would also have averted another election.

Instead, Harper turned the tables on them by falsely claiming they were trying to overthrow a democratically-elected government. In the process, ‘coalition’ became a four-letter word in Canadian political discourse.

Another major misconception with a long, zombie-like history in Alberta is the idea that MLAs are merely delegates of their constituents and aren’t beholden to their parties.

Over a century ago, when the Non-Partisan League (NPL) won an election in North Dakota, their philosophy of non-partisanship sank deep roots in Alberta. (It’s worth noting that it was a populist party that advocated state ownership of elevators, banks, etc., and a reduction in the power of corporate political interests.)

After the Non-Partisan League in Alberta won two seats in the Alberta legislature in 1917, they began to pressure Henry Wise Wood, who headed the powerful United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), to take direct political action.

By 1921, the UFA had formed the first farmers’ government in the province. True to their non-partisan leanings, government MLAs practising “delegate democracy” voted against bills, almost toppling the government. When they realized the imperatives of the political system, they quietly shelved these notions and governed like traditional parties.

Social Credit flirted with similar views and passed legislation enabling constituents to recall their MLAs. However, when Premier William Aberhart’s constituents tried to recall him, the legislation was repealed.

Not many Albertans know that in 1913, the provincial Liberals passed the Direct Legislation Act, which enabled voters to initiate legislation through a petition. Despite the apparent hunger to influence government, it was never used and Social Credit Premier Ernest Manning repealed the legislation in 1959.

The lesson from all of this is that anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of our political system would know better. Yet these ideas refuse to die because they’re invoked frequently by cynical politicians who are fully aware that the populist trinity of direct democracy (initiative, referendum and recall) is incompatible with the Canadian political system. It’s convenient to maintain the fiction that the grassroots of the party writes its platform and that politicians are merely servants who will do their bidding.

The American experience with such initiatives is instructive. In a number of states, voters have the power to initiate legislation. This populist device has become a thriving signature-gathering business. Rather than a volunteer-driven exercise in democracy, workers obtain signatures from voters and are paid $2 to $6 per signature. It’s estimated that a successful initiative costs around $2 million.

There are numerous reasons why so-called populists the world over are successful in their appeals. But one stands out: Ordinary citizens are disillusioned by mainstream politicians because, on their watch, wage growth is missing in action.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s latest outlook, unemployment is low in developed countries yet workers are experiencing unprecedented wage stagnation. More and more people are working part-time and the percentage of working people living in poverty has risen to over 10 per cent of all employed people. This wage-less growth is partly due to structural changes in the economy, but the OECD recommends urgent action by governments to help workers, especially the low-skilled.

While the economy and a minuscule percentage of the population prospers mightily, millions of people are working harder with little to show for it.

Alberta’s economy has suffered body blows recently, so it’s not surprising Albertans are susceptible to the siren call of politicians who promise to lead them to a populist paradise.

Doreen Barrie is an adjunct assistant professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Calgary.

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

By Doreen Barrie

Doreen Barrie is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Calgary. She has published a book on Alberta entitled The Other Alberta: Decoding a Political Enigma and wrote a biography on Ralph Klein for the book Alberta Premiers of the Twentieth Century. She did the study on Party Financing in Alberta for the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing and has written Sacred Trust or Political Football: A Citizen’s Guide to Canadian Health Care. She is currently working on water issues. She wrote an article in the journal Australasian Canadian Studies entitled “Water Fight: The Tarsands and Other Threats to Alberta’s Water.”

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