My last two postings have been dedicated to exposing Crazy George Clark’s “kudetah” movement for being the impossible dream that it is. No matter how much Clark and some of his supporters want to rail and rave about petitioning or going to the Queen with some misguided, perceived loophole in the elections act, they simply will not be unseating the legitimately and democratically elected NDP government led by Notley.
People are fearful and frustrated with the highly ideological government that Alberta accidentally elected thanks to a collective revulsion to the two right of center parties that Danielle Smith and Jim Prentice created with their gross opportunism. That has led them to seek unconventional ways to change the government and kooks like George Clark are more than happy to lead them down the garden path.
When confronted with the reality that our government will not be unseated by a petition, some of Clark’s supporters often indignantly ask “Well what are we supposed to do? Just sit around and wait for 3.5 more years??”
The answer to that is yes and no. Yes, we will have to wait 3.5 to 4.5 more years to unseat Notley. No, you do not have to nor should you just sit around and wait. In fact, if you do nothing but sit around, Notley will likely win another term.
The way to remove the Notley government from power is pretty straightforward. Notley has to lose the next election. Nothing less.
Our political system is a partisan one. Elections are not always won with the best ideas (though I wish it were so). Elections are won by parties that present those ideas in the most palatable way to the largest segment of the voting electorate. Like it or not, this means that we have to work within the partisan system. That means joining and supporting a party whether financially or with personal effort or both.
The vast majority of Albertans do not belong to political parties. That means that a tiny minority controls these parties one of which will always form government. There is nothing unfair or wrong about this. It simply means that people need to quit abdicating their role in a participatory democracy and start actually participating, even between elections.
I don’t expect a majority of Albertans to ever join political parties or participate in them. I do hope that more people do though as it really is critical to all of our well being.
One huge hurdle that people encounter when considering participating in partisan politics is simply wondering where to begin and what is involved. There really are no simple guides to getting involved or what obligations and tasks would be expected.
I joined my first political party right at the beginning of the 90s as a young, long haired guy who bought a membership from a guy named Preston Manning who was standing in a small booth at the exhibition of the Calgary Stampede promoting the Reform Party. I was thrilled with this little card that arrived in the mail but hadn’t a clue what it meant or what I could do with it. Over years attending local meetings and volunteering in campaigns I learned a great deal and have never been without one party membership or another in my wallet. I like most others went into partisan membership blindly though.
I am going to write on some of the basics of party membership in Alberta. This will be dull to those who are already familiar with party politics (and maybe dull to those who aren’t), but I would like to get a basic guide and resource out there on the interwebs for folks who may be considering getting involved with a party. This will be the closest I come to being non-biased on here.
Choose a party
This is likely the toughest step of them all. Every party of note will have a detailed web site and contact information. No party of note will hesitate to answer all of your questions quickly as they all want to grow their active membership.
Every registered party in Alberta can be found at the Elections Alberta website.
The parties vary very widely in ideology. Careful research is required but as mentioned earlier, their web presence makes it easy to get a general idea of what they stand for.
Buy a membership
How much or how little a person wants to participate in a party is totally up to the individual of course. The first step in participation is being a member.
Every party has a membership system. The cost of a membership can vary from $5 per year to $40 that I saw with one small party once. I think $10 per year is pretty much the standard these days. Most parties provide online membership sales or at least an address where a cheque could be mailed and a membership purchased.
The entitlements that come with membership vary party by party. In some parties, the leader is chosen in a one member, one vote system. That means you could vote in the next leadership election. Other parties use delegation systems but your membership will allow you to influence the delegates sent to a leaders convention through participating in local meetings. Other party members will happily explain to new members how it works. Every party has a constitution or set of bylaws that governs their operation. In those documents one can find out their limits and powers as an individual member as well.
One of the most important things that comes with a membership is the ability to participate in the selection of your local nominee for the next election. In most parties, a nomination race is held and local members can vote to select who will represent them in the next election. This is a very direct and local way to influence your local representation. Nomination races have been abused by parties and sometimes candidates are appointed by parties for reasons of either political expediency or a lack of a local organization.
Get involved with your local constituency association
In our system, constituency associations are semi-independent, organizational units that are essentially the hub for local election preparation. The associations are guided by their own bylaws which are typically set by the central party. The size and organization of constituency associations can vary from literally nothing to managing thousands of members with dozens of local directors. Larger parties will have contact information for each constituency. Smaller parties may require contacting the central party to find out who your local organizers are if indeed there are any in a formal association.
Assuming a constituency association is active, they will be holding an annual general meeting at some time or another. This is a great time to get involved as the general membership is open to attend and one can see as well as participate in the governance of their association. The first thing one should ask upon joining is when the next meeting is. Many associations hold other events as often as monthly or quarterly that are open to members as well.
A constituency association is often essentially a micro version of the central party organization. There will be a President and a number of other Vice President or directors roles. This depends on the bylaws set out by the party. These roles are usually filled at general meetings and are directly elected by the members of the constituency association. Even the largest parties often have trouble filling these roles and it is often pretty easy to get into a formal role within the association. These are great opportunities to get into the nuts and bolts of the local operation and to get a line on party activities an communications.
The prime role of constituency associations is to prepare to win the local seat for the party. This involves fundraising, local promotion and the selection of a local candidate. The foundation for a campaign team in an election will usually come from the constituency association as well. If one wants to get involved in campaigning (one of the more fun roles in politics), the constituency association is the best place to start learning and perhaps seeking a role in the upcoming campaign.
Depending on the party structure, sometimes only delegates can attend the annual general meeting of the main party. These delegates are usually selected by the constituency board and they will be responsible for representing your constituency when policy is proposed at party general meetings and can vote when the party executive is selected at the general meeting. Some parties allow all members to attend the annual general meeting and allow all to vote on these things.
Constituency associations are usually tasked with finding candidates for the coming election and with managing the nomination race for that role. Nomination races can be some of the most divisive and haywire activities within a party. Emotions can run high and factions can break out that can harm the constituency locally or even the party as a whole. When I served terms on the provincial executive with my provincial party, nothing gave me more grey hairs than the efforts to put out fires lit by rough and tumble nomination meetings. I can think of a few provincial constituency associations that are still a mess today due to ugly nomination meetings over six years ago. As with most things though, the more the merrier. If constituency associations have a lot of dedicated, rational and working members, the nomination meetings can be kept civil. It takes a lot of work.
Central party involvement
The degree of involvement with the central party that an individual can have depends on the constitution and bylaws of the party. The party operations are governed by the provincial executive. Caucus is usually somewhat independent of party governance (or should be) but should be guided by the general principles and policies of the party. The leader’s office is often something of an entity in itself as well.
The party executive is made up of a President, a Treasurer, a Secretary and then a number of other director/Vice President roles depending on the party constitution. In some parties these roles are directly elected by the members at an annual general meeting while others select their executive committee through a delegate system. Some parties will allow any member in good standing to run for an executive position while others have a different process to get nominated for those positions. It will take consultation with your local representative and reading the party constitution in order to learn the process.
The party executive oversees the constituency associations and manages the general operations of the party. Fundraising, communications and management of the membership of the party falls under the role of the executive. Setting up for an annual general meeting and the management of the policy proposals comes through the party executive as well. If one aspires to get directly involved with party management, getting a role on the provincial executive is the way to go. It is thankless and often frustrating but those roles are critical and can be exciting at times.
The roles one can take on within a party are myriad and the dedication of time and resources that an individual can put in is nearly infinite. While having a larger active membership can make party management and movement cumbersome and complex at times, it remains a better way to help ensure good policy and governance from that party.
If a person wants to make an impact in the next provincial election beyond casting a vote, joining and participating in a party is the best route to doing that. I know there are independent candidates and other types of groups that work to influence the electorate and they certainly serve a role too. Reality dictates that only organized parties will take power in an election and becoming a member in one of those parties is the important first step in having an influence on them.