Saturday, May 09, 2015

What Happened, Alberta?

On Tuesday, May 5 2015 Alberta did the unthinkable - it elected an NDP majority government.

For most who grew up in the province, this was an almost unimaginable change in government.  Since the 1930s when the Social Credit party swept to power under "Bible Bill" Eberhart, Alberta has consistently voted right wing or centre-right under Lougheed.  Its political past has been one of apparent unity.  Certainly since the 1980s, the joke has been you could get a bale of hay elected in Alberta as long as it was running under a conservative banner.

Over at Evil Scientist, there is a decent analysis of the election and its outcome, but I think there's a bit more to the story that bears consideration.

Several factors had eroded public confidence in the governing PCs, a party which had held power since 1971.

Few people have acknowledged the party's inability to select a popular, or even capable, leader after Ralph Klein resigned.  First they selected Ed Stelmach, who promptly turned around and bungled a review of Alberta's royalty regime and in doing so upset a large chunk of the boardroom boys who like to think they are in control.

Then, when they pitched Stelmach out, they replaced him with Alison Redford.  Redford may not have been a bad premier had she been able to act on her own.  After the first few months in power, it became very clear that Redford was beholden to power brokers within the party.  After doing a few modest things which were socially progressive, her government turned around and tabled Bills 45 and 46 which were a gross attack on Alberta's labourers and in particular those who worked in the civil service.  Those bills all by themselves would have pushed an enormous number of voters away from the PCs in Edmonton.  This was followed by a series of scandals where Redford was painted as a selfish, entitled Premier who was grossly abusing taxpayer dollars with private flights, and a private apartment atop a government building.

By this point, public outrage against the PCs was building quite strongly.  Those on the political right decried the abuse of public dollars, those on the political left were appalled by the neoliberal assault on labour rights.  Further, a steady erosion of both health care and education services, resulting in increasing fees at the door for both, unacceptable waiting times for treatment and other problems resonated with Albertans as an unacceptable problem.

The PCs no doubt thought that they had won a great victory in 2012 when the progressive vote in the province collapsed to the benefit of the PCs following a series of bungled "bozo eruptions" from the WildRose Party's candidates and leaders.  The party brass failed to understand that much of that vote in 2012 was not solid "PC support", but rather a strategic vote to keep the WRP out of power.  So, when the PCs started implementing ever more neoliberal legislation and acting more and more like Harper's Conservatives federally, it naturally had a price.

In the run up to calling the election, and during the election campaign itself, Premier Jim Prentice bungled several things which cost his party a substantial amount of support.  First, there was the astonishingly arrogant "look in the mirror" comment, which no matter how he intended it to sound came across to most Albertans as arrogant, smug and paternalistic to say the least.  Then there was the budget, where he refused to address corporate taxes at all, which just resulted in a lot of people deciding that Prentice was just a puppet of the corporate boardrooms who clearly had far too much influence already.  In the debate, Prentice cooked his own goose with the wonderfully condescending "Math is Hard" comment, which Notley promptly turned back on him. (Few have noted the similarity between Prentice's comment and the 1990s uproar over a Barbie doll)

So, why didn't the seemingly right leaning Alberta voters run over to the WildRose Party?  First, I think that the NDP managed to plant the idea in voters minds that there was little difference between the PCs and the WRP philosophically.  The mass defection to the PCs led by Danielle Smith didn't help matters, and previous associations between WRP leader Brian Jean and Prentice would hardly have helped.  Jean not only worked alongside Prentice in Ottawa, but donated $10,000 to Prentice's leadership campaign.

A wooden performance at the debate where Jean seemed to be unable to answer questions directly, and stuck rigidly to a "no taxes" script echoed the tightly controlled approach to politics that Canadians have seen from Stephen Harper's Conservatives federally.  This could not have played well for the WRP.  A policy convention in the fall where social conservative elements in the WRP were able to defeat a motion that would have broadened the party's human rights position to include LGBT rights would also have been a deterrent to more socially moderate voters who might have otherwise considered the WildRose Party an acceptable option.  Jean did state that he was not willing to take on "controversial" topics, but his voting record in Ottawa didn't exactly lend socially progressive voters any confidence.  Also, voters had a difficult time squaring the party's lower taxes mantra with the costs of providing services that the public demands.  Simply saying you could save billions by cutting management was naive, and enough voters remember the chaos of Klein's cuts in the 90s to be wary.

Prentice didn't step into an easy position.  Oil prices had tanked when he took the reins of power, and over the coming months, Alberta's oil patch shed over 20,000 jobs.  This only accounts for a percentage of the actual losses, with contractors and smaller players having lost enormous amounts of business that never show up in the "jobs" numbers.  Voters weren't exactly buying the "low taxes = jobs" line out of the right wing - they had already figured out that "jobs" were inherently insecure.  What will remain a mystery is why Prentice triggered a snap election.  The timing made no sense.  An economic downturn, a public upset with Redford's leadership and with Prentice's seeming arrogance.  Calling an early election, even in the face of apparent disarray in the WRP, was a silly move.

But how does this translate into the massive swing to the NDP that we saw on Tuesday?  After all, Alberta had a number of other options to vote for which were closer to the Lougheed era PCs philosophically, including the Alberta Liberals, The Alberta Party and the Green Party.  Simply put, none of those parties had the electoral presence.  Both David Swann and Greg Clark are well liked and respected, but their parties have been struggling to be heard at all.  The fact that no other centre-left party had a full slate of candidates running didn't help those parties either.  Not to be overly dismissive, as both the Liberals and Alberta Party represent a very centrist vision that we should pay attention to, but the damage to the Liberal brand in Alberta has been so severe that the word itself is almost a swear word for many Albertans.

Ms. Notley delivered a solid campaign which responded to many of the expressed concerns of Albertans.  When candidates who seemingly didn't even campaign at all got elected, it was clear that the vote was primarily on the strength of Ms. Notley's presence and clarity.  As much as the right wing desperately tried to scare voters away from the NDP, most voters clearly were looking for change.  Was this a "protest" vote as some have claimed? Only in part, but saying it was a protest vote is to dismiss the votes of those who voted for the NDP because they represented a vision that they believe in.  I think that Albertans declared that there was a limit to how far into the unfeeling corporatism that has infested the right wing of politics they are willing to embrace.  

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