For eighty years, Alberta has been Canada’s most conservative province. It was in 1935, three decades after attaining its provincial status, that Albertans elected the Social Credit Party to power under the leadership of the populist Evangelical preacher “Bible” Bill Aberhart. He advocated that Alberta establish its own currency in the form of $25 monthly “social credits” to promote greater consumption during the Great Depression. Although this pledge would never materialize, the Social Credit Party would remain in power for 36 years, mostly under the conservative leadership of Ernest Manning (whose son Preston would lead Canada’s Reform Party during the late 1980s and most of the 1990s).
In 1971, voters would oust Social Credit in favor of the Progressive Conservatives (a.k.a. the Tories) led by Peter Lougheed. The Tories have remained in power ever since, producing notable premiers such as Lougheed, former Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Don Getty, and former Calgary mayor Ralph Klein. Last year, the Tories set the record for the longest reigning provincial government in Canadian history when they surpassed the Nova Scotia Liberals, who were in office from 1882 to 1925.
But all things must come to an end and the Tory dynasty in Alberta may end on the evening of May 5. The political dynasty from the Canadian west could go south and it might come at the hands of the New Democratic Party (NDP). That’s right. Alberta could vote socialist. In which, we should be on the look out for a cold front in hell. How could this come to pass?
Truth be told, there have been cracks in the Tory edifice for the better part of a decade. The cracks began in 2008 with Klein’s successor, Ed Stelmach. Shortly after Stelmach was elected in his own right, the Tory dominated legislatures voted for substantial pay increases for Stelmach and his cabinet. Then along came the global financial crisis. Oil revenues fell and yet the Tory government continued its profligate spending, resulting in the province’s first budget deficit in nearly two decades.
The Tories soon found themselves challenged on the right in by the Wildrose Party (named after Alberta’s provincial flower). Indeed, two members of the Tory caucus would defect to Wildrose. Before long Wildrose led in the polls, Alberta voters attracted both to its renewed emphasis on fiscal responsibility and to its young leader Danielle Smith. Seeing the writing on the wall, Stelmach announced in early 2011 that he would not seek re-election and would resign once a successor had been selected by the Tories at a leadership convention. Stelmach would be succeeded by Alison Redford, the first woman to ever lead the Alberta Tories.
Smith’s Wildrose was favored to win the 2012 election, but managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. When one Wildrose candidate claimed that members of the LGBT community would “suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire,” Smith initially refused to distance herself from the remarks. By the time she reversed course, it was too late. Scared at the prospect of a Wildrose government full of weeds, normally Liberal and NDP voters aligned themselves with the Redford-led Tories, who would win 61 out of 87 seats in the Alberta legislature. Although Wildrose won 17 seats to become the Official Opposition, they could not prevent the Tories from winning their 12th consecutive general election.
But less than two years of winning office, Redford would resign as premier in disgrace. Her troubles began in earnest in early 2014 when it was revealed that she spent $45,000 of taxpayer dollars to attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa. (Redford had worked with Mandela when she was a young attorney in the early 1990s.) There would be further revelations that Redford had spent taxpayer dollars lavishly on travel, staff salaries and expenses, and other amenities. All the while Redford refused to repay the money spent on the Mandela funeral until threat of a mass defection to Wildrose by members of the Tory caucus. Only then did she relent. But by then it was too late.
Yet things were looking up for the Tories. In September 2014, Redford would be succeeded as Tory leader and premier by Jim Prentice, a former cabinet minister for current Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Prentice had previously been viewed as an eventual successor to Harper himself. Three months after becoming premier, Prentice managed quite a coup when he persuaded Danielle Smith and nearly the entire Wildrose caucus to jump ship to the Tories. With Wildrose in disarray, the Tories looked unstoppable and appeared to have carte blanche to do as they pleased. Yet this attitude might very well prove to be their undoing.
Prentice would hit the wrong chord in March when he said Albertans should “look in the mirror” as to who is responsible for the province’s current fiscal situation. Within hours of that statement, a Twitter meme #PrenticeBlamesAlbertans went viral. Three weeks later, the provincial budget was released. Not only did Alberta’s deficit hit a record $5 billion, there were a number of unpopular measures including the elimination of the 10% flat provincial income tax, a health care levy for individuals making more than $50,000 a year, an increase in the provincial gas tax, and a reduction in the charitable donation tax credit. These measures proved unpopular, but this did not prevent Prentice from calling an early election. During the election campaign, Prentice has reversed himself on the charitable donation tax credit. But this has only had the effect of making Prentice look like a premier whose party is clinging to power.
Although the threat from the right had been neutralized, what Prentice hadn’t counted on was a threat from the left. To be precise, the threat came from the NDP and its leader Rachel Notley. Although Notley has only been on job for six months, her name is not unfamiliar to Albertans. Her father, Grant Notley, led the Alberta NDP from 1968 until his tragic death in a plane crash in 1984. While he was NDP leader, Notley was the only New Democrat in the Alberta legislature. Nevertheless, he earned the respect of even conservative Albertans, who praised his honesty, integrity, optimistic disposition, and ability to keep Peter Lougheed’s government on it toes.
The younger Notley has not only exhibited her father’s qualities, she has emerged as a viable alternative to Prentice and the Tories. Although the Alberta NDP platform is standard fare socialism (i.e. tax increases on corporations and high income individuals, a university tuition freeze, and a royalty review of the oil and gas industry). Yet Notley has managed sell her platform without sounding scary or strident. One measure of her popularity has been the proliferation of “Nötley Crue” T-shirts complete with the “Ready for Rachel Tour 2015” on the back featuring all 87 of the province’s ridings.
Prentice elevated Notley’s standing during the leadership debate on April 23 by focusing all of his attention on her while virtually ignoring Liberal Party leader Dr. David Swann and new Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean (who served with Prentice in the federal Tory caucus in Ottawa). In fact, after Prentice announced he would run for the Alberta Tory leadership, Jean gave him a contribution. When Prentice took Jean to task during the debate, Notley chimed in, “That’s no way to treat a donor.” As Ian Kucerak of the Edmonton Sun (who is not particularly sympathetic to the NDP) put it, “Bam. One hit, two targets.”
Prentice did himself no favors by mispronouncing Notley’s name. But his worst moment came when challenging Notley’s on the NDP corporate tax increase. Prentice told Notley, “Math is difficult.” Even if you disagree with corporate taxes that pass on the costs to consumer, it was the wrong argument for Prentice to make. Apart from his condescending tone towards Notley, it reminded voters of his “look in the mirror” comment. This would result in a surge in the polls for the NDP. Even the daughter of the late Ralph Klein, arguably the most popular of Alberta’s Tory premiers, is voting NDP. While already strong in the provincial capital of Edmonton, the polls showed the NDP also making gains in Calgary and in rural Alberta. A poll by Mainstreet Technologies projected the NDP would win a majority government on Tuesday.
Should this come to pass, it would arguably the most shocking provincial election in Canadian history. Perhaps even more shocking than when the NDP took power in Ontario nearly 25 years ago under Bob Rae. I was on hand for that election. The euphoria that accompanied that electoral triumph was soon ground to a halt by reality and the responsibility that comes with it. A majority of those elected to the Ontario NDP caucus in 1990 had no political experience of any sort. Now a lack of political experience isn’t always a bad thing. Indeed, too much of it has put the Alberta Tories on their current precipice. But many of those elected were paper candidates who weren’t expected to win office. The same would certainly be true in an Alberta NDP government. There is a very good chance that people who thought they would have no chance of getting elected will be named cabinet ministers in charge of government departments with budgets in the seven and eight figures. It’s easy to criticize a government until you find yourself governing. Throw left-wing ideology into the mix and you have a recipe for incompetence and disaster.
That is what came to pass during the five years the Ontario NDP was in power. In 1995, Ontario voters tossed out the NDP in favor of the Tories who governed the province for two terms before voters elected the Liberals who have been in office since 2003. Bob Rae became a Liberal and the NDP has never come close to regaining power since.
Should Rachel Notley form an NDP majority government in Alberta there is a good chance we will see a repeat of what happened under an Ontario NDP government a generation ago. In which case Albertans will learn the hard way. If this comes to pass then Alberta might welcome the Tories back with open arms come 2019 (assuming, of course, that Wildrose doesn’t regain its bloom). But in order for that to happen, the Alberta Tories will need a good feeding of humble pie.