WE in Alberta had a provincial election this week. Normally provincial elections in Alberta are less than exciting. The same party has won every election since 1971. Always with a (often overwhelming) majority.
This week was different.
For the last half of the campaign the polls had been suggesting something was happening. But then 3 years ago the polls suggested something was happening and they were completely and totally WRONG. But this year......
In the Alberta legislature there are 87 seats. When the election was called the governing Progressive Conservative party held 70 of them. When the dust settled Tuesday night the PCs were down to 10 seats, the right-wing Wild Rose Party had 21 and the slightly left-of-center New Democrats had 53. At dissolution the NDP had 4 seats.
Alberta has a reputation of being "the Texas of Canada", partly because we are a perto-economy, and partly because we are often considered the most conservative, farthest right, province in the country.
Enter your joke about flying pigs and skating rinks in hell here.
Now of course the pundits and analysts are asking "what happened?" along with "what now?". More on that in a bit.
First I want to share some reflections on the campaign period.
This was not a nice campaign. [Then again, is there such a thing as a nice campaign anymore in |North American politics?] It showed clearly who the power-brokers, or at least those who believe themselves to be power-brokers, truly are.
At first it was expected that this election would be a cakewalk for the PCs. That in fact is why the election was called a year early. But they soon found themselves under attack from the far right and from the center-left. Soon it became obvious that the real threat was from the NDP. And then the fear campaign began.
WE were warned that an NDP government would destroy the province's economy, that to elect a "socialist"(though the Alberta NDP, while coming from a social democratic background is only slightly more socialist than the US Democratic party) would lead to a mass exodus of capital and jobs. We were told that to raise corporate taxes (something the vast majority of Albertans who responded to a pre-budget consultation said they wanted and the PC government promptly ignored them) would devastate the economy and that to review oil royalties would destroy the petroleum industry. Then a group of corporate executives warned that they would stop funding charitable foundations, ostensibly because there would no longer be any profits from which to give charitable gifts. And who is in charge of the province? The government or corporations? [One of my pet peeves is that our governments -at all levels- have largely allowed themselves to be taken hostage by the corporate/business lobby. It is also my belief that the corporate/business community has, in the end, far more control over the economy than any government does.] THen the 4 major papers in the province were given orders from their corporate head office to endorse the PC government because of the "danger" of the NDP.....
That didn't help anybody but the NDP.
HOw did it happen?
I think a number of factors. One is that the former premier (who upon losing so badly resigned both as party leader and as an MLA on Tuesday night, thereby creating the need for a by-election before the election was even finished) showed a horrible lack of awareness. His budget was liked by pretty much nobody. He (somewhat justifiably) blamed Albertans for the sad state of the province's finances -- said "look in the mirror". And he did not run a good campaign.
Another is that after 44 years the PC party was showing signs of entitlement and poor management and questionable ethics. There was a growing sense that it was time (past time in the minds of many of us) for a change.
And finally, as this column points out, ALberta has changed. Through a variety of demographic factors the province is no longer the right-wing bastion it once was. 3 years ago the center/left of center voters fell in behind the PCs to stop a win by the far right Wild Rose (Alberta's Tea Party) equivalent). Jim Prentice mis-calculated how much that voice had grown.
As of Tuesday night there were doomsday forecasts. But they were largely non-justified. Despite the fear-mongering, statistical data shows that NDP governments have not been the total disasters that some might like to believe--and no more so than any other party. And as I said above, this NDP government is quite centrist. Implementing their entire tax plan would take Alberta to where they were 16 years ago under a strong fiscal conservative government. And a review of royalties is probably a good thing (if done in consultation with the industry). Personally I think a) royalty rates are too low (40 years ago they were much higher in this province) and b) oil industry folks know that royalty rates are too low -- which is why they are so worried about a review.
The big question is if people will agree to be mature and work together. It troubles me that the legislature is lacking a voice from the middle of the political spectrum. Even under a majority government more gets done and better work gets done when the legislature can work together and the Wild Rose leader shows no signs of being willing to do that. The big question is what will the corporate community do. Will they play politics and grandstand to ensure that things get worse (for which they will then put all the blame on the government)? Or will they try to make things work for the benefit if all involved? The first option is ideologically driven. I suggest the latter is the more pragmatic approach. This editorial seems to agree.
ANd of course a good portion of the "what next" question depends on factors beyond the control of Alberta. If oil rebounds to $70 a barrel then things will be much more different than if it falls back to $40 a barrel. And who knows if that will happen?
It will be an interesting couple of years....