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Alberta’s “Revolution”

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Canada's New Democratic Party earns a decisive victory in oil-rich Alberta.

Any political party that loses an election after 44 consecutive years in office and ends up in third place is the object of some kind of "revolution."  Such was the fate of the Progressive Conservative Party in Alberta’s general elections on Tuesday.

The left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP), under the charismatic leadership of Rachel Notley, earned a decisive majority government victory in Canada’s oil-rich province, Alberta, winning 53 out of 87 seats and 41 percent of the popular vote.  It is a first for the NDP in Alberta.  The party’s closest rivals were the Tea Party-like Wildrose Party, with 21 seats, followed by the Progressive Conservative Party, with 10 seats.

Some three years ago, I wrote in AQ Online that Alberta had rejected its version of the Tea Party when the ruling Conservatives confounded the polls by defeating the upstart Wildrose Party.  I had characterized the victory as one of moderation over a more extremist, ideological political formation.  I also defined Alberta as Canada’s closest version of Texas because of its fossil fuel resources, low tax rates and strong libertarian streak. 

In three short years, has Alberta become so transformed that the left-leaning NDP could so easily unseat an entrenched political establishment party like the Conservatives?  Alberta has changed, but not that much.

I had the opportunity to visit both Calgary and Edmonton last August,and noticed some visible changes.  More diversity and a greater youth presence contrasted with my visit less than 10 years earlier.  It was clear, judging by the terraces and streetside cafés, that Alberta’s two largest cities were beginning to look more like Vancouver, Toronto and Montréal in style and demeanor. 

The steep drop in oil prices of the last few months, and a strict government budget introduced on the eve of the election likely did more to change the dynamics of Alberta politics.  The optimistic economic picture of just a few months ago has been transformed into a much more sobering outlook.

The forced resignation of former Premier Alison Redford, elected in 2012, due to scandal—and her replacement earlier this year by Jim Prentice, a former federal minister and successful business executive—was meant to change the political climate and bring Alberta back onto to its course of economic leadership and promise. Prentice then pulled a political coup (or, as some would argue, a “stunt”) of his own, by enticing the Opposition Leader and Wildrose Party leader, Danielle Smith, to switch over to the governing Conservatives, along with a cohort of opposition members of the Legislative Assembly. 

Still in the third year of a four year mandate, observers began to ask whether Prentice was planning to call for elections a year ahead of schedule in an effort to extend his party’s monopoly. On April 7, he announced that elections would be held early to give Albertans a chance to weigh in on the province’s austerity budget.

This was an election that didn't need to happen.  Prentice has made some audacious moves— such as modifying the flat rate tax and reducing dependence on an energy-based economy—and a few of them were truly courageous and enlightening in a province that needed to adjust to a post-carbon economy.  But such an adjustment takes both time and pedagogy—and while Prentice had the first, he ignored the second.  Some of his measures, such as cutting services, were controversial with voters.  He rushed to an election call, alienating an electorate already suffering from a changing economic climate.

Alberta voters judged that cynicism was not an acceptable strategy for a government that was asking for four more years of power.  Prentice has announced his resignation from public life after his crushing defeat.

With a general national election due on October 19, 2015 in Canada, can we decipher a trend or a “revolution” in the offing?  For Alberta, it is fair to say that incoming Premier Notley ran a solid and impressive campaign.  She deserves her victory.  Today, the NDP rules two of Canada’s four western provinces, and is the opposition in the other two.  They are clearly a force in the West.

In Québec, the federal NDP has a huge majority and is currently leading in the polls.  There is no provincial NDP party.

It is too early and hazardous, however, to predict the outcome of a federal election based on what happened in Alberta.  If there is a lesson to be learned from this election, it is that voters do not wish to be taken for granted anymore.  And that is a real victory for Canadian democracy.

*John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Canada, Alberta, Jim Prentice, Rachel Notley

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