Op-Ed|Why Alberta Has Lost Its Mind and Why You Should Care

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We Canadians often find ourselves more engaged in American politics than our own sedate system of government. Maybe it’s because we are bombarded with signals from the US, maybe it’s because their politics are more bombastic, better entertainment. Personally, I think it is self-preservation that motivates us to stay informed. We are like the sleepy kitty who likes to curl up in bed and share warmth with a very large, sometimes grumpy, often unpredictable master – it pays to pay attention!

So, imagine you woke up tomorrow, to find out that the great State of Texas went Liberal. Then take it a step further. Imagine Texas being taken over by a party that is more to the left than your average liberals. Imagine Texas being taken over by a woman, with socialist political leanings! And now imagine that Texas has been taken over by a bunch of relative unknowns, who have no real idea how they are going to govern that great State!

Impossible, you say? Really?

Well, that’s exactly what just happened in Alberta, Canada’s version of Texas.

For more than 40 years, Alberta has been a Conservative stronghold. In election after election, it was taken for granted that Alberta would remain Conservative. News coverage of Canadian elections basically treated Alberta as an afterthought, and made their predictions long before the votes in Alberta were actually counted. Not any more!

Rachel Notley, the legacy heir to Grant Notley, who founded the New Democratic Party in Alberta, is now Premier of Alberta. Her NDP Party has made political history, securing a majority government. The Conservatives under Jim Prentice, the Party that remained impregnable in Alberta since Hippies roamed the earth, were absolutely decimated, and did not even hold onto Official Opposition status. The Wildrose Party, an entity few Canadians outside of Alberta even know about, and a Party largely considered dead by political insiders, will form the Official Opposition.

Make no mistake, people. This is a huge event, something every single Canadian should take the time to ponder and absorb. We have stepped off into the unknown here. This has never happened before, and the consequences are very real. The people of Alberta have just collectively jumped out of a perfectly good airplane, with no idea where they are going to land, and we need to understand why they did it. We need to understand it, because there is a federal election looming, and we could all be feeling the breeze flapping on our cheeks, the exhilaration of falling through space, if the country follows suit.

So, how did it happen? What possessed the Province of Alberta to take a paradigm shift in political reality? What events precipitated this epic shift in fortunes, and what do these breadcrumbs foretell?

Not being an Albertan, I don’t possess all the facts, so I won’t pretend to. I do have some weighty nuggets of fact in my possession, so I will run with those, and formulate a hypothesis. Everybody cool with that? Groovy!

Alberta recently got hit with some economic bad news. Oil prices have slumped, and belt-tightening has ensued. The Alberta government, aka the Conservatives, made the fatal mistake of staking the province’s economic future on the fortunes associated with black gold, Texas tea. The eventual viability and consequent profitability of the Oil Sands led to a gold rush, and Alberta was high on their own supply. It was nothing but good news stories for years. But then, our very large and unpredictable neighbours to the South found new ways to find their own oil, and the game changed. The price of oil collapsed under the new dynamic, and Alberta suffered a serious economic hit from it.

So, does this alone explain an NDP majority in Alberta? No, I don’t think so. But the shock and anger that came with bad economic news from the one place in Canada everyone expected to prosper, certainly played a key role in the tectonic shift to the left. The Prentice government started making adjustments, introducing taxes, fees, and budget cuts, and this reaction to economic strife may just have fractured the illusion most Albertans have that the Conservatives would never behave in a manner that resembled their political counterparts in other parts of the country.

And then there were some scandalous goodies that rattled the political cages in Alberta. Some questionable plane rides were taken on the taxpayer’s dime. Did that undo the Conservative juggernaut? I don’t think so. Sadly, Canadians have grown all too accustomed to our elected leaders dipping into the public trough, and slurping at things they don’t have a right to consume. Just take a look at Ontario – there were all kinds of scandals rocking the Liberals, and they still managed to win another majority government, despite the gas plant fiasco, the ridiculous hydro increases, etc,… So no, a little scandal or two cannot explain a political inversion in Alberta.

What are we left with here? How do we explain what happened in Alberta? Well, I suppose we better take a look at what the NDP brought to the table, rather than forensically examining what the Conservatives might have squandered. What did Rachel Notley tell Alberta that provoked history to be made? Again, I’m not from Alberta, so my info is limited. But what I can gather is that she ran a very positive campaign. No, really… she was remarkably upbeat, and carried herself with great dignity and charm! Was that enough to win the day? I can’t see it. And then you couple that positive message with promises to raise taxes on the wealthy, reign in the oil companies, and renegotiate the royalties from those oil companies, and you’re left scratching your head even more. Did the average Albertan actually just buy into this package? Maybe, but it doesn’t sound much like the Alberta I know.

So, we may never really know what happened here. Maybe it was the perfect storm. Maybe Albertans were stung by bad news, angered by the scandals brewing around, and then a really nice lady with no baggage showed up and carried herself with integrity and poise, promising to treat them well, and correct the injustices that were plaguing their vibes, and the unthinkable happened. Or maybe calling a Spring election got caught up in Spring fever, and the whole province enjoyed an irrational feel-good moment together, and embraced the ‘little guys’. Who knows!

But seriously, what does this mean for Alberta, and what implications does this carry for the rest of Canada? We better take a closer look, because this is going to get very real, in a hurry.

The NDP are celebrating. They are euphoric. The Conservatives are lamenting. Jim Prentice fell on his own sword. This is the immediate fallout from the Alberta election, but I think they are going to be very temporary. In fact, I think the hangover from this political shindig will be much more painful than the brief moment of gratification that comes with such a victory. I think the celebrations will soon give way to some very serious problems. As a matter of fact, there is a very real chance that what happened in Alberta wasn’t really an NDP victory at all. I think it could lead to a whole new generation of Conservative rule in that province. I suppose I should explain why, huh?

In order to get the province back on track economically, the NDP are going to have to work with the oil industry – they don’t have any choice. As mentioned before, the Conservatives staked all of Alberta’s fortunes on the energy industry. There is simply no other infrastructure in place, through which the NDP can diversify the economy. And as we all know, the NDP and big industry don’t exactly share a warm fuzzy feeling between them. And Rachel Notley won’t have a lot of time to make something happen. All eyes will be on her, and judgment will be swift and severe. The Conservative base in Alberta, which is still substantial and largely intact, will be nipping at her heels immediately, quick to cash in on any missteps her party makes. They will dog her relentlessly, and if she doesn’t produce real change that Albertans can embrace, she will get chewed to pieces. It will be just another example of a province experimenting with the NDP, only to regret the courtship later.

If however, Rachel Notley did the unthinkable, and pulled a little ‘Venezuela’ coup, she might actually change history in a lasting way. Imagine if she nationalized, or in this case, ‘provincialized’ Alberta’s oil sands, kicked out all the foreign oil companies, sent in troops to seize all the oil assets, and then offered gasoline to Albertans at $0.50 a liter and made them all shareholders in the profits of the energy industry the way some countries in Europe do it – what effect would that have? It would be an actual revolution, something that would change the dynamics in Canada in a real way. But what are the odds such a thing will actually happen? The alternative, as mentioned before, is to try and haggle her way through mountains of red tape, trying to squeeze out a little something for average Albertans, with the Conservative base nipping at her heels the whole way.

The indicators are not good here. The NDP have clearly won, and they deserve their hard-fought moment in the sun. But if they don’t get real results, and quickly, Alberta will reject the new romance, and go back to their familiar, however imperfect relationship, with conservatism. In fact, the Conservatives will be given a breather here, a chance to distance themselves from their scandals and the economic impact of the oil industry, and will soon be able to pin blame for any continued woes directly onto the NDP. They will get a chance to rebuild and re-organize, and will come back with a vengeance. They are not ‘dead’, and conservatism is not ‘dead’ in Alberta. Not by a long shot.

This will likely be another flash in the pan sociopolitical experiment, a uniquely ‘Canadian’ blip in election history that professors around the country will study and analyze for generations to come. It is all very exciting, we get to sit on the sidelines and watch a really devastating smash-up derby where political fortunes and careers get carried away by wreckers. But when the dust clears, and the unlikely victors take their lap around the arena to wave at the adoring crowd, people will already be filing for the exits, anticipating the next big show they plan to attend.

But hold up a minute! There is another big show coming! One even bigger than a provincial clash! The federal election is just around the corner! What does this magical moment in Alberta portend for the future of Canada?

I want to get in early, and make a prediction. I predict an NDP majority in Canada, in the next federal election! You heard it here first! Think I’m crazy, think I’m totally out of my mind? Really? Well tell that to the people of Alberta, Jack!

Okay, that about wraps it up for me. I have to go to the mall, and find some really meaningful sympathy cards to send to Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau. It takes a lot of time, and patience, to find just the right card for an occasion like this!

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