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Alberta’s orange wave: where did it come from, where is it going?

Thomas McKechnie

May 19, 2015

Albertan voters have elected the provincial New Democratic Party to a majority government in their May 5 provincial election. It was a such a surprise to the political establishment that the news was covered by the Guardian, the BBC and other major international news outlets.

Although the NDP was not considered a real contender to take the legislature until a month before the election, the process began much earlier. Rachel Notley, the leader of the provincial NDP, was first elected in Alberta in 2008. The election was notable in that it featured the lowest voter turnout in the province’s history at 40.58 per cent. This was emblematic of the political situation of the time.

Oily politics

Big Oil had poured vast financial resources into the Conservative party in exchange for exceptionally low corporate taxes and royalty rates. They had also partnered on an ideological level, tying the success of both the Albertan economy and individual Albertans directly to the health of the oil and gas industry. An essential part of this ideology was that the oil and gas industry could not afford any increases in taxation.

In exchange ordinary Albertans saw nominal, paternalistic rewards for their participation as voters. In January 2006 each Albertan citizen regardless of age received a cheque for $400 called a “prosperity bonus” by the Progressive Conservatives. The money, nicknamed “Ralph Bucks” by Albertans after then-premier Ralph Klein, represented 20 per cent of the government surplus that year. Given the financial clout of the oil and gas companies and the reasonable, short term, success of the Alberta economy people remained disengaged from politics. I came of voting age that year and it was already an accepted truth that any vote other than Conservative was a wasted vote.

Notley was first elected in Edmonton Strathcona as one of only two NDP candidates elected. The other, then party leader Brian Mason, was elected in Edmonton-Highlands—the second lowest income of an electoral district in the province, and also one of the most culturally diverse. Retroactively this can be seen as the beginning of the NDP’s resurgence.

The Alberta Liberals had been ineffective as an opposition party and lacked a platform that differentiated them from the New Democrats. Nonetheless the Conservatives were still seen as undefeatable and the NDP seats were seen as urban anomalies and not the beginning of a groundswell. Nonetheless the Alberta NDP continued to develop a small but loyal following amongst Albertans as an alternative to the PC’s.

Right-wing infighting

After Ralph Klein stepped down in December 2006 the Progressive Conservatives had a rolling crisis of leadership for several years. Klein’s successor Ed Stelmach, nicknamed Steady Eddy for his don’t-rock-the-boat model of governance, continued pandering to Big Oil. When, under pressure from Albertans and the political left, he pushed for a review of royalties paid by oil companies, the companies responded by pulling funding from the PC’s and throwing it behind the fledgling Wildrose Alliance Party which offered an alternative to what was seen as fiscal liberalism from the Conservative party.

With the monetary support of Big Oil, the WRP was considered by many to be the frontrunners of the 2012 election but failed to take the legislature. Instead they formed the official opposition. Due to the surge of the WRP the PC’s replaced Ed Stelmach with Alison Redforth. Redford’s tenure was the briefest of any elected premier in Alberta’s history after allegations of corruption caused her removal. The Conservatives chose as her successor Jim Prentice, former Federal Conservative MP and, at that time, vice-chairman at CIBC. On the opposite side of the legislature the WRP was facing its own internal problems with WRP MLAs leaving the party to sit as independents. The floor crossing culminated in then leader Danielle Smith crossing the floor with seven other members of the WRP to join the PC’s.

Then came the downswing of oil prices and the once mighty Alberta economy, with all of its eggs in the oil and gas basket, swung down with it. This led to widespread concern by Albertans about the future. The beginning of the end for Jim Prentice’s Conservatives began with the announcement of the provincial budget. This budget cut services while raising taxes on everyone except corporations and the very rich. Prentice then unleashed a minor social media firestorm by telling Albertans that their own reckless spending was to blame for the crisis.

Orange wave

It seems that the comments crystallized for Albertans the contempt shown by the political establishment. Notley and the NDP positioned themselves as a populist party unlike the arrogant “establishment” parties of the WRP and PCs. Furthermore the NDP capitalized on the flaws in the budget, promising to balance the budget by increasing taxation on corporations and on the wealthiest members of the province and use the money to maintain schools and hospitals—major targets for Prentice’s cuts—along with promising a $15 minimum wage.

Both Notley’s popularity and the desperate reaction to it of both right wing parties and their voters led to a dramatic resurgence of election participation. Voter turnout was 58 per cent, the highest it has been since 1993, and numerous people I interviewed spoke about watching the election with interest.

People saw this election as a possibility for real change and the established order and their supporters rose up against it. Albertans who viewed the NDP for the first time noted Notley’s intelligence and diligence as well as her humanity, and responded positively to this as an alternative. Although the story of this election is, to a degree, about being in the right place at the right time one cannot speak about the NDP victory without noting years of diligent work that positioned them as the alternative to the two conservative parties. In order to combat the rising support for the NDP the right’s rhetoric was of the economic disaster that the NDP would bring about; very little of this is in line with the actual policy of the NDP, which would be best described as centre-left.

The provincial NDP’s win has also positively benefited the federal NDP, as recent polling has seen them pull ahead of the federal Conservatives and Liberals. This could change the debates about “strategic voting,” especially at a time when Justin Trudeau’s party joined Harper in passing the draconian Bill C-51. Previously those on the left were told to vote for the corporate Liberals to defeat the corporate Tories; but anger at the Liberals and an example of the NDP defeating the Tories could pull voting in a direction that is actually strategic: voting against the twin parties of corporate Canada.

NDP contradictions

But despite the hope in the orange wave, the Alberta NDP will immediately face their contradictions. Notley’s official position is not—as it is often implied or believed—to stop the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline; the position of her party is simply to not actively assist in its development. Although this non-involvement does represents a shift from the policies of the previous party, which often utilized political muscle to ensure work like this would be accomplished.

There is also no specific intent to shut down tar sands operations, and in fact a part of Notley’s platform was an interest in building oil and gas refineries in Alberta in order to make the bitumen industry more profitable for Albertans. The difference between the perception of the NDP and their actual platform means it is possible that the provincial NDP will spend much of the term facing accusations from the right that their socialism is ruining the province while the left cries out its disappointment at the failures to institute dramatic reforms.

This is made more challenging given that she was elected to majority government with only 41 per cent of the vote. During their term the NDP will likely face substantial opposition from both of the right wing parties in Alberta and has inherited an economy in a downturn. Although the WRP and PC’s only have 31 of the 87 seats in the legislature together they held 52 per cent of the popular vote. This means that Notley and her party have to move quickly to gain the approval of Albertans if they wish to maintain leadership after this term is up.

Left to their own devices the NDP—based on their history across the country and the logic of social democracy—will seek to lower expectations and compromise on their promises. The NDP exist to manage capitalism not challenge it, and Notley’s first call was to reassure Big Oil that things would be “A-OK.” This will not only undermine their reforms, but will disillusion their supporters and encourage the right-wing attack. The real hope from the orange wave is the confidence it can give to the labour and climate justice movements, which can shift the balance of forces outside the legislature—undermining the right-wing and pushing the NDP to the left.

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