Sunday, May 03, 2015

What rough beast slouches toward Edmonton?

The end of an era is approaching. The current Alberta Progressive Conservative dynasty assumed office on September 10, 1971 and has now lasted 43 years and eight months, but its end is nigh.
Alberta Legislature

Proliferating polls during the final week of Alberta's election campaign all point to a first-place finish for the NDP and a majority in the legislature on May 5. Given Alberta's political history of conservative governments both federally and provincially, this could only happen as the product of a perfect storm, an exceptional confluence of events and personalities.

A key factor is that the coalition that backed the Progressive Conservatives shattered with the breakthrough made by the Wildrose Party in 2012 when it captured 17 seats and almost 35% of the popular vote. Attention focused at the time on the PCs last minute comeback in the campaign and the errors in the polling preceding voting day. The coalition of right-wing and more centrist conservatives in Alberta is now deeply split, a fact that may have adverse consequences for Stephen Harper in the fall.

At the same time the NDP has effectively united the centre and left: it is the only progressivee political force with a full slate of candidates. By contrast, the Liberals have nominated candidates in just 56 of the 87 constituencies, and have been led ineffectively by an interim leader.

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice made two key miscalculations. First, he thought he would get political cover for an unpopular budget by getting former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and others to cross the floor to the PCs (the floor crossings did severely damage the Wildrose Party). Prentice also brought in a budget with health and education spending cuts along with sundry tax increases, but none on big corporations, sending completely the wrong signal in an era when there is mounting concern about inequality. Not all Albertans were asked to sacrifice for the public good.

Wildrose tried to capitalize on unhappiness with the tax hikes, but only NDP Leader Rachel Notley could address the sense of injustice that came with protecting the well-off, but asking ordinary citizens to pay more taxes and to surrender access to valued services. Her leadership and campaign performance in developing this theme have been central to the NDP's success.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley
There was one leaders' debate that Notley won decisively. During the debate, she had the good fortune to have Mr. Prentice launch an attack on her that was both wrong and appeared patronizing, when he said to her that "math is difficult". Often in politics it is the riposte demolishing the original charge that has the lasting impact, and so it was here as she instantly corrected his mistake (he confused the NDP's proposed percentage increase in corporate taxes 20%, from 10% to 12%, with the proposed rate of tax).

Alberta's history of voting for conservatives both federally and provincially in recent decades should not blind us to aspects of Alberta that point in the opposite direction. Alberta is more and more an urban province with more than half the constituencies to be found in the Edmonton and Calgary metropolitan areas. Beyond their boundaries lie other urban centres such as Lethbridge and Red Deer whose four seats are likely to be swept by the NDP. In 2010 while the City of Toronto was electing Rob Ford, Calgary elected the progressive Naheed Nenshi. Past voting on the centre and left has given Edmonton the sobriquet, "Redmonton".

Relative to other parts of Canada Alberta is a younger province. Demographic breakdowns in polls by Ekos and Mainstreet Technologies tell us that the only age category where the PCs and Wildrose exhibit any real strength is among those over 65, while the NDP is doing exceptionally well among the younger electorate.

Looking deep into Alberta's past we find that the United Farmers of Alberta, which governed the province from 1921 to 1935, included significant left of centre elements. To illustrate, eight of its nine federal Members of Parliament left the UFA to join the CCF when it was formed in 1932.

This is ancient political history. The modern NDP was originally built up by Grant Notley, Rachel's father, who led the party from 1971 until his death in a plane crash in 1984. Despite never having more than two members in the Alberta legislature, Notley nevertheless took governing seriously.

Many years ago I was told of a seminar organized in Edmonton in early 1983 by two academics that included the leaders of the NDP in the three prairie provinces. In addition to Notley, other attendees were Alan Blakeney who had recently finished serving as Premier of Saskatchewan for eleven years and Howard Pawley, Premier of Manitoba, who had been in office a little over a year. The seminar focused on the problems and prospects of governing a prairie province from a social democratic perspective. Notley was nowhere winning power, but he was fully engaged in the conversation.

This legacy of a serious political outlook and pragmatism is the family inheritance of Rachel Notley and is reflected in the Alberta NDP platform. Jim Prentice's mistake in the debate was based on the glib assumption that it was a radical, impractical document. Not so. A modest increase in the corporate tax rate to 12%, making it just half a point higher than in Ontario, hardly constitutes storming of the barricades. Alberta's corporate leadership would have better spent their political energy urging reforms like this themselves rather than castigating the NDP.

A majority seems imminent, but last minute or unexpected shifts could make a difference. The NDP has the least efficient vote in Alberta (due to its inordinate strength in Edmonton) while the Wildrose vote is the most efficient. In 2012 a comfortable Wildrose lead was reversed at the end of the campaign as Alison Redford's PCs stole a last second victory. There will continue to be both high hopes and nail-biting at NDP headquarters. My estimates of seat count, depending on the poll, range from the low forties to the high fifties (minority government remains a possibility). Unlike 2012 there is no sign of a last minute swing back to the PCs. A Forum poll released on May 3rd stands in stark contrast to a poll from the same firm in 2012 that did report a shift towards the PCs.

Once elected the Alberta NDP will face the difficulties of governing in hard economic times (at least relatively speaking in that province). However, Albertans know well what they are facing. That likely gives a new government some political space.

This is quite unlike the situation in Ontario in 1990 when Bob Rae's New Democrats won power. Then it was the end of a long boom and the full effects of the deep downturn of the early nineties had yet to make themselves known. Ontario's economy was just beginning to feel the negative impact of the tightening of monetary policy by the Bank of Canada and a high dollar, arguably the most important sources of that era's deep recession in Ontario (the Ontario deficits in those years were the effect of the downturn not the cause).

Alberta under conservative governments has lived off its oil wealth when it should have been running its finances approximately like other provinces and using the oil surplus as savings for a rainy day. Rachel Notley's government must deal with the consequences of decades of fiscal mismanagement by the Progressive Conservatives, but she appears to have the pragmatism and common sense to do so. I know these observations run counter to the fiscal reputations of the two parties and conventional wisdom generally. but electing an NDP government in Alberta turns the world of Canadian politics as we have known it on its head.