Re-stating the obvious: elections matter, and the Alberta NDP victory on May 5, 2015, proves it

Posted on May 05, 2017, 12:19 am
9 mins

PHOTOS: Rachel Notley celebrates her victory on the night of May 5, 2015. Below: Ms. Notley again, the same night, still celebrating; defeated Progressive Conservative Premier Jim Prentice as seen via TV at NDP headquarters conceding to the NDP; a small corner of the crowd at NDP election headquarters in Edmonton.

Today marks the second anniversary of the election of the New Democratic Party led by Rachel Notley as the government of Alberta – proof if ever there was that elections matter!

It also marks the approximate likely halfway point of the NDP’s first term in office.

It is fair to say that in the lead-up to the 2015 Alberta general election, no one thought the NDP would form a majority government, at least until a few days before as the polls started noticeably to shift. This would include Ms. Notley and the core leadership of her party.

Even when the polls did begin to show signs of significant movement, there was a powerful air of unreality about the whole thing – all the more so for those of us who were long-time supporters of the Alberta NDP, an inclination that hitherto had required vast patience, and no small amount of faith.

I can tell you that on election night, based on the experience of 44 years of Tory rule, I still thought it was possible another NDP caucus of only three or four members remained a distinct possibility – albeit a possibility that had been shrinking as the ballot-counting hour grew closer.

“Maybe a minority” was my mumbled mantra as I pointed my car toward the Edmonton hotel where the NDP would hold its celebration come what may. (I could still remember March 12, 2001, when the re-election of leader Raj Pannu and future leader Brian Mason in the face of yet another Tory majority had celebratory New Democrats shaking the rafters at another downtown hotel with chants of “Raj Against the Machine!”)

It was a disappointment, though hardly a shocking one, when the first radio report I heard after the polls closed said the Tories were leading in the first three Calgary ridings to report. Aw, here we go again, I thought.

That was the last report like that of the evening, though. What came after was different, I’ll tell you that. And, yes, the cheers in 2015 were louder than those in 2001, and suddenly there were faces you’d never seen before in the room.

But just because the election two years ago was a surprise – and would on some level have been a surprise even if the polls had been saying the same thing for six months, instead of about six days – it does not mean, the opposition narrative notwithstanding, that Albertans did not intend to pick an NDP government.

They intended to alright. They just didn’t expect to. Post-election polling suggests Alberta voters knew perfectly well who and what they were voting for. They just didn’t anticipate getting the result that they desired.

This is what the lawyers call “a nice distinction” – that is, an exceedingly fine one. But it’s an important distinction nonetheless.

Failing to understand this subtlety can lead to error and embarrassment – like that of Derek Fildebrandt of the Wildrose Opposition, who in October 2015 publicly concluded the NDP are liars because they kept their promises! As the Globe and Mail, Canada’s National Website, put it in one of the most delightful headlines I have ever read: “NDP duped voters by implementing its promises, Wildrose finance critic says.”

This error, and the attitude that begat it, persists in Alberta conservative circles.

Five days after the election, I asked a Tory ministerial aide of my acquaintance when his guys had begun to realize they were going to lose the election. “They never did,” he said bitterly, as he packed up his Edmonton apartment. “They still haven’t!” Now that it’s been two years, some of them still haven’t.  (He kindly gave me a couple of lamps for my daughter’s apartment.)

Personally, I began to get an inkling of what was coming the weekend before, door-knocking for Marie Renaud, now the NDP MLA for St. Albert. It seemed as if someone at every second house in the Edmonton bedroom suburb reported they planned to vote NDP – or already had in an advance poll. I kid you not, at one house the occupants all came to the door and all shook my hand because they’d never met a real New Democrat before. Ms. Renaud won almost every poll in the city.

It was inspiring … and unsettling.

What does this tell us now that two years have passed, the NDP has experienced some bad bumps on the road along with its successes, and the Notley Government has been the subject of a campaign of vilification by the right and mainstream media almost unprecedented in recent Canadian history?

Here are four conclusions that I believe are unassailable:

  1. Alberta has changed, irrevocably, thanks to societal and demographic shifts, just as we always assumed would someday happen. Alberta’s conservative parties can form governments again, but not if they forget this fact, and likely not as easily as they imagine when they do forget it, which is frequently.
  2. Canadian electorates are more volatile than we imagined, and if they take a notion to do something, they just might. This goes double when governments ignore what voters obviously want them to do and treat them with casual contempt, as the Progressive Conservatives led by Jim Prentice did when they took the advice of their Ontario-based strategists and called an early election no one wanted in 2015.
  3. Leadership matters – and Rachel Notley is an extraordinary leader. She was preceded at the party’s helm by fine people, including Mr. Mason and Dr. Pannu, but I doubt the NDP would have formed a majority without her, and any opposition party that sells her short is making a big mistake.
  4. Elections matter. Let me say that again, loudly, to young people in particular, many of whom have concluded the system is rigged and their votes make no difference. Even when your cynicism is partly justified, elections matter.

Circumstances matter too. In addition to their hubris, Mr. Prentice and the PCs were unlucky when oil prices didn’t co-operate with their plans. If they’d waited a year, if prices had recovered a little, perhaps we’d be gloomily getting ready to mark their 46th year in power this fall.

Moreover, Canadians are wary of extremism – and conservative parties, as we have seen in the continuing Conservative Party of Canada leadership race, are increasingly dominated by extremist market fundamentalist and social conservative ideologues. So conservative supporters shouldn’t assume they can be extremists and also be electoral successes.

What else can I tell you? Keep an eye on what happens in British Columbia next Tuesday, in Nova Scotia at the end of the month, and in Ontario next year. Who knows, when the dust settles, maybe there will be three more NDP governments in Canada?

Take it from Alberta: Never say never!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

17 Comments to: Re-stating the obvious: elections matter, and the Alberta NDP victory on May 5, 2015, proves it

  1. Adam E

    May 5th, 2017

    I was working in a polling station in the riding of Calgary Elbow. Gordon Dirks was the incumbent, and Greg Clark was certainly on the verge of unseating him. Perhaps that’s why the PCs had so many volunteer scrutinizers at the station that day – I feel about six or so would be right.

    The first sign something was up was when a young girl, younger than me, walked swiftly out of the polling station, crying. Her emotion was plain, seen from across the room. As she left and cried past me, I saw on her phone an email with PCAA marks all over it. One doesn’t get any news of the world in these stations, but I took that woman as a sign something was happening outside.

    The older scrutineers stayed strong until the end. Maybe they didn’t have smartphones. Regardless, when it came time for the ballots to be counted, my partner and I, being new, separated all the ballots into separate piles and decided to make our count of the votes by size, by smallest to largest, with Greg Clark’s pile looking conspicuously bigger than the rest.

    Being slow, my partner and I, soon the scrutineers had all assembled around our table. They were relieved that Larry Heather got no votes; they gave sighs of relief as the Liberal and NDP candidates were swiftly counted. There were even little cheers.

    Then we made it to the second biggest pile: Gordon Dirks of the PCAA. We counted the ballots in sets of 50; every time we got through another set the PC volunteers cheered. Just counting one put them ahead of every other party. By the time we had finished with the PC ballots, the volunteers seemed totally sure that at least here, in our little corner of Calgary-Elbow, the incumbent had won.

    There remained the biggest pile to count, however. Again, we counted the votes in batches of 50 – and every time we did so – I will never forget this one older woman asking us, “and that’s all, right?” No, not hardly; as she could plainly see, there were still hundreds of other votes to be tallied. We kept counting, and the worry on their faces grew, and every time, they wanted to believe that we had finished counting, only to be disappointed, again.

    Ultimately, and to the surprise solely of the PC volunteers crowding around us, Greg Clark won our polling booth. The volunteers departed, disappointed, as my partner and I filed the paperwork.

    Finally, we had our chance to walk outside, to news of an NDP majority.

    Reply
  2. J.E. Molnar

    May 5th, 2017

    Bombast and bluster won’t win elections. Neither will crusades of alternative facts. When 2019 rolls around opposition parties who seek to benefit from the province’s misfortune by maliciously maligning and condemning NDP governance had better do so with caution. The NDP record of achievement is there for everyone to view — alternative facts be damned.

    A more sophisticated electorate that includes a high degree of politically astute millennials have helped alter the political landscape of Alberta. In fact, millennial votes were up 12 per cent for 18-24 year-olds and up 11 per cent for 25-34 year-olds. Women and low-income wage earners and families will pay an integral part in the next election as well, primarily because of legislative advancements championed by the NDP on files that impact these demographic groups. Who would have thought a political party would keep its promises?

    Finally, the future bodes well for the party with its secret weapon — Rachel Notley— performing like a fine-tuned turbocharged engine. As Climenhaga so astutely observed, Notley has characteristics other leaders wish they possessed. Wit, compassion, charisma and enthusiasm are trademark characteristics of Rachel Notley that the stiff, wooden opposition leaders have come to jealously admire.

    A repeat election victory in 2019 is not assured, but opposition parties who fail to take the NDP seriously will do so at their own peril. In the meantime, I like the rest of the NDP family of progressives are enjoying the exhilarating ride.

    Reply
  3. David

    May 5th, 2017

    Elections do matter. I got the sense halfway through the campaign it might turn out as it did. It was the news from Calgary that started to seem more favorable to the NDP than it ever had that made me realize the NDP strength was more than just an Edmonton phenomenon . The PC’s for years and years had successfully painted the NDP as extremists, but this time the label was not sticking to Rachel Notley. What voters in Calgary (and elsewhere in Alberta) saw was someone who would govern in a quiet, competent way after years of PC drama and bungling. Yes, most people were shocked or surprised at the outcome, but the intent of voters individually was clear. They just didn’t realize how many of their friends and neighbours came to the same conclusion as them.

    At this point I have to think about recent protest movements, like the Occupy movement a few years ago. What has it achieved? Trump is US President and the Republicans are back to removing the restrictions on Wall Street put in after the Great Recession by Obama. I am not against protesting and I believe it is important and necessary in a democracy. The protests in Alberta against Ralph Klein privatizing health care did slow him down and cause him to moderate his course somewhat. However, at the end of the day it who is elected as a government that decides issues and policies. For those that put a lot of their energy into protests, please save enough energy for elections too. They do still matter and they matter a lot – even when you don’t expect the outcome, it can still happen.

    Reply
  4. May 5th, 2017

    I am not a traditional NDP supporter but the Notley Gov’t is not a traditional NDP Government. They are more like the Liberals.

    In any event that past two years have been extremely refreshing. So good to get rid of the old guard Conservative politicians who were, and still are, more concerned about themselves than they are about Albertans. I mean really what does anyone expect from the likes of Ric McIvor or Jason Kenney. No wonder so many members are bailing on the Party.

    Good work Rachael and team. Keep it up. You are making a difference. But, I am sure that after another term it will be time for a refresh!

    Reply
  5. Farmer B

    May 5th, 2017

    I agree with you Dave, every government in a democracy has a best before date. The Alberta PC’s reached theirs. The unfortunate reality for every future Alberta government and for that matter most governments in Canada, our constant demand’s for government today without the will to pay for it causes large deficits and the finance costs of those deficits handcuff all future governments. As our population ages and their are less working taxpayers to shoulder this burden this cost becomes all the more important. While there is no doubt I personally disagree with most of the Alberta NDP policies Premier Notley ran a good campaign and as a result won.

    Reply
  6. May 5th, 2017

    Congratulations to Premier Notley and her party for having governed us so well during the past 2 years.

    Reply
  7. Val

    May 5th, 2017

    “Here are four conclusions that I believe are unassailable:
    1.
    2.
    3.
    4.”
    1. it’s quite exaggerated. Albertas’ voters, like in any other province, does change their mind according to circumstances. NDP government will be judged at voting stations on base what they have achieved and how much their achievements in positive or negative way has impact on majority of the voters. as i notice so far, negative side prevailed over positive, albeit not as much, as was in last year of PC rule.

    2. just like to remind you, 11 premier’s closest advisers was imported from out of province and only 5 are albertans. you really think those are better than ones, who did advise Mr. Prentice just because they are NDPiers?

    3. i cannot argue that Ms. Notley in comparison to her predecessors, quite differ but not agree with remark about her’s extraordinary leadership. her absence of ability to form really good team is too obvious and will have significant impact on outcome of next election.

    4. no objections.

    Reply
    • Topiary

      May 5th, 2017

      And..
      5. finally we have a government that understands the weight of income inequality as a consequence of social policy and not divine hereditary rights .

      Reply
      • Val

        May 7th, 2017

        #5 isn’t on original list but if you insist – well, there are different understanding of inequality and thus approach to solve it differ too. in Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea equation of socium means everyone, except ruling top, should be poor.
        since we live in democracy and don’t have prosecution for attempt to be rich, “progressive” type of party sees the solution in taxing everyone to the death and redistribute collected wealth as they see it fit. if this do not brings enough of funds, plan B is to borrow and spend on “equation”, instead of invest into establishing and developing of profit generating economic base, leaving next government to deal with consequences.

        Reply
  8. Lars

    May 5th, 2017

    One of my favourite examples of cognitive dissonance was demonstrated by Brian Jean, I think in the week before the last election: “The people of Alberta don’t want an NDP government, but that’s what the polls seem to indicate we’re going to get.”

    Reply
  9. May 5th, 2017

    On election night I was scrutineering at a St Albert polling station for the NDP. The first sign that things might not be good for the PC’s was the simple fact that they didn’t even have a volunteer at the poll. When the boxes were opened and sorted into piles, there was absolutely no doubt that Marie Renaud had won. The actual count was anticlimactic.

    I had supper with a former PC MLA in late December and she absolutely believes that the PC loss was only due to Prentice’s unpopularity and that they will find an easy road back to power under Jason Kenney. It was surreal. If she represents the level of insight in the party ranks, they really do not understand why they lost, or what they need to change.

    Reply
    • Val Jobson

      May 7th, 2017

      Hard to believe she could think that. I could have voted for Prentice under the right conditions, but never for Kenney. Prentice was an Albertan; Kenney doesn’t feel like one.

      Reply
  10. Jan Johnstone

    May 6th, 2017

    This: “the Notley Government has been the subject of a campaign of vilification by the right and mainstream media almost unprecedented in recent Canadian history?”

    Not unprecedented but expected as the same thing happen in Ontario when the NDP won in 1990. It was relentless & nasty. It purposefully misrepresents the facts. Hence, the tagline happening in BC election, don’t elect NDP look at Alberta. Yea, look at Alberta with the best economy, more jobs etc. In Ontario, like the rest of Canada in the 90s, all govts were in debt & deficit, federally & provincially but only the NDP carries this line: Remember the Bob Rae years!
    I’m so glad Notley is sticking with her plan. It’s working. Thanks

    Reply
  11. jerrymacgp

    May 6th, 2017

    There have been a few stumbles. Bill 6 in particular was very poorly handled in terms of its introduction and implementation. But there have also been numerous successes. Look at some of the most recent bills they have brought forward: expanding whistleblower protection in the public sector … requiring home builders be licensed (who knew … that they weren’t already, that is?) … their collaboration with Wildrose to pass that private member’s bill about sexting and social media photo sharing …

    Let the OTRM and red-meat small-‘c’ conservatives rant against the Notley government as being the next thing to chaos; they are, by and large, practicing good, practical and pragmatic governance, with nary a hint of ideological policy in sight. 2019 might be far more interesting than some pundits might predict.

    Reply
  12. May 7th, 2017

    I really did not know what to expect from the Notley Government. I was not even sure if they would form a Government.

    My last vote was one of those where I was voting against something. Just wanted them OUT. Prentice seemed like an empty suit leading a Party with more skelatons than we see on a Halloween night. Did not even consider voting WRP.

    So far, I have been very pleasantly surprised. I thought we were elected an NDP Government. Looks more like Peter Lougheed Government to me. Very pleased.

    And as the Kenney Conservatives push further to the right and choke out meaningful discussion in the Party, the appeal of the Notley team only increases for me.

    Reply
  13. Chris

    May 7th, 2017

    The reason the federal conservatives are doing well is because of market fundamentalism. People are tired of phony conservatives and want a true conservative party which will make Canada great again.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      May 8th, 2017

      Well, “Chris,” this one made me laugh out oud, so I’ll let it live. Don’t expect this to happen very often, though. DJC

      Reply

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