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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.