CALGARY – Three years ago today, Albertans did the unexpected in the province’s 29th general election and elected a majority New Democratic Party government.
In truth, despite Albertans having been instructed for generations by those who are supposed to know better that they lived in the most conservative province in Canada, what voters did was not completely unexpected.
From a macro point of view, it had been obvious for a while that significant demographic change was occurring in Alberta, and it seemed likely that one of these days … eventually … perhaps even soon … Albertans would be ready to do something other than just metronomically reelect Progressive Conservative governments.
From the micro perspective, it was certainly becoming apparent in the weeks and days before the election that voters were flowing to the NDP and its new leader, Rachel Notley, who had been chosen by the party only in the fall of the previous year.
Still, there’s big difference between sensing change is coming, or even having evidence that it is, and seeing it take place before your eyes. So the events of the evening of May 5, 2015, shocked almost everyone even if they ought not to have been all that shocking.
Well, what did you expect? After nearly 44 years of PC government, and 35 years of Social Credit before that, there was a tiny Tory in the back of every true Albertan’s head who was always whispering, “No you can’t!”
In the immediate aftermath of big change – the morning after the night before, as it were – a lot of commentators struggled to come to terms with Alberta’s new political reality.
“They were still referring to Alberta as ‘Canada’s most conservative province’ on the CBC just after midnight this morning as I drove home from the NDP’s massive victory celebration in Edmonton’s Westin Hotel,” I wrote on this blog that night, adding … “Actually, I think the national broadcaster might want to update that script!”
Notwithstanding what you’ve been told ever since by the usual suspects on the right, I still think that. Whatever happens after the general 30th general election expected in the spring of next year, assuming Premier Notley’s government plays along with the silly PC “fixed election period” law that still clutters up Alberta’s statutes, this place will never again be quite the same as it was before the Cinco de Mayo 2015.
Ms. Notley’s victory made it clear that Alberta is more like the rest of Canada – more humane, more inclusive, more respectful, more democratic, and therefore more prone to healthy changes of government from time to time. This remains true even if there is another change of government in 2019.
“Once they recover from yesterday’s shock,” I predicted in that first post-election commentary, “the right-wing opposition will go wild. It is not unreasonable to assume that some elements of the business community will go as far as trying to sabotage the economy, as happened when Bob Rae was premier of Ontario. … The right-wing press will start by telling us immediately this election result really means Albertans want more conservatism.”
In addition, I also predicted, “some of Ms. Notley’s strongest supporters will be disappointed and bitter when the realities of politics, which is the art of the possible after all, mean they cannot have their wish list instantly fulfilled.”
All this has come true in spades.
Of course Jim Prentice, the last PC premier of Alberta, inadvertently helped the NDP with one of the most spectacularly awful campaigns imaginable – a combination of lame strategy, bad luck, and a tin ear that didn’t seem capable of picking up what Albertans were telling him, which was not to call an early election.
The NDP presumably understands that it can’t expect a break like that again from the conservative movement. Right now, the tides seem to be running in favour of the United Conservative Party led by former Harper Government cabinet minister Jason Kenney, a thought that is bound to be emphasized as the party opens its first convention as a legal entity today in Red Deer. Notwithstanding the anniversary, it is likely to be a celebratory occasion, as befits a confident front-runner.
In Calgary last night, though, nearly 1,000 people gathered to hear a speech by Robert Reich, Public Policy Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, U.S. secretary of labour in President Bill Clinton’s administration, and an aggressive social media critic of the Trump Administration and its ilk elsewhere.
The topic of his remarks at the event organized by the Alberta Federation of Labour: “Saving Capitalism: Income Inequality and Populism.”
His point wasn’t that modern capitalism needs to be replaced by some other economic system. Rather, he argued, the choice now is what kind of capitalism we want, and we do have a choice. “Capitalism comes in many flavours.”
“The issue is not capitalism versus socialism,” he told a questioner. “The issue is what kind of capitalism. Is it capitalism that is human centred, centred on social justice, and the needs of people, or is it harsh capitalism that makes a few people very, very wealthy and almost everybody else frightened. Morally you cannot run a society in which only a few gain the benefits and most people are on the losing end.”
“You can’t even do it as a matter of economics,” he added, “because if you start losing your middle class, you don’t have enough aggregate demand for all the goods and services you’re producing.”
He described political discourse in the United States today in similar terms. “The essential debate in the United States is not between the left and the right, it is not between the Democrats and the Republicans, it’s between progressive populists and authoritarian populists.”
It’s hard not to see the choice between another government led by Ms. Notley and one led by Mr. Kenney in a very similar light.