How the Hell Did a Left-Wing Party Suddenly Win an Election in Alberta?
The longest-lived political dynasty in Canadian history has been swept away after 44 years as Albertans voted en masse for the New Democratic Party.
A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
The 2015 election was supposed to be boring. Tedious, even. Alberta Premier Jim Prentice decided to flout the province's fixed-date election law because all the astrological signs pointed to an easy, uncomplicated win for his Progressive Conservative (PC) party, which had been in power in the province for four decades. Sure, a tanking economy is generally not a good time for a governing party to head to the polls, but it's not like anyone appeared ready to keep the guys in charge from racking up another monster majority government.
The main opposition—the Wildrose Alliance Party, a rural, right-wing protest party—had been decapitated a few months earlier in the largest and most outrageous floor-crossing in Canadian political history, when opposition leader Danielle Smith and all her high-profile colleagues decided they'd rather be on the winning team. Its new leader, a man named Brian Jean who rocks a bargain-bin televangelist haircut, was a virtual nobody had been at the helm for less than a month. The Liberals hadn't been a serious contender in over 20 years, the Alberta Party pretty much only exists on Twitter, and it would be literally insane to seriously believe anyone was going to vote for the New Democrats outside of some disaffected Trotskyists in downtown Edmonton.
All in all, it seemed like a pretty good time to for Prentice to pull the trigger.
And then... well, shit went off the rails, and when the dust settled the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) had picked up more than 50 seats in the province's 87-seat parliament leaving pundits across Canada to ask: What the fuck happened? Here's a rough explanation:
SPOILER: ALBERTA ISN'T AS CONSERVATIVE AS YOU THINK
If you can get past the initial weirdness of the idea—that the land of Nickelback fell, Brokeback Mountain-style, for a bunch of tweedy Dippers—it's actually not as fucked-up as it looks on paper.
For starters, no one has actually liked the PCs since "King" Ralph Klein retired from his illustrious career of burning down the public sector and kicking homeless people. That was almost a decade ago. Ed Stelmach sparked the Wildrose counter-revolution because, for many Albertans, simply suggesting that maybe oil companies should pay the province marginally more in royalties is basically one step removed from Stalinism.
Albertans were ready to jettison the Tories in 2012. But then they discovered that the only thing worse than another four years of living in a one-party state would be to bring in a government full of people who earnestly believed climate change is a Communist hoax to outlaw trucks and that homosexuals are corrupting our children. In the last few days before the vote, scared shitless that all the polls were showing a Wildrose victory, Albertans held their noses and rallied behind PC leader Alison Redford. She promised to rein in the creeping corruption that comes with 40 years of the same governing party, and then it turned out that she loved blowing public money on stupid shit that would make North Korea blush.
So you can understand their hesitance to believe Prentice this time around when he said that no, really, things will be different this time, because reasons.
But why did Albertans go the the NDP? The longstanding conventional wisdom, after all, is that Albertans are so deeply, inherently right-wing that the only party that could replace the Progressive Conservatives would be some straight-up regressive ones.
But the fact that so many people came to Redford's defense in 2012 shows that most of contemporary Alberta doesn't actually want to live in a redneck libertarian nightmare world. People have been looking for an out from the Tories for a while, and suddenly the NDP has provided one. It helps that incoming Premier Rachel Notley is terrifyingly sensible compared to her competitors—and that she's the daughter of former provincial NDP leader Grant Notley.
Alberta fucking loves its political dynasties. If the name "Trudeau" wasn't a curse word west of Saskatoon, they'd probably vote the shit out of Justin, too.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF FUCKED UP ALBERTA POLITICS
In the last 110 years, Alberta has changed its governing party three times. Prior to its establishment as a province in 1905, it was part of the Northwest Territories, and its legislature had no parties at all. Most people wanted to keep this nonpartisan system in place. But early 20th century Canada being corrupt as shit, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier wanted the new province to be run by local Liberals, which would make keeping it as a compliant resource colony for Ontario and Quebec that much easier. That ploy worked great, until the federal government changed and the provincial Liberals were left shut out from all that sweet, sweet patronage money.
Before long, rural farmers got tired of being fucked over by Central Canada and their nonsense party system. So in 1921, they handed a massive majority to the United Farmers of Alberta, a cooperative group that had decided to turn itself into a political party to set up a government by farmers, for farmers. This kept the trains running on time until Premier John Brownlee resigned in disgrace after a bizarre sex scandal in 1934.
Then the Great Depression hit. Alberta was actually a hotbed of communist activity in Canada in the 1930s, when worldwide capitalism suddenly didn't seem like such a hot idea. An agitated mob of card-carrying Reds fought the police in the Edmonton Hunger Riot of 1932. A southern mountain town called Blairmore actually elected a whole slate of Communists to their municipal council in 1935. Scratch hard enough and I bet everyone in the Rockies can belt out "The Internationale."
In 1935, a Calgary schoolteacher/angry radio preacher named William "Bible Bill" Aberhart promised he would end the Depression by giving everybody in the province $25 a month if they elected the Social Credit party. Despite the fact that this makes no fucking sense, Bible Bill won a huge majority and spent the next eight years fighting the Canadian banking establishment and printing his own money (no one would actually get their $25 until 1957, 14 years after his death). His successor, Ernest Manning, led the province through 25 years of oil prosperity and also got really upset about Medicare, liquor, and smutty Hollywood movies.
By 1971, Alberta was no longer the same place it was in the 30s or even the 50s. Social Credit and their doddering old fart of a premier were turfed in favor of lawyer—and former Canadian Football League player—Peter Lougheed and the Progressive Conservatives. The social and demographic revolutions of the 60s upended the fundamentalist Christian society Social Credit had come to stand for, and by the early 70s, the Baby Boomers couldn't take it anymore. What Lougheed was selling was a fresh take on how to run a modern petrostate, and it resonated with Flower Children.
DIE A HERO, OR LIVE LONG ENOUGH TO SEE YOURSELF BECOME THE VILLAIN
But the SoCreds didn't collapse in the 1971 election. They still pulled in over 40 percent of the popular vote. The Tories never even expected to win in 1971. They eked through a good chunk of districts on razor-thin margins, in some cases by less than 200 votes. Social Credit was still powerful and well-respected across the province, and none of the internal rot that was eating away at the party would become obvious to the public until well after they lost power.
This is vastly different from the situation in 2015. The signs of sickness in the governing party are everywhere.
Candidates publicly broke rank with the party line, backroom drama is being aired in public, campaign managers are quitting, flagrant corruption is coming to light, and one candidate is facing allegations of domestic abuse. As the campaign wore on, the whole enterprise took on an air of panic. Without a hint of irony, five corporate suits (who were also PC donors) issued an awkward press conference on May 1—International Workers' Day—complaining that marginally raising their taxes would implode the country's economy and that they'd stop donating money to a children's hospital in retribution for anyone voting NDP.
There's "tone deaf," and then there's whatever the fuck the Tory campaign was doing. The 2015 election was the story of an NDP government going from "impossible" to "improbable" to "possible to "probable" in the course of four weeks. The PCs were stodgier, more tired, and further out-of-touch than anything their propaganda team could have dreamed up about the SoCreds in 1971. Meanwhile, Jim Prentice can now add "fucking up a four-decade dynasty" to his long list of political failures. He also immediately resigned his seat before they even finished counting votes, making him look like one of the sorest losers of all time.
Despite what the PCs would have you believe, the NDP are not a troupe of socialists. They're barely social democrats. They'll raise corporate taxes to pay for health and education, and they've publicly mused about raising the province's abysmal minimum wage, but that's about as far as it goes. Notley is pro-tar sands development and pro-pipeline (she just prefers Energy East over Northern Gateway or Keystone XL). Even when she raises the prospect of reviewing oil industry royalties, she's no more a socialist than arch-Tory Peter Lougheed was.
The truth is, Alberta isn't that far right, and the provincial NDP isn't that far left. The NDP is a breath of fresh air in a province that desperately needs it. But once they take office, look at the books, and start playing the long game, I'd give them two years max before they start going around breaking hearts like every other provincial NDP government of the past 25 years.
But I don't want to understate how profound an NDP victory is. Its psychological impact is huge. If the NDP can win in Alberta, they can win anywhere, and we have to rethink a lot of the conventional wisdom about Canadian politics. And I'll be damned if I didn't get a little emotional when she offered to treat the province's indigenous peoples with dignity instead of as mere obstacles to setting up oil factories. If nothing else, it will at least put to rest the myth that Alberta always has been, and always will be, a monolithic conservative heartland.
The longest-lived political dynasty in Canadian history has been swept away after 44 years. And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Edmonton to be born?
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