Politics come back to Alberta

With just two days until the Alberta election, polls incredibly continue to project a majority NDP government. Albertans themselves are considerably less bold, with many apparently believing the Tories will come out on top once again.

I understand their scepticism. The Tories, like the Damn Yankees, always seem to come out on top. For more than a generation (including my first twenty-odd years growing up there), they have been the province’s natural governing party. Placed in that context, the astonishing rise of the NDP seems too good to be true. As with the  dizzying ascent of the Wildrose party four years before, and indeed every one of the last twelve—12!—provincial elections, the eventual triumph of the PCs seems all but inevitable.

And yet, polls aside, there are solid reasons to believe that change is finally possible, perhaps probable. Indeed, in one sense, it doesn’t matter who wins on Tuesday. No matter the victor, we already know the most basic outcome: competitive politics have returned to Alberta. Unless and until oil prices return to their former lofty heights, they’re not going away—and perhaps not even then. The transition from one-party dominant to multipary system that began in 2012 has now been confirmed and completed in 2015.

What’s driving this change? In a word, it’s oil. Other factors matter, but we forget at our peril just how central it has been in shaping Alberta’s politics right down to the nature of its party system.

At their height, the Tories were not really a political party competing with other similar parties. It was a crucial link between the politics of the province and its dominant industry. Present in government at the start of the oil boom more or less by happenstance under Peter Lougheed, it was always seen as a reliable partner for the oil industry, a vocal proponent for the sector within Canada and internationally, one willing to keep royalty rates among the lowest in the world.

At the same time, with revenues flowing from the industry, the PCs could afford a big, roomy, comfortable tent capable of accommodating Albertans of almost any political stripe. From 2002-2014 for instance, resource revenue constituted 29% of the province’s income, or nearly a third of the total. A party can buy a lot of good will with that kind of money, and it allowed the PCs to fund robust public spending while maintaining the country’s lowest tax rates—something for everyone to love.

In consequence, many who would otherwise gravitate to another party under other circumstances talked themselves into the status quo, and opted to step into the tent rather than rock the boat and challenge a party with such a massive incumbent advantage. Those who did challenge the government tended to exist on the fringes of provincial political life, while the real discussions took place inside that big, comfy tent.

It is no coincidence that, prior to 2012, the last time the PC party was seriously challenged, way back in 1993, it came after a significant decline in energy prices wreaked havoc with the province’s finances, producing a spiraling debt and ultimately forcing the resignation of Don Getty. Then, it was the energetic leadership and personal popularity of his successor, Ralph Klein that staved off Laurence Decore’s charging Liberal party, essentially by campaigning against the Getty era even more effectively than Decore did. As oil prices and the province’s finances recovered, so too did the Tory stranglehold on power.

Returning to the present day, once more the goodwill funded by oil revenues has significantly diminished due to a fall in global energy prices. Like 1993, suddenly viable opposition parties have emerged as genuine alternatives to the suddenly vulnerable Conservatives. The post-Ralph years have not been kind to the PCs’ image however, and the present leadership is saddled not only with a gaping hole in the province’s finances, but lasting perceptions of arrogance and even venality in its approach to politics, a residue perhaps inevitable after four decades in power.

Of course, other factors matter too, though many of them relate to oil as well either directly or indirectly. For instance, the implications of climate change have become inescapable even in a province as dependent on fossil fuels as Alberta. This has led to an increasing number to question the province’s role in aggravating what is arguably the defining problem of the present era, even if it proves economically damaging in the short run to do so.

Other voters have simply grown tired of 40 years of government by the same party. Some take issue with the Conservatives’  uninspiring and/or overly entitled leaders since Klein’s departure. Danielle Smith in particular made profitable use of that discontent, though even she was unable to triumph in 2012 largely due to that resilient and adaptive Tory big tent coalition.

With oil revenues significantly down however, the big tent is finally collapsing. Alberta now faces the same hard choices that other districts have always faced: not just who gets what, but more importantly, how to pay for it. Those are hard questions for any democracy to deal with, and harder still in the context of a sudden and significant deficit.

They are questions best debated and answered out in the open for all to see rather than within the confines of a single party, however big. The province’s voters will encounter a meaningful choice on election day, the opportunity to select between multiple distinct and viable visions for the province’s future.

That’s why, no matter who comes out on top on Tuesday, Albertans are the real winners. Multiparty democracy has returned to the province, and seems unlikely to depart in the near future.

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