by David T. Jones
SUMMARY. The May 7, Alberta, Canada, provincial election saw the end of the current longest surviving democratic government. The Alberta Tories, at the 43-year mark, had survived recessions, mediocre leadership, and institutionalized hubris during that period, but a political “perfect storm” not only defeated them, but replaced them by a come-from-nowhere New Democratic Party (socialist) majority government. Much to the delight of many eastern Canadians, the Alberta Tories have had their comedownance. History has not been kind to inexperienced socialist governments, but the Alberta NDP has some prospective advantages, especially if the Great Recession finally ends. The relevance for federal Tories and NDP is more problematic. END SUMMARY
As professional observers of politics, we study dynasties as part of history. What prompts their rise; what sustains them for decades, even centuries; what prompts their collapse; and what is their aftermath and its meaning?
So we poke about in ancient history reviewing the Chinese Han, Chin, Ming, Sung, and Manchu dynasties. We look at the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine empires seeking rise-and-fall lessons. And, in more modern times, we puzzle over the still reverberating ramification from WWI which destroyed the German, Austrian, Turkish, and Russian Empires. And, likewise, we seek lessons in the post-WWII political spectrum which saw the end of the Japanese Empire and the fatal weakening of the sun-never-setting-on-it British Empire.
We can look with a degree of grim amusement on the pretentiousness of the German Nazi “1,000 year Reich” which lasted 12 years (1933-45). Or the ideologically driven Soviet communists (1917-89) who subsequently could watch the slowly assembled Russian empire disintegrate into component shards post 1991. We can simply be grateful that these vicious tyrannies disappeared—the Nazis in a welter of blood and the Soviets more with a whimper than a bang.
Dynasties in democracies are much harder to assemble. Indeed, if a governing party lasts more than a decade in power, it is noteworthy. The 71-year-rule of the Mexican Permanent Revolutionary Party, ending in 2000, was unparalleled in North America. Consequently, in modern U.S. politics for the Democrats to have held the presidency from 1932 until 1952 was remarkable. Even more so was Democratic Party control of the House of Representatives from 1954-1994.
Turning to Canada, the federal Liberal Party was (somewhat jestingly) called the “natural governing party” and held power for 69 years of the 20th century. Indeed, the opposition Tories gained power only when the Liberals had been more than acceptably corrupt or incompetent.
On a provincial level in Canada, there have been some extended political party powers. Ontario saw Tories govern uninterruptedly from 1943-85; Quebec’s Union Nationale (1936-39; 1944-60); Sasketchewan first under the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (1944-64) then under New Democrats (1971-82; 1991-2007); and British Columbia under the BC Social Credit Party (1952-72; 1975-91).
But most recently, it has been Alberta that attracted attention for extended political dynasties: Social Credit (1936-71) and then Tories (September 10, 1971-May 5, 2015) the longest unbroken period of electoral control in Canadian history.
Some Observations on the Alberta Tories. Albertans have been described as the “most Americanized” of Canadians. That is a description true only in the absence of analysis and in comparative Canadian terms. Even the most conservative Canadians stand several steps to the left of most U.S. voters. For example, Albertans accept positions regarding socialized medicine and gun control that no U.S. conservative would endorse. And it is the rare Albertan that would accept the levels of defense/security commitment standard for U.S. politics.
On the other hand, Albertans are vigorously entrepreneurial and have extensively exploited natural advantages of their province (underground resources being a provincial monopoly). First came cattle ranching but, for more than a generation, Alberta could be described as “Texas North” with massive energy extraction and commensurate economic benefits. Much of the initial financing came from the United States with banks in Toronto reportedly unwilling to take a chance with Alberta oil. Albertans grew to believe themselves especially privileged (as if living on top of massive oil and gas reserves was a mark of virtue). Consequently, the rest of Canada (ROC) was often off put by “born on third base but thinking they hit a triple” Albertan attitudes which combined entitlement with a more than a touch of arrogance.
The energy wealth permitted Alberta to avoid a provincial sales tax and have a very low provincial income tax. This “Alberta Advantage” was played by Tory incumbents to argue (really with very little debate) that they were responsible for such good fortune and only they could be trusted with the province’s future. And they were buttressed by a generation spanning grievance: the Trudeau-Liberal Party instituted National Energy Program and federal price controls over Alberta oil throughout the 1970s and early 1980s (ultimately abolished by federal Tory Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1985). Albertans have believed ever since that Ottawa robbed them of as much as $100 billion with controls that disadvantaged Alberta (where the Liberals had no Members of Parliament) to the benefit of eastern Canada where Liberal strength lay. Ever since, Liberals (both provincial and federal) have qualified as “endangered species” in Alberta.
Consequently, Alberta’s Tory government rolled along smoothly, although after initial leadership bu Peter Lougheed (1971-85), premiers were essentially undistinguished and, under Ralph Klein, (1992-2006) close to buffoonish. Still the Tory dynasty rolled on with Albertans either amused or perhaps disgusted, but with the best economy in Canada seeing no reason to change.
Then Things Got Worse. Ed Stelmach (2006-11) appeared to be an accidental premier, winning after finishing third in initial round of leadership voting. With the first cool breezes of the 2008 Great Recession beginning to chill the Alberta boom, Stelmach was forced out. The Tories made what proved to be a disastrous choice: the first woman premier (Allison Redford), who had followed the Stelmach pattern to victory as party leader—split the vote of more popular candidates and won on the third round of balloting. During the campaign, Redford had support from only one member of the provincial assembly, a harbinger of problems to come. She had spent considerable time away from Alberta, consorted with “Red” (liberal) federal Tories, and performed good works internationally (worthy worldly activities but not impressive to “severely normal” Albertans). The sobriquet of the day was “Red, Redder, Redford.”
Increasingly irritated by the perception of indifference and confusion among the Tory government, a conservative movement was rising on the right. Danielle Smith organized the “Wildrose” (Alberta’s state flower) Party with the essential theme of returning to greater fiscal discipline and conservative budgeting. Wildrose began nipping at the Tories flanks with these themes and appeared ready to end the Tory dynasty in the 2012 election.
The campaign for the Alberta election was closely followed in the Canadian media outside Alberta with almost a gloating anticipation of comedownance for the Tories. Instead, election day demonstrated comprehensive pollster failure as the Tories pulled off a 12th consecutive majority government. Although expanding its provincial assembly membership, Wildrose underperformed expectations. Danielle Smith proved unable to muzzle her less house-broken candidates sufficiently well enough to prevent blowback from an electorate perhaps willing to change parties, but not willing to appear bigoted.
The election proved to be the high point for Redford—and oddly enough also for Daniel Smith’s Wildrose.
Redford quickly found herself enmeshed in a series of fiscal expense abuses, e.g., costs of private transportation to the Mandela funeral (when she could have accompanied federal Prime Minister Harper); using a small provincial air fleet for largely personal convenience; planning for provincially funded luxury living accommodations close to the legislative building. Not outright fraud, let alone Swiss bank accounts malfeasance, but sufficient to prompt her removal by the Tory caucus.
King Jim to the Rescue.
But most impressively, Prentice appeared to lever the Tory vehicle out of the ditch. To mix metaphors, the Alberta Tories, despite their 40-year-run in office, looked like clueless goslings under Redford ready for the plucking by a Smith’s Wildrose Party, which was steadily recovering in the polls from its embarrassing 2012 defeat. Prentice almost instantly moved to restore Tory “roots” and eliminate grandiose Redford expenditures. And by winning four 2014 October by-elections (including his own), he arguably demonstrated the motif for Wildrose disaffection had been eviscerated.
But even more adroitly, Prentice convinced the bulk of the Wildrose MPAs, including Danielle Smith, that it was better to switch than fight hopelessly when the Tories had not only eaten their lunch, but were set to devour dinner in terms of fiscal prudence. Here Prentice doubtlessly drew on negotiating skills honed in helping to coordinate the union of the federal conservative parties more than a decade earlier. Smith appeared to have lost heart; or didn’t have the commitment to battle as an alternative conservative leader indefinitely. And who know exactly what Prentice promised in the way of government positions for her and other aisle crossers?
But it proved to be too clever by half.
Prentice brought down a budget that rather than emphasizing fiscal rectitude with cuts in government, etc, focused on tax increases. These, however, continued to avoid the “third rail” of a sales tax, but rather included a range of small taxes that also avoided corporate increases but landed on middle class tax payers. Not popular.
Then, seeking to take advantage of a Wildrose Party in turmoil (nobody paid any attention to either the Liberals, let alone the NDP), Prentice called an election a year in advance of the required date. Ostensibly, to provide a fresh mandate for the government, the election provided instead a focus for voters tired of Tory corruption shenanigans, disgusted with Wildrose leadership decamping from its constituents, bitterly unhappy with the decline in the economy, and not all that thrilled by a $1,000 “suit” from the East telling them increased taxes/cuts were the consequence of Albertan excesses.
Leadership debates are usually a wash, but this was the first time Albertans had seen the major party leaders go head to head. One observer said the new Wildrose leader (Brian Jean) had a “terrible debate performance” and Prentice “seemed to have his weight on the wrong foot.” In contrast, the NDP leader Rachel Notley was smooth and engaging; described in one account as seemingly “warm, spontaneous, and caring.”
So for once, the pollsters were correct—although nobody believed them. Nobody really believed that the Tories were toast. Reportedly, in the campaign headquarters when watching the electoral returns consecrating a NDP majority government rolling in across the province, the frequent reaction was “Holy shit.”
But the results were just that: NDP 54 seats with 40 percent of the vote; Wildrose 21 seats with 24 percent; Tories 10 seats with 27 percent. (Liberals and Alberta Party won one seat each).
Particularly striking was voter turnout at 58.1 percent, the highest in two decades. One could conclude that voters were (expletive deleted).
But What Does It Mean for Alberta/Canada?
For Alberta. Tory leader Prentice immediately resigned not only as party leader but also from his seat (paralleling in a way federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s action following the 2011 election which confirmed the Tory attacks on him as “just visiting.” Clearly Prentice wasn’t going to stay around to fight from a third place minority and attempt to rebuild from the catastrophe. It will be up to the Alberta Tories to attempt to find some equivalent to the federal liberals Justin Trudeau with sufficient charisma to start the Tories on the long road back.
But maybe not. Small “c” conservatives take comfort in the numbers that note Notley won her seats with 40 percent of the vote; the combined Tory and Wildrose support was 52 percent. In many instances, the NDP “came up the middle” to win seats. Is union on the right possible? Crass political expediency suggests “yes” but no one should underestimate the anger/hard feelings and recriminations of “who did what to whom.”
And the NDP may screw up. Essentially, nobody has ever governed and only four have ever been in the provincial assembly. One observer said he held his nose and voted for the Tories as the NDP candidate was a 20-year-old. He further observed that he didn’t think a single member of the NDP caucus had any business experience (but there were lots of social workers, union representatives, teachers, and students). There is a parallel in Ontario when the NDP won power in 1990 in comparably, totally unexpected circumstances, demonstrated the party’s confusion, lack of preparation for governing, inexperience in fiscal management, a preference for ideology over practical solutions, etc. And, the province was headed into a recession from which the NDP attempted to spend its way clear. The consequence? Disaster with massive budget deficits from which the province has yet to recover.
The Alberta NDP may, however, be slightly better positioned to succeed than was Ontario. Canada (and the United States) are slowly grinding their way free from the Great Recession. A rising demand for Alberta’s energy products and hence rising prices for oil/gas could help contribute to a balanced budget. At the beginning of its mandate, the NDP could bite the bullet and do what the ROC has done: institute a provincial sales tax as well as raising corporate taxes and generate funds that could help fund the multiple expenditures socialist governments always desire. Such would complement the commitment already made to increase corporate taxes. Besides, the potential wrath of the electorate is well into the future.
For the ROC. Perhaps most obviously, the election removed Jim Prentice from political life. “King” Jim was at least on the short list to replace PM Harper when by defeat or choice, he leaves national political life. As such, Prentice could have been the first provincial premier in Canadian history to become prime minister. Now, Prentice is history—but in the sense that he has no political future. Presumably, he will return to the Toronto financial world where the “seat” that he left barely a year ago may still be warm.
Both the federal Tories and the federal NDP are examining the electoral entrails to seek precedents to adopt (or avoid) for the October federal election. For a generation, Alberta has been the Tory bastion winning 27 of 28 seats in the 2011 election (and anticipating more gains from the addition of six more seats for Alberta). Perhaps with fingers crossed, the Tories believe they and Prime Minister Harper are still popular in Alberta and voter anger was directed at the provincial government rather than conservatives. They note that the combination of conservative votes from Wildrose and Tories in Alberta would still provide Tory victories.
Obviously, the NDP hopes differently. NDPers will seek an “orange wave” in Alberta comparable to the recent provincial victory and akin to that in Quebec in 2011. However, NDP federal leader Thomas Mulcair has no roots in Alberta, and only one of his 100 MPs holds an Alberta riding. To maintain his Opposition status, let alone a chance for a federal victory, he must continue to hold the bulk of his 59-seat Quebec caucus, a daunting challenge given Liberal resurgence in Quebec. In Quebec Mulcair has birds in the hand; in Alberta they are very much in the bush.
In the five months before the federal election in October, there will be many opportunities to ponder the truism that a week in politics is a lifetime. A professional bet, however, would be that the federal Tories will retain their strength in Alberta. Instant polls, however, have moved the Tories, NDP, and Liberals into a three-way tie at the national level.
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