By Trevor Busch
For many decades in Alberta — more than four, in fact — most pundits and observers would have been hard-pressed to refer to politics in this province as “interesting.”
A sad indictment, it must be said, but one that bears a degree of some truth. Successive Progressive Conservative governments through a dozen elections and 44 years in power gave a new meaning to the term dynasty in reference to a democratically-elected provincial government. No other provincial political party has ever displayed such impressive staying power.
Through good times and bad, generations of Alberta voters continued to be romanced by loyal Tory blue while opposition parties scuttled about like a bad joke to secure the handful of seats that might be tossed their way like a bone on election night. But alas, dynasties tend to breed complacency and arrogance, and a belief in one’s own invincibility — a bad combo for a political movement subject to the whims of a fickle electorate, who eventually became fed up with pork-barrel politics and top-down policy making. A seemingly-uniform block of conservative voters eventually proved they may have other colours in their wardrobe than Tory blue.
Now, for all intents and purposes, the once-mighty PCs are little more than a memory. Just over two years after being swept from power by the socialist upstart NDP, the party’s once powerful membership voted for its ignominious destruction — or rebirth in another form, depending on who you might be talking to — along with sworn blood-enemy the Wildrose Party, whose slightly more radicalized membership had long been a thorn in the side of the centrist PCs.
And it only took an election loss for the romance to begin between these two ridged bedfellows, once clasped at each other’s throats for electoral dominance, now exchanging the sweet caresses of a party merger. Sweep a conservative dynasty from power, and watch the transformation begin in the faces of its membership and supporters.
Calling it fear is hardly too strong a word for it — a triumph for democratic socialism and liberal-style ideologies is signal of the coming armageddon for true dyed-in-the-wool Tories.
Now begin the days of moral decay, when the institutions of our forefathers will come crashing down, and the evil liberal menace spreads its poisonous theories and corrupts our children with its dreams of an equal society. Rhetoric like this is not far removed from reality for the most radical stalwarts in the conservative camp.
Fear, it would appear, breeds unity — at least when referring to Alberta’s conservatives and the prospects for another NDP government in 2019. While the PCs bickered with their rivals the Wildrose for years over policy, direction and finances, few obviously ever suspected that the conservative hold over power in Alberta was ever threatened by anything even remotely left-of-centre. Whatever the party, it would be a conservative one in nature, right? Wrong. Amusing, then, for the unaligned voter to have witnessed the anguished looks of dumbfounded shock that inhabited the faces of those who always firmly believed that conservatism would never be challenged in the province. The NDP’s election victory in 2015 was a sea change in Alberta politics in more ways than one. While it represented the first victory of a left-of-centre party in the province since the days of Alberta’s inception in 1905, when — remarkably considering the winds of Alberta politics in the 20th century — the Liberal Party held sway, it also signaled the end of the idea that conservatism was wholly untouchable when it comes to the province’s politics.
That latter dose of reality is especially key, because it may represent the beginning of a renaissance for Alberta’s “other” parties, such as the Liberals, or even the Alberta Party. While another NDP victory in 2019 is by no means a foregone conclusion — even unlikely, again depending on who one is talking to — that doesn’t mean that the province’s other parties might not soak up some of the votes that were tossed the way of the NDP in 2015 by a fed-up populace. If the NDP’s victory did nothing else for the province, it opened the door for alternative parties to make inroads, and shattered the myth that Alberta’s voters are a faceless block of conservative apologists, ready to mark an ‘X’ for the nearest fencepost painted Tory blue.
That being said, the NDP will be facing an uphill challenge. After some two years of NDP policy and social change — some of it probably positive and a long time coming, some perhaps less so — along with unpopular policies like the carbon tax, not to mention inheriting a disastrous economic situation from the outgoing PC government, Rachel Notley’s NDP will have a tough row to hoe to achieve the kind of majority success it enjoyed back in early 2015, when the bloom was still on the rose. Many voters believe they have been the victims of political duplicity, or hoodwinked in some way — truthfully few governments ever escape this criticism, good or otherwise — all of which will likely make the unassailable facade of the NDP more like a climb up a steep flight of stairs rather than a freehand scaling of the Matterhorn.
And there are still a few wildcards in the making yet for Alberta politics. The United Conservative Party — a more uninspiring nom de guerre could not have been chosen as the new title for this party, at least in the observation of this humble columnist — has not shown its true conservative colours, with policy positions still yet to be determined. Depending who comes out on top of the UCP’s leadership, and what party’s merged vision emerges supreme — Wildrose or PC — at the moment the UCP is still an unknown entity in the field of Alberta politics.
Although party memberships tend to have a lot stronger political opinions than the general public — they are, after all, card-carrying members of a party — this doesn’t always reflect the winds of political feeling among the all-important swing vote. Former PC-ers in the UCP will probably caution against moving in a strongly alt-rightish, radicalized direction, and advocate for a more centrist incarnation, not unlike their former party. And with good reason — decades of being in power in Alberta if nothing else taught them that radical conservative ideologies aren’t always embraced by wide swaths of voters. If the UCP drifts in that direction, we may see more than a few MLA defections to the Liberals, NDP or Alberta Party, as well as a much more difficult sell to the average Alberta voter.
Conservatives in the province — UCP leadership candidate Jason Kenney among them — are fond of referring to the NDP’s majority victory in 2015 as an “accidental” socialist government. While this is a reference to vote splitting among conservative voters on the right, allowing the NDP to come up the middle and “steal” the election, this isn’t entirely the truth. A majority government, no matter how it achieved power, is hardly an “accident.” This kind of over-baked rhetoric suggests a handful of left-of-centre Alberta voters stole an election from their conservative overlords like some grand socialist conspiracy, complete with orders from Moscow and Lenin and Trotsky waiting in the wings. Despite conservative protestations, enough voters, somewhere, somehow, voted the NDP into power. They weren’t simply made up out of a puff of thin air. People actually voted NDP, horrifying prospect though that might seem to some conservatives, and to attempt to explain it away as an illegitimate election victory or an accident is making the cardinal political mistake in a democratic system — underestimating your opponents. That one character flaw has spelled the death of more governments that one can probably count.
And success at the polls in 2019 may indeed come down to demographics. The NDP enjoyed huge success in urban environments in the 2015 election, with conservative parties displaying success in more rural settings. It isn’t any secret that in the past century, rural populations have continued to shrink while urban populations have continued to grow. It doesn’t take a political scientist to discern that this probably spells disaster for any party unable to make significant inroads into urban environments.
This is even more pronounced in Alberta considering the recent recommendations of the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission, which will probably see rural Alberta’s riding totals shrink while urban ridings have been added, based on population levels.
In the world of business, keep getting an increasing share of a declining market, and the answer is always the same: down the tubes. In the political sphere, if you are a predominantly rural party that is unable to significantly crack the urban core of voters? Draw your own conclusions.
While it might be too early to draw conclusions about the UCP, if the party is unable to do just that to a greater degree than previous conservative parties, namely the Wildrose, then dreams of a conservative revival may be tempered by an invasion of the alternatives.