By Trevor Busch
During the sultry summer election campaign of 1935, things weren’t looking good for the United Farmers of Alberta and their newly-minted leader Richard Reid. Drought, destitution and shocking levels of unemployment had already toppled several provincial governments across the nation as the ravages of the Great Depression slowly but surely sunk in. As if that wasn’t enough, the former UFA premier John Brownlee had recently resigned in disgrace over a sex scandal, and the dour conservative theories of the UFA were being outdistanced and out-fandangled by Social Credit and a prophetic ex-high school principal with a flair for Christian oratory, one William “Bible Bill” Aberhart.
When Albertans went to the polls on Aug. 22, 1935, the UFA were effectively eviscerated by Social Credit, losing every seat in the legislature, and would never again rise to the commanding heights of power in Alberta. It was the single worst defeat ever suffered by a sitting provincial government in Canadian history.
Fast forward 36 years to 1971, and things weren’t looking any better for the now long-ruling Social Credit and their new leader Harry Strom. An upstart grassroots political movement known as the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta under Peter Lougheed was storming ahead in the polls in the key cities of Edmonton and Calgary, and Social Credit had no idea how to stop the bleeding.
Seen by many as an old fashioned political party from their daddy’s generation, the semi-youthful spectacle of Lougheed and the new ideas of the PCs proved too much for Social Credit. In the election that followed on Aug. 30, the PCs took 49 seats to the SoCred’s 25. And the rest, as we well know, is now history.
Now in early 2015, Albertans have witnessed what only happens every several generations in Alberta — a profound political change and the destruction of a tottering and decrepit political dynasty that may have reached its best-before date more than a decade ago.
In other provinces, governments often come and go with a frequency that makes them almost sidenotes in the larger political picture — for instance the on-again, off-again rule of the federal Conservative Party throughout the 20th century, which saw Liberal rule roughly about 70 per cent of time — but in Alberta that has never been the case. Deeply entrenched regimes have clawed to power with a vehemence unmatched in Canadian political history, usually only to be taken to the cleaners by voters once in most people’s lifetimes.
Just how unprecedented last week’s NDP landslide majority victory is needs to be conceptualized for those of us that weren’t born before 1935 and 1971. In those two cases, Alberta voters opted for something radically different — but it was still, in the end, conservative. Taking a dramatic U-turn to the left with the NDP will see the supercedence of a political ideology in this province that has held sway amongst voters for more than a century — at least for the next four years, that is. Unprecedented just isn’t a big enough word for it.
In 2012, we thought we were about to bear witness to the traditional formula for political change in Alberta — conservatives challenged by a different flavour of conservatism — with the surging Wildrose versus Queen Alison and the PCs. In the end, the pollsters had it dead wrong, petrified conservative voters headed in droves back to the safety of Tory blue, and the Wildrose had to settle for official opposition. Redford’s promises of change proved to be as worthless as Aberhart’s funny money during the Depression, and in 2015 an ill-timed election call by the vaunted Jim Prentice — destined to lead the once-unstoppable PCs into the dustbin of provincial politics — was the final nail in the coffin of a political dynasty.
Somewhere, I’m sure, Peter Lougheed (and William Aberhart before him) must be looking down and wondering where it all went wrong.
Instead of a knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out battle between the Wildrose and the PCs for your affections at the ballot box in 2015, we saw an almost dead split on the right between the two conservative parties on election night. Landslide majorities like Notley’s aren’t elected “accidentally” on the strength of a “protest vote,” or splitting of the vote on the right.
While this sometimes results in minorities or other less damaging outcomes in provincial elections — majority governments aren’t accidents.
That reality, however, hasn’t stopped all manner of fear-mongerers from joining the dejected conservative voter’s bandwagon, soon to be touring towns and cities alike in Alberta for the next four years, ready to paint the ascension of Rachel Notley and the NDP as the second coming of Joseph Stalin and the Communist International. It will be difficult for the NDP to stay the course and achieve even moderate left policy goals in the face of such heavy criticism from the ranks of the now-opposition bound conservatives.
Time will tell if the NDP will have the fortitude to not yield against criticism — as the PCs rarely did — and achieve positive results for the electorate. But even minor missteps — as we’re sure to see with a fledgling government — will be cannon-fodder for the conservative opposition, ready to pounce with a vehemence we perhaps haven’t seen from an opposition in this province in a long time. All of which is great if you’re a strong believer in democracy, as extremely motivated oppositions are the best kind, a true check to the power of those in office.
In the end, it comes down to the nature of change. Most conservatives, at their ideological core, aren’t usually big fans of it.
Now before the howling objections begin from slighted conservative voters out there, remember this: when you talk about change, the change you’re referring to is change within a socially or fiscally conservative context. The change that those of us who aren’t unswervingly fettered to the flag of one party or the next are usually talking about, is fundamental change — fiscally, socially or otherwise. There’s a big difference, and if this election should teach us anything, it should be that a conservative voter’s idea of change and that of the larger province are two fundamentally different things. Albertans voted for change, and they got it — but the jury will be out for the next four years on just what that means for the province.
As we progress through our first fortnight under Rachel Notley’s NDP, many Albertans are probably relieved that black isn’t now white, that the mountains haven’t tumbled to the sea, and that ocean-front property in Arizona isn’t about to go up for sale. That being said, the big changes — and there most certainly will be some — are still on the horizon.
At the same time, the big loser in last week’s election will be dazedly shaking off a knockdown blow to the mat that was titanic in proportions. And if Alberta electoral history is any indication, this could be the beginning of the end for the long-ruling PCs. In 1935, the United Farmers of Alberta were effectively eliminated as a political entity in Alberta, never to return.
In 1971, Social Credit was crushed at the polls, and although the party managed to hang on as the official opposition, it would never again regain the steamroller momentum it captured on a hot August day in 1935. It has since faded to become largely a political memory, its last elected member of the legislature stepping into history in 1982. Just how much pressure there might be in the future to fold the now 10-seat PCs into the more vibrant Wildrose as a challenge to the NDP remains to be seen. But if historical political trends hold true, this will be the end of the line for Lougheed’s grassroots juggernaut.
Outside of the unusual elections of 1935 and 1971 — unusual by Alberta standards because they didn’t represent another rubber-stamp majority for the ruling party — elections traditionally have not generated much interest. Although they often represent the turning over of a new leaf within a ruling party — we’ve seen this multiple times with the PCs, without much recent success — they still represent a certain degree of political continuity, and tell a whole lot more about how many Albertans adhere to a “better the Devil you know, than the Devil you don’t” political maxim. That being said, campaigns that remain little more than swearing-in ceremonies for the ruling party are never likely to generate ground swells of popular support, or monumental voter turnouts. In short, they’re boring.
But not anymore. Whatever else might be said about the 2015 Alberta election in future years, or future decades, “boring” is unlikely to be the adjective used to describe it.