Relax, Canada. Alberta didn’t become Louisiana North, led by the female Huey Long. The safe and sane Progressive Conservatives will continue in power for yet another four years, which by 2016 will make them the longest-serving political dynasty in Canadian history. Gay bashing won’t become an accepted part of Alberta’s public discourse and women won’t be forced to skulk off to B.C. to terminate pregnancies. All is right with the world, and Canada’s talking heads can go back to sleep.
The past three years or so have been like a civil war for Alberta’s conservatives. Until Monday, it appeared Albertans were prepared to rebel over fiscal recklessness, leadership by cabal and the notion that government is the answer to every problem. Maybe they still care about those things, but Danielle Smith’s Wildrose clearly scared many Albertans and most urbanites in this highly citified province. The party was painted as so raw, so radical, so tolerant of Neanderthal views on social issues that Albertans decided to give Premier Alison Redford and her “these aren’t your grandfather’s” Tories yet another crack at power.
In part, the Progressive Conservatives can thank Liberals in both Calgary and Edmonton (yes, there still are Liberals in Alberta) who ran headlong into Tory arms to avoid the horrific prospect of a knuckle-dragging Wildrose government. That strategic voting appears to have made a big difference in both Calgary and Edmonton.
But even if Wildrose had won, Alberta wouldn’t have changed all that much. The province still depends heavily on the energy industry and on selling its products elsewhere, mostly to the United States. Success depends on good relations with the rest of Canada, the energy needs of foreign jurisdictions, and the foibles of American politics. Some of those factors are under Alberta’s control; most are not. Either party would have faced the challenges of developing the energy industry, especially the challenge from that very vocal Canadian fringe element that believes Alberta’s oil and gas resources are themselves a major source of environmental evil.
Nor would politics and government inside Alberta have changed a great deal. Much rot was written about Wildrose’s alleged positions on social issues in this election campaign and about its support of an Alberta “firewall” against the rest of Canada.
On social issues, Alberta is a highly diverse society where the mayor of Edmonton is Jewish and the mayor of Calgary is a Muslim. No major political party in the province dares touch these contentious and highly personal issues.
And as for Ms. Smith’s firewall, it’s fair at least to ask why Canadians are so willing to tolerate the many firewalls that Quebec has built since the 1960s but would not be happy about an Alberta that did the same. And if it’s good enough for Ontario and Quebec to have their own provincial police forces patrolling highways and police rural districts, why isn’t it good enough for Albertans?
At least Alberta had a real election. Hard-fought contests between political parties and ideas are the rule in most provinces and at the federal level, but this has not been true for a while in Alberta, where elections are usually a colossal waste of time. But not Monday. Yes, Ms. Redford won a solid majority, but she surely knows that she will face a real opposition over the next four years, one that will hold her accountable for promises made during the campaign. That hasn’t happened in Alberta since 1993.
Wildrose lost, but it took a giant step toward government, like Stephen Harper’s Conservatives did in the 2004 federal election. Power isn’t built in a day. If Ms. Redford’s P.C. cloak turns out to be hiding just another big-spending “progressive” government, Ms. Smith might well become premier with one more push. A large number of Albertans have learned they can actually vote for a party other than the Progressive Conservatives. That’s a good thing for Alberta and for the state of democracy in Canada.
David Bercuson is a history professor at the University of Calgary.