Signs that Alberta's political landscape was on the precipice of monumental change turned out to be a mirage. The province's voters proved themselves to be conservative in the truest sense of the word – they stuck with what they knew.
The majority handed to the Progressive Conservative Party extends one of the longest dynasties among Western democracies. The result also defied many polls that suggested that the upstart Wildrose party – a more right-wing version of the Tories – was going to end the governing party's 41-year reign over Alberta politics.
It may be some time before we know precisely what happened and whether, for instance, strategic voting had a hand in the final result. Others will suggest that comments by a couple of Wildrose candidates late in the campaign that were considered homophobic and racially insensitive may have scared off voters. The fact that Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith refused to denounce the remarks in the harshest terms possible may have suggested to some Albertans her troops weren't ready for prime time.
The beginning of the campaign seemed to be a referendum on the Tories' time in government and all the gaffes and miscues that entailed. The party was seen as arrogant and out of touch. But in the last week of the campaign, Tory pollsters noticed a shift occurring.
The campaign became a choice between the two parties and the two ideals that they represented. As one Tory adviser put it: “Suddenly voters started to think in terms of how they were going to be perceived elsewhere in the country – as a bigoted cowboy or a more sophisticated urbanite.”
In a sense, the collapse of the Wildrose vote echoed what happened to Stephen Harper's Conservatives in the last week of the 2004 campaign, when their apparent majority disintegrated before their eyes. Ironically, many of the principle players in that 2004 campaign for the Tories were major players behind the scenes for Wildrose.
In the end, voters here put their trust behind a party that has defined Alberta politics for four decades. And they did it despite the reservations many had over Leader Alison Redford's progressive leanings and the growing signs of entitlement among Tory ranks.
Voters opted for the “big Alberta” vision that Ms. Redford was selling – one that portends a more robust role for the province in Confederation – over the more insular, Alberta-first notion that Ms. Smith was offering.
Ms. Redford now faces a long list of difficult issues, none of them more pressing than the current and future state of the province's resource-dependent economy.
Of immediate concern is the state of natural gas prices – which have been plummeting. Many gas producers in the province are reportedly in danger of going out of business. The collapse of gas prices is going to put a significant dent in forecasted royalties, ones the government was hoping would help lead Alberta back into the black after five years of deficits.
If you look out a few years, the concerns get darker and much more complex. While Alberta sits on a sea of oil, the province is effectively landlocked. This means it is selling its crude at huge discounts to its primary customer, the United States. It also means the province is at risk of being held hostage to American politics, as it discovered with the Keystone XL pipeline debate.
This is why it needs to find alternative markets, why Ms. Redford's government will find itself at the centre of a noisy pipeline debate. There doesn't seem to be an avenue for resolving these issues that doesn't involve some compromise on the province's part – something to which Ms. Redford seems amenable.
There is growing opposition in B.C. to two current pipeline proposals – Enbridge's Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan's expansion of its line to Vancouver. If either project is to be a go, it seems inevitable that Alberta will have to offer B.C. more than just thanks for assuming most of the environmental risk while seeing little economic benefit. What that compensation might be is anyone's guess.
The biggest issue in the election campaign for many voters, however, was government entitlement, including the disclosure that MLAs were receiving tens of thousands of dollars to sit on a committee that hadn't met for more than three years. Reports of MLAs leaving government with hundreds of thousands of dollars in “transition allowance” also has rankled Albertans. A major report into the compensation that MLAs receive is due soon.
It may not be the new dawn of Alberta politics that many predicted. But with a healthier Opposition, the government will be held to account like never before