Only four parties have ruled Alberta since its founding in 1905. And the one that has governed the province the longest – the Progressive Conservative Party – is hoping to extend its historic reign when Premier Alison Redford calls an election as early as Monday.
And for the first time in recent memory, the rest of Canada will have a stake in the outcome.
The Conservatives have controlled Alberta since iconic leader Peter Lougheed marched them to power in 1971. Mr. Lougheed was the last Alberta premier to play an influential role on the national scene, both in constitutional and energy matters. Since then, Alberta has been led by more insular-minded leaders, happy to pit the province’s interests against those of the rest of the country.
That could well change after this election.
Since assuming the reins of the Conservatives last October, Ms. Redford has hinted at a more activist role in the national political agenda. She wasn’t in office a month before she was touring Central Canada talking up a national energy strategy – one that integrates the power dynamics of the entire country.
That is a decidedly different approach than the one taken by recent Alberta premiers Ed Stelmach and Ralph Klein who possessed more us-versus-them mindsets. And it is certainly a contrary vision to the one being offered up by Danielle Smith, leader of the Wildrose Party.
Wildrose, running on a hard right, libertarian-style platform, will be the Conservatives’ central challenger in this election. (The Liberals, New Democrats and Alberta Party are anticipated to play tertiary roles). Ms. Smith, whose party has been backed from the beginning by Alberta oil interests, is more inclined to push the type of isolationist energy program that the country has become used to from the province’s political leadership group.
One, it’s fair to say, that has also created pockets of resentment across Canada.
This is one reason, says Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary and long-time observer of Alberta politics, that this election has broader implications for the country.
“I think Alison Redford understands that for Alberta to succeed it cannot be a firewall province,” said Mr. Brownsey. “It needs the co-operation of other provinces. It needs allies. The province has this big reserve of oil but unless it gets the co-operation of other provinces it could find itself with distribution problems.”
Ms. Smith, on the other hand, does not seem to be as concerned about establishing petro friendships with Ontario or Quebec or British Columbia.
Duane Bratt, a colleague of Mr. Brownsey’s at Mount Royal, also believes the outcome of this election could manifest itself on the national scene in a profound way.
While the political and economic power in Canada has been slowly shifting westwards for decades, Alberta has not had a premier willing or inclined to become a prominent voice for the region on the national scene. Prof. Bratt believes Ms. Redford could change that.
But while Ms. Redford has certainly been sending out more co-operative vibes than her predecessors, she has also demonstrated that she will be a fierce defender of her province’s economic interests.
That was evident in her very public slapdown of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty in February, after he mused about how Canada’s “petro dollar” was hurting Canadian exporters. Ms. Redford said the Ontario Premier’s views were “simplistic” and that the oil sands were not just in the best interests of Alberta but the entire country.
But Mr. McGuinty’s remarks did underscore the antipathy that is building in some jurisdictions toward Alberta’s riches.
The Alberta government, in fact, released polling data in March that suggests Canadians view the province as smug and uncaring. Oddly, the survey was taken three years earlier. Most believe the anti-Alberta attitudes expressed in the poll are likely even more entrenched today because of the increasing economic disparity in the country.
Those views do not appear to greatly worry the Wildrose Party.
Ms. Redford, on the other hand, expressed concern and is determined to try and dispel misconceptions about Alberta by making further forays into other provinces.
That is, if she and her party are re-elected.
Virtually every opinion poll in recent months has shown the Conservatives with a comfortable lead over Wildrose. And yet, the campaign is expected to be the most contentious and hotly contested in decades.
And for the first time in almost as long, Canadians would appear to have a vested interest in the result.