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Then Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith is shown speaking to reporters in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013.
Then Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith is shown speaking to reporters in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013.

Danielle Smith

Alberta already was an NDP province Add to ...

Danielle Smith is the former leader of the Official Opposition in Alberta, the former leader of the Wildrose Party and the former PC MLA for Highwood.

The beating heart of the Canadian economy is now firmly in the hands of the NDP. Surprised? Don’t be.

While it may seem sudden, the rise of Alberta’s New Democratic Party has been in the making for the last decade. Slowly but surely the province has been tilting left.

Ed Stelmach convinced Albertans that royalties were too low and that we shouldn’t be shipping raw bitumen in pipelines. He centralized health care and gave generous settlements to unions. Alison Redford convinced Albertans that we needed to take on debt to build infrastructure. Jim Prentice convinced Albertans that we needed to raise taxes. A decade post-Klein, Alberta is the most fiscally and socially progressive province in Confederation. It already was an NDP province – the election of 2015 simply affirmed it.

The movement toward a progressive government began in the latter years of Ralph Klein’s leadership. Once Alberta had returned to balanced budgets, reduced taxes and set aside enough money to pay off the debt it didn’t have a plan for what came next. The politics of expedience took over.

To win over conservatives, personal and corporate income taxes were slashed, health care premiums were eliminated and all other forms of taxes were frozen.

To win over progressives, labour peace was bought with large settlements to teachers, nurses, doctors and other public service employees – now the most highly paid in the country. A provincial workers’ paradise indeed.

As long as resource revenues kept rolling in, the public continued to merrily vote PC with benign disinterest. All was well.

But all was not well. With the crash in the global economy and natural gas prices in 2008, Alberta began to run budget deficits, dipping into savings to mask the shortfall. When savings ran out, the government racked up debt. Then oil prices crashed and the 2015 budget blew the progressive conservative coalition apart: Progressives were furious that corporations were exempted from sharing the pain of tax increases; conservatives were furious that the governing party found 59 ways to increase taxes on middle class taxpayers while doing nothing to cut spending.

Through all this, progressives were winning major victories on LGBTQ rights. The public was already highly sensitized to equality issues because of intolerant comments by a Wildrose candidate in 2012 who stated gays would burn in a “lake of fire.” In 2014, the more extreme social conservative views of a few Progressive Conservative cabinet ministers also came to light. Both conservative parties needed to prove they weren’t going turn back the clock on issues of morality. With the Liberals and NDP leading the way, Alberta was brought into the 21st century by revising nearly 30 pieces of legislation including the Marriage Act, the Vital Statistics act, the Human Rights Act and the School Act to make Alberta a leader on LGBTQ issues.

But this is only part of the story. In 2010, the citizens of Calgary elected Mayor Naheed Nenshi in the legendary purple wave. In 2013, the citizens of Edmonton elected Mayor Don Iveson in a similar upset. Both mayors are young, urban and decidedly progressive. Both mayors routed popular rivals backed by the establishment. Both mayors electrified young urban voters with a populist message of pride in community, compassion for one’s fellow citizens and the assertion that government can make our lives better. With two-thirds of Alberta citizens living in these cities, it was inevitable that this re-energized progressive vision would spill over into provincial politics.

When Jim Prentice emerged to save the PCs, his return blocked the Wildrose chance to form government. I, and 10 of my Wildrose colleagues, joined the PC caucus because we believed the vote split among conservatives would inevitably allow one of the progressive parties to come up the middle. And now it has.

Not all Albertans are happy with the outcome of the 2015 vote. The majority of Albertans voted for one of the two conservative parties. But the tables have been turned. For decades the PCs enjoyed a vote split on the left that guaranteed their victory. Today, the progressive vote has united behind Rachel Notley’s NDP and neither conservative party can win a majority on its own.

The good news about the NDP having a four year majority mandate is it gives the conservative movement time to reunite and reinvent itself to become relevant to a new generation of voters. If they don’t, we may just have witnessed the start of a new political dynasty in Alberta.

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