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Alberta Alberta’s political polarization should worry Justin Trudeau

Western Canada has been the incubator and innovator of political reform in Canada for a generation and counting. When it comes to running the country, no one in Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal has had an original thought in decades.

Now the West may be about to teach Central Canada another lesson, in the art of political polarization.

It was westerners who, in the late 1980s, identified deficits and debt as the single greatest challenge facing the country, and it was they who first tackled the challenge, in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

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The Reform Party made deficit reduction its number-one priority, giving the Chrétien government the political room to act.

On national unity, almost no one remembers that, on Oct. 30, 1996, a Reform MP by the name of Stephen Harper put forward a private member's bill, C-341, that stipulated a province could only leave Confederation after voting Yes in a referendum with a clear question – with Parliament alone judging whether the question was clear – followed by negotiations that included all the provinces, and with the result affirmed in a national referendum.

The Liberal tweak of Mr. Harper's bill was known as the Clarity Act.

And in 2006, a western-based Conservative Party took power federally, launching a decade of reform in taxation, criminal justice, federal-provincial relations, immigration, trade and foreign policy that has reshaped the country for good or for ill, depending on your point of view.

Now the West could be putting forth another idea for the centre to consider: that politics in Canada must polarize between two parties, one of the centre-left and one of the centre-right.

In three of four western provinces, such polarization is nothing new. Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia have long alternated between the NDP and the Conservatives in Manitoba, the Saskatchewan Party (the current conservative party) in Saskatchewan and the Liberal Party (which is more conservative than liberal) in B.C.

The exception was Alberta, which experienced one-party conservative rule from the Depression until a few weeks ago.

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But now NDP Leader Rachel Notley is about to become premier, the right is in disarray and Alberta appears to be evolving toward the same political dichotomy as the other western provinces.

And right on cue, the NDP under Thomas Mulcair is surging nationally.

A couple of years ago, Darrell Bricker of Ipsos Reid and I argued in a book called The Big Shift that politics in Canada was polarizing between left and right, with the party of the right holding the advantage thanks to the strength of the coalition of conservative westerners and suburban voters in Ontario, especially immigrant voters.

But we also argued that the left could effectively challenge this conservative hegemony if it coalesced around a single party with a coherent economic message. Mr. Bricker and I are wondering (a) whether the Big Shift has come to Alberta, and (b) whether western political polarization is about to be exported east.

We ask this tentatively, even hesitantly. After all, there is no denying that Justin Trudeau has revived the Liberal Party and made it a force to be reckoned with. Until quite recently, the Liberals led in the polls, and Mr. Trudeau remains for the Conservatives a dangerous foe who could unseat Stephen Harper this October.

But a new orange wave appears to be building, launched in Alberta and sweeping east. In national polls, the NDP now vies with both the Liberals and the Conservatives for first place, even as Mr. Trudeau struggles to get a hearing for his proposal to tax the rich and give the money to the middle class.

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At some point between now and October, voters desperate to put an end to the Conservative decade are likely to coalesce around one of the opposition parties.

Will they coalesce around the Liberals or the NDP? If past is precedent, if the West is once again the teacher and Central Canada the pupil, then Mr. Mulcair should be feeling optimistic and Mr. Trudeau concerned.

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