Duane Bratt is a professor in the department of policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
In January, 2015, the Alberta Progressive Conservative 40-plus-year dynasty looked to be well entrenched. While there were growing worries about the drop in the price of oil that had been occurring throughout the fall of 2014, politically the PCs seemed to be as much in charge as they had ever been. In late December, 2014, premier Jim Prentice had orchestrated a mass floor crossing from the official opposition, including Wildrose leader Danielle Smith. This left Wildrose with a rump caucus of five. The other parties were small and insignificant. Poll numbers showed the party rebounding from the days of the scandal-ridden Alison Redford. It appeared that, once again, the PCs dominated Alberta.
Good polling numbers, a decimated opposition and fears that the Alberta economy was going to get worse before it got better led Mr. Prentice to ditch Alberta's fixed election law and call for an election on May 5 (one year ahead of schedule). But in an election result that created national and international headlines, it was the NDP led by Rachel Notley that formed its first-ever government. This Orange chinook saw the NDP jump from four seats to 53. In second place was a resurgent Wildrose with 20 seats. The PCs finished third with only 11 seats (they are now down to nine). Alberta had dramatically shifted from an established centre-right party to an inexperienced centre-left party.
The NDP won the election because people liked Ms. Notley. But most important, the NDP won because the PCs lost. Other factors included Ms. Notley winning the only leaders' debate, a great campaign by the NDP and a strong party base in Edmonton that was able to build out across the province. The public was sick and tired of the PCs after four decades and decided the time was right for an alternative, and the NDP was the most viable alternative.
The NDP was the first shock to the Alberta political system. The second shock was the implementation of the most activist government agenda that the province had seen since Ralph Klein in 1993-94, or Peter Lougheed in the early 1970s. In the span of six months, the NDP has changed Alberta's campaign-finance regulations, tax structure, energy sector and agricultural sector.
Its first piece of legislation banned corporate and union donations to parties. In its financial update in June it ended Alberta's flat rate of 10 per cent for individual income taxes and introduced a progressive tax system. It also, in contrast to other jurisdictions in Canada, raised corporate taxes from 10 per cent to 12 per cent. The province's minimum wage was quickly increased by $1 an hour to $11.20 with a promise of $15 an hour by 2018. These tax increases, when combined with an increased spending in education, health care and social services and the precipitous drop in resource revenue, were not enough to prevent the NDP's first budget in October from containing the largest budget deficit in Alberta history – $6.1-billion. The budget also indicated that Alberta would be borrowing for government operations for the first time in decades in 2016. This large deficit and emerging debt load, combined with a lack of a repayment strategy, resulted in a credit downgrade from Standard and Poor's.
But the NDP's activism did not stop there. A far-reaching climate-change strategy was announced just before the Paris summit. This strategy included a consumer-based carbon tax (expected to raise at least $3-billion), investments in green electricity and public transit and the phasing out of coal generation by 2030. Alberta suddenly went from being the "bad boy" of climate change to one of its champions.
In mid-December, a farm-safety bill was passed that would provide occupational health and safety regulations to the previously exempt agricultural sector. Of all the elements of the NDP's activist agenda, the farm bill resulted in the fiercest opposition. There were numerous volatile and well-attended demonstrations across rural Alberta and at the legislature by the province's farmers. It was a classic case of a lack of government consultation, preparation, communication and lack of awareness of a potential backlash.
And, still to come (expected in early January, 2016), is the province's royalty rate review. Memories of former premier Ed Stelmach's efforts at changing the royalty rate structure in 2008-09 remain raw. After all, it helped expedite the rise of the Wildrose and hastened the resignation of Mr. Stelmach in 2011. Many in the energy sector are quite worried about the impact of a royalty review in the midst of dropping oil and gas prices and the new carbon regulations.
2015 was the year of the NDP. It was also a year that most Albertans will not soon forget.