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duane bratt

Back in January and February, the expected Alberta election result was another easy majority government for the Progressive Conservatives.

Instead, we have observed an absolutely fascinating campaign. It has been the first truly multi-party election in Alberta's history. Most third-place finishers in Alberta receive between zero and five seats but, in this case, the third-place party will be in the teens or higher. In addition, poll after poll is showing that the 44 year PC dynasty is in deep trouble.

But variables such as voter turnout, get-out-the-vote capabilities of the parties, the impact of a heavy anti-NDP advertising campaign by the PCs over the weekend, and possibly even the Flames home playoff game on election night could determine the election. One of three scenarios is most likely, each with political consequences.

The first scenario is a narrow PC majority government with between 44 and 52 seats in the 87-seat Legislature. This scenario occurs if the PC attacks against the NDP work and woo enough wavering conservative supporters, especially in Calgary, back to the PC camp. Jim Prentice would give a sigh of relief with a PC majority, albeit a small one. However, this scenario offers several governance problems. It would have been a public spanking of the PCs (which might necessitate changes to the budget) and would result in the defeat of several cabinet ministers. More significantly, this result would highlight the regional cleavages and rivalries within Alberta, with much of Edmonton being controlled by the NDP, much of Calgary being controlled by the PCs, and at least half of rural Alberta being controlled by the Wildrose Party.

Scenario two is a minority government. This would be very unstable. For one, Alberta has never had a minority government and it would require a major cultural shift for the parties to learn to co-operate in the Legislature. It is also hard to see how the three major parties could concur to pass a budget. The Prentice government delivered a budget in the Legislature in March, but called the election before it was passed. This means that the new government has to pass a budget. In most circumstances, it would be easy to see the two conservative parties – PCs and Wildrose – co-operating, but the backlash towards the floor crossing in December (when then-Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and eight of her caucus joined the PCs) severely limits the ability of Wildrose Leader Brian Jean to prop up a PC government. Given the attacks of the last two weeks by the PCs on the NDP and its leader Rachel Notley, co-operation between these two parties could be difficult. What about a NDP-Wildrose partnership? In some respects it's not as crazy as it sounds. On issues of democratic accountability and campaign finance reform, there is lots of common ground. In addition, the two parties worked well together in the Legislature holding the previous Redford government to account. However, on budgetary matters how do you reconcile the Wildrose pledge to reverse all of the PC tax/fee increases with the NDP pledge to raise corporate taxes and individual taxes for the wealthy?

Scenario three is a majority government by the NDP. This would result in political chaos in Alberta for several years. Not because it is the NDP, but because it would be the first change of government since 1971. You would have a brand new and inexperienced government with some top-rank talent but not much depth. This is what happened to Bob Rae and the NDP when they won the 1990 Ontario election; they were not ready to govern. Rachel Notley would also encounter a bureaucracy that would be seen as an extension of the PC party. When John Diefenbaker formed the first federal PC government in 22 years in 1957, he believed that the Canadian bureaucracy was an instrument of the Liberal party. This would result in an extensive turnover (resignations, firings, lack of trust) at the highest ranks of the public sector. After replacing a 44-year-old dynasty all sorts of surprises will be found in the books and government records. A full independent audit would be required and that would take some time. The PCs also have tentacles throughout the province's municipal rural governments, agencies and commissions and businesses. For decades, there was little separation between the PC party and the Alberta government; severing this intimate relationship will be time consuming and hard.

Each of these three scenarios have different degrees of instability, but this is not an argument in favour of maintaining a large PC majority government simply to avoid political instability. This instability, whether it lasts for a year or much longer, is a necessary step for Alberta to take to finally develop a mature political system that has multiple competitive parties with regular rotation of governments.

Duane Bratt is professor in the Department of Policy Studies at Mount Royal University.