Antonia Maioni is a professor of political science at McGill University.
Canadian politics makes strange bedfellows: Albertans and Quebeckers have proven to be alike in more ways than one, in the sheer scale of the unexpected Alberta NDP victory on Tuesday and the “vague orange” that swept across Quebec during the 2011 Canadian general election. What should we make of this apparent parallel?
There are obvious differences that need to be put in context: a provincial election that determined the government of Alberta is not the same as a federal election result in Quebec; the one-party tradition in Alberta stands in contrast to the expectation of alternatives in a more robust multiparty landscape in Quebec; and, the voice of the left (although not necessarily through the NDP) has had more resonance with Quebec voters than with Albertans.
Still, the comparison remains relevant, not only for Alberta provincial politics (where it remains to be seen if one-party dominance prevails, and whether the new landscape effectively reshapes the right through the Wildrose, and buries the Liberal brand) but perhaps even more importantly, for the fate of Quebec’s political terrain in the next federal election. In both Tuesday’s Alberta election and the May 2011 federal election in Quebec, the NDP swept the political scene in a way that would have seemed unimaginable just months beforehand. They did so with a group of relatively unknown and politically inexperienced candidates (students, union representatives, community activists) and without radically altering their political platform.
In both cases, we see evidence of an establishment under notice. Voters in Alberta, just as they were in Quebec in 2011, were mad as heck with their political class. In Quebec, fatigue with the Bloc Québécois, and the perception that it had become “un parti comme les autres” (just another political party) was a primary factor in its collapse. Indeed, that perception mattered more to voters that the Bloc’s ideological leanings toward sovereignty and the left. In Alberta, that same frustration toward the PC establishment was palpable, and spilled over to the political opportunism showed by members of the Wildrose as well. These frustrations and the disillusionment felt toward the two parties of the right probably trumped ideological considerations when it came to giving voters the impulse for change.
The second point of comparison has to do, of course, with leadership. It bears repeating: leadership matters. But the comparison between Jack Layton in Quebec and Rachel Notley in Alberta also shows the way in which it matters. Both of these NDP leaders shared a certain “fresh face” quality in that they were relatively untested and unknown to the voters who ended up supporting them. While Notley had a deep family connection to the NDP, she had only just become its leader, an event that seemed to have little political importance at the time. Jack Layton, too, despite having served as NDP leader for a decade, was a relative unknown to the majority of Quebec voters, untested perhaps, but also untarnished. And, both Notley and Layton banked on two key qualities in their leadership: openness and authenticity on the one hand, sound and reasonable policy discourse on the other.
While other factors obviously mattered (not the least of which would be economic considerations), the comparison between Alberta and Quebec does show how a combustible anti-establishment mindset, combined with the emergence of credible new leadership, could lead to an unexpected “non-traditional” choice that left previously dominant parties, and their leaders, in tatters. Even with the rural-urban divide evident in Tuesday’s results, the Alberta NDP has made forays into some of the strongest PC ridings, comparable to the way in which the NDP swept the Bloc out of the regions and the federal Liberals out of its most stalwart bastions.
In the long run, the “vague orange” will likely prove difficult to sustain in Quebec, but much depends, as the Alberta election has shown, on the extent to which the NDP remains, in the eyes of voters, credible and vigilant with respect to Quebec’s interests. With the Bloc no longer a force (although it may yet remain a marginal factor in several four-way contests) and the Conservatives (although reviving) still limited to a narrow slate of potential seats, the Alberta experience should also focus the mind of federal party leaders Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, on the singular power of leadership in uncertain political times.
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