Preston Manning is the founder of the Manning Centre, and the former leader of the Reform Party of Canada.
On April 16, Alberta’s four-year-old NDP government was abruptly dismissed from office in favour of a United Conservative Party government under the leadership of Jason Kenney. The interpretation by distant national commentators of the reasons behind, and the significance of, this decision by Albertans varies considerably from the interpretation of those of us whose lives and political experiences are rooted in Alberta.
First, the NDP and its social-media allies tried to tell Albertans that the ballot question was about identity politics. The majority of Albertans said the ballot question was about economic issues – jobs, taxes and pipelines. Mr. Kenney and the UCP listened and responded accordingly; the NDP didn’t – and paid the price.
Competence was also key in this election. The late Stan Waters, a Canadian war hero commended for bravery at the Battle of Anzio in the Second World War and Alberta’s first democratically selected senator, was once asked what he feared most as a soldier. His unexpected reply was “incompetence in high places.”
That fear – that the government in Edmonton was basically incompetent – increased with every year that the NDP was in office, just as a similar fear is increasing with respect to the competence of the Trudeau government in Ottawa. In Alberta, it contributed to the dismissal of the NDP government after a single term and its replacement by a party whose leader’s nine years of previous experience in high government office is greater than that of Rachel Notley and Justin Trudeau combined.
Because the NDP government in Alberta could not run on its record – massive deficits, tax increases, unaddressed unemployment and mismanagement of the energy file – it turned to attack politics and focused most of its campaign on Mr. Kenney personally. He and the UCP were also in attack mode, but their focus was the government’s performance, not its leader. This resonated well with uncommitted voters who considered the Premier to be well-meaning but heading a party that never expected to win the 2015 election and was therefore unprepared to govern.
On environmental issues, the NDP also blundered. Everyone in the political arena these days is in favour of environmental protection, and there are essentially two different ways of providing it: through ever-increasing macro- and microregulation, with taxpayers funding the costs, or through market mechanisms (pollution pricing), with the costs being primarily borne by those causing the pollution.
The NDP government in Alberta, despite a 30-year history of criticizing and opposing free markets, adopted the market mechanism approach, instituting a carbon tax. But it predictably bungled the implementation, just as Kathleen Wynne’s government did in Ontario and Mr. Trudeau’s government is doing on the national scene.
For a carbon pricing regime to work, it should be truly “revenue neutral,” subsidy-free (because subsidies distort markets) and accompanied by a decrease in regulation, since a market mechanism is supposed to be a substitute for regulation. The Notley carbon tax was none of these, rendering it environmentally ineffective, economically damaging and politically unacceptable – a sitting duck begging for the UCP to put it out of its misery.
Premier-designate Kenney devoting almost half his victory speech to outlining a Western perspective on national issues is significant. He included an appeal for Quebec and Alberta to work together – a sign that Alberta, unlike British Columbia, will not be led by a narrow provincialist.
He called for greater co-operation among the provinces, especially the five (representing about 60 per cent of Canada’s population) that now have conservative governments – Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick. What these governments have in common is a commitment to constraining public spending, providing tax relief (all oppose carbon taxes) and challenging the federal government on these fronts. But they also have the potential to work together for even bigger and more positive national objectives.
One of the most notable of these – contained in the UCP platform that Mr. Kenney now has a mandate to implement – is that of securing unobstructed transportation infrastructure corridors to the Atlantic and the Pacific to facilitate the movement of energy and other resources from the interior to tidewater and world markets. If the leaders of those five provinces were to band together in a trans-Canada corridor coalition to promote and secure such a national right of way, they would be following in the footsteps of the Fathers of Confederation, who laid the foundations for the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway. All they would need to make that national dream come true is an ally in Ottawa – an assembleur like John A. Macdonald – whose passion is not for polarizing Canadians on the basis of their differences but for finding common ground and getting Canadians of diverse interests to work together for the national good.