There are times when voters become so angry at the party in power as to become fixated on the satisfaction that might be gained from getting rid of them. It's how many Alberta voters are feeling right now. And with good reason.
The thing is, there's only one way to vote a government out: Vote another party in. It's like double-entry bookkeeping: You don't get to fill in just one side of the ledger. Want to debit one party's seat count? You'll have credit that seat to another party. Or it's like Newton's Third Law of Motion: For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. Voting someone out of office means voting someone else in.
Which bring us to the Alberta election. The province goes to the polls on Tuesday. The Progressive Conservatives have held power, without interruption, for 44 years. It's not exactly the democratic ideal. More to the point, the Tories, who in the past demonstrated prudence and policy smarts, have of late mismanaged the province.
Alberta has the remarkable good fortune to be sitting on some of the world's largest oil reserves, and the past decade has been a boom time for the industry and the province. In the midst of that boom, the Tories somehow managed to do the impossible: They spent every cent of the windfall. Sometimes they even spent more. Awash in petro-cash, they promised voters an unsustainable combination of ultra-low taxes and ultra-expensive government. The relatively new Conservative Leader Jim Prentice, who never tires of reminding people that he's only been premier for six months, is largely running against the record of his predecessors. So are the opposition parties. There's a lot to run against.
Mr. Prentice has put together a credible, moderate plan to capitalize on what previous governments got right, and gradually fix what they got wrong. The province clearly needs to change course. The question is, what course to chart? And who do you want captaining the ship?
On Tuesday, Albertans have three major parties to choose from. None of them is ideal.
Let's start with Wildrose, which nearly unseated the Progressive Conservatives three years ago. Quite a lot has happened since then. Devastated by infighting and a mass defection of MLAs to the PCs, the party is at this point a kind of zombie. Its supporters are still numerous and passionate, but the party itself – the people who, if elected, would actually have to govern – is a whole other story. There just isn't enough there, there.
And its platform contains too much fanciful thinking of the type that got previous Conservative governments into such trouble. Wildrose is essentially running on a populist platform of no new taxes, on anything, ever: Meet the Regressive Conservative Party. To bring a badly out-of-whack provincial budget back into balance, it relies on vague cuts and fuzzy math.
Wildrose is organizationally and intellectually thin. It isn't ready to govern.
Then there is the New Democratic Party. Leader Rachel Notley is both capable and personable, and something similar to Jack Layton's 2011 "Orange Wave" is going on here – in spades. Virtually every poll now has the NDP in the lead, with Ms. Notley as the most popular party leader. In 2012, the NDP barely registered.
The NDP has some good ideas. It wants to get big money out of the Wild West of Alberta politics by banning campaign donations from unions and corporations. It thinks Alberta's flat income tax is regressive – it is – and proposes raising income taxes on upper incomes. Mr. Prentice's budget agrees on the principle, though his tax increases are smaller than the NDP's. Under both plans, high-earning Albertans would still face lower income-tax rates than in other major provinces.
The trouble is with the rest of the NDP baggage. For example, it wants to raise corporate income taxes from 10 per cent to 12 per cent. Mr. Prentice is wrong to suggest that this will cause the sky to fall – but he's right that the midst of a provincial recession is probably not the ideal time to be talking about this. Ms. Notley is also calling for a $15 minimum wage, muses about subsidizing more oil refining and upgrading in the province, and wants a review of the province's oil royalty regime.
If Wildrose is promising to bring government finances back into balance without any tax increases, Ms. Notley is offering a different fantasy: that a government that spends way above the Canadian average, including about $1,000 more per person on health care than Ontario or B.C., does not need to seriously consider how to spend less. Mr. Prentice's scare tactics about the NDP go too far, but he's aiming at a real target, and identifying a legitimate worry.
The NDP has another major defect: Beyond Ms. Notley, the party's talent pool gets awfully thin, awfully fast. It could make a fine Official Opposition, but it isn't ready to govern.
Which brings us to the Conservatives.
It would have been politically easier for Mr. Prentice if he had promised to raise nobody's taxes or fees, or had singled out business, or committed to not squeezing any budgets. But the everyone-gets-cake-and-nobody-gets-a-bill approach is what got Alberta into this mess.
Mr. Prentice's plan – for an Alberta that taxes a bit more, spends a bit less, and saves more of Alberta's volatile oil revenues in the Heritage Savings Trust Fund – is the best choice before voters. And he is the best choice for premier. But his government deserves to face something Alberta hasn't seen in a long time: a strong contingent of opposition members. Ideally, he would also only win enough seats to form a minority government – Alberta's first. But given the tepid alternatives, the Progressive Conservatives remain the best choice.