So what just happened in Alberta? Here are seven major takeaways.
Yes, this is big: The election of an NDP government in the province that is allegedly Canada's most conservative, the cradle of the Reform movement and the modern federal Conservative party, is unprecedented. Nothing like this has happened since Bob Rae's New Democrats took over Ontario.
But: Unique province, unique circumstances: The victory of Rachel Notley's NDP was made possible by a unique, unlikely series of events.
The right was splintered into two parties, one of which – the Wildrose – had nearly fallen apart only weeks earlier. It went into battle with a leader who had only just taken over his post. (A post that almost nobody wanted.) The left and centre-left, in contrast, were effectively united under the NDP, because both the Liberal Party and the Alberta Party were similarly on the verge of collapse. Unlike Wildrose, they did not rise from their sickbeds.
This election was above all powered by voter anger at the Progressive Conservative government, and the NDP, to some extent by default, turned out to be the most competent vehicle for that protest. These dynamics don't apply to the rest of the country. They don't appear to apply to the coming federal election. They may not even apply to Alberta in four years' time.
Revolutionary – but no revolution: The NDP platform is leftish, but it's hardly hard left. Yes, they want to raise corporate taxes. Yes, they want to up income taxes on wealthier Albertans. But Ms. Notley's arrival in Edmonton is not Castro's march into Havana.
Take the plan for corporate income taxes. The middle of an oil-industry recession isn't the ideal time to be raising taxes on business, but let's put the plan in perspective. NDP platform calls for them to rise from 10 per cent to 12 per cent. That's lower than they were prior to 2004. Or take the plan to up income taxes on the wealthiest Albertans: The top tax rate would still be lower than any of the other large provinces. Or consider the review of oil-industry royalties that the NDP intends. If Ms. Notley is true to her word, such a review will be truly independent, and will not necessarily raise royalty rates, if doing so would damage the industry.
The new government will surely come under tremendous pressure to satisfy its own supporters – see, once again, the rise and fall of Bob Rae's NDP in Ontario – but Alberta's incoming premier appears to be aware that if you want to keep getting milk from your milch cow, you can't carve a steak off it. The question is, to what extent does her party get that?
Is Progressive Conservatism dead? Jim Prentice's concession speech was delivered to a cavernous, nearly empty hall, in front of only a handful of dazed supporters. It feels more than a little bit like what happened to the federal Progressive Conservative party in 1993, with Mr. Prentice playing the role of Kim Campbell.
The Alberta Progressive Conservative Party is – or was – a big tent, in the end held together more by power than ideology. It is a party of the right, but not only of the right. Reform and the federal Conservative Party may have come out of Alberta, but the province itself remained governed by something different and less right-wing. And that's what gave birth to Wildrose, which is now the Official Opposition.
The question for the coming years is whether the harder, Reform strain of conservatism will end up triumphing over Progressive Conservatism in Alberta, as it did at the federal level.
As for Mr. Prentice, the end of his public life is a loss for Canadian politics. But he frequently misstepped during his six months as premier, from the attempted leveraged buyout of Wildrose to the calling of an early election. In his final act, he delivered a dignified and sober concession speech – and then abruptly announced his resignation as both leader and as an MLA. The counting of the ballots hadn't even finished. He should have announced his intention to step down, while at least remaining for a time to help rebuild the PCs. It sent a terrible message about his party's future, and diminished its possibility of even having one.
Five parties in one legislature: Nearly a half-century of one-party rule has, paradoxically, led to a weirdly vibrant political spectrum. When the Alberta legislature resumes, it will, unfortunately, once again feature a majority government. Since its creation in 1905, Alberta has known nothing else. But along with the governing NDP, there will also be representatives from four other parties, from across the spectrum. However, it is possible that, by the next election, several of these parties will be no more. The Liberals, who formed the Official Opposition not so many years ago, and the Alberta Party are both on life support. The Progressive Conservatives, absent the glue of power, may find themselves similarly challenged.
Oil has yet to vote: We're not talking about the oil industry; we're talking about global oil prices. If world markets deliver considerably higher oil prices, and soon, Ms. Notley can govern the way PC governments did for years: spending (and not saving) as if there were no tomorrow. Otherwise? Hard choices await.
Alberta's budget problems remain: It would have been the same no matter who won the election. Alberta's government will have to make hard choices that will disappoint people, including supporters. Kathleen Wynne's Liberal government of Ontario is into Year One of a four-year plan to disappoint at least some of its most ardent backers. As an NDP government with far stronger unions ties than the Liberals, Ms. Notley's crew will be in an even tougher position.
She can respond differently than Mr. Prentice would have, and she has promised to. But an election doesn't change the fact that absent the salvation of higher oil prices, Alberta has to spend less, or tax more, or both.