Skip to main content

Preston Manning, the former Reform Party leader, has a theory about his province's political history. Every generation or so, he believes, Albertans rise up and throw out a government. The alternative to the incumbents, he observes, has never been the Official Opposition, as in other places. Instead, a new movement comes into being, transforming the hurts and disappointments that accumulate over time into a tsunami of change, which is of course what happened this week, although not from the direction Mr. Manning would have predicted.

The tsunami came from the political left, the NDP, not from the populist right as it had appeared might happen before the last election, when the Progressive Conservatives rather miraculously snatched victory from the Wildrose Party in the campaign's dying days. True, the NDP was not new, but it had always been marginal. Neither the party, nor anyone else, ever dreamed until the early days of this campaign that the party would form a government. Not now, not ever, not in Alberta.

When a party is too long in power, according to the Manning theory, it slowly loses touch with demographic changes and other new realities. It believes a change of leader, a dash of fresh tactics or the scaremongering that had worked before can be summoned again so that the dynasty can continue. Except that Alberta's political history shows what happens to incumbents after a while: Liberals lose to the United Farmers of Alberta who in turn yield to Social Credit who are ousted by Progressive Conservatives who now are humbled by the NDP. In every case, a new or marginal force toppled the mighty, leaving voters to wonder in the aftermath of their decision: What did we do?

The Alberta PCs had been losing steam for a very long time. The decline began slowly, as these things do, in the final years of Premier Ralph Klein when, with revenues bountiful, it became increasingly clear the party lacked a vision for the province. Mr. Klein was essentially ousted from the leadership when he received only a lukewarm endorsement at a party convention to carry on. His replacement was the uninspiring Ed Stelmach, who seemed unable to articulate what Alberta should do. And he, in turn, resigned to be replaced by Alison Redford, who rather improbably won the leadership as the candidate with the least front-bench support, an outsider and a usurper whose performance in office was disastrous.

Beneath these leadership changes was a party that had lost a chunk of its rural base to the Wildrose Party, and was having trouble connecting with urban voters, too. The Family Compact between the Calgary oil barons and the PC Party that had defined Alberta's public affairs for decades frayed, as disillusionment infected the business elite about the party's feckless performance. Within the business crowd, Wildrose siphoned off money and support as the most authentic voice for unbridled free enterprise.

Alberta was growing fast until recently. Having so much money, PC governments siphoned much of it into public services. On a per capita basis, for example, Alberta spends the most on health care (along with Newfoundland), and yet demands for even more spending never relented. The province needed more schools, more university and college places, more police, more roads, more of everything. As these services expanded, so did the number and clout of public-sector unions, who formed the spine of the NDP's victory on Tuesday and to which the new Premier, Rachel Notley, will now be beholden. They will expect some degree of munificence from her, and she will be hard-pressed, given the province's straitened fiscal circumstances, to accede to all of their demands.

Nationally, New Democrats will be elated at their party's win in Alberta and will undoubtedly claim that it is a harbinger of great things in the forthcoming federal election. They needed something to cheer because the party had lost power in Nova Scotia, blew a chance in British Columbia, produced only a middling result in Ontario and forms a government of the walking dead, politically speaking, in Manitoba.

What happened in Alberta was a made-in-Alberta anomaly built on the historical pattern of how dynastic incumbents lose in that province, coupled with a bright leader in Ms. Notley and mistakes made by the PC Premier Jim Prentice, who took the province for granted, believed he could patch up what was broken and paid a terrible price, politically and personally.