On May 5, Albertans will head to the polls almost a year ahead of schedule, and if the PC party wins it will extend its hold as the longest uninterrupted governing party in Canadian history. Some four decades ago, C. D. Macpherson’s Democracy in Alberta was required reading for a young political science scholar at the University of Lethbridge. Written over two decades before that, in 1953, the book examined the apparent one-party state in Alberta, with successive United Farmers of Alberta and Social Credit governments dominating the political landscape. Macpherson may not have realized that he was being more prophetic than analytical. While the Social Credit party held power for another 18 years beyond his book’s publication, the Progressive Conservative (PC) party, which supplanted the Socreds, has stayed in power the longest. With Jim Prentice’s election call, and no other party likely to form government, it appears the Alberta PC Party will extend its streak for another four years, keeping it in power for over 45 years.
Macpherson’s analysis focused on Albertan’s alienation from, and distrust of, central Canada (commonly referred to as “the East”) and a federal government that was too often seen to serve the interests of the East. In addition, Albertans, particularly its “independent commodity producers” (read “farmers” at that time) had a sense of homogeneity, rooted in their resiliency in overcoming the ravages of the Great Depression and of joining together to build a strong province. While there has been much criticism of Macpherson’s economic analysis of immediate post-war Alberta, threads of truth remain. In 1980, a Tory government would adopt Fortis et Liber as the province’s motto, underscoring the ongoing depth of that attitude in Alberta even though it takes a phrase from Canada’s national anthem.
A little Machiavelli
What much analysis of the Alberta political scene tends to understate is that the Alberta PC Party is adept at one important principle in politics: keeping power when you have it, as Machiavelli tutored in The Prince. Battles with the federal government wax and wane, prices for energy and farm products rise and fall, cultural landscapes change as the province’s growing population becomes less homogenic, yet one party continues to build the big tent in which most Albertans are satisfied enough to reside politically. Seven people have led the Alberta PCs, setting a record for the number of premiers serving a continuous government. The Alberta PC Party has persisted by ensuring its leader can be trusted to be competent first, and populist second. With a sense that under Premier Redford the party had neither, change was inevitable.
Prentice takes the reins
The bright and telegenic Danielle Smith, leader of the Wildrose Party in Alberta until last year, thought she had what it takes to put an end to the PC rule in Alberta. In the 2012 election, it appeared that the Wildrose Party would replace the PCs. Then some press “leaks,” orchestrated by PC operatives to be strategically timed in the final week of the campaign, moved the undecided back to the PCs. Notwithstanding the electoral defeat, Smith led an effective opposition, and continued to raise significant funding, with a solid donor base in Calgary’s oil patch. A Wildrose government was still conceivable.
However, Alison Redford miserably misread what the Alberta electorate could tolerate and she was ousted from office. She was replaced by Jim Prentice, who brought an immediate aura of competence and respectability. He had served as a federal MP with Prime Minister Harper’s Conservatives, holding some important Cabinet posts. After leaving federal politics, Prentice went back to the private sector, serving as Vice-Chair of the CIBC when he left to run for the Alberta Tory leadership.
With a stellar background in politics and business, Prentice could very well have won the next provincial election without further solidifying his hold on the PCs, but he strengthened his position with some early out-of-the-box moves. He brought unelected members into his first cabinet. The ex-Mayor of Edmonton, Stephen Mandel, became the Minister of Health. Gordon Dirks, head of the Calgary Board of Education, was appointed Minister of Education. If those moves are not Machiavellian enough, Prentice also brought in Michael Percy as his Chief of Staff. Percy, the ex-Dean of the U of A business school, served as Finance critic with the Liberal opposition in the Alberta Legislature during the 1990s.
Wildrose Party in disarray
The Wildrose was unable to thwart Prentice’s ambitions to win all four by-elections he called in October 2014. Danielle Smith’s party finished second in two and a dismal third in the others (behind the NDP in Edmonton, capably led by Rachel Notley, daughter of a well-respected Grant Notley who died, while in office, in an airplane accident). After having seen some Wildrose MLAs move to the PCs under her tenure, smarting from the by-election losses, fumbling through a lacklustre fall sitting, and unable to tolerate some social policy rifts in her party, Smith led eight of her colleagues across the floor to join the PCs in December 2014. This move seriously undermined, to say the least, the Wildrose Party’s public credibility. Smith did pay the price for her defection, subsequently losing her PC nomination battle, and leaving politics; it’s a result that some have accused Prentice of orchestrating very well.
Premier Prentice ostensibly called an early election (pursuant to legislation, Albertans did not have to go the polls until Spring 2016) to get a new mandate, including an endorsement of his recent budget. It holds the line on some spending (which means cuts where inflation and population growth add spending pressures), absolute reductions to some ministries and revenue increases. The most major change is the re-introduction of health care fees to help offset health spending pressures.
Even with the increased revenue, Albertans will be the least taxed citizens in Canada. This “Alberta Advantage,” which successive Alberta governments have promoted, also got the new Premier into a bit of a political tempest. Prentice suggested Albertans “should look in the mirror” to see some of the reason for expected budget deficits. What Prentice was trying to say, in too blunt a way for many Albertans, is that Albertans have expected superior government services while not footing the bill that many people in the rest of Canada pay for even less service. Prentice may have been correct, but he did cause a backlash. The provincial Tories have been using Alberta’s extraordinary energy revenues for decades to shield Albertans from paying the freight for services because that formed the basis of their simple re-election strategy. The Alberta PCs must also look in the mirror for bringing Alberta to yet another fiscal crisis.
The Coronation likely to come
Throughout the election campaign, Albertans will continue to talk about needing an effective opposition in government, and worry that the way the PC Party dominates is not good for democracy. Then wringing their hands on the way to the ballot booth on May 5, they will re-elect the PC Party, giving Premier Prentice his first electoral mandate. With some peace, order and good governance, he will pave the way for the next election in 2019, seeking a second mandate and taking the PCs to over 50 years in government (new Premiers seldom think of just one term in office). Canadians may help him by electing a Justin Trudeau-led Liberal federal government that most Albertans may distrust.
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