A New Direction for Alberta?

Donovan Makus

You may be tired of hearing about elections after our recent CSA and Club elections, and while I’m certainly glad they’re over, a far larger election is looming on the horizon with broader implications than the ones brought on by a handful of students who are in office for only a year. Last issue, we covered the United Conservative Party (UCP) and how to get involved in provincial politics; this week, we’ll examine the only other party polling in government territory–the New Democrat Party (NDP). The NDP in Alberta has a unique history and party status that helps explain their current status as incumbents.

No matter what you think of about the conservative movement, Alberta has a history of conservative politicians. We’re the home of the now-defunct Reform party movement that orchestrated a takeover of the Federal Conservatives and have reliably voted for federal Conservatives many times. This begs the somewhat-obvious question of how we ended up with an NDP provincial government. The answer is complex: it is a combination of voter disgust and political miscalculations from the Progressive Conservative (PCs) and Wildrose parties. The PC leadership felt that Alberta would never elect a non-conservative government, and having hollowed out the Wildrose after Danielle Smith’s floor-crossing, they felt confident calling an early election. This overconfidence even extended to their party financing; the PCs were so prematurely confident in their victory that they borrowed 2 million dollars to pay for their final campaign, money they had difficulty paying back after failing to form government.

It’s exactly this kind of overconfidence that lead to voters wanting an alternative, a feeling expressed in polling, and with the Liberal brand still toxic from the era of Trudeau senior, they turned to Rachel Notley’s NDP. The Alberta NDP had always been one of the small parties, at least in recent memory, confined to bastions in central Edmonton and Calgary. It is a party with a long history and the only provincial party in Alberta directly connected to its equivalent Federal party. Through this, they can claim connections to the famous NDP governments of the past, such as Tommy Douglas’s government and its introduction of public healthcare in the Canadian environment. This was a party of great potential, but one that was polling behind the PCs and Wildrose, until the unthinkable happened: Alberta elected a left-wing government.

While the NDP may have a long history, a fresh NDP caucus emerged, one built on a wave of popular enthusiasm that lead to some “accidental MLAs.” For example, the MLA in my division, Estefania Cortes-Vargas, was a university student at the time of her election. She had to miss some campaign events to write finals, and her campaign spent a miniscule fraction of the money the PC MLA spent. While the composition of the caucus may have been new, the NDP wasted no time in beginning to legislate with their new majority government, quickly passing numerous bills.

This legislation has enabled the NDP to make great progress in fulfilling campaign promises, but it also raises one major disadvantage the NDP faces going into this election. The UCP has made it clear they don’t feel the need to defend past PC government moves, while the NDP must defend their record from UCP attacks. This leaves the NDP in the unenviable place of defending their record during a time spent governing a resource-dependent province in an era of poor-resource revenues. Oil money kept the PCs afloat for decades, but much like the provincial coffers, the waterline has dropped for the NDP. Add a carbon tax and you have a difficult record to explain to many Albertan voters.

While saddled with a legislative record to defend, the NDP have fared remarkably well on the scandal side of house. There were some early missteps; rookie MLAs like Deborah Drever have made inappropriate remarks and participated in some questionable activities in the past, but they haven’t experienced the fallout of a Derek Fildebrandt-style scandal that continues to simmer. Nor have they spent the better part of a year engaging in contested nominations, with court challenges, parachute candidates, and intra-party sniping. This provides some hope for a victory.

Going into this election isn’t easy for the NDP; the polling numbers have them running a distant second, but they still have hope. While more Albertans hold a negative view of Rachel Notley than Jason Kenney, the UCP has a significant amount of nomination baggage and associated issues, as well as a broad array of candidates who may not see eye to eye on some of the more contentious social issues. Given that the UCP platform has promised free votes on non-budget, confidence, or platform issues–and completely omitted social issues from their platform–UCP MLAs would, theoretically, be able to vote how they want on social legislation. However, this is a scenario the NDP has succeeded upon in the past, going from third in polling to winning a majority government in 2015. With the election now in full swing, we won’t need to wait long to see the outcome.

A supposedly Chinese proverb summarizes our current situation well: “May you live in interesting times.” No matter the outcome, this is a truly historic election. Will Albertans continue their history of electing dynasties with an NDP government, or will we buck the trend and see a new form of the old conservative movement? It’s up to you, your friends, and your neighbours to decide.

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