Why the Orange Revolution is not about Rachel Notley

Mythologizing the Alberta NDP leader is inevitable, but this election was all about sending a message to the Conservatives
Jeff McIntosh/CP
Jeff McIntosh/CP

My birthday was a few days ago. In my phone call with my mother, I asked her if she had spoken with anybody in the family about the Alberta election. She lives in Saskatchewan with my father now, on his family’s homestead, but they had just been back through Fort McMurray for a visit. They lived in Fort Mac before I was born, and again after I left home, at the end of my dad’s career as a mechanic. I was curious to hear if she had picked up any intel. She told me she had only talked to two relatives: her brother, a working man, and her niece, who is on the faculty at a northern Alberta college.

Both had always voted PC before. Who in Alberta doesn’t? But the niece, exposed to ever-increasing administrative responsibility in her department, had had enough of the government’s policy-dithering and corrupt hijinks. She was voting NDP this time. And the brother was just not ready to forgive the Conservatives for Alison Redford. What, were we just supposed to forget and move on because her gang had a new boss? For him, the Wildrose party was the only option.

It’s anecdote, of course, not data. But it’s the kind of anecdote you take note of as you are trying to figure out why the polls are screaming “NDP” at deafening volume. It made me start to believe the impossible: that Alberta could really elect an NDP government, and snuff out the PCs like a cheap cigar. Even with plenty of local knowledge, it’s dangerous to model an election without some further model in your head of what your friends, neighbours and family—really, any people who don’t have non-negotiable partisan commitments—are thinking.

With the Alberta Progressive Conservatives in flames, their leader having fled not only his leadership but the Assembly seat to which he was just re-elected, there will now commence a certain amount of mythologizing of new NDP premier-designate Rachel Notley. It’s inevitable; it might even be wrong to resist it. She did what literally dozens of opposition politicians in Alberta before her could not. It’s a file of men and women stretching back through time—intelligent, sincere, often likeable people, Notley’s father among them, who spent careers trying to make holes in the great PC wall and never left a respectable dent. Even the coldest-hearted conservative crank must wish that the irresistible, gamine Pam Barrett could be here to see all this, or that Sheldon Chumir were on hand to make penetrating observations about the fate of his Liberals.

But even Notley might admit that the main difference between her and them is timing and good fortune; that this election was not really about her, or about any sudden mass affection for the NDP. By many, the New Democrats were adopted, temporarily or not, as a vehicle for retribution. The nearly unanimous sentiment of the Alberta voter on this night was: taken for granted for too long. Albertans were determined to send a message to pervasive, enduring power that had begun to resemble Philip K. Dick’s Black Iron Prison.

It is one thing for a party to remain in political power for a generation: The Conservatives were starting to creep toward a second, to create the panicked, strangling realization in young voters that even their parents had never known any other sort of Alberta government. The follies of the PC party have long since started to become late-Roman and bizarre in character, with curious S&M-ish overtones. I know people outside Alberta strongly felt the sheer creepiness of news items such as Alison Redford’s secret “Sky Palace” hideaway, or the self-abasing pilgrimage of the old Wildrose caucus to the government’s cruel, bare benches of discipline.

It’s 3 a.m. as I write this paragraph: NDP partisans are still occasionally breaking into cries and chants of joy below my window. They did not know that their day would come so soon; they must have doubted it would ever come. I’m quite sure I will never cast an NDP vote in my life and, of course, I am a little afraid of occasional outbursts of social-engineering madness from our new NDP cabinet o’ kiddies. Yet I do not begrudge these exulting young people their joy one bit. They are celebrating a passing from sickness into health, a seizure of freedom for Alberta. Surely all must feel it, even many of those who voted Conservative today.

The province had reached a point at which it needed to assert the mere possibility of regime change, by any means short of dynamite. Can the NDP harm the Alberta economy? Certainly. Do we think Alberta’s economy was not harmed by endless, sometimes documentably corrupt one-party control of government contracts, of the health and legal professions, of boards and commissions of NGOs, of officers of the Legislature, of education and the ATB . . . of the entire apparatus of existence in many outlying areas? Do we think industries such as real-estate development and construction might not have started getting a little lazy and uncompetitive, with their unbreakable donor mainlines to the Conservatives? Do we believe no enterprise ever crossed the wrong minister in Alberta and got crushed in its infancy?

The gratitude Albertans extended to the PC party for so long was not madness. One of the canonical opposition errors Notley wisely avoided was making political arguments that implicitly cast the province as some sort of terrible, benighted place to live. Albertans like Alberta. Most Albertans are here because it offered them, or somebody before them, opportunities they didn’t have wherever they came from.

Under Peter Lougheed, the province, like the rising young business start-up it was, reinvested massive oil revenues in industrial development and in the appurtenances of civilization: higher learning, transport connections, sports and culture facilities. Eventually, it overreached with ’70s-style economic planning. The state had to be put back in its place, as was done almost everywhere else in the developed world: That was Ralph Klein’s appointed part of the task. We are told now that these PC governments did not “save” oil and gas revenue, but there would surely not have been much point in continuing to grow the debt left over from Lougheed’s social housing and diversification policies while piling up cash in the Heritage Fund. Under Klein, the net financial position of the provincial government, Fund included, improved by $43 billion: If you want to know “where all the oil money went,” start there. That’s debt Alberta taxpayers aren’t paying to service.

It was natural for Albertans who lived through much of this story to feel an attachment to the Progressive Conservatives, to extend trust to the limit of human tolerance. And what happens when a relationship like that begins to go bad? It curdles: It begins to feel like torture. You begin to wish you would never have to see the object of your former devotion again.

I suspect Albertans will probably get their wish in this regard. Campaign finance reform on the model established by the federal Conservatives, a declared priority of Notley’s NDP, will cut off the PCs’ wind most brutally. They have far fewer individual donors at this point than either the New Democrats or the Wildrose. If political donations from Alberta Traffic Supply or the Alberta College of Pharmacists are outlawed, as they obviously ought to be, the PCs have an immediate life-or-death issue.

And since the Progressive Conservatives have incinerated several messiahs already—don’t forget to count Danielle Smith!—it is hard to see where their next one might come from. No sitting Alberta MP, however far he might be down the list for advancement in the federal ranks, will want to take the wheel of this burnt-out beater. Many Alberta Conservative MPs already tacitly support the Wildrose, and more will be immediately converted when they see this morning’s headlines. The mayors of Edmonton and Calgary won’t be tempted. The rump PC caucus has, with the hasty departure of Jim Prentice, just two members left who were thought capable enough to have been ministers of the Crown before the vote.

Even before this election was called, the PC party was already starting to come apart at the seams at the level of constituency leadership. Is that problem likely to get better, with the party no longer in power and the survivors blaming one another for an electoral 9/11?

I might be wrong: Just in the four weeks of this election, I’ve said and written plenty of stuff I’d like to bury in the backyard. Alberta has been pretty good in recent years at administering lessons in humility to its native pundit class. Fortunately, on May 5, 2015, we got to watch the politicians come in for their share. Misery loves company!

Related reading: 

Paul Wells: How a down-to-earth politician capitalized on an extraordinary moment in Alberta 

Election fallout: Jim Prentice steps down as leader — and as an MLA

Andrew Leach: On the Alberta NDP and energy policy 

Meet the new premier: What you need to know about Rachel Notley