Alberta surprise: what went right for Redford

The PCs carried 61 of 87 seats
Alberta PC party leader Alison Redford celebrates her win in the provincial election in Calgary, Alta., Monday, April 23, 2012. Redford led the PC Alberta party to another majority win beating out the new comer Wildrose party.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

An Alberta astronaut returning from Titan and seeing the result of last night’s election would say “Meh, so what else is new? The PCs carried 61 of 87 seats? Kind of an off year for them, I guess.” Yet the ostensibly boring, familiar outcome wrong-footed much of the media and absolutely all the pollsters. Even PC insiders, correctly detecting a last-minute shift away from the Wildrose Party heirs-presumptive, envisioned a much smaller vote share than the 44 per cent Alison Redford’s party achieved. The public polling firms all botched the job, with none forecasting anything but a Wildrose majority even on the final weekend.

The Wildrose Party’s final count of 17 seats must surely leave its braintrust, heavily stocked with Conservative Party of Canada veterans, obliterated with horror. The CPC has built a pretty good electoral machine, but as old Ralph Klein hand and Wildrose supporter Rod Love reminded CBC, the Alberta PC brand is the most successful in the country. He probably could have gone even further afield if he wanted to. (On August 24, 2014, the PCs will officially become the longest continuously serving government in the annals of Confederation.) In 1993 the PCs were in trouble late, but succeeded in outflanking a popular Liberal opposition and running against their own record. They did it again in 2012. Redford succeeded in making herself the “change” candidate—though not without help from the Wildrose insurgents, who suffered late “bozo eruptions” of the sort the CPC itself has long since succeeded in extinguishing.

It wasn’t all about the bozos, but they did help inspire a shift of progressive voters away from the Alberta Liberals—a party that is never quite healthy but now seems positively moribund. With overall turnout still fairly dismal (probably not much higher than 50%), the Wildrose was able to capture 34% of the vote. Almost all of that support, without any doubt, came from citizens who backed the PCs in 2008. But the Liberal vote share fell from 29% to 10%, and it seems almost all of those voters went PC, often reluctantly, in defence of Redford.

Redford seemed destined to be the Alberta PCs’ Kim Campbell for so long that it is difficult to do an about-face and assess her strengths. She played hardball when it came to the Wildrose “bozoes”, succeeding in making them a metaphor for a potential Wildrose caucus of uncertain size, ideological allegiance, and ability. That turned out to be shrewd, and the Wildrose campaign, which was rigidly committed to a tactical plan laid out before the election writ, did not react fast enough. (The WRP strategic doctrine has been that it is better not to get caught “reacting” at all. This is ideal if your preparation has been thorough. If there are weaknesses, look out.)

But what really strikes one now is the way Redford has emphasized Alberta’s national and international image from day one of her career as premier—indeed, from day one of her candidacy for premier. Whether or not Alberta is a particularly insular and self-regarding place (which, duh, it is), it has elected a few heads of government in a row who were far from cosmopolitan. With the last couple, you’d honestly be a little reluctant to let them use a really nice bathroom. Meanwhile, Alberta’s government has been guilty of neglecting or underestimating outside sentiment, most notably when it comes to environmental attacks on the tar sands.

Criticisms of Alberta began as an easily-ignored celebutard problem, but because of Alberta’s landlocked status, it grew to become a serious diplomatic one, one with a quantifiable impact on Alberta’s take from oil. Professional enviros went after pipelines connecting Alberta to U.S. and world markets because they are an easy choke point; Alberta business leaders and its government bean-counters are increasingly, unhappily aware of just how easy.

That means the province can no longer count on market-access issues to take care of themselves. Oil is not just a commodity anymore. It needs a sales pitch. And Redford has been preaching the axioms that naturally follow. Lord, has she ever. She hardly ever mentions Alberta without squeezing Canada, or the world, or both into the sentence. This turns out, as of tonight, to not just be the irritating vocal tic of a baggage-lugging, UN-certified internationalist.

Danielle Smith’s view on climate change—that the science pinning it on human activity is provisional, and it’s not clear that we really have power over the weather—has a broad constituency in Alberta. So does her view that people who literally believe in Hell are eligible for public office, provided they give a firm promise of religious tolerance. None of this is “radical”, per se. But the net effect of the last half of the campaign was to make Smith look defiantly “Albertan”, to appear to be an Albertan contra mundum and-to-hell-with-what-anyone-else-thinks.

In most years, in most Albertas, that would work. It may even work again in the future, when Albertans feel less insecurity about finding a way to force our boutique oil into foreign markets and more comfortable about reverting to “Let’s all get super drunk at the Stampede” mode. But in 2012 Albertans are feeling vulnerable about identity, and Smith’s problems provoked a late, instinctive counter-reaction. Herself a promising avatar of change and modernity, the Wildrose leader found herself endlessly defending men who looked and sounded like an old Super-8 film of Socreds at a 1968 ribbon-cutting for a curling rink. Redford, meanwhile, stuck to her game and got it right: keep reminding Albertans that the world exists, and is watching, and is very large.

Demographic change didn’t hurt Redford’s cause, of course. Alberta’s fast growth should, in theory, make old political axioms and patterns untrustworthy, as new Albertans remake the electorate every decade. Alberta remains the youngest of all provinces, and it’s now far from the whitest. But when I look at the vote totals from here in Edmonton, for example, what I see is Edmonton actually reasserting its classic liberal identity, angrily. Friends my age and younger were able to accept the bizarre logic of the PCs as the party of “change”, and voted PC for exactly the same reasons they were once determined to keep the city PC-free.

Of the 19 core Edmonton ridings, 13 went PC; more surprisingly, the PCs made a clean 5-for-5 sweep of the bedroom communities of St. Albert, Sherwood Park, Spruce Grove, Stony Plain, and Strathcona County. None of these were remotely close for the Wildrose; one of the highest vote totals in the whole province belongs to St. Albert PC Stephen Khan, who was running in a riding that has sent Liberals to the legislature at least once under every Alberta government. (At this hour, Redford herself has the very highest total—yet another surprise within the larger surprise.)

In the final weekend of the campaign, both Smith and Redford stuck close to Calgary, and in light of the polls, this looked for all the world as though Redford was desperately playing defence. Would she ignore rural Alberta if she thought there was any hope there? Redford did lose a few Conservative stalwarts in the hinterland, but, frankly, she is probably not too unhappy about losing golf-mad Ray Danyluk or Wildrose-in-all-but-name Ted Morton.

The Wildrose took no seats at all north of Lacombe (which is a little less than halfway from Edmonton to Calgary), apart from Danyluk’s northeastern Franco-Ukrainian fiefdom (Lac la Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills). Basically, the Wildrose is left with a dryland/foothills caucus and a couple of Calgary outposts. Urban Alberta has regained the upper hand in the electoral calculus after more than three decades of control by plain-spoken, half-animist, multi-tentacled PC county bosses of the Danyluk type.

And Redford has gained what no one expected her to have: a big winner’s unquestioned dominance of her caucus, with a generous helping of like minds replacing the old dinosaurs. Hopefully she will be conscious of this and enforce a regime of positive urban values, starting with honesty and transparency in government, social tolerance, and respect for innovation. (I am not convinced that throwing billions of dollars at an improvised “innovation” project like AOSTRA-2 is a good example of the latter, but in that case the goal isn’t wrong, just the old-school centrally-planned execution.) There are also negative urban values Redford needs to avoid: impecuniousness, laziness, and the eternal temptations of social engineering. But the idea of making Alberta a place people think of as cool is not a bad one. I live here, I already know it’s pretty cool: we apparently need to convince you.