Alberta never really was all that conservative

Posted on May 7, 2015 in Governance Debates – Full Comment
May 7, 2015.   Andrew Coyne

OK, everybody take a valium.

The NDP’s historic breakthrough in Alberta isn’t quite on the same seismic scale as the Parti Québécois’s first victory in Quebec, the occasion for that celebrated Aislin caption. But it has already set off comparable shockwaves at the notion that a “conservative” province like Alberta could have embraced a “socialist” party like the NDP, as it was described in the New Republic.

Whoa, now. The NDP is not so far left as all that. And Alberta never was the rock-ribbed conservative redoubt of myth. In election after election, decade after decade, Albertans have voted for a big-spending party that gave them stuff on a scale most provinces could only dream of, squandered their money on various mad “diversification” schemes, and involved itself in all of the meddlesome busywork you would expect to find in any modern bureaucratic state. Under Peter Lougheed it even had its own airline. It may have had the word Conservative in its name, but that was all it was: a word.

The province spent more than most, paid its employees more — then was shocked to find that it could not sustain itself on this lifestyle at less than $100 a barrel. Jim Prentice may have been wrong about some things, but the furor over his “look in the mirror” comment was quite ludicrous: who was it who voted for all these, if not Albertans? And when it all came crashing down, they turned to a party that would give them even more stuff — as always, to be paid for by someone else: tax oil, tax corporations, tax the rich, just don’t tax us.

There is no policy sense in which Alberta is more conservative than the other provinces, and there is little in the platform the NDP campaigned on — higher corporate taxes, higher minimum wages, more schemes to diversify the economy into higher “value-added” activities — that a PC government couldn’t have or hasn’t offered at one time or another. They’re bad ideas, all of them, but they’re not so bad that they could not be advocated by all parties, all parties having converged on the same populist ad hockery — this subsidy to cement the loyalty of that interest or demographic group, this tax break for another.

I don’t want to say that Albertans were necessarily motivated by the NDP platform. A lot of the people who ended up voting for the party were telling pollsters they would vote for the Wildrose Party halfway through the campaign; had the personable, thoughtful Brian Jean who showed up on election night been the Wildrose leader in the televised debate, and not the over-coached automaton viewers saw, things might have turned out rather differently.

But certainly the platform does not seem to have hurt them any. Perhaps that’s just a statement about how little ideology mattered in this election, when the ballot question was “throw the bums out: yes or God yes.” A lot of the credit, too, goes to the party’s leader, Rachel Notley, and her good-natured, common-sense appeal. But it’s also a testament to the NDP’s willingness to pitch its tent and wait for people to come to it, rather than chase them all over the ideological map.

Election after election, federally and provincially, the party makes more or less the same broad case to the voters, and while electoral success has been slow to come, it is growing: the NDP has lately become competitive in more and more places it never used to be — first Ontario, then Atlantic Canada, then Quebec, and now Alberta. When their policies proved a hard sell at first, they didn’t just trade them in for new ones. They tried again, and they tried harder. They had confidence in themselves, they had confidence in their ideas, and they had confidence in the voters.

That’s true more generally of so-called “progressive” parties: Liberal, NDP or Green. I’ve said it before: The left is winning. They are raising taxes, they are running deficits, they are adding whole new government programs, like carbon trading or the Ontario pension plan — all things they were told were politically impossible. Of what comparable victory can the right boast in recent years? In what important way has government become smaller? What industry has been deregulated? What Crown corporation has been privatized? What corporate subsidy has been eliminated?

Has the tax system grown simpler and flatter or more complicated? Are there fewer needless intrusions on personal freedom? Are the toxic fixations of identity politics any less dominant a concern under Conservative than progressive parties? Conservatives used to talk confidently about rolling back the frontiers of the state. Now they don’t talk about anything much. Oh wait, I’ve just been handed this press release from Rona Ambrose: the Conservatives will impose “comply or explain” gender quotas on corporate boards. Hallelujah. You’d never catch a Liberal or NDP government doing that.

Which is to say, part of the reason the left is winning is that it is the only side showing up. The left pushes, and the right does not push back — doesn’t offer its own alternatives, certainly, or even a serious critique. Because it doesn’t have one, really. We are back to the 1960s and 1970s, when the expansion of the state was a one-way ratchet — growing during periods of left-wing rule, barely held in check under the right — and the only alternative the right could offer was “we’d do it less expensively.”

Probably Alberta’s election results will not be replicated nationally. But who can say? Voters are fickle nowadays. Parties can no longer count on ancient tribal loyalties. And if they offer nothing in their place, if it all just comes down to whose leader has the brightest eyes, who knows? On any given Tuesday, who knows?

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