Published May 4, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.
The desire for change is the most powerful force in politics. We are seeing that in Alberta where voters will go to the polls on Tuesday in a provincial election that appears destined to end the Progressive Conservatives’ 44-year stranglehold on power. All the pollsters agree: the New Democrats will take over in Alberta, their only reservation being whether the NDP will emerge with a majority or minority government.
Change? In Alberta? An orange government in the bluest of Canadian provinces? NDP Premier Rachel Notley? Wow!
But wait. Is it possible that the pollsters – all of them – are wrong?
In theory, yes, and given the polling fraternity’s abysmal record in the last Alberta election in 2012, a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted. But it seems highly unlikely that they are all wrong this time. By last week, the various polls were all showing the NDP well ahead, with about 38 per cent of the popular vote, which given the fragmented vote on the right, might be just enough to eke out a bare majority. The one thing the pollsters did not agree on was whether rookie Premier Jim Prentice’s Tories were in second place or in third, behind Wildrose.
As of Friday, the poll consolidator ThreeHundredEight.com put the NDP comfortably ahead with 41.8 per cent of the vote to 26.0 for Wildrose, 24.7 for the PCs and just 4.7 for the Liberals. By then, the desperate Conservatives had mounted a “fear” campaign to warn the people of the dreadful consequences of electing the socialist hordes. The campaign apparently fell flat. A new poll, by Forum Research on Saturday, showed the NDP at 42, Wildrose at 24 and Conservatives 21. Numbers like those would yield a majority NDP government with about 50 members in the 87-seat Alberta Legislature.
What happened to turn Alberta from Tory blue to NDP orange? There were several factors. To start with, Prentice was so overconfident that he called the election a year before it was required; he might have consulted David Peterson, the former Liberal premier of Ontario, who did the same thing in 1990, thereby paving the way for the election of Bob Rae and the NDP. Peterson could have told Prentice that voters don’t like being taken for granted or being pressured into unnecessary elections.
The collapse of world oil prices and its impact on Alberta’s economy, both in terms of job losses and lost government revenue, was a huge factor; it caused Albertans to question some of their political assumptions and allegiances. Prentice’s budget, with its tax increases (on individuals but not on corporations), austerity measures and a record deficit, made matters worse – and the premier dug his hole deeper when he suggested Albertans look in the mirror to see who is responsible for the province’s financial woes.
He came to epitomize cynical old-style politics when he tried to destroy the official opposition by using policy concessions to buy off the Wildrose leader and eight of her caucus members. He was outperformed by Rachel Notley in the leaders’ debate. She and her New Democrats came to represent change, while Prentice and his party stood for the status quo or worse.
Forty-four years is quite a record. Let’s think back to 1971 and what was going on away back then. The Vietnam war was raging. Charles Manson and three women followers were convicted of murdering Hollywood star Sharon Tate and seven others. The Toronto Telegram died and the Toronto Sun was born. It would be another two years before the Watergate scandal would burst on the world. The top song in the Canada was “Sweet City Woman” by The Stampeders. There were no cell phones yet, and personal computers were not generally available in 1971.
And in August, 1971, with political change in the air, a young Calgary lawyer named Peter Lougheed led a band of Tories to an upset election victory in Alberta. The rest is – or was – history.