Monthly Archives: August 2015
Provincial elections were held in the Canadian provinces of Prince Edward Island (PEI) and Alberta on May 4 and 5, 2015 respectively.
Prince Edward Island
All 27 members of the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island, the unicameral provincial legislature of the province, were up for reelection. The smallest province by population, PEI also has the smallest provincial legislature in Canada. As in every other province, members – styled MLAs – are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies (which are called districts in PEI). However, PEI was the last Canadian jurisdiction to transition to only single-member constituencies – until the 1996 election, PEI’s MLAs were elected in two-member districts, with each of the island’s three counties electing 10 members in 5 two-member districts (until 1966, when 5th Queens was divided to create a 6th Queens district covering part of Charlottetown, the provincial capital). Since PEI did not abolish its old upper house but instead merged it with its lower house in 1893, the two-member districts returned one assemblyman and one councillor. Until 1963, while all voters could vote for assemblymen, only property owners could elect the councillor. Although the property qualification was dropped in 1963, the nominal titles continued to be used until the creation of the single-member districts.
The two-member districts map, which had remained unchanged save for one exception for a hundred years, and contained very large differences in population across districts, was struck down in Mackinnon v. Prince Edward Island in 1993. The successor map was challenged on the grounds that it over-represented rural areas and did not follow municipal boundaries, but it was upheld by the Prince Edward Island Supreme Court in 1996.
Prince Edward Island, located in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence and connected to mainland Canada (New Brunswick) by the Confederation Bridge, is Canada’s smallest constituent unit (province or territory) in land area and smallest province by population (the three territories have a smaller population than PEI). According to the 2011 Census, PEI’s population was only 140,204 – basically a medium-sized regional town (the Sherbrooke urban area in Quebec has a similar population), which also means that PEI’s electoral districts, with an average population of only 5,000 in each, are very small units comparable to municipal wards in most countries. The provincial capital, Charlottetown, has a population of only 34,562 (although the census agglomeration has 64,487 people. Summerside, the Island’s second-largest city, has a population of 14,751 and is the only other community on the Island with a population of over 10,000.
PEI is a fairly linguistically homogeneous province: 92% of residents in 2011 reported English as their mother tongue, with only 3.7% (or 5,190 people) saying French was their mother tongue and 3.5% with a non-official language as their mother tongue. 87% of Islanders are unilingual Anglophone and 95% speak English most often at home. The Francophone (Acadian) minority in PEI is largely concentrated in Prince County (the western third of the island), in the provincial district of Évangéline-Miscouche (where they may make up a majority of the population) and more specifically in three census subdivisions (Lot 15, Abrams Village and Wellington). In racial terms, PEI is also – unsurprisingly – quasi-homogeneously white, with visible minorities making up only 3.1% (4,260) of the population, with Chinese being the single largest minority group (with 1,830 people), and an additional 1.6% (2,230) claiming Aboriginal identity. The Mi’kmaq are, like in the other Maritime provinces, the main Aboriginal group in PEI, which has two First Nations reserves (both Mi’kmaq).
Islanders are largely of British Isles ancestries – Scottish, English or Irish. According to the 2011 NHS, 66.8% of residents claimed British Isles ancestry – more specifically, 39.3% claimed Scottish ancestry, 31.1% claimed English ancestry and 30.4% claimed Irish ancestry. PEI has the highest percentage of persons claiming Scottish or Irish ancestries of any province in Canada. Additionally, 36.8% claimed ‘Canadian’ ancestry and 21.1% claimed French ancestry. One of the more salient divides on the island has traditionally been religion (like in the other Atlantic provinces): PEI was 84% Christian as of 2011, with only 14.4% non-religious. Christians are fairly evenly divided between Catholics (42.9%) and the various Protestant denominations (41.1%, including 9.6% of ‘Other Christians’), and the United Church of Canada is the single largest Protestant denomination. Catholics and Protestants are fairly evenly spread throughout the island, although the eastern and western ends of the island (Kings and Prince counties) tend to be more Catholic while central Queen’s County is slightly more Protestant or non-religious (in Charlottetown, which is 20.8% non-religious).
PEI has the smallest economy of any province, contributing only 0.3% of GDP. The island, like most of the Atlantic provinces, has a weak economy which has been struggling for decades (in fact, the Maritimes’ best economic days, in general terms, were probably before Confederation). PEI has the lowest GDP per capita of any province ($39,780), and its median household income in 2011 ($55,311) was significantly lower than the national median HH income ($61,072). 59% of Islanders, in 2011, fell in the bottom half of the Canadian population (by income decile) and 15.8% were classified as low income (after-tax), compared to 14.9% of all Canadians. Only 82.2% of income came from ‘market income’, the second lowest in Canada (after Newfoundland), while 17.8% of Islanders’ income came from government transfer payments – including a full 5.8% from Employment Insurance (EI), compared to 1.8% across Canada. In April 2015, finally, PEI’s unemployment rate – 10.5% – was the third highest in Canada (after Newfoundland and Nunavut) and significantly higher than the national average (6.8%).
After Confederation, federal economic policies such as the National Policy primarily benefited the industrial powerhouses of central Canada and hurt the Maritimes, as did changing patterns of trade. Furthermore, PEI, an agricultural province lacking in natural resources and transportation links essential to industrial development, was unprepared for industrialization. The province, like the other Atlantic provinces of Canada, have benefited from post-1945 federal economic policies, social programs and transfer payments. In recent years, the provincial government has tried to break the province’s dependence on federal transfers by developing industries such as tourism. However, like the other Maritime provinces of Canada, PEI’s traditional dependence on federal funding and programs has meant that its provincial government has typically not been assertive or one to rock the boat in federal-provincial relations.
PEI was historically a predominantly agricultural province, thanks to its rich soil, ample supply of arable land and temperate climate. PEI is widely known across Canada for its potato production: in 2012, potatoes were the single most profitable crop, earning $246 million out of a total farm cash receipts of $467 million. The province is the nation’s largest supplier of potatoes. Fishing is also a major activity for the coastal communities. However, since the 1950s, the number of farms on the island has declined considerably and existing farms are large enterprises. In 2014, 8.4% of the labour force was directly employed in agriculture or fishing, which made it the fourth largest industry behind public administration (9.5%), retail trade (13.5%) and health care/social assistance (14.2%). Comparatively, across the country, only 3.8% of the labour force was employed in agriculture, forestry or fishing in 2014. Additionally, fisherman was the second most common specific occupation in 2011 (3.2% of the employed labour force), whereas across Canada it was ranked 219th and employed only 0.1%. Nowadays, public sector employment – public administration, education, healthcare and federal services – has replaced agriculture as the major employer on the island, alongside tourism (Anne of Green Gables, PEI’s red cliffs, beaches and unspoiled landscape), construction and light manufacturing (often primary resource-related).
The most common occupations (NOC) in 2011 were sales and services (22.4%), trades transport and equipment operators (15.3%), business finance and administrative occupations (14.9%) and occupations in education, law and social, community and government services (11.3%).
Prince Edward Island hosted the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, the first in a series of interprovincial conferences which would culminate in Canadian Confederation in 1867. However, the island declined to join Confederation immediately. By 1873, however, construction debts from the provincial railway threatened to bankrupt the colony, and the Liberal government of Premier Robert Haythorne sent a delegation to Ottawa to seek terms for admission to Confederation in return for the federal government assuming the colony’s extensive railway debts.
The other major issue in 19th century PEI was the land question. In 1767, Britain had divided the island into 67 lots owned by ‘proprietors’ (mostly absentee landlords in England) who collected rent from tenant farmers. The issue had been a hot button issue since the 1790s, but London blocked several attempts at land reform by colonial leaders prior to the advent of responsible government (1851). Afterwards, despite significant activism from tenant farmers, the cash-strapped and rather weak colonial government struggled to find a solution to the land question – which dragged on for over two decades after the introduction of responsible government. In 1873, one of the terms of joining Confederation was that the federal government would provide $800,000 towards the purchase of absentee landholdings on the island. In 1875, the province passed the Land Purchase Act, which made compulsory the sale of estates on PEI larger than 500 acres. To this day, non-residents are not permitted to purchase land on the island in excess of 2 hectares without approval from the cabinet.
The issue of separate schools – establishing a parallel system of separate Catholic schools – continued to divide the Liberals and Conservatives in island politics for a few years following Confederation, until 1876, when a coalition of Protestant Liberals and Conservative won power and created a non-sectarian, secular public school system.
With the three major political debates of the 19th century being settled within a few years, PEI politics moved towards the traditional political culture of the other Maritime provinces, characterized by parochialism, tradition, conservatism, pragmatism and a dose of cynicism and caution. Ideology has played a relatively minor role in PEI politics, and most observers have pointed out that few if any meaningful issues or ideologies divide the Liberals and the Conservatives. The parties reached their positions more on grounds of political expediency rather than principles, and they have always operated as patronage machines alternating in power rather than ideological parties. If the two parties were to be ideologically classified, both would end up in the centre, with the Liberals usually a bit more to the left and the Conservatives a bit more to the right.
Like in Nova Scotia, no great ethnic, religious, class or ideological antagonisms have had a strong, lasting influence on Island election. Religion has sometimes been identified as the main cleavage between Liberals and Conservatives, with the former being favoured by Catholics and the latter by Protestants, but PEI politics have never been sectarian and the parties have always had voters, members and leaders from both religious groups. Regionally, the Conservatives have usually been stronger in eastern Kings County and the Liberals in western Prince County, but this has hardly been a set rule: for example, in the 2008 federal election, the federal Conservatives (Gail Shea, a former provincial politician) was elected to the House for the western riding of Egmont while the Liberals retained the three other seats.
PEI is the Canadian province which has remained the most loyal to the old two-party (Liberals and Conservatives) system from Confederation. With the exception of independents elected in the first two provincial elections, no third party won a seat in the provincial legislature until the New Democrats (NDP) won a single seat in 1996, which they lost in 2000. No third party ever won over 10% of the popular vote, with the provincial NDP peaking at about 8% in the 1996 and 2000 elections.
Despite the little ideological differences between the traditional parties and the low stakes of most provincial elections, partisan identification and voter turnout have remained unusually high (turnout has almost always been over 80%, only falling to an historic low of 76.5% in 2011).
Since Confederation, Island politics have been dull to outside observers. The Liberals and Conservatives have alternated in power, and, with the exception of a series of one-term governments in the 1920s and early 1930s, all governments have been reelected at least once. However, neither party has managed to build a monopoly on power – no government has won more than three terms in office since 1978, when Premier Alex Campbell’s Liberals won a fourth (but final) term in office. After three terms in office, voter fatigue tends to set in and the governing party loses to the opposition, which campaigns on the vague promise of ‘change’ and open-ended criticism of some unpopular government decisions. The last change of government on the Island happened in 2007, when Premier Pat Binns’ Progressive Conservatives (PC) sought a fourth term but were soundly defeated by Robert Ghiz’s Liberals, who won 23 seats to the PCs’ 4 and won the popular vote 53% to 41%.
The relative social and political homogeneity of the Island has meant that elections, in terms of seat count, tend to be very lopsided, even if the popular vote has always remained quite close. Governing parties win huge majorities with the opposition being kept to a tiny caucus. The last time the seat count was close was in 1978 (the election split 17-15 between the Liberals and PCs).
Most PEI premiers since Confederation have been unremarkable, with few making a lasting mark by staying in power for a very long period of time or by attaching their names to landmark policies (which have been few in Island politics). Historically, many PEI premiers used the office as a stepping stone in their careers, leaving the job for a judicial appointment or an upgrade to federal politics. In the recent past, the most important PEI premiers have been Liberals Alex Campbell (1966-1978) and Joe Ghiz (1986-1993) and Tory Pat Binns (1996-2007). Alex Campbell supported government intervention in the economy to help diversify PEI’s mainly agricultural economy, and modernized some aspects of Island politics and institutions. Joe Ghiz gained some national notoriety by opposing free trade and supporting the two failed attempts at constitutional reform (Meech and Charlottetown). Pat Binns presided during fairly good economic times.
The provincial Liberals, led by Robert Ghiz – the son of former Premier Joe Ghiz – defeated the PCs in 2007. Remaining fairly popular throughout their first terms, the Liberals were widely expected to win a landslide in the 2011 election. However, the Liberals unexpectedly hit a bump, with a scandal involving the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP). The program allows provinces to nominate foreign nationals for entry to Canada, where they can fill local labour market needs. The PEI PNP program was set up in 2001 but shut down by Ottawa in 2008, after the federal government cracked down on years of irregularities in the province’s administration of the PNP. However, just as the program was about to be shut down, the province rushed through a large number of applications in order to maximize benefit from the embattled program. Immigrants invested their money into PEI businesses in return for immigrant status (for critics, ‘buying their way’ into Canada), but the program spun out of hand and a lot of the investment was pocketed by intermediaries and businesses who had no real relations with the immigrant-investors, while few immigrants actually moved to PEI. Relatives of the Premier, along with cabinet ministers, deputy ministers and several MLAs, benefited financially from the PNP. During the election campaign, the federal government called the RCMP and CBSA to investigate allegations of fraud and bribery in the PEI immigration program. Citizenship and Immigration Canada had received information from three former provincial public servants who claimed that would-be immigrant investors gave senior PEI bureaucrats cash-stuffed envelopes during a meeting in Hong Kong in 2008. Ghiz’s Liberals called the allegations politically motivated, but the opposition PCs went on the offensive in the hopes of shaking the government’s support. The RCMP investigation continued for three years but closed in January 2015 without any charges laid.
The PCs gained 5 points in polls in a month with the scandal, and probably spoiled Ghiz’s hopes of a clean-sweep of all 27 seats. In the end, the Liberals, however, were reelected with a barely reduced majority – 22 seats and 51.4% against 5 seats and 40.2% for the PCs. Once again, the provincial New Democrats or Greens failed to make any breakthroughs, winning 3.2% and 4.4% of the vote respectively.
In its second term, the Liberals have also been mixed up in another major scandal; a complicated e-gaming scheme. A number of islanders, including Ghiz’s close confidantes and the PEI conflict of interest commissioner, invested about $700,000 in a US-based tech firm which wanted to set up global banking platform on the island. The province had been trying to get into the online gambling business for some years, in the hopes of generating millions a year, but faced several thorny legal questions. Although the provincial government axed the e-gaming side of the deal due to legal and technical problems, it remained interested in turning the Island into a financial services hub. In 2012, it signed a MOU with a company which ended up embroiled in a securities investigation some months later. Questions have been raised about the conduct of current and former elected officials and staff.
The Liberals have also been criticized for the government’s poor record on the deficit. Since 2011, the Liberals have announced three successive deficit elimination plans, none of which have seen a successful conclusion. Before the 2011 election, the government announced that it would eliminate the deficit by 2013-14, but after they were reelected, the Liberals announced that the deficit was bigger than expected. In 2012, the government came out with another plan, aiming for a small deficit in 2014-15, instead of balance in 2013-14. The finance minister said increased costs of public pension were having a big impact on the budget. The Liberals’ 2012 plan announced 0% increases in all departmental budgets, with the exception of health (which would get a 3% annual increase), until the budget was balanced. In 2012, the Liberals broke a 2011 campaign promise by introducing the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) to PEI, an introduction which would not be revenue neutral. Despite the introduction of the HST, the government’s budget presentation in 2013 announced a much larger budget deficit (missing the target by $25 million). The Liberals now aimed for balance in 2015-16. To raise revenues, the Liberals increased taxes on gas (by 9 cents) and adult clothing, previously exempt from the provincial sales tax. The limits on government spending also meant important cuts in post-secondary education.
2015 election: Campaign and issues
Premier Robert Ghiz somewhat unexpectedly announced his pending resignation as Premier in November 2014, the day after his government opened a new session of the legislature with a Speech from the Throne. In February 2015, the PEI Liberals acclaimed Wade MacLauchlan, the 60/61-year old former president of the University of Prince Edward Island (1996-2011), who is also openly gay (somewhat notable, perhaps, for a traditionalist and conservative province like PEI). None of the senior cabinet ministers in Ghiz’s cabinet stepped up, but instead they all lined up behind MacLauchlan, who ended up as the sole candidate in the race. MacLauchlan was a successful president at UPEI, but is a political rookie. Upon his selection as Premier, MacLauchlan introduced new conflict of interest regulations for politicians and signalled that he’d like the Auditor General to look into the e-gaming scandal. As an outs
PEI last voted in October 2011, and PEI’s fixed election dates law mandates that the next election should have been held on the first Monday of October. However, the newly-elected Premier was eager to seek a mandate from Islanders – and take on the opposition parties, especially the PCs, before they were quite ready – so he dropped the writ for an election on May 4.
Indeed, the PEI PCs went through a deeply chaotic period in 2013. Olive Crane, the PCs’ leader in the 2011 election, stayed on after the election defeat, but her party performed poorly in polls, which showed very high levels of support for the PEI NDP, up to 22% in December 2012 (just 6 points behind the PCs). In December 2012, she survived a leadership review but got a very poor result, which led to her resignation as Leader of the Opposition and PC leader in January 2013. The 5-member PC caucus elected Hal Perry, the MLA for Tignish-Palmer Road, as Leader of the Opposition. However, the PC party – the caucus and the executive – decided to elect Steven Myers, MLA for Georgetown-St. Peters as interim PC leader. Perry initially announced that he would stay on as opposition leader, but the situation became chaotic and ridiculous: the 5-member PC caucus had one MLA as party leader and another MLA as opposition leader. The Liberal Speaker recognized Perry as opposition leader, which added to the ridiculousness of the situation – the Liberals picking the PC leader for them. However, Perry was soon forced to resign his untenable position and Myers got both jobs, although with limited caucus support. The March 2013 CRA opinion poll showed the PCs, after their leadership troubles, down to disastrous third place with only 16% support against 51% for the Liberals and 26% for the NDP (which won, you’ll recall, all of 3.2% in 2011). The PCs climbed back up to second place with 22% in May 2013, but by August 2013, they had fallen back to third again with 23% against the NDP’s historic 32% and the Liberals’ 42%.
In October, the chaos in PC ranks started anew when the PCs lost two-fifths of their caucus within 48 hours. On October 3, Hal Perry crossed the floor to join the Liberals, officially citing the PCs’ reluctance to criticize the federal Conservatives’ changes to Employment Insurance. On October 4, Myers expelled Olive Crane from the PC caucus for rather long-winded reasons: basically, Crane spoke to the media about Perry’s departure when she wasn’t supposed to according to official PC directives. Crane continued to sit as an independent. The PCs, therefore, were down to 3 MLAs. In November 2013 and February 2014, the CRA polls again showed the PCs languishing in a horrible third with only 17% support while the NDP continued riding high at 26% and 22% support respectively.
The PCs brought forward their leadership convention after the Liberals elected their new leader (on February 21), holding theirs on February 28. In a contested race, the PCs elected outsider Rob Lantz, a Charlottetown city councillor, who defeated James Aylward, the MLA for Stratford-Kinlock who had the backing of interim PC leader Steven Myers and the other sitting PC MLA (Colin LaVie). Polls in 2014 had shown the PCs struggling with poor polling numbers, but pushing their way back into second as the NDP’s remarkable (but unrealistic) momentum wore off. In February of this year, CRA showed the Liberals enjoying very strong support (58%) after MacLauchlan’s coronation with the PCs a poor second (26%) and the NDP in a strong but weaker third (12%).
As usual, the Liberals and the PCs did not differ much on the major issues – healthcare, jobs, economy, education and the like – and mostly had the same positions phrased differently. The PCs mostly focused on change, running on the slogan ‘A New Direction’, and sometimes hitting the Liberals quite hard on ethics issues and promising “major governance reforms to increase accountability, transparency and open government.” The PCs also promise to rebate the 9% provincial portion of the HST on residential electricity and a 20% reduction in copay for seniors’ drugs. Both parties steered clear of the abortion debate – PEI is the only province in Canada where a woman still cannot get a surgical abortion (as there are no abortion providers on the island), instead she must go to Halifax (Nova Scotia). Neither the Liberals or the PCs are interested in opening up abortion services on the Island (although the NDP and the Greens are). Even federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who has famously demanded that his MPs and candidate be prepared to cast pro-choice votes, sidestepped the issue of on-Island abortions when campaigning with MacLauchlan.
The PEI NDP and Greens both made a much stronger run than in any other election in the past. The PEI NDP, the weakest of all provincial New Democrats in the country, peaked at 8.4% of the vote in the 2000 election and won a seat in the Legislative Assembly only once – in 1996 – when then-NDP leader Herb Dickieson was elected in West Point-Bloomfield, a victory owed mostly to local issues at the time. In 2011, the NDP ran only 14 candidates and won 3.2% of the vote; as in 2007, it placed fourth, behind the Greens, who ran 22 candidates and obtained 4.4% of the vote. Both parties went into this election led by new, ambitious leaders. The NDP was led by Michael Redmond, who ran in Montague-Kilmuir against a Liberal incumbent. The Greens were led by Scottish-born dentist and perennial Green candidate Peter Bevan-Baker. The NDP put up a full slate of 27 candidates, while the Greens had 24 candidates. Unlike the NDP, the Greens followed the new federal and provincial Green parties strategy of putting the most resources in the leader’s riding (in this case, Kellys Cross-Cumberland), a strategy which notably saw the New Brunswick Greens elect their leader in a Fredericton riding in last year’s provincial election.
Results and Analysis
Turnout was 85.9%, up 10.5% from the last election, when turnout hit an Island low of 76.2%. Compared to 2011, this election was closer, more disputed, more open-ended (with the NDP and the Greens both making a much stronger run than in any other election).
Liberal 40.83% (-10.55%) winning 18 seats (-4)
PC 37.39% (-2.77%) winning 8 seats (+3)
Green 10.81% (+6.45%) winning 1 seat (+1)
NDP 10.97% (+7.81%) winning 0 seats (nc)
In one of the most exciting provincial elections in recent PEI political history, the Liberals were – as expected – reelected to a third term majority government, but they suffered significant loses and won a narrow majority with 18 seats out of 27 seats, a loss of 4 seats compared to the 2011 election. While in terms of seats the main beneficiaries of the Liberals’ loses were the opposition Tories, who gained 3 seats and now form a much stronger official opposition caucus of 8 (up from 5 in 2011 and 3 at dissolution), in terms of vote share the PCs did rather poorly as well, losing about 3% of their vote from the 2011 election. That being said, given how terrible the PCs did in opposition and how they managed to climb out of chaos only a few short months ago and elect a permanent leader only two months before the election (after 2 years with an interim leader), they should be pleased with their performance. In fact, the main winners of this election were the third parties – the NDP and the Greens. The Liberals’ 40.8% was the lowest vote share for a winning party in Island history, the Tory vote is the lowest it’s ever been since 1989 and above all the combined Liberal and Tory vote share – 78.22% – is the lowest in Island history.
The NDP and the Greens, together, won an amazing 21.78% of the vote, a remarkable feat in PEI. Naturally, both the NDP and the Greens won their best popular vote results in their (short, especially for the Greens) history, both winning nearly 11% of the vote. The NDP and the Greens’ results show that Islanders were displeased with both Liberals and Tories – one an unpopular governing party with a few ethics problems, the other an uninspiring and bland opposition party – and that some of them, for the first time, looked for an alternative to the two traditional parties in the NDP or the Greens.
However, of the two third parties, the Greens had the better election – even if they placed fourth in vote share, they won a seat, with an astonishing landslide for Green leader Peter Bevan-Baker in his riding of Kellys Cross-Cumberland (23% of all Green votes on the Island were cast for Bevan-Baker!). On the other hand, the NDP won more votes than the Greens and were generally stronger than the Greens in ridings where both parties competed against each other, but the NDP once again fell short of actually winning a seat. NDP leader Michael Redmond had a decent result in Montague-Kilmuir (23%), but he still ended up in third place in that rural Kings County seat which isn’t natural Dipper country; the NDP came within 109 votes in Charlottetown-Lewis Point.
This is very reminiscent of what happened last year in New Brunswick: the NDP stronger than the Greens in terms of votes, but the Greens coming out as the stronger of the two because they managed to elect their leader to the legislature while the NDP remained shut-out. The Greens, as in the federal election (2011), BC (2013) and NB (2014), used the successfully tried-and-tested strategy of dumping their scarce resources on the leader’s seat (or, if not, a limited number of seats, as in BC 2013) and going all-out there. In Canada’s FPTP system which really hurts a party like the Greens, this strategy has proven to be very successful for the Greens. The NDP, in provinces like PEI and NB where it is very weak and has the same FPTP issues as the Greens there, hasn’t really gone for the same strategy as the Greens and they’ve paid the price.
The PCs did best in Kings County/eastern PEI, holding the four seats they were defending there (including retiring ex-PC MLA Olive Crane’s riding) and gaining the marginal riding of Belfast-Murray River from the Liberals. Belfast-Murray River was former PC Premier Pat Binns’ seat, which the Liberals gained in a 2007 by-election (after Binns stepped down after his defeat) during their long honeymoon and held by only 8 votes in the 2011 election. This year’s race, a rematch of the 2011 contest between Liberal MLA Charlie McGeoghegan and PC challenger Darlene Compton, went in the Tories’ favour, who won the seat with a more comfortable margin of 108 votes. The Liberals held Vernon River-Stratford by a tiny margin of only 2 votes for Liberal incumbent Alan McIsaac on election night. After a recount, the result there actually ended up as a perfect tie, and the Liberals only won the seat by coin toss. The Liberals had an easier time in Montague-Kilmuir, winning 41.8% against 31% for the PCs and 23.1% for NDP leader Michael Redmond. Compared to the NDP’s results in surrounding districts (7-9%), this was a strong performance for the NDP, but they still fell short by a good distance.
The PCs also had good results in rural central PEI (Queen’s County), a key swing region where elections are won. The Tories gained Borden-Kinkora, Kensington-Malpeque and Rustico-Emerald from the Liberals (incumbents standing down) – with fairly consequential margins in all three. Liberal leader and Premier Wade MacLauchlan was elected in his riding of York-Oyster Bed, with a 600 vote victory over the Tories (47.7% to 32.9%) while the Liberals also held the Charlottetown suburban districts of Cornwall-Meadowbank (46.3% to 33.8%) and Tracadie-Hillsborough Park (45.7% to 27.8%). However, the Liberals held the other suburban district, West Royalty-Springvale, by only 59 votes against the PCs. In Kellys Cross-Cumberland, a predominantly rural/small town riding on the south-central coast of PEI, Green leader Peter Bevan-Baker saw his hard work pay off, winning in a shocking landslide – a margin of 1,031 votes, taking 54.8% of the vote against only 27.6% for the Liberal incumbent. In fact, Bevan-Baker’s margin of victory (in terms of votes, not percentages), was the largest of any winning candidate on the island!
Of decisive importance to the Liberal victory was Charlottetown – where they won every seat, despite tough challenges in a number of them and loses in most. In Charlottetown-Brighton, one of the key races of the election, Liberal candidate Jordan Brown defeated PC leader Rob Lantz by a 24-vote margin (39% to 38.1%). In Charlottetown-Lewis Point (many students from UPEI live in this district), the Liberals held on despite a tough challenge from the NDP – the NDP lead for a good part of the night, but the advance polls won it for the Liberals, by a thin 109 vote margin (34.3% to 30.7% for the NDP, with 27% for the PCs). The Liberals didn’t sweat as much in Charlottetown-Victoria Park, Charlottetown-Parkdale and Charlottetown-Sherwood. However, the Greens did win some very good results in Charlottetown-Victoria Park (18.8%) and Charlottetown-Parkdale (19.2%), winning a number of polls in both (in the downtown core areas and surrounding areas, with a young population, and gentrified low-income areas)
The Liberals swept western PEI, and won tight but decisive victories in the two districts of Summerside, PEI’s second-largest city. In Summerside-St. Eleanors, the Liberals won by 148 votes against the PCs, while in neighbouring Summerside-Wilmot, Liberal MLA Janice Sherry was reelected with a lead of only 30 votes against the Tories. The Liberals had an easier time in Tyne Valley-Linklater (337 vote victory) and O’Leary-Inverness (247 vote victory), while their incumbents won by big margins in Évangéline-Miscouche (62.6% for Liberal MLA Sonny Gallant in PEI’s Acadian riding), Alberton-Roseville and Tignish-Palmer Road. In the latter, floor crosser incumbent Hal Perry – elected as a Conservative in 2011 but running for reelection as a Liberal this year – was handily reelected, with a 668 vote lead and some 58.2% of the vote.
The Liberals won four districts by less than 100 votes (including one by only 2 votes) – if the PCs had won them, they would have held 12 seats to the Liberals’ 14, a wafer-thin majority for the Liberals. If the Liberals also lost the two other ridings which they won by less than 200 votes, we’d be looking at a Tory minority government and a Legislative Assembly with 13 Tories, 12 Liberals, 1 Dipper and 1 Green.
PEI political history dictates that the Liberals will be defeated as they try to win a fourth term in 2019. In the meantime, however, the PCs – who, in spite of everything, remain the only alternative governing party on the Island – will need to manage their time in opposition far better than they have since 2011. Rob Lantz turned out to be a strong and competent leader on the campaign trail, who managed the PCs well after the chaos of 2013, but unfortunately for them he was narrowly defeated in his own bid to enter the Legislative Assembly, although he will remain (for now) as the PC leader from the outside. The PCs will also need to deal with this potentially tricky situation. As for the third parties, the NDP comes out with a strong showing but also a frustrating and disappointing end result, while the Greens come out with a foothold in the legislature for their amiable and popular leader, and will thus have a stronger voice than the NDP. However, neither the NDP or the Greens can be seen as realistic alternative governing parties for the Island (although this is Canada we’re talking about, and considering I’m about to talk about Alberta’s election…).
All 87 members of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, the unicameral provincial legislature of the province, were up for reelection. Members – styled MLAs – are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies (or ridings).
Alberta, located in Western Canada and bordered by British Columbia (to the west, across the Rocky Mountains), Saskatchewan (to the east), the United States (to the south) and the territories (to the north), is Canada’s fourth-most populous province – after Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. According to the 2011 Census, Alberta had a population of 3,645,257 while the latest population estimates for the first quarter of 2015 pegged Alberta’s population at 4,160,044 – or 11.7% of the total Canadian population. Between 2006 and 2011 and again between 2011 and 2014, Alberta had the second highest population growth rate of any jurisdiction in Canada – +10.8% from 2006 to 2011 (only Yukon had higher growth) and +13.7% from 2011 to 2014 (only Nunavut had higher growth). In the past 100 and 50 years, mainly because of its burgeoning economy, Alberta’s population has grown dramatically – in 1911, Alberta’s population was a mere 374,295 and in 1966, Alberta’s population was 1,463,203.
The Albertan population is one of the most mobile in the country: in 2011, 44.9% of Albertans lived at a different address than they did 5 years ago, compared to 38.6% of Canadians. 6.5% of Albertans in 2011 were interprovincial migrants (lived in a different province 5 years before), compared to only 2.8% of the Canadian population in 2011. Alberta’s strong economy and employment opportunities have famously attracted Canadians from other provinces, most notably the Atlantic provinces. Only 53.6% of the population in 2011 was actually born in Alberta, compared to two-thirds of Canadians who were born in the same province that they resided in.
Alberta has two major cities, Calgary and Edmonton. In 2011, the Calgary CMA had a population of 1,214,839 while the Edmonton CMA had a population of 1,159,869 – taken together, 65% of Alberta’s population in 2011 lived in these two metropolitan areas, which have also seen rapid population growth throughout the 20th century and particularly in the last 10-15 years. The relatively equal weight of the two cities has produced a lasting political, economic and sports rivalry between them, with began when Edmonton was selected as the provincial capital over Calgary in 1905. Other large cities in Alberta include Red Deer (90,564) in the Calgary-Edmonton corridor, Lethbridge (83,517) in southern Alberta, St. Albert (61,466) in the Edmonton CMA, the oil boom town of Fort McMurray (61,374) in northeastern Alberta, Medicine Hat (60,005) in southeastern Alberta and Grande Prairie (55,032) in northwestern Alberta.
Compared to the rest of the country, while Alberta is aging it has of the youngest populations in Canada – in 2011, the lowest median age (36.5) and the lowest percentage of the population aged 65+ (11.1%).
Alberta is Canada’s third largest economy, contributing 17.9% of the national GDP. The province’s economy is famously driven by oil – Canada is now the world’s fifth largest producer of oil, and Alberta is the largest producer of conventional crude oil, synthetic crude and natural gas in the country. More importantly, Alberta has the largest reserves of unconventional oil in the world – in the form of the oil sands (or tar sands), found mostly in the Athabasca region in northeastern Alberta. Oil sands now account for the vast majority of Canada’s rapidly increasing oil production: of the 173 billion barrels of oil that can be recovered with today’s technology, 168 billion of those are found in the oil sands (giving Canada the third largest proven crude oil reserves in the world). Conventional oil production in Alberta began in earnest in 1947, a date which marks the beginning of the oil era in Alberta’s economy. Because of the high cost of developing the oil sands and the difficulty of extraction (today, most oil sands extraction in Canada require advanced in situ technologies in most cases), commercial production has only become viable when the price of oil is high. Commercial production of oil from the Athabasca oil sands only began in 1967, but only took off with rising oil prices since the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since the 1960s, Alberta’s economy has followed the oil cycle, doing well when oil prices have been high but struggling when oil prices fall. Therefore, Alberta’s economy was doing very well between the late 1990s until 2008.
Alberta has the highest GDP per capita of any province ($84,390) – only the Northwest Territories, with a far smaller population and due to its booming diamond mining industry, has a higher GDP per capita in Canada. Moreover, its median household income in 2011 ($78,632) was the highest of any province, significantly higher than the national median HH income ($61,072). Calgary and Edmonton are two of the most affluent metro areas in the country, along with Ottawa-Gatineau.
60% of Albertans, in 2011, fell in the higher half of the Canadian population (by income decile), with 17% in the highest decile. 10.7% were classified as low income (after-tax), compared to 14.9% of all Canadians. 92.7% of incomes in 2010 came from market income, the highest of any jurisdiction in Canada, and only 7.3% came from government transfer payments. In April 2015, Alberta’s unemployment rate – 5.5% – was below the national average (6.8%), tied with Manitoba for the second lowest unemployment rate behind Saskatchewan. Although low compared to other provinces, Alberta’s unemployment rate has been increasing in the last few months and is quite a bit higher than what it used to be during pre-recession boom days – in 2006, for example, unemployment was as low as 3% in the province. In March 2015, 38,750 people received regular Employment Insurance (EI) benefits in Alberta, up 24.7% on the previous year (by comparison, the number of beneficiaries rose by 0.5% in Canada over the same period).
Alberta has always been an export-oriented economy, but the economy has changed substantially as different export commodities have risen or fallen in importance. Over the province’s history, the most important products have been fur, wheat and beef and oil and gas. With the expansion of the railway to Western Canada in the late 19th century, commercial farming – mostly wheat farming – became viable and replaced fur trading as Alberta’s main industry. Agriculture dominated the Albertan economy from around the time it joined Confederation in 1905 until the expansion of the oil and gas industry in the 1950s. Naturally, the changing nature of the Albertan economy has had major impacts on Albertan society, culture and politics. Various authors, for example, have explained Alberta’s unique political culture partly in terms of believed shared interest in a single dominant commodity (Gurston Duck’s ‘Alberta consensus’ theory) or supposed class homogeneity (C.B. Macpherson’s Democracy in Alberta).
In 2014, mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction contributed the largest share – 27.4% – of Alberta’s GDP, followed at some distance by construction (10.7%) and real estate (9.5%). The top industries in terms of employment in 2011 were elementary and secondary schools (4.1%), hospitals (3.5%) – like across Canada – but 3.3% were directly employed in oil and gas extraction and another 2.9% in support activities for oil and gas extraction, making them the third and fourth most important industries in Alberta, whereas they only rank 55th and 49th nationally. An above average percentage, compared to Canada as a whole, were also employed in architectural, engineering and related services (2.8%) and farms (2.7%). Using NAICS industries, the largest general industries in 2014 were construction (11.3%), health care and social assistance (10.6% of the labour force), retail trade (10.3% of the labour force) and professional, scientific and technical services (8.1%). Compared to Canada as a whole, a large percentage, unsurprisingly, were employed in mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction (7.7%; 1.7% in Canada); vice versa, manufacturing and public administration were less significant employers than in the wider country.
In 2011, the most common occupations (NOC) were sales and services (20.7%), trades transport and equipment operators (17.4%), business finance and administrative occupations (16.4%) and management occupations (11.7%).
As with all of Western Canada outside of Manitoba, in terms of official languages, Alberta is overwhelmingly Anglophone: in 2011. 77% reported English as their sole mother tongue and only 1.9% reported French as their sole mother tongue; 92% spoke only English and 85.7% spoke English most often at home. The town of St. Paul, first settled by French missionary activity, has the largest French-speaking population Alberta, making up 15% of that town’s population. While Alberta’s Francophone population is very small, it has a growing immigrant population who speak a non-official language as their mother tongue (19.4%) and at home (10.5%).
18.4% of the population in 2011 were visible minorities, only slightly less than the national average; the largest visible minority groups in Alberta were South Asians (4.4%; mostly Punjabi), Chinese (3.7%), blacks (2.1%) and Filipinos (3% – significantly above the Canadian average). Nearly 11% of all immigrants in Alberta were born in the Philippines and Tagalog had become the third biggest non-English mother tongue in the province after German and French, a sharp increase on 2001 and 2006. Visible minorities make up 22% of the population in Edmonton and 28% in Calgary.
Alberta’s white population is also very diverse in terms of ancestry. The most common ethnic origin in 2011 was English (24.9%), a percentage significantly higher than the Canadian average, followed by ‘Canadian’ (21.8% – over 10% below national average), German (19.2% – nearly 10% above the Canadian average), Scottish (18.8% – also above average), Irish (15.8%), French (11.1%), Ukrainian (9.7%) and Dutch (5.1%). Alberta, like other Western provinces, sticks out by its large proportion of Ukrainians (who make up only 3.8% of the Canadian population), Dutch and Scandinavians. The federal Liberal government under the direction of Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton (1896-1905) allowed for non-British white European immigration to settle Western Canada, the ‘Last Best West’ in the 1890s following the closing of the American frontier. Ukrainians and others mostly settled in ‘ethnic block settlements’, many of them in northern Alberta.
The closing of the American frontier also led to significant American immigration from the United States – English-stock Americans, Canadians who had moved to the US but returned north, European-stock immigrants to the US. In 1916, Americans accounted for 36% of all foreign-born residents of Alberta (and 30% of those in Saskatchewan, but only 8% of those in Manitoba – far more influenced by English Ontarian settlement). Americans mostly settled in rural southern Alberta, while the cities – Calgary and Edmonton – were mostly settled by British immigrants; American immigrants tended to be farmers looking for land in Canada, while British immigrants tended to be workers and/or urban-dwellers. Nelson Wiseman (2011) showed how American immigrants to Alberta have had a significant impact on the province’s political culture, especially in its infancy years.
Alberta is contradictory in religious terms. Evangelical Christianity is important and has played a significant role in its politics, but Alberta is the second-most non-religious province in Canada after BC, with 31.6% of Albertans in 2011 not reporting a religious affiliation compared to 24% of Canadians. 60.3% are Christians, divided between 24% of Catholics, 7.5% of UCC adherents, 3.9% of Anglicans, 3.3% of Lutherans and a large percentage identified as ‘other Christian’ (15.2%). Alberta has Canada’s only significant Mormon population, around Cardston in southern Alberta, who are mostly descended from pioneers who emigrated from Utah. There are also significant numbers of Mennonites, Hutterites, Seventh-day Adventists and evangelical Protestant denominations. The ‘other Christian’ grouping likely includes non-negligible numbers of Eastern Rite Churches – Ukrainian Catholics, Ukrainian Orthodox etc.
There is also a significant Aboriginal population in Alberta – in 2011, 6.2% of residents claimed Aboriginal ancestry, which is higher than the national average (4.3%); most of them being First Nation (3.3%, Cree being the most important tribal group) and Métis (2.7%).
Alberta has a unique and distinctive political culture and history which sets it apart from the rest of Canada and has generated loads of academic debate. The province is most notable for its dynastic politics – up until this election, four parties have ruled Alberta, each for fairly long period of times: the Liberal Party (1905-1921), the United Farmers (1921-1935), Social Credit (1935-1971) and the Progressive Conservatives (since 1971). There have been no one-term governments (in fact, no government has served less than 3 terms) or minority governments in Alberta. No party which has lost power has ever regained power – in fact, of the three former governing parties, two of them (the UFA and SoCred) basically died out only a few years after their defeat. It can be said that Alberta has had a dominant-party system since entering Confederation in 1905.
C.B. Macpherson (1953)’s Democracy in Alberta described Alberta as having a unique ‘quasi-party system’ – incorporating elements of an ordinary party system, a nonparty system and a one-party system while having significant differences with all of them. In his Marxist analysis, Alberta’s party system was the result of its purported ‘relatively homogeneous class composition’ as an agrarian petit bourgeois society and its quasi-colonial relationship with central Canada. However, Alberta’s party system has never been so unique: large legislative majorities for governing parties are the products of FPTP, there has never been political unanimity in Alberta, political longevity in Canadian politics is by no means limited to Alberta and the dramatic rise of the UFA and SoCred is not particularly unusual in Canada’s political system prone to large swings. Furthermore, Alberta could never have been described as a ‘relatively homogeneous’ agrarian petit bourgeois society – not even in the 1930s, and certainly not by the 1950s. The argument about the West’s ‘quasi-colonial’ relationship with central Canada is more valid, and ‘Western alienation’ has been a major theme in Alberta politics – past, present and future. However, while Albertan governments since 1921 have made use of Western alienation, it was never SoCreds or the PCs’ raison d’être.
More recently, Nelson Wiseman (2011) described Alberta as having a distinctive ‘liberal-individualist populist’ ideological orientation, which he argues is the result of American immigration to Alberta. While Alberta has undeniably been influenced by the general political culture of English Canada, and in general Albertans do not differ as much in their political views as is often imagined, some characteristics of America’s classical liberal ideology – rugged individualism, free market capitalism, egalitarianism and hostility towards centralized federalism – have been important in Alberta’s political culture. At the same time, Alberta has been less influenced by the central Canadian/British traditions of Toryism and later socialism, especially in comparison to Manitoba – a province built firstly by Ontarian settlers, unlike Alberta, a province built by the quasi-simultaneous immigration of a large array of ethnic groups. Nelson Wiseman argues that American immigrants to Alberta (who were mostly of English, rather than European, descent, and thus of higher social status) at the turn of the last century shaped early Alberta’s political culture – particularly its liberal, individualist and populist streak. The American influence was particularly strong in the 1920s agrarian movement in Alberta, the UFA. Henry Wise Wood, the president of the UFA from 1916 to 1931 (and the éminence grise behind the UFA in government), was born in Missouri and active in the US Populist movement in the late 19th century before moving to Canada at age 45. The Non-Partisan League from North Dakota expanded into Canada, but was only somewhat successful in Alberta, and was absorbed by the UFA in 1919. The UFA’s ideas were influenced by the American populist and progressive movements – direct democracy, proportional representation, monetary reform – which were anathema to central Canadian (and Manitoban) Tories and Grits alike. The difference could be seen within the Canadian progressive movement – Thomas Crerar’s Manitoba Progressives were former Liberals who wanted to ‘moralize’ the federal Liberals and supported the Westminster parliamentary system, the Albertans were more radical populists who rejected the party system and the parliamentary system. Geographically, the UFA and later SoCred performed best in rural southern Alberta, the region most heavily settled by Americans, while Edmonton and especially Calgary – mostly settled by the British – resisted these two movements, preferring the traditional parties and later the socialist movement (mostly built by Scottish and English immigrants in the British Fabian tradition).
The SoCred movement was also heavily influenced by evangelical Christianity (and not the Canadian social gospel of the CCF/NDP), and Mormons were important in the party – Solon Low, the SoCred federal leader from 1944 to 1961, was a Mormon. Although both the UFA and SoCred were populist movements hostile to big business and finance, and the UFA had collectivist ideas, both were – on the whole – liberal and individualist movements. Certainly SoCred, under Ernest Manning, became a socially conservative party hostile to big government and socialism. In more recent years, Wiseman pointed to the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance as influenced by modern American conservatism and the Republican Party. In the 1990s, the so-called ‘Calgary School’ group of conservative academics – including American-born Tom Flanagan and Ted Morton, among others (including Stephen Harper, active in the late 1990s in conservative academia) – expressed a low-tax, small government, anti-centralized government, free-market libertarian/conservative ideology quite similar to American conservatism.
Certainly, Alberta’s ‘liberal-individualist populism’ – if you accept that label to be an accurate descriptor of Alberta’s political culture – sets it apart from eastern and central English Canada, but also neighbouring Saskatchewan – the cradle of agrarian socialism, the first socialist government in North America in 1944 and what Wiseman described as a more collectivist populism.
Liberal era (1905-1921)
Alberta was created as a province, alongside Saskatchewan, out of the Northwest Territories in 1905. Under the terms of the Act which brought Alberta into Confederation, the federal government would retain ownership over natural resources and imposed requirements for separate schools, two terms which were already highly controversial in 1905 and became even more contentious in later years. The federal Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier, as expected, selected a Liberal as Alberta’s first lieutenant-governor, who in turn appointed a Liberal as the first Premier of the province – Alexander Rutherford. The dominant figure of Northwest Territories politics and leading lobbyist for provincial status (although one instead of two provinces), Frederick W.A.G. Haultain, was ‘snubbed’ because he was a Conservative. Although elected from Alberta, Haultain opted to lead the opposition to the Liberals in Saskatchewan rather than Alberta. Therefore, in Alberta, Rutherford’s Liberals, with the benefits of incumbency (patronage) and attacking R.B. Bennett’s Conservatives for their ties to the widely disliked Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), were returned in a landslide with 22 seats to the Conservatives’ 3.
Rutherford set up the main provincial institutions and, despite the Liberals’ usual aversion to government interventionism, made some large-scale forays into telecommunications by investing in a public telephone system and offering loan guarantees to several companies in exchange for commitments to build railway lines. Although disinterested by labour issues, the government intervened to moderate a major labour dispute in the coal mines in 1907, by setting up a commission and legislating a eight-hour day and workers’ compensation. Early in the government, Rutherford alienated Calgary by selecting Edmonton as the provincial capital and added to injury by later ensuring that the new University of Alberta would be in Edmonton (Strathcona). The popularity of the Liberals’ public telephone system carried them to an increased majority in 1909.
However, Rutherford began facing inconvenient questioning from a Liberal backbencher over very generous loan guarantees given to a railway company it knew little about and which had fulfilled virtually none of its promises regarding construction of the railway. The Conservative opposition accused the government of culpable negligence in failing to properly oversee the company’s activities. Bennett claimed that due to the discrepancy in the sale price of the bonds and what the government had received for them meant that the company had made a profit of $200,000-300,000 at the government’s expense. The scandal divided the government – the public works minister resigned as the scandal broke because of his disagreements with Rutherford – and the Liberal caucus. A number of Liberal MLAs voted in favour of a motion of no-confidence. Rutherford failed to quell the controversy with the appointment of a royal commission; the federal Liberal government and the lieutenant-governor intervene to force Rutherford to resign, which he reluctantly did in May 1910. He was replaced by Arthur Sifton, the former provincial chief justice, who had a veneer of impartiality and probity. Sifton repudiated Rutherford’s railway policy, in part, by passing legislation to confiscate the proceeds of the sale of government-guaranteed bonds sold to finance the controversial railway’s construction.
Sifton tried to restore party unity, but Rutherford stayed on as a backbencher critical of his successor. In the 1913 election, although renominated as a Liberal in his Edmonton riding, Rutherford effectively rejected the party label at his nomination meeting and even offered to campaign for the Conservatives (who rejected his offer, ran a candidate against him who ultimately defeated him). Sifton’s Liberals were reelected in 1913 but with a significantly reduced majority, while the Conservatives formed a strong opposition force with 17 MLAs against 38 for the Liberals.
Sifton’s tenure as Premier corresponded to the rise of the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), which was still a farmers’ lobby group, although one with a very large membership and thus a force to be reckoned with. Sifton’s policies were increasingly driven by the UFA. Responding to UFA demands, he built agricultural colleges, allowed municipalities to levy property taxes (and required that rural municipalities tax only land), scrapped plans to privatize hail insurance and incorporated the Alberta Farmers’ Co-operative Elevator Company – a farmer-owned grain elevator company. The UFA also supported political reform – direct democracy, recall, women’s suffrage, so they influenced the Liberal government to pass a ‘direct democracy act’ (1913) which allowed for voters to call a referendum directly by submitting a petition including the names of eligible voters representing 10% of votes cast in the previous general election (and at least 8% in each of the provincial ridings), so a very high number of signatures. The law did not allow for recalls, as the UFA supported. One of the issues which did gather enough signatures for a citizen-initiated referendum was prohibition, which was voted on in 1915 and passed by a wide margin (61% yes) leading to the introduction of prohibition legislation in 1916. Sifton dragged his feet on women’s suffrage and made ridiculously sexist comments on the topic, but feeling pressure from women’s groups and the UFA, he committed to a debate on the issue and women gained the right to vote in 1916.
The Liberals were reelected in 1917, in the midst of World War I and the conscription debate in Canada. The election was fairly low-key – under an amendment to the election law, incumbent members who had signed up for war service were automatically reelected by acclamation (7 Liberals and 5 Tories were reelected this year). Overall, the Liberals won a reduced majority, with 34 seats against 19 for the Conservatives. The election saw competition from the Non-Partisan League (NPL), which originated in North Dakota and called for a ‘business administration’ and the election of a ‘truly people’s party’ rather than a traditional ‘party administration’ – a characteristically non/anti-partisan, grassroots populist discourse later adopted by the Canadian/Albertan agrarian progressive movement. Two NPL candidates were elected, while a Labor candidate was also elected from Calgary. The Albertan labour movement was led by Scottish-born William Irvine, a follower of the social gospel and later an advocate of UFA political participation. Sifton, however, resigned shortly after his reelection to serve as a cabinet minister in Prime Minister Robert Borden’s wartime pro-conscription Unionist government.
The conscription crisis divided Canada and the Alberta Liberals. While most Alberta Liberals backed Borden’s Tories in his pro-conscription coalition government, a significant number of them remained loyal to Laurier’s anti-conscription Liberals. Sifton was replaced as Premier by Charles Stewart, who also supported conscription.
Stewart continued to deal with the UFA, on issues like irrigation and a stillborn committee to look into proportional representation, but relations soured as the UFA had less success in driving the Liberal agenda during World War I.
United Farmers era (1921-1935)
Across Canada, farmers movements like the UFA hotly debated whether or not they should participate in politics and contest elections themselves. Western farmers had several reasons to be unhappy with the Canadian political system and the two major political parties. The National Policy, which imposed high tariffs on the import of manufacturing goods to protect central Canadian industries, was forcing Western farmers to sell their agricultural products at lower prices, and buy farm equipment and manufactures from central Canada at higher prices. At the federal level, low tariffs or free trade were the farmers’ main demand. Other complaints included the CPR high rates and the behaviour of private grain traders. Farmers grew to resent both the Liberals and Conservatives as corrupt central Canadian parties, which did not represent them or their interests – something which became especially true when the Liberals lost their enthusiasm for free trade after the defeat of reciprocity in 1911. In Alberta, UFA leader Henry Wise Wood believed that the UFA should exist only as a farmers’ interests organization om the principle of ‘group government’ – where government would function through the representation of major groups in society with direct democracy. The UFA distrusted traditional parties in part because they aggregate interests, dominated by elite powers who had no interest in extending democracy. The pressure from the NPL in the 1917 election and after the NPL merged with the UFA in 1919, led the UFA to reluctantly allow candidates to run in elections although ultimately leaving that decision in the hands of local branches. The UFA had a vast network of branches throughout the province, a sort of proto-constituency associations. In 1919, the UFA won a by-election in Cochrane from the Liberals, an event which marked the end of the fuzzy UFA-Liberal détente and the beginning of the UFA’s rapid ascent to power. The former leader of the Conservative Party, hitherto the main opposition to the Liberals, crossed the floor to join the UFA in 1920 and created a major split in Tory ranks which would cripple them for years to come. Ironically, Stewart was a member of the UFA and broadly sympathized with the UFA’s aims (and Stewart was fairly well regarded by the UFA leadership), but he opposed the UFA’s political vision and its political participation.
Provincial elections were held in July 1921. Just before the election, the Liberals were hit by a scandal, in which it was learned that the government spent money to have telephone poles crated and shipped in big stacks to remote communities in which they had no intention of installing phone lines in an effort to win support. The 1921 campaign was rather peculiar by any standards. The UFA ran candidates in only 45 of the 61 ridings – most notably, they ran no candidates in Calgary (which now elected five members using block voting) and only one candidate in Edmonton (which now elected five members using block voting), they had no leader (Henry Wise Wood did not run in the election, and neither did the man who would eventually become Premier) and had little in the way of a proper platform (besides opposing ‘partyism’, caucus secrecy and cabinet domination favouring instead direct democracy). Nevertheless, the United Farmers swept the province, winning 38 seats to the Liberals’ 15. The Tories were crushed, holding on to just one seat, while 3 independent and 4 Dominion Labor candidates were returned. In the popular vote, the Liberals won more votes than the UFA, 34.1% to 28.9%, but because the three main cities (Calgary, Edmonton, Medicine Hat) elected members by block voting in multi-member ridings, voters there had up to 5 votes (in Calgary and Edmonton) while rural voters had only one vote in FPTP single-member districts. The UFA also ran less candidates than the Liberals – overall, all but 7 of the 45 UFA candidates won, while 46 of the Liberals’ 61 candidates lost. A few months later, the Progressives/UFA won 10 of the 12 federal seats in Alberta in the 1921 federal election. Both the Tories and the Grits were shut out.
Henry Wise Wood, the president of the UFA, declined becoming Premier, preferring to operate the UFA machinery and the movement. The UFA settled on Herbert Greenfield, the UFA vice-president and an English-born farmer who reluctantly agreed to take the job. Greenfield was not a politician and had troubles controlling his caucus, which included a large number of radical backbenchers who opposed the parliamentary system. In early caucus meetings, Greenfield was challenged to include several Liberals in his cabinet, lest the UFA was to become like other political parties and in a naive hope of encourage sufficient cooperation to kill off notions of an ‘official opposition’. In handling the restless UFA backbenchers, Greenfield turned to his Attorney General, John E. Brownlee, an Ontarian-born lawyer and the UFA’s former solicitor. Brownlee would quickly rise to prominence because of his legal acumen and become the de facto leader of the government. Brownlee provided Greenfield with invaluable support and counsel, and the government relied on him in the legislature, where the Liberals formed a strong opposition. Brownlee led the UFA’s conservative faction – that is to say, the more traditionalist moderates who urged the UFA to reconcile with parliamentary government and tempered the more radical ideas of the backbenchers (like passing a motion which declared that only motions explicitly declaring a lack of confidence in the government should be treated as confidence votes, or the creation of a provincial bank). Brownlee also pushed for fiscal conservatism, advocating for deep spending cuts to reduce the large budget deficit.
Brownlee played a leading role in most of the first UFA government’s main initiatives. On agricultural issues, Brownlee pushed passage of legislation which created a drought relief commission to help indebted and drought-stricken southern Alberta farmers manage their debts with lenders. He played a central role in the creation of the Alberta Wheat Pool in 1923. For years, Western farmers had protested the private grain trade, as they suspected grain traders of being middle men who profited by leeching off the efforts of farmers and believed that they were artificially holding down prices. Wheat pools, farmer-owned cooperatives, purchased the grain and then sold the grain, and all farmers received the same price. Brownlee was also Alberta’s chief negotiator in talks with Ottawa to win control of natural resources from the federal government; for most of the decade, these talks with the federal Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King drew out with no resolution, perhaps due to the pressure from the provincial Liberals, who didn’t want to let the UFA walk away with such a major political victory. As Attorney General, Brownlee was also in charge of enforcing prohibition, which became increasingly unpopular in 1922/1923 after the murder of three policemen by bootleggers. Although the UFA supported prohibition, it was forced to admit that it was unenforceable due to rising public opposition, and a plebiscite was held on the issue in 1923. Voters rejected prohibition in favour of the government sale of all liquors.
By 1925, Greenfield was widely seen as weak and indecisive, while UFA MLAs found his reliance on Brownlee to be embarrassing. Many assumed that, led by Greenfield, the UFA would lose the next election; the provincial Liberals had confidently predicted that they would win back power in the next election. In 1924, Brownlee had rejected an offer from rebel MLAs to replace Greenfield as premier, but in November 1925, Brownlee was persuaded by Henry Wise Wood to accept the office if Greenfield was to relinquish it voluntarily. Greenfield had never wanted to be premier, so he gladly stepped aside for Brownlee. An election was held in June 1926, and the UFA was reelected with an increased majority over a poor Liberal and Tory opposition. Of the UFA’s 46 candidates in the province, only three did not win their seats, giving 43 out of 60 seats to the UFA against 7 for the Liberals, 6 for labour candidates and 4 Tories. The UFA won a seat in Edmonton. The election was the first Albertan election fought using a different electoral system – STV in multi-member Calgary and Edmonton, and IRV (optional counting) in the rest of the province.
Brownlee’s first term government was largely successful. The government had tried to divest itself of money-losing railways under Greenfield’s premiership, but attempts to sell them to the Canadian Pacific (CPR) and Canadian National (CN) failed at the time and the railways continued draining the provincial budget. In 1928, after they began showing a profit, Alberta was able to sell the remaining lines to the CPR. The budget situation was also solid: Alberta recorded a surplus in 1925 and 1926. Brownlee’s rigid fiscal conservatism irked radicals in the party, and he was not keen on increased spending on new social programs or on social programs altogether. His ‘scrooge’ reputation would come to hurt his popularity later on.
However, his government also passed the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta in 1928, which created the Alberta Eugenics Board, whose role was to review and mandate the sterilization of any mentally disabled psychiatric patient (if there was unanimity among board members and permission of the patient/nearest relative). The law remained in place under Social Credit (which even facilitated its application), and was only repealed by the Conservatives in 1972. Between 1929 and 1972, 4,785 cases were presented to the Alberta Eugenics Board, and 99% of these cases were approved, resulting in the sterilization of 2,832 children and adults in the province. At the time, however, eugenics were supported by progressive moral reformers like early feminist Nellie McClung, socialist leader J.S. Woodsworth and the UFA’s women’s league.
Negotiations with Ottawa over provincial control of natural resources continued; the two sides came close to an agreement in 1926, but Alberta disagreed with Ottawa’s inclusion of an amendment which required the province to continue supporting separate schools, and the issue remained a point of contention which blocked any final agreement until 1929. That year, both King and Brownlee came to an agreement in December 1929. Alberta would receive an annual subsidy in perpetuity, the amount of which would increase as the province’s population grew. The federal-provincial agreement was a major victory for Brownlee, who had succeeded where all his predecessors had failed, and he was hailed as hero in Alberta.
In 1930, despite the onset of the Great Depression, the government was still surfing on the popularity of the resource transfer agreement and the UFA was easily reelected to another majority government – although with a slightly reduced majority, with 39 seats out of 63 (and 47 candidates) against 11 for the Liberals, 6 for the Conservatives and 4 for Dominion Labor.
Brownlee’s second term was characterized by the collapse of the government, the UFA and the rise of a new populist political movement which would replace the UFA as Alberta’s next political dynasty in 1935.
The Great Depression saw wheat prices tumble from $1.78 per bushel in 1929 to $0.45 per bushel by the end of 1930, causing severe economic hardships for most farmers. Banks denied credit to farmers, while Brownlee was unwilling to provide loan guarantees, concerned that such guarantees would encourage lenders to offer loans at high interest rates knowing that the province would repay them if the farmers did not. The government’s cautious measures had some minor successes, but the lack of decisive legislation alienated many farmers. The collapse in prices also bankrupted the Alberta Wheat Pool, which in 1930 was selling wheat at a price well below the $1 per bushel it guaranteed to its farmers. The Alberta Wheat Pool became reliant on provincial support. In the cities, unemployment reached record levels, a situation only exacerbated by farmers’ sons moving to the cities in desperate need of work. Provincial finances deteriorated, and Brownlee adopted severe austerity measures to cut spending – closing all but two of the agricultural colleges, disbanding the provincial police force, shrinking the civil service, cutting government spending and pay cuts for most government employees. The government also increased taxes, and was reluctant to provide relief to unemployed men.
Labour militancy and political radicalism increased during the Depression years, which worried the conservative Brownlee. The socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner to the modern NDP, was founded in Calgary in 1932. Many UFA members joined the CCF, but Brownlee saw the CCF as dangerously socialist. The UFA base drifted further away from the government: in 1931, Brownlee’s key ally Henry Wise Wood was replaced as UFA president by MP Robert Gardiner, who moved the UFA sharply to the left and was critical of Brownlee. Gardiner advocated for nationalizations, the cancellation of interest payments and concluded that the monetary system had failed.
As if it was not enough, Brownlee was brought down by a sex scandal in 1934. Brownlee was accused of seducing Vivian MacMillan, a family friend and a secretary for Brownlee’s attorney general in 1930 (when the girl was 18) and continuing the affair for 3 years. MacMillan claimed that Brownlee had seduced her and told her that she must have sex with him for his sake and that of his invalid wife, and that she had relented after physical and emotional pressure. Brownlee denied the charges and claimed that he was the victim of a conspiracy by MacMillan, her new would-be fiancé and the provincial Liberals. MacMillan and her father sued the Premier for seduction. In July 1934, despite discrepancies in MacMillan’s story, the jury found that Brownlee had seduced her in 1930 and that both she and her father had suffered damages in the amounts claimed. The presiding judge, however, disagreed and overturned the jury’s verdict. In February 1935, the Alberta Supreme Court appeals division upheld the court’s ruling. However, on appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, the provincial court’s decision was overturned in March 1937 and the SCC ordered Brownlee to pay $10,000 in damages to MacMillan, plus trial costs. Although Brownlee settled with MacMillan, he sought to clear his name and obtained leave from the federal government to appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, at the time Canada’s highest court of appeal. In March 1940, the committee denied Brownlee’s appeal and endorsed the SCC’s decision.
However, as soon as the jury found that Brownlee had seduced Vivian MacMillan, he recognized that his political career was over and resigned as Premier. He was succeeded on July 10, 1934 by Richard Gavin Reid, the conservative provincial treasurer. Although Reid did take some policy initiatives, the government was very weak. It found itself at odds with the UFA’s membership, and was forced to deal with a serious and dangerous threat: social credit.
Social Credit era (1935-1971)
William “Bible Bill” Aberhart was born in Ontario in 1878 and moved to Calgary in 1910, where he worked as a school principal, a job he held until 1935. He was an able, competent, intelligent and generally respected principal, although he was inflexible and fairly authoritarian. Aberhart was intensely religious, an evangelical Christian who believed in the literal meaning of the Bible. In Calgary, he began preaching at a Baptist church but by 1918 he had established an inter-denominational Bible study group which grew in size. In 1924, Aberhart agreed to do weekly religious radio broadcasts, which carried his voice across the Canadian Prairies and even into the United States. He was a charismatic man, a great story-teller who captivated his listeners. He took little interests in politics until 1932, when he stumbled across the writings of Major C.H. Douglas, a British engineer who had written on the theory of social credit.
Douglas saw that the sums paid out in salaries, wages and dividends were almost always less than the total costs of goods and services produced, and therefore wanted to bring purchasing power in line with production. He therefore proposed to create a national dividend, providing debt-free credit to all citizens over and above their earnings to help bridge the gap between purchasing power and prices; and a price adjustment mechanism, which would forestall inflation and reduce prices by a percentage that reflected the physical efficiency of the production system. The social credit theory’s view of history also included a very heavy dose of crude anti-Semitism: it viewed history in terms of a long-existing Jewish plot to dominate the world. Unlike the UFA, social credit had no time for direct democracy: Douglas’s political theories were extremely authoritarian, calling for representatives to limit their role to consideration of objectives while technocrats would handle the rest. It is unlikely that Aberhart ever fully understood Douglas’ economies theories, and the two men did not like each other much. Aberhart mixed Douglas’ monetary theories with a heavy dose of Christian fundamentalism and meaningless slogans about ‘individual enterprise’ and freedom.
Aberhart’s social credit was centred around the issuance of a monthly $25 ‘basic dividend’ to all Albertans to cover basic necessities – clothing, food, housing – distributed in the form of credit rather than cash. A commission of experts would meet to determine a ‘fair and just price’ for all goods and services in the province, ensuring a fair commission on turnover while not exploiting the consumer’s purchasing power. In the rather utopian social credit theory, individuals would be freed of their debts, taxes would gradually decrease with the introduction of social credit, employment would immediately increase and ‘fair salaries’ would be established (with minimum and maximum wages). The Social Credit Manual from the 1935 election, available here, explains the original Aberhart social credit theory. Aberhart’s social credit offered an attractive, novel and non-socialist populist response to the poverty, deprivation and socioeconomic challenges of the Depression years.
Originally, Aberhart claimed that his intention was not to enter politics but only to persuade existing parties to adopt social credit policies in their platforms. Social credit became quite popular in Alberta, forcing most politicians, even those from traditional parties, to at least pay lip service to the theory. For example, in the 1935 campaign, the Liberals pledged to set up a full investigation into the proposed scheme and submit a social credit plan to the legislature for its consideration. In January 1935, Aberhart was invited to address the UFA convention, which was set to vote on a resolution which would include Aberhart’s social credit theories as a plank in the UFA platform. However, the resolution was rejected by a wide margin, in a significant victory for Reid and other traditionalists in the movement.
The UFA convention’s repudiation convinced Aberhart that his Social Credit League must run candidates in the next election. He transformed his religious study groups into local social credit study groups, which became a key grassroots base for the movement and crucial to the SoCred victory in the 1935 election. To tackle the social credit threat, Reid began overtly attacking Aberhart’s policies, claiming that the $25 ‘basic dividends’ would require major tax increases, and further argued that other parts Aberhart’s ideas – like provincial entry into the banking business – were ultra vires of the province under the British North America Act (the raising of money by taxation, the borrowing of money, banking, incorporation of banks, issue of paper money and saving banks are all exclusive federal powers under s. 91, with provinces having powers only over direct taxation within the province to raise revenue and borrowing of money on the sole credit of the province under s. 92). The other element of Reid’s approach was to invite C.H. Douglas to Alberta, in the hope that he would expose inconsistencies in Aberhart’s theory and discredit him. The strategy proved to be a massive failure: Douglas, a dry technocrat, did not attack Aberhart as forcefully and consistently as Reid hoped he would (in fact, he penned a statement saying that there were no essential differences between Aberhart and himself), and Douglas’ final report concerned itself primarily with political and legal technicalities (rather than economics) and was of little use to the government.
In the 1935 campaign, most voters, living in poverty, were not interested by the UFA’s economic and legal arguments against social credit and felt that it had nothing to lose with Aberhart’s attractive scheme. Besides Aberhart, the charismatic radio evangelical, being a good salesman for social credit, the ideology’s original anti-capitalist (but not socialist) tone, its attacks on bankers and rich, heartless industrialists, and its promise of dividends were unsurprisingly popular in the middle of the depression. Like the UFA before it, the early Social Credit political movement claimed that it was not a political party, but rather an outsider nonpartisan movement which would run government for the benefit of all citizens (and not the ‘privileged classes’) and it sought out ‘honest men’ to run for the movement. The UFA attacked Aberhart for being so vague and evasive about how he would apply social credit in Alberta, but it was to no avail. Given that the UFA offered no alternative to social credit and the Liberals and Conservatives still so weak (and, in the case of the Liberals, running a terrible campaign), the 1935 election resulted in a massive landslide victory for Social Credit and one of the worst defeats for a sitting government. SoCred won 54.3% of the vote and won 56 of the 63 seats in the legislature, leaving the Liberals with 5 and the Tories with 2 seats. The UFA won only 11% of the vote, and all incumbents were defeated, including Reid and Brownlee. SoCred kicked out UFA incumbents in rural Alberta, but was also successful in the cities – winning 4 of Calgary’s 6 block seats and 2 of Edmonton’s 6 block seats. In urban areas, SoCred obliterated the Labour party, which had been rather strong in both cities up until that point. However, the Labour party’s image as a conservative clique of union bosses and the party’s disastrous alliance with the UFA, and its urban working-class based voted heavily for SoCred in 1935 (while wealthier residents stuck with the Grits or Tories). Like with the UFA in 1921, Aberhart himself didn’t run in the election, and he needed some prodding from his enthusiastic rookie caucus to become Premier, but by September 1935, he was Premier of Alberta. In October 1935, Social Credit won 47% of the vote in the 1935 federal election in Alberta and won 15 seats (all but two of the province’s seats) in the province and 17 seats in the country (the other two came from neighbouring Saskatchewan).
SoCred came to power invested with high expectations, but found an empty treasury. In the 1935 election, Aberhart had told voters that he would implement social credit within 18 months of winning government. However, enthusiastic voters and his backbench rookies were initially willing to grant him a long honeymoon and accept the early ‘delays’ in implementation of social credit. In 1936, the government made few concrete steps towards social credit, besides an Act which provided for the registration of citizens (signing covenants in which individuals agreed to “cooperate most heartily” with the government), invited manufacturers and farmers to produce as much as possible and sell 50% of their products in the provincial market. These measures anticipated the creation of ‘Alberta credit’ distinct from Canadian currency, the establishment of price controls (‘just price’) and distribution of the dividend. In April 1936, the government defaulted on a bond payment, further exciting those social crediters eager for the government to stand up to the ‘money power’. That summer, the government also introduced ‘prosperity certificates‘, which many people mistakenly saw as the first step towards their monthly $25. The government also introduced another controversial legislation, including a bill forcing licensing of all trades and businesses as the government wished, a bill authorizing the minister to fix prices for all commodities and products sold in Alberta and a bill providing for the creation of a provincial trading board. All three bills were controversial, eliciting a storm of protest from opposition parties and SoCred backbenchers, so the government allowed them to die.
By late 1936, SoCred backbenchers became increasingly frustrated with the government as Aberhart’s 18 months were running out. In December 1936, some SoCred MLAs welcomed John Hargrave, the leader of the British SoCreds, who gave some unsolicited and unwanted advice, which likely annoyed Aberhart. In late 1936, two ministers resigned from cabinet, officially for reasons unrelated to those of the dissident MLAs but still a troubling sign for the government. In the February 1937 speech from the throne, the government made only limited commitments to social credit and Aberhart later admitted during one of his radio programs that he had been unable to create the basic dividends within 18 months, and called on SoCred constituency branches to decide whether he should resign. In March 1937, after treasurer Solon Low introduced a budget which did not include even one time which resembled social credit, the SoCred backbench rebels began an open insurgency. They threatened to deny supply to the government (which would force it to resign) and considered introducing a motion of no confidence. In his constituency, Aberhart faced a recall effort, as citizens availed themselves of a new recall bill passed by SoCred in 1935 – faced with the recall threat, the government decided to repeal the Act. After manoeuvring, Aberhart reached a deal with the rebels: they would back the supply bill, in exchange for which the government would allow MLAs to establish a board to implement social credit. The Act which established the board also created a provincial credit house which would operate ‘Alberta credit’ (the difference between “productive capacity” and “total
consumption,” would be credited annually to the provincial credit account) and provided for a consumers’ dividend (not fixed over time, but instead subject to variation). This Alberta Social Credit Act was the closest Alberta came to social credit. It was designed to create prosperity by subsidizing consumption. However, the Supreme Court of Canada, in 1938, unanimously ruled the Alberta Social Credit Act to be ultra vires.
The Social Credit Board was made up of five MLAs, four of which were rebels. The board tried to invite C.H. Douglas to come from England as an expert, but he declined, though he did send two of his associates to Alberta to act as the board’s experts. One of the English experts required SoCred MLAs to sign a loyalty pledge to the Social Credit Board, which virtually all MLAs did. The two English experts prepared three laws which became highly controversial: the first required all banks to obtain a license from the provincial credit commission (created by the Alberta Social Credit Act) and be controlled by a ‘directorate’ largely appointed by the Board, the second prevented unlicensed banks and their employees from initiating civil actions and the third prevent anybody from challenging the constitutionality of Alberta’s laws in court without receiving the approval of the provincial cabinet. Lieutenant Governor John Bowen asked for Aberhart and the Attorney General’s views on the constitutionality of the bills; the Attorney General said he did not believe they were constitutional, but Aberhart took responsibility for them and dismissed his Attorney General. The Lieutenant Governor granted Royal Assent to the bills, but they were later disallowed by the federal government. Prime Minister Mackenzie King had originally sought Aberhart’s cooperation in facilitating a reference to the Supreme Court, but Aberhart defiantly answered that he had a popular mandate to uphold and warned of tension if Ottawa sided with the ‘plutocratic bankers’ rather than Alberta.
In the fall, the government reintroduced these bills, and two more: one imposing high taxes on banks operating in Alberta, and the inflammatory Accurate News and Information Act. The latter Act gave the chairman of the Social Credit Board the power to compel all newspapers in Alberta to print government rebuttals or amplifications to any article dealing with government policies and require them to supply the names and addresses of sources. Non-compliance would result in fines or prohibitions on the publishing of the newspaper or some of its materials. The vast majority of the Albertan press was strongly critical of SoCred, pre- and post-election. At the same time, police raided SoCred offices in Edmonton and confiscated copies of a pamphlet which named nine ‘Bankers’ Toadies’ in the province and called for their ‘extermination’. The SoCred chief whip and one of Douglas’ English advisers were both charged and convicted for criminal libel, and the English adviser was deported to the UK.
Lieutenant Governor Bowen chose to reserve assent on the new bills (i.e. referring the bill to the Governor General, or the federal government). Ottawa posed a reference question to the Supreme Court of Canada, which unanimously ruled the three bills (along with the Alberta Social Credit Act) to be ultra vires of the provincial legislature. Significantly for Canadian constitutional law, the SCC’s decision on the press bill was one of the cases which recognized an ‘implied bill of rights’ in the Canadian constitution because of the preamble of the BNA Act. On appeal, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council effectively upheld the SCC’s decision – because the Alberta Social Credit Act had been struck down, the bank licensing and press bills were rendered inoperative and thus the question was moot, while it ruled that the bank tax bill was in pith and substance a measure to regulate banking and was thus ultra vires the province.
Disallowance and the SCC/JCPC decisions meant, in reality, the end of the road for actual social credit measures in Alberta. Granted, the Board was revitalized, but it quickly became more of an outlet for the voicing of SoCred’s anti-Semitic garbage (and C.H. Douglas’ ideas), and it was abolished by Premier Ernest Manning in 1948 when it went crazy (by basically proposing to abolish democracy). However, Aberhart did established the Alberta Treasury Branches, which still exist today, originally for the government to gain a foothold in the financial sector.
Early SoCred definitely had an unconventional, radical side to it – especially in its membership base. Local SoCred organizations in the 1930s and early 1940s passed some fairly social democratic resolutions at conferences (which were, however, ignored or rejected by the government) including calls for free textbooks, state medicine and hospitalization, adequate relief for the poor, producers’ marketing boards, eight-hour workdays and a stand (shared with the CCF) that conscription of wealth should precede conscription of men.
Aberhart’s government also enacted a variety of relief programs, public works projects and a debt relief program (later overturned by the SCC), but also passed very strict socially conservative legislation – notably very strict alcohol laws.
By the time of the 1940 election, the political climate in Alberta was very polarized. The Liberal and Conservative opposition to Aberhart, eager to defeat him, formed a common front – the so-called United Movement or Independent party, whereby the Conservatives, non-socialist remnants of the UFA and some Liberals ran joint candidates as independents against the SoCreds. These independents were hurt by their close association with the old elites of Calgary and Edmonton and the vociferously anti-Aberhart press. ‘Ottawa-bashing’ feature prominently Aberhart’s 1940 SoCred campaign – he claimed that Ottawa, under the influence of the ‘Money Power’, had struck down his legislation. However, radical ideas for monetary reform were already absent from the SoCred manifesto. The SoCreds and independents were evenly matched in terms of vote, winning 42.9% and 42.5% respectively, but the SoCreds retained a significant if reduced majority with 36 out of 57 seats against 19 independents, 1 Labour and 1 Liberal. The socialist CCF, on a platform of social ownership of ‘public property’ won 11% of the vote but no seats.
As World War II broke out in 1939, Aberhart had decreed that all energies should be devoted to Canada’s war effort, which was a further blow to those radicals pushing for social credit. In the 1940s, SoCred was slowly turning into an institutionalized conservative party – the early radical enthusiasm died out (some genuine radicals in SoCred went over to the CCF, which grew in size in Alberta and across Canada during the war) and the social credit study groups dwindled in size as they became useless.
William Aberhart unexpectedly died during a family trip to BC in 1943. SoCred MLAs, not members, selected Aberhart’s loyal chief lieutenant Ernest Manning as his successor. Manning pledged to never give up the fight for social credit, but that was almost entirely for show (though it did issue prosperity certificates from oil royalties in 1957 and 1958). Manning completed the transformation of the Social Credit Party into a conservative political party. As aforementioned, Manning abolished the Social Credit Board in 1948 after they went overboard with the crazy, a move which coincided with Manning’s purge of the more vocal anti-Semitic cranks from the party (although Solon Low, the federal SoCred leader from 1944 to 1958, was a notorious anti-Semite). In 1946, bowing to pressure for the remaining advocates of monetary reform in the party grassroots, Manning’s government passed a Bill of Rights Act, a halfhearted attempt as monetary reform (among other things). The Act promised social and economic security for all with individual freedom, an offer of a social security pension and medical benefits to working-age unemployed or disabled persons, and contained descriptions of how social credit theories would allow the government to pay for those benefits. However, the government added a provision which delayed proclamation of the Act until it had been tested by the courts. The Act was apathetically received by supporters and aroused no great opposition, and when it was declared ultra vires by the Supreme Court of Alberta (confirmed by the JCPC) in 1947, nobody really cared.
Manning was reelected with a large majority in 1944, an election much different from that four years prior. The main challenge to SoCred was now seen as the CCF (the CCF had just swept Saskatchewan prior to Manning dropping the writs), so the SoCred language shifted from attacking the financiers to attacking socialism. With Aberhart of the picture and with social credit disallowed by Ottawa, business leaders and the economic elite of Alberta understood that they had nothing to fear from Manning, and they largely embraced Social Credit as the conservative force against the socialist CCF. Indeed, in contrast to the Saskatchewan CCF, which ran on social programs, the Alberta CCF had a fairly radical socialist platform in 1944, advocating public ownership of natural resources and industries. In the 1944 election, SoCred won 50.5% of the vote and 51 seats out of 60, against 3 for the moribund independents (all their supporters from 1940 had basically defected to SoCred), 2 from the CCF, 1 veterans’ independent candidate and 3 seats elected by Canadian soldiers in active service overseas. In terms of vote share, the CCF was a strong but distant second with 24%.
A major crude oil discovery was made near Leduc in 1947, inaugurating the prosperous oil and gas era of Alberta: oil and gas supplanted farming as the primary industry and resulted in the province becoming one of the richest in Canada. The SoCred government set a fairly low maximum royalty rate in 1947, and Manning built alliances with American oil companies. The oil boom in Alberta also led to a population boom: in 1941, Saskatchewan still had a larger population than Alberta, but Alberta’s population grew by 18% in the next 10 years, so that by 1951, Alberta had 939,501 people against 831,728 for Saskatchewan (which lost population during the decade). During the ensuing decade (from 1951 to 1961), Alberta’s population grew by 42%, reaching a population of 1,331,944 in 1961. This population boom also coincided with the urbanization of Alberta: in 1941, 61% of the population was still rural, but this fell to 52% in 1951, 43% in 1956 and 37% in 1961.
Manning was reelected in 1948, holding all 51 seats (plus one independent SoCrediter), against 2 for the CCF, 2 for the Liberals and 1 for the ‘independents’ of years past (ie a Tory). In 1952, SoCred won 56.2% of the vote and 53 out of 60 seats, against only 3 Liberals, 2 CCFers, 2 Tories and one independent SoCrediter. In 1955, however, after opposition charges of corruption, the SoCreds seemed to falter: the SoCred vote fell by nearly 10% and they were reduced to 37 seats out of 61 in the legislature, while the Liberals won 31% and 15 seats, with the remaining seats going to the Tories (3), the CCF (2), two Grit-Tory candidates, one independent and one independent SoCrediter. After the 1955 election, the government abolished the IRV system in the rural single-member seats and STV in Calgary/Edmonton; the SoCreds had lost five rural constituencies in the 1955 to opposition parties on the second counts, after leading in the first count. Second preferences from the CCF had split fairly heavily against the government.
After the 1955 scare, Manning appointed a Royal Commission to investigate corruption (as the Liberals had demanded) and he took up other opposition proposals, like larger fiscal transfers to the municipalities. In the 1959 election, Manning was rewarded by an easy landslide victory – taking 55.7% of the vote and 61 of 65 seats (plus one independent SoCrediter), against only one seat each for the Progressive Conservatives (PCs), Liberals and a Grit-Tory ‘coalition’ incumbent MLA. In terms of votes, the Liberals, who had done well in 1955, were the main losers taking only 14% of the vote to the PCs’ 24%. The CCF’s election was disastrous, losing both of its seats and its vote crumbling further to a mere 4.3%. The provincial PCs likely benefited from the popularity of the federal party, which had won an historic victory nationally and provincially in the 1958 federal election, when the Diefenbaker Tories won a huge majority in Canada but also knocked down all SoCred MPs in Alberta to win nearly 60% of the vote and all 17 ridings in the province. The federal SoCreds had dominated federal politics in Alberta from 1945 to 1958. When SoCred returned 30 MPs in the 1962 federal election, all but 4 of its MPs now came from Quebec with only 2 elected in Alberta, where the PCs remained the new dominant force despite major loses.
Albertan politics were “curiously apolitical” in the later half of Manning’s premiership. The legislature seldom met, assembling for only six or seven weeks a year, and even the SoCred caucus virtually never met when the legislature was not in session. Instead, most decisions were taken by Manning and his cabinet. Manning and his government came to market themselves ‘above and beyond’ partisan lines, as is quite common for Albertan governments. In election platforms, SoCred boasted the province’s prosperity (compared to its bankruptcy in 1935) and underlined their consensual conservative record – ‘rapid and orderly development of natural resources’ ensuring huge government revenues (the government claimed Albertans were getting their fair share, a claim which the opposition, especially the CCF, disagreed with), low taxes, reduction of the provincial debt, assistance to municipalities, healthcare and education spending, many public works projects (building roads, schools, hospitals), electrification, welfare policies (partial hospital insurance introduced by the early 1950s) and low taxes.
SoCred was handily reelected in 1963, getting 60 of 63 seats, falling just short of its “63 in ’63” goal. The PCs suffered major loses and won no seats, while the Liberals, on a platform calling for a public electricity company and environmental conservation, made a small recovery to win 19.8% and 2 seats. The New Democratic Party (NDP) improved on the CCF’s result, getting 9.5% of the vote, but was still shut out of the legislature. The NDP called for public ownership of utility companies, increased royalties, a Medicare program, public auto insurance, progressive taxation and collective bargaining for provincial/municipal employees.
Manning was an important figure in federal politics as well. He played a key role in the disputed 1961 federal SoCred leadership convention, in which Manning supported Albertan candidate Robert N. Thompson, who emerged victorious in a close contest against Quebec’s Réal Caouette, who had been told by Manning that Western Canada wouldn’t accept a French Catholic leader. In 1963, the federal party split, with Caouette leading the dominant Quebec faction (Ralliement des créditistes) and Thompson leading a rump Anglophone SoCred party, which won only 5 seats in 1965 (including 2 in Alberta, with only 23% of the vote). Following the 1963 split, Manning offered little support to the federal party, and in 1967 unsuccessfully sought to bring about a merger of the federal party with the PCs to challenge Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals. Although the idea failed, Thompson crossed the floor and was reelected as a PC in 1968, while the remnants of the Anglophone SoCred party was annihilated.
Manning was reelected to his last term in 1967, but in an ominous sign, SoCred lost over 10% of its vote share, winning 44.6%, its lowest popular vote result since 1940, although it retained a hefty majority with 55 out of 65 seats. The Progressive Conservatives were the main winners. In 1965, ambitious Calgary lawyer Peter Lougheed had won the PC leadership, and quickly set about establishing the PCs as a strong and credible alternative to SoCred. While the SoCred government’s campaign once again focused on Premier Manning’s immense personal popularity and the party’s record in government, the Lougheed PCs ran a positive and forward-looking campaign which did not attack Manning directly and made use of some new campaign tactics. The PC platform called for government transparency, local government autonomy, a more assertive government in intergovernmental relations, a more activist government (but clearly aimed at defending individual liberties), fiscal responsibility (but rejecting ‘ultra-cautious fiscal policies’) and development of natural resources to provide ‘adequate returns’ to citizens. It was, in short, a centre-right (Red Tory) platform but one clearly aimed at change and modernization. In the end, the PCs won a strong second place, taking 26% and electing 6 MLAs, most of them (including Lougheed) from urban ridings in booming Calgary and Edmonton. The Liberals, divided after leadership conflict after the 1963 election and led by an unwilling leader, saw their vote tank to only 10.8% although they managed to win 3 seats. The NDP increased its support to 16% but was unable to elect a single MLA.
Ernest Manning retired in 1968, and the SoCreds held their first leadership contest. The favourite was Harry Strom, the agriculture minister who was supported by most senior SoCred ministers but also many young members who saw him as somebody opened to change. He was victorious on the second ballot, his main rival being Gordon Taylor, the respected but bland long-time transportation minister. As Premier, Strom was responsible for several major policy initiatives regarding youth and education, but he was a poor leader – an ineffective and uncharismatic speaker, he also failed to modernize the party’s machinery. Nevertheless, he was an honest, humble and kind man.
The Progressive Conservative era (1971-2012)
Strom did not call a snap election after winning the leadership in 1968, against the advice of his chief of staff. He finally called an election for August 1971, about a year early. The threat to the SoCreds came from Peter Lougheed’s PCs, who had formed a robust and combative official opposition in the outgoing legislature.
Lougheed’s PC platform in 1971, similar to that of 1967, was both a traditionally conservative one and a reformist one – it endorsed conservative values such as free enterprise, private industry, small government, fiscal orthodoxy, rejection of government bureaucracy and ‘red tape’ – but at the same time it was reformist, aiming to change the province and reject the most objectionable aspects of SoCred government. For example, it proposed a human rights act to protect individual rights from government interference (and ban discrimination), protecting local government autonomy from heavy-handed provincial interference (“guidance, advice and assistance”, not “direction, control and restriction”) and increased citizen participation in the democratic process (and greater government transparency and respecting the due role of the legislature). Lougheed criticized the passive rentier approach of the SoCred government towards natural resources, vowing to capture a greater share of resource rents to finance his ambitious ‘province building’ agenda (all while explicitly rejecting any more radical changes which would endanger relations with the oil industry). The PCs promised to invest in ‘job-producing activity’ and called for greater participation by Albertans in the ownership and control of provincial industry. Finally, the PCs attacked the passive ‘isolationist’ attitude of the SoCred government in federal-provincial relations, and aimed to dramatically increase Alberta’s clout in Canada and perform a role of “national leadership, not provincial reactionism”.
Harry Strom led a poor campaign, performing poorly in TV advertisements (which the SoCreds, tellingly, thought little of) and his rallies drew less people than Lougheed. Indeeed, in contrast to the ambitious and charismatic Lougheed, Strom was an ineffective leader who failed to inject new blood in his party and struggled to run a modern campaign.
The Progressive Conservatives emerged victorious from the 1971 election, ending 36 years of unbroken Social Credit rule. The PCs won 49 seats against 25 for SoCred, and a single seat for the NDP (for its leader, Grant Notley, elected in the northern riding of Spirit River-Fairview). In the popular vote, however, the election was quite close and the SoCred result far from catastrophic: the PCs won 46.4% of the vote, up 20.4% on the 1967 election, but the SoCreds won 41.1%, down only 3.5% from the 1967 election. The NDP won 11.4%, down 4.6%, while the Liberals – who only ran 20 candidates (out of 75) collapsed to only 1% of the vote. The Liberals had gone through leadership chaos since the last election, and some had even considered approaching the SoCreds for an alliance or a merger. Besides the Albertan unpopularity of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau at the time, many Liberal voters likely defected to the Tories to defeat SoCred.
The conventional view on the 1971 election is that Social Credit, at its roots a rural, small town and lower middle-class movement had little chance of surviving in an increasingly urban and professional middle-class society. Therefore, it was argued, the PC victory was the somewhat inevitable result of social change. However, that view is based on an erroneous notion of social bases of party support. Firstly, while SoCred was slightly stronger in the rural areas than in the cities, the party had received substantial urban support from the very beginning (in 1935) and, after all, Ernest Manning had represented an Edmonton riding from 1940 to 1968. Secondly, survey data from the 1967 and 1971 elections indicate that the new middle-classes did not indicate a decisive preference for the PCs – in 1967, almost all income levels and occupational groups supported the SoCreds over the PCs, while in 1971, the PC victory was more the product of a broad coalition than middle-classes overwhelmingly backing the PCs (although it is true that the SoCreds did better with lower-income voters than high-income voters).
Finally, while the PCs won both Calgary and Edmonton, their victory was by only 4% in Calgary (and SoCred retained some seats there) and it was really only Edmonton which provided an impressive PC landslide (52% to 34% and all seats). In Edmonton, the government had been hurt by threats of a civil servants’ strike and a conflict over telephone services to new suburbs (the government had decided to allow the provincially owned Alberta Government Telephones rather than Edmonton’s municipally owned company to provide phone services there). Social Credit remained strong in southern Alberta, traditionally the province’s most conservative region.
Peter Lougheed became one of Alberta’s most popular Premiers once in office. He had the good fortunes of governing Alberta during a period of unprecedented prosperity, which allowed the government to maintain high levels of public services and the lowest taxes in Canada (including no sales tax), certainly a politically appealing combination. The PC government, in its first term, cut income taxes to the lowest levels in the country, presided over the creation of 96,000 new jobs in three years (giving Alberta the highest percentage of employed working age population in Canada), provided generous benefits to seniors, provided substantial assistance to farmers, improved services and infrastructures in rural Alberta, provided the highest support for education on a per capita basis in Canada and passed the Alberta Bill of Rights (which, among other things, meant the repeal of the Sexual Sterilization Act in 1972). By 1982, Lougheed’s last election as PC leader, the Tories claimed credit for major investments in housing, provision of interest-shielded mortgages, a mortgage interest rate reduction plan, more opportunities for post-secondary students, construction of 22 hospitals and generous social services.
The effect of the first OPEC price shock, combined with the efforts of the PC government to negotiate a new royalty framework, contributed to a dramatic increase in resource revenues. Alberta was able to post large budget surpluses from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. The widespread expectation that energy revenues would continue to grow prompted the government to establish the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund (AHSTF) in 1976, established with three objectives: “to save for the future; to strengthen or diversify the economy; and to improve the quality of life of Albertans.” 30% of Alberta’s oil and gas revenues were initially deposited in the AHSTF. It is also in this period that large-scale development of the tar/oil sands began in earnest, with strong support from the PC government.
Lougheed needed to defend that prosperity in a series of bitter provincial-federal fights over energy policy following the first OPEC oil shock in 1973. With a federal Liberal government led by Pierre Trudeau in Ottawa, Lougheed had ample opportunity to project himself as the defender of Albertans against an overbearing and eastern-dominated federal government. In 1973, in response to rising inflation in Canada, Trudeau asked western provinces to a voluntary freeze on oil prices, and within days imposed a 40% tax on every barrel of Canadian oil exported. Ottawa used the revenues to subsidize eastern refiners while reducing revenues available to the producing provinces and the oil industry. Lougheed called the decision the most discriminatory decision taken by Ottawa against a particular province in the entire history of Canadian Confederation. The Albertan government, in response, announced that it would revise its royalty regime in favour of a system linked to international oil prices. The 1973 oil embargo, which came just a few weeks after Trudeau’s oil export tax, aggravated tensions between the federal government and provincial and industry leaders.
In the 1980 budget, Pierre Trudeau’s federal Liberal government announced the National Energy Program (NEP), which is held in infamy by western Canadians to this day. The NEP was a unilateral attempt by Ottawa to achieve three objectives: “security of supply and ultimate independence from the world market (i.e. make Canada self-sufficient); opportunity for all Canadians to participate in the energy industry, particularly oil and gas, and to share in the benefits of its expansion (i.e. boost Canadian ownership in the industry); and fairness, with a pricing and revenue-sharing regime which recognizes the needs and rights of all Canadians.” To reach these objectives, the NEP included a wide-ranging set of measures: setting a Canadian price of oil below world market prices, new taxes on the oil industry, increasing the federal share of oil production income (largely at companies’ expense) and a target for 50% domestic ownership of oil and gas production by 1990. Alberta, as Canada’s main oil producer, had the most to lose from the NEP and the province and its government were, unsurprisingly, furious. This period saw bumper stickers like “Let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark.” In 1980, Lougheed responded to the NEP by vowing to shrink the industry’s output to about 85% of its capacity and the provincial government increased support to the oil industry (including a $5.4 billion program in royalty reductions and grants introduced in 1982). To offset the effects of such measures on the budget, the government diverted the investment income earned by the AHSTF to the general fund and reduce the percentage of resource revenues deposited in the AHSTF from 30% to 15%, two decisions which – combined with later renegotiation of some aspects of the NEP – caused resource revenues to recover and allowed the provincial government to remain in a budgetary surplus until 1985.
In 1981, Lougheed reached an agreement with Trudeau which rejigged the energy-sharing proportions and reduced the much-reviled NEP oil export tax to zero pending a court challenge (which Alberta won in 1982, with the SCC ruling that the feds couldn’t legally tax provincially owned oil and gas wells). A picture of Lougheed and Trudeau toasting Champagne glasses at the agreement was badly received by Albertans and the oil industry, and Lougheed later called the photo-op the biggest mistake of his political career.
Lougheed was a major player in the constitutional debates in the 1970s and early 1980s. Upon taking office in 1971, Lougheed signaled his disapproval of the proposed Victoria Charter amending formula, which would have granted a veto to Quebec and Ontario. The PC government was committed to a vision of ‘provincial equality’, defending proprietary rights (including natural resource ownership) and provincial jurisdiction. Lougheed played the key role in designing what would become the amending formula in the Constitution Act, 1982 – a formula which does not include any special provincial vetoes for Quebec (or other provinces), allows provinces to ‘opt out’ of some amendments it opposes and seeks to strike a balance between rigidity and flexibility in amendments. In the wake of the NEP, Alberta and other provinces successfully pushed for the inclusion of Section 92A which clarified and strengthened the areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction over nonrenewable natural resources. Alberta also supported the inclusion of the ‘notwithstanding clause’ (Section 33) in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which allows provincial legislatures and Parliament the authority to state that a law will (temporarily) stand notwithstanding the provisions of the Charter as they concern fundamental rights, legal rights and equality rights. At the time, Senate reform did not feature on Alberta’s constitutional agenda. During the Lougheed years, Alberta often found support from Quebec in the constitutional debates, because both sought an expansion in provincial control and a reduction in federal intervention.
During the Lougheed years, the cabinet machinery was reorganized to make it run for effectively than during the SoCred years. The result was a strong cabinet and disciplined caucus, but a weak legislature – whose powers of oversight were render anemic by the PC dominance and the weakness of the opposition benches.
Lougheed’s PCs were remarkably popular. In 1975, the PCs won a record-breaking landslide with 62.7% of the vote and 69 of 75 seats – obtaining a share of the vote larger than what the SoCreds had ever won. The Social Credit party, running on a conservative small government platform, had been a very poor fit for the opposition benches, and saw its support collapsed in 1975, reduced to 18.2% of the vote and only 4 seats (plus one independent SoCrediter). The SoCred leader, Werner Schmidt, was defeated in his own riding and resigned. Obviously, given the ideological proximity of the PCs and SoCreds, many of the latter party’s supporters easily found a home in the new governing dynasty. The NDP won 12.9% and retained its only seat, while a stronger Liberal effort saw them take 5% but no seats. Given the unpopularity of the federal Liberals, the Alberta Liberals cut their ties with the federal party in 1977. In 1979, the PC vote fell to 57.4% but they won 74 out of 79 seats (although they fell short of their “79 in ’79” target). The SoCreds, with 19.9%, managed to hold their four seats and retain Official Opposition, while the NDP won 15.8% and held Grant Notley’s seat. The Liberals won 6.2% but were still shut out.
In 1980, SoCred leader Robert Curtis Clark resigned and was replaced by former Calgary mayor Rod Sykes, who, however, did not have a seat in the legislature. In 1982, Clark resigned his seat of Olds-Didsbury, sparking a by-election. The winner was Gordon Kesler, the candidate of the Western Canada Concept (WCC) party, a very right-wing (with, later, disturbing racist tendencies) separatist party dedicated to the independence of the four western province and the northern territories. The WCC surfed on a wave of loud anti-Ottawa sentiments in Alberta in the wake of the NEP and claims that Lougheed was too weak in his dealings with the federal government. To cut short any momentum for the WCC, Lougheed called an early election for November 1982, and ran a campaign warning Albertans against electing a separatist government. The election proved a major success for the Tories, who won 62.3% and 75 seats in the legislature. The NDP, with 18.8% of the vote, now won two seats – Notley was joined by Ray Martin, elected in Edmonton – and formed the Official Opposition. The WCC achieved a respectable 11.8% of the vote, but with Kessler defeated standing for reelection in another riding, the WCC was shut out and the party’s 15 minutes of fame ended. Social Credit went into the election with no incumbents standing – the parliamentary leader who had succeeded Sykes didn’t want the party to fight the election, but he was overruled, leading him and a colleague to leave the party to fight as independents while the last remaining MLA retired. With no MLAs and the party in shambles, SoCred fielded only 23 candidates and won 0.8% (and no seats, naturally). The two former SoCred MLAs running for reelection were returned as independents. The Liberals, hurt by the NEP, only ran 29 candidates and won 1.8%.
Lougheed retired in 1985. He was succeeded by Don Getty, a former CFL quarterback who had been elected to the legislature with Lougheeed in 1967, but who had taken a time out from politics in 1979. Getty was Lougheed and the establishment’s favourite, but despite that he failed to win the PC leadership on the first ballot. In May 1986, Getty sought and received a mandate from voters – but the PCs did poorly. The Tories won 51.4%, down nearly 11 points, and 61 of 83 seats – a substantially reduced, but still very comfortable, majority. The main change was the election of a strong opposition caucus: the NDP, now led by Edmonton MLA Ray Martin after Grant Notley’s tragic death in a plane crash in 1984, won 29.2% of the vote and 16 seats. The NDP had moderated and ran on a bread-and-butter social democratic platform in the election, distancing itself from more ‘radical’ stances it had taken in the past. The New Democrats won most seats in Edmonton and two seats in Calgary. The Liberals, on a platform mixing concern for the environment with free-market economics, finally recovered and won 12.2% and 4 seats. The Representative Party of Alberta, a right-wing party (imagined as SoCred without the social credit baggage) led by the two former SoCred-turned-independent MLAs won 5.2% and both of their incumbents were reelected. Nevertheless, the party quickly collapsed as one retired and the other crossed the floor to join the PCs.
Getty came in office as Alberta’s rosy economic times became history. In Lougheed’s last budget in 1985, the province had recorded a deficit. Alberta had been hurt by falling oil prices and the NEP since 1980, and suffered badly when oil prices took a tumble in 1985-1986 (after Saudi Arabia doubled its oil production in early 1986). Getty’s first budget was particularly bad: with the fall in revenues, the province recorded a $4 billion deficit. The government increased taxes and cut spending, so that over the time of Getty’s premiership, government spending grew by one of the slowest rates in the country (and, if adjusting for inflation, spending actually fell during his premiership). In 1987, the government abandoned its efforts to save nonrenewable resource revenues and diverted all investment income earned by the AHSTF to the general fund and deposits ended completely. The government did not make another deposit in the AHSTF until 2006-2008. The problem was that the government assumed that the abnormally high oil prices observed in previous years would be permanent and sustainable. Getty’s government was thus reluctant to either quickly raise taxes or quickly cut expenditures, so the 1980s proved to be disastrous for provincial budgets. Furthermore, growing servicing costs on a growing debt meant that the inevitable fiscal adjustment would prove more painful. Throughout Getty’s tenure, the government always posted a deficit.
The slowdown in the energy sector contributed to a decrease in capital spending and reduced demand for labour in the construction industry. Banks, credit unions, farms and oil companies all struggled. Getty’s government was very criticized for its coziness to big business – the government tried to stimulate the energy sector by making loan guarantees to two oil giants for new capital projects, and also granted a loan and loan guarantee to a meat-packing plant which later defaulted on the loan. Edmonton also showered the oil industry with millions in incentives and royalty cuts. The government also faced controversy with the failure and shut-down of a trust company in 1987, after an investigation found that a minister had disregarded earlier warnings that the company was insolvent. The 1992 privatization of Alberta Government Telephones (AGT) was also controversial.
In the field of intergovernmental relations and constitutional debates, the Getty Tories were less successful than Lougheed had been. To begin with, Ottawa-bashing had been made much more difficult with the election of a federal Conservative government under Brian Mulroney in 1984, which enjoyed strong support in Alberta (and therefore provided Alberta with a voice in cabinet, unlike under Trudeau) and quickly dismantled the NEP. Getty was very much on Mulroney’s side in the constitutional debates of the late 1980s, beginning with Meech Lake, despite polls showing that the accord was very unpopular in Alberta. Going into Meech Lake, the centrepiece of Alberta’s constitutional proposals was Senate reform. Initially, since Lougheed, the Alberta government had endorsed a Senate reform model whereby senators would be appointed by provincial governments and the reformed Senate would function similarly to Germany’s Bundesrat in terms of the federal units’ participation in the federal legislative process. However, under popular pressure, Getty’s government came to favour the Triple-E Senate reform model, whereby senators would be directly appointed by the people. In 1985 and 1987, the legislature’s committee on Senate reform endorsed the Triple-E model, which was supported by all legislative parties. In Canada, Alberta’s government took the lead in pushing for Senate reform, but this time it did not find an ally in Quebec. Although Senate reform was on the agenda at Meech, Getty’s government was later criticized for not being able to impose it more forcefully. After Meech’s failure, Getty challenged the federal government to pursue Senate reform by introducing legislation which allowed for ‘Senate nominee’ elections in the province, and the first Senate nominee election was held in October 1989. Stan Waters, from the Reform Party, defeated Getty’s preferred candidate, PC nominee Bert Brown. Waters was appointed to the Senate by Mulroney. In 1992, Getty was successfully able to include the Triple-E reform in the Charlottetown Accord despite Mulroney’s opposition, but Charlottetown ended up being rejected by Canadians, including Albertans, in a referendum.
Getty called an early election in March 1989, seeking to take advantage of a recovering economy and job market. The PCs, however, remained fairly unpopular and while they were reelected to a sixth term in office, their vote share took a big hit again – down 7.1% to 44.3%, winning 59 of 83 seats. Premier Getty himself was defeated in his Edmonton-Whitemud riding by the Liberals, and he was forced to enter the legislature through a by-election in a safe Tory rural seat. The NDP, still led by Ray Martin, attacked the PCs on issues like taxes, healthcare, coziness with big business, labour relations and school user fees, but there were questions about Martin’s leadership and the NDP failed to articulate an alternative economic vision. The party ended up holding its 16 seats and opposition status, although its vote share dipped slightly to 26.3%. The major winners were the Liberals, who were now led by former Edmonton mayor Laurence Decore. The Liberals campaigned on a platform of fiscal responsibility and open government, criticizing the PCs for their involvement in private businesses, the deficit and the growing debt. The Liberals ended up placing second in the popular vote with a solid 28.7%, up over 16 points from the last election, but were only able to win 8 seats – including 3 in Calgary and 4 in Edmonton. The Liberals achieved such a result despite running a very low-budget campaign.
At the federal level, the Reform Party, led by Ernest Manning’s son Preston Manning, began achieving significant levels of support in Alberta. In the 1988 federal election, although Mulroney’s PCs still swept the province, discontent over some federal decisions and Meech allowed Reform to place third with 15.4% of the provincial vote (but it won no seats). The Reform Party was a grassroots right-wing populist party which channelled feelings of Western alienation and campaigned on themes popular in the west: opposition to official bilingualism, opposition to ‘distinct society’ recognition for Quebec, institutional reform of the federal government (including Senate reform), opposition to multiculturalism, direct democracy and limited government. Between 1989 and 1993, as federal Conservative support collapsed in Alberta, Reform quickly gained in strength and support. Relations between the Alberta PCs and the federal PCs later worsened, to the point that Getty broke off formal ties with the federal party in 1991 and opposed Mulroney’s unpopular GST.
At the same time, Getty’s growing unpopularity and a worsening deficit (the 1992-93 recorded a much larger deficit) meant that Getty’s popularity took a big hit. The Liberals were polling strongly, and other polls showed that an hypothetical provincial Reform party (which never happened) would be another very serious challenge to the Tories. Getty resigned in late 1992, before the national referendum on Charlottetown and the release of a damning report on the AGT privatization.
The PCs held a leadership election in November-December 1992. In 1991, the Alberta PCs had moved from the traditional convention system to a universal ballot (one member-one vote) system in which participation was open to all citizens with the only condition being purchase of a $5 PC membership. With over 52,700 votes in the first ballot and 78,251 votes on the second ballot, the PC election was a major success for the party. On the first ballot, the establishment favourite and ‘Red Tory’, health minister Nancy Betkowski, ended up a single vote ahead of environment minister and former Calgary mayor Ralph Klein (clearly on the party’s right), who had backbench support but insignificant cabinet support. On the second ballot, despite six of the seven other candidates endorsing Betkowski, Klein benefited from a surge in participation and soundly defeated her – 46,245 votes to 31,722.
Ralph Klein was a folksy populist, clearly on the party’s right after two moderate leaders. Klein repudiated Getty’s legacy, stating that the old government had a ‘spending problem’ and he made it his top priority to quickly balance the budget, exclusively through spending cuts rather than through tax increases. Klein inherited a big budget deficit and a $24.5 billion debt (Getty had inherited a debt-free province).
In May 1993, Klein’s government tabled its first budget, which laid out a plan to eliminate the deficit by 1996-97 by reducing government spending by 20% while not increasing taxes. The government targeted ‘eliminating waste and duplication’ and downsizing government, but the cuts also meant a significant hit to frontline public services – healthcare included. It also talked about ‘getting out of the way of business’ by limiting government intervention in private businesses and ending the much-criticized government subsidies to businesses. The government also passed the Deficit Elimination Act, which banned budget deficits after 1997-97. Following the budget, Klein’s new government sought a mandate from voters.
Laurence Decore’s Liberals had been a strong opposition, loudly hammering the PCs on the debt, deficit and fiscal responsibility, and the Liberals had been the favourites to win the next election until Getty retired. Now led by Klein, the PCs went into the election with a platform broadly similar to that of Decore’s Liberals – its four-year plan to balance the budget without increasing taxes or introducing a sales tax, reducing the size of government and the civil service, creating a business climate conducive to job creation (by competitive tax rates, cutting red tape and other barriers to trade), welfare reform, ‘controlling’ healthcare costs and education reform. The Liberals had a very similar platform – also pledging to balance the budget, eliminate the deficit, cut spending, liquidate the AHSTF to pay off the debt and cutting subsidies to businesses. Decore tried to differentiate himself from Klein’s PCs by claiming that the PCs lacked the credibility and moral authority on the economy. Ray Martin’s NDP was the only one of the three parties which didn’t campaign on a platform of fiscal orthodoxy and spending cuts – instead, the New Democrats called for cuts to MLA benefits, job creation, fair labour laws, cuts in government waste, government accountability, reorganization of service delivery and tax increases for corporations and the wealthiest. However, the campaign was very much a two-way contest between the PCs and the Liberals, who believed that they had a real chance at victory. In the end, with Klein in command, the PCs were reelected but facing one of the strongest opposition caucuses in Albertan history. The PCs won 44.5% of the vote and 51 seats, a loss of 8 seats from the last election, while the Liberals won 39.8% and a record 32 seats. The NDP suffered from significant tactical voting from anti-PC voters, who defected en masse to the Liberals, leaving the NDP with 11% and no seats for the first time since 1967. The Liberals swept all seats in Edmonton, gained a foothold in Calgary (with 3 members) and broke through in north-central Alberta.
Between 1993 and 1997, Alberta lived through a period of deep austerity – cuts in government spending, the elimination of over 2,000 jobs in the civil service, cuts in funding for arts, education and healthcare programs. In the civil service, the government introduced the principles of new public management which were in vogue in the early 1990s, and it cut regulations across the board. In healthcare, the government closed hospitals, increased healthcare premiums by 25% and laid off over 15,000 healthcare workers and nurses. In education it increased tuition fees, laid off teachers, leading to larger class sizes (in 1997, Alberta had the highest teacher-student ratio in Canada) and cuts in special ed and extra resources. At the same time, Klein’s government was the first Canadian government to open the way for charter schools and it increased support for private schools, two policies which were very criticized by public education workers. The government aggressively marketed the ‘Alberta Advantage’ – the province’s status as a low-tax, free enterprise, deregulated and economically/fiscal sound place to do business.
Sticking to its promises, Klein did not increase taxes and continued his original plan even when high windfall revenues meant that Alberta was out of deficit by FY 1994-95 (the government had pledged in its 1993 budget not to spend windfall revenue and use it to pay off the debt).
In 1993, the government began a major welfare reform which resulted in a sharp decrease in the number of cases and steadily decreasing social assistance payments for those who remained on it (total annual welfare incomes for a single employable person fell from $8,526 in 1992 to $6,729 in 1997 (and continued falling thereafter – it wasn’t until 2008 that Alberta started steadily increasing rates). Alberta’s welfare reform – later held by some as a model for later welfare reforms in Canada – included discouraging potential applications, tightening eligibility requirements, tightening administration of welfare to reduce caseloads, cuts in welfare rates, stricter work requirements, a shift to ‘workfare’ and lower earnings exemptions. Between 1993 and 1997, there was 60% decrease in Alberta’s welfare caseload. Cuts in welfare were accompanied by declining employment standards – over the 1990s, average hourly wages in Alberta failed to keep up with inflation and fell in real terms.
The government privatized liquor retailing between 1993 and 1994, selling or shutting down all government-owned liquor stores although the government retained warehousing and distribution responsibilities for wine, coolers, imported beers and spirits. Alberta remains the only province to have privatized liquor retailing.
In 1997, the PCs went into the election with a balanced budget, low unemployment, solid GDP growth, a plan to pay back the debt by 2005 and a record of low taxes. The Liberals were led by Grant Mitchell, who had replaced Decore not long after the 1993 election. The Liberals shifted to the left, running on a platform defending public services – maintaining public universal healthcare (against alleged Tory plans to introduce ‘two-tier healthcare’), hiring teachers and reducing class sizes, defending labour rights, protecting the environment while still pledging to not raise taxes and keep the budget in surplus. The NDP went into the election led by Pam Barrett, fighting on a platform vowing to ‘fight back’ against PC policies. The New Democrats focused on labour relations, poverty, the impacts of welfare reform, seniors, PC spending cuts, employment standards, public healthcare and education but also attacked the Tories’ socially conservative stances on LGBT rights (the PC government denied LGBT individual rights protection and spousal benefits). Klein was reelected to a second term with a much more comfortable majority. The PCs won 51.2% of the vote, up over 6% from the previous election, and they captured 63 of 83 seats – a gain of 12 seats. The Liberals remained the official opposition, but saw their vote drop by over 6% to 32.8% and they were left with only 18 seats – almost all of them in Edmonton. The NDP, despite a lower share of the vote than in 1993 (8.8%), gained 2 seats from the Liberals in Edmonton to reenter the legislature. The SoCreds, with 70 candidates, won a strong result (6.8%) but won no seats.
In its second term, Klein’s government continued its orthodox fiscal agenda, now squarely focused on paying off the province’s debt by 2004 and keeping the budget in surplus while not raising taxes. However, with an improved fiscal situation, spending increased beginning with the 1997 budget. Despite fluctuations in the price of oil, Alberta enjoyed very strong economic growth and declining unemployment rates during Klein’s second term in office.
Beginning in 1996, the PC government deregulated the electricity market, a controversial and poorly-handed policy decision which eventually led to significant rate increases for consumers (by 2001, Albertans paid the highest electricity prices in the country). The PCs deregulated the market without first ensuring adequate supply, leading to an unregulated oligopoly.
In 1998, the government began cutting taxes, and in the 1999 budget they began a three-year tax reform plan which culminated with Alberta ‘unhooking’ itself from the federal tax rates and introducing a single income tax rate (a flat tax) in 2001, to be set at 11%. Against claims that the flat tax would benefit middle and upper-income earners, the government responded by raising basic exemption levels by 60% by 2002. On top of that, the government also cut corporate taxes and renewed its commitment not to introduce a flat tax. The Klein government marketed the so-called ‘Alberta tax advantage’.
More controversial were Klein’s moves on healthcare. In the 1997 election, both Liberals and New Democrats had warned that the PCs wanted to move towards ‘US-like’ two-tier healthcare, which is very unpopular in Canada. In 2000, the government introduced Bill 11 (the Health Care Protection Act), which greatly expanded the range of treatments, operations and procedures which could be legally provided outside a public hospital and allowed them, within clearly delineated guidelines (but still granting considerable discretion to the physician) to charge patients extra for providing ‘enhanced medical services’. The government rejected all claims that Bill 11 was an opening to two-tier healthcare and pointed out the bill’s provisions banning queue jumping – so that people couldn’t pay extra to jump the line – but opponents of the legislation claimed that private medical facilities would be able to provide preferential treatment to those who paid. Despite widespread popular opposition, the bill was passed by the legislature in April 2000.
Going into the 2001 election, the PCs boasted Alberta’s low taxes, economic growth, low unemployment, the benefits of the strong oil and gas industry and reinvestment in healthcare and education. A weak Liberal opposition was now led by Nancy MacBeth (formerly Betkowski), the Red Tory who had been defeated by Ralph Klein in the 1993 PC leadership contest. The Liberals attacked the Tories on the declining quality of public education, the electricity deregulation ‘fiasco’ and Bill 11. The NDP was led by Indian-born MLA Raj Pannu, running on a combative platform attacking the PCs for Bill 11 (which the NDP, like the Liberals, pledged to repeal in favour of a ‘Patients Bill of Rights’ protecting public healthcare), the ‘failure’ of electricity deregulation, the flat tax (promising a ‘fair tax’ with breaks for low and middle-income earnings, scrapping health premiums and royalty tax credits), class sizes, employment standards, poverty, First Nations and the environment. Despite Bill 11 controversies and electricity deregulation, the PCs remained very popular. Ralph Klein’s PCs were reelected in a landslide, the biggest Tory victory in Alberta since the Lougheed days. The PCs won 61.9% of the vote and swept 74 of the legislature’s 83 seats. The opposition was reduced to a weak rump: the Liberals lost the most heavily, falling to 27.3% of the vote and holding only 7 seats (all but one of them in Edmonton), while the NDP was able to save its two urban Edmonton seats on a slightly reduced vote share provincially (8%). The SoCreds, who had made a strong run in 1997, collapsed to 0.5%. At a victory celebration in Calgary, Klein summarized the election himself: “Welcome to Ralph Klein’s world.”
After a post-9/11 slump, oil prices increased dramatically between 2002 and 2008 – which meant an era of prosperity and rapid growth for the province. Alberta, already Canada’s fastest-growing province, saw the strongest population growth since the mid-1970s (another boom time): it grew by 10.3% between 1996 and 2001 and by 10.6% between 2001 and 2006. Visible minorities have been one of the major contributors to population growth – their weight in Alberta grew from 11% to 16% in ten years between 1996 and 2006. Since 2001, following the late-1990s municipal amalgamations in Ontario, Calgary is Canada’s third largest city behind Toronto and Montreal. Calgary – home to most oil corporations’ head offices – has seen impressive population growth, even higher than the provincial average (Edmonton has grown, but less rapidly than Calgary). Economically, Alberta firmly established itself as Canada’s booming province and most prosperous jurisdiction in the early 2000s. Unemployment, the lowest in Canada, fell from 5.2% to 3.4% between 2002 and 2006. Alberta experienced strong economic growth during this time period, allowing for strong job creation numbers. High oil prices made developments of the oil sands even more profitable.
After an austerity budget in 2002 following the post-9/11 slump, the PC government increased spending on healthcare, education and infrastructure. Such investments allowed Alberta to rank near the top in Canada on several education and healthcare indicators. In 2003, to shield against oil and gas price volatility, the budget announced that, from that point forward, the government would consistently count on $3.5 billion in oil and gas revenues, and send any additional revenue to an Alberta Sustainability Fund to protect against poorer years. In 2004, the Klein government proudly announced that it had paid off Alberta’s debt in whole by FY 2004-05. With booming revenues far exceeding expenditure growths, the Klein government tabled budgets with increasingly large surpluses between 2002-03 and 2006-07. In 2006, Klein’s last budget as Premier, Alberta revenues stood at $38 billion, up from $21.9 billion in 2001 (not adjusted for inflation).
The 2004 election was a boring affair, as Klein’s mother died shortly after the dropping of the writs and all parties suspended their campaigns for several days. The PCs ran on an uninspiring platform reminding voters of their accomplishments in paying off the debt and reiterating old planks – low taxes, deficit and debt-free, small government and investments in core fields. The Liberals were led by Kevin Taft, who had previously been a fairly high-profile consultant, researcher and author. Prior to entering politics in 2001, Taft had written a book criticizing PC budget cuts in the 1990s (for which Klein called Taft a communist), co-authored a study criticizing the Tories’ electricity deregulation and co-authored a book attacking private healthcare. In the 2004 election, Taft’s Liberals focused on democratic reform, accountability, improving education and public healthcare, electricity prices, municipal autonomy, seniors, social justice, public auto insurance, environment/climate change all while pledging budget surpluses and no sales tax. The NDP, led by Edmonton MLA Brian Mason, campaigned on a bread-and-butter campaign promising to scrap healthcare premiums, bring in public auto insurance, lower home utility costs, scrap royalty tax credits, hire more nurses, lower prescription drug costs, stabilize education and healthcare funding, cut post-secondary tuition by 10% immediately, increase the minimum wage and working on democratic reform.
The PCs, however, also faced a serious challenger on their right – the Alberta Alliance, founded in 2002 by conservatives and libertarians who wished to emulate the federal Canadian Alliance (although the two parties were never affiliated). The party had gained a seat in the legislature when dissident PC MLA Gary Masyk crossed the floor to the Alliance in 2004. The Alberta Alliance criticized Klein’s erratic behaviour and tight control over government decision-making, and the party talked about accountability, electoral reform, free votes, grassroots citizen participation, recall, direct democracy, term limits and Senate reform. On social and economic matters, the Alliance called for strict ‘zero based’ budgeting, using all surplus funds to pay off debt, less red tape, cuts to government waste, privatizations, indexing spending growth to inflation, a 7% flat tax, ‘school choice’, school vouchers and ‘competition’ between hospitals and other healthcare facilities (and scrapping grants/subsidies to them). The Alliance also advocated for Alberta to take control of several key policy fields from Ottawa: unemployment insurance, pension plans (like Quebec), immigration policy, a provincial police force and firearms legislation.
Klein’s Tories were reelected, but Klein suffered his first electoral setback since winning power in 1993. The PCs saw their vote fall considerably, down 15% to 47%, and they lost 12 seats in the legislature – down to 62. Kevin Taft’s Liberals and Brian Mason’s NDP both saw modest increases in their parties’ support – up 2% to 29% and 10% respectively, giving the Liberals 16 seats and the NDP 4 seats. The Liberals and NDP almost swept Edmonton, leaving the PCs with only three seats in the capital, and the Liberals even managed to steal three seats in Calgary. The Alberta Alliance won 8.7%, a strong showing, and even won one seat – Paul Hinman – elected in the very conservative southern riding of Cardston-Taber-Warner, a seat with a large Mormon population. The Greens won 2.8%.
Very high oil prices led to large surpluses in the 2005 and 2006 budgets, which allowed the government to deposit funds into the sustainability fund but also to increase spending, notably on infrastructure projects which were big spending areas in both budgets. Taxes remained low, and it continued bringing down corporate taxes – overall, corporate taxes in the province fell from 15.5% in 2000 to 10% in April 2006. In June 2006, the government abolished the royalty tax credit, a program which allowed oil and gas companies to get a credit on their income tax returns for a percentage of the royalties paid. Since 1974, the credit had cost the province $113 million in 2005.
High revenues also allowed the Klein government to distribute a ‘Prosperity Bonus’, nicknamed Ralph bucks – announced in September 2005, each person in Alberta was to receive $400 (not taxable) from the government in early 2006, at the cost of about $1.4 billion to the government (the money came from the surplus, and accounted for about 20% of the total surplus). Some residents and academics criticized the cheques, as some would have preferred to see the money used for tax cuts, the abolition of healthcare premiums or for spending on core areas.
Prior to the 2004 election, Klein had announced that he would serve only one more term in office, but did not put a firm date on that. Pressure mounted on Klein to set a firm date, and he finally announced in March 2006 that he would resign at the end of October 2007, although the resignation would only take effect after his party chose a successor (so in 2008). The drawn-out schedule for his retirement, along with his announcement that any cabinet minister who wished to run for leader must resign by June 2006, generated controversy including within caucus and cabinet (one minister was fired and suspended from the caucus). On March 31, 2006, Klein received only 55% confidence from delegates at the PC leadership review, a very poor result and thus a crushing blow to his leadership. His poor result was attributed to concerns about his ‘long goodbye’ and how that might affect the party, similar to how Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s lengthy retirement notice was believed to have led to Liberal infighting in 2004. He announced within days that he would resign in September, and the PC leadership race was held in November and December 2006.
Jim Dinning, Klein’s first Treasurer in the 1990s who had been outside of politics since 1997, entered the race as the favourite and had the strongest support from the PC caucus. The first declared candidate was Ed Stelmach, a PC MLA since 1993 who had served in Klein’s cabinets since 1997, but had kept a low profile. Stelmach had substantial support in caucus, but was very much the dark horse candidate in the contest. Besides Dinning, most media attention focused on Ted Morton, a socially and fiscally conservative former academic (from the University of Calgary, where he was one of the figures of the conservative ‘Calgary School’) and freshman MLA. Along with other Calgary School academics and future Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Morton was one of the signatories of the 2001 ‘firewall letter’, a conservative manifesto which called on Alberta to seize new powers from Ottawa – including withdrawal from the Canada Pension Plan, provincial collection of income tax (like Quebec), a provincial police force, provincial responsibility for healthcare policy (to allow for private healthcare), forcing Senate reform on the agenda and criticism of equalization payments. On the first ballot, Dinning led with 30% and Morton placed second with 26%, while Stelmach finished a distant third with 15%. However, in the top-three preferential ballot second round, Stelmach – who had been endorsed by three eliminated candidates – won 35.9% against 35.6% for Dinning and 28.6% for Morton. With Morton’s voters largely giving their second preferences to Stelmach, he was easily elected after redistribution of preferences.
Oil and the environment were key issues during Stelmach’s premiership. Oil sands production in Alberta had started to take off since 2003, as a result of high oil prices (which made extraction profitable) and generous investment incentives from the provincial and federal governments. However, as oil sands production increased, so did criticism of the environmental impacts. Oil sands production requires significant amounts of water, so oil sands projects divert about 359 million m3 of water from the Athabasca River, and there have been several cases of water pollution. Oil sands production emits 5-20% more carbon dioxide than average crude oil. Finally, the tailings ponds – byproducts of bitumen extraction from the oil sands – poses one of the most important environmental challenges. The serious environmental issues associated with oil sands productions has given Alberta’s oil industry a fairly bad image and reputation (with certain milieus) in Canada and the United States, forcing both government and oil producers to spend a considerable amount of money on PR campaigns which seek to convince the world that Alberta’s oil sands are environmentally friendly.
Stelmach was a vocal advocate of the oil sands industry in his province. In the run-up to the 2008 federal campaign, Stelmach strongly rejected federal Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s proposal to introduce a carbon tax. Instead, Alberta announced $2 billion in funding to explore carbon capture initiatives, an idea which got a mixed response. In January 2008, Stelmach introduced a ‘made-in-Alberta’ plan to cut carbon emissions – it called for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 14% from 2007 levels by 2050, a target judged unambitious and insufficient by environmentalists in light of British Columbia’s plan to cut emissions by 80% from 2007 levels during the same period. Stelmach argued that Alberta’s position as an oil producer justified higher emissions. In April 2008, the death of 1,600 ducks who had landed in a northern Alberta tailings pond belonging to Syncrude were a blow to Stelmach’s efforts to portray the oil sands industry as environmentally friendly.
One of the major projects of the Stelmach government was a royalty review – a major commitment he had made in his 2006 bid for the PC leadership. In February 2007, Stelmach appointed the Alberta Royalty Review Panel to determine whether Albertans were received their ‘fair share’ from the province’s resource wealth. Klein’s government in the 1990s had lowered royalties, and his government was attacked by the opposition for being too weak and friendly with industry. Alberta was receiving much less in royalties than other oil producers, notably Alaska and Norway, were. The panel’s report, released in September 2007, determined that Albertans were not receiving their ‘fair share’ from energy development because royalties had not kept pace with changes in the resource base and the world energy markets. They recommended that total government intake in the oil sands increase from 47% to 64%, which would still place Alberta as a competitive energy producer in the world. In October 2008, Stelmach released its New Royalty Framework, which he claimed would provide Albertans with their fair share while providing ‘stability and predictability’ to industry and ensuring Alberta remains a competitive place to do business. Oil sands royalties had been fixed in 1997, at a time when the industry was nascent and required favourable conditions to get off the ground. Alberta’s 2007 royalty reviews, the base rate (gross revenue royalty) would start at 1%, and increase for every dollar oil is priced above $55 per barrel, to a maximum of 9% when oil is priced at $120 or higher. Royalties on net revenue applied post-payout, which was 25%, would start at 25% and increased for every dollar oil is priced above $55 per barrel to 40% when oil is priced at $120 or higher. The government rejected the panel’s recommendation for an oil sands severance tax. For conventional oil and natural gas, the new framework established a simplified sliding scales determined by prices and well productivity. The government projected royalties would increase by $1.4 billion by 2010. The new framework was introduced in 2009. The government’s royalty review had a fairly mixed response, and a largely negative one from industry. Some in the industry went so far as to compare Stelmach to Venezuela’s Chávez.
A 2015 study by the Parkland Institute, however, showed that instead of collecting an additional $10 billion over five years, total royalties collected went down by $13.5 billion. Most losses came from gas royalties, where the province collected $5.2 billion less per year in royalties following the review. This was due both to the major drop in natural gas prices after 2008 and the new royalty framework for gas. Although the province did get more in royalties from oil sands, the study faulted Alberta for its low royalty rate compared to other countries (and Newfoundland) and for pushing the Canadian price of oil below the European and US price.
Following a throne speech in February 2008, Stelmach called an election for March 2008. The PCs ran on a largely unexciting and uninspired manifesto, more pragmatic than ideological. The Tories promised to gradually eliminate healthcare premiums over four years, recruit and train more nurses and doctors, build 18 new schools, support the creation of 14,000 new childcare places, limit tuition increases, get tough on repeat offenders, establish an Energy Efficiency Act and an $18 billion three-year plan to build and improve transportation infrastructure, urban transit and schools. The Liberals, once again led by Kevin Taft, promised to eliminate healthcare premiums immediately, re-regulate electricity to lower bills, invest 30% of all royalties (in the AHSTF, the infrastructure deficit, a post-secondary endowment fund and an endowment for the arts , cap greenhouse gases in 5 years through a partnership with industry, train more healthcare workers, implement a public pharmacare program, redirect a $250 million natural gas rebate program towards energy efficiency, increase royalty revenues, vigorous enforcement of employment standards and accountable government. The NDP’s Brian Mason campaigned on four main themes: making life affordable (with rent controls, more childcare spaces, capped fees on after-school care, a $10 minimum wage and immediately ending healthcare premiums), full value royalties, a green energy plan (by creating a green energy fund for the creation of a green economy, supporting alternative power generation projects and hard caps on greenhouse gas emissions) and big money out of politics (banning corporate and union donations). The NDP had a populist platform which accused both Liberals and PCs of being on the side of ‘big corporations’ and big oil, while only the NDP was on the side of regular Albertans. On the right, the Alberta Alliance – which was failing to take off the ground – had merged with an ideologically identical unregistered party (the Wildrose Party) in January 2008 and changed its name to the Wildrose Alliance Party. The Wildrose Alliance ran on a conservative platform calling for a 2% cut in the flat-rate income tax, a higher personal exemption, directing savings from slower spending growth to the AHSTF so that income taxes could eventually be eliminated, a school voucher pilot program, a pilot program in a small health region based on per-patient rather than per-capita funding and democratic reform (fixed election dates, citizen initiatives, recall).
Although few people had thought much of Stelmach in comparison to his emblematic predecessor, Stelmach was able to win a landslide victory in the 2008 election. The PCs increased their vote by nearly 6 points to 52.7% and won 72 out of 83 seats. The Liberals and New Democrats both lost votes and seats, falling to 26.4% and 8.5% of the vote respectively. The Liberals fell from 16 to 9 seats, while the NDP fell from 4 to 2. The Wildrose Alliance saw support fall to 6.8% and Paul Hinman lost his seat. The Greens won 4.6% with a nearly full slate. The patterns of the vote were somewhat odd: in Stelmach’s Edmonton base, the PCs made strong gains and won some of their strongest numbers since the Lougheed era, defeating a number of Liberal and NDP incumbents to reduce the Liberals to only 3 seats in the city (from 12 in 2004). In Calgary, Klein’s base but a city which Stelmach had difficult relations with, the Liberals won 5 seats – a gain of one from dissolution and 2 from the 2004 election. The election was also noted for its very low turnout: only 40.6% of Albertans turned out to vote in an election widely considered to be boring and uninspiring.
After the election, the government controversially voted to award cabinet ministers and the Premier a pay increase.
In April 2008, as the Stelmach government delivered the first budget of the new legislature, Alberta’s economy seemed to still be doing well and the government projected a $1.6 billion surplus. The government eliminated healthcare premiums as of January 1, 2009. In the summer of 2008, with oil prices through the roof, the government revised its estimates to project a bigger surplus, but oil prices fell dramatically following the summer of 2008 during the global recession. Ultimately, the government ran a deficit in 2008-2009.
In April 2009, the government delivered the province’s first deficit budget in 16 years. Nevertheless, in a departure from the Klein era, austerity was not the first item in that budget: calling for ‘flexibility’, the government allowed borrowing for capital purposes (not for operating purposes) and it remained optimistic as it dipped into the sustainability fund to supplement revenues. The budget also announced a major $23 billion investment in infrastructure over three years, and did not include cuts to core areas. However, overall spending fell in the 2009 budget – the first incidence of spending cuts since the 2002 budget. The government’s fiscal plan included deficits until 2012-13. Stelmach’s government outlined a four-point plan to deal with deficits: ‘careful management’ of spending, protect and increase funding for priority services, continued investments in public infrastructure and keeping taxes low. In 2010, the government again used the sustainability fund to protect priority programs (education, healthcare, support for the elderly and disabled) and continued investments in infrastructure, while making cuts – mostly outside of frontline departments.
As Alberta slipped into recession in 2009, the PC government faced an unexpected surge in support for the Wildrose Alliance. In a September 2009 by-election in the suburban riding of Calgary-Glenmore, Wildrose candidate Paul Hinman captured the seat – held by the Tories since 1969 – with 36.9% support against 34.4% for the Liberals and only 25.9% for the PCs. Riding on a wave of momentum, the Wildrose Alliance saw its membership swell ahead of its October 2009 leadership race, which was easily won by Danielle Smith – a journalist and provincial director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. Smith, a former Tory herself (who had backed Ted Morton in 2006), claimed that she had become disillusioned with Stelmach’s ‘free-spending’ ways. In January 2010, two PC MLAs crossed the floor to join Wildrose, boosting the party’s caucus to 3. In June, another defection gave them a fourth member and qualified them as a recognized political party in the legislature. Wildrose support surged in the polls in late 2009 and early 2010, increasing speculation that Stelmach could be forced out at the November 2009 PC leadership review. But he survived, with over 77% confidence. As the economy and jobs recovered in 2010, Stelmach’s support edged up again.
Stelmach announced in January 2011 that he would retire, and provided official notice of resignation at the end of May 2011. The PCs organized a leadership race for September-October 2011. Once again, the winner was not the early favourite. Gary Mar, a PC MLA from 1993 to 2007 and the province’s representative in Washington DC until March 2011, had the support of 27 PC MLAs and that of former Premier Ralph Klein. Other candidates included Alison Redford, a MLA since 2008 and justice minister, who had previously worked as a human rights lawyer and a senior policy adviser to then-foreign minister Joe Clark in the 1980s; Doug Horner, a MLA since 2001; Ted Morton, who had been promoted to finance minister in January 2010 and Rick Orman, a former MLA. On the first ballot, Mar, the favourite, was miles ahead of the others with 40.8% of the votes against 18.7% for Redford, 14.6% for Horner, 11.7% for Morton and 10.1% for Orman. Morton and Orman, eliminated, endorsed Gary Mar. Even on the second (top-three) ballot, Mar retained a narrow edge with 42.5% against 37.1% for Redford (and 20.4% for Horner), but it was clear that Redford had done the best job in signing up new members and outsiders (notably with a promise to reverse education cuts) and Mar had failed to capitalize on Morton and Orman’s endorsements. With the redistribution of Horner’s preferences, Redford narrowly won with 51.1%.
In the February 2012 budget, the government was unable to deliver on its previous target of balancing the budget by that date, although it now planned for a balanced budget in 2013-14.
The legislature was dissolved at the end of March 2012 for an election on April 23, 2012. As the election was called, Redford’s PCs maintained a narrow but shaky lead over the Wildrose, while support for the hitherto main opposition party (the Liberals) had collapsed to about 12% from over 26% in 2008. As the campaign progressed, Wildrose gained a consistent lead over the PCs – in fact, the rival right-wing party led in all polls conducted in April. The PCs had taken flack from the right for the 2012 budget, which Wildrose argued was a campaign document with unrealistic revenue projections and reckless spending, accusing the PCs of depleting the sustainability fund and AHSTF. Indeed, many critics on the right – not just Wildrose politicians – have argued that, after 2003, with high oil prices, PC governments spent heavily on the assumption that high revenues were permanent and spending increased at a much faster rate than inflation+population growth would allow. During the campaign, news of a ‘no-meet’ committee in the legislature (where MLAs were paid despite not doing any actual work) also hurt the PCs, reinforcing views that after a record 41 years in power, the PCs had become an arrogant and complacent dynastic party.
Wildrose focused on economic issues – the party attacked the 2012 budget, instead calling to limit annual spending growth to inflation+population growth, cuts in government waste (notably the PCs carbon capture projects), ‘targeted’ funding increases for front-line services, controlling the Tories’ ‘unsustainable capital spending spree’, instituting ‘zero-based budgeting’ and restraining government from dipping into the AHSTF to cover deficits. When in surplus, Wildrose said it would use the extra money to grow the AHSTF, pay off the debt, lower personal and business taxes and make investments in critical infrastructure. Furthermore, the party promised to cut red tape, reduce government regulations on businesses, lower oil royalties in order to encourage investment in the oil sands, decentralize (localize) education and healthcare decision making, protect ‘freedom of choice’ in education, ‘patient choice’ and ‘competition’ in healthcare (allowing patients to use their public insurance to obtain treatment with any provider, including private ones; it nevertheless claimed to uphold the principles of the Canada Health Act), democratic reforms (maximizing free votes, citizen-initiated referenda and recall, whistleblower protection, transparency), changes in human rights legislation to protect ‘freedom of speech’ (controversially, Alberta human rights legislation allows for the prosecution of somebody who ‘exposes a person or a class of persons to contempt’), abolish the human rights commission in favour of a new human rights division in the court system and to legally protect property rights. The party’s platform also attacked the federal equalization program, vowed to oppose any federal intrusion into environmental regulation and argued for Alberta to have more power over immigration.
The PCs promised to return to a balanced budget in 2013 with no new taxes and no service cuts; a good part of their platform repeated pledges from the 2012 budget or earlier legislative action – including improvements in student aid and grants, extra funding for education, improvements made to education laws etc. The incumbent party’s platform promised to ‘spend wisely’, build a ‘knowledge economy’, enhance market access for Alberta’s natural resources and agricultural produce, invest in families and communities (and lead the development of a social policy framework), build a network of 140 family care clinics, improve student aid and access to post-secondary education, a ‘Canadian Energy Strategy’, support new pipelines (Keystone XL and Northern Gateway), increase child care subsidies, implement a 10-year poverty reduction plan and build 50 new schools.
On the centre-left, Brian Mason’s NDP polled well but struggled to make major gains in the polls. The NDP ran on a populist platform, attacking the PCs as the party of the rich and powerful, and focused on quality public healthcare (increase the number of family doctors, cheaper drug prices, reducing wait times), affordable electricity through re-regulation, the youth (introducing a child care system with a maximum daily cost of $25 per child, ban school fees, freezing and reducing tuition fees, student loan debt forgiveness up to $1000 per year), a clean environment (energy efficient home retrofit loans, cleanups of tailings ponds) and making oil sands prosperity work for all Albertans (requiring all projects to have plans for upgrading in Alberta). The New Democrats would have funded their projects by increased corporate taxes, increased income tax on the wealthy and changes to bitumen royalties. The Liberals were clearly struggling and sickly going into the election, with 3 of 8 incumbents retiring and having lost two members since the 2008 election. They were led by Raj Sherman, who had been elected in Edmonton-Meadowlark as a PC candidate in 2008 but who had been thrown out of the PC caucus in 2010 before running, successfully, for the Liberal leadership in 2011. Sherman’s Liberals had an unremarkable centre-left social liberal platform – improving healthcare, expansion of early childhood education, immigrant integration support, cheaper hydro, ending school fees, cap and lower undergrad tuition, diversified markets, environmental innovation, green transportation, democratic reform (reducing the number of MLAs, free votes, recall, accountability, an IRV electoral system, eliminating private school funding, increased taxes on bigger corporations and a progressive tax system (targeting only the top 10%). To messy things up further, the Alberta Party – a party which had been founded in 1985 as one of the several hard-right/quasi-separatist parties to challenge the PCs in the late 80s – had shifted to the left since 2009 after the right-wingers joined Wildrose, transforming the party into a progressive party aiming to unite progressive forces (free of the baggage, supposedly, carried by the NDP and Liberals). One Liberal MLA, Dave Taylor, had joined the party in the legislature, although he didn’t run for reelection. The party’s leader, Glenn Taylor, ran a strong campaign in his local riding of West Yellowhead.
Alberta’s 2012 election has become a memorable one. Going into the election, with all polls predicting a Wildrose victory, most expected the end of the PC dynasty after 41 years in power. However, on election night, defying all polls and predictions, Alison Redford’s PCs were reelected to a reduced majority government, winning 44% of the vote (-8.8%) and 61 seats (-5 on dissolution) against 34.3% and 17 seats for Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Alliance Party. The polls had gotten it wrong – even if one poll (Forum Research) on the day before had shown the Wildrose lead cut down to only 2 points, even they missed the mark by quite some distance. There are some explanations as to why the Wildrose wave suddenly failed to materialize: in the last week, Smith’s campaign had been hit by two candidates making crazy statements (about, you guessed it, the gays/lesbians and racism) and Smith refusing to ‘throw them under the bus’, which sparked concerns about a potential Wildrose government and allowed the PCs to – according to their critics – run a scare campaign. There remains debate on what happened – the undecideds breaking heavily for the PCs, Liberal (and NDP) strategic voting to prevent a Wildrose victory, late switchers from Wildrose to the Tories and so forth. The Liberal vote did collapse, by 16.5% to only 9.9%, although they miraculously managed to reelect their 5 incumbent MLAs who ran for reelection. However, the Liberal collapse was not a surprise – it was already clear during the campaign that many Liberals had switched to the PCs, a friendlier option now that it was led by Redford, a ‘Red Tory’, or as a defence against Wildrose. The NDP won 9.8%, a slight increase but also a slight underperformance on polling, and doubled its caucus from 2 to 4 MLAs. The Alberta Party won 1.3% with 38 candidates but failed to win any seats.
In geographical terms, Wildrose swept southern Alberta – winning 9 of 10 rural seats in the south of the province, traditionally the province’s most conservative region – and did well in exurban Alberta, notably defeating Ted Morton in Chestermere-Rocky View. However, the party failed to make its expected breakthrough in Calgary – the party won only two suburban seats there, and Paul Hinman lost in Calgary-Glenmore. The PCs won 46.2% and 20 seats in Calgary, against 35.6% for the Wildrose. The upstart right-wing party was not expected to do well in more left-wing Edmonton, and indeed it won just 18.8% and no seats, while the NDP placed second in the city and took all of its 4 seats there. The PCs won 13 seats in the capital. The PCs also held their ground in Lethbridge and Red Deer, the province’s two smaller urban centres (although Medicine Hat voted Wildrose, in the south). In northern and central Alberta’s rural seats, the PCs won 23 seats against 6 for Wildrose.
The Decline and Fall of the PC dynasty (2012-2015)
The PCs were unable to deliver a balanced budget in 2013. The budget presented in March 2013 forecast a $451 million deficit, due in good part to significantly lower non-renewable resource revenues, particularly bitumen (oil sands) royalties, than originally expected. The 2012 budget had forecast $13.4 billion in resource revenues for 2013, but the 2013 budget now estimated resource royalties to come in at only $7.25 billion. As a result, the 2013 budget froze operating expenses for the fiscal year, as part of what the government called ‘living within our means’. The budget slowed growth in healthcare spending to 3% (down from about 9% in previous years), cut spending for post-secondary education (a decision very badly received by those concerned), cuts to MLA salaries and in public sector management, increased K-12 education spending by 0.6% and included $5.2 billion in capital spending. True to the old commitment, the budget did not raise taxes. The budget also included a savings plan, to replenish the AHSTF and the contingency account (formerly sustainability fund). On the right, opposition leader Danielle Smith called it the ‘get back in debt budget’ and attacked the PC spending plans. Redford’s government also changed its accounting practices, separating out capital spending. The move was explained as being more in line with common accounting principles, but fiscal hawks said it amounted to cooking the books. The Liberals and NDP would have preferred to see tax increases in the budget. The government would eventually report an operational surplus for 2013-14, although excluding $5 billion in capital spending.
In 2013, Redford’s government faced the ire of public sector unions after the legislature passed two anti-unions laws: Bill 45 and Bill 46. The former increased fines for illegal strikes, while the latter unilaterally striped the public sector union (AUPE) of its right to arbitration (a right granted by PC Premier Lougheed) and imposed a two-year pay freeze on public servants. Redford had previously been on fairly good terms with the AUPE, but her anti-union legislation in 2013 changed matters. The AUPE launched a legal challenge against Bill 46, and obtained a major win in February 2014 when a judge of the Court of Queen’s Bench granted an indefinite injunction against the bill, arguing that the legislation could irreparably harm labour relations, guts the collective bargaining process and effectively emasculates the AUPE. Redford intended to appeal the decision, but the AUPE and the government reached a tentative agreement after her resignation and the appeal was dropped.
In March 2014, the government delivered a balanced budget, forecasting a $2.6 billion surplus due to higher revenues, both from taxes and non-renewable resources, than originally expected. As part of their ‘living within our means’ focus, however, operational expenditure increased by 3.7% in the 2014 budget, less than the projected rate of population growth plus inflation (4%). The budget’s capital plan included $19.2 billion investments into infrastructure projects in three years, including $6.6 billion in 2014. To finance the capital plan, the government forecast that it would borrow $4.8 billion in 2014, but insisted it was the right decision to make as well as a sustainable one. Wildrose warned that Alberta would carry $21 billion in debt by 2016 as a result of the government’s ‘doubling down on debt’ budget.
Redford’s downfall began with the death of Nelson Mandela, and her decision to attend Mandela’s funeral in South Africa at the cost of $45,000 to the Alberta government. Instead of travelling with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the rest of Canada’s representatives, she took a government plane, flew her aide separately and then flew back early. Further scrutiny into her expenses revealed several abuses, including having her daughter and a friend accompany her several times on government planes, booking first class fights and high-end hotels. Redford apologized for the Mandela trip, but remained defiant about repaying the $45,000 until the very end. She insisted that it was an ‘exceptional situation’ which wouldn’t happen again. Her entourage also faced withering criticism for their exorbitantly high salaries and luxury tastes.
Redford’s approval ratings collapsed below 20% while a poll in March 2014 showed that the PCs had fallen to 19% in voting intentions against 46% for Wildrose, 16% for the Liberals and 15% for the NDP. Having been elected to the leadership with little support in the PC caucus, Redford was left isolated when things got bad for her – although she had made things worse because of her leadership style, which left many MLAs out in the cold while she surrounded herself with outsiders (with few friends at home, she brought in top staff from Ontario). On March 13, PC MLA Len Webber quit the caucus and called Redford a ‘bully’. Redford’s allies attacked, saying he was “a very sad man” who should “go back to being an electrician.” On March 17, Donna Kennedy-Glans, an associate minister and PC MLA, resigned from cabinet and quit the caucus, attacking Redford’s leadership style. Around the same time, Redford was facing a possible caucus revolt, as no less than 10 MLAs were discussion leaving the party to sit as independents. On March 19, Redford announced her resignation, effectively almost immediately (on March 23). Unlike Klein and Stelmach, she did not stay on while a leadership election was organized. Instead, she was succeeded on an interim basis by Dave Hancock, the deputy premier. In August, she resigned her Calgary-Elbow seat. That same month, the Auditor General’s report into her travel expenses concluded that she had used “used public resources inappropriately” and “used public assets (aircraft) for personal and partisan purposes.” The report concluded that these abuses arose due to an “aura of power around Premier Redford and her office and the perceptions that the influence of the office should not be questioned.”
The PCs successfully convinced retired federal politician Jim Prentice to enter the race, in which he was naturally the runaway favourite. Prentice had been active in federal politics for the old Progressive Conservatives, and ran in the 2003 federal PC leadership as a supporter of efforts to ‘unite the right’ (he placed second on the final ballot, losing to Peter MacKay, who at the time opposed a full-fledged union). Prentice was elected as a federal Conservative MP in the 2004 election, and after Harper’s victory in the 2006 election, Prentice was appointed as Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and later as Minister of Industry (in 2007) and Minister of the Environment (in 2008). He left those portfolios with mixed records, receiving criticism for not implementing the Kelowna Accords as Indian affairs minister and for his positions on copyright laws, net neutrality and text messaging charges while industry minister. As a federal Conservative, Prentice was widely seen as a Red Tory, given that he had voted in favour of the federal Liberal government’s bill which legalized same-sex marriage in 2004. Prentice resigned from cabinet and the House in November 2010 to take a job at the CIBC. Prentice entered the Alberta PC leadership race in May 2014, and faced only two rivals: Ric McIver, a rookie MLA (elected in 2012) and former cabinet minister, and Thomas Lukaszuk, a PC MLA since 2001 who had held several cabinet portfolios since 2010 including deputy premier (2012-2013). Prentice was easily elected on the first ballot on September 6 with 76.8% of the vote.
Jim Prentice was seen by Tories as the steady hand to right the ship and restore PC fortunes. Despite low turnout in the leadership election (some 23k v. 78.1k in 2011), everything seemed to be going according to plan at first. The PCs regained their lead in the polls. Prentice reversed some of the last government’s unpopular decisions – he let two controversial dealing with public service compensation die on the order paper, he visited a a long term care centre marked for closure by the Redford government and in March 2015 Prentice repealed Bill 45.
On October 27, voters in four ridings – three in Calgary and one in Edmonton – were called to the polls in by-elections. Jim Prentice sought Len Webber’s old seat in Calgary-Foothills, while two of his new cabinet members sought to enter the legislature: health minister Stephen Mandel, the former mayor of Edmonton (2004-2013), ran in Edmonton-Whitemud while education minister Gordon Dirks, a former Saskatchewan minister in the 1980s who aroused some controversy for his socially conservative religious views, ran in Redford’s old seat of Calgary-Elbow. The PCs swept all four by-elections – despite major swings against Mandel in Edmonton (where the NDP placed a strong, but distant, second) and Dirks in Calgary (where Alberta Party leader Greg Clark won 26.9% to Clark’s 33.2%) and a close race in Calgary-West (where Wildrose came within a few points of victory) – and the narrative coming out of the election was that voters were willing to give the PCs, despite their travails in the past month, a chance and that Wildrose (which had hoped to win one or two of the seats) were the main losers.
Wildrose entered a turbulent period following the by-elections. At the party’s AGM in November, members rejected a motion supporting equal rights for all minority groups, reigniting criticisms and fears that the party was bigoted and anti-gay. Nine days later, two Wildrose MLAs crossed the floor to join the PCs, citing turmoil in the party and their confidence in Prentice’s leadership.
In the government’s Speech from the Throne in November, they focused on four key themes: commitment to conservative fiscal principles, ending the culture of entitlement to restore the public trust, maximize the value of natural resources while protecting property rights, protecting the environment and enhancing the quality of life.
Some weeks later, the media started reporting rumours of talks in the Wildrose caucus to merge with the PCs. The idea had been in the works since Prentice became premier and took steps to bring rebel social and fiscal conservatives back into the fold by adopting some key Wildrose issues (like defending property rights and pledging to defend fiscally conservative principles), and a leaked document about a Wildrose-PC mergers included Tory commitments to review Stelmach/Redford property rights bills, ‘patient choice’ in healthcare, free votes on issues of conscience, balance the budget, stop taking on debt and other things. On December 17, in a fairly unprecedented move in Canadian politics, Wildrose leader and Opposition Leader Danielle Smith announced that she and eight other Wildrose MLAs would cross the floor to join the PCs. Smith said that, under Prentice, they could work together “with a renewed focus on the values and principles that we share.” She added that she wanted Prentice to succeed, noted that they shared almost identical values. Smith also implied that social conservatives in the party had effectively pushed her out as well. Despite the rumours of a merger/reunification, however, angry Wildrose members (those who stayed behind) denied any such things. The mass defections were poorly received by some, who painted Smith and the 8 MLAs as power-hungry political opportunists who had betrayed their voters, while many on the left said that the PCs had betrayed those progressives who had voted PC in 2012 to keep the Wildrose out of government. Polls in December 2014, however, showed the PCs with a solid lead – one poll, for example, pegged the Tories at 42% (and another at 44%) against 14% for Wildrose and 18-19% apiece for the NDP and the Liberals.
Danielle Smith went on to lose the PC nomination in her riding of Highwood on March 28, as did two other Wildrose-turned-PC defectors (a fourth, who had left Wildrose earlier to sit as an independent, was denied the PC nomination as well).
In the meantime, however, Alberta’s economy was badly hit by the sharp, sudden and (for Alberta) catastrophic collapse in oil prices which began in August 2014 – something which Alberta’s budget, in March 2014, had certainly not expected. Beginning in January 2015, Prentice warned Albertans of impending austerity in a ‘transformational’ and ‘once-in-a-generation’ budget. Before the budget was dropped, Prentice made his first mistake – a comment about how Albertans “needed to look in the mirror” to understand the serious budget shortfall. It seemed as if Prentice was blaming Albertans for the province’s fiscal problems, when his party had been the one in charge for over 40 years. The reaction online and offline was, predictably, very negative.
On March 26, the Tories delivered a budget which they billed as making the ‘tough choices’ to make public services financially sustainable and with a plan to reduce Alberta’s dependence on non-renewable resources revenue in coming years. The 2015 budget forecast a very big $5 billion deficit – in good part due to the fall in oil prices, which meant that revenues from non-renewable resources fell from $8.8 billion in 2014-15 (forecast) to $2.9 billion in 2015-16, with bitumen and crude oil royalties 73% lower. The budget forecast a return to balance in 2017-18, after another deficit in 2016. The budget brought major changes both in revenues and expenditures.
The budget introduced ‘revenue initiatives’ worth about $1.5 billion in new revenue for 2015-16, in the form of increased taxes and user fees. It is the first budget to raise taxes in the province in years, in a radical change from past PC policy. The budget introduced a new healthcare contribution levy, similar to the old healthcare premiums abolished in 2008, but working in a more progressive manner, exempting low-income earners – the new contribution levy would apply to individual taxable incomes over $50,000 and increase progressively in $200 increments to a maximum contribution of $1,000 for those earning over $130,800. The budget effectively scrapped Ralph Klein’s old flat tax, introducing two new tax brackets starting in 2016, with a provincial income tax rate of 11.5% on taxable incomes over $100,000 once fully implemented in 2018 (with 0.5% tax increases in 2016, 2017 and 2018) and a temporary three-year tax of 0.5% on incomes over $250,000 (so that, by 2018, those earning over $250,000 would pay 12% in provincial income tax, before seeing them reduced to 11.5% in 2019 once the temporary tax expires). Other taxes and user fees also saw increases, some of them immediate: fuel tax (up 4 cents to 13 cents per litre), tobacco tax (up $5 to $45 per carton of 200 cigarettes), a 10% liquor mark-up, insurance premiums tax and numerous fees and charges (traffic tickets, motor vehicle registration fees, land titles transactions, provincial parks access fees, legal documents). Quite controversial was the government’s decision to slash the charitable donations tax credit from 21% to 12.75% for charity donations over $200. To compensate for these measures and spending cuts, the budget, however, also included some enhancements to tax credits for low-income families with children. In a decision which would come back to haunt them, the government did not increase corporate taxes (Alberta’s general corporate tax rate, 10%, is the lowest in Canada), arguing that times were tough enough as it is for businesses. Oil royalties were also left untouched.
The 2015 budget included spending cuts (about $300 million), officially under the objective of bringing the costs of Alberta’s public services in-line with the national average. Some key departments saw immediate budget cuts: health ($160 million), advanced education, environment, transportation and municipal affairs while all departments (including health and education) would have to absorb $1.9 billion ‘growth pressure’ in future years (meaning annual spending increases would be well below population growth+inflation). The budget noted that front-line services would not be affected, and most ‘savings’ would instead come from ‘administrative efficiencies’, exploring ‘alternative’ service delivery methods and eliminating waste. Some 2,000 public service full time equivalent positions were slated for elimination in the budget (the vast majority in the health system), mostly through attrition, while the government warned that new contracts to be negotiated with the public sector would take into account the ‘current fiscal situation’.
The budget’s capital plan forecast for $29.5 billion investments in infrastructure projects over five years, complemented with a commitment to gradually pay off capital debt once the budget is back in surplus (forecast for 2017-18). Finally, as part of the overarching theme of reducing the province’s dependence on non-renewable resource revenue, by 2019-20, only 50% of resource revenue would be used for program spending with the other 50% allocated to savings, the reduction of capital debt and building the AHSTF.
Reactions to the budget were, to say the least, mixed. Some in the business community thought it was a tough but fair budget, while PC supporters said it was a tough but realistic and necessary long-term plan to get Alberta back into surplus and off the “resource revenue roller-coaster”. However, the budget had something in it to displease everyone else, left and right. For the right, there were not enough cuts and the tax increases were repulsive. For the left, it cut spending too much and hit middle-class taxpayers too hard while favouring the corporate sector and big business. For regular Albertans, the hike in sin taxes and fuel tax or the re-introduction of a health care premium or the absence of a hike in corporate taxes were reasons to be unhappy with the budget.
Election Campaign and Issues
On April 7, 2015, Premier Jim Prentice called an election for May 5, 2015 – going to the polls a year early, disregarding fixed election date legislation. Prentice said he wanted to secure a mandate from voters for his ‘transformational’ budget, in reality he wanted to go early in the face of bad economic news and take advantage of the general disarray of the opposition parties. The early election call was also an example of PC (or long-time governing party) arrogance, in that they appeared so confident of their hold on the province that they were not bothered or took little notice of recent mistakes made or the poor reception of the March 26 budget.
Indeed, as he called the election, almost all the opposition parties were in disarray. The Wildrose Party had barely picked itself up following the mass defections of December 2014, and elected a permanent leader to lead them into an election only on March 28. Brian Jean, a former Conservative MP (Fort McMurray-Athabasca) from 2006 to 2014 – who had been a rather invisible backbencher for the duration of the Harper government, was elected as the Wildrose Party’s new leader. The Liberal Party, which was tied with the Wildrose Party in terms of seats at the dissolution of the legislature, had its leader Raj Sherman resign in late January 2015 and the Liberals headed into the 2015 election campaign led by an interim leader, the well-regarded but unambitious Dr. David Swann (a Calgary MLA and former Liberal leader himself, from 2008 to 2011). Only the NDP, it turned out, went into the election with a solid footing. Brian Mason, the NDP’s leader, had resigned in April 2014 and an October 2014 leadership election was easily won by Rachel Notley, two-term MLA for Edmonton-Strathcona and the daughter of former NDP leader Grant Notley (1968-1984).
The Progressive Conservatives focused their campaign on their March 26 ‘transformational’ and ‘forward-looking’ budget and its main themes – so saving oil revenues in the future, reducing government spending, revenue changes, cutting government waste and duplication, maintaining support for low-income families and disabled people, doubling the size of the AHSTF in 10 years, long-term debt reduction after 2017, capital plan infrastructure investments (building schools, healthcare facilities, improve roads) and a flat-out rejection of any tax hikes for corporations (claiming that it would cost billions in investment and thousands of jobs). The platform laid out a ‘long term plan to secure Alberta’s future’, focused on economic diversification (innovation and technology, agriculture, clean technologies), expanding market access (within Canada, and towards new markets in Asia and the EU), protecting the environment, defending property rights and improving relations with Aboriginals.
The Wildrose Party (WRP) went into the election led by Brian Jean, a rookie leader, elected to the position only days before the writ was dropped. As mentioned above, Jean had served as an unremarkable and anonymous backbench federal Tory MP for Fort McMurray-Athabasca between 2006 and 2014, and entered the campaign with relatively low name recognition and a party still trying to pick itself up after the mass defections of December 2014. Amusingly, Jean had donated $10,000 to Prentice’s 2014 PC leadership campaign.
Taxes were at the centre of the WRP campaign, which attacked Prentice’s 59 tax and fee increases and promised to reverse them and balance the budget by 2017 (under a different accounting method which would take into account capital investments) without raising taxes or cutting front line services. It planned to balance the budget by cutting, primarily, in ‘PC waste and cronyism’ – corporate welfare, sole-source contracts, public sector management, government travel, advertising and mandating more transparency. Once the budget is balanced, Wildrose would use all surplus funds for investments into the AHSTF, debt reduction, contingency fund or infrastructure projects. To create jobs and growth, the WRP called for tax incentives to stimulate research, investment, and economic activity, facilitating the recognition of foreign credentials, provincial control over immigration to attract the necessary skilled workers, cuts to red tape and regulatory burdens and promised to ‘aggressively’ negotiate a fairer equalization program so that Alberta keeps more money.
The vague catchphrase ‘patient-centred healthcare’ headlined the WRP’s health platform, focused on improving patient care by cutting bureaucracy in the public health system. However, the platform was devoid of explicit calls for two-tiered healthcare or more private options, although it talked about ‘patient choice’ and use of non-hospital facilities/services (within the system) in vague terms. The rest talked mostly of curbing bureaucracy in health administration, localized decision-making and ’empowering’ patients. On education, the WRP vowed to protect ‘school choice’, speed up completion of new schools, empower school boards to find ‘efficiencies’ and set their priorities and assorted vague platitudes.
Democracy and accountability were key themes in the WRP platform, unsurprisingly. The platform repeated plans to end ‘PC entitlement’ and cut waste and abuse in government (public disclosure of government travel, limiting severance packages for all political staff and senior government and agency officials), complemented with proposals to strengthen independent officers of the legislature (like the auditor general or ethics commissioner), simplify access to freedom of information requests, toughen whistleblower legislation and more accountability/disclosure of government spending. On the issue of democratic reform, the Wildrose platform called for MLA recall legislation, banning floor crossing without a by-election, free votes, improved democracy in legislative proceedings (by enhancing the role of the opposition in committees) and ‘phasing out’ large corporate and union donations.
Reflecting the party’s base and the nature of its 2015 campaign, rural Alberta was an important focus of the platform. Protecting property rights – a major issue for rural voters and a favourite topic of the right – fell under this theme, and the WRP promised to repeal or amend controversial PC legislation which infringed on private property rights. They also talked of improving access to services and infrastructure in rural communities.
The New Democratic Party (NDP) has been a fixture of Alberta politics since the 1940s (when it was known as the CCF), but unlike in neighbouring British Columbia or Saskatchewan, the Alberta NDP had never been able to make a breakthrough in provincial politics – peaking at 29% of the vote in the 1986 election. This election, the NDP was the opposition party which was the most prepared for the election call, having begun nominating its candidates and found a strong leader in Rachel Notley. The NDP entered the campaign on a centre-left progressive platform attacking Jim Prentice and his budget; for example, the platform attacked “a budget that asks you and your family to pay for bad decisions by the Conservatives – through higher taxes and fees, and through deep cutbacks to your family’s health care and education.”
Given the importance of the Prentice Tories’ budget in the election, the NDP’s alternative to that budget came to dominate the election campaign. The NDP campaigned on the idea of ‘everyone contributing fairly’, which in reality meant a plan to increasing the corporate tax (for big corporations) to 12% (which would take Alberta from having the lowest corporate taxes in the country to one more in line with other provinces, albeit higher than BC, QC and ON), introducing a progressive income tax with several brackets for the top 10% of tax filers (12% on income over $125,000, 13% on $150k-200k, 14% on $200k-300k and 15% on income over $300,000) but providing breaks for the other 90% – eliminating the healthcare levy, rolling back the user fees, cuts to the charitable donation tax credit and enhancements to tax credits for low-income families. On that plan, the NDP platform forecast to balance the budget in 2018. The NDP platform also committed to establishing a commission to report on domestic resource processing and fair royalties.
Notley’s campaign also focused on job creation and diversification of the economy to reduce over-dependence on bitumen exports. The NDP proposed a job creation tax credit, increasing the minimum wage to $15 by 2018 and supporting other sectors (alternative energies, high tech, research, knowledge industries).
The NDP also attacked the PC government over their spending cuts, notably those which hit healthcare. Besides vowing to reverse the cuts, scrap the healthcare levy and provide stable and secure funding, the NDP also promised to shorten wait times by creating more long-term care beds, expand public homecare, end PC experiments in privatization, properly repair (and constructing new) hospitals and seniors’ facilities. Similarly, for education, the NDP pledged to provide stable and secure funding and reverse cuts, invest to reduce class sizes to deal with growing K-12 enrollment, reduce school fees for essential services (like lunch), build new schools, phase-in all-day KG, restore a summer employment program for youth and implement a ‘real’ tuition freeze. Social issues were also important, unsurprisingly for the NDP. The party’s platform mentioned investments in childcare, immediate enhancements to tax credits for low-income families, a review of employment standards to support ‘family-friendly’ work standards, initiatives for gender equality and ‘smart regulation’ of electricity to ensure lower costs.
The environment was another key issue. The NDP committed to a green retrofitting loan program, phasing-out coal fired electricity generation (and expand cleaner, greener sources), scrapping the ineffective carbon capture program (to reinvest the 2015-16 component into public transit), strengthening environmental regulation and pledged to ‘take leadership’ on climate change. On the controversial and touchy issue of the Northern Gateway, Notley said it was ‘not the right decision’ and signaled that she’d take a hands-off approach to the pipeline, which had been actively pushed by the PCs. She also said that she would end lobbying for the embattled Keystone XL pipeline project.
The New Democrats forcefully attacked Prentice and the PCs on government ethics issues, accusing Prentice of refusing to accept responsibility by telling Albertans to ‘look in the mirror’ and of seeking to ‘game democracy’ with his secret deal with Danielle Smith in 2014. The NDP promised to ban corporate and union donations, transparent infrastructure decisions, strengthen conflict of interest laws, ban MLAs from using government resources during elections and respect all-party committees in the legislature.
Other issues addressed by the party included municipal affairs, a renewed partnership with Aboriginal peoples (notably joining in the calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women) and agriculture.
The Liberal Party has been struggling since the 2012 election, when the Liberals suffered a bad defeat. It has transformed more into an assemblage of like-minded independent MLAs rather than a major political party vying for power. To make matters quite worse, the Liberals’ leader, Raj Sherman, resigned in January 2015 and the party was drawn into this snap election without a permanent leader. The respected but ineffective Dr. David Swann, who had previously served as Liberal leader from 2008 to 2011 (stepping down without leading the party into an election), was interim leader and basically ran a campaign to win reelection for himself as Calgary-Mountain View’s MLA rather than a province-wide campaign. Only one other Liberal MLA, Edmonton’s Laurie Blakeman, sought reelection. Their three other incumbents were all retiring. The Liberals tried to mask their very poor shape by calling for ‘progressive cooperation’ between the left/progressive parties (NDP, Liberals, Alberta Party, Greens) to defeat the PCs; the NDP naturally didn’t care much for that, and the Alberta Party and the Greens weren’t overly keen on it either. However, incumbent Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman in Edmonton-Centre was also endorsed by the Alberta Party and the Greens, while the Greens endorsed the Liberal candidate in Red Deer-North. Overall, the Liberals were unable to run a full slate of candidates and nominated just 56 candidates – all heavily concentrated in urban Alberta.
The Liberal platform was weirdly disjointed, placing unusually large focus on fairly minor issues – for example, they talked about improving vaccination rates, legal aid, infertility (IVF) funding and age-appropriate teaching of consent in sex ed classes. Given the distribution of Liberal candidates, urban issues were important in the platform. The Liberals did not differ much from the NDP in terms of ideas – reducing wait times, phasing out school fees, smaller class sizes, childcare places, reducing tuition fees, hiring more teachers and protecting the environment. On taxation, the Liberals supported a progressive income tax (with 5 brackets, from 9.5% to 15%, with even bigger tax increases for the wealthy), a 2% increase in the corporate tax and eliminating small business taxes.
The Alberta Party, emerging since 2011 as a new centre-left progressive party in Alberta politics, nominated 36, two less than in the last election. Party leader Greg Clark ran in Calgary-Elbow, in a rematch of last year’s by-election in which he finished a strong second against PC education minister Gordon Dirks. Once again, the party’s platform did not markedly differ from that of the NDP – an ‘effective’ progressive income tax, a 1% hike in the corporate tax, new schools, reverse health and education cuts, tuition cap at inflation rate, tough ethics laws, phase-out coal power, carbon pricing for large emitters who don’t reduce their emissions by 30%, economic diversification, clean energy and phasing out small business taxes. The Alberta Party also supported using 100% of future surpluses to pay off the debt and then placed into the AHSTF, along with 50% of resource revenues.
The Green Party has been weak in Alberta, and has gone through complicated times in recent years. In 2008, the Greens managed to win 4.6% of the vote running almost a full slate, but went through major leadership problems shortly thereafter which left the new leadership much weakened and contested from within, and they were unable to file the necessary annual financial statement with Elections Alberta in 2009, and the party was deregistered. A new party, the Evergreen Party, was founded in 2011 and ran 25 candidates in the 2012 election (for 0.39% of the vote). It was renamed as the Green Party of Alberta in late 2012. In this election, the Greens ran 24 candidates. The party’s very left-wing platform included a carbon tax and a moratorium on oil sands development until the environmental impact is established and a global climate change agreement is signed.
At the outset, given the state of the opposition, most of us expected that the PCs would a thirteenth term in office – extending their 44 year rule over the province, already the longest single-party dominance by any party in Canadian political history. Given the NDP’s strong polling, it seemed likely that the NDP would do well in Edmonton, their base, and perhaps form Official Opposition as the WRP struggled to hold their seats, but a change of dynasty looked unlikely.
The first polls, however, showed that something odd was up. On April 6, a little-known pollster showed Wildrose up on 31%, the NDP on 26% and the PCs in third with 25%. A poll soon thereafter by another little-known pollster showed similar numbers, but with the PCs in second with 27%. Few seemed to put any confidence in these polls, but Forum Research – a more established pan-Canadian pollster – on April 9 confirmed the other polls, with the WRP up 30-28-27 with the NDP in second. Other polls on April 13 and 20 showed the WRP narrowly ahead of a strong NDP and the PC vote dropping to the 24-25% range. While most accepted by this point that something was happening, many probably had a gut feeling that this was all wrong – like 2012, after all – and that the PCs would still win because, hey, this is Alberta.
The debate on April 23 proved to be a game-changer, in retrospect. Notley, Prentice and Jean entered the debate with a lot weighing on them. The PC campaign had run through several difficulties already, notably a poorly orchestrated flip-flop by Prentice on April 21, who desperately reversed the unpopular plan to reduce the charitable donations tax credit, a move which belied the Tories’ claim that the campaign was about the budget. The NDP had run a fairly smooth campaign, although it faced difficulties when it was revealed that their was a big hole in their budget and that they wouldn’t balance the budget by 2017 as originally claimed. In the debate, in the course of back-and-forth argument between Notley and Prentice, the Premier told the NDP leader “I know math is difficult.” The line came to define the budget and was, again, a poor choice of words by Prentice, who was flogged for the comment – which was at best condescending and at worst, sexist. Brian Jean failed to impress during the debate, being fixated on taxes. David Swann didn’t get noticed.
Polls after the debate all showed the NDP running away with the lead and not looking back. A Forum Research poll conducted pre-debate had shown the NDP already surging to a 13% lead (38-25) over the WRP with the PCs on 20%, so it’s not certain that the debate was what caused the NDP to surge ahead. However, all polls post-debate showed a large NDP lead and the NDP climbing over 40% while the WRP fell into the 25% range and the PCs generally in the low 20s. Running scared, the PCs tried modern-day red-baiting, trying to terrify voters over the prospect of a NDP economy, but that was too late and far too desperate. The PCs had already lost their credibility with voters, especially on the economy.
Forum Research’s last poll on May 4 had the NDP leading 45% to 23% for the WRP/PC (tied). EKOS had the NDP on 44%, a 20% lead over the WRP (24%) and the PCs in third (22.5%). At this point, a change of dynasty and NDP victory seemed likely – nothing’s certain in Canadian politics.
Turnout was approximately 58.1%, up from 54.4% in 2012 and an all-time low of 40.6% in 2008. It is the highest turnout since 1993. Turnout has been low in Alberta, where all elections between 1997 and 2012 were boring dynastic landslides – note the low turnout in 2008, an extremely boring election by all accounts, which saw the landslide reelection of a boring and uninspiring Premier and PC party. The 2012 election had been a very interesting election, with the WRP leading all polls and the last minute reversal of fortunes, and saw many apathetic voters turn out either to throw out the PCs or keep the WRP out. The 1993 election, which had 60% turnout, was also a fairly closely contested election with a strong Liberal Party coalescing – unsuccessfully – opposition to the PCs. This election was already very interesting and motivated even more apathetic voters to turn out, likely with different motivations.
Alberta NDP 40.59% (+30.77%) winning 54 seats (+50)
Wildrose 24.22% (-10.07%) winning 21 seats (+16 on dissol., +4 on 2012)
PC 27.77% (-16.18%) winning 10 seats (-60 on dissol., -51 on 2012)
Liberal 4.18% (-5.71%) winning 1 seat (-4)
Alberta Party 2.28% (+0.95%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Green 0.49% (+0.1%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Independents 0.4% (+0.13%) winning 0 seats (-1 on dissol., nc on 2012)
Others 0.08% winning 0 seats (nc)
After 44 years of uninterrupted single-party PC rule in Alberta, Canada’s longest standing partisan dynasty was toppled in an historic election on May 5. What is more, Alberta – reputed to be Canada’s most conservative province (having been governed by unambiguously right-wing parties for 80 years since 2015 and being a stronghold of the right in federal politics for about the same period of time) – elected a left-wing social democratic government led by the NDP.
The NDP won 40.6% of the vote and won a majority government with 54 out of 87 seats. The NDP gained no less than 50 seats – having won just four seats in 2012 – and boosted its share of the vote by over 30 percentage points. The governing Progressive Conservatives did a bit better than expected in terms of share of the vote, winning 27.8% and placing a distant second in the popular vote, having been pegged at only 21-23% in the final round of polling, but the PCs’ inefficient vote distribution throughout the province meant that they suffered very badly in the seat count – holding only 10 seats, compared to the 61 they won in 2012 and the 70 they held at dissolution following defections from the WRP. With only 10 seats, the PCs placed third in the seat count, allowing the Wildrose to hold on to Official Opposition. The WRP’s share of the vote, compared to 2012, suffered significantly, falling to 24.2% – about 10 points less than in 2012 – but the unusual and historic nature of this election, combined with the inefficiency of the PC vote, meant that the WRP actually won more seats than they had in 2012. They won 21 seats, up from 17 in 2012 and 5 at dissolution. The WRP gained 7 seats from the PCs (vs. 2012), although they lost 2 of their 2012 seats to the NDP and one back to the Tories. Considering how low the WRP had sunk only a few months ago, and how they entered this campaign rather unprepared (with a quasi-nobody as their leader and the party in terrible shape), their result was rather good for them. All 21 WRP seats are either exurban or rural, the party lost its two 2012 seats in Calgary (and lost Medicine Hat to the NDP); of course, it is likely that the fledgling party chose to target their resources on more favourable ground in rural Alberta where they had their strongest base and PC votes to be gained, but if they want government in the future they will need to breakthrough in Calgary.
The Liberals, running a weak campaign with 56 candidates, saw their support collapse further, winning just 4.2% of the vote after an already bleak election in 2012, continuing the party’s collapse into obscurity. Nevertheless, the Liberals did manage to hold one seat – the party’s interim leader, David Swann, was reelected in Calgary-Mountain View, and on election night he seemed elated with the NDP victory/PC defeat (and not too concerned about his party’s poor showing). The Alberta Party, fairly irrelevant in most ridings, successfully elected their leader, Greg Clark, in his Calgary-Elbow riding, where he handily defeated incumbent PC education minister Gordon Dirks in a rematch of their 2014 by-election battle.
The NDP’s victory puts into the question the common wisdom/general image of Alberta as Canada’s most conservative province, as the ‘Texas of Canada’. While Alberta is more conservative than other provinces of Canada – on certain issues, mostly economic issues – the general image of Alberta as an ultra-conservative fortress is a bit off. The province’s distinctive political culture and history is not only the result of conservatism.
Much like the other dynastic changes in Alberta politics – 1921, 1935 and 1971 – this dynastic change was not inevitable and still came as something of a shock. A month before election day, very few people would have expected that the NDP would emerge with a majority government and the formidable PC machine would collapse and end up with only 10 seats. That being said, one could argue, with hindsight, that a dynastic change was due to happen – it would have happened in 2012, if the WRP had not screwed up by allowing their cranks to sprout their nonsense, and if the PCs had not put together a last-minute coalition of moderates and worried progressives to the defeat the Wildrose. The PCs have been in a fairly poor shape for quite some years – arguably since Ralph Klein left office in 2006 – but each time they faced catastrophe, they found ways to stave off defeat. But, even if we accept that the PCs have been in poor shape for some time and that the 2012 election signalled the beginning of the end, why was the PC defeat on May 5 unexpected a month before. And why was it the NDP, almost always a weak third party limited to left-wing ridings in ‘Redmonton’, which defeated the PC dynasty, and not the WRP?
What happened? As noted above, the PCs have been struggling for quite some time, at least since after the 2008 election. In the 2012 election, the PCs faced a very serious revolt on the right, led by those who claimed that the Tories had lost their way by engaging in deficit spending and borrowing, becoming an arrogant and complacent governing party with autocratic tendencies and accountability issues and (for some) insufficiently conservative. Spearheaded by a polished and fairly well-spoken leader in Danielle Smith, the Wildrose insurgency threatened to topple the PC dynasty. However, in a dramatic, sudden last-minute shift, the PCs held back the Wildrose threat by assembling a coalition of conservatives, moderates, undecideds and progressives – largely united by a desire to keep the WRP, which had scared many voters by reminding them of the existence of hard-right and crazy elements within their ranks, out of power. A large number of former Liberal supporters, for example, voted strategically for the PCs – a friendlier option since they were led by Alison Redford, very much a ‘Red Tory’. The WRP won Alberta’s most conservative voters in rural/exurban ridings (largely in the south), but they failed to break through with suburban conservatives in Calgary and ran up against a wall in the progressive city of Edmonton. Alison Redford then proceeded to destroy whatever goodwill voters had in her, by alienating the progressives who had trusted her (by passing anti-union legislation which mobilized organized labour against the PCs) and seeming to confirm all that the Wildrose had said about the Tories being a tired, corrupt and arrogant governing party (when it turned out that she had serious entitlement problems). If Redford had not been thrown out (a very unlikely scenario), the PCs would have gone down to a massive defeat in 2016.
However, like they had done with Don Getty in 1992, they replaced a leader who had become a liability with a new face who they hoped would restore PC fortunes and perpetuate the dynasty. The new face was Jim Prentice, who looked very good on paper – a respected former federal Tory MP and cabinet minister, fairly moderate (but not quite a Redford-like Red Tory) but still able to rally the right of the party, and without any of the baggage which had plagued Redford (by being an outsider to provincial politics). In October 2014, the PCs held four seats in crucial by-elections for them, delivering a black eye to Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Party, which began to collapse shortly afterwards. In November 2014, the WRP began to collapse and in December, the WRP unravelled entirely. Prentice, it seemed, had managed to defeat the Wildrose insurgency on the right by promising to accommodate the rebels’ concerns and worries with PC rule. Although that move threatened to hurt the PCs with progressives who had voted strategically for them to defeat the WRP in 2012, it would reunite the right after years of painful division.
Confident that the weakness of all opposition parties (especially the WRP) would mean that none of them would be able to seriously challenge the PC dominance, the Prentice government dropped a budget which they billed as once-in-a-generation and transformational, and used that as a springboard for a snap election in which they hoped to win a democratic mandate for this ‘transformational’ budget. Even though the budget was poorly received, that didn’t seem likely to matter, given the state of the opposition.
However, the PCs badly miscalculated everything. Prentice had a chance to fix the party, build a rapport and establish trust with voters, but he failed on every count. The Prentice-Smith deal, which saw most of the WRP caucus defect to the government, was seen by many voters as a dirty backroom deal by power-hungry opportunists; in the words of the NDP’s platform, Prentice tried to ‘game’ the election by orchestrating a deal with Smith. The deal failed to have any long-term impact on the polls, as even a much-weakened WRP retained a decently-sized base once the dust settled and the NDP was beginning to steadily gain support. The deal also proved disastrous, an hilariously terrible miscalculation, for Danielle Smith and many of her ex-WRP colleagues, as Smith was defeated by her new party’s members in her local nomination contest. As for the budget, it was a bad-news budget which alienated everybody: the average voter who doesn’t fancy paying more taxes (while the ‘fat cats’ don’t pay any more, seemingly protected by a corporation-friendly PC party) and seeing the services they like cut, the left-winger who disliked the service cuts but also the tax plan (failing to raise taxes on the ‘fat cats’ while hurting middle-classes) and the right-winger put off by any tax increase (and a repudiation of a fundamental Alberta PC dogma) and angry about mounting debts/deficits. Prentice made a fatal mistake in rushing a vote on a record which he hadn’t established yet and a budget which most normal people disliked.
Prentice and the PCs worsened things by running a bad campaign, which ran into several problems along the way. The debate could have been Prentice’s chance to make Notley and Jean look bad and unprepared, running on unrealistic plans, but instead Prentice came off as condescending and desperate in his exchanges with Rachel Notley. Notley, in contrast, seemed calm, composed, ready and quick on her feet. Although nervous in reality, she was not thrown off by Prentice’s attacks.
The split of the right-wing vote was an important, but probably not decisive, factor in this election. Unlike at the federal level, where Alberta’s conservatives share a common home in the federal Conservative Party, they are split in provincial politics. In contrast, again unlike in federal politics, where Albertan progressives split between the NDP and Liberals, in this election they united behind the NDP while the other progressive forces (Liberals and Alberta Party) were largely irrelevant. The last EKOS poll before the election detailed vote intention by federal voting intention, and showed the split of the right/unity of the left quite well. Those who intend to vote Conservative on October 19 split 45% for the PCs and 39% for the WRP (with a sizable 14% backing the NDP); 87% of those who intend to vote NDP on October 19 and 60% of those who intend to vote Liberal on October 19 indicated support for the provincial NDP. Only 18% of federal Liberal supporters said that they’d vote for the Alberta Liberals. The PCs and WRP gained almost no support from federal Grits and Dippers.
Although exit polling is not very developed in Canada compared to other jurisdictions, Abacus Data released a post-election survey to study the election results. Asked about their thoughts on the reasons for the PC defeat, almost all voters said the election was ‘people wanting change’ rather than ‘people liking the NDP’ and 63% said the election was more about people cooling on Prentice than people warming on Notley (37%). 44% said it was about the budget while 56% said it was about other things; 58% agreed that it was a vote for change but 42% thought it was a vote about arrogance.
The survey detailed vote choice by demographic group. The features of the NDP base were not surprising – stronger with women (45%) than men (38%), stronger with younger voters (53% of those 18-29, 27% of those 60+), stronger with renters (51%) than homeowners (38%), very strong with union members (66%), better with poorer voters (49% with those whose income is less than $50k), stronger with non-religious people (46%) and strongest with public sector and non-profit employees (54% and 47%). But the NDP also managed strong support with middle-aged voters (49% 30-44 and 39% 45-59), homeowners (38%), families with children under 15 (45%), the middle-class (44% with those with an income between $50k and $100k) and even the wealthiest (37% with those whose income is over $100k) and private sector employees (44%). Education was also an important determinant, with the NDP polling very strongly with university-educated voters (45%), college-educated voters (42%) but not as well with those with high school or less (38%, vs. 30% WRP/25% PC). The PCs had a much older base (42% with those 60+, but only 14% with those 18-29/45% with retirees); compared with Wildrose, the PCs had, unsurprisingly, a more urban and better-educated base – with 28% support in urban Alberta compared to 21% in rural Alberta, and polling marginally better with university-educated voters (28%) than those with only a high school education or less (25%). The Abacus poll did not see significant variation in PC support in terms of income – instead, it was apparently the WRP vote which varied significantly in terms of income, doing much better with the wealthiest third (28%) than the poorest third (16%). However, other pre-election polling and the geography of the results suggest otherwise – that the PCs did best with wealthy voters (those in urban areas), while WRP attracted a more middle-class clientele. The WRP base was more masculine (an 8-pt gender gap, 28-20), fairly evenly distributed between age groups (although a bit more stacked towards older voters), skewed significantly towards less educated voters (30% with HS or less, only 16% with university grads), significantly more rural than urban (39% vs 20%), perhaps skewed towards the wealthier and very strong with self-employed independent workers (41%) but decent enough with private sector employees (26%, 18% with public servants).
The Abacus survey also had some useful data on vote-switching from 2012. According to that data, the PCs held only half (49%) of their 2012 voters, losing 31% to the NDP and 17% to the WRP. The significant leakage to the NDP – far more significant than loses to the WRP – confirms that the PCs had attracted a large number of centre-left leaning voters in 2012, voting strategically for the PCs. The WRP held two-thirds of their 2012 support (66%), but lost 19% to the NDP – perhaps fickle voters motivated in both elections by a desire for change more than the ideology of the party in power. The NDP, of course, held nearly everybody who voted for them (93%); the Liberals lost 62% of their 2012 vote to the NDP (add to that the Liberals who voted PC in 2012 and then NDP this year, and most people who voted for the AB Liberals prior to 2012 voted NDP this year) and only 24% repeated their vote for the Liberals. 55% of 2012 non-voters who did vote in 2015 voted NDP, compared to 18% for Wildrose and 17% for the PCs – unsurprisingly, non-voters who turned out were highly motivated by the prospect of change. Abacus also reports that 40% of federal Tories voted PC, against 34% who backed the WRP and 22% who voted NDP. This proves that the NDP’s coalition was much wider than just the result of uniting almost all left-of-centre/progressive Albertans – the widespread anger/dissatisfaction with the Prentice PCs and the attractiveness of Notley’s moderate NDP/the vague idea of change (at any cost) also brought apathetic voters and a few right-of-centre voters.
Compared to the 1971 dynastic change, the NDP’s margin of victory is much wider – 16.4%, compared to 5.3% for the 1971 PCs. The PCs lost more than SoCred did in 1971, losing 51 seats and over 16 points in the popular vote, compared to a loss of only 3.5 points in the popular vote and 30 seats for the SoCreds in 1971. However, the Lougheed PCs won with a larger share of the vote (46.4% vs. 40.6%) and a slightly larger majority (65% of seats vs. 62%). The 1971 election was also very different in that it lacked a strong third party (Grant Notley, incidentally, was the only non-SoCred/PC MLA elected).
All ex-WRP MLAs who defected to the PCs in December 2014 and ran for reelection under the PC banner were defeated – Jeff Wilson in Calgary-Shaw, Bruce McAllister in Chestermere-Rocky View, Kerry Towle in Innisfail-Sylvan Lake, Ian Donovan in Little Bow and Blake Pedersen in Medicine Hat. In the case of Bruce McAllister in Chestermere-Rocky View, however, he managed to marginally improve the PC vote share (from 35.3% to 36%), the only instance of the Tories gaining from 2012. Ian Donovan in Little Bow also lost comparatively little from the PCs’ 2012 results in that riding. In these five ridings, lost by the PCs from dissolution, the NDP gained two and the WRP held the other three with new candidates. Former WRP MLA Joe Anglin, who had left the party to sit as an independent and ran for reelection as an independent, was also defeated in his riding of Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, winning fourth place with 11.3%.
Geography of a Dynastic Change
The geography of the results provide details as to the nature of the new government’s majority and how the NDP was able to win such an impressive victory in Alberta.
The NDP’s base in Alberta has been in Edmonton, the provincial capital which has long had the reputation (well founded) of being the most left-wing/progressive city in the province, driven by the large provincial public sector. Edmonton has usually been the weakest region in Alberta for the PCs, who were shut out in 1993 (when Laurence Decore’s Liberals swept the city) and did poorly in 1997 and 2004. The last election in which the NDP won seats outside of Edmonton was in 1989, when Ray Martin’s NDP won 16 seats in the province. In all elections between 1997 and 2015, the NDP’s seats in the legislature were exclusively from Edmonton. While the NDP obviously won seats outside of the city in this historic election, the won a formidable victory in the city. The NDP swept all 19 seats in Edmonton, all by huge margins, and overall won 64.6% of the vote in the city of Edmonton proper against only 20.3% for the PCs and a puny 8.2% for the WRP. In 2012, the NDP had won 21.6% in Edmonton, against 40.4% for the PCs, 18.8% for the WRP and 16.1% for the Liberals. They had taken 4 seats against 13 for the PCs and 2 for the Liberals.
Premier-elect Rachel Notley was reelected with an extremely impressive result of 82.4% in her riding of Edmonton-Strathcona, the most left-wing riding in the province. The area, located south of downtown Edmonton, is a typical bobo-style urban riding of highly mobile, young, single university-educated professionals. Former NDP leader Brian Mason was also handsomely reelected in the nearby riding of Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood, a lower-income area (it’s Edmonton’s second poorest riding after Edmonton-Centre), with 78%. The two other NDP MLAs, David Eggen (Edmonton-Calder) and Deron Bilous (Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview) were also reelected with massive majorities, receiving 70.7% and 73.8% respectively. These are predominantly urban/post-war suburban lower-middle income areas, with significant pockets of deprivation in both. In the core downtown riding of Edmonton-Centre, incumbent Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, an active and well-liked legislator who held the seat since 1997, was fighting an uphill battle against the NDP wave in the city and the province. She went down to defeat by a large margin, winning 25.4% against 54.4% for the NDP.
The NDP, unsurprisingly, also gained other low-hanging fruit in the city – demographically and politically favourable to the NDP – places like Edmonton-Glenora (68.5%), Edmonton-Riverview (62.8%) and Edmonton-Gold Bar (68.9%): more central ridings, which already had strong NDP bases prior to 2015, primarily in downtown-ish and lower-income neighbourhoods. In Glenora, PC cabinet minister Heather Klimchuk won only 17.3% of the vote and a very, very distant second. But the NDP wave was stronger than most people had dared to imagine – it also swept up suburban Edmonton. It easily defeated the Tories in Edmonton’s northern suburbs, socioeconomically mixed but predominantly lower-middle and middle income with fairly low levels of education. The Dippers gained Edmonton-Manning (71.8%) and Edmonton-Decore (67.9%) by huge margins; while in the more affluent riding of Edmonton-Castle Down, former PC cabinet minister Thomas Lukaszuk was badly defeating, holding only 23.1% against 64.5% for the NDP (and this in a riding where, unlike the others, the NDP had been rather weak in the past – only 12.6% in 2012). The NDP also gained Edmonton-Meadowlark with 57% of the vote; the open seat had been won in 2012 by then-Liberal leader (and ex-PC MLA) Raj Sherman, who did not run for reelection.
The NDP also picked up all the seats in suburban southern Edmonton, areas where the NDP – unlike in the northern half of the city – had been fairly weak in recent elections. The party easily gained Edmonton-Mill Woods (64.9%), Edmonton-Mill Creek (55.9%) and Edmonton-Ellerslie (61.6%) – middle-class suburbs (although Mill Creek is probably closer to upper middle-income) with large visible minority populations (35.2%, 52.5% and 40.5% respectively). They also gained Edmonton-Rutherford (with 63.9%), a mix of some very affluent neighbourhoods and generic older middle-class residential suburbia. Edmonton’s most affluent suburban ridings were also swept up in the massive ‘Orange crush’ – senior cabinet minister and former mayor Stephen Mandel was badly defeated in Edmonton-Whitemud, the city’s most affluent riding, taking only 32.2% against 57.5% for the NDP, in what was a rematch of last fall’s by-election. The NDP also gained the neighbouring affluent riding of Edmonton-McClung, with 55.4%; and the new cookie-cutter subdivisions of Edmonton-South West (54.4%).
The NDP also won the affluent suburban municipalities of St. Albert and Sherwood Park, usually quite conservative in their politics. The NDP won the riding of St. Albert with 53.9% and that of Sherwood Park with 52.1%; as well as the very affluent exurban ridings of Spruce Grove-St. Albert with 46.6% and Strathcona-Sherwood Park with 42.6%. Other exurban ridings in the Edmonton area also fell their way, like Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville (45.9%), Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater (40.5%) and Leduc-Beaumont (37.8%). In the case of some of these conservative exurban/rural ridings, however, the split in the right-wing vote between PCs and Wildrose likely played a key role in facilitating NDP gains. Nevertheless, the NDP’s gains, compared to their 2012 levels, are nothing short of impressive. Support for the party surged to high levels in ridings where the party had previously been confined to single digits!
Calgary, Alberta’s largest city, has the reputation of being a very conservative city, driven by the oil and gas companies with their headquarters in the city. It has traditionally been the PCs urban stronghold, although the Liberals had sometimes been able to pick up a few ridings in downtown Calgary. In 2012, the PCs resistance in the city had been crucial to their surprise win and the WRP defeat. In this election, the NDP’s surprisingly strong showing in Calgary proved crucial to their majority victory. The NDP won 15 seats in Calgary, against 8 for the PCs and one each for the Liberals and AP. Overall, the NDP won 34% of the vote against 31.5% for the PCs, 22.7% for Wildrose, 7.2% for the Liberals and 3.5% for the AP. In 2012, the NDP had won just 4.8% of the vote in Calgary, one of the party’s weakest regions. In contrast, the PCs won 46.2% and the WRP won 35.6% (the Liberals won about 12%).
Premier Jim Prentice was reelected in Calgary-Foothills, an upper middle-class suburban riding with a large Chinese immigrant population (it’s the city’s second most affluent riding, and is 47% non-white). Prentice won 40.3% against 32.4% for the NDP. However, voters in that riding will be returning to the polls for the third (fourth if you count the upcoming federal election) time in about a year since Prentice immediately resigned his seat upon his party’s defeat on election night – something which won him more criticism. It’s uncertain if the NDP will be able to pick up that seat, to reduce the PCs to 9 members, in the upcoming by-election on September 3. The word is that the race is expected to be between the NDP and Wildrose. The PCs also held Calgary-North West with a narrow 3% majority over the NDP, but in neighbouring Calgary-Hawkwood, similarly affluent and suburban, the NDP won with 36.4%. The NDP also gained the northern suburban ridings of Calgary-Northern Hills (38.2%) and Calgary-Mackay-Nose Hill (36.9%). They scored a narrow victory over the Tories in Calgary-Bow (34.5%), largely due to strong support in the lower-income neighbourhood of Bowness. That seat’s MLA-elect, Deborah Drever, however, found herself in hot water for stupid comments and pictures on social media and the NDP was forced to suspend her from caucus (although her case will be ‘reevaluated’ after a year). The PCs strongest result in the province was in Calgary-West, where they won 46.8% (even improving on their 2014 by-election results). Unsurprisingly, Calgary-West is the most affluent riding in Calgary and the third most affluent in the province (after the oil patch ridings of Fort McMurray).
Liberal leader David Swann was reelected in Calgary-Mountain View, a central riding with fairly typical downtown demographics, on a personal vote rather than any attachment to the Liberal brand (in his absence, the NDP would certainly have won). He won 36.7% to the NDP’s 28.9%. In Calgary-Buffalo, which covers downtown Calgary and has typical demographics for that kind of riding, the NDP gained the seat (held by a retiring Liberal) with 35% against 28.1% for the PCs and 24.7% for the Liberals. In Calgary-Elbow, Alberta Party leader Greg Clark won 42.2% against 30.3% for PC education minister Gordon Dirks. Dirks had been the target of criticism for using his office for political gain in last year’s by-election (by authorizing modular classrooms in his constituency), and his social conservatism made him a poor fit for a rather central riding whose conservatives are mostly of ‘Red Tory’ stock. The NDP won only 15.8% here, so Greg Clark’s victory was the result of his coalescing of much of the anti-PC vote. The NDP also gained the ridings of Calgary-Varsity, Calgary-Klein and Calgary-Currie – older middle-class residential areas (although they also include some more ‘central’/downtown-ish kind of neighbourhoods [renters, socioeconomically mixed, highly educated, young, non-religious etc.] and lower-income neighbourhoods, the most favourable to the NDP this year).
The low-income eastern suburban seat of Calgary-Fort was a top NDP target early in the campaign, when the NDP winning a majority of seats in Calgary seemed like a wet dream at best, because they had a star candidate there – former Calgary alderman Joe Ceci, who is now Alberta’s new finance minister. He was, of course, easily elected – with 49.8% of the vote, the NDP’s best result in the city. Calgary-Fort, like the neighbouring ridings of Calgary-East or Calgary-Cross, are low-income areas (some the poorest neighbourhoods in the city). The NDP did pick up both of these seats as well, although with smaller majorities – 11% in Calgary-East and by only 101 votes in Calgary-Cross. Cross, like the neighbouring ridings of Calgary-Greenway and Calgary-McCall have large (and, in the case of the latter two seats, very large – nearly 70%) visible minority populations, notably a large Punjabi community. The PCs held Calgary-Greenway, with 42.8% against 36.2% (that the PC MLA, Manmeet Bhullar, is himself Sikh may explain why they retained the seat) while the NDP gained Calgary-McCall (held by a retiring Liberal incumbent) with a bit under 30% of the vote against 26.5% for the WRP, with the PCs winning 18.2% and the Liberals 17.5%.
In suburban southern Calgary, the PCs won four seats against 3 for the NDP. In the riding of Calgary-Glenmore, a largely middle-class suburban riding (although with some poorer parts – where the NDP did quite well, naturally), the NDP and PCs ended up tied on election night, but a recount placed the NDP as the winners by 6 votes ahead of the PCs. In Calgary-Shaw, an affluent suburban riding, the NDP won by a hair in a three-way fight against a WRP-turned-PC incumbent and the WRP candidate (31.3 vs. 30.7% and 30.4%). Calgary-Acadia, an older middle-class residential area (not particularly affluent, with some poorer areas), went NDP by a narrow margin as well, 34.7% against 31.4% Wildrose and 29% for PC justice minister Jonathan Denis (who had been forced to resign his cabinet portfolio during the campaign because of legal proceedings with his estranged wife). The PCs actually gained Calgary-Fish Creek, because incumbent WRP MLA Heather Forsyth (who had held the seat as a Tory since 1993 before defecting to the WRP in 2010) was retiring this year. The PCs won 32.9% against 32.2% for the NDP and 29.6% for the WRP. The PCs held Calgary-Lougheed, Calgary-Hays and Calgary-South East, all affluent upper middle-class suburban seats on the outskirts of the city – but even in these parts, the most conservative parts of Calgary, the NDP did surprisingly well, with about 30% support overall (in places where in 2012 the NDP was not even getting 4% of the vote!) and winning a number of polls even in cookie-cutter subdivisions where you wouldn’t expect it.
While the NDP got lucky by gaining so many seats in Calgary (because of the PCs and WRP fighting for the conservative vote), their gains throughout the city remain tremendously impressive. By way of example, unlike in Edmonton where the NDP had an existing base of sorts to build from, the NDP was extremely weak in Calgary in 2012 – it won less than 5% of the vote at the time in ridings like Calgary-Acadia, Calgary-Buffalo, Calgary-Varsity, Calgary-Hawkwood, Calgary-Bow, Calgary-Mackay-Nose Hill, Calgary-McCall and Calgary-Northern Hills – all seats which they won this year, gaining close to 30% in some of these seats.
Exurban Calgary, outside city limits, however, remained deeply conservative territory. The WRP won Chestermere-Rocky View, a riding which they had already won in 2012 (knocking off Ted Morton) but ‘lost’ to the PCs in 2014 when the MLA defected; this year, the new WRP candidate won 37% against 36% for Bruce McAllister, the incumbent PC MLA (ex-WRP), who still put in a good performance. The WRP held Airdrie, another exurban riding, with a new candidate (the MLA was standing down), with 35.1% against a bit less than 30% for the NDP. Finally, Danielle Smith’s old riding of Highwood returned to the WRP, 41.1% against 33% for the PC candidate (the one who had defeated Smith in the March PC nomination contest).
The NDP completed its sweep of urban Alberta by winning both seats in Red Deer and Lethbridge, as well as Medicine Hat. In Lethbridge West (which includes the local university), the NDP’s Shannon Phillips, who had already made a strong run for the seat in 2012 (placing second with 30% and losing to the Tories by only 6 points), was elected in a massive landslide – 59.3% against 21% for the Tories. In the city’s other riding, the NDP gained the seat from the PCs with 47.5% of the vote. The NDP even picked up seats in the traditionally conservative cities of Red Deer and Medicine Hat. They narrowly gained Red Deer-North with 29.4% against 24.7% for the WRP, in a riding which saw an unusually strong Liberal result for some unbeknownst reason (19.3%, actually higher than in 2012!), while their victory in the city’s southern seat was more comfortable (35.9% to 27.6% for the PCs). Even Medicine Hat, a conservative city in southern Alberta, was swept up in the orange wave. Incumbent MLA Blake Pedersen (ex-WRP) ran for reelection as a Tory, but ended up a poor third with only 21.1% against 37.9% for the Dippers and 35.6% for Wildrose.
Rural southern Alberta remained true to its conservative traditions and history. The region (part of Palliser’s Triangle, which extends into Saskatchewan), is a sparsely populated and semiarid region (see map) historically unsuitable for agriculture and thus traditionally dominated by mixed farming/ranching, has long been Alberta’s most conservative rural area. Non-conservative parties have never broken through and where conservative insurgents or the most right-wing party of the day have found success – SoCred won the region in 1971 while the PCs swept the rest of the province, and, of course, Wildrose was nearly confined to southern Alberta in the 2012 election. The WRP held Cypress-Medicine Hat, one of Alberta’s most conservative ridings, with 54.6%, the party’s best result in the province. Wildrose also ‘regained’ the rural seats of Cardston-Taber-Warner (which has a large Mormon population, 41.8% vs. 35.5% PC), Little Bow (35.4% vs. 35.3% for incumbent MLA Ian Donovan, now PC) and Strathmore-Brooks (52.6%); while holding Drumheller-Stettler and Livingstone-Macleod. While the NDP did far better than it had in previous years in this part of the world, it still placed third in all these ridings behind the WRP and PCs. The party only gained Banff-Cochrane – the only rural southern seat to vote PC in 2012 – but obviously that riding is unlike all the others, because of the Rocky Mountain tourist resort towns of Banff and Canmore. The NDP won 42.8% against 28.9% for Wildorse and 28.2% for the Tories.
Rural central Alberta, where Wildrose had also managed to break through in 2012, remained largely Wildrose green. The WRP ‘regained’ Innisfail-Sylvan Lake (42.7% vs. 28% PC), Lacombe-Ponoka (35.7% vs. 30.1% NDP), Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills (53.4%) and Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre (40.1%) while gaining Battle River-Wainwright and Drayton Valley-Devon (where the PC environment minister lost) from the Tories. The WRP gained votes from the PCs in rural polls, while the NDP gained some support from the PCs in the small urban centres of Lacombe and Ponoka. The NDP gained West Yellowhead, a mountainous riding in the Rockies home to the tourist/ski resort of Jasper, with 38.9% against 32.3% for PC finance minister Robin Campbell; they also gained Whitecourt-Ste. Anne (with 35.9% against 33% for Wildrose and 31.1% PC), Stony Plain (37.8% – likely the Edmonton influence) and Wetaskiwin-Camrose (43.9%). The PCs, for a reason unbeknownst to me, held Vermilion-Lloydminster quite handsomely, with 47.4% against 33.3% for the WRP.
In northern Alberta, the Wildrose gained the two oil patch Fort McMurray ridings from the PCs. WRP leader Brian Jean gained Fort McMurray-Conklin with 43.9% against 30.8% for the NDP, while his Wildrose colleague gained the other seat (-Wood Buffalo) by a very similar margin against the NDP. The WRP picked up three other seats from the PCs, already low-hanging fruit from the 2012 results – Bonnyville-Cold Lake, Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock and Grande Prairie-Smoky (while holding Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills). The PCs held Grande Prairie-Wapiti. The NDP, however, swept the Edmonton exurb of Morinville and made major inroads in Grande Prairie (although the rurban nature of the seats in that city meant that the NDP won neither of the two seats covering parts of the city). The NDP gained Lesser Slave Lake (a riding which is 54% Aboriginal), and won narrow victories in Peace River and Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley.
The NDP’s historic election victory in Alberta marks an end to the longest continuously-serving partisan dynasty in Albertan and Canadian history, and will likely carry a good deal of historical significance for Alberta and even Canada.
An NDP government in Alberta means some change in policy direction from the province – on economic, fiscal, tax and perhaps energy policy. While the government will get down to work only in September when it will deliver its first budget, but in a short legislative session in June, the government passed three bills – Bill 1 bans corporate and union donations to political parties (a bill which the PCs, for reasons which should be obvious, opposed); Bill 2 scraps the 10% flat personal income tax and replaces it with a progressive system for those earning over $125,000 (with 4 tax brackets from 12% to 15%, as outlined in the party’s platform) while also raising corporate taxes by 2% to 12%; Bill 3 was an interim supply bill which reversed PC cuts to health, education and human services funding.
Alberta political history over the past 110 years would suggest that the Alberta NDP government will be in office for at least three terms (like the UFA, the shortest government in the province’s history) and will be defeated after at least a decade (if not 2, 3 or even 4 decades) in office by a party which has not previously held power (like Wildrose?). Of course, politics in the 21st century are different – more unstable, unpredictable and less favourable to the kind of partisan dynasties which have ruled Alberta since 1905 – so the NDP’s tenure might be rather short. Alberta remains a fairly conservative province, but it is not a conservative fortress as this election showed. Therefore, if the NDP governs in a moderate direction and is perceived by voters as having done a good job, they will win reelection. A poor performance, however, will likely be punished by voters.
The PCs defeat may spell the death of the party, according to a number of commentators. The party will need to hold a leadership race, but that is likely to be put off by over a year as the party tries to evaluate where it’s going from here. For now, the PCs are led by Calgary-Hays MLA Ric McIver as interim leader. Many commentators and observers believe that the PCs, like SoCred before them, will have a very tough time adapting to life as a rump opposition (and third party!) caucus after decades in full control of government and that the PCs will likely die off in one way or another. There are rumours of a WRP-PC merger, but it doesn’t seem as if Jean’s WRP fancies that idea; in the absence of a merger, the PCs may see some of their voters drift off to the WRP and gradually die out (as SoCred did after 1971) as the WRP becomes the party of the right in Alberta. However, the WRP has lots of work to do before they can hope to challenge the NDP for government: the WRP is now an exclusively rural party, and to win they will need to breakthrough in Calgary and perhaps even in Edmonton. To do so, the WRP will need a more polished image – continuing to flush out the crazies, adopting a more moderate conservative platform and finding a more refined way to sell their ideas (beyond this year’s tax-centric campaign).
In short, it is an exciting and unpredictable time for Alberta politics.
Alberta’s election may also have played a decisive role in the upcoming October 19 Canadian federal election (more on that, hopefully, in the next months!). Before the Alberta election, the federal NDP was polling about 21-25% in national polls. Right after the election, polls showed a major surge in support for the federal NDP – moving to 30% and up, challenging or leading the Conservatives for first while the federal Liberals dropped to third. It is a pattern which has held up since, including early in the official campaign with the NDP leading or statistically tied with the Tories, with Justin Trudeau’s Liberals struggling in third. The NDP’s surge since May is connected to the Liberals’ sagging fortunes, a trend which had begun prior to the Alberta election for unrelated reasons; but the Alberta win seems to have convinced many voters that the NDP can win (if they won ‘conservative heartland’) and that they’re a credible option.