How the NDP toppled a 44-year PC dynasty

By Fabian Mayer, May 14 2015 —

Prior to last week, only Albertans over the age of 65 could say they had voted in a provincial election that did not result in a Progressive Conservative majority government.

The PCs’ near 44-year reign ended when Albertans elected the New Democratic Party as their government on May 5.

Professor of political science David Stewart, who studies Albertan politics at the University of Calgary, said it’s a historic victory.

“This is the longest serving one-party government in Canadian history. When a dynasty like that ends, it’s an important moment,” Stewart said.

Six months ago, the largest opposition party in the legislature had just five of 87 seats. Most believed the PCs would decisively win the anticipated spring election.

But today the NDP forms a majority government and the PCs have been relegated to the legislature’s third party. It was a shock to Canadians, who have long considered Alberta to be Canada’s most conservative province.

When the price of oil crashed last year, falling from over $100 a barrel to less than $50, it significantly reduced government royalty revenues, leaving a $7-billion hole in the provincial budget. Stewart believes this marked the beginning of the end for the PC dynasty.

“You’re left with choices to raise taxes or cut services, which no one really likes. And when you’re a government that’s been in power for a long time, you’re faced with the demand for explanations as to why you weren’t prepared for this,” Stewart said.

The PCs tabled their budget in late March. It included a mix of tax increases, spending cuts and a $5-billion deficit that angered many Albertans.

Corey Hogan has worked on numerous political campaigns and managed the Alberta Liberals’ election bid in 2012.

“Jim Prentice brought in this budget. He did not raise taxes enough to satisfy the left and he did not cut spending enough to satisfy the right,” Hogan said. “He antagonized all of his constituents with that budget.”

The PCs called an election shortly after the budget was released, a full year before they were required by law to do so. Hogan believes running an election campaign on a “bad news budget” was a critical mistake.

“Time would have allowed that budget to move in, and people would have realized the sky wasn’t falling,” Hogan said. “It was like impaling yourself with your own sword. He chose his own demise.”

Stewart said the PCs were “clearly outperformed” by the NDP during the four-week campaign.

The only leaders debate of the election was punctuated by terse exchanges between PC leader Jim Prentice and NDP leader Rachel Notley. Both pundits and citizens agreed that Notley won the debate.

Hogan questions Prentice’s debate strategy of focusing only on Notley and ignoring the other leaders on stage.

“When Albertans saw [the PCs] focusing everything on the NDP I think that hurt them. The NDP was elevated and I think, of the many things Jim Prentice regrets today, that’s probably one of them,” Hogan said.

Notley, who has been an NDP MLA since 2008, was central to the party’s winning campaign.

“Rachel Notley was fresh and new. She’s a once-in-a-generation politician. She’s smart, she’s warm, she exudes all of the qualities that you want a politician to exude,” Hogan said.

Despite an NDP victory, Stewart doesn’t believe Alberta has shifted to the left.

“I’d say Alberta was never as right wing as we’ve been portrayed,” Stewart said. “I think the New Democrats triumphed in large part due to a populist platform and a desire for change. I’m not sure either of those presage a major shift to the left in terms of public opinion.”

Stewart was at the PCs’ election headquarters the night of the vote. He said he didn’t want to miss his only chance to witness the demise of a 44-year old regime.

“It was like being at a poorly attended funeral. People there were stunned, they were sad, and there weren’t many of them.”

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