It is not for you to know the times or the seasons

by Colby Cosh

When I saw that Preston Manning had written an op-ed about Alberta for the Globe, I started a little stopwatch in my skull. Ah, let’s see how long it takes him this time to get to it. One paragraph, two paragraphs…

Is the pattern of Alberta politics about to reassert itself – a pattern characterized by long periods of one-party governance during which the governing party remakes itself several times, periods of political upheaval as Albertans become seized with a new idea and/or the need for change, and periodic replacement of the governing party (if it fails to renew itself), not by its traditional opposition but by something and someone new?

Yup, there it is. When it comes to Alberta, Manning always says the same thing in the same way. We may, in fact, be coming up on the 20th anniversary of his use of this evergreen. Here’s how it looked in an unsigned Reform Party commentary on/warning to Alberta’s Getty government, circulated in February 1990 and described in the Calgary Herald:

The document briefly outlines the history of politics in Alberta noting that it has been characterized by “long periods of one-party government” and “periodic replacement of the governing party, not by its traditional opposition, but by a new party. The governing party in Alberta must periodically renew itself from within if it hopes to continue in office,” it says.

So I guess we know who wrote that. The comic aspect of this, of course, is that lots of Albertans believe in the Explosive Change Hypothesis, and have spent those two decades looking to none other than Mr. E.P. Manning to either coach or quarterback the replacement squad.

The ECH is indisputably true—in retrospect. Every change of party identity in Alberta government, ever, has been brutally thorough in a Long Knives sort of way, has followed a long period of governing-party dominance, and has been executed by a party that never governed Alberta before. (One could add that Alberta governments have all seen their destruction coming in advance and tried to negotiate behind the scenes with the approaching revolutionaries, as Preston’s father is said to have done.) Things have reached the point at which the ECH may be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Wildrose Alliance, the new right-wing alternative party led by Danielle Smith, was organized by malcontent ideologues and regime victims because everybody believes that an all-new brand is, on historicist grounds, the only possible means of putting the fear of God into an Alberta government.

The question is whether the ECH really has any predictive value. The last explosive change happened in 1971, and that Alberta doesn’t resemble the existing one very closely. (Just for starters, the Athabasca tar sands were still what engineers call vaporware.) Since then the province has occasionally had strong oppositions in the Legislative Assembly, and it almost witnessed a Liberal takeover in 1993. Show of hands: who knew that the Liberals got 40% of the vote in an Alberta election not all that long ago?

History doesn’t follow inexorable laws, although it has a rhythm. The ECH–an inherently unfalsifiable claim right up until the moment it is falsified–is starting to take on the character of the evangelical Christian’s wait for the Rapture. But then, come to think of it, Preston probably believes in that too.

It is not for you to know the times or the seasons

  1. Sneer more at ideas you disagree with, it's really attractive.

  2. Seems to me the ECH has also had repurcussions on the federal stage (at least since 93). I am rooting both for Wild Rose to pull Alberta back from the squishy middle and to catalyze a "regression" in federal Conservative circles back to some of th Reform ideas about Ottawa culture and the relationship of the Bureaucrat culture to the elected representative culture.

    Something about government being about ideas and principles as opposed to polls and "rooting" for your team, regardless of how often they dissapoint you, on the basis they are less dispicable than the alternative.

    Maybe Mr. Prentiss and Mr. Harper will catch the flu and have to miss Copenhagen.

  3. Preston Manning had written an op-ed about Alberta for the Globe

    Manning wrote an op-vertisement; an advertisement that masquerades as an opinion article.

  4. "The question is whether the ECH really has any predictive value"

    Yes and no? I would not bet my mortgage payment on Wildrose smashing PCs next election but I am also fan of idea that best way to predict future actions is to look at past behaviour.

    What interests me is that Albertans, and Quebecois to a lesser extent, have embraced the Chinese concept of Mandate of Heaven. Why do Albertans and Qeubecois elect new parties that have just appeared on the scene while rest of provs don't seem to have that dynamic, they stick with the traditional 2-3 parties over the years.

    Quebecois and Albertans seem to like to mix it up much more than the rest, that's for sure.

  5. Clearly you have never been to BC. Campbell's Liberals are sort of a cross between a European social/democrat party that hates unions and a Mussoliniesque corporatist, insider friendly regime. Since I moved here 20 years ago we have moved froma slightly corrupt right center coalition (Socred) to a hard left corrupt and naive regime under Clark et al to the high-jacking of Gordon Wilson's Liberals by Cambell and his croneys.

    The brand keeps changing but basicly it's always a trade off between "union friendly" or "corporate friendly". Since around 70% is in niether camp you can guess how it's working out for the average taxpayer

    • You called the Campbell govt's tune that's for sure.

  6. "Quebecois and Albertans seem to like to mix it up much more than the rest, that's for sure"

    You're kiddin right! If we'd had any form of PR in either province we might well have seen the end of the sovereigntists and the old boy's club that runs AB long ago…might well have seen a few more conservative govt's federally too,and…quelle horreur,an NDP national govt.

  7. I meant keep parties on their toes because they have tradition of getting rid of old and creating new. Other provs, not so much.

    What I also find interesting is that Alberta appears to be the most capitalist prov while Quebec is most socialist.

    • ""Quebecois and Albertans seem to like to mix it up much more than the rest, that's for sure"

      *snort* As they quite often say "Calgary, Saskatoon, c'est toute la meme chose, c'est aussi platte."

    • Heavens.. so you're saying that extremists prefer extremes?

      Sorry, I shouldn't be sarcastic, you've actually made a valid point, but as one from Alberta, it's about as obvious as water is to fish. I would tend to argue that in both cases it's because the defining feature of the general population is one of antagonism. In Quebec, there's quite obviously the opinion that "It's us against the Rest of Canada!" In Alberta, it's "It's us against the East!"

      As always, when a population has a general state of anxiety about being oppressed, it tends toward status quo or change "in toto". Significant opposition or comprimises generally aren't welcomed as they indicate divisions within the group which the external oppresor may be able to exploit. Not that I'm saying we see indications of this on a conscious level very often — Craig Chandler's quote aside — but the attitudes are there and get shared.

  8. I lived in BC for a few years. BC has normal left/right dynamic. You might not like the choices but they are about what we expect in Canada.

  9. "I would tend to argue that in both cases it's because the defining feature of the general population is one of antagonism."

    I guess I am interested in why some populations develop that mentality and others don't. I am from Ont and we could be antagonistic about others if we wanted to – since Feds take a lot of money to pay for other provs public services – but we have developed some kind of statesman attitude instead. Most people/provs could find reasons to fear oppressor but only two have.

  10. "I would tend to argue that in both cases it's because the defining feature of the general population is one of antagonism."

    I guess I am interested in why some populations develop that mentality and others don't. I am from Ont and we could be antagonistic about others if we wanted to – since Feds take a lot of money to pay for other provs public services – but we have developed some kind of statesman attitude instead. Most people/provs could find reasons to fear oppressor but only two have.

  11. Well, I think the reasoning behind Quebec is fairly obvious.. they are a culture and a language in decline. Hard *not* to feel oppressed in that climate.

    For Alberta, I think it's a little more complex and tied into our Boom/Bust cycle. When Alberta's good, it's very very good, but when it's bad, it's horrid.

    Sitting back in the good times is pretty easy for any provincial government, and even for the citizens. Not so much during the bad times. The thing is, because it can switch so fast it's easy to get the attitude that someone/something else must be responsible for this.

    Of course, the reality, I think, is that it's our own damn fault for so myopically refusing to put significant effort into diversification during the good times (the problem with "sitting back" as it were). Unfortunately, that's always an uncomfortable thing for anybody to have to deal with, and doubly so for the provincial government that will get voted out. As such, it's far more palatable to cast around for something else to shovel the blame on to. It not only satisfies the government's needs, it satisfies our own needs.

    • Alberta economy dependent on oil so its has more severe boom/bust cycle which radicalizes people. Thanks, Thwim. I have no idea if you are correct or not but certainly makes sense to me. There never is just one answer but I like yours.

    • Oddly Saskatchewan doesn't seem to follow the AB model?

  12. What Preston neglects to accept is that the explosive change that has occurred in Alberta politics has always come from the left, not the right. The WAP honeymoon appears to be over and when the PCs take their platform (or the ninety per cent of it that has always been PC policy anyway), leaving WAP with "property rights" and delisting abortion, the WAP will be left at the side of the road. In fact, I would guess that the Liberals will bleed a lot more support to the PCs, than the PCs bleed to the WAP.

  13. The typical Albertan doesn't care who governs. Three out of five don't vote.

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