Why the Orange Revolution is not about Rachel Notley

Mythologizing the Alberta NDP leader is inevitable, but this election was all about sending a message to the Conservatives

Jeff McIntosh/CP

Jeff McIntosh/CP

My birthday was a few days ago. In my phone call with my mother, I asked her if she had spoken with anybody in the family about the Alberta election. She lives in Saskatchewan with my father now, on his family’s homestead, but they had just been back through Fort McMurray for a visit. They lived in Fort Mac before I was born, and again after I left home, at the end of my dad’s career as a mechanic. I was curious to hear if she had picked up any intel. She told me she had only talked to two relatives: her brother, a working man, and her niece, who is on the faculty at a northern Alberta college.

Both had always voted PC before. Who in Alberta doesn’t? But the niece, exposed to ever-increasing administrative responsibility in her department, had had enough of the government’s policy-dithering and corrupt hijinks. She was voting NDP this time. And the brother was just not ready to forgive the Conservatives for Alison Redford. What, were we just supposed to forget and move on because her gang had a new boss? For him, the Wildrose party was the only option.

It’s anecdote, of course, not data. But it’s the kind of anecdote you take note of as you are trying to figure out why the polls are screaming “NDP” at deafening volume. It made me start to believe the impossible: that Alberta could really elect an NDP government, and snuff out the PCs like a cheap cigar. Even with plenty of local knowledge, it’s dangerous to model an election without some further model in your head of what your friends, neighbours and family—really, any people who don’t have non-negotiable partisan commitments—are thinking.

With the Alberta Progressive Conservatives in flames, their leader having fled not only his leadership but the Assembly seat to which he was just re-elected, there will now commence a certain amount of mythologizing of new NDP premier-designate Rachel Notley. It’s inevitable; it might even be wrong to resist it. She did what literally dozens of opposition politicians in Alberta before her could not. It’s a file of men and women stretching back through time—intelligent, sincere, often likeable people, Notley’s father among them, who spent careers trying to make holes in the great PC wall and never left a respectable dent. Even the coldest-hearted conservative crank must wish that the irresistible, gamine Pam Barrett could be here to see all this, or that Sheldon Chumir were on hand to make penetrating observations about the fate of his Liberals.

But even Notley might admit that the main difference between her and them is timing and good fortune; that this election was not really about her, or about any sudden mass affection for the NDP. By many, the New Democrats were adopted, temporarily or not, as a vehicle for retribution. The nearly unanimous sentiment of the Alberta voter on this night was: taken for granted for too long. Albertans were determined to send a message to pervasive, enduring power that had begun to resemble Philip K. Dick’s Black Iron Prison.

It is one thing for a party to remain in political power for a generation: The Conservatives were starting to creep toward a second, to create the panicked, strangling realization in young voters that even their parents had never known any other sort of Alberta government. The follies of the PC party have long since started to become late-Roman and bizarre in character, with curious S&M-ish overtones. I know people outside Alberta strongly felt the sheer creepiness of news items such as Alison Redford’s secret “Sky Palace” hideaway, or the self-abasing pilgrimage of the old Wildrose caucus to the government’s cruel, bare benches of discipline.

It’s 3 a.m. as I write this paragraph: NDP partisans are still occasionally breaking into cries and chants of joy below my window. They did not know that their day would come so soon; they must have doubted it would ever come. I’m quite sure I will never cast an NDP vote in my life and, of course, I am a little afraid of occasional outbursts of social-engineering madness from our new NDP cabinet o’ kiddies. Yet I do not begrudge these exulting young people their joy one bit. They are celebrating a passing from sickness into health, a seizure of freedom for Alberta. Surely all must feel it, even many of those who voted Conservative today.

The province had reached a point at which it needed to assert the mere possibility of regime change, by any means short of dynamite. Can the NDP harm the Alberta economy? Certainly. Do we think Alberta’s economy was not harmed by endless, sometimes documentably corrupt one-party control of government contracts, of the health and legal professions, of boards and commissions of NGOs, of officers of the Legislature, of education and the ATB . . . of the entire apparatus of existence in many outlying areas? Do we think industries such as real-estate development and construction might not have started getting a little lazy and uncompetitive, with their unbreakable donor mainlines to the Conservatives? Do we believe no enterprise ever crossed the wrong minister in Alberta and got crushed in its infancy?

The gratitude Albertans extended to the PC party for so long was not madness. One of the canonical opposition errors Notley wisely avoided was making political arguments that implicitly cast the province as some sort of terrible, benighted place to live. Albertans like Alberta. Most Albertans are here because it offered them, or somebody before them, opportunities they didn’t have wherever they came from.

Under Peter Lougheed, the province, like the rising young business start-up it was, reinvested massive oil revenues in industrial development and in the appurtenances of civilization: higher learning, transport connections, sports and culture facilities. Eventually, it overreached with ’70s-style economic planning. The state had to be put back in its place, as was done almost everywhere else in the developed world: That was Ralph Klein’s appointed part of the task. We are told now that these PC governments did not “save” oil and gas revenue, but there would surely not have been much point in continuing to grow the debt left over from Lougheed’s social housing and diversification policies while piling up cash in the Heritage Fund. Under Klein, the net financial position of the provincial government, Fund included, improved by $43 billion: If you want to know “where all the oil money went,” start there. That’s debt Alberta taxpayers aren’t paying to service.

It was natural for Albertans who lived through much of this story to feel an attachment to the Progressive Conservatives, to extend trust to the limit of human tolerance. And what happens when a relationship like that begins to go bad? It curdles: It begins to feel like torture. You begin to wish you would never have to see the object of your former devotion again.

I suspect Albertans will probably get their wish in this regard. Campaign finance reform on the model established by the federal Conservatives, a declared priority of Notley’s NDP, will cut off the PCs’ wind most brutally. They have far fewer individual donors at this point than either the New Democrats or the Wildrose. If political donations from Alberta Traffic Supply or the Alberta College of Pharmacists are outlawed, as they obviously ought to be, the PCs have an immediate life-or-death issue.

And since the Progressive Conservatives have incinerated several messiahs already—don’t forget to count Danielle Smith!—it is hard to see where their next one might come from. No sitting Alberta MP, however far he might be down the list for advancement in the federal ranks, will want to take the wheel of this burnt-out beater. Many Alberta Conservative MPs already tacitly support the Wildrose, and more will be immediately converted when they see this morning’s headlines. The mayors of Edmonton and Calgary won’t be tempted. The rump PC caucus has, with the hasty departure of Jim Prentice, just two members left who were thought capable enough to have been ministers of the Crown before the vote.

Even before this election was called, the PC party was already starting to come apart at the seams at the level of constituency leadership. Is that problem likely to get better, with the party no longer in power and the survivors blaming one another for an electoral 9/11?

I might be wrong: Just in the four weeks of this election, I’ve said and written plenty of stuff I’d like to bury in the backyard. Alberta has been pretty good in recent years at administering lessons in humility to its native pundit class. Fortunately, on May 5, 2015, we got to watch the politicians come in for their share. Misery loves company!

Related reading: 

Paul Wells: How a down-to-earth politician capitalized on an extraordinary moment in Alberta 

Election fallout: Jim Prentice steps down as leader — and as an MLA

Andrew Leach: On the Alberta NDP and energy policy 

Meet the new premier: What you need to know about Rachel Notley


Why the Orange Revolution is not about Rachel Notley

  1. Well that was a long-winded way of saying that somewhere today Alison Redford is laughing….and so she should.

    You didn’t even give the newbie red Tory one term before attacking and tossing her….even though you gave Ralph over a decade of buffoonery….so now you have socialism.


    • Whenever I fantasized about the firewall coming down, I always imagined the rest of Canada standing on the other side with blankets and hot chocolate. Cripes, I don’t like this cold bitter wind. Is it too late to put the concrete back and get some cheery wallpaper?

      • Emilyone is just angry because she can’t make jokes about Alberta being in the stone age any more. She’s going to have to write all new material. Let’s hope she cheers it up a little.

        • LOL oh you’re still in the stone age, just in another cave.

          You kind of over-corrected

          However you don’t seem to have a middle-of-the-road party, so this will have to do.

          Now diversify, and modernize your economy,

      • We probably would have provided a ‘mom’ fantasy, except Albertans have spent years building that wall and tell everyone else how to live.

    • We don’t have socialism and we are not about to get it. We’ve seen the movie, already, in Rae’s Ontario. Successful NDP politicians have seen that movie too and have no interest in self-immolation (Doer in Manitoba had 10 straight balanced budgets, Mulcair is very close to the middle, much of the current Manitoba NDP tried to axe Selinger after he swamped his province in debt and new taxes). When NDP politicians flirt with socialism, debt, huge spending and taxing, they tend to quickly become ex-politicians (Rae, Dexter in Nova Scotia, Clark/Dosanjh in BC, Calvert in Sask, Selinger heading to defeat in Manitoba). Notley will be quite moderate and middle-of-the-road or she will become a one-term wonder.

      The Alberta Tories became too ingrained into all sections of business, industry, energy, public service, and government ministries. They had to be purged. The PC downfall started before Redford took the reigns but her highly visible mistakes were what awakened the Alberta electorate. She was the leader, she could have ended the entitlements, she could have purged her party’s apparatus. She did not (or could not, or did not want to). If the PC party hadn’t axed Redford, the Alberta voters would have. The NDP did not win because Redford spent a lot of cash on airplanes and office staff.

      Me and most of my right-leaning friends here in Alberta voted NDP for the first time in our lives. Most of us have been through booms and busts several times and that they all end eventually. We can stand four years of Notley’s Crue. If she drives the province into the ground she will be gone soon enough. If she succeeds, good for her.

      • Still blaming others I see.

        Notley is now supposed to fix, by magic one assumes, what it took you 44 years to mess up?

      • Notley will have time and stats on her side, NDP governments have a far better track record(60% balanced budgets) than either the CONServatives(33% balanced budgets) or Liberals(47% balanced budgets), all she needs to do to succeed is treat ALL Albertans FAIRLY.
        She with her positive enlightened campaign gives the ROC hope for the future.
        The young people she has at her disposal will come up with amazing and novel ideas to deal with the many problems she faces. There are ‘no problems’ there are only solutions.

        • Well some of those young people will have to finish university and at least one should move out of his grandmother’s basement. It would give us all much more confidence in his ideas if he lived on his own.

    • Alberta might get “socialism” from the NDP, if the NDP is dead-set on being a one-hit wonder. Alberta didn’t vote for socialism, they voted against the PC’s.

      Alternatively, if the NDP ever want to win in Alberta again, Canada’s most left-wing party is about to take a massive swing to the right.

      • You’ve managed a left-wing govt, and a right-wing opposition. Unless you’re expecting floor-crossing again….you’re stuck with the left.

      • Too true. Funny thing, when Mr. Leach interviewed Rachel’s plans for the oil patch, she invoked Peter Lougheed’s vision for Alberta, not her father’s. Yet her dad stood in opposition to Lougheed in the legislature. Ed Stelmach raised oil royalties in 2007 saying all Albertans were going to get their fair share. What happened was that oil companies moved their rigs to Saskatchewan and that province has a boom.
        Alberta governments have spent the money. Lougheed built a new hospital in every small town. Getty paved all the secondary highways and built new provincial buildings in every small town. We have fantastic rural roads (except the highway to Fort Mac) and our city roads are constantly being reworked to ease congestion and make it easier for our booming populations to get around. We have built new schools and new hospitals. Apparently at one point Calgary was growing by 40k a year in population. That requires a lot of spending in social programs to keep up services. Albertans do live in Alberta because they like it. The government expanded the universities and offered very innovative education options where a parent could take their individual education grant and use it any school. As such we have Arabic schools, Cantonese schools, French schools, science schools. People paid no health premiums and the unemployment rate was less than 5%. What’s not to like?

  2. The first thing I noticed this morning after the NDP win was Jim Prentice. Every conservative news source on the net had his picture front and center. They all had the video of him accepting defeat and quitting politics. Today they all have multiple stories of why the NDP didn’t really win and a few about how they will fail.

    Before all the papers and news sources were bought up by conservatives, when I was a young man all the papers would have had a picture of Notley along with her victory speech. Too clever by half indeed.

    If this election proves anything at all, it proves that voters aren’t stupid.

    Goodbye conservatives, goodbye Harper.

    Trudeau’s tax cut and increase in the child benefit is a tax increase. Pure amateur hour. These are the statements that setting the table for the federal election pasting of the libertarian closet hugger.

  3. I don’t see why anybody in Alberta would ever vote for the PC’s again. If you want a conservative government, vote Wildrose. If you want socialism, vote NDP. The only people who’d vote for the PC’s are those who benefited from their corruption.

    • You aren’t supposed to be voting ‘parties’….this isn’t a hockey game.

      You’re supposed to be voting for the good of the province…no matter what party that is.

    • I believe the right will unite just like the Reform united with the PC’s after the PC’s were decimated under Kim Campbell (2 seats left) and the Reform had something like 35 or so. A new party will likely come out of the combination of the two. It will be a fairly strong opposition with around 31 seats if they do.

  4. What this doesn’t explain is how a three way race turned into a runaway NDP victory in the last two weeks of the campaign starting with the debate when Albertans could see the leaders side by side and compare them. The total package, her razor sharp intelligence and seeming command of the issues, her relaxed manner, good humour, and upbeat manner, even when under attack, became apparent to the province as a whole during the debate, and the NDP immediately started to take off from the pack, and her performance on the hustings afterward reinforced the impression and increased the momentum. Yes, the timing had to be right but she also had to have the right stuff to take advantage. Would others have done so as well? Maybe, but I’m not sure. Pam Barrett was a great person, but she didn’t have the same brain power as Notley—and the dental chair revelation just shows that. And Laurence Decore had the intellect but not the personality when he came close against Klein.
    In any case I agree with much of what is said about how business is done in the province. Why condo standards and regulations are so much slacker In Alberta than in Ontario and BC and it’s basically buyer beware here? Cosh gives us a pretty good idea. Or why universities have been known to give donations to the PC party? As Cosh says, just introducing the financing rules the Conservatives put in at the federal level make a difference in Alberta and Rachel Notley has promised to introduce a version of them here. Hey, maybe it will even inspire other provinces like Ontario to do so as well. Party financing at the federal level is far cleaner than at the provincial level, Stephen Harper’s reputation to the contrary.

  5. Awesome article Colby.