Six months ago some idiot wrote in C2C Journal that the ascension of Jim Prentice to the premiership of Alberta and his subsequent seduction of Danielle Smith and 10 other Wildrose Party MLAs was a magnificently orchestrated political tour-de-force that would unite the provincial right, purge and revitalize the old Progressive Conservative dynasty, and extend conservative hegemony in Alberta for another four decades.
Sorry. My only excuse is that I was blind drunk on Prentice kool-aid.
I stayed drunk all winter, regularly refreshed by Prentice pronouncements signalling that he would use the oil price crash as justification to finally cut government spending, stand up to public sector unions, and maybe even reform civil service pensions. When he famously said Albertans should “look in the mirror” to get off the “resource revenue roller coaster,” I heard repudiation of the ancient PC practice of bribing Alberta voters with their own oil money.
Then came the March Budget.
Sitting in the gallery at the Legislature listening to the Finance Minister detail 59 tax increases, pay lip service to future spending restraint, and project a record high deficit of $5 billion, all as part of a transparently nonsensical “10-year plan” in a boom-bust province where no budget projection ever lasts even 10 months, was an extremely sobering experience.
Down in the rotunda afterwards, the Wildrosers in the crowd had a spring in their step not seen since they were 10 points up in the final week of the 2012 election campaign. The New Democrats were grinning like Cheshire Cats. The Tories, weirdly, were patting themselves on the back for a budget that they genuinely seemed to think was good policy and good politics.
It did not appear to occur to them that they had authored the most tin-eared pre-election budget in political history. The nickel-and-dime tax increases on everything from smokes and booze to birth and death certificates ensured that no constituency was left unoffended. Only corporations were spared, which handed the NDP a left-wing populist nuclear weapon. On the right, the gutting of the flat income tax and reduction of charitable tax credits by themselves would have been enough to send ideological conservatives back to the Wildrose party. The failure to deliver on the raised expectations of civil service cuts finished the job.
Many have attributed the NDP’s big win on election night to leader Rachel Notley’s campaign performance, including in the televised debate. She has been portrayed as the reincarnation of Jack Layton, a political messiah who can change the course of history. It’s odd how hungry the secular left is for saviours – filling a metaphysical void, perhaps? – but then, these are the same folks who dreamed Barack Obama would deliver world peace and racial harmony in the U.S.
Notley is good, but likely not good enough to stop the flight of capital that will occur if she delivers on her promises to raise corporate taxes, review energy royalties, yank support for the Keystone and Gateway pipelines, and substantially reduce carbon emissions. Nor is she good enough to be singlehandedly credited for the big majority built from the ruins of the PC and Liberal parties. They mostly did that to themselves.
What is most mystifying about the Tories’ self-destruction is that they did not use the budget to consolidate the takeover of the Wildrose party. Had it been a truly conservative budget, rich in spending cuts, it would have signalled that the PCs really had changed, and finished off the Wildrose raison d’etre. Asked about this mystery a few days before the vote, a now-defunct Edmonton PC MLA said they veered left in the budget to protect Tory seats in the capital from the NDP. Which only confirmed that the Tories were as unprincipled as they were tactically incompetent.
The PC brand is finished, on its way to the ash heap of Alberta history to be buried alongside the United Farmers and Social Credit. Wildrose is born again (not that they would ever use that metaphor!) as the Official Opposition, under a leader who started out inauspiciously but grew impressively in the crucible of the campaign. It’s still not clear how conservative Brian Jean is, but his personal narrative – one of 11 kids from a rags-to-riches family who has worked as a logger and trapper, has three university degrees (law, science, business), helped build a multi-million-dollar family business, likes to hunt and fish in the wilds around his hometown of Fort McMurray – certainly resonates with small-c conservative values.
The combined Wildrose-PC share of the popular vote in the May 5th election was 52 percent, against 41 percent for the NDP. This suggests that the idea that Alberta’s century-old conservative political culture has finally succumbed to the onslaught of left-liberal immigrants from across the country and around the world is exaggerated, and that a united right-wing party will be very competitive in the next election, especially if the economy founders under the NDP.
One of the few things the PCs got right in their last years in government was a television ad promoting tourism titled “Remember to Breathe.” It was a powerful montage of Albertans doing adventurous things in some of the province’s most beautiful spaces including the mountains, prairies and badlands. Somehow it captured the spirit of the place in a way these ads rarely do. Conservatives hyperventilating over the NDP coup and fearing Alberta’s political culture as we’ve known it is gone forever would be well advised to re-watch that ad and remember to breathe, for things are nowhere near as hopeless as they seem.
Paul Bunner is the editor of C2C Journal. He spent most of the 2015 Alberta election campaign on the sidelines with the politically homeless.