Wayne O’Leary

A Prairie Tsunami

Alberta’s Progressive Conservative (PC) party (the provincial version of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s federal Conservative party) lived by the sword; on May 5, after 44 years in power, it died by the sword. The sword, in this case, was the PC’s long, compromised relationship with Big Oil, which finally came back to bite it where it hurts — at the ballot box.

The beneficiary of the PC’s shocking downfall was the lowly stepchild of Alberta politics, the New Democratic party (NDP), a nominally socialist party that has wandered for decades in the hypercapitalist wilderness of Canada’s most conservative province. Its youthful leader Rachel Notley, a labor lawyer whose father Grant headed the NDP during the party’s dark years of 1968-84, will now become provincial premier with an outright legislative majority — 53 out of 87 parliamentary seats, or 61%.

Some idea of the scale of the NDP’s stunning achievement can be gathered by the size of the electoral turnabout. Prior to the recent election, called a year early by PC Premier Jim Prentice (purportedly to obtain a mandate for proposed tax increases aimed at deficit reduction), the ruling party held 70 seats; the Liberals and the Wildrose, a tea-party equivalent, five each; and the NDP a mere four. The Alberta NDP’s previous high was 16 seats (in 1986), and as recently as 1993, it held none at all.

Several factors contributed to boosting the NDP’s popular vote from a token 10% to a commanding 41%, enough to take a majority of seats in a multiparty field. The PC, which had won every provincial election since 1971, was wracked by a scandal involving the lavish personal spending habits of Premier Prentice’s immediate predecessor, whom he had replaced six months earlier. Prentice’s own arrogant and gaffe-prone campaign style didn’t help, nor did the rise of the far-right Wildrose party, which split the conservative vote between establishmentarians and grass-roots radicals. Finally, there was the sunny and upbeat persona of the premier-elect, whose demeanor reminded voters of the late and beloved national NDP leader Jack Layton.

But the election was about more than a tired past and a hopeful future. This being Alberta, the Texas of Canada, there was an elephant in the room at all times. Since the PC first swept into power under business conservative Peter Lougheed (Pierre Trudeau’s great antagonist), ousting the agrarian, prairie-populist Social Credit party, oil has been the essence of Alberta, supplanting cattle ranching and farming; its development, especially in the boom years after 1950, was led by Americans and US-based companies, a fact that explains a lot about the province’s laissez-faire attitude and right-wing politics, which has set it apart from the rest of Canada.

Nearby Saskatchewan, a prairie province similar to Alberta prior to World War II, remained agrarian and went in a different direction. Its political influences were European, particularly British democratic socialism (or Fabianism), and in 1944, it elected North America’s first avowedly socialist government, led by T.C. “Tommy” Douglas, the father of Canada’s single-payer health-insurance system and recently voted the most admired Canadian in a nationwide poll.

Ironically, Douglas’ Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which evolved into the modern social-democratic NDP, was born in Alberta in 1932 — in Calgary of all places, heartland of Western Canada’s oil regime. But it never caught on there (until now). The aforementioned influences from south of the border (ranching in the 1880s, oil in the 1950s and after) have given the province an individualistic, free-enterprise mentality; you could call it a cowboy culture. How, then, to explain Alberta’s sudden seismic political shift?

Quite simply, oil giveth and oil taketh away. The Texas of Canada, which under the ruling PC pledged obeisance to Big Oil — the industry’s been virtually running the province for half a century — has, in the Biblical phrase, sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind. Alberta’s oil-based economy had far outpaced Canada’s overall economy in GDP growth since 2010; in the past year, with the fall in petroleum prices, it basically crashed to earth. Alberta’s heady growth went flat, and oil firms only recently engaged in all-out exploitation of the province’s vast tar sands began cutting investment and jobs.

Falling oil revenues led, in turn, to a government deficit for fiscal 2015, precipitating the PC’s early call for an election (before the economy worsened). Ill-fated Premier Prentice, aiming to salvage the deteriorating budgetary situation with increased taxes and reduced spending, made a double miscalculation. His taxation plank outraged the tax-phobic Wildrose party to his right, and his proposal to slash spending (in a province that didn’t spend much to begin with) outraged everyone else.

What delivered the coup de grâce to Prime Minister Harper’s former cabinet minister and potential successor in Ottawa, however, was whom Prentice proposed to tax: not the lordly oil corporations (presently paying the lowest business taxes in Canada), but average Albertans; it produced a perfect political storm.

In an election postmortem that laid bare the fundamental underlying cause of Alberta’s unlikely revolution at the polls, CBC analyst Don Pittis perceptively pointed to the PC party’s fatal entanglement with corporate interests. The binding ties with Big Oil, forged over four decades of one-party rule, had turned official Alberta, for all intents and purposes, into a puppet government representing the interests of a single extractive industry.

This perversion of governance Pittis calls the “resource curse,” a term originally coined by American economist Joseph Stiglitz. Under such a political setup, government operates single-mindedly to benefit one industry — to maximize its profits and minimize its costs. A dawning realization of the dangers posed “when the boardroom is convinced it is in charge,” Pittis suggests, was the unspoken theme of the PC’s downfall and the NDP’s triumph in Alberta.

It’s a problem the new government shouldn’t have, viewing the world as it does from other than a pure business perspective. The initial signs are good; immediate plans include raising corporate and high-end tax rates, reviewing the province’s exploitive royalty structure for oil and gas resources, increasing public investment, and strengthening environmental laws.

With a clear majority and time on its side, Alberta’s NDP may, if it doesn’t overreach, do something the American left has as yet been unable to do: enact and implement a true progressive agenda.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2015


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