By Trevor Busch
It would be hard to argue that Alberta’s recent April 16 election wasn’t a pivotal turning point for the province and her people. There have been few to match it in mudslinging and general overall nastiness. That, and the spectacle of a strong and revitalized conservative movement battling to topple an NDP majority government was unfamiliar ground for Tories used to defending their own record from the province’s commanding heights, rather than making their own lofty climb to majority dominance.
It all leaves one with the impression that if the election actually was a foregone conclusion, with Kenney and the UCP simply waiting in the wings — then maybe rolling out stacks of election promises that all have the ring of accountability surrounding them might prove to have been ill-advised. Elections are for all the marbles, and in many ways parties can’t be blamed for tossing around nearly any promise that brings voters in to mark an ‘X’. But in the case of the UCP in 2019, it doesn’t appear to have been a very close race in many ridings. And if you’re an old-school political operator — and many would argue Jason Kenney is cut from this same cloth — you promise only what you have to, and only when you have to, instead of giving everyone the bread and the butter to go along with it. Promising the sun and the moon are all well and good, but when all you manage to deliver is a cloudy day, voters tend to develop darkly overcast opinions.
And there’s precedence for this in 20th century Canadian politics. Ask Prime Minister Mackenzie King, whose Liberal Party was challenging the Conservative government of R.B. Bennett in the dark days of the Great Depression in 1935. Bennett’s government had ruled through the first five years of Canada’s economic collapse by holding fast to outdated conservative economic theories, police crackdowns on unemployed “radicals” — which led to the Regina Riot, and blood on the coal in the sooty hell of Estevan’s coalfields — and with an arrogance and aloofness that eventually earned Bennett the lasting ire of many Canadians.
King, who was no small-time political operator himself by 1935, realized the situation for what it was: Canadians were willing to vote for anyone other than Bennett and the Conservatives. In another “foregone conclusion” King spoke often and promised little, with the Liberal slogan of “King or Chaos” pretty much summing up their election platform. While pundits of the era may have noticed this, it meant little to the average Canadian voter. King was elected in a landslide, and Bennett was turfed into the dustbin of Canadian politics as one of the most hated prime ministers of the 20th century. King went on to ingloriously helm the country through the rest of the decade, doing very little to actually improve on Bennett’s record, but without breaking many promises that might have cost him at the next ballot-box go-round.
Most of Alberta’s elections over the years haven’t been what many would describe as pivotal — with a few notable exceptions — and interrupted by long periods of dynastic dominance incorporating various flavours of the conservative rainbow. The interspersing others — the 2008 election would be a prime example, which saw the worst voter turnout in the province’s history at 40.59 per cent — were often dull affairs basically anointing a ruling party while fringe elements nipped at the heels. But that hasn’t always been the case.
In 1921, the four-term ruling Liberal Party had been in power since the creation of the province in 1905 before being trounced by the United Farmers of Alberta, better known today for their farm supply stores. The UFA managed to hold on to power through three terms until being destroyed — not too strong a word really considering the election results — by their Social Credit foes in 1935. The ubiquitous So-Creds would helm the province through nine terms in office until being kicked to the curb by the Progressive Conservatives in 1971. The PCs would enjoy the longest dynasty — 44 years and a dozen election victories — in Canadian provincial political history. Most know the rest of the story, with Notley’s NDP taking majority power in 2015 — the first left-of-centre government in the province since 1921 — and now the UCP achieving victory in 2019.
The UCP have come close to glory in the annals of the province’s political history, achieving majority power in an election that saw a voter turnout of 71.1 per cent, but still roughly 10 percentage points shy of the all-time record: “Bible” Bill Aberhart’s So-Creds managed to secure victory in 1935 in a depression-era election that saw an almost unprecedented 81.8 per cent of the electorate turn out to vote. Still, 71.1 per cent is nothing to sniff at, my fellow Albertans: that’s a number that hasn’t been seen in many Canadian elections since the middle of the 20th century, and would tend to cast doubt on the assertion that our democracy is failing, even if bilateralism might be. The next closest voter turnout in recent Alberta memory was in the faraway days of 1982, at 66 per cent.
With the 2019 provincial election in the books, all eyes will inevitably now be switching to Ottawa for the fall federal election.
Trudeau’s incumbent Liberals will have a much tougher row to hoe this October with the fallout from the SNC Lavalin affair and Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives making significant gains in the polls. Much has been made recently of the provincial conservative domino effect — most recently in P.E.I., for instance, days after Alberta — and how this provincial conservative, federal Liberal dynamic will shape up on the hustings for Canadians. While there does seem to be a growing provincial movement drifting toward conservatism in an anti-carbon tax coalition, having conservative governments in provincial capitals when the Liberals are in Ottawa is pretty far from breaking any new political ground in Canada.
In fact, it’s often been the natural progression of things — it’s almost become a political anachronism that when Ottawa goes Liberal, for example, Toronto goes something else, conservative or otherwise.
What’s often missing from this debate — and unseen and unheard from amidst the billowing clouds of fetid rhetoric issuing from now firmly conservative provincial capitals — is that the provinces can’t have their cake, and eat it, too. On the one hand, you can’t argue passionately until your face takes on a Tory shade for the federal government to strong-arm recalcitrant provinces over pipelines, while in the same breath attacking the imposition of a federal carbon tax. Federal supremacy doesn’t exist in a vacuum where it is accepted only when it seems to benefit various provinces, and is fought tooth and nail when it doesn’t serve their interests.
That’s a recipe for a weakened and eroding democracy, and one of the very reasons that the Fathers of Confederation vested most powers in the hands of the federal government in the first place.
With Premier Jason Kenney now sworn in and ready to take the battle to Ottawa — this tack always seems to play well with Albertans over the years — it’s almost like going back in time remembering Premier Peter Lougheed’s battle with Trudeau the Elder over the National Energy Program in the early 1980s. Now we have Trudeau the Younger, but the stakes are much different, as are the major players.
While Lougheed was never unwilling to poke the Ottawa bear when he felt the province was getting a raw deal, Lougheed was always a committed federalist who was interested in working with Ottawa rather than opposing it at every turn.
But the UCP are hardly the same kind of conservative party as Lougheed’s PCs once were. Even their election slogan “Alberta Strong and Free” seemed vaguely Americanized, conjuring up images of waving American flags in the background. And there can be little doubt that much of what might have been described as the progressive small-c conservatives from either of the UCP’s political forebears have been thoroughly purged from today’s party. Just how radical the UCP will prove to be remains to be seen, but the report card starts today. And Albertans will be watching.
One gets the sense that Jason Kenney — despite a long career in federal politics — won’t be the compromising sort with anything that comes down the pipe from Ottawa. And while this might be what people seem to want at the moment, our federal political system will eventually start to break down if all provinces continue to view politics as the game of what can we get for ourselves rather than what can we contribute to make the nation as a whole better. Acting only in our own interests will eventually alienate our fellow provinces as we now prepare to go to war with our fellow Canadians.