Beyond Alberta

Progressive victory in Alberta only illuminates the need for a broader challenge to neoliberalism across Canada.

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley celebrates this week's victory. (Mike Ridewood/Canadian Press)

Progressives across Canada were quick to celebrate the Alberta New Democratic Party’s (NDP) surprising election win on Tuesday. Even many leftists skeptical of the NDP realized that the victory was a historic moment.

After forty-four years in power, the Alberta Progressive Conservatives (PC) were reduced to third-party status. And for only the fourth time in Alberta’s 110 years as a Canadian province, there has been a change in the governing party.

Voters in Alberta decisively rejected former Premier Jim Prentice’s attempt to deal with the drop in oil revenues with a budget that cut public services and increased regressive user fees.

Rachel Notley now leads Alberta’s first center-left government since the United Farmers took power for fourteen years following the 1921 provincial election. And after its victory, the NDP has now won elections in six of Canada’s ten provinces and one of its territories.

Much of the media’s framing of the election said it was a left-wing victory in Canada’s most conservative province. That’s true as far as the political parties that have governed Alberta goes. However, the province’s history and transformation over the last several years paint a more complex picture.

PC leader Peter Lougheed became Alberta’s premier in 1971, ending thirty-six years of rule by the conservative Social Credit Party. On the surface it looked like the transfer of power from a rural conservative party to an urban one. However, the early 1970s was the high point of Keynesianism and state intervention in the Canadian economy.

Lougheed’s government set out to make the oil and gas industries more broadly share its wealth with Albertans. Lougheed established the Alberta Heritage Saving Trust Fund, which was to act as a sovereign wealth fund and sought to diversify Alberta’s economy beyond oil and gas. So while fiscally conservative, the early years of PC governance in Alberta had a developmentalist bent.

What more accurately gave Alberta its maverick status as a conservative stronghold were the bitter disputes with the federal government in the late 1970s and early 1980s over control of natural resources.

In 1980, the federal government — led by Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau — introduced the National Energy Program (NEP) to deal with the economic problems that had been plaguing Canada through most of the late 1970s.

The NEP goals were to stabilize oil prices for manufacturers in Eastern Canada, promote Canadian ownership in the petroleum industry, and ultimately achieve energy independence. Because Alberta exported most of its oil to the United States, and Eastern Canada imported most of its oil from foreign sources, the NEP’s had a negative effect on Alberta’s economy. While Eastern Canada benefitted from below-market-price oil, Alberta suffered from the early 1980s recession much more than the rest of Canada, and it lost billions in potential revenues from oil sales on the world market.

By the time the NEP was ended in 1985,”Western alienation” had become a popular term to describe Canada’s east-west divide. It was this divide that would help fuel the rise of Canada’s New Right, and to this day the Liberal brand in Alberta is toxic.

The base of Canada’s modern Conservative Party rose in the west. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and many of his top ministers represent Albertan seats in the Canadian Parliament. Harper himself has been happy to stoke feelings of Western alienation, once signing a letter suggesting that Alberta should build a “firewall” around the rest of Canada to protect its interests.

It was this populism that struck a chord in Alberta and the rest of the West. To single out Alberta as particularly socially backwards and reactionary ignores Canadian reality. Though Alberta has produced some particularly awful politicians, it’s not alone.

Take the Ralph Klein years. Beginning in 1992, his fourteen-year stint as Alberta’s premier saw a slash-and-burn neoliberal restructuring of Alberta’s economy, with public-sector layoffs and hospital closures.

Yet this was not particularly different from the punitive approach taken by Ontario’s PC government during the same stretch. The major difference was that Klein could rely on an oil boom to balance the budget. Other provincial NDP governments, as well as the Liberals at the federal level, also promoted austerity policies through the 1990s.

The socially conservative label is also unfairly applied to Alberta. While the opposition Wildrose Party has received negative attention for some of its candidates’ homophobic comments, social conservatism is still a pan-Canadian phenomenon.

Activists in New Brunswick and Price Edward Island are still fighting for local abortion access. Ontario’s new proposed sex-education curriculum has seen demonstrations and parents keeping their children home from school in protest. And Islamophobic attitudes in Quebec concerning the niqab have spilled over into federal politics.

If anything, the oil boom of the 2000s has made Alberta a more diverse place. Naheed Nenshi became the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city with his 2010 election to Calgary’s top post, and his skilled handling of major flooding in 2013 made him Canada’s most famous mayor not under criminal investigation.

Alberta has attracted economic migrants from Eastern Canada who are not skeptical of social services. With Canada’s high levels of immigration, it’s not surprising that Alberta has also seen an influx of newcomers to Canada seeking to settle in a province that had become Canada’s economic engine.

These demographic shifts, and the scandal and arrogance that characterized the PC’s forty-four-year reign, made the NDP in the right place at the right time. But its victory can’t simply be written off as a protest vote. In fact, fearmongering from the PC and much of Canada’s mainstream media seemed to have little effect.

The progressive planks in the NDP’s platform were there for all to see. A $15 minimum wage, a reversal of creeping health care privatization, a corporate tax increase, the elimination of coal-fired electricity generation, a review of resource royalty rates, a more progressive income-tax structure with increases on the top 10 percent of incomes, and something that did not get as much as attention as it should have — implementation of the 2007 United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People into provincial law.

These are modest but important steps for a province that has seen an explosion in economic inequality and carbon emissions through the development of the oil sands.

The market was quick to react to the thought of a NDP government in Alberta. The day after the election saw the Toronto Stock Exchange — one of the most energy and mineral intensive exchanges in the world — take a hit.

This was an early warning shot directed at the new government that exposes the contradictions it faces. Capital flight is always a risk progressive governments have to face, and capital has increasingly become very mobile. What compounds the situation in Alberta is its reliance on a single industry: oil.

Notley has already announced that in the coming days she will reach out to industry. But in the long term, accommodation with energy companies will come into conflict with the NDP’s platform. If the incoming government’s proposed royalty review finds anything, it will most likely be that oil royalties in Alberta are too low.

This is hardly a surprise. A 2007 review suggested the government increase royalties, and the PC did for a short time until rolling back the increases in 2010 in the face of industry pressure and the rise of the Wildrose Party, which was funded by upstart oil companies.

The contradiction becomes this: even a fairer deal on oil royalties makes the Alberta government more dependent on the industry. The NDP, to its credit, has said it doesn’t support new oil pipelines like Keystone XL and Northern Gatway, but it has not ruled out pipeline construction all together and wants to increase the amount of refining done in Alberta. As we’ve seen in Venezuela, even a socialist government is going to run into the contradictions of being dependent on a single resource.

For the time being, the carbon time bomb that is Alberta’s oil sands is not going anywhere, even though most of it needs to be left in the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. And it remains to be seen how the NDP can balance the indigenous rights recognized by the UN with oil sands and refining expansion, especially given that Notley acknowledges that First Nations opposition is a major reason why Northern Gateway is probably not going to be built.

But while the NDP will have to grapple with these huge issues, there are also the day-to-day challenges of dealing with an entrenched bureaucracy that has been shaped by over forty years of single-party rule.

The circumstances that the Alberta NDP now faces are similar to that of the Ontario NDP when they unexpectedly won the 1990 provincial election. Both the provincial bureaucracy and business were resistant to the government’s reform plans, and the media went berserk with anti-NDP animus.

By the time the Ontario NDP backtracked in the face of right-wing pressure, it had alienated its base and split the labor movement in the province by attacking public-sector workers. Its failure led to the election of Ontario’s most vicious PC government.

So to see real change in Alberta, it’s no longer in the NDP’s hands. It’s up to First Nations activists to remind the government of land rights. It’s up to environmentalists to continue to push for expanded green energy and economic diversification. It’s up to the labor movement to stay unified and hold the government to account.

As more Canadians begin to question the neoliberal consensus of the last thirty years, the Alberta NDP’s victory opens up an opportunity to see how many victories can still be won by pushing social democracy to live up to its ideals.