First, some housekeeping. I initially set up this blog to post occasional thoughts/comments on Newfoundland and Labrador’s political scene, but considering a) I get paid to post some of those thoughts and comments elsewhere and b) anything else of substance I do want to contribute I will pass along to my wonderful comrades at The Independent, it may not be a bad idea to broaden my writing horizons. I’ve also spent the last few months up to my eyeballs researching the last 120 years of Alberta’s political history, and since there’s a lot going on my province of current residence, maybe I could start using this space to jot down my developing thoughts on Western politics too, if only to keep friends back East abreast of this strange and alien place to which we’re constitutionally linked.
Ok! So that said: what the heck is happening in Alberta?
As far as I can tell, we are in the closing chapter(s) of the province’s latest conservative civil war. The Wildrose Party, rather suddenly, is apparently considering a “reunification agreement” with the Progressive Conservatives which would see them folded into Jim Prentice’s government. The non-legislative wing of the Wildrose says they intend to fight it, no doubt deepening the internal conflict that has been wracking Wildrose for the past year-ish. Cataclysmic conflicts between the grassroots and legislative wings of Alberta’s political parties have a very long precedent going back to the United Farmers, so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. But either way, I think this spells the end of the Wildrose.
There are a few reasons for this, but the most immediate reason is Jim Prentice himself. As far as ‘fiscal conservatism’ goes, they’re basically on the same page with premier Prentice, a bona fide Harperite. Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford were aberrations, and while Wildrose certainly spearheaded the drive to oust Redford it probably could have been accomplished with a good old-fashioned caucus revolt (which did happen to an extent within the PC Association of Alberta itself). In retrospect, it’s possible history will come to see Wildrose as just a louder, more organized caucus insurrection.
The major difference between the two parties was arguably Wildrose’s commitment to social conservatism, but this was also the biggest Albatross around the party’s neck. The more extreme positions (the gays will burn in Hell, God gave Alberta to the white man, etc etc etc) just can’t play in Alberta’s increasingly urban, multicultural and liberal (note the small-l) environment. As for their more publicly palatable positions, they’re again pretty close to the Tories. Both parties are willing to pay lip service to human-driven climate change while committing to the vast expansion and subsidization of the tar sands and the oil industry. When Bill 10, the Tories’ tepid reaction to a private member’s bill encouraging and facilitating Gay-Straight Alliances in high schools, they waffled and stumbled around the government’s line about “respecting parental rights [to teach their kids to be homophobes]” but generally came down in the same camp. The ‘progressive’ in the PCAA is definitely not a stumbling block for the more intense reactionaries in Wildrose. It’s clear that both parties are pretty close here as well. In fact, one of the most recent Wildrose defectors basically said the Tories are more socially conservative than his old party, so, there’s that.
I also think that for all the handwringing that’s going on about the province’s major opposition party collapsing back into the government fold, there is a lot of historical precedent for this in Alberta. I’m a firm believer that ‘history accumulates’ and nowhere is this more true than in political institutions and culture. There’s a long tradition here of acquiescing to single-party, ‘consensus’ government. When the province was established in 1905, territorial premier Fred Haultain and many others wanted to keep the non-partisan form of government we see in the territories.* But turn-of-the-century Canada being what it was (ie. hilariously corrupt), Wilfred Laurier’s Liberals more or less imposed the two-party system on Alberta in order to gave provincial Liberals access to power and levers of patronage, etc., in order to secure future Liberal power in the province. Yes, really.
Arguably (in my opinion) Alberta rejected this in 1921 when they swept the United Farmers into office with a super majority and effectively returned to a non- (or, more accurately, less-) partisan model of government. Government has only changed hands a few times in Alberta (1921, 1935, 1971), and since roughly 1925 (and the premiership of John Brownlee) those governments have all operated from the same, broadly conservative orientation (the 1935-43 Aberhart Insurrection notwithstanding, although what Bible Bill lacked in fiscal conservatism he made up on the social side).
There is also some history of government parties here tending to ‘police’ themselves – backbenchers had (and maybe still have, though I’m not as familiar with more recent political history) a fairly large degree of power to dissent and challenge the government (eg. the 1937 Insurgency when Social Credit backbenchers almost forced Aberhart to resign). And this has generally been the model for years since – there are moments where the opposition wells in strength a little bit (eg the Independent MLAs in 1940; the Liberals under Decoure in the early 1990s before Klein established himself) but for the most part, people have been content with keeping the conservative course for 3 or 4 generations now. Even many Wildrose supporters (in and out of the Legislature) aren’t opposed to the Tories on ideological grounds so much as they are interested in making sure they were accountable, in avoiding the corruption Alison Redford embodied, etc. Insofar as Prentice represents a change in course back to ‘proper management’ for the provincial conservative movement, the Wildrose has outlived its purpose.**
It’s always possible the merger won’t go ahead, but even if that is the case, the conflict this is going to cause within the Wildrose has already sealed its doom.
The Alberta counter-revolution is dead; long live the counter-revolution.
* – Haultain also wanted the region, encompassing what is now both Alberta and Saskatchewan, to remain one province in Confederation, in order to give it more power and representation in Ottawa. Naturally, the federal government split it up for exactly that reason, to reduce it’s power vis-a-vis the interests of Central Canada. But Alberta’s colourful history of federal-provincial relations is a story for another time.
** – Anyone still interested in challenging the Tories from the right still has the Alberta Party (I think – I can’t figure out what they stand for or if they even really do anything), and those of us on the left can choose from any number of anemic, flailing, and self-cannibalizing parties both inside and outside the legislature. I really have a fondness for Rachel Notley and the local NDP (Liberal leader Raj Sherman was also a nice guy the one time I met him), but as long as they and the Liberals are going at each other I can’t see much changing. Albertans are – at least in Edmonton/Strathcona, which is admittedly not a representative sample – more progressive than 71 years of unbroken conservative rule might suggest, but given the state of their parliamentary options that voice will be minimal in political affairs unless either the party system or electoral system is altered (ie. the left parties are united or we get proportional representation).
Being a leftist in Alberta is basically a lot like being an Oilers fan – you know they did great things, once, a million years ago, but things have been abysmal for so long you can’t imagine them getting any better without a literal revolution even though everyone at the helm is telling you to keep patient because someday soon the conditions for victory will finally come around and also your primary means of bonding is commiserating with other fans about how garbage your team is and why do you even bother watching the game at all anymore really and buhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh