Many progressives are excited by Notley’s win, which appears to mirror the surprise breakthrough of the NDP in Quebec in the 2011 federal election. In Quebec, however, there was already a strong social democratic current, while in Alberta it was deemed unlikely. Quebec’s love for Jack Layton was broad – he won 59 of the province’s 75 seats – but many of these were taken from the Bloc Québécois. In Alberta, Notley’s majority emerged from a center-left that until recently was thought to be in the political wilderness.
The basic story of the social democratic win in Alberta is not new: As the governing right-wing coalition, thought by many to be unbeatable by the left, faced a crisis of economic mismanagement. The coalition was divided between those who want austerity in the form of mild “burden-sharing” and those who wanted a more aggressive form of austerity by new direct attacks on the poor. These divisions contributed to political scandals that united a broad range of people around an alternative.
This is not the first time that a party other than a party of big business has controlled the provincial government. At its inception in 1905, Alberta was sparsely populated. The new provincial government was a bastion of Liberalism, reflecting the prevailing Federal politics of the time. This all changed as deliberate policy to colonize the west caused waves of settlers to move to the province. A new “prairie populist” politics was nurtured in the founding of the United Farmers of Alberta, which formed the government in the era between the two world wars, and helped to found the Canadian Commonwealth Federation – the precursor to the NDP.
Oil fever hit south-central Alberta in 1914 triggered by a discovery in the Turner Valley, attracting more settlers. Right wing populism began to take hold during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and in 1935 the Social Credit party – the precursor to the right wing Christian fundamentalist Reform Party – entered its first election, winning a landslide victory.
By the mid-1950s there were over a million people living in Alberta, and Alberta evolved into a “have” province. This shaped an animosity towards central Canada, and especially Quebec, on the premise that attempts to shape a national energy and environmental policy were hostile to the province’s interests. Over time, this extended to fiscal questions – the idea that Alberta was being hurt by transfers to Quebec and the eastern provinces. The populist right was the main proponent and beneficiary of these positions, which were supported by the broader business community.
Despite being relatively “undertaxed,” by the 2010s Alberta was flush with cash from royalties associated with aggressive oil development. This revenue fell dramatically when there was a regional collapse in the price of oil in 2013. The Premier at the time, Alison Redford, decided to absorb most of the blow by accepting a large deficit. However, as the price of oil began a precipitous fall at the global level in June 2014, this fiscal problem became open-ended. The oil industry and the province responded with a new wave of austerity. Jim Prentice, Redford’s successor following her resignation the preceding March, tried to emphasize burden-sharing in a limited way, with small tax increases and new spending cuts.
In the mix was a range of scandals that helped shape the debate. Redford had been pushed out for perceived problems with her personal expenses – such as renovations and use of a private jet. This also reflected anger within her Conservative party at the direction of the province, especially with respect to the large fiscal deficit. Conservative Premier Jim Prentice declared an early provincial election.
The Conservative’s main opposition, the Wildrose Alliance, sensed that Prentice might prove popular in an election. The Wildrose’s leader, Danielle Smith, surprised everyone by defecting to the government, along with a number of the party’s other assembly members. Supported by Prentice, Smith had intended the move to consolidate their forces and dominate the debate. In fact, what happened was that both the Wildrose and the Conservatives were discredited as cynical.
There had been repeated attempts to build a strong center-left in Alberta. There were limited attempts to unite around a new party, such as the “Alberta Party.” Some tried to influence the governing Conservatives by joining and supporting Alison Redford. The NDP’s Notley was considered outside the likely possibilities until people started looking for an alternative to the two right-leaning parties. Very quickly the progressive vote coalesced around the NDP. This might have shaped the fact that their platform still had a number of elements which might have been weeded out to paradoxically make them more “electable” had this process been longer.
Not so radical
Still, the NDP’s alternative is not radical stuff. Much of what Notley has promised simply aligns Alberta with other provinces – such as moving towards a more progressive income tax structure and a small increase in the corporate tax rate. This is a leftish skew on burden-sharing. Most new proposed spending will be used to shore up existing programs. Many of the NDP’s proposals are symbolic and cost little to implement (such as the annual $5 million proposed for energy-saving retrofitting).
The centerpiece of the NDP’s limited anti-poverty plan is a $15 an hour minimum wage. While welcome, it is being slowly phased in and will stay below what many consider a living wage. The child care plan targets an eventual $25/day cap on fees, which is much higher than either federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair’s proposed Canada-wide plan ($15/day) or Quebec’s existing rate ($7.30/day plus additional fees on a progressive basis).
Particularly worrisome is the lack of direct aid to the poor. The promises in this area are mostly delivered in modest changes to tax credits and in reductions of user fees. There is no budget item for raising the rates for people on social assistance. There is no real affordable housing policy, other than allowing municipalities to mandate units in new projects. Ideas like $75 million over five years for women’s shelters seem to pale in comparison to $1.5 billion over five years in proposed spending cuts in other areas.
Notley’s campaign focused on development alternatives within the Albertan economy. She repeatedly suggested that the dominance of oil had put Alberta in a precarious position, and that the recent price collapse had made a new course imperative. Notley criticized major pipeline developments and talked about environmental destruction and related First Nations justice issues in a way that has been welcomed by many.
However, Notley’s emerging policy seems aimed largely at sharing benefits of resource extraction somewhat more broadly, rather than questioning the oil sands as such. The suggestion that Alberta refine its own oil is a proposal that would likely require dramatic public intervention to come to pass, and seems aimed at expanding the oil industry rather than contracting it.
Some sections of Alberta’s business community are very hostile to the NDP, which they see as a bunch of populist-left amateurs with little competence for managing an economy. However, the oil industry, while hostile to the NDP, might offer a series of quick concessions in order to lock in developments, such as a negligible carbon tax or a new pipeline orientation.
This is in contrast to the experience of Ontario NDP leader Bob Rae’s election in 1990, which was met with an enormous business propaganda campaign. Rae’s acceptance of key parts of the neoliberal agenda helped paralyze the NDP government. Both contributed to the collapse of the government in the 1995 provincial election.
In Alberta, it seems more likely that big business could live with a center-left government, as it does elsewhere. A more dangerous source of hostility could come from Alberta’s right-wing populist movements, which draw more from the white middle-class. These groups can raise large amounts of money and are quick to mobilize against perceived threats.
Radicals often face a dilemma during election season. Seeing Conservatives lose power is a source of joy, but the gains of a “progressive” government are necessarily limited by the logic of capitalism. And while it is true that independent activism in powerful social movements is central – the key is what this might mean in practice. If the goals are too limited, radicals are absorbed into the sea of reformist do-gooders. More ambitious goals often sound too abstract and can turn groups into lonely discussion circles.
The most productive work to build the basis for reforms is being done by people who are engaged in confrontational direct action and the quieter but essential work that supports this culture of real resistance. This includes First Nations blockades, the student strikers shutting down classes and the many other people who often simply get in the way. It is also people providing child minding at public meetings, or building safe spaces for their communities to talk through things, or preparing food for strike support. Independent activism does not mean indifference to parliamentary reformism but the commitment to overcome its limitations.
The NDP win in Alberta has been a source of hope for those who have suffered under the long reign of the Conservatives in Alberta, and for those across Canada who want to see Stephen Harper’s government defeated. However, the real hope lies in social movements that can pose radical alternatives. In the absence of such movements, it’s likely that the NDP will undermine its own base of support among those who are the victims of the neoliberal agenda.
Donald Hughes is a new member of the Toronto New Socialists.