Rachel Notley did what Danielle Smith and countless other pretenders to Alberta’s throne could not do over the years: she got average Albertans to see something frightening looming behind them in the mirror.
What Albertans apparently saw was the spectre of another four years of Progressive Conservative mismanagement, arrogance and entitlement.
And so the glacier that is Alberta politics has shifted at last.
Two months ago, then-premier Jim Prentice told Albertans to “look in the mirror” — we were all to blame for the province’s financial malaise, he said.
Apparently Albertans decided if they were to blame, then they would do something about it. On Tuesday, they elected the first NDP government in the history of the province (and a majority at that), and they dismissed the Conservatives after what has seemed like a lifetime in majority control of the legislature.
This is extraordinary, but it did not come without hints, the most obvious being the electorate’s flirting with the Wildrose and Smith three years ago. Albertans have been dissatisfied with the quality of government for a long time, and it may only have been “lake of fire” nuttiness that kept Smith from becoming premier in 2012, plus an inclination by many left-leaning or centrist Albertans to vote Tory simply to prevent a Wildrose government. This time, Albertans found a party and a leader that stayed true to a message that resonated; there was no straying from the NDP script, and no reason to opt for the Tories by default.
Certainly Prentice does not carry the blame alone. Alison Redford’s disastrous leadership is part of the rot, as is the dithering of Ed Stelmach, the balanced-budget-at-any-cost posturing of Ralph Klein (and the cost was very high) and the cronyism and meandering of Don Getty.
First Prentice’s Conservative government offered a budget this spring that gouged average Albertans through a bevy of levies while ignoring corporate Alberta and dismissing oil royalty changes. Then the last Tory premier in a 44-year dynasty started by Peter Lougheed called a costly election a year ahead of schedule, apparently to give himself the mandate to rule in peace for another four years. And in four short weeks of campaigning, all that Tory bluster could not gather the voters back into the fold.
Notley and the NDP had other ideas. Hers was the only party prepared and willing to fight the Tories in every riding.
Hers was the only party that had a clearly delineated platform, and the tenacity to challenge the Tories with detail at every policy utterance. Hers was the only party that made sense to an increasingly concerned electorate.
So after years of grumbling, discontent and — ultimately — disgust, Albertans have turned on the Conservatives.
That they turned to the New Democrats shows just how disaffected Albertans have become, and just how much Alberta — particularly urban Alberta — has changed in a generation.
This is a province that for decades has made a great show of its independent, stubborn and forceful nature, and its almost-American belief in free enterprise, as driven by the energy industry.
But at this moment, there are more important things: schools, roads, health care, social services, the environment. That should be the first message Notley and the NDP take to heart, as delivered by Alberta voters. We need more services and infrastructure, and we need it yesterday.
The next message sent at the polling stations on Tuesday is that responsibility for paying for more services and infrastructure should be shared more broadly. Notley talked about higher corporate taxes and a review of oil royalties. Albertans will expect her to act on both fronts.
Albertans also delivered a message that incompetence, entitlement and arrogance have no place in government.
We should also assume that the results are a repudiation of the backroom hand-holding of the Tories and their crossover Wildrose pals: many ex-Wildrose MLAs, including Smith, lost nominations as Conservatives; others survived the nomination process only to lose to new Wildrose candidates in rural ridings.
Prentice went into this premature election looking for a mandate for his promise of change — never mind that the rhetoric of a 10-year plan was almost devoid of substance.
And Albertans have decided they do want change. They made a huge leap of faith to kickstart that change, even if they were given a hearty push by a Conservative dynasty that, at the end, was a long way from the focused, compassionate and visionary leadership of Lougheed.
Prentice inherited a province beset by economic uncertainty and sullied by political incompetence. His few months on the job failed to soothe the angst; he regularly seemed persuasive and assured, but could lapse into befuddled, belittling behaviour.
Now he knows how unhappy Albertans are.
Notley’s success is certainly a product of that unhappiness. But it is also a product of the NDP’s promise of a new Alberta.
In the future, Albertans don’t want to be afraid to look into the mirror.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.