A province in transition

In normal circumstances, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives would have fanned out across Alberta last weekend in a last-ditch effort to save the province’s Tory dynasty from a historical defeat in Tuesday’s election ... and to earn some brownie points for themselves.

In normal circumstances, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives would have fanned out across Alberta last weekend in a last-ditch effort to save the province’s Tory dynasty from a historical defeat in Tuesday’s election … and to earn some brownie points for themselves.

But with conservatives fighting conservatives in the party’s heartland, the Alberta campaign trail is no place for Harper’s MPs to store goodwill in advance of their own upcoming re-election campaign.

If they are to unite the feuding Wildrose and Tory supporters behind them next fall, wisdom dictates that the federal Conservatives keep themselves as high above the Wildrose/Tory fray as they humanly can.

Chances are that in the immediate future, the federal aftershock of the political earthquake that is shaking the provincial pillars of the Alberta Tory temple will not be massive.

As Alberta goes provincially today, it will not automatically go federally.

The dynamics of the two back-to-back campaigns are strikingly different.

But over the longer term, it would be unwise for the federal Conservatives to bet that their virtual monopoly on Canada’s third-largest province is immune to the tectonic shift that may see the NDP in power in Edmonton.

In the big picture, it was actually only a matter of time before Alberta’s politics became more diverse.

Sooner or later, the changing demographics of the province were bound to impact on its voting patterns.

Its population has been growing faster than the Canadian average. Its median age (37) is the lowest of the four big provinces.

There is not a poll that does not show that the younger the electorate, the better the NDP, the Liberals and the Greens fare versus the Conservatives.

The emergence of the NDP as the leading candidate for provincial government is the biggest crack to date in the monolithic facade of Alberta, but it is not the first one.

That was preceded in 2010 by the election in Calgary in 2010 of Naheed Nenshi, a mayoral candidate who was an outsider to the city’s power circles.

Then there was the taking of an Edmonton riding a year later by NDP MP Linda Duncan with more than 50 per cent of the vote cast and, a year after that, the rise to a close second place of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in a 2012 Calgary byelection.

(In that vote, the Green party came a respectable third with 25 per cent support.)

Even more recently, the Trudeau Liberals won 35 per cent of the vote in Fort McMurray — the riding that current Wildrose Leader Brian Jean used to hold during his eight years as a Harper MP.

To predict that Alberta will increasingly take on shades other than blue is not to predict the demise of the federal Conservative party but it is to foresee an ultimately healthier federal political environment.

A more diverse Alberta voice at the national level would be a positive development both for the province and for Canada’s political life.

The province’s boom-and-bust economy has been matched by similar cycles politically, with Alberta left outside of the federal power circles looking in whenever the Conservatives were not in power.

That in turn has made it too easy for the other parties to ignore Alberta’s concerns in their policy calculations or worse, to use the province as a foil against the Conservatives (and vice versa).

It was not so long ago that Jean Chrétien spent an entire campaign without ever landing in Calgary, or that Jack Layton used the oilsands as a prop in his quest for climate-change-driven votes in other regions of the country, or that Harper was urging Alberta to isolate itself behind a firewall.

Those are tactics that have no place in a more competitive Alberta battle for federal votes.

Until this campaign, the last big shift in the national landscape was the arrival of a solid Quebec NDP contingent on Parliament Hill and the attendant rise of the New Democrats to official Opposition status.

The advent of an NDP government in Alberta and indeed the mere possibility of such an outcome is another major step in the NDP’s ongoing transition to contender for federal power.

Canada has traditionally had only two federal parties that were truly national in scope.

Next fall’s election will tell whether there is room for three and on what terms.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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