End of the Line

The PC dynasty topples

By Tadzio Richards

On election night, Calgary NDP supporters gathered at the Arrata Opera Centre. Party stalwart Bob Hawkesworth was there, and just before 9:00 p.m., when the NDP majority was declared, he said, “If someone told me that we’d win 54 seats, I would have asked them what kind of drugs they were taking.”

Inside the Opera Centre, a conversion of the old Wesley United Church, a screen was erected in front of the pipe organ, stretching up toward a vaulted ceiling. An increasingly large crowd filled the hall, some wearing “Notley Crue” T-shirts and many waving orange “Rachel Notley” and “Calgary for Change” signs in the air, a mixed, boisterous crowd of different ages, ethnicities and genders, gathered together, cheering, leaning in to watch the results.

“I’m ahead by 500 votes,” said a young man wearing a brown suit, no tie, and sporting a peach-fuzz beard.
“What’s your name?” my friend Jason asked him.
“Michael Connolly. I’m running in Calgary-Hawkwood.”
“Hey, I voted for you! You’re going to be my new MLA! Let me buy you a beer!”
“He’s 21,” said Jason, when he got back from the event bar. “He’s stunned. He’s just vibrating.”

“It’s incredible,” said Menno Klassen, an older man wearing a grey flat cap. Klassen worked on the NDP campaigns in 1986 and 1989, when the party won 16 seats, their previous best results. Since then he’d seen decades of electoral futility. Now the NDP had swept Edmonton and taken not only most of the seats in Calgary and the urban ridings in Red Deer, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, but also several ridings in northwest Alberta that had traditionally been PC strongholds—until now. “I never in my wildest dreams thought this moment would happen,” he said. “It’s a miracle.”

The opening guitar chords of Serena Ryder’s “Circle of the Sun” burst from the speakers, and Rachel Notley appeared onscreen, walking to the podium at the NDP election HQ in downtown Edmonton. The crowd chanted N-D-P! N-D-P! interspersed with the opening lines of the campaign theme song: Let’s get away from who we think we are / And the things we cannot do

“Change has finally come to Alberta!” said Notley. “New people, new ideas and a fresh start for our great province!” N-D-P! N-D-P! “It’s spring in Alberta!”

Before the CAMPAIGN began, the polls had predicted a forgone conclusion—an outcome almost opposite to what happened. An Environics poll in February 2015 had the PCs way out in front, with 46 per cent of popular support. Nearly six in ten Albertans were reportedly satisfied with the direction the province was going. If there were going to be a spring election—and everyone knew the writ would be dropped sometime after the March 26 budget—the only real political tension seemed to lie in the nomination races: Who would be selected as PC candidates across the province?

“A one-party corrodes the distinctions between party politics and the institutions of government.”—Janet Keeping

The political narrative at that point looked simple: The PCs had won 12 straight majority governments, and despite a collapse in oil prices, they were likely to win again. In the two previous leadership contests, 2006 and 2011, the PC membership had selected Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford. Though both went on to win election majorities, neither was a favourite of the party establishment. In 2014 the PCs were taking no chances. Former federal minister and CIBC vice-president Jim Prentice was essentially headhunted for the job. Another leadership hopeful, Calgary MLA and former councillor Ric McIver, complained that party insiders had asked him to withdraw from the race to make way for Prentice. In any case, the race wasn’t close: Prentice won on the first ballot. “Alberta is under new management,” Prentice said in his September 6 victory speech.

That fall the PCs handily won four by-elections, and the script seemed to be unfolding as planned. Then, in late 2014, 11 members of the Wildrose opposition, including leader Danielle Smith, crossed the floor to join the PCs.

To many, it looked like Prentice had united the right. The money followed. In the fourth quarter of 2014, the PCs raised nearly $1.4-million, a provincial record. Prentice was called a “saviour” of the PC party and a “kindred spirit” of Alberta’s oil community. As one wag put it, you could hear the wallets opening when he walked into a room.

In the early months of 2015 the PC party carried an aura of invincibility. A wide array of candidates bustled forward to try to seize the party nominations. In Edmonton, former Alberta Party president Chris Labossiere snagged a PC candidacy, aiming to join former mayor Stephen Mandel in the Prentice caucus. In Calgary, police chief Rick Hanson resigned to run for the PCs. So did Terry Rock, former CEO of the Calgary Arts Development Authority. Even Paul Hughes, most famous as an advocate for chickens in urban backyards, put his name forward in a Calgary PC nomination race. Part of the appeal of a PC nomination, said Alvin Finkel, history professor at Athabasca University and an architect of Change Alberta and the Alberta Democratic Renewal Project, was that “anyone getting a PC nomination is getting a nice job for four years.” The party’s candidates rarely lost.

The PCs were the longest-serving provincial government in Canadian history, a party so powerful that, as Frank Dabbs described back in 2006 in the pages of this magazine, it had “consolidated the unwritten constitutional framework for a workable one-party state, now so deeply entrenched in Alberta’s economy and political culture that it may never be dislodged.”

University of Calgary political scientist David Stewart saw the PCs as having a structural advantage any time an election was called. Provincial laws set no limits on campaign spending, and the provincial political culture had little experience or understanding of the importance of an opposition. “It’s like in the hockey playoffs,” said Stewart. “Teams that are ahead 3–0 in a series usually win.” For a different political party to win an election, he said, “everything has to break just right.”

The PCs stumbled out of the gate on April 7. In the first of many tone-deaf campaign moments, strategists decided to play Nickleback’s “Burn It To The Ground” at high volume as the assembled press corps waited for Prentice to enter the room and announce that Albertans were headed to the polls. Take anything we want, went the song lyrics; Drink everything in sight / We’re going ’til the world stops turning / While we burn it to the ground tonight.

For a political campaign that had as its centerpiece a budget that acknowledged overdependence on the boom-and-bust fossil fuel economy and a failure to save for the future, the song was an odd choice for an opening sales pitch.

There’s this notion that Alberta only thinks one way. You can be an Albertan and have a different opinion.” —Alvin Finkel

Tone deafness was characteristic of the Prentice PCs before the election was even called. Leading up to his March 26 budget, the premier told Albertans to “look in the mirror” and shoulder “part of the burden” of the fiscal deficit resulting from the drop in world oil prices. When his government released the budget, it contained increases in personal taxes but did not raise corporate taxes a dime. This effectively signaled that the burden of fixing Alberta’s revenue problems would fall on citizens rather than on the corporate sector that was the source of most donations to the PC party.

Voters were also angry about the choice to call an election a year before the fixed election date mandated by law—a law passed by the PC government itself not even four years earlier. This was perceived as a dirty trick to play on the unprepared opposition parties, especially Wildrose, which had just lost its leader and 10 other MLAs. Proof that some of this anger simmered within the PC party came when, out of the eight floor-crossers who wanted to run for the PCs in the election, three failed to secure nominations. One of those three was former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith.

By the time they cranked up the Nickleback song—to widespread derision on social media—the PCs had fumbled away their February lead in the polls. An even bigger problem was that card-carrying PCs were abandoning the party.

Nomination scandals and resignations marked the entire 2015 PC campaign. Jim McCormick resigned as president of the PC Association of Alberta just before the writ dropped. Including bribery accusations in Edmonton ridings, there were controversies requiring party intervention in at least 10 PC constituencies across the province.

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March 28: Wildrose members wait to hear the final results of the vote for the new party leader at the Sheraton-Cavalier in Calgary.

In Chestermere-Rockyview, where Wildrose MLA Bruce McAllister had crossed the floor, PC nomination candidate Jamie Lall was told, via text, to drop out of the race, allowing McAllister to win by acclamation. Other text messages, which Lall later released to the media, revealed infighting within the PC party. “Buddy, you are being set up,” wrote MLA and justice minister Jonathan Denis. “Hire a lawyer.”

Lall went to high school in Chestermere, on the outskirts of Calgary, and in 2012 had been a PC candidate and president of a PC riding association in the city. He was one of the party faithful. Instead of staying quiet when he was told to step away, he pushed back, announcing he would run as an “independent conservative.” During the campaign, six members of the Chestermere-Rockyview riding association, some of whom had worked for the party since Peter Lougheed was premier in the 1970s, resigned from their positions. Several cited the Lall case as an example of a top-down approach from a party that had taken decision-making power away from constituency associations.

“When the floor crossing happened, it really rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, not only Wildrose supporters but also PC supporters,” said Lall, when I visited him in an office in a Quonset hut on his family’s four-acre property just outside Chestermere. “This community is tight-knit. In a way, it’s a microcosm of Alberta. We’ve got an urban centre, we’ve got rural areas, we’ve got condos, luxury estates; it’s grown exponentially. But it’s been good growth. We are a new community out here, but we’re not simply a commuter town. This place has an identity. There’s a kind of feeling here that if you wrong one of us, you wrong all of us.”

As the campaign began to roll, the parties’ modes of transportation seemed symbolic. The PCs used a bus for a campaign vehicle, an executive motor coach that carried the premier, his staff and an entourage of photographers around the province. The Wildrose used an RV camper, the NDP had a minivan, the Liberals and the Alberta Party mostly used private cars, and the Green Party leader used Car2Go or took public transit to get to campaign events.

The PC bus conveyed power. When it rolled into a parking lot in Taber or Grande Cache, it towered over other vehicles: a big, gleaming blue bus with Prentice’s smiling face emblazoned on the side, a vehicle that seized attention and held the eye and looked like nothing could ever do it harm. When the bus rolled into the parking lot of Symons Valley United Church in Calgary-Foothills on April 18, it brought Prentice to the riding he represented as an MLA for an all-candidates debate. It was a rare unscripted opportunity to see him in action. Not just a photo-op or a media scrum.

When Prentice stepped off the bus, the waiting crowd was waving NDP and Wildrose signs. An NDP supporter offered Prentice a can of Orange Crush. He waved it off as he strode through the doors.

As well as Prentice for the PCs, the debate featured the NDP, Liberal, Wildrose and Green candidates. Janet Keeping was the Calgary-Foothills Green Party candidate and the Greens’ provincial leader. A lawyer and a former president of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, Keeping set the tone. “We simply have to have a change in the governing party,” she said. “Forty-four years is too long. A one-party state corrodes the important distinction between party politics and the institutions of government that are supposed to be equally available to all. It’s beyond ideology. If it can’t be me, please vote for someone other than the PCs.”

Prentice shrugged this off and replied with familiar planks from the PC platform: “Alberta is at a turning point…we have become too dependent on oil revenue…we have a 10-year plan…now is not the right time to dissuade investment.…” But he was clearly on the defensive from the start.

NDP candidate Anne Wilson, a criminal-defence lawyer, took aim at the reduction in tax credits for charitable donations that the PCs had included in the budget. “Taxes on corporations would raise more money, but you went after the charity tax,” she said. “Jim Prentice, how can you look in the mirror when you’ve done that?”

Prentice tried to maintain a statesman-like calm throughout the campaign. But under Wilson’s and Keeping’s tag-team attack, he went red in the face and looked angry. When he spoke, he managed not to raise his voice. At the debate’s end, he closed by calling it a “spirited discussion.” “I implore you to read the plan,” he said.

Outside the church, a media scrum had gathered by the bus. I asked Emily Woods, spokesperson for the Prentice campaign, what it was like to travel on the PC campaign bus. “It’s actually not that comfortable when you have to be on it all the time,” she said with a laugh. “The bus is 19 years old. It just has a new paint job.”

In POLITICS, AS IN the natural world, a thing can become more visible when it’s about to disappear. The last two weeks of the 2015 Alberta campaign was one of those times. The PCs trailed the NDP and the Wildrose in the polls. Similar polls had been wrong in the 2012 Alberta election, but this time the PCs appeared to have lost the good will and even the respect of a majority of the population. Conservative pundit and U of C professor Barry Cooper described the PC dynasty’s problem as one “common to all oligarchies: more money than supporters.”

The PC’s problem was “common to all oligarchies: more money than supporters.”—Barry Cooper

On April 20, trustees representing 19 school boards came together to protest budget cuts and spending freezes to education. The action was described as “unprecedented.” In Alberta it was practically unheard of for education or health agencies, community groups or even municipalities dependent on government funding to criticize the PC government. In an Edmonton Journal article from 2011, journalist Sheila Pratt had described the Alberta political landscape as a “culture of fear” characterized by self-censorship and a near absence of public debate. In 2015, that culture was changing.

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May 5: NDP supporters-with new Calgary-Bow MLA Deborah Drever (r)-celebrate the election results at the Arrata Opera Centre.

According to most political observers and pundits, by the time the April 23 televised leaders debate in Edmonton rolled around, Prentice needed a strong win. NDP leader Rachel Notley later said she had anticipated Prentice would turn his back on her and focus his attacks on Wildrose leader Brian Jean. The exact opposite happened. Jean, who could be amiable, was inexplicably robotic during the leaders debate, monotonously repeating a “no taxes” mantra. Liberal leader Dr. David Swann, a kind and gentle man, could barely get a word in. Prentice turned his back on both of them and focused his attacks on Notley. It was a mistake.

In yet another tone deaf moment, during a thrust and parry exchange about budget numbers, Prentice said to Notley, “I know that math is difficult.” #mathishard instantly became a trending hashtag on Twitter. Notley emerged from the debate as the clear winner. The day after the debate, the NDP jumped 10 per cent in the polls and raked in $477,000 in donations.

During the campaign, Alvin Finkel, chair of Change Alberta, a website that highlighted progressive candidates with the best chance of winning, noted that more than 40 per cent of voters had chosen progressive candidates in several previous Alberta elections. “You can be an Albertan and have a different opinion. There’s this notion that Alberta only thinks one way. But in the time the PCs have been in power the population has gone from under two million to over four million. We don’t have to have this groupthink. You’re not un-Albertan if you believe that government has to take healthcare seriously, or you oppose Northern Gateway,” he said. “The PCs should have understood that.”

“Jim Prentice was right about one thing,” said Notley in her speech at a loud and festive rally in Calgary on the weekend before the election, when the polls were predicting a majority NDP government. “Jim Prentice said Alberta is not an NDP province, and he’s right. Alberta doesn’t belong to any political party. Alberta is not a PC province, and it’s not a Wildrose province. Alberta belongs to Albertans.”

May 5, 8:30 p.m.: half an hour after the polls had closed, journalists from major media outlets were gathered at the PC election headquarters at the Metropolitan Convention Centre in downtown Calgary. Few PC supporters were in the room. Someone dropped a plate in the kitchen and the clatter echoed through the great hall. No one spoke. The end of the PC dynasty was quiet and sparsely attended. All that remained was a husk of power, a nearly empty hall where the media waited for Prentice to emerge and concede defeat so they could move on to what is new. #

Tadzio Richards is the recipient of two National Magazine Awards and the associate editor at Alberta Views.

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