Same Old Same Old or Real Change?

What Redford means for Alberta

By Tadzio Richards

Five minutes before the polls closed on April 23, at the end of an Alberta election variously referred to by reporters as a “rollicking ribald rollercoaster,” the “most hotly contested general election in more than 20 years” and “a divisive, hate-filled, bile-spewing monstrosity,” the Progressive Conservative election headquarters at the Metropolitan Conference Centre in downtown Calgary was practically empty. Two TVs flickered silently in the lobby. A bartender arranged his napkins. In the main hall, despite a scattering of reporters and an entire wall of TV cameras and lights pointing at an empty stage and podium, more press had clearly been expected: media badges were mounded on a table by the main hall entrance, spilling onto the floor. It didn’t look good for the PC dynasty.

In the years prior to the election, the PCs had managed to anger people on all sides of the political spectrum. They were accused of bullying doctors and of withholding funds for infrastructure projects (including schools) in ridings that didn’t vote for them, or where someone had the gumption to criticize the government. They were accused of running the province like a company town, of fostering a culture of fear within the civil service and within non-profit groups that depended on government grants to provide programs for families and people with disabilities.

Right-wing stalwarts such as Rod Love, Lyle Oberg and Colleen Klein, the former premier’s wife, had defected to the Wildrose Party. Conservative MP Rob Anders was publicly supporting the Wildrose, and he hinted that a majority of MPs from Alberta felt the same. Things looked so bad for the PCs that even Preston Manning, the patriarch of Canada’s new conservative establishment, wrote an op-ed suggesting it was time to put the PCs “out to pasture.” Near the end of the campaign, pollsters and most media pundits had reached a consensus on the outcome. Headlines read: “Wildrose Set to Win Sweeping Majority” and “Wildrose Poised to Win Historic Vote.” Several polls gave the Wildrose as much as a 10-point lead. The story was set: the Progressive Conservatives—in power since 1971—were finally going to get turfed. Premier Alison Redford would lose her first and only campaign as party leader. Alberta’s new government would be the Wildrose, with Danielle Smith the new premier. The election was all about regime change. For the PCs, the only question left was how hard they would fall.

You know what happened, of course. On April 23 the PCs won a majority government, extending their reign for at least another four years. It wasn’t even close. Shortly after the polls closed, results showed the PCs leading in 26 seats and the Wildrose in 16. In the Metropolitan Centre, a small and hushed group of PC supporters gathered around the lobby TVs, watching live reports from High River, where the Wildrose headquarters was packed with an excited crowd. As more results came in—PCs 32, Wildrose 17—the onscreen crowd in High River grew quiet. In contrast, in Calgary, a growing crowd of PC supporters cheered and gave each other high fives, suddenly surrounded by the flashing cameras of news photographers and videographers. By 9:30 p.m. every TV station had declared a PC majority. It was a landslide victory.

When Redford finally took to the stage in front of a now large and jubilant crowd, her victory speech was less than three minutes long and used the word “change” nine times. “Albertans want change,” she said. “They want positive change, and they want change that moves Alberta forward.” The PC party, she said, “will make change in this province. And getting that change right is what I promise you tonight.”

It takes a lot of gall to call yourself an agent of political change when you lead a party that just won its 12th consecutive majority government. And yet, by electing Redford, Alberta’s first elected female premier, Alberta may indeed get change. In counterpoint to Ed Stelmach and Ralph Klein, Redford promises a government that is more transparent, open and accountable. The most exciting part of her victory is that Redford potentially represents a shift in how Alberta will be governed. Among her many promises, Redford stated that she wants to boost the Opposition’s influence in the legislature, transform how government delivers services, and “build bridges” between Alberta and the rest of Canada. Other promises include the passage of a new education bill that requires programs of study to respect the Alberta Human Rights Act, and the creation of a national energy strategy to ensure that the nation’s energy resources are used and promoted “in the best interests of the country.”

It’s lofty stuff. Ambitious. And in practice it may turn out to be little more than rhetoric. In addition to running on a platform of change, Redford’s PC party ran on a platform of no change, particularly in relation to the oil and gas industry, the biggest part of Alberta’s $260-billion economy. The new premier’s promise to make “big change” in governance may be limited by her simultaneous promise not to raise oil and gas royalties or make major energy policy changes without consulting industry. It’s unclear which promises will take precedence.

Still, it is clear Alberta has a different government. The province has a new narrative of how political change can happen. Alberta has evolved. So, do we live in a new story now?

Since 1905, political change in Alberta has unfolded in an evolutionary pattern. Long periods of incremental change are punctuated suddenly by abrupt electoral shifts. The province has changed governments only three times—in 1921 the United Farmers replaced the Liberals; in 1935 Social Credit took over; in 1971 the PCs won. The story of that pattern of political change is part of a defining mythos of Alberta, a two-rut wagon trail of a story about what Alberta’s all about, which goes something like this:

1. If you’re hard-working and self-reliant, Alberta is go-to destination for a better life; and

2. Alberta elects empires. When a new party is voted in, the old party is eviscerated.

To many observers, 2012 seemed like one of those transition times. For two election cycles in a row, detractors had called the PCs stale and out of touch. In 2004 Ralph Klein’s PC government was called “bored and uninspired.” By 2008 Klein was gone, replaced by Ed Stelmach, who won 72 of 83 seats in an election where apathy was the biggest winner—only 41 per cent of Albertans voted, the lowest turnout in national history.

Stelmach presided over an era of political turbulence. Doctors complained of bullying and intimidation by the PC government. Rural landowners viewed the passage of a series of laws—Bills 19, 36 and 50—as an attack on private property and landowner rights. Even the oil and gas industry was angry. In 2007, acting on the “Our Fair Share” report, which said “Albertans do not receive their fair share from energy development and they have not, in fact, been receiving their fair share for quite some time,” the PC government brought in a new framework to increase royalties and bring in an extra $1.4-billion in revenue per year. The backlash from industry was immediate—the Financial Post called the government “envious predators”—and after closed-door consultations with industry representatives, Stelmach caved, reversing the royalty hike at the same time that the global recession hit. The government saw a projected $8.5-billion surplus evaporate into a $1.4-billion deficit. By 2010 Stelmach was the least popular premier in the country and the PCs trailed the fledgling Wildrose in the polls.

The Wildrose advocated a free-market, libertarian platform. Leader Danielle Smith, a former journalist and one-time intern at the Fraser Institute, described the royalty review as “the single worst decision any premier of this province has ever made.” Her party promised not to raise oil and gas royalties and to eliminate “red tape” to help speed up energy development. It pledged to repeal the measures that offended rural landowners. As well, it promised to disband the Alberta Human Rights Commission because “politically correct activists have used it to punish religious and right-wing social commentators.” It was a grab bag of policies that attracted support, and money, from a variety of disaffected Albertans, including energy industry workers and executives, landowners worried about property rights, and social conservatives.

Smith was young, articulate and a fresh face. According to the polls, it didn’t seem to matter that she consistently denied the science of climate change, or that as a newspaper columnist she had advocated the elimination of free public schooling. In a province that’s long been considered the most right-wing in the country, she had the support of prominent neoconservatives, and to many it seemed like the time had come for another of Alberta’s famous political shifts. Donations poured in to the Wildrose Party, rising from $233,000 in 2008 to $2.7-million in 2011. If the mythos was true that Alberta only elects “empires,” a new coronation seemed inevitable.

Alberta has evolved. The population, Canada’s youngest, has grown. The context has changed.

Here’s the thing, though: Alberta has evolved. The political context has changed. From 1991 to 2006 the province’s population grew by 30 per cent. Alberta is now both the youngest and the fastest-growing population in Canada, with most of the newcomers migrating to cities. Over 80 per cent of Alberta’s more than 3.6 million residents now live in urban areas, with two-thirds of Albertans alone living in Edmonton and Calgary. Across the province, 14 per cent of people self-identify as visible minorities. In Calgary that number rises to 23 per cent, making the city the third most ethnically diverse in the country after Toronto and Vancouver.

Alberta is growing more demographically complex, and the province’s citizens are increasingly global in outlook. According to a wide-ranging 2011 Environics Focus Canada survey, a majority of Albertans are socially tolerant and generally in a good mood about the economy. Two-thirds of Albertans are pro-choice on abortion and support same-sex marriage. The same percentage of the population say they’re not worried about the economy, putting the province in a tie with Saskatchewan for the highest levels of economic optimism in the country. Perhaps surprisingly, 80 per cent of Albertans agreed that taxes are a good thing because “they are how we pay for the important things that make our quality of life good, such as healthcare, education and roads.” That’s the highest level of support for taxes in Canada.

From that perspective, a majority of Alberta voters aren’t motivated by anger. What voters want is elected representation that reflects the demographics and social attitudes of the province in which they actually live. As evidence, see the election of Naheed Nenshi as mayor of Calgary in 2010, and see Alison Redford—a human-rights lawyer who worked on legal reform and constitutional issues in Africa, Asia and the post-war Balkans—as leader of the Progressive Conservatives after Ed Stelmach resigned in 2011.

In the 2011 PC leadership campaign, much was made of Redford’s promise to restore $107-million in education funding, which may have inspired the surge in people buying new PC memberships to bolster Redford’s come-from-behind win. It’s also likely that other factors were at play. As Stephen Carter, campaign strategist for both Nenshi and Redford, said in a speech he gave in Calgary after the provincial election: “What matters is the way we’re interacting with the media, the way we’re interacting with one another, and our social dynamic.”

During both campaigns, Redford insisted that the province has evolved and that in Alberta “our true future opportunities rely on where we fit globally.” Did Redford win the leadership of her party, and subsequently the province, because voters saw her as the best reflection of the new demographics of the province? Did she win in large part simply because she was the most relatable candidate? It’s possible.

If so, did the Wildrose lose in 2012 in part because they failed to take changed demographics into account? The party campaigned with a kick-the-bums-out agenda, and they got a lot of support early in the campaign because many people were angry with the PCs. What’s ironic is that with Redford as leader it was the PCs who’d changed the most. The Wildrose made the mistake of making that clear.

Early in the 2012 campaign, Danielle Smith went on the attack. “I think Ms. Redford doesn’t like Alberta all that much,” said Smith. “She doesn’t like our character. She wants to change it. I think that’s going to be the ballot question… Do we need to be changed?” Twitter and blog postings—doing the journalistic exposé work that was not done by the main newspapers and TV stations—pointed out that the opinions of many Wildrose candidates, including Allan “Lake of Fire” Hunsperger and Ron “Caucasian Advantage” Leech, were extreme outliers. The real question raised by Smith was not whether Redford “likes Alberta,” but which “we” Smith was referring to. What imaginary Alberta was she living in?

In today’s Alberta, bigotry is not only morally repugnant, it’s political death. Danielle Smith and the Wildrose should have known that. As Faron Ellis, a conservative activist, pollster and professor at Lethbridge College said back in 2009, when Smith was running for the leadership of the party, “If the Wildrose Alliance reverts to its old, traditional, social-conservative base, they are pretty much, from my perspective, dead in the water. There is little to no growth potential there in the modern, contemporary Alberta. There is a huge market for a more fiscally conservative party running the government, but Albertans are not interested in trading—backing off on some left-wing social engineering for a whole bunch of right-wing moral engineering.”

The implication, in other words, is that a majority of Albertans are young, upwardly mobile, socially progressive and don’t care about a candidate’s ethnic background or sexual orientation. Part of the defining mythos of Alberta no longer applies. Alberta is still a place where hard work and self-reliance are valued. It’s still a place where people come for a better life. But the province no longer only elects empires. The population is not homogeneous enough for that pattern to hold. We’re a mongrel hodgepodge of backgrounds, and that’s a good thing: in the future, political debates in Alberta won’t be about what constitutes a “real Albertan”; they’ll be about what constitutes a better life.

Soon debates won’t be about “real Albertans”; they’ll be about what constitutes a better life.

Alison Redford’s election win represents change for Alberta. But it doesn’t mean we’ve moved into a new era of enlightenment. The work of governance is different from the art of campaigning, and deep problems and contentious issues will challenge Redford’s promise to deliver a government both progressive and conservative. During the campaign, a report from the Centre for Law & Democracy rated Alberta’s access-to-information laws as the weakest in the country. Physicians’ complaints about intimidation have not been put to rest, and rural landowner fears about government expropriation remain valid concerns. The perception that Alberta functions like a company town is still alive and well in the rest of the country.

If Redford is serious about “building bridges,” including a national energy strategy to garner support for the province’s energy industry, she will need to show tangible proof that her promise of increased government accountability and transparency is not just fancy talk thrown up as a smokescreen for inaction. One of Redford’s post-election cabinet appointments made a nod in this direction. Rookie MLA Don Scott, who won the riding of Fort McMurray-Conklin, was appointed the province’s first Associate Minister of Accountability, Transparency & Transformation. “We’re going to go through conflict-of-interest legislation, we’re going to take a look at everything that has been raised with respect to elections financing, we’re going to… do a complete legislative sweep,” said Redford, “so that Albertans can have confidence that the system is working.”

In general, Redford’s cabinet appointments—announced on Twitter instead of at a press conference—went to a mix of established party veterans and first-time MLAs. What is most notable about the cabinet is the absence of overtly right-wing members such as Ted Morton, Ray Danyluk and Ty Lund, all of whom lost their seats in the last election. This cabinet will take direction from Redford, and the premier has not only promised to increase infrastructure funding for roads, schools and healthcare, but even apologized to the not-for-profit sector for downloading public services onto community agencies without providing enough government support.

She has also made statements that seem to indicate a genuinely democratic spirit. “I want to really revitalize the legislative process,” she has said. “I want legislative committees to work the way they should, and they should be all-party committees. They should be holding public hearings, and that’s where we should be talking about policy.”

The challenge for Redford’s progressive vision is that if she invests heavily in social programs, and isn’t able to balance the budget, she risks empowering the Wildrose, who in opposition will presumably now be myopically focused on fiscal issues. Raising oil and gas royalties is the easy answer to the question of where the extra money will come from, but Redford has promised not to touch the royalty rates. A balanced budget that includes increased infrastructure funding is thus likely dependent on oil prices moving back above $100 a barrel, and upon an increase in development in the oil sands. That in turn is dependent on getting more oil to market, through yet-to-be-constructed pipelines, at least two of which are aimed at getting oil to China, the biggest “secondary market” out there.

During the election, Redford pledged to attend the UN sustainable development conference in Rio de Janeiro. She didn’t end up going. As the premier announced on Facebook, she felt it was a greater priority to attend an investors forum in China, a country that’s hardly the poster child for responsible governance and respect for democratic institutions. Like the new Alberta, the Facebook premier may have a divided soul. Her rhetoric indicates she understands that a better life for all of us depends on strong democratic institutions. But will there be a gap between the aspiration and the action? If Redford’s government is to be more than a triumph of diminished expectations, it’s incumbent on us, the electorate, to pay attention to how the government acts, and to raise our voices if we don’t see the open and accountable government we need.

Tadzio Richards has won two National Magazine Awards and worked on documentaries for CBC and Discovery Channel.

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