How is it that Alberta elected an NDP government in 2015 and now appears to be poised to do so again? As the province ostensibly considered to be Canada’s conservative heartland, it seems inconceivable that Alberta would put Rachel Notley back in the premier’s chair. But if current polls are to be believed, that is exactly what would happen if an election were held tomorrow.
So what the heck is going on in Alberta?
Most Albertans are indeed conservative-leaning. In elections, we overwhelmingly choose conservative options on the ballot. The thing is, we are loyal to conservative principles, not parties. Party brand and history means nothing to us. If we think a party has drifted from the basic principles of conservatism, we will vote for a different party. If a different conservative party isn’t available, we will create one. We have done that federally and provincially repeatedly since the province was formed.
A little background is required to explain this unique trait of Albertans.
Alberta is a frontier. It is a place where people move to in order to make a better future for themselves. In the early part of the last century, agriculture drew ambitious settlers from within Canada and around the world. Later, it was the development of oil and gas that brought waves of new citizens.
It takes a certain kind of person who is willing to take a chance, leave their friends, family, and all that is familiar to them in order to make a new life in the Wild West. The people who migrate like that are chance-takers and individualists. They are not conformists, and they have little use for authoritarianism. These are conservative-minded people who believe in direct, hands-on solutions to problems. If a political party is no longer considered to be serving them, they will either fix it or replace it. Supporting an unprincipled party based on loyalty to a brand is simply not a consideration.
Historically, when Albertans got upset enough to form a new party, that party would take off with such vigour that it would obliterate the party in power. We saw that happen with the United Farmers of Alberta (1921–1935), which wiped out the Liberal government and was subsequently knocked off by the new Alberta Social Credit Party a few election cycles later. In 2015, the Wildrose Party gained enough support to reduce the Progressive Conservatives’ 70 seats at dissolution to nine but didn’t gather enough steam to win government. The unexpected and devastating outcome was the NDP winning a majority government, with 54 seats, with only 40 percent of the vote.
Jason Kenney offered a plan to merge the two conservative parties in order to ensure that the Notley government remained a single-term anomaly. While the process was heated and messy, Kenney managed to cobble together a new, merged entity under the United Conservative Party banner. It was an impressive feat, as was winning a majority government in 2019. Since then, things have gone nowhere but downhill for Premier Kenney. He may know how to win government, but he doesn’t seem to know how to manage it.
While Kenney promised a lean government true to conservative principles, he increased spending and struck commissions to examine rather than deliver on election promises. Direct democracy promises got moved to the back burner while the missteps of the energy “war room” quickly drew criticism.
Along with disappointing his conservative base, Kenney infuriated the left with such actions as picking fights with Alberta’s doctors over salaries, proposing coal mining in the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, and changing the nature of provincial parks. These may have been policies worthy of examining, but the UCP government’s ham-handed approach to them left openings for the NDP to claim that Kenney wanted to tear down mountains, drive doctors from the province, and to sell off our provincial parks.
Kenney’s flip-flop approach on COVID-19 restrictions has now led to a full-blown caucus revolt. Sixteen MLAs, representing a quarter of his caucus, signed a letter that harshly criticized his latest lockdowns. Kenney’s response, according to a Western Standard report, was to threaten them with calling a general election. I can’t think of a more ineffective way to try and quell the upstart MLAs than that, and it demonstrates that Kenney truly has lost touch with Albertan thinking.
I suspect Kenney’s threat was hollow, but it has to be understood that if he did call an election, Albertans would reject him at the polls. We would rather take our chances with the possibility of another NDP government than be bullied into partisan compliance with the threat of it.
The NDP is polling in majority territory right now in Alberta. We have two more years before we are due for another election and a lot can change in that time. Either Premier Kenney is going to learn how to understand and lead Albertans or another conservative party will be developing on his right flank. That new party may form government, or it may indeed lead to another NDP government.
One thing can be counted on though: Albertans will always vote based on principle rather than party—even if they end up hurting themselves.
Cory Morgan is a columnist and business owner based in Calgary.