Alberta’s Election Formula by Bruce Cinnamon

“Politicians and diapers must be changed often,” said Mark Twain, “and for the same reason.”

No matter what you think of Alberta’s political parties, it’s clear that our province has seldom followed Twain’s pithy advice. Before May 5, Albertans had only changed their government three times in 110 years. To put that another way, we have now had 29 general elections, and only 4 of them have seen the incumbent government fail to win re-election.

Indeed, a change of government has become such an uncommon phenomenon in our province that many people were stunned by the NDP’s majority sweep and the end of the 43-year-old PC dynasty. Coupled with May 6’s freak snowstorm, the “hell freezing over” jokes wrote themselves.

But the NDP’s dark horse victory should come as no surprise. One glimpse into Alberta’s political history reveals that we’ve seen this story before. The 2015 election followed the same formula as the past three changes of government, in 1921, 1935, and 1971. Rather than being an unprecedented political upheaval, it is the continuation of a century-old trend.

Alberta’s change-of-government election formula can be expressed thusly:

  1. Take one decades-old political dynasty.
  2. Introduce a new, unfamiliar premier who inherits said dynasty.
  3. Stir the pot with some economic turmoil.
  4. Whisk in a comparatively charismatic opposition leader.
  5. Simmer on increasing heat for 28 days.

Et voilà. New government in five easy steps.

The NDP’s massive gain in seats (from a caucus of 4 Edmonton MLAs to a province-wide team of 53) mirrors the Progressive Conservatives’ own come-from-behind victory in 1971. In the 1967 election, Peter Lougheed led a team of 6 MLAs into the Legislature. Four years later, his party won 49 out of 75 seats—sweeping Edmonton and unexpectedly making advances in Calgary. Sound familiar?

The other two changes of government followed the same pattern. In 1935, William Aberhart brought his brand-new Social Credit party from no seats at all to a huge majority, winning 56 out of 63 seats. In 1921, Henry Wise Wood led the United Farmers of Alberta from 3 seats to 38 out of 61.

The UFA was itself a prairie socialist party, and in some ways the NDP draws its political genealogy from Alberta’s second government (many of whose members migrated to Tommy Douglas’s Cooperative Commonwealth Federation after their 1935 defeat). After an eighty-year hiatus, a new generation of Albertans—many of whom are immigrants from parts of Canada where governments have changed a couple of times since the Vietnam War—are giving progressives another turn at the wheel.

Regardless of parties and policies, it is clear that no matter how much changes in Alberta, our voting patterns remain consistent. To paraphrase The Most Interesting Man in the World, “I don’t always change governments. But when I do, I change them big time.” Alberta has never had a minority government, and each new dynasty has ridden into the legislature on a huge majority wave of support—orange or otherwise.

The wild card which throws a wrench into this historical interpretation is of course the Wildrose party. In our other three examples, only two parties were in serious contention. Once the new government had displaced the old, their predecessors were banished to the political wilderness. Once shown the door by voters, no party has ever formed government again in Alberta.

This time, the NDP has not delivered a fatal blow to its opposition and emerged as Alberta’s single dominant party. They will not have the political advantage of governing without any concerted opposition for a generation.

The Wildrose party’s fortunes have been wildly inconsistent since their formation in 2008. As a young, upstart party, they looked poised to follow Alberta’s election formula in 2012, just like the brand-new UFA and SoCreds before them. Of course, their momentum fizzled out in the last infamous moments of the 2012 campaign. The mass exodus of Wildrose floor-crossers to the PC benches in December of 2014 seemed to all but guarantee their electoral doom.

But the May 5th vote saw them returned to the Legislature with a renewed mandate. Which means our new NDP government faces not a defeated rump caucus, but an invigorated official opposition party whose Lazarus-like victory will only revitalize its base and propel it further.

In other words, for the first time, both the government and the official opposition were elected with hope and forward momentum—not one at the expense of the other.

For this reason, despite the fact that the 2015 election followed our old familiar narrative, the next few years will be predictably unpredictable for Alberta politics. Partisan pundits will try to solidify their team’s momentum, instilling a sense of inevitability and natural governance (which is the lifeblood of dynasties).

If the trend holds, the NDP will have an average of 27 years to build their fortress before they have to worry about it crumbling down. In a humourous reversal of the last eight decades, it is now the conservative commentators’ turn to grouse about vote-splitting and a need to unite the right.

But the Wildrose has proved itself to be an effective official opposition in the past, and will be holding the new government’s feet to the flames. The PCAA’s organizational structure is still unparalleled, and they may yet recover under a new leader. The Liberals have been shut out of the Legislature before, and come roaring back as official opposition (as have the NDP, and look where that carried them). And the Alberta Party’s first MLA will be introducing an entirely new political animal to our menagerie under the Legislature dome.

The history of Alberta’s NDP era has yet to be written. Anything could happen. Perhaps we will see a new dynasty, or perhaps the era of dynasties itself has died. But at least at its inception, our new government has followed an old narrative. Far from being a mind-blowing development, these recent events are par for the course.

Which is why, besides Mark Twain’s witty quote, the 2015 election calls to mind another aphorism:

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

CC Photography courtesy of Flickr user Don Voaklander

Related posts: