Calgary at a Crossroads

Rachel Notley and her NDP government have major challenges in 2016.

The most obvious is the collapsing price of oil and the subsequent major downturn in the Alberta economy.

Other major challenges include implementing the controversial Bill 6 on farm safety; completing the oil and gas royalty review; gaining market access for Alberta's oil; and handling the backlash over the escalating budget deficit, increased taxes and the carbon tax.

But these economic and political challenges are compounded by one of Alberta's most enduring political features: the Calgary-Edmonton rivalry.

Political economy

The Calgary-Edmonton rivalry goes well beyond the Flames vs. the Oilers or the Stampeders vs. the Eskimos.

It is a story of Alberta's political capital vs. its economic capital. It is about Calgary's head offices, conservative ideology, white-collar workers, and private-sector economy vs. Edmonton's provincial legislature, liberal ideology, blue-collar workers, and public-sector economy.

This rivalry's challenge for Notley has both political and economic elements.

The NDP, despite winning seats in other parts of Alberta, is still widely seen as an Edmonton-based party. In the May 2015 election, the NDP swept every Edmonton seat as well as the ones in the surrounding communities of Leduc, Sherwood Park, St. Albert and Stony Plain.

In total, the NDP won all 27 greater Edmonton seats.

The NDP also won these seats with overwhelming support. In every Edmonton constituency, the NDP won with over 50 per cent, and there were 12 ridings with over 60 per cent — and, incredibly, five of them with over 70 per cent.

In addition, Premier Notley and six of the 13 cabinet ministers are from Edmonton. In contrast, there are only three cabinet ministers from Calgary.

Many of the NDP's closest political allies, the union members in Alberta Union of Public Employees, the Alberta Federation of Labour, the Alberta Teachers Association, and the United Nurses of Alberta are also based in Edmonton.

But winning Edmonton, even sweeping it, would not have allowed the NDP to form a government.

The key is Calgary


Former premier Jim Prentice from Calgary, and Premier Rachel Notley from Edmonton, square off in a debate prior to the 2015 election. Notley will have to court Calgary ahead of elections in 2019. (CBC)

There is an old saying in Alberta politics, that to form a majority government you need to win two thirds of Calgary, Edmonton, and rural Alberta. The NDP won Edmonton, but lost rural Alberta (12 of 35 seats).

The key, as it was for the former PC dynasty, was Calgary.

The NDP had not won a Calgary seat since 1989, but won 15 of 25 in the provincial election. However, much of their success was due to vote splitting. None of the NDP MLAs won with over 50 per cent of the vote and 12 of them won with less than 40 per cent. With their margin of victory so tenuous, keeping these Calgary seats will be a major challenge for Notley and the NDP. 

While Alberta's capital is in Edmonton, in the past Calgary political brokers have tried to ensure the premier and key advisors are from Calgary.

For example, during the PC dynasty, the Calgary premiers (Peter Lougheed, Ralph Klein, Alison Redford and Jim Prentice) were in power 30 years and five months.

Meanwhile, the Edmonton premiers (Don Getty, Ed Stelmach, Dave Hancock) were in power for only 12 years and four months. In addition, rumours continue to abound that the oil sector based in Calgary helped to hasten the departure of Stelmach because of his royalty review and other irritants to the Calgary crowd.

Managing this rivalry is difficult for any political leader, but it is tougher when the province is going through one of its periodic bust cycles.

For example, when Klein tackled the debt/deficit crisis of the early 1990s, he did it through dramatic reductions in spending (including wage rollbacks of public sector workers), which disproportionately hurt Edmonton. Not incidentally, Edmonton elected an entire Liberal caucus in the 1993 election, shutting out Klein's governing Progressive Conservatives (PC).

In contrast to 1993, the current economic crisis has disproportionately hurt Calgary. 

Heading to 2019

Alta Climate Change 20151122

Premier Rachel Notley unveils Alberta's climate strategy in Edmonton in November 2015. She was flanked by leaders from Calgary's oil and gas sector. (Amber Bracken/Canadian Press)

Between December 2014 and December 2015, Calgary's unemployment rate rose to 6.7 per cent from 4.5 per cent, but Edmonton's unemployment rate only rose to 5.8 per cent from 4.3 per cent. 

This discrepancy was largely due to two interrelated factors. First, the amount of private sector layoffs that were more widely felt in Calgary. Second, the decision of the NDP government to maintain, and in fact, increase public sector spending which partially protected Edmonton from further job losses.

The NDP defended this decision, saying it would not violate signed contracts and that it had campaigned on further investments into education and health care. The NDP also noted that it did not want to exacerbate the unemployment situation by laying off more workers. However, it was portrayed by the NDP's critics as playing off public-sector workers versus private-sector workers and in defending Edmonton at the expense of Calgary.

I suspect that in the 2019 election, the NDP will continue to dominate Edmonton and the Wildrose Party will dominate rural Alberta.

This means, as in previous elections, that Calgary will be the battleground. This means that Notley, starting in 2016, needs to address Calgary's political and economic concerns without alienating her base in Edmonton.

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.