Alberta election 2015: NDP win a different kind of 'miracle on the Prairies'

She ran a near-perfect campaign. Jim Prentice certainly didn't. But Rachel Notley's crushing NDP majority is not some counter-intuitive fluke, Kathleen Petty writes. It is also an expression of the way Albertans see themselves.

From fourth to first in 28 days, it is how dynasties end, at least in Alberta

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley laughs as she enters a campaign rally in Calgary on Saturday. Her party won a convincing majority of seats even in former Conservative bastions. (The Canadian Press)

Not that it happens often, but when it does, Albertans give governments the ol' heave-ho with vigour and brutality.

Virtually no one believed the polls leading up to yesterday's vote that suggested an NDP government; or at least would admit they believed them. Many here are still in a state of disbelief.

Usually autopsies aren't done when there's life left in the corpse, but in politics, when you've been drawn and quartered by the electorate, it's a mercy to get on with it. And Premier Jim Prentice was right to resign immediately as he did last night.

Remember, when you lose government in Alberta, you're done, finished, kaput. No defeated government party has ever been a political force again.

In this case, defeat has to be more cutting as the chattering classes had anointed Prentice as the saviour of Alberta's PC's long before he even confirmed his intention to run.

Once he did make it official, one editorial writer credited an unnamed colleague with saying "Not since [Peter] Lougheed can I recall another provincial politician who knows every file so intimately."

A long time party organizer, Susan Elliott, who ran the Alison Redford campaign, ruminated on how daunting Prentice's entry would be to possible challengers: "I don't know if that's a judgement about whether  he is unbeatable or whether it's that he would be a superb leader, or maybe both."

Perhaps Prentice also felt he could do no wrong. After all, he did many things right in the early going; small things, but symbolically significant. He put the government jets, used so "liberally" by Redford on the auction block and he doubled down on the pledge to build more schools.

But then came what was seen as the arrogance and the hubris.

Jim Prentice was the man who would have been saviour, but instead he will go down as the Alberta Conservative leader who lost a 44-year-old dynasty. (The Canadian Press)

Albertans, whether they supported the Wildrose Party or not, were deeply offended by the orchestrated routing of that party in December. The mass floor-crossing by leader Danielle Smith and others just seemed anti-democratic and fundamentally unfair.

"Look in the mirror" came next. It was bad enough that Prentice suggested Albertans had no one to blame but themselves for the fiscal mess the province was in. He also left the impression he didn't include himself in that admonishment.

Prentice had taken great pains since becoming premier to remind people he hadn't been around for all the bad decisions. In fact, the inference was, he'd arrived just in time to save us from ourselves.

Last-straw budget

The final straw was a budget that picked everyone's pocket except corporations. And showing a surprisingly tin ear to how that might play, he decided to put that budget to voters — ignoring fixed election legislation — and triggering an election Albertans clearly didn't want. Oops!

In the dying days of the campaign Albertans saw newspapers controlled by Toronto owners and publishers, endorse Prentice.

We heard businessmen, who had contributed to the Tory party, not only complain about the prospect of higher corporate taxes under an NDP government, but one CEO threatened "if there's no bottom line, then there's no money that goes to charities."

For many Albertans, the choices seemed to crystalize during the debate. Prentice elevated NDP Leader Rachel Notley by ignoring all but her. Notley, elevated herself by winning a head-on battle with a man who, not long before, was considered unbeatable.

Alberta Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, who like Prentice was another former federal Conservative MP, has brought his party back from the brink to secure its role as Official Opposition. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

But this election wasn't about some counterintuitive shift to the left.

While Alberta is often described as Canada's most conservative province, meaning both small "c" and big "C", it's not as simple as that.

I remember talking with Peter Lougheed in 2011 about what I felt was the enigma that is the Alberta voter. He didn't find those people nearly as mysterious.

The revered former PC leader, the man who began the 44-year-old dynasty, described Albertans as "centrist." Yup. Centrist.

Lougheed argued that Albertans rewarded what they determined was good government and supported the party that was best at reflecting and acting on the needs and aspirations of regular people. 

He felt the PCs understood that.  Well, maybe in his day.

'Miracle on the Prairies'

So if this election wasn't about ideology, was it about the economy?

The price of oil has plummeted before – many times before. That economic rhythm of a resource province is understood at a visceral level.

Naturally, there is a desire for political probity during uncertain economic times, but Albertans don't fear the bumps and bruises that come from a rocky energy market just as they clearly don't fear Rachel Notley's NDP.

A lot has been made about demographics. The argument is that because Alberta's population is now more diverse, it's more open to change. Calgary's Naheed Nenshi, Canada's first big-city Muslim mayor, is often cited as exhibit A.

But this is not new. In fact, between 1996 and 2006, Alberta's visible minority population increased three times faster than overall population growth, and the influx from other provinces has been nothing short of staggering. 

Notley, the next premier of Alberta, perhaps said it best. "There is a national urban myth about the values of Albertans," she says. "We are a young province, a very diverse province. We are very progressive and forward-looking on a lot of issues, more so than a lot of other parts of the country."

Change has seemed inevitable before. In 1993, the Liberals, led by Laurence Decore posed a real threat to the ruling Tories, then led by a new leader, Ralph Klein.

The Liberals captured 40 per cent of the vote, not far off what Notley's NDP won last night. The 1993 NDP were completely shut out.

That election is often referred to as "the miracle on the Prairies" in PC circles. But miracles, at least for Jim Prentice's Tories, were in short supply this time around.

Chart: Alberta election 2015 seat changes including the tie in Calgary-Glenmore ("Undecided") (Canadian Press)


Kathleen Petty

CBC Calgary's Executive Producer

Kathleen Petty is the one of the founding producers of what is now called CBC News Network. Petty created and produced several shows for the network while also hosting for more than 17 years. In 2006, she moved to radio and hosted the national political affairs program, The House on CBC radio along with national election coverage as well as hosting the local #1 morning show in Ottawa. Since then, Petty has written political analysis for and is now executive producer of CBC News in Calgary.