Orange is the New Black

Premier-elect Rachel Notley celebrates the stunning upset that catapulted the Albteran NDP into power. (Photo Credit: CBC)

Premier-elect Rachel Notley celebrates the stunning upset that catapulted the Albteran NDP into power. (Photo Credit: CBC)

The New Democratic Party ends forty years of one-party rule in Canada’s most conservative province.

The socialists just conquered Texas.

For context, there are a lot of similarities between Canadian provinces and American states. One might say that Quebec and Louisiana share a certain je ne sais quoi. It can be hard to tell where British Columbia ends and Washington begins. And Alberta, with its oil barons and cowboy hats, reads like a Texan colony on the wrong side of the continent.

Home to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Alberta has emerged as the epicenter of a conservative renaissance in Canadian politics. The Athabasca oil sands – development of which spurred the controversial Keystone XL pipeline – fueled years of stunning economic growth and a half-century of dominance for the ruling Progressive Conservative Party.  It was a difficult record to fault, and the Prime Minister relied on Albertan success to bolster the credentials of his national Conservatives.

The dynamic served Harper well, but it served Jim Prentice better. The Premier – think governor of a U.S. state – received the unconditional support of a federal regime built almost entirely on the promise of Athabasca oil. Prentice enjoyed an enormous majority, with Progressive Conservatives in seventy of the eighty-seven seats in the provincial assembly, but he wanted more. He called for new elections earlier than necessary to cement conservative power before the bruising federal campaigns began in earnest.

Between his legion and opposition group Wildrose, conservative parties dominated public polling for months. Harper and Prentice had promised a black gold paradise, and for years they had delivered. But then the global oil market collapsed and crude plunged to $45 a barrel. The Albertan economy cratered, opening a $6 billion budget deficit and forcing the Conservatives to raise income taxes for the first time in nearly three decades. Dozens of new or increased fees, fines, and levies followed.

When the Great Recession hit the United States, Republican governors thought spending cuts and tax relief could reverse their financial fortunes. The Progressive Conservatives took a different tack, following the example of their more liberal neighbors to try and balance their books. Unfortunately, voters had bought the notion that Athabasca oil provided immunity from the petty problems of other provinces. As the narrative crumbled, more and more Albertans felt that they had been deceived from the start.

Enter the New Democratic Party (NDP), a group best described as the incarnation of every Republican delusion regarding President Barack Obama: the NDP opposes fossil fuel development of any kind, demands strict controls on carbon emitters to combat climate change, and openly advocates the large-scale redistribution of personal and corporate wealth. It’s difficult to describe them in familiar terms because most Americans simply don’t support politicians that far left. Sorry, Bernie.

When politicos warned that the Progressive Conservatives could lose the provincial elections, they assumed their seats would flip to Wildrose. Only faces would change, not public policies or the ideologies behind them. But when the dust finally settled last week, Prentice and his allies had lost a staggering sixty seats. Most of them had gone to the NDP, which rocketed from just four to a commanding fifty-three. The rest went to Wildrose, which secured twenty-one seats to remain the official opposition.

Within hours, Jim Prentice had resigned as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. In his place rose local NDP leader and Premier-Elect Rachel Notley, a charismatic woman determined to implement an agenda unlike any in Albertan history. She promised to review the royalties paid by oil companies, limit the influence of unions and corporations on political parties, raise the provincial minimum wage to $15 an hour, and increase taxes on those making more than $300,000 a year. Her vision would be ambitious for the American Québec, much less the Canadian Texas.

That Albertans have warmed to such a radical departure from their longstanding status quo speaks volumes. For nearly a decade, the Prime Minister argued that the invincible Albertan economy validated his starkly conservative policies. He succeeded in mirroring much of the worst America has to offer, from rampant corporatism to environmental degradation and omnibus legislation trading personal liberty for national security. Now, even his constituents have signaled that he may have gone too far.

No one ever thought that a group like the NDP had a chance in Alberta. Its voters were suspicious of liberals, proud of their conservatism, and certain of their own ideological supremacy. An economic miracle like the Athabasca oil boom excused any number of Progressive Conservative ills, but the collapse revealed how fragile a bargain they had struck. Now that voters have placed their trust in different hands, it falls to Notley and her allies to salvage the Albertan economy before it takes the rest of the country down with it.

As for the looming federal elections in October, the Albertan upset has everyone on high alert. The national NDP has proven capable and popular, and its firebrand leader Thomas Mulcair has won hearts and minds in his crusade against conservative excess. They have used their historic term as official opposition to great effect, but old habits die hard. The Liberal and Conservative stalwarts won’t go down without a fight.

Still, fortune favors the bold. An orange wave crashed through Edmonton, and with a little luck, Ottawa could be next.

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