Canada’s Tory stronghold euthanizes its tired PC dynasty

COVER by Gillian Steward

We know what has ended. The Albanian-like one-party state — that’s how Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi described Alberta a few days before the election — has crumbled.

And now we wait to see what an NDP government means for Alberta and the rest of the country.

Renowned for decades as a conservative bastion, Alberta has been painted from top to bottom in NDP orange. Large cities, small cities and rural areas elected NDP MLAs. It’s still hard to believe. For Albertans — and undoubtedly for many other Canadians — it feels like our very own fall of the Berlin Wall.

The NDP had four seats in the legislature before this election. Now they have 53 out of 87. Before the election, Rachel Notley was a two-term Edmonton MLA with only seven months’ experience as party leader. Now she is premier-designate.

No one predicted that the Progressive Conservatives, who governed this province for almost 44 years, and their politically pedigreed leader Jim Prentice, would be consigned to the far reaches of the opposition benches with only 10 seats. But it became clear, especially during the last week of the campaign, that most Albertans had had enough of the stale-dated Tories. It became an “anything but PC” election. Many people debated whether to vote for the right-wing Wildrose or the left-wing NDP, not seeming to know what each stood for except that they weren’t the PCs.

It’s definitely over for the PCs.

Prentice resigned from both the party leadership and the seat he had just won. He obviously didn’t come back to Alberta to be a loser. What’s left of the party is in complete disarray.

On election night at PC headquarters in downtown Calgary, there were more news media than PC supporters. Not one former cabinet minister or MLA showed up. A stony-faced Prentice bid his farewells to public life and quickly left the room. Then the TVs were turned off and the party flacks headed to the closest bar to drown their embarrassment.

The powerful PC political dynasty went out with a whimper.

There’s no question Stephen Harper’s government will have a very different clique of Alberta cabinet ministers to deal with than it has been used to. No longer will the federal/provincial relationships be so chummy. And they won’t likely be on the same page when it comes to energy policy. Or carbon taxes. Or pipelines. Or legislation designed to protect the environment.

Not that Notley and her crew are hard-core socialists. They are not. More like Liberals. Or more like the PCs of Peter Lougheed’s time, who tried to balance the unrelenting appetite of capitalism by creating a strong government-supported public sector that invested in education, health care, social services, as well as universities and their research and development capacities.

Lougheed also liked to remind the captains of industry that the oil and gas in the ground is owned by all Albertans who deserve a decent rent payment from those who want a piece of that ground so they can extract and sell what is underneath.

How the Notley government will tackle many of these issues remains to be seen. There is not a lot of political expertise among those newbie MLAs. There are a lot of social workers, union representatives and directors of non-profits. All good people to be sure but it’s going to be interesting to see who will be named finance minister and energy minister, the two most important portfolios in Alberta.

It was in the summer of 1971, in a hotel not far from the downtown Calgary conference centre where PCs gathered on Tuesday night to mourn their losses, that Lougheed led the PCs to their first astounding victory.

Before that election the PCs had only six seats and no one was predicting that they would rout the long-standing Social Credit government.

But they did and now almost half a century later that era is finally over.

Maybe it’s a good thing that Lougheed, who died three years ago, never lived to see this day. Never lived to see the daughter of one of his fiercest opponents, NDP leader Grant Notley, move into his former office in the legislature.

But then Lougheed would probably have a hard time believing it, too.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.