The following column originally appeared in the March 13, 2008 Prairie Dog. Thanks to Nigel Hood for suggesting I put it on Dog Blog. –Steve

Thank You For Not Voting

Alberta election 2008: another stunning victory for “None of the Above” | by John F. Conway

John ConwayAlberta’s royal mace and crown have now officially passed from King Ralph to Emperor Ed as a result of that province’s March 3 election.

Tory Premier Ed Stelmach won 72 of 83 seats with 53 per cent of the popular vote, cutting the Liberals from 16 to nine seats (26.5 per cent) and the NDP from four to two (8.5 per cent). The Greens and the right-wing Wild Rose Alliance were left in the dust with about six per cent each and no seats.

But the real story is not the continuation of the Tory dynasty, which first won power in 1971.

Despite a few bumps in the campaign — expressions of doubt and anger, a lot of complaining about the overheated economy and the collapsing infrastructure, polls revealing a yearning for change and worries about those left behind, and the rape of the environment — the Tory victory was never in doubt.

The real story of the Alberta election is the voter turnout, now at 41.3 per cent — the worst in Canada. In fact the Alberta election was a landslide victory of 58.7 per cent for “none of the above”.

This is the second consecutive landslide for the “none of the above” party, having crushed King Ralph’s Tories in 2004 with 55.3 per cent. The fact is Emperor Ed, despite his victory, has no clothes, having won the support of a paltry 21.9 per cent of Alberta’s eligible voters. That’s just a hair over one in five.

The crown will not rest easily on Emperor Ed’s head, haunted by the fact that 78.1 per cent of Alberta’s voters did not support him. There is no doubt disillusionment with the Stelmach government will begin growing quickly. Aware of cracks in Tory support when he took over from Klein, Stelmach made some promises he won’t keep. He provoked a phoney war with the oil companies over a proposal to increase oil royalties by $1.4 billion a year starting in 2009. This helped cover up the revelation that the province had failed to collect millions in royalties due under the existing royalty regime, and painted Stelmach as a man who could stand up for Alberta against the oil big shots. He has already promised the oil industry a review of his promise to increase royalties.

Stelmach, sniffing the polls, also expressed worries about the terrible pollution and water overuse caused by tarsands development (Alberta is Canada’s worst greenhouse gas emitter thanks to the tarsands), but in the same breath quietly exempted tarsands developments from the recommendation for more oversight and control made by Alberta’s Royalty Review Panel. The tarsands environmental policy Stelmach promised during the election, under the telling slogan “Change That Works for Albertans” , is to do nothing for the next 12 years and then to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a meagre 14 per cent by 2050. So the destruction of Alberta’s environment will continue, and the air we all breathe will continue to be fouled by the tarsands, and the water we all need will continue to be sucked up at an accelerating rate in order to increase tarsands oil production.

The oil industry still runs Alberta. The Stelmach government is the oil industry’s government — he and his party are owned by the industry. Oil also owns our Prime Minister and all those Alberta Tory seats propping up his minority government. The stakes are huge: the industry will take $23 billion in profits just out of tarsands in 2008.

And as tarsands production continues to boom, thanks to $100 oil, these profits will increase astronomically over the immediate future.

So it appears the only change Emperor Ed stands for is “not much”. Albertans aren’t happy about that, but for now they’re only engaging in a sort of passive resistance by not voting and disengaging from electoral politics.

But that could change quickly — especially in Alberta, given its political history.

Once upon a time, Albertans were among the most politically active and progressive of all Canadians, often leading the charge for fundamental reform.

When the farmers rebelled in the post-World War I era and into the 1920s, the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) won provincial power and governed from 1921 to 1935. When the Progressive Party emerged in federal politics in Canada, uniting farmers and workers against the “Special Interests” — the bankers, the railway barons, the industrialists and the hopelessly corrupt old-line parties — voters in Alberta elected Progressives in 11 of 12 seats with 57 per cent of the vote. Alberta’s Progressive MPs were among the most radical in the House of Commons, forming the famous “Ginger Group”.

And the left-leaning Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was founded at a meeting in Calgary in 1932. Canada’s first official CCF government was the UFA government in Alberta (after the UFA formally affiliated with the CCF).

Then in the midst of the Great Depression William Aberhart’s Social Credit movement swept the province in a campaign against the “Fifty Big Shots” of finance capitalism and the “Bankers’ Toadies” of the old-line parties. At that time Alberta was seen by the establishment as flirting with communism as Aberhart tried to implement his Social Credit plan against the wishes of the banks backed up loyally by the government in Ottawa.

What happened in Alberta? How did the most left-wing and politically engaged province in Confederation become the most right-wing and politically disengaged province 70 years later?

There are two answers: Ernest Manning (yes, Preston’s father) and the discovery of oil.

When William Aberhart died in 1943, having won handy re-election in 1940 during his ongoing battle against finance capitalism and Ottawa, his young protégé, Ernest Manning, succeeded him as premier. Immediately Manning turned the party and the government sharply to the right. He made peace with the banks, bondholders (Aberhart had refused to pay anything but interest on the provincial debt until it was reduced to his liking) and oil companies — who had become aware of Alberta’s potential and made it clear they wanted a more “reasonable” government before making large investments.

In 1944 Ernest Manning won the election in a vicious, anti-communist, red-baiting campaign against the CCF, extolling capitalism and free enterprise and sending his party’s radical past to join Aberhart in his grave. From 1944 on Alberta became the bastion of the right in Canadian politics thanks to Manning’s successful political betrayal of the principles of his mentor. The Leduc oil strike of 1947, which led to a massive infusion of investment by oil companies, turned Alberta, with the eager co-operation of the Manning government, into a fiefdom of the American oil industry to rival what Saudi Arabia was to become.

But the radical history is what haunts the oil companies and their right-wing supporters in Alberta. If the farmers can turn Alberta on an ideological dime in 1921, and Aberhart can again do it in 1935, and Manning can do it again in 1944, then it could happen again. A new movement, a new party, an old reconstructed party, a charismatic leader, an angry electorate, could again turn Alberta leftward on a dime in the future.

Very worrisome, very worrisome indeed. Capitalism has always found democracy to be a nuisance.