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What Happened in Alberta? Look No Further Than Frustrated Citizens

05/06/2015 05:16 EDT | Updated 05/06/2016 05:59 EDT
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Born and raised in Calgary, I watched in fascination, along with the rest of the country, as Alberta's seemingly invincible PC juggernaut fell prey to a resounding defeat in this week's election. Thanks to polling, we got hints that a sea change could transpire, but, still, the results were stirring, even seismic.

Everyone has an opinion on what happened in Alberta, and, as usual, commentators delight in centering in on party politics to determine what really happened. But the real story is to be found in the collective frustrations of citizens themselves and how the once happy claimants to a prosperous province nevertheless pivoted in a fashion that still smacks of the unbelievable.

It all leaves us with a smoldering question: is what happened in Alberta a portend of what might be occurring in politics generally, and a disillusioned citizenry specifically? Did the Alberta change signal a wider reform? We don't yet know, but even south of the border something seems different.

Take Bernie Sanders as an example. The veteran Vermont senator, long disparaged as an extreme voice from the Left, has suddenly found traction, and his recently announced candidacy for President has galvanized a whole new wave of interest in economic and political change. Even five years ago pundits would have regarded such a move as ludicrous, and would have thought the same of the NDP's chances of winning the Alberta election. Regularly regarded as extremists, the reality is that as the socialist movement has sailed itself closer to the centre of the political spectrum, so the disillusionment among citizens in general has caused them to view the left's message of inclusiveness and financial reform in a new light.

Leaders like Sanders and new Alberta premier, Rachel Notley, have given an authentic voice to the umbrage of the age. I knew and worked with former Alberta premier Jim Prentice for a number of years in the House of Commons. He was one of the few truly respected ministers, known for being respectful and considerate. And yet for all those personal skills he was out of touch with where people in his home province were situated. Notley, on the other hand, instinctively understood their angst and capitalized on it to victory.

The rather electric effects of Sanders in recent weeks is similar to that enjoyed by Senator Elizabeth Warren -- another strong voice speaking out against the extremes of the modern financial system.

But that is just the thing: is what citizens are restless about something to do with the wealthy individuals who have benefited to extensively from the growing gap between rich and poor, or is it the financial/political system itself and how society overall is being restructured in a way that takes away meaning? This is a vital distinction, one that hasn't yet been clearly defined in Canada. Both the NDP and the Liberals are attempting to find the electoral sweet spot. Inherent in all this is the belief that potential voters will swing their way if they can be perceived as being tougher on the wealthy.

It is yet to be seen if this approach will actually succeed in a larger political arena, but it nevertheless leaves the financial system itself largely untouched. Just at political reform has seemed impossible when parties control the levers of power, there is no reason to suspect that the financial powers will willingly succumb to fundamental restructuring so that wealth is more evenly experienced.

Key to all this is determining whether citizens are angry at the wealthy themselves, or a system that is slowly undermining the national consensus. Even those of the middle-class, with enough disposable income to survive the rigors of economic twist and turns, fret over the decline of our collective quality of life. Both Sanders and Warren have tapped into this larger concern, becoming something of folk heroes in the process; we have yet to see if Canadian politicians can master it.

As author Emmeline Pankhurst cogently put it:

"Governments have always tried to crush reform movements, to destroy ideas, to kill the thing that cannot die. Without regard to history, which shows that no Government has ever succeeded in doing this, they go on trying in the old, senseless way."

As the NDP victory in Alberta likely reveals, the real issue is not targeting the wealthy but capturing the wealth itself for a more prosperous society. Sooner or later that will become the overriding issue and then politics will get into the real purpose of its existence.

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