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The Alberta Election Proves the Power of the Vote

05/07/2015 12:14 EDT | Updated 05/07/2016 05:59 EDT
Shutterstock / Sadik Gulec

Politicians should not take electorates for granted, or think they are easily predictable. The Alberta election showed the power of the vote, when the 44-year Tory dynasty lost the confidence of Albertans, that confidence was lost in a spectacular way. In a province perceived as the conservative heartland, where the federal Conservatives hold all but one seat, an NDP majority government was elected.

In this context, it is worth considering the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island elections as well. While the changes there may not seem as dramatic, Atlantic Canadian conservatism -- conservativism not in the rightwing sense but in being averse to supporting new parties -- was rebuked. New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are only the second and third provinces in the country to elect Green MLAs. The two coasts, British Columbia on the west coast and Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick on the east coast, are at the forefront, with the growth of the Green Party in these provinces. (Full disclosure, I worked on the provincial Liberal campaign in the last New Brunswick election.)

In New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, the electorate showed a desire to see new voices in their respective Legislatures. In addition to the Greens winning elected representation, the provincial NDP nearly quadrupled its popular vote. The increased vote for the NDP and Greens (and elected representation for the latter) are notable stories of that election.

In New Brunswick, the provincial NDP ran to the centre and featured ex-Liberals and ex-Tories as candidates. Meanwhile, in reaction to this, much of the traditional NDP base (in Fredericton at least) supported the Green Party and elected leader party leader David Coon to the Legislature. Though it is worth noting that the New Brunswick NDP, while electing no MLAs, did see a small increase in its popular vote from 10 to 13 per cent even while losing what could have been considered a "safe" NDP seat to the Greens.

In both Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, the electorates showed a willingness to defy traditional voting patterns. Both Green campaigns had strong grassroots support, strong ground games in targeted ridings, and a strong social media presence. Of course the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives remain dominant forces in both provinces, but it shows a new electoral environment they are contending with. One could also see the growth of the Green parties on the two coasts as reflecting a growing importance of promoting an environmentally sustainable economy.

So, to Alberta where there was a spectacular change, one that was noticed by American media outlets including the New York Times. Of course -- as blogger Dan Arnold (a.k.a. Calgary Grit) notes -- while the political change is a sudden and dramatic one, it does reflect longer term (and more gradual) changes that had been taking place in the province. Alberta is a diverse and multicultural province with thriving and growing cities, with Edmonton and Calgary taking their place among Canada's larger cities. Calgary's mayor, Naheed Nenshi, is the first Muslim mayor of a major Canadian city.

While the desire for change can sometimes trump party platforms, one cannot help but notice that Notley does not unconditionally support all oil pipelines and has raised concerns about environmental sustainability in the oil and gas sector. There is no reason to believe the oil and gas sector will not continue strongly under Notley, but it could reflect a reaction by the public to the boom and bust nature of this sector. There could be a greater recognition of the need to diversify the province's economy, to not be too dependent on one sector. In the long-term, Alberta's future is likely to look more like the economically and culturally diverse cities of Calgary and Edmonton.

Alberta NDP leader and premier designate Rachel Notley conveys a sincerity that must have appealed to the electorate as well. This could speak to a distaste for opportunistic and elite politics, the earlier defection of Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and the bulk of her party's caucus to the then-governing Progressive Conservatives. In the age of social media, of an empowered, vocal, and connected citizenry, politicians cannot take their supporters for granted. They should not see voters and hardworking volunteers as merely props, stepping stones, in their own career ambitions. (By the way, Danielle Smith lost her Progressive Conservative nomination bid.)

The fact that the Wildrose, despite its recent disarray, finished with more seats than Danielle Smith won in the last election (and is now the official opposition) is a testament to the reaction against Danielle Smith's floor-crossing. Voters respect sincerity and conviction, they do not respect what looks like opportunism, elitism, and disregard for the volunteers and the electorate in the name of careerism.

It is hard to posit what all this means in federal politics. No doubt the federal NDP are more confident about Alberta and the Conservatives worried about their blue fortress. No doubt the Greens see the potential for gains, a growing movement. Still, the federal campaign will be very different from provincial campaigns, with its own issues and turning points, and its own personalities.

However, maybe this can be said for confidence, no one can take anything for granted. Surprises can and do happen, and politicians must respect voters unafraid to turn tradition upside down.

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