Canadians forgive many things, but never the feeling that a politician looks down on them.
The Progressive Conservative party in Alberta is more of a religion than a political affiliation. You vote PC because, well, you've always voted PC, and for four decades the party has cleverly managed to adapt itself to the changing mood of the electorate. Like the BC Liberals, which include many conservatives, the Alberta Progressive Conservatives are a huge tent that includes many liberals and at least one leftish premier. It might have worked, too, if Allison Redford hadn't channeled her inner Bev Oda.
Despite the growing dissatisfaction Albertans felt with the ruling party, the election remained Jim Prentice's to lose. Though odds were stacked against him, there were too many missteps, and at the root of each was a failure to respect the intelligence of the Alberta voter. He will be criticized today for stepping down so soon, but the truth is he had no choice. Either the Progressive Conservative party is done, and no one can revive it. Or it's not quite done, but he can't revive it.
In 2012, as part of the Governor General's Canadian Leadership Conference, I watched more than one Eastern teammate come back from the study tour in Alberta having completely drunk the Kool-aid of what makes us tick, realizing then: "The Mayor of Calgary is Muslim, the Mayor of Edmonton is Jewish, and if you come here and work hard, they don't care who your daddy is."
It's precisely this independent, neighbourly spirit that elected Rachel Notley as Premier. With strong Northern Alberta roots, she is the daughter of former NDP leader Grant Notley. Her father tragically died in the same plane crash that injured my uncle Larry Shaben, then Minister of Economic Development, as they flew home to visit their families and constituents for the weekend. The friendship between those two men reflected a kinder, less partisan era, when work among legislators extended beyond party lines.
Rachel Notley symbolized this Alberta spirit in a way Jim Prentice never could. Although he had grown up in Alberta, and even worked in the coal mines as a young man, his "look in the mirror" comment to explain away the economic troubles of falling oil prices and budgetary shortfalls had more than a whiff of condescension.
Albertans did look in the mirror, and saw scant reward for 43 years of PC devotion. We all remember the bumper stickers from the 1980s that said "Please God, give us another oil boom. We promise not to piss it away this time." This is what strong governance is for. It's what led a group of Canada's biggest bank CEOs to petition the federal government for stricter regulations in a level playing field. We Canadians hate being torn between doing what's right and getting what's best for our own.
The party which held Alberta's wealth for decades, while assuring voters they were rich, would survive neither the discovery that they weren't, nor being blamed for it themselves. Albertans may have chosen to be a little gullible while times were good, but we never want to play the fool.
As Notley has carefully insulated her campaign from Thomas Mulcair, there is no way to know how this sweep will play out in October's Federal election. Now that the spell is broken, will the Liberals also gain support if they can prove that they are the party to provide change at the Federal level? Or is this genuinely the greatest party transformation in the history of Canada.
The challenge for Harper's government is to not let orange Alberta crush his dreams, without admitting his own disdain for the electorate that never fully supported his Reform/Alliance efforts. Where Harper once gave speeches mocking the PC party as "an oxymoron," exit polls show that a majority of Canadians who vote for the Harper Government still think they're voting for the Progressive Conservatives. This leaves no way for Harper to minimize the power of an NDP win in Alberta except to admit he never liked Progressive Conservatives in the first place. As a former Albertan, I can tell you that won't go over well.
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