Why Canada's election shocker wasn't all that surprising

A progressive party swept Canada's most conservative province. But it's less of a political earthquake than you might think.

Alberta New Democratic Party leader Rachel Notley.
(Image credit: (REUTERS/Dan Riedlhuber))

The Canadian province of Alberta was founded in 1905. Since then, the governing party has changed only four times, and only twice since 1935. So Tuesday's election, knocking the Progressive Conservative Party out of power for the first time in 44 years, would be a political earthquake under any circumstances. Even more surprising, however, was the identity of the winner. The successful challenge to the dynastic leadership of Canada's most conservative province did not come from the right but from the left, in the form of new premier Rachel Notley and the traditionally democratic socialist label of the New Democratic Party.

As the brilliant Canadian journalist Jeet Heer puts it, "Imagine if a political party made up of Chris Hayes, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren swept into power in Texas and Mississippi." For reasons I will discuss, this is somewhat overstated, but it still captures the basic flavor of the event. Even a few months ago, the idea of the NDP — which held four out of 87 seats in Alberta's legislative assembly and got less than 10 percent of the popular vote in the 2012 elections — capturing an absolute majority might have seemed fantastical, no matter how unpopular the government of Premier Jim Prentice was. How did this happen?

We should start with some of the necessary qualifications to Heer's analogy. Despite the socialist heritage of the federal NDP — which has only very loose connections to individual Canadian provincial parties — Notley is no leftist radical. (Warren and Sanders aren't either, of course, but they are further to the left of their country's center of political gravity.) With the arguable exception of a proposed $5/hour increase in the minimum wage, the basic ideas the party ran on — a 2 percent increase on the corporate tax rate, a more progressive income tax, expanded health care spending, and unspecified increases in the royalties paid by oil companies for extracting resources — are relatively anodyne mainstream liberalism. Particularly given that these proposals are likely to be enacted in more moderate form, they represent a shift to the left but not nearly as major a one as you might expect from the shift in party labels.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

In addition, Alberta's political culture is not as monolithically reactionary as some might assume. Like the Democratic Party of the New Deal era, Alberta's Progressive Conservatives have been a dominant but ideologically heterogeneous coalition, and its turn towards more American-style conservatism is relatively recent. If Alberta is the Canadian Texas or Mississippi, the "Canadian" part is still doing an awful lot of the work. (Alberta, after all, has had single-payer health care since 1950.)

Like its federal counterpart prior to its electoral decimation in 1993, for much of its history Alberta's PCs were quite moderate, comparable to the pre-Thatcher British Tories or European Christian Democrats. Under Peter Lougheed, premier from 1971 until 1985, Alberta's Conservatives were business-friendly with a culturally traditionalist rural base, but also favored substantial public investments funded with progressive taxation. (Alberta remains the only Canadian province without a sales tax.) This is a striking contrast with oil-rich American states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, all of which have tax codes in which the poor pay a higher percentage of their incomes in taxes than the rich.

Alberta's Tories have definitely trended to the right in the last two decades, replacing progressive income taxes with a flat tax in 2001 and cutting back on government spending. But this trend does not necessarily reflect a broad electoral consensus. Indeed, the flat tax structure was abandoned by the deposed Prentice in the austerity budget that preceded his early, disastrous election call. The debate between Prentice and Notley was not over whether the income tax should be progressive in principle but over how progressive it should be. And Notley's platform is not terribly different from the Red Tory tradition that was ascendant in Alberta politics in the 70s and early 80s.

And finally, the NDP simply benefited by being the last opposition party standing in front of an electorate suffering from a major case of incumbent fatigue, and benefited further from nominating a candidate with very strong political skills. The hapless Prentice was left holding the bag for the disastrous two and a half year reign of his predecessor Alison Redford, and his attempt to preempt the more right-wing opposition Wild Rose party with a quasi-merger was a catastrophic blunder. As Andrew Coyne observes, the fact that many voters lurched from the right-of-Tories Wild Rose to the left-of-Tories NDP compels caution in reading too much in Tuesday's results. It won't be easy for the NDP to win again, particularly if oil prices remain relatively low. (Between them, Wild Rose and the Conservatives got more than 50 percent of the popular vote, after all.)

Still, the fact that the socialist party brand was able to triumph in Alberta is striking. And while the political missteps of the Conservatives explain a lot, the direction in which they have taken the province has turned off a lot of moderate voters. In the wake of the results, a high school friend from Calgary told me that "as someone who works at the cross-section of health and education, I can only imagine how many of my education colleagues are breathing a sigh of relief." Polling data suggests that opposition to Prentice's budget was crucial to the NDP's success. Moderate Alberta voters may well have had enough of the politics of austerity, particularly where vital services are at stake.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Scott Lemieux

Scott Lemieux is a professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y., with a focus on the Supreme Court and constitutional law. He is a frequent contributor to the American Prospect and blogs for Lawyers, Guns and Money.