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Fort Mac fire overshadows an earthshaking political anniversary -- the NDP's election one year ago today

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Rachel Notley, May 5, 2015

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One year ago today, Premier Rachel Notley and her New Democratic Party government swept in to power in Alberta.

But celebration of Alberta's unexpected and historically earthshaking Cinco de Mayo moment -- and, of course, other emotions too on the part of those who don't support the NDP government -- is bound to be muted today in the wake of the continuing fire catastrophe in Fort McMurray.

At least for the moment, virtually all Albertans feel the same emotions and wish to pull together in support of the close to 90,000 residents of the northern city who are sleeping in strange beds, or no beds at all, tonight.

A week ago, I suppose, Alberta New Democrats were planning a celebration. Instead, a grim Ms. Notley and her officials are dealing with the chaotic flight from the massive fire by the entire population of the northeastern Alberta city that is the hub of the province's already economically buffeted oilsands industry.

As a result, there will be no partying today -- proving, if nothing else, that the late Harold Wilson, 1970s Labour prime minister of the United Kingdom, had it right when he observed that a week is a long time in politics.

A few days from now, many Albertans will begin to ask themselves how a modern city of 90,000 could be so heavily damaged by a forest fire -- and could the same thing happen to their communities? Soon after the search for answers to those interesting questions begins, human nature being what it is, political affairs will resume in Alberta.

When that happens, the political scene will likely revert to its new political normal, in which the two principal conservative parties try to outdo each other to stirring up outrage over the NDP policy, unusual by recent Canadian standards, of responding to an economic slowdown with stimulus, rather than spending cuts. They will also soon be battling one another and several pretenders about who would be the best to lead a reunited conservative movement.

Amidst all this, after a year in government that at times seemed pretty rocky, the NDP will be seeking a way to return to power in 2019 -- and in that regard, I suppose, the government's response to the fire in the Opposition Wildrose Leader's home riding is an opportunity to impress Albertans, or do the opposite.

A previous government's response to another natural disaster in another Wildrose leader's riding, the flood of June 2013, seems not to have helped that government very much -- or the Wildrose opposition either.

The prevailing narrative in the now-openly-partisan mainstream media and in conservative circles, where many activists appear to talk to no one but themselves, suggests the NDP government is finished already -- an unlikely story at this stage of any government's mandate.

Personally, I think many conservatives of all stripes in this province are in a state of fury that approaches apoplexy. They still can't quite believe that they didn't win the election of May 5, 2015. After all, they'd had the run of the place for 80 years, if you count the Social Credit years, and they'd come to think that state of affairs was what God intended.

As Postmedia Edmonton political columnist Graham Thomson shrewdly put it in a recent column, "this isn't just the one-year anniversary of the NDP winning power, it's the one-year anniversary of the PCs losing power after four decades in the driver's seat. That has made it a long year for the PCs learning to survive on a bitter diet of humble pie and crow."

Sometimes this borders on hilarious, as when a right-wing hysteric employed by Postmedia concluded that "the NDP don't like Alberta," because, you know, they don't continue to implement bankrupt conservative policies.

This may partly explain the bitter intramural battles among conservatives over how best to unite the right -- which all of them seem to believe with charming faith is the solution to all of their problems, as long as their crowd gets to choose the leader. A speaker for a unite-the-right effort involving conservative patriarch Preston Manning argued recently the Wildrose Party is too closely associated with rural-based extremists ever to form an Alberta government.

As for recent solid evidence of what Alberta voters are actually thinking one year into the NDP's majority mandate, there isn't much.

There have been two byelections in traditionally conservative Calgary ridings. The Wildrose Party won one, the PCs the other. The Alberta Liberals, despite having only one seat in the Legislature, did surprisingly well in the second vote, perhaps enjoying a Trudeau Bounce. The NDP wasn't disgraced in either, though, despite the efforts of the Usual Suspects to make it seem that way.

A murky recent Environics survey says Ms. Notley is one of Canada's most trusted premiers -- but, unhelpfully, provides no comparative figures to back up this claim. 

A Mainsteet demon-dialler poll in February showed the Wildrose leading with 33 per cent, followed by the PCs with 31 and the NDP with 27 -- which is hardly the collapse the right predicts when they're not forecasting an NDP victory if the right doesn't unite.

A poll by a major pollster was rumoured to be ready to be published today, but it hasn't appeared yet and may not, given the intense coverage of the Fort Mac forest fire.

But its rumoured results are bizarre -- 32 per cent for the PCs, 26 per cent for the Wildrose, 22 per cent for the NDP and 15 per cent for the Liberals. If these figures are right, and there really is a poll saying this, it suggests the pollster (whoever that may be) has somehow confused voters into telling their federal preferences.

Meanwhile, the NDP is moving ahead on policies that may drive right-wingers crazy, but are capable of winning considerable voter support -- including refusing to give in to the destructive demands of the austerians, continued support for public health care and education, environmental policies that appear to mean what they say, and even the possibility of an end of Alberta's insane industrial tax system, which shovels hundreds of millions of dollars into rural municipalities and leaves towns and cities struggling to maintain infrastructure.

In 2014, the Edmonton Journal reported recently, "this meant that out of the total of $1.9 billion, $1.8 billion went to county governments representing just 15 per cent of the population." The remaining $100 million was split between the 85 per cent of the population that lives in urban centres!

Meanwhile, though, the Fort Mac fire continues to burn out of control, a province-wide state of emergency prevails and Albertans -- with plenty to argue about eventually -- face another difficult but united day today.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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