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Alberta poised to turn NDP orange as Tory grip on power withers

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Alberta, the province that elected North America's first Muslim mayor, is flirting with another surprise: a feminist New Democrat government -- or at least Opposition -- led by labour lawyer Rachel Notley. Notley worked for decades in the essential and very contentious fields of workers' compensation and occupational health and safety, in B.C. as well as Alberta. Twice elected to the legislature (2008, 2012), she became party leader last October. All of her own accomplishments are enhanced by her heritage as daughter of the late revered ND leader, Grant Notley. His tragic 1984 death in a small plane crash plunged even conservative Albertans into mourning.

In the 2015 snap election, called before the official "fixed" election date, the NDP is running a full team of 87 candidates -- 52 per cent of whom are women. An April 13 election poll found the NDP running strongly, with 30 per cent of decided voters, compared to 24 per cent for the Conservatives and 31 per cent for the remaining rump of the far right Wildrose Party. "NDP feel momentum building in Calgary," the Herald reported on April 18. 

Jim Prentice must be wondering what happened to the Progressive Conservative party's iron grip on Alberta politics. Sometimes compared to visionary Premier Peter Lougheed, Prentice was the only federal Harperite to vote in favour of same-sex marriage. He was elected federally three times, in 2004, 2008 and 2010, with Harper as leader and held three different Cabinet posts, serving consecutively as minister of Indian Affairs, Industry, and the Environment. Then he stepped down, and returned to private life for four years, until he ran for and won the provincial leadership in 2014. 

True, he inherited a party in disarray after the Conservatives unceremoniously dumped Alison Redford -- and a one-resource economy in disarray, after the price of oil plummeted. This spring, he had to postpone his proposed budget a month to see which way the oil prices were blowing. Prentice did score a major coup when he recruited Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and eight of her Wildrose MLAs, getting them to cross the floor just before Christmas. That should have ended the Wildrose threat -- but it didn't. Instead, under new leader Brian Jean, Wildrose's five remaining MLAs and 81 candidates are attracting nearly a third of decided voters -- 31 per cent. 

Conversely, former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith (she resigned hours before crossing the floor) lost her bid to be a Conservative candidate in this election. On March 28, the Highwood riding association members voted for first-term Okotoks city councillor Carrie Fischer instead.  Wildrose candidate Wayne Anderson dismissed Danielle Smith as a factor in the riding, calling her "past tense" in Highwood.

The rear view puts a different focus on all those victorious grip-n-grin photos of Jim Prentice and Danielle Smith together -- photos that are still all over the Internet. And surely history will show a more nuanced perspective on Alison Redford, an outsider who won the PC leadership by selling more memberships than her rivals, who led her party to resounding victory in 2012, and who ultimately fell victim to party insiders. Prentice, who rose to the aid of his party, in retrospect looks like another insider. 

There's an old axiom that governments defeat themselves -- but the public does need an attractive alternative to bring them out to the polls.  Brian Mulroney kept winning elections even after he became the "most hated Prime Minister in Canadian history" by bringing in the GST and NAFTA. (He's still second-most despised, by 17 per cent of Canadians, behind Stephen Harper, despised by a full 26 per cent.) After Jean Chretien became Liberal leader, with his populist appeal out West as well as in Quebec, Mulroney stepped down in 1993. Kim Campbell won the Conservative leadership in June, called an election and, four months later, presided over near-total electoral defeat. Only two Conservatives won seats as MPs, prompting an Ottawa joke that the official party vehicle was a bicycle with a second seat on the handlebars. The government defeated itself -- voters just needed someplace else to put their ballots.  
Opposite a government that's tottering, Rachel Notley looks like she could be an attractive alternative. Her party has strong candidates in Edmonton (MLA Dave Eggen), and in Calgary -- former City Councillor Joe Ceci. In fact, the NDP is the only party on the left to run a full slate of 87 candidates. The Liberals are fielding 56 candidates; the fledgling Alberta party has 36 candidates all across the province; and the evergreen Greens are running candidates in 27 ridings led by Janet Keeping. Although the Liberals have had able leaders and hot issues, the Liberal brand remains anathema in Alberta, decades after Pierre Trudeau's National Energy Program. 

New Democrats have formed the Opposition before in Alberta, from 1982 to 1993, first under Grant Notley, and then under his successor Ray Martin. Holding 16 seats at their peak and backed by a skilled research staff, the NDP MLAs raised issues in the Legislature and held the government to account. Then Lawrence Decore became Liberal leader, Bob Rae won in Ontario, and the NDP won zero seats in the 1993 election. Alberta progressives walked around for weeks in a state of dazed grief.  

Times change and tides shift. Decore fell ill and dropped out. Notley won her seat in 2008 and then won it again in 2012, with the highest vote per centage of any riding in the province. New Democrats say they're being welcomed at the door by former Conservative supporters. Meanwhile, the resurgent Wildrose party seems to be splitting the conservative vote, in the same way that two right-wing mayoral candidates split the vote in Calgary and allowed Naheed Nenshi to run up the middle.  

Rachel Notley is photogenic, a youthful 51, vigorous, articulate, and funny. Her current TV ad invites voters to "kick the habit" of electing PC governments. Her platform addresses obvious issues, like steep ($100+) public school supply fees and acres of hospital space walled off, sitting empty, while patients are treated in wait rooms and hallways. She fronts a diverse team of candidates (although to be fair, the Conservatives do too) and she's actually getting news coverage across the media, with a constant stream of policy announcements.  Even the National Post declared early on that Rachel Notley and her crew have "a real shot" at governing.

"Save our health care system," she urges in the ad. "Save our province." 


Image: Facebook/Rachel Notley


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