BY IAN DOIG • PHOTO BY ROB MCMORRIS
In early January, ahead of the March 19 writ drop for the upcoming April 16 Alberta election, we talked with Duane Bratt, political commentator and chair of the Mount Royal University department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies. Bratt gave his assessment of the lengthy unofficial election race that was already underway, the effect the 2015 election had on the province’s political arena and the implications the 2019 election may have for rural Alberta.
Bratt is also a co-author of Orange Wave. Now widely available in Alberta book stores, it examines the context of the NDP sweep to power in the 2015 Alberta election under premier Rachel Notley.
GrainsWest: You’ve noted that the 2019 election race started unofficially when Jason Kenney was elected to head the UCP. How will this new, lengthier, unofficial style of provincial political campaigning alter the province’s political sphere?
Duane Bratt: I don’t know if we’re going to see this in future elections. I think it was just a number of unique aspects that all rolled into why we’ve got this very long, unofficial campaign. I’m not sure it’ll be replicated in the future. What it has allowed is Kenney to consolidate the UCP.
GW: The election of the Notley NDP in 2015 was a historic blow to the political status quo in Alberta. Explain how the election was a fundamental political shift.
DB: First, it ended the Progressive Conservative government. The PCs didn’t just lose an election, they lost their party as a result of that election. And if you think about this, that’s sort of been the history of Alberta politics, is that we elect a party, it governs for a very long time, we throw it out of office and we never see it again. Think about the Social Credit party or the United Farmers of Alberta or even the Liberal Party, which was the first government in the province.
It replicates that pattern, which is a very weird pattern to say the least. That was a fundamental break. The second is an ideological shift. If you look at the ’71 election, it was really urban conservatives and rural conservatives, so you probably have to go back to 1935 and the election of the Socreds over the United Farmers of Alberta to really see some of that ideological shift.
GW: Over the 2015-2019 term, much of rural Alberta has been represented by opposition party members rather than ruling party members as these constituencies had largely been for decades. Has this had an effect on Alberta politics?
DB: It has. It continues a trend—and it wasn’t all of rural Alberta—but it was southern rural Alberta that switched parties in 2012. And it went to the Wildrose Party. So, they’ve been in opposition for almost a decade now. Central and northern Alberta had stayed with the PCs. There are some rural NDP seats, but by and large, they have gone Wildrose. And so, it leads to further belief that rural Alberta is not as influential in government as it once was.
I’m not sure that’s the only reason. I’m sure there’s been some other factors … but, previously, there were always some very powerful rural ministers in government. Rural MLAs represented a large cohort within the government caucus. That has been eroded. We’ll have to see. If there is a switch in government in 2019, and they’re back at the governing table, does that mean that [rural Alberta’s] influence is going to return to what is once was?
GW: Should the NDP government lose the 2019 provincial election, what would the political legacy of the party’s term in office be?
DB: The first was winning the election and ending the PC dynasty. Any time that one party governs for [nearly] 44 years, and is defeated, that’s a major point. The second is going to be that Alberta is starting to become more of a regular province in the sense that I don’t think the NDP is going to disappear after the 2019 election. And I didn’t think that they were going to govern for 40 years, so we’re going to go to what happens in other provinces where elections are fought, elections are won, then there’s an election in another four years, and it could reverse itself.
The rest of its legacy is going to depend on how much of its policies stay in place if there is a shift in government. If there still is a carbon tax, for example, that will be a test.
GW: Should the UCP fail to form government in 2019, what would that indicate?
DB: That would be a real shock. Even if the NDP does as well as it did in 2015 and wins 40 per cent of the vote, it would still lose the election. It would have to do better than it did in 2015. If the NDP does hold on, I think it would show that the province is not as socially conservative as Jason Kenney may believe it to be. That some of the challenges around the nomination of bringing two parties together created some discontent and that the kinder, gentler economic approach, working with the federal government, was more effective for the NDP.
GW: What may be the implications for rural Alberta in the event that the NDP win a second term or in the event the UCP achieves victory?
DB: With the UCP, they would be back in government, and you would see more rural ministers, for example. There was a large sense in rural Alberta that the NDP government—even though it may have had a few seats and Rachel Notley still describes herself as a farm girl—they seemed out of touch. That it really was an urban party.
There were two issues that sort of crystalized that. One was around the carbon tax, and it was Notley that said, ‘just take public transit,’ which doesn’t work very well outside of the cities. And the second was around the farm bill. It’s not necessarily that they brought in legislation or labour protection for farm workers—that’s existed in other provinces. What they failed to realize, is that every time it was introduced, there was a policy fight.
They underestimated how difficult it would be. They looked unprepared. The amount of preparation that they had put in the royalty review and the infrastructure review and even the carbon tax was simply not evident in the farm bill and they greatly underestimated the anger that would flow from that. It started to replicate itself in other policy areas, so every policy that came about was viewed through that lens.