On April 16, Alberta voters once again made history, by making the NDP the first single-term government in the province. The four improbable NDP years finally came to an end with the April 2019 election result.
In the last election, the NDP pulled off a miracle that sent a shockwave not only across the Prairies but also from coast to coast, rallying from fourth place to finish first in the span of just 28 days, ending a 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty. This time such a miracle was found to be very much wanting. The NDP did rally in the few months leading up to the vote, sparking up what little hope was left that they might be able to keep the United Conservative Party at bay. But it was too little too late.
In the end, they were reduced from 52 to just 24 seats. With most of those being in Edmonton, the NDP has literally become an Edmonton party. The UCP crushed all other contenders by securing the remaining 63 seats, turning Calgary and the whole rural area blue. It is forming a majority government by a wide margin.
Support for the NDP dwindled slightly since 2015, from 604,000 to 535,000 votes. Meanwhile the UCP managed to garner 920,000 votes, far exceeding the total combined votes of 770,000 that the PCs and Wilrose won in 2015. In fact, in terms of total number of votes, this might be the best result for Alberta conservatives in decades.
The election was marked by a sharp polarization to the left and to the right, to the NDP on one side and the UCP on the other. Passion was running high, as shown by a record turnout of nearly 70 per cent. This marks the highest voter turnout in recent memory. The two parties that sought to eke out an existence by appealing to the centre, the Alberta Party and the Liberal Party, were swept aside. They did not win a single seat. The centre is collapsing, which is a continuing trend from the last election. It is a process that is occuring around the world and is the result of an era of organic capitalist crisis.
Kenney and his cabinet will be sworn in on April 30. This cabinet will not be like the conservatives of the good old days. Jason Kenney declared emphatically in his victory speech, with a line borrowed from Ontario Premier Doug Ford, that Alberta is “open for business.” This will not be the only thing that Kenney borrowed from Ford. The series of attacks that Ford has launched against Ontario youth and workers foretell the fate that will befall Albertans. The UCP will be more vicious than their Ontario counterpart, as it seeks to roll back gains that had been won by workers in the past four years and make the workers pay for the record debt that the government has been accruing.
How did we get here? And where do we go from here? These are some of the questions that many youth and workers will be asking in the coming period.
How the NDP lost, how the UCP won
“Four more years! Four more years!” Such chants echoed down the hallway at the ANDP convention back in November last year, and again at Notley’s final campaign rally in Edmonton. We have warned that the NDP general staff was clearly in a state of denial when all indications clearly pointed to the return of the Conservatives to power, that the ANDP was sleepwalking into a disaster. But Notley and the rest of the party leadership had made up their mind that the best way to defeat the UCP was to prove to the oil barons that they are the better manager for their interests.
Having exactly the same fundamental economic platform as their rivals, that of ensuring the profitability of oil and gas corporations, the NDP could therefore only set itself apart from the UCP by playing the personality card. A lot of effort was put into portraying Jason Kenney and his UCP ilks as flawed characters permeated with hatred, ignorance and deception. This is the reason why Notley timed the election with the unfolding of the UCP leadership race scandal that had embroiled Jason Kenney, hoping to derive electoral capital from it. But the scandal made only a very small dent in the UCP’s support.
As the election date came closer, the UCP was forced to be more concrete and upfront about its electoral program. It was becoming clear to more and more workers whose interest the UCP serves. It would be a government of big businesses that would launch a program of austerity and attacks against the working class.
Amongst other things that the UCP promised to accomplish once in power are: a return to the flat tax that would only benefit wealthy individuals, a 4 per cent corporate tax cut, “reforming” the minimum wage laws to exclude alcohol servers and young workers, gutting overtime regulation that would amount to a 33.3 per cent pay cut, and eliminating card-check union certification in an effort to crush union drives. As the spectre of Kenney’s program of austerity began to materialize, the polls began to shift in favour of the NDP, closing the gap from 20% to about 10%.
Meanwhile, the ANDP began to announce more reforms should it hold on to power, such as hiring 1000 more teachers, expanding $25-a-day daycare from 62,000 to 85,000 spots, and promising no cuts to healthcare and education. But these promised reforms were not enough to turn the tide of the elections, especially to win over the rural areas that have been wrecked by the collapsing oil and gas industries. The only thing that Notley could promise to rural Albertans is that she would be a better politician than Kenney to ensure that oil barons’ plates are full to the brim so that crumbs could fall to them. The NDP tied the fate of the workers to the oil barons, to capitalism, and with that game plan they lost the 2019 election before it even started.
The ANDP lost the election years before it was called when it decided to be the loudest cheerleader for the oil and gas corporations. “[Notley] spent the past four years gradually replacing the socialist idealism she espoused in opposition with a more realistic understanding of investor economics and the importance of energy exports … She almost sounded conservative,” wrote Kevin Libin of the National Post as he correctly summarized Notley’s political transformation once in power. It was exactly that brand of “socialist idealism” that got the NDP elected in the first place, before it was replaced with the “realism” of accepting capitalism.
At the end of the day, Kenney won because he promised to solve the problems that the NDP could not. One of his main slogans was “jobs, economy, pipelines” which all blend together and speak to the issues that people cared about. In a survey of over 30,000 people conducted last March, Albertans were asked, “What issue is most important to you in this election?” The answer was: the economy.
Currently Calgary has the highest unemployment rate out of Canada’s big cities, even higher than St. John’s. Ten years ago jobs were falling into Albertans’ laps without very much effort. Now that oil prices have dropped and the economic situation is dire, workers are desperate to get the Alberta advantage back. Rachel Notley presented herself and her party as champions of the status quo, which meant a continuation of the last four years: no jobs, bad economy, and no pipelines. For workers who are unemployed or are working longer hours for lower wages, whoever made the best case that they would improve the economy was more likely to get an edge.
Workers voted for Kenney for the same reason they voted for Donald Trump and Doug Ford. Not because they are reactionary homophobic bigots, but rather because these individuals were seen railing against the current state of affairs and an economic situation that is squeezing the people. People wanted change and Kenney advertised that change. By the end of the campaign Kenney even cashed in on the anti-oil baron sentiment that Notley rode to power in 2015, saying, “To be blunt, I’m not going to take lessons from, I’m not going to let a billionaire president of major oil companies dictate to people how they live their lives.”
The future ahead
Conservatives across Canada are now rejoicing that they have regained Alberta, the long-time bastion of conservatism in Canada. They are sleeping better tonight knowing that Alberta is blue again. But they would be remiss to think that everything will go back to normal.
The main question that will present itself very quickly is: could the UCP balance the budget without upsetting political and social equilibrium? Every attempt from the UCP to restore the economic equilibrium — a feat they can only achieve by attacking workers — will inevitably disrupt the political equilibrium.
Young workers and alcohol servers will not just silently accept Kenney rolling back their $15-minimum wage. It is easier to freeze a minimum wage for decades than take away one that has been won. When many workers are relying on overtime hours and income to pay their mortgage and car payments, the newly sworn-in UCP cabinet will also have a hard time reforming the overtime pay regulation without any opposition from below. Kenney’s attempt to open Alberta to business will not be an easy walk.
The UCP cabinet will also be hard pressed to fulfill most of their electoral promises to the electorate. One of their blockbuster pledges that often riled up the crowd is to “turn off the taps” to British Columbia “within an hour” to bully them into accepting a pipeline. But many experts have opined that it would be nearly impossible to do so, legally and economically speaking.
The Constitution Act of 1867 forbids a province from interfering with interprovincial trade and commerce. If Kenney tries to force his case legally, Joel Bakan, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, said, “with absolute confidence that Alberta will lose this case.”
Economically, the move to deprive B.C. of oil would also hurt Alberta distributors and suppliers, who are sending 300,000 barrels a day of crude and refined products. They will not have much of an appetite for such a drastic move. The Federal government, who earns roughly $800,000 a day in tolls for use of the Trans Mountain pipeline between Edmonton and Vancouver, will also not stand idly by. In short, the promise to “turn off the taps” will turn out to be just grandstanding, a broken promise that will disappoint many Albertans.
Another blockbuster pledge by Kenney is a referendum on equalization payments by 2021 if there is no pipeline progress. He seems to have conveniently forgot that he was once part of Stephen Harper’s cabinet that drew up the current equalization payment formula. Once again there is no legal basis for this claim. Equalization is written into the Constitution Act of 1982 and one province cannot change the constitution. Kenney knows this and his pledge will prove itself to be a stunt to gain support from the misplaced anger of Albertans who are feeling the pinch of the crisis.
Finally, Kenney’s promise of returning the Alberta Advantage to its heyday of oil boom, when unemployment was low and high-paying oil jobs abounded, will be severely tested by the economic reality of the current period. There is no longer an economic basis for a pre-crisis Alberta. Not even ten Trans Mountain pipelines could change the fact that the world economy is slowing down and thus there is no longer a big appetite for Alberta’s oil. This is exacerbated by the shale revolution in the U.S. as it corners a bigger share of the energy market. Albertans’ illusions in the coming government will be shattered in a very short time and the tide could turn very quickly.
The NDP victory in 2015 has turned upside down the political landscape in Alberta. The nastiness of this year’s election highlights how very polarized Alberta politics have become. A whole layer of youth and workers have been awakened. They have learned that they can unseat the oil barons from the legislature. Even in its parliamentary defeat, nearly one third of Albertans voted for the NDP, which means a whole layer of youth and workers are opposed to the UCP government. This is a strong basis for a sharpened class struggle as the next government attempts to implement their austerity program.
After the ballot boxes
The struggle at the ballot box might be over, but now the struggle shifts to the street and workplace. Ontario youth and workers with their recent mass actions against Doug Ford have provided a glimpse of what could happen in Alberta. What is needed now is for the ANDP and the trade unions to provide the necessary leadership so that this possibility can become a reality. The only way to defy the UCP’s attempt to claw back what has been won by the workers and more is mass actions.
First on the UCP’s chopping block are the public sector workers. Past president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association Frank Bruseker has already warned that the province might be faced with a teachers’ strike — with the last one being in 2002 — if the UCP implements their education platform. Other public sector workers, totaling more than 100 thousand, will be negotiating their contracts with the new government, one that will definitely be less friendly than the ANDP. A sharp clash between public sector workers and the UCP government is therefore on the agenda and the unions should be prepared for job action if they want to stand up to Kenney’s cuts.
The UCP might be drunk on victory now, with everyone hugging each other singing Kumbaya. But in reality the UCP is very far from being an united party. Now the NDP has been defeated — which was the only reason that the conservatives united — old rifts amongst conservatives will reopen again, especially as the government finds itself unable to solve Alberta’s economic downturn. This will be a government of crisis, and it could not be otherwise as we are living in a period of the deepest capitalist crisis, filled with turbulence and rapid changes. Jason Kenney will find that his honeymoon period will be brief.