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Exactly a year has passed since the centre-left New Democratic Party (NDP) rolled to a stunning win in Alberta.
Yet it’s still deeply surreal to think about that victory on May 5, 2015, which increased the party’s seat count from four to 54 in the 87-seat legislature and elevated former labour lawyer Rachel Notley to the position of premier.
After all, the Progressive Conservatives (PCs) — a union-bashing and petroleum-entrenched behemoth of a party — had governed the province without challenge since 1971.
For much of the ‘90s and 2000s, the province was led by Ralph Klein, an austerity-obsessed alcoholic who cracked jokes about human-caused climate change, berated homeless people for being unemployed and blew up a hospital to save a bit of money.
So it was a very big deal that 40.6 per cent of voters opted for an unabashedly progressive platform that included pledges to hike taxes on corporations and high income earners, increase the minimum wage to $15/hour by 2018, reverse cuts to education and healthcare, implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and phase-out coal-fired electricity.
Since May, the NDP has introduced a widely celebrated climate change plan, the inclusion of gender identity in the Alberta Human Rights Act, gender parity in three consecutive cabinets and basic workers’ rights for farmhands.
Online public consultations have improved. An additional $15 million was committed to funding women’s shelters. Corporate and union donations to political parties were banned.
Such policies were absolute improvements from the status-quo.
But for some progressives, the election of the Alberta NDP remains surreal for a different reason: thus far, the party has refused to lock horns with private industry, especially the oil and gas sector.
An assortment of complex reasons help account for that.
There’s no question the election occurred at a horrid time. Energy products have historically accounted for around three-quarters of its exports and one-quarter of the province’s GDP.
Such a dependence on volatile commodities meant that the tanking of oil prices decimated the province’s coffers and exposed it in classic petrostate form to a massive deficit (which is very likely why the PCs called an election a year before required: the party expected approval ratings to plummet in lockstep with oil prices, which is precisely what has happened with Notley).
The problem’s been compounded by a longstanding infatuation with the “Alberta Advantage,” a near-sacrosanct concept introduced by Klein that’s epitomized a race-to-the-bottom fiscal agenda.
Until the NDP was elected, Alberta served as the only province with a flat income tax rate, also featuring the lowest corporate income tax rate in the country and a bizarre absence of a provincial sales tax. Such policies resulted in a major structural deficit; University of Calgary political science professor Melanee Thomas suggests the NDP were “dealt a contextual hand that is harsher than I have seen for any new government in quite some time.”
“Part of this is because the public understanding of public finance is really, really poor,” Thomas says. “We know from past budgets and auditor general reports that if Alberta taxed at the national average we would not have a deficit.”
The situation prior to the election certainly wasn’t good.
But there was still a bit of naïve pre-election optimism that the NDP represented an alternative that would begin to push back against the very industry-friendly climate that had allowed for the privatization of a sizable province-owned energy company, full deregulation of the electricity sector and frenzied leasing of land for energy development (among many other things).
The hope that government would represent citizens instead of CEOs faded fast.
Four days before the election, Notley tweeted that “job creators will have a reliable partner if Albertans decide time has come for a change.” The phrase “job creators” was deployed another three times in the government’s inaugural throne speech on June 15.
Concerns about such “boilerplate right-wing language” have been expressed directly to the premier’s office by Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) president Gil McGowan, but he hasn’t encountered any success in dissuading its usage.
“Socialists have said forever that it is the workers who produce wealth,” notes Gordon Laxer, founding director of the left-leaning Parkland Institute and author of After the Sands: Energy and Ecological Security for Canadians. “To turn that around in the way that neoliberalists do by someone who’s supposed to be social democratic is very disturbing. It’s a capitulation.”
Every economic policy the NDP has introduced since then has been formulated under the careful watch of industry.
It was a major point of pride for the government that its climate change plan — which capped oilsands emissions at 100 megatonnes per year, pledged to phase out coal-fired power by 2030, boost renewables and introduce a $30/tonne economy-wide carbon price for 2018 — was largely endorsed by the oil and gas sector: the CEOs of four major companies crammed onto the stage alongside government officials, environmental NGO heads and a single First Nations representative when the plan was publicly revealed.
And despite heavy opposition from Indigenous and environmental groups, Notley’s been an outspoken advocate for the completion of TransCanada’s Energy East and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipelines, harnessing much of the same “nation-building” rhetoric as her conservative counterparts.
Such an approach was especially notable during her speech at the federal NDP convention in April, which dripped with pro-pipeline rhetoric and completely failed to mention Indigenous peoples.
The University of Calgary’s Thomas notes the PCs and oil and gas interests were “intertwined like a braid.”
The NDP hasn’t seemed to indicate any interest in altering that relationship.
That was made abundantly clear with the recent resource royalty review, which sought to determine if the government was receiving a fair return from energy companies for the development of the province’s oil and gas assets.
(Alberta was granted ownership of its natural resources by the federal government in 1930, despite the fact Indigenous peoples never considered the signing of treaties to represent the surrender or extinguishment of land title, but that’s another story.)
For years, the NDP contended the sector was robbing Albertans of wealth that should be directed to a savings fund for rainy days and investments in social programs.
Its 2015 platform stated “the PCs are too close, much too close, to a small minority of Albertans who benefit from the status quo under the PCs, while the people of Alberta as a whole are deprived of much of the benefit of our own resources.”
The NDP formed a review panel as promised. But the party stacked it with experts either directly involved or sympathetic to increased private development, something McGowan suggests “the government should have never allowed to happen.”
In the end, the panel advised that nothing be touched. Rates remained the same, even for when oil prices bounce back to over $70/barrel. Laxer calls it “a total sellout to Big Oil.”
“I’m afraid that when it comes to the energy sector in general and the royalty review in particular, the government allowed the industry to set the agenda rather than having the government set the agenda itself in the broader public interest,” McGowan says.
But listening too closely to the advice of conservatives has been the classic pitfall of the NDP, echoing the failures of many social democratic parties around the world in recent decades.
One of the most startling moments of the last federal election was the party’s out-of-the-blue commitment to balanced budgets, which overtly parroted rhetoric coming from Harper’s long-reigning Conservative party.
Many political commentators argued the Liberals, the party that formed a majority government in October, “outflanked” the NDP on the left by committing to deficit spending and increasing the tax rate on the top one per cent of Canadians income earners.
It’s been much the same experience in other provinces.
In the early ‘90s, the Ontario NDP introduced a range of conservative policies including the conversion of student grants into student loans, backing down on public auto insurance and implementation of the “Social Contract” (a way of freezing and cutting wages for public sector workers).
The labour movement became deeply divided in its support of the party.
Similarly, the Manitoba NDP, elected in 1999, failed to address the privatization of the province’s telecom service, retained balanced budget legislation and launched a draconian law and order agenda that resulted in a massive 106 per cent increase in prisoners between 2005 and 2014 (today, over 70 per cent of inmates in Manitoba are of Aboriginal descent).
David Camfield, an editor of the Canadian New Socialist Webzine who lived under both NDP governments, notes the victories resulted in a mass demobilization of social movements as organizers were absorbed by the party. It’s a major problem that has already unfolded in Alberta.
At this point, many NDP supporters are remiss to admit that many people who voted for the party in May didn’t (and don’t) necessarily support the party.
The party hasn’t boasted a popular base of committed support in Alberta since the ‘80s, under the leadership of Grant Notley and Ray Martin.
In other words, the Alberta NDP didn’t surf to victory on the back of a mass movement, but rather via smart marketing tactics, populist rhetoric and the public’s disdain for the PCs. Laxer suggests: “The NDP is not in power, it’s in office.” The cart is very much before the horse.
“It’s a government that is new in a context where people are not used to democratic transitions of government, at least at the provincial level,” says the University of Calgary’s Thomas. “There are raging stereotypes abounding about what people think is going to happen.”
Correspondingly, outrage has erupted in response to the introduction of fairly innocuous bills.
The NDP has been constantly blamed for deterring capital investments due to the corporate income tax hike from 10 to 12 per cent, even though the federal tax rate in the U.S. still far exceeds the combined provincial and federal rate.
Legislation that finally introduced insurance coverage and safety standards for farmhands — Alberta was the only province without such protections — triggered weeks of protests from enraged farmers, events saturated with violent and misogynistic rhetoric and spurred on by conservative media outlets and politicians.
Such instances don’t prove anything.
But support continues to drop, and the party has lost two consecutive by-elections (the NDP finished fourth in the last contest, bleeding considerable support to the centrist Liberals).
There’s just no way for the party to overcome decades of right-wing rule by the PCs within a year. Thomas notes it’s a 15- to 20-year project to diversify an economy. The future of industrial democracy in Alberta seems a little far off.
Camfield suggests that “social democrats who are committed to serious social reforms should actually try to persuade people and politically motivate people to support their measures, as opposed to just allow the mainstream media and think tanks and so on to define what’s considered to be acceptable official politics.”
It’s a notion the Alberta labour movement has taken seriously; one of the first things the AFL did following the election was organize a meeting of union representatives from across the country to develop a list of things to do and avoid.
McGowan says the current goal of getting things on the agenda for public discussion that wouldn’t otherwise be there could help counter the current discourse that’s dragging the NDP to the right of the spectrum.
Some suggest that changes will only occur due to pressures from the grassroots.
Camfield belongs to Solidarity Winnipeg, a Manitoba-based anti-austerity group that may serve as a template of what’s possible; since its inception in late 2015, the small group has hosted a handful of teach-ins, protests and forums.
Laxer agrees and floats the idea of building a party to the left of the NDP, which could potentially form an alliance with Québec solidaire, the provincial party that adheres to social democracy, feminism and environmentalism. However, he admits it would be easier to change an existing party due to limitations like first-past-the-post-voting.
“It’s very difficult to create a mass new party,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to underestimate that. It would be preferable if there was a major move to transform the NDP.”
Internal pushes for leftist policies and an encouragement of NDP representatives to be allowed to speak their minds and express dissent could be a good start. A desire to educate the populace about the dangers of catastrophic climate change and the necessity of honouring Indigenous sovereignty would likely help too.
It’s obviously been a rough first year for Alberta’s NDP. And the next three years may be worse if oil prices stay suppressed as anticipated.
But not all of it can be blamed on context: the party has made clear decisions that undermine its social democratic mandate, particularly in its uncritical endorsement of oilsands expansion at the potential cost of climate targets.
But that tide could begin to slowly turn with a bit of luck and lots of organization. Stranger things have certainly happened in the province.
“If they continue down this road, I think they will be a one-term government,” McGowan concludes. “But if they remember what actually got them elected in 2015, which was real progressive policies and politics, then I think they do have a very good chance of getting reelected.”
Image: Rachel Notley/Flickr
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