When Premier Jim Prentice labels the Wildrose as the “Far Right” and the NDP as “Far Left,” he is pitching the PC party as the “big tent” alternative in the centre, a caricature that has a long history in Alberta. The PCs have been in power for a record 44 years with minimal opposition. For at least half of that period, there has been a litany of complaints: the mismanagement of the province’s resource revenues and the environment, rising poverty, patronage and corruption, and debilitating strains on health, education, and infrastructure. Recently, observers have been questioning the health of democracy in one of the world’s wealthiest jurisdictions, comparing Alberta to one party dominated ‘petro-states’ in other parts of the world.
Why do Albertans continue to vote for the status quo, either by casting a ballot for the PCs, or by not voting at all? A healthy opposition is a cornerstone of any functional democracy; it holds the government to account. The PCs, however, have appropriated both the “Progressive” and the “Conservative” labels, branding everyone else as ideological “extremists.” The most recent manifestation of this big tent strategy is Prentice’s move to obliterate the opposition last fall and then call for an early election to confirm his mandate to govern.
The recent decline of PC support in pre-election public polls is a sign, however, of a disenchanted electorate finally questioning the status quo. The current PCs bear little resemblance to the PCs of the Lougheed era, who spent public revenue to promote the public interest, be it education, or the development of oil sands that were at the time unprofitable. Since that time, successive PC regimes have lowered both corporate and individual taxation rates, and used surplus oil revenue to finance government operating expenses. Lulled into complacency by a robust economy, citizens have paid scant attention, affording PC premiers the luxury of ignoring expert panels that recommended changes in the province’s revenue and expenditure streams, in addition to putting money aside in Alberta’s Heritage Trust fund for the inevitable lean years associated with a boom and bust oil economy. With the sudden drop of oil prices and yet another terrifying plunge of the energy roller coaster, citizens were instead told to look in the mirror when they asked “where did all the money go?” Not surprisingly, voters are angry.
With a median age of 38.5 years, Alberta’s population is one of the youngest in the country. For the majority of Albertans then, this election marks the first time they are witnessing a three way political contest. The big question is –will fear of the unknown make Albertans yet again accept the claim that only the PCs are capable of governing the province? Voter willingness to make new political choices that reconfigure power will determine whether the practice of democracy is showing signs of maturity, or alternatively, whether Alberta will continue to be compared to ‘petro-states’ where the core values of democracy remain suppressed despite the presence of democratic institutions.
Meenal Shrivastava and Lorna Stefanick are political studies professors at Athabasca University and editors of the book Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada.