A crack in the armour?

I’ve “joked” in the past about Alberta being the land of One Party Democracy. Last year in late May, I wrote an entry where I Christened the term “one party democracy” to describe the way Alberta has voted for the past several decades (even before the current Conservative juggernaut). Then late last year, when Ed Stelmach was elected to the leadership of the Provincial Conservatives, I echoed those sentiments in the post “The king is dead, long live the king” portraying the party leadership race as the true vote for premiere in an Alberta where general elections rarely seem to change the power structure in any significant way.

Earlier this week, a by-election in former Premiere Ralph Klein‘s former riding of Calgary-Elbow fell out of Conservative hands for the first time in the history of the riding (see Werner Patels excellent blog coverage of the election here). Even before Ralph’s 17 year run, from 1971, the time of its inception, till this past Tuesday, Calgary-Elbow has ALWAYS sent a Conservative MLA to Edmonton. That all changed this week with the election of Liberal Craig Cheffins in the by-election for that riding. While Mr. Cheffins margin of victory was only about 800 votes, that looks almost like a landslide when put against more than 3 decades of Conservative representation.

Its worth mentioning that even the Edmonton Journal and The Calgary Herald has taken note and are drawing some cautious comparisons to another event from 4 decades ago, the complete collapse of the Social Credit juggernaut under new leader Harry Strom. Like Strom, Ed Stelmach is a rural leader taking over from a wildly popular urban leader. Like Strom’s SoCred party, the governing Conservatives have been in power for decades, and face criticism from many quarters that they’ve grown unresponsive to the needs of Albertans. And like Strom’s SoCred’s, The Conservatives have now lost a key by-election to a rival party.

There are differences as well. The Social Credit dynasty that preceded Strom was largely a one man show, that man being, of course, Ernest Manning. As much as the preceding 4 decades had been an age of Social Credit policy, they had been the age of Manning, if not more so. Like with Tommy Douglas in Saskatchewan, the party and ideas were a part of, or an extension of, the charismatic leader. Current Conservatives are a little different here. Most obviously, of course, the Conservatives have changed leaders 4 times now, with Stelmach being the most recent (I hesitated to say “with Stelmach as the last one”), but even with the leadership changes, both Lougheed and Klein showed definite populist tendencies. I think part of the reason for the collapse of the Social Credit party in ’71 was the simple fact of a leadership change … after nearly 5 decades, its reasonable to wonder if ANYONE could fill Manning’s shoes. The modern PC’s don’t really have that problem, but they DO have the issue of a policy-based rural MLA taking over the party from a string of populists … and really, the only difference between that and 1971 is the number of previous populists. I’m not sure thats a distinction I’d be too excited about.

There is one final, ominous similarity however, one that is hard to overlook. In 1968, Earnest Manning stepped down as leader of the Social Credit party after winning a massive majority on a very small popular vote, and he was replaced as leader and premiere by Strom in that same year. The following year, in 1969, the seat Manning had held for decades, Calgary Strathcona, fell to Progressive Conservative William Yurko. While Ralph Klein‘s history is quite different from Manning, the progress of events since he stepped down as leader is eerily familiar. In 2004, Klein won a large majority on a fairly shaky popular vote (under 50% when he’d won nearly 70% in the 2001 election). He then announced his retirement, and by the end of 2006, had stepped down in favour of his replacement, Ed Stelmach. The following year (that would be 2007, this year), Klein’s old seat in Calgary-Elbow fell to Liberal representative Craig Cheffins (in the by-election this past Tuesday).

Those story-lines are VERY parellel, at least if you allow for the difference between 3 premiers in the Conservative hegemony and 1 in the SoCred one. As I mentioned, thats not even such a difference when you look at both Lougheed’s and Klein’s (I’ll leave the forgettable Don Getty out of the discussions for now) tremendous general popularity. Its worth mentioning that Klein wasn’t even a Conservative for much of his early life … as mayor of Calgary he was far more closely associated with the Liberal Party. Joining the Conservatives for a provincial run was as much a matter of logic and convenience as politics … in the 80’s Klein wanted to be premiere, and in Alberta that meant joining the Conservatives. He was a hugely popular figure (as was Lougheed when he defeated Strom) and like Manning’s popularity carried the Social Credit party, one wonders today if it was the popularity of the leaders, rather than policy, that has carried the Conservatives so far in Alberta.

It will be interesting to see if this past Tuesday was the provincial PC’s version of the Calgary-Strathcona by-election of 1969, and how the next few years to the general election play out. The big difference here is that there seemed to be a visible groundswell in Conservative popularity in the years following the ’67 election, and I don’t really see the same thing happening in Alberta today for Kevin Taft’s Liberals. I do see some of the same dissatisfaction that Albertans were expressing in their Social Credit government under Harry Strom in the late 60’s, but I’m just not sure I see the swell of a viable opposition happening. It will be an interesting time in Alberta politics, and thats not a claim that we’ve been able to make for quite some time. Usually, provincial politics from Edmonton is more dull than drying paint … but lately, the parallels to old upsets are just starting to look too strong to ignore.

I’ll end this off with a quote from an email exchange with Calgary Liberal activist Aman Hayer, who expresses the confusion in Alberta politics at the moment very well …

Personally I think Alberta is headed into uncharted territory. I don’t
think we are about to see a new dynasty be crowned. Rather Alberta
politics is becoming more normal. The Tories will solidified their
base in Rural Areas. While the Liberals will solidify their support in
Edmonton. At the same time Calgary will become swing territory and
that could mean we might have regular changes in government.

For the record, “normal” is something that Albertans could use a little of, IMO. But to paraphrase the old Chinese curse … here’s to interesting times in Alberta politics.

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