Leftist Party’s Win In Alberta May Affect Future Of Dirty Tar Sands

By Ian Austen
The New York Times (5/6/15)

OTTAWA — With an economy dominated by the oil industry and a conservative, free-market political tradition, Alberta has long been cast as the Texas of Canada. But on Tuesday, not only did the province’s voters put theProgressive Conservative Party out of power after 43 years, they elected a government from the far left of Canada’s mainstream political spectrum.

The unexpected rise of the New Democratic Party, which was partly founded by labor unions, may have implications for Alberta’s oil sands, which, many critics say, enjoyed a light regulatory touch under Conservative governments. And with a federal election coming this year, the result will not be welcomed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative whose party’s power base is in Alberta, along with his own parliamentary constituency.

The New Democrats had always been distant also-rans in Alberta, Canada’s most conservative province, so there was skepticism before the election about polls that showed the party far ahead. But broadcasters declared about an hour after the polls closed that the party, under its leader Rachel Notley, had won a strong majority of seats in the provincial legislature.

Preliminary results indicated that the New Democrats would have 53 seats, up from four, while the Conservatives would fall to third place, with 11 seats, behind the Wildrose Party, another right-of-center group, with 21.

Budget crisis

The defeat of the Conservatives followed a budget crisis brought on by declining oil prices. Six months ago, the party brought in Jim Prentice, a former member of Mr. Harper’s federal cabinet, to replace a leader who had been accused of profligate personal spending.

Duane Bratt, the chairman of policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, said that Mr. Prentice and his party had failed because they simply attacked their opponents rather than deal with the issues that had led to growing disaffection among voters. “They ran a fear-and-loathing campaign again,” Mr. Bratt said.

Conservative collapse

After the results became clear, Mr. Prentice resigned as the party’s leader, as well as from his seat in the legislature, to which he had been narrowly re-elected.

The collapse of Alberta’s Conservatives, who in December marked the longest time in power for a single party in any Canadian province, may partly reflect changing demographics within a province whose settlers, in the early 20th century, included large numbers of Americans.

Alberta’s politicians have tended to come from long-settled families and to have links to farming or the oil industry. But Naheed Nenshi, the current mayor of Calgary and one of Canada’s most admired politicians, is a Harvard-educated Muslim academic, born in Canada to parents from Tanzania. Like many Canadian mayors, Mr. Nenshi is an independent who has not aligned himself with a party, though Conservatives have campaigned against him.

Mr. Prentice called an election about a year earlier than required. When he took power, the biggest threat to the Conservatives appeared to be the Wildrose Party, which is slightly to its right. At first, it appeared that Mr. Prentice had defused his political opposition by welcoming nine members of Wildrose, including its leader, into the Conservatives.

“They thought they would have a free ride,” said Jack Mintz, the director of the school of public policy at the University of Calgary.

But the move backfired. Because the Conservatives had stridently campaigned against Wildrose in 2012, Mr. Bratt said, many voters saw the move as cynical. Of the nine defectors, plus two earlier ones, only three ran in Tuesday’selection. The others retired or were unable to secure nominations.

The province’s budget woes were another blow to the Conservatives. Falling royalty payments because of low oil prices are expected to cut revenue this year by up to seven billion Canadian dollars, or $5.8 billion. Mr. Prentice responded with a budget that many conservatives saw as not cutting spending enough, while many on the left thought that the cuts were too deep and that corporations should have been taxed more.

Blundering campaign

The party was also hurt by Mr. Prentice’s political style and by campaign blunders. Having quit as vice chairman of a large Toronto-based bank to return to politics, Mr. Prentice sometimes acted like an executive lecturing employees. Asked in a radio interview about the source of the province’s budget problems, he replied, “We all need only look in the mirror.” And in a discussion of economics during the campaign’s sole televised debate, Mr. Prentice said to Ms. Notley of the New Democrats, “I know that math is difficult,” a comment that many found sexist and patronizing.

In contrast, Ms. Notley, a lawyer who has worked for unions and the government, came off as witty and articulate. And while Mr. Prentice toured the province in a large motor coach, Ms. Notley used a humble white minivan plastered with party stickers.

While Ms. Notley’s victory would not have been predicted a year ago, she has long been a prominent and politically active figure. Her father, Grant, was the leader of Alberta’s New Democrats when he was killed in a plane crash in 1984.

Ed Whittingham, executive director of the Pembina Institute, an environmental group based in Calgary, said he hoped Ms. Notley would end a perception of Alberta as “a laggard on climate policies.” Other commentators have suggested that she could both resolve the province’s budget problem and deal with emissions from the oil sands by raising the province’s meager carbon tax.

Mr. Whittingham said issues like the current American political debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast of the United States, showed that Alberta was losing its “social license” to export its oil. Without that, he said, “our future doesn’t look very good.”

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