Breaking the chain: What the NDP means for Alberta

photo via CTV News

photo via CTV News

Maybe we should have seen it coming.

Even though all of the polls indicated it was coming, an NDP majority in Alberta seemed entirely unbelievable. Not because Alberta as a whole is too conservative—a look at the last mayoral races in the province’s major cities show that a good portion of the population is pretty comfortable with progressive politics—but because it’s so unprecedented, so strong a shift. It just isn’t in line with how anyone outside Alberta sees the province.

That ignores, though, that the few times Alberta has changed its mind, it has done so decisively. This is a province that has never had a minority government. Having been burned on the advance polls once before, it was easy enough to think that empirical evidence wasn’t worth looking at. As it turns out, the evidence was actually trustworthy. The optimism (depending who you were rooting for) was actually justified this time. The opinion watchers got it right, even as the opinion makers–the editorial boards, the panels of CEOs–got it dead wrong. For only the fourth time in its entire history as a province, Alberta is about to experience a regime change.

Unfortunately, pundits are already describing this as a protest vote. In all likelihood, they’ll continue to do just that–to demean the result, say that it is not a vote in favour of the NDP so much as a condemnation of the PCs. That ignores the fact that there was a perfectly good protest vote in the Wild Rose party, one that would be significantly more in line with the political views assumed of the average PC voter. But the WRP isn’t the one holding the majority of seats right now. It is a progressive party, one that endorses social and environmental responsibility alongside financial prudence.

Yes yes, vote splitting. It’s true, the majority of the popular vote went to conservative-leaning parties, and conservative voters are fully justified in complaining about the drawbacks of the first-past-the-post system. I’d completely agree with them. I hope it’s changed. But that doesn’t make the NDP victory any less legitimate than the last dozen PC victories under the exact same system.

If it’s equally legitimate, and if it isn’t a protest vote, what does it mean? A lot of column inches will be spent on that question, and the answers, from “Alberta was ready for a change” to “PCs self destructed” and “the NDP seized a moment” all have a grain of truth. What I think it means, though, is just that Alberta is showing, as it has been showing in municipal elections, and in other, more subtle ways, that we aren’t a monoculture. No matter how much it suits any number of narratives—the narratives of the former PC dynasty who wanted to assume a natural right to rule, of the eastern commentators who like to reduce complex realities to more digestible sound bites, of disenfranchised Alberta progressives who wanted to rail against an implacable monolith—we are a province of many voices and beliefs. We are as complex as the rest of our country, and are finally starting to move beyond the stereotypes that, one way or another, we have allowed to dominate perceptions for a very long time. If perception is reality, then we are not the same province we were five weeks ago.

Personally, I’m happy for this result. I’m happy that the NDP have earned a strong enough mandate to justify trying something different for this province. I’m happy that we have a pair of fiscally conservative parties that will be willing to call the NDP on their mistakes, and make them justify their decisions. Governments are better when they have to put thought into their actions, and when they know that mistakes won’t go unnoticed. Even with its majority, I’m confident this government won’t be allowed to be sloppy. The odds are good that things won’t go far off the rails here.

Most of all, though, I’m just excited to have it reconfirmed that things can actually change. It’s easy to forget that that’s a possibility. For me, it means that I’ll soon have a government that sees the world in a way that’s much closer to how I see it. I’m already thinking about the ways the NDP can help to make my life, my city, my job and my province better, and it’s exciting in a way that I haven’t really figured out how to articulate. I feel like I can reach out to my MLAs and actually be heard, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible at literally any other point in my life.

But for those who are frustrated by this result—which, based on popular vote, might even be the majority of the province—there’s still a great lesson here. It is actually possible to unseat a party in Alberta. And if we want to, we can do it two elections in a row. If the NDP screws this up, you can replace them. And if the next party screws up, you can replace them, too. That’s what democracy is, and it’s only through a legitimate threat of losing power that democracy can keep its rulers in line. It’s the whole point of the system. Continuity has a lot of benefits, for sure. But saying we’re willing to take chances, that we understand our system is designed to let us take those chances and that the world won’t end if we change our minds—that can only make us stronger.

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