Yesterday was a watershed day in our politics for this year, without a doubt. And now here we are, on the morning after, picking through the bones of the result, trying to divine what it all means for the country as we move ahead. But before I get to that, let me start with the result itself.
Later today we’ll get a full accounting of the full result after the advance vote comes in, which was massive. That could swing a couple more seats or at least close the popular vote margin. But even with that, it won’t change some of the underlying facts here. In this case, adding one conservative party with another conservative party equalled two. Rarely do you see the merger of any party result in a nearly total transposition of vote from both sides to the new entity, so yesterday was remarkable in that sense. That was the whole match right there in the end when it came to the end result.
For the Alberta New Democrats, while the result is disheartening, there are signs of hope to build on. There wasn’t a large erosion of vote share for them, so this wasn’t so much an outright rejection of them as it was that conservative math I mentioned above. And when you add to that math the fact that the UCP ran up the vote in many rural ridings, that made for a lot of competitive races. If this becomes the low point for the ANDP, that’s not a bad place to be for the future. And unlike what happened to their federal counterparts in 2015, the ANDP did manage to hold onto many of their leaders and higher profile MLA’s, like Joe Ceci in Calgary-Buffalo and Shannon Phillips in Lethbridge-West. The bench strength that this opposition will have in the Alberta legislature will be impressive and a big asset going into the future.
But for the rest of progressives in Canada, it’s time to see this election as a moment for reflection and serious introspection. While some can point to this as “Alberta being Alberta”, the most conservative province in the country going back to normal patterns, there are deeper problems at play that progressives of all stripes need to tackle and take seriously, so they are not repeated on the Federal scene.
I’ll start with my own party, the New Democrats. I openly admit that I come from a more traditional NDP bent; I was drawn to the NDP by the likes of Tommy Douglas, Roy Romanow and Gary Dewar, politicians who made positive change but also were pragmatic about how it could get done and kept down to earth. Rachel Notley fit that mold and I would argue is the natural successor to that proud tradition. And if there is one quote from her that I believe typifies that fact, it was this one from last year:
“I am a New Democrat that comes from the part of the party that understands that you don’t bring about equality and fairness without focusing on jobs for regular working people… To forget that and to throw them under the bus as collateral damage in pursuit of some other high-level policy objective is a recipe for failure and it’s also very elitist.”
When Rachel made that comment, I was still working in the NDP caucus and I couldn’t help but agree with it. She was absolutely right and that is even more true today. For the NDP to be the true party of the people, it can’t be dictating policy from upon high in an ivory tower, and when it comes to the pipeline issue, that’s exactly what they have done recently. The NDP, under the current leadership, has gone from being the party of proposal and ideas to “the party of No” on this issue, and it doesn’t need to be that way. Yes, it’s harder to try to find solutions that bridge the needs of a huge industry in this country and doing it in an environmentally proper way, while respecting Indigenous rights. But that does not make it impossible, it just makes it harder. And folks, that’s what Rachel Notley was trying to do for the past four years. And while she was doing that, she was having supposedly “better progressives” from elsewhere in the country looking down their noses at her and her party, which did nothing to help the issue.
So, for the NDP, this is the problem they now face today, one that the Alberta NDP was trying to tackle without Ottawa’s help. The fact is that most people who work in the oil and gas sector care about the environment, they know there is a finite lifespan to the use of oil and gas for energy and yes, they want to do something about it. They are not these evil, planet destroying super villains that some like to comically paint them as. They are every day, middle class, hard working people. But despite all of that something else remains very true; if you’re asking me to choose between my livelihood and feeding my family versus all those other things they care about, they are going to choose the first one. That doesn’t make them bad people, that makes them practical, as being unemployed and seeing their communities crippled as a sacrifice to the greater good does not help them either. What Notley was trying to say is that you need to bring these workers along, help make them a part of the solution and ensure that their economies and jobs can transition, a transition which will take decades by the way. But that’s not what the federal NDP is offering today, and that’s something that I hope they seriously address sooner than later.
We need to remember that historically we’ve seen far right governments rise in this same way, preying on working people’s economic anxieties about the future. I would like to think that Canadian progressives will have learned from that, but it seems like we haven’t. Carbon pricing is setting up to be the perfect wedge issue for those anxieties, as we saw in Alberta and Ontario. We are also seeing it the world over, where right wing populist governments and parties are taking advantage of these debates to further their causes. I read a piece in the New York Times earlier this week that spoke to how the far right in Finland has used their opposition to carbon pricing to vault party and issues forward. In fact, in that country, it looks like carbon pricing has become overtaken the immigration debate as the new frontier for that side of the spectrum.
And if you don’t want to look at those examples, look at the one from the last American presidential election; this is where I want to talk to my Liberal friends. The Clinton campaign made many spectacular mistakes and missteps in 2016 involving middle America, and right now it feels like the Liberals are doing their best to repeat them. One of those mistakes was the “Deplorables” speech that Clinton gave, where she tried to paint everyone who supported Trump as intolerant. That backfired spectacularly, as it not only showed a major disconnection from their campaign and the issues of those voters, it was a blatant insult. The fact is that yes, there are some “deplorables” that gravitated to Trump, but there were far many more formerly middle-class Americans who were watching their communities die as factory jobs and other industries withered away and died. Many of them were registered Democrats before that election. They were feeling hopeless, as they were being left behind in this economy; Trump spoke to that and while he didn’t offer any real tangible solutions to actually help them, he identified their pain and spoke to it. To paraphrase the words of Bill Clinton, he felt their pain. The Clinton campaign though simply didn’t and didn’t even acknowledge their circumstances. That pushed people in normally reliable Democratic counties and states into the arms of Trump, and all that he represents.
There is a parallel to be drawn here to today in Canada and what we are now seeing. We just saw two Conservative leaders elected in Canada’s two most economically important provinces by speaking to anxieties like that, while offering nothing more loud words signifying nothing that felt good as solutions. Mark my words, Jason Kenney will not have any more luck getting a pipeline built to tidewater with his approach of attacking and screaming at others, and Doug Ford will not succeed in killing a carbon tax with his combination of cheap personal attacks and stickers. But for all their faults, at least those two can say they are recognizing the problem, even if they are only offering snake oil as a solution.
And this is where the current Liberal approach is missing the mark. They are not offering up a solution that speaks to the concern, and now that the polls have turned against them, they are pointing to the Conservatives past associations with the likes of Faith Goldy in an attempt to reverse the trend, to try to shame people into turning away from the Blue Team. And while those associations are horrendous, they are not going to have the effect they are hoping to have because of what I said above. To their credit the Liberals have tried to get a pipeline built, but they have botched the process by trying to take shortcuts. They’ve refused to take the time to do it the right way, and that’s lead to more legal roadblocks as people rightly assert their rights. So just trying to do it isn’t enough folks, it has to done right, right from the start.
So, my takeaway from all of this is a simple one; governing is hard and so is finding solutions. It’s tempting to scream “no”, take shortcuts or point fingers; those approaches are surely much easier, that’s for sure. For progressive parties, we simply need to do better and step up. Right now, we’re missing the mark and while it may feel a bit self satisfying, it just puts us further in the hole. Last night we lost a major ally in government, who was felled partially thanks to some “progressives” cheering their failure on from the sideline. It’s time for us to step up our games, do the hard work and come up with the pragmatic solutions that are going to help us in this dark moment of conservative ascendency. Are we up to it, or are we going to repeat the mistakes of the past years? I guess we’ll have a better idea in the near future.