#ABvotes2015: Forget the Face, the Rhetoric is Changing

Rachel Notley

“Alberta this morning woke-up to an NDP government!”

From what pollsters say, this will be the headline on May 6th. Let’s put our justified reticence for polls and those that conduct them to rest for a bit, lets abstract volatility from the equation and pretend that the polls were spot on. In this case, for the first time in history, the province of Alberta, known amongst Canadian progressives as Mordor, will elect an NDP majority government.

Some have tried to dismiss this occurrence as Bob Rae Syndrome 2015 Edition. A sort of perfect storm, the result of an economic crisis, fatigue of the Progressive Conservative brand and division within the Albertan right-wing. Many pundits have  made reference to “Bob Rae-osis” as an inevitable sickness that would plagued dipper ranks and would push their eventual government and the province of Alberta to the edge of oblivion.

For the pundits trading in such theories, the underlying argument in using such logic is the NDP can only be a protest vote, voting for any other party outside of the deemed centre of gravity of “governability” is fruitless and that even if you vote for change, by the end of “change’s” mandate you’ll be begging for the return of status-quo.

Within this logical framework, an NDP victory is just a blip, a wave that will eventually recede. For the pundits and the panelists that use this rhetoric, the reason behind the NDP’s success isn’t about the NDP or because of the NDP, its pretty much: a success despite the NDP.

What’s Really Happening in Alberta?

To recognize that Notely and her “populist rhetoric” of asking the rich and multinational corporations, the oil moguls, to pay their fair share, the message of a more equal redistribution, struck a cord with the Albertan electorate is to recognize that the Albertan Model, the neoliberal ideology of the Calgary School has failed.

An electoral defeat might seem inevitable, but the demise of the neoconservative model that has swept the country cannot occur. Through their subliminal messaging the mainstream media, Fraser Institute and the spin doctors of the extreme centre are attempting to safe face avoid a complete wreck. Forget the glitter and the shine, its damage control time.

NDP Rally-260
Alberta is not Quebec, Rachel Notley is not Jack Layton (photo by Chris Zacchia, Corona Theatre, Montreal, 2011)

The constant references to Bob Rae are contrasted with the references made to Jack’s Layton’s Orange Wave in Quebec. Needless to say, the realities of Ontario in the early 1990s, Quebec in 2011 and Alberta in 2015 are very different.

While this message has the appearance of positivity, it’s also a scripted one. In 2011 the NDP was blessed with an exceptional leader, but exceptional leaders are nothing within an ordinary context. Jack Layton had three kicks at the can 03, 05 and 08 before success.

Likewise, to now pin the extraordinary accession of the NDP brand in Alberta only on Notley is to dismiss the sociological underlying trends that have turned what was once the cradle of neoconservatism into fertile ground for social-democracy. It is to refuse to accept that a majority of Albertans are refusing austerity, the Conservative model on steroids, that Jim Prentice has tried to impose on them.

In that sense, the real headline here wouldn’t be that the NDP have won it’s that Albertans have refuted the Conservative model of society, that the Conservative model of economic management has been an utter failure and that the Conservative ideological buzzwords such as job creation, tax breaks and user-payer are wearing out. There might not be a clear victor in Alberta yet, but there is one clear loser and that’s neoconservative ideology and rhetoric.

A New Rhetoric for Alberta

Alberta since time immemorial has been the land that supposedly embodied and harvested a profound belief in social conservative values and free enterprise. The Social Credit and later the Progressive Conservative movements were bread and nourished there.

The idea that “every man an island,” that über-individualism was the answer, that society didn’t exist, was paramount. Or at least so was the story that was sold to the rest of Canada. And then from there steamed the Reform movement, the accession of neoliberalism within Canadian society.

From the ashes of prairie radicalism, prairie libertarianism was born and it swept the west. But until the mid-1990s it couldn’t make a breakthrough in the vote rich province of Ontario. Then Mike Harris came along.

Mike Harris and his “common sense revolution” was a tilde-wave. Not because the Progressive Conservatives hadn’t held power in Ontario before, but because of the way in which he won.

Ontario was the Liberal province, a Liberal stronghold in practice and in theory. The Progressive Conservative brand in Ontario was in many ways very distant in its rhetoric and its political agenda from its Conservative cousins in the West.

Harris’s transformation of the Ontarian Progressive Conservatives, aligning them with the neoconservative movement, especially the Gingrich Republicans, changed the face of Ontario and Canadian politics forever. Internal divisions and the doubling down of the Rae administration also helped his rise.

Only time will tell if the prophecy of an NDP government in Alberta will come true. It’s certain that if the NDP does form government in Alberta on May 5th, they have will have to fight tooth and nail, as leaked cables from the Rae administration have proved, to make sure that their democratic mandate is respected.

As Russell Brandt said, rightfully so this past Monday, democracy is about popular mobilization and social movements. The NDP will need them to fulfill their democratic mandate, if not they will face the same fate as Bob Rae.

* Featured image Dave Cournoyer, Creative Commons

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