“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

Last week Justin Ling,  host of he podcast Some Honourable Members (Canada’s version of the Young Turks) reported in the National Post that the Federal NDP had discreetly registered itself with Quebec’s Elections Office. Hence, giving itself the power to fundraise and put forward candidates in the next provincial election.

This will come as a relief for those of us on the federalist progressive side of the political equation in La Belle Province, many of whom (including at least one member of the NDP’S elected federal caucus) have had to grudgingly cast their votes for the nominally sovereingtist Quebec Soldaire, or, worse still, the Parti Québecois or Liberal Party of Quebec, in past elections. As Thomas Mulcair has said in many interviews, Quebec is unique in Canadian politics in that, historically, the ideological divide has been along Separatist/Federalist lines, as opposed to the traditional left/right divide one finds in the rest of the country.

Full disclosure: I am a card carrying Québec Dipper whose recruitment into the cult of orange began back in 2004. Therefore, I have some connections to the party in Quebec and elsewhere and feel like that gives me a good perspective on whether such a project has a good chance of taking root in my home province. Incidentally, the claim by Ling about the failed Union des Citoyennes du Québec “attracting Federal NDP organizers” seems a bit dubious. No one I know in the Party, inside or outside Quebec, worked for them in the last election.

While I’m as excited as the next poli-sci nerd to see how the whole thing turns out and love the idea of finally being able to go to the polls in Quebec elections without holding my nose, I do have a few reservations.

For starters, when the party (anonymous source) says it expects the grass roots to do all the “leg work” in terms of building a political machine that could contend with the established parties in Quebec, do they realize how shallow those roots are at this point? The party only really acquired a solid membership base in the post 2011 era, greatly helped by the leadership race and recruitment drive in the wake of Jack Layton’s death. Many ridings are still struggling to attract new members and retain those that joined over the past couple years.

As well, as even Mulcair himself admits, the focus of the Federal NDP must remain on defeating Harper in the upcoming federal election. Spending precious resources on building (or re-building ) the party in Québec should not be the top priority until that comes to pass.

The NDP must also be careful about how it goes about building a provincial wing in Quebec, given some of the differences culturally, politically, socially and economically between Quebec and the rest of Canada (i.e. Charter of Values debate). Great care will have to be taken to only select those people that reflect the core values of all Canadian New Democrats as well as progressive Quebeckers of the federalist persuasion. The last thing the party needs is for the new Quebec NDP to wind up being at odds on some important election issue with their federal cousins.

In the end, a strong socially democratic political movement in Quebec will surely reinforce the NDP at the national level and finally provide a viable federalist option for Quebec voters who desperately want to see change in their political landscape and are sick and tired of the old Red Team vs. Blue Team binary that has blatantly failed to deliver an honest government or even a competent one in a very long time. In much the same way Canadians in unprecedented numbers rejected the same dichotomy and opted for Jack Layton’s NDP in the 2011 national election.