Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Alberta has only changed when it had to

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Despite a succession of polls and political pundit predictions that four decades of Tory rule would be halted by Danielle Smith and the Wildrose Party, Alison Redford this week led the Progressive Conservatives to another solid majority government victory. Thus it is Redford, rather than Smith, who has become the first woman in Alberta history to win a provincial election.

There was every expectation Redford, who only became PC leader and premier last October after she replaced Ed Stelmach, would go down as the Alberta version of Kim Campbell, who as the first female Canadian prime minister managed to hold power for less than six months after replacing Brian Mulroney in 1993. Instead, Redford will now follow in the footsteps of the other giants of the provincial PC party -- Peter Lougheed, Don Getty and Ralph Klein.

So what happened? A changing of the political guard clearly does not happen often in Alberta. Since the establishment of the province in 1905, there have only been four parties in power. The Liberals ruled from 1905 to 1921; the United Farmers from 1921 to 1935; the Social Credit from 1935 to 1971 and the Progressive Conservatives from 1971 to the present.

Historically, for a change of guard to occur there has had to be a serious disruption to the economy or severe voter disenchantment with the party in power. In 1921, the United Farmers of Alberta replaced the ruling Liberals in the wake of post-First World War inflation and drought as well as part of a general discontentment with the traditional "eastern" Canadian parties. It also saw the farmers' Progressive Party win big in the federal election held five months later. The Alberta Liberal government also got caught up in accusations about an election manipulation scandal involving telephone poles in rural areas.

The UFA lasted for 14 years until it was done in by the Great Depression. In August 1935, after nearly five years of terrible economic hardship, Albertans threw out the ineffective UFA and made the untested political prophet, William Aberhart, the premier.

Talk about a sensational victory. Revered by his loyal followers as a "man of God," he mesmerized an entire province with promises for a glorious and prosperous future. Struggling with debt and unemployment, dejected Albertans needed to be rescued from the alleged abuse they had suffered from eastern Canadian banks and international financiers. Aberhart, who as a teacher and preacher had pioneered the use of the radio, convinced the province's voters his unorthodox Social Credit monetary scheme (developed by the British engineer Maj. C.H. Douglas in the '20s) was their only salvation. He explained to them why there was "poverty in the midst of plenty," and encouraged them with promises of "just" prices and a monthly dividend of $25 per month, which was never paid. Psychologically, this mixture of economics, religious fervour and political passion was irresistible.

When Aberhart died in 1943, he was replaced by his protegé Ernest Manning (Preston's dad), a more pragmatic politician. Accepting that Social Credit monetary policy was constitutionally untenable -- the federal government and the courts had disallowed Aberhart's monetary legislation -- he dropped it from the party's platform. Instead, using the lucrative revenues from newly discovered oil, Manning provided what he called "good government" by building roads and schools. In the process, he created the pro-business, anti-welfare state and socially conservative dynasty that ruled the province until it was upset by Peter Lougheed and Progressive Conservatives in 1971.

Manning had retired as premier in 1967 and had been succeeded by Harry Strom, a genial 57-year-old longtime Social Credit cabinet minister. But the party had become stale and worn out. Moreover, Strom could not compete with Alberta's version of Pierre Trudeau (who had recently come to power in Ottawa): Peter Lougheed, a lawyer and new PC leader. Lougheed, 36, had roots in the province -- his grandfather, Sir James Lougheed, was a respected politician and senator -- and he represented the new urban Alberta rather than rural one Strom did.

That's where the photogenic Danielle Smith got into trouble. A journalist and the former Alberta director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Smith became Wildrose's second leader in 2009. She got a boost in 2010, when four unhappy members of the Stelmach government left the PCs and joined Wildrose.

But as this election campaign showed, Wildrose was merely an updated version of the old Social Credit Party. Call it Social Credit 2.0. In many ways, Smith is a reincarnation of Ernest Manning -- who also inspired his son Preston's Reform Party -- Stephen Harper and Sarah Palin (albeit, much more intelligent and sharper) thrown in for good measure. Sounding like the elder Manning, she campaigned as a "fiscal conservative and social libertarian." She tried to alleviate fears about her social policy by smartly stating she is pro-choice and supports gay marriage, even if some outspoken members of her caucus do not.

That does not seem to have been sufficient for many middle-of-the-road Alberta voters. By all accounts, Redford and the PCs picked up Liberal party support from Albertans who could not accept a Wildrose administration.

Alison Redford's victory indicates Alberta is not as redneck or as right-wing as its popular historical reputation. Instead of choosing a Social Credit-Reform and Alliance Party spin-off, Albertans opted for the safe and moderate status quo. Think about this as well. Alberta now has a female premier, the provincial Liberal party is led by Raj Sherman, who was born in India, the city of Edmonton has a Jewish mayor, Stephen Mandel, and the city of Calgary's mayor is Naheed Nenshi of South Asian descent.

Alberta just might be the most welcoming and multicultural province in the country. And on top of that, the province has the lowest taxes in Canada and is supported by increasing oil revenues. Little wonder Alberta voters did not rock the boat on Monday.


Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in an historical context. Levine's latest book is William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2012 A14

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