What Does the NDP's Stunning Alberta Win Mean for Stephen Harper?

(Image: Jeff Wallace)

What Does the NDP's Stunning Alberta Win Mean for Stephen Harper?

Rachel Notley’s majority government is good news for Tom Mulcair and the federal NDP

In a stunning turn of events Tuesday, the Alberta NDP swept to power with a majority government in Canada's most conservative province. As the dust settles on a campaign that seems to change everything, what does this mean for the fall's federal election?

"Friends, change has finally come to Alberta," said premier-designate Rachel Notley in an emotional speech to hundreds of delirious supporters. "We did make a little history together tonight, didn't we?"

The NDP won over 40 per cent of the popular vote and 53 seats, nine more than the 44 required for a majority. The Progressive Conservatives came second with 28 per cent of the popular vote, but were reduced to third-party status with 11 seats. The Wildrose Party celebrated a return to the Official Opposition with 21 seats and 24 per cent support province-wide.

Premier Jim Prentice gave up both his leadership of the PCs and his seat in the legislature in a brief concession speech.

"I haven't done the math yet, but I think..." Notley trailed off as the room howled at the reference to Prentice's "I know math is difficult" comment during the televised debate. "I haven't run the numbers yet, shall we say, but what I think is true is that we have elected the most women in any government caucus in the history of Canada."

Whether that claim withstands scrutiny or not, the caucus she now leads is no doubt dominated by women and also includes many young people, students and union and civil society leaders.

What does an NDP government mean?

"Together, we need to start down the road to a diversified and resilient economy," Notley told the crowd. "To end the boom-and-bust roller coaster ride we've been on for far too long. It won't happen overnight. But we must start, and we will."

Notley's NDP has made a number of promises. Their first priority will be to rewrite and re-introduce the budget, which died on the order paper with the defeat of Prentice's PC government.

Those cheering or fearing sweeping nationalizations and implementation of socialist rule will be disappointed. Rachel Notley is no doubt a progressive, but the government she leads will seek to largely maintain the status quo while making a series of minor changes they argue are long overdue.

Notley has promised to end political support for controversial pipeline proposals Northern Gateway and Keystone XL, lobby for more local refining of tar sands oil and implement stricter environmental regulations, but she has also promised to support the oil industry and back other pipeline projects, including Transcanada's Energy East and Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain.

Her platform calls for a hike in corporate taxes, Canada's lowest, from 10 to 12 per cent, and new tax brackets for high-income Albertans. It also includes a hike to the minimum wage, which she has promised to raise to $15 per hour. Many economists say a higher minimum wage will benefit the economy, and if that proves to be true in Alberta the pressure to raise minimum wages across the country may become irresistible.

For the union-backed Fight for Fifteen campaign, this is a big win.

Notley has also promised a review of the royalty regime that determines the government's income from the sale of its natural resources, arguing that Albertans have not been getting their fair share. However, she has also promised not to conduct such a review if economic conditions are unfavourable, so it's hard to know when or if this will take place.

"To Alberta's Indigenous peoples," she said in her speech to cheers from the crowd, "the trust we have been given tonight is a call to be better neighbours and partners. I'm looking forward to consulting with you and learning from you."

UPDATE MAY 6, 1:46 EST: The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation have issued a press release saying they are "ecstatic with the results of last night's election." "As First Nations we are optimistic to finally have a government that recognizes and respects Indigenous rights and territories and look forward to sitting at the table with this new government to find effective ways to implement and respect Aboriginal rights across multiple sectors. While the ACFN have raised multiple issues over the years relating to land management, environmental, health and education, we are finally looking forward to possibly resolving our concerns through a meaningful working relationship with the NDP government."

Finally, her campaign emphasized the need to reinvest in health care and education, and one of her government's first priorities is finding teachers for the 12,000 new students entering the system in the fall. The party argued during the campaign that a budget freeze in the PC budget wouldn't have allowed for new teachers to be hired.

Federal implications?

It's becoming fashionable to argue that the election of the NDP in Alberta was an accident, a byproduct of a reviled government and an eviscerated opposition, fielding a political neophyte as its leader. All of that is true, and clearly contributed to the NDP's victory, but those discounting the Notley effect do so at their own peril.

As Macleans political editor Paul Wells told Ricochet about Notley last week, "She's the only natural in the race."

Watching her victory speech in Montreal, my roommate was enraptured. "Her speech was perfect. She is so genuine sounding, seemed so nice and really seems focused on the right issues."

Like any good politician, Notley seized her opportunity, but without her dynamic and charismatic presence it's hard to imagine the NDP would be within spitting distance of government.

"Notley will be the next federal NDP leader," read one excited email I received this morning. "And -- could it be -- the first NDP PM."

That kind of speculation might be premature, but watching her speak last night I can understand the excitement she generates. For now she's the premier of Alberta and Tom Mulcair is the leader of the federal party. And in the offices of the Official Opposition in Ottawa they were surely up late popping the champagne.

Mulcair was conspicuous by his absence from the Alberta campaign, but in its aftermath he tweeted his congratulations to Notley, saying he was inspired by her hopeful, optimistic campaign.

This year has seen a stunning reversal of fortunes for the federal NDP, which looked all but dead last year with "Trudeaumania: The Sequel" sweeping the nation. The NDP were slow to oppose Bill C-51, the Conservatives' sweeping surveillance legislation, but oppose it they did, while the Trudeau Liberals inexplicably promised to vote for a bill they claim to oppose. As the public became better informed on the provisions of the bill, people came to overwhelmingly oppose it, with NDP support swelling as a result.

Now a stunning and decisive victory in Canada's conservative heartland has shaken the narrative that only the Liberals can unite the opposition.

Will provincial votes translate to federal votes?

It's clear that many of Stephen Harper's own supporters turned on a provincial conservative party that had gained a reputation for corruption and waste, and no one should expect the NDP to repeat this Orange Chinook at the federal level come October.

But an NDP provincial government changes the psychological effect of voting for the party at the federal level, and mutes much of the fearmongering typically targeting New Democrats.

In Edmonton, where the NDP swept every riding, the federal party can be expected to build on the one seat they currently have. Could they do the same in Calgary? Lethbridge? Medicine Hat?

Perhaps more importantly, can the Liberals continue to argue that they're the only alternative to Harper at the national level? This result shakes that narrative to its foundations.

With the NDP strong in Quebec and B.C. and suddenly competitive in Alberta, Tom Mulcair has aggressively reinserted himself into the conversation over who should be our next prime minister.

As Evan Solomon said on CBC this morning, "This is a huge bit of momentum for the federal NDP."

The next domino to fall is an anticipated NDP position on the Energy East pipeline proposal, which NDP critic Guy Caron told Ricochet would be forthcoming before the end of June.

One NDP source speculated that that position could be announced as early as this Friday, when Mulcair will be in Montreal for an event billed on Facebook as "the first major NDP Quebec rally this election year."

It's the only major event upcoming in Montreal with the party leader, and the city is the logical place to announce a position on the pipeline -- if that position is opposition.

That's the stance most are expecting the federal party to take, if for no other reason than to protect their Quebec MPs from a grassroots backlash against the pipeline. If they do, that may put Mulcair on a collision course with the new Alberta premier over tar sands, pipelines and climate.

One thing is certain at this point: Rachel Notley has become one of the most important New Democrats in the country.

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