May 5, 2015 will take its place in Alberta’s history books as the date the empire fell. The party in power has changed only three other times in Alberta: July 18, 1921; Aug. 22, 1935; and Aug. 30, 1971.
Many articles have already been written analyzing the downfall of the PCs, and they typically point to some of a number of precipitating moments.
As Alison Redford said understatedly while announcing her departure, mistakes were made.
Jim Prentice’s proposed budget was clearly unpopular. While he attempted to find the Goldilocksian balance between budget cuts and tax increases, his budget still managed to be “too hot” for some, “too cold” for others and “just right” for no one at all. An undisciplined comment telling Albertans to look in the mirror was arrogant. The Wildrose floor crossings were viewed as opportunistic, contrived and out of touch. Nomination controversies made the party seem high-handed, while the early election call was judged wasteful and unnecessary.
Prentice’s flubs turned off many traditional PC voters, but I think his was just a failed attempt to put together a party already set to implode.
Prentice did his best to repair the damage done by the Redford controversies: the sky palace, the costly trip to South Africa, misuse of government planes, and expensive salary, severances and perks for political staffers.
Yes, these controversies did serious damage to the PC brand, but I’m certain the party was already in deep trouble before Redford even left for South Africa.
The real undoing of the PC party began in late 2012 and continued through most of 2013.
To tell this story well, I have to go back a few years. The first three-and-a-half decades of Tory rule were characterized by a big-tent party that attracted both social progressives and fiscal conservatives. However, after the dismissal of Ralph Klein, discontent aimed largely at Ed Stelmach allowed for the rise of the Wildrose Alliance party. That party became a viable alternative for social conservatives, neo-liberals and libertarians who might have previously lived within the big PC tent.
The Wildrose Alliance nearly did in the PCs, but the PCs rebranded under Alison Redford. In the 2011 leadership campaign and subsequent 2012 general election, Redford positioned herself as a new progressive alternative: not your father’s PC party. Redford offered new socially progressive values and more support for quality public services. In education she promised stable, predictable funding, a commitment to full-day kindergarten, more wraparound services, updated curriculum and the end of provincial achievement tests.
It is well documented that not only did Redford appeal to traditionally progressive PC voters, but after many became fearful of the possibility of a Wildrose majority government, she also attracted many traditional Liberal and New Democratic Party voters in the dying days of the 2012 campaign.
The story goes that the new Redford coalition won by including teachers, nurses and soccer moms while excluding traditional hardline social and fiscal conservatives. The PCs might have been able to govern like this for years, but after they were elected they attacked their new base.
Before the scandals emerged, the post-election Redford era included crippling cuts to vital public services, hardline negotiations with teachers and doctors, attempts to strip public sector pensions, legislated collective agreements with public employees and draconian anti-labour laws. An attack on the employment and professional status of teachers was launched after the Redford demise, but it had been in the works long before.
Bit by bit, the government alienated each and every segment of the voting populace that it had brought into the tent just two years earlier. So, when scandals emerged, nobody was interested in defending the PCs and everyone was looking for an alternative. The 2015 election was already lost.
Jim Prentice wanted to put the pieces back together, but he failed to recognize how the party had won in 2012 and instead courted the right-wing voters who’d left several years earlier. To make matters worse, his pre-election budget and rhetoric put public services in further jeopardy and aggressively doubled the attacks on public workers.
Alas, it was way too late; the voters he really needed had found a new home with the NDP. ❚
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