Parkland Institute
Op-eds | May 07, 2015

Power brokers unwittingly destroyed the Conservative party

by Trevor Harrison

The autopsy into the death of Alberta's PCs has just begun. A host of explanations has already been advanced: the early election call, the television debate, voter anger and the stellar performance of Rachel Notley compared with that of Jim Prentice. There is good forensic evidence in support of all these explanations. But deaths of the sort witnessed Tuesday are also the result of a longer accumulation of causes.

There's an episode in the third season of the deservedly acclaimed series Breaking Bad when Walter and Jesse are in their lab trying to catch a fly that Walter fears will contaminate their next batch of crystal meth. At one point, Walter muses to himself -- in a soliloquy worthy of Shakespeare -- that he should have died already; that he had missed the perfect moment to die, when his family would have remembered him fondly.

Alberta's Conservative party should have died in 1993. If it had, it would have been fondly remembered as the party of Peter Lougheed that in 1971 had wrested the province from the clutches of Social Credit, another party that had stayed too long. Instead, thanks to Ralph Klein, the party lived on.

Eternal life -- or so it has seemed politically in Alberta until May 5 -- came at a price, however. The Faustian bargain struck by Klein's PCs meant selling out to Calgary's oil industry and the province's socially conservative rural voters. The former gave the PCs wads of cash in return for royalty rates that were kept low. The latter gave the PCs electoral support, bolstered by gerrymandered electoral boundaries, in return for also keeping taxes low. The immediate losers in this bargain were public servants, located mainly in the city of Edmonton where opposition to the Tories has smouldered ever since.

But the bargain also had long-term consequences for Lougheed's once-proud party. For the story of the PCs since has been that of a party trapped by its small but powerful electoral base and unable or unwilling to adjust to the changes happening within Alberta's rapidly growing and modernizing society.

Despite exceedingly low (per barrel) royalty rates, the early 2000s saw enough money pour into Alberta -- due mainly to a hyper-expansion of raw extraction at a time when oil prices were skyrocketing -- to paper over the growing fiscal contradictions. The money covered the province's deficient tax efforts, allowing the PCs to pay for health, education and other needs -- though never at the resplendent levels one might think from a province seemingly rolling in petrodollars. It also allowed the PCs to buy elections.

But the price of oil is notoriously unstable, and as the growing divide between Alberta's expenditures and revenues grew larger, some Albertans began questioning the PCs' fiscal acumen. Many noticed that, in the land of supposed plenty, fiscal and social deficits ran in tandem. In 2007, Ed Stelmach, who had recently replaced Klein as premier, enacted a royalty review that would have seen a small increase in the province's royalty take. In response, the oil industry threw its support behind a rural rump party, the Wildrose Alliance, and in short order a leader, Danielle Smith, whose conservative and Calgary credentials made her the ideal frontperson for the industry's interests. The warning shot worked. The PCs blinked, and Stelmach resigned.

He was replaced shortly thereafter as premier by Alison Redford. The failures of the Redford administration need no elaboration, except to note the party's appeal to -- and subsequent betrayal of -- its progressive base in 2012 paved the way for the two-front battle that in 2015 has decimated the party.

Amid numerous scandals and declining personal support inside and outside the party, Redford resigned in the spring of 2014. The party's backroom boys, uninterested in anything more than a cosmetic makeover, found their saviour in Jim Prentice, a former Alberta MP and federal cabinet minister, who at the time was a senior vice-president with the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

In September 2014, Prentice stepped down from his position at the CIBC and took over as premier. From the outside, the PC party seemed unbeatable. It had won 12 straight elections since 1971, all -- except the one in 1993 -- with a comfortable majority. Its secret of success was a combination of fear and bribery, mixed with hopelessness felt by many eligible voters who believed no opposition was possible against a party with coffers sporting millions of dollars that had sunk its talons into every part of Alberta's fabric.

A look under the PC hood showed a party in real trouble, however. While its coffers overflowed with corporate money, its support base was small and aging and increasingly detached from what was going on in the province; a province to which 100,000 people -- many of them young, with families -- were flocking and who wanted good, affordable, and reliable schools, hospitals and other services for which increased revenues were needed. The PCs, captive to the corporate sector and its rural (anti-tax) base, could not and would not respond to these demands, however. Even after its March budget, the PCs boasted Alberta's tax rates meant it would bring in $10 billion less than the next-highest-taxing province -- even as they also bemoaned a gap in its budget of $7 billion due to declining royalties.

Ironically, by not allowing the PCs to raise corporate or individual taxes (for the well-off) and howling at even the suggestion of a royalty review, the small clique of power brokers and anti-tax lobbyists that had run the PC party (and the province) since 1993 prevented the PCs from saving them from themselves.

That, too, seems almost Shakespearean.

Trevor Harrison is a professor at the University of Lethbridge and director of the Parkland Institute.


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