A federal NDP government just became plausible

Meteorologists in hell issued a rare frost warning several weeks ago, after Albertans not only tossed Canada's longest serving political dynasty but elected a left-leaning NDP government in its stead.

Meteorologists in hell issued a rare frost warning several weeks ago, after Albertans not only tossed Canada’s longest serving political dynasty but elected a left-leaning NDP government in its stead – in the heartland of Canadian conservatism, of all places.

In the lead-up to the election I, like others, was hesitant to believe the polls. Not only did such an outcome seem implausible, but pollsters had been so wildly inaccurate in forecasting the previous Alberta election (when polls suggested that the province’s right-wing Wildrose Party might win) that they weren’t terribly persuasive this time around.

But sure enough come election night the province elected a “strong, stable, majority NDP government.”

The “throw the bums out” tendency in politics is a phenomenon that can’t be underestimated. But the election of an NDP government in Alberta shows the sheer power of an electorate fed up with the incumbent.

Bad behaviour by our leaders needs to be punished, and a sense of electoral invincibility seems to motivate politicians towards arrogance and corruption. Sometimes the only way to punish a tired political party is to hold your nose and vote for the devil you don’t know.

But the NDP? In Alberta? This is a province that has had an uninterrupted conservative provincial government since before I was born and routinely sends a slate of MPs to Ottawa that is almost entirely blue. Surely there must have been someone – anyone – else that Albertans could hitch their wagon to as a means to ridding itself of the province’s long-serving Progressive Conservative dynasty.

The outcome of that election has led me to question several truisms I’ve long held about Canadian politics. If the NDP can win in Alberta maybe, just maybe, they can win federally.

First the NDP upset conventional wisdom that a strongly federalist party could not win over Quebec’s nationalist electorate when it won its “orange wave” in that province in the last federal election. Now this.

Granted the circumstances are different – the federal Conservatives are not the Alberta PCs – but the Alberta election shows that many (what we thought were) hardline conservative voters have a breaking point. Clearly ideology is not the be-all and end-all of politics.

The Alberta election showed that if there is to be an alternative to a tired conservative government for Albertans it is not going to be the Liberals. We all knew that the Liberal brand was damaged goods in Alberta, but this outcome brings the extent of that into sharp focus.

In an ideological consistent world such a wild swing – where voters pass over a more moderate alternative – makes no sense. Such a change of heart is enough to make Dennis Fentie blush.

But it can be explained by that province’s visceral hatred of the Liberal Party. The fact that the province wasn’t willing to consider the Liberals as a more business-friendly alternative shows that it isn’t just on life support. It is dead and buried.

Progressive opposition to the Harper government in this country is palpable. There are a lot of voters who just want the Conservatives gone. While there are many who have a preference for the orange team or the red team, there are many others who don’t really care one way or another and are just trying to figure out who has the best chance of defeating Stephen Harper.

Justin Trudeau is a politician who entered the political scene with a large trust fund of political capital that he has been doing his best to blow. He has charisma and name recognition. All he needed to succeed politically was to maintain some sort of body temperature.

Unfortunately the last six months or so have suggested that he may be unable to do that.

His party’s knee-jerk decision to support the government’s new heavy-handed security legislation, Bill C-51, has become a political disaster with many voters as grassroots anger has grown.

The Liberal Party position that Canada’s role in the fight against ISIS should be “non-combat” has something to offend everyone. For those who support the mission it is cowardly and weak; for those opposed it is just enough to make us complicit in yet another intervention in another Middle East conflict.

Until the Liberals belatedly released their own “families with children” policy a few weeks ago – months after the NDP and Conservatives had released their own – they had left a serious policy vacuum. By doing so Trudeau will have to work extra hard to counter the perception that he is short on ideas.

In contrast, Thomas Mulcair has appeared much like Stephen Harper did before ousting the Liberals in 2005 – an articulate, consistent, and compelling critic of the government.

An NDP victory in Alberta may upset the conventional wisdom that the Liberals are the party best-equipped to defeat Stephen Harper.

Combine fed-up progressive voters with those who just want to “throw the bums out” and “windsock voters” – who just flap whichever direction the polls are blowing – and strange things can happen.

An NDP victory in the next election is far from a sure thing. I’m certainly not predicting a federal “orange wave” in Alberta. But what these results show is that the NDP can surprise us and win in unexpected places.

After recent events in Quebec and Alberta I think it is fair to move the possibility of an NDP government from the realm of the unlikely to the plausible.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.