It’s hardly news that Brian Mason and the New Democratic Party are not going to form the government of Alberta after Election Day.
But nowhere is it written that New Democrats can never be the government of Alberta, as unlikely as that may seem at this particular moment in history.
Who would have thought two years ago that Barack Obama would be a credible candidate for president of the United States? Who would have predicted in 1978 that the Soviet Union would disappear from the earth by 1992? Who would have imagined on Election Night 1984 that in less than a decade Brian Mulroney’s mighty majority would be reduced to a rump of two?
As Harold Wilson famously observed: “A week is a long time in politics.”
Likewise, it is not news in the midst of this strangely listless provincial election campaign that a lot of Albertans would like change, if only they could figure out what change they would like.
We’re not the same old Tories, say the same old Tories, determined to have it both ways. “Ed Stelmach: Change that works.” All the other parties, of course, promise change, change, change and nothing but change. Albertans haven’t heard so much loose talk about change since Ralph Klein emptied his pockets at the men’s shelter!
As for the electorate, if the last published polls are to be believed, it’s feeling undecided. It wants change. It’s worried about change. It can’t make up its mind what kind of change it would like.
The Liberals and the New Democrats could almost certainly give Albertans a dose of the change they desire if only they could work together. After all, their platforms are not all that different. Together, they represent a spectrum of opinion that is probably held by a majority of Albertans. Moreover – if the proverbial man (or woman) in the street is anything to go by – most Albertans would like the No. 2 and 3 parties to work together for the good of the province.
Indeed, it seems to some that a historical moment is upon us when, thanks to a weak Conservative premier, change really could happen … if only.
The bad news, folks (unless you’re a Conservative, of course), is that if only isn’t going to happen between now and March 3.
The Liberals think they can achieve a breakthrough on their own, if only they can find the right narrative to tell. The New Democrats see Liberal success as death to their hopes – and thus many of them would rather work to bring down the Liberals in ridings where New Democrats have no hope than to allow the change that Albertans crave.
Ironically, and sadly, they’re both likely wrong.
A route to power on March 3, for the Liberals, would have been through a co-operative relationship with the NDP – you scratch our back in St. Albert, we’ll scratch yours in Edmonton Calder. In power, the Liberals would have had an opportunity to consolidate their hold, and maybe even reign for 37 years
But the only possible route to power for the New Democrats, who don’t have a ghost of a chance on March 3, is also through co-operation with the Liberals. This is what brought the NDP to power in Ontario under Bob Rae in 1990.
Talk about your stunning upsets! Ontarians wanted change. They were sick of Grits and Tories, Tories and Grits. But they never would have given Bob Rae a chance if the NDP hadn’t first proved they could play with the big kids.
In 1985, the NDP did just that. They signed the famous “Liberal-NDP Accord” that led to a successful collaboration – though not quite a coalition – that resulted in success for the Liberals in the form of another election victory and success for the New Democrats in the form of the credibility they needed to be considered as a potential government by Ontario voters.
Sometimes it takes time – and not a little faith – to see a gamble succeed. The Liberal-NDP Accord must have seemed like a disaster to many Ontario New Democrats in 1987 when the Accord ended and the Liberals won a landslide.
But it was not a disaster. Three years later, when the seemingly popular Liberals arrogantly miscalculated and called a snap election that Ontarians didn’t want, the New Democrats (even to their leader’s surprise) formed a majority government.
I’ll say it again. The New Democrats triumphed in Ontario in 1990 because they proved in 1985 that they could play with the big kids. Sure, Ontario voters rewarded the Liberals in 1987 for what they saw as a success (driven, as it happened, by popular New Democratic policies). But when the Liberals stumbled in 1990, voters were confident enough to give the New Democrats their chance.
That Bob Rae’s NDP later also fumbled the ball doesn’t matter here. The point is that Alberta New Democrats now lack the credibility their party needs with voters in all but five or six Alberta ridings.
They will never be credible if they focus their attacks on the other opposition party.
The NDP would benefit even if they tried for an understanding with the Liberals and were rebuffed. At least then they could say, “Well, we tried to give you want you wanted.” And who knows? Alberta voters just might give them a chance. This is the birthplace of the CCF, after all. The Reform Party, mysteriously, once appealed to many NDP voters.