Alberta wins

National Post  Published: Wednesday, March 05, 2008

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Alberta premier Ed Stelmach.Grant Black/Canwest News ServiceAlberta premier Ed Stelmach.

No one saw it coming. Albertans are accustomed to landslide victories in their politics, but nobody thought that homespun Progressive Conservative Premier Ed Stelmach was capable of putting on the kind of display of electoral dominance that characterized the reigns of Ralph Klein, Peter Lougheed, and E.C. Manning. Political forecasters assumed that in Monday's provincial election, Mr. Stelmach would give away some of the seats won by Mr. Klein in 2004 -- the only question was how many. Some even talked of a minority government. Mr. Stelmach was subjected to endless hackneyed comparisons to the last in the line of Social Credit premiers, Harry Strom.

And then, historians will say, they went ahead and held the vote.

It took just 20 minutes for the television networks to declare an 11th consecutive Conservative majority. The grotesque magnitude of the victory was clear within 40. Like Conan the Barbarian bisecting an opponent with a broadsword, the Tories halved their chief enemies, reducing the 16-member Liberal caucus to nine blank-eyed survivors and exiling two of four NDP MLAs. The much-touted united party of right-wing dissent, the Wildrose Alliance, lost its sole sitting MLA and actually came up worse in the overall numbers than one of its component groups had in 2004. Mr. Stelmach pulled in 53% of the popular vote and took 72 of the province's 83 seats -- a performance equalled by Ralph Klein only once, in 2001. Fears that Conservative voters would stay home in protest proved groundless, despite bad driving conditions in some parts of the province, as the Conservatives added 84,000 to their province-wide vote total from '04.

In retrospect, no one really should have been surprised. The polls had shown that the Liberals were in danger of collapse: On the final weekend, they clearly implied that likely-voter support for the party was well below 30% and probably right around the 26% they ended up with.

Despite these numbers, however, journalists and partisans alike chose to evade reality. Some were committed to alternative narratives: The daily broadsheet in the capital, the Edmonton Journal, gave generous ink to the opposition. Mr. Stelmach's unexpected coup in the PC leadership last year may have left many beat writers without trustworthy insider sources. And it seems obvious that the neutralizing effect of his $2-billion pension payout to teachers -- who are, needless to say, a traditionally rich source of Liberal and NDP votes -- was underestimated.

But much of the confusion stems from a curious form of media sampling bias. The Albertans who had the biggest beef with Ed Stelmach going into the campaign were the very rich and the very poor. The former squawked endlessly about his hike in petro royalties. The latter have real concerns about trying to keep up with rents and other living costs in a booming economy. The media are inherently prone to paying disproportionate attention to both groups. That is all one read about in Alberta during February: how Mr. Stelmach's policies had preyed viciously upon the strongest and the weakest alike.

But it turns out there's this thing called the middle class. It has few institutional voices to speak for it, even in Alberta, but it is capable of making itself heard at election time. And that's what seems to have happened on Monday. The opposition parties couldn't convince the broad working public that times are bad, not good, in Alberta. Right now, it is a place where a trainable, able-bodied person can earn virtually arbitrary sums of money if he is willing to put in the hours and go where the jobs are. Albertans know -- and the newer they are to the province, the more likely they are to know first-hand -- that such a condition is precious, ephemeral, and not to be risked lightly.

The Liberals and the NDP campaigned endlessly on the problems of economic growth. But it's a lot easier to destroy growth than to create it. Albertans know how easy it would be to stop the oilsands development whose full flowering the province awaited for 70 or 80 years; a stroke of the pen on the right desk would suffice. They know how much simpler it is to close a mine than to dig one, how much easier it is to shut down an oil well than to spud one in, how much easier it is to file for bankruptcy than it is to meet a small-business payroll.

Ed Stelmach managed to penetrate the static and capitalize on that sentiment. "Albertans don't want a government-planned economy," he said in a Feb. 20 speech: "The Trudeau Liberals tried it, and we know how well that worked." He was laughed at by the political scientists and wise heads for his unabashed appeal to the darkest hour in Alberta's history. Well, who's laughing now?

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