Did you feel the ground shake earlier this week? There was a seismic event in the Canadian province of Alberta, Canada following its elections.
Alberta is sometimes referred to as the “Texas of Canada” for its conservative politics. The Progressive Conservatives (yes it’s an oxymoron) have been in control of Alberta for 43 years — almost as long as Republicans have been in control of the Arizona legislature (48 years, since January 1967). The liberal party, the New Democrats, have been out of power for a very long time. (Canada is a parliamentary system, so there are a number of other political parties).
Prior to this week’s election, the Progressive Conservatives had dominate control of the Alberta legislature.
And then the unthinkable occurred. After 43 years in power, the citizens of Alberta finally decided that they had had enough of the conservative policies of the Progressive Conservatives and threw them out of office en masse in one of the most stunning electoral defeats ever. This was a revolution by the ballot box.
So what led to this seismic reversal of political fortune? Alberta election marks change that makes economic sense:
When the Progressive Conservative party in Alberta swept to power under Peter Loughheed in 1971 it was definitely a party of the people. But by earlier this year, with Jim Prentice in charge, it had become like the 1950s TV show Father Knows Best, with the role of “Father” played by big business.
There is no question that business has a crucial role in a province’s — and a country’s — economy. But it can be dangerous when the boardroom is convinced it is in charge. And despite fears by many people in the business community, Alberta’s change in government could actually make the economy stronger.
There is no doubt that business can be a force for social good. From Bill Gates to the owner of the local car dealership, entrepreneurs large and small who are embedded in their communities make those communities better.
But there is another side to the power of business. That is the primary directive of any large corporation: to maximize profits. That pressure can be in conflict with the good of the community. It is why both banks at your nearest corner have closed their neighbourhood branches. It is why the new owners of Tim Hortons are looking for ways to cut staff.
It is an example of something known as the “resource curse” — where the interests of large corporations, often those extracting non-renewable riches, increasingly align with the government in power. The welfare of citizens and the health of the general economy suffer while government and industry both focus single mindedly on extraction and profit.
“Countries with large endowments of natural resources, such as oil and gas,” writes Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and his co-authors in their paper Escaping the Resource Curse, “often perform worse in terms of economic development and good governance than do countries with fewer resources.”
Alberta is no Nigeria or Saudi Arabia but part of the anger against outgoing Premier Jim Prentice was that, as CEO-in-chief, his response to industrial failure in Alberta was to leave business taxes unchanged at the lowest level in Canada while raising taxes for everyone else.
It may also be why in the post-Lougheed era there was always money for corporate profits and re-election promises but nothing for the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund, which he set up as a long-term savings account fed by the province’s oil wealth.
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As University of Saskatchewan political scientist Greg Poelzer told me recently, Prairie socialists are practical people who value the work ethic and are “very fiscally conservative.” The backbone of Saskatchewan and Manitoba New Democrats, he said, has consisted of farmers who are small business owners in their own right.
While much has been made of premier-designate Rachel Notley’s inexperienced caucus and cabinet, most of those new MLAs will bring to the legislature concerns from outside the business perspective. Rather than business asking what elected officials can do for business, the newly elected members will ask what business can do for their constituents.
And that is a change. After 44 years of Progressive Conservative rule, much of it without a significant opposition, power had moved away from the electorate and deeper into the hands of the premier’s closest advisors.
“I don’t think Albertans, until last night, thought they had the power to hold the government to account,” Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons said during a morning-after panel, “Orange is the New Blue,” on CBC Radio’s The Current.
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Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has already shown that Nenshi dust works. Through him, Canada and the world now know Alberta is far from a cultural wasteland, and that Calgary is a hip, global city. Building on that base, Notley and her young cabinet must demonstrate that they can unleash a similar wave of dynamism, creating an economic rebirth that is about more than extracting oil.
They have four years to convince the waverers. Because while Prime Minister Stephen Harper may take a warning from the backlash against governments who cozy up too close to business, his opponents should examine the other reason Notley took most of the seats this week.
It wasn’t that she won the popular vote. Instead, the majority was split between two opposition parties whose politics were far too similar.
Alberta holds lessons for Arizona. The Arizona legislature has been dominated by Republicans for 48 years. We have had a Republican governor for all but six years of Janet Napolitano in the past 24 years. Republicans won control of all statewide offices in 2010, with the exception of a couple of seats on the Corporation Commission which they took back in 2012. Republicans won control of all statewide offices again in 2014, in the lowest voter turnout election since 1942.
Republicans and their allies in the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and “Kochtopus” organization like the Goldwater Institute and Americans for Prosperity, and their network of dark money groups led by Sean Noble’s American Encore and Club for Growth, and others, suffer from the arrogance of one party rule.
The corporate boardrooms own Arizona’s government as the 2014 elections proved. “Power has moved away from the electorate and deeper into the hands of the governor’s closest advisors,” like “Kochtopus” dark money operative Kirk Adams. The Arizona Corporation Commission is the captive agency of Arizona’s Carbon Monopoly public utilities.
The GOP culture of corruption permeates everything in Arizona.
The citizens of Alberta had finally had enough of a similar government, and they threw them out of office en masse in one of the most stunning electoral defeats ever. Arizona voters had not yet reached their breaking point in 2014; they have been down for so long they were too tired to fight. But if Arizonans can just find the strength to get up off the mat to fight, they can hold their government accountable and have a revolution by the ballot box just like Alberta.
h/t graphics: Rachel Maddow Show