Long periods of one-party government typical of Alberta politics

There is a pattern to Alberta provincial politics which is unlike that of any other province. It has two major characteristics: (1) Long periods of one-party government – only four administrations since 1905; (2) Replacement of the governing party, when that time comes, by “something new” rather than by its traditional opposition.

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From 1905 to 1921, the province had a Liberal administration. Its major opposition came from the Conservative party. But when the Liberals discredited themselves through railway scandals and losing touch with the province’s primary industry, agriculture, they were replaced not by their traditional opposition but by a new party, the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA).

From 1921 to 1935, Alberta was governed by the UFA with the Liberals forming the principal opposition. The UFA provided solid administration and secured the constitutional amendment which transferred control of natural resources from the federal government to the province – the reason why oil and gas royalties flow today to Edmonton instead of to Ottawa.

But in 1935, with the province reeling from the effects of drought and the Great Depression and their leader embroiled in a sex scandal, the UFA administration was replaced not by its traditional opposition but by a new party, Social Credit.

From 1935 to 1971 Alberta was governed by the Social Credit administration. It oversaw the development of the oil and gas industry, laid the foundations of Alberta’s social services and transportation infrastructure, avoided scandals, and ran a tight ship financially. During most of this period its traditional opposition came from the Liberals, the provincial Conservative party having virtually disappeared. But by the 1970s the Social Credit administration was old, tired, and unable to renew itself from within as it had done several times before. Once again the Alberta pattern emerged and the long-time governing party was replaced not by its traditional opposition but by a new party, the reinvented Progressive Conservative Party under Peter Lougheed.

What now? From 1971 to the present and counting, there has been another long period of one-party government. During much of this time the principal opposition to the Progressive Conservatives has come from the provincial Liberals and NDP. But both have lost so many general elections and by-elections that they have become identified in the public mind as “perpetual losers.” Meanwhile, as predicted by the Alberta pattern, a new party, the Wildrose Alliance, has emerged with growing public appeal.

All of which raises an intriguing question. Will the Alberta pattern continue, or is the province in 2014 so different from 1921, 1935, and 1971 that the pattern will be broken? Some analysts say yes, but others say no, pointing out that in each case in the past, the composition of the electorates and the conditions under which the new party replaced its aging predecessor were very different from each other, yet the pattern persisted.

As in the past, the Alberta pattern presents four challenges to contemporary Albertans.

For the governing PCs under new Premier Jim Prentice, the challenge is to again renew from within while still in office, an increasingly difficult task as the party and the administration continues to age.

For the newest major party on the Alberta scene, the Wildrose Alliance, the challenge is to transition from an opposition/protest party to one whom the public will judge to be capable of running a $45-billion government, no easy task either.

For the business community, especially the energy industry, the challenge is to maintain cordial working relations with the governing party while also developing working relations – a “second string to the bow” – with the Wildrose Alliance. Again a difficult task requiring foresight and delicate management.

And for the voting public, the challenge is to address two fundamental questions: Is it “time for a change” and if so, what kind of change – to support changes within the governing party or to begin its replacement with “something new”?

Preston Manning is president of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.

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