Orange Chinook: new book navigates changing winds of Alberta politics

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Albertans head to the polls on Tuesday in an election that not only has implications for the oil-rich province, but for Canada as a whole. Now, a new book looks at the shifting political winds in Wild Rose Country.

It’s called Orange Chinook: Politics in the New Alberta. It’s a play on Orange Crush, the term used to describe the breakthrough of Jack Layton’s NDP in the 2011 federal election.

“We saw a similar breakthrough in Alberta in 2015 with the NDP forming their first government,” explains Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Calgary’s Mount Royal University and one of the editors of the book. “But we wanted to put a bit of an Alberta spin on it, hence Chinook, which is a warm wind that blows through in the middle of winter and makes things nice.”

Whether the Notley government has made “things nice” is essentially the ballot box question of this election. Bratt admits it is highly unlikely voters will return the New Democrats to another four years in power.

“When you look at the economic conditions that have hit Alberta, with 130,000 job losses in four years, the overall drop in oil prices, I think it would be difficult for any incumbent government to win re-election,” he explains.

Whatever the result, there will be implications for the entire country. Bratt says you can expect relations between Alberta and B.C. to worsen if the United Conservative Party wins on Tuesday.

“Jason Kenney is actively promising a major fight and so B.C.-Alberta relations [and] Alberta and Ottawa relations are going to be extremely frayed after his victory,” he says.

The book has chapters on the fall of the former Conservative dynasty and the rise of the NDP and looks at the future too. It can be considered essential reading for political watchers both in and outside of Alberta.

NEWS 1130’s John Ackermann spoke with Duane Bratt by phone earlier this week. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.

First of all let’s unpack that title a bit. Orange Chinook. What does it mean?

“It’s a play off of the Orange Crush, which was a term that was used after the big breakthrough that Jack Layton and the federal NDP made in 2011. We saw a similar breakthrough in Alberta in 2015 with the NDP forming their first government in Alberta. But we wanted to put a bit of an Alberta spin on it, hence Chinook, which is a warm wind that blows through in the middle of winter and makes things nice.”

All right. And this is significant as well in that it’s the first book about Alberta’s first NDP government. Win or lose on April 16, do you think it has earned a place in the history books?

“Without a doubt. Not only did they end a 44-year political dynasty that the Progressive Conservatives had, but this is the first sort of progressive type of government that we have seen in Alberta going back to the Great Depression. That in itself would have been significant. But, if you look at the four years that the NDP was in power, they brought in a lot of dramatic changes. Whether that was campaign finance reform, whether that was an economy-wide carbon tax, raising minimum wage, phasing out coal, lowering emission targets in the in the oil sands, there was a lot of legislation, a lot of work, in a very short period of time.”

Now, based on the polling, at this point it looks like the Notley government may well end up being a one term administration, much like the Bob Rae NDP in Ontario or the Dave Barrett government here in B.C. back in the 1970s. Is there a chance the pollsters could get it wrong?

“There’s always a chance, but we’ve been looking at sustained polling numbers for a year and a half that have shown anywhere from a 10 to 20 point lead for the UCP. When you look at the economic conditions that have hit Alberta with 130,000 job losses in four years, not entirely due to the NDP to be clear, but the overall drop in oil prices, which has affected investment and jobs, I think it would be difficult for any incumbent government to win re-election.

”The other interesting feature is in 2015, the NDP got just less than 41 per cent of the popular vote. They could very well get 37 or 38 per cent this time around, not much different than 2015, but they’re facing a United Conservative Party instead of two separate conservative parties. And that makes their job that much more difficult.”

That was going to be my next question. This time around, unlike 2015, you have a united right. Do you see the UCP pulling in as many votes as the Conservatives and the Wildrose Party put together?

“Slightly less. One plus one doesn’t always equal two, but even if it’s 1.8, that’s enough for them to succeed, particularly in this economic circumstance that they’re looking at, where it’s been a sustained downturn in the province. I think that conditions were absolutely ripe for a conservative victory this time, even though there were conservatives who were arguing pretty much the day after Notley was elected that she was a disaster and needed to be replaced now.”

Jason Kenney has been criticized for his stance on social issues. There was that radio interview he did with Charles Adler the day before the leaders’ debate. Do you see this affecting him at the polls?

“I don’t think so much at the polls. I think there’s enough people that are maybe very displeased with Jason Kenney and very upset about various gay issues and women’s reproductive issues and race issues, but the economy has just been so important. I think there are a couple ways where this could lead to problems. If Kenney wins, as expected, one is Alberta is not as conservative, I think, as he and others are describing it. There is polling data going back well over a decade and on issues of values, Albertans aren’t that much different from anybody else in the country. But the UCP is much more conservative than the rest of the province. So it will be interesting to see if he gets elected largely on economic grounds because he has so many of these social conservative people in his caucus.”

And looking at this in a national context. What will the results mean for politics outside of Alberta, especially between Alberta and B.C.?

“Probably the biggest differentiation between the two is on pipelines, particularly the Trans Mountain pipeline, [which] has taken on an extraordinary level of importance here. It’s almost become a symbol of the economy. And Rachel Notley’s approach, which one of our authors called The Accidental Pipeline Advocate, has been to introduce a carbon tax to try to get social license [and] work with other levels of government. The Kenney approach would be very different. He is promising a fight-back strategy of immediately repealing the carbon tax, suing the federal government over their federal carbon tax, campaigning actively against Justin Trudeau in the next federal election, investigating environmental groups to see if they’re violating their charitable status, and threatening to shut off the flow of oil to British Columbia if the B.C. government continues to be obstructionist, as well as a referendum on equalization to force the federal government to approve a pipeline. So, it’s really one approach that is ‘let’s work with everybody to try to get this through’ and the other is ‘let’s fight everybody and ram it through.'”

Well, I mean, given that Rachel Notley herself was an NDP premier dealing with another NDP government and even that relationship was kind of fraught, does it stand to reason that the provincial relationship between Edmonton and Victoria could get even worse under the UCP?

“Oh, absolutely. There have been moments where B.C. and Alberta have been at loggerheads, even when their parties and premiers are ideologically close, whether that is Horgan and Notley or whether that was Christy Clark and Alison Redford. But Jason Kenney is actively promising a major fight and B.C.-Alberta relations, Alberta to Ottawa, our relations are going to be extremely frayed after his victory, all right.”

Orange Chinook is available from the University of Calgary Press.

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