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May 8, 2015

Notley's leadership turned orange tide

CALGARY- OK, everybody, sit down and take a few deep breaths.

You're going to be all right. The sun will rise tomorrow. If you haven't already lost your job in the oil price crash, you're not going to lose it now. Your taxes won't go up tomorrow. No energy companies have imminent plans to move out of the province.

A few short weeks ago, when the incumbent Alberta Progressive Conservatives called the provincial election, no one could have imagined that the Tories would lose their 44-year death-grip on power. The notion that the third-place NDP would form government? Inconceivable.

Hysterical about the sweeping orange wave, the PCs and Wildrose parties launched full-scale attacks on the NDP in the past week. They reminded voters of what happened in Ontario when the then NDP's Bob Rae surprised everyone with an upset majority government more than two decades ago.

They didn't, of course, draw comparisons to the practical prairie NDP governments that ran largely sensible governments in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They don't talk about years of balanced budgets, and fiscal policies that in some cases were more conservative than the sometimes-left, sometimes-right bipolar PCs.

The unexpected triumph of Rachel Notley's NDP has two dimensions: the first is the persuasive power of quality leadership. Notley, daughter of the late Grant Notley, who was the former Alberta NDP leader, has had politics in her blood all her life.

Like Justin Trudeau — but arguably with more substance — she is a second-generation leader whose poise and professional demeanour sent a nonverbal message that she is fit to be premier of Alberta.

Compare that to the uncomfortable Jim Prentice, who started out so strong as premier, but over time allowed cracks to form in his once-pristine image.

The second dimension is the PCs' catastrophic fumbling of a seemingly can't-lose scenario. When the obituaries are written on the once-invincible juggernaut known as the Alberta PCs, one moment will stand out as the fatal turning point: The decision to call an unnecessary, costly and unwanted election.

Just eight months into his leadership, Prentice started so strongly with a series of sensible populist decisions that did seem to affirm his claim of being "new management" — selling off the province's unpopular airline fleet and reversing a decision to close the Michener Centre for people with disabilities.

But then, just as his popularity soared, a series of ill-conceived — maybe cocky? — decisions quickly eroded his hold on the hearts of Albertans. The first moment was his decision to accept Danielle Smith, then-Wildrose leader, and her co-conspirators into the PC fold. It smelled of old-style backroom politics and Albertans didn't like it. Then, Prentice's seemingly offhanded comment that Albertans should "look in the mirror" to see who was to blame for the province's fiscal blues offended many working Albertans who didn't share his view.

The fatal decision, though, was to ignore what his intuition surely must have been telling him and he went ahead in calling a provincial election. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but Prentice couldn't fool them on this. It was painfully obvious that the PCs were trying to cash in on the disarray in opposition parties and polling that, at the time, seemed to assure yet another Tory majority.

Another factor that many have predicted would take hold soon may have finally manifested itself. That was the demographic shift and greater diversity in political views triggered by migration of people from other parts of Canada and around the world. Perhaps the election of Calgary's progressive mayor, Naheed Nenshi, should have been a clear bellwether.

There are a lot of people excited about this historical political sea change. Others are pretty upset at the election of an NDP government in what has been long known as the most conservative province in Canada.

This shocking outcome has shown that there is a limit to Albertans' tolerance for cynical political manipulation. A lot of people were ready to give Prentice one chance, but when he betrayed them with an indefensible election call, that patience ran out.

Now Notley faces the challenge of showing a small-c conservative province that a left-leaning party will do a better job as stewards of the public trust than the tired old crew it is replacing.

Doug Firby is editor-in-chief and national affairs columnist of Calgary-based Troy Media. (troymedia.com)

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