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Alberta Premier Elect Rachel Notley celebrates a shocking victory (Alberta NDP facebook page)

Alberta Premier Elect Rachel Notley celebrates a shocking victory (Alberta NDP facebook page)

Somehow, the day after it happened, the election of the NDP in Alberta doesn’t seem quite as astonishing as it would have say, a year ago. Back then, one would have been in danger of certification as mad to predict that the Tories, after some 43 years, would be turfed out of what had become a political fiefdom. They reigned supreme with no contenders in sight, the Wildrose Party having apparently disintegrated. The Liberals had never been much of a force, although, from time to time, they would pop up hopefully as Liberals are wont to – and the NDP, well, they were just the NDP, a hopeless island of the left in a sea of the right.

A good part of the NDP victory is, of course, simple exhaustion with a very old government. It’s also due to some bad luck for the Tories – the same sort of bad luck that has hit every government relying upon fossil fuels for their day-to-day livelihood.

Ready for Rachel

Another enormous factor was Rachel Notley, bred in politics and ideally suited for the moment.

Leaders had become pretty stuffy in Alberta as they tend to become in democratic dictatorships, or any dictatorships for that matter. She caught of the mood of the times and had what so many politicians don’t have: patience. Mind you, much of that patience was imposed by the circumstances.

One cannot overlook the impact of the late Jack Layton on the NDP generally in Canada. The members of the NDP had been drifting towards the centre for sometime but their leaders had not caught up. Layton did and so did Notley.

What now?

There will be much more perspicacious observers than me looking at this election and I will leave the sorting out of the pepper from the fly shit to them. The question is what will the NDP do now that they have plucked the plum from the pie?

The honest answer to that question is, “I’m damned if I know.” However, one does not get away with that sort of answer in this business!

First off, Ms. Notley has homework to do. She has an economy that is bad, getting worse and a citizenry who are not used to that sort of situation.

Philosophically the NDP are not Tar Sands people. They must become that, however, if there is to be recovery and the question is how will that happen?

A Hobson’s choice

She really has three choices – she can subsidize the industry, she can actively help sell the product, or she can wait and see and hope that international oil prices save the day. This is a terrible triple Hobson’s choice and she’s not to be envied.

There is no money to subsidize in any direct way, so she will have to do it by way of taxation and other concessions. But, that’s the very reason the Tories were thrown out on their prats. While she has a four-year mandate, there is no point getting off on such a bad footing that she can never recover.

Secondly, to whom would Ms. Notley try to increase sales? That is the problem in a nutshell anyway – there are no customers right now for expensive Canadian heavy oil and unconventional gas.

The reality is that she’s left with no other choice but to sit back and hope for increased prices…At least in the short term.

There’s also no earthly reason why Alberta couldn’t use this opportunity to begin developing a clean tech industry that will yield jobs and revenues down the road. As our contributor and innovation expert Will Dubitsky has demonstrated repeatedly in these pages, that’s precisely what the US, China, Germany and other industrial nations are doing today – with great success. Now is as good a time as any to think the once unthinkable in Alberta.

A buyers’ market

As for the Tar Sands, the fact is that higher prices are really the only option any fossil fuel government really has in the world today. There are no mysterious kingdoms over the seas that have a burning desire (pun intended) for oil, have none, and just can’t wait to buy all they can. Everybody is in the same boat – producers have product but not enough customers.

This is not to say that Ms. Notley will not flap her wings and try to appear to be doing all sorts of things, but only to point out that she really hasn’t got too many options.

I have a surprise suggestion for Ms. Notley….

Changing the game

Having no bread, she needs a circus and this goes back to her election platform. To divert attention – and she will only be partly successful at that no matter what she does – she should bring in electoral changes in Alberta, some variation of Proportional Representation.

The results yesterday make the point that “first past the post” is about as unfair a way to run on the election as has yet been invented. She should take these results and run with them, perhaps having a constituent assembly as happened in British Columbia. She can tie this into the current economic situation by saying “if we had the input of other parties over the past years, etc., etc.”

It’s not as if this notion will fall on barren ground. Albertans have long chafed at their system – the Tories have not always been wildly popular in Alberta but seen as the only game in town. To offer voters the opportunity to vote effectively for whomever they please and still have a stable government at the end of the day is a very appealing thought.

Thin gruel?

Perhaps. But it is hard to imagine what else Ms. Notley can do at this stage. The Alberta economy is not one you can quickly or easily diversify (though she should start trying that now too, for good measure). The basis of the economy is in deep doo doo, and you’ve just been elected to do something.

Under those circumstances, one reads one’s Roman history and arranges a Circus Maxima, or at least as Maxima as you can make it.

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