As a social conservative, I’ve learned to be encouraged by the NDP victory here in Alberta.
Well, not by the victory itself, although there are a few things we can hope and pray might come out of it. Premier Rachel Notley’s roots are in Alberta politics; her father, Grant Notley, was NDP leader when the PC dynasty began in 1971, and I assume she knows that Albertans won’t take kindly to any really left-wing initiatives.
Hopefully she will govern cautiously and not push the standard NDP agenda too hard; hopefully, she will look at the history of the NDP in Saskatchewan, which was beginning to review its anti-corporate policies, though not in time to rescue itself from the avalanche of support for the Saskatchewan Party.
Besides, no matter what happens, in the midst of the sinking sense of inevitability as the numbers rolled in on election night, there was something incorruptibly satisfying about seeing the likes of Stephen Mandel and Thomas Lukaszuk lose their seats.
But, no, the NDP themselves aren’t what I’m hopeful about. The reason their victory has filled me with hope is because it proves that we should never give up on a lost cause in this province - especially a lost cause with a social vision attached to it. And social conservatism, it must be said, looks like a lost cause in Alberta these days.
This may come a surprise to non-Albertans, though maybe not as surprising as an NDP majority government. But the issue here is social conservatism: Belief in traditional marriage, the sanctity of unborn life, and so on. The prevailing wisdom of social commentators (until a few weeks ago) was that fiscal conservatism was alive and well, but social conservatism was fading away.
This dismal diagnosis began with the 2012 election and the defeat of the Wildrose Party. The roots of the Wildrose Party were in stalwart social conservatism: One of its co-founders was Link Byfield, editor of the Alberta Report, which was a forerunner of the Western Standard which in turn was the predecessor of the Rebel Media.
When the Wildrose lost the election, defying the polls, their defeat was blamed in part on a leaked email from Wildrose candidate and former pastor Allen Hunsberger which stated, paraphrasing Revelation 20, that practicing homosexuals would burn in the lake of fire. Albertans, it was assumed, didn’t want to vote for a socially conservative party, thus explaining why they abandoned the Wildrose at the ballot box.
But we need to be cautious about interpreting this. Polls indicate that a majority of Albertans doubt that human activity is causing climate change. Danielle Smith, at the time still Wildrose leader, was the only party leader to express that same skepticism; yet this failed to win her the premiership.
We can’t assume it was a difference of views that led Albertans not to vote for Wildrose; the blame lies somewhere else, perhaps in the fact that Albertans perceived the Wildrose as a somewhat unstable young party (an intuition which Smith herself and her fellow traitors went on to completely vindicate). Remember that Albertans are conservative by temperament as well as ideology which is, I think, why they voted for the NDP rather than the more moderate Alberta Party; if nothing else, the NDP has age and familiarity behind it.
Moreover, if the reality were as simple as “Albertans are fiscally conservative but socially moderate,” then the Wildrose would have handily won the last election. The Wildrose Party advocated forcing school boards to support Gay-Straight Alliances before the PCs changed their minds and decided that they advocated it, too.
Under Brian Jean’s leadership the WRP has gone out of its way to be socially moderate; Jean jettisoned a Wildrose candidate for expressing concerns about the gay agenda on the Western Standard blog nearly a decade ago. Indeed, Jean’s only talking point in the leaders’ debate was his endless mantra about how the Wildrose were the only party that wouldn’t raise taxes.
Perfectly moderate, perfectly inoffensive, perfectly socially moderate, perfectly fiscally conservative. Yet, not enough. It isn’t the NDP victory that should make us re-assess the Albertan zeitgeist; it’s the WRP defeat that should really give us pause.
And here I fall back on my own anecdotal experience. I know a good number of socially conservative Christians who voted for the NDP. Why? Because they observed that the PCs and Wildrose weren’t going to do anything about issues like abortion. If no party was going to be pro-life, they reasoned, you may as well vote for the one that is most likely to throw the bums out.
For some, it went further; they voted for the NDP because Notley had no problem using the language of morality. Her party had and continues to have a clear social vision, which is more than we saw in the marketing for either the PCs or the Wildrose. All those parties campaigned on were economic issues; they offered no social vision. There is something uninspiring about this. Conservatism is about more than economic liberty. As King James had King Solomon say: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
But is there any evidence that Albertans are secretly socially conservative? Well, the polls do claim that 70 odd per cent of Albertans support abortion rights and same-sex marriage, but remember that the last two elections have shown how fickle Albertan public opinion can seem. Besides, if the only politicians who speak up on issues like that come off as, well, a bit crazed, we shouldn’t be surprised if Albertans shy away from espousing those positions.
If we had more Link Byfields and fewer Allen Hunsbergers, we might see different results in the polls. Besides, the polls themselves are somewhat perplexing: 70 odd per cent of Albertans, we are told, support same-sex marriage, but only fifty-some per cent support Gay-Straight Alliances in schools.
More to the point, demographics are changing. As immigration into Alberta continues, we can expect to see more social conservatism coming with it, and we have to be ready to give that perspective political oxygen when it gets here. The ethnically diverse protests against the Ontario sex ed curriculum, and the election of Patrick Brown as the leader of the Ontario Conservatives, should be a great signal of hope to Alberta conservatives.
For the time being Ric McIver, reviled by the media during the PC leadership race for his conservative Christian views, is the interim leader of the PCs, and there have, naturally, been the rumbling suggestions of a PC-Wildrose merger, given that more votes were cumulatively cast for the two parties than for the NDP.
If they do merge, will it be a party that isn’t afraid to follow McIver’s example, or to return to the Wildrose’s socially conservative roots? Or will the PCs or the Wildrose choose to adapt a more explicitly socially conservative platform than the other right-wing party? If so, will the relative success of one or the other of those parties in the next provincial election determine whether the other party either moderates or intensifies its social conservatism?
We’ll have to wait - and pray - and see what happens. But I will admit that the NDP victory gives me confidence in Albertans’ ability to surprise me.
(Photo: Dave Cournoyer, Creative Commons)
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