Smith’s election shines a light on broader political challenges in Alberta

By Naomi Rankin 

The recent election of Danielle Smith as premier is an indicator of how divorced the formal political process is from the real exercise of power in Alberta. 

The real power is in the handful of multinational monopoly corporations that dominate the energy sector. Their interest is to maintain a low-tax, low-royalty regime for themselves so they can continue to maximize their plundering of Alberta’s resources. As long as that economic advantage continues, they are quite indifferent to whether the working class is well-housed, well-educated and fully employed, or whether disabled people are thrown onto the streets, children are illiterate or unemployed people go hungry.

During the first years, even decades of conservative party governments in Alberta, they maintained what was referred to as a “big tent” image: the more extreme right-wing fringe was kept in check to avoid alienating the reasonably modern-minded people of all classes. This protected the Conservative Party’s “legitimacy and credibility” and ensured their overwhelming majority in provincial elections, even as they steadily whittled away the corporate tax base and reduced spending on health, education and social services. 

But with each succeeding cycle of breakaway fringe parties and subsequent Conservative reunification, including the formation of the United Conservative Party (UCP), the right-wing fringe was less muted and less restrained. This has given more of a voice to separatist demagoguery, racism, misogyny and science denial, to the point that its main spokesperson is now the party leader and the premier of the province.  

Why this decline in the protection of the “legitimacy and credibility” of the Conservatives/UCP? In many ways, it is simply not necessary in the current context. The only realistic alternative for forming provincial government – the NDP – has been so thoroughly captured by the same energy sector interests as the UCP that capital (or that section of it at least) has no particular need to protect the credibility of Smith and Co.   

The NDP under Rachel Notley came to power already unwaveringly committed to political centrism, expressing its loyalty to the energy sector and to the project of building pipelines. Now both political parties claim the mantle of Peter Lougheed, glorifying and grossly exaggerating the extent to which that first Tory government engaged in economic leadership.   

And so does the leadership of the labour movement. On October 12, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) released its industrial blueprint for the provincial economy, “Skate to Where the Puck is Going,” which explicitly claims to be proposing a return to Lougheed’s approach. The document begins by calling for workers to be “front and centre” and recognizes the need for “energy transition,” and it contains practical proposals for economic development and diversification which would probably also be part of a socialist economic plan. But it utterly fails to challenge or criticize the centrality of oil and gas monopolies in the Alberta economy. This document illustrates the limits of a trade union movement which has been weakened by disunity, declines in private sector representation, direct legislated attacks by the UCP government, over-reliance on the NDP and a short-sighted economism at the level of many individual unions which favours “bread and butter” issues over political struggle. 

“Skate to Where the Puck is Going” is essentially a blueprint for saving capitalism on (very modest) labour-friendly terms.

The working class needs to advance its own political program – one that is based on social transformation and committed to the class struggle which is necessary to carry it out. 

[Photo: Danielle Smith Twitter]

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