What can B.C. learn from the sudden rise of the Alberta NDP?

On Saturday night, the Calgary Flames eliminated the Vancouver Canucks from the Stanley Cup playoffs. Nobody expected much out of the Canucks this year, but the Flames’ ascendance is even more surprising. Their line-up is young and largely unknown.

But hockey success is not the biggest surprise of this Spring in Alberta. Provincial politics is the real shocker. After 44 years of uninterrupted rule, the Progressive Conservatives and Premier Jim Prentice look to be in real danger of losing the election on May 5.

Even more unlikely, it is the Alberta New Democratic Party that is currently topping the polls, surging ahead of even the right-wing Wildrose Party. People have taken to calling this unexpected political shift an Orange Chinook, a reference to the NDP’s colour and to the sudden, warm winds that blow across Alberta from the mountains.

The NDP surge in Alberta is a result of particular circumstances, including the rapid decline in the price of oil (which has drained provincial coffers of royalty money, resulting in a $5 billion deficit) and the fact that the traditional base of the governing party is split with another contending party on the right.

Nevertheless, the current campaign by the Alberta NDP offers some lessons for their counterparts here, the B.C. NDP, who have been relegated to opposition since 2001.

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley is an excellent communicator; in a televised debate last week she easily outshone the Premier and other challengers, projecting competence and confidence. Notley and the NDP are also presenting some good, clear progressive policies that focus on the grotesque inequality which has been allowed to fester and grow under successive governments prioritizing the interests of Big Oil.

Importantly, the Alberta NDP is the only party in the election campaign clearly advocating for higher taxes on both corporations and high income earners. The tax hikes are small, but at least they’re aimed at the right target. Albertans in tax brackets higher than $125,000/year would pay slightly more, topping out at a new 15 per cent tax rate for those making over $300,000/year.

Likewise, the NDP would raise the corporate tax rate from 10 to 12 per cent. These are preposterously low levels of taxation, and meant that, during the long boom in oil prices, corporations made a killing. The NDP tax reforms are a good first step; they don’t come close to what’s needed. But after so many years of cuts and giveaways to big business and the super-rich, even the incredibly modest reforms in the direction of a fairer taxation system feels like a big deal.

However paltry the changes being proposed, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a political party campaigning clearly and explicitly on reducing inequality. It’s a shame that the bottom had to fall out from the price of oil for the political landscape to begin to change.

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley. | Photo by Dave Cournoyer

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley. | Photo by Dave Cournoyer

Here in B.C., especially in Vancouver and Victoria, we often perceive of ourselves as far more progressive and even enlightened than our provincial neighbours in oil country. The sad reality, however, is that B.C. has been stuck for a decade and a half with a government that serves the interests of big business while inequality is left unchecked, school budgets are squeezed and the working poor are left in a state of constant precariousness.

The B.C. NDP would be wise to begin now, even two years before the next election, to make reducing inequality and beginning to return to a fairer system of taxation the focus of their campaign.

For the past three decades across Canada and around most of the world, corporations and the rich have been made to pay less and less taxes, and as a result the public sector we all rely on has withered. It’s well past time to turn things around.

Here’s hoping Albertans continue their shift to the left and elect the NDP as government on May 5, or at least official opposition. Let’s see what we can learn from this Orange Chinook.