NDP gets strong public services mandate from Albertan voters

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Photo: flickr/ Don Voaklander

Apparently anger is better than fear, or at least that's what analysts are saying about the NDP victory in Alberta.

Rachel Notley's NDP broke the Conservative's 43-year reign in Alberta. Leading in the polls from the get-go, the NDP finished strong with a 53-seat majority.

With 21 seats compared to the Conservative's 10, the right-of-Conservative Wild Rose Party is now the official opposition, proving just how unpopular Jim Prentice's Conservatives have become.

"It hasn't sunk in yet, I mean who would of thought," marveled Alberta Union of Provincial Employees' (AUPE) President Guy Smith, "this is something that the progressive elements in Alberta have been fighting for, for so long. To finally see the decimation of the Tory juggernaut, it's just wonderful"

AUPE is the largest union in the province, representing about 87,000 workers in the public sector. Smith explained that while the union is non-partisan and did not endorse any one particular party in this election, they did participate in political action work of other kinds.

"It's probably the most involvement we've ever had in a provincial election," said Smith, "We really wanted to get members engaged in this election so we did a fairly massive get out the vote campaign -- just to make sure that [people] knew what the issues were, and could make decisions they felt were in the best interests of themselves, their workplaces and their communities."

Faced with low oil prices and an ailing tax system, Prentice proposed to address Alberta's budget woes by cutting tax returns for charitable organizations and slashing 2,016 public sector jobs.

In response, a coalition of unions launched the Better Way Alberta in hopes of showing Alberta the importance of public services.

Shortly after the election was announced, however, Elections Alberta deemed the campaign to be in violation of the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act (EFCDA) -- a move which the unions call a gross double standard.

With the conservatives now deposed, unions, especially in the public sector, are breathing in deep sighs of relief.

"We've been at war with the former Tory government for years," said Smith, "on very fundamental issues like bargaining rights, freedom of speech, health and safety issues, and those are the types of issues that we can have much more productive discussions about with an NDP government in place."

Though Smith says that his union "will continue to stand up for our members and the services they provide, regardless of who the government of the day is," there is no doubt that the NDP's values are more in line with the ideals held by most of Alberta's unions.

As opposed to towing the same old austerity agenda and slashing public services to address any shortfalls in the budget, Notley has vowed to increase spending on education and health care, and to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

"The reality is that it still is a very strong economy here. Obviously the drop in the price of oil is an issue, but that's cyclical," said Smith, "It happens time and time again. In the past what happened is the government attacked public services as a response to that, and I don't think we'll see the NDP do that. They'll pull other levers in order to smooth out the rollercoaster ride of oil prices."

Notley has also promised to increase taxes on the wealthiest Albertans, raise the corporate tax rate by two per cent, and potentially increase the amount of royalties paid by Albertan oil companies. She is also considering new ways of increasing the public benefit derived from natural resources, while raising the issue of climate change.

"I'm feeling very hopeful," said Alberta Teachers Association President Mark Ramsankar "to see this type of change in Alberta is truly historic."

Having worked as a union-side labour lawyer and injured workers compensation specialist, Notley is certainly no stranger to labour. There are also several newly elected union members in her caucus, including one MLA from CUPE and four from the AUPE.

AUPE member and newly elected NDP MLA Nicole Goerhing has also displaced former Conservative Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk from his seat in Edmonton Castle Downs.

Albertan unions are undoubtedly happy, but Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan says that they aren't about to rub it in the Conservative's faces.

"There will be no gloating from the labour movement," said McGowan, "obviously we are really happy, but this is Rachael's moment."


Ella Bedard is rabble.ca's labour intern and an associate editor at GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People. 

Photo: flickr/ Don Voaklander


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