Deja-Vu All Over Again: A Comparison of 1990’s Ontario and Current Day Alberta

As we come down to the wire on election day in Alberta, the chances of Rachel Notley and the NDP pulling off a come-from-behind victory seem more and more remote.

Electorates can be volatile and increasingly large numbers of voters do make up their minds over the last weekend of the campaign and even at the ballot box. But at this point it would take a shift of truly seismic proportions for a NDP comeback.

In fact, many of the factors behind the NDP’s electoral problems have been in place for some time, as they follow a pattern eerily familiar to anyone who was around in Ontario in the early 1990s. In the immortal words of that king of malapropisms, baseball’s Yogi Berra, “it’s like deja-vu all over again.”

In the 1990 Ontario election, the NDP catapulted from nowhere to defeat David Peterson’s governing Liberals and form government for the first time in Ontario’s history. They were led by a young, likeable and articulate leader, Bob Rae. His effective campaign performance captured the imagination of the province’s voters, angry at what they saw as cynicism and arrogance on the part of the incumbent government.

Voters decided to turn the status quo on its head. Nobody seemed more surprised by the results than voters themselves – except, maybe for the newly-elected NDP. The party had run a campaign with no hope or expectation of forming the government, its team of candidates were testimony to that. Aside from Rae himself, who was an experienced parliamentarian (as a federal NDP MP, he had introduced the non-confidence motion that defeated the Joe Clark PC minority government after a few short months in office in 1979), the Ontario NDP’s ranks were paper-thin in terms of experience. No one had ever served in a provincial (or federal) cabinet before and many of the candidates had run as sacrificial lambs, never actually expecting to wind up at Queen’s Park.

Rae did the best he could with his very green crew, but almost as he was sworn in, luck turned against him, in the form of the biggest economic recession the country had seen since the Great Depression. The anger and bitterness of the early nineties burned through Canada’s body politic, leaving a smoldering husk. In the 1993 federal. election, for example, Canadians took out their rage at Brian Mulroney’s PC government by reducing the party to just two seats under Mulroney’s hapless successor, Kim Campbell. Ontario was as convulsed as any part of the country.

As the recession battered the province, Rae’s government tried one thing after another to right the ship economically. His rookie ministers made mistake after the mistake. The Premier was at once the only respected and heeded voice in the administration but was a prominent target of public anger and frustration.

Rae ran down the clock, but to no avail. Even the brightening economic situation in 1995 could not revive his fortunes. His party was rushed out of office – and into third place – as forcefully as it had been elected five years earlier. He was replaced by a newly radicalized Ontario PC Party, led by Mike Harris. The actions of the left-of-centre NDP had engendered a strong re-action, moderate old Ontario, swung hard from one extreme to another.

Change the names, dates, places and you have the Notley government of 2015-19. They swept from third place to government four years ago, replacing a government that had come to personify arrogance and cynicism to the electorate. Like Rae’s team 25 years earlier, they seemed as startled and unprepared for their victory as anyone else.

Much like the Rae government, the Notley crew was beset early on in office by an economic tsunami not of its own making. The global drop in oil prices hammered the province and the glacial slowness – if not the outright inability – of federal agencies to ensure the construction of an oil pipeline stymied it further. Finally, the anger and rage that buffeted the Rae government a quarter of century ago and three thousand kilometers away, are burning with white hot fury in Alberta today.

Like Rae in the nineties, Notley today is not seen to be – even by many voters who are rejecting her – as the primary architect of her province’s misfortunes. In fact, in both cases, one finds a large degree of respect and even sympathy for the plight of the Premier. But the wrath of electors must be assuaged and to that extent, the results of the election look in hindsight to be foregone conclusions, baked-in long ago.

Of course, as the old joke goes, “history doesn’t repeat itself – only historians do.” There are major differences in the situations 25 years apart. The most dramatic might be that the anger in Alberta is, if anything, many degrees hotter than in Ontario in the early nineties. Much of that anger is directed towards Ottawa and other parts of the country. We’re reminded daily of the growth of secessionist sentiment in Alberta, it will take all of the skill, of whoever wins on Tuesday, to navigate those roiling waters.

However, the parallels over the decades remain striking, and so do the lessons. The primary one being, campaign and prepare yourself to win and govern – even if you’re not expecting to. Both Rae and Notley would have benefited from seasoned, proven, trusted front bench (and backroom) talent. Would it have been enough to withstand the battering of economic and social winds beyond their control? Maybe not. And that’s the second lesson, winning an election is the easy part, it’s governing that’s largest challenge.