Politics in Alberta | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Politics in Alberta

The province of Alberta has a majority United Conservative Party government, formed on 29 May 2023. The premier of the province is Danielle Smith and the lieutenant-governor is Salma Lakhani. Its first premier, Alexander C. Rutherford, was elected in 1905, after the province joined Confederation. Historically, Alberta provincial politics have been characterized by governing parties commanding huge majorities in the legislature, remaining in power for lengthy periods and then being decisively beaten by a new political force.

Provincial Government Structure

In Alberta, legislative power is vested in an 87-member, single-chamber, elected legislative assembly as well as a lieutenant-governor, appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister and who acts as the Crown’s representative. However, as in other provinces, the traditional powers of the lieutenant-governor have in practice lapsed and he or she now serves primarily a ceremonial function. Executive power is exercised by a Cabinet of ministers selected by the premier, the leader of the political party commanding a majority in the legislative assembly. Each minister presides over one or more departments of government, known as ministries. (See also Alberta Lieutenant-Governors; Alberta Premiers.)

Early 20th Century: Liberals and the United Farmers of Alberta

The pattern of Alberta politics being characterized by governing parties commanding large majorities was established by the Liberals under Alberta's first premier, Alexander C. Rutherford (1905–10). The Liberals and Rutherford, in the first provincial election in 1905, took 22 of 25 seats and 58 per cent of the popular vote. Similar Liberal victories were recorded in 1909, 1913 and 1917 under Rutherford and his successors, Arthur L. Sifton (1910–17) and Charles Stewart (1917–21). The United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), led by Herbert Greenfield (1921–25), swept to power in the 1921 provincial election with 38 (all rural) of 61 seats, despite gaining only 29 per cent of the popular vote. The UFA was propelled into power by the by agrarian unrest and the post- First World War rise of progressivism and populism. Under Greenfield’s successors, John Brownlee (1925–34) and Richard Reid (1934–35), the UFA continued their hold on to power through large majorities in the legislature in the 1926 and 1930 elections. However, as a result of the charismatic campaign led by William Aberhart, the leader of the new Social Credit League, and the economic problems plaguing the province as a result of the Great Depression, in the 1935 election the Social Credit League took 56 of 63 seats with 54 per cent of the popular vote.

Photo of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Alberta premier Peter Lougheed and Alberta Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Merv Leitch at a news conference.

Great Depression to Late 1980s: Social Credit League and PC Reign

Under William Aberhart (1935–43) and his successors — Ernest Manning (1943–68) and Harry Strom (1968–71) — Social Credit governed for 36 years. However, they were swept aside by the victory of Peter Lougheed (1971–85) and the Progressive Conservatives (PCs) in 1971, who won 49 of 75 seats and 46 per cent of the popular vote. Lougheed and the PCs crushed all opposition in the 1975, 1979 and 1982 elections. In 1986, the first large challenge to PC power emerged from a resurgence in leftist opposition headed by the New Democratic Party and, to a lesser degree, the Liberal Party. In the 1986 election, under PC leader Don Getty (1985–92), support for the PC’s dropped to 51 per cent and the PCs only held onto 61 of 83 seats. In 1989, Getty's PCs won another majority despite the continued drop in their popular vote.

Ralph Klein and Don Getty

Late 1990s to Early 2000s: Ralph Klein

The 1993 provincial election produced a showdown between two of Alberta's popular big city mayors, former Calgary mayor Ralph Klein, who succeeded Don Getty as PC leader, and Laurence Decore, former Edmonton mayor and new leader of a resurgent Liberal Party, who waged a campaign on fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction. Klein (1992–2006) and the PCs emerged with a 51-seat-to-32-seat majority on the strength of a split in the vote between the Conservative rural south and the Liberal urban north. The 1997 and 2001 elections returned the PCs to stronger majorities and an increase in their popular vote.

The revival of the Conservatives was facilitated by Klein’s popularity and his fiscal policies. Klein made dramatic moves to reduce the role of government by privatizing the sale of liquor distribution and motor vehicle, birth, death and marriage registration. His policy of deficit reduction, and eventual elimination of the provincial debt, through drastic cuts to public services and increased revenue from natural resources, preserved his popularity among a majority of the voters. Klein's disagreements with the federal Liberals on health care issues — and the more traditional points of conflict, i.e., taxation, natural resources and confederation — continued the Albertan traditional attitude of western alienation that dated back to the United Farmers of the 1920s.

2006 to 2014: Stelmach, Redford and the Wildrose Alliance

In 2006, Ralph Klein resigned from politics, and was replaced by Ed Stelmach (2006–11). In the 2008 election, Stelmach, whose popularity as the head of the PCs had been weak, led the party to a stunning majority, winning 72 of 83 seats. During his term, Stelmach continued some of the cuts in spending that had made Klein popular. However, Stelmach’s leadership was challenged internally by his cabinet, and externally by the rise of the more conservative Wildrose Alliance Party, led by Danielle Smith. In 2011, Stelmach resigned as premier and head of the Progressive Conservatives.

Stelmach was replaced by his justice minister, Alison Redford. Redford became Alberta’s first female premier, and as a result of the 2012 election, Alberta’s first elected female premier. However, the 2012 election saw a further rise in the popularity of the Wildrose Alliance Party: the Progressive Conservatives lost five seats and their popular vote was reduced to 44 per cent; while the Wildrose Alliance Party gained 17 seats and increased their popular vote to 34 per cent.

In the years following the 2012 election, Redford and the Progressive Conservative Party suffered a further drop in the polls. Several expense scandals, including a $45,000 trip to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral and the use of government planes for family trips, caused many to call the premier’s ethics into question. With little support from caucus and the threat of a non-confidence vote, Redford resigned on 19 March 2014. She left with a personal approval rating of just 18 per cent, and party support at 19 per cent. By comparison, support for the Wildrose Party was 46 per cent.

2014 to 2015: The Rise of the NDP

Deputy Premier Dave Hancock served as interim premier until Jim Prentice — a former federal cabinet minister — was elected leader by PC party members. He was sworn in as premier on 15 September 2014. Prentice, along with his appointees for the ministries of health and education, did not hold a legislative seat when he was sworn into office. However, on 27 October 2014, Prentice and his Cabinet ministers became elected officials in a by-election.

In the spring of 2015, Prentice called an election — one year earlier than the provincially legislated fixed date. In doing so, he sought the electorate’s support for a budget released around the same time. Drafted in the face of plummeting oil prices, the PC budget projected a multi-billion-dollar deficit and proposed increases to certain provincial taxes.

Despite having elected a PC majority government since 1971, on 5 May 2015, Albertans voted in NDP leader Rachel Notley, ending the province’s 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty. In what many viewed as a remarkable shift in a traditionally conservative province, the NDP won a majority government with 53 seats and about 41 per cent of the popular vote. The PCs were reduced to third-party status with just 10 seats, while the Wildrose Party formed the official opposition with 21 seats. By comparison, prior to the election, the PCs held 70 seats and the NDP held 4.

Danielle Smith

2017 to Present: Kenney and the United Conservative Party

In 2017, the PCs merged with the Wildrose Party to form the United Conservative Party (UCP), which assumed official opposition status. Jason Kenney, a former federal Cabinet minister under Stephen Harper, was elected leader of the United Conservatives.

During the province’s next general election, held 16 April 2019, Albertans elected a majority UCP government. The NDP, having become Alberta’s ruling party for the first time four years earlier, again made history as the province’s only one-term government. Reduced from 52 seats to 24, the NDP received about 33 per cent of the popular vote compared to the UCP’s 55 per cent and 63 seats. Voter turnout was 71 per cent, the highest Alberta has seen since 1971. The campaign period focused primarily on the province’s ailing economy, characterized by low oil prices and rising unemployment. The UCP campaigned on a platform that pledged, among other initiatives, to eliminate the provincial carbon tax and climate change action plan, freeze the minimum wage and introduce components of private health care.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenney’s popularity declined. In May 2022, the UCP held a leadership review, during which Kenney received support from 51.4 per cent of the party’s members. Deeming this too slim a majority to continue, Kenney resigned as party leader. On 6 October, party members elected Danielle Smith, a former Wildrose Party leader, as head of the UCP and premier of the province.

On 29 May 2023, Alberta held a general election. Even though the results were the closest in the province's history, the UCP retained their majority status. Under Smith’s leadership, the UCP won 49 seats with 52.6 per cent of the popular vote, while the NDP, under the leadership of Rachel Notley, won 38 seats with 44 per cent of the popular vote. While the UCP won 49 seats, only 48 Members of the Legislative Assembly joined the party’s caucus. Smith directed Jennifer Johnson, whose transphobic comments surfaced during the campaign, to sit as an independent.