Election creates a new political reality in rural Alberta

Little change Business as usual likely, but Premier Redford’s 
promise of OHS rules for agriculture may come to pass

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Voters in rural areas and small towns, particularly in central and southern Alberta, sent a message to their political leaders at the ballot box during the recent election — they wanted some respect. Whether they will get that respect from the victorious PC Party only time will tell, since the Wildrose Party won most of the rural seats from Lacombe to the U.S. border. That sweep encompassed much of the major agricultural production area of the province, such a political change of heart won’t be lost on the returning government. The PC Party will now be more concentrated in the major urban centres than ever before.

The PCs had determined some time ago that their rural base was in trouble, mainly due to the property rights issue. They could not overcome landowner anxiety with that issue, and they seemed unwilling to do any major rethinking of their land-use legislation. The only consolation for their opponents was that Ted Morton, the godfather of much of the legislation, lost his own riding to a Wildrose candidate.

One would like to hope that a benevolent PC government would find ways to mitigate the angst and frustration with their land-use legislation. But the PCs are now a more urban-based government and don’t need as much rural support as was once assumed. Part of their reaction may be to enforce the existing property-rights legislation on folks who they now see as their opposition, but perhaps wiser heads will prevail with the PC political braintrust.

The Wildrose Party for now is essentially a rural-based party as only two out of the 17 seats they won are considered urban. They would be wise to build on their beachhead in the countryside. Becoming the champion of agriculture and rural development would solidify their base. They will need to remember that most of their new-found supporters were longtime bedrock PC voters. Those same voters could well return to the PC flock if they feel ignored by their new Wildrose MLAs. The Wildrose Party also needs to find a way to become the champion of the energy industry’s service sector, which provides thousands of jobs in the countryside and in small towns.

At press time there was no announcement on a new minister of agriculture. The last minister and his predecessor both lost their seats to Wildrose. One thing for sure, the new minister will not be from the rural south (rumour has it the new minister may be from the Peace River area).

The agriculture post has been something of a revolving door in recent years. The next minister will be the third in less than a year. She/he may be the sixth or seventh in the past eight years — I have lost track.

One of the hazards of elections is that sometimes really good candidates lose out. John Kolk, who is highly respected in industry circles, would have been a shoo-in for being the next agriculture minister, but he was defeated as the PC candidate in the Little Bow riding. Other excellent candidates such as Arno Doerksen, Darcy Davis and Danny Hozack, all former ABP chairmen, went down to defeat.

It will be business as usual for the re-elected PC government, which promised much of the same in marketing and rural development. The Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency will be much relieved, and is now secure for another four years. The Wildrose Party had threatened to terminate it if elected.

One issue that may now see some impetus is the extension of mandatory occupational safety and health, standards and workers compensation regulations for farm workers in the commercial agriculture industry. It was something that Premier Redford promised when she was running for the PC Party leadership last year. It wasn’t mentioned in the PC campaign, but with reduced PC representation from rural areas to oppose the idea, the premier may feel she can now impose those farm workers’ rights with her new mandate.

This election like so many previous elections saw little discussion of agriculture and rural issues. Perhaps that should be expected. Most Alberta voters live in large urban centres or small cities. Those millions of voters have no economic or social connection to the agriculture industry, so governments will reflect that reality. The now more urban-based PC government might well even want to consider redistributing the present 87 ridings. They are presently skewed in favour of rural areas against the more populous urban areas.

Considering the new political reality in rural Alberta, perhaps agriculture may well see it being treated with benign neglect by the PC government. In light of some of the other possible political consequences that may just be OK with the industry.

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