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Wednesday, June 19 2024 @ 11:06 MDT

What happened in Alberta?

Alberta PoliticsSo at the end of Tuesday's provincial general election we have ended up with a majority NDP government. This is in line with what the polls had been saying for a week though still a shock in a province that hasn't voted for a non conservative party for 82 years. This has left progressives in a state of exuberance and conservatives in a state of panicked shock.
So what happened? How did hyper partisan conservative Alberta elect a centre left government? The reasons are many and some are likely not reasons the political right in Alberta want to hear.

First the obvious. The actions of PC leader and prior to the election premier Jim Prentice. Facing a collapse in oil prices leaving the structural deficit left behind by Ralph Klein bare and exposed, Prentice had to deal with a gaping 7 billion dollar hole in the provincial budget. To deal with this budget hole Prentice went to the people of Alberta and asked what he should do? Massive cuts? Provincial sales tax? Progressive income tax? Increase corporate taxes? The answer he got was clear, progressive income tax, increase to corporate taxes as well as modest cuts. Prentice promptly ignored this and hiked income tax, introduced a "health levy" as another type of income tax, cut the budget in places by 10% and then not touching corporate taxes at all.

This angered PC supporters. Those of a progressive bent were angered because none of the pain was given to corporations. Those further right were angered by the tax increases and cuts that they perceived as not deep enough. This caused a large segment of the PC support to evaporate in anger.

Now with over a year to go before the next election, this gave Prentice breathing room. Room for his budget to show that the sky wasn't falling. A year for oil prices to recover somewhat to aid in balancing the budget. So of course a smart politician waits right? Not Prentice. Sensing disarray in what he perceived to be his primary opposition, the Wildrose party, in disarray after talking nine of it's members crossing the floor to the government side; Prentice called a snap election.

So now we have an electorate angry over the budget, angry over an acceptance of Wildrose MLA's into the PC caucus and angry over an election called a year early. A perfect storm of voter anger and desire to change horses. This resulted in a net loss of 16% of their vote from the previous election. This translated into a massive 60 seat loss for the party. Nine of this number were the ridings of the floor-crossers which promptly re-elected a Wildrose member to replace the ones that had crossed the floor. The Wildrose party also picked up an additional 5 of the Conservative seats. One of the remaining 46 seats went to the Alberta party. This left 45 seats that were picked up by the NDP. More on the NDP later.

Now the less obvious.

The Wildrose managed to improve its seat performance from the previous election despite a 10% drop in the popular vote. At the 2012 election the Wildrose party had 17 seats. At the end of last night they held 21 seats and will remain the official opposition. This isn't bad considering the disruption the party had when it lost it's leader shortly before the election. However it is telling in some ways as the party is hardly an unknown. It spent much of the start of the election in a three way race with both the NDP and the PC parties. Further it almost formed government the election prior. So the question becomes why didn't the support the PC party lost go to the Wildrose? Was it the mass defection of Wildrose MLAs? Unlikely as that only shone negatively on the individual MLAs and the Progressive Conservatives. Was it because the party is an unknown? Possible, though as the previous official opposition as well as almost taking government last election makes that a less likely option. Also the Wildrose candidates were at least as unknown as their NDP counterparts. Was it Brian Jean’s rather wooden performance during the leader debate (where he could have effectively ben replaced by a tape recorder with the words “no taxes” recorded on it)? Likely part of the equation as well. This leaves the option WIldrose supporters least want to hear, people weren't enamoured with the Wildrose's platform or perceived location on the political spectrum. This is probably the most likely case, given that the NDP basically ran on a platform similar to what Peter Lougheed did when he took out the farther right Social Credit party in 1971. A couple of conversations with PC supporters who voted NDP indicated that they felt that Wildrose was too far out there for their tastes so they went with NDP for change. I would suggest that this is the most likely scenario for most of the vote that shifted from PC to NDP and not from PC to Wildrose. I would further suggest that the 10% drop in the WIldrose's popular vote from the previous election was primarily due to panicky Wildrose supporters shifting their vote to the PC in an attempt to block a NDP victory (which would mean that upwards of 25% of the popular vote shifted from the PC to the NDP).

Now to the NDP. Going from 4 seats and 10% of the popular vote to 53 seats and 40% of the popular vote, the NDP made huge gains at the expense of the Progressive Conservative party. In about 20 ridings the NDP had an absolute majority. In the rest a combination of doing well and vote splitting among the two right wing parties propelled the remainder of the NDP's new caucus to power. Of the 30% of the popular vote the NDP gained, about 5% is likely from the Liberals. The lions share of the remaining 25% is likely from the Progressive Conservative party. This says a couple of things. First as stated above, the Wildrose party has do some thinking about why 25% of the population that would normally vote for a conservative party, suddenly decided to vote for the NDP. Second it shows that the NDP platform was less scary for that 25% than the right contended it was.

Now what were the factors part of getting the vote shifting to the NDP? Well there were a large number of voters wanting to shift for the obvious reasons pointed to above. The NDP leader (now Alberta premier) Rachel Notley ran a strong campaign. She performed very well in the leader debate, sparing with PC leader Jim Prentice to the point where the other two party leaders barely got a word in edgewise. This strong showing and complete lack of missteps provided voters with a clear choice of someone who at least looked like they would make a competent premier.

So we have a shift of votes from the PC party to the NDP due partially to a strong campaign by the NDP, a centre of the road NDP platform as well as some latent concerns about the Wildrose party being too extreme for the taste of a large segment of Alberta voters. Add to this pretty much half of the regular support the PC party was used to getting being rather angry at the actions of Jim Prentice and you end up with a near perfect political storm where the NDP get elected with a sizeable majority government in that conservative bastion of Alberta.

Where do things go from here? What should the various parties do moving forward? What does this mean federally?
Well for Alberta it means a centre left government (that’s right CENTRE-left, not far left. If you think Ezra Levant is middle of the road and mainstream, you’re views are the outlier). Though there is likely to be a rebalancing of government priorities away from corporations and toward
the citizenry. Notley is a New Democrat in the Tommy Douglas and Roy Romanow tradition (ever notice how the RWNJ’s never mention those two and their 25ish balanced budgets) which means a healthy dose of pragmatism. The unrestrained wild west that has been the oil industry is likely over, but it won’t be a major shackling, let alone outright ban on industry. If Notley stays on a centre-left path, she’ll do well and so will the province, unless of course the industry deliberately sabotages the economy in a fit of spite for the people voting the "wrong" way - which I wouldn't put past some of the players.

For the Wildrose Party it means looking past the excuses being bandied about in the media about vote splitting and how that's not the "real" Alberta and take a hard look at the Wildrose platform to see what scared half the PC vote into the NDP's arms and not a further right Wildrose party. Without visible movement to the centre, people will still think "lake of fire" or "vote for me because I'm white" when they think of Wildrose and they'll continue to vote for a more moderate PC party or a moderate NDP.

For the Progressive Conservative party, a rapid shift to the right isn't the answer. There's already a party there and they didn't win. Maintaining a centre-right position is, in the long term, the winning strategy. It wasn't a rejection of a centre-right position in the last election but a rejection of a tired, old 44 year government that had become too entrenched and entitled. Vacating this position will allow the Alberta Party to sop up the middle since the 20ish percent of the vote you got isn't likely to follow you to far to the right.

What about a merger of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties? Might work if it swings to the middle of the PC support base, but if it is simply a takeover of the PC party by the Wildrose, it is likely not going to work as many of those who left for the NDP won't come back. Those people will shift their vote to a centrist party like the Alberta Party. So I would suggest that when pursuing a merger of the PC and Wildrose parties to be cautious, a swing to the WRP position won't work as the election has aptly shown.

Federally it should give Stephen Harper some restless nights. Though most of Alberta will still likely flock to the polls to mark an X beside the local Conservative bale of hay, there are many ridings in Edmonton where the NDP took an absolute majority of the vote. This puts the seats in Edmonton in play in the next federal election and if seats in Alberta are now in play, seats in the rest of the country are also likely in play. The federal Tories shouldn't take the seats they have for granted anymore. Further one of their own, Jim Prentice, couldn't win an election in the Bluest of Conservative provinces. Prentice's arrogance permeates the federal Conservative party. It didn't play well in Alberta, it won't play well in the rest of Canada. If Harper wants to hold on to power it's time to break out the humble and contrite Harper. I don't think that's going to be happening anytime soon.

For the other federal parties it shows that there is hope of unseating Harper. It may mean having to make nice and form a coalition after the election, but it is possible to take down the Tories, even in their own house. The key is to keep the focus on Harper and not each other.

In any event it will be an interesting year ahead.
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