Alberta Veers to the Left? – Tactix’ Observations on the Alberta Provincial Election

Albertans decide to change their governing party every 40 years or so, whether they need it or not. And historically, the Alberta political party whose dynasty comes to a crashing halt after a long run has never returned to power. Just ask the Social Credit and the Liberals before them. Now it is the turn of Alberta’s New Democratic Party (NDP), led by Premier-elect Rachel Notley. Are these the first days of a new political dynasty in Alberta?

The answer to this question depends to some extent upon the answer to the following two questions. Will the NDP follow the model of “one-term-and-done” NDP governments in Ontario and Nova Scotia? Or, will they tack to the more sustainable model of prairie NDP governments that have won multiple elections in Manitoba and Saskatchewan? The dust has yet to settle from the earth shaking May 5th election. Premier-elect Notley has not been sworn into office, chosen a Cabinet, drafted a Speech from the Throne, or tabled a Budget in the Legislature. We will check back in four years to learn which NDP model she followed.

We are not predicting the permanent demise of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party (PC). There are too many political game changers at work today that were not apparent in years gone by – such as the end of long standing political party allegiances, the impact of social media bringing politics and politicians closer to the electorate – to make bold, long-term predictions. But the PC party has been relegated to third-place status in the province they governed for 44 years. Federal Liberals and old Progressive Conservatives know how Alberta PCs are feeling today.

The Election Results – What Happened?

The NDP will enjoy a comfortable majority in the Alberta Legislature, having won 53 of the 87 seats. This compares remarkably to the four seats they won in the 2012 provincial election. The Wildrose Party, given up for dead after the defection of its former leader and several MLAs to the PCs in December 2014 and led by former Conservative MP Brian Jean who had been elected leader a mere six weeks before the election, hung onto its role as the Official Opposition. The Wildrose won twenty-one seats, a four-seat increase from 2012. For their part, the provincial Liberals were reduced from five seats to one, and the Alberta Party won its first ever seat in the legislature. So, what happened? Elections such as this, concluding with a first-time NDP government in what is easily Canada’s most conservative province, do not just happen without context. The following are key factors affecting the election outcome.

1) Wearing the Baggage: Premier Jim Prentice carried considerable baggage from his predecessor, former Premier Allison Redford, into the election campaign. Ms. Redford was forced to resign in mid-reign for her aloof, high-spending ways – the use of the word “reign” being deliberate. Moreover, Mr. Prentice presided over the dramatic drop in global oil prices last fall that hammered provincial government coffers and led to thousands of job losses in the province. Not his fault, but the government wears it.

2) Gaffes: When it came to matters within his control, Mr. Prentice compounded his external problems by creating a few of his own:

  • What looked to be a brilliant coup of welcoming former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith and eight other Wildrose MLAs into the PC fold last December turned into a disaster. Ms. Smith and several of her fellow-defectors were punished by not winning nominations to run as PCs. Mr. Prentice had to wait until May 5th to receive his punishment for what was perceived as a too-cute-by-half move.
  • The Prentice government’s March 26, 2015 Budget incorporated some 56 increases in taxes and fees, making it wildly unpopular. Premier Prentice told Albertans they needed to “look in the mirror”, appearing to blame them and not his government for the significant economic and fiscal challenges facing the province.
  • Mr. Prentice decided to pull the plug on his government one year early. Today, he no doubt wishes he had called an election either immediately after he became PC leader in September 2014 (before the oil market crash) or had waited until next year, giving oil prices a chance to rebound and his unpopular Budget time to be forgotten.
  • During the election debate he unwisely remarked to NDP leader Notley that “math is hard”, interpreted widely as a mean-spirited and condescending put-down. It did not go over well. This was just one example of a campaign that went off the rails early and often.

3) Time for a Change: Once the mood takes hold amongst the electorate that it is time for a change in government, it is near-impossible for an incumbent to swim against that tide. The Alberta PCs are no exception. For the reasons noted above, years of accumulated baggage, ill-founded decisions, an unpopular Budget, a poorly executed election campaign, the end of old political party allegiances, combined to cause enough Albertans to search for a new option. Rachel Notley’s NDP were seen as the most viable option around which to coalesce the time-for-a-change dynamic.

Implications for the 2015 Federal Election

It is important not to read too much into the Alberta election results when it comes to considering what they portend for the 2015 national election. Provincial election results are not predictive of federal electoral intentions. Alberta is unique, just as any province is, with its own brand of prairie populism that does not translate across the country. Having said that, a number of observations can be made about the Alberta election that could factor into a national campaign.

1) Squeeze Play: The Alberta PCs were squeezed on their right flank by the Wildrose Party and on their left by the NDP and Liberals. They were fighting, and lost, a two-front war. Prime Minister Harper’s Conservatives, on the other hand, will not face any opposition in the Province of Alberta from the political right during the 2015 federal election campaign. Their opponents will be battling amongst themselves for the “progressive vote”, a position that gives the federal Conservatives some comfort. Canny Generals, and Prime Ministers, will always choose to fight a war on one front if that option presents itself.

2) Fertile Fields: It bears noting that the cumulative popular vote in Alberta for the PCs and the Wildrose Party was just under 53 per cent. Far from a sudden lurch to the left by a majority of Albertans, the provincial election demonstrated that fertile fields remain to be ploughed by the federal Conservatives in the election campaign. Many of those fields are, appropriately, in rural Alberta. The changing social make-up of Alberta has changed the face of Alberta’s major urban centres. The strength of the provincial NDP in Edmonton (known in the province as “Redmonton”) and Calgary should give the federal Conservatives some pause for reflection. Let there be no doubt: the Conservative party will not take Alberta for granted and they will have a highly motivated campaign team on the ground in the province.

3) Fear and Taxes: In the latter stages of the Alberta election, when the polls were pointing to a dramatic swing to the NDP, both the PCs and the Wildrose Party tried to stoke the fears among the electorate that an inexperienced, socialist party might be taking over the reins of government. They also pointed to Rachel Notley’s campaign promise to raise corporate taxes by 2 per cent as a warning sign that a “tax and spend” NDP government would point the province in the wrong direction. The evidence is clear from the smoking ruins of the PC Party – stoking fear and positioning the opposition as free spenders who will raise taxes did not work. Interestingly, these have been messages used by the Harper Government in Ottawa over the years. One wonders if the Conservatives will take into account what did, and did not, work in Alberta as they roll out their election campaign.

4) Time for a Change?: The federal Conservative Party has not been in power for the past 44 years as their provincial brethren were. But they will have held office for almost ten years by the time Canadians mark their ballots on October 19th. Will a “time for a change” dynamic take hold across Canada and become the leading ballot box question this fall as it appeared to be in Alberta? And if it does take hold, which opposition party would be the beneficiary of this sentiment, Thomas Mulcair’s NDP or Justin Trudeau’s Liberals? We are not in the prediction business and we do not have the answers to these questions. But you can be certain that we will be keeping a close watch in the months ahead.

Conclusion

Canadians witnessed two provincial elections this week. In Prince Edward Island, the ruling Liberals won a new majority mandate, albeit with four fewer seats, a reduced popular vote, and facing a Green Party member in the Legislature for the first time. Not quite the status quo in PEI, but nowhere close to the astonishing news coming out of Alberta. What is up is down, what is down is up in that province. And, as the federal parties continue their thrusting and parrying during this “phony war” stage in the lead up to the 2015 election campaign, all will be taking careful note of what happened in Alberta this week.

Ladies and gentlemen, govern yourselves accordingly.