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The Next Four Years: Part Two

In the first part of my election post-mortem, I wrote about some broader trends. This post will focus on each of the five main parties who contested the election.

Tory Challenges
With a strong mandate, the Tories nonetheless have some challenges ahead of them. They campaigned on a more progressive platform than in elections past. Many, including myself, see this as a good thing. I for one will consider their government a success if they implement greater powers and authorities for municipalities (such as city charters for Edmonton and Calgary), and continue with strong social policy such as the 10 year plan to end homelessness, and the promised action on child poverty.

Premier Alison Redford
Dave Cournoyer/Flickr

Yet, while the progressive wing of the party seems ascendant, there is still a conservative base that must be tended to. And here in lies a potential risk. The PCs received a mandate from voters who are likely, to some degree, out of step with the base of the party. There will be pressure to keep the base who wants a more ‘conservative’ approach happy, while also delivering on the policies promised in the campaign. Making it more complicated is the potential of stagnant, or even declining, resource revenues.

While I do know of Liberal activists who have moved over to the PCs, I wonder how many of their voters will stay actively involved in politics between elections, or would even consider committing themselves to the party. Without the active support of this base, it will be a significant challenge to deliver the kind of government Premier Redford wants to.

One of their advantages is that there is no serious challenger to them on the left right now (as we’ll get to). However, they can’t count on a divided, somewhat moribund left forever. Strategic voting is a short-term proposition too. It usually only works once (as Paul Martin learned). If Wildrose is a serious threat next election, it will be because they have proven themselves to be a competent, credible force in the Legislature. There won’t be the same fear of the unknown that exists now, and future bozo eruptions aren’t guaranteed either.

Wildrose Challenges
If Wildrose is to become a more serious threat for government, it is going to have to peel off more of the fiscal conservative wing of the PCs. Just-elected Fiscal hawks in the PC caucus like Ric McIver, the former Calgary Alderman, and David Dorward, former Edmonton Mayoral candidate, are the types of candidates the Wildrose will need to be able to attract. It will also need to find a way to keep socially conservative voters in the tent without this being a key part of its message.

Your Choice For Change

It will also have to manage the expectations of supporters, volunteers, MLAs, and donors, who may not be thrilled to commit to four years (at least) in opposition. Many of its key campaign staff came from Conservative offices in Ottawa, and they may well find it more desirable to spend the next few years in government there than in opposition at home. Without strong performers in caucus (largely supported by good staff) and a motivated donor and volunteer base, it’s hard to imagine Wildrose growing – or even sustaining – their current success.

It will also need to make inroads into the Edmonton region, and into the medium-sized cities and rural areas in north of it. While it can succeed from a base in Calgary and the south, it’s hard to imagine the party forming government without having at least a few seats solid seats in that area.

Factors outside the control of any party may play to their favour. If the PCs deliver on greater authority for cities, that may – ironically – make the provincial government’s approach to municipalities less of an issue in future elections (since cities will be less dependent on them). Furthermore, should the large infrastructure projects Wildrose opposed this time (such as the Royal Alberta Museum and a new Edmonton arena) become controversial, they may indeed be catalysts for a smaller-government message in the region. For example, if either project end up going heavily over budget, they would hardly be the first of their kind to do so.

Additionally, the next federal election will occur in October 2015, roughly 6 months before the next provincial one. Should the NDP (or a left-centre party/coalition) form government, a more parochial approach to defending Alberta’s interests (likely to be articulated by Wildrose) may resonate more than the nationalistic approach preferred by Premier Redford.

As noted earlier, there are threats to the export of our natural resources, and those could have all sorts of unanticipated effects. Suffice to say, the key issues and political landscape could change dramatically in the next four years, possibly shifting towards Wildrose’s core message.

There are, also, three left-centre parties that have significant challenges ahead:

Liberal Survival
In many ways, the Liberals outperformed expectations. Few expected them to win five seats. However, the five elected are all incumbents. Their vote was also very efficient. Outside of these ridings, they weren’t competitive anywhere else. They lost two seats in Edmonton where incumbents retired, and while they finished second in three ridings, none were particularly close.

Also of concern is that few – if any – unsuccessful candidates offer a base to build off of. As it stands, the party feels like one in significant retreat, defending its few strongholds, which will almost certainly give way should the incumbent step aside, like in Edmonton-Riverview, Edmonton-Goldbar, and Calgary-Varsity this time.

At this point, there isn’t much reason to believe they will recapture the centre-left voters who have moved to the PCs, barring a sharp turn by that party back towards the right. Having lost many activists and organizers since the 2008 campaign, hopes would appear thin for a resurgence any time soon. Their best hope for rejuvenation would appear to be some sort of ‘unite the left-(centre)’ movement, which may sacrifice their name and brand, but infuse their ranks with activists from other parties. As it stands now, I’m not convinced all of their MLAs will make it to the next election. How much fun is it going to be for some of them to sit in a smaller caucus? Is it that far-fetched to assume they may lose an MLA or two to resignation or floor-crossing? (I don’t find it far-fetched to think Kent Hehr may try municipal politics again). When I look at the decline of the SoCreds in the ’70s and ’80s, it feels like the path the Liberals could easily follow – losing seats as incumbents retire, until one day the remaining 2-3 are just wiped off the map.

NDP Movement
Colby hit the nail on the head – while doubling the size of their phone booth is a success, it also points to the fact that that’s the kind of party they perceive themselves as – one who will occupy the back corner of the Legislature.

That said, unlike the Liberals, they have something to build off of. Newly-elected David Eggen and Deron Bilous are young and have a strong record in their communities. The success of Shannon Phillips in Lethbridge-West, Marlin Schmidt in Edmonton-Goldbar, and Cindy Olsen in Edmonton-Manning could all lay the groundwork for victories in the next election. They have surpassed the Liberals in many other Edmonton ridings, and would arguably be better poised to pick up left-leaning voters should they turn away from the PCs.

What happens with their leadership could also speed this process up. After 10 years at the helm, Brian Mason could step aside, particularly with both Rachel Notley and David Eggen presenting themselves as credible options to take over. Either would present a new, dynamic face for the party, giving them a chance to grow the base that Mason and Raj Pannu before him have held on to and cultivated.

They could also be poised to ride the coattails of their federal cousins, should their success continue. There is also the risk, though, that unpopular actions from the federal NDP could tar them by association.

Alberta Party Next Steps
It’s important to maintain perspective, in particular noting that the Alberta Party has only existed for 26 months. That said, as a supporter, I was incredibly disappointed in Monday’s results. While I’m proud of the effort everyone (in particular many of my friends) put forward, I was disappointed that many candidates and campaigns who worked hard and smart for months in advance were dealt results far worse than they deserved. I was disappointed that, for whatever reason, the party’s message never made it into mainstream debate. Most of all, I was disappointed in myself for not doing more to help the party and candidates I support.

That personal reflection aside, it points to some of the challenges the party will face in becoming a viable force. While the party has policy, it does not have a well-defined niche on the political spectrum. I support the goal of changing the process and culture around doing politics, and making it more inclusive, but this can only go so far as being a part of any party’s message. Voters will want more defined policies – certainly, the major criticism I’ve heard of the Alberta Party so far is that people don’t know what it stands for. With the PC Party now occupying much of the Alberta Party’s natural policy space, this will be more challenging.

What the Alberta Party is looking for.
Dave Cournoyer/Flickr

It’s also going to continue to face the challenge of convincing voters it is a viable option. Barring a by-election win or two, it’s unlikely to be in the leaders’ debate again in 2016. For the time being, most voters will likely presume the Liberal Party or NDP to be the default centre-left alternative to the PCs and Wildrose. More resources, and a full-slate of candidates, are necessary steps towards this. Finally, the party’s biggest strength right now is a committed, talented base of activists and members. Keeping them involved, engaged, and motivated (and then growing this base) is necessary.

The work of building a strong grassroots organization and strong constituency associations needs to continue, but a more clear, concise, macro-level message and approach needs to develop in conjunction with it. A by-election win or two would be critical for establishing the party’s credentials, and gaining inclusion into the leaders’ debate. Talented candidates like Michael Walters, Sue Huff, Glenn Taylor, Danielle Klooster, and Tim Osborne, need to be willing to keep building their profile and support locally, while Taylor (or another leader) is able to simultaneously do this for the party province-wide. Frankly, more money is the most crucial thing at this point. Being able to have a full-time leader spend 2-3 years on the road getting to know Albertans and building support (like Danielle Smith just did) would go a long way towards success in the next election.

Should it be able to continue to attract strong candidates and organizers, I don’t think that a foothold in the legislature in 2016, then a jump to official opposition (or even government) in the subsequent election is completely far-fetched. At the very least, it could position itself well to pick up centre-left voters looking for an alternative to the PCs. But a lot of things happening now have to continue, and be scaled up. Doing that takes significant work, even with a lot of talented people on board.

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The Next Four Years: Part One

With the Alberta election results now 36 hours old, a bit of reflection and thought on what may be in store for Alberta. In a similar vein, I’d encourage you to read Colby Cosh’s short post-mortem, and Calgary Grit’s thoughts on where we go from here. This post focuses on some broader trends across the political sphere. The second part will focus specifically on the five main parties.

Predicting the future in politics is a messy business. Nonetheless, here are some trends and things I’ll be watching in the next four years.

Realignment May Be Under Way
While the PCs were much ridiculed for their “Not Your Father’s PC Party” ad, there is some truth in it. The PC Party is a less conservative party than it has been for most of the past two decades. There is perhaps no better example of this than long-serving Cabinet minister Dave Hancock who, while highly regarded by most (including myself), seemed like an outlier – politically-speaking – in the Klein years, and now seems perfectly at home within Premier Redford’s caucus.

Danielle Smith

Naturally, their main competition now comes to them from their right, rather than their left. While the NDP and Liberals hold pockets in Edmonton and Calgary, and Wildrose saw some success in Calgary, the PCs are the leading party in both cities. Wildrose strength is based in rural areas towards the centre and south of the province, and in medium-sized cities and the outer-ring of Edmonton and Calgary.

Of the high-profile PC incumbents who went down to defeat, only two were from urban areas (Morton in suburban Calgary and Mitzel in Medicine Hat). The next cabinet figures to be heavy once again on Edmonton and Calgary MLAs.

Without reliable exit polling (or polling at all), it’s difficult to say how exactly this shift has occured. It seems highly likely though that many former PC voters (or those who stayed at home because the PCs weren’t conservative enough for their liking) make up the Wildrose base. Commensurately, many former Liberal voters have likely moved over to the PCs. I know a handful of former Liberal activists and staffers who were actively supporting the PCs even before the election. The new PC base is far more urban and moderate (leaning liberal) than before.

Conventional wisdom has been that to win a provincial election, you need to win 2 out of Edmonton, Calgary, and rural Alberta. Since the mid-’80s, this has been true. The PCs dominated by consistenly winning in Calgary and the rural areas. Their success in Edmonton dictated whether their victory would be a landslide, or merely a strong majority.

That said, I’ve long thought that if Alberta were to have a true two-party system, it would likely be more of an urban-rural split. One party (the more ‘left’ of the two) would be strongest in the urban cores of Edmonton and Calgary. The other (the more ‘right’ of the two) would be strongest in rural areas. Suburban areas and medium-sized cities would be the swing ridings, holding the balance of power more often than not.

Albertans are More Moderate, Content, or Both
I could also call this the homeostatis theory. While some of the rejection of Wildrose may have come from unfamiliarity and inexperience, it seemed largely a reaction to them being too conservative (especially on social issues) for many Albertans’ liking.

Furthermore, like with the two recent PC leadership races, voters seemed to be responding to something, rather than being proactive in endorsing a vision. The endorsement of Premier Stelmach enforced a more cautious, status quo route than either Jim Dinning or Ted Morton offered. Premier Redford’s victory moved the party to the left, but I think much can be owed to asserting the direction under way, versus the reassertion of an older political guard that was associated with Gary Mar’s campaign.

Alison Redford, campaign stop
Dave Cournoyer/Flickr

In this campaign, I wonder how many casual observers would have tuned in, and/or felt motivated to vote (Tory) without the “bozo eruptions” from the Wildrose campaign.

Or maybe Albertans are just content with the way things are, and are likely to endorse the least threatening option to it.

Change Takes Time
In retrospect, we perhaps overestimated the likelihood of a party forming government so early in its history. Most political parties and movements need time to gain traction before they can seriously contend for or form government.

In neighbouring Saskatchewan, both the-then dormant Progressive Conservatives, then the new Saskatchewan Party (starting from a base of dissafected PC and Liberal MLAs) broke through in their third general elections (’82 and ’07, respectively). In British Columbia, the Liberals re-emerged, supplanting Social Credit in 1991, then came close to winning in ’96 before earning a landslide in ’01.

Closer to home, the last party to seriously threaten the PC dynasty also saw incremental growth. The Liberals went from no seats in 1982 to 4 seats in 1986. They won 8 seats in 1989, good for third standing in the Legislature, but did finish second in popular vote (going up from 12 to 28%). They led in the polls for much of the time leading up to the ’93 election, where they ultimately finished second with 32 of 83 seats, and just under 40% of the popular vote). Of course, the PCs themselves won 6 seats (and doubled their popular vote to 26%) in the ’67 election before they won government in ’71.

On the federal scene, long-time observers will remember that the Reform Party contested the 1988 election in 72 western ridings, finishing second in several of them. Their 1993 breakthrough came 6 years after their founding convention, and 7 after the initial major gathering of the movement. More recently, the NDP breakthrough in Quebec came in Jack Layton’s fourth election as leader, by which point he’d been working to establish a base in the province for 8 years. On a national scale, you can see the incremental growth in each of his elections as well (same for the Conservative Party over that period of time).

The lesson is, while change can appear to happen quickly, there is usually incremental growth and years of work behind it that isn’t given the attention it may deserve.

Senate (Reform) is Not a Concern for Many
As Colby pointed out, as many as 1/3 of voters who cast a ballot for their MLA may not have bothered casting a Senate ballot at all. Long a passion of Alberta’s political class, the Senate election received barely any political attention at all. Most of the media coverage was of the “oh, by the way, there’s a Senate election happening too” variety. One would think that if ALbertans felt strongly about an elected Senate, they would have been clamoring to cast ballots in it. Perhaps if the Liberals and NDP bothered running candidates (instead of opposing elected senators and the Senate itself, respectively), we’d see more interest in it.