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.
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.
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.