Stalemate: On the By-Elections

Last night’s three by-elections produced…the status quo. The Conservatives held their two seats, and the NDP held their one.

Nonetheless, there’s good and bad news for every party in the results:

Conservatives
Good News: They held their 2 seats, winning convincingly in Durham, and still pulling 37% in Calgary-Centre with a controversial candidate.
Bad News: Their vote share dropped substantially in Calgary-Centre, supporting the idea that it could become competitive. They lost a significant share of votes in Victoria, as well, dropping to a distant third.

NDP
Good News: They held on to Victoria, and held their second place standing in Durham, gaining vote share to put further distance between them and the third place Liberals.
Bad News: Their vote share was down 13% in Victoria and they nearly lost what should have been a safe seat. They lost 11% in Calgary-Centre, finishing a distant fourth with less than 4% of the vote. Even though they were a clear second in Durham, they’re still nowhere near competing to win.

Liberals
Good News: They finished a strong second in Calgary-Centre, up 15% in vote share from 2011. The comments from David McGuinty and Justin Trudeau may have stalled their momentum, if they had any significant impact at all, but they didn’t cause the vote to crater. Harvey Locke finished on the high end of where the three polls conducted had him placed. Vote share-wise, they at least stopped their bleeding in Durham and Victoria.
Bad News: They got fewer votes cumulatively in the three ridings than the Greens, and were not a factor in either Durham or Victoria (where they finished third and fourth, respectively). There’s an argument to be made, as Colby did, that they simply turned out the loyal base in Calgary-Centre.

Greens
Good News: They finished a strong second in Victoria, nearly tripling their vote share from 2011, and a strong third in Calgary-Centre, where they more than doubled their share.
Bad News: Not much, actually. Both Donald Galloway (Victoria) and Chris Turner (Calgary-Centre) are strong candidates with local profile, so it would remain to be seen if they could hold their gains without these candidates running again in 2015.

3 Things We Might Have Learned
By-Elections Can Rarely Be Extrapolated for Broader Trends
It’s tempting to look for trends (A Green Wave in Western Canada? Stalled NDP growth? Liberals hit their ceiling? Conservatives drop votes?)

There may be local trends to watch, though. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that the Greens could be growing a beachhead on Vancouver Island (Liz May’s riding is next door), in Calgary, the Liberals still have life, and Chris Turner has local appeal, and Durham is rock solid Tory country.

The Political Climate is Still Unsettled
2011 may yet prove to be a realignment election, but further movement to solidify that was absent from last night’s result. The Liberals held their share in two ridings, and nearly doubled it in another. The Green Party saw the major growth last night, not the ascendant NDP. As mentioned, they themselves nearly lost an incumbent seat, and barely factored in another.

What I take this to mean is that we’re in an unsettled period, and while a two-party CPC-NDP system may be the end result, it’s still too fluid to call.

The Vote-Splitting and Unite-the-Left Arguments Miss the Point
In Calgary-Centre particularly, vote splitting was named as the cause of the Conservative Party victory. Let me be unequivocally clear: no party lost because of vote splitting. They lost because of a failure to appeal to and/or turn out enough voters. No party of the left will win unless they understand this.

As the Conservative Party experiment teaches us, 1+1 does not = 2. I put together a table of votes by party from 1984-2011, combining the ‘right’ and ‘left’ vote. For the latter, there’s a column for it with and without the Green Party. As you can see, it took three elections for the CPC to reach the combined vote of the PCs and Canadian Alliance from 2000. The party has never reached the vote share earned by the PCs in 1988. 1993, in fact, saw a major shift from the NDP to the Reform across Western Canada, which would seem incomprehensible if voters made decisions strictly on ideological grounds. This piece makes a good argument that last night, the Greens gained, more than anyone else, from Conservative losses. Rather than being seen as a third pillar of the progressive/left, the Greens, like the Bloc, probably pull from all across the spectrum, or at worst, being a safe place to park a protest vote.

There is some merit to the argument when examined another way. Rather than looking at votes in raw numbers, we need to examine voting coalitions. Our system, for better or worse, rewards brokerage parties – those that appeal to a broad spectrum of interests. When I have argued in previous posts that no progressive/left-centre party can form a majority government, it’s based on the fact that none of them have a broad enough coalition. Merger may bring this about, but it’s likely that voters from one or both previous parties would park their votes elsewhere, or stay home. The same would happen with attrition. Strategic voting, or dividing ridings won’t accomplish this, but brokerage will.

The way to a progressive government in this country is for one of the three current options to find a way to appeal to enough citizens and interests groups to form a coalition that can appeal to 40-45% of voters on a regular basis. The big lesson for me from last night is that the window for either the NDP, Liberals, or Greens to accomplish this is still wide open.

The Left’s Calgary-Centre Challenge

Tomorrow, three by-elections occur across Canada. In two – the Conservative stronghold of Durham, and Victoria, where the NDP have won comfortably the past three elctions – the incumbent party is expected to win by a large margin. The third, Calgary-Centre, has unexpectedly turned into a hotly contested race.

Calgary, as a city, last elected a non-conservative MP (PC/Reform/Alliance/CPC) in 1968. The closest thing to a disruption occured in this riding in 2000, when the non-Canadian Alliance vote coalesced around Progressive Conservative Party leader Joe Clark, boosting him to victory.

Now, the riding appears to be close. The Conservatives opened the door to a challenge by nominating a controversial candidate in Joan Crockett, and exacerbated it by shielding her from most public forums. All three opposition parties nominated strong candidates in their own right – the Liberals with notable conservationist Harvey Locke, the NDP with Dan Meades, the Director of Vibrant Communities Calgary, and the Greens with notable author Chris Turner. (Personal disclosure: I have some acquaintance with Harvey Locke, and serve on a board with his wife).

Two polls from Forum Research show a potential three-way race with Crockett ahead, Locke just behind, and Turner as the stalking horse in third. A poll from Return on Insight shows Crockett just ahead of Locke, with Turner comfortably in third, but far behind.

While I would love to see Harvey Locke (or Chris Turner) win this seat, safe money is still on Crockett. While by-elections do often produce abnormal results, one has to figure the floor for a Conservative candidate in this riding is in the mid-30s even with a weaker candidate. If you have the third and fourth place candidates pulling in around 30% of the vote (in ROI) or higher (in Forum), that leaves about 30-35% of the vote, if the Conservatives hit their floor. In other words, not a lot of space for another candidate to pull ahead.

This is a problem that will continue to repeat itself, until the three left of centre parties sort themselves out. I expect this to happen over the next two election cycles through attrition or merger. If three survive as viable entities, it will be because at least one retreats to becoming a largely regional entity.

Win or lose tomorrow, the Calgary-Centre by-election points to some key challenges centre-left parties, no matter which ones survive or emerge, need to overcome to be a true threat to government.

Calgary Tower
Calgary-Centre is a bellwether for progressive hopes in the west.

The Need to Stop Beating Up Your Own
The most biting attack of this campaign was a Chris Turner mailer where…he attacked Harvey Locke. Echoing the Conservative “he didn’t come back for you!” attack on Michael Ignatieff, Turner chastises Locke for spending many years away from Calgary. These are far harsher words than he has for Crockett at any point. Reminiscent of the PC/Reform battles in Ontario through the ’90s, the centre-left is likely to continue beating itself up in order to try to become the alternative. In the meantime, the Conservatives will be able to largely coast into office until this is sorted out.

Someone suggested to me that Locke and Turner are drawing strengths from two different constituencies (more established liberals vs. young civic activists), and while this may be true, the broader point is that it is unlikely that any non-Conservative candidate can win regularly without the support of both.

The Need to Be Competitive Across the Country
To their credit, Liberal Party leadership candidates have grasped the need to reach out to the west, and Alberta in particular. The NDP have made inroads in Edmonton, winning one riding in 2008 and holding it in 2011. The province is not only influential because of its role in the economy, but because of its fast growing population. It will gain another 6 seats prior to the 2015 election.

It is still possible for a party to win a majority based on strength elsewhere in the country (Ontario, Quebec, and BC remain seat-rich), but it’s hard to see any party but the Conservatives winning a majority without at least some seats from the prairie provinces, Alberta in particular.

Another consideration is this – the need to simply make this area of the country more competitive. At the moment, the Conservatives can effectively bank at least 24 of 28 seats in Alberta prior to the writ drop (that’s being generous by including Calgary-Centre, along with NDP-held Edmonton-Strathcona, and once Liberal/NDP-held Edmonton Centre and Edmonton East). That means that the party can redirect advertising dollars and human resources elsewhere, both organizers and its leader (and leading cabinet ministers). While other parties need to defend their home turf, so to speak, the Conservatives can focus on swing ridings and areas of growth. Simply making at least Edmonton and Calgary more competitive would help centre-left parties across the country in that respect.

As an aside, it’s striking how few centre-left MPs of significance Alberta has produced in the past 80 years (if not longer), aside from Anne McLellan. While many prominent Liberals or CCF/NDPs have carved out notable careers at the provincial level or as Mayor of Calgary or Edmonton, none have made a successful breakthrough to the federal level. While the province gets labeled as a bastion of conservatism, that list of prominent centre-left politicians would include Laurence Decore, Grant Notley, Grant MacEwan, Nick Taylor, Ivor Dent, Jan Reimer, Al Duerr, and Dave Bronconnier, to name a few. Every other province can point to both prominent progressive and conservative politicians it has produced, even if it reliably supports one party (or ideology) over others.

The Need to Win Across the Country
Having said all that, Calgary-Centre is precisely the type of riding that a centre-left party will need to win in order to compete for and win government on a regular basis. It’s demographics largely resemble areas that support centre-left parties across the country, and provincially, it includes parts or all of ridings that have elected Liberals in recent elections, such as Calgary-Buffalo and Calgary-Currie.

Without a major realignment, it’s hard to see any centre-left party winning government except, as I said earlier this year, in case of a charismatic leader who disrupts voting patters or when scandal and voter fatigue catch up to government.

In figuring the road to a majority government for the NDP, Liberal Party, Green Party, or some combination thereof, it’s hard to see how that happens without winning 3-6 seats in each of the prairie provinces.

Some pundits are predicting a historic upset, and I do hope to see it change hands. However, what I think is more likely is that Calgary-Centre can the launching pad for progressive inroads in the west. In this respect, Edmonton-Strathcona is a model. While most remember “Liberals for Linda”, and how the progressive vote coalesced around her as she squeaked out a win in 2008, fewer seem to remember that she effectively kept campaigning from the 2006 election onward. The NDP also targeted that riding with regular mailings and appearances. If the Liberals, Greens, or NDP are serious about winning Calgary-Centre, they can’t give up after tomorrow night, should they be unsuccessful. If they do, it will start inching back towards the status quo. Tomorrow’s by-election should be the start of a consistent, steady campaign to build inroads and support so that it’s a true race come 2015, and if it doesn’t change hands then, that it’s poised to soon afterwards. Making the necessary inroads to win support in Western Canada is going to be a long process. Done right, tomorrow night can be a catalyst for that.

On Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau will announce his candidacy for Liberal leadership tonight. Since word leaked of the impending announcement, it has received what must be a record amount of attention for a candidate seeking leadership of the third party in the House of Commons. Without a word of his platform being leaked, he’s already being dismissed by some, while others have preached caution and a wait and see approach.

Justin Trudeau
Flickr/jbach

I don’t follow the business of the House of Commons closely enough to speak authoritatively on his record there. I have heard Justin speak a few times, and come away impressed. I think he’s being unfairly judged or sold short in some areas, even before he’s launched his campaign.

On Policy
I’ve previously written about the missing agenda I see for all centre-left parties (and progressives as a whole in Canada). Speaking to Trudeau specifically, I think he’s being unfairly maligned for having unclear positions, though perhaps this is the trade-off he has to accept in order to receive disproportionate attention.

In spite of their long resumes in politics, how many pundits could tell you clearly where Thomas Mulcair, Brian Topp, Peggy Nash, and Nathan Cullen stood on the 5-10 key issues at the start of the NDP leadership race? 6 months into his leadership, would Thomas Mulcair be strongly associated with any policy or idea but for the words “dutch disease“?

As others have said, at this point, it is simply too early to tell. Once launched, if Trudeau’s campaign is built around photo-ops and the “OMG Justin Trudeau” factor, it will then be fair to accuse him of being a lightweight. I suspect this won’t be the case, and that the policies and ideas he does put forward will be examined on their merits, no different than anyone else. Given his background, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Trudeau have a particular emphasis of environmental and youth issues, which – as far as I’m concerned – would be a very welcome addition to political discourse.

On Leadership
For me, a key part of leadership is getting people interested, engaged, and excited. Trudeau clearly accomplishes the first at this point, and should he accomplish the other two, what’s lacking on his paper resume won’t matter so much. Most of the hands-on, tactical management will be up to his Chief of Staff and the party executive director in any case. His biggest challenge will be to engage caucus, find meaningful roles, and get people interested and excited in the party. A key test I will be looking for, should he win, is whether or not he’s able to attract talented candidates who are also new faces to the party. Should he ever position the party as a serious contender to form government, then his executive decision-making style will be a much greater consideration.

On Experience
Yes, his resume is shorter than many other candidates. Legitimate contenders for 24 Sussex tend to take one of two approaches to build their resume. Let’s call them the establishment approach and the entrepreneurial approach.

The establishment approach sees candidates gain experience and rise through conventional institutions to get to higher office. Most likely, this is within government, working one’s way up through party positions, or in elected office from backbencher to a critic/cabinet minister, and so forth. Think Jean Chretien or John Turner. Alternately, one may eschew elected office for a time and build party credentials and alternative executive experience (such as Paul Martin and Brian Mulroney, who had real executive experience, though little to no experience in office prior to running for leadership the first time).

Alternately, there is the entrepreneurial approach, building a party from scratch, or taking a smaller one and building it into a big tent. This is where one gains meaningful experience, and demonstrates their credentials. Preston Manning had a fairly anonymous career prior to founding the Reform Party; Jack Layton was an academic turned long-time legislator on Toronto City Council, but the closest he came to being an executive would be as President (Chair of the Board) at FCM. Stephen Harper’s career outside of politics consists of leading a small office at the National Citizens’ Coalition. All three showed their credentials by building effective political parties. Once they had done that, it was irrelevant that they’d never spent time in the executive suite at Canada Steam Lines or the Iron Ore company.

Bringing this back to Justin Trudeau, should be elected leader, he will inherit a party in distant third place, and is, quite frankly, not competitive in enough parts of the country to form government, and virtually non-existent in some. If he ever becomes a serious contender for Prime Minister, it will be because he has led a team and organization that took a party and brand in disarray, and engineered a successful turnaround. In other words, at such point in time he’d be no less qualified than the sitting Prime Minister and two recent leaders of the opposition who were not dismissed as having thin resumes.

I have higher hopes for Trudeau than most. I’m not about to anoint him as Prime Minister-in-waiting, but am excited to see him jumping into the leadership race tonight.

Politicians Just Wanna Have Fun: Alberta Edition

A short, off-topic post. Given that politics is serious business, and most politicians tend to act as such, it’s nice to see the lighter side of elected officials sometimes. At the Premier’s Capital Ex Breakfast this morning, Premier Redford led her caucus in singing John Denver’s classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads“. Here’s a video I shot of their rendition:

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.

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.

Alberta’s Election by the Numbers

I spent some time looking over last night’s election results. Here are some of the numbers and trends for each of the five parties that I found interesting.

Three or Four-Way Races Never Materialized
Calgary-McCall and Lethbridge-West were the only ridings where the top 3 finishers were within 10% of each other:

Calgary-McCall – Liberal 36% Wildrose 30% PC 29%
Lethbridge-West – PC 36% NDP 29% Wildrose 26%
PC Dominance
PCs were first or second in all but one riding (Calgary-McCall).

Of the 27 ridings they lost, they were within 5% of winning 6, and 10% of winning an additional 5.

They have the only candidate Their only candidate who earned more than 60% of the vote (Dave Hancock, Edmonton-Whitemud). (Update: it was pointed out that Rachel Notley earned more than 60% in Edmonton-Strathcona. Thanks for the correction).

Wildrose Growth
Outside of Edmonton, Wildrose finished no worse than second in all but three ridings (Calgary-Buffalo and Mountain View, won by the Liberals, and Lethbridge-West, won by PC with NDP second).

Wildrose finished second in 8 Edmonton ridings. The closest they came to winning a seat was Edmonton-Mill Woods, where they finished 11% back.

In 72 of 87 ridings, PC and Wildrose finished 1-2 in either order; only 29 of them were decided by 10% or less either way.

In those ridings, the PC’s won 9 by less than 5%, and an additional 11 by less than 10%. Wildrose won 3 by less than 5%, and an additional 6 by less than 10%.

Wildrose were within 10% of winning an additional riding (Calgary-McCall) won by the Liberals.

Liberal Collapse
While the Liberals held on to 5 seats (all incumbents), the closest they were to winning their 6th seat was 14% back (Edmonton-Mill Woods, where they finished 3rd). They finished second in only 3 ridings (Edmonton-Riverview, Rutherford, and McClung), where they were, respectively, 16, 20, and 24% back.

The highest vote share earned by a first time candidate was 23% for Arif Khan in Edmonton-Riverview.

They earned less than 20% of the vote in 7 of 16 ridings that they won 2 elections ago (2004) – Calgary-Currie, Lethbridge-East, St. Albert, and Edmonton-Decore, Glenora, Ellerslie, Manning (this also applies to Castle Downs, which they lost in ’04 on a judicial recount). Of the 8, they finished 3rd in 4 of them, and 4th in the other 4.

NDP Consistency
The NDP won back the 2 seats they lost in 2008 (Edmonton-Calder and Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview), in addition to holding their 2 incumbents.

They had two other candidates come within 10% of victory – Marlin Schmidt finished 4% back in Edmonton-Goldbar and Shannon Phillips finished 7% back in Lethbridge-West.

In addition to Schmidt and Phillips, the NDP finished second in Edmonton-Glenora (13% behind Tories). Cindy Olsen in Edmonton-Manning nearly joined them, finishing 25 votes out of second, though 15% behind the winner.

Alberta Party Baby Steps
The highest vote share earned by an Alberta Party candidate was 16.99% (party leader Glenn Taylor, West Yellowhead). Highest total of raw votes earned by a candidate was 1673 (Michael Walters, Edmonton-Rutherford).

No AP candidate finished first or second. Taylor and Danielle Klooster (Innisfail-Slave Lake) finished 3rd in their respective ridings; Walters and Tony Jeglum (Lacombe-Ponoka) finished 4th.

The Battle for Alberta

Monday is election day in Alberta. Normally, this is a ho-hum affair, the suspense being not about who will win, but about by how much the governing Progressive Conservative party will win. The PCs first won government in 1971. Starting with their first re-election campaign, they have won more than 60 seats in every campaign (the total number of seats available growing over that time from 75 to 87 today). The lone exception, 1993, is seen as the high water mark for competitive elections in this province. Even then, once the dust settled on election day, the PCs had won 51 seats, 19 more than the opposition.

All this back story is a way of saying that exciting provincial campaigns, where the outcome is truly in doubt, are extremely rare in Alberta. The upstart Wildrose Party is leading in all the polls, and it’s a realistic possibility that they will form the next government. If nothing else, it has been encouraging, and exciting, to see a truly contested election happen. It has also, however, been in many ways a disappointing election. The absence of debate on important issues, and focus instead of namecalling and fear-mongering, doesn’t fill me with confidence for the future, regardless of who forms government. An election is an important milestone in politics and government, but it’s not the only thing that matters. If we can’t have a rational discussion of candidates, parties, and ideas during a campaign, I don’t know if it’s going to get better after the fact.

Danielle Smith
Danielle Smith, possibly our Premier-designate after Monday’s vote.

In the hysteria, some important things have been lost. Energy, the foundation of Alberta’s economy, has received scarce attention. Critique of Wildrose has focused on a few extremist candidates who would likely never get into cabinet, rather than the policies and people who may actually be central to their government. People have embraced the PCs as a positive alternative, without critically analyzing how similar the two parties are in terms of some of their members’ beliefs, and the likely outcomes. It’s also received scant attention from the public that Premier Redford is unlikely to survive even if she wins another (slim) majority government. If she does, it will likely be by making compromises with the party establishment, moving it back towards the “conservative” side, and further away from what “strategic” PC voters think they’re getting – or avoiding by defeating the Wildrose.

We’ve also ignored the fact that almost every government moves towards the centre upon taking office, whether they campaign on the right or left. In terms of ideology, the Saskatchewan Party and federal Conservative Party are likely better comparisons for anticipating a Wildrose government than assuming a throwback to the Social Credit or Klein PC days. Whether or not this is a good thing is a matter of one’s view, but it’s the frame through which they should be examined. Truth is, like with the PCs, almost every Albertan would find some outcomes they like, and some they don’t (the balance of good vs. bad would vary greatly depending on your view). But the sky will not fall Tuesday morning if they’re elected. If they are as extreme in government as some fear, they’ll get tossed out next election. That’s how politics works.

Now, I do hope people get out and vote, regardless of who it’s for. More importantly, though, is for people to own their votes. If voters hold their nose and vote PC because they’re scared of Wildrose, they should be prepared to live with, and own the fact that they will still be getting a conservative government (one more so than they may expect). I won’t have any sympathy for the Aviva Zimmermans of the world if they’re unhappy with what they’d get out of four more years of PC government. If you vote for the Wildrose, it’s important that, as a supporter, you hold them to their pledges, especially the one on accountability, as that’s one of the fundamental tenets of their argument for change. If you support the Liberals, NDP, or Alberta Party, it’s important to ensure that the MLAs who are elected are being a positive force for change in the Legislature, rather than just hecklers and conspiracy theorists, as opposition MLAs often have been in this province.

No matter who you support, however, the most important thing is to not disappear for four years, but to keep working in your community, and through the political system, to help realize the change you want to see happen.

Alison Redford, campaign stop
Alison Redford during the campaign. Her time as Premier has brought forward a lot of positive initiatives, but she’s weighed down by her party’s record.
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

Now, I have mixed feelings on every party. I think the PCs have brought in some legitimately good policies and initiatives in recent years. In this respect, the governments of Premiers Stelmach and Redford have been a notable improvement over their predecessors. That said, inheriting a government more than 30 years old comes with inherent drawbacks. A culture has developed around government that promotes cronyism, a lack of transparency, and bullying the opposition. Were Premier Redford building a party from the ground up, I suspect I’d quite like the product. Her time in office, however, speaks to just how hard it is, despite her best efforts, to reform a party – and government – that is so entrenched. Should she continue on, there’s no guarantee the task will get easier.

As for the Wildrose, it’s probably clear to most readers that I don’t see eye to eye on many policy issues with them. I do, however, support most of their accountability pledge. I also have a lot of time for Danielle Smith. She’s a policy-minded leader, and I think that a Wildrose government under her leadership will surprise many with how they’d approach some issues.

The Alberta Liberal Party looks like a group that’s run out of steam, politically-speaking. That said, I respect the fact that they’ve put forward some controversial ideas in their platform, like raising taxes, and eliminating post-secondary tuition (the latter I disagree with, by the way). It’s important to have parties willing to push the boundaries, and encourage debate on important issues, no matter how unpopular they may be.

The NDP has proven to be an effective opposition, always raising important perspectives and flagging key issues to hold the government to account on. Losing this contribution would be a bad thing.

Finally, it’s no secret to many that I’ve been an Alberta Party supporter for the past year and a half. My endorsement for a party is for them. Despite running candidates in fewer than half the ridings province-wide, a vote for the Alberta Party would be an endorsement of community-driven politics, and a message that we can do politics in a better, more inclusive and collegial manner. My support is driven in large part by the genuine commitment I see to citizen engagement, and a more collaborative approach to politics, as well as the high regard I have for many of the people involved in the party. Nonetheless, I feel like the party will need a more defined (or better articulated) set of values and policies going forward in order to be a true competitor for government.

Glenn Taylor - Alberta Party leadership candidates
Glenn Taylor, leader of the Alberta Party, hopefully an MLA-elect tomorrow night.
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

There are also good candidates running for every party. On the PC side, losing bright minds like Dave Hancock and Doug Griffiths would be a bad thing. Whether or not Wildrose forms government, I hope Danielle Smith wins her seat, as she’d bring an important perspective to the Legislature. I’ve also gotten to know Shannon Stubbs through mutual friends and involvements over the years, and have a tremendous amount of respect for her. In a Wildrose government or opposition, she’d be a strong contributor.

Incumbent Liberal MLAs like Laurie Blakeman, David Swann, and Kent Hehr would be valuable members in opposition, contributing to debate and representing their constituents well. In a minority government, I’d be optimistic about their ability to affect change, and support reasonable legislation.

On the NDP side, Rachel Notley is a lock to hold her seat, which is a good thing, and I hope David Eggen is returned to the Legislature as well. He was a strong performer in his first term from 2004-08, and has demonstrated his ability as an advocate in leading Friends of Medicare since. I’ve always been impressed with Shannon Phillips, in the almost 10 years since we’ve known each other. While we haven’t always agreed, I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for both her ability and conviction. She’s the kind of person we need more of in politics, and I hope voters in Lethbridge-West agree.

I’m also hoping for an Alberta Party breakthrough, as there are a number of candidates who would be assets to their constituents and the province as a whole in the Legislature. Both Michael Walters and Sue Huff are true community-oriented leaders, and would bring a collaborative, positive approach to politics. Michael’s history as a community organizer and Sue’s work on the Edmonton Public School Board bear witness to the quality of work they’d do as MLAs. I consider both of them friends, and have been proud to support their respective campaigns over the past several months.

Glenn Taylor, the party leader, is a respected former Mayor of Hinton, and in the time I’ve gotten to know him, has proven to be a thoughtful leader with an eye for bringing people together. Tim Osborne, who I know more by reputation than personally, would be a great addition to the Legislature. His background in the social sector, and passion for helping people at risk and in need, is important to have, especially with a government who has an eye on balancing the budget (which will almost certainly involve spending cuts). Having people like Tim in the legislature would be important to balance this out.

On the whole, I’d be happiest with a minority government – whether it’s led by the PCs or Wildrose – that has representation from all five parties. It would give us a chance to see which parties and MLAs are seriously committed to working together, and getting results for Albertans. In other words, which ones are true representatives, and which ones are just politicians. I also hope the outcome provides opportunity for all five parties to engage in some self-reflection and growth. For the established parties – PC and Liberal – a chance to reflect on what they stand for and why they exist (especially in the former’s case, since they are no longer the automatic ‘governing’ party). For the NDP, to consider whether they want to occupy a more moderate space, like their federal cousins, or pursue their traditional path of being the conscience of government. For the new parties – Wildrose and Alberta – to prove themselves to voters, and define where exactly they stand when they have to make the tough decisions of being in elected office. If this can all happen in a majority government setting, great. But I think it’s much less likely to happen should that be the result.

We’re in the midst of a transition period in Alberta politics. Whatever comes out of it, I hope we see a truly competitive political arena with two viable governing parties emerge, not one where dynasties rule for a generation or two before crumbling and giving way to another. I hope we move towards a more civil and collaborative approach, where citizen engagement isn’t a token effort, but a bedrock for politics. I hope tomorrow’s election is another step towards the Alberta 3.0 I wrote about two years ago, and still believe we will move towards – whether we embrace it or not. Most important of all, I hope everyone who votes doesn’t assume their work is done for the next four years once they’ve cast their ballot, and continues to work hard to build a stronger province. Whoever wins, we’ll get the government we deserve – either through or action or our inaction. I hope it’s through the former.

Progressives in the House: New Opposition Leader. Now What?

Thomas Mulcair was elected as the new leader of the NDP last weekend. Previously, I wrote about what I see as a missing agenda amongst all progressive leaders in Canada. Today, I’ll take a different tack, looking at some of the things progressives can expect going forward, and some opportunities I see to make gains moving towards the next election in 2015.

Thomas Mulcair
Flickr/Matt Jiggins

The Conservatives will Test Mulcair, Early and Often
The attacks started early and often, with a news release the night of his election, and a members’ speech decrying him before his first question.

The long-promised austerity budget is short on austerity, but expect a fight on a few fronts.

The Conservative Party is likely challenge Mulcair on some of the NDP’s traditional beliefs and constituencies, attempting to force him back to his party’s traditional corner, or cause a rift. Labour will be one way. They’ve started this in the past year with back-to-work legislation for striking Canada Post and Air Canada workers, and will ramp it up with public service cutbacks. Expect the public service to make a big deal, and the Conservative government to respond accordingly.

Jack Layton, Leaders Tour - Tournée du Chef - Rebecca Blaikie
Flickr/Matt Jiggins

The NDP’s ‘Traditional Base’ Will Cause Problems for Mulcair
Mulcair will have to walk a fine line of moving the party to the “centre” in the public’s mind, but also keeping his party’s constituencies happy. As noted above, the Conservatives will likely try to exacerbate any tension between him and, say, unions. In addition, Mulcair is going to have to craft a more thoughtful response to the oil sands – one that satisfies his more militant members, but that also speaks to the aspirations of Western Canadians. Or, as that may be impossible, one that enough people on both sides can live with.

Mulcair Complicates the Liberals’ Obvious Path Back to Official Opposition (Nevermind Government)
The Liberal Party’s best hope was for the NDP to fall back, through one of two ways – losing a significant chunk of their gains in Quebec, or electing a leader who will pull the party further to the left.

Of course, predicting outcomes in politics is a very inexact science. It’s entirely possible that Mulcair will alienate voters in some form, but on the surface he looks like a leader likely to stay the course, and at the very least hold most of the NDP’s gains from the past decade.

That leaves the Liberals in a precarious position – barring a charismatic leader who connects strongly with voters, they’re unlikely to make gains trying to own the centre-left with a similar, more viable moderate party already there. In addition, Mulcair figures to be, if nothing else, an effective advocate in the House, meaning the value of an orator like Bob Rae is diminished as a potential competitive advantage. It may in fact force them to the place they should have gone years ago, which is to evaluate what it means to be a liberal (nevermind a Liberal) today, what one should stand for, and if there’s a place for those beliefs in an independent political party. Some self-reflection that leads to a clear raison d’être would do them good.

The Conservatives Will Get Their Wins. Can The Oppositions Make Them Pyrrhic Wins?
With a majority of seats in both the House and the Senate, it’s likely the Conservatives will be able to pass the legislation they want to. The major impediment would be public opinion. On this, should the Conservatives pursue legislation that will be controversial, or unpopular, the opposition needs to engage the affected parties, working with them to earn support, and ensuring the Conservatives wear any controversial issues in the public eye. In other words, if they’re going to get what they want, make sure it’s at a cost.

Work Needs to Happen Outside of the House
Building on the previous point, the opposition’s ability to affect change legislatively is limited. There are private members’ bills and amendments they can advance (which I’ll talk about in the next section), but the work to build a broader coalition needs to happen off Parliament Hill. It’s both issue-based, rallying support to attempt to stop or at least dilute unpopular legislation, but also in building a broader coalition of voters – one that can realistically form government. Right now, the best chance they have in 2015 is to default into government through Conservative unpopularity – but that’s not sustainable. The fundamentals favour the governing party, and will until there’s a coalition of voters that can realistically win 170 seats (with the seat count increasing to 338 next election).

That Said, the Opposition Can Make Gains By Changing the Terms of Engagement in the House
As noted, the opposition should seek to introduce legislation (which can hopefully pass) that will earn favour with its constituencies (current and potential). Stressing a more collegial environment overall, for example, highlighting instances where it works with government, and enhances, rather than simply opposes legislation, is key. Most importantly, however, would be to change the terms of engagement, bringing a more collegial, collaborative approach, and toning down the rhetoric in Question Period. This will appeal to voters who are tired of the constant bickering and partisanship.

Avnish made a great point on Twitter, saying:

(NDP Leadership Candidate Nathan) Cullen, I think, understood how young Canadians view politics with his coop approach. Results matter, not the party that’s behind it

I agree with that, and think that this is a point where process, rather than policy, can win substantial votes.

There are both challenges and opportunities ahead – I hope last weekend turns out to be a step towards a stronger progressive presence in Canadian politics over the next three and a half years.

Musings on Health Care

Gary Mar – the perceived front-runner in the PC leadership race – caused a stir a few weeks ago with comments to the Edmonton Sun editorial board in support of private health care delivery.

Predictably, two things happened. First, media speculation focused less on whether this was a good idea from a policy and service delivery perspective; second, public health care advocates jumped all over him and any defenders for daring to bring up the prospect of private delivery.

Many recognize that our health care system faces challenges, which will only grow in the coming years. Health care already takes up more than 40% of Alberta’s operating budget, and that figures to grow as our population ages. Sustainability – financially-speaking – is only the second biggest challenge. The first is that we seem unable to have a serious, mature dialogue about health care in Canada. Without that dialogue, we’ll never get to solving the challenge of financial sustainability.

H1N1 Clinic
An H1N1 vaccination clinic in Edmonton, from 2009.

There is some truth in what Mar says. People with means, should they be interested, will find ways to get access to timely care if the public system in Alberta is not providing it. There are an increasing number of privatized (or elective) features of health care in this province. Capturing that cost is an economic opportunity. There is nothing inherently incompatible with having private delivery happening parallel to a robust, efficient public health care system.

Where defenders of public health care fall down for me is in demonizing private delivery. I support timely, quality access to health care for everyone. The conversation in my mind is not, ‘how do we stop private delivery?’, rather it is ‘how do we ensure timely, quality delivery for everyone?’

Part of me feels the same way about private health care use and cue-jumping as I do about marijuana use. It’s going to be happen anyways, so let’s regulate and tax the hell out of it. Let’s say a few changes were made to the health care system. There were more health professionals trained and practicing. Private delivery was allowed, but heavily regulated and taxed by government (with revenues going back into the public system). As long as everyone – from the millionaire business-owner to the single parent on income support was receiving timely, effective care, would it be such a calamity?

I recognize this is, and continues to be a controversial issue. It’s going to be an increasingly complex one to deal with as our population ages. I only hope we can have a mature, serious, open conversation about health care. Demonizing people who simply raise the prospect of private delivery is not the way to get there.