Harper vs Notley for the Soul of Alberta

Rachel Notley, Stephen Harper

In the battle for the federal Conservative heartland of Alberta, opposition leaders Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau have been largely relegated to the sidelines. The main event has featured Prime Minister Stephen Harper blaming new NDP Premier Rachel Notley for the province’s increasingly shaky economy. While the PM concedes the collapse of global oil prices wasn’t entirely the New Democrats’ fault, he insists their policies – corporate and personal tax hikes, a coming oil royalty review, and a serious push to curb carbon emissions – are making a bad situation much worse. “An NDP government at both levels will destroy the economy in this province for a very long time,” Harper warned in a recent Calgary speech.

Notley initially stayed out of the fray but, seeming increasingly defensive as the province hemorrhages jobs and investment, she is now saying Albertans have embraced “a new set of values,” and Harper is yesterday’s man and plan. “This sort of mantra of, you know, government is evil, and everyone should be doing things on their own,” Notley said in a September 22 CBC interview, “I think that’s shifting. The younger generation wants to be part of a community where people look out for each other.”

The rout of the provincial Progressive Conservative dynasty last spring suggest she may be on to something. But federally, is Alberta really in play? The lone existing NDP seat in Edmonton Strathcona, held since 2008 by MP Linda Duncan but by conservatives for the preceding 36 years, has always looked less like a beachhead than a desert island. But in the wake of the province’s latest electoral U-turn last spring, many wonder if Notley’s Orange Chinook can fill the sails of Mulcair and the federal New Democrats. Some even think the province has changed so profoundly as to put a couple seats within the reach of Trudeau’s Liberals, who are fishing for votes in a well that was poisoned by his father nearly half a century ago.

What killed the PC dynasty

Few people have a finger on the pulse of Alberta politics like Dave Cournoyer. The Edmonton-based blogger and commentator is the proprietor of the endlessly informative daveberta.ca website and one of the province’s more influential progressive voices. He says a number of factors set the stage for the New Democrats’ historic provincial victory.

“There was a lot of anti-Conservative sentiment,” he explains. “There was a real feeling that it was time for change and that these guys needed to be thrown out. It was kind of the perfect storm for the NDP. Rachel Notley came in as leader and she was very charismatic during the campaign. The New Democrats ran a near perfect election.”

Lethbridge College political scientist Faron Ellis thinks an unstoppable demand for change, far more than Notley’s electoral genius, ended the Tories’ reign. “Notley could do what she did for a variety of reasons that were unique to that election. The Conservatives had clearly worn out their welcome,” he says. “I was convinced they’d worn out their welcome in 2012, and had Wildrose not blown it so thoroughly the change would’ve happened then.”

But Notley did run a strong, positive campaign, and her party deployed its resources efficiently, taking every winnable riding and then some en route to a 54-seat majority in an 85-seat Legislature. Their GOTV effort was particularly impressive, especially in coaxing millennials off the couch. That boosted overall turnout to levels not seen since 1993, and they won every age demographic below pensioners.

The Wildrosers, still reeling from former leader Danielle Smith’s attempt to unite the right by delivering more than half her caucus to the Tories, were also breaking in a new, unknown leader in former Fort McMurray Conservative MP Brian Jean. New PC leader Jim Prentice, meanwhile, campaigned to the right long enough to seduce the Wildrose floor-crossers, then veered sharply left to take on the NDP. Albertans concluded he was too shifty and too Bay Street for them, not to mention too PC, and responded accordingly. “If the opposition had conceived and executed Prentice’s campaign looking to their own advantage, they couldn’t have done a better job than Prentice did,” says Ellis, “He did everything to feed into the narrative that he was aloof, out of touch, and elitist.”

Federally, a whole different ballgame

Since all these conditions were unique to the provincial election, they don’t presage any similarly broad shift in the federal vote, although the opposition parties do appear to be competitive in a handful of once-unwinnable ridings. Poll aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com shows a sea of Tory blue lapping against dots of orange and red in Edmonton, Calgary, and Lethbridge.

University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan, who was a key player in the early electoral successes of Harper’s Conservative party, also sees some cracks in Alberta’s blue monolith. “It wouldn’t be totally surprising to see one or two Liberal victories in Calgary and maybe a couple of NDP victories in Edmonton,” he says.

Cournoyer doesn’t expect the provincial earthquake to repeat itself, but says “there may be two or three or five seats that are actually competitive in Alberta, and if you’re looking at a minority government in Ottawa, every seat is going to count.”

Strathcona and Griesbach represent the opposition’s best chances in Edmonton, but there are others. In Edmonton Centre, once the fiefdom of Liberal cabinet minister Anne McLellan during the Chretien era, popular Conservative incumbent Laurie Hawn has retired. His replacement is former Edmonton Chamber of Commerce president James Cummings, running against provincial union boss Gil McGowan of the NDP and Liberal Randy Boissonnault. All three are impressively articulate, accomplished, and organized. Cummings needs to hold most of Hawn’s support (48 percent in 2011) and get his competitors to evenly split the centre-left vote.

Calgary, for the first time in almost fifty years, may also offer some fertile ground for Conservative apostasy. In Calgary Skyview ThreeHundredEight currently pegs former Liberal MLA Darshan Kang as the frontrunner. The aggregator also puts the Liberals ahead in Calgary Centre, where former Liberal MLA Kent Hehr is trying to unseat Tory incumbent Joan Crockatt, but a mid-August Environics poll had her up 12 points.

Most Calgary ridings will be easy wins for the Conservatives. Even in the tight races, Tory candidates hold an inherent edge over their rivals. Flanagan cites the example of Calgary Confederation, where a recent Mainstreet poll has the Tories and Liberals in a dead heat, to illustrate the Tories’ inbuilt Election Day advantage.

“The Liberal support is heavily among younger voters, who generally are less likely to vote, whereas (Tory candidate Len) Webber’s support is from voters 40 to 50 years and older, who are much, much more likely voters,” Flanagan says. “What counts is who turns out on election day.”

Then there is the curious case of Lethbridge. The nominal buckle of Alberta’s southern Bible Belt, the university town of 90,000 is surrounded by old Mormon settlements and Hutterite colonies with a healthy sprinkling of Evangelicals and Mennonites in between. The spring election saw the godless NDP convincingly sweep both Lethbridge ridings, though, and until this week ThreeHundredEight had been projecting that the federal seat would go Orange.

Ellis is doubtful, pointing out that such riding projections are based mostly on national polls and historic regional data (which site founder Eric Grenier frequently stresses). In the case of Lethbridge and most other ridings, no current local polling is available. “The NDP would have to overcome a 30 percent gap (from the last federal election),” Ellis explains. “If we’re going to talk about the Conservatives losing a large number of seats in Alberta, and that includes even Lethbridge, we’d be talking about them being wiped off the map or getting reduced to ten or fifteen seats nationally. Even if they’re reduced to ten or fifteen seats, you’d bet most of those would be in Alberta. I just don’t see that in the cards…In no way is there that type of widespread disaffection with the federal Conservatives.”

It depends what you mean by Conservative

Lethbridge College has been tracking Albertans’ attitudes on contentious social issues for 20 years, and their findings might surprise Vancouverites, Montrealers, and Torontonians who subscribe to the stereotype of Albertans as Bible-thumping redneck bigots. In fact, on issues like gay marriage, abortion, and marijuana legalization, Albertans tend to be as progressive as the rest of the country, if not more so.

Thus the NDP was, if anything, more attractive to a majority of Albertans than the Tories on social policy. And their fiscal platform was not profoundly different from the PCs. So the leap from one to the other was smaller than one might imagine, and it was fuelled almost entirely by disgust with the Tories.

The federal Conservatives are nowhere near in such bad odour in Alberta. And the NDP’s province-wide support is shallow, at best. A poll last spring suggested that the acute hunger for change was the primary motive for 93 percent of those who voted NDP. Notley certainly enjoyed a pleasant honeymoon with voters through the rest of the spring and much of the summer but, after a barrage of bad economic news and weeks of Harper needling, the joy may be seeping out of the marriage.

At a premiers’ conference earlier this year she was accused of giving Quebec a veto over the proposed Canada East pipeline. The appointments of ten of 12 cabinet chiefs of staff from outside the province, including a couple with long histories of lobbying against the oilsands and pipelines, went down very badly. This month she was forced to climb down from comments regarding Alberta’s environmental record, where she likened her home province to “the embarrassing cousin” at climate confabs. Couple all this with the province’s disastrous economic outlook, soon to be reflected in her government’s first budget, and many of the same voters who backed the provincial NDP may now see Harper’s federal Conservatives as a safe place to hedge their bets.

Flanagan acknowledges it was the NDP’s misfortune to take power amid a rapidly deteriorating provincial economy. “You can’t really blame the NDP for things being bad because they weren’t in government, but people may not trust the NDP in difficult times,” he says.

Voters’ first chance to assess the new government’s handling of the downturn came in the September 5th Calgary-Foothills by-election to replace the ill-fated Jim Prentice. Wildrose won it handily, despite a star NDP candidate and multiple campaign visits by the premier. The NDP only got 25 percent of the vote, down seven points from the May election.

Albertans may be flexible on ideology and party affiliations, but the province does have a strong streak of parochialism, rooted in a deep suspicion of les autres that rivals even that of Quebec. Thus Harper, the Calgarian who is prime minister of Canada, is working hard to present himself as the protector of Albertans from outsiders like Trudeau and Mulcair, while casting Notley as their Trojan Horse in Edmonton. “They do not support fairness for Alberta, for western Canada,” he said of his opponents at an Edmonton campaign stop where he went so far as to compare the provincial and federal NDP to the infamous economic record of the Greek socialist party. “But thanks to our Conservative government, gone are the days when Canadian elections are over before westerners have even voted.”

Faron Ellis suspects that message will uphold the Conservative fortress in Alberta: “When push comes to shove, even when they’re not happy with the government, Albertans can say it’s led by one of ours. And that holds a great deal of sway with voters.”

Still, Notley may be on to something when she says Albertan’s attitudes and values are changing. Edmonton and Calgary are the youngest cities in the country, and they are largely populated by immigrants from other parts of Canada and around the world. This has been true for many decades, yet Alberta “exceptionalism”, embodied in its parochialism and Conservative political hegemony, has endured. The election of a majority NDP provincial government could mark the beginning of the end of that phenomenon, but it’s not likely to gain much momentum on October 19.

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Colman Byfield is an Alberta writer and columnist with the Sun newspapers.

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