If They Can Make it in Alberta…


Last Tuesday, pseudo-Trotskyites like myself got hammered the country over to celebrate the fall of Canada’s longest lived conservative dynasty. Rachel Notley’s NDP routed the governing PCs, and Albertans decided to change their governing party for the first time in 44 years.

The birth of a huge NDP majority (they won 53 of 87 seats in the legislature) in Canada’s Texas led observers across the country to start making some hasty predictions about what this swing implies for Federal and other provincial races. Will the dippers turf Harper from Calgary? (spoiler: probably not).

It’s important to remember that Albertan politics are… unique. After 40 years of dominating the province and picking up a scandal habit, the PCs were ready to be booted out in 2012. The narrative (that I buy) of the PC victory three years ago was that people assumed the Wild Rose party as a viable alternative to the PCs and, at the last minute, realized that they’re fucking nuts. Scrambling to dodge a hickish neocon future, voters begrudgingly sided with the PCs and the PCs – then under Alison Redford – promised to scale back on the whole “being crooked” thing.

That promise didn’t play out too well.

This campaign for the PCs, then, became all about their new leader, Jim Prentice. They needed to make him look likable and competent in order to make that same promise again and they failed spectacularly.

Having brought in a budget that made people feel roughly as though Prentice had kicked their dogs, Prentice failed the competence test before the campaign even began. The likability part tanked when he patronized Notley about how difficult math can be and came off as a giant dickhead. Notley was the most clear and charismatic of the bunch during that debate and the win showed in later polls.

The NDP were in a convenient spot because they positioned themselves as not-insufferable and viable alternatives to the PCs on the left. Since the Liberals basically don’t exist in Albertan provincial politics, you can see how the vote share across the political spectrum should change.

Instead of progressives splitting their votes between the Liberals and the NDP as happens federally and in pretty much every other province, conservatives split their votes in Alberta. This reversal allows a single big player on the left to take a firm majority with a plurality of the vote in the province but also gives that ability to the right federally.

While the NDP did have a pretty consistent spread of wins in the province, they also had the likely support of everyone who will vote Liberal for the House of Commons and some who will vote for Harper’s Conservatives. In the honeymoon period of Justin Trudeau’s leadership, the Liberals made big inroads in Calgary (specifically, Harvey Locke’s campaign in the 2012 Calgary Centre by-election) but that was three years ago and by-elections aren’t the best predictors of future elections because they typically have lower turnout.

It’s hard, then, to predict whether progressive Albertans will coalesce around one of the two options or spread themselves out and guarantee Conservative victories.

A further question that needs to be asked about the Albertan political climate is whether Albertans, on some level, associate the PCs with the federal Conservative party in spite of their being two distinct political organizations. While a lot of authors have been confining weariness of conservative rule strictly to provincial politics, there’s some evidence to say that Albertans do, actually, blur the lines between provincial parties and their most closely associated federal parties.

I’m going to gamble and say that aggregated polling using similar methods to those polls used to predict the Alberta provincial results will probably hold for federal predictions (at least for the province’s ridings) as well.

ThreeHundredEight, who very accurately predicted the NDP majority, noted a similar, but mitigated uptick in support for the federal NDP during the provincial surge. They further noted that while dippers were starting to come out of the woodwork, Conservative party support was declining in a similar way to that of the PCs but, again, in a moderated way.

It might simply be a coincidence but the trend suggests that many Albertans don’t distinguish between party organizations on the provincial and federal levels. Can you blame them? We just saw a campaign in which federal Conservative ministers were going to bat for the PCs and warning the world of the wacky socialists in the NDP: comrade Notley apparently intends to take your guns and turn Alberta into Greece or something.

This association means that every added scandal faced by Harper’s Conservatives will bring their home base closer to the dismay that ousted the PCs. With more information coming out every day throughout the trial of Mike Duffy – the suspended Conservative senator who pissed away public funds and doesn’t know where he lives – Conservative supporters in Alberta might be a little less enthused about their home party.

Even though Rachel Notley has been dodging questions about her federal counterpart, and Thomas Mulcair didn’t so much as visit during the provincial campaign, the effect of the association may still exist and the NDP sweep of the provincial legislature may signal to voters that NDP governments are not just pipe-dreams but are viable alternatives.

Being a viable alternative, however, is a necessary rather than a sufficient condition of ousting a tired government. I hate to end by killing the buzz but the Conservatives still hold a hefty lead across Alberta. There is still plenty of time for political drama to unfold before the election and put the arse out of ‘er but the Conservatives will probably maintain most of their presence in Alberta and lose only a couple of seats to the opposition parties.

But Alberta’s unique. The other parts of the country are separate matters all together.

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