Dani Paradis and Chris Henderson join the Daveberta Podcast for a deep dive into municipal politics and a look ahead at the October 2021 elections in Edmonton. What issues will resonate with voters and what does a pandemic election campaign looks like? We cover a lot of ground, from Lucy the Elephant to equalization to centralization of 911 dispatch to the souring of relations between municipalities and the provincial government. This was a fun episode.
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The panel, which was announced by Premier Jason Kenney at the Manning Networking Conference in Red Deer, was a relief value to give frustrated Conservatives an opportunity to express their anger at the Liberals and a steering wheel to allow the Premier to control the political narrative around Alberta’s political relationship with Ottawa.
A federal Conservative landslide in Alberta is nothing new, it literally happens every four years. But the latest electoral division reflects an increasing feeling inside Alberta that the rest of Canada does not support the province’s energy industry and a growing feeling outside of Alberta that the province is a laggard on climate change and reducing carbon emissions.
Alienation and anger at Ottawa is omnipresent in Alberta politics, but the separatist threat that spooked Kenney seven months ago has largely evaporated and the crash in the international price of oil and the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of the provinces being able to work with a federal government for financial relief.
Fair Deal Panel meant to distract from the UCPs job cuts agenda: Creating external enemies and manufacturing crises is something that Kenney excels at. The focus on the Fair Deal report and its recommendations are meant to distract Albertans from the UCP’s political agenda closer to home.
Despite claiming to be obsessed with creating jobs, Kenney’s government has done the opposite by cutting tens of thousands of jobs in Alberta’s public service, schools, colleges and universities. A high-profile dispute with Alberta’s doctors, which included an incident where Health Minister Tyler Shandroyelled at a physician at the driveway of his home, has mired the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The UCP is also moving forward with plans to close and privatize Alberta’s provincial parks.
Police and pension plans: There is little in the final report that the UCP government wasn’t already prepared to pursue or consider. Kenney has said that the government plans to implement or study 23 of the 25 recommendations in the panel’s final report.
Despite public opinion polls showing Albertans do not support replacing the Canada Pension Plan with an Alberta Pension Plan and replacing the RCMP with an Alberta police service, Kenney’s response to the panel report indicated the government was planning to study the two proposals. Both ideas are expensive and likely within provincial jurisdiction to implement, but the creation of an Alberta Pension Plan contradicts other proposals in the report meant to break down trade barriers and increase labour mobility with other provinces.
Equalization referendum: Kenney has spent much of the past year threatening to hold a referendum to remove the equalization article from the Constitution of Canada, so it was unsurprising to see the panel recommend it as well. The threat originated with frustration around delays with the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline and the federal government’s purchase of the pipeline did not convince Kenney to abandon the pledge.
In its report, the panel admits that a provincial referendum will not have the power to force the federal government or other provinces to reopen the Constitution or renegotiate the equalization formula.
There is probably no scenario where Alberta, a province that is wealthier than most other Canadian provinces even during an economic downtown, will receive funds from a national equalization program. But the unfairness of equalization is a talking point engrained in mainstream Alberta that is not based in fact and is not going away anytime soon.
The panel suggests holding a referendum on equalization would “morally obligate” the federal government and provinces to negotiate amendments to the Constitution. The same argument has worked unsuccessfully for thirty-years on the issue of Senate reform, which the panel report also recommends the province continue to pursue through provincial Senate Nominee elections.
Although they dominate in federal and provincial elections, Conservatives have less success at the municipal level where candidates campaign as individuals and mayors offices, town councils and school boards have been more likely to be populated with Albertans more closely aligned with the NDP or Liberals.
Candidates in Alberta’s previous Senate Nominee elections ran under provincial party banners or as Independents. Changes introduced in the Senate Election Act in 2019 (which the report incorrectly refers to as the Senatorial Selection Act, which expired in 2016), will allow candidates to be marked on as a ballot as affiliated with federal political parties.
Injecting a federal party like the Conservative Party of Canada and its resources into a provincial vote being held during a municipal election will muddy the waters during the municipal election, forcing equalization and federal issues into local campaigns that usually focus on local issues. With the federals Liberals having abandoned their Senate caucus and the New Democratic Party continuing to call for Senate abolition, it is unlikely that the those parties will have any interest in participating in the Senate election, leaving the Conservatives to collect voter data and drive conservative voters to the polls.
Perhaps the best example of how the Fair Deal report is a partisan political document and not a serious effort in public engagement is this map found on page 52 of the report.
Framed as an East versus West political crisis over satisfaction with Canada, the map excludes British Columbia, where 60% of respondents to the Angus Reid Institute survey in January 2020 said they were satisfied with “the way things are going in Canada.”
The map also wedges Manitoba into the western bloc by listing that province’s dissatisfied number when the survey showed that 54% of Manitobans were satisfied.
So I fixed the map.
The only two provinces where a majority of survey respondents were unsatisfied are Alberta and Saskatchewan, which also happen to be the only two provinces where a majority of voters supported the Conservative Party of Canada…
This is the first major change in ward boundaries since Edmonton moved to a one-councillor per ward model in 2010. Prior to then, Edmonton had used a two-councillor ward system since 1980.
The boundary changes are significant in many parts of the city, including Edmonton’s central and mature neighbourhoods and burgeoning southern suburbs. The changes create three new urban central wards and four new wards in the south that span from more established neighbourhoods in Mill Woods and south Edmonton to areas south of the Anthony Henday Freeway along the southern edge of the city.
The new southern Wards I, J, K and L have a slightly lower average population anticipation of growth in the southern suburbs over the next decade. If population growth does continue in the south as anticipated, those Wards will become more suburban heavy over time.
Ward F spans the North Saskatchewan River by including the southern half of the current Ward 7 and most of the east neighbourhoods of the current Ward 8. This more closely reflects the Edmonton Public School Board ward boundaries, which were redrawn ahead of the 2017 election.
There has been some concern raised that the issues of inner city neighbourhoods like Alberta Avenue could be lost by being included in a Ward F that encompasses the increasingly gentrifying neighbourhoods that straddle the North Saskatchewan River and make up the southern portion of the new ward.
As a resident of the current Ward 7, I suspect that many of the neighbourhoods included in the new Ward F that lie north of the river (including mine) have more in common with the neighbourhoods south of the river than the neighbourhoods north of the Yellowhead Trail.
And in the heart of the city, Ward E would create a new ward encompassing the downtown and some of the city’s core neighbourhoods, including the yet to be developed Blatchford area where the former Edmonton City Centre Airport once stood.
New Ward names recommended
This was the first time the City of Edmonton used a citizen Ward Boundary Commission to redraw electoral boundaries. While the final report needs to be approved by City Council, and is still open for Councillors to tinker with, handing the process to an arms-length citizen led commission is a positive move.
The proposed boundaries are designated by letter rather than by number, as the current wards are, but the Commission’s final report included a recommendation that City Council consider a naming system that is more intuitive to residents than the current one. For example, Canadian cities like Winnipeg and Montreal use named wards, and Ottawa and Halifax use a combined numerical and named Wards.
While the Commission was given a mandate to draw boundaries that could last for the next three elections, to 2029, it also recommended that City Council consider reducing the allowable population variance for future boundary adjustments from 25 percent to 10 or 15 percent.
The final report also recognized the weakness in the public engagement process that was created due to the tight timelines given to the Commission.
Impact on the next election
The changes would undoubtably have a big impact on the next election, and will leave some big questions for incumbent City Councillors and challengers as to where they stand as candidates.
A number of councillors have seen their current wards changed significantly, meaning that if they seek re-election they may need to campaign in many neighbourhoods they previously did not represent. While incumbency and name recognition is a big advantage in municipal elections, the redrawn boundaries could expose some incumbent councillors to strong challenges.
And the big unanswered question hanging out there – whether Mayor Don Iveson runs for re-election – is key. If Iveson does not run for a third-term, it is anticipated that a number of City Councillors could enter the mayoral race creating vacancies in a number of wards.
Councillor Mike Nickel has all but announced his third campaign for the mayor’s office with a series of anti-bike lane and anti-tax internet memes, and other councillors believed to be considering a run for mayor include Michael Walters, Tim Cartmell, and Sarah Hamilton. It is also rumoured that former councillor and federal cabinet minister Amarjeet Sohi could throw his name in the mayoral race, and, if so, he would be a formidable candidate.
The provincial government is also expected to introduce sweeping changes to Alberta’s municipal campaign finance laws ahead of the October 2021 vote. Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu was expected to introduce the changes during this year’s spring session of the Legislature, but the COVID-19 pandemic has likely delayed those changes to the fall.
Municipal candidates will compete with Senate election and referendum
The 2021 municipal elections will also coincide with the province-wide Senate nominee vote and a province-wide referendum promised by Premier Jason Kenney on possible issues ranging from equalization to withdrawal from the Canada Pension Plan, though it remains unclear what the ballot question will actually be.
The injection of provincial and federal issues and political parties campaigning during the same period as the municipal election could create some very interesting dynamics, and leave important local issues typically reserved for civic elections fighting for voters attention.
It is widely suspected that the decision by the United Conservative Party to resuscitate the Senate nominee elections (where candidates will be ostensibly running under federal party banners) and hold a province-wide referendum during the municipal election campaign is being done with the goal to generate attention for partisan conservative issues and increase support for conservative-aligned candidates running at the municipal level across Alberta.