The unrealistic Plan A, a financial framework approved by City Council and billionaire Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz‘s company months ago, included a large funding gap of $114 million that Mayor Stephen Mandel was adamant that the provincial government would fill.
Two weeks ago, a split council vote decided that the city would borrow $45 million against expected future Municipal Sustainability Initiative funding, meant for public infrastructure construction and maintenance, to put towards the arena. This still leaves a $55 million gap that the provincial government has said it is not interested in filling.
As Councillors scramble to find a solution to a problem they should have solved months ago, it is now being suggested that more funds from the proposed Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) be directed toward the arena, looting funds already promised for other downtown projects.
Despite being caught in a leaked video plotting to use Preston Manning‘s Calgary-based Municipal Governance Project to free city council from “the dark side,” Mr. Wenzel uncomfortably tried to downplay the evidence exposed by Global Calgary this week.
The rhetoric is running high this week with President Barack Obama expected to soon decide the fate of the controversial TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline.
In Washington D.C. last week, federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair criticized the pipeline that would ship bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands to refineries in Texas. Mr. Mulcair also took the opportunity to criticize the deconstruction of Canada’s environmental regulations by Prime Minister Stephen Harper‘s Conservative government and told the media that the pipeline would export jobs from Cnaada and would pose a threat to our country’s energy security. Mr. Muclair’s treasonous words were printed in the National Post:
“According to object studies, Keystone represents the export of 40,000 jobs and we think that is a bad thing for Canada,” Mulcair said in an interview. “We have never taken care of our energy security. We tend to forget that a 10-year supply to the U.S. is a 100-year supply to Canada. We are still going to need the energy supply to heat our homes and run our factories, whether it comes from the oilsands or it comes in the from natural gas. Fossil fuels are always going to be part of the mix.”
If you do not find these words abhorrent and treasonous, you may be surprised by the whiplash reaction from Mr. Mulcair’s political opponents.
In Alberta, where a political consensus is tilting towards approval of the pipeline, Premier Alison Redford took to the floor of the Legislative Assembly to attack Mr. Mulcair and NDP leader Brian Mason for their opposition to the pipeline.
“Treason” was the word Mark Cooper, the Intergovernmental Affairs Minister’s Press Secretary, used on twitter this week to describe the NDP position on the pipeline. While his tweet should be taken somewhat in jest, that word set the tone for the pipeline debate this week.
On the floor of the Assembly, Energy Minister Ken Hughes criticized the NDP by boasting about having created a “coalition of the willing” in support of the Keystone XL pipeline. Minister Hughes’ comment was an unfortunate reference to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which marked its ten year anniversary this week.
This is not a clear left/right issue. Prominent labour unions, including the AFL-CIO in the United States, have voiced their support for the pipeline for the jobs it would create in the bitumen refineries in Texas. Pipeline critics, like Alberta Federation of Labour‘s Gil McGowan, argue that refining oilsands bitumen in Alberta would create more jobs in-province.
Also joining the debate is former Premier Ed Stelmach, who spoke in favour of local refining today telling the Edmonton Journal “…it is in our interest to promote as much pipeline capacity as possible to move products to existing markets, and of course, new markets. But to close that differential in price, we need to sell a higher-value product.”
To the east in Saskatchewan, the partisan divide over the Keystone XL Pipeline in not so sharp. Premier Brad Wall, the province’s most popular leader since Tommy Douglas, has trumpeted the benefits the Keystone XL Pipeline could bring to Canadian and American economies. His main opponent, newly selected Saskatchewan NDP leader Cam Broten, has broken from his NDP colleagues and given his timid support for the pipeline’s construction.
The Alberta government purchased a $30,000 advertisement in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. While widely read, the ad was meant to respond to an anti-Keystone XL editorial widely circulated on the internet. The factual arguments made by the Alberta Government in the ad will likely fall flat in this highly emotional debate. While the ad generated significant earned media in Alberta, this one-time ad-buy will likely have little impact on the large debate happening in the United States.
Recognizing that Conservative Parties are seen by many Canadians as ‘weak’ on the environmental issues related to pipeline construction, the Conservative movement is putting significant energy toward finding the key messaging needed to convince Canadians otherwise.
At last week’s Preston Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa, speakers presented their analysis of the Oilsands Pipeline debate. As blogger David Climenhaga wrote, “the most creative minds in Canadian conservatism are applying their brainpower to moving forward pipeline projects – extending from Alberta, the centre of their political and economic universe, to all points of the compass.”
“Our party was elected to keep building Alberta — to focus our spending on the priorities that you told me were important, and that is exactly what
we’ll do.” – Premier Alison Redford in an email to Progressive Conservative Party supporters on January 23, 2013
Premier Alison Redford will star in a pre-recorded television message tonight following the 6pm news hour on CTV in Calgary and Edmonton. The Premier is expected to use the 8-minute address as part of the government’s ongoing exercise of managing public expectations about the upcoming provincial budget.
The budget is expected to include a projected $3 billion deficit, largely influenced by a lower price of oil than including a drop in the price of oil. The promise of “no new taxes, no service cuts” has put Alberta’s Tories in an unenviable political bind and set the tone for this year’s provincial budget debate.
Despite the cries of fiscal hawks wanting to slash and burn the province’s public services, as I wrote earlier this month, Alberta’s revenue problem has already become the defining issue the 2013 budget debate.
Raising the levels of natural resources royalties or reasonably increasing taxes are not issues the Premier is expected to touch on during tonight’s television appearance, but raising taxes is an issue that a handful of former politicians have recently delved into. Former Premier Ed Stelmach, former Finance Minister Shirley McClellan, former Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan, and former provincial Liberal leader Kevin Taft tackled the tax dilemma facing Alberta’s finances last weekend at the University of Alberta.
According to economistBob Ascah, who was at the weekend event, a one-per cent sales tax could raise $750 million in revenue for the province.
“Not having a provincial consumption or sales tax is highly popular and has been great politics, but it denies the provincial government a steady and stable source of revenue through the business cycle.”
As I said on election night, despite her party’s strong showing and newly acquired official opposition status, one of Ms. Smith’s biggest challenges will be to deal with many of her party’s supporters and MLAs who will be disappointed they did not form government. With 17 MLAs and a strong record of fundraising, I expect that Ms. Smith’s party and the powers that finance it will allow her to have a second chance, rather than destabilizing the delicate coalition of fiscal hawks and social conservatives they helped her build.
Last week, an anonymous online video emerged that made waves in the ranks of the Wildrose Party. Borrowing music from Michael Bay‘s Transformers 3: Dark Side of the Moon, the anonymous creators of the online video clumsily detailed the threat that certain individuals posed to the “grassroots” of the Wildrose Party and suggested the chance of a potential coup d’etat against leader Ms. Smith (the video is now removed from the Dailymotion site).
Like blogger David Climenhaga, I hesitate to read too much into the twisted innuendo of internal party politics that this online video delved into. And I would not be surprised if, at their upcoming AGM, Ms. Smith begins taking a more hard-line approach to party discipline, similar to the approach taken by Stephen Harper when he became leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.
For the first time in decades, conservative supporters of the Wildrose Party are sitting outside to the ruling coalition of which they had previously been a pillar constituency. As Premier Alison Redford builds a new moderate political coalition, she will not have to dwell on the every-want of the “Socred Retreads,” as she called them in her speech to last weekend’s PC AGM.
Despite Wildrose MLAs relentlessly criticizing Premier Redford in the media, it must be frustrating for many Wildrose Party supporters to now watch their former party, the long-governing Progressive Conservatives, turn away from the anti-debt orthodoxy that defined former Premier Ralph Klein‘s era in Alberta politics. Without the hype of personality politics behind it, the short-sighted policies of Premier Klein’s govermnent look and feel like they are from a by-gone era. Gone are the days when even a hint of long-term investment was sacrificed in favour of short-term balanced budgets or at-any-cost debt reduction.
Premier Redford, like Premier Ed Stelmach before her, is talking about taking an adult approach to long-term financing of capital projects and maintenance of public infrastructure. With the bulk of the hard-line fiscal conservative hawks sitting in the opposition benches, Premier Redford and Finance Minister Doug Horner are afforded more fiscal flexibility.
Instead of waiting for “cash-in-pocket” to build and maintain important public infrastructure, the Tories are pushing forward with capital financing. Their newly discovered fiscal flexibility could give the Tories an opportunity to fix the problems created by their predecessors.
Can the online campaign 1 Calgary Centre succeed in its goal to unite (or crowd-surf) progressive voters behind one candidate in the impending Calgary-Centre by-election? It is not impossible, but it is improbable.
The existence of a Naheed Nenshi, Linda Duncan, or Chima Nkemdirim style of candidate who progressive voters could unite behind could make Conservative organizers lose some sleep, but that candidate has yet to emerge and the December 4 deadline for the by-election to be called is quickly approaching. Much like the failure of the Democratic Renewal Project to unite parties on the provincial level, the reality of deep-rooted partisan associations driven by personalities who are committed to both brand and ideological are large challenges facing any group wanting to unite non-Conservative voters in this country.
Some supporters of the online 1 Calgary Centre movement have looked past the large plurality of votes earned by Conservative candidates in recent elections and point to the unlikely election of Joe Clark in the 2000 federal election. Keep in mind that Mr. Clark was no ordinary candidate. Mr. Clark was a former Prime Minister, senior cabinet minister, leader of the national Progressive Conservative Party, and he benefited from national profile, a televised leaders’ debate, and broad and diverse team of organizers in Calgary-Centre. Even with all this, he still only barely unseated Canadian Alliance Member of Parliament Eric Lowther. Mr. Clark was also a Conservative.
So perhaps Mr. Clark is not the best example. Of course, the by-election campaign has yet to officially begin and the final decision remains in the hands of voters in Calgary-Centre.
As the Conservative candidate in a riding that has only elected Conservative MPs since 1965, Ms. Crockatt is the safe bet to win (former Mayor Harry Hays was elected as a Liberal in 1963 when this riding was part of the larger Calgary-South riding). But being the safe bet does not always ensure a smooth road to victory, especially when said candidate has a somewhat controversial political past.
A number of provincial PC supporters have voiced frustration with Mr. Crockatt’s politics and her tacit support of Danielle Smith‘s Wildrose Party in the recent provincial election. A number of prominent provincial PCs, including Tourism Minister Christine Cusanelli, campaigned for Ms. Crockatt’s challengers in the Conservative nomination contest.
On September 22, the Liberal Party will be holding its nomination meeting to select a by-election candidate. The three approved candidates seeking this nomination are educator and TEDxCalgary co-founder Rahim Sajan, lawyer and conservationist Harvey Locke, and businessman Drew Atkins. A fourth candidate, who I understand has yet to be approved by party central, is Steve Turner.
Chatter on Twitter last week suggested that political spin-master Stephen Carter was involved in the campaign of Mr. Atkins, which turned out to be a false rumours. Both Mr. Lovett and Mr. Carter were involved in Mr. Clark’s successful Calgary-Centre campaign in 2000.
Green Party leader Elizabeth May was in Calgary earlier this month to congratulate popular local author Chris Turner on his acclamation as the Green Party candidate. An award-winning author, Mr. Turner is the co-founder of CivicCamp and was a board member of Sustainable Calgary from 2008 to 2011. Oil City might not seem like prosperous territory for the Green Party, but I would not be surprised to see Mr. Turner do well when the ballots are counted.
Past provincial New Democrat candidate Brian Malkinson is the first candidate to publicly announce he is seeking the yet to be scheduled federal NDP nomination. Running as the NDP candidate in Calgary-North West in the 2012 provincial election, Mr. Malkinson earned 3.17% of the vote. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair was expected to attend an NDP fundraiser in Calgary on September 21, but the event has been postponed. He will be in Edmonton this weekend for the annual conference of provincial New Democrats.
There are serious questions being raised about the results of this poll, which make me question the results. For example, the regional breakdown of party support includes only 81 respondents surveyed from southern Alberta, which results in an unreliably high 11% margin of error (via @calgarygrit). The optimistic results for the Wildrose Party, which already receives daily enthusiastic editorial support from right-wing Sun media, leads me to take with a grain of salt any political polling produced by this media network.
Most legitimate polls, including those conduced by Leger Marketing and Environics, have shown the Tories with 45%-55% support province-wide and the three main opposition parties – Wildrose, NDP, and Liberals – grouped together in the mid-teens. A number of recent polls, including one conducted by Return on Insight, have produced results suggesting that the Wildrose Party has begun to break from the pack of opposition parties, which is not unbelievable at this point.
Recent heavy-handed actions by Premier Alison Redford suggest that the establishment of the 41-year governing party is beginning to worry about their electoral fortunes.
The release of negative radio ads (which were tame in my mind) suggests that the Tories are feeling pressure to hit back at harsh criticism by the Wildrose Party about new laws limiting blood alcohol levels to 0.05%.
The PCs are deliberately focusing their attacks on their largest perceived threat, the Wildrose Party, ignoring the current official opposition Liberals. Premier Redford’s appeal to political moderates has led to more than a few prominent Liberal supporters migrating to the PC Party, including two-term Lethbridge-East MLA Bridget Pastoor who crossed the floor to the PCs in November 2011. As Alberta’s dominant big tent political party, the Tories will naturally benefit from neutralizing any potential centrist opposition while trying to push the other opposition parties to the ideological fringes.
Email inboxes across the province yesterday were treated a to the “bing” signalling a new PC Party online newsletter touting Premier Redford’s fulfilled promise to hold a “Full judicial inquiry into queue jumping.” Of course, the decision to allow the Health Quality Council of Alberta (HQCA), led by a retired judge, to investigate allegations of queue jumping is a pretty loose interpretation of an actual “Full judicial inquiry”.
To quote Premier Redford’s leadership campaign email newsletter from June 14, 2011 (ASCENT: Alison Redford’s Campaign Newsletter Issue 7):
“Albertans want answers regarding the allegations of queue jumping by wealthy and well-connected people. Alison also wants answers. This week, she became the first candidate to call for a full judicial inquiry into queue-jumping.”
Created in 2002 as a result of the Report of the Premier’s Advisory Council on Health, the mandate of the HQCA is to “promote patient safety and health service quality.” Of course, resistance by politicians to holding a real judicial inquiry is not surprising. Real judicial inquiries are uncontrollable and politically dangerous, just ask former Prime Minister Paul Martin how his judicial inquiry worked out for him.
As the Spring 2012 provincial election approaches, the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Party have rolled out a series of television ads (on YouTube) delivering their political pitches to Albertans.
To quote Mr. Climenhaga, ‘Bad Danielle is going to slap you around a bit now for even thinking about voting for Alberta Premier Alison Redford… while she’s gone, Good Danielle may offer you a cup of coffee, apologize for her partner’s behaviour and try to sweet-talk you out of your troubles…”.
The first Wildrose ad, ‘Flip Flop’, takes a negative angle and could be confused with the Conservative Party ads from the last federal election. Accentuating the negative, these types of ads were deadly for federal Liberal leaders Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.
The first of the two Progressive Conservative ads introduces Premier Redford and the second ad features the Premier talking about the promise of education. They are rather plain and fuzzy feeling, which is surprising considering Premier Redford’s interesting background (including her surprisingly extensive international experience).
In typical push poll fashion, the automated telephone survey asks participants to answer a series of loaded negative questions about Premier Redford, and then respond to whether they would be likely to vote for her or not. The expected results of this push poll should show participants having a negative opinion of the Premier.
Alleging the Premier has supported evil federal Liberal childcare policies and targeting the financial woes of her Chief of Staff Stephen Carter (who is incorrectly described as the top civil servant), the push poll is obviously meant to illicit a negative reaction towards to Premier.
The big question left unanswered before today was who exactly was behind this push poll. The tone and slant of the questions strongly suggested that the authors of this push poll are very sympathetic to the cause of Danielle Smith and her Wildrose Party – and this evening, intrepid CBC reporter Charles Rusnellreported that the Wildrose is, in fact, behind the nasty push poll.
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones
With the coming of a new Premier, the great game of cabinet building is underway and the politicians are jockeying for their positions. As reported by the Edmonton Journal, the competition to woo the new Queen of Alberta politics took the form of hugs and cheers at today’s Tory caucus meeting, the first since Premier-designate Alison Redford won the Progressive Conservative leadership on October 1.
Geography, gender, experience, competency, and political loyalty are a few of the many factors that are taken into account when building a cabinet. The need to put a new face on the cabinet will certainly leave some veteran MLAs mispleased with the appointments, which are expected to take place next week. Two position are already assured to Doug Horner as Deputy Premier and Dave Hancock as House leader.
Idle speculation over coffee (or mead and meat if we were in King’s Landing) with David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, led to the creation of three speculative lists of “who’s in” the cabinet, “too soon to tell” what their future is, and “who’s out” the next provincial cabinet.
The first two of the three groups are listed below and are our contribution to what is sure to be at the centre of debate among members of Premier Redford’s transition team. The third group, which I will not list on this blog, we hope will be chaired by the always affable and cheery hopefully-soon-to-be-former cabinet minister Ron Liepert.
Doug Horner – Spruce Grove-Sturgeon-St. Albert (Already announced Deputy Premier, could be appointed Finance Minister) Dave Hancock – Edmonton-Whitemud (Already appointed as House Leader) Ted Morton – Foothills-Rockyview (lock the gun cabinet, keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer) Ray Danyluk – Lac La Biche-St. Paul (Flexed his political muscle by drawing largest vote in his constituency in the PC leadership contest) Robin Campbell – West Yellowhead Dave Rodney – Calgary-Lougheed Cal Dallas – Red Deer-South (from Red Deer and not Mary Ann Jablonski) Kyle Fawcett – Calgary-North Hill (Supported Doug Griffiths on the first ballot and Redford on the second ballot) Yvonne Fritz – Calgary-Cross (competent cabinet minister) Jack Hayden – Drumheller-Stettler (to satisfy the rural vote) Cindy Ady – Calgary-Shaw (to satisfy the Mormon vote) Jeff Johnson – Athabasca-Redwater (New blood) Art Johnston – Calgary-Hays (rewarded for being the only MLA to support Redford on the first ballot) Diana McQueen – Drayton Valley-Calmar (Supported Horner and is a rising star in the PC caucus) Frank Oberle – Peace River (Stays in Solicitor General) Verlyn Olsen – Wetaskiwin-Camrose (Justice Minister) Luke Ouellette – Innisfail-Sylvan Lake (hugged Redford at today’s caucus meeting) Janice Sarich – Edmonton-Decore (Education Minister)
Too soon to tell
Thomas Lukaszuk – Edmonton-Castle Downs Lloyd Snelgrove – Vermilion-Lloydminster Doug Elniski – Edmonton-Calder (supported Redford, but has made questionable comments on women’s rights) Greg Weadick – Lethbridge-West Len Webber – Calgary-Foothills Manmeet Bhullar – Calgary-Montrose Genia Leskiw – Bonnyville-Cold Lake Lindsay Blackett – Calgary-North West Gene Zwozdesky – Edmonton-Mill Creek (the fixer)
Will all these MLAs make into the provincial cabinet next week? Perhaps not, but it is always fun to speculate what might come next in the increasingly interesting the game of politics in Alberta…
Sherman – energetic, intelligent, charismatic – could prove to be a political white knight riding to the Liberals’ rescue. Or Sherman – inexperienced, mercurial, impetuous – could yet prove to be one of the horsemen of the apocalypse.
Simply put, Dr. Sherman is a mixed-bag. (Don Braid, David Climenhaga, and Maurice Tougas have all penned opinions on what Dr. Sherman’s acendency to the leadership might mean for Alberta’s Official Opposition party).
Former Tory MLA Dr. Sherman will walk into his new office as the Leader of the Official Opposition this week surrounded by an eight MLA Liberal caucus, which has had a tense relationship with its leaders since the 2008 general election. The caucus includes two of his leadership competitors (Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman and Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Hugh MacDonald) and two of the party’s former leaders (Calgary-Mountain View MLA David Swann and Edmonton-Riverview MLA Kevin Taft). Of the group of eight, two (Dr. Taft and Calgary-Varsity MLA Harry Chase) are planning to retire at the next election.
The Big Four
It is my experience that the Chief of Staff, Caucus Communications Director, Party President, and Party Executive Director are four key positions that a Liberal party leader needs support from in order to successfully command the leadership of the party. Two of these positions are about to be vacated.
As noted in a recently Globe & Mail article, Erick Ambtman has resigned as President. Corey Hogan, executive director since 2009, has announced his plans to move on to future challenges. Chief of Staff Rick Miller, a former MLA and nominated candidate in Edmonton-Rutherford, may want to focus his energies on his election campaign. In his short time in the job, Communications Director Brian Leadbetter has proven to be an effective communication manager in a position that has turned into a rotating door over the past few years.
The Liberals need a ground game
While only around a paltry 8,600 out of almost 27,000 eligible voters actually participated in the leadership vote, the party is still left with a vast list of almost 30,000 potential volunteers, sign locations, and voters to help them in the next provincial election. One of the areas that Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Payne stressed during the leadership campaign was the need for the Liberals to build their strength on the ground.
Currently, the Liberals do not have functional organizations in most constituencies across the province, including in constituencies that they held up until the 2008 election. The lack of local organization and funds will pose a challenge in finding credible candidates to run in an expected fall 2011 or spring 2012 general election.
A significant number of the party’s staunch loyalists supported Mr. MacDonald’s candidacy and his criticisms of the open voting leadership process. Many of these Liberals were furious at former leader Dr. Swann’s attempts to cooperate with other opposition parties in response to his party’s shrinking political fortunes. Dr. Sherman will need to mend fences with this sometimes unreasonable group of stalwarts while cementing his own activists into the party ranks.
It will also be interesting to see if right-wing leadership candidate Bill Harvey remains in the Liberal Party (it is suspected that he may join the Wildrose Party). The two-time candidate, who was supported by right-wing agitator Craig Chandler, earned 7% of the vote in this contest.
Of interesting note, party Vice-President (Policy) Debbie Cavaliere challenged Dr. Sherman for the PC nomination in 2007 and later ran as the Liberal candidate against him in the 2008 general election.
The Progressive Conservatives will be voting for the first ballot in their leadership contest on September 17. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, then a second ballot with the top three candidates will be held on October 1. The victor of that leadership contest will determine the tone and calendar of the next provincial election, which many political watchers are expecting to be held later this fall or early next spring.
Since 2010, the Wildrose Party led by Danielle Smith have moved into second place in the polls, with the NDP led by Brian Mason are competing with the Liberals for third place. The question is whether Dr. Sherman’s star power can write the Liberals back into the political narrative they have been largely absent from over the past two years.
There is also the question of what effect Dr. Sherman’s victory will have on the new Alberta Party, which continues to organize, but has dropped to a lower-profile since Hinton Mayor Glenn Taylor was chosen as its leader earlier this year.
In a matter of three hours, a group of 120 Liberal Party members re-wrote portions of their party’s constitution and threw out the only recently approved rules for their just started leadership contest. I commented on the changes soon after they were proposed two weeks ago and while I do not believe that the Liberal Party will find an easy solution to the problems they face in these changes, it may be a move in the right direction.
The structural change that appears to have attracted the most attention was the move to give supporters who do not want to pay $5 to purchase a party membership a vote in the leadership contest (this appears to be similar to what the New Brunswick Liberal Party does, except that party only collects $5 if a member wants a membership card to carry around in their wallet). This change attracted general scepticism from political watchers like David Climenhaga and former Edmonton-Meadowlark Liberal MLA Maurice Tougas.
Only a completely politically inept person would believe that a $5 fee is what has been stopping Albertans from flocking en-masse into the Liberal Party ranks, but that is not what this is really about.
From an organization standpoint, the changes are about collecting contact information from existing or future supporters and then trying to draw this new blood into the party, something that it desperately needs.
The Liberals announced the changes one day after the Alberta Party chose Glenn Taylor as their new leader. Liberals will boast that their leadership contest will attract more involvement than the lower-key Alberta Party contest and they are likely to be right. There were 8,000 Liberal members eligible to vote in that party’s 2008 contest, a number that the Liberals should be able to recreate in 2011.
If anything, the Liberals should be hoping for numbers closer to the 25,000 members that the Wildrose Alliance has grown to since electing Danielle Smith as their leader in 2009.
Even if someone were to offer me good odds, I would be hesitant to bet on who the real players will be in the next provincial election.
As David Climenhaga recently pointed out, although credible polls continue to show the Progressive Conservatives ahead in voter support, the media has continued to frame Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Alliance as the heir’s to the Legislative throne. For the most part, the free ride has continued.
The focus of the weekend convention is policy, but the big news could be financial. The Alberta Liberal Party is expected to announce shortly that their outstanding debt, much of which was accumulated during their disastrous 2001 election campaign, will finally be paid off. This is a big step for the Liberals, but it is only one of the many challenges facing their organization.
I have been accused by both MLAs and some party loyalists of having an anti-Liberal bent on this blog (one MLA even accused me of conspiring with the NDP) and while I admit to being critical of the Liberal Party, I believe that my assessments have been fair. As someone who was involved with the Liberal Party for many years, including time as a constituency vice-president and a political staffer, I am aware of the political strengths and psychological weaknesses of that organization.
The Liberal Party is in an interesting situation. They might be a beneficiary of a PC-Wildrose vote split in some Edmonton and Calgary constituencies in the next election, but their membership has not exactly been flooded by progressives afraid of the two conservative parties. The departure of MLA Dave Taylor and Kent Hehr‘s decision to run in Calgary’s Mayoral election is not a ringing endorsement of the party’s current fortunes. Can the party attract back into their ranks the sizeable group of Liberals who joined disenchanted Red Tories, moderate New Democrats, and former central Albertan Greens under the new Alberta Party banner? They have been low key, but since March, the Alberta Party has held almost 100 Big Listen meetings across the province.
You do not have to spend too much time inside the Liberal Party to become aware of how iconized the 1993 election is in the minds of party activists. As many Albertans will remember, that election saw former Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore lead the Liberals to their best showing in decades by winning 39% of the vote and forming official opposition by electing 32 MLAs.
Much of the traditional Liberal motto against large-scale change within their party – especially a name change – has centered around the 1993 vote. “We won 32 seats under Decore and we can do it again,” is something that I have heard countless times. There is no doubt that 17 years ago the Liberals launched an impressive campaign with a slate of candidates who were “ready to govern.” It would be difficult to argue that has been the case since. The Liberals have cultivated reliable support in a handful of constituencies in Calgary, Edmonton, and Lethbridge, but they have had a very difficult time growing their base of support. In most rural areas, the Liberals have run paper candidates in the past three elections, ceding a growing number of constituencies to the PC hegemony.
The decision by the Liberal Party years ago to focus resources on urban areas has opened up the potential of rural success to the Wildrose Alliance, whose leader Ms. Smith has spent months traveling to rural communities and smaller cities meeting with any group that will have her. Her party is now reaping the benefits of gaining media attention from local weekly newspapers, organizing constituency associations, and attracting large crowds to their town hall meetings. Imagine what the political map would look like after the 2011/2012 election if Alberta had an opposition party that could elect candidates in both rural and urban constituencies.
Both the Liberals and NDP have been frustrated by their lack of traction in the polls (and in elections), but neither party appears prepared to change gears to face this reality. Liberal leader David Swann has held town hall meetings across Alberta, as has NDP leader Brian Mason, but there is little evidence that this will lead to an even mediocre rural breakthrough for either party. This is probably less the fault of the current leadership and more the fault of a tradition of political tactics focused on weekly issues and electoral strategies focused on urban enclaves (and the influence of their federal party cousins).
It is difficult to believe that these parties once had long-time MLAs who represented rural constituencies. NDP leader Grant Notley represented the sprawling Spirit River-Fairview from 1971 to 1984. Liberal leader Nick Taylor represented Westlock-Sturgeon and Redwater from 1986 to 1996. Premier Ed Stelmach defeated two-term Vegreville NDP MLA Derek Fox in 1993. The last time either of these two parties elected a candidate in rural Alberta was in 1997 when Liberal MLA Colleen Soetaert was re-elected in Spruce Grove-Sturgeon-St. Albert.
If the Liberal Party is successful in building a policy platform that appeals beyond their traditional base of supporters, will they have an organization on the ground that can translate it into electoral results? Even if they have all the best policy ideas in the world, without feet on the ground it will be very difficult – even with a potential vote split on the right – to reach beyond their traditional base of supporters in this province.
(I will be attending parts of this weekend’s Liberal convention as a media observer, including federal Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella‘s keynote address. Look for updates on this blog and on twitter at @davecournoyer)
In his most recent blog post and column in the Saint City News, David Climenhaga (aka Perfesser Dave) pointed out five main challenges that the new Alberta Party faces in becoming relevant in the 2012 election. It is a good list and these challenges do not face the new Alberta Party alone. Mr. Climenhaga is also accurate in describing the challenges facing the other opposition parties in Alberta.
For all the talk of vote-splitting among the opposition parties, the political field is really not that crowded. In 2008, over 60% of Albertans stayed away from the polls, which signals that Albertans are hardly overflowing the polling stations to split votes. Even the electoral equations provided by the Democratic Renewal Project show that a merger of Liberal and NDP votes in recent elections would only create a moderately-sized opposition. It is true that the new Alberta Party leader, Edwin Erickson, is not high profile and is unlikely to be the next Premier of Alberta, but once you step out of the political echo chamber or away from the Dome, all the parties become irrelevant. For all their hard work, show a picture of David Swann or Brian Mason to a random person on the street, and you will likely get a puzzled look.
Voter Turnout versus Eligible Voters (Alberta 1975-2008) Total Vote: Party Breakdown (Alberta 1971-2008)
Mr. Climenhaga claimed that the Alberta Party is a group of “self-important yuppified professionals who would like to go straight into power.” I have met with some of the organizers of the new Alberta Party and some of them are even good friends of mine. I can attest that while they are ambitious (and perhaps a bit naive), they are not what Mr. Climenhaga describes.
I have spoken with many Liberals and New Democrats who remain befuddled as to why anyone would attempt to start something new, rather than join the ranks of the already assembled politicos. On many levels, the people behind the new party are looking for a cultural shift in Alberta politics. Although they may agree with some of the policies promoted by the traditional political parties, they see the culture of these traditional parties as part of the problem. The Alberta Party organizers appear to be fully aware of the risks of failure and that they are stepping beyond the political comfort zones of many people already involved in other parties.
I know many jilted Liberals and jolted New Democrats who have resolved to bask in the glory days of Pierre Trudeau or Laurence Decore and Tommy Douglas or Grant Notley. I somewhat admire their political stamina and strength (or madness) in the face of adversity, but I also completely understand why a group of young politically ambitious reformers would want to chart their own course. Joining a group that has become content with spending decades in the relative obscurity of the opposition benches is hardly attractive if you are serious about changing government policy.
Building a new political party from the ground up is hard work. The current leadership of the Liberals and New Democrats inherited a base of support and network that has existed for decades. Considering that the party was formed only eight years ago, the growth of the Wildrose Alliance is impressive (recognizing that it did have roots in the mini-resurgence of the Randy Thorsteinson-led Social Credit Party in 1997). It will be interesting to see whether the people involved with the new Alberta Party can actually build something different.
Contrary to what you may sometimes read on this blog, I do not always enjoying pointing out the flaws of Alberta’s opposition parties. I wish they would do better. I wish for opposition parties that were not uncompetitive in half the constituencies represented in the Assembly. I wish for a competitive election in 2012 that will attract Albertans back to the ballot booths. If the current polling trends continue, it looks like it may be competitive, but it remains to be seen who will actually be the contenders.