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Alberta Politics

Nick Taylor was a giant in Alberta politics

He was never Premier of Alberta or even Leader of the Official Opposition, but Nick Taylor was a giant in Alberta politics nonetheless. The quick-witted oilman-turned-politican with swept-back silver hair and a droopy moustache was a fixture on the political scene for more than three decades and was probably one of the most persistent and determined politicians in our province’s recent history.

Taylor passed away last Saturday at the Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary at the age of 92.

The Liberal Party’s voice in the wilderness

Nick Taylor Calgary-Centre Liberal candidate 1968 election Canada
A campaign poster from Nick Taylor’s campaign in Calgary-Centre in 1968.

Beginning his political career as a Liberal Party activist, with a stint as a trustee on the Calgary Separate School Board and a bid for City Council in 1964, Taylor made his first foray into federal electoral politics in 1968, nearly winning a seat in the House of Commons in the original Trudeaumania. He finished 301 votes behind long-time Progressive Conservative Douglas Harkness in Calgary-Centre. He placed further back in a second attempt in the 1972 election, but that was only the start of his political career.

Taylor jumped into provincial politics in 1974, defeating Edmontonian John Borger to win the leadership of the seatless Alberta Liberal Party. The party had been without an MLA in the Legislature since MLA Bill Dickie crossed the floor to join the Lougheed PC’s in 1969 (Taylor was Dickie’s campaign manager when he was first elected to the Assembly in 1963).

Appreciating some of the frustration expressed by some Albertans with the federal government at the time, Taylor told the Globe & Mail that Robert Stanfield‘s Tories might win the 1974 election. “Then,” he said, “I’m rid of the albatross of having to explain every asinine move Ottawa makes.”

Pierre Trudeau‘s Liberal government was narrowly re-elected.

Nick Taylor Trudeaumania Dynamiters Calgary-Centre 1968 Election
Nick Taylor and the Dynamiters (aka TNT – “Try Nick Taylor”) during the 1968 election in Calgary Centre.

But despite this comment, Taylor remained a Liberal Party stalwart and a fiercely pro-Canadian voice during the height of the separatist fervour that hit the Prairies in the 1970s and 1980s.

The new leader ran unsuccessfully in Dickie’s former Calgary-Glenmore riding in 1975 and 1979 before heading north of Edmonton to run in a by-election in the Barrhead stronghold of retiring Deputy Premier Hugh Horner. To the surprised of almost everyone, he finished just 350 votes behind rookie PC candidate Ken Kowalski.

Nick Taylor election campaign committee room Alberta Liberal Party
Nick Taylor, centre, stands with a crowd of supporters at his campaign headquarters.

Similar to his near-win in 1968, Taylor’s second attempt in Barrhead in 1982 was not as successful. Asked what he would have done if he had emerged victorious from beneath the Lougheed juggernaut, Taylor is quoted as saying he would “have demanded a recount.”

His rivalry with Kowalski became legendary in Alberta politics.

One story, whether it is true or not, took place at the grand opening of the Swan Hills Waste Treatment Centre. The local PC MLA proudly sat on the hood of the first truck as it rolled in to the facility. Taylor was in the crowd watching and yelled “here comes the first load!” leading to the crowd to burst into laughter.

His next attempt at elected office four years later in the newly redrawn neighbouring Westlock-Sturgeon riding paid off. Taylor was elected by 474 votes in 1986 and became the rarest of Alberta political species – a Liberal MLA from rural Alberta.

He led the Liberals to reenter the Legislative Assembly in that election, forming a caucus of four with Calgary-Buffalo MLA Sheldon Chumir, Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Bettie Hewes, and Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Grant Mitchell. The Liberal Party’s reappearance in the Assembly came just a few years after the National Energy Program mythically destroyed the province’s oil industry. 

Nick Taylor and Pierre Trudeau in Calgary Alberta Liberal Party election
Nick Taylor (right) on stage with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (left).

As an opposition MLA, Taylor brought his quick-witted and clever retorts to the floor of the Assembly.

As columnist Don Martin wrote in 2002, “[h]is most endearing incarnation was as a feisty Alberta MLA whose decade of deadly zingers triggered a no-laugh order from two premiers, forcing many a Conservative MLA to guffaw below their desk to avoid detection from ministers reeling under his verbal fire.”

After describing then-Forestry minister Ty Lund as “one of the finest examples of a Victorian environment minister I’ve ever met,” Taylor stung him with a nickname that stuck for years: Forest Stump.

He also legendarily got the word “cowbell” banned from being used in the Assembly after describing a group of PC backbenchers as having the “longest tongues and emptiest heads” in the building.

Nick Taylor Alberta Liberal Party leader
Nick Taylor poses with the local PC Party candidate.

“His wit made him very engaging and a great deal of fun to work with, but he was so much more than that. The nature of his wit was an indicator of his intelligence,” Mitchell, who served as party leader from 1994 to 1998, told Postmedia this week.

But 29 months after he became the first Liberal leader elected to the Assembly since 1968, he faced a leadership challenge that ended in 1989 with Edmonton mayor Laurence Decore becoming leader.

While trying to fight off his challengers during the bitter leadership race, Taylor described Decore as “Don Getty with glasses,” a clever quip and a gift to Decore’s political opponents that would periodically surface over the coming years.

When the leadership votes were counted, Decore captured 801 votes of the 1,444 cast, eclipsing Mitchell, who placed second with 385. Taylor, who led the party for the previous 14 years, finished a distant third with 259 votes.

Taylor had been usurped from the leadership but he remained an MLA for the next eight years, being re-elected by a similar margin of victory in Westlock-Sturgeon in 1989

But though he was no longer leader, the PC’s still desperately wanted to rid themselves of his quick-witted criticism and uncanny ability to embarrass the government in the Assembly.

Getty kicked off the PC Party’s provincial election campaign in Westlock in 1989, and a committee of PC MLAs drastically redrew his riding in 1993 so that he would have to run for re-election against incumbent PC MLA Steve Zarusky.

Nick Taylor (right) talks with a cowboy.
Nick Taylor (right) talks with a cowboy.

Taylor beat Zarusky by more than 1,500 votes in the new Redwater riding and joined by 31 other Liberals in the Assembly as the party formed Official Opposition for the first time since the 1960s.

As the mid-1990s approached, it was rumoured that Prime Minister Jean Chretien would appoint Taylor to the Lieutenant Governor’s post, but in the end it was a seat in Canada’s Senate that awaited him – a reward for his decades of public service and steadfast loyalty to the Liberal Party in the face of insurmountable opposition.

Nick Taylor and Jean Chretien Alberta Liberal Party
Nick Taylor and Jean Chretien (left).

He served as a Senator for Alberta from 1996 to 2002, choosing Bon Accord and Sturgeon as his Senatorial constituency.

Taylor remained a generous donor to the Alberta Liberal Party and was frequently seen at party fundraising events in Calgary. In his endorsement of current Liberal Party leader David Khan in 2017, he wrote “As a past leader of the Alberta Liberal Party, I learned how important it was to tackle the issue facing Albertans with integrity and compassion. The people of this province depend on you to stand up for their best interests.

Since he left to take up his Senate seat in Ottawa in 1996 there has not been anyone able to match his quick-witted humour and stinging retorts in Alberta politics or in the Assembly.

Nick Taylor Alberta Liberal Party convention
Nick Taylor at the Alberta Liberal Party convention in 1990.
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Alberta Politics

The Battle of Alberta Politics: How voters in Calgary and Edmonton can sometimes be so different

The Battle of Alberta is a term usually reserved for competitions on the hockey rink or football field, but the rivalry between Calgary and Edmonton probably predates our professional sports clubs. While the animosity felt by some sports fans might not be felt the same way among voters, the politics and political divides between the two cities have helped defined Alberta politics since the province was created in 1905. From the decision of where to place Alberta’s capital city to where the province’s first university should be located, the roles played by the two major cities have been a periodic point of tension in provincial politics.

There are many reasons that explain the current political differences between the two cities, from the backgrounds of the settlers who founded the cities to the most recent round of economic convulsions.

As a friend of mine once put it, Calgary is where business decisions get made, Edmonton is where government decisions get made.

Calgary sees itself as the business capital, heavily influenced by connections to the American oil industry in Texas and the home of the braintrust of the federal Conservative movement. Edmonton is the government capital, heavily influenced by a combination of public servants and University employees as well as a base of blue-collar and trades workers with connections to Fort McMurray and northern Alberta.

Poll by poll results in Edmonton from the 2019 Alberta provincial general election. (Map by Shane Smith)
Poll by poll results in Edmonton from the 2019 Alberta provincial general election. (Map by Shane Smith)

These are obviously big generalizations that don’t reflect the diversity and complexity of the two cities but it does help explain some of the political differences between the two municipalities.

While I think the political differences between two two cities can sometimes be overstated, a troubling political narrative that has developed over the past six years has been that because Calgary is perceived to have felt the brunt of the economic fallout caused by the drop in the international price of oil, it is now Edmonton’s turn to feel the economic pain (translation: public sector wage rollbacks and job cuts).

There is an old saying in Alberta politics that a party has to win most of the seats in two of the three political regions of the province in order to form government – Calgary, Edmonton or rural Alberta. The “rural Alberta” in this calculation includes the small and medium size cities, which, with the exception of Lethbridge, have in the past four decades mostly voted in sync with the rest of rural Alberta – conservative.

But the calculation is generally correct. With a combined 46 seats in the Legislature, the two large cities represent the majority of Alberta voters (I hope to write more about voting patterns in “rural Alberta” in a future article).

This year marks one year since the United Conservative Party won the 2019 election and five years since the New Democratic Party won the 2015 election, undeniably two of the most important elections in Alberta’s recent political history. The two votes marked the first changes in government in Alberta since 1971, and both highlighted the political differences between Calgary and Edmonton.

The Progressive Conservatives had dominated Calgary since 1971 but in 2015 a combination of a surge of votes and the first-past-the-post electoral system allowed the NDP to elect 15 MLAs with 34 percent of the vote. The PCs earned 31 percent and the Wildrose placed third with 23 percent in Alberta’s largest city.

Poll by poll results in Calgary from the 2019 Alberta provincial general election. (Map by Shane Smith)
Poll by poll results in Calgary from the 2019 Alberta provincial general election. (Map by Shane Smith)

The 2015 election marked the first time since 1989 that the NDP had elected an MLA in Calgary and the first time since 1967 that a party other than the PCs won a majority of seats in the city.

While many prominent conservative pundits and politicians claimed the NDP breakthrough in Calgary, and much of the rest of Alberta, was a result of a vote-split on the political right, a closer look at that election would support the argument that the vote split was actually between the NDP and Wildrose among voters unhappy with the 43-year governing PC Party dynasty.

Edmonton has earned the nickname Redmonton for its reputation for electing more Liberals and NDP MLAs than anywhere else in the province. But despite the nickname, the capital city is historically more electorally competitive than it is an opposition bastion. Voters in the capital city have swung between parties more frequently than any other region in Alberta, making it one of the few consistently competitive areas of the province.

Led by Edmonton-Strathcona MLA Rachel Notley, the NDP swept the city in 2015, earning 65 percent of the total vote and winning every seat. The PCs earned 20 percent and the Wildrose finished with 8 percent in the capital city.

As one local PC Party campaign manager described to me after the 2015 election, their candidate faced “a giant impenetrable wall of orange.”

Provincial voting results in Edmonton from 1982 to 2019.
Provincial voting results in Edmonton from 1982 to 2019.

Four years later in 2019, the NDP maintained its vote share in Calgary but were only able to elect three MLAs as the UCP succeeded in consolidating the large base of PC and Wildrose voters, though a number of UCP candidates earned below the combined totals from the previous election. The NDP earned 34 percent of the vote and the UCP, led by Calgary-Lougheed MLA Jason Kenney, amassed 53 percent and elected 23 MLAs.

The seats won by Calgary NDP MLAs in the 2019 election have a tradition of electing non-conservative MLAs. Calgary-Buffalo and Calgary-Mountain View elected Liberals and NDP MLAs in the 1980s and 1990s, and Calgary-McCall swung to the Liberals in the 2000s.

Although the NDP lost all but one of the suburban surrounding the city, the party maintained its dominance in Edmonton in 2019, winning 53 percent of the vote and holding all but one seat. The UCP elected 1 MLA and earned 35 percent of the vote in the capital city.

Provincial voting results in Calgary from 1982 to 2019.
Provincial voting results in Calgary from 1982 to 2019.

The only viable third party in the 2019 election, the Alberta Party, earned 10 percent of the vote in both cities but failed to elect any MLAs. Party leader Stephen Mandel was unsuccessful in his bid for election in Edmonton-McClung and its two Calgary incumbents were defeated.

Past elections in the two cities

The results of these two elections, and how they have shaped Alberta politics in the most recent two election prompted me to take a broader look at voting results in Calgary and Edmonton over the past four decades.

Alberta MLAs elected in Edmonton from 1982 to 2019.
Alberta MLAs elected in Edmonton from 1982 to 2019.

1986: The departure of Peter Lougheed as Premier of Alberta in 1985 clearly had a big impact on Alberta politics, as the economic recession that followed allowed NDP led by Edmonton-Norwood MLA Ray Martin breakthrough in the capital city in the 1986 election.

Calgary remained a PC Party stronghold following Lougheed’s departure, with the NDP and Liberals electing a handful of MLAs between 1986 and 1997, and 2004 and 2012.

The election of Liberal Sheldon Chumir in Calgary-Buffalo in 1986 marked the beginning of a long-line of non-conservative MLAs representing that district. Non-conservative candidates would win in Calgary-Buffalo in nine of the next eleven elections (the district is currently represented by NDP MLA Joe Ceci).

Edmonton became the competitive hotbed of Alberta politics and a deep rivalry developed between Liberal Party and NDP partisans in the capital city.

The competition between the Liberals and NDP in Edmonton during this period generated much discussion around a “unite the left” movement to defeat the PCs, though this perennial debate largely became mute when the NDP formed government in 2015.

Alberta MLAs elected in Calgary from 1982 to 2019.
Alberta MLAs elected in Calgary from 1982 to 2019.

1993: In 1993, Premier Ralph Klein further consolidated his party’s electoral grip on Calgary while the Liberals led by former mayor Laurence Decore executed a clean sweep of the capital city. The Liberals were the beneficiaries of a collapsing NDP vote and also a burgeoning group of Reform Party voters wanting change on the provincial and federal levels.

The Liberals would again dominate Edmonton in the 1997 and 2004 elections, though the party began to resemble a group of independents more than the cohesive political organization created by Decore.

Competition between Decore’s Liberals and former Calgary mayor Klein’s PCs led to obvious descriptions of provincial politics as the battle of Alberta.

2001: The 2001 election marked a turn back toward the PC Party in Edmonton, which would then lose most of its seats when the Liberals and NDP rebounded in 2004 before regaining ground in the city in 2008 and 2012. This period marked the beginning of a decline of the Liberal Party in Edmonton after almost two decades as the official opposition party.

The 2001 election also marked the first time since 1982 that the PCs won every seat in Calgary.

2004: The 2004 election marked a breakthrough for the opposition Liberals in Calgary where the party elected three MLAs, the most since 1993. The Liberals would expand its voter base in Calgary and elect four MLAs in 2008 as the party’s fortunes in Edmonton sharply declined after it regained much of its seats in the 2004 election.

2012: The 2012 election marked a significant shift in the political environment in Alberta with the two large cities coalescing behind the PC Party. The opposition Wildrose Party swept much of rural Alberta, forming the first rural based official opposition party since the Social Credit Party in the 1970s. This trend would continue in the 2015 election as the Wildrose Party regained most of its seats following the 2014 floor-crossings.

(Note: Thank you to Shane Smith for sharing the poll level election maps. You can follow Shane on Twitter at @Smith80D).

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Alberta Politics

Alberta Party first out of the gate for 2019 election

Chemical Engineer Omar Masood is the first candidate nominated to run in Alberta’s next provincial election, which is expected to be held in early 2019. Members of the Alberta Party association in the Calgary-Buffalo constituency acclaimed Mr. Masood as their candidate at a meeting on November 29, 2016.

Mr. Masood serves on the board of the Beltline Neighbourhoods Association.

He recorded a video endorsement of former Calgary-Buffalo Liberal MLA Kent Hehr during his federal election bid in 2015, in which Mr. Hehr was ultimately elected.

Calgary-Buffalo is represented by NDP MLA Kathleen Ganley, who serves as Minister of Justice and Solicitor General. Before the NDP sweep in the 2015 election, voters in this downtown constituency had a track record of electing Liberal MLAs (Mr. Hehr from 2008 to 2015, Gary Dickson from 1992 to 2000, and Sheldon Chumir from 1986 to 1992).

The Alberta Party did not run a candidate in this constituency in 2015.

Alberta Party-PC Party merger?

After years of wrangling over a merger with the Liberal Party, some Alberta Party members are reportedly now pondering a merger with the Progressive Conservatives. This merger feels unlikely, considering the conservative forces pushing for the PCs to merge with the Wildrose Party. But it does raise to the question of where moderate conservative voters and political activists will find a new home if Alberta’s Conservative parties shift further to the political right.

During the 2015 election, a local Alberta Party association formally endorsed and did not run a candidate against Liberal Party candidate Laurie Blakeman in Edmonton-Centre.

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Alberta Politics

With one week left, a second poll shows three-way race in Calgary-Centre.

Calgary-Centre By-Election candidates Joan Crockatt, Harvey Locke, and Chris Turner.
Calgary-Centre By-Election candidates Joan Crockatt, Harvey Locke, and Chris Turner.

With one week left until voting day, a new survey released by Forum Research continues to show a three-way race in the Calgary-Centre by-election between Conservative Joan Crockatt, Liberal Harvey Locke, and Green Chris Turner.

As reported by the Globe & Mailthe survey of randomly selected Calgary-Centre voters released on November 17 showed Ms. Crockatt with 35% to 30% for Mr. Locke and 25% for Mr. Turner. New Democrat Dan Meades was in fourth place with 8%.

Another survey from Forum Research released last week showed Ms. Crockatt with 32% to 30% for Mr. Locke and 23% for Mr. Turner. New Democrat Dan Meades was in fourth place with 12%. Margins of error for these types of surveys typically range around five percentage points.

As I wrote last week, it appears that within a matter of months, the 40% margin of victory earned by former Conservative MP Lee Richardson in the 2011 federal election and 23% margin for the Conservatives found in a September survey of Calgary-Centre voters may have completely evaporated.

It is always important to approach surveys, like this interactive voice response (IVR) survey, with a healthy dose of skepticism. Survey results are a snapshot of the opinions of a surveyed group of individuals at a given moment in time. This said, surveys like this one can be an important indicator of trends.

The drop in Conservative Party support has led political watchers to wonder if this by-election could result in the election of the first non-Conservative Member of Parliament in Calgary since 1968. The potential for an upset has certainly bolstered the resolve of Ms. Crockatt’s two main opponents, Mr. Locke and Mr. Turner.

Chris Turner Green Turning Point Calgary Centre
More than 500 tickets were sold for Chris Turner’s “Turning Point” rally on Saturday night (photo from Turner 4 YYC Facebook Page)

Ms. Crockatt earned mixed reviews after participating in her first all-candidates forum at the East Village Neighbourhood Association on Saturday afternoon. This was expected to be the only time the Conservative candidate will publicly engage with her opponents at an organized forum.

There was some disappointment that Ms. Crockatt chose to not participate in a forum focusing on civic issues and hosted by popular Mayor Naheed Nenshi on Sunday afternoon. Mayor Nenshi penned a column in Friday’s Calgary Herald highlighting the important role the federal government can play in municipalities.

On Saturday night, Mr. Turner’s campaign hosted what might have been the biggest actual political party of this by-election. More than 500 tickets were sold to the “Turning Point” event at Scarboro United Church. The event included a performance from Jay Ingram and the Scrutineers and speeches from Green Party leader Elizabeth May and environmentalist David Suzuki. Mr. Turner also received the endorsement of local author Fred Stenson, who ran as a Liberal candidate in the recent provincial election.

Harvey Locke Joyce Murray Grant Mitchell
Harvey Locke, MP Joyce Murray, and Senator Grant Mitchell (Photo from Harvey Locke’s Facebook Page).

Steady in second place according to two recent polls, Mr. Locke is getting some pan-Canadian support from Liberal politicians. By my count, nine of the thirty-five Liberal Members of Parliament have visited the riding, including Bob Rae, Justin Trudeau, Ralph Goodale and Senators Terry Mercer and Grant Mitchell, and leadership candidate Martha Hall Findlay. Vancouver-Quadra MP Joyce Murray made her second visit to Calgary-Centre this weekend and Mr. Trudeau is expected to return to the riding this week before attending a rally in Edmonton. Liberal MLAs Kent Hehr, Darshan Kang, and Raj Sherman have also campaigned with Mr. Locke.

A fun fact and perhaps the closest comparison we have to this federal by-election in Calgary-Centre are by-elections that have taken place on the provincial level. In the four provincial by-elections held since 1992, opposition candidates were elected in three. In 1992, Calgary-Buffalo was held by Liberal Gary Dickson after the death of two-term Liberal MLA Sheldon Chumir. In 1995, the Progressive Conservative Shiraz Shariff narrowly held on to the Calgary-McCall constituency following the death of the former PC MLA.

The two most recent provincial by-elections saw opposition candidates elected in constituencies formerly held by the governing PCs. Liberal Craig Cheffins narrowly defeated the PC candidate to win a 2007 by-election in Calgary-Elbow, the constituency formerly represented by Premier Ralph Klein (Alison Redford would narrowly defeat Mr. Cheffins in the 2008 general election). In 2009, former Wildrose MLA Paul Hinman won a hotly contested three-way race in Calgary-Glenmore, defeating high-profile Tory Alderman Diane Colley-Urquhart and Liberal Avalon Roberts.

What does this mean for Calgary-Centre? At least when it comes to provincial by-elections, Calgarians have a track-record of sending the government a message.