Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Post-Mortem on the 2015 Alberta Election

There is no doubt that the results of the Alberta election were a stunning upset. Four decades of Progressive Conservative Association rule was brought to a screeching end. I'll do my best to summarize my thoughts on this in a succinct manner.

2015 Election Results, Wikipedia
The Alberta NDP's victory last week was massive and unprecedented. It was the first win like that by a left-wing party in the province's history. On the other hand commentators have noted that it is not entirely dissimilar to the landslide victories that ushered in the rule of Social Credit or the PCs. However this isn't quite the case. The Alberta NDP won a much narrower victory than the PCs or Social Credit Party did when they took power in 1971 and 1935 respectively. The NDP took 40.6% of the popular vote and won 53 of 87 seats. As a person who consistently advocates for electoral reform I should point out that the majority won is as distorted as those when  by most governments in the First-Past-the-Post system.

Something I've heard quite a bit is whether or not this means there has been a sea change in Alberta politics. I would counter by saying that Alberta is not as conservative as people think it is. Edmonton and Calgary have grown tremendously over the last twenty years. The political differences between the major cities and the rest of the province are asserting themselves more and more. Three politicians embody the leftward drift of the Alberta electorate: Naheed Nenshi, Don Iveson and Allison Redford. Nenshi, perhaps the most popular mayor in Canada, is an urban progressive. He may not hew to a left-wing ideology but his politics appear that way. I'll put it this way, Stephen Harper and Nenshi are both from Calgary but they are very different politicians. Iveson is considered by some Alberta commentators to be bringing a Nenshi-style approach to Edmonton. Allison Redford, the disgraced former Premier, was seen as more of a liberal than a conservative. She made frequent trips to Ontario and the space between her and premiers like Kathleen Wynne was not seen to be that great. Governing parties like the PCs tend to move into the centre, and Redford was arguably on the left-side of the party. Jim Prentice was a return to a more conservative PCAA.

Regardless, those three politicians symbolize the Alberta was not the same province that many hold in their imaginations. It should be remembered that our electoral system distorts our vision of Alberta. Before the provincial election there was speculation that the Liberals and NDP might pick up some seats federally. In the previous provincial election the NDP and Liberals both performed well. The overall point is that things were shifting much earlier than just in this campaign.

Two parties seem in deep trouble: the Alberta Liberals and the PCs. They will have a difficult time recovering from the setbacks in this election. Despite the dirges sang for the PCs I think it is the Liberals who are in greater trouble. The Wild Rose on the other hand have reach their historic best despite a bad few months. We could be looking at a three party system in Alberta for a time - NDP, Wild Rose and PCs.

How will this affect the federal election? The answer is probably not much, sadly. Remember that political parties in this country are also highly regional. The Conservatives will continue to do well in the West for some time, especially while its leader hails from there. As I wrote about last week the Alberta electorate was looking for a capable alternative to the Prentice PCs and found it in Rachel Notley. In Alberta both Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair will likely stand as reasonable alternative and so it is unlikely to coalesce behind one opposition. Add in a critical factor, the right was divided in Alberta between the Wild Rose and PCs. This will not be repeated federally.

There is a possibility that the NDP will be able to convert local strength, activists and candidates to their cause and start from a much stronger base. If the NDP are lucky the provincial government will remain popular and rub off on them in a positive fashion. But it is not a one-to-one relationship. The Ontario NDP wanted to ride the federal successes just six months after and fell well short in 2011. An advantage may be that the Conservative Party may feel pressured to defend some Alberta seats more if they appear to be in play. That's money and resources not going to other battleground ridings. The provincial Liberal Party appears to be on the verge of crisis. This will be unlikely to dramatically affect their federal cousins, but it certainly is no help.

Finally, a great deal of comparison was made between Rachel Notley, premier-elect of Alberta, and Bob Rae, Ontario's former NDP premier. I think this is a false comparison. Notley does face substantial economic headwinds, but her premiership starts off much more like Ontario Premier David Peterson. Peterson ended the four decade rule of the Big Blue Machine and helped to modernize Ontario politics. It also ended one-party rule and start the three-party competition that Ontario has had since. I am hoping Alberta walks that path. Peterson's government was responsible for critical reforms in the 1980s in Ontario and ushered in a more representative government. I hope Notley does the same, with greater political success.

So ends a dynasty, but dynasties are bad for democracy. Choice, competition and power divorced from one single political party does a long way to stimulate the democratic process. The long-term consequences won't be known until the next provincial election (and the five after it), but it certainly going to be interesting to watch. 

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