Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Harper Spring: Alberta, the NDP surge and Tactical Voting

As April gave way to May in 2015 Canadian politics suddenly shifted. The Liberals had been in a slow but modest decline, the Conservatives in a slow but modest ascendancy.  However, it was the NDP that made a big move by winning a convincing majority in the May 5 Alberta election.

The radical transformation of Alberta politics appears to have had a profound, catalytic and transformative impact on the federal scene, moving voters from both the Conservatives and the Liberals to the NDP. Partly it is the sheer momentum impact of the victory, but it appears the unexpected outcome suggested to many whose first choice was likely always the NDP that the party wasn't necessarily fated to resume its status post the 2015 election as Canada's third party. Anything might happen and in Alberta it did.

Polling over the past few months has seen widespread movement towards the NDP. The trend actually started pre-Alberta but it was April to May that saw the big shift. The table below compares my seat projections based on an average of April polls to similar numbers from May. The NDP is now close to overhauling the Conservatives, with the Liberals not far behind in third.

The most recent polls suggest something approaching a three way tie in popular vote. This even split in turn has sparked a renewed interest in the topic of strategic/tactical voting (tactical is the more precise term) and the prospects for coalition government post election.  Much of the interest comes from the fact that a significant percentage of the Canadian electorate is strongly dissatisfied with the Harper government. The chart below reporting on eight years of Nanos Polls, suggests that as many as 30% of the electorate rates the Harper performance as very poor, implying that millions of Canadians are willing to vote for the candidate best able to defeat the Conservative candidate in their riding. One can also see rising discontent with the status quo in recent Ekos polls.

Neither the NDP nor the Liberals much like tactical voting; both want to be thought of as the real progressive alternative to Harper. Given their previous lead over the NDP, the Liberals have pitched (and continue to do so) the idea that they are the alternative on the centre-left most likely to defeat Harper. My view is that regardless of what the parties think, there is likely going to be a high level of tactical voting come October. It will be, as it has been in the past, a largely grass roots phenomenon. Previous research I have conducted suggests it is likely that voters will make the appropriate tactical choice when the time comes and determine the outcome in many seats.

There are organizations such as Leadnow that have established web sites to facilitate tactical voting. But their efforts in terms of money, organization and effort will be dwarfed by the parties themselves. It is more likely that voters will autonomously make a judgment based on the campaign in their local constituency. Although I doubt that what Leadnow does will be of great significance, their currently proposed strategy is foolish. The Leadnow Vote Together website says:
So who will be the best local candidate who can win in your riding? You'll decide. We'll send you information about the state of the race, and candidate positions on key issues.
In the ridings where the Vote Together campaign is strongest, everyone who has pledged to Vote Together will collectively pick a candidate to recommend to the rest of the Leadnow community, and then we'll vote together on election day.
Having some kind of online consultation and deliberation is not going to be of any interest to most voters who simply want to know which way to vote against Harper without engaging in a complex process. Moreover, there is a risk that this online process could be hijacked by technologically savvy Harper sympathizers in an effort to ensure the wrong choice is made. While I actually doubt the Conservatives would be bothered with Leadnow, let us not forget that in 2011 someone with access to the Conservative voter database interfered with some voters' efforts to cast a ballot (the so-called "robocalls" affair), so you never know.

Of course, if the Conservatives drop to third, tactical considerations in voting would largely become moot. And that is not impossible; the Conservatives are not that far out of third now.

Even if there were no polls to ponder, one can see many signs of Harper government decay: cabinet ministers leaving politics (Peter MacKay, John Baird, Shelley Glover), new policy initiatives with a last-minute, slightly desperate air to them (new unattainable greenhouse gas targets, a sudden interest in pension consultations, a new small-scale infrastructure program to ensure lots of announcements for local MPs), plus other sources of trouble including renewed interest in the Senate scandal sparked by the imminent release of the Auditor-General's report on Senators' expenses, and last but not least, a shrinking GDP in the first quarter of 2015.

The Harper Conservatives are clearly in trouble. The voters are beginning to stir; spring is almost over as a very political summer beckons. Will the autumn of Stephen Harper's career as prime minister be far behind?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Alberta election and the divided right

When Stephen Harper brought together the old Canadian Alliance with the national Progressive Conservative Party no one could have imagined that less than a dozen years later that a split on the right in his own province would contribute to ending the almost forty-four years of Progressive Conservative rule in Alberta, and that the result would be an NDP government.

Some have suggested that the experience in BC in 1972 and Ontario in 1990 of electing provincial NDP governments means one term and out for the NDP, while others have pointed to the Alberta experience of selecting parties that then dominate federally and provincially for decades. If the NDP does not last long in Alberta, the BC experience is the more relevant precedent. Fragmentation on the right was a key element in Dave Barrett's victory in 1972, and reunification on the right by 1975 was critical to its ouster (the NDP was just as popular in BC in 1975 as it had been in 1972). Already there have been calls for unity on the right by former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith (who now says her actions were naive) and Tom Flanagan, who was campaign manager for Wildrose in 2012.

However, a simple 'unite-the-right-defeat-the-left' paradigm may not capture what was happening in Alberta on May 5. As I noted in my pre-election commentary:
Alberta is more and more an urban province with more than half the constituencies to be found in the Edmonton and Calgary metropolitan areas.... Relative to other parts of Canada Alberta is a younger province. Demographic breakdowns in polls by Ekos and Mainstreet Technologies tell us that the only age category where the PCs and Wildrose exhibit any real strength is among those over 65, while the NDP is doing exceptionally well among the younger electorate.
Sometimes what an election reveals is the maturation of deep-rooted social and economic changes, which have been slowly developing over time, suddenly expressed as significant political change. In Alberta's history the federal PCs started to win almost all of the province's federal seats in 1958, but it would be another 13 years before they took the provincial government away from Social Credit, as the province began to shift from its rural, agricultural character to a more urban and energy focused economy. Something similar could be developing now.

Politics are intrinsically unpredictable. All parties are coalitions that could, under particular circumstances, fragment. A key development in another part of Canada might presage another split on the right. In assessing the victory of Patrick Brown in the Ontario PC leadership contest, Toronto Sun columnist Christina Blizzard (a longtime small 'c' conservative) commented, "Now the tough slog begins. He’ll have to unite a party that’s bitterly divided after a long, fractious campaign." Brown won with the support of both social conservatives and the anti-government Ontario Landowners Association. He was a backbencher with a limited résumé under Stephen Harper. As columnist John Ivison noted in a column during the campaign:
He’s never been in cabinet, he hasn't been a parliamentary secretary and he has not chaired a committee since being elected in 2006.“Does Stephen Harper think he’s ready for prime time? It would appear not,” said one Conservative, who is supporting a rival candidate.
In this respect Patrick Brown strongly resembles Alberta Wildrose leader Brian Jean, now Alberta's opposition leader, who replaced Danielle Smith after she crossed the floor to join Jim Prentice's PCs. Brian Jean is one reason that the NDP has formed the government in Alberta. In particular, he was singularly unimpressive in the critical TV debate won decisively by Rachel Notley.

Can Patrick Brown keep the Ontario PC coalition together in terms of outlook and organization? It will be difficult for him to manage, and seeing him on TV in recent days, one has to say his media inexperience is quite visible. So far, all he has done is dodge questions about policy specifics, while trying to network with far right. In a recent effort to tilt to the centre, he contacted columnist Chantal Hebert to protest his mainstream credentials, citing as an example his participation in a Barrie Pride Parade. It will require a good deal more political deftness than trying to pitch different messages to different audiences for him to progress.

For the moment the political right will be represented by one party in the federal election, Stephen Harper's Conservatives, so vote splitting is not an immediate issue. However, the federal Conservatives have lost considerable ground in Alberta since the 2011 election. From January to March of this year their average loss was 13 percentage points. This accelerated to 23 points during the course of the provincial campaign (it is clear many poll respondents confuse federal and provincial politics). Either way the federal Conservatives, despite representing a unified right, have lost ground in Alberta, as they have in most other provinces. The federal Alberta poll losses mean that the Harper Conservatives are set to lose several seats in the province if things don't change (around 5 if the January to March average prevails, more if it is greater). Stephen Harper is a highly skilled politician, but he is no miracle worker. Losing ground in his home province is looking more and more likely come October and the split on the right provincially is no help.

There are divisions in all parties - blue and pink Grits, for example - but rarely do they erupt in formal party splits. Since the eighties there have been two major splits on the right emerging from Alberta, one federally that spread across Canada in the form of the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance, and more recently in Alberta itself. There is an echo in BC in the form of the BC Conservatives who, for example. registered significant vote shares in two 2012 BC by-elections. While we should not expect to see an early split in Ontario, the tensions that were clear last weekend are no doubt real and will likely endure. Looking west the Alberta election will give a morale boost to a united federal NDP, and its opposite to the divided Conservatives.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

What rough beast slouches toward Edmonton?

The end of an era is approaching. The current Alberta Progressive Conservative dynasty assumed office on September 10, 1971 and has now lasted 43 years and eight months, but its end is nigh.
Alberta Legislature

Proliferating polls during the final week of Alberta's election campaign all point to a first-place finish for the NDP and a majority in the legislature on May 5. Given Alberta's political history of conservative governments both federally and provincially, this could only happen as the product of a perfect storm, an exceptional confluence of events and personalities.

A key factor is that the coalition that backed the Progressive Conservatives shattered with the breakthrough made by the Wildrose Party in 2012 when it captured 17 seats and almost 35% of the popular vote. Attention focused at the time on the PCs last minute comeback in the campaign and the errors in the polling preceding voting day. The coalition of right-wing and more centrist conservatives in Alberta is now deeply split, a fact that may have adverse consequences for Stephen Harper in the fall.

At the same time the NDP has effectively united the centre and left: it is the only progressivee political force with a full slate of candidates. By contrast, the Liberals have nominated candidates in just 56 of the 87 constituencies, and have been led ineffectively by an interim leader.

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice made two key miscalculations. First, he thought he would get political cover for an unpopular budget by getting former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and others to cross the floor to the PCs (the floor crossings did severely damage the Wildrose Party). Prentice also brought in a budget with health and education spending cuts along with sundry tax increases, but none on big corporations, sending completely the wrong signal in an era when there is mounting concern about inequality. Not all Albertans were asked to sacrifice for the public good.

Wildrose tried to capitalize on unhappiness with the tax hikes, but only NDP Leader Rachel Notley could address the sense of injustice that came with protecting the well-off, but asking ordinary citizens to pay more taxes and to surrender access to valued services. Her leadership and campaign performance in developing this theme have been central to the NDP's success.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley
There was one leaders' debate that Notley won decisively. During the debate, she had the good fortune to have Mr. Prentice launch an attack on her that was both wrong and appeared patronizing, when he said to her that "math is difficult". Often in politics it is the riposte demolishing the original charge that has the lasting impact, and so it was here as she instantly corrected his mistake (he confused the NDP's proposed percentage increase in corporate taxes 20%, from 10% to 12%, with the proposed rate of tax).

Alberta's history of voting for conservatives both federally and provincially in recent decades should not blind us to aspects of Alberta that point in the opposite direction. Alberta is more and more an urban province with more than half the constituencies to be found in the Edmonton and Calgary metropolitan areas. Beyond their boundaries lie other urban centres such as Lethbridge and Red Deer whose four seats are likely to be swept by the NDP. In 2010 while the City of Toronto was electing Rob Ford, Calgary elected the progressive Naheed Nenshi. Past voting on the centre and left has given Edmonton the sobriquet, "Redmonton".

Relative to other parts of Canada Alberta is a younger province. Demographic breakdowns in polls by Ekos and Mainstreet Technologies tell us that the only age category where the PCs and Wildrose exhibit any real strength is among those over 65, while the NDP is doing exceptionally well among the younger electorate.

Looking deep into Alberta's past we find that the United Farmers of Alberta, which governed the province from 1921 to 1935, included significant left of centre elements. To illustrate, eight of its nine federal Members of Parliament left the UFA to join the CCF when it was formed in 1932.

This is ancient political history. The modern NDP was originally built up by Grant Notley, Rachel's father, who led the party from 1971 until his death in a plane crash in 1984. Despite never having more than two members in the Alberta legislature, Notley nevertheless took governing seriously.

Many years ago I was told of a seminar organized in Edmonton in early 1983 by two academics that included the leaders of the NDP in the three prairie provinces. In addition to Notley, other attendees were Alan Blakeney who had recently finished serving as Premier of Saskatchewan for eleven years and Howard Pawley, Premier of Manitoba, who had been in office a little over a year. The seminar focused on the problems and prospects of governing a prairie province from a social democratic perspective. Notley was nowhere winning power, but he was fully engaged in the conversation.

This legacy of a serious political outlook and pragmatism is the family inheritance of Rachel Notley and is reflected in the Alberta NDP platform. Jim Prentice's mistake in the debate was based on the glib assumption that it was a radical, impractical document. Not so. A modest increase in the corporate tax rate to 12%, making it just half a point higher than in Ontario, hardly constitutes storming of the barricades. Alberta's corporate leadership would have better spent their political energy urging reforms like this themselves rather than castigating the NDP.

A majority seems imminent, but last minute or unexpected shifts could make a difference. The NDP has the least efficient vote in Alberta (due to its inordinate strength in Edmonton) while the Wildrose vote is the most efficient. In 2012 a comfortable Wildrose lead was reversed at the end of the campaign as Alison Redford's PCs stole a last second victory. There will continue to be both high hopes and nail-biting at NDP headquarters. My estimates of seat count, depending on the poll, range from the low forties to the high fifties (minority government remains a possibility). Unlike 2012 there is no sign of a last minute swing back to the PCs. A Forum poll released on May 3rd stands in stark contrast to a poll from the same firm in 2012 that did report a shift towards the PCs.

Once elected the Alberta NDP will face the difficulties of governing in hard economic times (at least relatively speaking in that province). However, Albertans know well what they are facing. That likely gives a new government some political space.

This is quite unlike the situation in Ontario in 1990 when Bob Rae's New Democrats won power. Then it was the end of a long boom and the full effects of the deep downturn of the early nineties had yet to make themselves known. Ontario's economy was just beginning to feel the negative impact of the tightening of monetary policy by the Bank of Canada and a high dollar, arguably the most important sources of that era's deep recession in Ontario (the Ontario deficits in those years were the effect of the downturn not the cause).

Alberta under conservative governments has lived off its oil wealth when it should have been running its finances approximately like other provinces and using the oil surplus as savings for a rainy day. Rachel Notley's government must deal with the consequences of decades of fiscal mismanagement by the Progressive Conservatives, but she appears to have the pragmatism and common sense to do so. I know these observations run counter to the fiscal reputations of the two parties and conventional wisdom generally. but electing an NDP government in Alberta turns the world of Canadian politics as we have known it on its head.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

The Coalition Game

A revised version of this post has now been published at iPolitics.

Recently Justin Trudeau made headlines when he declared that he might be interested in a coalition with the NDP but rejected the idea because of Tom Mulcair's 'old-style' way of doing politics. By the next day he firmly closed the door on coalition saying he was 'unequivocally opposed'.

When Trudeau declared his opposition he was following a well-worn path for Liberal leaders. During the 2008 election campaign then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion on September 23 rejected an alliance with the NDP, declaring, "We cannot have a coalition with a party that has a platform that would be damaging for the economy. Period".  But two months later he helped launch the coalition that failed when Mr. Dion was driven from the Liberal leadership after Stephen Harper was permitted to prorogue Parliament. As the 2011 campaign got underway Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said he would not enter a coalition with the NDP although he softened that declaration when called coalition a 'legitimate constitutional option'.

As we now know from the experience of Mr. Dion's behaviour in 2008, it is best to take Liberal pre-election protestations of this kind with a grain of salt. It is perfectly rational for a leader such as Mr. Trudeau, occupying first or second place in the polls, to seek votes from third and fourth parties in order to improve his standing.

However, after the election the choice of government rests with an electorate of 338, the members of the House of Commons, and the incentives change radically. If the Liberals are in second place but could potentially, with the support of the NDP, acquire the support needed to form a government their opposition to cooperating with the NDP will melt away. Expect to see Liberal enthusiasm even for a formal coalition with the NDP in such circumstances.

My current seat projections currently give the Conservatives a slight advantage in seats over the Liberals in recent polls but all surveys also report strong third party support for the NDP who currently would control from 18 to 25 percent of the seats post-election, with both Liberals and Conservatives falling well short of a majority. On average the Bloc and Greens together would control no more than 2% of Commons seats and won't be a factor in government formation.

The Liberals must confront the fact that sooner or later without a majority as appears likely, they must deal with the NDP.  Should the NDP make gains and get past the Liberals the incentives would switch parties but the overall dynamic would remain the same. In recent weeks the NDP share of seats in this potential coalition has been rising so one shouldn't rule out the possibility of them seizing the leading role here from the Liberals.

Seat projections I have made from polls dating back to June 2013 have almost all produced a House of Commons where the Liberals and NDP combined would control a majority of the seats.  If the Liberals finish first projections currently say they can only form majorities with the support of either the NDP or Harper's Conservatives.

They would need to define a relationship with the NDP that makes sense over the medium term to sustain themselves in government. They could not  'govern as if they had a majority'; they would need a working agreement with the NDP.

The last time the Liberals had to govern as a minority with the support of the NDP was after the 1972 election. While a recent Forum poll suggests Canadians support the idea of a coalition government in principle, an Environics poll conducted last year (see pages 294 to 299) suggests they would be much more comfortable if the dominant party in that coalition was in first place. However, even if the Conservatives finish first they will be headed downhill with limited prospects for lasting in office long, much like the re-elected Diefenbaker Progressive Conservative government in 1962-63. It lasted less than a year.

The 1972 to 1974 period of minority Liberal government supported by the NDP is described well in a Master's Thesis written in 1977 for Queen's University by Peter Harder who would later become Canada's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, having served as deputy in five other departments. The Liberal two-seat advantage coming out of the election was a key factor in the NDP's decision to sustain them in power.In a confidential interview for the thesis, a Liberal cabinet minister said that if the Liberals had come second in seats behind the PCs they could only have met Parliament if they had a formal, public understanding with the NDP.

The 1985 Ontario election gave the Liberals the most votes but the PCs four more seats. The outcome was a Liberal-NDP Accord.  It would not be surprising to see something similar this year. There is something of an absurd game played between parties and the media about this. The unstated inference the press makes is that it is a damaging admission to suggest that in order for Parliament to function two parties must cooperate. Those who assert this need ought to recognize that in the case of a minority it is a simple question of math. The historical precedents tell us there is a strong chance of Liberal-NDP cooperation later this year.