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.