Counting their chickens

In today's column I will reflect on some of the reasons for the result of the Alberta election. There has already been a lot written that explains the outcome: vote splitting; firing the Conservatives rather than hiring the NDP; and issues of leadership.

I should confess to you that I was skeptical about the polls before the election. "Remember the NDP was supposed to win in BC," I would say to anyone who would listen. "No political party should count their chickens before they're hatched - or before the votes are counted," I said with the confidence of a political scientist who has seen too many elections. Clearly I was wrong; the Alberta NDP was counting their chickens as they hatched one-by-one on Tuesday evening. Ok, I will stop with the chicken metaphor and start with an analysis of the election.

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Rachel Notley, leader of the Alberta NDP, said that she didn't think there was vote splitting in the election but rather that there was a split away from the usual Alberta politics. In some ways this must be true. The NDP's share of the popular vote did increase significantly from 10 per cent in the 2012 election (8.5 per cent in 2008 and 10.2 per cent in 2004) to 40 per cent. But, there is also a story in the other numbers. The Progressive Conservative popular vote was 28 per cent and the Wildrose Alliance Party was 25 per cent, which if added together is a whopping 53 per cent, so I don't think we should get too excited about a social democratic wave hitting Alberta quite yet. Fully half of those who voted support a right-of-centre government. Moreover, if you look riding-by-riding many of the NDP wins occurred in constituencies where it seems that the vote did split.

However we should not dismiss the 40 per cent popular vote number for the NDP because clearly there is a message in the vote. Who do you punish when a thriving economy suddenly takes a turn for the worse? Well Jim Prentice thought it was Albertans whom he told to "look in the mirror." As Jen Gerson pointed out in an article in the National Post: "[Jim Prentice said] Albertans had been enjoying the oil-plumped fruits of government spending for far too long... This may be true, [she writes] but it failed to acknowledge that the actual controllers of that spending have been, for two generations, the PCs themselves. The only action Albertans need to look in the mirror about is the habit of voting PCs to power." I would add to this that the "look in the mirror" comment is kind of like saying to your kid that they shouldn't have taken advantage of the private lessons you offered them now that you have gone bankrupt. You can't help wondering if the vote for the NDP was just an angry response to comments that simply infuriated the electorate.

Another interesting thing about the NDP win is the parallels that have been drawn to the Bob Rae win in Ontario in 1990. Rachel Notley has already addressed the concern that she will not create another Bob Rae moment. She told the Calgary Herald editorial board: "I find it irritating that the NDP ...always have to account for the Bob Rae government's fiscal challenges...[In] Ontario, it was bad, but the NDP always get tarred for it, even though Bob Rae has since moved over to the Liberals." Two things are interesting about this comment. First, most social democratic parties have moved away from overspending as a matter of course. The new reality of politics is that big government and big taxes are hard sells on both side of the political spectrum. Notley appears to know that her longevity will be measured by her austerity even if that austerity exists in a social democratic framework. Second, I think it is very interesting that pundits seem to be sending out warning bells to the federal Conservative party: "Is the base slipping? Should there be fear that this Alberta election means that the Conservatives will find themselves third place in a clean sweep of Parliament?" These are important questions but I think that the pundits should be warning the federal Liberals to be worried about the Orange Crush in Alberta. It is not that I think Albertans will vote Liberal in a federal election but rather that the NDP seems to be viewed as the alternate political choice.

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