Alberta (Canada) 2012
Provincial elections were held in the Canadian province of Alberta on April 23, 2012. All 87 members of the Legislative Assembly were up for reelection. Four additional seats were drawn up by the boundary commission during redistricting in 2010. Although Alberta, like other Western provinces, toyed around with IRV and STV in the past, Alberta uses traditional FPTP and has done so since 1955.
Politically, Alberta is famous for being Canada’s conservative heartland, which earns it many comparisons to Texas. Besides the conservatism, Alberta is also Canada’s oil country and the province has been the top beneficiary of the boom in the oil sands industry in recent years, allowing the province to ride the wave of high oil prices to make it Canada’s wealthiest province.
Alberta’s provincial political history is rather unique in North America. Since Alberta entered Canadian confederation in 1905, its provincial politics have been dominated by four successive dynasties. Only four political parties have ruled Alberta, but what makes it stand out is that no party which has formed but later lost government has been able to regain power. Two of Alberta’s three former governing parties are dead (or very close to it) and the other one has been dragging its comatose self forward without much luck for the past two decades. Albertans usually remain very loyal to their governing party, until they throw it out in a grand fashion.
The changing dynasties reflect the changing economic and social realities of the province since 1905. When Alberta entered confederation, it was an agrarian rural western province with a diverse population of European immigrants, Americans and Britons. The Liberal Party, the party of low tariffs and agrarian interests out west, built up a strong political machine fueled and fed by the federal Liberals under Sir Wilfrid Laurier, allowing it to govern Alberta between 1905 and 1921. In 1921, however, the Liberals got swept up in the wave of agrarian progressivism and radicalism which was taking roots in Western Canada. In the 1921 provincial election, the first dynastic change occurred when the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), originally a lobby group for local farmers transformed into a progressive agrarian political movement, defeated the governing Liberals in a landslide. Although the federal UFA MPs in Ottawa sat on the left of the wider Progressive Party, being strong advocates of a radical reinvention of partisan politics along the corporatist non-partisan lines of “group government”, the UFA provincial governments in Edmonton proved to be fairly moderate and cautious in their policy though their caucus resisted party discipline, leading to government disunity in the legislature.
The election of the UFA represented, in a way, the first cry of Western alienation in Alberta. The UFA presented itself as being different from the two old parties, which Western farmers claimed represented their eastern bases at the expense of the sparsely populated Prairies. Federal tariff policy, the main concern of the UFA and the Progressive Party in Canada, was an example of this control of the two main federal parties by their high-tariff eastern bases. Although the UFA’s style of intergovernmental relation would prove far more moderate than those of later governments, it was under the UFA government that Alberta gained power over its natural resources in 1929, a power which had until then been reserved for the federal government under the terms of confederation in 1905.
However, the UFA’s cautious and moderate fiscal policies were no longer popular in 1935. Alberta, like the rest of the West, found its agrarian economy hit very hard by the Great Depression. The economic ruin and poverty wrought by the Depression fed the rise of third protest parties throughout Western Canada, such as the CCF (later the NDP) in Saskatchewan. In Alberta, the third option would be Social Credit, led locally by a charismatic Christian preacher William “Bible Bill” Aberhart. The SoCred’s simple solution to the economic crisis in the form of their social dividends and other social credit theories made them an attractive option for unemployed workers and impoverished farmers who had lost everything with the Depression. In 1935, the SoCreds took 56 out of 63 seats and 54% of the vote, scoring one of the most phenomenal landslide victories for any party in modern worldwide electoral history. The UFA was swept out altogether.
Aberhart’s government was compelled to introduce social credit legislation after a backbenchers revolt in 1937 despite the dubious constitutionality of such measures. In fact, most of the SoCred’s attempts to introduce social credit-type legislation were either struck down by the courts or disallowed by the federal government. After Aberhart’s death in 1943, the SoCreds and Alberta fell under the leadership of Ernest Manning, who steered the party away from its traditional social credit ideology towards an attractive mix of conservative fiscal stability (though Manning did issue ‘prosperity certificates’ twice in the late 1950s), social conservatism, regionalism all under the cloak of “good government”. Manning governed Alberta until 1968, using his personal popularity to win huge majorities at the polls.
Going into the 1971 election, the SoCreds were led by Harry Strom, a capable Premier but one who lacked the charisma or political touch of Manning. Furthermore, the opposition finally found itself an attractive leader: Peter Lougheed, whose Progressive Conservatives (PCs) had emerged from the political abyss in 1967 to win 26% of the vote and 6 seats, most of them urban seats. Lougheed’s rhetoric touched a chord with Albertans at a moment in Alberta’s history where the province was evolving rapidly. Alberta was now booming with oil, urbanizing rapidly and gaining political prominence and influence in Canadian confederation. The SoCreds looked like a tired, old and complacent regime who could not really play to Alberta’s desire for a greater role in Canada or adapt their agrarian third party roots to the urban nature of Alberta in 1971. Campaigning on a centrist platform, Lougheed’s PCs won the popular vote by a fairly narrow margin (46-41) but the quirks of FPTP turned that into a large 49-25 majority over the SoCreds.
Lougheed presided over a booming economy, but his claim to fame in Canadian politics would probably be his role in intergovernmental relations in the 1970s. Lougheed emerged as a powerful actor within Canadian federalism, representing a decentralist and province-centered vision of Canadian federalism which would stick to Alberta and later be taken up, unsuccessfully, by Brian Mulroney’s federal Tories in the late 1980s. In some cases, Alberta found common cause with Quebec but in other matters Alberta and Quebec stood at opposing extremities. Lougheed feuded with Prime Minister Trudeau’s Liberal government over the National Energy Policy (NEP) scheme which found extremely strong opposition in Alberta and Western Canada and led to the demise of the federal and provincial Liberals in the province for a few years.
In 1985, Lougheed was succeeded by Don Getty. The provincial deficit grew rapidly under Getty’s premiership. Getty, like his predecessor, was a fairly moderate ‘Red Tory’ who had some inclinations towards government intervention and deficit spending to relieve a bad economy. The idea that the government had a “spending problem” strengthened the provincial Liberals, led by Edmonton mayor Laurence Decore, who ran to the PC’s right on issues of deficits and state intervention. However, to stem the tide, the PCs replaced Getty with someone who shared Decore’s views on budgets and deficit spending, Ralph Klein. Klein was unambiguously on the right of the provincial PCs and broke with the style and policies of his moderate predecessors. Despite the Liberals taking 32 seats to the PC’s 51 in the 1993 election, the PCs under Klein held on and won huge majorities in 1997 and 2001. Klein, who governed until 2006, implemented tough fiscal austerity measures which would eventually result in large provincial surpluses. Klein governed in a right-wing populist if somewhat autocratic style, leaving few indifferent.
In 2006, Klein was replaced by Ed Stelmach, an Edmontonian, who despite a tough beginning was able to win a huge majority in the last election, held in 2008. However, following the 2008 election, Stelmach’s government grew more and more unpopular. The financial crisis threw Alberta’s books into the red for the first time in years in the 08-09 budget and the deficit kept growing until 2010-2011. Stelmach stepped down in 2011, and was replaced by a moderate ‘Red Tory’, Alison Redford.
Instead of facing rivals to its left, however, the PCs were challenged to their right by the Wildrose Alliance (now Wildrose Party). Since the 1980s, the PCs had faced some fringe right-wing populist opposition, largely rural-based. The Alberta Alliance proved to be the most successful of these movements, winning nearly 9% of the vote and one seat in the 2004 election. Prior to the 2008 election, the Alberta Alliance became the Wildrose Alliance. The new party took 6.8% of the vote and lost the sole seat held by the Alliance. In 2009, the party seized on discontent with the PCs when it won a by-election in a suburban Calgary seat held by the PCs since 1969. A few months later, a political novice – the former provincial director of Canadian Federation of Independent Business Danielle Smith won the leadership of the party. Smith was able to transform the party’s image from a bunch of ragtag social conservative ‘rednecks’ to a more urbane coalition of libertarians and conservative. Smith herself is a libertarian, who is liberal on social/moral issues but clearly libertarian on economic matters.
Wildrose supports a balanced budget, one of its policy priorities. To achieve a balanced budget, it supports spending cuts, a reduction in the size of government, tax incentives to boost investment and tax cuts on individuals. It wants to cut regulations and red tape which it claims has stifled investment, and has also taken a strong stance in favour of lower oil royalties in order to encourage investment in the oil sands. It supports a public health care system along the lines of the Canada Health Act, but has spoken in favour of “decentralized healthcare” and “patient choice” which tends to insinuate support for private healthcare solutions. Wildrose has also promised a controversial energy dividend, where 20% of natural resource surpluses would be redistributed directly to Albertans.
In federal relations, Wildrose has a slight regionalist element to it. They claim, like most Albertans, that the federal equalization program is biased against the province (as a rich province, Alberta does not receive equalization but some of the taxes paid by Albertans are used for the equalization program; Canadian equalization does not, however, “steal” from the revenues of the rich to give to the poor provinces). They oppose federal environmental regulation, the Canadian Wheat Board, the gun registry. They want Alberta to have more power, like Quebec, over immigration. It insists that only ‘elected’ Senators should be appointed to represent Alberta: Alberta holds non-binding ‘senate nominee’ elections – one was held in 2004, another is being held this year, which elects ‘senators-in-waiting’ which the Prime Minister is free to appoint if he wishes.
Wildrose, in a way reminiscent of the UFA, has made a big case out of accountability, good governance and democracy. It claims the PCs have become, like the old SoCreds, an old and complacent governing party which doesn’t listen and which thinks its way is the right way. It has come out in support of free votes, citizen initiative, recalls and more accountability in government. The PCs took much criticism when details about a “do-nothing” committee of MLAs came out: some MLAs were paid to be on a committee which never met. Premier Redford was forced to get them to return the money.
Redford’s election to the PC leadership led to a PC surge in polls, breaking 50% and sending Wildrose down from its 2010 heights (it led in polls for a brief while, then fell to 25-30%) to 15-25%. The gap narrowed with the news of the “no-meet” committee and the Wildrose surged into the lead shortly after Redford called the election. From day one, the battle would be between Redford and Smith, PC and Wildrose. The NDP has remained at or a bit above its 2008 levels, while the Liberals have collapsed from about 25% in 2008 to a paltry 9-12%. The Liberals have changed leaders at a dizzying pace since 2008, their new leader since September 2011 is former PC MLA Raj Sherman. A few Liberals including Calgary MLA Dave Taylor have left the party, Taylor chose to join an upstart party, the Alberta Party, which shifted from a Wildrose-like right-wing fringe party in the past to a left-wing/progressive/green party, though it has failed in its attempts at a breakthrough.
The PCs attempted to play the ‘social conservative’ card on the Wildrose, accusing Smith of hiding a secret socially conservative agenda, a charge which she and her party deflected easily. But there is still a lot of unease concerning Wildrose and social issues, in the wake of the usual controversial comments from the crazy candidates. Strategic voting has gained some prominence in the campaign, as some Liberals may be tempted to vote strategically for the fairly moderate PCs to prevent what would likely be a very right-wing Wildrose government. However, Smith was able to hold her ground in the debate. The polls narrowed in the final week, with the final polls indicating a comfortable but single-digit lead for the Wildrose – enough for a minority government, possibly for a majority. Only a single final poll by Forum Research saw the gap narrow significantly: down to a two-point Wildrose lead.
The result were (changes on dissolution)
Alberta PC 43.95% (-8.77%) winning 61 seats (-6)
Wildrose Party 34.29% (+27.51%) winning 17 seats (+13)
Alberta Liberal 9.89% (-16.54%) winning 5 seats (-3)
NDP 9.82% (+1.34%) winning 4 seats (+2)
Alberta Party 1.33% (+1.33%) winning 0 seats (-1)
Evergreen Party 0.39% (-4.16%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 0.32% winning 0 seats (-1)
In the days of accurate polling to the last second of the campaign, rare are the elections where the results come as a complete shock. I have a hard time thinking back, in recent electoral memory, to an election where the results were not surprising but downright shocking. Alberta’s 2012 election will go in our memories as one of those rare shockers. Wildrose had a lead in every opinion poll conducted in the last week – it never led by less than two points and often led by 5-10 points. All predictors had predicted a Wildrose majority or minority governments and I’d wager that the journalists had written up their “PC dynasty tumbled in Alberta” articles for the next day’s paper. That was not what happened. At all.
The incumbent PCs led by Premier Alison Redford won the popular vote by a comfortable 9.7% margin and won a majority government, taking 61 seats against only 17 for the Wildrose Party. The pollsters will go into mass spin mode soon to prevent losing their reputation after Albertan voters fooled around with them and gave them a black eye, but the reality is that the polls got this one wrong. It might have been fair to spin a 1-point PC victory in the popular vote as a last-minute small swing within a large margin of error, a trend perhaps picked up by Forum Research’s last poll which had the WRP up two. However, you can’t spin a nearly ten point victory to a small swing or margin of error differentials. Even Forum Research’s WRP+2 poll on April 22 had underestimated the PCs by 8 and overestimated the Wildrose by 4. Angus-Reid on April 20-21 underestimated the PCs by 12 and overestimated the WRP by 7. Clearly there was a last minute swing (or else the pollsters methodology is completely off), and it was a significant last minute swing which concerned a sizable share of the electorate. What can explain this last minute swing?
Undecided voters? Polls apparently reported that up to 20% of voters were undecided in the final stretch. It is quite possible that undecided voters broke en masse for the PCs – but it must have been by a huge margin with upwards of 60-70% of undecideds voting PC. It is fair to claim that undecideds did break late for the PCs, with conservative voters opting to go with “the devil they know” – the PCs – which offered them a safe choice. The WRP clearly had some tough final days with the series of controversial crazy comments from its crazy candidates, most comments being about moral-social issues such as homosexuality. The thought of electing a WRP majority government which would have untested cabinet ministers and a large caucus probably including deadwood and crazies probably sent a chill down the spine of more than one voter. Danielle Smith herself might have defeated Redford in a one-to-one direct vote for Premier, given that Smith is fairly moderate compared to some in her party and she maintained a good, congenial personal image. However, Smith was unable to detach herself from the baggage which was her party and some of its candidates. Undecided conservatives went with a safe choice, the PCs, perhaps not as conservative as they would wish but still a safe right-wing option. Some more centrist or centre-left undecideds might also have broken PC instead of Liberal or NDP because of fears of a Wildrose government. This brings up a second point…
Did Liberal voters switch en masse to the PCs? The Liberals lost 16.5% of the popular vote compared to 2008. However, the Liberals won roughly what they were predicted to win. Forum had them at 10% in the final poll, and that is roughly what they got. Those who voted Liberal in 2008 but for another party this year likely switched their voting intentions way before election day. It was clear as soon as the WRP surged ahead that a fair share of Liberal voters from 2008 were going to vote for the PCs, for strategic reasons but also some proximity to a PC party led by a moderate ‘Red Tory’ no less. Polls in the final days did show some erosion of the Liberal vote, which is likely strategic voting, but the Liberals did not overpoll significantly in either Calgary or Edmonton (12% and 15% respectively, only a tad below where they were pegged at in the final days). If anything, it seems as if the NDP might have suffered a bit more in the final days/hours. They overpolled by 1-3% provincewide and apparently their voting intentions in Calgary (where they won only 5%) took a bit of a tumble in the final days. There was clearly some strategic voting by soft left/NDP voters in favour of the PCs, the “devil they knew” but also a safe bulwark against the very right-wing Wildrose.
Strategic voting, overall, likely has got to be a major explanatory factor here. Strategic voting featured rather prominently in the final days, but from appearances it seemed to largely be the matter of the centrist/centre-left minority rather than the centre-right/right-wing majority of voters. It might explain why the Liberals did so poorly and why the NDP did not do much better than in 2008, but, in my opinion, it appears as if a good part of the late swing was the work of WRP-to-PC switchers rather than anything else. I explained above why such a switch would make sense. It is also true that the two parties are fairly complementary (especially in terms of voter base), despite what their partisans might say. It does not take much for a PC voter to go Wildrose or for a Wildrose voter to go back to the PC. It is still easier than a Liberal or NDP voter to go PC. Thus, to do some spin work for the pollsters, it is likely harder to see any intra-right vote switching rather than the usual cross-partisan vote switching between parties such as the Tories, Grits and Dippers.
Turnout was 57%, which is very high (the highest since 1993) for Alberta which usually sees some very low turnout numbers in provincial elections. The fact that this election had much higher stakes and was miles closer than any Albertan provincial election since 1993 easily explains why many more apathetic voters might have felt motivated to turn out. Can high turnout completely explain the late WRP-PC swing? It really is a pity that Canada does not do exit polls which would help us explain who turned out and what their political inclinations were. In the absence of hard data, we can only limit ourselves to guesswork and hypotheticals. The map of turnout shows no clear political correlations, though ridings won by the PCs might have seen marginally higher turnout on balance.
A look at the geography of this election explains the mystery of the late swing a bit more. The Wildrose clearly dominated in rural southern Alberta, which has usually been the most conservative region of Alberta and the one with the most inclinations towards the populist right of the WRP variety. Besides the larger urban centre of Lethbridge (though not Medicine Hat, which is much more conservative) and the resort town constituency of Banff-Cochrane, the WRP swept through rural southern Alberta. By and large, like southwestern Saskatchewan, southern Alberta is dry and arid ranching country, which is usually the most conservative of all ultra-conservative territory in the rural Prairies. Cardston-Taber-Warner, which is the only riding won by the Alberta Alliance in 2004, has the added advantage of having lots of Mormons. Unfortunately for the WRP, there are only so many people in rural southern Alberta. The WRP also performed well in exurban territory around Calgary, including Highwood where Danielle Smith won her seat but also Chestermere-Rocky View where Bruce McAllister defeated Ted Morton, the most prominent figure of the PC’s right-wing, by a very large margin (58.5 vs 35.2). The WRP won only a single seat outside southern Alberta/Calgary: Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills which had amusingly been one of the few rural ridings to vote Liberal in the 1993 election.
However, the shocker in terms of the map was without a doubt Calgary. Throughout the campaign, Calgary – Alberta’s most conservative and oil-driven city – had been the WRP’s urban base. Anger against Ed Stelmach’s PC government until last year had been concentrated in Calgary (Stelmach himself was from Calgary’s rival, Edmonton) and the Wildrose led throughout the campaign, even though Redford herself is from Calgary. In the final days, the PCs roared back nicely in Calgary but still trailed the Wildrose, with about 37.5% to a bit over 40% for the WRP. In the end, the PCs took 45% in Calgary against 36% for the WRP. The late swing was very big in Calgary. It seems as if urban conservative voters were the ones most likely to switch back to the PCs after flirting with the WRP throughout the duration of the campaign. The PCs won 20 seats in Calgary, against three for the Liberals and only two for the Wildrose. The WRP’s Paul Hinman even lost Calgary-Glenmore, the riding which they had picked up in that famous 2009 by-election which sparked the first Wildrose surge in 2009.
The Wildrose, not as surprisingly, fared no better in Edmonton, the more liberal/left-leaning of Alberta’s two major cities. The Wildrosers won about 20% of the vote in Edmonton, falling far short in almost all ridings. Amusingly, the PCs still did better in Calgary than in Edmonton – who would have thought that a day before election day? The PCs still held their ground extremely well in Edmonton, though they did lose two seats to the NDP they gained one from the Liberals. They won 17 seats against four for the NDP and two for the Liberals. Liberal leader Raj Sherman, elected in 2008 as a Tory, held his Edmonton-Meadowlark riding by the narrowest of margins.
The PCs held their ground in rural central and northern Alberta, winning a few seats by narrow 2-5% margins but a lot of others by more comfortable margins. The PCs won Alberta’s oil sand country around Fort McMurray (including a riding where they defeated a PC-turned-WRP member), though turnout in northern Alberta’s remotest ridings was very low.
In terms of other parties, the Liberals managed to not only stay in the legislature but place third ahead of the NDP. In Calgary and Edmonton, the Liberals’ sagging fortunes were locally boosted by popular incumbents in the ridings they held. They narrowly beat the NDP for third place in the raw votes. The NDP won all of its four seats in Edmonton, picking up two seats from the PCs. Former NDP leader Ray Martin failed to win the Tory-held riding of Edmonton-Glenora, but current NDP leader Brian Mason held his Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood riding by a large margin. The most left-wing riding in the province, Edmonton-Strathcona, posted a huge NDP margin – over 60% of the votes for incumbent MLA Rachel Notley. The Alberta Party failed to make the impact it could have made, taking only 1% of the vote. Its leader won about 17% and third place running in West Yellowhead, one of the most left-leaning rural ridings in Alberta (though that isn’t saying much). The Evergreen party, the successor, in part, to the old Green Party which was deregistered after the 2008 election due to a factional fight and missing paperwork, did poorly.
In the Senate nominee election, the three PC candidates placed first (Doug Black, Scott Tannas and Mike Shaikh), narrowly beating out the three WRP candidates for the chance to be appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Harper. As the Liberals and NDP did not run candidates, the Evergreen Party’s sole candidate took 6% of the vote.
This election was not only one for the history books because of its shock value, but also because, regardless of the results, Albertan politics have been shaken up a bit by the emergence of a right-wing rival to the PCs. The cards have changed. Up until then, the PCs were in a much more comfortable position because their main rivals – the Liberals and the NDP – were too left-wing for Alberta as a whole and thus had their strength concentrated in “Redmonton” and other urban areas. Now the PCs face rivals who can appeal to rural conservative voters which remain crucial to forming government in Alberta despite the voting weight of both Calgary and Edmonton. The Wildrose being the official opposition for the next four years gives them a unique opportunity of proving their competence and talent as parliamentarians to voters, time to revamp their image and dust off their brand a bit. If it can do that, then it will be in a very good position to topple the PC dynasty in four years time. If it can do that, it also threatens to further marginalize the Liberals and NDP in their urban redoubts. This election might end up looking something like the 1967 election, when the SoCreds won their final victory but where they faced the emergence of a serious opposition alternative led by a popular leader. However, unlike in 1967 (or 1993), it was not the urban areas which carried the bad news for the governing dynasty but rather the rural areas (in fact, the places where the WRP won were the last redoubts of the moribund SoCreds in 1971). The PCs have become a fairly ‘urban’ party in this election, unlike the SoCreds in 1967 who had taken their first hit in urban areas. Albertan provincial politics are changing, slowly but surely.