Opinion

The Alberta NDP is probably toast but here's how they could give themselves a fighting chance

The odds are stacked against them, but the NDP could try a few things "to put a spin on the ball" before the 2019 election, says Jen Gerson.

Possible steps to re-election: Play to populist-socialist roots. Kill the carbon tax. Blame Ottawa.

A poll of 1,200 Albertans found that the United Conservative Party (UCP) is ahead of the NDP, 53 per cent versus 29. (CBC )

The Alberta NDP is probably toast.

In making that statement, of course, I have probably created an inexorable split in the probability tree of the infinite number of living universes, thus ensuring that the NDP will win the 2019 election and this column will be thrown at me by future readers eager to prove my incompetence.

So that opening statement must be buttressed by some necessary caveats.

It's a reasonable prediction based on a straightforward reading of an extensive poll conducted by CBC News for The Road Ahead series.

But polls in and of themselves aren't predictions. They are simply snapshots of public opinion captured in time, like an ancient sea snail preserved in a mudslide.

By the time we dig out the fossil to study, we're looking at an artifact of a world that has passed.

Weird politics

Politics in Alberta is weird. Nothing here is predictable and I am often wrong, although I try to be entertaining, at least. But these numbers are pretty damning. It's not just the typically variable horserace nonsense that paint a grim picture for the province's governing party.

It's everything.

The poll of 1,200 Albertans found that the United Conservative Party (UCP) is ahead of the NDP, 53 per cent versus 29. The two loosely defined "centrist" parties, the Liberals and the Alberta Party, round out the margins with six and 11 per cent support, respectively.

Decided voters in the poll are most likely to support the United Conservative Party. (Trend Research/Janet Brown Opinion Research )

That in and of itself might be no cause for the NDP to panic. But the deeper one digs into the numbers, the sunnier they begin to look for UCP leader Jason Kenney.

Consider, for instance, that 69 per cent of UCP supporters said they are "very firm" in their intentions to vote for their preferred party.

The level of "very firm" support among NDP voters, by comparison, was 51 per cent.

The UCP is also perceived to be most competent, by wide margins, on the issues that Albertans care most about right now: the economy, pipelines and defending Alberta's interests.

That is no shock.

What is shocking is that the NDP has little credibility among the issues that should be core for the party: health and education.

The poll suggests Albertans are almost split on who to trust with managing health care, kindergarten to Grade 12 education system and the post-secondary education system. (Trend Research/Janet Brown Opinion Research for CBC News)

More Albertans think the UCP would do a better job managing those files than the NDP.

As John Santos, one of the data scientists who compiled and analyzed the research, noted: "If you can't win on home ice..."

Yes. If you can't win on home ice, well, fill in the blank.

Premier Rachel Notley seems to have acquired some points for her recent campaigns for the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, but not much. It's too little too late and the line looks as much in peril as ever.

Playing nice with a new regulatory regime that places abstract and unobtainable concepts like "social licence" above objective technical merits and clear standards of consultation has resulted, predictably, in political inertia that is costing Alberta billions in lost royalties as the province struggles to emerge from a recession.

Ottawa and Alberta both now are struggling to fix this mess by talking about forking over taxpayer cash for Trans Mountain to buy some investor confidence. That may offer this line a short term fix, but the problems of investor confidence and regulatory uncertainty will take years to repair, if ever.

Pipe shipments have been arriving at a Trans Mountain temporary use site in Kamloops, B.C. (CFJC News)

The economy in Alberta is improving, but not quickly enough. Unemployment levels are still high — especially considering the province's demographics. The real estate market is a death march. People aren't feeling spring just yet.

Notley only seems to have caught her political stride in the past six months, and there is no sense that the necessary momentum will build in time for a win by election season next year.

If the economy remains top trump, Notley's fate will hinge not only on the province's continued recovery, but on whether or not Albertans start to feel more optimistic about how that recovery is benefiting them personally.

'We're a province of populist socialists'

That said, there are a few things the NDP could try to put a spin on the ball, although much will be beyond their control.

Albertans — even UCP supporters — are overwhelmingly opposed to major cutbacks in government services. In the poll, 78 per cent of respondents agreed that "now is not a good time to make significant cuts to social programs such as health and education."

To my personal chagrin, Albertans also seem to be largely indifferent to balancing the province's books. Just 58 per cent believed "Alberta should have a balanced budget," while 38 per cent agreed that "running a deficit at this time is appropriate."

Notley could use these sentiments to dramatically shore up health and education spending and management. The NDP would need to consider serious and flashy investments and improvements in these areas.

Despite Alberta's reputation as a conservative province, when actually polled on specific questions about how the economy should be structured, research shows we're a province of populist socialists.

Albertans are shockingly skeptical about the efficiency of the free market.

Then-Alberta Premier Ralph Klein gets a kiss at the Annual Ralph Klein Pancake Breakfast in Calgary in 2006. (Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press)

Even many social conservatives have a collectivist bent when it comes to government handouts.

The two most popular premiers in Alberta's history, Ralph Klein and Peter Lougheed, are telling symbols of the weirdly dual nature of this province's political instinct.

The former blew up hospitals and eliminated the debt. The latter instituted grand investment and nationalization schemes that even the modern-day NDP would deem excessive.

Just as the economy goes boom-bust, so do our political inclinations.

The case for killing the carbon tax

Government-led programs espousing economic diversification are a terrible idea for lots of economic and practical reasons — but the NDP might connect with some voters by playing to their own Prairie populist roots.

The last thing the NDP will need to consider in the coming year is abolishing their own carbon tax — the jewel of their own climate change plan — and using that as a bludgeon against Ottawa.

The odds of them doing this are exceptionally small.

There are many moral arguments in favour of Alberta taking a leadership role in addressing climate change. Further, the last budget funnels excess carbon tax revenue back into the budget, as the province struggles to achieve balance.

But consider: the carbon tax has failed to win consensus from the rest of Canada for Alberta's oil and gas industry, and 66 percent of Albertans overall think we should get rid of it.

That belief is surprisingly broad-based.

Premier Rachel Notley unveiling Alberta's climate strategy in 2015. Maybe she should scrap it before the 2019 election, says Jen Gerson. (Amber Bracken/Canadian Press)

A full quarter of NDP supporters are opposed to it. Between 55 per cent and 62 per cent of Liberal and Alberta Party supporters also are anti-carbon tax. Those centrist voters are the ones Notley is going to need to win over if she hopes to have even a fighting chance.

Not only would getting rid of the carbon tax remove one of Kenney's most effective rhetorical cudgels, but if Notley abolished it as a consequence for Ottawa's impotence on Trans Mountain, this would send a powerful signal to Albertans, who she is fighting for.

I don't know if any of these measures would be enough to put the NDP within spitting distance of another win. However, as a pundit, I confess I have a vested material and intellectual interest in a competitive and interesting election cycle.

There's neither honour nor profit in an easy win.


Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as we build the city we want — the city we need. It's the place for possibilities. A marketplace of ideas. So. Have an idea? Email us at: calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca.


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This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Jen Gerson

Jen Gerson is a freelance journalist based in Calgary.

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