Campaign against oil. Why the 'also running' political parties in Alberta should take risks

“If Notley continues her move to the centre on pipelines, there might be room for an ultra-left party in Alberta politics," writes Ian Brodie, the past chief of staff of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He has strategic advice for the Alberta Liberal Party and the Alberta Party.

'It's a risky, seriously risky platform. But it could pay off'

The Alberta Liberals and Alberta Party might be able to make headway in the next provincial election if they campaign against the oil industry, says author Ian Brodie, former chief of staff to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (CBC)

This story was originally published Feb. 15, 2018

Let's say the next provincial election isn't already a done deal.

Jason Kenney's UCP is currently riding high, and polls suggest it will pound the NDP out of office, but that election is at least a year away. So, let's allow for the possibility that it's going to be a real race. That race, right now, looks like a two-way battle. A clear ideological divide, between right and left. Kenney vs. Notley. Both leaders are experienced campaigners, and by the time the election begins both parties will be well organized and well funded.

But there are other political parties in our province. The "also running," in the next election.

The Liberals, once a respected force, now have a new leader and want to win back what they lost in the 2015 campaign. The Alberta Party, for its part, is a few weeks away from picking a new leader.

While neither party may have a chance of winning government, just by running they could influence the outcome. At very least they could become a "voice" in the legislature, and raise issues.

But first, they need to find a geographic base. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, avoid competing for the "mushy middle."

Take a gamble

Winning 10 per cent of the vote in every riding across Alberta does you no good.

You have to find a cluster of seats where you can win 40 per cent or more, and get MLAs elected to the legislature. To do that, you need a sharp, distinctive, platform or argument to sell to voters. Something for people who find the UCP and NDP unacceptable choices, or who want a reason to take a chance on someone else. Something neither the Liberals nor the Alberta Party have right now.

Now is the time for the Liberals and the Alberta Party to gamble on some big bets, to take clear and broad policy stands. Right now they're both playing it too safe.

It can be done. In Alberta you can come from the "wilderness" with the right message.

In 2012, Wildrose scored a breakthrough with a distinctive platform that racked up votes in rural south and central Alberta. They captured voters who found the PCs and Liberals unpalatable. And way back in 1993, Reform did the same thing federally in Western Canada, taking advantage of Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell's missteps.

This is good news for the Liberals and the Alberta Party.

Albertans are willing to make bets on new parties and new leaders. That willingness to gamble helped the NDP win last time, and is helping the UCP right now.

But what gambles will the new Liberal and Alberta Party leaders take?

The Liberals

Of the two, the Liberals are the better established party.

Liberal premiers governed for the first 16 years after Alberta's founding. But they haven't won an election in more than a century. Think about that. A century of challenging from the outside.

It was Peter Lougheed's skilful positioning of the PC Party, combined with the bad odour that Pierre Trudeau gave to all things "Liberal" in Alberta, which caused the party to all but disappear during the 1970s. It only recovered after Lougheed and Trudeau were long gone. But recover it did.

In 1993, Liberal leader Laurence Decore, the former mayor of Edmonton, ran to the right (yes, the right) of the new PC leader — former Calgary mayor Ralph Klein. Decore and Klein spent the campaign trying to outdo each other in promising to cut government spending. It was a closer race than we remember. By gambling on a bold strategy, the Liberals managed to capture almost 40 per cent of the votes. They took 32 seats, mostly in Edmonton.

But then, Liberal fortunes turned soft.

They lost more than half their support in the 2012 election, and half of that again in 2015. Every bit of ground given up by the Liberals made the NDP stronger. After the last election, the Liberals had lost their geographic base in Edmonton, where the NDP won every seat. They hold exactly one seat in the Leg. Not exactly a power presence.

But now has come along the new Liberal leader, David Khan.

Liberal Party Leader David Khan is seeking to reform political fundraising in Alberta. (Stephanie Wiebe/CBC)

So far, Khan is known for finishing a distant third in the recent Calgary-Lougheed byelection — the one that saw Kenney win a seat in the legislature. He had trouble being heard over Kenney and the NDP. He's talking up the need to reform political fundraising in Alberta, a good issue for a newcomer. If he can find some government corruption related to fundraising, he will have a good issue.

But he needs more than just "clean government" for a platform. He'll need a broad spectrum of policies that set his party apart from the NDP, and the Alberta Party. And he'll need to make sure Albertans are aware of them. Khan could take a page from Decore and promise big cutbacks in government spending. But Kenney won't give him any space on the right side of the political spectrum.

There's one other big gamble open to the Liberals, but it's one the Alberta Party could make, too.

The Alberta Party 

The Alberta Party leadership race is now wrapping up. In a few weeks, they'll have a new capo.

Their former leader, Greg Clark, resigned last year after a rump of PC party activists, steamrolled by Kenney's machine, jumped ship. There are three candidates running to head a party that few Albertans know much about. That's a serious problem just over a year away form an election campaign.

The two better known leadership candidates are both former PCs.

Former health minister and Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel is well known in the provincial capital. But in the last election he lost his riding in the traditional PC homeland of Edmonton-Whitemud, to the NDP — by 25 points. Ouch.

Rick Fraser, Kara Levis and Stephen Mandel are vying to become the next leader of the Alberta Party. (CBC )

Rick Fraser, a former PC MLA, left the newly united UCP over worries the party was too focused on balancing the budget through spending cuts. He's a reminder of how cozy the PCs had gotten with public sector unions under Alison Redford. But he already holds a seat in Calgary, and the Alberta Party has to build on that geographic strength to expand.

The third candidate is Calgary lawyer and National Women's Liberal Commission chair Kara Levis. She says she's campaigning to bring new people into the political process, which is usually easier said than done.

Will the Alberta Party campaign as Alberta's friends of Justin Trudeau or as people who couldn't make it in Kenney's UCP? Once the party has a leader, it will have to develop unique and appealing policies, distance itself from the idea of being "not the UCP" and overcome a low profile among Alberta voters.

Being centrist, trying to capture the middle ground between UCP and NDP, might be their bread and butter. But as an election bid, it's doomed.

Both Liberals and the Alberta Party are going to have to avoid being what most people might expect them to be: nice, middle-of-the-road, safe policy parties. And time is running out.

The next election

If the Alberta Party and the provincial Liberals both target the centre of the political spectrum, their chances at seats seem dim. Both Notley and Kenney want to polarize the election. Polarization is the "watchword" in politics these days.

And there is a way the other parties could sort of play the same game to their advantage.

It's a big bet. But it could pay off.

If Mandel wins the Alberta Party leadership, the two organizations could divide up the province geographically, with Mandel fighting in Edmonton, and Khan fighting in Calgary. This could come from a formal arrangement or it could just evolve as donors, activists and voters assess the local lay of the land.

The arrangement could yield seats for both parties. Here's how.

Notley and Kenney are locked in a battle to see who can be the biggest defender of new pipelines and more oilsands development. Notley can't let Kenney outdo her as Captain Alberta.

Premier Rachel Notley heads the Alberta NDP, while Jason Kenney is the leader of the United Conservative Party, the Official Opposition. (Canadian Press/CBC)

Alberta does have more than a few voters who don't trust oil companies or pipelines. They might want a "zero carbon future," where the province leaves oil in the ground and stops building pipelines. Or they might blame the pipeline impasse with B.C. on oilpatch bumbling.

If the UCP and NDP play this wrong, and alienate those voters, one of the other parties can take a chance running on a serious platform of moving Alberta away from oil.

That's the big bet.

It's a risky, seriously risky, platform. But it could pay off.

It would require serious and well thought out policies on growing the province without building new pipelines, and expanding the oilsands. There is probably just enough space to elect a few MLAs on that kind of platform.

To make it work, the Alberta Party and Liberals have to avoid the perils of competing against each other. Vote splitting.

Say Mandel wins the Alberta Party leadership. He could take his party to a harder line on oil and gas development in Edmonton, and Khan could do the same in Calgary. Therefore, little competition for the same seats. They could even agree not to run full slates and avoid it all together.

If one of the Calgarians wins the Alberta Party leadership instead, and no agreement is reached, then the two parties are in a race to see which one can make the big bet first.

The payoff here, of taking the risk, is actually getting seats in the Leg, and being able to make alternative voices heard. If you can win, that's what you aim for. And you hope, that like the NDP, over time your message is right, the times are right, and election by election you can claw your way to power.

Ultra-left party

If Notley continues her move to the centre on pipelines, there might be room for an ultra-left party in Alberta politics.

But Kenney and Notley are strategically smart.

The next election is more likely to crystallize into a simpler choice: do you want four more years of the NDP, or do you want to throw them out? In the Calgary-Lougheed byelection, almost 90 per cent of the votes went either UCP or NDP. It's a polarizing pattern we are likely to see across the province.

Voters who want to "throw the bums out" won't want to take any chances on the "also running." They'll go with the surest best: the UCP.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca

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About the Author

Ian Brodie

Ian Brodie is a political scientist at the University of Calgary and was the chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper. His next book, At the Centre of Government, will be published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in May.