Donut politics? The search for Alberta's centre

2015 was a big year for change in Alberta politics. The NDP election ended more than 40 years of PC rule and sparked renewed talk of uniting the province's two conservative opposition parties. But is that really where the votes lie?

In a province that values pragamatism above all, the real prize could be in the gooey centre

Alberta's centrist urban voters could be the key to power in Alberta. (Portia Clark/CBC)

NDP wins majority government in Alberta.

Alberta 'turning heads' at Paris climate change conference.

Liberals win first Calgary seats since 1968.

These are headlines — real, honest to goodness news headlines — from 2015.

Take a moment, read them again, and ask yourself how you would have responded if someone had predicted these events at this time last year.

Would you have laughed? Perhaps.

Would you have questioned the sanity of the person making the predictions? Likely.

Would you have doubted that such seismic changes in the accepted political truths of a place could happen so decisively, so quickly? Certainly.

Yet here we are, about to enter 2016 and the uncharted waters of political uncertainty in a province traditionally known for being so predictable.

After seizing power from Jim Prentice and the Alberta PC party Rachel Notley and her NDP must now show they can govern from the centre. (CBC)

Of course, the question that is top of mind for many Albertans is whether all this is a permanent shift or an overcorrection after more than four decades of rule by one political party.

It's why you hear talk of uniting the right in political back rooms and barber shops across Alberta these days. Did Alberta reject its conservative roots, or was the conservative vote simply divided, allowing the socialist interlopers to storm the gates? 

Wildrose merger

Wildrose Leader Brian Jean is clear about what he thinks the answer is.

"We need one united right, small-c conservative party in Alberta and that's to ensure that the NDP don't get government again," he says.

Jean has a point. Rachel Notley's NDP won their majority in May with about 40 per cent of the vote. The combined Wildrose and Progressive Conservative vote was above 50 per cent, so, on the surface at least, it would seem that a united right could carry the day in 2019.

But is what's left of Alberta's PC dynasty really a right-wing party that could merge easily with Wildrose, until recently a bitter rival?

Brian Jean's Wildrose party gets much of its support from Alberta's conservative rural voters. (CBC )

Pollster Bruce Cameron isn't so sure, pointing out that the PCs finished second in most races and are now essentially a centrist urban party, while the Wildrose base is much more rural and right of centre.

"There is this big gap between that base of small-town rural Alberta and the more Progressive Conservative base that was there in the city," he says.

More urban

The fact is, like most places, Alberta is becoming more urban and that means the path to electoral success inevitably runs through its cities. 

But even in the cities, not everyone who voted for change might want quite as much as the NDP is promising, Mount Royal University political science professor Lori Williams says.

"A whole lot of people in Alberta are going to be looking for a moderate alternative, and that moderate, more centrist position is where voters across the country seem to flock," she says.

So the real fight for political supremacy in Alberta may take place in the centre, not on the right, and it's ground Williams says the PCs may be in the best position to hold.

"The PCs were decimated in the last election but the place they occupy on the political spectrum isn't occupied by anyone else." 

For Alberta's new NDP government, that would mean that eschewing its more left-of-centre tendencies and sticking to the middle ground might be the key to success in the coming year.

At the moment, a review of resource royalties, a promise to continue raising the minimum wage and a commitment to combat climate change are all in play amidst a continuing downturn in the energy industry.

PC leader Ric McIver is known for his conservative views but his party may need to appeal to urban centrist voters to have a chance at regaining power in Alberta. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

How the NDP government handles those files in the next year could well determine its fortunes beyond 2016 — a reality Premier Notley seems to grasp, as she has signaled she may be open to slowing the pace of change. 

"What I am going to be focussing on is the issues," she said recently. "We know that regardless of what happens with the price of oil six months out, that 2016 is probably going to be tougher before it gets better."

A tough year ahead

That's a good bet, according to Calgary-based energy economist Judith Dwarkin, who sees the price of oil for next year continuing to hover between $40 and $50 per barrel.

"It's going to be tough sledding, I guess, to use a Christmas phrase, through the first half at least," she says.

That's an economic climate that Bruce Cameron says isn't ideal for the NDP's promised changes to royalties and the minimum wage. 

"If they show some degree of flexibility and pragmatism on those two, then I think that they may have a chance to form a longer-form government beyond even this first term," he says.

In the end, pragmatic, not conservative, may be the word that best describes most Albertans, who seem committed more to doing what works, than to adhering slavishly to one ideology or another.

It's a position, of course, that tends to lie in the centre of the political spectrum, which, for now at least, remains largely vacated in Alberta.

The political party that can find a way to lay claim to that abandoned political real estate could well be the big winner in 2016 and beyond.

CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


Erin Collins

Senior reporter

Erin Collins is an award-winning senior reporter with CBC National News based in Calgary.