CBC poll results underline how much at stake in upcoming municipal elections

It remains to be seen what impact the UCP strategy of putting an equalization referendum on the ballot will have on conservative voter turnout. The future of the big city councils, and their relationship to the provincial government, may hinge on that question, says political scientist Duane Bratt.

These 2021 elections will be unlike any we have seen in Alberta, says Duane Bratt

Recent polling data suggests some compelling – and surprising – story lines heading into this fall's municipal elections in Calgary (left) and Edmonton, says political scientist Duane Bratt. (CBC)

This column is an opinion from Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

On Oct. 18, 2021, Albertans go to the polls to elect their municipal officials (mayors, councillors, reeves, and school board trustees). However, 2021 will be unlike any previous municipal election that we have seen in Alberta.

In Calgary and Edmonton, there are open seats for mayor, which typically increases the number of candidates, the competitiveness, and the voter turnout. In addition, there are a number of councillors stepping down in Calgary and Edmonton, meaning the potential for a turnover of over 50 per cent in their respective city councils. There are also important municipal plebiscites on the ballot; Calgary has its seventh plebiscite on fluoridation of its water supply. 

Provincial items are also being coordinated with the municipal elections.

There will be a province-wide referendum on the federal equalization program (and possibly other referendum questions too). Elections for standby Canadian senators will also occur. 

Plus, the province has recently enacted campaign finance changes that increase the amount of money that can be raised and spent, as well as other changes that benefit challengers. 

While the election is still six months away, recent polling data commissioned by the CBC (and conducted by Janet Brown Opinion Research) provides a look ahead. 

Somewhat surprisingly, and against conventional wisdom, Albertans are largely satisfied with their municipal governments.

Almost seven in 10 Albertans are either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their municipal governments.

When Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi announced he was not running for a fourth term this year, there was commentary that he was leaving because he (and the rest of council) had become unpopular. However, 63 per cent of Calgarians are satisfied with their municipal government.

This level of satisfaction is surprising given a sustained economic downturn that has led to massive increases in downtown vacancies, property tax increases, and fights over the Green Line LRT, all of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the issue of COVID-19, Albertans believe that their municipal governments have handled it better than either the federal or the provincial governments. A total of 67 per cent of respondents either strongly approve (20 per cent) or somewhat approve (47 per cent) of their municipal government's handling of COVID-19. This is 17 points higher than the approval rating for the Trudeau government and 23 points higher than the rating for the Kenney government.

However, it is not just local politicians and issues that will be on the ballot.

The Kenney government has committed to holding a referendum on the federal equalization program. Its 2019 election platform stated that a UCP government would "hold a referendum on removing equalization from the Constitution Act on October 18, 2021 if substantial progress is not made on construction of a coastal pipeline, and if Trudeau's Bill C-69 is not repealed."

The federal equalization program is in federal jurisdiction and, in fact, the principle of equalization is enshrined in the Canadian constitution. Nevertheless, the UCP government believes that it can "use the prospect of a referendum on equalization as leverage for federal action to complete a coastal pipeline and to demand reforms to the current unfair formula."

The Fair Deal Panel, created following the fall 2019 re-election of the Trudeau government, identified ways that Alberta could increase its autonomy within Canada.

Its May 2020 report recommended a referendum on equalization and, unlike the Kenney government, proposed a question: "Do you support the removal of Section 36, which deals with the principle of equalization, from the Constitution Act, 1982?"

Question will be key

At an initial glance, Janet Brown's poll appears to indicate that a referendum on equalization would easily pass, because 68 per cent consider it unfair to Alberta. However, a referendum result would depend upon the wording of the question.

Many Albertans may believe that the equalization formula is unfair, but actually support the principle of equalization. Other variables could also play a role: the extent to which equalization is a proxy for anti-Ottawa sentiment or whether the referendum would be about Jason Kenney (as opposed to equalization).

Besides fighting Ottawa, there is an alternative motive for timing an equalization referendum with the municipal elections.

The Kenney government perceives the Calgary and Edmonton city councils, and especially their progressive mayors Nenshi and Don Iveson, as political opponents. It would prefer those councils with more conservatives on them. Getting more conservatives, who are more opposed to equalization than other Albertans, to vote in the municipal election would help conservative candidates running for both Calgary and Edmonton council seats.

This is out of the playbook of Karl Rove, a senior strategist for former U.S. President George W. Bush. Rove encouraged a series of state-level ballot initiatives on same sex marriage in 2004 and 2006 to encourage social conservatives to vote and, simultaneously vote for Republican candidates. 

An analysis of the cross-tabs of Janet Brown's poll shows that this motivation is rooted in reality.

While Albertans are largely satisfied with their municipal governments, those who are not at all satisfied also strongly approve (77 per cent) of the statement that equalization is unfair to Alberta. Those who plan to vote UCP are 89 per cent in agreement that equalization is unfair to Alberta (a whopping 72 per cent strongly agree), but only 47 per cent of NDP voters feel the same way.

If these types of individuals come out in stronger numbers, it could contribute to not only changing the current progressive complexion of Edmonton and Calgary city councils, but also creating political allies for the UCP government.

Turnout likely to be high

Recent election voter turnout in Calgary and Edmonton has been quite volatile.

In Calgary's case, it has ranged from a high of 51 per cent in 2017 to a low of 19.8 per cent in 2004. In Edmonton's case, the highest recent number was 50 per cent in 1995, and the lowest 27 per cent in 2007.

For 2021, because of the combination of open mayors' seats and referendum/plebiscite questions, it is likely that voter turnout will be on the high scale. It remains to be seen what impact the UCP strategy of putting an equalization referendum on the ballot will have on conservative voter turnout.

The future of the big city councils, and their relationship to the provincial government, may hinge on that question.

CBC News' random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted between March 15 and April 10, 2021 by Edmonton-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The sample is representative along regional, age, and gender factors. The margin of error is +/-2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger.

The survey used a hybrid methodology that involved contacting survey respondents by telephone and giving them the option of completing the survey at that time, at another more convenient time, or receiving an email link and completing the survey online.


Duane Bratt

Freelance contributor

Duane Bratt is a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary.