Analysis

Alberta election 2015: The real race is for 2nd place

Rather than focusing on Alberta's Progressive Conservatives, CBC's Rob Brown sizes up the real race for second place.

Expect Alberta's PC streak to continue

Many political experts say the real race is for Official Opposition status after the Wildrose Party saw its caucus reduced to five seats in December when former leader Danielle Smith and eight other MLAs crossed the floor to join the government. (Canadian Press)

The role of the Official Opposition is more important in Alberta than anywhere else in Canada, though most voters in this province clearly disagree.

The last time they took a shining to the opposition was almost 44 years ago. The PCs won the election of '71 and have swept 11 straight since.

It's the longest unbeaten streak of any political party in Canadian history. Expect the streak to continue.

Yes, campaigns matter. The unpredictable can lead to unexpected results and recent polls suggest a tightening race.

But you won't find a pollster, strategist or analyst who doesn't think that this election is the PCs to lose, and that's exactly why the challengers are so significant.

In a province dominated by a single party for so long, it's crucial that other points of view be heard and be considered. No voice is louder than the Official Opposition's.

It gets to lead the daily grilling in Question Period and that leads to media coverage. Its budget is bigger than the other opposition parties so researchers can be hired to dig up dirt and hold the government to account. It can, and often does, successfully push for policy changes.

Still don't see the value of the runner up?

Don't take my word for it. Why do you think Jim Prentice set out to neuter the opposition before dropping the writ?

So rather than focusing on the PCs, let's size up the real race — the race for second place.

The Wildrose Party

Just four months ago, the Wildrose was widely considered the most effective Official Opposition Alberta had ever seen. Today the party is fighting for its electoral life.

Surrounded by candidates, Alberta Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, centre, speaks at the party's election campaign kickoff in Calgary. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

Only three of the 17 MLAs who won under the Wildrose banner in 2012 are running for the party again. Five are now running as PCs.

The new leader of the Wildrose, Brian Jean, is a virtual unknown for most Albertans. But after spending the last decade as a Conservative MP, Jean is well aware of what a winning campaign looks like.

He doesn't see Wildrose coming out the winner of this one. In his first media scrum as leader, Jean was asked if he thinks his party can form government.

He described a Wildrose win as "making sure we have a strong opposition in Alberta."

Not the stuff of inspiring stump speeches, but Mount Royal University professor Duane Bratt thinks the assessment is spot on.

"I don't think (the Wildrose) is a spent force. But as a challenge to form the next government,... I think those days are gone. At least for now."

The Liberal Party 

After almost 20 years as her majesty's loyal opposition, the Alberta Liberals surrendered that status in 2012. They've been in a downward spiral ever since.

Liberal MLA Dr. David Swann has been chosen as the head of the Alberta Liberals for the second time. (Glenn Francey/CBC)

The result? Only two incumbents seeking re-election.

Calgary's David Swann is once again carrying the burden of leadership. Edmonton's Laurie Blakeman is hoping to be returned to the legislature for a fifth term. Blakeman is her party's bellwether. She may be a link to its successful past but she's looking to the future.

In an unprecedented move, the long-serving Liberal MLA decided to run for three parties at the same time.

By law, her name can appear next to only one party on the ballot and it will be the Liberal Party. But Blakeman revealed that she "sought and won" the nominations for the Alberta Party and Greens.

The political veteran believes Alberta's so called "progressive" parties (those left of centre) need to come together in order to beat the PCs. That's probably true. But you have to wonder if she simply sees the writing on the wall for a party that is clearly limping into this campaign.

The NDP 

Alberta's New Democrats have no interest in merging in any way, shape or form with any other party. Why would they? After decades in the political wilderness the NDP is back.

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley leads a memorial in honour of her father, Grant Notley. (CBC)

The party is oozing confidence thanks in no small part to Rachel Notley, a new leader with considerable political pedigree.

In 1982, the NDP became the Official Opposition for the first time in Alberta's history under the late Grant Notley's leadership. His daughter is now hoping to make some history of her own. Her candidates are counting on it.

Unlike the Liberals and Wildrose, all of the NDP incumbents are standing for re-election. And the New Democrats have something else the others don't: Rachel Notley is the only woman leading a party.

Then there's the PC budget, tailor made for an NDP campaign. Public sector workers concerned about losing their jobs. The health-care system in the spotlight. The government refusing to increase corporate taxes. Notley is talking about a surge of support "in Calgary and in Lethbridge and in other parts of the province as well."

Yep, in Calgary. She said it with a straight face. But expect the NDP to focus its ground game on Edmonton. The pundits and polls suggest the party could capture enough seats in the capital to secure the status of Official Opposition. That would be a significant breakthrough, at least by the standard Albertans are used to.

It's been that way since '71. Even so, the race for second place is nothing to sneer at. After all, it holds the promise that one day the majority of voters will finally take a shine to the Official Opposition once again.

About the Author

Rob Brown

CBC Calgary co-anchor

Rob is an award-winning veteran reporter who has worked all over Western Canada. He came to CBC Calgary in September 2013. Watch Rob on-air weekdays on CBC Calgary News at 6.