Alberta Votes·Point of View

Alberta election: Jim Prentice and the David Peterson parallel

Independent pollster Janet Brown says Alberta's early election is feeling eerily similar to Ontario's provincial election in 1990.

Longtime political watcher says Alberta's upcoming election is feeling eerily similar to Ontario's in 1990

David Peterson, right, thought he would take advantage of his strong popularity in 1990 and call an election three years into his mandate. Jim Prentice, who became Alberta's premier last fall, also called an election a year early. (The Canadian Press)

As soon as rumours started to spread that there might be an early election in Alberta, I immediately had flashbacks to the 1990 Ontario election.

That was the one where then Liberal premier David Peterson thought he would take advantage of his strong popularity and call an election three years into his mandate. Peterson's popularity plummeted during the campaign. Things were so dismal for the Liberals on election day that the NDP, under the leadership of Bob Rae, won a majority and David Peterson lost his own seat in London Centre.

At the time, I was a young political science graduate working as a junior analyst at Goldfarb Consultants in Toronto. Goldfarb was the official pollster for the Liberal Party, and my job during the election was to come in at 6 a.m. and prepare a summary of the overnight polling data.

When the election here in Alberta was called a few weeks back, I started reminding people about the 1990 Ontario election. Almost everyone I talked to was of the view that there might be some initial grumbling about an early election, but the timing would soon be forgotten. After all, this was Alberta — a place where the Tories have been forgiven time and time again for transgressions far worse than calling an early election.

Yet as the Alberta election campaign trudges along, it is proving to be eerily similar to Ontario in 1990. Many of the people who confidently told me Jim Prentice would not pay a price for calling an early election are starting to tell me they have doubts about that.

At the beginning of the 1990 Ontario election campaign, the governing Liberal Party looked unstoppable, just as the Prentice PCs did a few short weeks ago in Alberta. Peterson and Prentice were both seen to be competent leaders by the public. The opposition parties in both jurisdictions were seen as disorganized and unlikely to come up with a winning election strategy.

Long weekend reflection

The first weekend of the campaign in Ontario happened to be the August long weekend, and it was over the weekend that the Liberal numbers started to slip.

The three-day weekend seemed to offer Ontarians a chance to reflect on the fact the election had been called early. It was almost as though, en masse, Ontarians came to the realization that an early election only served the interests of David Peterson and the Ontario Liberal Party. Peterson was taking Ontario voters for a ride.

In Alberta, the election was called on the Tuesday after the Easter long weekend.

It seemed as though Albertans also emerged from that long weekend with a negative attitude toward the possibility of an early election. If we're heading into tough economic times, why spend money on an early election? Why not spend a year governing, so voters can see if you'll actually keep your promises?

When the Liberal polling numbers started to slip in Ontario, the Liberal brain trust didn't believe the data at first. They discounted the results as a weekend blip. I was told there was nothing to worry about, because the numbers were sure to rebound once all the good Liberals got back from the cottage. But the numbers didn't rebound. Instead, Ontarians became angrier and the Liberal numbers continued to drop.

In Alberta, the PCs also initially seemed unphased by weak polling numbers. They were holding strong to the belief that the polls were wrong. The PCs seemed confident they would ultimately defy the polls, just as they had in 2012.

Feeling the election heat

At the mid-point of the Ontario campaign, Liberal insiders finally started to get worried.

Feeling a bold move was in order, they decided to have Peterson announce that he would lower the provincial sales tax if re-elected. The PST had recently been increased to eight per cent, and he promised to drop it back to seven per cent. The people in the Liberal war room convinced themselves that Ontarians would be so grateful for this one per cent windfall that they'd forget about the early election call. This turned out to be a serious miscalculation. Instead, Ontarians saw it as a cynical attempt to buy votes, and further proof that Peterson was the type of leader who'd say or do whatever was necessary to get re-elected.

Feeling the same kind of heat that Peterson felt, Prentice also decided to reverse an unpopular taxation policy mid-campaign. In this case, the planned cut to the charitable tax credit was cancelled.

In both election campaigns, the premiers were on the defensive during the televised debate, and the leaders of the NDP had surprisingly strong performances.

I could go on about other examples of mistakes and scandals in 1990 and possible parallels with the current Alberta election. Anyone interested in all the gritty details from the 1990 Ontario election should try to track down a copy of Not Without Cause by Dan Rath and Georgette Gagnon.

Could the Tories be unseated?

Obviously, Prentice wasn't thinking about 1990 when he decided to call an early election.

Instead, he was probably thinking of the 2000 federal election when Jean Chrétien called an election after three years and won his third consecutive majority. At the time, merger talks were underway between the Canadian Alliance Party and the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

Chrétien saw an opportunity to call an election while the conservative opposition was still fractured and he took it. There was some discussion about Chrétien's decision to call an early election, but Canadians didn't hold that decision against him in the end.

So why did Ontarians punish Peterson for an early election? And why do Albertans seem to want to punish Prentice?

In my view, it's because most people saw these two premiers as people who put the interests of his party ahead of the interests of the public. The decision to call an early election helped to reinforce this belief.

Will the rest of the Alberta election unfold as the 1990 Ontario election did? Could the Tories be unseated?

If the PCs are defeated on election day, it won't simply be because they called an early election. But the early election has certainly been a factor in setting the tone for the PC's rocky campaign. Whatever the result, the Alberta 2015 election will likely be remembered as another cautionary tale on the perils of calling an early election.

About the Author

Janet Brown

Alberta pollster

Janet Brown is a longtime political commentator and pollster in the province.

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