The last couple of years have not been kind to Alberta. Natural gas prices have remained low for 8 years now on a sustained basis. Oil prices followed suit and started to collapse in June of 2014, after averaging roughly $110 a barrel for more than 3 years. By late 2015 prices had dipped below $30 a barrel.
This has led to deep cuts in the oil patch, including sweeping layoffs. It also caused significant reductions in royalty and land sale revenue which, combined with the new government’s commitment to an ideological approach to governing, has resulted in a record deficit. Estimated cumulative deficits over the course of the NDP’s current 4 year mandate now top $56 billion. Those are the Government’s own estimates. Alberta was debt free just a few years ago.
In some quarters the status quo is leading increasingly to desperation. The NDP have to go – for the good of humanity. OK, that may be overstating it, but in a poll released last week by Lethbridge College’s Citizen Society Research Lab just under 20% stated an intention to vote NDP. Put another way, 80% would vote for another party if the election were held today. That’s pretty conclusive.
The rest of the poll results are also important. The PC Party is in first with 38.4% and the Wildrose Party (WRP) is 12.7% behind at 25.7%. The more interesting question was whether Albertans favour “uniting the right” in time for the 2019 election. Turns out that two thirds of Albertans are in favour of uniting the right.
Predictably, the PC’s now claim that the WRP has stalled and that the PC’s are the Party to beat the NDP. Equally predictably, Jason Kenney argues (and Faron Ellis, the lead pollster, seems to agree) that the PC Party has surged ahead on the strength of Kenney’s candidacy and his promise to unite the right.
So, the solution is simple. Unite the right. Right? PC and WRP support combined is 64.1%. The NDP is has fallen to 19.7%. Problem solved.
But what if it’s not that simple? What if “uniting the right” means different things to different people? Perhaps we should figure that out.
Just after the 2015 election I blogged on the topic of funky math and tribalism here:
The problem, in a nutshell, is that when you combine the WRP with the PC Party, you may discover that the resulting “Party” is appealing to neither base, instead of both. Then what happens? Who wins the election if the united right turns out different than what the electorate wants?
That was in part what happened in the lead up to the 2015 election. The WRP leadership moved en masse to the PC’s, and the public reaction was very negative. The focus on deals and backroom politics, instead of, for example, the economy, went over like a lead balloon. The PC’s were decimated in the ensuing election, leading to the province’s first ever NDP government.
The problem with combining parties is most easily illustrated by WRP leader Brian Jean’s recent comments on the topic, as reported in last week’s Herald article by James Wood:
Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, speaking to the Rotary Club of Calgary Tuesday, said he is in favour of consolidating conservatives but that over the last decade he’s seen little “that would suggest the PCs are actually conservative.”
In other words, he’s happy to merge the WRP with those few PC’s who occupy the same place on the spectrum as the existing WRP base. To be fair, the approach of many PC’s is the mirror image of that. They argue that the elected WRP MLA’s, and the base that elected them, are unacceptably intolerant and that their views don’t reflect the majority of Albertans. In other words, they’re happy to merge with those few WRP members who are actually PC’s.
So what would a combined Party represent? What policies would find favour with enough of both bases that you could build an electoral coalition with a stable foundation? Equally important, what policies would have to be avoided at all costs, lest they drive large blocks of voters, on the right or in the centre, out of the combined Party and into the arms of the other political movements on offer?
Those aren’t just interesting questions, those are the key questions. Because if defeating the NDP is the only common goal, and if the two bases don’t share a common policy bent or a common value system, then “uniting the right” will be little more than a spectacular sham. A PR exercise designed to euthanize the existing leadership of two parties and then magically unite two disparate bases into one Party. A Party that stands for..…. what exactly?
And that brings us back to the recent poll. I believe that many of those Albertans in favour of “uniting the right”, favour it because they believe that’s synonymous with defeating the NDP. That’s what they are being told by various opinion leaders, including Jason Kenny and those promoting his campaign. But what if it is actually the opposite? What if the NDP’s best chance of winning the next election is if the PC’s are folded in favour of a new “Conservative” Party? What if once the PC Party base gets a good look at a new Party that is “conservative enough” to satisfy the WRP base, a large chunk of the, larger, PC Party base starts migrating to a moderate option? Isn’t that really what happened in 2015? Didn’t enough of the traditional PC Party base either stay home or vote NDP? They may not admit it today, but that’s how the NDP won the first time.
Be clear, the whole “unite the right” equation rests on the premise that the PC base and the WRP base are ideological equivalents, or at least fellow travelers. But they’re not, and we don’t need Brian Jean to tell us that. We just need to look at how the 2015 election played out after the WRP leadership crossed the floor to the PC’s. Their base wouldn’t follow. There’s no reason to think the PC base will follow Jason Kenney to the WRP, even if they brand it the Conservative Party. In fact every other declared PC leadership candidate is currently opposing a merger.
So long as the discussion continues to be about how the Parties can win power, expect Albertans to tune out and walk away. Lougheed had it right. He focused on how he could make the province work better. On character. On hard work. On earning trust. His approach was pragmatic, not ideological. He led by example and his focus was on improving people’s lives.
That’s what most Albertans want, and the leader that gives them that kind of pragmatic focused leadership will win the next election. And they won’t have to make a deal with anyone to pull it off.
Uniting the right is essential to ensure the NDP are removed. Combining the PC and WRP has to be done. This was done successfully Federally when Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay merged the Reform Party and Conservatives. A great deal of effort is currently underway from Brian Jean and Jason Kenney to build their voter base. If they could find the common ground to merge, they will be successful.
First rate analysis, Rob. As we know from what happened at the federal level, some sleights- real or perceived- just don’t ever heal…
Danielle Smith thought she was the leader of the WRP but she was really the leader of the ABC party, Anyone But Conservatives. When she crossed the floor she became the enemy of that party. The Conservatives under Redford and Prentice had become corrupt in their claims to entitlement. With Jean unknown, the NDP became the ABC party. Now the old Conservatives want their influence in the party to remain with no direction from Kenney or Jean or history. They still feel entitled to rule. They are still the enemy of the ABC party that were so successful in two elections. Well I hope Kenney and Jean are successful in becoming the ABC party. Albertans don’t want the Redford/Prentice era but they don’t want the high taxes/enlarged civil service the NDP are creating.
The fundamental question behind “uniting the right” is whether the voter bases of the PCs and WRPs are interchangeable. Data suggests they are not. Many WRP voters believe the PCs are corrupt and irredeemable. Many WRP voted NDP in 2015 (note the WRP vote went down 10% from 2012 to 2015 – they won more seats simply because that vote was very concentrated). Equally, the PC voter base decided in 2012 that they did not like/trust the WRP on non-economic issues and that hasn’t changed. Many of them voted NDP in 2015 as well. Now that we’ve seen an NDP government, would voters put their mutual distrust aside and crowd into the same tent for the purpose of defeating the NDP? Maybe. But it is a huge risk. I can’t believe we are contemplating such a massive decision on so little evidence and so many untested assumptions. If we were the board of a corporation considering a merger-or-acquisition on so little knowledge of our shareholders/customers’ approval, we’d be turfed! And no, the Faron Ellis poll doesn’t count as evidence. On such a vague question, respondents will make assumptions about what a united party would look like, and will assume it means something they’d be happy with. That might not be the case when the window dressing transforms into actual details of policy and leadership.