Good advice for Alberta New Democrats from Quebec: this time, make it easy for voters to support you

Posted on March 31, 2014, 12:17 am
9 mins

Ray Guardia, one of the key architects of the federal NDP’s 2011 breakthrough in Quebec, at yesterday’s closing session of the Broadbent Institute’s 2014 Progress Summit in Ottawa. Below: Environmental activist Tzeporah Berman.


Here’s a tip for Alberta New Democrats from one of the principal architects of Jack Layton’s historic 2011 Quebec campaign: don’t tell voters they’re stupid because they’ve been voting Tory for 43 years.

Ray Guardia was too diplomatic, of course, to put it quite like that in a panel discussion yesterday on winning progressive campaigns during the final session of the Broadbent Institute’s 2014 Progress Summit in the nation’s capital.

Anyway, he wasn’t addressing the new political landscape now developing in Alberta when he made the comment during a much wider discussion moderated by Broadbent senior advisor and TV commentator Kathleen Monk at the Canadian centre-left’s first response to the loony right Manning Institute’s annual Ottawa bunfest.

But readers of this blog have to know that Alberta New Democrats have sounded very much like that through the 43 years the Progressive Conservatives have dominated Alberta. Or, if you want to get even more depressed about it, the 77 years Alberta social democrats have spent in the political wilderness since the day in 1935 the Social Credit League led by William Aberhart was elected.

And – hey people! – do you think there might be a connection?

Mr. Guardia, who ran the federal NDP’s campaign that resulted in the NDP’s massive 2011 breakthrough in Quebec, spun it positively: you have to make it easy for voters who have backed another party for a long time to switch to your side.

He pointed out that the federal New Democrats under Mr. Layton, who died of cancer the same year he led the national party to the Opposition benches in Parliament, tried other strategies that flopped in Quebec in 2006 and 2008.

In 2006, Quebec New Democrats argued they were better social democrats than the Bloc Quebecois, a coalition with social democrat and nationalist elements. This was true, but it didn’t excite Quebec voters who liked many things about the BQ. In 2008, they painted themselves as the alternative to Harper Hell. Which was true too – but so was the BQ, sort of.

In 2011, Mr. Guardia said, they finally hit on the formula that worked – getting the message to voters that the NDP and the BQ shared many social democratic values, and treating voters’ past decisions with respect.

The strategy recognized Quebec voters had liked the Bloc and its leader for good reasons, and that those things hadn’t really changed – but asked, if they were going to remain part of Canada, why not elect a team that would work to make it a better country?

So the party offered this proposition to Quebec voters: “let us play some offence for you,” he summarized.

“You have to make it easy for voters,” Mr. Guardia explained. “You can’t ask them to say they were wrong.”

So what does Quebec have to do with Alberta, where we all gloomily assume that voters transition from Social Credit to Progressive Conservative to Wildrose to the next conservative thing in intergenerational lockstep?

Well, it doesn’t have to be this way.

We know that Alberta voters, like Canadians everywhere, hold social democratic values even as they vote for conservatives for other reasons. As former NDP leader Ed Broadbent told the summit’s opening session, polling consistently shows that when it comes to their values most Canadians are social democrats.

And we know that at the municipal level, Albertans support determinedly progressive candidates – leastways, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi are powerful arguments for the truth of this proposition, observed high-profile environmental campaigner Tzeporah Berman in the same discussion.

And we know that large numbers of Albertans ran to Alison Redford in 2011 and 2012 because they thought she was a progressive – and abandoned her and her party in droves when it became apparent she was something quite different, leading directly to the political drama now gripping Alberta.

And we know Albertans are ready to think about our environment and our economy. “People are anxious in Alberta for a conversation about the pace and scale of development,” Ms. Berman said. “We’re ready for that conversation to happen.”

Indeed, that’s why the Liberals came so close to knocking off Tory Joan Crockatt in the November 2012 by-election that saw her elected as MP for Calgary Centre – a progressive victory thwarted by a strong vote for the Green Party’s candidate.

And, finally, we can have no doubt that Albertans are desperate for change – so desperate, in fact, that they’re willing to consider holding their noses and voting for the Wildrose Party, which shares neither their values nor their dreams, to make it happen. This reality is what is driving the provincial PC Party’s self-destructive behaviour now.

Yet the fundamental Wildrose beliefs that frightened voters in 2012 have not changed. It’s just that voters’ disappointment and disgust with Ms. Redford and the rest of her party has driven them to considering the Wildrose on the theory a change is as good as a rest. And Wildrose message discipline is vastly improved.

Progressive parties – the NDP in particular, perennially in third or fourth place in the Alberta Legislature – need to give voters a better reason for their support than asking them to admit they were wrong.

It’s time to recognize that Albertans voted Progressive Conservative because that party provided competent leadership, occasionally espoused progressive values and sometimes even delivered on them.

Those days are gone. Thanks to Ms. Redford, the PCs have disappeared down a far-right rabbit hole from which it is highly unlikely they will ever emerge again.

This should give progressive Alberta political parties hope – but they need to consider the possibility that what hasn’t worked for three quarters of a century is unlikely to miraculously start working now.

So maybe it’s time to take a leaf from Quebec’s strategy start thinking about ways to make it easier for Albertans to vote NDP, as unlikely as it might seem right now that they’ll respond.

But who in Alberta would have thought five years ago New Democrats were on the verge of a breakthrough in Quebec?

No, as someone is certain to point out, Alberta is not Quebec. But it may be a lot closer to it than it seems.

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4 Comments to: Good advice for Alberta New Democrats from Quebec: this time, make it easy for voters to support you

  1. Pat Perri

    March 31st, 2014

    Hmmm. Does the fact that 2 out of every 3 Albertans live in Edm or Cal matter? I.E. Alberta is not a rural province any longer… Does that not provide a perspective for the NDP to voice?

    Do the 14 thousand or so Canadians move to Alberta, per year, respond to the NDP message?

    Has the ethnicity changed? Does that matter?

    Just saying, there may be multiple grouos ignored by the ‘right’ and thus someone the ‘left’ can try to speak for.

  2. Elizabeth Johannson

    March 31st, 2014

    You had me until you blamed the Green vote for the Conservative by-election win in Calgary Centre. That tells me you missed the heart of the message you are trying to spread. Why say that the Greens stopped the Liberals from winning instead of saying the Liberals stopped the Greens from winning?

    Don’t tell Green voters they are stupid for not supporting a Liberal. The NDP has fought for years against that vote-splitter label and then turns around and uses it against the Greens. It is equally unjust in both cases.

    We need electoral reform, but in the mean time, if you want the votes then give the voters – all the voters – something to vote _for_. Mr. Guardia is correct that you have to make it easy for voters to switch to your side and that means not criticizing their previous choices. The trap is confusing the politicians with the voters. They are not the same. Don’t treat the people who have voted for Party XYZ the way you treat the politicians from Party XYZ or you will never convince them to change their vote.

  3. Pogo

    March 31st, 2014

    “make it easy” sounds like an Eagles song, doesn’t it?
    The mistake that political fortune tellers are making is in the capturing of the “why” behind what caused the vote for what is and the “who” that is needed for what will be.
    Alison had the resume of a dark horse savior for the thoughtful. Danielle seemed like a huckster personality front person with a carnivorous reality. Albertans made their choice clear call it conservative but make it fair and take care of everyone. A return to the Lougheed script that was aligned to delivering the kind of social prosperity that Norway (Statoil) does. The fact that she betrayed her supporters assumptions and cluelessly played into the hands of her hunters by appointing Luka, Horne and Griffoth only distracts from the important learnings that can be gained from understanding what caused her to be elected. That’s what our host is talking about. The problem is that the NDs and Ls here in Oilystan have done dick, ef, all, to create a viable alternative. The unions have dropped the ball repeatedly and have conceded the field to money and jobs in their blinkered, categorical, and positional tactics. Our left and centre left has contented themselves with a plan that is no plan. Who are they grooming? How would we know? Brian Mason? Rachel Notley? Raj (I can hardly type this) Sherman?

    Yay team. How very scintillatingly pro..effing…active!

  4. Martin Levenson

    March 31st, 2014

    One of the important ways that Alberta is VASTLY different from Quebec is that Quebec doesn’t elect dynasties. Quebec holds their politicians accountable; it’s rare for any party to win more than two majorities in a row. Even if everything is going well economically (which, in parts of Canada, is NOT the only measure of effective governments), the citizens of Quebec will change their governing party.

    I’m not likely to start voting PC or WRP, but I could understand WHY people might vote WRP to effect a change in government. Maybe they just want a more citizen-responsive government after all these years.


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