ILLUSTRATIONS: Election time in Alberta. Actual Progressive Conservative strategists and Alberta voters may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Retired Athabasca University history professor Alvin Finkel.
A few months ago, I offered Alvin Finkel and a few other folks I respect the opportunity to write guest posts from time to time on what was then Alberta Diary and is now AlbertaPolitics.ca. Dr. Finkel is a retired and very prolific history professor who taught at Athabasca University for many years. He is one of Canada’s best-known and best-selling academic historians. He was the co-founder of the Alberta Democratic Renewal Project in 2008 and of Change Alberta in 2012. This is his first guest post. DJC
By Alvin Finkel
A week before the 2008 provincial election, my son, then a young unionized pipefitter, told me that he would not be voting on election day because he had to drive to Fort McMurray for work that day.
I pointed out that there was an advance poll that he could vote at before he left town. But he said that he would not bother. At work, the previous week, he told me, he had tried to start a conversation about the election but was cut off by someone who said: “When they call an election in Alberta, you already know who’s won. So change the channel.” Everyone apparently agreed.
Since the polls were predicting a crushing Tory victory, I saw little point in delivering a sermon to my son, who has progressive leanings but no great interest in politics, about the precious commodity that our right to vote represents. So I focused instead on the fact that he lived in Edmonton-Centre, where the Tories had failed to elect their candidate in every election since 1986 and which had both an excellent Liberal incumbent and a very promising NDP candidate as well. He wasn’t impressed, and suggested that neither of them would ever be in a government caucus and it was a waste of his time to pretend otherwise.
That conversation was a catalyst in my subsequent efforts to persuade the parties to the left of the Tories to work together to provide a real alternative to the Tories and thereby create some interest in an Alberta election by convincing voters, including the largely apolitical majority, that change was possible.
I could, in any case, barely tell apart the policies of the NDP and the Liberals in 2004 and 2008. The NDP had moved somewhat to the right in order to capture centrist votes and for a variety of reasons the Liberals had shifted slightly to the left. They largely met down the middle, although their leaders and many party members hated each other for various reasons important to them but very petty sounding to anyone outside of their respective clubs.
I began by simply writing an op-ed for the Edmonton Journal calling on the Liberals, NDP and Greens to work together to nominate one candidate between them in winnable constituencies. Interestingly, David Evans, then the editorial page editor of the Journal, told me that he liked my idea not so much because he necessarily opposed the Tories, but because many readers of the newspaper complained during elections about there being too much election coverage, the outcome of the election being so predictable. Subsequently a number of journalists have told me that election coverage and coverage of opposition parties between elections gets them flak from readers, listeners and viewers because there is no “story” to an Alberta election or to party politics in the minds of most Albertans.
In 2012, to the delight of the media, there was a story as two right-wing parties battled for control of the province. One of them, the governing Tories, had chosen a new leader who had the brilliant idea of pretending that the Tories had adopted many of the ideas of their progressive opponents.
She turned out, as anyone who understood the inner workings of the PCs would have figured out in advance, to be Lucy Van Pelt talking to progressive Albertans as if they were Charlie Brown hoping to kick the football. She had the desired effect on about half of them.
It didn’t have to be that way. Had the Alberta Democratic Renewal Project had more success in persuading the progressive parties to work together, a Leger poll demonstrated that almost a majority of voters, at least in 2010, were prepared to vote for their coalition. Change Alberta was formed for the 2012 election as a strategic voting site for progressive parties. Though it had 80,000 visitors and correctly predicted which progressive candidate would lead in 39 of the 42 seats it analyzed (a success rate of 93 per cent), it could not counter the views of many Albertans that the only two serious parties in the race were the Tories and Wildrose.
Will there be a story in the 2015 election?
So far there isn’t. It is true that the NDP now has a far better organizational presence than the Liberals, but that is more because the Liberals have allowed their organization to deteriorate than because there have been defections to the NDP. In fact, the NDP remains a party of about 4,000 people, the same number that it had in the past three elections. It has no organization at all in most seats. It has potential, no doubt, but no one seriously believes that the NDP on its own can knock off the Tories or indeed form a large opposition. To the dismay of the NDP, many polls still suggest that Liberal support rivals that of their own party despite the disarray of the Liberals.
A number of polls do indicate that the total support for parties to the left of the Tories equals or surpasses Tory support, and that most of that progressive vote is concentrated in the two cities.
Therein may lie the “story” for the upcoming election. If strategic voting can translate the progressive opposition vote into seats, the Tories could be ousted from power or at least be forced to face a far larger progressive opposition than they have confronted for some time.
Now, of course, many party members are opposed to strategic voting for various reasons. I have no intention any longer of trying to convince most of the 0.2 per cent of Albertans who have spent five bucks to hold a party card in one of the progressive parties that they should vote strategically. But I suspect that most of the remaining 44 per cent of voters who tell pollsters that they want to elect someone to the left of the Tories are open to strategic voting and more interested in getting rid of the Tories than in insuring that one or other of the left-of-Alberta-centre parties (none of which, as David Climenhaga reminded us recently, is all that left-wing over all) gets their votes.
In the days to come, ChangeAlberta.ca, which remains online, will launch its 2015 “new look.” Once again, we have assembled a large group of political analysts to follow “winnable” constituencies for progressives and predict which candidate in them has the best chance of winning. I am confident that once again we will correctly predict the leading progressive in virtually all winnable seats. (In the three of 42 seats where we were wrong last time, it turned out that the progressive vote had all but collapsed and making any prediction at all was a mug’s game.) Please join with us to try to give a “story” to this election and a future of somewhat greater social justice to a province that seems hopelessly stuck in its political past.
Because I was the public voice of Change Alberta, I was denied membership in the Alberta NDP in 2012, despite having been a member of the NDP from 1969 to 2010 and serving as Alberta co-chair of the Thomas Mulcair Election Committee in 2011-12. When I appealed the party’s decision to deny me membership, I was asked at the provincial council meeting by Rachel Notley, “Can you assure us that in the next election, Change Alberta will only endorse NDP candidates?” The answer was “no” and remains no.