John Ashton is the co-author with former Alberta NDP leader Ray Martin of Made in Alberta: The Ray Martin Story. He has served as staff on 26 NDP campaigns. In this guest post, Mr. Ashton argues Alberta’s NDP may not be the first provincial branch of the New Democratic Party to return to Opposition after a single term in government, but the experience of those other provincial parties should give Alberta New Democrats pause. DJC
By John Ashton
For the post-government Alberta New Democratic Party, there is a common phrase in Italian that may apply to the next four years: Vivere pericolosamente. It means “living dangerously.” It’s a phrase Italians use to describe living close to places that are susceptible to disaster – volcanoes, floods, avalanches, and the like.
Why are Alberta’s New Democrats living dangerously? Some would correctly point out that the raw votes collected by the party went up slightly in the April 16 Alberta general election. They would note that 24 seats in the Legislature is the second-best result the party has ever had.
New Democrats can also point to the rude fiscal health of the party and its riding associations. No other party can claim to be logistically capable of challenging the governing United Conservatives. Compared to disastrous elections for the NDP in 1993 or 2008, the future looks positively glowing.
But they’re not the first section of the New Democratic Party to return to Opposition after a single term in government. Other NDP branches across Canada have had similar experiences, and their histories should give optimistic Alberta New Democrats pause.
In 1990, Bob Rae and the Ontario NDP unexpectedly swept into power, and quickly got hammered by a brutal recession exacerbated by a national economy painfully adapting to NAFTA. After losing in 1995, New NDP Leader Howard Hampton took on a brutal tour schedule to rebuild his party.
The results didn’t match the effort. The party dropped from 21 to 13 per cent of the popular vote and from 17 to nine seats, and the Ontario NDP would struggle to keep official party status for two more elections.
In 2007, the dynastic Saskatchewan NDP lost government after 16 years despite successfully rebuilding the province’s fiscal health. However, they held a healthy 20 seats filled with veteran former cabinet ministers.
Former Deputy Premier Dwain Lingenfelter returned from the private sector to provide a familiar face to voters, but it backfired in 2011. Rural and suburban voters fled to the conservative Saskatchewan Party, and the NDP dropped to nine seats. Eight years later, that seat total has only grown to 13. Only two of those seats are rural.
In 2013, Darrell Dexter’s government was reeling from brutal Liberal attacks and a campaign organized very late in the term. Despite recovering enough to finish second in popular vote, the party was reduced to seven seats.
A new avowed socialist leader, Gary Burrill, could not build on those results. In 2017, the Nova Scotia NDP held onto its seven seats, but dropped 6 per cent of the vote, to a share of 21.5 per cent, mostly in rural ridings.
Is the Alberta NDP similarly doomed? An examination of the ridings the NDP lost doesn’t reveal many the party could easily recapture. A handful of North Calgary seats and a few Edmonton suburbs could be recaptured with a small swing to the New Democrats. But the only rural seat that looks easily winnable is Banff-Kananaskis. This would still leave the party well short of the 44 seats required for a majority in the Alberta Legislature.
And of the 24 seats the NDP currently holds, not many were blowout wins. Many Edmonton seats that sit on the Anthony Henday ring road were won by margins under 10 per cent. The NDP’s sole seat outside of Edmonton and Calgary, Lethbridge West, was won by less than 1 per cent.
But a further decline is not inevitable. The party has four years to rediscover its capacity to speak to rural Albertans. They are proportionally far better funded than Mr. Hampton’s, Mr. Lingenfelter’s, or Mr. Burrill’s ill-fated campaigns.
The Alberta NDP will have a healthy Opposition caucus budget with capacity for lots of leader touring and 20 or more staff. And the new diverse caucus has MLAs that know their job is outreach in their neighbourhoods, not delivering flowery speeches at the Legislature.
Learning from this history and robust outreach outside of the Capital Region can give the Alberta NDP a chance to live a little more safely than its neighbouring New Democrat provincial parties. It’s long odds to regain the premier’s seat in 2023, but not impossible. And that election may prove a little more dangerous for Conservatives than progressive Albertans.