Alberta Politics
Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley gives her concession speech on April 16; former leader Ray Martin is visible on her right (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Guest Post: Why Alberta’s NDP will be living dangerously for the next four years

Posted on April 30, 2019, 1:15 am
7 mins

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

Guest poster John Ashton, co-author of Made in Alberta: The Ray Martin Story (Photo: 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.

Former Saskatchewan NDP leader Dwain Lingenfelter (Photo: Daniel Paquet, Creative Commons).

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.

Nova Scotia NDP Leader Gary Burrill (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

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.

Former Ontario NDP leader Howard Hampton (Photo: TheSilentPhotographer, Creative Commons).

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.

Former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae (Photo: Will Pate, Creative Commons).

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.

6 Comments to: Guest Post: Why Alberta’s NDP will be living dangerously for the next four years

  1. Mohamed Mahdi

    April 30th, 2019

    My guess is turnout won’t be as high or as favourable for the UCP in 2023 which will benefit the ABNDP immensly and maybe the AB Party to. People will have four years to digest a UCP government and some people will be turned off by the constant populist rhetoric, along with their at times incompetent governing and they would like a stronger opposition to counter it to give the UCP a scare. The biggest reason the UCP won by over 20 points in the recent election is because people were scared of voting for opposition parties because the ABNDP might form government again. This fear of the ABNDP returning to government will subside by 2023. The direction the UCP is heading in at the moment is also sure to lead to some bleeding of votes to other parties in 2023. As a result of this I could see the ABNDP recovering all across Alberta and rising to around 40 percent of the vote again. I could also see the AB Party end up with a vote share between 10 and 15 percent in 2023 to. If the RCMP investigation proves to be really damaging to the UCP the ABNDP might do incredibly well in 2023. With Notley sticking around as the ABNDP leader for now along with the ABNDP’s likely reluctance to move to the left because they want to form government again one day and because of the lack of moderate parties in the legislature they will keep the vast majority of their support in 2023.

  2. Mike

    April 30th, 2019

    “The party has four years to rediscover its capacity to speak to rural Albertans.” Thanks for making me laugh first thing this morning! O’Neil Carlier, Bill 6, Castle/Bighorn, etc. The NDP never knew how to speak with rural Albertans in the first place, so nothing to rediscover here!

  3. St Albertan

    April 30th, 2019

    I see that Tyler Shandro and Jason Luan are now the Ministers of Health and Addictions/Mental health respectively. Could you and/or the posters here post some background on them? Google info on them is thin gruel using my feeble research skills.

  4. Lars

    April 30th, 2019

    We’ve yet to see a full disclosure of the ethical failings of the new UCP givernment, although they were playing peek-a-boo with the electorate in this regard even before the writ was dropped.
    Mind you, I’m assuming that this trifling matter of ethics is of any importance to UCP voters. To judge by the last election, it isn’t.

  5. David

    May 2nd, 2019

    I think it is good to look and see the experience elsewhere, when faced with a new situation here and this post is thoughtful and well reasoned, however in this case I take a slightly different view. History often does repeat itself, but not exactly and not always.

    First, Alberta’s political history is quite different from that of any other province, I would say unique. In the past, we did not have a strong three party system like some provinces, such as Ontario, or even a very strong two party system like BC or Saskatchewan or Nova Scotia. For those of us who have lived here a long time, 2015 was an election somewhat like 1971. It unexpectedly smashed the entrenched order and something new and different arose. The once invincible PC party had a great fall like humpty dumpty, it would never be put together again, although interestingly it still exists in name only. If given the choice, my guess is more than 20% of Albertans would still vote PC if it was on the ballot everywhere, much like Social Credit continued to linger on long after it lost power in 1971. Therefore one of the most important things for the UCP is to make sure it keeps control of that name under lock and key. The big difference however, unlike 1971 we did not immediately jump to another slightly different more modern Conservative leaning party in 2015.

    I think we are in an era of political flux, where the new Alberta (immigrants, younger people and minorities) and the old Alberta (Mr. Kenney and crew) will battle for control of political power over the next several years. Yes, I think we may actually be seeing the beginnings of a real two party system here. I suspect this is as unimaginable to many people now as the change in government was in 2015. Mr. Kenney’s win might appear to some as a natural resumption of conservative dominance of Alberta, however the PC’s who were successful for a long time were often not as conservative as they appeared and Mr. Kenney is. I would say he is out of step with modern Alberta and that may eventually lead to his downfall. He won because of economic concerns and people were willing to temporarily set aside their concerns about other aspects of him and his party for now.

    If we look at other provinces with two party systems, we also don’t see a lot of parties currently being elected to a second or third term anymore. Indeed, the same thing actually just happened to Alberta. Alberta may be late in getting to the two party system, but if Mr. Kenney does not deliver the economic miracle he promised, his government could be end up being a one term government as well. As there is no viable third party in Alberta now with any MLA’s. This that means the NDP here has a better shot at reclaiming power than in any of the other scenarios from the past in other provinces. It will not be easy and it will not be automatic, but in this case it is in the realm of the very possible.

  6. Paul

    May 10th, 2019

    What I think the NDP would need to relearn, or rather just learn, is how to seize a transformational moment.
    There is no version of business-as-usual, on the energy/ecology file that an evidence-based progressivism could found itself upon. Trump, Brexit, Corbyn, Sanders … there is a profound yearning out there for deep change, a break with an elite status quo. But steering a middle course between driving over a cliff slow or fast simply cannot be glossed as pragmatism. Give it to us straight. Call it an emergency, and back it up with commensurate action. Say it’s going to be hard, but with a chance that some good things may actually be better, if we work to get there together, on the far side of ecological bottleneck.


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