Alberta Politics
NDP Leader Rachel Notley during her last campaign rally in Edmonton (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Pundits want you to believe negative campaigning hurt the NDP – it likely saved their bacon!

Posted on April 23, 2019, 12:22 am
8 mins

There are plenty of serious mistakes the Alberta NDP made during their four rocky years in power, but one of them wasn’t running a negative campaign that attacked Jason Kenney’s character and the attitudes of many of the candidates and advisors around him.

Indeed, it’s said here the NDP’s negative campaigning was the only thing that saved the party’s bacon, relatively speaking. At the very least, it prevented a rout of epic proportions and allowed the party to survive with enough members in the Legislature to fight effectively for a better day.

Face it, the Notley Government’s strategic brain trust has known since 2017, when the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties agreed to get back together, that the NDP was likely to face an insurmountable challenge come election time.

Alberta premier-designate Jason Kenney, whose United Conservative Party won the election (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The party’s private polling would have indicated that to NDP strategists regularly, of course, but it didn’t really take a pollster to do the electoral math, or a PhD in political science to understand what had made the PCs an electoral success for four decades despite a string of leaders who couldn’t hold a candle to the dynasty’s founder, Peter Lougheed.

Put simply, there are a lot of conservatives in this province and, despite demographics that have been changing over time and will continue to change to the benefit of the NDP, they still constitute an absolute majority. The election results on April 16 confirm this, given the remarkably high turnout, which was in excess of 70 per cent.

Brian Mason, the NDP’s former leader, told me back in 2016 that if the effort to reunite the right was a success, in his view the NDP government was probably done for. It didn’t really matter who the conservative leader turned out to be. That realization may have been a consideration in Mr. Mason’s decision to retire when he did, although his Edmonton riding was in no danger.

So, despite having achieved many worthwhile things while in power, and having figured out how to run a government in a highly disciplined manner, an NDP re-election was always a long shot.

Then there was the recession that wouldn’t go away, the pipeline expansion project the NDP themselves had argued was essential that kept receding over the horizon, and all that fracked oil and natural gas south of the 49th Parallel that kept pushing down the price of oil everywhere. Life isn’t fair, but if you’re a government governing in hard times, no matter what causes them, you get to wear it.

But in the last few months, Mr. Kenney himself, the winner of the fight to lead the United Conservative Party, handed the NDP an opportunity to pull the fat at least partly out of the fire.

Former Alberta NDP leader Brian Mason (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

This is not to say there was ever enough there for a non-conservative government to win in 2019, but Mr. Kenney’s obvious character flaws, and the troubling views of so many of his supporters, did give the NDP a chance to fight a strategic retreat.

There was the whiff of scandal around the way Mr. Kenney engineered his victory in the contest to lead the UCP – the Kamikaze Campaign whence future embarrassments for his government may very well flow. There was the domination of his field of candidates by militant anti-abortionists, who presumably now will also dominate the new government caucus and quite possibly the cabinet as well. And there were the flirtations by some of his candidates and party officials with white supremacy, Lake-of-Fire homophobia, anti-Islamic bigotry and climate change denial and conspiracism. There were RCMP investigations of UCP candidates and officials, including a police raid on the Calgary business of one successful candidate just days before the election.

Together, it was not an attractive mix, although, in the event, it was one a majority of voters was either unconcerned about or willing to overlook for the supposed economic benefits Mr. Kenney was able to persuade voters would spring from a UCP government.

Others have argued there were other successes the NDP should have emphasized in the party’s campaign: Their economic plan to manage the inevitable decline of the fossil fuel economy on which Alberta is so heavily dependent, their capable management of the health care file, and their decision to move labour relations toward the Canadian norm.

This is easy to argue and far harder to prove. The sad reality, though, is that on all of those fronts the UCP and their media cheerleaders had established the prevailing narratives, and too many voters simply did not believe the NDP, no matter how much they respected Rachel Notley personally.

Then there was the historic blunder of a progressive party imposing a neoliberal instrument like a carbon tax, thereby alienating everybody. Carbon taxes may work, as the professional economists keep reassuring us. But what’s the good of them if they can’t be imposed in a democracy, especially when they are cynically abandoned by the market fundamentalists that invented and proselytized them the instant it becomes convenient to do so?

No, by the end of 2018, the only arrow left in the NDP’s quiver was to attack the character of the UCP’s leadership and the instincts of the party base. Both, on the facts, were vulnerable to such an approach.

Emphasizing this in the outgoing government’s campaign may not have won a second term, but it kept the NDP afloat to fight another day, defend its record, and point out the obvious when Mr. Kenney’s promises to instantly restore the economy and bring back the imaginary Alberta Advantage with a snap of his fingers, belligerent pipeline promotion and tax cuts for the wealthy all fail to produce the advertised results, as they inevitably will.

The NDP will be the strongest Opposition in Alberta’s history. Even the UCP cheerleading squad recognizes that.

13 Comments to: Pundits want you to believe negative campaigning hurt the NDP – it likely saved their bacon!

  1. David

    April 23rd, 2019

    Any time a party wins over 30%, especially in Alberta it is not a rout. I believe the % the Alberta NDP got is higher than some polling for the Federal Liberals currently, to put things into perspective.

    Yes, uniting the PC’s and Wildrose seems to have worked in the short term. Of course those that remember the 2008 provincial election will realize the PC’s got a strong level of support but that didn’t keep things from falling apart after. It may be more difficult to reconcile the views of fiscal and social conservatives in government, where choices need to be made, as oppossed to being in opposition where you can just criticize the choices of others. For instance, the PC’s tied themselves in knots over GSA’s before, don’t be surprised if the UCP tries to come up with a “compromise” that satisfies few, including many of its own supporters.

    Alberta may still have some default inclination to vote conservative, but if Kenney fails to deliver the miracle cures he promised, that might be a casualty of UCP rule. It is not too much of a stretch to go from 33% to government again. The NDP will have to carefully balance being constructive and critical. It will also need to let the voters discover on their own Kenney’s many flaws rather than trying to force voters to come to this conclusion immediately.

    You can’t force a horse to drink if they are not thirsty yet, but you can guide them to the water and be there when they are ready to drink. A deft hand and a bit of patience may work well at this point, after all the next election will be several years away.

  2. Mohamed Mahdi

    April 23rd, 2019

    Yeah. A lot of people like to point at the laurence decore liberals or the social credit after the 1971 election forming the strongest opposition in history in Alberta but in both cases the opposition became irrelevant as time went on because the governing party and other opposition parties siphoned support away from them. This occurred because albertans decided to give other opposition a bigger voice, the main opposition party was close to the governing party ideologically which was true for the AB liberals and kinda true for the social credit.The AB liberals also lost decore after the 1993 election and voted in a bunch of mediocre leaders(besides Taft) that oversaw a continuous drop in their party support for over 25 years.Having an opposition that is ideologically different than the governing party will make it harder for that opposition disappear. It’s also helps that the AB Party won’t die and they will likely help make things easier for the ABNDP by providing a third political option for small c conservatives in the future like the Saskatchewan Liberals were able to provide in the 1990’s minus the part were the AB Party eventually overtakes the UCP.

  3. Bob Raynard

    April 23rd, 2019

    The other thing the negative campaign did was warn people what to watch for from a Kenney government. That will make it a little more difficult for the UPC if (when?) they try to sneak in some of there more undesirable ideas.

    David, thank you for all that you have done during the campaign. Your hobby must have started feeling like a full time job!

  4. Jim

    April 23rd, 2019

    I think you hit the nail on the head, conservative good for economy NDP bad. It’s the narrative that was pushed regardless of the actual facts, why let the facts get in the way of a good story. At least Prentice was honest about the pain average Albertans were to go through under his plan. I won’t go into the facts because I am sure everyone reading this article knows them, but the one thing that stands out is Kenney was part of a federal government that racked up huge deficits adding to the national debt and never actually balanced a budget. This is your saviour Alberta a man who has never had a real job outside of politics and apparently lives in his mother’s basement.
    We will never know if the NDP vision of Alberta would have turned things around just like we will never know if Lougheed’s vision of Alberta would have transformed Alberta. Both parties never got a chance to fully implement the plan.
    Buckle up its going to be a rough ride because the narrative was just a narrative, reality is going to be much different.

  5. TENET

    April 23rd, 2019

    You are absolutely correct. We should recognize how energetic and inspirational Rachel Notley conducted this campaign, we should all be grateful for the legislative changes the NDP passed. Clearly, the best Premier we have ever had.

  6. Martin d'Entremont

    April 23rd, 2019

    I’m droning on here, but until the centre-left parties take a page from the to the right of centre parties and get united its going to be the opposition wilderness for years. The demographics can’t change quickly enough to overcome the Conservative mentality in this province. The NDP, the Liberals, the Alberta Party and the Greens must, and I hate the phrase, become a big tent party if they ever want the hope of progressive government.

    • Michael

      April 24th, 2019

      You could argue that the NDP basically IS that big tent non-right wing party. The green vote is tiny, the once impressive (Decore days, and not too bad under Taft) Liberal vote has evaporated. Progressives largely got scared into voting for Redford in 2012, but pretty much equally supported the Liberals and NDP (127,000 votes and change each). In 2015 the Liberal vote dropped by more than half to 62 K, and this time it dropped by nearly 3/4 to 18 K. A fair chunk of that must have gone to the NDP. Some might have gone to the AP, whose progressive credentials are debatable.

      The scary and depressing thing about this election is that over 1,000,000 people voted UCP, and that over a quarter of a million people who did not vote for either the PCs or Wild Rose last time did vote for the UCP this time. Assuming the NDP picked up 20,000 votes or so from the Liberals, then we have to conclude that they either got no support at all from the “never voted before or hardly ever vote” crowd, or that there was significant defection among those who voted NDP last time (either did not vote (a bit of a stretch given the overall increase in participation), or switched to Alberta Party, or voted UCP).

      I am not convinced the demonizing of Kenney, justified as it may be, did not have any negative effect, especially here in Calgary, since I heard from quite a few people while door-knocking that they did not like that approach. On the other had, social conservative issues came up exactly once.

  7. St Albertan

    April 23rd, 2019

    If Rachel isn’t the next leader of the NDP national? I’d say at that point abandon hope! I believe if you could catch Jason in a moment when he felt that no one could use his heartfelt real opinion? It’d be Rachel. This woman is natural born leader. Jason wishes he had one tenth of her in his cabinet!

  8. Gail

    April 23rd, 2019

    This blog raises the obvious question: if the NDP was sure they were destined to lose the election why didn’t they enact meaningful and far-reaching reforms in Alberta as they had promised to do when elected?

    • Michael

      April 24th, 2019

      Gail, I also wondered the same thing. Some more interesting proposals about 2 years out from the election might have caught on and were worth a try. Such as a referendum on a sales tax in 2020, lowering the voting age to 16 (has been tried elsewhere with no adverse effects, and many 16 and 17 year olds are taxpayers (whatever happened to “no taxation without representation”), plus they can be sentenced as adults in court), electoral reform (never got why this was not even mentioned given it is usually NDP policy federally and provincially – it might have convinced more Alberta Party and others to get behind them this one time), and so on.

      Above all the NDP did not do enough on tax. Someone with a taxable income between 100,000 and 125,000 (now 128,000), so relatively well off by any definition, did not pay any more provincial income tax, whereas even under Jim Prentice’s March 2015 budget their taxes would have gone up (plus they would have had a health care levy as well, a tax by another name). And a sales tax has to come some time.

  9. ronmac

    April 23rd, 2019

    Let’s face it. The UCP could have dug up the bones of Pierre Trudeau and run him as Premier and still would have won.

  10. Jerrymacgp

    April 23rd, 2019

    The outgoing Notley government has been criticized quite roundly, not just from the right—from where this would be expected—but also from the left, where it is often accused of not having been “progressive” enough. But, leaving aside the linked issues of energy & the environment, how fair is that accusation?

    On support for working people, they did not go hard-left radical on worker rights, but instead pursued a middle-of-the-road approach to such matters as workplace health & safety, employment standards, employee pensions and labour relations. They did not pursue genuinely socialist policies on electric and gas utilities by deprivatizing the sector, but they put caps on power rates, and imposed reasonable constraints on formerly out-of-control senior executive pay packets at Agencies, Boards & Commissions—the “ABC sector”. They also transitioned the formerly industry-captive motor vehicle sales industry regulator to a more public-interest model,

    On social justice issues, they introduced protections for domestic abuse victims leaving unsafe living situations; they introduced consumer protections for new home buyers and payday loan clients; and they placed protective zones around women’s health clinics.

    I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. (For a more complete listing of the NDP’s accomplishments and initiatives, see the article in the May 2019 issue of Alberta Views, by Ricardo Acuña).

    So, sure, it’s true the Notley Government was not at all socialist. But given how far to the right the Overton window has shifted in recent years, driven by the mainstream media and the commentariat, they were far more progressive than any of its political predecessors in Alberta.


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