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With more than 2.5 million people and $250 billion in combined GDP, the cities of Calgary and Edmonton are the driving force behind Alberta’s prosperity. They’re home to the head offices of Alberta’s biggest companies, the seat of its provincial legislature, and the beating heart of its arts and culture scene. And according to new Premier Danielle Smith, her entire electoral strategy revolves around ignoring the people who live there.

This probably sounds like a form of politicial suicide, and in most other provinces in Canada, it would be. Even in Alberta, where 41 of the legislature’s 87 seats are located outside its two major cities, it’s a very dangerous gamble. But it’s one she seems determined to make and foreshadowed almost immediately by calling a byelection for herself in Brooks-Medicine Hat instead of the vacant seat in Calgary-Elbow.

The 2021 Canadian census showed the continuing urbanization of a once-rural province, with 87.7 per cent of Albertans now living in cities, towns, villages and specialized municipalities. Many of those smaller communities still vote reliably — indeed, almost religiously — conservative, but the trend here is clearly not Smith’s friend. So why then does she seem so willing to write off places like Calgary and Edmonton? “When rural Alberta gets mad at the governing party, they go create a new political party,” she told Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell. “That’s when we see a vote split. That’s when we lose.”

That’s a long way from the ambition that Jason Kenney showed as leader, and the overwhelming majority he won in 2019. His prosperity-oriented message was intended for all corners of the province, including — and perhaps, especially — Calgary. If you’re a Calgary-area voter, much less one of its UCP MLAs, Smith’s talk has to make you nervous. But it’s in keeping with Smith’s style of politics, which has always elevated the concerns and grievances of rural Alberta above anything else. “I don’t intend to try to win every vote,” she told Bell. “I recognize if I’m stretching to reach certain seats, I’m probably going to lose Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre.”

Instead, her government seems determined to serve the interests of anti-vaccine rural Albertans, who make up a tiny slice of the overall population, above almost everyone else. That mindset helps explain why she described unvaccinated people as “the most discriminated against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime,” a remark that’s already landed in the digital pages of Forbes magazine and been used by Ontario hospitals to recruit health-care workers. It also helps explain why she didn’t, and almost certainly won’t, apologize for that remark.

But Smith, who has a reputation for making big political gambles — witness her disastrous decision to cross the floor with eight colleagues and join Jim Prentice’s PC government — might be making her biggest one yet. Those 41 seats she’s identified aren’t all rural or agrarian, and many have been held by non-conservatives in the past. Grant Notley, the current NDP leader’s late father, served as the MLA for the Peace Region for many years. Shannon Phillips, the former environment minister, has served two consecutive terms representing Lethbridge. And there are growing pockets of progressive politics in places like Medicine Hat, Fort McMurray and Red Deer.

For Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP, this is the political equivalent of an opposing hockey team pulling their goalie at the start of the third period. Politicians have missed empty nets before — as Peter MacKay said, that was the story of Andrew Scheer’s leadership in the 2019 federal election — but it certainly makes the game easier to win than it would be otherwise.

That said, no one should assume the game is won. Notley and all of her Edmonton MLAs and staffers should be relocating to Calgary as soon as humanly possible, and they should spend every available moment they have from now until next May pounding its pavement. With Smith surrendering Edmonton and effectively ceding most of Calgary to them, they should press their advantage and take the fight to the ridings that Smith needs to win.

They should also be rallying the mayors, councils and other leaders in Alberta’s cities and municipalities behind their cause. Starving the province’s economic and cultural engines of oxygen is as much a threat to their interests as anyone else’s, and the prospect of enduring four years of Smith’s rural-oriented leadership might open some eyes and clear some throats. Yes, they’d pay a price for speaking out if she wins, but they should be highly motivated to avoid that outcome — at almost any cost. More importantly, so should the millions of Albertans who live in its cities.

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
October 19, 2022, 06:09 am

This article has been corrected to reflect the accurate combined population of Calgary and Edmonton and number of term Shannon Phillips has served.

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Conservatism was the dominant force in Alberta politics for decades. If the Smith-led UCP is largely abandoning the big cities to the NDP, what does that say about conservatism in Alberta?

How much further will Notley move to the right to take up the space in the "centre" vacated by Smith? Notley has already moved right (or "wrong") on the oil industry and climate. What other values, policies, and principles is the NDP willing to give up in order to attract "moderate progressives" and "centrist" voters? Will the NDP look more and more like the old Progressive Conservative party?

While one might suppose that Alberta voters are becoming more progressive, not less, the two main parties are both moving right. Odd, isn't it?
Too bad we don't have another party on the left to take up the space vacated by the NDP, especially on energy and climate.

Keith McLaughlin, Chief of Staff to several ministers in the Notley govt, now with New West Public Affairs (CBC West of Centre podcast: Watching from the other side, 22-Apr-22):
"I advocated back in 2016 for the provincial (NDP) party to de-affiliate from the federal party. I have long felt that way, just because there is disalignment."
According to McLaughlin. a formal separation is necessary if the NDP is to attract former progressive conservative voters, who feel comfortable with neither the UCP nor the federal NDP.

Parsing progressivism won't work on the left any more than on the right. Obviously, since numbers are all, uniting is the only secure option. They should just rename it the Democratic Party of Canada to emphasize what is now demonstrably under threat with the Jan. 6th insurrection and the convoy here. I keep saying this, but with politics now being binary, anything else IS just the "narcissism of small differences."
People go so willingly and predictably into the weeds on every topic, making voting just another form of their beloved personal expression, which is ridiculous. The 'big picture" has never shone more brightly because it's now existential and should be a siren call for everyone.

Keith is wrong on this especially at a time when a bona fide coalition between the NDP and the Liberals has actually managed to slide in under the radar of the rabid, braying cons.
It's the first truly hopeful thing for us progressives when we're under such serious threat from this swelling wave of stupid populism.

Re: Max's observation that rural voters "almost" religiously vote conservative, I'd say 44 years of one party rule easily rivals the tribalism of religion for starters. And we DO now refer to the "religious right" with "social conservatives" now having enough clout to run such a candidate for federal leadership. And Stephen Harper was the first prime minister to say "God bless Canada."
So what I wonder with Danielle Smith is, since she is not only NOT overtly religious, she apparently refused to be sworn in using the Bible, how much longer the currently galvanized true believers are going to be content waiting in the wings? Although being attracted to martyrhood and victimization seems to be a precursor for Christians, the scent of real power seems to have taken over when such public affirmation is possible; it's a strong affirmation of and sanction for their "faith," often a nebulous thing I've heard ( can't think why......) And the reversal of Roe v. Wade has truly put wind in their stiff sails....
I like the description of this phenomenon in a New York Times article talking about the rise of evangelicalism in the Republican Party on the heels of televangelist Jerry Falwell's "Moral Majority" where evangelicals were being asked to "come up out of the catacombs" where they had been for years. This is happening everywhere; they're having a moment like no other, so I'd say the real dangers of politically aggressive religion are now synonymous with the dangers of conservatism.

I posted this before but it's always worth reading. It's astounding that it comes from Senator Barry Goldwater known as one of the most right-wing US Senators ever:

"Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they're sure trying to do so, it's going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can't and won't compromise. I know, I've tried to deal with them." Said in November 1994, as quoted in John Dean, Conservatives Without Conscience (2006)

This is all true enough. I think it's worth noting, though, that neither Smith nor anyone else actually seems to be planning to help rural people in any way. I mean, sure, there are a lot of rural people who are anti-vaxxers and they'll be HAPPY to be pandered to, but being vaccinated would be good for them just as it is for anyone else. They just happen to be more vulnerable on average to certain kinds of social media and religious pulpit propaganda than the average urbanite.
And this is the thing--Conservative politicians are happy to pander to rural prejudices, or scare them with lies about federa Liberal plans around fertilizer. But they're not going to do anything actually USEFUL, like put back the wheat board, or regulate prices on fertilizer or seeds or other inputs, or break up monopolies on those things or on meat processing, or help farmers move towards more sustainable farming methods that require fewer of those inputs.

But neither is anyone else as far as I can tell. Rural areas have actually been going through some really bad stuff for decades as big agribusiness takes over, and none of the parties have gotten serious about helping them in substantive ways. Doing so would fit the NDP's theoretical ideology, but in practice they never seem to much because the NDP is dominated by urban upper middle class highly educated types and they're not interested in agricultural policy. To the extent they think about agriculture at all, it's mostly about boutiquey organic agriculture. Don't get me wrong, I back organic agriculture, but nobody on the left seems to be thinking at a scale bigger than "It would be nice if there were a few more organic farmers' markets so those of us with the money and sensibility could always get a bit of organic veg". There may be a few good policies in an NDP platform somewhere, but it's not like they've ever mentioned it to any farmers or have actual plans to do enough heavy political lifting to break big ag hard enough to make farmers' lives noticeably better or reverse the disappearance trend of smaller farms. So rural areas are left to be dominated by default by the politics of rage, prejudice and despair.

So, the sole evidence for Mr. Fawcett's conclusion that Ms. Smith is ignoring Calgary and Edmonton are:

1. She is running in a by-election in a riding outside of the two largest cities, and
2. She made a pithy statement about the proclivities of pissed-off rural voters?

Is that right?

Count me among those who believe that many (not all) Albertans get the governments they deserve, but can we please have something more substantive by way of political comment?

This is entirely valid and substantive political comment. There are various male commenters on here who inexplicably seem to want to simply attack the messenger regardless of what he writes. Odd really.
Danielle Smith, like her Wild Rose Party, leans heavily toward rural Alberta, and has obviously eschewed Calgary Elbow because she might well lose in such an urban riding ( I mean she HAS been around for awhile after all and is a known quantity) which makes Alberta the poster province for the whole rural/urban split thing. It IS tribal and parochial behaviour for someone who is now premier.
But the issue, besides her apparent inability to "pivot" at all AND blithely ignoring her lack of a mandate generally is thumbing her nose at the clear majority in what is still supposed to be a democracy; it's what conservatives are about.

Valid? Sure; any comment can be valid. Substantive? We'll have to disagree on that.

If I am one of those male commenters to which you refer, then I am guilty as genderized. I am generally unimpressed with Mr. Fawcett's writings and perhaps others share my opinion which might be the reason for what you call, rather harshly, attacks on the messenger.

Unless things have changed substantively since my years living in Calgary, there were few, if any ridings, provincially or federally, that were at risk of not voting, in the majority, for a conservative candidate. Nonetheless, please show me evidence where, in any other context, a person recently elected as party leader -- though without a seat in the concerned legislative body -- did not seek out a very safe seat to get them into that legislature? It's just the way it's done.

"Tribal and parochial"? Oi vey. Politics, not just conservative, in Alberta is tribal and parochial (as it is, IMO, in most provinces). Forget the rural/urban split. Yes, it seems to be the case that conservatives form a larger majority of the rural population than the urban. But don't for a second believe that the majority of Calgarians are chomping at the bit to elect anyone else. Yes, there are progressive voices but until I see provincial electoral evidence of the majority voting "other than conservative", I'll believe they remain in the minority.

Mr. Fawcett didn't make reference to Smith's lack of being elected as premier in a provoncial election so I'm not sure why you brought that up.

I didn't understand your last sentence. What are you referring to, in your last sentence, by:

1. the pivot?
2. "clear majority" of whom?

"...besides her apparent inability to "pivot" at all AND blithely ignoring her lack of a mandate generally is thumbing her nose at the clear majority in what is still supposed to be a democracy"?

I think the case is pretty light. Smith is avoiding the vacant Calgary-Elbow riding not because it’s urban, but because she’s afraid she’d lose a by-election there; and she panders to rural conservatives, rural Albertans, and rural ridings because they comprise the biggest bloc of voters that supports her, both in her party and in the province.

Further, Calgary and Edmonton cannot be lumped together in partisan—or, for that matter, political—terms: like all politicians of the partisan right, Smith derides “Redmonton” because it is the densest region of ridings that votes for centre-left MLAs; and where Calgary is excluded from that lefty mould, Lethbridge is not, yet both count among the largest urban regions of the province.

In any case, Smith’s UCP has an obvious problem: its most reliably conservative ridings (most, but not all rural) do not exceed in number the combined total of less-reliable conservative ridings and solid NDP ridings. Albertans have been in the mood to punish parties of the right, starting with the post-Klein decline back when the NDP had so few seats as to be no-count; Wildrose hived off in protest from the veteran ProgCons (now far- and centre-right respectively), but general voters did not spare the rod on the upstart party either: in 2012 they denied Wildrose its predicted majority, punishment for one of its candidate’s homophobic hate speech. Factional turmoil continued to plague the aged ProgCon regime and, with its popularity flagging and a leader forced to resign, the floor-crossing of half the Wildrose caucus to the PCs was apparently voters’ last straw: as if to add insult to injury, voters elected an upset NDP majority and ended the longest-running government in Canadian history. Hitherto of little consideration, the Dippers came out of nowhere to underscore voters’ punitive intent. Finally, the ProgCon and Wildrose parties were summarily executed when Jason Kenney appeared out of Ottawa to nail the double coffin shut. And nobody thought they’d ever see the politically tarred-and-feathered Danielle Smith again.

Voters rewarded Kenney’s new UCP party with nearly 60% of the popular vote in 2015, but their enthusiasm rather indicated that they could be just as easily disappointed. However, in the UCP’s heady early government a telling fact was often overlooked: far from a convenient voodoo doll voters initially used to punish the ProgCons and Wildrosers with, the NDP turned out to be a fairly centrist government that performed well in very trying times so, instead of being relegated back to the handful of seats it held before the PC collapse, it won 24 of the 87-seat Assembly to become Loyal Opposition, affording it more parliamentary funding to hold the UCP majority to account with. In 2015, a significant number of erstwhile conservative voters appeared to have stayed with the NDP: the new UCP government should have heeded the warning that centre-right conservatives might still be in a mood to punish stupid government. Instead, the UCP played silly antagonistic games with Ottawa and Sasquatch —even as Covid hit and demanded critical care and cooperation. Instead the UCP gleefully cultivated its far-right/SoCon/Wexit faction(s) with petulant, ultra-partisan relish.

When a serious pandemic hit, Kenney’s popularity sank to about 20%, dragging the UCP’s down with it; the far-right/SoCon/Wexit faction(s) protested with a vengeance the very government they voted for not a year before. Again in a mood to punish the partisan right—still of obscure identity—, the former Wildrose leader Brian Jean won a by-election for the UCP by openly campaigning against the UCP leader, quickly mustering enough support to force a party review of Kenney’s leadership. K-Boy resigned after receiving only 51% of members’ approval. And Danielle Smith re-entered the UCP atmosphere like a malevolent killer asteroid with the UCP’s very first mandate barely three years old.

Nota bene that at every step of the partisan right’s descent in Alberta—from the “Lake of Fire” boner, to crossing the floor, to participating in the route of the venerable PC regime, thence cascading into the PC/WR extermination, and on to the UCP’s far-right palace coup—Danielle Smith happened to be there. The question isn’t why former Wildrosers supported Smith’s leadership win when they used to be forefront in meting out the series of punishments inflicted on parties of the right for sins Smith which was largely to blame. Nor is weakly-correlated rurality with her stated agenda very incisive in answering what might be expected from her government.

Yes, the rural factor was important for getting her to this stage, but it will hardly do to forecast her arc from here on because Smith’s ascent has little democratic weight anyway—indeed, such as she has now was almost entirely garnered by her now-disgraced predecessor when he successfully ginned the far-right factions of the right for a majority win but, importantly, did not convince all erstwhile conservatives to return to the fold in the chuffed hoopla of 2015. It’s rather coincidence that Smith’s rhetoric celebrates rurality because that faction of the electorate matters as little to her as democratic licence. And it’s numerically insufficient anyway. Meanwhile, Rachel Notley’s NDP is united, coordinated, locked-and-loaded for the next election while having stayed slightly ahead in the polls for quite a while already.

Plainly if Smith is to contemplate winning the next general election she seems unconcerned about right now—with only seven months to go —she’ll have to persuade most of those less-than-reliable conservative ridings to vote UCP. But taking the NDP’s retention of a significant number of erstwhile ProgCons’ support in 2015, considering their manifest reluctance to endorse the UCP at the time back then, given the near-even split between moderate and far-right UCP factions right now, and the fact that Smith openly intends to game the system to the max with crazy policies—virtually without democratic licence—it seems very likely the electorate’s critical ‘undecideds’ will tilt away from her —and that correlates very weakly with either rural or urban ridings in the province.

A bad penny is a bad penny whether one finds it on a city street or on a rural road.

Note to Tris Pargeter:

The above is substantive comment.