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So close, and yet so far. Just 2,611 votes in six Calgary ridings determined the outcome of Alberta’s provincial election, one that elected a United Conservative Party government over the NDP. In fact, the number of rejected votes (8,138) was more than triple this ultra-thin margin of victory. If you ever wondered if your vote really counted, well, here’s your latest piece of evidence.
This has to be a particularly bitter pill for Rachel Notley and Alberta’s NDP to swallow. They can console themselves with the fact that they picked up a handful of key Calgary ridings Monday night and picked off Justice Minister Tyler Shandro, Health Minister Jason Copping and Social Services Minister Jeremy Nixon in the process. They also won Calgary-Elbow, a traditionally conservative stronghold riding held by Jobs and Economy Minister Doug Schweitzer until he resigned last fall. If they can win in Elbow, they should be able to win almost everywhere in Calgary.
Except, of course, they didn’t.
It will be tempting for some New Democrats — especially up in Edmonton, where the orange wave was in full effect — to blame voters in ridings like Calgary-Bow and Calgary-Peigan for choosing to look past comments made by UCP Leader Danielle Smith and some of her candidates in the name of protecting their own pocketbooks. That would be a mistake.
There will be calls for a return to the NDP’s more ideologically strident past, when catering to suburban Calgary voters was never much of a consideration. They’ll argue a more authentically left-wing party, one that campaigns more aggressively on climate change and social justice, would animate the young voters they need. That would be an even bigger mistake.
The unpleasant truth here is that the Alberta NDP snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with their campaign. Smith’s decision to go into the political equivalent of the witness protection program allowed her campaign to focus most of the attention on the NDP’s track record in office, one the party has consistently refused to talk about.
Worse, the NDP’s head-scratching decision to announce a three per cent corporate tax rate increase activated anxieties many Calgarians had about the NDP’s time in office, particularly about the party’s handling of the economy. Never mind that said record was mostly a function of collapsing oil prices, or that NDP governments have traditionally been better stewards of the budget and economy than their conservative counterparts. Because the NDP has refused to actually tell their own economic story, they invited the UCP to tell it for them — and it elected Smith.
The time to announce that sort of tax increase is when oil prices inevitably crash and the province’s dependence on fossil fuel revenues becomes more obvious and urgent. The Alberta NDP’s decision to release a fully costed platform and a balanced budget might have pleased the tiny handful of economists in the province but did little to reach the voters they actually needed. In the process, they walked into the same trap that ensnared Thomas Mulcair in 2015 — and cost him his own chance at governing. The lessons here should be clear by now: managerial competence doesn’t excite people, and playing directly into your opponent’s framing of an issue is a good way to get crushed by it.
Progressives in Alberta shouldn’t despair, though. They will have time to develop their own economic story for the province and find the right people who can tell it most effectively. They should do that most aggressively in the Calgary and Edmonton area ridings they didn’t win this time, the more suburban areas populated by people who tend to vote with their family’s pocketbook in mind. Whether you like it or not, and many people don’t, in Alberta politics, it’s always the economy, stupid. The sooner the NDP smartens up about that, the better.
The NDP's lack of a coherent economic message and its decision to announce a corporate tax hike mid-campaign cost it key votes in Calgary — and the election. Can the party learn from its mistakes and close the deal next time? @maxfawcett asks.
And while Smith may have been the ideal candidate to run against, given her personal unpopularity and track record of saying deeply offensive things, the conditions in the next election might actually be more favourable for the NDP. The province will be even more cosmopolitan, urban and diverse, as has been the trend for as long as any of us have been alive. An Electoral Boundaries Commission is due to be held soon, one that will reflect the growth in Alberta’s population since the last one in 2016 — and almost certainly add seats to the NDP’s strongholds in Edmonton and Calgary. And Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, which the UCP has been effectively running against for years now, may no longer be in power.
The safe bet is that Smith probably won’t be, either, given the well-documented track record Alberta conservatives have of eating their own (the last elected premier to finish a full term in office was Ralph Klein in 2004). And while it’s possible the UCP could replace Smith with someone more temperate and moderate, that certainly hasn’t been the trend of late. Given the looming (and menacing) presence of Take Back Alberta, it’s far more likely that her replacement will come from the more conspiratorial wing of the party — one that clearly prevails now.
So no, Monday wasn’t the result Alberta’s NDP was hoping for. But it could easily set the stage for a much happier election night yet to come. They just need Rachel Notley to keep the faith, learn from the campaign’s mistakes and finish the job.