A NEW ERA BEGINS by Alvin Finkel

Congratulations Premier-elect Rachel Notley!!! And to all the members of her majority NDP caucus, who include many fine individuals from whom the new premier can cobble together the most progressive Cabinet that Alberta has experienced to date. Congratulations also to acting Liberal leader David Swann and Alberta Party leader Greg Clark who won hard-fought battles for their own seats; you also will have input, we trust, from a progressive perspective, on the policies followed by the Notley government over the next four years.

And who won tonight? How about 16,000 low-income diabetics whom the Tories were going to deprive of funds for necessary medical supplies? How about all those kids who were going to be shoved into huge classrooms because Jim Prentice did not want to tax corporations and the wealthy? How about university students and professors and staff whose institutions were being diminished by cuts? How about the children in provincial care for whom Rachel Notley has been a staunch defender in the legislature for 7 years? How about everyone who requires decent and affordable long-term care or homecare?  In short, almost all Albertans who are not part of the selfish one percent with most of the money. Even many of them will realize after a while that having a well-educated, healthy population and proper infrastructure is helpful to the economy of this province, as is economic diversification.

But there will no doubt be a continuous scaremongering campaign by the corporate sector and their trained seal “research institutes” and media outlets to try to prevent the Notley government from fulfilling its promises. Certainly their counterparts in Ontario in the early 1990s caused the Bob Rae NDP government to break election promises and disillusion voters by embracing policies of austerity. Rachel Notley has made clear that Albertans require the same level of health, education, and social services when the price of oil is low as they require when it is high. She has made pledges regarding the environment, Aboriginal peoples, and the rights of working people in the public and private
sectors to have decent wages and safe, healthy workplaces. We believe that she means what she says and that her MLAs will also want to implement the promises that they made to the people of Alberta.

Congratulations not only to the NDP but to the voters of Alberta who demonstrated that they could unite behind one progressive party and break the cycle demonstrated in the 2004 and 2008 elections of giving four in ten votes to progressive parties but in such a way that it resulted in few seats going to progressives. The Alberta Democratic Renewal Project, created after the 2008 election, hoped to unite those votes by lobbying the political parties of the centre-left to nominate only one candidate per riding between them. The Liberals were interested in the idea; the NDP were not. So Change Alberta was launched in an effort to encourage strategic voting by progressive voters. In the 2012 election, we recommended the most winnable centre-left candidate in 42
seats that seemed within reach of the progressive parties. More of our choices were Liberal than NDP if only because the latter party had no recognizable heartbeat in Calgary at the time.  And 93 percent of our recommendations proved correct in practice. In that election, however, about half of progressive voters naively but understandably chose to vote for Alison Redford’s bogus progressive Tory platform in order to stave off the wingnuts of the Wildrose Party.

As the 2015 election began, Change Alberta continued to see its role as non-partisan. Its active members included members of both the NDP and Liberal parties and many people who are non-partisan. But it quickly became clear that, among progressive parties, the NDP had the leader who was inspiring Albertans, and a degree of organization and financial resources that easily surpassed that of the other three progressive parties. The Liberals were leaderless and imploding, and the Alberta Party lacked traction outside Calgary-Elbow while the Greens were simply not in the race. So, we largely recommended that our readers vote NDP in their constituencies, only departing from that viewpoint in seats where another party was overwhelmingly better organized than the NDP and was not being obliterated in the polls by the NDP. That caused many candidates and activists in the Liberal and Alberta parties to accuse us of being an “NDP front.” The election results demonstrate the absurdity of that claim. The only seats where we incorrectly predicted the leading progressive were four seats in which we gave the nod to the Liberals
rather than the NDP. The other progressive parties generally had a tiny fraction of the vote that the NDP enjoyed on election night.

Part of the problem is that while our legislature is composed of the winners of races constituency by constituency, a large majority of voters do not care one whit about local campaigns and local candidates. They are voting for a leader, or a party, or a particular party’s platform. The way people vote and the first-past-the-post individual constituency system are simply not in sync. We need political reform that provides at least a measure of proportional representation (PR) of parties according to their province-wide strength or that indeed bases the whole legislature on PR. The Alberta NDP has long been a supporter of PR but it will be interesting to see, now that they have benefited from FPTP, whether PR still looks attractive to them. For old-timers like myself, it seems remarkable that a progressive government has been elected in Alberta. I certainly did not believe that in my lifetime either an NDP government or a progressive Liberal government (of the kind that Kevin Taft offered in 2004 and 2008 as opposed to the reactionary type that Lawrence Decore offered in 1993)
would be elected in Alberta. I am pleasantly shocked that the carefully cultivated Tory ideology that seemed to equate the Progressive Conservative Party with the province and its oil riches (we were made to almost believe that the Tories had put the oil in the ground) has been sufficiently dispelled to allow an NDP government to form in Alberta. I believe that I speak for everyone in Change Alberta when I say that we not only wish them well but that we trust and indeed insist that they stay true to their promises. If they do, Alberta, which is currently the province with the most inequality in Canada, the worst environmental record, the worst record in occupational safety, a huge backload in needed infrastructure, and only so-so public services despite all the Tory propaganda that says otherwise, can reinvent itself.

Hooray Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP! Longstanding progressive Albertans and recent converts are elated by your victory. So many of our hopes rest upon you. Good luck as you roll up your sleeves for all Albertans.

Alvin Finkel is chair of Change Alberta and professor emeritus of
History at Athabasca University

A Strategic Confession by Alvin Finkel

“I really want to vote for the NDP in my constituency, someone who will sit in the Notley caucus. Are you sure that I will cause a right-winger to be elected if I don’t vote for the Liberal or the Alberta Party candidate you recommend?” In this wave election, we’ve heard this from a number of people who have written to us. Earlier in the election, our answer in every case was “yes, you will risk electing a right-winger, thereby reducing the progressive component in the legislature.” That’s still what we believe to be true in Calgary-Elbow and Calgary-McCall. In Elbow, the race is really between Tory (Mis)Education Minister Gordon Dirks and Alberta Party leader Greg Clark. The NDP is likely running a respectable third but mostly they are not visible in Elbow. Their vote is purely a Notley vote, not a vote for their generic candidate. In many constituencies, that is enough to make them the strategic candidate. But look at the Clark campaign with its 150 workers, $100,000 or so of expenditure, and bazillion lawn signs, and it is clear that he is the real threat to Dirks. Polls have them running even. So why not vote NDP anyway and not worry if a right-winger gets in? Well, what if the NDP does not have a majority of seats and needs a little help from its friends? Clark will almost certainly step up to the plate. But Gordon Dirks?

Similarly, in Calgary McCall, the real race is between the Liberal candidate, the chosen successor to Darshan Kang, and a Wildrose candidate. The NDP candidate may be the most progressive but he is a longshot. A strategic voter will want to insure that this seat elects a progressive, someone who would be available to a Premier Notley should she need them.

Edmonton-Centre, Calgary-Mountain View, and Calgary-Buffalo are different. Change Alberta has recommended the three Liberal candidates as most winnable among progressives and most people would agree that they are also the most distinguished candidates in their constituencies–Laurie Blakeman, David Swann, and David Khan. They are all running strong campaigns. Their NDP opponents, whatever their merits or demerits, are really just proxies for their leaders. Surely that is not enough to be elected? Well, frankly it may be! And what’s interesting in all 3 ridings is that threehundredeight.com claims the NDP is leading -a bit in the two Calgary seats, a lot in Edmonton–and that the Liberals are running a strong second. That means that the Tories and Wildrose cannot win these seats even if the progressive vote is split. Almost all the seats where the NDP is ahead are seats with strong right-wing challengers—the Liberals are a poor third or fourth or fifth in almost all of those seats, except Edmonton-Meadowlark, where it is also unnecessary to vote strategically as between the NDP and Liberals. A vote for the Liberals or Alberta Party in those NDP-led seats helps the right-wing by taking a vote from the leading centre-left candidate. But unfortunately for the Liberal candidates in the three above-named seats, a vote for the NDP does not risk giving the seat to a  right-winger. It seems rather unfair to tell Liberal and AP voters that they have responsibilities as voters to change their preferences in many seats while the NDP voters really only have to do this in two constituencies. But the math of this election explains why this peculiar circumstance has arisen.

We remain non-partisan. But we are not idiots who have to parrot the line of deluded  Liberals and AP that polls do not mean anything, blah, blah blah. Of course they do. The NDP moved into the big leagues this time around, and the other progressive parties moved to the bottom of the juniors. AP and Liberal candidates projected to win 4 or 5 percent of the vote are squawking at us for recommending NDP candidates who are projected to win 35 percent of the vote and allegedly are not working so hard to win voters as the now-junior parties are working. Why, they ask, would we calling on their voters to shift their votes to the NDP when they, the junior parties, are campaigning so hard? Answer: Because this time you have no traction and the NDP does. Maybe things will be  different next time and we’ll be pleading with people who prefer the NDP to give it up to you. But in this election, outside a small number of ridings, those who want Rachel Notley as their premier do have to vote for her candidates.

Alvin Finkel is chair of Change Alberta.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, could the PCs really fall? by Meenal Shrivastava and Lorna Stefanick

When Premier Jim Prentice labels the Wildrose as the “Far Right” and the NDP as “Far Left,” he is pitching the PC party as the “big tent” alternative in the centre, a caricature that has a long history in Alberta. The PCs have been in power for a record 44 years with minimal opposition.  For at least half of that period, there has been a litany of complaints: the mismanagement of the province’s resource revenues and the environment, rising poverty, patronage and corruption, and debilitating strains on health, education, and infrastructure. Recently, observers have been questioning the health of democracy in one of the world’s wealthiest jurisdictions, comparing Alberta to one party dominated ‘petro-states’ in other parts of the world.

Why do Albertans continue to vote for the status quo, either by casting a ballot for the PCs, or by not voting at all? A healthy opposition is a cornerstone of any functional democracy; it holds the government to account. The PCs, however, have appropriated both the “Progressive” and the “Conservative” labels, branding everyone else as ideological “extremists.” The most recent manifestation of this big tent strategy is Prentice’s move to obliterate the opposition last fall and then call for an early election to confirm his mandate to govern.

The recent decline of PC support in pre-election public polls is a sign, however, of a disenchanted electorate finally questioning the status quo. The current PCs bear little resemblance to the PCs of the Lougheed era, who spent public revenue to promote the public interest, be it education, or the development of oil sands that were at the time unprofitable. Since that time, successive PC regimes have lowered both corporate and individual taxation rates, and used surplus oil revenue to finance government operating expenses. Lulled into complacency by a robust economy, citizens have paid scant attention, affording PC premiers the luxury of ignoring expert panels that recommended changes in the province’s revenue and expenditure streams, in addition to putting money aside in Alberta’s Heritage Trust fund for the inevitable lean years associated with a boom and bust oil economy. With the sudden drop of oil prices and yet another terrifying plunge of the energy roller coaster, citizens were instead told to look in the mirror when they asked “where did all the money go?” Not surprisingly, voters are angry.

With a median age of 38.5 years, Alberta’s population is one of the youngest in the country. For the majority of Albertans then, this election marks the first time they are witnessing a three way political contest. The big question is –will fear of the unknown make Albertans yet again accept the claim that only the PCs are capable of governing the province? Voter willingness to make new political choices that reconfigure power will determine whether the practice of democracy is showing signs of maturity, or alternatively, whether Alberta will continue to be compared to ‘petro-states’ where the core values of democracy remain suppressed despite the presence of democratic institutions.

Meenal Shrivastava and Lorna Stefanick are political studies professors at Athabasca University and editors of the book Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada.

The Campaign to Date and Change Alberta’s Role by ALVIN FINKEL

This provincial election is causing a great deal of excitement among progressive Albertans because of the real possibility that Rachel Notley will emerge as leader of the largest caucus of MLAs and premier on May 5. But that victory will be mostly symbolic if the number of progressive MLAs elected falls short of the magic number of 44. So it is more important than ever not to split the progressive vote at the ballot box. Change Alberta has offered its choices in 62 ridings that we deem winnable and explained each of them (See our “Winnable Candidates” page).

The two provincial polls released in the last few days had different estimates of how many Albertans planned to vote for candidates of progressive parties: the Forum poll, which involved about 800 Albertans, pegged the number at 51 percent and projected an NDP majority government. The far larger Mainstreet Technologies poll, which interviewed 4250 Albertans, provided a more modest forecast: 43 percent of the vote for progressives. Threehundredeight.com combined the two polls to project an NDP minority government with 38 NDP members. They would have the support of three Liberals, but would be left three members short of being able to introduce the legislation that they promised during the campaign.

That’s not an acceptable result when there are four progressives for every three voters for Wildrose and even more for each Tory voter. But while the four progressive parties are running on similar platforms and are being careful not to criticize each other much publicly, it is no surprise that each of them is greedy for votes for their own party and somewhat hostile to a non-partisan voting site except when it supports their candidates.

Because of the outsize support that the NDP is receiving relative to the other progressive parties, it ought to be no surprise that almost 90 percent of our recommendations for party support this time around go to the Notley Crue. In 2012, by contrast, we recommended more Liberals than New Democrats. That doesn’t stop NDP partisans from pressuring us to support their candidates in several seats where we have determined that the Liberals remain stronger.

Some Liberal and Alberta Party candidates and supporters have written to us, sometimes rather stridently, to accuse Change Alberta of an NDP bias. They believe that their candidate is more experienced or more progressive or is working a lot harder to reach constituents than the NDP candidate. They claim that we are violating our own rules when we recommend a candidate who is not working as hard as their own.

Nonsense. We are measuring work by candidates but we are mostly interested in RESULTS.  We cannot ignore polls, especially constituency and regional polls, that provide an indication of what the voters actually think. It is no secret that many, and perhaps a majority overall of progressive voters this time, do not care about the constituency campaign or candidates; they are focused on the overall race and have decided that they want to support a particular party or its leader. Virtually all of those voters are planning to vote NDP. When the AP or Liberals work very hard in a riding and the polls say that their candidate will get 3 percent of the vote while the NDP will get 30 or 35 percent, it would be irresponsible to recommend someone other than the NDP candidate.

But here is some free advice to the NDP which may not like it coming from non-partisans: don’t ignore your potential voters. Yes, at the start of this campaign, you poured your resources into the limited number of seats where you thought you had a solid chance. And yes, you don’t really have the resources to get to every voter in every constituency where surprising levels of support have emerged. But you do have enough resources to have all your potentially winnable candidates knocking on doors and talking to community groups and to insure that a leaflet drop of some sort reaches most neighbourhoods. It’s bad enough right now that in some seats we have had professed NDP partisans, in one case an NDP federal candidate, writing to Change Alberta to support so-and-so of another party because they don’t believe their own party is actually campaigning in their seat. So, NDP, get your act together!

And AP and Liberals get over yourselves. In 2012, on election day, the Alberta Party led other progressive parties only in one seat: that of the leader. We project that that will happen again in 2015 but that this time that leader will actually win a seat. We are not judging the Alberta Party and its candidates, some of whom would be excellent additions to the legislature. Nobody would be a better addition to the legislature than Janet Keeping, the brainy, personable leader of the Green Party. But provincial Green support is sadly negligible and she is running in an unwinnable seat for any progressive (the premier’s seat, Foothills) and so we cannot recommend her. As for the Liberals, outside of their current five strongholds in Edmonton and Calgary, we could find only one seat (Red Deer North) where they stand a realistic chance of coming out ahead of the NDP, much less winning in 2015.

We expect many, perhaps most, partisans to be petty. Active party memberships are important to our political system, but they create a fortress mentality in which partisans regard everyone who is in another fortress as evil or stupid or both, even when they have similar agendas. But for the 99.9 percent of Albertans who are not members of a political party, there is no need to share the limited view of reality that partisans generally spout. Instead, keep your eyes on the prize: a minimum of 44 progressives elected to the legislature and the implementation of a progressive agenda. Don’t vote for Joe Blow of the Cannot Win party because she is working her guts out to get elected and you feel sorry for her even though she has no chance of winning. Why let some reactionary get elected because you want to follow your heart and not your brain? And don’t vote for Jane Doe of the Winning the Province Party if in your seat another progressive is clearly leading and the consequence of your ignoring what is going on in your constituency is that a reactionary may get elected.

Alvin Finkel is chair of Change Alberta