THE NEW ALBERTA AND THE UPCOMING FEDERAL ELECTION by GEORGE MELNYK

The pundits are out in full force as the federal election campaign fires off its first salvos. Warren Kinsella, a top Liberal politico, wrote in Ottawa’s The Hill Times (June 1) that the 2015 federal election “is the NDP’s to lose.” He argues that Mulcair’s image as someone who is “serious and progressive” trumps Trudeau’s image as “progressive and new” and Harper’s image as “experienced and serious.” The country seems to be in the mood for change. Gary Mason, writing in The Globe and Mail (June 11) agrees that “the whiff of change is in the air,” but he sees little comparison between Notley’s electoral advantages (tired regime, great television debate performance, withered Liberal Party, seriously weakened Wildrose, etc.) and what Mulcair has to face ( resurgent federal Liberals under Trudeau, for example) in crafting a federal win. The question is whether the desire for change is strong enough to unseat Harper.

I interviewed knowledgeable political observers outside of Alberta on their thoughts on the impact of the Alberta election on the federal campaign, what Mulcair and Trudeau might learn from Notley’s political persona, and whether a national strategic voting campaign makes any sense in defeating Harper. On the first question (the Alberta impact) John Harvard, a former Liberal MP who lives in Winnipeg, believes that federal voters who had viewed Trudeau as the likely successor to the Harper government will give Mulcair “a fresh look” because of Alberta but he isn’t convinced that will necessarily last. Nelson Riis, a former NDP MP for 20 years, considers the Alberta election “a game changing event in Canadian politics.” For him the electorate that wants change has to decide “who can defeat the Tories.” He hopes it will be the NDP. Left-wing activist Judy Rebick believes that current polls that show a three-way race offer hope, but that Mulcair needs to keep his party to the left because that is where the electorate is moving. Toronto pollster, Marc Zwelling, founder of the Vector Poll ™, is cautious about translating the Alberta win to the federal scene. He argues (based on a recent Abacus Data poll) that Albertans saw themselves as removing a party that “disgusted them, not embracing the NDP.” He expects the Alberta election to have a “nil” effect on the federal election.

Zwelling does not think that either Mulcair or Trudeau “can change quickly or credibly into something they are not.” This means that Notley’s political persona, which served her well, is not easily transferable and Mulcair and Trudeau are saddled with their current images. Rebick acknowledges that “Notley’s personality was a big hit with Alberta voters” with her authenticity being the key. And like Zwelling she doubts that Mulcair can be made to appear “less stern and more human” and Trudeau “a little more weighty.” Riis is not as interested in personality. He considers “a clear understandable message” as the key, suggesting that a party’s platform is as important, if not more so, than personality. Harvard admits that “a politician who needs to work on his ‘human side’ has problems.” While someone like Trudeau can “light up a room,” according to Harvard, Mulcair lacks the magic touch. The problem for Trudeau is convincing voters that “behind his sparkle lies substance.” Both leaders come with at least one serious drawback.

What about strategic voting on a national scale? Harvard believes that “strategic voting is almost certainly doomed to failure” because neither the NDP nor the Liberals see an advantage for them. They both want to win at each other’s expense. Of course this is what the Tories are counting on. The whole idea of strategic voting is to stop splitting the vote that gives Harper the advantage. Rebick is also sceptical about strategic voting. First, it can breed political cynicism; second, she thinks it favours the right over the left (e.g. vote for Trudeau because he is better than Harper), and finally people may lack sophistication in voting strategically and so vote counter-productively. “With a bigger voter turnout,” she argues, “we wouldn’t have to worry about splitting the vote.” So her strategy for removing Harper is getting more people to vote. Zwelling also argues against the value of a national strategic voting campaign. He says that “given the low credibility of polls among the general public it’s hard to imagine that strategic voting proponents could sway enough voters.” He wonders if enough voters would trust the data presented to them on whom to vote. Zwelling has been polling for more than 25 years so his warning comments on strategic voting as an electoral game-changer need to be taken seriously. I do take them seriously, but I still think there is an argument for strategic voting’s usefulness in the upcoming federal election, if for no other reason, than my worry that there may not be a landslide (no Trudeau-mania or Orange Wave), and so the Tory strategy will succeed. Here’s my argument.

Canada’s regional, linguistic, cultural, and demographic differences, not to mention socio-economic and historic ones, mean that any federal political message must have a very broad appeal. Harper is running on two words—economy and security—and he has been working hard (in his ads, legislation, and foreign jaunts) to convey that message loud and clear. His opponents have yet to coalesce around one or two powerful, all-encompassing concepts that can arouse a majority of federal voters to create a post-Conservative era the way Alberta voters have. The upcoming federal election will go to the party with a message that resonates and an appealing leader. In some cases the message and the personality may not be complementary. In Alberta’s case it was personality that mattered more than policy. In the federal case it may be the opposite, in which case, Mulcair may have a real chance at becoming Prime Minister. Otherwise Trudeau has the upper hand. Because of the diversity of political voting patterns nationally, the fact that neither Mulcair nor Trudeau has the perfect combination of policy and personality, and the lack of a “disgust” factor the way there was in Alberta, the chance of a landslide is not high. Ergo strategic voting.

While those I interviewed found strategic voting on a national scale to be problematic and clearly it was not strategic voting that worked in Alberta, where we got a landslide of change, I believe there is a case for provincially-based strategic voting groups across the country. Being provincially-based means these groups are closer to the political reality on the ground and their recommendations might have more appeal because of that. With the divide and conquer strategy in full play by the Tories and their stranglehold on two key political concepts, it is important to identify seats where the Tories can be defeated. Even a dozen key ridings might make the difference. A national strategic voting campaign, headquartered in each province, could be that final piece that gets rid of Harper and ushers in a new era. If the polls indicate there is no clear front-runner, then strategic voting websites for the centre-left make sense. Of course, my preference is for an anti-Harper landslide, but if there isn’t one in the offing, we will have to vote strategically.

George Melnyk was a member of the Calgary chapter of the Democratic Renewal Project during the 2012 Alberta election, continued with ChangeAlberta.ca, and is currently one of its contributing editors.

3 responses to “THE NEW ALBERTA AND THE UPCOMING FEDERAL ELECTION by GEORGE MELNYK

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  3. I have had a profound and absolute respect for George Melnyk for 44yrs. His analysis is consistently thoughtful and has, in the past, been even avant garde.

    However, we disagree on this completely. All I can see that strategic voting has done in the past is to split the vote and enable the Conservatives to win. Yes, I know that Melnyk is looking at it from the heartland of conservatism, Calgary, where the radical alternative is to work and vote for a liberal alternative that might win if only to get rid of the Conservatives.

    Nope, George, the significance of the NDP win (note that I’m not attributing it exclusively to Rachel Notely) is that it has “given permission” to the rest of the country to consider the NDP as a real alternative and they are responding.

    In the end, we can vote strategically and have another Conservative government or we can do something sensibly radical and vote NDP. We can, as Melnyk suggests, substitute Tweedle Dee for Tweedle Dum. But that only leads to substituting Tweedle Dum for Tweedle Dee in the next election. Regardless, we end up with something horrible or something mostly horrible.

    It’s time to stand up for a real change. Oh, I’m not so naive that to think that the NDP will deliver the change I want but I do know, after alternating between the Teedle brothers, we have to switch families and try to influence that transition.

    So that’s the argument for not voting strategically: it doesn’t work. And the reason it doesn’t work is that the campaign started last January (at the latest). A party has to build support and that’s a long, hard job. A job, I would point out, that is truly strategic. The political process, George, is no longer picking the most viable alternative for change when the election is called. It’s convincing people: getting out in the winter and knocking on doors, calling your friends to get them to call theirs, managing finances, introducing the candidate at public events. All the regular stuff but over a longer time.

    So we can “tactically” substitute Tweedle Dee for Tweedle Dum or we can strategically do the right thing and work for and vote for a change.

    After all, what do we have to lose? Bill C51? (Now that I recall, voting “strategically” would be voting for the party that supported Bill C51…)

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