Let’s start with the obvious. The last time all the polls agreed on something in Alberta, it was that Wildrose would win the 2012 election. Whether a result of bad data or last-minute buyer’s remorse, this catastrophic failure of polling led into many others. Now we take our polls with a grain of salt.
But taken with a pinch or a pound of salt, there’s no denying the spectacular rise of Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP. Following last night’s masterful performance in the televised leadership debate, polls now show the NDP poised to form a majority government in a province that has never elected more than 16 New Democrats to its provincial legislature.
In 1984 a plane crash killed Grant Notley, Rachel’s father and leader of the NDP, at the apex of his popularity. Hard then not to feel a few shivers watching his daughter carry forward his legacy all these decades later.
Forum Research surveyed 801 Albertans over two nights: the night before the debate and the night of the debate. The NDP attracted the support of 38 per cent of Albertans, which would translate to a slim majority government, followed by the Wildrose Party at 25 per cent, and the Progressive Conservatives at 20 per cent. The poll, which shows the NDP “dominating” in both Edmonton and Calgary, also found that almost four in ten voters who supported the PCs in 2012 now plan to vote NDP.
“The Alberta electorate has once again demonstrated its resistance to expectations,” said Forum Research president, Dr. Lorne Bozinoff, in a release. “While we were in field during the televised debate, which was dominated by the leader of the NDP, Rachel Notley, we were also in field the day before, with the same results. The New Democrats appear to have cobbled together an unusual coalition of the wealthy, the young, disaffected PCs and half the Liberal party. This may be a recipe for government.”
It’s hard to imagine those already spectacular numbers have anywhere to go but up after a debate performance for the ages, unanimously declared a knockout victory by the far-from-NDP-friendly media in Alberta. Even Danielle Smith — the former Wildrose leader, then PC defector, now private citizen — was unequivocal in giving the win to Notley.
A decisive victory
A Mainstreet Technologies poll conducted immediately after the debate asked 2,322 Albertans who had won. Notley was the choice of 44 per cent, while 25 per cent opted for PC leader Jim Prentice and 16 per cent Wildrose leader Brian Jean. On the question of who would make the better premier, Notley edged out Prentice 36 per cent to 32 per cent, with Jean a distant third at 21 per cent.
Notley was the only party leader to decline an invitation to Global’s morning show today to discuss the debate, a power move if I ever saw one. Indeed, how could she improve on that performance?
So where is this coming from? Apart from the obvious (a tired and corrupt government, an eviscerated opposition, a charming and personable new leader), there are some underlying numbers that suggest Alberta’s politics may be shifting ever so slightly. An overwhelming majority of Albertans tell pollsters they want to reduce their economic reliance on oil and gas, and there’s agreement on both extremes of the political spectrum that corporate taxes should be raised along with those of everyone else.
But elections, it is famously said, aren’t won with ideas. They’re won with stories and relatable characters and moments where the public coalesce around an underdog.
Premier Prentice provided something of a textbook example of the latter when, caught out in a misstated number, he flung the following words at Notley’s feet: “I know that math is difficult.”
The condescension was cutting, and Notley used it to her advantage, coming back a few minutes later on royalties, saying that Albertans are always told, “Don’t worry your pretty little heads about it.”
This exchange was a microcosm of the evening. In some part, one had to feel sorry for Prentice. Clearly this debate, much like the campaign, did not go according to script.
Contenders versus pretenders
Throughout the evening Prentice addressed almost all his questions and remarks to the NDP leader, leaving Wildrose leader Brian Jean mostly unmolested to repeat overrehearsed talking points at seemingly random intervals. This behaviour indicates that PC internal polling has shown the NDP to be the real threat to the premier.
Prentice started strong, his chest puffed, trotting out one variation after another of a red-baiting theme. He seemed to expect each hit to land, and then was surprised as Notley deftly parried each blow, returning to the nuts and bolts of his government’s record.
Nothing was clearer on this night than that this was a debate between two real contenders and two pretenders. Paul Wells cites the political truism that the leader who auditions for the role of opposition leader most often gets it. In this debate, Brian Jean resembled nothing more than a man trying out for the opposition benches.
His core message, repeated so often it became a defining joke on social media, was simple enough: no new taxes, no matter what. For the core supporters of Wildrose, this was what they wanted to hear, and they no doubt basked in its repetition. But I doubt it was a performance that won over new converts. The most memorable part, aside from the taxes bit, was when he felt the need to clear up a reported “problem area” for his party that lingered from the last campaign. “Man-made climate change is real and we need to tackle it head-on,” he said, apropos of nothing much.
As author Chris Turner commented on Twitter, climate denial may be over in Canada, but for the odd exception of the front benches of our national government. In Jean’s defence, the defection of Wildrose’s leader and front bench earlier this year thrust him into a role for which he was clearly ill-prepared, and he did a decent job of trotting out his party’s talking point(s).
Dr. David Swann, the Liberal leader, seems like a nice fellow, and is no doubt a top-notch physician. What he is not is a good politician. He stumbled over his lines and came across like nothing so much as a professor on a ramble. His positions amounted to a Goldilocks approach of positioning himself somewhere between NDP and PCs on every issue. The memorable moment for me was in his closing remarks, when he asked Albertans to visit his party’s website and then gave out the full address. “That’s what Google is for, grandpa” you could almost hear the audience groan. Forum pegs Liberal support at 7 per cent. Swann’s performance, in contrast to the sparkling Notley, will do little to improve their fortunes. Don’t be shocked if the Alberta Party ends up pushing the Liberals into fifth place on May 5.
Premier plays defence
Prentice was, as are all incumbents, on the defensive throughout the debate. He parried decently, and I thought his performance was passable. What he failed to account for was Notley’s brilliance. The premier’s face was a study in incomprehension all evening, as she effortlessly deflected his attacks and repeatedly landed zingers that have dominated the news cycle.
“Prentice seemed jolted by Notley’s quickness and skill,” wrote Don Braid, senior political columnist for the Calgary Herald. “She was a tough target for the premier. Notley played him like a fiddle, often interrupting adroitly, without seeming angry, just pleasantly indignant.”
In 11 days, Albertans go to the polls for perhaps the most interesting election in that province’s history. Will the heartland of Canadian conservatism elect a social-democratic government for the first time?
Even if she fails in her quest for government, Notley seems likely to wind-up as opposition leader in what will probably be a minority legislature, poised to take another run at the premier’s chair in a year or two.
Chinooks, warm winds from the coast that can even melt snow, are well known to Calgarians for the respite they offer in the winter. In Alberta, a great big orange chinook is brewing, and all that remains to be seen on May 5 is how much of the ice clinging to Alberta's political landscape it will sweep away.