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NDP Victory in Alberta: Does this spell trouble for Harper?

Yesterday’s shocking “Orange Crush” sweep for the NDP in Alberta wasn’t supposed to happen.

Rachel Notley Alberta NDP

After 44 years of Conservative rule, the province much-maligned for being “Canada’s Redneck Zone” or “Texas North” surprised pundits — but not pollsters — when it turfed Jim Prentice to elect Rachel Notley as premier. The Tories only managed a third place finish, behind the right-wing Wildrose party.

So what happened? Did the land of cowboy boots and oil wells suddenly decide that the NDP’s brand of social democracy was preferable to the Tory blue brand of pro-wealthy, pro-corporate policies? Was this a protest vote or an indication of real change?

And, most importantly, does this spell bad news for Stephen Harper and the Federal Conservatives in the upcoming October election?

Eh, maybe. But probably not as much as you might think. Here’s why:

United left, divided right

In Alberta, the left rallied around the NDP in this election. The Liberals only claimed a single seat, with most left-of-centre voters gravitating towards Rachel Notley to help unseat the Tories. The left won by being united.

The right, on the other hand, was split deeply between the Tories and the spoiler Wildrose party, which won 21 seats to become Alberta’s official opposition. If you recall, the Wildrose party, which politically actually sits right of the Tories on many issues, had been projected to win the last Alberta election by pollsters. Many voters last-minute shifted back to the Tories to prevent that from happening, but a lot of them probably were more centrist than right-wing and not natural Tory supporters in the first place. This time around, with the momentum behind the NDP, many of them might have felt comfortable casting their vote elsewhere.

On the federal scene, of course, it’s quite the opposite. Justin Trudeau and the Liberals are running neck-and-neck or slightly ahead (depending on which polls you believe) of the Tories, and are the favourites to form a government in the fall — albeit likely a shaky minority one. The NDP gained momentum under Jack Layton but it’s unclear if they’ll be able to hang onto it in this first election with Thomas Mulcair at the helm. The left, in other words, is deeply divided between the Liberals and the NDP, with other parties like the Greens, or the Bloc in Quebec, further fragmenting the votes. On the right, however, the base there pretty much still has no option other than the Tories. Ever since the Reform / Canadian Alliance merged with the Progressive Conservatives in 2003 under the “Unite the Right” banner, the Tories have managed to consolidate their votes and haven’t allowed much room for dissent.

In other words, maybe what Canada needs is a federal Wildrose party.

Alberta’s demographics have changed

Alberta’s population ain’t what it used to be. The job boom led to mass migration westward, and the province added over half a million people in the past decade — a double-digit percentage growth. Those thousands of people from Eastern Canada or Quebec who have moved to Alberta?  And they’re not traditionally big fans of the Conservatives.

Moreover, the younger population of Alberta, especially the urban youth, tend to be more progressive, and young people have been moving to Alberta in droves throughout the past decade’s job boom. Edmonton voted in an NDP MP in an urban riding in the past federal election. Calgary elected progressive (and Muslim!) mayor Naheed Nenshi in 2010 and again in 2013.

All of this combines to shake up the assumptions we might have had about Alberta, making way for a broader spectrum of political views to compete seriously.

But on the federal scene, it’s a bit of a different story. The Liberals or the NDP might compete for a couple of seats in urban Edmonton or Calgary, sure. But many people will probably see no contradiction in voting for the provincial NDP and then turning around and voting for the federal Tories. Alberta’s map may be a little lighter blue this October than it was in 2011, but I suspect it would take another decade or so for these changing demographics to be reflected on the federal election map in any significant way.

Alberta’s economy has changed

For years, Alberta has been about jobs and oil. Oil and jobs. Jobs and oil. A “have” province, Alberta’s boom economy has led to rapid creation of wealth for its residents. Combined with the country’s lowest taxes, this has meant that many well-off Albertans have felt like they’ve had it pretty good.

But it’s been largely a bubble. And last year, that bubble started to burst. In a six-month period, the price of oil fell from over $110 to under $50 a barrel.

The effects of this have been enormous. The provincial conservatives, long racking up deficits even despite all the boom wealth, suddenly saw the money dry up. When the Prentice government released a budget that included both austerity cuts for individuals, and tax breaks for corporations. This hit a lot of middle-income Albertans right in their pocketbooks, fuelling anger and discontent. Oil jobs have been drying up, and everyone is nervous and worried. And to add insult to injury, Prentice rolled back charitable tax credits, pissing off people across the spectrum who believed that he was attacking charities while letting big business off the hook.

Stephen Harper’s Federal Tories, on the other hand, have been careful not to make the same mistakes. Suffering from the same drop in oil prices as the Alberta Tories, the Harperites shifted their focus instead to what they call the “law and order” agenda. They’ve drummed up fear of terrorism, introduced Bill C51, and basically used misdirection to distract everyone from the economic challenges. They released a budget full of feel-good handouts and promises that will mostly benefit only the wealthy, but in a much more populist way (like increasing the TFSA contribution limit).

Also, time is on Harper’s side here. Oil has climbed back up to over $60/barrel since it hit its low in March, and is projected to stabilize and climb further by the fall. You can bet that the Tories will try to take credit for this — even though it, like the high price, has nothing to do with Canada at all. We can expect to see more focus on the economy in the election campaign if things appear to be on an upswing by late summer.

Notley didn’t win so much as Prentice lost

Ultimately, this election wasn’t so much won by the NDP as it was utterly bungled by the Tories. Alison Redford, the former Tory leader, was forced to resign amidst spending scandals. Jim Prentice as newly installed leader angered friends and critics alike by placing cronies in high-powered jobs, recruiting nine former Wildrose MPs with incentives to cross the floor, and — in a blatantly opportunistic move — calling this election a year early. That, combined with his disastrous budget and spending record, doomed things for his party, driving his more centrist voters leftward to the NDP and his more conservative voters rightward to Wildrose. Sure, Rachel Notley was able to capitalize on this protest sentiment by running a good campaign. But the big fail here was on the part of Jim Prentice and his perfect storm of a terrible campaign.

Stephen Harper may be a lot of things, but he’s not incompetent. Machiavellian and calculated, yes. Tyrannical in terms of not allowing discussion or dissent, sure. But incompetent? We Canadians should only be so lucky.

Ultimately I think that Harper may be nervous, but not nearly nervous enough. To unseat the Federal Tories, the other parties will need to make a lot more strong moves between now and October.

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