Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Alberta Politics Overview - December 2010

If you are a blogger interested in Alberta politics recent months, and this past month in particular, have been filled with an embarrassment of riches. I am finding it difficult to actually finish posts, as there are so many topics worth writing about that even the low-hanging fruit is overwhelming. If only I got paid for writing here, eh? However, one of the more common conversations I've been having recently is about the 'state of the game' in Alberta politics. How badly have the Progressive Conservatives been hurt by recent events? Has the Wild Rose Alliance stalled or is it making up ground? Are the Liberals in trouble? Can the Alberta Party actually become relevant? This is my brief overview of the current state of play.

The governing Progressive Conservatives have had a very bad few weeks. Alternatively one could refer to the fall session of the Legislature as a train wreck for the governing party. From a communications point of view 'Cookiegate' and the subsequent, and much more harmful, loss of MLA Raj Sherman are the only memorable images of the session for most Albertans. From a branding point of view the damage done to the PC party may have legs, if the opposition parties can continue the identification of the PCs with long wait times and erratic management. That said the PCs have escaped the fall session, and they still have the largest political infrastructure in the province. While bloodied they have the time and resources to fight back, especially with an election still most likely over a year away and at a time of their choosing.

The Wild Rose have had both good and bad news in the past month. The latest polls put them within 5% of the PCs in popular support province wide, and while it is far too early for that to be vital it is certainly good news for the party. They have, however, had some problems of their own at the grassroots level, with problems around the nomination process in Little Bow and other internal frictions in Medicine Hat. In the legislature the WAP MLAs have been very insistent in their attacks on the government, as is their role, but occasionally have strayed beyond the bounds of decorum and relevance. Sadly they are far from alone, and the debate between Hancock and Anderson over the former's point of order was not an edifying parliamentary spectacle. While I'm sure the heated language and personalization of issues will play well with elements of the Wild Rose's base support, they haven't made as much out of the opportunity the government has presented them with as I would have expected.

The WAP push to continue nominating candidates for the next election continues despite the difficulties in Little Bow. They have, as of this writing, settled on candidates in 26 ridings, far more than anyone else. This is slightly misleading of course, as the PCs will be running many of their 67 incumbent MLAs again, but it does put them far ahead of the other opposition parties. The challenge they will have to overcome moving forward involves fundraising, as they managed to match the Liberals last year while falling far short of the PCs. They need to close that gap to make themselves look like the government in waiting, and to provide the resources they'll need for a winning campaign.

The Alberta Liberals have, despite feeling very good about their work in the fall session, fallen to 19% support in recent polling. This indicates that, despite their efforts, they are not connecting with the imagination of the voters. Again, this polling is a snapshot, and one taken a long way from an election, but I think it points to an issue that has troubled me about the Alberta Liberals for a long time. While they have managed to consistently attract the support of 1/4 of voters, give or take, I have long felt that this support was 'soft'. As the only serious opposition party over the past 20 years, since there was no realistic chance of the NDP winning an election, the Liberals became a parking place for voters opposed to the PCs. With the rise of the Wild Rose, and at least potentially the Alberta Party, this 'soft' support will no longer be necessarily available to the Liberals.

The NDP, with its tiny caucus of two MLAs, continues to punch well above its weight in the legislature. I continue to be impressed with the work of Rachel Notely - I may not agree with her on many of the issues, but she has proven to be a fine MLA. Long term it is hard to see how the NDP can move much beyond the half-dozen or so ridings in which they possess significant support, however.

Finally there is the Alberta Party. While only a participant in the ongoing drama in the legislature via its committed online partisans, it is starting to stand itself up as a viable political organization. I emphasize starting, but the appointment of Sue Huff as its interim leader provides a charismatic and articulate face for the organization. At least as important constituency associations, the real groundwork of any political party, are coming online at a rate of 2-4 per week. I'm also told that fundraising is moving forward and should the party maintain this momentum for a couple of months then by spring it will be in a position to act as a full participant in the political arena; with people, money and a leader to provide the voice. That said it is worth remembering that the party was left off the recent poll for a reason - it has a long way to go yet.

According to Premier Stelmach the next election is likely to he held in the spring of 2012. There is no realistic scenario in which the PC party could lose control of the house before that, and it is hard at this point to imagine a situation in which the Premier and cabinet want to rush into an election. Thus, we have a year and a half to go - a long enough time for a great deal to change in politics.

To count to PCs out because of the battering they took last week would be foolish - they have a lot of time, and the experienced personnel, to right the ship. The Wild Rose may have stalled, but they have time. Their biggest issues are the internal frictions that have been surfacing between the party's central bodies and its constituencies. The Liberals are working hard to change their methods and messaging, and depending on the results of those efforts their position may improve by election time. The fundamental question they will face is whether the 25% of voters they have been attracting consistently are supporting the Liberals or just opposing the PCs. The NDP seems content to remain what it is, and they possess a committed base of support. The Alberta Party has generated some energy and is transitioning into the real business of politics, and at its current rate of progress will be able to take its place as a full participant in the political scene with a year left to go before the likely election call.

Anyone still bored with Alberta politics? I think we're in for a very interesting year and a half.

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