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Mending Alberta’s “Rift on the Right”

Posted September 1st, 2011 in Alberta Politics, News and tagged , , , , by Marc Henry

There’s a popular myth circulating in Alberta’s political “chattering class” these days which can be summarized in four words – “It was Ed’s fault.”


The tattered state of the governing Tories, the rise of the Wildrose, and disenchantment among Alberta voters is Stelmach’s legacy, so this theory goes.  Therefore, with Ed soon gone, things can finally get back to “normal”.  With a new PC leader, Wildrose voters will flock home to the comfortable confines of “the Party”.


Interesting theory, but according to a recent survey of Albertans, it’s pure fiction.  There’s really only one thing that will bring the “right of centre” on Alberta’s political spectrum back together – an election or two.


Two main reasons lie behind this.  First, there is no real threat from “The Left”.  Nearly half the electorate in Alberta would never consider throwing their support behind the NDP or Liberals.  As a result, the two parties on the right can confidently battle with one another without concern of an “Orange Crush” or “Red Tide” sweeping the province due to right-of-centre vote-splitting.  Just won’t happen.


Second and more to the point, the current of discontent in Alberta today runs deeper than many realize.  There is no doubt that Ed Stelmach was a lightning-rod for anger, but as he exits political life, though voters are less mad than they once were, most aren’t very happy either.


Indeed, the “attitudinal divide” between likely Tory and Wildrose voters is as wide as ever.


Consider the key drivers of likely PC voting: Attitudes about the economy and the opposition parties.  Over three-quarters (78%) of likely PC voters believe that “Alberta is on the right track today”, an expression primarily colored by views of improving economy.


Meanwhile, nearly as many (72%) don’t believe that any of the opposition parties “have what it takes” to run the Province.


In short, with the economy on the mend, these voters don’t believe the time is right to change horses to an untested opposition.


Contrast this to likely Wildrose voters – and the contrasts couldn’t be more striking.


Two-thirds (66%) of likely Wildrose voters say the Province is on the “wrong track” – a reflection on the state of politics rather than the economy.  To these voters, the PCs have been in power too long, leading to indifference, incompetence and even corruption in their minds.


While many may have started from the same “Big Tent” party of Ralph Klein, today Wildrose and PC voters have decidedly conflicting beliefs on the state of the governing party, the province and its future.


It’s an intriguing set of circumstances for a province poised for a new Premier and, some say, a General Election shortly thereafter.


Some, particularly those who subscribe to the “It was Ed’s fault” thesis, have already written-off the Wildrose in the next election.


Probably a little hasty.  Despite the findings of one poll in July showing a “leaderless” PC Party heading to another landslide, consensus seems to be that while the PCs have a decent lead, the Wildrose Party is still the only party within immediate striking distance.


In a province where opposition leaders traditionally suffer from a combination of voter indifference and ire, the Wildrose’s Danielle Smith is a true rarity – a popular leader.  Over the past twenty years, the PCs haven’t had to face many of those.


Add to this, differences in the strength of each party’s support and the opportunity for vote switching between them and suddenly the next election could be very competitive by Alberta standards.


Tory voters are greater in number, by low double digits, but these voters are less “energized” than others: 34% of likely PC voters say they are “excited about Alberta politics today” versus nearly one-half (47%) of likely Wildrose voters.


Short story: the PC vote is “soft”.  A leadership campaign and a new leader can help solidify this vote, but that too is not a foregone conclusion.


Between the two camps there is a base of “animosity” which prevents them from “willingly” re-uniting, but in the same breath, a sizable proportion of potential switching between them.


One-third (32%) of likely PC voters say they will definitely not be voting for the Wildrose in the next election.  Not to be outdone, fully 28% of Wildrose voters say likewise of the PC party.  But looking at those views from the other end of the lens, it means that roughly two-thirds of each party’s supporters are “open to persuasion”.  Make no mistake – in the next provincial election, the campaign will matter!


On October 2nd, the new Tory leader has a complicated path to chart – simultaneously drawing back support from the Wildrose and “firming up” the PC vote, while not alienating the existing base.  Tricky.


There may be a temptation to paint the Wildrose as “extreme”, but that’s risky.  It certainly won’t bring Wildrose voters back into the fold, and has the potential to split the existing PC base.


Among likely PC voters, nearly half (48%) feel the Wildrose is “too extreme” for them, but the rest are split equally: ¼ (26%) don’t feel Wildrose is too extreme, and ¼ aren’t too sure yet.


Painting the Wildrose as “extremist” may firm up support from the “progressive” wing of the party, but runs the risk of alienating those who tilt more to the “conservative” side.


While some may argue that Ed Stelmach is to blame for all the PC Party’s woes today, don’t expect his departure to end them.


The current “rift on the right” in Alberta has taken 40 years to manifest itself and it’s characterized by deeper differences than just “How mad you are at Ed Stelmach?”