Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Calgary-Elbow byelection redux

Something really interesting happened in Alberta last night: the long-reigning Alberta Tories lost Ralph Klein's old seat to a Liberal. My heartiest congratulations to my fellow Alberta bloggers Calgary Grit and daveberta, who have worked very hard over the last few weeks.

I have a couple of things to say about the result, but I admit that I spend a lot more time thinking about federal politics than I do about provincial politics. This means that my take on this is only somewhat informed, so take it with a grain of salt. Basically, though, what I see is that the Liberals didn't win this byelection so much as the Tories lost it. Ed Stelmach, the Tories' replacement for the Alberta institution of Ralph Klein, is terrifically unpopular these days, and it showed. However, this says less about Stelmach in particular than you might think, because the real culprit is a slow disintegration of the lumbering Alberta Tory beast, and that has been lurking in the shadows for a long time.

For years, I have suspected that the Alberta Tories were made up of several very, very different kinds of conservatives--groups which, in a more normal jurisdicion, would end up in two or even three competing parties. Their leadership race only brought this into sharper focus, with the three top-tier candidates representing very separate constituencies: "the Calgary business conservative" (Jim Dinning), "the rural southern Alberta conservative" (Ted Morton), and "the rural northern Alberta conservative" (Ed Stelmach).
[*] This isn't a traditional left-right split; it's a rural-urban split, and to a somewhat lesser extent, a north-south split. But it's also no illusion--they may all be old, right-wing white guys, but the things these constituencies care about are still completely different, and it was only Ralph Klein's personal brand of populism that kept them unified for as long as they were.

Now, with the king gone, that faux unity is crumbling. From the point of view of the Calgary business conservatives, the province is now being run by a rural northerner, which means that anytime the Stelmach government doesn't handle that city's issues well, it must be because he doesn't care about them.
[**] It's tempting to say that they picked the wrong guy, but the other candidates would have had the same kinds of issues, in other directions. Dinning would have had the rural northerners revolting; Morton would have had everybody who didn't want to resemble the U.S. Republican Party blanching and heading for the hills. If anything, in Stelmach they ended up with the one choice that had a slight chance of keeping the thing they call a party together--the safest candidate. But as we saw last night, even the safest candidate is by no means a sure thing these days.

Some Alberta Liberals are predicting a sea change in the next election (next spring sometime, most likely), but while that would certainly be interesting, I'm still pretty doubtful. If the Alberta Tories had chosen Morton and thus branded the entire party with a hard-right southern rural flair, I could see that happening. But the fact is, it's going to take an awful lot of urban business conservatives holding their noses and voting Liberal for there to be a change of government, and I just don't think that group finds Stelmach's northern rural sensibilities quite that scary. If the Alberta Tories really did split into two parties, of course, that would be another story, but I don't really see that happening either. Instead, I'm with Kuri from Thought Interrupted by Typos in predicting that the "Calgary business conservative" constituency will now form Alberta's equivalent of Ontario's "905" region:

What the demographics of the city--in particular the suburban bedroom communities in this sprawling city--point to is a Tory-Liberal swing, similar to those equally sprawling, SUV-loving cities that ring Toronto. These areas shifted massively in favour of hardline conservatism with the election of Mike Harris in 1995, only to shift equally dramatically in favour of the Liberals in 2003. These people will not be loyal. They will go to whoever will bribe them with the best goodies like tax cuts, more roadwork to support their unsustainable lifestyle, and other things that mean getting more and paying less.
In sum, then: The Alberta Tories probably aren't going to lose the next election, but they're going to have to work a lot harder to win it than they have in a long time. This will involve saying very different things to different constituencies, something that Stelmach hasn't yet learned to do as well as Klein did--and if he bungles it even a little, there could be an awful lot of fascinating fireworks for us political junkies to watch (and, possibly, a minority government). And if you're part of the "Calgary business conservative" constituency, expect to be courted but hard by both Stelmach and Liberal leader Kevin Taft in the next election.

[*] There was also an "Edmonton business conservative" candidate, Dave Hancock, but truth be told, that's just never been big enough a constituency to field a candidate who could win. Edmonton tends to divide up its provincial seats between the Liberals and the NDP, with the occasional Tory adding a hint of spice. Reason #574 why I'm glad I live here and not somewhere else in this province!

[**] This may, in fact, be the case, for all I know. However, I can't help but notice that the same allegations weren't lobbed at Klein, who did just as crappy a job handling issues like skyrocketing rents and potholes.


Anonymous said...

I agree with what you've written. I would just add that the reason the Liberals won is because of the stay-at-home Tories. The Liberals received almost exactly the number of votes in the by-election as they did in the 2004 general election (4,938 vs 4,801). In fact, most of the parties got roughly the same number of votes as last time, the only exception being the Tories who received 2,941 fewer votes this time than last time. And that number is very close to the total drop in voter turn-out: 2,640.

Tory voters in Alberta tend not to express their disapproval by switching parties; they just stay home on voting day.

You're right that none of this points towards a new government after the next election. And there's no sign of a swing toward the Liberals. But it does make a larger opposition more likely.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

d bailie,

Excellent point!

Candace said...

IP, I've voted Liberal provincially in the hope of getting an honest-to-God opposition, but would never do that if there was a hope in hell of them forming the gov't. I don't think I could ever vote NDP, though, I can't buy into the 'chicken in every pot, car in every garage, brought to you by big gov't' policies they tend to promote.

I could go green provincially, though, if they had a decent candidate in my riding.

I'm holding out hope that the next election will be one of those surprises AB is famous for. I'm really tired of the provincial Tories.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


How fascinating! I'm not a fan of single-party majority governments, especially if they last a long time (across jurisdictions, around the world, they inevitably seem to become corrupt over time), so I suspect I'd be just like you if it were my side that had been in power forever.

How depressing provincial politics must be for you, though, when the side you most agree with on policy is the side you really want to see lose. Are you going to vote for one of the far-right parties, then?