Chairman's Desk

Alberta still the Wild West when it comes to election predictions

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday March 24, 2019.

You might think a province that can count the number of changes in government in its history on one hand would be one where predicting election outcomes would be easy.

But if there is one thing the last three Alberta elections have taught us, it’s that all is not as it appears in the sunshine province.

For those of us observers in the rest of Canada, much of the challenge in predicting the horse race results of Alberta elections lies in the outdated perception we have of both Alberta and Albertans. In 2019, the province is much more Nenshi and much less Klein; a shift that’s been driven in part by net-migration — from within Canada and abroad.

At various times in Alberta’s recent history, the pundits and pollsters have ended up tying their shoelaces together; politicians have staged improbable comebacks; while voters have flirted with the notion of change, only to return to the status quo at the last moment.

And so, I watch with interest as Albertans prepare to go to the polls April 16.

That anything can happen in a campaign is a cliché for a reason: because it is true. And it is especially true in Alberta.

Back in 2008, pundits obsessed over lingering bad blood from Ed Stelmach’s leadership race against party stalwart Jim Dinning. His government was destined to collapse from majority to minority status, or so went the conventional narrative.

But Steady Eddy proved the talking heads wrong. He ran a consistent, focused campaign that doggedly reminded Albertans that he “had a plan” and relentlessly hammered away at the shortcomings of Alberta Liberal Leader Kevin Taft. In the end, he proved the smart people wrong: the PCs picked up a dozen more seats.

Fast forward to 2012, when Alison Redford went into campaign season lagging by 22 points. As the Wildrose opposition took the lead, and media exposed details of a government committee that hadn’t met in years yet paid its members handsomely, the PCs faced an almost certain rout. Considering the party had been in power for 39 years at that point, many voters thought a rout was exactly what the PCs deserved.

But as the public turned its attention to the Wildrose bench, they discovered a team that wasn’t yet ready for prime time.

One candidate described how gays will burn in a “lake of fire.” Another Calgary-area candidate claimed that he had an advantage in the ethnically diverse riding “as a Caucasian.” The party’s leader questioned the science of climate change – hardly a deal breaker in oil-dependant Alberta – but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In the end, the PCs were returned to majority status and managed to stem their losses to five seats.

And then there was Jim Prentice’s 2015 roll of the dice when he tried to seek a mandate from voters to support his unpopular budget. This after he had engineered a mass floor-crossing of Wildrose MLAs to eliminate the province’s only effective opposition.

To say these antics left a bad taste in voters’ mouths would be an understatement and polls began to indicate that voters were looking elsewhere – namely, at Rachel Notley’s NDP. Yet, pundits remained skeptical.

Today, Premier Notley finds herself heading into her first re-election campaign facing a united and re-energized opposition. The PCs and the Wildrose have merged to create a Jason Kenny-led United Conservative Party that’s a formidable challenger.

The UCP, which has been leading in the polls for a year and a half, has started the election as the victim of its own self-inflicted wounds: candidates with sketchy pasts, an exposé in Maclean’s recounted a tale of skulduggery surrounding a “kamikaze” candidate who worked with Kenney to sabotage an opponent’s leadership campaign. All of a sudden, there are shades of the internecine warfare that was supposedly meant to doom Stelmach along with mutters of history from either 2008 or 2012 repeating itself.

But the UCP still maintains a commanding lead, and it is laser-focused on the issues — pipelines, jobs, and the economy — which will define the race.

While it is too soon to say whether its focus will pay off, this election may prove that campaigns do matter, after all.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt