After crunching the numbers on the PC’s “10 year plan” in the budget lockup on March 26th, I half-sarcastically quipped that Jim Prentice had given Alberta its first NDP budget. I didn’t mean it literally, at the time.
I’ve been a non-partisan conservative fiscal policy analyst and advocate on the sidelines for most of my career and am now a Wildrose MLA, so I won’t pretend not to have a dog in this fight or to be entirely objective. That said, this short paper is my attempt to make sense of the volcano that has been Alberta politics over the last 6 months.
The Ides of December
The floor-crossings of December are likely to go down in history as simultaneously the most guile, careerist political betrayal in our country’s history, and as the worst career decision imaginable.
I wrote about these events on December 23rd, 2014. I argued at the time that by offering up their unconditional surrender to Prentice, the floor-crossers had given up all leverage in pushing for conservative fiscal reforms. With them comfortably seated on his side of the house, he would likely turn left to deal with the NDP.
It’s hard to resist the temptation to say ‘I told you so.’
The media largely gave Prentice a free ride throughout the summer and fall of 2014. The sense of invincibility about him was no small influence in convincing the 9+2 floor crossers to take a leave of their senses and moral compasses.
With four-of-four by-election wins, most of the Official Opposition sitting in the nosebleeds of the government backbenches, and an overflowing war chest, the PC brain trust decided that a huge majority with a small opposition wasn’t enough. They needed an even bigger, crushing majority with effectively, no opposition but for a few Dippers in Edmonton.
Prentice needed an excuse to call an early election, and a “transformational,” “10 Year Plan” would suffice as an excuse. Wildrose is dead, the Liberals are chasing their tale in a corner, and who in their right mind would vote for the NDP? They were banking on Albertans feeling that they literally had no other choice.
This gave the Tories an overwhelming sense of hubris and their thorough-breed instinct for entitlement began to shine through again.
The Battle of Ideas
The Tories lost the battle for their budget’s pubic acceptability when they gave up on the battle of ideas without even trying.
Having amongst the highest per capita spending in the nation along with netting record revenues over the last decade, conservatives have a compelling argument that the province has a spending problem, and not a revenue problem.
For progressives, Alberta has a revenue problem. Spending might be high, but because Alberta is prosperous, it should be higher than it is. In their view, raising taxes on businesses and hiking royalty rates is a recipe for success. Importantly, they rhetorically focus on raising taxes on “other” people (businesses), but not “you.”
Prentice spent months making the argument that Alberta had both a spending problem and a revenue problem. He would cut spending by $2.5 billion, raise taxes by $2.5 billion, and borrow another $2.5 billion. Falsely believing the Wildrose to be dead and that he faced no conservative opposition on his right, he dropped any significant spending reform from the budget, preferring instead to merely “hold the line” for a single year, before increasing projected spending again.
Importantly, the PC budget contained in it 59 new or higher taxes and fees that would increase the average household’s tax burden by $2,500 a year. Raising taxes on individuals without cutting spending salted the earth for many voters who had been thinking that Prentice was a man trying to strike a balance.
As someone who had already been knocking on doors full time for over a month in my constituency of Strathmore-Brooks, I can tell you that this had a massive impact. As I poured over the numbers in the budget lockup, I viewed the budget as a betrayal of any pretense to conservatism, but also as a gift-wrapped billy club with which the Wildrose would be able to bludgeon the government.
It made clear to those still on the fence that the PCs would sell out anything to retain power, and that conservatives had only one voice that would stand on principle for them. I immediately felt the effect at the doors, and the PC Party itself felt it just days later. Any pretense that those who had crossed the floor from the Wildrose to the PCs were somehow going to pull it in a more conservative direction became a laughing matter. Floor crossers Danielle Smith, Rod Fox and Gary Bikman all went down in defeat in their PC nominations, and the party brass fatefully intervened to save Bruce McAlister’s bacon.
On the left, the budget was panned for not increasing spending in a single year by the combined rates of inflation and population growth, although it did grow in years two and three. There were cuts to several programs, but not to government spending as a whole. Coupled with not raising taxes on corporations or raising royalty rates, this was nonetheless enough for the NDP to seize on.
Choose your medicine
Prentice tried to make the election about the budget, and the budget options on the table were a suicide cocktail of his own making.
- Behind the blue door: Raise taxes on you.
- Behind the orange door: Raise taxes on someone else.
- Behind the green door: Don’t raise your taxes. Cut spending.
Prentice claimed that cutting spending in the Wildrose’s budget would be “extreme.” This was problematic after he had just spent three months traveling the province promising to cut spending by roughly the same sum.
Next, Prentice tried to poke holes in the Wildrose numbers by assembling The Ministers. Descending from their perches, they tried to say the Wildrose numbers didn’t add up, despite the PC government cooking the books on its own accounting for the last three years. The Wildrose responded when I challenged former PC Finance Minister to a budget debate, which he quickly turned down.
Prentice then tried to simply ignore the Wildrose and present the election as a “clear choice” between his PC Party and the NDP. This was fatal – framing the choice of PC) raise taxes on you, or NDP) raise taxes on someone else – and had what should have been an obvious consequence. Guess which one they picked?
For months, Prentice made the argument for both higher taxes and for cutting spending. When he jettisoned any spending cuts, he left the right wide open. When he was left only with raising taxes, people preferred to raise them on someone else.
The more the Tories tried to maneuver to save themselves, the deeper they seemed to sink.
Soon after the writ was dropped, it became clear that the Wildrose Rebel Alliance was in fact, very much alive. Prentice hadn’t expected a two-front war. Despite all the crowing about the need for a “10 Year Plan” requiring a mandate defying Alberta’s fixed election date law, Prentice tossed it out the window.
The first shoe to drop was government-sector salaries. In a bid to remind voters that ‘conservative’ was in his party’s label, he announced – in direct contravention of the budget tabled just two weeks before – that he would freeze government employee salaries. The “10 Year Plan” didn’t make it 10 days into the campaign.
The second shoe to drop was even more spectacular. The Tory brain trust came to the surprising realization that cutting the charitable tax credit from 22% to 12.75% – while leaving a credit at 75% for some political donations – might not be a very popular move. It’s fine for politicians to admit mistakes (I’m sure I’ll make enough in my time), but it looked entirely opportunistic.
If one could wear a third shoe, it was dropped when Prentice backed away from his “10 Year Plan” to not raise business taxes. It wasn’t a promise to raise business taxes, but it meant that the only tax that Prentice had promised not to raise, was on the table in the future, despite his repeated emphasis on the need for a “10 Year Plan.”
Reversal after reversal did not reverse Tory fortunes, but it made a joke of the need for an early election to rubber-stamp the “10 Year Plan.”
Internal PC polls must have shown that their two front-war was not working. After ignoring the Wildrose, Prentice instead tried to recast himself as the Great Right Hope to ward off the Red Hordes at the gate. It was a reversal of Redford’s play to ward off the Wildrose barbarians at the gate used in 2012.
“The NDP would take on debt, raise taxes and spend, spend, spend!” was a difficult rallying cry to bring back conservatives who were tired of the PCs taking on debt, raising taxes, and spending, spending, spending.
Data will need to be collected to know if the Red Scare had any effect or not. Our own internal indicators all pointed to the Tories headed for third place and with no sign of a last minute surge. If the PC’s Red Scare had any effect, it was to elect more New Democrats in the many races that were a Wildrose-NDP contest. While it had no effect on the outcome, the Red Scare may have shaved a small margin from my own contest in Strathmore-Brooks, but as stated, real evidence is needed to support this.
Alamo of the Elites
As it became increasingly obvious that Albertans were staging a full blown revolt against their government, the PCs resorted to the bizarre spectacle of trotting out leading elites of the governing and business class to remind the plebeians why they mustn’t ever upset the natural order.
The bright lights in the Tory War Room/Navigator nudged a group of businessmen to hold a press conference warning Albertans about the dangers of an NDP government. Their conclusions may have been right, but it was a PR disaster. Getting a bunch of pinstriped CEOs to sit at a corporate penthouse boardroom table to denounce raising business taxes looked sad, and hilarious. Even to Wildrose conservatives like myself, it appeared self-serving and desperate.
The full desperation of the Golden Cufflink Crew was on display as corporate Toronto ordered all four major Post Media outlets in Alberta to endorse Captain Cufflink. The Edmonton Journal is a relatively reliable centre-left outlet, but in the moment when the left was surging across Alberta – and especially in Edmonton – it bizarrely endorsed Prentice, literally as Alberta’s “CEO”.
The Calgary Herald gave an easy ride to Prentice during his fall honeymoon, but gave him a rougher ride for turning his back on his promises in recent months. It appeared to betray its conservative leanings when it also endorsed Prentice with ease, without even the caveat of a minority government or strong opposition.
The biggest shock came from the Edmonton and Calgary Sun papers; papers that have been consistently conservative and populist all of a sudden endorsed a tax-hiking, big-spending, un-conservative, elitist premier for that party’s 13th term. Their endorsements did not note a single PC scandal and did not once mention the $2,500 hike in taxes on the average family. It was a gross betrayal of everything that the Sun stands (stood?) for.
All four of these papers however are owned by Post Media, and were ordered to support Prentice.
In addition to badly damaging their own credibility, the appearance of it all was as the nobles rallying to save the Ancien Régime. I know many journalists at all four of these papers that were humiliated and embarrassed by the decision of their owners.
It was the Alamo of the Elites.
While some ink has been spilt about vote ‘splitting’ on the right, the biggest vote ‘split’ that took place in my own estimation was among the Anybody But PC (ABPC) vote. When I am knocking on doors, I ask voters a question to try to solicit some reaction from them and spark a conversation, and shape a ballot box question.
In January and February, that question was, “Do you think we need a strong opposition?” In March, that question was “Do you think its right for Jim Prentice to raise your taxes after blaming you for overspending?” In April, that question suddenly became “Do you think it’s time for a change and new government?”
About one week into the formal election period, it seemed that nearly everyone (at least in Strathmore-Brooks) just ‘clicked.’ People were just done with the PCs, and would vote for anyone who could beat them. I was pledged votes from left-leaning voters in Strathmore-Brooks (not that there is a plethora of lefties in S-B) who recognized that I was the candidate who could best do that. It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that if some right-leaning voters in other constituencies believed Prentice’s rhetoric that the NDP was the only party capable for defeating him, that they would vote for the NDP to do just that.
While I am obviously generalizing, there were four broad groups of voters in this election:
- Right leaning voters who supported the Wildrose,
- Left leaning voters who supported the NDP,
- ‘Brand’ voters who would vote PC under any and all circumstances regardless of leader and policies, and
- ‘ABPC’ voters of various political and non-political leanings who just wanted to “kick the bums out.”
In my own experience, the most fluid group of voters were not centre-right Wildrose-PC ‘switchers,’ but Wildrose-NDP ‘ABPC’ switchers.
While it would have seemed inconceivable just a month ago, it now appears that voters were determined to take this government down, come hell or high water.
Albertans did not (for the most part) vote for the NDP’s platform and policies, but to throw out the PCs and replace them with the likeable personality of Rachel Notley.
Waiting for the Wave
While I am not without my own biases in saying so, the Wildrose more likely represents mainstream Alberta values and policies than the NDP does, but the damage done from the December betrayal was too great to ride the wave of discontent to its full potential.
The Wildrose had come close to death (and been pronounced dead by the entire punditocracy) several times, but refused to die. As it turns out, the Wildrose was the grassroots movement it always claimed to be, and couldn’t be negotiated away as a pawn for the advancement of a few careerists. While the blow was not fatal, it was crippling for a time.
We had virtually no money when compared with the PCs, and trailed even the NDP for a time on the fundraising front. We were forced to hold the world’s fastest leadership race in time to elect Brian Jean just days before the writ dropped.
In the face of great personal tragedy, Brian preformed strongly, with dignity and purpose; but there was just no time and money to introduce him to most Albertans.
While it is a very big ‘what if,’ it is entirely possible that had Danielle Smith resigned the leadership honorably in December and allowed a normal transition to take place, the wave that swept Alberta on May 5th would be the green of Wildrose, and not the orange of the NDP.
Premier-elect Notley – or any premier ever again – is unlikely to opportunistically break a fixed election date the way Prentice did, for reasons that are now obvious. By 2019, Brian Jean will be known, and in my experience, the more you know Brian, the more you like Brian.
In 1996, Tom Flanagan wrote ‘Waiting for the Wave’ about the federal Reform Party being in the right place at the right time to catch those rare waves of popular discontent that sweep the prairies every two or three decades.
The May 5th, 2015 General Election was just such a wave, but circumstances made it nearly impossible for the Wildrose to catch that wave to its crest. Nonetheless, the Wildrose did in part ride that wave, but with a more ideologically homogenous voter base than the NDP.
Considering that most left the Wildrose for dead in December, its resurrection to an even larger caucus as the Official Opposition is nothing short of astounding.
End of the One-Party State
The PC dynasty is dead. If the PC Party is not formally laid to rest, it is likely in my estimation that it will limp on in a zombie-like state and lead an existence similar to Social Credit.
For an extended period of time now, the PC Party has had no reason to exist but for power itself. It has been neither rooted in progressivism or conservatism, or centrism, but has tacked this way and that to maintain its stranglehold on power. Now lacking power, it ceases to have any real purpose.
The 2015 General Election’s results herald the end of the one party state in Alberta and the rise of a competitive two-party (plus?) system. A clear democratic-socialist option represented by the NDP on the left is accompanied by the remnants of a morbid Liberal Party and plucky young Alberta Party on the centre-left. A clear libertarian and conservative option now dominates the right and centre-right represented by the Wildrose.
Now adrift in a distant third place of seats in the Legislative Assembly, the PC’s remaining MLAs don’t appear to have any place on the political spectrum, with Ric McIver roughly falling on the centre-right, and Sandra Jansen falling on the centre-left. Others like Manmeet Bhullar have no discernible political leanings.
In the coming budget debate, the PCs are likely to be overshadowed in the battle of ideas. After frittering away most of the $17 billion Sustainability Fund, driving the province back into debt, failing to get spending under control and campaigning on raising taxes, how will they effectively speak out against the NDP’s budget, which is likely to do all of these things at an accelerated pace? Will they effectively support the NDP’s budget, but just advocate for it to be moderated a bit?
The PC’s last Hail Mary play was to rebrand the party as “The Prentice Team,” with its “10 Year Plan.” Prentice inevitably hit the ejection button on his leadership chair on May 5th, but also crassly jumped ship on his constituents in Calgary-Foothills, leaving them to face a third election in roughly eight months.
Will the PCs throw yet another leader under the bus and claim that they opposed him the entire time, again? Will they disown their “10 Year Plan”? Will the PCs now campaign against Prentice in the Calgary-Foothills by-election, as Prentice campaigned against Redford, and Redford campaigned against Stelmach?
The PC Party can no longer dole out contracts, patronage appointments and favors to grease the wheels.
This is all to say that in the new battle of ideas, you have to have some.
At this point, the PC Party is the western cousin of the Toronto Maple Leafs: relying on their blue and white colors for support, knowing that even if they don’t make the playoffs, you’ll still buy season tickets.
The New Order
Alberta has always been a one-party state, with the odd opposition party sparking a challenge. 2015 represents the first time that a significant opposition party has not only maintained its position, but actually grown its presence in the legislature, with the fourth-placed party taking power to boot.
The new order may see the PC Party unofficially disintegrate as Red Tories, the Liberals and the Alberta Party reach a common understanding.
It may also see the remaining conservative elements of the PC Party reach towards the Wildrose. A merger is inconceivable, but grassroots members uniting under the Wildrose, and some PC MLAs sitting as independents to work with the Wildrose would seem to be in the cards.
Whatever my predictions, the only rule I now stand by in Alberta politics is: Everything that you know about Alberta politics, will be wrong in two months.