Alberta political poll yields some surprising results

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January 5, 2011

CALGARY, AB, Jan. 5, 2011/ Troy Media/ – An Alberta General Election is expected in the next fifteen months, most probably in early 2012. Popular wisdom and the mass media say that Ed Stelmach’s Progressive Conservative government is in trouble, having fumbled the ball on various policy issues, from medicare, through the Monty Python-like oil and gas royalty review, to poor oversight of oil sands’ phasing and their environmental impact. Their story line is that the Wildrose Alliance Party (WAP) is running even with the PCs in public opinion polls and could form the next government. But a recent opinion poll commissioned by the Democratic Renewal Project (DRP) tells an entirely different story.

Other opposition parties – the Greens (Vision 2012), Liberals and New Democrats – also sense the window of opportunity and make brave statements about their potential, because the conservative or right-wing vote will be split between the two front-runners. Their problem is, however, that the longstanding split of the “progressive” vote among the three parties will be exacerbated by the addition of the Alberta Party to the field. Wishful thinking aside, are these four parties making any headway?

Survey results surprising

The DRP – a grassroots organization of Albertans from all parties devoted to replacing the present government with a progressive alternative – recently hired Leger Marketing to do a public opinion poll on Albertans’ provincial party preferences. Leger found some surprising results. In a telephone survey of 891 eligible voter respondents, Albertans broke out as follows: PC 26 per cent, Undecided 25 per cent, Liberal 14 per cent, WAP 13 per cent, New Democrat six per cent, Green Party four per cent, Alberta Party one per cent, Other one per cent. (“Will Not Vote” and “Refuse to Answer” made up the rest.) Among DECIDED voters, support levels were: PC 39 per cent, Liberal 21 per cent, WAP 20 per cent, New Democrat 10 per cent, Green Party seven per cent, Alberta Party two per cent, Other one per cent.

According to this poll, not only is WAP’s support way below the Conservatives, but a hair less than the Liberals’! Furthermore, the potential combined progressive vote equals that of the leading Conservatives. What gives?

Several explanations for these dramatically different results are possible. First, maybe polls are not reliable – as John Diefenbaker once punned, “polls” are of interest only to dogs. Second, WAP’s support may originally have been higher because people parked their votes there when initially moving away from the Conservatives. Now they are willing to look at some other possibilities. Third, the initial surge of enthusiasm for the new “true” conservative WAP has faded as people realize that the old mantra that “that government is best which governs least” is obsolete. Fourth, the results do not appear to capture the increased interest in the Alberta Party, which as the enthusiastic new kid on the block, is gaining support daily.

The strength of the potential progressive vote should not be a surprise. In the 2008 election, the combined vote for the Green, Liberal and New Democratic Parties exceeded that for the Conservatives in 12 constituencies where the latter won. It was almost as high in several others. In fact, the strong Conservative win (72 of 83 seats) was accomplished with only 52.6 per cent of the total votes cast. Forty-seven point four per cent – close to half – did not vote for the Conservatives last time round. Many Albertans would agree that electoral reform is needed – probably some version of Proportional Representation. Of course the present government has no interest in this as it benefits from a dysfunctional first-past-the-post system.

But more relevant for the results of this survey is that only 41 per cent of eligible Albertans voted in the last election. We don’t know how non-voters would have exercised their franchise but surely a significant reason for not voting was that there was no point – we always get the same result anyway. DRP wants to change that. DRP first tried to get the centre-left parties to negotiate a “non-compete” agreement and allocate exclusive candidacies to whichever of them has the best chance to win in promising constituencies. Such a combination could eventually – if not in 2012 then next time – take over government and implement PR.

Non-compete agreement a non-starter

This non-compete idea did not gain much support (only the Liberals showed any interest), so the DRP has moved to “Plan B”. It will endorse the strongest progressive candidate, regardless of party, and recommend strategic voting for that person. It plans to offer constituency-by-constituency analyses and endorsements. The Leger poll suggests that such an approach could be fruitful and give discouraged voters on the centre-left reason to return to polling booths in 2012.

Almost certainly, 2011 will be a volatile year in Alberta politics. Remembering Calgary Centre’s strategic voting in the 2000 federal election for PC Joe Clark in an “Anybody but the Alliance” surge, similar decisions by voters in the coming Alberta election may surprise both the Conservatives and WAP. Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s win in Calgary shows that intelligent, thoughtful politics can succeed in Alberta.

It can’t come to the provincial level too soon.

Phil Elder is Calgary Co-Chair of the Democratic Renewal Project and Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Planning Law with the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary.

Channels: The Edmonton Journal, Jan. 10, the Fort Saskatchewan Record, Jan. 14, the Rycroft Centreal Peace Signal, Jan. 17, 2011