A shocking NDP surge challenges Alberta’s old PC hegemony

OPINION by Gillian Steward

I’m writing this two weeks before Alberta’s May 5 election and anything could happen between then and now.

But still, it is astounding that the NDP has gained so much ground since the last election; according to numerous polls, they’re in a three-way tie for voter support with Jim Prentice’s governing PCs and the Wildrose party.

In Alberta? The bastion of conservative politics? Home base for Stephen Harper? The province where all but one MP is Conservative? The province where Progressive Conservatives have controlled the reins of government and pretty much everything else for almost 44 years?

It sounds improbable but the NDP is very much in the game.

In three polls conducted by different polling firms since the beginning of April, Wildrose has registered between 30 and 31 per cent, the PCs between 25 and 27 per cent, and the NDP between 26 and 28 per cent.

Given that the NDP received only 10 per cent of the vote during the 2012 provincial election, either the polls are dead wrong or a lot of Albertans — especially in Edmonton, where the polls predict the party will capture almost half the vote — are looking for a very different kind of government than either the PCs or the Wildrose are proposing.

There’s no question the NDP has been helped by the surge of support for the right-wing Wildrose Party led by former Conservative MP Brian Jean. They too have shown surprising strength — they could end up with the most seats — given that their ranks were decimated in December when most of their MLAs were lured across the floor to the PCs.

But the Wildrose resurrection has split the conservative vote. Combine that with the collapse of the Liberal Party, which could only come up with candidates for 56 of the 87 constituencies, and suddenly the NDP has more than a fighting chance to become the official opposition or a key player in a minority government.

There is also no question the NDP has the most photogenic, articulate and quick-witted leader — Rachel Notley. She is the daughter of Grant Notley, who achieved iconic status in some circles as NDP leader in the 1970s and, for 11 years, the sole NDP MLA sitting across from the overwhelming PC majorities led by Peter Lougheed.

Grant Notley was killed in a plane crash in 1984 at the age of 45.

Besides doing well in various opinion polls, the Alberta NDP is doing better than ever at fundraising, which indicates there is more to the orange surge than quickie responses to demon dialer surveys.

The NDP raised almost $407,000 in the first three months of this year, more than the Wildrose, and only 17 per cent of that amount came from unions. The PCs on the other hand raised $825,000 in the same period, with corporations accounting for 80 per cent of donations.

This, of course, strengthens the NDP’s argument that the Prentice PCs are too friendly to the corporate sector. So much so that in their latest budget they chose to levy all sorts of new taxes on individuals but resisted raising corporate taxes even though they are the lowest in the country and Alberta is facing a $5-billion deficit.

The NDP would increase corporate taxes by two per cent and increase personal income taxes for those earning more than $125,000 a year. They have also promised to undertake a review of oil royalties — a key source of government revenues.

Whether the NDP momentum will continue until election day is questionable. Albertans have a habit of swarming back to the PCs as election day draws closer. Perhaps because there is so much resource wealth at stake, voters would rather deal with the devil they know than try out a less-experienced team.

PC leader Jim Prentice certainly sounds confident that his party will prevail as it has for the last 44 years.

But with a mash-up of a budget Prentice left himself open to attack from all sides and that is definitely not business as usual for the perennial PCs.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.