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Naheed Nenshi: In Alberta, will 'good enough' be good enough for Rachel Notley and the NDP?

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It must be hard to be a New Democrat in Alberta these days. With an election three weeks away, they have raised a historic amount of money. Their leader, Rachel Notley, is popular and widely admired. They have solid policy, including an economic plan written by the most well-known and respected economist in the province.

On the other side of the aisle, the premier, Danielle Smith, presides over a government that could be politely described as a train wreck. She was elected with barely half of the votes cast in her party’s selection. Even her most ardent supporters struggle to name any of her accomplishments, and her opponents have no end of scandals and failures to list. Smith struggles to form coherent answers on the questions on the minds of Albertans, and when she speaks off the cuff, she invariably has to apologize for her “imprecise language” (the less charitable might call it “lying”).

For example, at a recent Calgary Economic Development event, both Smith and Notley were asked what their plans were for the revitalization of downtown Calgary. Notley responded with her plans to create a new post-secondary campus, highlighted what her government did when they were in power, and pledged to match the City of Calgary’s funding for office conversions – long the largest ask from the mayor and council.

Smith, for her part, started by talking about highways and rural Wheatland County, before eventually circling back to her government’s plan on addiction recovery (which is admittedly quite good, though it’s not clear whether they will force unwilling people into mandatory addiction treatment).

She finally achieved some applause from the business crowd when she scooped herself and pledged government support to a new arena, which she announced to great fanfare the following week (though it’s far from clear this is a slam dunk -- support for public funding remains tenuous, and Smith again spoke too much when she implied that this was all the funding Calgary would get for downtown revitalization).

A combination photo of Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, left, and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith as they speak at an economic forum in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, April 18, 2023. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

Given all of this, one would expect that the NDP would be far ahead in the race, and that Notley would be wondering how much Jason Kenney and Smith have renovated her old office.

Instead, every poll has the NDP only slightly ahead, but their vote is relatively inefficient and there is a bit of historical gerrymandering in favour of rural and small-city Alberta (this isn’t as bad as city-dwellers sometimes believe – Calgary and Edmonton account for about 58% of the population and 52% of the seats, but this could make a difference in a very close election). Most commentators, therefore, give Smith and her United Conservatives a small edge as the election kicks into high gear.

How is this possible?

Some credit goes to Smith herself. For all her faults, she is an appealing communicator with an effortless style, honed through many years in front of microphones and cameras. She has tried for a Ralph Klein vibe, admitting she’s not perfect and that she’s learning on the job.

Part of it has to do with the increasing hardening of Conservative parties across Canada and around the world. They have been able to activate a group of people who didn’t traditionally vote in large numbers: those who are skeptical of government and who welcome angry attacks on institutions. In short, they are happy to burn it down rather than build it up. Since 2015 or so, activists have done a great job turning on people who are typically skeptical of all government and never vote, turning them into dedicated voters. Any glance at political Twitter shows that these folks, while a minority, speak with a loud voice.

Part of this is the NDP’s own fault. While they have worked very hard to court Calgary voters, it’s not clear what, if anything, they have done since their defeat in 2019 (some would argue since their victory in 2015) to work with rural voters or those in the mid-sized cities. For example, they won both seats in Red Deer in 2015 on a vote split, and the two current UCP MLAs are the widely disliked minister of education -- and a maverick MLA from the party’s right flank with a habit of saying strange things and travelling when he shouldn’t. Nonetheless, if the NDP has been doing ground-level work to shore up their support there, I haven’t seen it and every commentator puts those seats out of reach for them.

The most important factor, though, is electoral history and the electorate’s tolerance for many shenanigans from Conservative politicians. Conservative parties of one stripe or another have ruled Alberta for all but four of the last 72 years, and the 44-year reign of the Progressive Conservatives is instructive. Peter Lougheed built a giant tent, and most issues were settled behind closed doors, within the party caucus. To put it in modern national terms, the PC party would have included both Pierre Poilievre and Chrystia Freeland, with Lougheed himself firmly on the party’s progressive side.

In the early 2000s, the more right-wing members of the party formed the Wildrose Alliance, which was led in its heyday by Danielle Smith. Rather than accept this and attempt to target the majority of Albertans, who identify as centrists, the PC party longed to bring its erstwhile relatives home, despite much advice telling them that the Wildrose was a handy closet in which to keep their more extreme cousins. Former Premier Jim Prentice, although well ahead in the polls at the time, convinced Smith and the majority of her caucus to cross the floor, with disastrous results and an election loss to the NDP.

Jason Kenney then returned from Ottawa to orchestrate a grand family reunion, which turned out to be a de facto takeover of the PC party by the more radical Wildrose elements. One would think Lougheed would not be comfortable, and maybe not be welcome, in this version of his party.

Through all of this, Albertans remained forgiving. Successive PC governments, with all their foibles and quirks, were generally pretty competent, and the wealth of the province covered up a lot of errors. Alberta was by far the wealthiest province, with the lowest taxes (albeit with the highest provincial spending per capita, thanks to oil and gas revenues). Quality of life remains extraordinarily high, and public services are as good as anywhere else in Canada for the most part.

So, Albertans have been very tolerant of foibles and missteps, as long as they received competent government. Smith, despite showing few signs of competence, benefits from this halo of history. Even when a recording surfaced of her making odious comparisons of vaccinated people with Hitler supporters, and saying she was boycotting wearing a poppy as a result (no, it makes no sense; just bear with me), the national B’nai Brith and Royal Canadian Legion strongly condemned her comments. The local Calgary Jewish community, for its part, issued only a mild statement suggesting they didn’t want to become a political wedge.

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley attends a campaign rally in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, May 11, 2023. Albertans go to the polls on May 29. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

And that’s Notley’s problem, and likely her largest frustration. She must be perfect. She must run the table in every competitive riding to have a chance of winning government. She can’t afford a single stumble. Smith, on the other hand, merely has to be good enough. She doesn’t have to talk about how she’ll make things better, only that she won’t make them worse.

Albertans have a chance on May 29 to break a habit, to tell the Conservatives that they have to earn their votes, that they have to stop speaking only to the radical fringe. A number of prominent conservatives, including a former deputy premier, have called upon Albertans to put their party in the penalty box for a while, even to “lend” their vote to Notley and the NDP. We’ll see if citizens take on that challenge or if they settle for good enough.

Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi wrote this opinion column for CTV News

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