Wednesday, June 13, 2007

By-Election Hang-Over - the Mourning After

Predictably, last night's results are being painted as a harbinger of doom for the Tory dynasty in Alberta.

Some pundits are predicting that both Calgary and Edmonton will elect a full slate of Liberals in the next election... based on what? The result of a Calgary by-election. A by-election that saw 3,000 voters fewer than the last general election. Interestingly, the Liberal candidate won the riding with FEWER votes than the losing Liberal received in the last general election. Let's see some numbers:

2004 (13,517 votes cast)
Ralph Klein (PC) - 6,958
Stephen Brown (Lib) - 4,938
2007 (10,532 votes cast)
Brian Heninger (PC) - 4,017
Craig Cheffins (Lib) - 4,801

With almost every other party receiving within a hundred votes of its total from the last general election, it's pretty clear that had those 3,000 people come out and voted, the results may have been quite different last night.

Were they punishing Ed Stelmach? Were they just disinclined to go out of their way to vote in a mere by-election? Nobody knows, but everyone with a keyboard seems to want to convince us that they have the answers. Had there been a different candidate in Elbow for the PC's, or had Stelmach rolled over and given Bronconnier what he wanted, or had the emergency relief announcement come a few days BEFORE the by-election instead of the day after, 800 more people inclined to vote Tory might have stopped by the poll on their way home from work yesterday, and we'd be having a different conversation entirely.

Look, Nation, the reality here is that everyone is looking at these results in full "spin" mode, and they have been preparing for every eventuality for weeks now. Whether Cheffins won or lost, all of the "anti-Ed" crowd was ready to go to print with their stories about the "stunning turn-around" for Liberal fortunes, the "thousands of votes that stayed home" due to Stelmach's "lack of vision"... funny how today the Cheffins win is being painted as a HUGE upset, yet for the past month we've been hearing about how close a race this was going to be. I'm sorry, I know I'm a bit slow, but can someone explain to me how, if a contest is universally regarded as a toss-up, EITHER competitor can be suggested to be a huge underdog? Also, we're being treated to the usual tripe about how the Rural folks like Ed, while the cities are in open revolt over the "Hillbilly Cabinet".

Likewise, the "Ed's doing fine" crowd is pointing to the Drumheller-Stettler result as a sign that everything is fine, and claiming that if Heninger and Morton hadn't stuck their feet in their mouths, everything would have come up roses. The truth is, everything is NOT fine. Increasingly, Albertans are viewing the PC Party as "yesterday's party"... this is a dangerous road, as a similar sentiment was growing in the rest of Canada about the Chretien/Martin Liberals before their fall. Only with new faces, a new leader, a new platform, and new ideas can the federal Liberals shake their image of days-gone-by.
This is an opportunity for Stelmach to take a page out of the Klein playbook. To sit down in front of the cameras, look them dead in the lens, and say "Albertans sent us a message, and we got it. Mea Culpa. Here's what I'm doing, in the next six months, to make your life better. And we're going to the polls on March 10, 2008, no matter WHAT my numbers are at." Albertans would reward such an approach.

The suggestion is being made that the Liberals are within striking distance of taking the cities, and that the rural communities would follow suit to stay on the inside of the halls of power.

Not. In. A. Million. Years.

Nation, the Liberals could very well split Calgary. They might sweep Edmonton. Heck, if the Perfect Storm hits, politically, they could even form the government in this province. But the countryside is full of 50+ years olds who proudly call themselves "Rednecks", and have been voting right-of-centre since Christ was a Corporal. They will vote for Kevin Taft, or a party with "Liberal" in the name, around the same time that the Greater Toronto Area gets swept by the federal Conservatives. If the Liberals take the cities, get ready for a political polarization in this province like never before... if you think the "Urban/Rural Disconnect" is bad NOW - let the Liberals take the cities, and you ain't seen NOTHIN' yet.

If Premier Stelmach and his advisors seize this opportunity and re-shape the party into a socially progressive, fiscally conservative and environmentally sensitive "face of change", much like Klein did after succeeding Getty, then "country bumpkins" in cabinet or not, this result could be a harbinger of doom all right... for the Liberals. It's just the "red alert" that Ed needs to re-shape the party, and re-brand it as something new and fresh, instead of the tailor-made-for-defeat vision of the "35-year monolith of power and inertia, relic of a bygone era" that Taft has been trying to paint the Tories as being. Should be an interesting few weeks ahead.

- E.S.


Kirk Schmidt said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who remembered the result from the '04 election and put it into context here...

Anonymous said...

ES - When you say:
"This is an opportunity for Stelmach to take a page out of the Klein playbook. To sit down in front of the cameras, look them dead in the lens, and say "Albertans sent us a message, and we got it. Mea Culpa. Here's what I'm doing, in the next six months, to make your life better. And we're going to the polls on March 10, 2008, no matter WHAT my numbers are at." Albertans would reward such an approach."

It sounds like he is already doing the mea culpa part. But regarding planting a standard into the ground that says ELECTION MARCH 10, that would be exactly the wrong thing to do, in my humble opinion.

Maybe I am a little jaded, but I think that for what temporary boost he would receive for such a good upfront gesture, he would lose in the ensuing months, in a barrage of negative press. The Opposition, with the help of the Mayor of Calgary and the media (gee, where have I seen this before) would gang up. We would see the events of the last four weeks repeated, ad naseum.

Better he say what he is already saying this morning (i.e. we heard the message and are reiterating our commitment to Calgary and will communicate it better to you, the citizen) and go ahead and push those initiatives forward. When people have seen tangible evidence of these initiatives, then go to the polls.

Enlightened Savage said...

Anon: You make a very good point. My thinking was that, by showing Albertans that he's more interested in good governance than he is in retaining power, Ed could help cement himself as an honest, up-front, meat-and-potatoes kind of guy.

That being said, being "the guy" who institutes electoral reforms puts you at a MUCH bigger disadvantage than your predecessors, and the risk may outweigh the political capital you earn as a result.

It's a tough call, and I'm glad that I don't have to make it - but today's statement from Stelmach was a step in the right direction. It will be interesting to see how many sitting Calgary MLA's decide to run again, knowing that they may face an actual race for the first time in their career.

Anonymous said...

ES - Amen to that. If I may be so bold, it would be nice if a few of them would take the hint and exit stage left (or right, if they so fancy). To my way of thinking, this invitation should not necessarily be limited to those in Calgary.

Agree on the electoral reform. It is certainly an interesting thought. Fixing the date would cement the image, but also tie his hands. Difficult decision. Glad I don't have to make it.