The unofficial poll results from Elections Alberta are an interesting read. They're especially interesting when compared with the results from the most recent General Election in Alberta, in March of 2008.
2008PC (Stevens) 6,436 votes
Liberal (Roberts) 4,213 votes
WAP (Sadler) 1,025
Green (Bonokoski) 550 votes
NDP (Heffernan) 477 votes
45.5% voter participation
PC (Colley-Urquhart) 2,863 votes (down 56%)
Liberal (Roberts) 3,776 votes (down 10%)
WAP (Hinman) 4,052 votes (increase by 295%)
NDP (Carpendale) 148 votes (down 69%)
SC (Skowronski) 118 votes
ind. (Grochowski) 71 votes
40.5% voter participation
Now, every single candidate deserves our thanks and respect for caring enough about the health of our democracy to put their name forward. I want to spend a little time, though, dealing with the "DRP factor" and the 2 parties of the left, and then talk about what went wrong (and right) for the parties of the right.
Overall, voter participation dropped by 5% between the general election and the by-election - which, truthfully, isn't all that bad, for a by-election. It's still embarassing as heck that Afghanistan can record higher voter turn-outs than Alberta while voters there are operating under explicit threats of murder and violence if they dare to vote - but that's a blog post for another day.
The NDP vote all but disappeared in this by-election. It COULD be argued, I suppose, that those votes might have been driven to Avalon Roberts of the Liberals by the "DRP movement" - but even if that WERE the case, Avalon's own numbers dropped by 10%. While the math may support "unite the left" strategies in some ridings, it's clear that in Calgary-Glenmore, the only thing that can get the Liberals elected is either a 3-or-more-way split of the conservative vote, or the conservative voters staying home, as they did in the Calgary-Elbow by-election in 2007. Similarly, the only thing that can get the NDP elected in this riding is if nobody but the New Democrats notices that there's an election happening.
Now, before we look at what happened a few days ago, I want to get a frame of reference. Let's take a (very brief) look at the Calgary-Elbow by-election of 2007.
Elbow had, in the previous General Election, re-elected Ralph Klein as MLA by a comfortable 2,000 vote margin over his Liberal challenger. Voter turn-out in 2004 was at 52.4%. In the by-election to replace Klein, held in 2007, voter participation plummeted by nearly 18%, down to 34.6% overall. The Liberal candidate lost only 2% of votes versus 2004, which means when one factors in the overall decline in participation, their popular support actually increased. By comparison, the loyalty of local voters to Klein rather than to the PC Party brand was evident, as the Tory candidate lost 42% of Klein's voters from 2004. The Liberal went on to spend 9 months as an MLA, before being ousted in the 2008 General Election (overall voter turn-out rose by 13.6%; Liberal turn-out increased by 16%, PC turn-out improved by 34%).
The Glenmore by-election is different, for a few reasons.
Firstly, in the 2007 by-election, Ed Stelmach had been leader of the PC Party and Premier for only 6 months. The PC's had replaced a popular local candidate who just HAPPENED to be a former mayor of the city, and Premier of Alberta, with someone who had good credibility among the local power elite, but little recognition with the common voter. The PC's took for granted that they would hold on to Ralph's seat. With "the new guy" in charge, and a lot of Calgary PC organizers still stinging over the defeat of Calgary leadership hopefuls Ted Morton and Jim Dinning, the voters let the PC Party know how they felt about how "their guy", Ralph, had been treated by the party. Mostly, by staying home and letting the Liberal candidate take the seat.
The 2008 General Election ends the Glenmore-Elbow comparison on one hand, and acts as the first book-end of the larger Glenmore story.
In the 2008 General Election, Ed Stelmach had been Premier for nearly a year and a half. Times were good, money was being spent on projects and programs that made people feel warm and fuzzy. Fall-out from the new royalty regime was purely hypothetical. All that said, though, the people of Alberta - and particularly the mainstream media - missed the charisma of Ralph. They thought of the new leader as a "come up the middle" choice for leader of the PC's, despite the fact that Stelmach was the FIRST choice of more party members than either Dinning OR Morton in the 2nd round of the race. The PC's were drifting, and vulnerable according to many.
So the election was held... and the PC's cruised to a dominating victory of Klein-esque proportions. In Elbow, which they had lost in a by-election 9 months earlier, voter turn-out increased by 13.6% overall, and for the Tories it increased by 34%. Even when you consider that a rising tide raises all ships, the Tory voters had come back to the fold in the General Election. In Calgary-Glenmore, 45.5% of the electorate showed up, and a majority of them voted for the PC candidate, popular incumbent and Stelmach's top lieutenant Ron Stevens. Province-wide, the"drifting, aimless, rudderless, leaderless, wishy-washy, over-the-hill" Tories won 72 of 83 seats. Stelmach had won the day by showing himself to be a cautious, thoughtful leader - not the firebrand visionary that many Albertans hoped to see, and not the shoot-from-the-lip everyman that had been Ralph at the start of his tenure, but the clear choice to lead the province through what might be unsure waters ahead.
In September of 2008, the bottom began to fall out of world stock markets and energy prices began to plummet. All of a sudden, the "rainy day" for which we had been saving was upon us. And then things got worse. Energy companies were closing up shop, or scaling back production. People were out of work. A global economic crisis was affecting economies all over the world - and Alberta was no exception. Indeed, the only thing exceptional about Alberta was the fact that, as a debt-free constituency with money in the bank, it was better prepared than virtually every other jurisdiction - with or without oil - to come out of this period of crisis relatively unscathed.
However, when people lose jobs, when their standard of living drops, when they get scared, they look for someone to blame. And the government of the day is an easy target. No sooner than the government had finished tabling its first deficit budget in years, opposition parties started referring to Stelmach as "in the red Ed". The PC's were (still) "rudderless and out of touch", according to newspaper columnists desperate to seem relevant and cutting-edge ("angry" sells more papers than "happy"). Suddenly, the money that was being spent on projects and programs that made everyone feel good was deemed by the public to be "unneccesary". Cuts were needed. The 2 biggest slices of the pie, Health and Education, are impossible to even TALK about cutting without whipping various unions into a frenzy of fear-mongering. Reports were coming out suggesting that energy companies, burnt once by the fact that their business landscape had shifted under their feet with Alberta's new royalty regime, were looking at drilling elsewhere. In the space of a few short months, Stelmach had gone from "King Eddie" to the media's favourite whipping boy - and there was a new force on the horizon.
The Wildrose Alliance, born from the union of the populist Wildrose Party and the conservative Alberta Alliance Party, was attracting interest from disenchanted Tories who wanted to turn the clock back to the time when the government ran a surplus, "progressive" was a code word for Liberal, and the metric system was a tool of communists like Trudeau. The growing perception of the PC Party as being "too inclusive", or a party of convenience lacking any real "conservative policies", drove conservatives concerned about their image to this new party. Many of these supporters were old-time Reformers, from the Preston Manning days. It sometimes bears repeating that while Reform never actually formed government - they DID force the federal PC's to change the way they did and viewed things, giving birth to the current Conservative Party in the process. One could argue, that was Preston's whole point.
The Wildrose Alliance has spent the summer trying to find itself. Or, more accurately, they're in the middle of a leadership contest. One of the candidates in particular, Danielle Smith, is seen as being a real threat to the Tories, as she shares many policies in common with your average Tory voter without the baggage of actually BEING a PC - which gives your potential PC voter a real alternative, for the first time in a VERY long time, that doesn't involve voting for a Liberal candidate or selling out your socially moderate views. Summer being the political vacuum that it is, the leadership race has gotten a LOT of attention in the media - people know about this party. The one thing they DON'T know - which makes this week's Glenmore result all the more surprising - is what this party is going to stand for 6 months from now. 3 possibilities exist - either the party will be a reflection of Danielle Smith (fiscally conservative, socially moderate), it will be a reflection of one of the other 2 leadership contenders (fiscally and socially conservative), or it will be in a state of turmoil, if the party membership decides that, on second thought, we don't want to move the party to reflect the chosen leader, we want the chosen leader to move THEIR positions to reflect the grassroots membership - which is code for "whatever special interest sells the most memberships before an important meeting".
Back to Glenmore. Ron Stevens, the Deputy Premier of Alberta gets a better offer. They want to make him a judge. Ron accepts, and we've got ourselves a by-election. Opinions are offered as to how the various parties will do - some analysis proves more correct than others. And at the end of the day, voters heed Wildrose Alliance candidate Hinman's call to "send Ed a message", when the voter turn-out drops by only 5% overall, but the Tories lose 56% of their support from 19 months ago. Klein couldn't have lost 56% of his support if he'd started mugging little old ladies in dark alleys. Message sent, and received.
What is the message that the voters have sent Ed?
In a nutshell, the message is Paul Hinman, and whatever he DECIDES the message is. That's the problem with the provincial ballot - you mark an "x", and the candidates get to read those tea leaves however they want.
Is the message "we don't like Ed"? If it IS, then the question becomes: Why? Because he's not from Calgary, like Ralph and Dinning and Morton? Because he's not a "city guy"? Because the cabinet doesn't have enough Calgarians? Calgary doesn't have a finished ring-road? Oil and gas producers are nervous? The government is in a deficit position? He's got a funny haircut?
The more important question, for Ed and for the PC's, is "what can we DO about that message?". Ultimately, even if you CAN distill this result into a particular message, and figure out specifically WHY people voted the way they did, on an issue by issue basis, what are the solutions? Will adding more Calgary MLA's to cabinet do it? Re-jigging the Royalty framework yet AGAIN? (by the way, even revisions in FAVOUR of the energy producers make them more nervous about setting up here, because of the frequent changes - we need to decide on a framework, and guarantee no changes for a set period of time. THAT will calm down the jittery nerves of the energy companies)
No matter what he does, Ed will never be a "Calgary guy" - he's not from here. There's no 2 ways about it. He can think like us, he can talk like us, he can dress like us, but he's not one of us. And you know what? He doesn't HAVE to be - nor should he be EXPECTED to be just like us to govern us. He should be judged on his ability to do the job - not on where he was raised. The irony is, that's the argument we were ALL, current PC or WAP supporter alike, throwing towards Ontario when they were refusing to give Preston and Stockwell and Stephen the time of day, because they were from "somewhere other than here".
Stelmach has a vested interest in this city - he has children and grandchildren living here. To suggest that he doesn't care what happens south of Red Deer is ridiculous. And yet... there it is. He's not from here. Is the message that the PC's should pick a leader from Calgary? I wonder how Edmontonians would react to our refusal to accept a leader not from our shining city on the hill...
Oh, wait, no I don't... I already know.
1992 - Ralph Klein comes from behind to win the PC Party leadership from rival Edmonton MLA Nancy Betkowski, and becomes Premier.
1993 - PC's win 17 of 20 seats in Calgary, 0 of 18 in Edmonton.
1997 - PC's win 20 of 21 seats in Calgary, 2 of 19 in Edmonton
2001 - PC's win 21 of 21 seats in Calgary, 11 of 19 in Edmonton.
2004 - PC's win 20 of 23 seats in Calgary, 3 of 18 in Edmonton.
The old adage that "all politics is local" certainly seems to ring true... While Ralph was in charge of the PC's, Calgary overwhelmingly supported the party, while Edmonton earned the nickname "Redmonton" by rejecting Klein the Calgarian for most of his reign.
Fast forward to 2008 - Ed Stelmach, from outside Edmonton, had been Premier for over a year, so it was considered a fair test of his leadership and popularity on a provincial scale. The result?
2008 - PC's win 18 of 23 seats in Calgary, 13 of 18 in Edmonton.
The PC's under Stelmach lose 2 seats (now 3) to the opposition in Calgary, but steal 10 seats from the opposition in Edmonton.
Since then, however, we've had the thrill-ride of the global economic crisis (which Eddie didn't cause), and the implementation, re-jigging, re-implementation and re-re-jigging of the new royalty framework for energy producers in Alberta (which Eddie DID cause).
Is Calgary-Glenmore the start of a trend? Will Ed Stelmach as leader of the PC's turn this into an "opposition town"? And if so, why?
If it's for reasons of policy, I can live with that. But if Calgary turns against Stelmach and the PC's because he doesn't have Klein's mailing address, charisma, or style - then that's, in my opinion, a shoddy way to determine your leaders.
There's discontent in Calgary-Glenmore. There's discontent within the city as a whole. The province. Even within the PC Party itself. Times are tough. People want to "send Ed a message". The Hinman campaign capitalized on this sentiment brilliantly, to their credit. This wasn't one or two polls going to Hinman - he won in 32 of 66 polls. Support for him was wide-spread across the riding. People were telling Diane Colley-Urquhart at the doors that they supported her for Alderman, and would do so again, but they couldn't cast a vote for the PC's under Stelmach. Other Calgary PC's have heard the same.
But if the voters want their message to be heard - they've got to first figure out what their problem with Ed is, and what it will take to make it better. Because "I'm angry, and I don't know why, but I don't like you" is a bad head-space to be in when you're choosing someone to manage a multi-billion-dollar corporation.
Before the economic crisis, Albertans decided they wanted Ed Stelmach and the PC's to run the province. Calgarians, at least those in Glenmore, seem to be having second thoughts. But they need to decide if their issues are based on policy, or on geography.
Ed's had mis-steps along the way. He's made mistakes. He's made gaffes. Such is life when your every word and move is public domain. It's not too late to re-focus, re-energize the troops, and come up with a well-articulated vision for this province. Because Ed Stelmach and the PC Party shouldn't respond to this by trying to tinker with the car stereo to win back 15% of the 45% of people who bother to vote. They should take this opportunity to overhaul the engine, set themselves up for the next 30 years, and try to appeal to the 55% of Albertans who AREN'T voting.
Disenchanted, disenfranchised, disinterested.
Give people something to believe in. Give them the candidates they deserve. Tell them what their lives will be like in 20 years. Tell them about the Alberta their kids will inherit.
Shoot for the moon.