Springtime in Alberta…

“Springtime in Alberta” is one of my favourite Ian Tyson songs and it’s proving to be somewhat prescient in light of the current election campaign.

Just like spring time in Alberta
Warm sunny days endless skies of blue
Then without a warning
Another winter storm comes raging through

Although the polls are show a remarkable lead for the Alberta NDP, something most people would have considered to be impossible just three weeks ago, many people also seem to think that another winter storm may yet blow through this campaign, just as it did in the dying days of the 2012 campaign. This time, though, it might not be the Wildrose losing its lead, but the NDP.

I won’t go out on a limb to make a prediction, but I do think that the lead in the public opinion polls should be taken more seriously than most people currently are and that a change in government is possible. The graph below shows the results of each public opinion survey published in the 2012 and 2015 elections. Obviously, the NDP has a big, big lead in current public opinion surveys and it’s getting bigger in the last day or two. Continue reading

These results do not count for undecided voters, and that will certainly be something to watch in the next 4 days.

As people point out, the Wildrose Party had a substantial lead in 2012, and that evaporated. This is true. But it is worth pointing out that polls can differ from final vote intention for two reasons. Not to put it too bluntly, but they can get public opinion wrong or public opinion can change between the publication of poll results and the casting of ballots.

The fear with most polls these days, and particularly in this campaign, is that because they are online surveys of voluntary panel participants or automated “robo-polls,” they can overestimate those who have the strongest motivation to stick around and participate. IN this case, it seems plausible to think that the polls could be overestimating opposition party support, given how long in the tooth the PC dynasty is and some of its more spectacular instances of “foot in mouth disease.” Are the 2015 polls overestimating support for the NDP and underestimating support for the PCs? Maybe. But it’s worth it to cast a close eye on the final data point on the 2012 graph. The field work for that poll was done the day before the election and the results were published that night. It showed more than a 10% point jump in support for the PCs and a corresponding drop for the Wildrose. And there were still another 12-24 hours until people interested in casting a ballot, did so. There are a lot of voters who tell survey researchers that they make up their mind on who to vote for the day of the election. To me it seems at least as plausible to suggest that the 2012 polls were actually accurately gauging public opinion over the course of the campaign but that many voters made a final switch at the last minute back to the PCs. Polls weren’t necessarily wrong; they were just measuring decided vote intention, which, it perhaps bears emphasizing, can change once undecideds make up their mind.

The other reason that some people are hesitant to believe that the NDP could win are because it is Alberta and, in the words of Premier Prentice, “Alberta is not an NDP province”. Essentially, this the belief that Albertans are fundamentally opposed to government intervention.

This argument is one of the more common ones but is it far too simple to accept and rule out an NDP victory on Tuesday. The graph below shows the difference between Alberta and Canadian public opinion on a more or less random set of questions from the Canada Election Study. For each item, I took the percentage of Canadians that selected the most liberal option and subtracted from it the percentage of Albertans that selected the same item. The y-axis shows the difference in percentage points between Canadians and Albertans selecting the most liberal option. Positive values suggest that more Albertans selected the most liberal option than Canadians; negative values suggest that more Canadians selected the most liberal option.


Two things stand out to me in this graph: First, on most of the items, the gap between Albertans and Canadians has been getting smaller. Perhaps this is a product of demographic change in Alberta, as people have flocked to the province to participate in the growing economy, perhaps not. Either way, the gaps between Albertans and Canadians don’t seem to be that large. Keep in mind there is an margin of error associated with each measurement of 2-3 percentage points. There is a slight tilt toward conservatism, but it’s not so dramatic that we should think an NDP win on Tuesday to be impossible. In fact, in 2008 and 2011 there were more Albertans expressing a willingness to increase personal income taxes, than in the rest of Canada. Moreover, the gap between people who strongly disagree that job creation should be solely left to the private sector has been dropping.

And if public opinion isn’t convincing enough, government actions also paint a more complex picture. The PC governments that have governed Alberta have been far more flexible than their caricature suggests. In the 1970s, the Lougheed government purchased an airline and directly subsidized the nascent oil sands industry. Despite a turn to the right under Premier Klein, the government of Alberta remains the only government in Canada with a Crown corporation dedicated to retail financial operations (i.e. it owns a bank). Currently, Alberta has the highest per capita expenditures on health care , but they have the lowest taxes.

But to me, this is not the mark of an ideologically conservative population, but quite a normal one, one that wants things good things without paying for them. Up until now, the Progressive Conservatives have had the fiscal resources to provide both those for Albertans. To me, that is the bigger reason for the PCs’ longevity: not any kind of deep, ideological commitment to right-wing governance in the population. And the combination of a tough recent budget that raised taxes and fees, an early election despite fixed-election legislation and frankly, a brutally, inept campaign mean that the polls should be taken seriously.

It is, in fact, springtime in Alberta.

Open Government and Accountability?

A few weeks ago Premier Kathleen Wynne announced a new policy of “Open Government”. I read it with interest, but remain highly skeptical of, well, it. On its face, the policy seems to be composed of the appointment of a team of leaders from business, politics and the public sector. There are no trade union representatives, although perhaps one should not be too surprised by this in today’s age. There is one self-identified Conservative, one self-identified Liberal and none that I can identify from the NDP, although one person did work with the Mayor of Vancouver, who once sat as an NDP MLA in BC, so, who knows.

I raise this because the rhetoric of “openness” is premised on the notion of policy without politics: The engagement team is “just listening” and “engaging”; but if the ideological composition of the team is made up of one particular segment of the spectrum, well, politics seems fairly embedded into the process from the start, but without the advantage of clarity about the perspectives people represent. Thus, this attempt at non-partisan, open engagement, perversely, is highly opaque, rather than transparent. My colleague, Dr. Alcantara, made a similar point regarding the formal non-partisanship of territorial legislatures, here.

Continue reading

This team is mandated to tour the province, “engaging people” to find out new ways of “engaging, innovating and collaborating”.

I find the rhetoric of “open government” and “transparency” and “accountability” fascinating; it has popped up routinely in Canadian politics, with the demise of the Meech Lake Accord serving as an important dividing line. You recall, was negotiated by 11 white men in suits (each of whom who had managed to win a majority of seats in their legislatures in the most recent election, but in today’s world, that doesn’t seem to count for much.) The exclusivity of that negotiating process led to a different, much more open and transparent and participatory process of the Charlottetown Accord, which, when put to a referendum of the citizenry as a whole, was defeated.

There are strong parallels between the situation in which the Wynne government finds itself and the situation that the Klein government found itself in 1992; and these parallels are instructive as to how common it is for Canadian governments to resort to this kind of rhetoric to secure their election and how often it fails. In 1992, the Progressive Conservatives of Alberta were long in the tooth, having been in power since 1971 (In the same way that one dog year is equal to about seven human years, one year in power for non-Alberta governments is equivalent to about 10 years for the governing party in Alberta). More importantly, it was struggling with the consequences of a policy whereby the provincial government was guaranteeing loans to private sector companies in a attempt to diversify the economy. One loan to a cell phone manufacturing company (!?) went bad when the company declared bankruptcy and the taxpayers were in the hook for about $500 million. People were mad, not just about the lack of funds, but also about the lack of transparency, openness and accountability in provincial decision-making. Alberta was ground-zero for the post-Meech Lake hostility to representative democracy and political parties and fed the growth of the populist, anti-party Reform Party at the time.

Enter Ralph Klein. The populist politician, par excellence, became Premier in 1993 and one of the first memos his government issued inside the government emphasized the need for a new dialogue with Albertans. His government quickly branded itself as one that “listened to Albertans”. His deputy premier and major backer, Ken Kowalski, wrote in an internal memo on the day Klein was sworn in:

The election of a new Premier creates significant opportunity to demonstrate a new openness in government communications and a new consultative approach in dealing with Albertans.

The Klein government made all kinds of ridiculous consultations: Klein was always on the radio, “talking to Albertans”; the government commissioned mailback surveys from the electorate about what the budget priorities should be, without any consideration of problems like self-selection bias; they commissioned expert summits to discuss issues, without thinking through potential problems of how people were selected or how problems were framed that were presented to summits; they passed Freedom of Information Legislation, and then promptly ensured that PR staff inside departments would monitor

There’s no wonder that the Wynne government is pursuing a strategy that shares the same premise, but has different manifestations. For one thing, it’s a lot cheaper for politicians to promise to be “open” and “accountable” than it is to, say, promise to raise the minimum wage, or address shortages in long-term care for seniors. For another thing, this demand for openness in government is rooted in a deep cultural suspicion of bureaucracies, particularly political parties.

This shift is fine; I welcome it even. But there are trade-offs, and one of the trade-offs with this cultural shift is that we lose the appreciation for the efficiency and accountability that actually are inherently built in to hierarchical and bureaucratic systems. The more that citizens continue to express this suspicion without acknowledging the merits built into bureaucracy, the more politicians will be happy to distract them with cheap promises of “openness”, “accountability” and “transparency” using them to win elections in a system that is built on and requires the bureaucracy of political parties and hierarchical public administration. More often than not, this kind of rhetoric distracts and enables the reelection of governments that probably don’t deserve it on other issues, rather than enhances citizen control over their governments.

LISPOP Associate comments on Dalton McGuinty’s resignation

LISPOP Associate Barry Kay interviewed on Oct. 16, 2012 on CTV News.

“I predicted that Dalton McGuinty would not be on the next ballot, when on the last provincial election he failed to get a majority. There have been opportunities since too, as he had a shot in the by-election in Kitchener-Waterloo.”

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Byelections can have surprising results, what will happen this time?

Author: Geoffrey Stevens

Published August 20, 2012, in Waterloo Region Record.

It’s been nearly two weeks since Dalton McGuinty called provincial byelections for Kitchener-Waterloo and for Vaughan. At this stage, no one, frankly, can predict what is going to happen. Continue reading

That’s par for the course. We are in the dog days of summer and voters are more interested in their cottages and their barbecues, and in getting the kids ready to return to school, than they are in whether McGuinty’s Liberals regain their majority on Sept. 6 — or in such local issues as whether the widening of Highway 7 between Kitchener and Guelph, already 31 years in the planning, will ever happen.

Drowsy, inattentive voters always make summer campaigns hard to call, even for experienced pollsters. The sheer unpredictability of voters in byelections simply magnifies the problem. Voters can do almost anything in a byelection. Historical voting patterns may count for nothing. Byelection voters find themselves liberated. They can throw off their shackles and vote any way they darned well please.

Sometimes the result can be startling. Flash back to October 1978, to Newfoundland. Pierre Trudeau was in power, and his Liberals regarded Newfoundland as their fief, except for those occasions when the Tories borrowed a few seats. Newfoundlanders had never sent a New Democrat (or CCFer) to Ottawa. Suddenly, out of nowhere, in a federal byelection that October, an NDP candidate with the improbable name of Alphonsus E. Faour (known as “Fonse” to his friends) captured the riding of Humber-Port au Port-St. Barbe. Even New Democrats were dumbfounded.

(Fonse Faour was an MP for 490 days before losing the seat to a Liberal in the 1980 federal election. He went on to serve briefly as the provincial NDP leader and today sits as a trial division judge on the Newfoundland Supreme Court.)

In Ontario, back in 1969, a provincial byelection produced an equally unexpected result. The riding was Middlesex South, on the edge of London, which was the political fortress of the Conservative premier of the day, John Robarts. In the case of Middlesex South, the byelection served as a surrogate for a major political battle. Premier Robarts had held Ontario out of medicare when the national health insurance plan came into force in the country in 1968. Robarts denounced medicare as a “Machiavellian plot.” (What he meant was never entirely clear, but his opposition to medicare was shared, if not inspired, by the insurance industry in London.)

The NDP was determined to take the medicare fight to Robarts, on his home turf. They blanketed Middlesex South, sending high-profile canvassers from Toronto and beyond to knock on farm doors. Their unknown candidate, Kenneth Bolton, an Anglican archdeacon, won. The Conservatives got the message, and Ontario joined medicare. (Ken Bolton lost the seat at the first available opportunity, as Middlesex South returned to the Tory fold in the 1971 provincial election. Meanwhile, Robarts retired and Bill Davis became premier.)

Closer to home, there was a federal byelection in the riding of Waterloo South (now Cambridge) in 1964. The Conservatives owned the seat or thought they did. In the 1964 byelection, however, they were upset by New Democrat Max Saltsman, a local dry cleaner, who went on to get re-elected four times and proved to be a popular and effective member for 15 years in the House of Commons. The NDP hasn’t done much in the region since Saltsman’s day.

Over the years, byelections have produced some notable results. By my count no fewer than five future or former prime ministers have used the byelection route: Lester Pearson, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark (in 2000, on his second time around as Tory leader) and Stephen Harper (in his Canadian Alliance days).

Then there’s Thomas Mulcair (2007 byelection), Bob Rae (both federally and provincially), Stéphane Dion, Tommy Douglas (twice), Robert Stanfield, Paul Hellyer, John Crosbie, David Crombie and Sheila Copps. At Queen’s Park, byelections have produced Christine Elliott, John Tory and Andrea Horwath, among others.

What will Sept. 6 produce?