Alberta voters show they want change on economy, energy files

The sentiment for change was astonishingly high, 82 per cent in the final days of the campaign

By Mario Canseco

VANCOUVER — The victory of the New Democratic Party in this week’s Alberta election surprised many casual political observers. But voting surveys, including those conducted by Insights West, did show the party gaining momentum this year, and ultimately predicted that two-in-five voters would cast a ballot for the NDP, four times as many as did so in the 2012 election.

Leader Rachel Notley led her party to victory on the strength of a combination of factors that have been missing for the NDP in past electoral contests.

First and foremost, the sentiment for change was astonishingly high. We measured it at 82 per cent in the final days of the campaign. While it is not unusual for large numbers of voters to want a long-serving government replaced (as was the case in the federal elections of 2008 and 2011), to get four-in-five residents to say that a dynasty should come to an end is something that is not seen very often.

Second, Notley was regarded as the right person to handle seven of eight key issues. On files where the NDP traditionally does well in every province — such as health care and education — her lead was never in doubt. But even on the economy, the NDP leader was polling ahead of the incumbent premier as election day approached. In fact, she trailed outgoing premier Jim Prentice only on the issues of energy and pipelines.

Third, Notley held a commanding lead when Albertans were asked who would make the best premier. Voters need to feel that a person is capable of assuming the highest political office in the land. Polls by SES Research (now called Nanos) showed Stephen Harper overtaking Paul Martin in the final days of the 2006 campaign. He has lived at 24 Sussex Drive ever since.

All of these numbers point to Notley’s success in establishing an emotional connection with voters. Still, she inherits a province that is facing enormous challenges. For years, Albertans were dead last in naming “the economy and jobs” when Canadians were asked about the top issue facing their province. Now, with the drop in the price of oil and companies laying off workers and cancelling projects, financial matters are the top concern (37 per cent).

The election results will force a new discussion about energy projects. Last October, 62 per cent of Albertans said they would be okay with British Columbia getting a share of oil revenues from Northern Gateway. This public opinion snapshot was taken at a moment when oil was dropping, but things were not as dire as they are now.

Despite the fact that a new party is in power, Albertans will pay more attention to the construction of Northern Gateway and the expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline than ever before. These topics appear to have lost some momentum in B.C. as the push for liquefied natural gas has become more prominent. But for Alberta, along with the Energy East pipeline, they are now essential.

It is important to note that Albertans, despite their experience with oil price fluctuation, have not been kind to incumbent governments when it comes to their handling of energy issues. In our pre-election survey, only 36 per cent of residents believed governments can do very little to deal with the problems caused by a drop in oil prices.

On a day when 41 per cent of decided voters backed the NDP, a large majority of residents stated that oil price fluctuation cannot be used to justify poor government decisions. Notley now faces a delicate balance: Create the conditions for job creation that will please voters, and strike deals to ensure that Canada’s foremost energy producer keeps ticking.

The election’s results made one thing clear: Albertans want a different course of action to deal with this crisis, and are not prepared to see a government of any stripe simply shrug and expect the market to fix itself.

What is the most important issue facing Alberta today?

Economy/Jobs 37%
Accountability 19%
Health Care 16%
Education 6%
Environment 5%
Energy/Pipelines 5%
Housing/Poverty/Homelessness 3%
Crime/Public Safety 1%
Other 3%
Not sure 5%

 

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Photograph: Dave Cournoyer