A Wave of Change

What does municipal upheaval signal for the provincial PCs?

By Larry Johnsrude

It could be a fairytale. Or the beginning of a political revolution. A centre-left 38-year-old neophyte on a shoestring budget takes on a well-moneyed conservative establishment. The newspapers and television networks give him little hope and pay even less attention, so he relies on social media to get his message out. But he builds an unlikely coalition of the young, the disenfranchised and a new generation with influence, and is able to ride the wave to a stunning victory.

To many, last fall’s municipal elections were all about change. The number of Albertans participating in democracy actually rose for the first time in decades. The newly engaged tended to be from a younger, previously disenfranchised generation, exercising their influence for the first time, demanding greater accountability from their leaders and a greater say in their future. Their impact was unmistakable.

Although issues varied across the province, one common theme was a demand for more openness and public disclosure, not surprising in this era of WikiLeaks. Candidates who promised to put more public information on the Internet—as well as those who used social media to get information from voters as much as to disseminate it—tended to do better at the ballot box.

In Alberta’s largest city these factors played no small part in Naheed Nenshi’s phenomenal rise to mayor of Calgary. In Grande Prairie they helped propel 33-year-old Bill Given to an upset over veteran Dwight Logan, becoming the northern city’s youngest mayor in history. Incumbent mayors were toppled at every level, from Parkland County to the town of Vulcan. Glendon voted out Johnnie Doonanco, whose 39-year tenure as mayor was one of the longest in Canada. Rimbey turfed its mayor and council over a spending scandal where elected officials paid themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend functions ranging from Remembrance Day ceremonies to Conservative Party fundraisers. In suburban Strathcona County, mayor Cathy Oleson was ousted by councillor Linda Osinchuk, in large part over the province’s failure to deliver on a long-promised hospital. In the home riding of cabinet heavyweight Iris Evans, this can be taken as a sign that voters are no longer content to remain silent to win the Tory government’s favour.

Many other long-time mayors, municipal councillors and school trustees fell for various reasons and on a range of issues. As a result, almost half of the councillors in cities, towns, villages and rural municipal districts across Alberta are now newcomers. This wave of change may be a sign of things to come for the provincial government.

Nenshi appealed to younger voters and those who don’t usually pay much attention to municipal politics. When the race began, the understated business professor from Mount Royal University was just one of a crowd of 16 seeking the mayor’s seat. In early public opinion polls he was running at a disheartening 4 per cent. But his campaign team knew they had to broaden their appeal to the non-traditional voter.

Former mayoral candidate Kent Hehr says his rival was able to “engage the hyperengaged”—young community activists who may not have otherwise worked on the same team. “If you get them, they can influence people for you,” says Hehr, a Calgary Liberal MLA. “I think he had a huge advantage because he got those people.”

At the start, Nenshi’s campaign manager, Stephen Carter, figured veteran alderman Rick McIver had one-third of the vote locked up, and the small-c conservative vote he didn’t get would likely go to Barb Higgins, a high-profile former TV anchor. The key wasn’t to try to bleed off their support but to inspire a new generation of voters.

Although Nenshi was untested as a political commodity, he was well known as a community activist and media commentator on business and economic affairs. As a Muslim and son of immigrant parents, he represented the new face of his city. To his advantage, he wasn’t tainted by the previous three years of a dysfunctional Calgary city council. He was on the right side of a number of local issues, including an underpass under one of Calgary’s airport runways, secrecy over the multi-million-dollar salary paid to the head of city-owned Enmax, the police department’s high per-officer cost, and expensive delays to the pedestrian Peace Bridge linking downtown Calgary to Sunnyside. But the real issue was who would gain the trust of voters with a vision they could share. Nenshi was the only candidate who engaged voters in a discussion on what they want their city to look like. “It’s all about authenticity,” explains Carter. “He gave people the confidence their vote did matter and they could affect change.”

Obama-like in style, Nenshi launched his “Purple Revolution” on social media, using his website for policy discussions and sound bites as well as to introduce himself and his family. He made brilliant use of a self-deprecating YouTube video of people trying to pronounce his name: “It’s NA-hed NEN-shee,” he repeated, making himself the punchline of a joke. The other candidates used social media, but not as effectively. And when Nenshi’s popularity hit 8 per cent, the mainstream media began to take him seriously. “When we started getting television coverage, our campaign really took off,” Carter says. “The Purple Revolution became part of pop culture. It was clear to us we weren’t creating a political group, but a movement.”

Across Alberta, the number of people participating in democracy rose for the first time in decades.

The lessons from Edmonton’s elections are subtler. Although council didn’t change much, three young activists stormed the public school board elections on a backlash against school closures. One of the new trustees, 26-year-old Michael Janz, credits a Nenshi-like appeal to a non-traditional voter base. “The prevailing wisdom is that unless you have kids, you’re not going to get elected as school trustee,” says the former University of Alberta Students’ Union president, who is unmarried (although engaged) and without children. “We talked about schools being part of the community and a decision that affects the health and well-being of the entire community, not just people with children. That’s how we were able to reach out to people who wouldn’t otherwise be that interested in a school board election.”

A strong undercurrent of discontent in Edmonton erupted over the municipal airport question. Envision Edmonton, a group seeking to save the airport, received the requisite number of signatures on a petition to force a plebiscite for the civic election. But the city found enough of those invalid to reject it. Councillor Kerry Diotte, a former journalist elected for the first time on October 18, says “A lot of people I talked to on the doorstep said they don’t give a darn about the airport—but they thought they should be allowed to vote on it.” Also at issue were costly expenditures on light-rail transit, the money-losing Indy race, the now-failed Expo 2017 bid and suspicion that public money would end up funding Oilers owner Daryl Katz’s proposed downtown arena.

Mayor Mandel’s closest challenger was David Dorward. One of Dorward’s volunteers, Nathan Black, was caught impersonating a Seattle journalist raising questions about Mandel’s credibility, and ananonymously written blog called suggested the mayor was close to developers who would benefit from airport land redevelopment. Black, a former CSIS informant, denies writing the blog. Mandel is suing him for $500,000. “Dorward ran a credible campaign but got a late start,” says Diotte. “Being linked to the dirty tricks, even though he had nothing to do with them, really hurt his campaign. If that hadn’t happened, the outcome could have been much different.”

Many who survived election night did so with only the slimmest of victories. In Lethbridge’s mayoral race, veteran councillor Rajko Dodic won a 208-vote squeaker over newcomer Chris Spearman. Medicine Hat’s Norm Boucher, also a veteran councillor, was elected mayor by a 400-vote margin over Julie Friesen. Red Deer’s Morris Flewwelling was elected to his third term as mayor by a 1,500-vote margin over little-known librarian Hillary Penko, a last-minute entry. Fort McMurray’s Melissa Blake was the only mayor of a medium-sized Alberta city to win with an overwhelming margin, with 48 per cent of the popular vote.

Whether voters were acting out of anger, frustration or a newfound sense of empowerment, they marched to the polls in near-record numbers in Alberta’s two largest cities. In Calgary, 53 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots—a 20-point increase over the 2007 civic election and the highest turnout in more than 30 years. In Edmonton, turnout was a more modest 34 per cent—seven points higher than 2007 but nine points below 2004, when Mandel unseated Bill Smith. Turnout across the province also tended to be higher than normal, shooting up to 60 per cent in scandal-plagued Rimbey.

Municipal elections generally attract lower turnouts than provincial ones. But coming on the heels of the historically low 41 per cent in the 2008 provincial election, the upward trend at the municipal level suggests voters may be viewing local politics as a more effective outlet for expressing their goals and aspirations.

“Political change doesn’t come with one big thing happening,” says Carter, quoting from Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. “Political change comes when small bunches of things happen.” The October 18 municipal results could qualify as Gladwell’s “small bunches” of things happening. At a conference of the political action group Reboot Alberta, Hinton Mayor Glenn Taylor offered his calculation of change. He found that new candidates won 47 per cent of the positions on town councils, 52 per cent of the positions on village councils and 41 per cent in municipal districts. “This is an unusually high turnover, especially for rural Alberta, where we tend to stay the course,” he says. “There is a sense that change is needed. We see this mood for change at the municipal level first. People take their frustrations on provincial issues such as heathcare to their municipal representatives. My sense is the desire for change is deeply rooted across the province.”

“I think what really could be learned from the civic elections is that there’s a shift in voter attitudes right now,” says Grande Prairie’s Bill Given, who tailored his campaign to younger voters most likely to respond to his promises of more transparency, efficiency, access to timely information and connecting neighbourhoods. “Alberta is a young province. And there’s a new generation of elector who wants a say in what happens in their lives. They may not have paid much attention to politics in the past but are becoming interested now and are starting to extend their influence.”

Another of the “small bunches” driving change is the province’s demographic. With a median age of 36, Alberta has the youngest population in Canada. It also has the fastest-growing population (now estimated at 3.6 million people), including young people and immigrants bringing new ideas. Most newcomers end up in Edmonton and Calgary, but Alberta’s 12 other cities are also experiencing unprecedented growth. Combined, the province’s 14 largest cities grew by 25 per cent in the past decade, to 2.4 million people. As the Canada West Foundation points out in its “Big Cities” Project, the major centres are taking on more responsibility for providing everything from economic development incentives to public housing, while getting relatively little help from senior levels of government. They still haven’t recovered from the deep cuts by the deficit-slashing Klein government in 1993. Cities struggle with crumbling streets and public buildings while trying to meet demand for new soccer fields, freeways and light-rail transit. An infrastructure deficit estimated at $20-billion three years ago hasn’t eased; capital works are aging and breaking down faster than money from a provincial sustainability fund and federal stimulus spending can replace them.

At the same time as cities are having difficulty managing growth, smaller communities are struggling for survival. More than 60 of Alberta’s towns and villages lost population over the past decade. Since 1990, 27 municipalities dissolved because they no longer had the population or tax base to remain viable; another 30 are considering dissolution. While the province pours money into some of its own programs, it is all the more stingy when it comes to assisting municipalities.

If voters are making their anger with the province known at the municipal level, they have good reason. Municipal taxes and user fees are consistently rising beyond the rate of inflation. Calgary and Edmonton each hiked their tax rates by 5 per cent for the coming year. Alberta’s cities and towns, large and small, are under pressure as never before.

It is no coincidence that a movement for provincial political reform would come from the municipal sphere. The last time the Conservatives were doing poorly in the polls, former Edmonton mayor Laurence Decore seemed poised to rout Don Getty’s Conservatives and end the PC dynasty. It took another municipal politician, Calgary’s Ralph Klein, to restore the Conservatives’ fortunes.

New and renewed parties from the left, right and centre are looking for lessons from the 2010 municipal elections on how to challenge Alberta’s 40-year-old Progressive Conservative dynasty. Whoever succeeds Ed Stelmach as PC leader must call an election by early 2013 at the latest. Public opinion polls show the Tories at their weakest in almost two decades, in a virtual dead heat with the Wildrose Alliance. A new player has also entered the fray, the centre-left Alberta Party. The Wildrose Alliance was visibly active in municipal politics for the first time in 2010, and the Alberta Party is hoping to use its recent municipal experiences to harness this mood for change.

Many in the new Alberta Party have municipal ties. Nenshi’s chief of staff, Chima Nkemdirim, is a board member. Acting leader Sue Huff is a former Edmonton public school trustee. New Edmonton trustee Michael Janz is one of the party’s founding members. In February, Mayor Taylor of Hinton declared his intention to run for the party’s leadership. Grande Prairie’s mayor Given is also involved in the new party.

It’s no coincidence that a move for provincial reform would come from the municipal reform.

Municipal issues don’t always resonate the same way at the provincial level, however. And even if the issues are related, voters don’t always see the connection. “The biggest issues I faced on the doorstep were crime, taxes and roads,” says Diotte. “The voters didn’t care if any of this was the province’s fault [for underfunding cities]. They wanted me as a candidate for council to do something about it.” Roger Gibbins, president of the Canada West Foundation, says municipal politicians take the heat for rising property taxes and fees. But they are at a disadvantage to their provincial counterparts because they have to set their rates under harsher public scrutiny. “Every year they get headlines in the papers when they raise the tax rate, while the province can take in more money from economic growth or oil prices and it barely gets a mention,” Gibbins says. “I find it telling that Mayor Nenshi, despite pursuing a progressive urban agenda during the campaign, has become preoccupied with having to deal with the realities of rising tax rates.”

If the civic elections were a precursor for the next provincial election, it’s unclear how the results would filter down. In Edmonton, October 18 may have been a trial run for the city’s Wildrose Alliance team. Dorward ran unsuccessfully for the Conservatives in 2008, but many working on his campaign this time were with the Wildrose, while Mandel has enjoyed support from a broad coalition of Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats. Wildrose leader Danielle Smith injected herself into municipal affairs when she called on the province to intervene to keep the municipal airport open—earning her a rebuke from Mandel and apparently city voters as well.

“The provincial election has already begun in Edmonton,” says Jim Lightbody, a University of Alberta expert on municipal politics. “David Dorward was a stalking horse for Danielle Smith in the city. But he seemed really out of touch with the times, trying to move the city back instead of forward. It’s hard to say how that reflects on the party leader, but it did show that Smith is friends with those who can afford private airplanes.”

Results in Calgary underline the growing unrest in a city that never warmed to Ed Stelmach and where Conservative support is falling faster than anywhere else. The Wildrose now holds three of its four seats in Calgary due to a by-election win and defections from the Tories. Naheed Nenshi has links to the Alberta Party. In the same way Nenshi was able to win with 40 per cent of the vote due to a split in the small-c conservative vote, centrist parties could benefit from a Conservative/Wildrose split. “It’s hard to know what’s happening in Calgary, only that people are pretty grumpy,” says Lightbody. “I just wouldn’t want to be trying to get re-elected there.”

Predicting where the collapsing Conservative vote will go is guesswork. Stephen Carter says the Liberals and the Wildrose have the most to gain. “The Wildrose is poised to take a lot of seats as the PC power base is eroded, particularly in Calgary,” he says. Carter thinks the Liberals have a good chance to take advantage of the political uncertainty, but their challenge—as always—will be to distance themselves from the federal Liberal policies that have been unpopular in Alberta, and to select a leader who will resonate with voters in a way former leader David Swann (“a thoughtful man with well-thought-out ideas”) did not. Carter is less positive about other parties’ chances.

Michael Janz, though, is optimistic about the Alberta Party. “There’s a whole constituency out there that doesn’t participate at the provincial level because they’re so turned off by partisan politics,” he says. “Partisanship detracts from being able to have control at a local level. If your elected representative has to follow a party line, that’s going to come in conflict with being able to speak for the community they represent. People are finding partisan politics to be toxic.”

Regardless of who wins the next provincial election, Given predicts a more balanced legislature afterward. Although Alberta has a history of political dynasties sweeping to power—the United Farmers, Social Credit and the Conservatives—he doesn’t see it happening again. “We’re a more diverse population than ever,” he says. “The ‘Alberta myth’—where change happens all at once and we all move in one direction—is coming to an end.”

Liberal MLA Hehr doubts the civic election results will translate at the provincial level at all. He says municipal teams are usually made up of a broad coalition of those already committed to various provincial political parties. “Naheed was able to mobilize the hyperengaged, but the hyperengaged are already mobilized when it comes to provincial politics,” says Hehr. “They’re already working for someone at the provincial level. Getting them to switch, while not impossible, is going to be difficult.”

It could still be all about change, says Roger Gibbins, if the newfound enthusiasm for the ballot box on October 18 extends to the next provincial election. “It does suggest a greater degree of engagement and a potential for change,” he says. “I don’t know what direction that change will be. But I don’t think it is particularly comforting for a Conservative party that has been in power for almost 40 years.”

Larry Johnsrude is a veteran newspaper journalist and now a senior news producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton.


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