If you’re unhappy with the state of Alberta politics and are tempted as a summer project to form your own political party, might I suggest you call it the “None of the Above” party. Or maybe the “I Don’t Know” party. Do that and you’ll attract the support of more than 10 per cent of all Alberta voters. And that’s just the beginning.
A sizeable chunk of Albertans are disgruntled with both parties that currently hold seats in the legislature. Even though most voters cast a ballot for the UCP or NDP in the 2019 election, more than one-quarter are not happy with that binary choice as we head toward the 2023 election. A survey released in April by Janet Brown Opinion Research said a total of 27 per cent of respondents supported something other than the two biggest parties, either the Wildrose Independence Party (5 per cent), Alberta Party (5 per cent), Liberal/ Green/other (6 per cent) or the intriguingly vague “unspecified” (11 per cent). Pollsters like to call these voters “orphaned.” They have no political home.
That same month Brown said on the CBC podcast West of Centre, “In Alberta we’ve got this two-party system, but maybe we don’t have a two-party electorate.” At the moment, however, voters who support anybody other than the UCP or NDP don’t have much of a home to go to.
It’s like the Alberta Party and Wildrose Independence Party have pup tents, while the Liberals huddle in a ditch by the side of the road.
If the UCP and NDP are living in political mansions supported by millions of dollars in donations annually, the Alberta Party and Wildrose Independence Party have pup tents, while the Liberals are huddled in a ditch by the side of the road. (The Alberta Greens are today something of a political mirage.)
While the UCP and NDP are led by strong-willed captains, their three closest competitors are bobbing around under the direction of interim leaders Jacquie Fenske (Alberta Party), Paul Hinman (Wildrose) and John Roggeveen (Liberals). Consequently, all three of these parties are holding leadership races this year, hoping they can attract some attention, money and, of course, a credible captain.
But they’ll be doing this in the late stages of a pandemic, while the political spotlight is on the daily tug-of-war between the UCP and NDP. A possible federal election this year would also siphon attention, candidates and donations from the leadership contests. Running a race in these conditions will be such an uphill climb that candidates should be equipped with crampons.
Liberals and Alberta Party supporters are buoyed by the conventional wisdom that Albertans want a party in the middle, not as left-leaning as the New Democrats and not as right-leaning as Jason Kenney’s Conservatives. Troy Wason, executive director of the Alberta Party, says Albertans deserve a “solid, common-sense, fresh approach to government,” a statement more than a tad vague. But he says two big, attention-grabbing issues under internal discussion in the party are protection of water resources and a provincial sales tax.
Like something out of a Monty Python sketch, Liberals insist they’re not dead yet and are promising “bold” policies such as a PST and reducing personal income tax—two promises they made in 2019 to an underwhelming response, leaving them with just 1 per cent support of voters last election.
Both parties are fighting over the same voters in territory that’s still pretty much under the control of the NDP.
The Wildrose Independence Party, however, is tilling more fertile ground: disaffected Conservatives. Among Alberta’s “orphaned” voters are people who supported the UCP in 2019, when Kenney won 55 per cent of the vote. That support dropped to 33 per cent earlier this year, according to Brown’s poll.
Disgruntled Conservatives aren’t just angry at Kenney for what they perceive to be his heavy-handed approach to COVID restrictions, but for a litany of reasons, including a failure to stand up to the federal government, pushing coal mining in the Rockies and using a dictatorial approach with his caucus. That bitterness broke into public view in May when Todd Loewen publicly quit his job as UCP caucus chair and demanded Kenney resign: “We did not unite around blind loyalty to one man. And while you promoted unity, it is clear that unity is falling apart.”
In an attempt to bolster Kenney’s credibility, a majority of UCP MLAs voted to kick Loewen out of caucus and, for good measure, also booted persistent Kenney-basher Drew Barnes.
But tossing the two MLAs overboard doesn’t lighten Kenney’s boat. The premier may have lost two malcontents but anti-Kenney conservatives gained two martyrs. His United Conservative movement is starting to splinter. Political power—getting it and keeping it—was always the glue that held the UCP together. That glue is weakening.
That’s where the real danger lies for Kenney—in a fracturing of the right-wing vote, the same Progressive Conservative vs. Wildrose dynamic that helped defeat the PCs in 2015.
Those orphaned voters might not be mighty in numbers, but they might yet play a mighty role in the next election.
Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.