Are the Liberals losing the Progressive Primary?

Are the Liberals in trouble? Recent developments—including not only the recent NDP win in Alberta, but also the continuing opposition to Bill C51—suggest it’s a question worth asking, as does a new poll putting the NDP in first place.

In Canada’s present federal political configuration, dating from the emergence of a united Conservative alternative, it is convenient (if oversimplistic) to think of Canadian politics as consisting of two simultaneous competitions: the progressive primary and the main event. That dual campaign gives contemporary Canadian federal party politics much of its character.

With the Conservatives apparently able to capture a sturdy but limited 30-40% share of the vote, a big win in the progressive primary is a necessary prerequisite for either the Liberals or the NDP to have a shot at winning an election. That is, one or the other must convince progressives who dislike the incumbent that they stand the better chance of unseating them. If neither does so decisively, Continue reading

All bias, no information: on the market’s (over)reaction to the NDP victory.

Here we are in day two of the Glorious New Albertastani revolution. The buildings are still standing, but markets are apparently nervous. Headline after headline notes the fear gripping the petroleum industry about what this “leftist” government will do. One analyst described the situation to Bloomberg using phrases like “completely devastating” and “extremely dangerous.” Executives and analysts dropped the dreaded u-word—uncertainty—yesterday, and oil prices rose slightly even as oil sands producers’ stocks fell somewhat as the market digested the news. Whether they processed it correctly is another matter, of course.

At base, all a market does is aggregate the perceptions of a self-selected set of monied actors, which in turn are based on the information available combined with their own intellectual biases. Right now, it’s collecting almost all bias, and no information. Simply put, markets are aggregating collective misperception at the moment.

Indeed, the market actors—and even more so the market analysts predicting doom—seem to be unduly discounting the information that is available. Rachel Notley and the NDP have pledged to hold off on a royalty review until prices have recovered. They have also committed to an independent review, which is more than the Conservatives managed under Ed Stelmach. If royalty rates do go up—and that’s an open question—they will do so in a manner that ensures Alberta remains comparable with other oil-producing regions with which it competes.

The promised corporate tax increase to 12% is actually lower than the rate was in 2003. It’s on par with Saskatchewan and 1% above BC—in other words, it’s a very competitive, reasonable rate for a left-of-centre government in a business-friendly province. Max Fawcett writes convincingly about the overall reasonableness of the NDP’s approach to business, albeit in that notorious lefty rag Alberta Oil Magazine.

Alberta has elected an eclectic new government to be sure, but the signals it has sent out mark it also as a pragmatic one—they would not have won otherwise, and stand no chance of winning again unless they stick to that pragmatism. Indeed, I have a hunch that Albertans, even some deeply suspicious of the new government, may be pleasantly surprised how nice it is to have a government that knows it has to listen and be responsive to the concerns that people express if it hopes to stay in power.

Basically, the only way this doesn’t work out is if market fears become self-fulfilling, and business goes to war with the new government rather than work with it, as happened in Ontario twenty years ago (h/t to Geoff Solomons for that link). Don Braid writes well about that possibility in the Herald. My hunch is that will not happen in this case however, given how much value it would leave on the table for businesses so heavily invested in the province already. Sunk costs and all that, sure, but there are only so many places with oil in the ground in the world, and very few of them are more hospitable to business—a fact that really won’t change much.

It’s probably true that profitability will decrease marginally under an NDP government. They are raising corporate taxes, after all. It’s also true that a cautious approach is sensible in the face of the unknown.  The key word is marginal, however. If markets continue to price in a significant risk factor going forwards, I have two words: buy now.  Once more information becomes available in the form of concrete actions, the market will eventually correct itself.  The market is not always right, but it usually gets there sooner or later.

photo credit: pump jack southeastern New Mexico via photopin (license)

Op-ed: Big Tent Nenshi

While it’s been a decade 13 years(!) since I left Alberta, I like to keep a weather eye on politics in the Old Country. My latest offering, courtesy the National Post, builds on some earlier thinking on the subject, and puts forward a modest proposal for a political shake-up in the province in the run-up to the 2016 election. In about 700 words it manages to bury the current governing party, then bulldoze three or four others in order to lay the foundations for a new progressive alternative headed by Calgary’s own Naheed Nenshi. Needless to say it’s already made me just loads of new friends on the twitter.

Here’s the opening:

With the recent resignation of Premier Alison Redford, the venerable Progressive Conservative Party is once again adrift. Internal divisions and unpopularity sank the last two leaders, and no one now seems eager to assume command. Commentators use words like “free fall” to describe the party. Opponents describe it as in “disarray.”

Simply put, Alberta’s big tent party is collapsing in on itself. Having lost the party’s right wing to Wildrose last election, the departure of Redford now makes it unlikely it’ll be able to hold on to the centre-left voters who rallied to her side in 2012, either. Let us assume for the moment, however, that the party tries to save itself by shifting to the right, leaving the centre and the left of the province’s political spectrum wide open. What, if anything, will materialize there to oppose them?

Click here to read on. Shout-out to my good friend Phil Zinken (it being Friday, you should probably follow him on twitter at @zinkep) for prodding me to think about these issues, and helping me stay informed of what’s going on on the ground there.

photo credit: cliff1066™ via photopin cc

End of the Line, Part II

Alternate Title: Why do Unsuccessful Parties Endure?

In my previous post on the subject of Alberta politics, I discussed potential futures for the party landscape in the province. A thoughtful comment on the piece from Phil Penrod, a dear friend of mine and close observer and onetime participant in Alberta politics, prompted me to think a bit about not only what could happen in Alberta politics going forward, but what is likely to happen. This post is the result. So, you’ve been warned: if you don’t care about Alberta politics, now’s a good time to point your browser somewhere else.

For me, the key take-away of the first piece was that the rise of the Wildrose Party as a competitive political entity fundamentally changes the political landscape in a way that will likely lead to political irrelevance for one or both of the Liberals and NDP, unless those parties finally start to take some form of merger seriously.

As a participant in Alberta politics however, Phil suggests that cooperation between Liberals and NDPers in the province is very unlikely. For him, the relationship between committed members of both parties actually bears a striking resemblance to the Dog River / Wullerton rivalry in the show Corner Gas. Ask an old-time NDPer about the Liberals, and be prepared for some spitting.

I think that comparison is quite apt. It gets at the heart of what I’ve come to believe electoral politics is about for many, maybe even a majority of people, namely identity. Party positions on any given issue matters in only a very general way: does the particular position help to reinforce the identity they have, and does it make that identity more or less accessible to current and potential supporters?[1]

It is my sense that the remaining NDP and Liberal party faithful continue to participate and support those parties, and shun other potential alternatives, because membership in that party forms an important part of how they view themselves. Voting for the Liberals or NDP (and, at the federal level, the Greens) reaffirms who they are as individuals, often in explicitly ethical terms, and the party becomes a social group that they belong to, and a symbol for the kind of person they are. In this sense, being a “Liberal” or “NDP” member is analogous to being “Albertan,” or “Canadian,” or indeed, an “Oiler fan” or “Flames fan.” It’s quite literally part of who they are, and its difficult to conceive of being any other way. Accordingly, the actual substantive differences between parties and the electoral implications of a given vote matter only peripherally.

I want to emphasize that I do not think there is anything intrinsically wrong with this. Indeed, in a proportional representation system, Liberals could be Liberals and NDPer would be NDPers, with no negative electoral consequences.

That said , the presence of such a deeply ingrained sense of political identity in the context of a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system does create what might be termed “inefficiencies” in the political arena. It gives non-committed voters — even if they are inclined to vote for a broadly progressive party and don’t particularly care which one — too many nodes on the spectrum to try to coordinate their votes around, with no good way to figure out which is more likely to succeed, and good reason to doubt that any will. The result in Alberta right now is actually that, somewhat ironically, the Conservative Party offers the best point of coordination for progressives who don’t have a strong party affiliation. At least it’s competitive electorally, and it’s closer to their political preferences than the Wildrose alternative.

Accordingly, under FPTP, the only path to even potential electoral relevance for Alberta’s progressive parties – if indeed that is the goal, something that an identity-based theory of voting would tend to cast some doubt on – is to reduce the number of progressive nodes on the spectrum, to make voter coordination easier.

In theory, it could be done through a strategy, suggested by  provincial Liberals, of running only one candidate of all three parties in a particular constituency – in this case including the Alberta Party, a potential option as the home of a united progressive party. In my opinion however, this would have to be one step in a longer process; it’s not a long-term solution for precisely the issues of identity I discuss above. Specifically, this approach doesn’t allow voters to form a new sense of belonging with a single progressive option, which is a vital prerequisite of long-term electoral success. People have to know what kind of government they’re voting for in choosing a member, and feel comfortable with the result. A limited multi-party pact impairs the development of that relationship.

Accordingly, to achieve lasting relevance, the leadership of all three parties would have to agree to present voters with a single coherent progressive party, in effect removing the option of loyalty to the old party from the ballot. They would then have to simply accept the resulting fallout, which would undoubtedly be ugly. Such a move would almost inevitably be seen as a betrayal by some portion of the party faithful no matter how it’s done (think Peter MacKay and David Orchard), to the extent that it would temporarily or even permanently alienate some of the old guard from both parties. (Following the federal Conservative merger, Orchard abandoned the party and most recently ran as a Liberal in the 2008 election.) However, for what it’s worth, the example of the Saskatchewan Party, not to mention the federal Conservatives, does suggest that for most party faithful, the hurt feelings mend over time, with most eventually adapting to the new political landscape.

All that said, from present indications, these are not steps that current party leaders are willing to entertain. Accordingly, it’s quite likely that all three are looking at an extended, or permanent state of political irrelevance in Alberta in the coming years. The real conversation in the province, the one that matters from the perspective of choosing a government, is going to be between the Wildrose and Conservatives.

[1] I suspect that there is a psychological effect here, where some people are just intuitively drawn to an identity-based concept of voting and party allegiance, while others, like me, consider their voting choice in much more instrumental terms, as a way to select the “best” government available, given the availability and viability of parties competing. Or maybe it’s better described as a fundamental difference in political philosophy. Not sure how much research has been done on this, though; once I finish my dissertation, it might be a fun area to do some work. For instance, an interesting question would be, to what extent do personal political opinions change as the available political options change? (How) do institutional changes affect the way we view political issues? But, I digress…

End of the Line?

Time is running out for Alberta’s progressive parties.

Now that a half year or so has elapsed since the most unpredictable Alberta provincial election in a generation, it is perhaps possible to put results in perspective, and to risk some speculation regarding what the future might hold.

In terms of post-mortem, the election offered renewed proof – if any was needed – that Alberta is home to some of the most conservative voters and political leaders in the country. What surprised me, however, was less the social conservatism of the Wildrose Party, than the institutional conservatism of the Liberals and New Democrats.

During the election, the Conservatives found themselves threatened on their political right for the first time as incumbents. Had they been menaced on the left by an equally coherent and competent progressive alternative, the Conservatives would have been hemmed in on both sides, a potentially fatal situation for any centrist ruling party (just ask the federal Liberals).

As it happened, however, there was no such competitive alternative on the centre-left. With all attention focused on the struggle between the Conservatives and Wildrose, the Liberals and NDP were able to do little more than compete with one another for the right to be the party of protest in the new Assembly.

Premier Redford was thus able to tack her party ever so slightly toward the centre, effectively assembling a new winning coalition of economic conservatives and social progressives on the fly. The Liberals and the NDP combined captured just 20% of the popular vote, a stark decline from the 35% share they garnered in 2008.  In effect, the Conservative party became the voice of moderates and progressives in the province.

So, what happens next? This is, of course, anyone’s guess, but the political science literature does give us some clues as to what we might expect.

Perhaps the most significant finding from the discipline is that, over the long run, majoritarian electoral systems such as Alberta’s tend to support no more than two major political parties at a given time. Beyond this, there is room for at most one relevant protest party.

In such systems, parties tend to remain competitive only so long as they can effectively capture the one “pole” of the political spectrum, whether on the left or the right. Once a party finds itself outflanked by strong opponents on either side, its days are usually numbered. Any move to capture votes in one direction entails a loss in the other. This may well be what is happening to the federal Liberal party, and it yet may be the fate of the provincial Conservatives as well.

Then again, it may not.

What follows presents a number of scenarios, all guided by the fundamental intuition that Alberta will eventually settle into equilibrium with two major parties, along with (potentially) a minor third party.

  1. The Wildrose and Conservative parties merge. While current rhetoric suggests neither side is thinking of this for now, it clearly remains a possibility. The Conservatives have historically been a “big-tent” party of the political right, accommodating a variety of both social and economic conservatives, along with a certain number of pragmatic (or cynical, depending on who you ask) moderates. With a recent poll by Environics showing continued robust support for the Conservatives and a significant decline for Wildrose, a number of would-be rebels may seek to return to their former home in government. If Wildrose support continues to evaporate, or if the party suffers another major disappointment in the next election, it could disappear as quickly as it emerged.
  2. A united progressive party emerges: There are a number of possible (though not necessarily plausible) scenarios through which this could occur. Either the Liberals or the NDP could collapse, or one could merge into the other. A third alternative would the dissolution of both parties, followed by the founding of an entirely new political vehicle.
  3. Continuation of the status quo: Assuming Wildrose remains a fixture on the political right in the province, the Conservatives have a significant strategic choice to make: do they contest Wildrose for control of the right pole of Alberta politics, or do they complete the shift begun by Redford during the last election, and reinvent themselves fully as the party of the centre in Alberta, campaigning as the “natural ruling party” of the province?

So long as the provincial Liberals and NDP remain politically divided, the choice is an easy one to make. By shifting slightly to the left, the provincial Conservatives would be able to offer limited concessions to entice progressives fearful of a right-wing party victory, confident that neither the Liberals nor the NDP would command sufficient support to pose a true threat. At the same time, they would ensure that the bulk of their platform remains appealing to both social and economic conservatives, preventing the Wildrose from returning to its brief pre-election heights. This is the game that the federal Liberals played for decades, and there’s no reason the Conservatives could not do it just as well so long as progressives remain divided. In this scenario, the Liberals and NDP would quickly find themselves reduced to marginal parties, with virtually no power or profile. Given this, status quo is arguably the worst-scenario for both parties in the province.

Of these, the second option may seem the least likely on the surface. The NDP and Liberals have had more than 30 years of electoral futility to encourage them to merge, and nothing has changed thus far.

It is certainly risky for both parties, as it would entail abandoning the political institutions that supporters have known and relied upon for years, even decades. In many cases, those institutions constitute a significant part of supporters’ identities – voting Liberal or NDP is a part of who they are

It also requires a willingness to move away from entrenched political positions, and to engage in dialogue with potential partners who share similar, but not identical political goals and ideals.

Nonetheless, so long as Wildrose remains an active force in Alberta politics, they may have very little left to lose, and possibly a tremendous amount to gain. There is no doubt that if Alberta progressives were somehow able to create a single progressive alternative, the political geography of the province would transform once again.

Further, a new political party would enjoy a number of advantages. It would be free of residual NEP stigma marking the Liberals (now in its 4th decade!). It could likewise escape associations with old-style social democracy that many Albertans associate with the NDP. Rather, it would be able to craft its own identity carte blanche, and pursue new political agenda specifically tailored to the unique circumstances in which Albertans now find themselves.

With a viable party of the centre-left, minor concessions by the Conservatives would no longer be sufficient to woo the province’s progressives. In such a scenario, the Conservative Party would find itself in the dreaded political centre, potentially outflanked on both sides: a political shift to the left would result in a loss of support to Wildrose, while a shift to the right would entail a loss to the new progressive party.  Too progressive for conservatives, and too conservative for progressives, the Conservative party could find itself staring to a political abyss every bit as deep as the one currently facing the federal Liberals.

Who knows? So long as there are two parties of the right, a united centre-left party that won even 35-40% of the popular vote might even be able to form the government. It may seem like a long shot, but a long shot is better than no shot at all.

The question is, just how conservative are the province’s progressive leaders?

photo credit: ecstaticist via photopin cc