The NDP Path to Victory
Despite the common assertion that the NDP cannot and will not form government again in 2019, available evidence would indicate otherwise. The NDP have a path to victory, although many factors are out of their control. Even in a low-oil price environment with sustained high unemployment, they will still be a credible threat to form government in 2019. While I generally prefer to avoid building an NDP strategic plan, I recognize the necessity of assessing their potential paths. I must emphasize that even in the scenario with a single party contesting the 2019 election, there are no guarantees that a centre-right party will form government.
Winning the Ground War – NDP Organization
The NDP went into the 2015 more prepared than in any previous campaign. Progressive allies launched mail, radio, and digital campaign in the first quarter of 2015 attacking the Prentice government for its failings, and calling for specific policies. The language used by the third party groups closely reflected that of the campaign. The NDP itself spent the previous years rebuffing attempts by center-left political groups to merge, instead focusing on building itself into a party that could form government. It trained candidates, built local campaign organizations, and ensured it had a presence in every region of the province.
Looking to 2019, the NDP have the opportunity to build on this strength, pulling in top tier progressive activists and organizers from across the country. The poor showing of the federal NDP and the loss of government in Manitoba means that Alberta could become the hub for progressive politics in western Canada.
The campaign organization built for the 2015 campaign was expanded during the federal election, allowing the party to identify voters, build campaign databases, and ensure the local constituencies continued to build and develop. A substantial benefit enjoyed by the NDP is the potential to utilize government ministers for local fundraisers.
Building the War Chest – NDP Fundraising
The Q4-2014 and Q1-2015 NDP fundraising numbers offered the first clear indication of the coming storm, as the party raised over $400,000, surpassing the Wildrose (still struggling from the crossings). The NDP has continued to demonstrate an ability to raise money, taking advantage of Alberta’s new fundraising laws to secure top spot in recent fundraising disclosures.
Although corporate donations have been limited, NDP MLAs and cabinet ministers are a potent draw for fundraisers on behalf of local CAs. One can expect that the NDP will go into the 2019 election with well-funded local constituencies in Edmonton, ex-urban Edmonton, and the core urban seats in Calgary. It is likely that we will also see considerable fundraising growth in Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, and smaller urban centers in central and northern Alberta.
This fundraising will allow them to run a far more potent and professional campaign than in 2015. Given the comparative financial stresses facing the PC and Wildrose parties, and the conservative leaning donors currently sitting on the side lines, it is likely that this financial advantage may grow as we approach the next election.
Gerrymander – Tilting the Playing Field
For the first time in a generation, the boundary redistribution process will not be controlled by judges and commissions appointed by conservative governments. Redistribution offers two serious challenges. First, the NDP have an opportunity to move seats from rural to urban Alberta. In 2009, during the last redistribution process, the population of Alberta’s two major metro areas represented ~50% of the total population. In 2016, the most recent estimates place this number at ~68%.
As of writing, there are currently 49 seats in metropolitan Calgary and Edmonton. If the NDP push to minimize the riding level population variance, this could mean a potential increase to 59 seats in the two metro areas. While this itself does not guarantee NDP governance, it makes the electoral math that much more difficult for center right parties that previously depended on rural seats. A clean sweep of rural Alberta guarantees only 28 seats, rather than the 38 seats previously available.
The 59 seats in urban Alberta mean that the NDP can concentrate support in key geographies, and focus their efforts on a core of ~30 ridings. If the conservative vote is split between 2 parties, it will be more difficult for either to win a majority government in 2019. These advantages, combined with a potent NDP warchest allow the NDP conduct ongoing research and database development to guide their redistribution efforts.
The passing of Bill 7 in the spring legislative session has provided some indication of the NDP plans and the timelines for the new boundaries. When the federal census is completed in Fall 2016, the commission will begin their deliberations. Notley’s Chief of Staff, Brian Topp has made it clear that he intends to ensure the party is competitive in 2019, and he would likely see the new ridings as a major component of their continued success.
The Public Treasury – Subsidize & Construct
The most ability to control both the public purse, and the public agenda ensures that the government will retain the initiative as we approach the next election. If we continue to see little movement on energy access files, and an ongoing slump in broader oil and gas industry, the NDP may take the opportunity to push hard on diversification within the energy sector. Major capital projects like upgraders and refineries allow the government to focus economic benefits in key constituencies needed for the next election.
Likewise, the capacity for discretionary spending using income from the new provincial carbon tax means that the government will have considerable opportunity to direct resources to supporters and potential supporters. While these projects may not be popular in the wider province, the concentration of benefits and the boost to local economies (and ridings) means that the communities become invested in the continuation of the grants and projects, and thus averse to potential change in policy and programs.
The NDP can work to ensure the broadest possible base of ridings are invested in their continued control over the levers of government. While this may not be enough to step growing opposition if oil prices remain weak, this possibility requires the continued vigilance of opposition parties and advocacy groups.
Bill 20 introduced a new government department responsible for overseeing the distribution of funds from the newly introduced Carbon Tax. The legislative mandate is broad, the mechanisms for oversight are grossly lacking. We expect that this department will become a way for the NDP to spread funding on multi-year grants to key municipalities and regional players. This has two important implications.
First, it means that the municipal elections in 2017 will become an important battleground, as municipalities struggle with a growing tax bill and the loss of authority to the broader regional planning boards. The NDP may attempt to develop bench strength by promoting promising progressive candidates. Likewise, the municipal elections should be seen as an opportunity to speak out on issues relating to spending and the appropriate use of taxation powers.
Second, any rapid expansion of government spending either requires a similar expansion of oversight, or results in wasted spending and potential misuses of funds. If the NDP attempt to allocate billions of dollars of new tax revenue to green energy programs, they may have to broaden the discretionary powers enjoyed by their staff and ministers, or accept the risk that funding process will be abused.
If we see a scenario where two or more parties are contesting the next election, the respective focus may shift from attacking the NDP government to gaining incremental advantage over a conservative competitor. Dissent within the right offers substantial upside to the NDP. Recent attempts to hold the government to account on unpopular legislation like the carbon tax were hindered by MLAs from both sides of the divide choosing to attack each other, rather than focusing their criticism on the governing party and its flawed agenda.
Is Rachel Notley leader of the NDP in 2019?
I cannot knowingly comment on the leadership of the NDP in 2019. While it is likely that Premier Notley will lead the NDP into the next election, there is no guarantee that this will be the case. If asked on April 25th, 2012, how many of the existing party leaders would retain their positions for 2016, very few would likely predict the resulting ‘0’.
If Rachel Notley’s personal approval continues to slump, we may see a growing number of Albertans placing blame on her personally, rather than geopolitical events outside her control. If her popularity doesn’t show signs of potential recovery, NDP insiders may consider alternative candidates for leadership of the party. There are two potential scenarios for the NDP – each with their own benefits and risks.
If the NDP believe they have a better chance of success in 2019 under alternative leadership, they may instead choose a moderate member of the caucus that can convince voters the party is serious about economic revival. Selecting a ‘moderate’ NDP leader could offer a temporary boost to their fortunes, but it would not be guaranteed. Such a decision would be extraordinarily risky, as the restructuring of the core NDP team would weaken election preparations.
If the NDP believe that they have no chance of re-election in 2019, they may choose to accelerate policy programs and push to redefine Alberta’s economic and social foundations, choosing a leader with a more militant agenda and a desire to reshape the province in ways that cannot be undone.
Whether it is committing the province to 30-year contracts with renewable energy companies, redrafting MOUs with federal agencies for environmental assessments, or signing collective agreements with major unions in the final months of a potential term, the NDP have a variety of tools at their disposal. Alberta’s conservative and centre-right parties must not underestimate the deep strategic insight and the drive for comprehensive reform from Notley’s inner circle. While it is easy to dismiss one’s opponent, it is not healthy, nor does it prepare us for the coming contest.
Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. If the stars aligned in 2015 for the NDP, it is because of a generation of work and development. We must be prepared to do the same.