In this year's federal election, Albertans will likely – as they have since 1958 – almost exclusively send Conservative Members of Parliament to Ottawa. Without exception, Alberta has been more supportive of conservative parties than the rest of the country for many decades. But while their conservative voting habits are undeniable, how conservative are Albertans in their beliefs compared to people in the other nine provinces? On a range of issues, Albertans indicate that they are in the middle of the road ideologically, and sometimes even less conservative than other Canadians.
Evidence from the Canadian Election Studies – opinion polls conducted by researchers at each federal election – challenges the notion that Albertans are extraordinarily conservative. In fact, inferring a province's ideological nature from how it votes is an error. Lots of political science research has consistently shown that, while partisanship can be caused by ideology, it is just as often caused by many non-ideological factors, such as picking up voting habits from previous generations or feeling like a party best fits with one's self-identity.
Alberta's lack of a sales tax gives the impression that it is some sort of anti-tax haven where everybody wants lower taxes regardless of the context. However, when asked whether personal taxes should be increased or decreased, Albertans ranked ninth out of 10 provinces for wanting a decrease, with just 34 per cent responding that they wanted lower taxes. On this measure, Newfoundland gave the most traditionally conservative response, while Saskatchewan straggled even behind Alberta.
Part of this is surely because taxes in Alberta are already quite low, but it still belies the image of Albertans as always hungry for more tax cuts. Similarly, when the question is asked about corporate taxes, Alberta placed third in terms of wanting them decreased. However, Ontario – a province not usually perceived as conservative – had the highest proportion of respondents wanting lower taxes for corporations. Perhaps even more surprisingly, Alberta ranked only sixth for opposition to the idea of doubling taxes on gas and heating oil to fight climate change.
It is not just taxes, either. Alberta's conservative self-image is also complicated when you examine opinions about spending. While Albertans ranked third overall in terms of wanting to spend more on national defence (a traditional conservative opinion), they also ranked seventh overall in terms of wanting to spend less on welfare, and almost nobody in the country wanted spending decreased for health care and education, Alberta included. Even in terms of allowing two-tier health care, Alberta polled squarely in the middle of the pack.
It might also be tempting to think Alberta's conservative image is caused by social conservatism. On same-sex marriage, Alberta actually is the most strongly opposed. However, this level of opposition is still quite low, with only 29 per cent of Albertans against it in the 2011 survey. At the same time, this is not particularly different from the levels of opposition in Saskatchewan, Manitoba or Prince Edward Island. On another important issue for social conservatives – banning abortion – Alberta ranks seventh for support, only slightly more in favour of a ban than people in Ontario.
This complex picture of how conservative Albertans actually are ideologically suggests that its partisan conservative attachment is more about conservative party labels or a self-image of conservatism than it is about actually being as conservative as the province seems. This is not to say that Albertans will be secretly pining for a socialist utopia any time soon, but if your only image of Alberta comes from the political parties it supports, Alberta turns out to be less conservative than you might think.
Paul Fairie is a political scientist at the University of Calgary, where he studies voter behaviour.