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Alberta’s political realignment: What does the province want to be?

Tony Coulson is Group VP, Corporate and Public Affairs at Environics Research

Jason Kenney made headlines in March by winning the leadership of Alberta's PC Party on a platform to unite with the Wildrose Party and create a "united free-enterprise party." The merger is intended to avoid right-wing vote splitting in future elections. Merger supporters think it offers, in the words of conservative strategist Tom Flanagan, "the best prospects for victory against the social democrats."

It's reasonable to think a united-right party can find support among Alberta voters, who have a fairly conservative voting history. But some Albertans want an alternative to both the governing NDP and a potentially Wildrose-inflected right-wing party. There's been talk – including among contestants for the Alberta Liberal leadership – about a "unite the centre" movement that would combine the party's Liberals, moderate PC supporters who reject the Wildrose merger and possibly supporters of the Alberta Party (which recently hired a former PC party official).

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Environics Research explored a hypothetical Alberta political landscape – one with both a united right and a united centre – in a survey we conducted in the aftermath of Mr. Kenney's leadership victory (March 20 to April 2). We polled a representative sample of Albertans and asked how they would vote in a future election featuring three options:

1) A new right-wing conservative party combining Alberta PCs and Wildrose;

2) The Alberta NDP; and

3) A new centrist party made up of some combination of moderate PCs, the Alberta Party and/or the Alberta Liberals. (We also accepted other options, including none of the above, too early to tell, another party, or don't know.)

For now, this is a fantasy electoral landscape, but the results are nonetheless interesting and potentially informative for strategists and observers across the spectrum. About half of Albertans said they would vote for the united right, 21 per cent chose the united centre, while 14 per cent picked the NDP. ( Fourteen per cent gave another answer, such as none of the above or too soon to tell.)

We tested the firmness of the preferences people expressed by asking whether they were sure or might change their mind. Only about half of those who chose a main party (united right, united centre or NDP) said they're certain that's how they would vote, while half say they could change their mind. Supporters of the new right-wing option and of the NDP are the most firm in their choices; in each case, about six in 10 said they are certain to vote for their choice. Only about a quarter of united-centre supporters are certain of their choice – not surprising, since this option is largely theoretical.

In short, the united right has good prospects but voters' views remain tentative; our findings show plenty of ambivalence and indecision.

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Setting partisan identification aside for a moment, what underlies these allegiances? What do Albertans really want for their province? One important factor in people's political choices is their orientation to taxes and views on the role of government in addressing societal issues. We asked Albertans if they think of taxes as mostly a positive thing because they're how we pay for the goods that support quality of life, such as health care, education and roads; or if they think taxes are mostly a bad thing because they take money out of people's pockets and hold back economic growth and the creation of wealth. Over all, about two-thirds of Albertans think taxes are on balance a good thing, while about one-quarter consider them mostly bad.

Even in reputedly right-wing Alberta, a majority – those accepting of taxes and not hostile to government – might be open to a political option whose identity does not boil down to "free-enterprise party." There is an opportunity for someone, whether the NDP or a new centrist entity, to unite this constituency.

Alberta appears to be on the verge of a political realignment as it works to answer the question of whether the province has a revenue problem, a spending problem or some other malady. Many voters appear to be kicking tires and looking for a political home, which means that potential votes are up for grabs.

A thoughtful discussion on the type of society Albertans want and the role that government should play would surely aid residents in orienting themselves to the existing parties and any new formations that might emerge.

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