Duane Bratt is a political science professor and chair, Department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies, at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
I am usually skeptical about the oft-made claims that any given election is the nastiest ever. What metrics are being used? Were other campaigns examined in detail? For instance, Alberta’s 1935 election, fought amid the Great Depression, and the 1944 battle between the Social Credit Party and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation were hardly walks in the park.
But this year’s provincial election lives up to that billing for Albertans.
Candidates have had to withdraw or apologize for racist, homophobic or misogynist comments from their past. There have been large-scale rallies on issues such as gay-straight alliances and the federal Bill C-69, which would rewrite many of Canada’s industrial regulations, including the way capital projects such as pipelines are assessed. Social media has turned into even more of a cesspool than usual. Campaign signs have been defaced with vile language. Candidates from multiple conservative parties are raising the spectre of Alberta separatism. The RCMP is investigating the 2017 leadership race of the United Conservative Party (UCP).
One reason for the nastiness is the length of the campaign period. Officially, the campaign is 28 days long, but the unofficial beginning was the night Jason Kenney became UCP leader in October, 2017. A year and a half of almost constant campaigning – much of it negative – has set people’s nerves on edge.
Another reason has been the degree of polarization between the parties. Previous competitive elections in Alberta have been between centre-right parties, such as the Progressive Conservatives (PC), and right-wing parties – for example, the 2012 contest between the PCs and Wildrose. Even the hard-fought campaign of 1993 matched the Liberals, promising “brutal cuts” and the PCs, who vowed “massive cuts.” But in 2019, you have an NDP that may have moderated itself from its days in opposition, but remains solidly left-wing, facing a UCP that is much further to the right than the old PCs. In fact, the UCP is the most socially conservative party since the days of Ernest Manning and the Social Credit party of the 1960s. Small centrist parties such as the Alberta Party and the Alberta Liberals have not been able to exploit the big ideological hole between the NDP and UCP.
The two major parties are also running on platforms that involve substantial negative campaigning. Much of the NDP re-election strategy has been to focus on demonizing Mr. Kenney for his past views on abortion and LGBTQ rights. Meanwhile, the UCP wants to “fight back” against perceived enemies of Alberta’s oil and gas sector – Ottawa, B.C., Quebec, environmental groups, First Nations that oppose pipelines, large oil and gas firms that support climate change efforts – and wants to create a “war room” to respond to anyone who criticizes the sector. On the very first night of his leadership of the UCP, Mr. Kenney set the tone: “If we work hard, stay humble and earn every vote, we will ensure that this deceptive, divisive, debt-quadrupling, tax-hiking, job-killing, accidental socialist government is one-and-done.” The next day, Rachel Notley responded: “We will stand up against the UCP’s job-killing, climate-denying, gay-outing, school-cutting, health-privatizing, backward-looking, hope-destroying divine agenda.”
The state of the economy has only deepened the campaign’s bitterness. Since late 2014, Alberta has been suffering through a lingering economic downturn the likes of which have not been seen since the 1980s. When you combine 130,000 job losses with the difficulty of getting products to market, you end up with an angry electorate.
A final factor in the increasing nastiness of this campaign is the spread of technology. Cellphones, Google, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all leave trails to controversies, allowing candidates to be scrutinized more than ever before, and for the results, verified or not, to be disseminated as quickly as possible. It leads to a digital arms race in which one candidate is forced to resign or apologize, leading to attacks on the other side’s candidates.
But if the UCP wins, as it is expected to, its platform – one of repeal and confrontation – suggests the party’s governance style will probably be highly divisive. It will be opposed by an NDP that will not disappear – as has generally been the case with defeated governments in Alberta – and will instead be a formidable opposition, empowered by MLAs with government and cabinet experience.
So, if you thought the nastiness was going to stop after voting day, think again.