How Much are we Subsidizing Private Education?

I have been actively involved lately in plenty of discussion about the public funding of private education that we do in Alberta. I don’t believe that we should be providing any public funds to private education. If you decide that the public system is not for you, that’s fine, then you should pay for it with your own funds.

A common retort that I hear is, “we pay taxes and so we should have the funding go to the school we choose.” As I am apt to do, I decided to do some math on the situation. Here is my analysis.

Every calculation involves assumptions, so I will let you know that the numbers come from the Alberta government’s projected 2016 budget and the calculations are based on an average two parent family with two average income earners and two school aged students.

Alberta will collect $11.4 billion in personal income tax in 2016 and there are an estimated 2.26 million employed Albertans. This results in an average of $5,044 in provincial income tax per employed Albertan, or $10,088 for the test family.

Let’s say that this family also owns a home, they will pay $2.48 in education property tax per $1,000 that their home is worth. The average home sold in Alberta so far this year was worth $386,000 (http://creastats.crea.ca/area/). So this average couple will also contribute $957 in education property tax, for a total of $11,045 in direct provincial taxes.

Education, including capital projects, amounts to 16.4% of the provincial budget ($9.8 billion out of $59.6 billion), so of this family’s $11,045 in provincial taxes, $1,811 will go to education. So, for the hypothetical family with two kids, they contribute $906 per child in taxes to their education.

An accredited private school receives $4,676 in base funding per pupil, plus $71 in Equity of Opportunity funding plus $462 in plant operations and maintenance for a total of $5,209 per student in public funding (plus a few other non-capitated grants).

Bottom line: in public funding for private schools, $906 per student comes from the parents and the other $4,303 is subsidized by the government.

An average parent’s contribution through provincial tax to the education of their child is only 5.9% of the total per pupil cost. So why are private schools getting 70% of the base instructional grant?

Jonathan Teghtmeyer's photo.
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Harper is not Serious About Senate Reform

Stephen Harper is not serious about senate reform.

Despite his announcement last week that he plans to stop filling vacancies in the upper chamber until the senate is reformed, his track record on the issue is very poor.

Stephen Harper, cc: pmwebphotos (Flickr.com)
Stephen Harper, cc: pmwebphotos (Flickr.com)

Harper was first elected to parliament in 1993 as the Calgary West MP for the Reform Party, which was well known for its stance favouring a Triple-E (equal, elected, effective) senate. Since becoming Prime-Minister nearly 10 years ago, his only substantive action on senate reform has amounted to just two things: appointing senators elected in ad hoc Alberta elections and asking the Supreme Court to write an opinion on senate reform. The latter move merely provided him with the opportunity to throw his hands in the air andclaim that reform was impossible.

Harper has actually done more to harm democracy vis-avis the senate than he has to help it. Appointments like those of Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau have irreparably harmed the vision of the Senate as a house of sober second thought. Moreover, he has used his influence over the Conservative majority in the red house to water down the effect of its work.

The recent passage of union busting private member’s Bill C-377 is a prime example. The ideologically driven and poorly developed legislation passed through the House of Commons in December of 2012 after receiving support of the government caucus which has lead many to believe that the bill is a de facto government bill disguised as a private members bill. In the summer of 2013 the Senate, led by Conservative Hugh Segal, sent it back to the Commons for amendment. The parliamentary budget officer and privacy commissioner expressed serious concerns with the bill and the senate exercised their due diligence. This presumably enraged Mr Harper. He prorogued parliament that summer and as a result the bill came back to the senate in its original form. Fast forward to the summer of 2015 when the bill ends up being passed by the senate without amendment. Getting there wasn’t easy. The Conservatives had to overrule their own senate speaker, they had to introduce new rules to invoke closure on debate of private members bills and they had to wait out the terms of senate rogues like Segal. In short, it was an abomination of process.

You see for Harper, senate reform is not a priority as long as the senate does his bidding. He’s tried this moratorium on appointments before. When he first became Prime Minister in 2006 he refused to appoint senators that were not elected. He gave up on that strategy by December 2008 when he was faced with a senate that would not cooperate with his agenda. Harper has become the Prime Minister he decried as a Reform MP in 1996:

“Canadians from Newfoundland and Labrador to British Columbia remain ashamed of Canada’s senior legislative body. They are ashamed the prime minister continues the disgraceful, undemocratic appointment of undemocratic Liberals to the undemocratic Senate to pass all too often undemocratic legislation.”

Stephen Harper’s latest move on the senate is quite possibly illegal, but it is also a shrewd power play that demonstrates a popular disdain for the senate while guaranteeing that he will have majority control over it as long as he needs it.

Canada's Premiers meet in July 2015. C: cof-cdf, Flickr.com
Canada’s Premiers meet in July 2015. C: cof-cdf, Flickr.com

If he actually wanted to do something meaningful on senate reform the Supreme Court has laid out the conditions for reform and it requires the support of the provinces. If he actually wants this then he should start talking with them. Unfortunately he has never taken the opportunity, as he continues to refuse to join in on Council of the Federation meetings.

I think that deep down he’s just not that serious about it.

RACHEL NOTLEY’S CABINET

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NDP Caucus 2012-15, credit: rabble.ca

Later today at a public celebration on the legislature grounds, Alberta’s new NDP government will be sworn in. With a large number of inexperienced MLAs elected, many are suggesting that the NDP doesn’t have a strong group for cabinet. The announcement earlier this week that the cabinet would only have 12 people, including Notley, served as proof to these people that the caucus was weak.

I’ve been spending some time since May 5th looking at the makeup of the caucus and I didn’t find that to be the case at all. There may be a few holes, like in energy, but there are plenty of qualified people with a wide range and depth of valuable experience. In fact, I earlier thought there would be about 17 cabinet ministers and I still had many good people sitting away from the table.

Alberta Premier-designate Rachel Notley addresses the media in front of her caucus at Government House in Edmonton, Alta., on Saturday, May 9, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Alberta Premier-designate Rachel Notley addresses the media in front of her caucus at Government House in Edmonton, Alta., on Saturday, May 9, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

With the 12-person announcement this week, I have revised my estimates and come up with a new prediction. With only 12 people and only four incumbents (all from Edmonton) the trick to cabinet making will be geographic diversity. I suggest that the cabinet making starts outside the two metro areas, then goes to Calgary and finally ends in Edmonton. Here are my picks:

Outside the Metros:

  • Shannon Phillips, Lethbridge West (Int’l and Intergov Relations)
  • Colin Piquette, Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater (Environment, Agriculture)
  • Marg McCuaig-Boyd, Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley (Advanced Ed, Jobs and Labour)
  • Bob Wanner, Medicine Hat (Municipal Affairs)

Calgary:

  • Joe Ceci, Calgary-Fort (Human Services)
  • Kathleen Ganley, Calgary-Buffalo (Justice)
  • Karen McPherson, Calgary-Mackay-Nose Hill (Service Alberta, Culture and Tourism)

Edmonton:

  • Rachel Notley, Edmonton-Strathcona (Premier, Energy)
  • Brian Mason, Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood (Finance)
  • David Eggen, Edmonton-Calder (Health, Seniors)
  • Deron Bilous, Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview (Infrastructure, Transportation)
  • Sarah Hoffman, Edmonton-Glenora (Education, Women)

The interesting thing to me about this experience is that after filling in these qualified cabinet candidates, you end up with a quite a strong list of backbenchers who just miss the cut, like: Bob Turner, Lori Sigurdson, Marie Renaud, Danielle, Larivee, Richard Feehan, Marlin Schmidt, Stephanie McLean, Ricardo Miranda, Irfan Sabir and David Shepherd.

 

IMPORTANT RACES TO WATCH AND MY PREDICTIONS

It is election day in Alberta and before I have anything else to say, I have this important thing to say: VOTE!

It will only take a few minutes but it is fundamentally important to our province. Before the campaign started, many pundits were predicting a strong PC majority and very low voter turnout. But, by today, we have laid witness to one of the most profound and interesting campaigns of the last 44 years. Be a part of it.

Without further adieu, I would like to outline a few close races to watch for as the results pour in and also to offer my predictions for the final tally.

Bellwether Ridings

Keep an eye on these ridings, which appear to be some of the closest competitions in the election. The results for these bellwether ridings will help to indicate how well any particular party will do and what the end result may be across the province.

Three Calgary area ridings will be close three-way races between the PCs, WRP and NDP. Each has a PC incumbent, but no real star candidates. These results should indicate the relative strength of any of the three parties in Calgary

  • Calgary-Hawkwood
  • Calgary-Lougheed
  • Calgary Northern Hills

One more riding in Calgary will be close, although the NDP will likely be further behind. It also features a former Wildrose party president dropping the gloves against the Redford-era bullying minister.

  • Calgary-North West

Edmonton is looking like an NDP sweep, but if the Tories can hold a few ridings here, albeit with high profile candidates, it will show some potential strength. Watch these ridings:

  • Edmonton-Millcreek
  • Edmonton-Rutherford
  • Edmonton-Whitemud

A few races outside of the big metros should be quite close and results could be extrapolated to show the provincial trends:

  • Ft McMurray – Conklin: Wildrose leader takes on PC minister with a strong NDP campaign. Three way race.
  • Lesser Slave Lake: Long term PC MLA in a three-way race.
  • Sherwood Park: Two former mayors fight with NDP hot on heels.
  • Spruce Grove-St. Albert: @308dotcom projects NDP win in Horner country, but I’m not convinced.

Other Interesting Ridings

These ridings may not necessarily be the closest ridings, but for one reason or another offer a compelling reason to watch.

Calgary Buffalo: Incumbent Liberal MLA Kent Hehr has decided to take a run at federal politics. The Liberals put up a strong candidate in David Khan, but so did the PCs in Terry Rock. The Orange Wave could still play spoiler.

Calgary Elbow: This rematch of the fall 2014 by-election pits PC Education Minister Gordon Dirks against Alberta Party leader Greg Clark in a traditionally strong conservative riding. Polls and pundits have called this race neck-in-neck.

Calgary Mountain View: Interim Liberal leader, David Swann, is a confident, smart, respectable and well-liked MLA, but he could fall victim to an NDP surge in one of the few ridings that will be fought on the left end of the spectrum. It would be a shame if Swann were to be kept out of the leg.

Edmonton Centre: Laurie Blakeman is an outstanding MLA and deserves big kudos for the victory on GSAs, but she is facing stiff challenge from the NDP’s David Shephard. If the leg were to lose Blakeman it would be a big blow but it would not be her fault.

Both Chestermere-Rocky View and Calgary Acadia have had interesting candidate stories, so they will be fun to keep an eye on, but I suspect they both go Wildrose.

My Prediction

Just because it’s fun to do, I’m guessing we will see an NDP minority.

  • NDP: 37 seats
  • Wildrose: 29
  • PC: 19
  • Liberals: 1
  • Alberta Party: 1

We’re in Alberta and we have a rare close and exciting campaign, so at the end of the day, Albertans will win.

MY MLA? OL’ WHAZHIZFACE?

I have a question for you, dear reader. What factor was the biggest factor that drove your voting decision in the 2012 Alberta election? Did you base your vote on a platform, a leader, a party, a local candidate or was it a combination of two or more factors?

The 2011 Canadian Election Study asked a similar question of 2500 voters after they voted in the 2011 federal election. Responding to the question, “Which of the following was most important in your decision to vote for  this party,” most voters said they liked the policies of the party they voted for and the next largest group said they didn’t like the other parties.

CES2011
-2011 Canadian Election Study

Much of the conversation after the 2012 Alberta election focused on how many progressives voted for the PC party because they liked Redford, liked the policy positions advanced by the Tories, or moreover, voted to stem the surge of the Wildrose party.

I would suspect that, like in the 2011 study, few people would say that they voted for the local candidate.  This is interesting because what we’ve learned since 2012 is that the only part of the vote that really counts at the end of the day is the local candidate.

Allow me to elaborate.

Perhaps you voted for one or more of the planks of the progressive platform promoted by the PC party. You were likely dismayed by their lack of action on things like a poverty reduction strategy or full-day kindergarten. But despite the almost wholesale abandonment of their election platform, you’re vote still stood. So, voting for the platform does not count.

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Jim Prentice (credit: Dave Cournoyer)

Perhaps you are a PC voter who voted for the leadership of Alison Redford. You were likely upset by all of her controversies and, by the time of her eventual resignation, grew quite disillusioned by her leadership. But despite the party appointing a new leader, you were not given a new vote. So, voting for the leader does not count.

Danielle Smith (credit: Dave Cournoyer)
Danielle Smith (credit: Dave Cournoyer)

Let’s say you voted for the Wildrose party because of the party; because you were rejecting 40-plus years of one-party power in Alberta. You were likely upset by the mass defection of 12 MLAs from your party of choice – perhaps you watched your own MLA walk over to the party you were rejecting. It doesn’t matter; your vote still stood. So, voting for the party doesn’t count.

Dave Hancock (credit: Dave Cournoyer)
Dave Hancock (credit: Government of Alberta)

However, if you were one of the people who voted for Len Webber, Dave Hancock, Ken Hughes or Alison Redford as your local MLA, then you were one of the few people in Alberta, since 2012, who were asked to make a new choice. You got to vote again because your local candidate changed.

Policies change, leaders change and party affiliations change, but so long as your MLA is still prepared and able to sit in the house then your vote remains cast. To put it simply, in our parliamentary system, despite how you decide to cast your ballot, the only thing that legally matters at the end of the day is the local candidate who received the most votes.

This is important to keep in mind as we prepare to screen a new set of candidates, leaders, platforms and parties in another provincial election.

 

P.S. – For what it’s worth, by the way, I’m predicting that the writ will be dropped on March 16 for an April 13 election date.

FLAT TAX MATH YIELDS A T-BIRD

Here’s some interesting math for you.

Between 2011 and 2014, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice was a Vice-President for CIBC, with a salary “reportedly over $2 million.”

In Ontario, his 2013 provincial income taxes would have been calculated using a progressively increasing tax rate that topped out at 13.16% on income over $509,000. The provincial tax deducted from his salary would have been $249,311.

But, because he lived in Alberta (I assume) he would have filed his taxes at the Alberta flat rate of 10% on his income over $17,593. His total 2013 provincial tax bill would thus amount to $198,241.

Put this together and it looks like Jim Prentice’s 2013 tax return because of Alberta’s flat tax (ignoring other deductions that I’m sure existed) amounted to $51,070.

Essentially, just enough for him to afford his recently purchased $54,000 1956 Ford Thunderbird.

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I don’t begrudge anyone for what they spend their own money on, but the optics and timing on this purchase is bad. It will also serve as a reminder to Albertans that while some people are being told their salaries are not sustainable, others are benefitting from an excessively generous tax break.

9 WAYS ALBERTA SHOULD MANAGE RESOURCES BETTER

Sometime toward the end of November, the Alberta government will release their 2nd quarter fiscal update. Finance Minister Robin Campbell will likely tell us that the second quarter was another good quarter but that the good news is coming to an end and the 1st quarter projection of a $3 Billion bonus will be revised.  The reason of course is that oil prices are down again. The budget projected $95 oil (WTI) and today’s spot price is under $79.  For every drop of one dollar in the price of oil (WTI) the government treasury loses $215 million.

As much as Premier Jim Prentice wants to paint the government as being under new management, I’m not willing to buy until I see changes to how the government manages our oil and revenue situation. He has already stated that he does not plan on raising taxes, which means we will continue to rely heavily on volatile revenue sources.

“Alberta relies heavily on revenue sources that can be volatile and unpredictable, including non-renewable resources, corporate income tax and investment income. Since 2000-01, these revenue sources have accounted for anywhere between 38% and 55% of total revenue.”

– Alberta’s Fiscal Plan 2014-17

An Alberta government truly under new management, would propose a comprehensive new plan for managing our oil resources, rather than approaching it the same mediocre way we have been doing it for the past 10-15 years. Here are 9 key features that should be part of that plan:

1. Restrict resource revenue to capital expenses, savings, debt repayment or economic diversification

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Credit: Government of Alberta

Some like to say that taking on debt amounts to stealing from our kids and grandkids. I would argue that the rapid development of our oil resources is a similar form of inter-generational theft. That oil belongs not just to us, but also to our kids, grandkids and all future generations of Albertans. As we sell of that long  term asset we are obligated to spend it on things that have long term benefits, Here are four things that would qualify.

First, we can spend it on long term investments like roads, schools, hospitals and other capital infrastructure. Second, we can save it like Norway has done (more on this later) so that down the road the interest on the savings can be used by future generations. Third, we can reduce our debt, but this only makes sense if the interest on debt is lower than the interest that can be earned by saving the money. Finally, we owe it to future generations to invest some of the earnings on economic diversification; our oil reserves are finite and we must make sure that the economy remains vibrant after the oil is gone and we must start work on that now.

2. Remove resource revenue from operational spending

With over 20% of our operational revenue coming from non-renewable resources we are stealing from future generations to pay for programs now. This must stop. Peter Lougheed said that we need to behave like owners. It is irresponsible to sell off part of the farm just to pay for more fertilizer.

3. Raise corporate and personal income taxes on the wealthy

Credit: Public Interest Alberta
Credit: Public Interest Alberta

We will need to replace that revenue, but fortunately we have a great deal of room on the taxation side to accomplish that.  The Alberta government proudly acknowledges that we could collect an additional $11 Billion in taxes and still be the lowest taxed province in the country. We need to collect just $9 Billion more to stop the intergenerational theft of using resource revenue to fund current programs. A mix of new taxes on personal income over six figures, on corporate income and a small consumption tax can balance the books without losing our competitive advantage.

4. Raise Royalties

Credit: CredBC.ca
Credit: CredBC.ca

Simply put, royalties are what Albertans are paid when we sell our oil or gas in the ground to the company that digs it out and sells it or processes it. In 2009, a comprehensive report comparing jurisdictions found that other places, including Norway, collected much more in royalties despite having higher production costs and a similar business climate to Alberta. Despite having lower production levels and less time to accumulate, Norway’s oil trust fund is nearing $1 Trillion while the Alberta Heritage trust fund is at about $17 Billion and hasn’t grown in decades. We are similarly selling out our kids when we sell off their oil at a big discount.

5. Start a crown corporation to extract and develop oil here and abroad.

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To be fair, it is not just royalties that have contributed to Norway’s huge fund, it is also the existence of StatOil. StatOil is the world’s 11th largest oil company and is owned two-thirds by the people of Norway. Not only does StatOil account for 60% of Norway’s oil production, they are also active in 35 other countries includingCanada. In 2012, they generated over $11 Billion in profit. A crown corporation would bring strong revenue to the province and additional stability to the sector at home.

6. Invest in green energy and alternative sources

Credit: Chandra Marsono
Credit: Chandra Marsono

I mentioned earlier that some of our resource revenue should be used to invest in economic diversification. The best way for us to diversify our economy is to invest in alternate and green energy. Oil is finite, but the world will always need energy even after oil is gone. We are an energy super power now, we can be an energy super power in the future but we have to take some risks and use our current wealth to invest in research and development to become leaders in alternative energy sources.

7. Demonstrate a real commitment to the highest environmental standards

Credit: Globe & Mail
Credit: Globe & Mail

The death of 1600 ducks on an Alberta tailings pond in 2008 was a tipping point for how the world viewed Alberta’s environmental record when it came to oil. Rightfully or wrongfully Alberta gained an international reputation for bad environmental practice. We need to regain the social license for oilsands development and we must be leaders at environmental enforcement. To accomplish this we need an environmental regulator that is not just effective and stringent but is also seen to be effective and stringent. This means staying away from appointing energy lobbyists as chair of our environmental watchdog corporation.

8. Upgrade more bitumen in Alberta

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The biggest benefit for general Albertans of having such a large store of oil here is the jobs that are created. But the bulk of job creation around the oilsands relates to the building and expansion of extraction projects. As the projects move from the construction phase into the production phase there are fewer jobs. It is in our interests to extract more value before the product is shipped out of the province. Also, processed product demands a higher price (albeit from more limited markets) than raw bitumen. We should get more value from our oil by upgrading more bitumen here than we currently do.

9. Get the products to the best markets in the safest way possible

Credit: flickr.com/baggis
Credit: flickr.com/baggis

Oilsands production levels are increasing faster than our capacity to get the product away from Alberta. This results in a glut of oil that stays here and, by the law of supply and demand, fetches a lower price. We should be supporting infrastructure investments that safely move the product to markets that generate higher revenue. If the safer method is pipeline then we should support pipeline development but we should also support research into technologies that will continue to make pipelines safer.

Conclusion

I think that as much as controversy over expenses, skypalaces and aircrafts sunk Alison Redford, so did the unnecessary cuts of Budget 2013.  A common problem with the Klein, Stelmach and Redford administrations was a lack of a comprehensive long term financial plan – especially as it related to managing our oil resources. The 9 keys presented here are not just individual tips but are integrated with one another to create a coherent strategy. This plan may not be the one Premier Prentice wants to use, but an integrated and well articulated strategy is needed.

REVISITED: 7 THINGS TO WATCH IN ALBERTA BYELECTIONS

Last week, I wrote about the 7 things to watch in the four October 27th by-elections and now that the results are in, I thought I would revisit the questions.

1. How many ridings will the PCs hold?

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Premier Jim Prentice (credit: Dave Cournoyer)

The PC’s go 4 for 4! Despite the fact that these were Tory strongholds and that the PC vote share was down considerably, this is a big win for Prentice and demonstrates that the electorate is willing to give him a shot without making his party wear too much of the Redford stain.

2. Who will win Calgary-Elbow?

cc: Premier Jim Prentice
Education Minister Gordon Dirks (credit: Premier Jim Prentice)

Alberta’s Education Minister will remain Gordon Dirks as he takes the riding with a comfortable 800 votes over the second place Alberta Party. It turns out that Calgary West was the closer call.

What’s interesting in Elbow is that the Alberta Party and even the Liberals grew their support here compared to 2012. In fact, a clear argument of vote splitting could be made here where nearly 5,000 people voted for these two centre-left parties allowing Dirks to win with only 4,200 votes.

3. Can the Wildrose demonstrate growth?

Danielle Smith (credit: Dave Cournoyer)
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith (credit: Dave Cournoyer)

In 2012, the Wildrose took 20,000 of the 65,000 votes in these four ridings. In 2014, they took 13,800 of 50,000 votes. This is a really bad result for the WRP. Not only were they not able to attract discontented voters amidst Tory scandal, they actually lost vote share – from 31% of voters in 2012 to 28% in 2014. Not only did they not demonstrate growth, but they receded. I will argue that every party has something to be happy about in these results with the exception of the Wildrose.

To be fair, PC vote share went down from 61% to 44% over the past two years in these four ridings, but that was to be expected given the controversies – and the PCs still eked out the wins.

4. Turnout

A voting lineup 9Zcredit: https://www.flickr.com/marrngtn/)
A voting lineup (credit: http://www.flickr.com/marrngtn/)

Just under 50,000 voters came out for by-elections in four ridings that attracted 65,000 voters in 2012. This amounted to a 38% voter turnout. I said that high turnout meant change; well, low turnout represents complacency.

5. Will Greg Clark be a difference maker in Elbow?

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Greg Clark made a difference. He did not win in Elbow but he was a very close second. While the Alberta Party would have had a great advantage if they had a seat in the legislature, this result shows that they can be a credible threat for change in the future.

6. Can the NDP actualize their high poll numbers in Edmonton?

Edmonton-Whitemud NDP Candidate Bob Turner credit: Dave Cournoyer)
Whitemud NDP Candidate Bob Turner (credit: Dave Cournoyer)

The NDP should not do well in Edmonton-Whitemud and yet they finished second. They nearly doubled the number of votes they received in 2012. This is a big win for the NDP and does demonstrate that they could be in play in a number of areas across Edmonton.

There is a footnote to the Alberta Party and NDP gains and that is that each of these parties were able to focus solely on one riding, whereas the other three parties had multiple split focuses. All of the NDP resources were directed to Whitemud and all of the Alberta Party effort was directed to Elbow. The gains will have as much to do with hard work as they do with changing mood of the electorate and so I would be cautious to extrapolate too much of this success into a general election where efforts will be split up again.

7. Will the Liberals maintain relevance?

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman credit: Dave Cournoyer)
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman (credit: Dave Cournoyer)

I wouldn’t call tonight a big win for the Libs but it wasn’t a big loss either. They essentially got 1,000 votes in all of the ridings but Foothills. Their vote total in Elbow grew and they only dropped 300 votes in each of Whitemud and West. They will still have challenges ahead but these results were respectable.

Final Takeaways

Prentice is being given a fair shot and he is being viewed as an agent of change – that is important for his future success, but I still think the leash is short. These were after all some pretty traditionally safe ridings for the Tories.

The Wildrose still needs to do some soul searching. They worked hard to adjust their policy manual but they did not capitalize on some significant discontent that fit squarely into their core messaging around a tired old PC party that needed to be changed. There may be a glass ceiling and there may be some structural issues that need resolving.

We need a new dynamic for progressive voters in Alberta. There is a sense that Alberta is changing, but I can’t imagine any of the Liberals, NDP or Alberta Party coalescing the votes on their own.

Finally, we should give serious consideration to a system of proportional representation. The PCs got 4 seats tonight with just 44% of the total vote while shutting out all of the opposition parties. Despite some very close races there is no voice being placed in the legislature for the thousands of people who voted today for the Wildrose, Liberal, NDP or Alberta party.

7 THINGS TO WATCH IN ALBERTA BY-ELECTIONS

By-elections are being held in four ridings across Alberta on October 27th. This mini-election, of sorts, is needed to elect Premier Jim Prentice and two of his cabinet ministers to the legislative assembly. More importantly, the four races will serve as a weather vane in the rapidly shifting winds of politics in Alberta today.

We shouldn’t read too much into the face value results because Jim’s team is risk averse and has chosen circumstances that will lead to favourable results and at the same time, by-elections give the electorate a safe place to punish governing parties without dramatically affecting the party  balance that currently exists. With that in mind, here are 7 things to look for as the results roll in next Monday.

1. How many ridings will the PCs hold?

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Premier Jim Prentice (credit: Dave Cournoyer)

In my opinion, the surprise addition of Calgary-West to the slate of ridings up for grabs was meant as a buffer for Premier Prentice. Losing one of three ridings looks worse than losing one of four. So what result do the PCs need? 4 for 4 would be a pretty big win for Jim, yet 2 of 4 in these ‘safe’ areas should be viewed as a considerable indictment of Alberta’s natural ruling party. If they pull out 3 wins (the most likely outcome) then it is easily spun as a good mandate for the new leadership with only a little collateral damage (all Alison’s fault) along the way.

2. Who will win Calgary-Elbow?

cc: Premier Jim Prentice
Education Minister Gordon Dirks (credit: Premier Jim Prentice)

Education Minister Gordon Dirks is in the toughest spot of the four PC candidates. Alison Redford’s old riding will be a magnet for discontent and many voters will be motivated to punish the PCs. At the same time, opposition parties have  had a target placed here ever since she resigned as Premier. Calgary-Foothills andEdmonton-Whitemud will likely go PC, Calgary-West is more challenging but Calgary-Elbow is very much up for grabs.

3. Can the Wildrose demonstrate growth?

Danielle Smith (credit: Dave Cournoyer)
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith (credit: Dave Cournoyer)

As much as these by-elections are a test for the PCs, they should also be a big test for the Wildrose. Much of their support province-wide is in protest to a tired dynasty that has become riddled with scandal in the past few months. Simply put, the Wildrose has to be attracting voters who are looking to finally oust the PCs. If the Wildrose are going to be a big threat in 2016 then they should be attracting lots of voters in these by-elections. Look to see how many votes they secure. In 2012, they secured almost 20,000 votes across the four ridings and despite likely low turnout in a by-election the Wildrose should be able to demonstrate growth across the board. If they can’t identify and pull more than 20,000 votes it may be an indication that the government-in-waiting will have difficulty breaking through it’s 2012 ceiling.

4. Turnout

A voting lineup 9Zcredit: https://www.flickr.com/marrngtn/)
A voting lineup (credit: http://www.flickr.com/marrngtn/)

By-elections have little result on the makeup of government and so people are less likely to make the trek to the polls. This opportunity though includes some big names at a critical time. A little over 65,000 voters came out to vote in these four ridings in 2012 – expect fewer next Monday, but call it a big news story if turnout has grown. A low turnout will indicate more comfort with the status quo but high turnout will show motivation for change.

5. Will Greg Clark be a difference maker in Elbow?

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Greg Clark is the new leader of the Alberta party and his campaign has some big fire power behind him in the form of former PC and Liberal provincial campaign managers Stephen Carter and Corey Hogan, respectively. The Elbow race is critical for the future of the Alberta party. After dismal showings from strong candidates in 2012 the new kids on the block need a win (or at worst a very strong 3rd) here to remain viable as a party. If Clark does take the seat, then the party gets an important toe-hold and could be well positioned to seriously change the political dynamic in Alberta in 2016.

6. Can the NDP actualize their high poll numbers in Edmonton?

Edmonton-Whitemud NDP Candidate Bob Turner credit: Dave Cournoyer)
Whitemud NDP Candidate Bob Turner (credit: Dave Cournoyer)

It’s not like Edmonton-Whitemud has ever been a hotbed of socialism but the NDP was polling at the top of the heap in Edmonton over the summer. They’ve attracted a great candidate inDr. Bob Turner but he is still running against a popular former mayorin the province’s traditionally strongest PC riding. A win or strong second for the NDP will show that Edmonton is indeed ready for Rachel and will indicate a significant shift.

7. Will the Liberals maintain relevance?

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman credit: Dave Cournoyer)
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman (credit: Dave Cournoyer)

I don’t anticipate the Alberta Liberals winning any of these seats, but a poor showing will be a disastrous signal for the party. In 2012, only their incumbent MLAs held their seats and since then the party has looked more like a group of individual MLAs that happen to have offices near each other. Two of those MLAs are about to jump to run federally and if progressive voters coalesce around other parties next week it will be a sign of big trouble for the grits. The saving grace, though, is that the party has attracted some good name candidates in  Susan Wright (Elbow) and Donna Wilson (Whitemud). The Liberals should be getting around 1,000 votes in each riding and significantly less would be problematic.

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF THE PC’S 2012 MANDATE

So, you’re a former capital region mayor, who was popular as mayor, has good progressive credentials and now finds themselves on the inside of provincial government. You might be looking in the mirror today, thinking about the health portfolio and wondering how the world unfolded to put you where you are today. If this is you, then you’re not alone.

Sure, you might be Stephen Mandel, but you might also be Cathy Oleson, Ken Lemke or George Rogers, for that matter.

There is an important distinction however between Sherwood Park MLA Cathy Oleson and Health Minister Stephen Mandel. Oleson was elected to office by discussing her views on provincial healthcare (amongst other issues) with constituents as part of an election. In fact, Oleson had to discuss healthcare extensively with Sherwood Park constituents who were unhappy with not getting the hospital that they felt they had been promised – and still got elected.

The fact that Stephen Mandel was chosen by Premier Jim Prentice to be health minister over, say, Cathy Oleson, or any of 57 other PC MLAs raises an important question: what is the status of the mandate given to the Progressive Conservatives in the 2012 election?

That mandate was a progressive mandate. It is common knowledge that the PCs won the election because progressives all across the province, in ridings like Sherwood Park, coalesced around the PCs in an effort to defeat the lake-of-fire and anti-climate-change views that became emblematic of the Wildrose Party. Oleson, Lemke, Rogers, and most of the other PC MLAs were elected with that progressive mandate.

It is important to note that while the Alberta public has since come to reject Alison Redford, they haven’t necessarily rejected that mandate. Redford was tossed aside not because of her policy but because of her personal ethics (Indeed, it could be well argued that she would have been safer if she had stayed true to her original policy directions). In fact, a group of PC MLAs who were largely progressives and were instrumental in her downfall are all now on the outside of cabinet looking in.

In the days leading up to Redford’s resignation as premier, a group of10 rebel MLAs started clandestine meetings to discuss the growing spending controversies of the premier. They included Oleson and Lemke, but also included Janice Sarich, Matt Jeneroux, Moe Amery, Neil Brown, Jacquie Fenske, Mary Anne Jablonski, and David Xiao. Arguably, these people did more to bring down Redford than anyone else at that time. Most of them were very much elected on that progressive mandate.

I suspect that these MLAs were motivated by uneasiness amongst their constituents and growing disappointment with the Redford government. Not just disappointment over the spending controversies but also disappointment over the abandonment of the mandate that voters gave to the PCs in 2012.

So, does the appointment of outsiders like Mandel and Education Minister Gordon Dirks over these 10 MLAs speak to a rejection of the 2012 PC mandate or will the new Prentice government embrace that mandate that its caucus was elected on? Time will tell.

However, if Prentice wants to pursue a new direction then he needs to obtain it from the electorate. A set of by-elections may provide him with a limited new mandate, but then he has to fight those by-elections with a clear policy agenda and not just vague messages of change or accountability. Only then will he have the authority to change the policy directions given to government. If he doesn’t get that permission from voters, then he has an obligation to follow up on the commitments that got his MLAs elected.

Fresh views on politics in Alberta