Political platforms in upcoming spring election speak to division within Alberta's population, says political science professor

Augustana professor Shauna Wilton delves into how factors like age, level of education and religion influence political opinion in Alberta.

Tia Lalani - 25 February 2019

By Shauna Wilton

An election call is likely to follow Rachel Notely's March 18 Throne Speech.

Alberta is headed for an election this spring that many believe will result in a blue wave across Alberta. Premier Rachel Notley has scheduled the Throne Speech for March 18, and an election call will probably follow shortly after. Most experts believe that Notley's NDP are unlikely to reproduce the "orange crush" of 2015 that saw the unexpected change of government from the longstanding Progressive Conservatives to the NDP. The context in 2015 was very different from today: the political right was divided between the PCs and the Wildrose Party, creating space for the NDP to come up the centre.

In 2015, the NDP won 40% of the popular vote in the province (over 50% in the Edmonton area) and 54 seats. The Wildrose Party won 24% of the vote and 21 seats and the PCs won 28% of the vote and nine seats. Leaving aside the fact that the relationship between the popular vote and constituency wins is distorted in our "first past the post" electoral system, the NDP had less of the popular vote than the parties of the right but won almost twice as many seats. The prevailing logic of the time was that if the right had been united they would have won the election. This logic assumes that everyone who voted for the Wildrose or PC would vote for a new united party, which is highly debatable; nevertheless, a united right-wing party would probably be able to win the 40% of the vote needed for a majority in government. A recent Mainstreet poll reported on Global News suggests that 56% of Albertans currently support the new United Conservative Party, with the NDP garnering only 27% of support and the Alberta party stuck at 8%. The support for the NDP is strongest in the Edmonton area, while the UCP dominates in Calgary and the rest of Alberta.

The upcoming election promises to have clearly defined options on either side of the political spectrum. Both main parties will be presenting very different visions of Alberta, with the NDP likely to focus on supporting public services and Alberta families, and the UCP talking about the economy, the debt and cutting taxes, especially the current levy on carbon. Recently, the UCP has said that it will hold spending to zero, even as the population and costs grow, meaning that cuts are likely to be a big part of a conservative budget.

The chasm between the positions of the two political parties reflects the cleavages within Alberta's population. A poll conducted for CBC last year showed that political opinion in Alberta was largely determined by age, level of education and religion, with gender and location playing a much less significant role. For example, 70% of people with high school or less want less immigration, whereas 70% of people with graduate degrees want more immigration. Some 82% of people with high school or less want more traditional family values in Alberta, whereas only 55% of people with a bachelor's or higher-level degree want more family values in Alberta politics. Approximately 68% of people with high school or less agree with the statement that, "It is better to trust the down-to-earth thinking of ordinary people than experts," whereas 71% of people with a university education disagreed.

This divide in public opinion reflects what is happening elsewhere in the world. For example, the Brexit yes vote was dominated by people outside of major urban centres who had less formal education. Similarly, voters for Trump were more likely to live in rural or suburban areas, and have not been to college or university, although gender, and particularly race, did play important roles in his election. Given that only about 28% of the Alberta population holds a university certificate, diploma or degree at the bachelor level or above, it won't be surprising if Alberta politics follows a similar pattern.

If you are interested in hearing more about the looming election, Augustana will be holding a Lunch & Learn on February 27 at noon in the Mayer Family Community Hall featuring a panel of three political scientists: Lars Hallström, Clark Barack and myself, to present our different perspectives on Alberta politics during this interesting time. You can register for the session at rsvp.augustana@ualberta.ca or by calling 780-679-1626.

Shauna Wilton, Political Studies, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on February 12, 2019.