It’s been an interesting few weeks with a perfect storm producing a surprise NDP victory in Alberta.
The Alberta NDP win does prove the NDP can win votes from Canadians in surprising places. But we need to dissect the reality a bit further to realize that this isn’t necessarily the blessing the federal NDP hopes it is.
In Alberta, Rachel Notley benefited from a perfect storm which consisted of these elements which proved essential to her victory:
1) An unpopular PC government that had long grown arrogant and complacent, so much so that many conservative voters had become desperate to vote for anybody remotely qualified to stop them.
2) The official opposition Wildrose had imploded and only just elected a new leader, a well-meaning guy named Brian Jean who clearly wasn’t ready for the premier’s office.
3) The provincial Liberal party had also imploded, unable to attract significant talent, and its leader, Raj Shurman, had also just stepped down. The party didn’t have enough time to even run a leadership race so former leader David Swann stepped in as interim leader. He proved fairly ineffective as a campaigner. In addition, the Libs fell well short of running a full slate of candidates.
4) Rachel Notley put together a moderate plan that spoke to Albertans’ pent-up desire for change, including the need to tax corporations “a bit” more and get a better oil royalties’ deal for all Albertans. Ultimately, Notley projected a style of leadership and charm similar to Peter Lougheed that won Albertans over.
Notley’s NDP managed to win virtually all progressive votes in the province, as well as many centrists long tired of the PCs. Had the provincial Liberals been better organized, it would’ve undermined the NDP’s ability to win. Furthermore, the conservative majority in the province literally divided itself in half between the PCs and Wildrose.
To assume Notley’s success will automatically translate into Tom Mulcair’s success federally this year is foolhardy. None of the essential conditions above exist for Mulcair. In truth, Mulcair has shown little ability to connect emotionally with voters the way that Notley did. When you look at his record in by-elections, Mulcair’s a vote loser.
Furthermore, while Notley benefited from being the only credible progressive party running against two strong conservative parties, we are seeing the exact opposite reality federally where two strong progressive/centrist parties are facing a united conservative option.
Mulcair has been an effective opposition leader in the House of Commons, but that is irrelevant when it comes to his ability to connect emotionally with voters on the hustings.
I’ve never liked Mulcair much. Before he became leader, I found him to be insufferably arrogant, frequently talking down to viewers when he appeared for on-air interviews. That arrogance has been toned down a bit since he became leader. But I still have my doubts about his abilities.
I’ve been wrong before, so I don’t rule out the possibility that Mulcair’s team figures out a way to win this year, or at least become the main challenger to the Harper Conservatives. But I’d argue that’s only possible if Justin Trudeau’s Liberals fall flat on their faces, which I’m not betting will happen.
Trudeau has shown a great ability to connect emotionally with voters, and his by-election results prove it. But he has yet to clearly flesh out an inspiring vision for the country as well as a detailed policy platform to back it up. Although that is starting to change with promises to cut middle class income taxes, raise income taxes on the richest Canadians and match the government’s family child care promises with more generous promises.
It’s not a complete policy vision yet, but once the entire platform’s out there, I predict Trudeau will be effective at communicating it on the hustings. That may go a long way to countering the impression that he’s too green and immature for the prime minister’s office. But we shall see. Things could go very wrong if Trudeau gets shaky off-script. The debates will be key and could prove his downfall or his great success.
In the immediate aftermath of the Alberta election, we’ve seen polls that claim the NDP is surging federally, perhaps even outpacing the Liberals for second place.
But the poll by Nanos Research is much more credible due to that pollster’s great record and methodology. Despite the Alberta NDP win, Nanos still shows the Conservatives and Liberals battling closely for number one in Ottawa, with the NDP still playing spoilers.
We’ll see if this holds. I’m expecting it might for a while until either Trudeau or Mulcair make some kind of gaffe. It might be more likely that Trudeau makes a slip of the tongue which gets his campaign in a bit of trouble. But Trudeau has also shown an ability to bounce back quickly from such things. It would take a series of Trudeau errors to provide the opening Mulcair needs to supplant the Liberals as the main alternative to stop Harper.
In the end, if both Trudeau and Mulcair perform well enough in this race, they may end up cancelling each other out. Progressive voters will divide between the two parties, allowing Harper’s Cons to slip up the middle and likely form a minority government.
What happens after that depends on the actual voting results and seat count.
All of this is prelude, of course. Some say the Liberals’ slow descent in the polls in the last year means they’re in trouble. In reality, these polls might bring out the fighter in Trudeau and make him the campaigner he needs to be. Had he continued to coast along out front, he might’ve become complacent and more prone to sloppy errors.
Now it’s clear Trudeau will have to fight hard for every vote. They won’t be able to arrogantly argue only the Liberals can beat the Cons. The Alberta election proves that is false. The federal Liberals are underdogs again with most commentators greatly underestimating Trudeau’s abilities. These are the same folks who underestimated Trudeau when he stepped into the 2012 boxing ring against Patrick Brazeau. And we all know how that turned out.
Follow Matt Guerin on twitter: @mattfguerin