tea party of the north

They call Alberta the Texas of Canada. The province extracts oil, raises cattle for beef, and it has a long history of evangelical Christians as political leaders. Its policies are the most conservative in Canada. Albertans pay no sales tax, and the provincial income tax is a flat 10%. And yet, the conservatives who have been a majority government for 40 years, the Progressive Conservatives, faced a challenge this week in provincial elections from a still-farther right party, the Wildrose Party.

The Wildrose Party questions climate change and opposes Canada’s participation in international environmental treaties. It is extreme in its free-market ideology. It is also anti-immigrant, and in the last few days before the election, a few comments from candidates hinted at racism and homophobia in the Party. In a province known for its conservatism, many pundits predicted that this would be the turning point when Canada began shifting toward the United States politically. Pollsters backed up this prediction, claiming until the very end that the Wildrose would not only challenge the Progressive Conservatives, but would form a majority government. The rest of Canada was holding its breath, feeling certain that Alberta would swing as conservative as possible.  But it didn’t.

Albertans defied the pollsters, voting for the Progressive Conservatives in large numbers, giving them another majority government. This begs questions for polling methodology, to be sure. It also allows left-leaning Canadians to enjoy a sigh of relief from the worry that Canada is slipping away from them. However, it may well be a preview of politics to come. If the Wildrose Party makes a few adjustments, becomes more disciplined about racist and homophobic statements, and so on, there is probably a good number of Canadians who would welcome a Tea Party-esque combination of extreme free-market ideology and social conservatism. For now, Alberta will have to make do with rather-extreme free-market ideologies and rather-socially-conservative policies. Say, any chance we can trade you Alberta for Washington/Oregon?

7 thoughts on “tea party of the north”

  1. Tina, I’m an Alberta refugee myself, but am not sure things are quite as scary as you infer. *knocks on wood*

    I’d argue that while there’s considerable overlap between political ideologies in Canada and the US, the Canadian bell curve is bumped a bit to the left, so even “Tea Party” Canadians aren’t quite as numerous or extreme vis-a-vis the US. For example, I can’t imagine a credible Canadian politician being able to make remarks about dismantling public health care, to the extent that US Tea Party advocates. Presumably, somebody’s done research on these issues since Lipset?

    While taxation in Alberta is low and regressive, this is enabled in part by the trillion dollars of unearned wealth underneath its soil. I;m always irked by the sanctimonious posturing of many Alberta politicians who claim that the province’s economic success is due to its “free market” principles. Alberta was a poor province before they struck oil in the 1950’s. Still, Saudi Alberta can get away with such policies and still fund social programs at a proportionally low, but decent level, particularly as the ruling Progressive Conservative party moved slightly left (perhaps because they were squeezed out of the far right by the Wildrose).

    I’d also wonder how robust the niche for Tea Party-esque policies actually is in Alberta. Wildrose leader Danielle Smith was booed during the debates for openly questioning climate change. In a province where the tar sands* are both a sacred and cash cow, this is a particularly important issue. Both major urban centers (Calgary/Edmonton) in Alberta have long histories of electing liberal/centrist mayors. Plus, it’s been more than forty years since Alberta’s last evangelical premier.

    When those Wildrose candidates raised fears of homophobia and racism, Smith (who is pro-choice and pro-gay rights) distanced herself from the remarks and promised that as a party, the Wildrose would not legislate on contentious social issues. This is the federal Conservative Party line, as well. I think for the most part, the Canadian right knows that social conservatism is incompatible with being able to form majority governments. I’d guess the strategy was to tolerate (or at least not alienate) social conservatives to solidify rural support, and to tap into the organizational resources of churches. Regardless, given the apparent sudden collapse of Wildrose support, I’ll guess that merely distancing yourself and party from fringe social conservative ideas is not good enough. Hindsight is always 20/20, but I’d think on political calculus alone, Smith needed to crucify those candidates. If you can’t get away with such remarks in Alberta, I’m not sure where in Canada you can.

    Smith is smart and telegenic, and almost toppled a 40-year political dynasty with a brand-new party, so she’ll probably be an even bigger threat in 2015. Borrowing from federal Conservative strategy, she ran a campaign that was fairly circumspect with the media, so I’m not sure we entirely know what her and her party are capable of (and I wondered if that was the point of being circumspect!). However, assuming the Tories don’t screw up too badly, I think Smith going to have to further moderate the Wildrose image (if not also party line) to give it an opportunity to be anything more than a rural opposition party.

    Finally, I think it’s super-interesting that we had a “Dewey defeats Truman” incident in the age of modern polling. I’m not an expert on these issues, but I can’t think of a contemporary example where the polls got it so profoundly wrong. I wonder if anybody will be able to figure out what exactly happened. I’ll guess it was a confluence of multiple factors.

    * Is there a politically neutral way to refer to the energy-rich gunk in the ground in Northern Alberta? Opponents refer to it as the “tar sands”, while proponents frame it as the “oil sands.”

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  2. Kyle, I think we mostly agree. Canadians don’t yet seem willing to move to the extreme right, but the Wildrose emergence and (at least temporary) popularity may be a sign of some right-wing potential in Canada that has not yet been tapped. I agree that Alberta’s history of conservatism wouldn’t pass the Tea Party purity test–the evangelical Social Credit Party would definitely sound like socialism to American Tea Party ears. But a flat tax is a very serious pro-inequality policy (of course, a lack of a regressive sales tax is the opposite, but it flows from an anti-tax ideology all the same). I think the Alberta PCs have a lot of work to do to stave off future attacks from the right, which becomes more and more difficult if the U.S. drifts further to the right.

    One last point: you only have to look to the last federal election to find a case of the pollsters getting it completely wrong. What the heck is going on with them (or, as they claim, with their respondents)?

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    1. If Alberta’s 10% flat income tax is pro-inequality then what do you call Massachusett’s combination of a 6.25% sales tax and 5.3% flat income tax? I’ll trade MA for AB any day of the week. I don’t think we can characterize them as pro-inequality simply because their tax structure stems in part from an anti-tax ideology.

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      1. Josh, I don’t think I understand your concern. Massachusett’s flat tax will also produce more inequality than if they had progressive taxation.

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  3. Tina: I don’t think the pollsters got the last Canadian federal election all that wrong.

    http://www.threehundredeight.blogspot.com/2011/05/ranking-pollsters.html

    The popular vote estimates were reasonable (including correctly identifying the stunning burst of NDP support), and nobody was predicting anything other than a clear Conservative win. It was a surprise to most that it turned out to be a majority government, but this was easily explained in retrospect by left wing vote-splitting in 20-30 ridings.

    In the Alberta election, most of the late polls underestimated PC support by about 10%, which even stymied the best analysts:

    Plus, the difference between a “Wildrose majority” prediction and a “PC majority” outcome is huge. Of course, most pollsters seem curious about what happened, and are happy to scrutinize their mistakes. On the other hand, National Post pundits decided to delete their column from the internet.

    http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/regret-the-error/171629/canadian-newspaper-news-sites-pull-column-that-assumed-wrong-party-would-win-election/

    I guess the Andrew Coyne hasn’t heard of Google cache or the Streisand effect.

    Finally, I guess the part of the reason why I’m not all that alarmed, is that the Wildrose doesn’t represent anything new. Almost all of these folks used to be PC’s. Over the past two decades, off the top of my head, they detonated hospitals, privatized provincial assets indiscriminately, invoked the notwithstanding clause to ban same-sex marriage, let multinational corporations plunder the tar sands at low royalty rates, raised tuition to the highest levels in Canada and drunkenly threw change at homeless people while yelling at them to get jobs.

    I don’t know how and why this splinter in the PC party formed in Alberta (is there a master’s student who wants to do this for a thesis?), but the splintering and ultimate demise of the federal PC party 20-25 years ago might be a precedent. Alberta was ground zero for moving support en masse to the neoconservative Reform Party, whose lieutenant was a young Stephen Harper. A decade later, he became Prime Minister of Canada by taking the “Progressive” out of “Progressive Conservative.” You raise the interesting question of whether this might be Alberta’s teleology as well!

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  4. Kyle, these are some great links. I’m sorry they caused you to get caught up in our spam filters.

    I guess the open question is whether there is an actual shift of sentiment among Albertans that the polls were catching, or whether it is just noise and possibly hype from certain media sources. It’s nice to see this through your lens, which has a longer history than mine. I hope you are right!

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