Rarely do elections in one province have any real impact on politics in another, but the results of Monday’s Alberta election may be the exception. While the pollsters got the mood of Albertans spectacularly wrong, the apparent last-minute change of heart by many Albertans to continue supporting Alison Redford’s PCs over the upstart Wildrose Party will no doubt embolden Christy Clark’s B.C. Liberals to stay the course in the hope B.C.’s conservative voters will hold their noses and continue to prop up Clark’s misguided government.
There is little doubt Clark’s brain trust will be analyzing Alberta’s election results and planning to emulate Redford’s campaign of fear against the Wildrose, in an effort to blunt the impact of the B.C. Conservative Party on the B.C. Liberal Party’s dismal electoral prospects. While this strategy appears to offer Clark a path to retain power, if the message the Liberals draw from the Alberta election is that the B.C. Conservatives are the bigger threat than the NDP, they will be disappointed, and B.C. will be saddled with an NDP government in a year’s time.
Alberta’s Wildrose and the B.C. Conservative Party have a shared genesis as disaffected members of the PCs and Liberals respectively, who left the parties on matters of principle. The key difference between the provinces is that Alberta is a decidedly centre-right province where voters are happy to accommodate two parties on the right, where there is only room in B.C. for one free enterprise party. Given the philosophies of the party leadership, neither the Alberta PCs nor the B.C. Liberals can confidently claim they are the parties of free enterprise; they are at least less offensive to ideas of individual freedom and responsibility than the socialist NDP.
In Alberta, the productive economy is based on resource extraction and agriculture and is represented across the province in rural and urban areas, while the unproductive part of the economy, largely government and public-sector employees, is concentrated in Edmonton, where the NDP and Liberals tend to do well. B.C.’s reality is that the economies of Lower Mainland and the Capital Region have become dependent on the taxpayer for survival; as a result the NDP and federal Liberals enjoy the urban support, while the productive economy in B.C. has been pushed to the Interior and suburban Lower Mainland. The challenge for Clark is to avoid a split in the conservative vote, hold the interior of the province and convince those in the suburbs of Vancouver that the Liberals are not, as they have demonstrated to date, out of touch with the productive citizens of B.C.
There are two strategies Clark can follow to counter the impact of the B.C. Conservatives. One course of action would be to co-opt the main platforms of B.C. Conservatives, including lower personal and corporate tax rates, offering new, market-based options for health care and education and promoting expansion of resource development and investment. This would render the B.C. Conservatives moot, and give the disillusioned conservatives in the B.C. Liberal Party the incentive needed to come back to the party. The second course, and the strategy most likely to be adopted by Clark, will be to attack and vilify the B.C. Conservatives as evangelical homophobe fanatics, in an attempt to scare conservative voters back to the Liberal camp.
A Wildrose victory in Alberta would have provided Clark the cover needed to move the B.C. Liberals to the right and regain the support of B.C.’s majority of conservative-minded voters. The victory in Alberta of a decidedly red-Tory PC party, whose success will be seen by Clark as coming largely from the PCs attacking the Wildrose, will encourage Clark to ignore the threat of the NDP and instead concentrate on attacking the B.C. Conservatives.
Conservatives fed up with the B.C. Liberal policies will be pushed further from the Liberals if Clark pursues a strategy of attacking conservatives. The conservative vote will split, resulting in an NDP government, and the eventual rise of a Conservative alternative.
Clark had the opportunity to strengthen the B.C. Liberals by embracing free-market policies when she took over the party. She has the opportunity again to show B.C. that there is a clear choice for voters by adopting conservative policies, while at the same time marginalizing the B.C. Conservatives, giving conservative voters no reason to go anywhere but the Liberals. The impact of the PC win in Alberta and Clark’s likely reaction to it is that B.C. voters will have a clear choice in May 2013. If Clark’s ego gets in the way of good strategy, that choice will be a NDP government.
Mark Walker is the publisher of the Penticton Western News.