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What If Alberta Voting Wasn’t First-Past-the-Post?

The man behind insurgent Take Back Alberta seems to hate his province’s electoral system. Why?

Andrew Seal 7 Jun 2023The Tyee

Andrew Seal is a freelance journalist based in Canmore, Alberta, who focuses on politics and elections. Follow his work @AndyJSeal and mountain adventures @andrew_.seal.

What gave Alberta a majority win by the United Conservative Party led by Danielle Smith, who is so radical some conservative stalwarts don’t consider her one of their own?

Answer: The province’s first-past-the-post voting system.

Under FPTP, the UCP’s two predecessor parties — the Wildrose and the Progressive Conservatives — knew they had to “unite the right” to remove the New Democrats from power.

To do so would mean reconciling disagreements wide enough to produce fatal divisions in some parties. Disagreements so basic that on his way out the door Jason Kenney declared Smith’s policies to be “nuts.”

But Alberta’s fractured political landscape reinforced the UCP’s goal of becoming Alberta’s big tent party for right-wingers of all stripes.

And they succeeded. In 2019 under Kenney, the 2023 election produced a majority for the UCP.

On the other side of the floor, FPTP created the current incarnation of the Alberta NDP.

Alienating some of its more left-wing supporters, the party has moved decidedly to the centre, at least economically, since its surprise victory in 2015. That’s because the NDP understood it needed to erect its own big tent of the centre-left.

In order to stand a chance in the province’s majoritarian system, the New Dems knew they had to swallow up the crucial nine per cent of the vote garnered by the centrist Alberta Party in 2019 and keep the Liberals out of contention. For two decades, the Liberals had been the province’s main opposition party before being dethroned by the Wildrose in 2012. Just as the NDP pushed its elbows out in the political centre, the party didn’t leave any room on the left side of the spectrum for a Liberal revival either.

In a major victory for Notley’s party, this time the Liberals and the Alberta Party received almost no support. In fact, not a single one of the other 12 parties contesting the election was able to earn even one per cent of the popular vote, a sign that the electorate is all too aware of the need to cast their ballots strategically.

When tents can’t stay up

But if first-past-the-post and the torque it imposes on voters and parties determined the outcome of Alberta’s latest election, that muscle can wane.

The poor performance by third parties and an overall voter turnout five percentage points lower than 2019 indicates that citizens who couldn’t stomach either of the big tent parties chose not to participate in the vote at all.

And sometimes, when a lot of people feel herded into a big tent, they become restless and look for the exit.

The UCP’s 52.6 per cent of the vote was enough for them to fill 49 seats, accounting for 56.3 per cent of the legislature. This thin majority — the smallest in Alberta’s history — creates problems for Smith and her chance to be the first conservative premier since Ralph Klein in 2004 to complete a full term in office.

For Smith, the challenge now may be to find a way to keep her cobbled-together party intact. Shut out of Edmonton, and with five Calgary-based former cabinet ministers out of a job (one subject to a recount), Smith’s government is mainly rural and right wing but can’t discount its urban ridings.

If she can’t appease members whose political leanings range from moderate to far right, the UCP’s place as Alberta’s big tent conservative party could come to a swift end.

Even a handful of defections to any of the seven right-wing, mostly sovereigntist and independence parties that fielded candidates in the recent election could bring down Smith’s government. Any high profile floor crossings may prevent her from winning a second mandate if it leads to another split vote on the right.

Knowing this, NDP Leader Rachel Notley sees a path back to the premiership the next time Albertans head to the polls. That’s why she’s staying on as party leader. It’s also why, unlike their federal counterparts, you won’t hear any talk of electoral reform from New Democrats in Alberta.

That Take Back Alberta tweet

Could it be Albertan conservatives who start seeing the merits of proportional representation?

Under a proportional system, the PC and Wildrose parties never would have needed to merge. Combined, they earned a majority of the votes in 2015 and could have formed a coalition government that would have kept the NDP at bay.

One way to view Alberta’s supposedly monolithic majority of right-wing voters is as a balkanized realm of varying grievances and ideals. Under FPTP, the UCP must keep that political patchwork united if the right is to hold power in the long term. Perhaps a coalition of smaller parties on the right offers more staying power versus the NDP, which has demonstrated it can command 40 per cent or more of the popular vote in multiple elections.

Someone who is apparently thinking this way is David Parker, founder and executive director of Take Back Alberta, the organization that takes credit for propelling Smith’s UPC to victory by galvanizing populist right-wing voters. The day after the election Parker retweeted:

Take Back Alberta is registered as a third-party advertiser with Elections Alberta and describes itself as a “grassroots movement built to advance freedom and transfer power from the ruling elite to the people of our province.” Many of its adherents are anti-vaxers trading in conspiracy theories, a fringe of the UCP that Kenney described as “lunatics” who are “taking over the asylum.”

But Parker’s influence should not be underestimated as Take Back wages a civil war against the remainder of the party’s moderate wing.

Parker, whose recent wedding was attended by his friend Danielle Smith, is a highly effective organizer. His group was able to mobilize hundreds of UCP members to attend the party’s last annual meeting where they were able to elect their preferred candidates to the UCP’s provincial board. They swept all nine seats available, which make up half of the entire board.

Whatever Parker’s true thoughts are on electoral reform, he knows that under FPTP it’s easier to take over an existing party than form a competing one. His sights are now set on winning the UCP’s remaining board positions, telling supporters at an election rally in Grand Prairie “We need to control the party. We need to control the party that's in power."

The irony in Parker’s strategy is that under first-past-the-post and the drive to create an ever-bigger tent, political parties must push to expand their fringes far enough to capture enough votes to win a majority.

The question that Parker seems to be mulling, given his tantalizing retweet, is what happens when the tent becomes too big to stand against building political winds? If Take Back Alberta completes its coup for control of the UCP, we may soon find out.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta

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