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Pundits want you to believe negative campaigning hurt the NDP -- it likely saved their bacon!

NDP Leader Rachel Notley during her last campaign rally in Edmonton. Photo: David J. Climenhaga.

There are plenty of serious mistakes the Alberta NDP made during their four rocky years in power, but one of them was not the negative campaign they ran that attacked Jason Kenney's character and the attitudes of many of the candidates and advisors around him.

Indeed, it's said here the NDP's negative campaigning was the only thing that saved the party's bacon, relatively speaking. At the very least, it prevented a rout of epic proportions and allowed the party to survive with enough members in the legislature to fight effectively for a better day.

Face it, the Notley government's strategic brain trust has known since 2017, when the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties agreed to get back together, that the NDP was likely to face an insurmountable challenge come election time.

The party's private polling would have indicated that to NDP strategists regularly, of course, but it didn't really take a pollster to do the electoral math, or a PhD in political science to understand what had made the PCs an electoral success for four decades despite a string of leaders who couldn't hold a candle to the dynasty's founder, Peter Lougheed.

Put simply, there are a lot of conservatives in this province and, despite demographics that have been changing over time and will continue to change to the benefit of the NDP, they still constitute an absolute majority. The election results on April 16 confirm this, given the remarkably high turnout, which was in excess of 70 per cent.

Brian Mason, the NDP's former leader, told me back in 2016 that if the effort to reunite the right was a success, in his view the NDP government was probably done for. It didn't really matter whom the conservative leader turned out to be. That realization may have been a consideration in Mason's decision to retire when he did, although his Edmonton riding was in no danger.

So, despite having achieved many worthwhile things while in power, and having figured out how to run a government in a highly disciplined manner, an NDP re-election was always a long shot.

Then there was the recession that wouldn't go away, the pipeline expansion project the NDP themselves had argued was essential that kept receding over the horizon, and all that fracked oil and natural gas south of the 49th parallel that kept pushing down the price of oil everywhere. Life isn't fair, but if you're a government governing in hard times, no matter what causes them, you get to wear it.

But in the last few months, Kenney himself, the winner of the fight to lead the United Conservative Party, handed the NDP an opportunity to pull the fat at least partly out of the fire.

This is not to say there was ever enough there for a non-conservative government to win in 2019, but Kenney's obvious character flaws, and the troubling views of so many of his supporters, did give the NDP a chance to fight a strategic retreat.

There was the whiff of scandal around the way Kenney engineered his victory in the contest to lead the UCP -- the kamikaze campaign whence future embarrassments for his government may very well flow. There was the domination of his field of candidates by militant anti-abortionists, who presumably now will also dominate the new government caucus and quite possibly the cabinet as well. And there were the flirtations by some of his candidates and party officials with white supremacy, "lake-of-fire" homophobia, anti-Islamic bigotry and climate change denial and conspiracism. There were RCMP investigations of UCP candidates and officials, including a police raid on the Calgary business of one successful candidate just days before the election.

Together, it was not an attractive mix, although, in the event, it was one a majority of voters was either unconcerned with or willing to overlook for the supposed economic benefits Kenney was able to persuade voters would spring from a UCP government.

Others have argued there were other successes the NDP should have emphasized in the party's campaign: Their economic plan to manage the inevitable decline of the fossil fuel economy on which Alberta is so heavily dependent, their capable management of the health-care file, and their decision to move labour relations toward the Canadian norm.

This is easy to argue and far harder to prove. The sad reality, though, is that on all of those fronts the UCP and their media cheerleaders had established the prevailing narratives, and too many voters simply did not believe the NDP, no matter how much they respected Rachel Notley personally.

Then there was the historic blunder of a progressive party imposing a neoliberal instrument like a carbon tax, thereby alienating everybody. Carbon taxes may work, as the professional economists keep reassuring us. But what's the good of them if they can't be imposed in a democracy, especially when they are cynically abandoned by the market fundamentalists that invented and proselytized them the instant it becomes convenient to do so?

No, by the end of 2018, the only arrow left in the NDP's quiver was to attack the character of the UCP's leadership and the instincts of the party base. Both, on the facts, were vulnerable to such an approach.

Emphasizing this in the outgoing government's campaign may not have won a second term, but it kept the NDP afloat to fight another day, defend its record, and point out the obvious when Kenney's promises to instantly restore the economy and bring back the imaginary Alberta Advantage with a snap of his fingers, belligerent pipeline promotion and tax cuts for the wealthy all fail to produce the advertised results, as they inevitably will.

The NDP will be the strongest Opposition in Alberta’s history. Even the UCP cheerleading squad recognizes that.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post is also found on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: David J. Climenhaga 

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