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Right-wing propaganda pivots to explain away progressive successes in Alberta municipal elections

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Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi

The United Conservative Party's media echo chamber is in a full-blown swivet, trying to prove that Alberta voters' tilt toward progressive candidates in several  municipal and school board elections is not good news for Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government.

In fact, it may not be good news. It's extremely difficult to interpret what voters have in mind when they make seemingly contradictory decisions in the polling booth. For example, electing the NDP to run the province, and immediately turning around and sending droves of stereotypical Conservative hacks back to Ottawa in 2015.

But it's certainly not bad news for the NDP that voters in Calgary and Edmonton, to give two prominent examples, seemed happy to continue tilting toward middle-of-the-road, reasonably progressive candidates on both municipal councils and public school boards.

The third-term victory of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi must have been particularly gratifying to the NDP in this regard, even though Nenshi is far from a New Democrat.

After all, many of the usual suspects on the right -- a group that includes the UCP's strategic brain trust, the party's chief ideologues at the Calgary-based Manning Centre, high-profile conservative MLAs and MPs, and the big-money bullies in the NHL trying to score a taxpayer funded new rink for the Calgary Flames -- threw in everything but the kitchen sink to their effort to unseat Nenshi.

Nowhere is it written that Canadian voters feel obligated to stick to a strict ideological line when they vote in elections at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. If nothing else, the Canadian historical record proves that much, to the great annoyance of strict ideologues everywhere in Canada.

But everywhere it was written in Alberta’s mainstream media -- or so it seemed this week -- that the progressive-leaning electoral outcomes in communities large and small don't mean that the NDP is not finished, kaput, done like dinner … just like they were saying when they were expecting a different outcome at the polls.

Postmedia's reliably anti-NDP political columnist Lorne Gunter insisted that Monday's votes change nothing, and in the next general election, the NDP "could probably be beaten by one of those floppy tube figures that car dealers use on their lots to draw attention to sales, provided Floppy Man had a decent get out the vote team and a couple of people who can tweet."

In addition to pointing out, accurately, that progressive municipal candidates don't have to run on the NDP's record, he insisted that the problem in Calgary was really the fault of Nenshi's main conservative challenger, former Progressive Conservative Party president Bill Smith. It turns out (according to Gunter) that not only is Smith a lousy campaigner, he's practically an Alison Redford progressive! 

At least Gunter's copy was somewhat more balanced than an enthusiastic Postmedia headline writer's excesses in the print edition, which is put together in Hamilton, Ontario. "GRASPING AT STRAWS," the headline screeched. "The NDP are dead wrong in thinking municipal election results will translate into success for the party in 2019."

Premier Notley will need "an even bigger miracle" to win re-election in 2019, another typical piece of analysis by Maclean's chimed in to the general uproar. "The longer the NDP are in power, the harder it will be to repeat the shocking victory that won them the province," a headline writer for the Toronto website once known as a national magazine remarked hopefully atop reporter Jason Markusoff's piece.

Well, it really is too early to predict the outcome of what is bound to be an uphill election fight for the NDP in a province that has traditionally voted for small-c conservative parties and in which those parties' have many deep community ties.

But it is also true that the UCP is not a traditional small-c conservative party, but a group likely to lean under leadership candidates Jason Kenney or Brian Jean toward the ideological extremes of the North American conservative movement, a tendency whose appeal is far more limited that a party led by a moderate like, say, Ed Stelmach or Peter Lougheed.

So we shall have to wait and see. I wouldn't advise betting the farm, if you happen to own one, either way. But then, that's always my advice to farmers.

In the meantime, it seems to me, the UCP and its support network are upset mainly because their talking points memorandum will now have to be completely rewritten, and its new points memorized by supporters -- a major inconvenience.

Obviously, UCP strategists had been planning to say repeatedly the conservative victories they were expecting in the municipal elections were a leading indicator of a massive UCP victory in 2019. Now, thanks to Alberta's unpredictable voters, it’s back to the drawing board for a new key message to endlessly repeat in the lead-up to the 2019 election.

Speaking of how to predict what voters will do, the president of the polling firm that consistently forecast a huge win for Nenshi's conservative-movement-backed opponent has admitted to "big, big polling failures."

Before Monday's vote, CBC Calgary reminded us Wednesday, Mainstreet Research released several polls indicating Smith was cruising toward a victory over Mayor Nenshi of between nine and 17 points. Mainstream also forecast several incumbent Calgary city councillors would be toppled. In the event, all of them were all re-elected.

Needless to say, this caused certain suspicions among some political observers, since Mainstreet was working closely with failing print media giant Postmedia, which in turn was acting as the chief cheerleader for Smith's campaign.

This is unlikely, however. Mainstreet needs to look to its future business prospects. So, if mistakes were made, they were certainly honest mistakes.

Quito Maggi, the Toronto-based company's president, told the CBC he's investigating whether the firm "failed to connect with some younger voters and those who don’t speak English as their first language."

The Mainstreet poll that showed Smith leading by 17 points, he admitted, must have been based on a "wonky sample."


Thursday marked anniversary of NDP leader Grant Notley's death in 1984

Thursday marked the 33rd anniversary of the death of Grant Notley, leader in 1984 of the provincial New Democrats, in an airplane crash near Slave Lake in north central Alberta that took the lives of five other people. Notley, who was the MLA for Spirit River-Fairview, was for 11 years the only New Democrat MLA in the Legislature. His death came shortly before the party's breakthrough in the 1986 general election, to which he undoubtedly contributed and in which the NDP won 16 seats. Notley's daughter, Rachel Notley, is now NDP premier of Alberta.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Image: David Climenhaga 

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