Alberta's opposition New Democratic Party noticeably out-raised the United Conservative Party in the fourth quarter of 2020, $2.3 million to $1.9 million, according to figures released yesterday by Elections Alberta.
This left the NDP slightly ahead in donations for the full year as well, $5.06 million compared with $5.05 million.
It's easy to read too much into such figures, of course. Still, the actual willingness of voters to part with cash may signal something more meaningful than a mere mid-term "voter intention" poll.
As the late U.S. president Lyndon Johnson famously observed about individual politicians, sometimes in their business overnight chicken poop can turn into chicken salad. (Not exactly the way LBJ put it, but we try to maintain a dignified tone around here.)
One could argue that's sort of what happened to the Alberta NDP after it chose Rachel Notley as leader in 2014, when the party went in very short order in the minds of the public from a respected third party that was barely on the radar, to a credible alternative to the seemingly unchallengeable Progressive Conservatives, to a majority government in 2015.
Another risk of drawing conclusions from such data is that fundraising from citizens isn't the only sign of a party's financial strength in an age when American-style political action committees created to evade restrictions on campaign donations are a normal part of the political scene.
Still, certain conclusions about these figures are obvious, among them that the rise of the NDP in 2014 and 2015 was no fluke, but a real reflection of voter intention that has changed Alberta politics over the long term.
Unless this phenomenon depends entirely on Notley's charisma and reputation, in other words, the NDP victory in 2015 proved to Alberta voters that politics in this province are competitive and opposition parties can upset entrenched conservative parties.
Furthermore, it showed the NDP was and continues to be the most credible opposition party, and therefore the one to which centrist voters dissatisfied with the current United Conservative Party government will tend to give their cash donations and their votes.
So the increase in NDP donations in the final quarter of the year suggests both rising disillusionment with the UCP under Premier Jason Kenney, with ethical breaches, unpopular policies, and a flawed pandemic response seeming to grow worse as the year wore on, and the continuing strength of the NDP as the most credible alternative.
These fundraising numbers, like some recent polling, add to the narrative of a badly led government increasingly rejected by voters that has the potential to bedevil the UCP right up to the next election, especially if Kenney remains at the helm.
After the NDP and the UCP, Elections Alberta's statistics showed a trio of second-tier parties that were still able to raise enough money, all in roughly the same ballpark, to indicate they are on the radar, if unlikely on their own to pose a significant threat just yet to either of the big two.
The Alberta Party raised $50,739 in the quarter, and $126,233 over the course of the year. (Rounding up the spare change to the dollar.)
The Wildrose Independence Party raised $45,863 in the quarter, $78,341 for the year.
The Alberta Liberals raised $44,747 in the quarter, $100,213 for the year.
Conservatives would argue the Alberta Party is a party of the left, while the NDP would place it on the right; arguably it's more of the latter from a policy standpoint and the former as a strategic vote-splitting threat.
The Liberals are a traditional Alberta opposition voice, for many years the official Opposition, with a base cadre of supporters that while aging will stick stubbornly to the party if given half a chance at election time.
The most interesting phenomenon is the appearance in this group of the WRIP, formed only last year through a merger of the Wexit Party of Alberta and the Freedom Conservative Party of Alberta. The party only formally came into existence in July last year. Paul Hinman, a former Wildrose Alliance and Wildrose Party MLA, is its interim leader. It would appear it has fundraising talent or some determined supporters.
Surely this performance by the WRIP suggests a higher level of support for Alberta separatism, or at least sovereignty association, than one would have expected. More significantly, it says this party, like its namesake parties, has become the vessel for support of the growing disillusionment on the far right with the UCP under Kenney.
However, it seems likely its separatist tendencies will limit the threat it will present to the UCP from the right.
Below that, among the province's remaining registered parties were the Green Party of Alberta ($17,847 for the quarter, $25,423 for the year); the Independence Party of Alberta ($2,990/$6,665); and -- God bless 'em, even if you still think religion is the opiate of the people -- the Communist Party ($100/$250).
No one having figured out how to encourage curbside impulse purchases, all parties have likely benefitted from the fact people who have been cooped up at home but still able to draw a paycheque through the pandemic have cash on hand and fewer gratifying places to spend it.
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 at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.
Image credit: Olav Rokne, used with permission
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