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Two bad polls in one day for Alberta's UCP suggest interesting possibilities

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Image credit: Paul Taillon/Office of the Premier via Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Two bad new polls in one day for the United Conservative Party do not guarantee NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley will return to power in 2023 or that we will soon see the back of Premier Jason Kenney.

Still, they suggest some interesting possibilities.

The online survey of 1,001 Albertans by Léger reported Friday shows the NDP led by Notley, the former premier, with a very strong lead -- 40 per cent province-wide compared to 20 per cent for Kenney's UCP. That survey was open between March 5 and March 8.

An online survey of 603 Albertans from the Angus Reid Institute revealed the same day suggests a much tighter race, with the NDP narrowly leading the UCP province-wide by 41 per cent to 38 per cent. That poll was conducted between February 26 and March 3.

There's much more, of course. But notwithstanding all the obvious problems with self-selecting online poll panels and the big gap between the results of the two surveys, both indicate the decline in UCP popularity is a continuing trend, not much improved (yet, anyway) by the Kenney government's recent softer rhetoric or its 2021 budget.

Both also reinforce the narrative that Albertans are sick and tired of Kenney himself, whatever they may think of his party, and wouldn't be unhappy to see him headed back to Ottawa, whence he came.

That the results are so different, obviously, means one is more likely to be close to the truth and the other an outlier. You can't just split the difference between such things and assume you've hit the mark.

But even the Léger survey, from the perspective of practical politics, is perhaps not quite as lopsided as it seems if you consider how much of the NDP support it charts comes from the Edmonton area.

Léger suggests the NDP would overwhelm the UCP by 49 per cent to 14 per cent in Alberta's capital. But while it shows the NDP leading in rural areas and Calgary, it's not by so much that there isn't plenty of potential for the governing party to turn things around in two years. So the last thing NDP supporters should do is start thinking and acting as if another orange wave in 2023 is inevitable.

Angus Reid concludes the UCP still leads outside Edmonton and Calgary in both the north and south.

Still, results like this do indicate New Democrats can expect to hang onto their orange fortress in the capital region, a solid base from which to mount a campaign, and it offers hope of a path to victory in '23.

But even if we believe the Léger poll's indicated split of 36 to 34 per cent in the NDP's favour in Calgary, that's close enough anything could happen in an actual election, especially one that isn't going to happen any time soon. It's also close enough for the Alberta Party, one supposes, to tilt the election one way or another or end up holding the balance of power.

Given the time to the next election, I wouldn't advise betting your garden plot in Strathcona, let alone your entire farm, on the predictive power of either of these polls. It's some of the other speculative possibilities that are more interesting just now.

For example, the Angus Reid survey says Albertans are profoundly unimpressed by the UCP's 2021 budget. It also indicates NDP supporters are much more likely to support a sales tax. But a strong majority of Albertans, about 60 per cent according to both polls, continues to oppose the idea of a sales tax.

In his February 25 budget speech, Finance Minister Travis Toews said "a third-party review of the efficiency and appropriateness of our revenue structure will be important in the future." At least one prominent commentator took that as a hint of a UCP sales tax to come.

So, could the NDP, despite the fact its supporters are supposedly more likely to support the idea, attack the UCP as being inclined to impose such a tax if the party gets a second mandate?

And what if the narrative continues to be widely accepted that Kenney himself is now the UCP's principal problem? Could the government caucus in the legislature decide they'll need to put him on a train for Ottawa sooner than later to save their owns skins?

It's happened before -- most recently seven years ago this Monday, when the Progressive Conservative caucus gave premier Alison Redford the "work plan" that led to her announcement four days later she was quitting.

Premier Kenney may have created the UCP in his own image, but former Wildrose leader Brian Jean obviously still casts covetous eyes on the party that he may feel, with justice, he was cheated out of leading. The RCMP may yet have something to say about that, too.

Will the UCP caucus -- with or without a leadership vote open to the public as in the days of the Progressive Conservative Party -- decide someone more like the PC leaders of old could permanently restore the dynasty founded by Peter Lougheed in 1971 that survived almost unchallenged until 2015?

If not Jean, is there someone enough like an old-timey red Tory from the days before Ralph Klein who could win the votes of small-c conservatives otherwise ready to swing back to Notley, and yet enough of a neoliberal to satisfy Kenney's opponents on his caucus's right? Someone a bit like the late Jim Prentice, in other words.

If there is, count on it that someone in the UCP is thinking about calling that person, if they haven't called already.

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: Paul Taillon/Office of the Premier via Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

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