Jim Prentice & Rachel Notley

The principle is well understood that the simplest explanation is usually the right one.

That’s why the reason Premier Jim Prentice focused his attack on NDP Leader Rachel Notley during Thursday night’s televised leaders’ debate was almost certainly because he realized Alberta New Democrats now pose the most serious threat to the survival of his shopworn Progressive Conservative government.

It was the premier’s misfortune that Notley turned out to be a skilled debater with reasonable, moderate proposals and an engaging manner — something that came as no surprise to those of us who have known her for a while.

Still, Albertans have been so thoroughly indoctrinated in the idea “Alberta is a conservative province” that it was very difficult for most of the province’s pundits to accept the obvious and just comment on what it means.

Instead, several of them came up with the fanciful theory that Prentice was attacking Notley because he wanted to avoid giving too much floor time to the opponent on his far right, and Alberta’s, Wildrose Leader Brian Jean.

“Analysts said it’s possible Prentice didn’t want to engage with the tightly scripted Jean — who seldom deviated from his core message that the Wildrose won’t raise taxes — or that the incumbent premier didn’t want to give any unnecessary airtime to his chief rival,” summarized the Edmonton Journal’s political reporter in a version of events that was unconvincingly echoed by several commentators.

This may go to Jean’s narrative and the horserace the mainstream media would prefer to be covering, but it is not only too complicated for reality, it is positively byzantine. No, Prentice attacked Notley as if she were the most serious threat he faces because right now she is the most serious threat he faces.

For the same reasons, we can dismiss Calgary Sun political columnist Rick Bell’s assessment that it was only because of Notley’s now unquestioned debating skills that she drew most of the premier’s attention.

No, she would have drawn his attention regardless because Prentice’s PCs had already realized she was surging in the polls and therefore presented the most serious threat.

Feeling this way, it was almost a relief yesterday morning to learn of the Forum Research Inc. poll that was in the field on Wednesday and Thursday and which shows the NDP pulling away from both Prentice’s Austerity Party 1 and Jean’s Austerity Party 2.

According to Forum Research, 38 per cent of the 801 respondents indicated they would vote NDP, 25 per cent they would vote for the Wildrose Party and 20 per cent planned to vote for the Tories. The Liberals and Alberta parties lagged with 7 and 5 per cent respectively.

These results were apparently so shocking to the Edmonton Journal that its story didn’t provide readers with the actual percentages, or Forum’s analysis of what they might mean in terms of seat numbers!

The Forum poll also suggested that the NDP now dominate in both Edmonton and Calgary — and, as commenters on this blog frequently remind me to restrain my enthusiasm, conventional Alberta wisdom holds that a party must win in two of three of Edmonton, Calgary and the rest of the province to be assured of a majority government. 

“If these results are projected up to an 87 seat Legislature, the NDP would take a 2 seat majority of 46, and the Wildrose Party would take 32,” Forum President Lorne Bozinoff stated in his firm’s analysis of its poll. “The PCs would take just 6 seats and the Liberals 3.”

Results like these — which were presumably echoed by the Tories’ own polling — explain the force and focus of the Tory attack on the NDP in the debate far better and more simply than an unlikely conspiracy theory involving an effort to ignore Brian Jean.

To my mind, this also explains part of Prentice’s lack of confidence in his attacks on Notley — he had practiced, I have no doubt, to assail Jean. The switch in targets must have happened at the last minute because the strong movement toward the NDP was a relatively new phenomenon.

The Tories, and the Wildrose too, will now do everything and anything in their power to change this in their favour in the short time remaining before the May 5 election.

Just the same, Bozinoff suggests Notley and her New Democrats may have found “a recipe for government.

The challenge facing them now will be to keep it at a boil until voting day, no matter what unappetizing claims the two austerity parties throw at them.

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

David J. Climenhaga

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...