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Sean Speer: Support for Alberta’s charter schools is the biggest reason to cheer the UCP victory

Commentary

As The Hub’s editor-in-chief Stuart Thomson reported on the Alberta election, there’s been a sense that the province’s politics in general and the campaign in particular has been marked by a high degree of polarization. If politics most elsewhere in the country is fought between the 40-yard lines, recent years in Alberta have felt like the political divide increasingly extends across the whole field. 

There are various factors behind these sentiments. The pandemic is a big part of the story. So is the oversized role of alternative media in the province. And the overrepresentation of fringe voices on the Left and the Right. 

But even if polarization is somewhat exaggerated, there are still some clear policy delineations between the two major parties. The biggest—and the reason to ultimately be satisfied with the election outcome—is the United Conservative Party will continue to support the expansion of charter schools in the province. The Alberta NDP would not

Alberta is the only province to permit charter schools. It’s a huge advantage for Albertan families. Charter schools enable greater choice, pedagogical innovation, and a better targeting of student needs and family preferences. They effectively serve as a safety valve for thousands of children for whom the conventional public school model doesn’t quite work for whatever reason. A large body of research in the United States in fact shows that charter schools are particularly effective at educating students disadvantaged by poverty, minority status, poor baseline academic performance, and low parental education. 

The UCP government, under former Premier Jason Kenney, pursued an ambitious reform agenda to expand and better support charter schools. It started by eliminating the province’s legislative cap on the number of charter schools in 2019 and then followed by streamlining the process for new charter school applications in 2020 and boosting funding for charter schools in the provincial budget. Kenney’s successor, Danielle Smith, has sustained these reforms during under her tenure. 

They’ve contributed to a growing number of charter schools—including the Alberta Classical Academy which opened its doors to students in Calgary in 2022-23 and intends to open an Edmonton offshoot next year—in the province. Progress however has still not kept up with growing student demand. As Cardus scholar Catharine Kavanaugh recently observed for The Hub, the waitlist for Alberta’s charter schools is now roughly double its total enrolment. 

Yet the NDP and its adjacent groups have opposed the expansion of charter schools. Party leader Rachel Notley even signaled during the campaign that not only would an NDP government halt the expansion but it might actually reverse some of the recent gains—including possibly reducing funding for charter schools. 

This is a clear case of polarization rooted in a combination of competing conceptions of public goods, the relative influence of public sector unions, and differing views about markets, competition, and the perverse consequences of state monopolies. The facts have effectively become subordinated to progressive intuitions and stakeholder politics. 

Smith’s own impulsive leadership nevertheless led to a debate among conservatives about the upsides and downsides of her government’s re-election. Some long-time conservatives even opted to stay home. 

I understand to a certain extent these reservations. I wrote last year that Kenney’s ouster was a lamentable political outcome. I still think so.  

But politics isn’t a utopian endeavour. It’s often an exercise in the second best. In that sense, the preservation of Alberta’s advantage with respect to charter schools is an affirmative reason to support the UCP’s re-election. It’s a big deal. Another four-year mandate will provide the Smith government with ample opportunity to not only blow through the old cap but to create the conditions for more charter schools to flourish on a stable and secure basis. 

I interviewed Kenney in his final days as premier and we talked about his government’s progress on charter schools. He said: 

We now have five new charter schools starting in the province. We have a STEM Charter Academy. We have a classical academy…I would like to see not five charter schools. I’d like to see 50 new charter schools. And the momentum is starting.

The election result will enable that momentum to continue to build. A different one would have threatened it. That ought to be sufficient reason for the premier’s conservative critics to be satisfied with the outcome and wish the re-elected Smith government the best of luck as it embarks on its renewed mandate. 

‘Something will have to give’: The Hub’s writers explain the Alberta election

Commentary

United Conservative Party leader Danielle Smith hailed her party’s election victory last night as a “another miracle on the Prairies,” as she spoke to a jubilant crowd in Calgary.

It may seem odd for a conservative politician to be seeking divine assistance to win an election in Alberta, but it’s a sign of the changing demographics of the province and the hard-fought campaign of the opposition NDP.

As Smith looks toward a majority term in government, we have assembled some of our top contributors for their instant reactions to the election and to explain what it means for the future of the province.

What will she do next?

By L. Graeme Smith

Drive east on the Trans-Canada between Canmore and Calgary and you’ll be menaced by Danielle Smith’s giant face plastered on a protruding billboard, leering out across the road and the trees and the mountains to your back and all the world beyond that. An ominous question emblazoned across the sign demands an answer: 

“Danielle Smith: What will she do next?

Win, apparently. And now that she has, the question, inflected with blue eagerness or orange dread, is being asked again in earnest across the province.

Listen to her loudest critics and you’ll be overwhelmed by catastrophizations of all kinds. Everything is on the table, from the death of democracy and the rule of law to, stop me if you’ve heard this before, the Americanization of our politics. Even the destruction of our publicly-funded health-care system. (Perhaps if Smith is in charge our capacity will collapse and planes will be frantically filled with the critically ill and jettisoned off to foreign countries to find the treatment they can’t receive here—wait, no, sorry. Wrong province.)

Former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi chimed in to claim she is an “existential threat”. Alberta, you see, may not survive the unprecedented situation of being led by conservatives. 

What will she do next? Lower taxes, certainly. Pick more fights with the feds? Already happening. Expand Alberta’s role in Confederation as a small-l liberal jurisdiction offering an alternative to the Progressive Canadian Consensus with policy programs around education, health care, and treatment for drug addiction? Hopefully. Thread the needle of placating the rural base while building up the UCP’s long-term urban appeal and effectively governing the big cities that have been substantially drained of blue blood? Skillfully navigate the relationships necessary to see Alberta’s resources gain expanded market access through the approval and completion of major infrastructure projects? Reduce the province’s reliance on oil and gas revenues and finally find a sustainable path towards increasingly diverse economic growth? Doubtful, doubtful, and come on, be serious. 

All essentially standard stuff for a conservative premier of Alberta, even if old radio clips continue to resurface and cause the occasional controversy.

In contrast to her predecessor, expect less commitment to an ideologically grounded and strategically enacted policy plan, more opportunism,It’s perhaps not surprising but it is remarkable the extent to which what she ran on to win the leadership has already been de-emphasized or jettisoned completely less basic competence and coherence, and perhaps more favourable ratings for all of it. 

More Doug Ford than Donald Trump, in other words.

And expect Alberta to still be standing, democracy and freedoms intact, whenever she, too, is unsentimentally pushed from her fresh-won perch. 

On Alberta’s finances, something will have to give

By Trevor Tombe

“The only direction that business and personal taxes are headed in this province is down!” declared newly re-elected Premier Smith in her election night speech.

There was room in the budget for this, and the UCP costing was credible. But there are risks.

Indeed, the first hint of these potential difficulties surfaced the morning after the election when oil prices slipped to under $70 per barrel.

This is not a threat to Alberta’s economy. It is an incredibly diverse one that is far less reliant on oil and gas activity (especially following the 2015/16 recession) than many think. Unless the global picture darkens, the premier will likely see strong economic and employment growth.

But low prices might undermine the premier’s financial plans.

Budget 2023 was based on $79 per barrel, and required $75 to balance. During the campaign, the UCP committed to lowering personal taxes and raising spending (following an already massive spending increase in the 2023 budget). Overall, these commitments likely mean $77 per barrel is now required to make the party’s fiscal math work.

Who knows where prices go from here, but if they stay where they are, I estimate a deficit of over $4 billion may be in the cards both this year and next, followed by a roughly $3 billion deficit in 2025. 

This could throw a giant wrench into the UCP plans, for several reasons. 

Alberta recently passed a “balanced budget” law that prohibits deficits for more than three years. The UCP also promised their first bill will require a referendum to increase income taxes. So lower spending is their only option. If they run a deficit this year, their balanced budget law requires spending in 2024 to be no larger than 2023. In effect, it mandates a freeze—which is $1.5 billion lower next year than the party committed to in the campaign.

Something will have to give: abandon previous spending commitments, abandon commitments to not increase taxes, or abandon the balanced budget law. With oil prices where they are now, the government will be forced to choose one of these—and it might not be easy.

In the end, it was the economy

By Rahim Mohamed

Democratic Party strategist James Carville coined the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” in the lead-up to the 1992 presidential election. The pithy, four-word slogan captured how Carville’s charge, the scandal-ridden Bill Clinton, was able to wrest the upper hand over widely respected incumbent president George H.W. Bush in a campaign that played out against the backdrop of a brutal recession.

UCP leader Danielle Smith (no stranger to scandal herself) can likewise thank the economic gods for her comfortable victory last night. Smith, who inherited a provincial economy on the upswing, has at the very least had the good sense to not rock the boat. Under her watch, Alberta has seen strong economic growth and employment gains, attracting thousands of economic migrants (myself among them!). Earlier this year, the province posted its first budget surplus in nearly a decade.

Smith’s seven months of smooth sailing look all the more impressive when compared to Notley’s troubled four-year stretch as premier (2015 – 2019), which was set against the choppy waters of an historic global collapse in commodity prices. Notley was admittedly dealt a poor hand, but didn’t help matters with a series of ill-advised tax hikes. Accordingly, she presided over an unprecedented 13 consecutive quarters of negative outmigration from Alberta.

Yet even voters who were inclined to forgive Notley for her tough run of luck in the 2010s were further put off when the NDP campaign floated a 38 percent corporate tax hike. The job-killing proposal showed that Notley had failed to learn from her economic missteps as premier—and that she would likely make the same exact mistakes if given a second crack at the job.

For all of the colourful soundbites and storylines that have animated Alberta’s roller-coaster election campaign, in the end, it was fundamentally about the province’s economy… stupid.

The UCP can’t give up on highly educated voters

By Karamveer Lalh

Overall an election that did not yield too many surprises. The idea behind the formation of the United Conservative Party was that “so long as the Right is united, the Left cannot win.” This premise held today.

Over the past there were a few things that should give conservatives some pause. First, our brand continues to suffer with educated voters. Increasingly, voters are becoming more polarized based on education rather than income. This can help explain the results in the western part of Calgary, and the southwest of Edmonton, which are highly educated and high-income regions. Interestingly, the NDP suffered in areas with hard to reach first-generation visible minority voters. This is apparent in northern Edmonton and northeastern Calgary.

Looking forward, pending a few recounts, the UCP bench depth is significantly depleted as well, with a number of key cabinet ministers losing their seats, so it will be interesting to see who makes cabinet.

The UCP will continue to want to put COVID in the rearview mirror, so I would like to see them work hard at rebuilding relationships with voters in Edmonton and Calgary in the coming months. The weakness among highly educated voters is consistent with global trends; however, Canada is more educated on average than, say, the United States, so I would caution that giving up on university-educated voters entirely may not be a sustainable electoral coalition over the medium to long term.

Positive signs for Alberta’s future

By Howard Anglin

There were two elections in Alberta yesterday. In one, the UCP handily won 53 percent of the popular vote to the NDP’s 44 percent and a diminished 49-38 seat majority. In the other, the NDP edged the UCP 42 percent to 40 percent and eked out a four-seat majority of 47 to 39.Independent candidate Funky Banjoko was “elected” in Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo.

The first election was of course the official one, while the second one was a parallel election held by Civix, a “non-partisan, national registered charity dedicated to building the skills and habits of active and informed citizenship among young Canadians.” More than 170,000 Alberta students in almost 1,100 schools across all 87 electoral divisions voted in Civix’s election.

While I’m relieved by the official result (a relief tempered by the agonizingly close losses of several outstanding candidates), it’s the Civix election that gives me real hope. As someone who probably would have voted NDP in high school (more for Notley’s Che Guevara watch than her party’s pants-splitting simultaneous lunge to the economic centre and the cultural far Left), to see that almost 60 percent of Alberta’s youth know better than I did at that age is heartily encouraging. Congratulations to Danielle Smith and the UCP: you have a solid base to build on for the future.

Danielle Smith has four years to win over her critics

By Derrick Hunter

Rachel Notley ran on a platform of increased taxes, higher structural government spending and more uncertainty for the energy sector. This was the same formula she employed as premier between 2015 and 2019. The result was capital flight, high unemployment, and a gargantuan addition to the provincial debt load. Strangely, while the playbook was unchanged, she did not run on her record, behaving instead as if she had never before been in government. Enough Albertans recognized the omission to deny her another shot at the public purse.

Danielle Smith is an intelligent and principled woman who has certainly done and said some peculiar things during a long career in the public eye. She is not as unhinged as her detractors declare, but she often has opinions that are too nuanced for the average journalist or low-information voter. That has made her an easy target for opponents spouting inaccurate soundbites, (“Danielle Smith will take your pension”). On the other hand, her performances in longform, unscripted interviews tend to be well-received by open-minded audiences.

With a fresh mandate, it will be vital for Smith to demonstrate that she can run a competent and fiscally responsible government that is focused on maintaining the economic growth currently underway in Alberta while addressing critical social issues such as health-care reform and defending Alberta from federal intrusion. She has four years to prove herself and win over some of her critics.

Which Danielle Smith will govern?

By Stuart Thomson

One of the big reasons for the UCP’s victory last night is what Edmonton Journal columnist David Staples described as Danielle Smith’s “dramatic personal and policy shift to the centre.”

In short, she managed to convince voters she was basically normal, and not the lunatic that NDP attack ads portrayed her as.

Now, Smith has four years to govern with a majority. Will Albertans get the election campaign version of Smith? Or the talk radio host? Or the fire-breathing leadership contender?

As the losses get tallied, it’s also clear that Smith’s caucus has shifted to the Right. It looks like the UCP could lose nearly a dozen seats, most of them moderate MLAs from Calgary, giving the grassroots Take Back Alberta crew more influence.

Smith’s cabinet choices will be important in signalling her intentions. Speaking of cabinet, Smith also has an Edmonton problem.

When I interviewed Jason Kenney at the end of the 2019 election campaign, when the UCP was extremely confident of victory, he said he was desperately trying to win a seat or two in Edmonton. Even with a huge majority, being shut out of the capital concerned him greatly.

Now, Danielle Smith will have to navigate the province without any representation in its second-largest city.