Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Sam Routley: Alberta is now a two-party province

Commentary

It’s been a week since Alberta’s provincial election and so it’s a good time to step back from the immediacy of the results and assess what they might tell us about longer-term trends in Alberta politics.

While the election produced a majority government for the United Conservative Party and Premier Danielle Smith, it was a highly-competitive two-party race rooted in a conventional Left-Right divide. As a result, even with a UCP government, the NDP was still successful in so far as they won nearly half of the popular vote—44 percent—and elected the largest opposition in the province’s history. 

Indeed, the results reflect a secular change in Alberta politics. The province has gone from a long-standing tendency towards a one-party politics to a more conventional and competitive two-party politics that reflects the standard Left-Right division that characterizes the shape of political contestation in most other provinces. Alberta exceptionalism, in short, appears to be over.

It’s hard to overstate the extent to which this emergent pattern contrasts with the conventional dynamics of Albertan provincial politics. Alberta has, until now, been characterized as a “one-party dominant” or even “quasi-party” system in which, rather than reflective of a back-and-forth competitive process between two or more parties, governments resemble successive dynasties. This includes, for example, the United Farmers (1921-1935), Social Credit (1935–1971), and Progressive Conservative (1971–2015) tenures in office that saw a transfer of power between parties only four times in nearly 100 years. 

This was, to some extent, a creation of the electoral system: the dominant party did not necessarily win a large portion of the popular vote as much as it competed against a very divided and unstable opposition. One academic, for example, found that up to 80 percent of the vote against the incumbent party would drift between parties over the course of multiple elections; that, while an incumbent was able to establish a solid and long-term diffuse basis of support, opposing segments frequently failed to find common cause.

 The opposition benches at the Alberta legislature were therefore always weak, as the government exploited divisions to win a disproportionate number of seats. Up until 2015, it was common for upwards of 90 percent of the benches to be occupied by government MLAs. 

While most dominant parties could be characterized as centre-right, many of the province’s most successful premiers, like Ernest Manning and Peter Lougheed, eschewed political ideology in favour of more moderate, technocratic administration that featured both incredibly high state expenditures and natural resource development. Ideological contestation, for where it was found, was not characterized by Right versus Left, as much as it was about a cyclical anti-establishmentarian dynamic. 

In this unique political context, the premier and his Cabinet tended to be worn down by incumbency and internal pushback from some upstart or neglected faction within his own political constituency rather a rival opposition party. This was most notably seen through the rise of Ralph Klein who, in defeating rival (and future Liberal leader) Nancy MacBeth for the premiership, immediately undid much of the policy legacy of his own party. 

This dominant party structure, in retrospect, appears to have started its decline following the departure of Ralph Klein when, following a string of unsuccessful successors in Ed Stelmach and Allision Redford, the PC’s lost their pre-eminence to an insurgent Wildrose and stable NDP. And, while the UCP’s unification and 2019 victory appeared to promise a return, the party and its leaders have been unable to accomplish the same support among the public as their predecessors. 

From one perspective, this trend towards stable two-party competition was to be expected. The conventional scholarly wisdom is that majoritarian electoral systems incentivize consolidation among the Left and the Right, meaning that both an established governing party and a fragmented opposition is not supposed to happen. 

Thus, most attempts to explain Alberta’s exceptionalism have focused on what makes the province unique. C.B. Macpherson, for example, famously argued in 1953 that Albertan’s predominant economic function and class consciousness as a “quasi-colonial” source of extractive resources for Central Canadian capital did not produce the need for political parties. 

Macpherson was criticized for overemphasizing the homogeneity of the province’s population, but his approach survived through the notion of the “Alberta consensus”: that, on the provincial level, Alberta’s reliance on natural resources and disaffection from the federal government formed a common interest or basis of identity that allowed residents to put their personal differences or interest aside. 

Historically, for example, Albertans were always among the Canadians most likely to identify with their province or local community above Canada. Their rates of volunteerism and grassroots civic participation are high above the average, indicating a general community cohesion. And, both popular and scholarly accounts have further sought to explain the success of right-wing governments by exploring the extent to which the province is structured by a loose populist conservative ethos. Nelson Wiseman and Jared Wesley, for example, have both analyzed public discourse to argue that the province’s debates are oriented around freedom, personality responsibility, and anti-socialism. 

However, recent public opinion data shows that a number of these elements are declining. Not only are Albertan residents becoming more likely to identify with Canada, but they are actually not that conservative; rather, they support relatively high spending on health care, poverty alleviation, the environment, and anti-discrimination initiatives. The same applies to the same issues themselves, in so far as—instead of caring about Alberta’s overall well-being in the Canadian federation—residents appear to care more about immediate issues around health care, the economy, and affordability. 

This year’s election results point to a gradual change that Alberta has undergone for quite some time: it is becoming more like the rest of Canada and even losing its distinctiveness. Rather than between the province and the rest of the country, Alberta’s importance differences are now internal. Calgary and Edmonton now resemble Toronto, attracting both high numbers of young urban professionals and immigrants born outside of the province. They have become among the most diverse, cosmopolitan, progressive—but also increasingly unaffordable—cities in North America. Rural areas, in contrast, retain their old conditions and rely on natural resource developments for their economic success; residents continue to be predominately older, of European descent, and more religious. 

This has not only produced a more competitive party system, but it will provide the foundation for one into the future. It will mean that immediate elections will be close: the UCP will control rural areas, NDP will control the urban, and the suburbs will decide the winner of the election. It may also entail that, while surviving among some conservative voters, appeals to Western alienation may continue to become less successful at mobilizing support among more centrist or undecided voters.

And it could continue the pathway, as with the rest of Canada, towards further polarization among partisan and geographical lines. Alberta’s mythology as the “last best west” has been replaced by an ever-growing city. 

Peter Menzies: Blocking news on Facebook is a rational response to irrational legislation

Commentary

Policies founded on fantasies collapse quickly.

That’s the most obvious takeaway from the news that U.S.-based Meta is beginning to block linkage to new organizations’ content on Facebook and Instagram in Canada.

The reason is a poorly conceived and then amateurishly-crafted piece of legislation known as the Online News Act. Based on a law passed, but never used, in Australia, C-18 is designed to force Big Tech companies such as Google and Meta-owned Facebook to cough up hundreds of millions of dollars annually to “compensate” news organizations through deals made under the oversight of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

It is, to all intents and purposes, a government-run extortion scheme based on the sort of economic and policy rationale used by street thugs and tin-pot kleptocrats to justify their muggings.

On Thursday, Meta announced that it will begin testing its long forecast plan to disallow linkage to news if C-18 passes as is. It says between one and 5 percent of Facebook users will be affected and the news organizations targeted will be selected at random.

Prominent news organizations campaigned relentlessly for Bill C-18, accusing the social media and search engine giants of “stealing” their content and profiting from it. Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez damned them for refusing to fairly pay journalists for their news and of late has been, in a series of critiques ripe with rhetorical flourish, denouncing Meta for what he calls irresponsible intimidation tactics that are out of touch with Canadians.

The prime minister did the same earlier this year when Google also experimented with de-indexing news websites so that they would not appear in search results.

Given that his government has been in court defending its right to share news organizations’ subscription passwords with its employees rather than buy a bulk subscription, it was a remarkable thing to say but that’s a story for another day.

The truth of the matter is this:

  • Big Tech companies haven’t “stolen” anything. Yes, they own 80 percent of the digital advertising market but they won it the old-fashioned way: they earned it. They built better mousetraps while newspapers floundered under a tsunami of new technology. The Internet may very well have killed print newspapers, but it did so in the same way the automobile killed the horse-drawn carriage industry, Amazon dominated The Bay, Netflix put Blockbuster to the sword and email made Canada Post irrelevant.
  • Facebook estimates the annual value it offers to news organizations by allowing them to post their material for free is $230 million. The Department of Heritage, the author of Bill C-18, estimates the amount the bill can generate for the entire news industry from the tech companies each year is $215 million. It is the news organizations that are already getting the better of the deal.
  • While the government and Bill C-18 backers insist Meta is bluffing because, after a similar stance blocking news posts in Australia, it “backed down,” this isn’t true. It was the Australian government that, faced with Facebook’s boycott, amended its legislation, after which the parties signed deals that didn’t necessitate government involvement. (Meta has already indicated it is unhappy with those deals and is unlikely to renew).
  • Bill C-18 is so invasive even the publishers that relentlessly lobbied for it through organizations such as News Media Canada were this week asking the Senate committee reviewing the bill to amend it by dialing back the extent to which it allows the CRTC to snoop into their business affairs and, in particular, their newsrooms.
  • Almost all major news organizations already have commercial deals involving licensing and repurposing of content and, one assumes, data with major tech companies. The one area in which their appeals to government have merit is an imbalance in the two parties’ negotiation positions due to the Tech Giants’ dominant market positions.

There are many, many matters for which Meta, Google and others can and should be fairly criticized and regulated. But when it comes to the Online News Act, their response is the only rational act left to them when faced with irrational legislation.

Meta warned Rodriguez more than a year ago that while they were willing to make deals that supported journalism, the construct of Bill C-18 left them exposed to unlimited financial liability and set a precedent that, if replicated globally, would have unsustainable consequences. The price was way too high to pay for a content category — news — that made up 3% of their traffic.

Instead of listening, this government did what it always does: it sought to gain political advantage by demonizing the web giants and anyone else who dared question the wisdom of their legislative buffoonery.

And the consequences will be dire unless adult supervision is restored to the management of this file.

Globe and Mail publisher Philip Crawley told the Senate this week it would cost his company, which has adapted better than most, millions. Other legacy media spokesmen said the same.

Jen Gerson of The Line told senators that newer, smaller and independent media (which includes The Hub) are “disproportionately dependent on social media to build a brand and develop an audience.”

Jeff Elgie of Village Media, which has built a successful network of web-based local news platforms and national partnerships said Google and Facebook provide over half of his company’s web traffic, and “if that traffic was lost, the business would be over.”

The Online News Act is based on, at best, an economic fantasy. At worst, its foundational argument is a big, fat lie. The consequences (none of them good) are about to be felt by every news organization in the country.