It’s Fear and Loathing Time in Alberta

Commentary, Tom Flanagan

The Alberta election campaign is entering its final week, when many voters make up their mind whom to support, or whether to vote at all. Things become brutally simple in the endgame as primal emotions come to the fore.

Two passions rule Canadian politics, fear and loathing. The opposition parties try to make voters loathe the governing party and its record, while the incumbents try to make voters afraid of the unknown results of electing another party. These emotions are on naked display in the final week, once all the polite chitchat about policy is over.

Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservative government kicked off the election with a new budget that provoked strong dislike from both left and right. The NDP was outraged because there was no increase in the corporate income tax, while Wildrose condemned the 59 tax increases on people. And ignoring the PCs’ own fixed-election date law in order to call an early election damaged Mr. Prentice’s reputation for honesty. The result: the PCs were third in a recent poll, trailing both Wildrose and the NDP by significant margins.

Standard endgame strategy for a governing party trying to make up ground is to go full-bore negative in the final week, evoking apocalyptic fears of what an opposition victory would mean. Accuse parties of the left of espousing reckless tax-and-spend policies that will wreck the economy; accuse parties of the right of desiring to impose their intolerant morality upon society. The strategy can work; in the final week of the 2012 campaign, the PCs turned a 10-point deficit into a 10-point lead over Wildrose by hammering the tolerance issue.

In 2015, however, the political geography is different. Wildrose has removed many vulnerable parts from its policy documents, and new leader Brian Jean has taken an iron stand against raising social conservative issues. Indeed, such issues have scarcely been mentioned in the campaign thus far, making it difficult for the PCs to use them as attack points in the final week.

Moreover, the PCs are in a two-front war. In 2012 they had no serious opposition on the left, but in 2015 new NDP leader Rachel Notley has consolidated left-wing support behind her party. A repeat of 2012’s campaign of fear against Wildrose based on social issues might simply drive more voters to the NDP.

The best bet for the PCs is probably to attack both Wildrose and the NDP on budgetary issues. Both parties have given them a target, the NDP by releasing a budget whose faulty totals had to be corrected the next day, and Wildrose by presenting numbers that are quite sketchy in detail. “The NDP can’t add, and the Wildrose numbers don’t add up”: Mr. Prentice could thus try to present himself as the rational, responsible mean between two frightening extremes.

He previewed that strategy in Thursday night’s leaders debate but bungled the execution when he patronized Ms. Notley (“math is hard,” he unwisely said). But it still might work; the Tories are reputed to have money in reserve for a heavy ad buy in the final week.

Yet there is no guarantee of success because Mr. Prentice and the PCs have undermined the credibility of their own budget. After months saying how tough it would be, they delivered a 10-year (!) plan incorporating only modest spending restraint. Since then, Mr. Prentice has already repudiated one item in the budget and raised doubts about his commitment to a couple of other points, while backbenchers have publicly expressed their own doubts. An all-out attack on the budgetary credibility of the opposition parties may well backfire. It’s difficult to make voters fear your opponents when your own performance in the same field has been less than stellar.

This op ed was originally published by The Globe and Mail on Friday, April 24, 2015: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/its-fear-and-loathing-time/article24100720/