Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Canada: When to Leave

Beleaguered Alberta premier Ed Stelmach is stepping down.

It's interesting news: we've had three premiers retire or resign in the past few months. Danny Williams of Newfoundland retired with levels of support the likes of which we rarely see in Canada . The question there is how much the PC's sky-high levels of support depend on the personage of Williams himself - in other words, how much of those astronomic poll numbers are now available for the Liberals and (snort) the NDP to cherry-pick.

Gordon Campbell and Ed Stelmach wish that was their parties' main concern at the moment. You get the sense that Campbell understood that the BC Liberals were in a real free-fall, and that they had yet to bottom out. You sense that Campbell 'took one for the team', stepping down for the good of the party in order to take the blame personally for BC's current problems and let the party carry on without him. Amazingly, due also to similar stories in the NDP opposition, it may actually have worked. Time will tell, but on the day of Campbell's resignation he was looing at polls so terrible that an NDP victory at the next election seems like a done deal.

Alberta's somewhere in the middle, and this is where it intrigues so much. Its history is one of single-party dominance, where one party dominates politics for a generation and then in a single election is crushed into insignificance by another party, who holds the reins for a generation. Since 1935, these have been parties on the right: Social Credit until 1967, when they were challenged by the reemergent Progressive Conservatives, who have held the reins ever since.

By March of 2010, Stelmach's PCs were in a freefall, and the Wildrose Alliance had overtaken them in the polls. Projections based on the polls at the time showed that the WRA would have decimated the PCs, overtaking them as the party of government and as the main party of the right. And if we can understand anything from Alberta's history, that change might have been permanent.

Were Stelmach Cambell, that is the point at which he would have resigned. But he's not, and interestingly in the past 10 months or so, polls suggest the PCs have come around: surpassing the WRA or at least drawing even with them. "The inevitable" suddenly seemed a good deal less so.

I'm genuinely curious and unable to guess what this means for the 'battle for the right' in Alberta. The captain abandoning a sinking ship might be the single event that pushes Danielle Smith's Wildrose Alliance to electoral success (for thirty-some years, perhaps). Or does Stelmach see in Campbell's departure an example to imitate? Will Albertains forgive the party now that Stelmach is gone? One thing I can say for sure is that it's a huge gamble, one that I never saw coming.

Another thing I can say for sure is that while Dalton McGuinty is probably nonchalantly pretending not to care, Jean Charest is almost certainly in the curious position of wonder if there is anything - anything at all - that Québec can learn from Alberta.

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