April 27, 2015

Orange Wave Revisited

Almost four years ago today, the federal NDP under Jack Layton pulled off what was then unthinkable by forming the Official Opposition for the first time ever with 103 seats. With eight days until Albertans go to the polls, we are on the verge of witnessing something equally unexpected. The 44-year Progressive Conservative (PC) dynasty there could end thanks to an “orange chinook” from the NDP’s Rachel Notley.
Supporters of Jack Layton in Oshawa - May 1, 2011
OK! There is reason to doubt this outcome, given the pollsters were wrong during the 2012 Alberta election, which predicted a Wildrose win.[1] For those not in Alberta, think of Wildrose as their equivalent of the Reform/Canadian Alliance/Conservative Party, while the PC’s could be considered closer to the Liberals. However, there are several observations which could make an NDP win a reality.
  1. A 50% drop in oil prices to around US$50 per barrel prompted Premier Jim Prentice to unveil an unpopular budget consisting of tax hikes, service cuts, and a $5 billion deficit.[2]
  2. The defection of a majority of Wildrose members to the PC’s, which lead to increased distrust for both parties.
  3. A collapse in support of the Alberta Liberals, as evident by them not being able to field a full slate of candidates and polls in the single digits.
  4. Strong NDP donation totals of almost $407 000 during the first quarter; making them the highest for individual donors and second to the PC’s.[3]
  5. A strong debate performance by Notley on April 23, whom various pundits and pollsters considered to be the clear winner. The debate saw the Wildrose and Liberal leaders largely sidelined in favour of a Notley-Prentice showdown.

These conditions recently enabled a significant lead for the Alberta NDP per the latest poll by Forum Research, which pegged the NDP at 38% compared to 25% for Wildrose and 20% for the PC’s.[4] This prompted a fearmongering social media campaign on Saturday via the #LifeWithNDP hashtag, in which those responsible used examples of NDP governments elsewhere to attempt to discredit the Alberta NDP. This became a trending topic on Twitter across Canada, including Toronto. Unfortunately for those responsible, the hashtag backfired with NDP supporters using it to send more optimistic messages. Here are a couple of examples.

There are some parallels that can be drawn between the upcoming Alberta election and the 2011 federal election. In Brad Lavigne’s book “Building the Orange Wave,” the 2011 federal breakthrough was not only the result of years of planning, but also having the right conditions. While a charismatic leader in Jack Layton was critical – especially in Québec – the NDP also needed to properly neutralize the Liberals and Bloc Québécois. The Conservatives already used attack ads to portray then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as someone who was just visiting, while the 2004 sponsorship scandal did not help the Liberals in Québec. Québec voters were also becoming weary about the Bloc and the NDP was usually their second choice, given shared social democratic values. The fact Québec sovereignty wasn’t high on the agenda did not help the Bloc’s fortunes.
Even so, the federal NDP had a rocky start due to Layton’s surgery recovery and it was not until after the debates that the NDP surge occurred. Layton used the debates to call out Ignatieff on his poor attendance record as a Member of Parliament, while he used a hockey reference by saying the Bloc cannot win with a team of defencemen, given they only fielded candidates in Québec’s 75 ridings. After the debates and the NDP surpassed the Liberals, the Liberals and Conservatives then focused their attack ads on the NDP in an act of desperation.

While anything can happen in the next eight days (be sure to vote if you live in Alberta), there is no denying Albertans are looking for change and Rachel Notley’s NDP may just do it with an unprecedented get out the vote effort. An NDP win in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s backyard could also provide a much needed boost for the federal party under Tom Mulcair ahead of this fall’s federal election. Couple that with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s falling fortunes – given various missteps including Bill C-51 – and the thought of a federal NDP government is not so farfetched after all.

Defy the odds!
Rob Z (e-mail)



[1] Éric Grenier. The Globe and Mail. April 24, 2012. “Final Alberta poll hinted at decisive swing from Wildrose to PC.” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/final-alberta-poll-hinted-at-decisive-swing-from-wildrose-to-pc/article2412359/
[2] Rachel Maclean. CBC News. March 26, 2015. “Alberta Budget 2015: 5 things you need to know.” http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/alberta-budget-2015-5-things-you-need-to-know-1.3011244
[3] Gillian Steward. Toronto Star. April 20, 2015. “NDP surprises with a surge of support in Alberta campaign.” http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2015/04/20/ndp-surprises-with-a-surge-of-support-in-alberta-campai.html 
[4]Forum Research. April 24, 2015. “NDP take dramatic lead in Alberta.” http://poll.forumresearch.com/post/275/majority-government-seen-in-wake-of-debate

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