Hitting the Ceiling: The Limits of Left and Right Party Support in Alberta

Alberta has long been known for the Progressive Conservative domination of its politics. This recent election, however, shows the potential for a change in the province. After 43 years of Progressive Conservative governments, several polls have the PCs not only behind the Wildrose Alliance, but in third place, with a surging NDP in second. This comes despite two of the three major opposition parties in Alberta undergoing significant leadership changes directly prior to the election. After the defection of leader Danielle Smith to the PCs in December (along with over half of the caucus) the Wildrose Alliance selected Brian Jean as their new leader less than two weeks before Premier Jim Prentice called the current election. The Alberta Liberals had their leader, Raj Sherman resign in January, and have yet to select a permanent replacement. David Swann is serving as the interim leader for the election. On the right of the political spectrum, neither the change in leadership nor the floor crossings appear to have hurt the Wildrose Alliance, they lead the polls. On the centre and left of the political spectrum it appears that the NDP and not the PCs have benefited from the decline of the Liberals. As with any mid-election polls these projections should be taken with a grain of salt. Campaigns matter, and a strong one from the PC party could see them catch both the NDP and the Wildrose Alliance to finish first in the election. Polls also have a history of under-predicting incumbent support, suggesting that the PCs may not be doing as poorly as they appear to be. This election can be separated into two different competitions over voters, one on the right of the political spectrum between the PCs and the Wildrose Alliance and one on the centre and left of the political spectrum between the Liberals and the NDP (as well as the Alberta Party and Greens as more peripheral parties). Past results suggest that there are enough voters on the right of the Alberta political spectrum to sustain competition between two parties while the Alberta NDP may be hitting in ceiling with respect to the number of votes that they can expect to win.

Not all parties in the Alberta election are competing directly with each other. Many voters can position themselves along a left-right scale. Voters may move slightly more to the left or to the right on that scale over the course of an election, but it is unlikely than many voters will jump from one side to the complete opposite end. Even if the NDP run a perfect campaign, they are unlikely to convince many Wildrose Alliance or PC voters to support them, nor are the NDP likely to win over many Wildrose Alliance supporters. Parties are not competing with all of the other parties for votes, for the most part they are competing with the parties that are closest to on the election’s major issues. The multi-party aspect to this election in Alberta exacerbates this. Voters in Alberta have multiple options of a similar ideology available to them. A small c conservative voter who has traditionally supported the PCs can switch their vote to the Wildrose Alliance without making too much of an ideological shift. The same might be said for a left-Liberal voter switching to the NDP.  Dissafection with one’s party under these conditions is unlikely to lead a voter to move to a party of a different ideology.  An election in which left-right issues are important (as is the case with most provincial elections outside of Quebec) and in which there are multiple parties, can be broken down into a couple of sub-sets of party competition. On the right, the PCs are competing with the Wildrose Alliance, in the centre the Liberals are competing with the PCs (though the NDP also appear to be encroaching on the centre in this election as well), and on the left/centre-left the NDP are competing with the Liberals.

The electoral history of Alberta, summarized in the table at the end of this post, can give some indication of how much of the vote each party is competing over. Unsurprisingly the popular vote in Alberta is consistently right party heavy. The combined share of major right parties’ vote including the PCs, the Wildrose Alliance, and the Social Credit party has been over 50% in every Alberta election after the Second World War with the exception of the 1989 and 1993 elections. Since 1993 the total share of the right party vote tends to fall in between 55% and 60% of the vote (in 2012 the combine PC and Wildrose Alliance vote hit 78%, but that may have been because Allison Redford was able to win over centrist and even left voters concerned about a Wildrose Alliance victory). On the other side of the political spectrum the left and centre (the NDP, Liberals, Greens, and Alberta Party) tend to have a vote share that falls in the 35% to 43% range (though their share was significantly lower between 1959 and 1982).

There are short term and long term implications of these ranges for both the left and the right. For the left in the short term, these ranges suggest that the numbers the NDP is polling at now are close to the ceiling for their support. Three Hundred Eight’s poll aggregation places the NDP vote share at around 28%. Combined with the Liberals 10% that is pretty close to what one would expect for the combined left and centre vote share in an Alberta election. This suggests that the NDP gains are coming at the expense of the Liberal party and not as a result of significant ideological shifts within Alberta politics. Assuming that there is a segment of Liberals that is willing to support the party through almost any circumstance (most parties have at least some hardcore followers) and that there are some Liberals who would prefer the PCs to the NDP, the NDP’s prospects for further growth in this election appear to be rather limited. The NDP may be able to capitalize on current Liberal weakness in order to win a substantial share of opposition seats, but there would have to be a substantial shift in Albertan’s political beliefs for the NDP (or for that matter for the Liberals) to have a serious chance at winning government.

Over the long-term the left/centre share of the vote in Alberta suggests that any merger of the Liberals and the NDP would have a limited likelihood of forming government. A merged party, even if it was able to hold all of its supporters (which is unlikely) would find itself of the 35%-40% range. While it certainly possible for a party to win a majority on 35%-40% of the vote in a first past the post system, the high concentration of left and centre voters in Edmonton and downtown Calgary (the NDP for example is polling at around 50% in Edmonton but only 23-24% in Calgary and the rest of the province), coupled with the over-representation of rural districts make such an outcome unlikely. Further if there is a merger of the right parties to counter a merged centre-left, or if one of the right parties simply becomes dominant, the right should be able to consistently out perform a combined left and centre party. Even a combined Liberal-NDP party would struggle to win government in most Alberta elections. A merger might make for a larger left/centre opposition, but the left/centre would still be significantly outnumbered by voters on the right of the political spectrum.

The right party poll numbers also look about where one would expect them to be given how Albertans have voted in previous elections. The combined Wildrose Alliance and PC vote share is at 55%, which if anything, is on the low side of where one would expect it to be given the results of the 2000s. This suggests that the Wildrose Alliance and PCs are largely in competition with each other over voters on the right of the political spectrum. Over the short term it likely makes most sense for both of these parties to concentrate their efforts on winning over each other’s supporters. The low Liberal vote share further suggests that the PCs may have less to gain by moving to the centre to try to take Liberal votes than they did in the 2012 election. Tacking to centre for the PCs at this point means trying to win over NDP voters who are backing a party much more ideologically distant to them than the 2012 Liberals.

Over the long-term, the large number of voters on the right of the political spectrum suggests that there is room for two electorally viable right parties. Even if they split the usual 55%-60% of the right vote down the middle, the PCs and Wildrose Alliance remain competitive with a centre or left party that is dominating its side of the ideological spectrum. The first past the post system does raise valid concerns for the right about vote splitting, but first past the post systems also tend to exaggerate the seat share of the largest party. Even with the right vote split down the middle, both right parties would have a reasonable shot at winning the largest vote share of any Alberta party. Vote splitting might force competing right parties into a minority situation, but only in the rarest of circumstances should a right party fail to form government in Alberta. This creates conditions in which two right parties could compete with each other for government of the course of a number of elections. It would not be surprising to see sustained competition between the PCs and Wildrose Alliance for government.

In order for right party competition to be sustained over the long-term, however, both parties must distinguish themselves from the other party. If the two party’s positions converge, it is likely that whichever party is stronger at the time of convergence will take the other’s supporters. There is little value in voting for a weaker right party if it is simply going to do the same things (and govern as competently) as the stronger right party. The challenge for whichever of the Wildrose Alliance or PCs finishes with fewer seats and votes than the other will be to remain relevant to Alberta voters. If it cannot establish a distinct position on the right of the Albertan political spectrum, it could see the defection of large numbers of its supporters over to the stronger of the right parties.

While the 2015 election in Alberta certainly contains some surprises, these appear to be more the function of multi-party competition on different parts of the political spectrum than the result of a changing Alberta electorate. On the left/centre of the spectrum, the NDP seem to be taking advantage of a weak Liberal vote share. On the right, the Wildrose Alliance and PCs appear to be in competition with each other, but their combined vote share (at least as current polls predict) suggest that they are not drawing voters from outside the traditional right of the political spectrum.

Vote Share (Percentages)
Year Green NDP Liberal Alberta Party Total Left-Centre PC Wildrose/Alberta Alliance Social Credit Total Right
2012 9.85 9.89 1.31 21.05 43.97 34.28 0.02 78.27
2008 4.55 8.48 26.43 0.00 39.46 52.72 6.78 0.21 59.71
2004 2.75 10.20 29.39 0.28 42.62 46.80 8.70 1.23 56.73
2001 0.28 8.03 27.33 35.64 61.91 0.53 62.44
1997 0.11 8.81 32.75 41.67 51.17 6.84 58.01
1993 0.20 11.01 39.73 50.94 44.49 2.41 46.90
1989 26.29 28.68 54.97 44.29 0.47 44.76
1986 29.22 12.22 41.44 51.40 5.15 56.55
1982 18.75 1.81 20.56 62.28 0.83 63.11
1979 15.75 6.16 21.91 57.40 19.87 77.27
1975 12.94 4.98 17.92 62.65 18.17 80.82
1971 11.42 1.01 12.43 46.40 41.10 87.50
1967 15.98 10.81 26.79 26.00 44.60 70.60
1963 9.45 19.76 29.21 12.71 54.81 67.52
1959 4.33 13.88 18.21 23.88 55.69 79.57
1955 8.24 31.13 39.37 9.19 46.42 55.61
1952 14.05 22.37 36.42 3.67 56.24 59.91
1948 19.13 17.86 36.99 55.63 55.63
Average 1990-2012 1.58 9.40 27.59 0.53 38.56 50.18 16.59 1.87 60.34
Average All Years 1.58 13.44 18.68 0.53 32.64 41.23 16.59 22.79 64.50
*Data from Elections Alberta (http://www.electionsalberta.ab.ca/Public%20Website/746.htm#2012)


Being Reasonable- Religious Accommodation in Multicultural Countries

There is a scene in the movie Charlie Wilson’s War where Congressman Charlie Wilson meets a businessman from his district in Nacogdoches, Texas who is lobbying him to intervene in a case involving a creche on a firehouse lawn. In the movie Wilson ends the meeting by telling the businessman that “there are 38 churches that the creche could be moved to and everybody lives.” The point that Wilson makes is that there are often practical, reasonable, solutions to conflicts over culture that allow both sides to maintain the practices and values that are most important to them. In Canada the Harper government is appealing a court decision allowing devout Muslim women to wear a niqab during citizenship ceremonies. The courts struck down a Harper government policy forbidding niqabs at ceremonies, finding that it comes into conflict with the existing law that requires that ceremonies allow for the greatest amount of freedom of religion possible. The Harper government’s decision to ban the niqab at citizenship ceremonies was a mistake. There are reasonable accommodations that allow the government to accomplish its goals while allowing those Muslim women that feel wearing a niqab is important to their religious practice to such beliefs and practices.

Religious freedom is worth protecting because of the central role that religion plays in the way that individuals define their identities. Religious beliefs go beyond simple preference and affect the deep convictions that people have about the way life should be lived. They deserve protection in much the same way that political beliefs deserve protection. Just as it is difficult to have a free society in which people are limited in the political viewpoints they can express, it is difficult to have a free society in which individuals are limited in the way they can exercise their beliefs about central religious questions regarding what beliefs and practices are moral. This is especially true given that the government cannot claim to have a unique insight into which religious and moral beliefs are correct. The government has no reason to believe that one set of religious beliefs is normatively better than another, and so it ought to stay neutral on matters of religion. This should not be taken as an argument against any law restricting religious practices. A right to freedom of religion should not be used to defend practices that harm others, that restrict the rights of members of the religious community, or that prevent a government from pursuing a clear and compelling state interest. As within any law restricting individual liberty, however, it should be the burden of government to justify why a restriction of freedom of religion can be justified under such criteria.

Many government and social practices have roots in religion, even if they have become divorced from there original religious meaning. A great deal of social customs and even government rules have been developed in societies that were (or even still are) predominantly Christian. In Canada, the rules that governments have made have developed to fit a Christian society, even if governments for the last half century have maintained a strong commitment to neutrality on religion. These rules and practices do not always fit with the practices of non-Christian religions. For example, a police uniform developed in a majority Christian society may include headwear that does not comply with the religious requirements of Jews, Muslims or Sikhs. A government in a majority Jewish, Muslim, or Sikh state, even a secular government, would most likely design different uniforms in order to respect the practices of the many within their country. A society that treats individuals from different religious backgrounds equally has to recognize that many of its practices and laws are not religiously neutral. Such societies ought to make adjustments to their rules in order to accommodate the practices of individuals with different religious beliefs, provided those accommodations do little to affect the goals of the law or practices.

Central to the case for these exemptions is that there is often no strong normative argument for the existing practice being debated. There is no inherent value to keeping one’s head uncovered, it is simply a cultural practice that has developed in majority Christian societies. One cultural group may see keeping one’s head uncovered as an important sign of respect while another may see it as a sign of disrespect. The same argument can be made for face coverings. The case that there is some inherent value to keeping one’s face uncovered is a tenuous one. Individuals who keep their faces covered are demanding a greater degree of privacy public than many in Canada are used to, but this amount of privacy is not unreasonable. Individuals, with the exception of security and other personal tasked with identifying people, do not have a right to identify every person that they come into contact with, and there is little value in doing so. It is not the way that many in Canada are used to doing things, but “it is the way we do things here” is a particularly poor argument for requiring others to fall in line with one’s cultural, religious, or social practices. There are situations in which society should limit religious practices, but it is the burden of the government banning the practice to justify the limitation.

There are two normative arguments made in favour of banning face coverings at citizenship ceremonies, one of which can be dealt with by accommodation and one of which can be responded to. The first argument against the presence of niqabs or other facial coverings at citizenship ceremonies is a practical one. Individuals receiving citizenship need to have their identity verified in order that government officials can be sure that they are who they say they are. The simple accommodation that can be made to deal with this problem is to allow the applicant to reveal their face to an official in private. This allows the government to be satisfied that they are granting the correct person citizenship while the applicant is allowed to maintain their own religious practices. Put another way, “everybody lives.”

The second argument is one that the Harper government has been making in defence of their policy. The Conservatives have argued that the niqab is somehow inherently anti-women, and that as a result it should be a practice discouraged in Canada. This is a weak claim to make in the face of a challenge to the law that is coming from a Muslim woman, Zuna Ishaq, seeking the right to wear a niqab at a citizenship ceremony. The government should certainly intervene in cases where communities seek to limit the rights of individuals within them, but it is far from clear that this the case in this situation and it should be the burden of government to prove that the community is exerting some kind of pressure on the individual. It is certainly possible that a Muslim woman wearing a niqab is bowing to pressure from her religious community. But, it is equally possible that she feels deeply committed to an interpretation of Islam that requires women to wear a niqab and has freely chosen to maintain the practice. Individuals follow all kinds of highly regimented and restrictive religious practices out of a deep religious conviction. Certain denominations of Christian priests make a commitment to celibacy, and ultra-orthodox Jews follow highly regimented rules governing everything from what they wear to who they are allowed to interact with and when (there are gender segregation rules practiced by ultra-orthodox Jews). Individuals freely choose to maintain many of these practices. While upbringing certainly influences these individuals’ decisions the fact that many leave these communities and that some convert to them suggests that individuals have the agency to decide whether they want to engage in these religious practices. It is not unreasonable to expect that a woman committed to a particular interpretation of Islam would freely choose to follow a requirement to wear a niqab. Absent evidence to the contrary, government’s should assume religious practices, even ones that are highly restrictive, are free choices. The government has a role to play in ensuring that individuals from all communities are exposed to different ideas and ways of life, but it should not deny the right of individuals to follow religious practices just because such practices are foreign to the vast majority of individuals with Canadian society.

On religious questions governments have to, to some degree, take individuals at their word when it comes to the sincerity of their beliefs. When a woman claims that wearing a niqab is important to her religious values she should be taken at her world. In the absence of any other evidence, the government should not claim that this somehow reflects a misunderstanding of her interests or an anti-women culture. A government committed to allowing a diversity of religious practice must further recognize that allowing for the equal practice of religions requires adjusting rules and norms that were developed in a society that is less religiously diverse than Canada is today. When these accommodations have limited costs and do not infringe on the rights of others they should be granted. The fact that most people do things differently is not in and of itself an argument to require others to fall in line within Canadian cultural practices.