Alberta Votes Day 24: Sleeping Arrangements at Minority Motel
Despite a lackluster debate performance by Alison Redford, a pair of post-debate polls show the Wildrose margin down to 7 points. With daily controversies dogging Danielle Smith, there's no guarantee that lead will hold and, even if it does, it's impossible to accurately project what the next legislature will look like.
The first problem with any seat projection is that all polls split Alberta into three regions for reporting purposes - Calgary, Edmonton, and rural Alberta. While that's the most logical cut, just as downtown Calgary and suburban Calgary are two very different entities, lumping Red Deer and Peace River into the "rural Alberta" umbrella masks regional trends.
Moreover, the regional sample sizes in these polls are small, carrying large margins of error. It's not at all surprising to see the PCs up by 4 in Calgary Monday morning, but trailing by 14 come dinner time. Yes, it's possible a Wildrose chinook rolled across the city, but it's more likely we're dealing with the effects of small sample sizes and varying methodologies.
But even if we're lucky enough to get completely accurate polls, extrapolating out seat totals is a fool's errand. Seat projections in the last few federal elections have generally worked well, because we've had a good baseline to work with. If the Liberal vote is down 5 points in Ontario from 2008 to 2011, it's not hard to do the math for each riding. However, the Wildrose Alliance was little more than a protest party last time Albertans went to the polls, so it's counter productive to calculate their 2012 support using their 2008 vote. When a party rises from nothingness, it's extremely difficult to predict vote patterns - there's a reason seat projections showed the NDP winning anywhere from 20 to 70 seats in Quebec last spring, and a reason 308.com projects a Wildrose seat range of between 27 and 74 seats.
Toss in wild 4-way splits in Edmonton, incumbency effects, riding redistricting, and a map skewed to favour rural Alberta, and we're dealing with Alberta's most unpredictable election in a long time.
So the bottom line is we don't know what the next legislature will look like, but if the vote stays close, Alberta's first ever minority government is a distinct posibility. So what happens then?
The first thing to consider is the likelihood of defections. A floor crossing epidemic has spread across Alberta in recent years, so I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a handful of Progressive Conservatives take a step to the right after the election. Few PC MLAs supported Redford when she ran for leader, and she hasn't exactly endeared herself to them over the past month. Many in her caucus share the same Wildrose positions Redford spent the campaign ridiculing, and the prospect of an NDP-supported Redford budget might be too much for them to bear.
Hell, if Smith is only a handful of seats shy of a majority, expect an exodus. PC MLAs have never sat on the opposition benches, and many chose their party colours merely because they saw the PCs as the only avenue to power. It's not like Danielle Smith has her hands full of "Cabinet material" candidates to choose from, so she wouldn't hesitate for a second to offer Cabinet posts to entice one or two Tories across the floor.
But let's assume for a moment that Redford holds the PC ship together - maybe the PCs even find themselves ahead of the Wildrosers. The focus then shifts to the Liberals and NDP, who will likely win 4 to 10 seats between them. The Saskatchewan Liberals found themselves in a similar situation in 1996, and their decision to take Cabinet posts in an NDP government eventually led to the demise of that party. So it was somewhat curious when Liberal leader Raj Sherman began the negotiation process during an online debate yesterday, by asking Smith and Redford if they'd name him Minister of Health.
While I don't think the good doctor will get his wish, nearly everyone I've talked to assumes the PCs would cut some kind of deal with what's left of the left - even if they win fewer seats than the Wildrosers. But I'm not convinced.
The Liberals and NDP have spent decades waiting for the PC empire to crumble and if Smith offers them a deal - say some democratic reform measures and a hold on the more objectionable parts of Wildrose platform - I wouldn't be shocked to see an unholly alliance. After all, seeing the Wildrose Party in power would surely plunge the PCs into infighting and a leadership race.
For the Wildrose Party, the benefits of a deal with the left are obvious - the aforementioned PC chaos, and a chance to govern "non-scarily" thanks to the calming influence of the Liberals and NDP (think Stephen Harper from 2006 to 2011). Keep in mind, Wildrose campaign manager Tom Flanagan has gone on record as stating he saw nothing wrong with Harper's threat to cut a deal with the separatists and socialists in 2004, after winning fewer seats than Paul Martin. Smith sounded like she was laying the groundwork for this type of arrangement during the leaders debate, when she went out of her way to compliment Raj Sherman and talked about how she's been able to work with the NDP in the legislature.
As strange as it may sound, life may soon be imitating the scenes from a satirical 2010 press gallery video, featuring Brian Mason barking orders ("left, left, left") at Danielle Smith and a Wildrose caucus decked out in orange NDP shirts. Hell, the video even features a cameo from then-independent MLA Raj Sherman.