OPINION

Alberta politics is no calm oasis at any time, but this week is sure to be especially dramatic.

Thursday brings an NDP budget with two features guaranteed — high spending and a big deficit.

On Saturday, Progressive Conservatives pick both a new leader and the future of the conservative movement (little things like that).

The three candidates agree on at least one thing — they don’t like NDP budgets.

Neither do the majority of Albertans. A new poll shows that with the exception of Edmonton, Premier Rachel Notley’s fiscal policy is severely offside with the great bulk of the province.

Fifty-eight per cent of Albertans think the government’s handling of the economy is “poor” or “very poor,” according to the poll for Postmedia by Mainstreet Research. The “very poor” category is fully 47 per cent.

Governments always get blamed for a weak economy, of course. But the response to a variety of questions about finances shows a deeper discontent with the NDP’s fundamental goals and assumptions.

The bulk of Alberta outside Edmonton is simply not NDP territory, despite the 2015 election results.

Any Alberta party needs to win two of the three great vote clusters — Calgary, Edmonton and the rest of the province — to have any hope of holding power.

David Bloom
David BloomRachel Notley

The Progressive Conservatives juggled them masterfully for decades, often winning support in all three. The NDP captured two categories in 2015 by swamping Edmonton and picking up 15 seats in Calgary, as well as scoring big wins in growing urban centres like Lethbridge, Red Deer and Medicine Hat.

Another poll – this one from the NDP caucus – shows the government is increasingly worried. It’s a simple robocall that asks people to push one if they think the NDP is on the right track, two if they believe it’s on the wrong track.

This one is so annoying that some people thought it might be an anti-NDP hoax. But no, it’s genuine, and it’s already leading to charges of improperly using public funds. Cheryl Oates of the premier’s office says the poll is pre-approved as appropriate “outreach” by the legislature management office.

The NDP has cause for concern. Calgary now appears firmly set against the government policy, and rural Alberta is more deeply hostile than it was on election day. Only Edmonton remains relatively loyal and supportive of key policies.

Recent multi-question polls, covering both government popularity and policy, suggest that if the government wants to win back support, it will at some point have to make a sharp adjustment in fiscal policy.

Fifty-two per cent of Albertans questioned in the most recent Mainstreet poll think the NDP’s plan to balance the budget by 2024 is “too slow.” Fifty-nine per cent believe the province’s key priority should be to either reduce taxes or cut spending to lower the deficit, or both.

Only 18 per cent believe the key priority should be spending on services like education and health care.

The promise to keep funding those priorities at a steady level is the bedrock of NDP policy. Another is the pledge to build infrastructure. Only 12 per cent of Albertans believe that should be the key priority.

It’s entirely possible that people are quite happy with education and health care precisely because of the spending, and so don’t think it should be a priority. The same would apply to infrastructure. The very people who aren’t keen to spend on these things might feel differently if key areas were starved of cash.

But there’s no escaping the extremely deep concern with growing deficits and debt. The province has total obligations of $70 billion. The deficit in the fiscal year now ending will be $10.8 billion, and still very large, if not quite so mammoth, in Thursday’s budget.

In Calgary, 63 per cent of respondents feel the government should focus on lowering taxes and cutting the deficit. In the rest of the province outside Edmonton, it’s 68 per cent.

In every category of the poll, in fact, Edmonton is friendliest to the government. Support for NDP spending and handling of the economy is highest, approval of tax reduction and cost-cutting is lowest.

This may be one reason why the NDP, with its deep Edmonton roots, continues to paint all fiscal opposition as ill-informed, short-sighted and just plain stupid.

In so doing they kiss off a huge number of reasonable voters all across the province. If they keep thundering down this path, they could easily become again what they always were before — a small Edmonton opposition party.