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Popularity contest: who were Alberta’s most popular premiers, and why?

 

By Laura Bohnert

The approval ratings are in, and it isn’t looking so great for Canada’s Premiers. Across the nation, only two premiers have earned the approval of more than half the respondents in their respective provinces—Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall received the highest approval rating at 52 per cent, and Manitoba’s Brian Pallister was in second place with a 45 per cent approval rating. Alberta’s Rachel Notley got a middling review, tying for fourth with an approval rating of 31 per cent (still a far cry from Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne, who received the lowest approval rating at 12 per cent).

What do these overall low ratings mean? Are Canadians just failures when it comes to voting for the right candidate? Hey, at lease we didn’t elect Trump.

There is actually a much different trend reflected in the patterns of Premier popularity: it isn’t necessarily just about the candidate—but it is definitely indicative of the economic environment.

Even Brad Wall’s approval rating slipped by six per cent this year, in the wake of a longstanding recession. One of Alberta’s least popular premiers, Don Getty, who led the PC party from 1985 to 1992, experienced the approval of less than one in five Albertans when the economy began to tank. Jim Prentice, premier of Alberta from 2014 to 2015, experienced a sharp decline in his approval rating, from 50 per cent down to 22 per cent in a matter of months, following the crash in oil prices.

Canada’s overall attempt to work its still-struggling economy out of a recession could explain the low numbers when it comes to Premier popularity across the board. Why? As Kathleen Wynne is finding out, it is when times are bad and people begin to experience pay cuts as a result that government regulations come under scrutiny. Things like high hydro rates that were an annoyance before become far more critical as bank accounts tighten. And as Jim Prentice found out, the tightening budget that comes with a declining economy may involve cuts that are more than likely to be controversial (of course, he also had to learn that moments of economic tension require a bit more tact than telling Albertan’s to “look in the mirror” as he scolds them for overspending. He may as well have said to “let them eat cake”).

But the economy isn’t the only thing that can drop approval ratings. As Alison Redford found out, so can scandal. Redford, who was premier of Alberta from 2011 to 2014, saw her approval rating drop to 18 per cent before she resigned leadership. Her approval rating dropped by 40 points in just over a year and a half following an expense scandal.

Who was the most popular Alberta Premier? Arguably Ralph Klein, who led the PC party from 1992 to 2006. Klein had a big impact on Alberta, creating the low-tax, low-regulation “Alberta advantage,” and building to a debt-free province in 2005. He also introduced a flat tax on personal income, deregulated electricity and natural gas, and focussed on the expansion of the oil and gas industry (judging by the response to the Carbon Levy, his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol likely won him popularity points, too). Of course, Klein’s strategy in tackling debt meant invoking controversial budget cuts—like those to civil service, health care, and social services. Klein stepped down in 2006 when his approval rating dropped to 55 per cent (this followed his attempt to block legal recognition of same-sex marriage in 2000).

In other words, Notley’s 31 per cent approval rating may not be as bad as it seems, considering the state of the economy she took over in, and further considering the controversial policies she’s implemented (the opposite of Ralph Klein’s model) in an attempt to boost Alberta’s economy once again.

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