Political experts forecast close election in Banff-Kananaskis

·7 min read

The United Conservative Party knows they have a “fight on their hands” in the New Democrats in Banff-Kananaskis this provincial election, say political experts.

The election could go either way in the swing riding, but environmental conservation, tourism, and healthcare – all key issues to the Bow Valley – are likely to divide votes in the selection of candidates.

“The history and diversity of this riding makes it quite interesting,” said Lori Williams, a political scientist at Mount Royal University. “The strength of candidates this election and the fact that this area has gone NDP before, means this will likely be an extremely competitive race.”

The list of candidates to put their names forward includes incumbent UCP MLA and parliamentary secretary for tourism Miranda Rosin; former Alberta Parks planner and ecologist Sarah Elmeligi (NDP), and Regan Boychuk, a leading researcher studying Alberta’s oilpatch, running under the Green Party.

The NDP and the UCP are the only parties, so far, to have a full slate of 87 candidates each across the province. Williams noted it is significant that Banff-Kananaskis has a third candidate in the Green Party where it is so far a two-party race in most constituencies.

She said it speaks to concerns around conservation, namely the blowback of the UCP lifting coal mining legislation along the Eastern Slopes and trying to close or delist 184 provincial parks and recreation areas in 2020.

“To the extent that this is all under provincial control, I think there are more questions for the UCP and Miranda Rosin than there is for anybody else when it comes to environment, and this is absolutely an area where that is an issue,” said Williams.

The NDP have been clear on their stance to coal mining, recently pledging to never open the eastern slopes to the industry. They’ve also promised to scrap the controversial Kananaskis Conservation Pass in favour of an optional custom licence plate program that supports K-Country.

Having a Green Party candidate in Banff-Kananaskis – if Boychuk chooses to focus on similar policies – could be of an advantage to Rosin if there’s an overlap between the NDP and Green Party, which may split the vote in favour of the UCP.

“We know that the NDP won this riding in 2015, but with a Green and an NDP candidate – depending on what issues they stand on – it is possible the UCP will benefit by people splitting their vote,” said Williams.

Acknowledging that environmental issues are paramount to Banff-Kananaskis, Keith Brownsey, another political scientist at Mount Royal University, also noted that affordability, housing and healthcare are major concerns for many voters.

“There’s no question that [environmental concerns] will spur many to go and vote,” he said. “On the other hand, with economic issues, are people worried about tax increases on their homes, do they have affordability questions going into this election?”

Political experts suggest the vote could break either way in the sense that most voters will lean on a conservative government to be trusted with fiscal stability, or on a left-leaning government to focus on areas like environment and healthcare.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s calls to privatize healthcare, the UCP’s government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and some of the party’s more recent controversies, including around the premier herself, will also impact votes in this election, Williams noted.

“There are some UCP voters who have said to me they feel like they don’t have a choice in this election because of some of the things the premier has said or done, and they may not vote at all,” she said

“Normally, competitive and especially nasty campaigns work better for conservatives because their voters tend not to be as turned off by that. Whereas this time, Danielle Smith, as well as some of the far-right folks supporting the UCP, have turned off those moderate conservative voters.”

The UCP’s response to the province’s healthcare crisis may also play into the hands of the NDP. While the 2023 budget promises $24.5 billion in health-care spending – an increase of four per cent from last year – the Bow Valley and many other areas of the province urgently await improved EMS response times and for physician shortages to be filled in their communities.

Based on the UCP’s recent track record and the Banff-Kananaskis riding having recently held an NDP government from 2015-19, Brownsey said he believes the New Democrats have a good chance of a pickup.

“It also came pretty close to being an NDP riding in 2019 and that wasn’t a particularly close provincial election overall,” he said. “This time out, just from that history, it indicates there could be some change.”

In 2015, MLA of the former Banff-Cochrane riding Cam Westhead won the seat from a slate of two other candidates representing the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties with 43 per cent of the vote. Westhead later lost the seat to Rosin in 2019 by a margin of about 9 per cent of the vote.

The 2019 election saw a total of six candidates join the ballot and was the first under the current Banff-Kananaskis riding. The riding was changed to remove Cochrane, which now votes in the Airdrie-Cochrane riding. It also added Springbank to Banff-Kananaskis, as well as Kananaskis Country, which was removed from the Livingstone-Macleod riding.

The electoral boundary of Banff-Kananaskis was restructured to bring together tourism-focused mountain communities situated in the Bow Valley, distinguishing them from Foothills communities focused on agriculture.

The riding, which already included Stoney Nakoda First Nation, also added Tsuut'ina Nation. According to the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission, the change was made to give a stronger Indigenous voice to the constituency.

In the Bow Valley area, the UCP has recently made investments in the two Nations in areas such as food security, continuing care, housing, internet and addictions recovery, among others.

Continuing to build and strengthen Indigenous relations between the Alberta government and Indigenous and Métis communities in the province is also outlined as a commitment in the premier’s mandate letter to Minister of Indigenous Relations Rick Wilson.

But what work has been done by the UCP government toward truth and reconciliation, may be overshadowed for some by Smith’s own actions.

“All we need to do is look at the record and at some of the very insensitive things she’s said,” said Williams. “Right out of the gate, at a press conference, she said that unvaccinated people are the most discriminated against group that she’s ever seen in her lifetime, as if residential schools had never happened.”

All of the treaty chiefs in Alberta later came together to oppose Premier Smith’s sovereignty act, which they argued is an infringement of treaty rights.

“I don’t know if all that’s recoverable,” said Williams. “I think she has made enough statements to generate controversy and questions that she’s not likely to recover from that before the election, if at all.”

Williams said Rosin may be able to keep her Banff-Kananaskis seat if her efforts have been enough to get recognized by constituents, and this will be an important area for the UCP to win.

Most recently, Rosin introduced a bill to give tourism communities like Canmore and Banff the ability to offset visitor-related costs and she has also been a vocal advocate for those opposed to the Springbank Dam – including, initially, Tsuut’ina Nation.

While the tourism bill was ultimately shelved due to the timing of its introduction to the spring legislature in March, many are hopeful Rosin’s draft bill will return for consideration under a UCP or other future government to provide much-needed support to Canmore and Banff’s visitor economies.

According to 338Canada’s latest projection on May 2, the NDP have a 50 per cent chance of winning the Banff-Kananaskis riding, while the UCP have 44 per cent, both with a margin of error of eight per cent. As of May 2, the electoral projections and polling website predict the UCP will win the provincial election with 48 per cent of the vote and the NDP will be runner-up, with 44 per cent, both with a margin of error of five per cent.

In 2019, there were 28,531 registered voters in the Banff-Kananaskis riding. The provincial election that year saw a voter turnout of about 65 per cent.

Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook