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Different times trigger different concerns for Alberta voters

EDITOR’S NOTE: CBC News commissioned this public opinion research in April, leading into the first anniversary of the United Conservative Party’s general election win last May. The poll offers insight into how Albertans feel about Danielle Smith’s UCP government and the Opposition NDP. 

As with all polls, this one provides a snapshot in time. 

This analysis is one in a series of articles from this research. More stories will follow.

Jason Kenney swept to victory in 2019 with a tightly focused message on what polls suggested Albertans cared most about.

“This election,” he declared, squaring off against NDP Premier Rachel Notley during the televised leaders’ debate, “is about jobs, the economy, pipelines.”

But, with the persistent pinch of inflation, a hot housing market, and wages seemingly not going as far as they used to, many Albertans appear more concerned about their personal microeconomics than the province’s macroeconomics.  

That’s a change from last year, when health care topped the list of concerns, and five years ago, when Kenney relentlessly focused his political messaging on creating jobs, kick-starting Alberta’s sluggish economy, and building pipelines to get the province’s oil to tidewater.  

“The public is reflecting on what’s happening in their lives, what they’re hearing on the news, what is happening around them. That’s just the nature of public discourse. It’s always changing,” said Janet Brown, who conducted the survey for CBC News.

“Instead of talking about the economy and the strength of the economy, people are talking about inflation and cost of living. Their concerns about the economy have become way more personal,” she stressed. 

After concerns about the cost of living, three in 10 (32 per cent) picked health care as their top concern.  Eighteen per cent mentioned housing as their most important issue. Albertans also give the governing United Conservative Party (UCP) poor grades for handling these three big problems.

Changing concerns with changing times

Think back to the lead-up to the 2019 election.

The hangover of the 2015 recession lingered. The employment rate had not rebounded to pre-recession levels. 

The province’s oil sold at record-level discounts — and concerns about pipeline capacity made headlines. 

The price of Alberta oil was so low that the NDP government cut oil production by nearly nine per cent in January 2019 in hopes of boosting the price. 

Despite this, there were more layoffs, and Alberta’s economy contracted, even slipping into a mild recession late in 2019. 

CBC News polling in 2018 — a year before the newly formed United Conservative Party (UCP) catapulted to power — found pipelines, jobs, and the economy were top of mind for Alberta voters.

Different times, however, come with other concerns.

Oil prices rebounded — and crude from the oilsands is flowing through an expanded Trans Mountain pipeline.

Only seven percent of voters mentioned the energy sector in CBC News’ recent poll, compared to four in 10 voters in 2018.

With headlines about labour shortages in Alberta, it’s no surprise that unemployment mentions have dropped from 20 per cent in 2018 to a mere eight per cent in CBC News’ latest poll. 

Alberta’s population also surged in the last year — and the provincial government is even offering tax credits, hoping to attract skilled workers. 

While Alberta’s economy is cooking with oil and gas again, a majority of people in the prairie province say they struggle to meet their monthly expenses. Recently, economist Jim Stanford, in a report released by the Alberta Federation of Labour, even warned that the so-called “Alberta Advantage” — surrounding wages and living standards — “is disappearing quickly for workers.” 

Albertans feel the pinch of rising costs.  The province saw the largest, year-over-year increase in rental prices nationwide last month. 

Not surprisingly, housing mentions jumped from a mere three per cent in 2018 to 18 per cent in the new poll. 

Brown says people feel the squeeze of inflation, and that shows up in CBC News’ recent survey. 

“Today,” said Brown, “we have a mix of concerns that are both economic and social. Back in 2018, people were almost exclusively focused on economic issues.”

Cost of living different than economy 

According to CBC News polling, concerns about the economy and health care traded places in Albertans’ minds for the last six years.

Before last year’s election  — with lingering memories of a global pandemic still weighing on Albertans  —  health care was top of mind for Albertans, followed by inflation.  

Brown stresses the economy and cost of living are different in voters’ minds. 

In people’s minds, the economy is bigger than them. It is macroeconomic concerns such as taxes, investment, and overall job creation.

Albertans, says Brown, are not so much worried these days about whether they have a job — but “whether their job is going to give them enough money to afford their lifestyle.”

“When people are talking about cost of living, they’re talking about how this is really hitting them in their own pocketbook. Cost of living is a more personal response than I’m concerned about the economy,” she added. 

Notably, CBC News’ poll suggests Albertans don’t think the governing UCP is doing enough to contain inflation and housing costs. 

UCP gets bad grades on Albertans’ top issues

A year into its mandate, the governing UCP appears to have hung onto the support that propelled it to a majority last May. 

Despite retaining most of their vote from the 2023 election, a plurality of Albertans disapprove of the governing UCP (52 per cent) compared to 44 per cent who approve.

While Albertans give the Smith’s government good marks for being prepared for natural disasters and protecting the environment, the UCP got its worst grades — total disapproval scores above 60 per cent — for handling the three most important issues to Albertans.

More than six in 10 Albertans somewhat or strongly disapprove of the governing party’s handling of health care, building affordable housing and dealing with the rising cost of living.

Duane Bratt, who teaches political science at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, calls this a potential “big danger” for the government.

“The issues that are most important to Albertans are the ones where the UCP has very poor approval ratings,” he said.

Bratt adds that the UCP cannot do much about inflation, as it’s mainly driven by global markets and world events. 

Despite that, provincial governments can feel the wrath of voters for things beyond their control.

“We reward governments in good times and punish governments in bad times, even though governments can only make changes on the margins,” said Bratt.

The UCP’s poor report card on inflation, housing and health care presents a potential opening for the opposition New Democrats. 

When it comes to inflation, Brown suggests the NDP could score political points by talking more about it.

“I think there’s an opportunity for the NDP to show that they’re more sympathetic, more understanding, more empathetic of what the average Albertan is going through,” said Brown. 

Additionally, as the UCP restructures the province’s health care system, the NDP — which first introduced universal medical care in the early 1960s in Saskatchewan — has another opportunity to shine.  

“Voters have often seen the NDP as the party of social services and the UCP as the party of the economy,” said Brown.

“There’s definitely a weakness here as the government is on the verge of reworking its health care system. There’s definitely an opportunity for the NDP to start talking about that issue.” 

But as this recent poll suggests, what’s top of mind now can change — and the next election remains three years away. 

The CBC News random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted using a hybrid method between May 1 and May 15 by Edmonton-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The sample is representative of regional, age and gender factors. The margin of error is +/- 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger.

The survey used a hybrid methodology that involved contacting survey respondents by telephone and giving them the option of completing the survey at that time, at another more convenient time, or receiving an email link and completing the survey online. Trend Research contacted people using a random list of numbers, consisting of 40 per cent landlines and 60 per cent cellphone numbers. Telephone numbers were dialed up to five times at five different times of day before another telephone number was added to the sample. The response rate among valid numbers (i.e. residential and personal) was 11.7 per cent.

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