Thomson: NDP's Mason attacks campaign cynicism

Party setting up as single choice on left, not the far left

If you're feeling a bit harried watching the Alberta election campaign, I invite you to take a deep breath and relax.

Focus on something placid and peaceful and as removed as possible from the daily election grind, something or rather someone like NDP Leader Brian Mason.

In a campaign that has so many parties frantically fighting for their political lives, Mason seems to be floating above the fray. It's as if the Natural Law party has re-turned to politics with promises of yogic flying but this time it actually works.

In the first week of the campaign, when other parties ex-changed mud and innuendoes, Mason said in an open letter, "I'm concerned about the negative personal tone that has developed in the first five days of this campaign."

A clever tactic. By sending the letter to reporters, Mason was hoping to get some media coverage. In that light, a letter that attacked the political gamesmanship and cynicism of the other leaders was itself something cynical - but in the nicest way possible.

"In a province that already has the lowest voter turn-out rates in Canada, where fewer than half of the electorate votes, we must strive to give Albertans a reason to vote," wrote Mason, expressing a sentiment nobody could argue. "Let's have a vigorous, but fair debate this election."

Mason, the peacemaker, received plaudits and headlines. He's also getting a big boost in support, according to the latest public opinion poll from Leger Marketing.

The NDP might be running in a distant third place at 8.5 per cent of decided voters across Alberta, but in Edmonton the NDP is in a competitive third place. In the capital city, the PCs are in front with 37 per cent, the Wildrose has 25 per cent and the NDP has 20 per cent, which puts them ahead of the Liberals at 12 per cent and the Alberta Party at four per cent. The margin of error for the city survey is 5.5 per cent, which means the numbers could be much higher or lower for the parties. But it also means because the NDP support is concentrated in Edmonton, the NDP could be in second place in the city. Toss in the unknown factor of vote splitting and the NDP contention that they're a player in ridings across the city doesn't seem as far-fetched as it did when the campaign started.

The PCs are frantic because they could lose government, the Liberals are frantic because they might lose official Opposition status, and the Wildrose is a bit frantic because it doesn't want to blow its lead.

Mason is the one leader who seems to be genuinely enjoying himself. He is arguably one of the best-performing MLAs in the legislature, if not the best, and he's the only current leader of a political party who has been through an election campaign at the helm. The NDP has been performing consistently well in public opinion polls the past year, and both Mason and fellow NDP MLA Rachel Not-ley are seen as virtually bullet-proof in their home ridings. The party has high hopes to win more seats in Edmonton, including Edmonton-Manning and Edmonton-Calder.

New Democrats are horning in on traditional Liberal territory by being less stridently political and more politically pragmatic. Mason wants the oilsands to be more environ-mentally responsible but he's not anti-oilsands. In fact, he's stopped calling them the "tar sands." He's not a fan of the Keystone pipeline or the Gate-way pipeline but only because he wants the bitumen from the oilsands upgraded here in Alberta rather than exported to the U.S. and China.

Among other things, Mason would freeze tuition fees for post-secondary students, cover basic dental costs for children under 18, cap seniors' drug costs at $25 a month and regulate electricity rates to lower people's power bills. Most of all, though, the NDP is setting itself up as the one true alternative on the left, but not the far left.

And that could pay off in a big way, depending on how the election plays out. And this election could play out in so many interesting ways. The Wildrose could walk away with it and crush the PCs, or the PCs could bounce back if voters get cold feet. But what happens if nobody wins a majority? What happens if we end up with a minority government? For the first time in decades, that is a real possibility. In that case, the third-place party could hold the balance of power. And, right now, the NDP is in third place, according to the Leger poll.

If the Liberal vote collapsed and the NDP got five or six seats, for example, and the PCs/Wildrose were in a tie with roughly 41 seats each, the NDP would hold the balance of power. Suddenly, Mason would be in a position to force the governing party to look at his ideas for dental care and a tuition freeze, if not his more lofty ambitions to stop the bitumen pipelines.

"I can't deny having had some thoughts with respect to it," Mason acknowledged on the campaign trail this week, "but I really want to concentrate on getting as many NDP MLAs elected as possible at this stage."

When pressed on the issue about possibly holding the balance of power, Mason suggested the NDP would be the party that ends up in a virtual tie with the Wildrose. "Maybe the Conservatives will hold the balance of power," he said with an impish grin.

Mason is not really expecting to win the election or finish a close second. But he is expecting his party to be a winner on election night by picking up more seats and maybe, just maybe, having some real influence over government policy, whether that government hap-pens to be PC or Wildrose.

That's why Mason is enjoying himself so much.

Edmonton Journal, Sat Apr 7 2012
Byline: Graham Thomson

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