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COLUMN: How the provincial referendum affects municipal candidates

"With a UCP referendum push and its anti-Ottawa rhetoric, the profile of the voter may very well be heavily weighted to conservative voters in October and therefore the municipal candidates who are seen to be right-leaning may be favoured over others by the otherwise undecided voter."
0101 Crouse file
St. Albert Gazette columnist Nolan Crouse.
On Oct. 18, 2021, we go to the polls for municipal council and school board elections. Oh wait – we go to the polls for a provincial referendum on equalization reform also. Premier Jason Kenney has made no secret that he would prefer Albertans provide support to the government in such a referendum to advocate for the removal of the Constitution’s Section 36 reference to the principle of equalization and its replacement with an equitable administrative arrangement.  

With the powerful Alberta provincial UCP machine behind the communications, there will be no doubt increased voter turnout in Alberta when compared to previous municipal council and school board elections. Add to that increased messaging, no doubt the Fairness Alberta Board will likely also endorse a positive vote on the referendum, although their bi-partisan members have so far not weighed in. So what? Herein is one scenario.

With a UCP referendum push and its anti-Ottawa rhetoric, the profile of the voter may very well be heavily weighted to conservative voters in October and therefore the municipal candidates who are seen to be right-leaning may be favoured over others by the otherwise undecided voter. This voting slant for municipal candidates is a possible unintended consequence of the referendum but it is likely very real.

A Trudeau-led and Liberal-led Ottawa has never been a favourite of most Alberta voters. Additionally, most municipal and school board elections are void of any federal or provincial influences. That will likely not be the case this time.   

There is another factor in the messaging methods that will be utilized in the next six months prior to the Oct. 18 voting. That factor is the impact of the lack of print and traditional media to provide balanced reporting on the referendum question and will permit the UCP machine to drive the voter’s view and the likely vote result favouring a UCP-preferred outcome. The use of online and social media methods has become even more pronounced during the pandemic and that was clearly evident during the U.S. presidential election. Social media and message spin will be significant in the message delivery, both in volume and content. The municipal and school board candidates’ messages (and visibility) will be dwarfed when compared to the provincial messaging that is focused on the referendum.   

So, sadly, local newspapers across Alberta will face a challenge getting the municipal and school board candidate messages out while competing with the UCP and provincial messaging who will be using all forms at their disposal. For 100 years, newspapers carried the message to the voters about their local candidates and their platforms. But in 2021, the UCP machine will be the major message platform. Local candidates would be wise to capitalize on linking their advertising to such provincial platforms.    

Change is constant and this is simply another one of many changes that are upon us: the loss of community newspapers across Alberta and the collateral damage on the local election messaging. That is now exacerbated by the UCP allocating significant funding toward referendum messaging to yield its desired outcome.