Maybe next time Elections Alberta can spend $1 million on something useful

Well there’s $1 million down the drain. Voter turnout for the 2015 provincial election here in Alberta ended up being 53.7%, down from 54.4% in 2012. The flashy ad campaign that Elections Alberta ran probably had very little impact on those numbers, if it had any impact at all. I’d wager than anger against the PCs and enchantment with the NDP’s orange crush did more to impact voter turnout than #ChooseYourAlberta did.

choose your alberta

They could have spent that money on things that would have actually, measurably impacted turnout. Like more voting stations. Or better educational resources on how to vote. Or online voting. Or, as I will argue for in this post, on a better website and on open data. Let’s start with the website.

Is a functional, reliable, up-to-date website too much to ask for in 2015?

The Elections Alberta website is an unmitigated disaster. It’s garish, uses tables for layout, and is horribly unfriendly to use on a mobile device. Worse, there’s not just one website, but many. Here are some of the subdomains I’ve come across:

There are probably others that I haven’t even found yet, too. Each of those sites has a different navigation menu even though they share a similar design, which makes them very disorienting. Worse, they change seemingly on a whim. Links are removed or change, redirects are put in place, and there is no revision history.

I suppose you could argue that we don’t have elections very often so it’s not worth putting a lot of money into the website. But I’m not talking about a fancy, complicated, expensive redesign. I’m talking about a simple, responsible, and trustworthy website that is actually useful.

I think being trustworthy is especially important. Elections Alberta is the authority on elections in Alberta – I would expect to be able to go their website to find accurate, reliable information. But it’s hard to trust a site that is constantly in flux, with information appearing for a few days and then disappearing again, or links that look like they were added almost as an afterthought.

For instance, I downloaded a list of candidates in the 2015 election in Excel format a few weeks before election day, as I was building my results dashboard. It was somewhere on the WTV site. Today that page is gone, and the WTV site redirects to results. Thanks to the Wayback Machine, I can see that a completely different site used to be there, with the link to the Excel document I had downloaded. Why remove that?

It seems they have removed nearly all of the previous information and functionality now that the election is over. Searching for your candidates has been replaced with finding your MLA. Which kind of makes sense, except that you’re on the Elections Alberta site, not the Legislative Assembly website. I expect to find election-related information at Elections Alberta, thank you very much!

A small fraction of the $1 million ad campaign budget would have gone a long way toward addressing these issues with the Elections Alberta website.

It’s time to get on board the open data bandwagon

I really like building things for elections. Whether it’s a results dashboard, a where-to-vote tool, a sign management system for a campaign, or something else entirely, I enjoy it all. These projects generally need data. Sometimes you crowdsource the data (where did volunteers drop all of the signs) but often you want official data from the election authority. In the case of the provincial election, I wanted to build a site that was useful before and after the election, with a where-to-vote feature, information on all of the candidates, and a results dashboard. I needed some data from Elections Alberta to make it happen. Here’s a rough overview of what I wanted:

  • A list of all parties (ideally with contact info)
  • A list of all candidates (ideally with contact info, their electoral district, etc.)
  • A list of all electoral districts (ideally with returning officers and other info)
  • A list of all polling stations (ideally with addresses and contact info)
  • The geographical boundary data for each electoral district
  • The geographical boundary data for each polling station
  • Results data for the 2015 election
  • Historical results data

Each of those datasets would allow me to build additional features, especially when combined with my own data. All of them are fairly straightforward in my opinion, and should be things that the authority on elections would have. Once I knew which datasets I needed, I set about finding them.

My first stop was the Alberta Open Data Portal: “The portal makes data the provincial government collects on behalf of citizens publicly available in machine readable formats with an open licence.” Like the City of Edmonton’s data catalogue, the Alberta Open Data Portal should be a one-stop shop for open data. But unfortunately, it contains no election-related data. I of course submitted a dataset request, but knew it wouldn’t be actioned in time. I still haven’t heard anything back about it.

I knew at this point that I’d have to hunt each dataset down individually, likely on the Elections Alberta site. And given what I wrote above about the website, I knew that was likely to be problematic.

As mentioned I found the list of candidates in Excel format. I also managed to find the electoral district boundary information and the polling station boundaries here. I ended up scraping nearly everything else, including the list of electoral districts. Just four days before the election, after repeated requests that went unanswered, they added an Excel document of all the polling stations (which you can see here via the Wayback Machine).

I’m pretty happy with the way the results dashboard turned out, but again it was all scraped. Instead if making a results feed available, or any kind of structured data, Elections Alberta only provides a static HTML page (which of course does not validate correctly making scraping even more difficult). Now that the election is over, I see they have added the resultsnew site, which appears to provide an option to download the results in Excel. Too little, too late.

One quick note on historical data. You can get PDFs here, but that’s pretty useless for anything other than manual lookups. I couldn’t find anything else. The only reason my results dashboard is able to show results data from 2012 is that I had saved copies of the static HTML results files that year.

This situation is untenable. Scraping data, hunting around a constantly changing website, and pleading for more complete datasets is not my idea of an open and accessible government. Open data is not a new concept, and the Province already has an open data catalogue. All Elections Alberta needs to do is make their data available inside of it.

There’s plenty of time to fix this before the next election!

I know that election time is crunch time, and that the folks at Elections Alberta were probably incredibly stressed out and constantly faced an uphill battle. And I know there are smart, dedicated Albertans who work there. Keila Johnston, Director of IT and Geomatics for Elections Alberta, was particularly helpful. But now the election is over, and I’d really like to see some positive change.

It would be an incredible shame if we got to the next election here in Alberta and found ourselves in the same position: with a website that’s out-of-date and unreliable, and a lack of open data to power new tools and experiences for voters. Elections Alberta has the talent and ability to fix both of those issues, if they prioritize it. And the best part? It shouldn’t cost $1 million to do so.

Election Day: Where to Vote and Watch Results

Today is Election Day here in Alberta! It doesn’t take long to vote, so make sure you head down to your polling station today if you haven’t already voted in one of the advance polls. Here’s an overview of how to vote.

Where to Vote

If you need to know where to vote, you can use the tool I built here. It lets you search by address or if you’re on a mobile device in particular, just click “Locate Me” and it’ll figure out where you are. For the most accurate results, simply enter your postal code. Here’s what you’ll see:

where to vote

Once the search completes, it’ll show you the district you’re in, the candidates you can vote for, and your specific polling station (with pins for your location and for the polling station).

I had built this a week or two ago, but yesterday realized that Elections Alberta has improved their own search tool. Nice to see them making some enhancements. The main difference is that my tool has more information about candidates (such as social media links) and also has integrated results information.

Election Results Dashboard

The polls are open today from 9am until 8pm, after which we’ll see results trickle in from around the province. You can watch the results using the dashboard here. It should work well on your desktop, laptop, tablet, or phone!

where to vote

The dashboard shows some overview information, including the number of polls reporting and the estimated voter turnout, and a chart of votes by party. It has six other key features:

  • Party Overview – districts leading/won, total votes, vote % by party
  • Leader Races – votes for each party leader and whether or not they’re winning
  • Closest Races – districts that have the fewest number of votes separating first and second
  • Regional Races – districts leading/won by party by region
  • Most Supported – candidates who have received the most votes
  • Districts – leader, margin, polls, votes, and turnout by district

Most importantly, it’ll update automatically as soon as results come in from Elections Alberta. You don’t need to refresh the page or do anything else – just leave it open and watch the data appear!

I hope you find it useful. I’ve done quite a bit of testing with it, but do let me know if you run into any issues.

Happy Election Day!

Edmonton is ground zero in the PC campaign of fear

What an interesting week in the Alberta Election, especially here in Edmonton. It started with Mayor Don Iveson’s confident State of the City address, in which he declared that “Edmonton is too important to Alberta’s future to be ignored.” He said he’s confident that Edmontonians “will not stand for any provincial government ever forgetting about Edmonton again.” The mayor contrasted a strong, vibrant Edmonton with an uncertain, shaky Alberta, and said that Edmonton could play a significant role in a provincial turnaround. Edmonton is not just the capital.

With every passing day the NDP have looked stronger and stronger. The polls, whether you trust them or not, have consistently had the NDP either in the lead or close to it, with today’s predicting a minimum victory of 25 seats. Everywhere you look there are signs of the “orange crush” sweeping across the province, but especially here in Edmonton where NDP support is strongest. The prospect of an NDP win has become so realistic in fact, that the PCs have had to take the unusual position of fighting back. And it’s here in Edmonton that they have focused their efforts.

Last week Edmonton-Rutherford PC candidate Chris Labossiere wrote a widely-criticized blog post that said the NDP “have not demonstrated any real passion or partnership with Edmonton as a dynamic and changing global city.” He wrote, “I do not trust that they share or appreciate Edmonton’s story, our energy or our ambition.”

Edmonton-Spruce Grove MP Rona Ambrose said today that an NDP government here in Alberta would be a “risky experiment.” She said that although she understands the anger being directed at the PCs, Albertans “need to think twice about electing an NDP government.”

edmonton business leaders
Photo by Dave Cournoyer

And in a press conference late this morning, five Edmonton businessmen called the NDP’s policies “amateur” and urged Albertans to make sure they’re “thinking straight” when they go to vote on Tuesday (you can read their opinion letter here). The Journal reports that together, the five have given nearly $95,000 to the PCs since 2010. There have been incredible things said every day during this election, but a couple of comments today were just on another level. Here’s what Tim Melton, executive chairman of Melcor Developments said:

“I don’t understand the unhappiness and disenchantment that appears to be out there. We don’t need amateurs running this province through these difficult times … we’ve got to stay with the government that has got us to where we are today.”

Is it really so hard to understand why Albertans are unhappy with a government that has faced scandal after scandal? With a government that has failed, again and again, to get us off the resource revenue roller coaster?

As if that wasn’t enough, NPO Zero CEO Ashif Mawji had this to say at the same news conference:

“If there’s no bottom line, then there’s no money that goes to charities. We won’t make donations to charities,” Mawji said, using the Stollery Children’s Hospital and the University of Alberta as examples of where the losses will be felt.

There’s no question that leaders like Doug Goss have done great things for Edmonton, and I’m sure they will continue to, but to threaten the charities that support Albertans when the government won’t? Disgusting.

Rachel Notley
Photo by Dave Cournoyer

Here’s what NDP leader Rachel Notley said in response today:

“Frankly, if I were them, I’d be more focused on talking with Albertans about what it is they can do to make the lives of regular families better. They’ve chosen to fearmonger about the NDP instead. I guess we’ll see … which approach is more appealing and more convincing to Alberta voters.”

Indeed we will, in just a few days.

“Changing our government is not something Albertans should be afraid of,” is what Dave wrote today. “It is something we should probably do on a regular basis.”

2012 Alberta Election: Social Media Highlights

I don’t think there’s any doubt that social media played a significant role in this year’s provincial election. From witty tweets to conversation-shifting blog posts and everything in between, there’s no shortage of social media highlights to look back on. In an effort to capture how social media impacted the election, I have been tracking some of the most popular and memorable blog posts, photos, tweets, videos, and links.

Very early on, Danielle Smith’s campaign bus was the talk of Twitter for its unfortunate wheel placement. It attracted so much attention that even Jay Leno joked about it! The Wildrose quickly fixed the bus, sharing a new photo on Facebook that was liked nearly 800 times with more than 220 comments.

danielle-smith-bus-628

Social media proved to be an effective tool for the mainstream media to share their stuff throughout the election. For example, CBC’s Vote Compass was shared more than 5300 times on Facebook and more than 870 times on Twitter. Over 115,000 responses were completed.

On March 30, PC staffer Amanda Wilkie (@wikwikkie) posted a tweet questioning Danielle Smith’s lack of children. There was an immediate backlash which forced Wilkie to apologize and delete the tweet. Smith released a statement explaining that she and her husband had tried to have kids with the aid of fertility treatments, and Alison Redford released a statement announcing that Wilkie had resigned. The two leaders spoke on the phone and vowed to move on.

Smith’s tweet was retweeted more than 100 times.

On April Fools Day, the Wildrose issued a news release saying that if elected, the party would pursue a merger with Saskatchewan to form a new province known as Saskberta. It was shared on Facebook more than 2100 times and on Twitter more than 360 times. The Wildrose tweet itself was retweeted more than 140 times:

Candidates first felt the power of blogs on April 2, when Kathleen Smith (@KikkiPlanet) posted her widely-read piece entitled Pruned Bush: Confessions of a Wilted Rose. An impassioned and well-written post, it racked up more than 1400 likes on Facebook, more than 330 tweets, and 136 comments. More than that, it brought “Conscience Rights” into the spotlight.

Kathleen’s post even attracted an angry response from a Wildrose supporter. Paula Simons has a good recap of the whole story, so check it out.

Just two days later, Dave Cournoyer (@davecournoyer) posted an even more popular blog post. His entry titled thorny candidates could be the wildrose party’s biggest liability attracted more than 4700 likes on Facebook, more than 600 tweets, and 150 comments. Though we didn’t know it at the time, Dave’s post would be cited countless times over the next few weeks as Wildrose candidates made gaffe after gaffe. Even his follow-up post on April 16 attracted more than 600 likes, more than 70 tweets, and 75 comments.

The next day on April 5, Dave Cournoyer noticed that a Twitter account named @PremierDanielle had been created and was being followed by @ElectDanielle, Smith’s official account. While it only came to light during the election, it was actually created back on October 12, 2010.

I didn’t think there’d be many audio clips to note during the election, but on April 7 the Alberta Party launched its official campaign song, composed by JUNO winners Cindy Church and Sylvia Tyson. The page was shared on Facebook more than 100 times and on Twitter more than 40 times. The song itself, hosted on SoundCloud, has been played more than 3500 times.

It didn’t take long after Danielle Smith announced a $300 dividend for all Albertans for Sean Healy to launch Dani Dollars, a website that let users pledge their cash “to Wildrose Relief”. It was shared more than 280 times on Facebook, more than 130 times on Twitter, and attracted more than 170 pledges for a grand total of $51,600.

The leaders debate took place on April 12, and while it ended up being fairly boring (aside from Raj Sherman’s unintentionally comedic outbursts) there were a couple of highlights. One was Alberta Party leader Glenn Taylor’s live blog, which was followed by more than 1700 people. It was shared more than 480 times on Facebook and more than 300 times on Twitter.

The debate also resulted in one of the most memorable tweets of the election, retweeted more than 340 times:

Edmonton Journal videographer Ryan Jackson posted a really unique video on April 13. By stitching together four different videos, Jackson made it appear as if you were sitting in a coffee shop with four of the party leaders. The video was shared more than 140 times on Facebook and more than 50 times on Twitter.

On April 14, a new Twitter account known as @Adamwyork posted a tweet about Wildrose candidate Allan Hunsperger. It linked to an old blog post that Hunsperger had written that contained the shocking statement that gays and lesbians would “suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell.” You can see a screen capture of the post here. It wasn’t until April 26 that the person behind the tweet was identified. Turns out it was Blake Robert, better known online as @BRinYEG. Paula Simons’ post about the outing has already been shared more than 275 times on Facebook and more than 144 times on Twitter.

Though the original tweet was only retweeted 13 times, the impact it had on the election cannot be overstated.

On April 16, the domain name INeverThoughtIdVotePC.com was registered. A couple of days later, the website launched featuring a short video that asked Albertans to vote strategically against the Wildrose. The website has been shared on Facebook more than 3700 times and the video itself has been seen more than 88,000 times.

On April 17, Vicky Frederick posted a Wildrose-edition of the “Downfall / Hitler Reacts” video meme. The video, titled Inside the Wildrose War Room, has been seen nearly 12,000 times.

It was a busy day on April 17. That was also the day that Wildrose candidate Ron Leech made controversial statements about having an advantage as a Caucasian. The Journal captured a copy of the radio interview here. The tweet from CTV Edmonton breaking the news was retweeted more than 250 times:

That same day, the Wildrose posted its “Momentum” ad on YouTube. With more than 112,000 views, it’s the most popular election-related video.

On April 20, Paula Simons wrote a blog post titled The Price of Free Speech. She discussed Danielle Smith’s stubborn refusal to reprimand candidates like Hunsperger and Leech. The post was shared on Facebook more than 1500 times and on Twitter more than 180 times.

In the final weekend of the campaign, photos of this graffiti wall here in Edmonton started circulating on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere online:

I don’t know how many times it was shared, but I saw it all over the place.

After all of the negativity of the election, I was quite happy to see Ryan Jackson’s next election video on April 23. A “whimsical parody video”, it featured the “strange new species” popping up on lawns across Alberta known was the election sign.

He posted a behind-the-scenes on the video just yesterday.

As the polls opened on April 23, many people tweeted that they had voted while others encouraged Albertans to get out and vote. With more than 200 retweets, Kathleen Smith’s call-to-action was probably the most visible of the day:

On election night itself there were many memorable tweets, but Todd Babiak’s post about how the public opinion polls were so wrong was one of the most retweeted with 195 retweets:

As far as I can tell, the most retweeted tweet of the entire election came at 9:27pm on election night, after it became clear that the Wildrose would form the official opposition. Calgary’s Nick Heer posted this tweet:

It has been retweeted more than 650 times!

Final Thoughts

It’s hard to imagine what the election would have looked like without social media! Through tweets, photos, videos, blog posts, and more, Albertans had no shortage of ways to share their thoughts on the candidates and the campaigns. And because of the nature of social media, those thoughts often spread extremely quickly and were frequently picked up by the mainstream media. Whether you’re a Twitter or Facebook user yourself or not, there’s no question that social media helped make the 2012 provincial election one of the most exciting in Alberta’s history.

Did you have a social media highlight that I missed? Let me know in the comments! For more on the role that Twitter played during the election, be sure to check out AlbertaTweets. Looking for election results and statistics? Check out my #abvote Results Dashboard!

Building a Results Dashboard for the 2012 Alberta Election

Like many Albertans, I have spent a significant amount of time over the last month paying attention to the election! Reading about the candidates, following all the drama, and spending lots of time with the #abvote hashtag on Twitter. As the candidates were making one final push over the weekend before the election, I decided to build a results dashboard. I like a good challenge and enjoyed building it, but it was especially rewarding to see that it proved to be quite popular too! In this post I’ll tell you a little about how and why I built the website, and what I learned from it.

abvote results

If you haven’t checked out the dashboard, you can see it here. I’ve added a bunch of stuff since election night, which I’ll explain below.

The Idea

By late Friday afternoon, my thoughts had drifted to election day itself. I started to think about how exciting it would be to see the results come in – I love election nights! I knew there would be television coverage and that the media would have some web coverage as well, but I also felt that I could build something unique and valuable. If only I had the data! So I looked around, and found the Elections Alberta results site. At that time, the results page was full of test data. I immediately saved a copy to my computer, and saved a few of the electoral division pages too. That proved to be a wise decision, because a few hours later the site went offline!

elections alberta

Before I took a crack at scraping the website, I wanted to know if there was a data feed of some kind available. I blindly emailed the general Elections Alberta address, and to my surprise, received a response shortly thereafter! Unfortunately there was no data feed available, so I set about writing a scraper. Within a couple of hours, I was correctly scraping the main results page as well as all of the electoral division pages. Now that I had the data, I felt pretty confident that I could build a dashboard over the weekend. I didn’t get back to the project until Sunday morning, so that meant I had to prioritize what I was going to build. It took about six hours, but my I finished my initial version late that evening.

The Design

This was not my first election results dashboard. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll recall that I built a dashboard for the municipal election here in Edmonton back in 2010. I learned a lot from that experience, and I remember it being a lot more rushed and difficult than this dashboard! Among other lessons, it was clear that design and colors matter, and that mobile devices are important (even then lots of people were asking for mobile support). I also knew that forcing users to refresh the page is less than ideal – it’s not a very delightful experience, and it puts unnecessary strain on the server. I also disliked the limited real estate that I had to work with (the current ShareEdmonton page width is fixed…but I’m working on a new version that is fluid).

So, I wanted a mobile-friendly, fluid-width, Ajax-enabled, attractive looking design. I immediately decided to use Twitter Bootstrap. I have used it a few times now, and I absolutely love it. I can’t thank the folks at Twitter enough for making such an excellent framework available for free! It gave me everything I needed to get going from a UI perspective. In particular it features responsive design, which makes it possible for the pages to scale from the desktop down to mobile devices without much work. For the backend, I used ASP.NET MVC 3. I use it for everything, so I know it well.

For performance reasons, it definitely made sense to cache the data. I decided on a fairly straightforward approach: I’d scrape the data from Elections Alberta and would store it using Memcached for two minutes. That meant that every two minutes, a request would take slightly longer because it had to download the data again, but this seemed reasonable (and as it turned out, the Elections Alberta site was incredibly quick). I also designed the pages to poll for new data every 30 seconds, which prevented users from having to reload the page manually.

The Cloud

When I built the ShareEdmonton dashboard a couple years ago, it was hosted on one of my servers. That worked fine, but it did slow down under load and I didn’t have much ability to scale up or out without a lot of additional cost, time, and effort. I really wanted to avoid that situation this time, so I decided to host the dashboard using Windows Azure. I’m in the process of migrating ShareEdmonton to Azure, so I already had an account and was pretty familiar with how it worked. Deploying to Azure is so easy – I simply had to add a deployment project in Visual Studio, and then I could deploy new versions in just a couple of clicks.

Windows Azure supports a range of instance types – basically you get to choose how big and powerful you want your server to be. I started with “Extra Small”, the least powerful and therefore least expensive type. As the polls were about to close at 8pm, I scaled up to “Small”, which meant redeploying the app (which took about 8 minutes, but happened completely behind-the-scenes). About half an hour later, I had to add capacity because the site was starting to get quite sluggish. This time I scaled out, by adding a second instance. All I had to do was change a configuration setting in the Azure management console, and the service took care of everything. Within a few minutes, I had two load-balanced “Small” instances. The performance boost was immediately noticeable. About an hour later, I added a third instance, and kept the system running that way until about 1am. I scaled it back down in stages, and now have it running as a single “Extra Small” instance again.

Two Key Decisions

I think the two most important decisions I made were:

  1. Using Twitter Bootstrap
  2. Using Windows Azure

The decision first meant that the website looked good and worked across browsers, screen resolutions, and devices. I got all of that engineering effort and testing for free, which meant I could focus on building an election results dashboard rather than building a website. I didn’t have to figure out how to lay things out on the screen, or how to style tables. The second decision was perhaps even more important. By using Windows Azure, I could deploy new versions of the dashboard in minutes, plus I could scale up and out simply by changing a few settings. That meant I could quickly respond when the site came under load. The other big advantage of using Azure was the cost – running the site on election night cost me just $1.54. Incredible!

Some Statistics

The dashboard served around 60,000 page views on election night alone, which is pretty good for a website launched just hours before the main event. Keep in mind that because the data on the site automatically updated, users didn’t have to refresh the page which kept that statistic lower than it would otherwise have been. The visit duration metric is another way to see that – 20% of all visitors spent at least 10 minutes on the site. I actually would have guessed a higher percentage than that, but perhaps the high mobile usage was the reason.

The top screen resolution for visitors was 320×480, not a desktop resolution! Roughly 36% of all visits that night were made on mobile devices (which includes tablets). The iPhone was the most popular device, followed by the iPad. Clearly using a framework like Twitter Bootstrap with responsive design was a good decision.

The other statistic worth sharing is that the vast majority of visitors (about 73%) found the site by way of social networks, and two in particular. Facebook accounted for 78% of all those visits, while Twitter accounted for 20%.

Recent Improvements

Since Monday I have made numerous improvements to the dashboard. Here’s a brief overview of the new features:

  • All the data is now stored locally, which means I’m no longer reliant on Elections Alberta. They have made numerous updates over the last two days, and I have updated the site’s local data store accordingly.
  • I updated the voter turnout chart and added regional voter turnout to the front page. I also added a table of the five closest races.
  • District pages now show voter turnout and the list of polls is now sortable.
  • There’s a new Districts Grid, which lets you see lots of information about all the districts in a single, sortable view. For example, you can quickly see which district had the best voter turnout, which were the closest races, and which had the most candidates.
  • There’s also a Candidates page, which lets you see information about all of the candidates in a single, sortable view.
  • Last night I also added a Maps page, which has interactive maps for the province, as well as zoomed-in maps for Calgary and Edmonton. Click on any region for details and a link to the district page.

What’s Next?

I plan to keep the dashboard up as it is now, though at some point I’ll probably transition it from being a dynamic website to a static one (far cheaper to host over the long-run). If you have any suggestions on things to add or improve, let me know! I hope the site will serve as a valuable reference tool going forward.

Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone who sent positive comments about the dashboard my way. It’s great to hear that so many people found it useful on election night!

More power and money to cities in Alberta? I don’t believe you!

If you haven’t already done so you should check out Cities Matter, a website created by Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. It features questions in ten categories related to municipalities that all five of the major provincial parties have answered. The Municipal Financing category asks what each party would do to provide long-range, sustainable, and predictable capital funding for large cities in Alberta. Here are some highlights from the responses:

Alberta Liberals:

Our view is that provincial funding for municipalities should be provided with little to no strings attached, and that local governments are best positioned to determine what their own priorities are and how money should be spent.

Alberta Party:

We are committed to ensuring municipalities have access to stable, adequate and predictable funding. The Alberta Party will shift from 3‐year budget cycles to 5‐year cycles to ensure more long‐term planning can happen. We will also explore alternative ways for cities to raise their own revenues, so that they are less dependent on provincial funding and are more able to accurately budget for their needs.

Alberta’s NDP:

An NDP government would support municipalities’ efforts to occupy the entire property tax and would be prepared to consider additional sources of revenue for municipalities which are appropriate to their responsibilities.

PC Alberta:

The PC Party also plans to help meet the fiscal needs of our cities with city charters and more local decision making through transfer of power. Municipalities are entitled to a greater say and accountability in their own governance and fiscal management.

Wildrose:

Our Balanced Budget and Savings Pledge will lay the groundwork for growing surpluses in the short term; combined with rising income taxes this will ensure that municipal funding increases along with Alberta’s economy.  It also means that municipal leaders won’t need to curry favour with government ministers and align their ideas with the latest trendy notions among bureaucrats.  Wildrose trusts local communities to know what their short and long term priorities are, and with this formula will give them the autonomy to carry through in meeting them.

Sounds good right? More power and money to cities!

Thing is, I really don’t believe any of that.

Consider the proposed downtown arena. Our local leadership has determined (whether you agree or not) that a new arena is something the city needs, that it is something that would benefit Edmontonians. Yet none of the provincial parties seem to have acknowledged that decision. In fact, in many cases they have explicitly disagreed.

Here’s NDP Leader Brian Mason’s take:

“There are far bigger priorities for tax dollars in Edmonton than giving handouts to billionaire hockey owners. Instead, the New Democrats want to accelerate the construction of more light rail transit in Edmonton with more funding. We could use that $100 million to provide interest-free loans to 20,000 homeowners for energy efficient home renovations, or build 250 long-term care beds. New Democrats use public money for the public good.”

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith was even more blunt:

“We would not provide funding to a new arena in Edmonton.”

PC Leader Alison Redford hasn’t been quite so direct, but her government has thus far avoided the issue and has been more than happy to move ahead with the new Royal Alberta Museum (which nobody was talking about until the announcement dropped out of the sky). And she too does not appear to agree with the need:

“I think that we have enough funding in our system right now to allow for projects that matter to communities to be built.”

I have not seen either the Alberta Party or the Alberta Liberals directly address the arena (if you can point me to something that would be appreciated).

You might argue that these leaders are just responding to what Edmontonians are saying – they don’t want public money going to the arena. Walk down the street and ask people what they think however, and you get a much different response. I think a lot of people feel that other levels of government need to come to the table to support this project.

Either way, we seem to have conflicting statements here. On the one hand, these provincial leaders are happy to suggest that they would grant more control to municipalities to determine what they should build and how they should spend their money. On the other hand, they’re opposed to providing funding to a new arena in Edmonton. So which is it? Or perhaps a better question, exactly what strings will be attached to the greater autonomy granted to municipalities? The arena is just one example. The City Centre Airport is another (and we know that at least the Wildrose would reopen that can of worms) and of course there’s LRT.

I find it really hard to believe that any of these parties would truly give more control over finances and decision making to municipalities. And that’s a shame, because cities really do matter.