EDMONTON — Albertans are heading to the polls on April 16, and the question is whether or not Jason Kenney’s campaign to return Wild Rose country to conservative rule is going to be successful, or, as his party finds itself embroiled in scandal, Rachel Notley’s New Democrats can secure another term.
“My name is Rachel Notley and I am running to be your premier, again,” she told the crowd gathered at Calgary’s National Music Centre on Tuesday morning.
The election call, which kicks off a 28-day campaign, comes on the heels of a throne speech that recounted four years of NDP accomplishments and addressed the party’s record on what’s expected to be the central theme of this election: the economy.
“For decades, governments in Alberta responded to economic busts in a predictable way,” Lt.-Gov. Lois Mitchell said on Monday. “They made things worse. And everyday Albertans paid the price.”
It's really a fear versus loathing campaign
Of course, it isn’t that simple.
Each party has worked hard to define the parameters within which they want to fight this election. While Kenney and his United Conservatives are happy to stick to jobs, the carbon tax and the economy, the New Democrats would prefer to talk about Kenney, the man — his record as a politician and whether or not he has the character to lead the province.
The NDP hopes to take advantage of a growing scandal involving allegations that a “kamikaze candidate” helped Kenney win the October 2017 leadership by attacking his main rival, Brian Jean, during the race.
“It’s really a fear versus loathing campaign: Do you fear Jason Kenney more than you loathe the New Democrats, or vice versa,” said Faron Ellis, a political science professor at Lethbridge College.
But looming over everything is the economy. Kenney pulled into a drilling company lot in Leduc, a bedroom community of Edmonton, on Tuesday afternoon, driving his blue Dodge Ram. He delivered a wonkish speech on the state of the economy, citing job loss figures and, while he conceded that not everything was the NDP’s fault, he said they do bear some responsibility.
“Tens of thousands of Albertans have given up looking for work,” Kenney said. “Albertans are poorer because of NDP policy.”
The New Democrats plan to defend their record by touting “diversification,” hospital spending and efforts to reduce wait times, and their push to get the TransMountain Pipeline built to get Alberta oil to market.
Objectively speaking, the economy is not doing as well as it was in 2014, the year before the NDP took power, said Trevor Tombe, a University of Calgary economist. Between 2014 and 2016, the Alberta nominal GDP — that is, without adjustment for inflation — lost $75 billion. Most of that can be attributed to a calamitous collapse in oil and natural gas prices — 70 per cent between 2014 and 2016 — and an 80 per cent drop in corporate profits in the same time span, notes a TD Bank economic report from last September.
“It’s hard to paint a rosy picture,” Tombe said. “But, I think people overstate the ability of a government to affect short-run movements in an economy as large as Alberta’s…. The economy does what it does in response to a wide variety of outside factors and policy really only affects things at the margin.”
The expectation — held by pollsters, pundits and armchair analysts — is Kenney’s UCP will wipe out Notley’s New Democrats. The only question, if one accepts this forecast (and not everyone does, including the NDP) is how big the landslide will be.
But, says Richard Starke, a long-time Alberta conservative who sat as an independent instead of joining the UCP and is now retiring from politics, the two most recent Alberta elections are a warning against that conclusion. Kenney doesn’t have a clear path to victory, he said.
“He’s certainly being beset by a long list of issues,” Starke said. “There’s a lot of people that I talk to that want to see the NDP replaced as a government and they look to the UCP as being the possible party to change to, but they have reservations about Mr. Kenney.”
Let's team up to keep our province moving forward
The New Democrats are doing everything they can to fuel those reservations. That’s where they see pay dirt: Sow doubt about Kenney’s character and Albertans will be uncomfortable with the idea of him as premier.
Notley came out spitting fire on Tuesday. She said that the UCP has a racism problem, and Kenney “isn’t always comfortable with strong women.” She pointed to the leadership campaign allegations and issued a call to Alberta conservatives to join her.
“It’s now clear that Jason Kenney’s campaign betrayed the conservative party by cheating to win its highest office,” Notley said. “Now, is that a premier? If that’s what you’re thinking, as a conservative — that maybe you just can’t bring yourself to vote and to give your heart to Jason Kenney, and you’re not just sure he should be premier of Alberta — well then, this time, in this election, let’s team up to keep our province moving forward.”
The party, as of Friday, had three separate websites up and running that promise to tell the “truth” about Kenney, highlighting his past statements about issues ranging from LGBTQ people to abortion access and social services. The NDP’s social media accounts focus heavily on Kenney, mixed with the occasional touting of the NDP record, including halving the child-poverty rate. Indeed, they do have a whole other website for the reader wondering: “What has Rachel Notley done for me lately?”
UCP campaign officials say they are fundamentally unworried about the attacks on Kenney’s character, voting record and past — they don’t see it harming him much, in an election where Albertans are worrying about the economy.
The polls — which aren’t spectacularly up-to-date, given the recent leadership race allegations — show Calgary, and northern and rural Alberta are a lock for the United Conservatives. It’s a couple ridings in urban centres where there’s going to be a fight. Lethbridge College polling, done by students under the supervision of Ellis, who’s also the research chair in the Citizen Society Research Lab, shows just shy of 58 per cent of decided voters intend to vote UCP; 23 per cent say they’re casting a ballot for the New Democrats. In Edmonton, though, it’s close: 39 per cent say they’re planning to vote NDP, while 41 per cent say they’re voting UCP.
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UCP operatives say they believe pretty much every riding in the province is winnable, even in orange-tinted Edmonton.
Kenney’s campaign has always had the air of the prodigal son’s return. As one senior UCP operative put it: “We believe this is the party of Alberta.”
But Kenney’s team is taking nothing for granted.
At the UCP’s campaign headquarters in downtown Edmonton, stacks of Keurig coffee pods sat on a shelf. There’s a war room, a section for communications, and a candidate management area, where paper maps of Alberta’s ridings are adorned with sticky notes. On Friday, the office was still being set up, with a handful of staff working away. There were themed signs leaned up against one wall; nearby, what looked like a salad bowl was full of bright orange “Ceci bucks” — named after the NDP finance minister — that say “paid for by your grandchildren” on them.
The New Democrats know they’re the underdogs in this election, but they aren’t especially bothered by it. That’s where the party has always been, they’re comfortable having that fight.
“The NDP, our people, our premier, are used to having to be creative, and scrappy and having to work really hard for every vote,” said top Notley adviser Cheryl Oates in a weekend interview with the Post. “We can do that again.”
The NDP is optimistic about liberal Edmonton, and see opportunity in Calgary; there may be some opportunity in smaller urban centres: Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Grande Prairie. Notably, the party doesn’t see itself as that far behind the United Conservatives, and believe they can close whatever gap exists.
The NDP has also zeroed in on something else: health care.
In late February, Kenney came out with a “public health guarantee,” wherein he promised that he would order a review of Alberta Health Services, but would retain publicly funded health care. That’s not good enough for the New Democrats, who claim “American-style” health care could be the future if Kenney wins; it’s a bogeyman they think will resonate with voters.
“We will continue to stand up and say ‘No’ to American-style health care,” said Mitchell in the throne speech. New Democrat MLAs enthusiastically hammered their desks in agreement.
For the United Conservatives, the election will also be a referendum on the carbon tax, a major Notley policy plank that is, to some extent, an anvil around her neck, an unpopular policy for significant chunks of the electorate.
The carbon tax is almost without fail prefaced with “job-killing” when Tories speak about it and polling from both February 2017 and February 2019 show opposition hovering around 66 per cent.
The United Conservatives, who were interveners in the Saskatchewan court case against the carbon tax, have promised to repeal it right away, if elected. They maintain it causes a chill on investment and is costing Albertans money without saving the environment. For the New Democrats, the carbon tax remains, at least partly, a way to barter over getting pipelines built, protects the environment and helps pay for economic diversification. They aren’t going to run from the carbon tax fight, but nor is it something they want to spend their time arguing about it.
“If you look at the partisanship numbers, there’s very little new to be gained, for either party, by campaigning on that,” Ellis said.
The drop in oil prices, a struggling economy and the introduction of a carbon tax has enraged some Albertans. Polling over the last several months has shown a resurgence in Alberta separatism, though its supporters still make up a tiny fraction of the province. But even as this anger bubbles away, UCP officials say they’re not planning to channel it.
“We’re trying to create a sense of optimism and hope,” said one campaign official.
And, with Kenney standing in the sun of an early spring in Alberta, flanked by workers in coveralls, the campaign began. The talking points are set and the candidates ready.
“This campaign is not about politics,” Kenney said. “It’s about people.”
With files from Emma Graney and Clare Clancy, the Edmonton Journal
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