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Alberta Goes to the Polls April 16 – Is it a Change Election?

Election season in Canada kicked off in Alberta with the announcement by Premier and NDP Leader Rachel Notley that Albertans will head to the polls for a twenty-eight-day campaign on Tuesday, April 16.  This election call was expected given that fixed-election date laws require an election to be called before May 1, and the NDP held a Speech from the Throne yesterday that will essentially form the basis of the NDP’s platform.

In 2015, Premier Notley and the NDP’s “Orange Crush” swept to power, ending 44 years of Progressive Conservative rule.  Since then, the NDP has had to govern a province that has faced continued economic downturn due to global energy pricing and a regulatory regime and political forces that have made it difficult, if not impossible, to get Alberta oil to world markets.

In an early attempt to find an ally on this issue, the NDP struck a bargain with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal government that in return for Alberta’s “Climate Leadership Plan” (which included carbon pricing), the federal government would help the province find a way to get Alberta energy to market through oil and gas pipelines.  This bargain was backed by several prominent energy companies but, to date, has not proved to be a viable solution.

A related challenge for the NDP in Alberta is the impact of the economic downturn on jobs in Calgary and rural Alberta, where the NDP won several seats.  While Edmonton, which is more of a public sector town, has had stable employment rates due to higher spending and hiring in the public sector.

United Conservative Party

On the opposition side, much attention has been paid to the rise of Jason Kenney as leader of the United Conservative Party.  In 2015, Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Party candidates split votes almost evenly in several ridings, allowing NDP candidates to break through.  Conservatives rightly recognized that allowing the vote splitting to continue would likely result in another NDP victory.

Kenney, well-known for his time as a senior Minister in the Stephen Harper government, resigned his federal seat in Calgary to seek the leadership of the provincial Alberta PC party with a clear platform to unite the PCs with the Wildrose Party, which was then led by Brian Jean (another former Harper-era MP).  Kenney also made it clear that he would seek the leadership of the new United Conservative Party (UCP).  While the leadership race of the new UCP was acrimonious, Kenney won with 61% of the vote.

Since winning the leadership and getting himself elected to the Legislative Assembly in a by-election, Kenney has been actively professionalizing the new party by bringing in experienced political staff, spending much time and energy crafting a campaign platform, and recruiting new candidates for the UCP, including women and visible minorities (asking stalwarts like former federal leader Rona Ambrose and Laureen Harper to assist in the drive).

However, in recent days, Kenney and the UCP have come under a great deal of scrutiny for issues that arose with a third candidate in the leadership race, suggesting that he was essentially put forward as a “puppet” candidate to help Kenney solidify his leadership win. An RCMP investigation into financial irregularities surrounding this candidate is now being discussed.

In addition, accusations around unfair nominations have become public. Earlier today, a high-profile UCP candidate was forced to resign due to private written comments she made regarding white supremacists. This issue will be particularly infuriating to Kenney and his team as he has personally made a major effort to include multicultural communities in Canadian and Alberta politics.

The Race

As the campaign kicks off, Kenney and the UCP continue to have a commanding polling lead over Notley’s NDP by a 53-35% margin.  On several economic issues, Kenney and the UCP have a substantial head start on the “who would be best to lead” question, while Notley’s NDP leads on social issues including education, healthcare and fighting poverty.  Polling also indicates that the top three issues for Albertans are jobs, building pipelines, and the economy, which all point in the UCP’s favour.

However, when it comes to personal numbers Kenney polls below his party, and head-to-head with Notley has only a slight lead on who is the best leader (33-30%).   Over the last few months, polling has also shown that Notley polls ahead of her own party in popularity, so we should expect to see a heavy focus on her as a leader during the campaign.  (NDP campaign signs have strongly minimized the NDP brand).

As we have seen recently in Canadian politics, the twists and turns of a political campaign can greatly impact the result but, at the start, this campaign seems to be Kenney’s to lose.

The next Alberta Premier will also have a direct impact on federal politics since it will determine whether the federal Liberals have an ally or a another strong critic in Western Canada.  The addition of Jason Kenney to the already powerful provincial forces of conservative Premiers Doug Ford, Scott Moe, Brian Pallister and Blaine Higgs, who have formed a united front in opposition to the Trudeau government’s carbon pricing, will certainly play a role in the October 2019 federal election.

Campaigns do matter and the next 28 days will be extremely interesting to watch as voters make their decision across Alberta.  StrategyCorp will be watching closely as the election progresses.

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