Alberta Votes for Change

In convincing style, Albertans voted overwhelmingly for change last night by electing United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney as the next Premier of Alberta. Kenney’s UCP won 63 of 87 seats and 55% of the popular vote. Outgoing Premier and NDP Leader Rachel Notley won 24 seats and 32% of the vote.

This victory for Kenney began in the spring of 2016, shortly after the federal Conservatives were defeated by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.  Kenney methodically planned and executed an arduous journey back into the halls of power by, in order, winning the leadership of the Alberta PC Party, leading the unification efforts to create the United Conservative Party, winning the leadership of the new party, gaining a seat in the legislature through a by-election, and now winning the general election. With this odyssey complete, he now begins a harder journey – governing.

Jason Kenney and the Unification of the Conservative Movement

After the 2015 election defeat, many Albertans believed that another split vote on the right would result in NDP or left-wing governments for some time. Learning from the history of their federal predecessors, grassroots movements amongst the two legacy parties (PC and Wildrose) as well as the business community (especially in the energy industry) pushed the two parties to set aside their differences and unify in one party to challenge the NDP in 2019.

NDP and Pipeline Politics

Before 2015, the Alberta NDP shared the same ideological opposition to many energy projects and pipelines in the province. However, once they formed a government, the reality of Alberta’s economic lifeblood required Notley and her team to shift their positioning.

The federal election of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party presented an opportunity to ally with Trudeau and gave Notley the chance to create her own “Climate Leadership Plan”. This plan imposed emissions caps and carbon taxes in Alberta in exchange for a commitment from Trudeau to build at least one pipeline that would get Alberta oil to world markets.

The alliance may have been Notley’s only option to try and keep her party united and to try and balance the environmental wing of her party with economic reality in Alberta, especially in a downturn where over 100,000 workers in the energy sector were laid off during the last four years and where bankruptcies are at a thirty-year high. However, this alliance also put Notley at odds with many of her NDP colleagues across Canada, including both her British Columbian and federal cousins.

The Campaign

For months leading into the campaign, the UCP had a substantial lead in Alberta, with strong results from Calgary and rural areas, while the NDP still maintained support in the City of Edmonton. Alberta’s 87 constituencies are almost equally divided between Edmonton, Calgary and rural areas. If a party can capture two of those three regions, they have a very good chance of winning.

The results of this election followed this formula perfectly. The UCP swept Alberta’s rural seats, and most of the seats in the city of Calgary. Edmonton remains a challenge for the UCP as it was for its predecessor parties. Only one seat in Edmonton-South West was in the UCP’s win column. For the NDP, this election was always going to be challenging to hold a majority government. Winning a wide swath of seats only in the city of Edmonton did not give the NDP the ability to hold on for a victory. Without any strength in the other two reasons, Rachel Notley is now the Opposition Leader.

The 28-day campaign period was action-packed, with both parties moving quickly to define themselves. Kenney’s first event was at an oil-production site with his podium reading “Jobs – Economy – Pipelines”. Notley’s campaign kicked off with a “Fighting For You” message centered around “Team Rachel Notley.”

However, the NDP was quick to highlight some of Kenney and his candidates’ missteps. Two UCP candidates were forced to resign over intemperate remarks on social media, and a sitting MLA was also found to have made derogatory comments. These events gave the NDP the opportunity to try and keep defining Kenney as “extreme”.

For his part, Kenney continued his economic message and portrayed the NDP attacks as “desperate”.  The UCP was first to launch an incredibly detailed platform entitled “Getting Alberta Back to Work.”  Kenney and the UCP clearly wished to demonstrate to voters that they have a costed and substantial plan.

The last stretch of the campaign was marked by a great push to get voters out. Federal CPC leader Andrew Scheer appeared with Kenney at an outdoor rally in the middle of a snowstorm, while Notley kept a furious pace with events across the province. With the results now in, it is time for Kenney to transition to power – which always comes with its own realities.

What’s Next

With Kenney’s victory, he will move quickly to consolidate his win and implement his agenda as soon as possible. A new throne speech coupled with a spring session of the Legislature should be expected, and Kenney has made it clear that eliminating Alberta’s carbon tax will be his first priority.

Pipeline politics will constantly preoccupy the government, but a change in government may be a good first step. Alberta’s current regulatory environment has made it nearly impossible to get approvals or shovels in the ground as opponents hold a virtual veto in the system. With competitors like the U.S. with its own oil and B.C. with natural gas moving aggressively to capture market share and/or block Alberta from tidewater, as well as recent Chinese moves to cancel canola purchases from Canada, the reality is Kenney faces problems that he alone can’t fix.

Alberta is reliant on others for cooperation, which may be counter to those other parties’ economic interests. While a change in attitude or government in Ottawa may bring better conditions, how that translates on the ground in a world that has changed significantly from the halcyon days of Alberta’s oil dominance remains to be seen and could be slow to produce dividends. It will take a deft hand and all of Jason Kenney’s political skills to produce wins and patience on the part of those who may be seeking instant gratification.

We can also expect the government to move beyond pipeline politics and pursue an “open for business” agenda with reduced red tape and slashes to government spending. He will align himself with his provincial peers to oppose the Liberals’ regulation and big-spending agenda.

This election also has ramifications for the upcoming federal campaign. With Kenney’s win, conservative premiers now govern five of ten provinces (whereas when Trudeau became Prime Minister, only one province was conservative). With strong personalities in Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Kenney and with allies in other provinces, conservatives at the provincial level are aligned in advance of the 2019 election.

Prime Minister Trudeau will certainly want to fire back on issues like climate change and can unite progressives under his leadership. One thing is clear: the first shots of the federal campaign have been fired.