In the end, a battered economy trumped everything.
Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party won a historic Alberta election Tuesday, overcoming concerns about his own moral and ethical imperatives and a string of controversies generated by UCP candidates linked to racist and homophobic commentary. While the public storms these incidents caused undoubtedly cost Mr. Kenney support, it was not enough to jeopardize the lead his party had established over the NDP.
Now hold on to your hats.
The province, and the country, will not have seen an Alberta premier this ready to rock conventions, to disrupt the status quo, since Ralph Klein. This is why so many voters found Mr. Kenney an attractive option to NDP Leader Rachel Notley, who, despite her personal popularity, was seen as too cautious a choice for the perilous times that have enveloped the province.
Four years of high unemployment. A recession that left looming shadows on the horizon that could portend another. Stuttering economic growth. Burgeoning debt. No new pipeline. Up against that, and facing a highly skilled politician not afraid of a good scrap, Ms. Notley and the NDP didn’t stand a chance despite running an effective campaign.
Am I better off today than I was when the government seeking re-election took over? That is a question nearly all voters ask themselves when it comes time to mark their ballot. When I asked Ms. Notley before the start of the campaign how she felt she and how her party would fare on that count, she replied honestly: “There is no question we have a bit of a tougher haul on that one than most governments.”
And she was right. Yet still, she will go down as one of the more popular Alberta premiers in recent years, one far more admired than her party but who placed some bets in a bid to get a new pipeline built that just didn’t pay. Had construction started on the Trans Mountain expansion by now, the outcome of this election would likely have been radically different.
Now, it is Mr. Kenney’s turn to see if he can get it built, which means sitting down with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a politician for whom the Alberta premier-designate has little-disguised contempt. That initial conversation should be entertaining, assuming Mr. Kenney is serious about his threat to roll back most of the environmental reforms introduced by the previous NDP administration as part of its quid pro quo agreement with Mr. Trudeau to get the pipeline built.
That pact would appear to be worthless now.
As the election smoke clears, it will likely become more apparent that there is little Mr. Kenney has offered that will do anything to fix his province’s ailing economy, in the short term at least. The announcements that drew the most fanfare, and engendered the most support from Albertans, were highly symbolic in nature.
Promising to hold a referendum on equalization is a prime example. Asking Albertans if they feel the current equalization formula is unfair is ridiculous. Of course, they’re going to say it is. The bigger question is what, if anything, can be done about it. It’s a federally run program. The current funding formula was negotiated by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet, of which Mr. Kenney was a member at the time. There is far from a consensus among the provinces that anything should be done and if that position prevails, then what?
Does Alberta secede? Which would be just about their only option if it wanted no part of the current arrangement.
Mr. Kenney has promised to kill the carbon tax. So what? The federal backstop will kick in. He’s promised to pick a fight with British Columbia. Again, so what? B.C. is not the province’s enemy. The federal government now owns the pipeline, rendering many of B.C.’s objections and strategies irrelevant and inconsequential.
Mr. Kenney has also pledged to stand up to the messaging of foreign-funded environmental groups – like that will help Alberta get a pipeline faster. He’s used the empty oil and gas towers of downtown Calgary as a campaign backdrop but does not have a real plan to fill them – the city’s mayor Naheed Nenshi has said as much.
The most flashy undertaking he’s proposed to give the economy a boost is to cut corporate income taxes from 12 per cent to 8 per cent over four years. It will cost the treasury an estimated $1.7-billion in income, with no guarantees it will create the jobs to make up for it.
Even Mr. Kenney’s budget plans don’t differ radically from the NDP’s. There will be some cuts to program spending, but nothing outlandish. The UCP has promised to bring the books back to balance only one year earlier than the NDP. Perhaps most significantly, the UCP has no plans to get off the royalty roller coaster that has caused so many of Alberta’s problems over the years.
But none of this mattered much in this election. People had a yearning for the glory years, when money flowed easily, and the province was the envy of the country. Mr. Kenney won because he was best able to persuade people he can lead them back there.