Jen Gerson is a freelance writer based in Calgary.
Given the state of Alberta’s economy and the extraordinary discontent of its populace, the current provincial election shouldn’t be much of a race.
It should have the air of a coronation. It should be an affirmation of every Alberta stereotype, both good and bad: a restoration of Conservative rule to Canada’s Conservative heartland. Many expected this election to be a repudiation of Rachel Notley’s NDP, who came to power in 2015 as the Progressive Conservatives, which held power for more than four decades, crumbled before the electorate.
The current mood among Albertans reflects that. Polling firm Ipsos Public Affairs has been tracking the province’s restiveness through a model it calls its Disruption Barometer; regions generally score low right before they are considering radical changes, such as electing Donald Trump, or voting for Brexit. In February, Alberta scored -18 out of a possible score of -20. By comparison, the rest of Canada scored a much more complacent -2.
And most damning is the fact that Alberta’s economy is in mediocre shape. Unemployment rates remain high, and there is no doubt that the NDP – which holds the advantage of incumbency and yet still feels like a foreign entity to generations of Albertans who have literally known only one other government – is bearing the brunt of the blame for an extraordinary degree of fear and uncertainty.
And yet, against those odds, Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party could very well lose this election. Alberta’s recent political history is volatile, and the UCP’s performance in the opening days of the writ period haven’t inspired much confidence in an easy win.
It’s hard to recall an election in which the main challengers for power have faced a rougher start. Only hours before Ms. Notley called the election, several media outlets received a trove of documents demonstrating that Mr. Kenney’s team co-ordinated with a “kamikaze” candidate to assail his main leadership rival, Brian Jean, in 2017. As reported in Maclean’s, that candidate, Jeff Callaway, was allegedly funded by illegal donations now being looked at by the RCMP, after Alberta’s Office of the Election Commissioner handed over the investigation.
The election has also opened with a bevy of “bozo eruptions,” as popularized by former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, whose party was dogged by such gaffes. Two UCP candidates have resigned after being revealed to have made racist and transphobic remarks either in private messages or on public social-media profiles.
Those stories gave special poignancy to Mr. Kenney’s own history on LGBTQ rights, which included his involvement in a campaign to repeal a law that granted same-sex couples the right to visit their partners in hospital during the height of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco.
The UCP topped all that off this week by announcing its education platform, which includes bringing in the long-forgotten Education Act to replace the current Schools Act. One of the practical effects of the switch would be to eliminate the protections the NDP brought in for gay-straight alliances, clubs that allow gay and straight students alike to socialize free of stigma and bullying. Under this version of the bill, teachers and administrators would be allowed to inform parents if their children join a GSA.
Mr. Kenney defended his party’s position saying that notification would be "very rare … probably only dealing with very young kids or kids with unique emotional and mental-health challenges.” But it’s hard to conceive of a situation in which joining a GSA would exacerbate emotional or mental-health challenges, unless you have a very twisted vision of what goes on in such clubs. Indeed, the previous protections didn’t prevent school staff from reporting the fact that a child is suffering or facing imminent harm – it simply prohibited disclosing the fact that the student joined a specific club.
There isn’t any way around this: GSAs remain a point of deeply felt contention in many conservative quarters, where it is feared that they act as recruitment clubs, normalizing gay lifestyles and behaviours. They are particularly resented in parts of rural Alberta, and in religious and private schools.
Eliminating parental notification protections and enshrining the Education Act will allow these schools to engage practical loopholes that will effectively discourage kids from joining or establishing a GSA.
Every time a conservative party has taken a stand against GSAs in this province, it has led to weeks of backlash; already, hundreds have gathered in Edmonton and Calgary in support of the clubs this week. Yet, this same party seems to think it can continue to stick its fingers in this socket without receiving a nasty shock – three weeks before an election, no less.
It doesn’t end with the Education Act, either. The UCP is rolling out promises and policy prescriptions faster than anyone can reasonably vet them.
Mr. Kenney has promised to eliminate the carbon tax, even though the federal government has a backstop in place to impose carbon pricing on recalcitrant provinces. He’s promised a reduction in corporate taxes, and while this may indeed encourage much needed corporate investment in the province, it also leaves a larger hole in a structural deficit already too reliant on dwindling resource royalties.
Mr. Kenney wants a totally pointless referendum on equalization that, if successful, would do little more than force a meeting on the topic; even in its current economic state, Alberta remains far too wealthy a province to become a recipient of equalization payments. The UCP has also rolled out grand schemes to fundamentally renegotiate the taxation relationship with Ottawa, although the province has no ability to force Ottawa to go along with any of them, absent the election of a friendly Prime Minister by the name of Andrew Scheer. Mr. Kenney has also called for a PR “war room” to respond to reputational threats to the oil and gas sector.
If one were to herd a collection of middle-aged men who spent their youth crusading on behalf of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation into a breakout room at the Manning Conference and asked them to spitball ideas for Alberta, this is pretty close to the platform they would come up with.
Some of the ideas are promising and clever, of course. He’s proposed an energy corridor, for example, which might make sense as part of a very long-term strategy that includes a lot of buy-in from First Nations. He’s proposed improvements to crime and justice, and there’s even a good argument for implementing more standardized testing, as the UCP wants to do.
But many of these policies seem to trace their lineage to leftovers from the Alberta Progressive Conservatives and even the Reform Party, and inexplicably to many of the same policy thinkers that led the Alberta PCs from dynasty to destruction. And it seems like this platform was rolled out en masse before any skeptic had a chance to point out that much of it is impractical, unworkable or exists solely for the sake of perpetuating political drama with the rest of Canada.
Ms. Notley’s promises – laced with a healthy dose of extremely negative campaigning aimed directly at Mr. Kenney – have been comparatively moderate. She’s offering things such as an expansion of $25-a-day daycare, more long-term care spaces for the elderly and a second highway out of Fort McMurray.
The NDP can’t run on its record, and it can’t tout any great economic success under Ms. Notley’s tenure. But she does look like the adult in the room.
The problem for her is that being the adult of Confederation hasn’t earned Alberta much credit. She’s rolled out one of the most expansive and forward-looking greenhouse gas emissions reductions plans of any province in the country, and for her trouble, Alberta remains mired in regulatory limbo, unable to get pipelines built. The federal government no longer seems to be taking Ms. Notley’s calls, as the province’s objections to bills such as C-69 go unheeded. Since the recession, which began in 2014, the province has lost more than 60,000 jobs overall, according to analysis by economist Trevor Tombe – much to the seeming indifference of Ottawa.
The anger of Albertans is neither misguided nor misplaced. Mr. Kenney has run a shaky campaign, but if he and the UCP remain a credible vehicle for that anger, then that’s who Alberta will elect. But it’s still too early for him to begin a fitting for a crown just yet.