Although Justin Trudeau likes to project a positive image, the Prime Minister has a fondness for demonizing his opponents. The problem in this upcoming election is that there’s a shortage of demons. That may be one reason the Liberals spend so much time going after Premier Jason Kenney’s UCP government in Alberta.
Last week, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu sent a letter to Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro stating that she, like the Canadian Paediatric Society, is concerned that the province’s move to lift COVID-19 restrictions and cut back on testing is an “unnecessary and risky gamble” that could put Alberta’s children at risk.
“We’re not going to take lectures from Minister Hajdu,” Mr. Kenney retorted, “particularly when it appears that she and her boss, Justin Trudeau, are hell-bent on a federal election campaign.”
Then there is the new federal-provincial child-care initiative. While Ottawa has successfully negotiated $10-a-day child-care agreements with a number of provinces – including almost $6-billion in free money for Quebec, which already has a similar program in place – there has been no agreement with Alberta.
But there is no agreement with Ontario, either. Cynical minds will wonder why this federal Liberal government has failed to sign accords with the two most populous conservative-governed provinces. Provincial obstruction or Liberal foot-dragging?
A couple of years ago, Mr. Trudeau might have made a big deal of the lack of an Ottawa-Ontario agreement on child care, attacking Premier Doug Ford for “failing Ontario parents and children,” or some such.
In the 2019 federal election, Mr. Trudeau campaigned against Mr. Ford every bit as much as he did against then-federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.
Back then, Mr. Ford’s government was highly unpopular with Ontario voters. But the Progressive Conservative Premier has since replaced advisers, shuffled his cabinet and toned down both policies and rhetoric. Though some aspects of his government’s handling of the pandemic have been heavily criticized, few observers are confidently predicting Mr. Ford’s defeat in the provincial election slated for next June.
Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is harder to demonize than his predecessor, Mr. Scheer. Though not terribly popular right now with voters – or even with some of his own MPs – Mr. O’Toole has insulated himself against the Liberals’ favourite tactic: warning about some scary, secret, hidden agenda. He has vowed his government would never legislate on abortion, he’s a proud supporter of LGBTQ rights and his climate-change policy includes a carbon tax.
The Grits may have no choice but to go after the Tories on questions of policy, which is never as much fun.
That leaves Mr. Kenney as the sole remaining punching bag, though the Alberta Premier is hardly an ideal candidate. For one thing, it’s hard to win ridings in Ontario by going after the Premier of Alberta. And though the Liberals have hopes of picking up a few seats in the Prairies, any gains will be modest. Western anger at perceived Liberal hostility to oil and gas interests, and at the party’s perceived indifference to the West in general, remains deep-rooted.
Besides, while Mr. Ford tried to keep a low profile during the 2019 election, Mr. Kenney will not be so circumspect. Bashing Ottawa is a provincial sport in Alberta, one the Premier loves to play. Albertans this fall will be voting on a purely symbolic resolution to remove the principle of equalization, with its entrenched transfers from wealthier parts of the country to poorer parts, from the Constitution.
“Albertans are not opposed to equalization,” Gary Mar, head of the Canada West Foundation, told me. “What they’re opposed to is the manner in which it’s calculated.”
Mr. Trudeau does have one important asset in Alberta: Rachel Notley. The former NDP premier is popular, currently polling ahead of Mr. Kenney. The question is whether voters who favour Ms. Notley provincially might favour Mr. Trudeau federally, or whether they will choose NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh instead. The NDP already holds one federal seat in the province, Edmonton Strathcona. Could it win another?
The Liberals are on the cusp of securing a majority government, but they are not yet across the threshold. Every riding will count. The closer the race, the more you might expect Mr. Trudeau to find reasons to beat up on Jason Kenney. But expect Mr. Kenney to throw a few punches of his own.
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