Jason Kenney’s United Conservatives have turned years of economic pain in Alberta and deep frustration with Ottawa into a resounding election victory, returning the province to its conservative roots and setting the incoming government on a collision course with the federal Liberals.
With almost all polls reporting Tuesday night, the UCP had a clear majority of the popular vote, with 55 per cent support, and the party’s candidates were elected or leading in 63 ridings. The New Democrats, who won the 2015 election with 40.6 per cent of the popular vote, were reduced to about 33 per cent support and were on track to win 24 seats.
Mr. Kenney, who was a prominent member of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet, led the United Conservative Party to victory nearly two years after a merger of Alberta’s political right put him on what seemed to be an inevitable path to power. He will set to work almost immediately undoing a raft of policies from the NDP’s four years in office while preparing for legal and political battles with Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Mr. Kenney drove onto the stage at the UCP election night event on the Calgary Stampede grounds in the blue pickup truck that came to symbolize his campaign. He said the UCP’s victory was a message to Albertans who have struggled in the province’s ailing economy and he promised to fight for Alberta’s interests.
“We Albertans are proud Canadians, and tonight we have elected a government that will stand up and secure a fair deal for Alberta in this great country,” Mr. Kenney said.
“There is a deep frustration in this province, a sense that we have contributed massively to the rest of Canada, but that everywhere we turn we are being blocked in and pinned down.”
Mr. Kenney used his victory speech to describe a province under attack as the province’s oil industry has been decimated by low prices and an inability to secure new pipelines. He singled out “foreign-funded” environmentalists and the government of Quebec, though he saved his harshest words for Ottawa.
“In other words, we’ve been had,” he said. “And in Ottawa, we have a federal government that has made this bad situation much worse.”
Rachel Notley’s New Democrats will return to Opposition, ending a historic first term in office and making the NDP the province’s only one-term government. Ms. Notley entered the campaign a popular premier who nonetheless shouldered the blame for an economic downturn that lasted her entire time in government.
Ms. Notley conceded defeat in a speech to supporters in Edmonton, where the party largely held its stronghold on the Alberta capital. Ms. Notley, who has previously said she intended to remain in the legislature regardless of the election result, took credit for interrupting four decades of conservative governments.
“We have fundamentally changed the politics of this province forever,” said Ms. Notley.
“Governing in Alberta should never again be a divine right, but always, always an earned privilege.”
Mr. Kenney ran a campaign of relentless attacks on Ms. Notley’s handling of an economic crisis that began with a collapse of oil prices in 2014 and deepened last fall when prices plummeted again. He linked the more than 180,000 Albertans who are out of work with what he called the “Trudeau-Notley alliance“ that has failed to build new pipelines to get Alberta crude oil to market.
He promised to put Alberta on war footing, taking on the federal government, the provinces of B.C. and Quebec, environmentalists and other perceived enemies of the oil industry with court challenges, a referendum on equalization payments and a public-relations campaign.
In the short term, he plans to cancel the provincial carbon tax and launch a legal challenge of the federal tax that would replace it, adding to existing cases from Ontario and Saskatchewan. He also plans to sue the federal government over environmental legislation that he argues will hold back the province’s oil industry.
But he also identified what he views as a simpler solution to many of those problems: ensure Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals lose the fall federal election. Mr. Kenney has already been campaigning for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who has promised he would repeal the federal carbon tax and who the UPC Leader views as a natural ally of Alberta’s oil industry.
“He can do a lot of damage to the federal Liberals, who are already struggling politically,” said Moshe Lander, a former economist with the Alberta government who teaches at Concordia University.
“He’s going to have a clear mandate and six months of real muckraking to do.”
Mr. Trudeau issued a written statement congratulating Mr. Kenney and welcoming the opportunity to work with his new government.
“Together, we will address issues of importance to Albertans and all Canadians,” said the statement, which also thanked Ms. Notley for her time as premier.
At Mr. Kenney’s election-night headquarters at The Big Four building on the Calgary Stampede grounds, about 1,000 people cheered UCP victories and booed the screen when Ms. Notley or other NDP candidates were featured.
Michelle Cochrane was among the supporters at Mr. Kenney’s victory celebration. It was her first time at an election party. She is a regional sales manager in Alberta, selling high-end beauty products. Her success, she said, is tied to the economy. “Clearly a change is required,” the 35-year-old said.
“I don’t believe in second chances when the potential risk is not worth the [potential negative] outcome.”
A few hundred New Democrats quietly took in their party’s defeat at a downtown Edmonton convention centre. After a difficult campaign, the NDP had been largely reduced to its fortress in Alberta’s capital city.
David Shepherd, elected in the orange wave of 2015 and re-elected in his downtown Edmonton riding, said he was ready to go into opposition. “It’ll be my job over the next four years to stand up for Albertans and the values we believe in,” he said.
The third-place Alberta Party had a breakthrough of sorts with 10 per cent of the popular vote, its best performance ever, but the party was shut out of the legislature, despite having three seats before dissolution. Leader Stephen Mandel, a former Edmonton mayor, failed to win in his riding and Greg Clark, the party’s first elected MLA, lost his seat in Calgary.
“We went from just over two per cent to over 10 per cent in the polls and still climbing, and in a very polarized situation,” said Mr. Mandel.
The Liberals, led by David Khan, were wiped off the political map, ending the night with just one per cent of the vote.
Mr. Kenney, 50, must now assemble a cabinet and prepare to transition into power. In many ways, he is returning to where he began his political career in the 1990s, when he led an anti-tax group in Alberta and was a frequent critic of Mr. Klein.
He was elected federally as a Reform Party MP in 1997 and played a key role in uniting that party with the Progressive Conservatives, leading to the formation of the Conservative Party of Canada, which Mr. Harper led to power in 2006.
Mr. Kenney returned to Alberta to win the PC leadership on a platform of merging with the Wildrose, and took over the new party in October, 2017.
The UCP enjoyed a substantial lead in public opinion polls since its creation and that continued into the election campaign. The party’s edge appeared to have narrowed over the past few weeks, but the New Democrats could not close the gap.
Ms. Notley argued her government did its best to navigate a serious economic crisis while protecting public services from deep cuts as revenues fell. She said her cautious work to build support for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project has worked, with construction now in sight, and warned that Mr. Kenney’s scorched-earth approach would set that back.
She put forward a platform of increased spending on health care and education, and province-wide subsidized child-care. The NDP planned to balance the budget by 2024, a year later than the UCP, and would have relied heavily on rebounding oil revenues to make that happen. The UCP, in turn, said Ms. Notley pushed up the province’s debt and the NDP economic forecasts were not credible.
Ms. Notley also attempted to paint Mr. Kenney as an extreme social conservative, bringing up his long history of advocacy against same-sex marriage and abortion, which began in university and continued into his time as an MP. The party also pointed to revelations of homophobic or racist comments from UCP candidates, including two who resigned, as a sign that those problems ran deep in the party.
Mr. Kenney responded that society has transformed dramatically on the issue of same-sex rights and he accepts that. He also promised not to legislate on divisive social issues such as abortion.
Another area of controversy for Mr. Kenney, dating back to the UCP leadership race, will likely follow him into the premier’s office. The leadership election has been plagued by allegations that Mr. Kenney conspired to run a stalking-horse candidate, and allegations related to the vote itself. The province’s election commissioner and the RCMP are now involved.
Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, said the leadership controversies weren’t enough to endanger Mr. Kenney’s campaign, but have done lasting damage to his image and personal popularity.
“That’s going to continue to haunt him,” Dr. Bratt said. “He will be elected already significantly disliked, not just by the opposition but many of the people who voted for him.”
In B.C., where residents are bracing for higher gas prices following the election of the UCP in Alberta, the BC Liberal opposition promptly issued a fundraising appeal, blaming B.C. Premier John Horgan’s NDP government for creating tensions with Alberta. “Stop blocking pipelines. Stop turning our neighbours into enemies,” the party mailout said.
B.C. Premier John Horgan offered his congratulations to Jason Kenney on the Alberta election through a Twitter posting. “I look forward to working together in the interests of both of our provinces,” he tweeted. In a separate tweet, he acknowledged the loss of the NDP government in Alberta. “My sincere thanks to Premier Rachel Notley for her service to Albertans.”
JAMES KELLER, JUSTIN GIOVANNETTI AND CARRIE TAIT
The Globe and Mail, April 16, 2019