Just months from a parliamentary election that will decide if Justin Trudeau’s Liberals can remain in power, Canada’s embattled Prime Minister has lost one of his strongest remaining allies, as Alberta’s left-leaning provincial government has been swept out of office after just four years.
Jason Kenney, the fiery leader of the newly-created United Conservative Party (UCP) and a former rival of Trudeau’s in federal Parliament, turfed Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party (NDP) from power, nearly tripling his party’s seat count, to an estimated 63 (out of 87) as of Wednesday morning.
At his election-night party in Calgary, Kenney drove in on his signature blue pickup truck and declared that “Alberta has delivered a message to Canada, and the rest of the world!”
The election of yet another conservative provincial Premier, the fourth to take office since Trudeau became Prime Minister, will mean more courtroom headaches for his government as it seeks to continue a carbon-pricing scheme, and could signal trouble for his party as it begins its re-election campaign.
Notley’s New Democratic Party (NDP) surged to power in Alberta in the spring of 2015, catapulting from just 4 seats to 54, forming a government for the first time in the province’s history. Her party put an end to 44 years of continuous rule by the Progressive Conservative Party, one of the longest political dynasties in North American history.
The political right in the province had been divided for years, and the NDP’s victory pushed the PCs and right-wing Wildrose Party to merge. In 2017, the two parties dissolved into the United Conservative Party (UCP), under the leadership of former federal cabinet minister Kenney.
While Trudeau was not on the ballot during Tuesday's election — and the provincial branch of his Liberal Party barely registered a pulse, at barely 2% of the provincewide vote — the election was largely fought over the government in Ottawa and its environmental policies.
Upon a single mention of Trudeau’s Liberal government at the UCP’s election-night party, the crowd of thousands erupted into boos.
Kenney has promised to conclude the province’s carbon tax, introduced by Notley in 2016, and it is nearly-certain he will join the court challenge launched by Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford against the federal price on carbon.
He has also attacked what he’s called “the Notley-Trudeau Alliance”, referring to the friendly relationship between the outgoing Premier and the Prime Minister. Kenney is vowing to have more success in building new oil pipelines from the landlocked province to Canada’s coasts, a critical and emotional issue in the province that is home to the vast majority of the country’s oil reserves.
Notley insisted that her consensus-building approach was the best way for Alberta to get other provinces, the federal government and indigenous communities on-board with oil pipelines. Kenney, by contrast, has vowed that as Premier he will attack anyone and everyone who criticizes Alberta’s oil industry, from environmentalists to the press to other provincial Premiers.
The Premier-designate has criticized what he has called “foreign-funded special interests” that are seeking to destroy the province’s resource-based economy at the expense of oil producers in the United States. In a moment echoing President Trump, Kenney remarked last night that “Canada has been had”, but that he can fix it.
Multiple times on the campaign trail, Mr. Kenney promised to “turn off the taps” of oil to British Columbia, the province just over the Rocky Mountains with whom Alberta has fought over the Trans-Mountain pipeline project. Trudeau and Notley supported the pipeline, but it has yet to be constructed, something Kenney has vowed to see through once he takes office.
The Premier-designate also assured his supporters that much-needed economic relief was coming.
“Help is on the way, and hope is on the rising,” Kenney said. “Albertans have elected a government that will be obsessed with creating jobs”, adding that he hopes to get a “better deal” with Canada’s other nine provinces once he takes office.
Alberta’s average household income remains the highest in Canada, and retail spending remains high, but the province has been mired in a recession for several years as the price of oil has been stuck stubbornly-low. 11 million square feet of office space sits vacant in Calgary, the province’s financial capital and largest city. Unemployment in the province is at 7.3%, far higher than the national average.
Kenney’s strong election victory came despite a campaign many observers described as lackluster. The UCP leader was criticized over the course of the election campaign for his reluctance to disavow several candidates after past remarks emerged from them attacking the LGBTQ community people and racial and religious minorities. In the dying days of the campaign, one of Kenney’s candidates was the subject of an RCMP investigation.
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The personal conduct of Kenney himself also came under intense scrutiny. In an interview with conservative talk radio host Charles Adler, Kenney struggled to apologize for his work in the 1980’s, preventing dying AIDS patients in San Francisco from seeing their partners in the hospital.
The NDP purchased ad time on national LGBT+ specialty channel OutTV — which airs the popular reality series “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in Canada — highlighting Kenney’s involvement in that effort thirty years ago. The advertisements desperately urged gay Canadians across the country to phonebank on Ms. Notley’s behalf. It seems, however, that was not enough to keep Mr. Kenney out of the Premier’s office.
Addressing her disappointed supporters in Edmonton Tuesday night, Rachel Notley was surprisingly jubilant, saying “we did our job with purpose, and we did it with integrity, and today Alberta is a better place because of it.” She also extended an olive branch to Premier-designate Kenney, saying she looks forward to working with him in the legislature as opposition leader.
While her party became the first government in the province’s history to win only one term in office, Ms. Notley’s NDP will form the largest opposition caucus that Alberta has seen in decades.
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That could yet be a glimmer of hope for Canada’s progressives aiming to minimize their losses at the ballot-box this October: four of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal MPs are from Alberta, and their seats could be critical to deciding if Trudeau can remain in office this October.