By JAMES KELLER, JUSTIN GIOVANNETTI, CARRIE TAIT
Wednesday, April 17, 2019
CALGARY EDMONTON T CALGARY -- 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.
By late Tuesday night, the UCP had captured a clear majority of the popular vote, with 53 per cent support compared with 33 per cent for the NDP. Mr.Kenney's party was elected or leading in 62 ridings; the NDP was ahead in 24. The New Democrats, who won the 2015 election with 40.6 per cent of the popular vote, were reduced to about 33 per cent in Tuesday's tally.
Mr. Kenney, who was a prominent member of former prime minister Stephen Harper's cabinet, led the UCP to victory in Tuesday's provincial election 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.
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.
"Tonight's result is not the one that we hoped for or worked so hard for. But, you know ... I am filled with an enormous sense of gratitude and pride," said Ms.Notley.
"Four years ago, Albertans hired us to do a very big job at a very difficult time, and we did that job with purpose. And we did it with integrity. And today Alberta is a better place because of it."
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."
Prof. Lander said that while previous Alberta premiers have appealed to regional grievances, they did not make the federal government such a direct target.
"Even in the days of Ralph Klein, I don't think it was this much finger-jabbing at the feds," he said.
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-yearold 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.
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."
With reports from Jeff Lewis and Jeff Jones in Calgary, and Jana G.
Pruden in Edmonton
United Conservative Party supporters celebrate Alberta election results in Calgary on Tuesday evening. JEFF McINTOSH/THE CANADIAN PRESS