THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
The 2023 provincial general election puts an end to the United Conservative Party (UCP) government’s chaotic first term and should provide Albertans with reasonably stable, pro-growth, and pro-public safety government for the next four years.
That this was a difficult election for the UCP to win is already well documented by pollsters and pundits. The UCP cruised to victory in 2019 with what former Alberta Premier Jason Kenney declared as the “largest democratic mandate in Alberta history.” Regrettably, former premier Kenney clung to this notion when his governing style ran afoul with Albertans, and more importantly, his party membership. Instead of acknowledging his mistakes (something Ralph Klein was always willing to do), Kenney would insist there was no problem and lurch to the next crisis, of which there were many. Ultimately, Kenney’s cocky and bombastic approach to leadership resulted in his resignation in May of 2022, following a tumultuous leadership review that left the UCP fractured. With just under a year to the next election (Alberta’s election dates are legislated), the UCP found itself looking for a new leader.
Premier Danielle Smith assumed her office with a caravan of political baggage accumulated throughout her previous life as a radio show host, columnist, and storied COVID-response skeptic. The prevailing theory among the pundit class was that Smith had no chance of winning re-election given her willingness to entertain and discuss the most unconventional and controversial ideas. Her opposition, the Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) led by former premier Rachel Notley, would cruise to an easy victory by running a safe campaign that eschews the radical policies of 2015, like a deeply unpopular carbon tax and the unionization of farms, and instead opt for something more moderate and palatable for Albertans. Of course, the NDP would make proverbial hay out of Smith’s history of statements, but that would be outsourced to NDP proxies. That was the plan, and in another province that plan might’ve worked.
Campaigns matter, but Calgary seats matter more. The road to forming government ran through Calgary where the UCP already had the advantage. Winning Calgary was a Herculean task for the NDP; they flipped a few seats in the city, but failed to capture the hearts and minds of Calgarians by mimicking what they thought was a conservative message. Ultimately, the NDP’s message of competent economic managers was undermined by two factors: a 38% (3 points) corporate tax increase and billion-dollar hole in the costing of their platform. These two unforced errors reminded voters that, while they might like Rachel Notley, they don’t trust an NDP government to protect their paycheques.
The UCP, on the other hand, played it safe. There was no platform with 300 commitments attempting to transform every aspect of life in Alberta. Instead, the UCP focussed on affordability and public safety, two issues that the NDP failed to address. The UCP also ran a nimble campaign by quickly resetting their message after a tranche of unhelpful opposition research was dumped. Smith’s winning performance at the debate left viewers with the impression that, yes, she was leading a big-tent mainstream conservative party that Albertans could vote for. The UCP also delivered a tax cut for all Albertans and pledged not to raise taxes without a referendum. All told, the UCP presented Albertans a compelling, albeit imperfect, option on election day and voters responded by delivering another mandate for four years.
Going forward, Smith and her team will have to make some difficult choices in assembling a cabinet, with some of the more experienced cabinet ministers chose not to run for re-election or lost their seats. Expect a swearing-in ceremony to be announced within the next couple of weeks and mandate letters to follow. Unlike Kenney, who immediately went to the legislature to implement his agenda, there will be no legislative session until the fall, which is when budget consultations begin. This slight delay is welcomed by Albertans who are largely fatigued by the political chaos of the last few years.
Questions about the future of the NDP will start to percolate. Rachel Notley has now lost two consecutive elections. Her grand bargain of campaigning from the right didn’t pay off and, perhaps, alienated a few of the party faithful. Surely there are activists within the NDP who also think it’s time for new leadership. Alberta is now a two-party province and the NDP remains a competitive and disruptive force in this province. How they respond to this defeat will matter.
For now, Albertans should just enjoy the summer.