It was not a close call. Despite all the hand-wringing, all the reminders that the polls had gotten it wrong in Alberta before, in the end the province’s election unfolded precisely as expected: Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party won, handily.
Just after 11 p.m. MT, the UCP led or had been elected in 63 of the province’s 87 ridings, with the NDP, diminished to opposition status after their single term in government, leading or elected in the remaining 24. The NDP looked set to hold nearly all of Edmonton, with the UCP sweeping much of the rest of the province.
Kenney entered UCP headquarters at Calgary’s Stampede Grounds Tuesday night in the blue pickup truck he made famous on the campaign trail. As a “build that pipe” chant went up in the room, the UCP leader stopped the crowd to correct them. It’s not just one pipeline we need, it’s several, he said. “It’s build those pipes,” said Kenney.
“Today, we Albertans begin to fight back.”
Kenney’s victory marked the culmination of a years-long plan. The former Conservative cabinet minister left his seat in Ottawa in 2016 — after holding it for nearly two decades — with hopes of uniting Alberta’s fractured provincial conservative movement. The 2015 election saw the Progressive Conservatives, who had governed the province since 1971, hobbled by a split with the breakaway Wildrose Party. Vote-splitting between the two right-wing parties allowed Notley’s New Democrats to take power for the first time in the province’s history.
“As proud of I am of our record, the fact is the people of Alberta have spoken,” Notley, fighting a cold, told supporters at NDP headquarters on Tuesday night. It was a fiery concession speech, with Notley, who retained her seat, vowing to assume the role of opposition leader and “make sure that our vision of Alberta endures.”
“I believe we have set a much higher standard for ethics and honesty in government.”
She could barely get the opening bits of her speech out through the cheering and chants of “Rachel! Rachel! Rachel!” She thanked the “over-caffeinated, under-showered and overworked” campaign staff and volunteers.
The rollicking 28-day campaign in Alberta saw sustained attacks on Kenney’s character, as the NDP unearthed and released controversial comments he made on LGBTQ rights. Kenney insisted it was simply a “fear and smear” campaign, meant to distract from the NDP’s economic record.
“It was horrible,” said Dan Rose, a voter in Edmonton, told the Edmonton Journal. “I can’t think of a worse, more negative, more caustic campaign in my time. It was just awful.”
The economy has long been top of mind in the province. Since 2016, when the bottom fell out of the international oil market, Alberta has been in a prolonged recession; recovery, economists say, has stalled coming into 2019, with unemployment hovering around seven per cent.
Kenney argued Notley’s government made a bad situation worse with higher taxes, more regulations and increases in minimum wage. Notley, in turn, said Kenney’s plan to freeze spending and pursue more private healthcare options would have a profound effect on students and patients.
Sarah Hoffman, the former NDP health minister who held onto her seat in Edmonton, had tears in her eyes as she told reporters she was excited, despite it not being the outcome they’d wanted. “Honestly, it’s just so nice to see all the people who had your back,” Hoffman said. “I keep thinking about how we had thousands of more volunteers on this campaign than we did on the last one.”
Kenney’s victory sets up a long-anticipated fight with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government in Ottawa. In his time on Alberta’s opposition benches, Kenney seemed to direct as much criticism at Trudeau as at Notley. The primary point of friction has been the federal climate change plan. Kenney has vowed to make scrapping Alberta’s carbon tax his first order of business. That would lead to the federal carbon-pricing plan being imposed in Alberta, but Kenney has vowed that under his leadership Alberta will use the courts to challenge the federal plan’s constitutionality, the same approach taken by Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick.
Trudeau was asked in Kitchener, Ont., earlier Tuesday whether he was concerned about his climate plan should Kenney win.
“We have chosen to put a price on pollution right across the country and there are conservative politicians who are using taxpayer money to fight a price on pollution in court,” he responded.
“They are using your dollars to try to make pollution free again, which makes no sense.”
But in a statement late Tuesday, Trudeau took a more conciliatory tone, offering Kenney “sincere congratulations.”
“I look forward to working with the provincial government,” Trudeau said, “to create good, middle class jobs, build infrastructure, and grow the businesses and industries at the heart of Alberta’s prosperity so the province can remain competitive in our changing economy.”
Kenney has promised that his UCP government will start with a bang, launching a frantic first 100 days of legislation to undo the work of the previous NDP government. Beyond repealing the provincial carbon tax, their first move will be to make law a bill passed last year that would “turn off the taps” on oil and gas shipments to British Columbia, a move Kenney hopes will give him leverage if the west coast province tries to further interfere with the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline.
After that, Kenney will begin knocking down the many dominos contained in his massive campaign platform, with a focus on boosting investment in the province. Cutting the corporate tax rate, lowering the youth minimum wage and big push on deregulation are all on the docket in Kenney’s first session.
“Tonight I send a message to businesses everywhere: if you want to benefit from what will be the lowest taxes in Canada, a government that will cut its red tape burden by at least one third, with Canada’s best educated population and a deep culture of enterprise and innovation, come to Alberta,” Kenney said in his victory speech.
Kenney vowed to push back against environmental campaigns protesting Alberta’s oil industry, announcing plans for a public inquiry “into the foreign source of funds behind the campaign to landlock Alberta energy.”
“When multinational companies like HSBC boycott Alberta, we’ll boycott them,” he said.
Tuesday’s election is the latest in a series that have seen conservative governments taking power in provinces across the country. While Trudeau once enjoyed close working relationships with Liberal allies like former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and former Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, as well as Notley, conservative governments now hold power from Alberta through New Brunswick.