A View from Ontario: Owning the Conversation

If you’re watching the Alberta election from outside the province – you’re likely seeing a very different campaign. A campaign that suggests the United Conservative Party (UCP) might be losing its stronghold in polls and risks losing their dominant lead ahead of election day.

After the first debate last week offered nothing in the way of a “knock out punch” – they rarely do – the race in Alberta is situated today largely where it was when it all started – a UCP lead in a province concerned with their economic future.

While political watchers have been pontificating about the calamitous effect of the extensive coverage of the UCP’s social conservative eruptions throughout the campaign – it has mostly resulted in little erosion of support for the party. Especially where it matters most.

Numerous controversies have distracted the UCP campaign since it began – taking them off-message and onto a back-footed defensive position. The campaign team has been plagued with controversies related to white nationalism, homophobia, bigotry and racism, championed by people the party has attracted to seek office. But, Rachel Notley and her NDP Party’s unrelenting attacks on the UCP Leader and their candidates, won’t be enough to win the key battlegrounds. At least not without highlighting the Premier’s success over the past four years. Until now, we’ve seen very little from the NDP leader addressing the concerns of Albertans. The missed opportunity for the Premier has been to share her vision of the future – connecting with voters about their concerns in an economy that looks vastly different from the one Albertans enjoyed four years ago. An economy that has come almost to a standstill.

Despite the scandalous “bozo eruptions” and the small chorus of conservative voices questioning Kenney’s leadership – the attacks on him are falling flat with voters. Kenney continues to hit on his key messages: jobs, the economy and pipelines. And when the conversation is focused on those issues – the UCP remains the party most credible to manage the province going forward.

We’ve heard it throughout the campaign, “the election will be won or lost in Calgary” – and while conversations about questionable social positions isn’t what will win any party a majority of seats in Calgary – the current NDP attack narrative doesn’t seem to be shifting voters away from the UCP.

In Calgary, the economy remains at the forefront of voter’s minds and there is little that has been said to change that. The economic downturn of the last number of years, the growing unemployment rate, dwindling tax revenues and vacant office space spells it out loud and clear.

While narratives to demonize opponents in the election serve to frame a choice – it’s often not enough to move the electorate in a meaningful way. Opponents, especially those who have a record to defend, must always offer that defence. For Notley, that defence must include her plans to get Alberta’s economy back on track. It must include a plan to create jobs, to attract investment and most importantly to stand up to Ottawa when it comes to pipelines. The risk of talking only about values – at a time when the economy is central to voters, is exactly what media and pundits ignore. And as a result, we tend to see and hear a narrative about the campaign that doesn’t match what’s happening on the ground.

I’m not suggesting that values don’t matter, especially when they attack the fundamental rights of Canadians – but without a credible plan to address the anxieties of Alberta voters, a leader simply cannot win. Voters will always demand a plan.

As the campaign enters its final stretch, Kenney will continue to spend his airtime explaining what he wants to do for Alberta. And unless there is a notable shift in strategy, Notley will also spend her airtime explaining what Kenney will do for Alberta. And what voters will hear is this: jobs, economy and pipelines. And when everyone is talking about these issues – the UCP continues to own the conversation.