The unofficial law of Alberta political history

Here’s an interesting statistic; in Alberta’s nearly 114-year history and over 29 general elections, how often have the people of Alberta returned to power, a party that had previously governed the province, but had been voted out? Zero, never, not even once. In Alberta, history tells us that when the electorate turfs your party out of office, they salt the earth, so nothing ever grows there again.

Jason Kenney would surely know this fact. In part, it explains why he was so intent on creating the United Conservative Party (UCP) as a vehicle to bring him to the premier’s office, wrapped in the hope that Albertans perceive it as a completely new entity and not merely a resurrection of the old Progressive Conservative Party. As many commentators have pointed out, the election of Premier Rachel Notley’s government in 2015 was not really about Albertans embracing a leftward policy shift but more about wanting a new government, as widespread sentiment developed that the PC’s had become more concerned about political tactics, than standing up for the people in a softening economy.

It’s little surprise then, that in the current campaign, the UCP wants to focus on policy innovations while Premier Notley’s NDP would rather focus on the ethical issues coming out of their opponent’s leadership campaign to bolster their claim that the Conservatives haven’t really changed at all.

The imperative to appear as something new will drive Kenney’s campaign rhetoric, but also his approach towards Ottawa if, as all the pollsters are predicting, he becomes premier after the April 16 vote.

Kenney will need to differentiate himself from the generally more cooperative approach that Notley took to dealing with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government. Trudeau has tried to work collaboratively with Notley on many files, undoubtedly knowing that she is likely the closest thing to a Liberal premier in Alberta that he can hope for in his lifetime. The Alberta Liberals governed the province from 1905-1921 and, if one believes the unofficial law of Alberta political history, may not be eligible to ever govern it again.

All of this means that we should expect a much more antagonistic relationship between the federal government and one in Alberta headed by Jason Kenney.

He has already laid the groundwork for those flashpoints saying he will directly challenge the Government of Canada’s carbon pricing backstop and its impact assessment legislation.

While the Trudeau government is intent on getting construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline restarted before the federal election in fall 2019, Kenney will no doubt ramp up the rhetoric on this and other proposed pipeline projects. He has even promised to hold a referendum in 2021 on ending equalization if a costal pipeline is not already well underway.

Kenney is also demanding changes to the Fiscal Stabilization Fund, the transfer of tax points to the province to give Alberta more fiscal autonomy and the development of a Charter of Economic Rights to ensure provinces can develop their resources and get them to market.

The perennial issue of greater autonomy for Alberta and even outright independence will rear its head in the current campaign given that the Alberta Independence Party will have candidates on the ballot in most of the province’s ridings. While Kenney and other mainstream political leaders have rejected the separatist option as unrealistic, he and others have shown they are willing to point to public frustration and alienation to leverage better treatment for Alberta within Confederation.

While the election of Premier Kenney and a UCP government will certainly result in greater clashes and public battles with Ottawa, I do not expect the relationship to be completely dysfunctional. One clear insight I gained while working at the Alberta legislature was that the reality of being the Premier of Alberta shapes the actions of a premier more than their past political philosophy.

Just as Notley governed less like a doctrinaire socialist and more like one of the more moderate Progressive Conservative premiers, expect Premier Kenney’s campaign rhetoric to give way to a more businesslike approach where government of different stripes work constructively on issues of mutual interest for the betterment of all Albertans.