CALGARY—For a province that had, not so long ago, kept the same party in office for 44 straight years, today’s Alberta has taken to political competition with gusto.
As the writ dropped Monday, the stakes for this spring’s election were high.
Polling has the ruling United Conservatives and the opposition New Democrats — and their charismatic leaders — neck and neck as they pitch very distinct visions for the province most commonly associated on the national stage with big cowboy hats, bigger oil deposits and squabbles with Ottawa.
“For people who find politics interesting, it doesn’t get much better than this,” says Lisa Young, a political scientist at the University of Calgary.
“But what’s in it for the rest of the country?
The short answer, experts say, is that the winner at the end of May will have a big stick when it comes to energy and environmental policy. They may even determine how much time Justin Trudeau will spend trading barbs with provincial leadership.
The outcome may also test the waters of a new kind of Canadian conservatism.
“I think it’s actually a very important election for the rest of Canada,” Young says.
The high drama
This election will see a major political comeback. The question is whose.
On the right is the United Conservative Party’s Danielle Smith, a former journalist and talk radio host who became premier eight months ago after a leadership race to replace Jason Kenney.
The victory came roughly a decade after Smith, then the leader of the right-wing Wildrose, was punted into political exile after refusing to condemn a candidate who said gay people would spend eternity “in the lake of fire,” a phrase still used as shorthand in Alberta years later to refer to a politician who has said something they should not have.
Smith was a vocal critic of Kenney and succeeded him by harnessing a more right-wing faction of the party. But she has continued to struggle with controversial comments as premier. (She called the unvaccinated the “most discriminated group” she’d seen in her lifetime.)
On the left is the NDP’s Rachel Notley, a lawyer whose father led the provincial party for almost two decades before he was killed in a plane crash.
Notley was at the helm in 2015 when the NDP shocked even itself with a historic result, toppling a Progressive Conservative party that had ruled for the previous four decades.
The NDP was later defeated by Kenney and now Notley’s task is to prove that the New Democrats are a real contender, rather than a blip in the history books.
Rural, urban — and Calgary
The traditional election calculus in Alberta holds that Edmonton will go left, the rural areas will go conservative, and that this race will likely be decided in Calgary.
Contrary to stereotypes, the home of the Stampede is the third most diverse city in the country, highly urbanized and counts among its residents many born elsewhere, which can make it hard to predict politically, says Daniel Béland, the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
“People outside Alberta often think of Alberta as a unified conservative province where people wear cowboy hats,” he says. “But it’s a complex province. It’s not as simple as the image that some politicians, some Albertan politicians, project of it, and even what the media portray.”
The results of the election will have ripple effects outside the province.
Edmonton vs. Ottawa
Even on a regular day, Alberta plays an outsized role in national conversations about environment and energy. The relationship Alberta has with Ottawa in the wake of the provincial election, as shaped by the winner, could have a significant impact on how some of those issues play out across the country.
“After the election, once the dust settles, what will be the relationship that Alberta will build with the federal government?” says Charles St-Arnaud, the chief economist for Alberta Central, the central banking facility for the province’s credit unions.
“There are a lot of crucial economic policies that are set to be put in place,” he says, citing net-zero plans as one example.
“It’s not something that we will be able to do just on our own. It needs discussion in a broader context within Canada.”
A Prairie alliance under Smith?
During her time in office, Smith has made national headlines for pushing back at Ottawa, an effort that, if given the runway of another term, could become even more pronounced. It’s a strategy demanded by some in Alberta who see themselves as unfairly treated by the federal government, but which would also make it harder to accomplish federal goals, particularly if the Prairie provinces start to band together.
“A Smith government would probably link arms with the Moe government in Saskatchewan,” Young says.
“Once you’ve got a couple of provinces saying that they’re going to try to opt out elements of Canadian federalism, you’ve got a real sort of disintegrative impulse happening, which I think will pull on the fabric that holds the country together.”
She points to specific proposals, such as the possible creation of an Alberta Pension Plan. Putting the issue to a referendum could be destabilizing to the Canadian plan.
There’s also the fact that the Alberta oil industry is a significant producer of greenhouse gases and that while the government has announced an “aspiration” to be net-zero by 2050, there aren’t a lot of details as to how that will happen.
“The election of a Smith government would make it extraordinarily difficult for the federal government to go ahead with its planned effort to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.
Two distinct visions of Alberta
As the province continues to get serious about diversifying its economy to be less dependent on oil, some have wondered about the NDP’s ability to support new industries.
Furthermore, issues such as equalization — an area where the UCP has been very critical of the funding formula — are less likely to be raised as urgently under an NDP government.
When Alberta heads to the polls on May 29, the outcome will say something about the future of Alberta, Béland says, but also about where conservatism in the country may be heading, and whether populism could be a way forward for other federal and provincial parties on the right.
But in the province that has never seen a minority government, the next four weeks will see a real battle.
“It might be really quite tight, and it will be interesting,” he says. “The campaign will matter.”
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