From the price of oil to the global pandemic and a great many other things along the way, the Premiership of Jason Kenney has seen highs and lows unimagined on election night April 16, 2019.

Winning 63 of the legislature’s 87 seats, Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party decisively swept Rachel Notley’s New Democrats from office. They immediately began work to implement the first priorities of the 375 commitments detailed in the Alberta Strong and Free election platform. These included repealing the provincial carbon tax, cutting Alberta’s corporate tax, changing workplace standards on farms and ranches and challenging Ottawa on equalization and the environment.

Less than 12 months later came a series of events summed up accurately by the phrase “you can’t make this up,” culminating with Kenney’s resignation on May 18, 2022, after receiving only 51.4 per cent support in the party’s leadership review.

Perhaps most of all, the fall of Kenney’s leadership highlighted the wide range of views among Alberta conservatives and the deep divisions the UCP banner had papered over, but not bridged.

To no surprise, these divisions have been readily visible in a leadership contest distinguished particularly by its major focus on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Constitution, and provincial and individual rights. For the most part, little attention has been paid to the issues of day-to-day concern for Albertans. Pulled along by the perceived frontrunner, six of the seven leadership campaigns were weighted heavily with strong anti-Ottawa sentiments and commitments. According to several polls, this campaign focus largely missed the mark with Alberta voters overall.

The opposition New Democrats will seek to use this fault line to their advantage in the upcoming provincial election, but first comes a new UCP government with post pandemic opportunity and strong economic tailwinds to pitch themselves to Alberta voters and leave the discord of the recent past to the history books.

The lengthy process ended tonight with the tallying of over 85,000 ballots. Following six rounds of counting, Danielle Smith becomes UCP leader and, upon being sworn in by Lieutenant Governor General Salma Lakhani, will be the 19th Premier of Alberta. With Smith’s win, Alberta will now have had more women as Premier than any other province or territory.

Next, Smith will appoint her cabinet and the defeated candidates and other caucus members will need to determine their future in the party. The new team will need to act swiftly to prepare for the Fall sitting of the Legislature and the 2023 provincial election campaign which will effectively act as the UCP’s audition and reintroduction to Albertans. A well-funded NDP who has had many months to prepare awaits, and there will be little room to stumble.

The divisions laid bare under Kenney and amplified during the leadership campaign now pose formidable obstacles to a re-elected UCP government. The polling shows though that Alberta remains a conservative province in search of a compelling leader. The mantle now shifts to Smith to be that person and to find the platform to unify Alberta conservatives and bring them out to vote.

The NDP View

With an experienced team acting as Official Opposition critics, a new slate of well-qualified candidates, detailed policy proposals and strong fundraising, Rachel Notley’s New Democrats stand far better prepared than in 2015. Aided by UCP controversies – literally from the day the Kenney team assumed office to as recently as a month ago – the NDP’s internal challenges have largely fallen from public view. Following the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions upon which the New Democrats took a harder line than most Albertans, Notley and her team have appeared focused on the day-to-day worries and challenges of everyday Albertans. Although, as noted above, the NDP’s proposed solutions often collide with the policy preferences of Alberta’s largely conservative electorate, the alignment of the party with the hands-on concerns of Albertans has strongly differentiated Rachel Notley’s team from the UCP during the many months of the leadership review and contest.

For Notley and the Alberta NDP, the issue is less about who the UCP chooses as its leader and far more about drama and distraction. The New Democrats’ offer to Alberta voters effectively amounts to: “Tired of a UCP government that’s focused on itself? Vote for the NDP and get a government focused on you.”

The approach leverages widespread personal goodwill toward Notley. It downplays the policy differences with many Albertans that led to the defeat of the NDP government after only a single term in office. In the words of Jason Kenney himself, Rachel Notley has performed “tremendous public service” and has been “devoted to making life better for our fellow citizens.”  But, as the polls continue to illustrate, most Albertans do not share her party’s preferred policy solutions and consequently – even with new strengths and assets well in place – the provincial NDP remains singularly about the leadership of Rachel Notley.

To win a second provincial election, Notley must prevail in battleground ridings in Calgary and Edmonton’s outer ring. To win a strong majority, the New Democrats must rely on community champions newly selected as candidates to carry the day in ridings outside of the two major centres. When viewed on a regional basis, the polling numbers clearly map out the challenge for the NDP, but the 2015 victory broke the mold, and, at the time of this writing, all bets are off.

With an economic forecast stronger than seen in many years, performance in the legislature will matter, the campaign will matter, and the absolute poles of Alberta politics so strongly highlighted in 2019 may fade from black and white to voting choices that are much more gray and local candidate-focused.

The playbook as we know it

  • Premier Smith has set out a three-point plan for her government’s first six months: pushing back against Ottawa, enshrining choice in medical options in legislation, and reforming Alberta Health Services.
  • Smith will run in a by-election to gain a seat in Alberta’s legislature.  Several UCP MLAs have offered to resign to allow Smith to run, though she has expressed a preference to run in her home riding of Livingstone-Macleod. The by-election process will require at least six weeks to complete.
  • The Fall sitting of the Legislature will be delayed until November.
  • Any new policy ideas will be determined by the UCP caucus. No policy or change will move forward without strong support from UCP MLAs. In addition to the three-point plan, other initiatives include additional supports for kid’s mental health, changing the Alberta Human Rights Actto protect people who choose not to be vaccinated.
  • There will be no changes to the coverage provided under the Canada Health Act.
  • The next provincial election will not be called earlier than the legislated date of May 29, 2023.

What this means for you

Premier Smith will swiftly appoint her cabinet. Speculation will run rife until the day the new Ministers walk through the doors of the Government House. Premier Smith will have a lot to consider: will this be the starting lineup for the 2023 campaign, or will it be the carrot Smith’s supporters have been working towards after many political and media sticks? Smith has applauded some current Cabinet Ministers for doing good work, noting she may keep some in their roles.

Cabinet Ministers will take time to get up-to-speed on their portfolios to prepare for the Fall Session and align with their boss’ priorities.

Stakeholders have the chance to work hand in hand with the government rebuilding bridges and gathering support for 2023. The government will be eager to continue riding the $13 billion surplus wave and look to translate those well-filled coffers to ballot checkmarks come springtime.

Now is the time to refresh your public affairs and advocacy programs to reflect Alberta’s new political reality. Only then should engagement begin with Ministers, their staff (many of whom will be new to their roles) and caucus members.

Authored by Tim Moro, Natalie Sigalet, Jessica Conlin, and Eliza Snider from H+K’s team in Edmonton and Calgary.