Alberta’s Tumultuous Campaign Kicks Off

Over less than a decade, Alberta’s provincial elections have gone from the most predictable in Canada to the least. On May 29, Albertans will head to the polls to make a very stark choice: re-elect the United Conservative Party (UCP) and give Premier Danielle Smith a full term, or return NDP Leader Rachel Notley to the Premier’s Office. This campaign will be closely fought, likely hinging on just a handful of ridings in Calgary. The outcome will have major consequences for the federal political landscape.

The UCP and the NDP are locked in a tight race. The latest public poll shows them tied at 46% support each, with no other party making much of an impact. This is an uncommon level of polarization in a Canadian election, and broken down regionally, the dynamics are stark. The NDP holds a 30-point lead in Edmonton, and can expect to win almost every seat in the city. The UCP holds a wide lead in rural Alberta, and can expect to safely re-elect most of its rural caucus. Calgary will be the scene of a fierce battle: the UCP leads city-wide by a small margin, but the NDP will be pushing hard to make inroads. Alberta’s next provincial government will likely be decided by a handful of voters in the closest ridings in Alberta’s largest city.

The UCP fighting this campaign is different from the party that won the 2019 election. Jason Kenney’s effort to build a broad, united conservative coalition has given way to Danielle Smith’s harder-edged government. Smith has taken a much harder line with Ottawa than Kenney, including passing a Sovereignty Act to assert greater provincial power over resources development. Smith herself has faced criticism over her reported personal intervention in criminal cases around the Coutts border blockade and COVID-19 violations, leading to her threatened lawsuit against media outlets reporting on the story. Smith’s UCP is in contention, pulling in votes from the party’s rural core, but it risks losing some of its urban supporters to the NDP.

Rachel Notley’s NDP feels optimistic about its position as a contender. The party boasts a substantial bank account, having out-fundraised the UCP by over $2 million in 2022. This financial advantage will enable the NDP to mount a vigorous campaign across the province. Feeling confident about holding their Edmonton strongholds, the NDP moved its headquarters to Calgary to build inroads in the hotly-contested city. The NDP is directing significant resources, personnel, and effort toward securing key seats that could put them back in government.

There cannot be a provincial election in Alberta without debate over the province’s oil and gas industry. While Smith and the UCP are never shy about their support for oil and gas over renewables, Notley has called for a more balanced approach of needing both renewables while supporting oil and gas. In April, the UCP government released a climate plan that targeted net-zero by 2050 and focused on using technology like carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) and increasing the use of biofuels. The NDP will likely continue to be cautious in its approach towards Alberta’s energy sector, recognizing a desire from its own supporters to take more drastic action to reduce emissions but also understanding the importance of the oil and gas sector to the livelihood of millions of Albertans.

Another key issue will be the federal government’s yet to be introduced “Just Transition” legislation. This upcoming federal bill is intended to help workers transition to low-carbon jobs and to help build Canada’s low-carbon economy. Both the UCP and NDP have taken aim at the process so far, with Smith accusing the federal Liberals of wanting to eliminate nearly 3 million jobs in the province, while Notley argues that the federal government’s poor consultation means that they should abandon any thought of introducing it. Justin Trudeau’s overall unpopularity hangs over the race. While the NDP may be more of a natural ally for the federal Liberals on environment issues, there is little doubt that Notley and her team recognize that they cannot afford to be seen as too supportive of the federal government. A re-elected Smith government will take the victory as a vindication of their intransigent approach.

This may be the most exciting and consequential provincial campaign of 2023 – and PAA will be there to follow it and keep our clients up-to-date on the latest developments.