Jason Kenney gets to enjoy a year-long sabbatical in 2018 from the campaign trail, after a maddeningly busy and successful year where he delivered four victory speeches: winning the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership (March), then the merger vote with the Wildrose Party (July), the new United Conservative Party leadership (October) and a Calgary byelection (December).
The Alberta right wing’s Mario-shaped protagonist must wait until spring 2019 to face the final villain, NDP Premier Rachel Notley, in the general election. The coming year will be full of preparing and positioning on either side for that big showdown, what seems like the home stretch for Alberta’s perpetual campaign.
The two sides will continue rhetorically as they have throughout 2017: Kenney and Co. calling their opponents the sinister and/or stumblebum socialist hordes, and the NDPers branding Kenney as the mean-spirited and arch-conservative destroyer of the common good.
But away from the Twitter memes and Question Periods that devolve into a hot mess of question-free and answer-free recriminations, Alberta’s premier and opposition leader will spend much of the year rushing to close the political gap between themselves. It’s not that they want to become indistinguishable from each other, rather Notley and Kenney both want to become unrecognizable from the caricatures that rivals have drawn of them (Bob Rae meets David Suzuki! Ralph Klein meets Mike Pence!)
Notley’s first two years created two easy targets for conservatives to thwack: a plunging economy and swelling deficit. The provincial economy’s getting back on its feet: TD Economics forecasts three per cent growth in the new year after 4.4-per-cent in 2017, or a full recovery from two recessionary years. Job growth, the lagging indicator that it tends to be, is also forecast to be stronger in 2018.
But the premier has yet to show shrewd fiscal management. The oil price crash and her fear thus far of cutting spending has left Alberta with a $10.2-billion deficit, not only the biggest by far among provinces but also the nation’s highest imbalance relative to economy size. It’s not just opposition critics harrumphing: credit ratings agency perennially hammer the NDP government for lacking a plan to return to balance, other than hoping a buoyant economy does all the work. So Notley has invented the odd term “compassionate belt-tightening”–some spending restraint that sits in the ambiguous middle between Thatcherite and, oh, typical NDP budgeting. The only detail of this Notley has signalled is a slowdown on infrastructure spending, now that less stimulus is needed; it’s unclear how much of a squeeze public service recipients or the NDP’s union brothers and sisters will feel. Depending on how deftly Notley manoeuvres, Kenney’s cries of fiscal carnage may be downgraded to a meeker “too little, too late,” a line he’s recently peddled.
Kenney, on his side, is supposed to finally develop United Conservative stances other than killing the carbon tax. He’d prefer to shake off the misleading allegation by the NDP that he wants to slash health, education and the rest of the public pie by 20 per cent–a mischievous extrapolation from Kenney’s common complaint that the B.C. government spends 20 per cent less per capita than Alberta. He’s begun suggesting a spending freeze or a one- or two-point reduction (slighter than the axe Klein wielded in the 1990s) to get the budget balanced by 2022–points he’ll doubtless highlight to show his pragmatic side. Notley’s professed goal is a plan to balance by 2023. Some ideological chasm, that one.
The Alberta NDP will keep boosting pipelines in the new year, and its posture may resemble more of the bellicosity Kenney advocates if the B.C. NDP government finds success in delaying Kinder Morgan’s federally approved Trans Mountain pipeline. Notley will keep cheering on and incentivizing the private sector in ways that would make their old NDP opposition selves squirm.
Though the United Conservative grassroots may hotly contest any sort of climate plan, Kenney will have to come up with some credible replacement to the NDP’s mix of carbon tax and heavy-emitter regulations on industry, particularly after the Manitoba government’s legal opinion said the federal Liberals have every right to impose their carbon tax. (Big Oil, sick of the being called environmental laggards like they used to be, may demand this moreso than the electorate.)
With a commanding lead in the polls, Kenney also doesn’t feel he needs to completely strip off his conservatism like Ontario’s Patrick Brown has, but he will need to do what Stephen Harper did federally: keep his party’s social conservative impulses at bay. His candidate selection will not only aim to screen out trouble-causing extremists, but he’ll also be looking for a strong contingent of female candidates, particularly in battleground Calgary. Notley, meanwhile, will scout for candidates with business backgrounds, particularly in battleground Calgary.
As both party leaders can attest from their experience in the power seats, government has a moderating effect on its practitioners. Kenney was no radical in the federal Conservative cabinet; Notley isn’t a radical atop Alberta’s cabinet. As they both reach to secure Alberta’s political centre in 2018, however, they have different goals. Kenney needs to dispel myths, and secure his lead. Notley needs to seriously change minds if she has any hope of regaining the lead she only held briefly around spring 2015, the last time Albertans voted.
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