Alberta's election race is on! Or it's strangely slow. Or it's all just one long slog

The provincial campaign just launched. So why is one leader rehashing a previous announcement and another saying nothing at all?

Danielle Smith's UCP deems silence a political virtue, while Rachel Notley recycles

UCP leader Danielle Smith walks in a suburban neighbourhood with candidate Matt Jones.
United Conservative Party Leader Danielle Smith walks with a Calgary candidate to her event on the election campaign's first official day. Smith wasn't seen publicly on the second. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

It might be a fallacy to call this week Alberta's election campaign kick-off, except in technical terms.

With the May 29 fixed election date known long in advance, the governing party and its chief opposition have been campaigning full-out for most of 2023, at least.

The election's formal call may be better considered the marker of the final 28 days of this long contest. That, plus we now get blue and orange lawn signs.

The strange pace of things on Tuesday gave an indication of how little the campaign's official Day 2 means when so many de-facto campaign days have preceded it.

One campaign did nothing, another did nothing particularly new, and the most dramatic part of the day came at a Lethbridge courthouse, and featured Artur Pawlowski, who has become a character in Alberta's ongoing drama about COVID and politics, justice and leadership.

UCP Leader Danielle Smith stayed out of the public eye altogether. Private campaigning, a tweet or two, nothing to announce or remark about where she wishes to take Alberta (though one can assume the answer is "forward," as per her slogan). 

All that back-and-forth about her taking one question from each journalist and no follow-ups? It's begun to appear likely that on many or most campaign days, there will be no media questions and no follow-ups.

Ford tempo 

The strategy in this is plain: limit the amount of slip-ups or errors from a party leader who's had to backtrack on many utterances before. Many UCP supporters worry the biggest risk to the campaign is what Danielle Smith might say.

There's a model for this: Ontario's 2018 election. Doug Ford, the provincial Tories' then-new and  highly unpredictable leader conducted much of his leader's tour shielded from public scrutiny. It worked, and he's currently enjoying his second majority mandate.

This isn't to say this strategy isn't cynical, that it doesn't prevent voters from getting to see the ideas and principles of a would-be premier stress-tested in uncontrolled environments, or see how she responds to various challenges or questions, or learn more about the leader than the precise dollops of information the campaign wants us to know.

This is only to say it has worked before.

A bearded preacher speaks into a microphone to his supporters. A Canadian flag is behind his head.
Tuesday's conviction of Calgary preacher Artur Pawlowski on offences related to the Coutts border blockade brought back into the election discussion UCP Leader Danielle Smith's controversial phone call with him about the charges he faced. (Ose Irete/CBC)

And Tuesday was a most conspicuous day to have Smith adhere to the Doug Ford playbook. Pawlowski, the long-controversial Calgary preacher that Smith had spoken to about his legal troubles in January, was found guilty of three charges connected to his fiery speech urging truckers to maintain their blockade at the Coutts border crossing last year. 

A prison sentence may follow. This now criminally convicted individual was told by Alberta's premier that she was speaking about charges like his "almost weekly" with top Alberta Justice officials, and was frustrated there "can't be a political decision to end it" — like a premier granting amnesty.

With no opportunity to ask her about her former phone correspondent's conviction, media instead had to request a campaign statement. "As the Premier has made clear, she will not be commenting on this matter as it is the subject of an ongoing ethics commissioner review and that process must be respected."

(Smith will appear on one morning radio show Wednesday, though the UCP schedule mentions no broader media availability.)

NDP Leader Rachel Notley, meanwhile, was holding a media-accessible campaign event, and gamely handled a question about Pawlowski's verdict. "Quite frankly Albertans are very, very nervous about the extreme nature of Mr. Pawlowski's views and the fact that Danielle Smith clearly aligned herself with him, up to and including being prepared to interfere with the administration of justice on his behalf," she said.

Reviving an idea

Otherwise what did Notley do publicly to follow up Day 1's lively rally in a packed office with hundreds of NDP supporters — and knowing by Tuesday morning that she'd have the attention edge of being the only major party leader appearing before TV cameras and news reporters that day? 

She stood on a windswept patch of grass across the street from Calgary's Foothills Hospital. Standing alongside one doctor, one patient and one candidate, she spoke about the NDP's plan to bolster medical clinics with "family health teams." 

It's an intriguing enhancement for doctor access, but also a promise Notley first made back in February in the longer, unofficial part of Alberta's campaign.

Asked why she was making a re-announcement of a previous promise on the election period's second day, the leader replied that there was some new bit in her plan, to fund extended evening hours of these well-staffed medical clinics.

Rachel Notley speaks into a microphone in the shadow of a hospital sign, as three women who support her campaign look on.
After a big rally on the campaign's first official day, NDP Leader Rachel Notley held a much more subdued campaign event on Day 2, speaking about health care on a windswept patch of grass across the street from a Calgary hospital. (Jason Markusoff/CBC)

Notley added that people aren't paying as much attention two months out as they are during the month of the election. Which is true. But it's also true that those of us in the news business have an ingrained bias towards reporting what is new, rather than what was new nearly three months ago.

This campaign's jagged pace thus far might be a symptom of how marathon-like this campaign is, with perhaps more frenzied activity to come in later weeks.

It might also speak to how dug in both sides feel the impression of their leaders and parties are, and how flooding the airwaves and information space with new information may not add much to an already dense conversation.

But let's make the most of the silence. Not to bask in it (though it's less exhausting, and that's kinda nice), but to reflect on what came out earlier in the week.

Smith's first-day promise was worth chewing on for more than one day, and quite historic: the first provincial income tax cut in more than two decades. 

The eight per cent

A new eight per cent tax bracket for income under $60,000 is a solid reduction from the current 10 per cent. It also brings Alberta closer in line with the lighter rates for lower-income residents in British Columbia and Ontario — a gap that long undermined this province's claim of a "tax advantage."

One shouldn't view Smith's promise to lower a tax rate in isolation from her promise to change laws to require a referendum before any future government increases an income tax rate. A premier must ask Albertans for approval to adjust taxes in one direction, but can do as she wishes if lowering.

Let's also view it in conjunction with the concerns out there that Alberta is perilously reliant on ever-volatile oil and gas royalties to fund government programs. Smith said her tax cut will remove $1 billion from annual revenue, from a fairly stable stream of income.

Notley's response was an embrace of government revenue's value — she asked whether Smith would cut from health or education to compensate for her tax cut.

What the UCP promises cannot stop is the rather existential revenue conversation Alberta will likely one day have if resource revenues decline for long periods. But it would certainly constrain that conversation, even as it provides some certainly welcome relief for today's taxpayers.

That is a broader and deeper conversation than the one Alberta is engaged in right now. It's just not clear how much anybody wants to participate in it with something new to say.


Jason Markusoff

Producer and writer

Jason Markusoff analyzes what's happening — and what isn't happening, but probably should be — in Calgary, Alberta and sometimes farther afield. He's written in Alberta for more than two decades, previously reporting for Maclean's magazine, Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal. He appears regularly on Power and Politics' Power Panel and various other CBC current affairs shows. Reach him at