Alberta NDP's best summer ever looms as Jason Kenney fades away

Kenney’s prolonged departure and a potentially months-long race to replace him means the UCP is sidelining itself during one of the most productive seasons for politics — summer. 

Rachel Notley has time to prepare for 2023 election, but it's tough to size up an unknown rival

Rachel Notley at the 2016 Calgary Stampede, while she was premier. This is her last summer before she bids for a return to the premier's chair in the 2023 provincial election. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by campaign strategist Leah Ward, a former aide to Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's political demise leaves a big opening for NDP Leader Rachel Notley. But a leaderless United Conservative Party creates big unknowns for the NDP's strategic calculus.

If nature abhors a vacuum, so does politics.

The opportunity for Notley's party to fill in this gap is more immediate. Kenney's prolonged departure and a potentially months-long race to replace him means the UCP is sidelining itself during one of the most productive seasons for politics — summer. 

For most politicians, summer is a buffet of opportunity. Unencumbered by legislature sittings, MLAs are released to their home ridings where they can talk to constituents, community leaders, and stakeholders to make and re-make important connections. 'Tis the season of barbecues, Pride parades, fundraisers, and not least of all, the Calgary Stampede. 

Jason Kenney infamously removed nearly all COVID-19 measures in time for last summer's circuit, hoping he would be able to schmooze his way back into popularity after steadily declining poll numbers. But as much as last year failed to bring the best summer ever for the UCP, 2022 could be the best summer for Notley and her party. 

NDP's summer funspot: Calgary

The UCP leadership race means its MLAs and operatives will have to spend much of their summer working on their preferred candidate's campaign. Meanwhile, the NDP will be taking full advantage of a clear runway to continue growing their pre-election ground game and, most importantly, their campaign for Calgary. 

Unquestionably, the next election will be determined by who can win the most seats in Calgary, with Edmonton a lock for the NDP and the rest of Alberta tilted in the UCP's favour. The NDP knows this, and is tackling it head on. A quick glimpse at the social media accounts of any Alberta New Democrat, even the Edmontonians, will reveal a major presence in the city. 

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley has spent more time in Calgary in recent years than she did as premier, given the city's importance as the election battleground, writes former aide Leah Ward. (Alberta NDP )

Contested nominations, packed event halls, and well-attended fundraisers abound. These are prime organizing months in normal times but in the one-year run-up to the election, time spent in the battleground city is crucial and the NDP is taking full advantage. 

The significance of this cannot be overstated. Notley has spent more time in Calgary since 2019 than she did as premier. As public opinion polling points to the possibility of her return to government, demand for face time with her and key senior staff is increasing as quickly as it is made available. 

The NDP has already kicked off its summer with election-style announcements on economic diversification, health-care funding and a curriculum reset. They're also hitting self-induced sore points for the UCP by pledging to cancel the Kananaskis user fee and end coal mining on the eastern slopes.

Notley versus TBD

Insofar as the summer holds the potential for significant gains for the NDP, the fall brings as many challenges. Because until a new UCP leader is chosen, they're shadowboxing an unknown opponent. 

While no date has yet been confirmed by UCP officials, some speculated scenarios push the leadership vote as far out as the end of October — coinciding with an opportunity to present a fiscal update that could forecast a budget surplus north of $10 billion. 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney applauds after Finance Minister Travis Toews delivered the 2022 budget in February. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

If that comes to pass, a new UCP leader will have more than enough (petty) cash to clean up a number of issues dogging the current premier and party. Without breaking a sweat, they could reindex disability support payments to inflation, restore education funding to match enrolment, and cancel the Kananaskis fee. 

Knocking off a few high-profile problem files could give a new leader the fresh start they'll be looking for. If the UCP can prove itself trustworthy of managing this latest revenue windfall, removing these wedge issues could also suck the wind out of the NDP's sails.

The NDP might anticipate these moves and keep its focus on the UCP's most gaping vulnerability — public trust. The ballot box question in the next election could centre on which party Albertans trust to manage the surplus.

And if top-of-mind issues remain centred on economic diversification, restoring stability in health care and education, and improving affordability, the NDP may be the more appealing option. 

But the failsafe for the NDP is to hold fast to the ground game in Calgary and keep building momentum over the next few months. If they gain enough of it, it may be hard for the UCP to catch up, regardless of who the next leader is. 

On the other hand, if the new UCP leader opts to spend their way out of trouble, billions of dollars in surplus could be enough to fill any vacuum — political or otherwise.

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Leah Ward

Freelance contributor

Leah Ward is the former director of communications for Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP caucus, and is currently the director of campaigns for Metric Strategies. Leah worked on the 2019 provincial election campaign as part of the Alberta NDP’s war room and was a senior advisor to former Premier Rachel Notley.


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