Cue the scary music: It's Alberta attack ad season for UCP and NDP

Notley ads say we can't afford Smith's party. UCP says we can't afford NDP. Luckily, each team can afford plenty of ads saying this.

Each party says we can't afford the other. But they can afford plenty of ads saying so

In images taken from attack ad videos, NDP Leader Rachel Notley is in sepia, and UCP Leader Danielle Smith is in stark black and white on a blue background.
This is how a UCP attack ad presents rival leader Rachel Notley, and how the NDP depicts Danielle Smith. We swear, they don't look this grainy or stark black-and-white in person. (@unitedconservatives/YouTube; @cantafforducp/YouTube)

This column is an opinion by Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Alberta's upcoming election campaign will be unlike any in provincial history.

There will be no attack ads, nothing negative, no shots at the other party's leader.

Well, that's how the UCP and NDP frame their election advertising strategy. Both say they'll stick to facts and the truth.

Yes, but I must point out in politics what looks like truth-telling to one person is another person's definition of an attack ad. One person's fact is another's lie.

Thanks to the UCP and NDP raising millions of pre-election dollars over the past year, a blitz of attack commercials are coming soon to a TV, radio and computer screen near you.

Last week, well before May's election, the governing UCP launched two video ads aimed squarely at NDP Leader Rachel Notley. The NDP, for its part, is launching a new radio ad focused on health care that attacks Premier Danielle Smith.

On this battlefield, truth is a casualty

The UCP ads follow the unwritten rules governing these types of videos. Use unflattering pictures of your opponent; attack them as a threat to hard-working taxpayers; make your attack sound like a public service announcement; and, especially for UCP ads, include a picture of the chronically unpopular-in-Alberta Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

Oh, and it's best practice to wash out any warm colour from pictures you're using, and dip them in sepia so your opponent's image has all the appeal of a Civil War battlefield.

Another standby: stretch and pull the truth like it's Silly Putty.

"Campaign Rachel Notley said she will stand up for Alberta," says the narrator of a 30-second commercial. "But Premier Rachel Notley supported Justin Trudeau and implemented his carbon tax."

Actually, Notley introduced her own made-in-Alberta consumer carbon tax before Trudeau's — then it was subsequently scrapped by Premier Jason Kenney, who lost a Supreme Court fight that meant Alberta is now stuck with a made-in-Ottawa carbon price.

In other words, Alberta has Trudeau's carbon tax because of the UCP.

UCP leader Danielle Smith interlaces her fingers beneath her chin in a black-and-white photo used in an NDP attack ad that calls the Sovereignty Act a disaster for the economy.
NDP ads last fall took aim at Danielle Smith's controversial Sovereignty Act. The opposition party's website,, bids to make affordability and economy weak points for the UCP. (Alberta's NDP/YouTube)

The ads also accuse Notley of preferring tax hikes to helping Albertans with affordability — and of killing 183,000 jobs while premier — before ending with: "Rachel Notley and the NDP. Can we really afford them again?"

Opinion polls might indicate the UCP is pulling ahead of the NDP, but Notley herself is still more popular than Smith. So Smith is aiming for Notley's weak spot: her time as premier, while the province hit a recession. The strategy also includes tying her to the Alberta political deadweight that is Trudeau.

The UCP is simply reminding Albertans of the NDP record, an official explained in an email, saying that while the ads are "hard-hitting," they are factual and not personal attacks.

The NDP likewise insists their ads are not character assassination.

Smith quips sink ships?

The party learned a lesson from their unsuccessful 2019 campaign, in which they focused on Kenney personally. As a senior worker in the NDP camp told me, they prefer to let Smith's own words sink her ship.

"Danielle Smith wants you to pay out of pocket for your health care. She's proud of it," begins the NDP's upcoming radio ad. "Her health spending scheme would force you to pay taxes…" At this point the narrator's voice is replaced with Smith saying, "get your employer to put money in, raise money to put money in, get family members to donate money in."

The audio comes from a video Smith, as a UCP leadership candidate, shot last summer. In it, she supported the notion of a Health Spending Account where Albertans, with help from the province, could raise money for uninsured expenses. She did not talk about a "tax." That is the NDP taking poetic license. But, hey, Silly Putty.

The NDP also has a collection of older attack ads — one slamming Smith's Sovereignty Act as a form of separatism, another hitting on the rising costs of tuition and insurance — posted to a party-funded web page called Can't Afford UCP. Interestingly, both parties have keyed in on the word "afford" — the NDP with its website, the UCP by asking in its videos "can we afford the NDP again?"

Maybe it's subliminal advertising at a time when affordability is the big issue on people's minds. The NDP says we can't afford the UCP while the UCP says we can't afford the NDP.

Image from a United Conservative attack ad. Two different pictures of NDP's Rachel Notley with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau making a heart symbol between them.
United Conservative Party attack ads criticize Rachel Notley's time as premier, and link her with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (United Conservative Party/YouTube)

Of course, both parties will also produce rainbow-and-unicorn ads touting their campaign promises and their leaders. Smith has been focusing her announcements on health care and the cost of living, not sovereignty and pandemic grievances. Expect campaign ads to follow.

In the NDP's case, they'll focus on Notley. In fact, the party has already broadcast "better off with Rachel" TV ads that ran during hockey games last year. They featured clips of what appear to be salt-of-the-earth Albertans praising Notley as intelligent and kind.

Both the NDP and UCP will focus on Notley for wildly different reasons.

Baggage handlers

As premier for four years during a recession, Notley has plenty of political baggage. Then again, Smith has arguably saddled herself with just as much baggage during her first four controversial months as premier — plus a few years' worth of click-bait comments from her time as a radio talk-show host.

Smith, though, has the luxury of ducking responsibility for most of the government's failings because she is new to the UCP-premier scene. In the past, that "new guy" tactic helped nascent premiers such as Ralph Klein and Alison Redford successfully position themselves as agents of change, even though they were leaders of an increasingly old and tired Progressive Conservative Party.

The NDP will paint Smith as pretty much a retread from her old Wildrose Party, and someone whose far-right views of the world are simplistic, harmful and out of touch with most Albertans.

The UCP in turn will pretty much equate Notley's time in office with the Vandals' sack of Rome.

And both will insist they're not going negative.

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Graham Thomson

Freelance contributor

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.