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OPINION | How provincial politics could complicate this year's municipal elections in Alberta

The next provincial election is over two years away, but a number of important events appear on this year’s electoral calendar that pose a unique set of challenges for provincial parties of all stripes, says political scientist Jared Wesley.

There's no provincial vote in 2021, but there are plenty of other races to watch

Municipal elections in Alberta this year could have repercussions far beyond cities, towns and regional municipalities, according to political scientist Jared Wesley. (CBC)

As observers of Alberta politics are fond of reminding voters, the next provincial election is over two years away. And given recent events and polling numbers, the governing UCP likely finds solace in that 25-month runway.

As distant as the 2023 Alberta election appears on our horizon, a number of important events loom on this year's electoral calendar that pose a unique set of challenges for provincial parties of all stripes. In this two-part series, political scientist Jared Wesley takes a look at the election year ahead for Albertans, starting in Part 1 with municipal elections.

This fall, voters across the province will head to the polls to elect mayors, reeves, councillors and school trustees.

In normal years, municipal elections attract little attention. While often featuring proxy battles between progressives aligned with the NDP and Liberals, versus conservatives known for supporting the UCP and Wildrose, the campaigns seldom feature explicit partisan pitches or talk of provincial or national issues.

This year's municipal elections are likely to be different.

Rumours of former federal cabinet ministers and provincial party leaders contesting mayoral races in Edmonton and Calgary give them a very different feel.

On another front, the provincial and federal governments have thrust municipal councils and school boards to the forefront of the fight against COVID-19. This means incumbents will need to defend their records on things like masking bylaws and keeping our kids safe, and newcomers will bring with them a host of critiques and policy prescriptions for the future handling of the pandemic. 

All told, these contests will offer Albertans the first opportunity to weigh in on "the state's" handling of these issues, and it is difficult to see how Premier Jason Kenney and the UCP — the most prominent actors — can avoid being drawn into the debates by implication or proxy. 

That many observers perceive the UCP to be investing heavily in this election, for example, by changing campaign finance rules in an effort to unseat progressive councillors and mayors, suggests expectations for conservative candidates may be higher than usual. If they are unable to clear that bar, it could reflect poorly on the provincial party in 2023.

Equalization referendum

In two other ways, the UCP government has injected national politics into the 2021 municipal elections.

First, they have committed to holding a referendum on removing the equalization principle from the Canadian Constitution.

One of the recommendations coming out of the UCP government's fair deal panel was a provincial referendum on removing the equalization principle from the Constitution, something Jason Kenney has pledged to do. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

In the premier's own words, the vote is not actually about reforming the Constitution; that would require the support of have-less governments who receive equalization payments.

Rather, it is a gambit to generate what Kenney calls "leverage" — a groundswell of popular support that would serve as a necessary condition for engaging his federal and provincial counterparts in a set of meaningful negotiations about other Alberta priorities (including fiscal stabilization). 

In other words, the premier is gambling that enough Albertans will turn out at the polls to vote in favour of a referendum that is designed to bolster his personal popularity. 

On the surface, the bet seems safe. Public opinion in Alberta remains solidly against the concept of equalization, which has been framed inaccurately as a perennial handout from Alberta to weaker and sometimes obstructionist partners in confederation, namely Quebec.  

Yet, the referendum is a risky venture for a number of reasons.

First, to generate the type of leverage the premier seeks, turnout will need to be substantial. Yet, municipal elections seldom surpass the 40 per cent mark in Alberta. If that rate of participation holds — even if the "yes" side wins a resounding victory — it will be challenging for the premier to argue he has the backing of "the people" in his efforts to draw first ministers to the bargaining table. 

Some provincial and federal political parties will be drawn into the fray.

Granted, it's highly unlikely progressive parties will stump for the "no" side, given the unpopularity of equalization in this province. Yet it's equally unlikely the Wildrose Independence Party will throw its full support behind a "yes" vote that would both bolster Kenney's power and acknowledge the significance of a Constitution that they are seeking to destroy.

All of this suggests the UCP will be pushed to actively campaign in favour of the "yes" side in the referendum, placing the party — and its popularity — on the ballot.

This will be the first main test of the government since the 2019 provincial election. They don't just need to win. They need to win big, with a groundswell of popular support.

Senate nominee elections

The UCP government has also chosen to include Senate nominee elections as part of the municipal elections this fall.

Historically, these votes have attracted little interest within or outside the province. Only a handful of nominees have ever been appointed to the upper chamber, and only when Conservatives (PC and CPC) filled the prime minister's chair. Such is not the case today, making it unlikely that this year's successful nominees will be tapped to fill Alberta's two vacant Senate seats.

Prime Minister Trudeau has established his own independent selection process for senators, and is expected to fill them in advance of Alberta's election. The next opening for an Alberta seat won't be until 2027.  

Thus, not unlike the equalization referendum, the Alberta government has chosen to hold a vote that has no reasonable chance of resulting in the outcome Albertans are being asked to decide. And the political risks to the UCP are just as high.

Sen. Scott Tannas, a Conservative from Alberta, was elected in the last Senate election in 2012 and was appointed a year later by prime minister Stephen Harper. According to political scientist Jared Wesley, in this year's election, the Wildrose Independence Party could pose a formidable challenge to the UCP. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC News)

Keep in mind: While Senate nominee elections originally featured representatives of federal parties, provincial parties fielded candidates in 2004 and 2012.

Traditionally, progressive parties have chosen to sit out Alberta Senate nominee elections. The NDP has never run a candidate in these elections, based on a long-standing grievance against the principle of an appointed upper house.

The Liberals last contested a Senate nominee election in 1989, subsequently persuaded to sit out by the futility of trying to win a provincewide vote.

This year could be different, with progressive parties sensing an opportunity to test-drive messaging for the 2023 provincial election and capitalize on waning UCP support in the province. 

All eyes should be on the Wildrose Independence Party (WIP), however.

If, like the Bloc Quebecois, the party is willing to sidestep the irony of running for office in an institution they are committed to abandoning (the federal Senate), the WIP could pose a formidable challenge to the UCP.

Just as the 1989 senator nominee elections widened the rift between the Progressive Conservatives and Reform, and the 2012 campaign pitted the PCs against the Wildrose, we might expect a similar head-to-head contest between the UCP and the WIP on the 2021 Senate nominee ballot. 

If it happens, expect the campaign to feature a pitched battle over character as opposed to policy, with Kenney and his government's approach to the pandemic and Keystone XL figuring every bit as prominently as Trudeau and the Liberal government in Ottawa.

If the WIP is able to attract high-profile candidates to its side, this could help it gain credibility. Were they able to finish in the top three, above at least one UCP candidate, this could establish the momentum they would need to attract supporters heading into the 2023 provincial campaign.

In Part 2 of this look ahead at the coming election year in Alberta, we'll examine the potential impact of several party leadership races and a looming federal campaign.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jared Wesley is an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta. He leads the Common Ground initiative, co-leads the Viewpoint Alberta Project, and has published research related to Canadian politics, provincial elections and political culture.

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