OPINION | Is the NDP's anti-Kenney strategy making the fight more difficult?

“In this campaign, the NDP only has eyes for Jason Kenney. And that seems to be a problem, less so for Kenney and more so for the NDP.” Political columnist Graham Thomson on the Alberta election.

Ramping up the offensive diverted attention from their record

NDP Leader Rachel Notley announced Albertans will go to the polls on April 16, setting up a showdown with her main rival, UCP Leader Jason Kenney. (Canadian Press)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one opinion. Under the heading Opinion, we are carrying a range of different points of view on the issues facing Albertans during the current election. You can find them on our Alberta Votes 2019 page.

Has NDP Leader Rachel Notley made a mistake?

Has she made a strategic error by focusing so much of her campaign on UCP leader Jason Kenney — and so comparatively little on her own record?

I raise the question fully aware the campaign is not over and the NDP, despite being behind in the public opinion polls, is fighting for every vote, for every scrap of support between now and April 16.

But is the anti-Kenney strategy making that fight more difficult?

As I wrote at the beginning of this election campaign, from the very first day Notley framed the campaign as a choice, "about who is going to be the premier of Alberta and who is fit to be the premier of Alberta."

Then she fired both barrels of her rhetoric squarely at Kenney over questions surrounding the 2017 UCP leadership race and allegations of a "kamikaze" candidate.

"Two days ago," she said, "we learned Mr. Kenney cheated to win his party's leadership. And when he was caught, he didn't tell the truth. Mr. Kenney looked Albertans in the eye and very casually and very comfortably lied to us which in many ways goes to the heart of this issue: how comfortable Mr. Kenney is with lying."

Kenney has denied any wrongdoing, but the NDP ramped up its offensive by running a vigorous side-campaign attacking Kenney's socially conservative history.

The NDP handed the anti-Kenney cudgel to Sarah Hoffman, who held a series of news conferences and released videos aimed at raising questions about Kenney's qualifications to be premier based on his history against rights for same-sex couples. (Kenney says his views on gay rights have evolved over time)

In this campaign, the NDP only has eyes for Jason Kenney. And that seems to be a problem. Less so for Kenney and more so for the NDP.

Its own record

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney at a campaign rally in Calgary on Thursday, April 11, 2019. (Jeff McIntosh, The Canadian Press)

By focusing so much on Kenney, the NDP is trying to get Albertans to think twice about his ability to be premier. But the New Democrats may simply be making Albertans think twice about why the NDP is so reluctant to discuss its own record as government.

On the surface that's understandable.

The province's economic recovery seems to have stalled, unemployment in Edmonton and Calgary is the highest of any major cities outside of Atlantic Canada, and the Trans Mountain pipeline is still not under construction.

Oh, and the provincial debt is more than $60 billion and climbing each year.

It's not exactly a record you'd want to shout from the rooftops or wrap around the side of a campaign bus.

But perhaps that's exactly what Notley should have done.

The NDP record

Notley has fought long and hard for a new pipeline.

She has tried to kick-start employment through projects funded by the carbon tax. She has protected jobs by investing in infrastructure.

Here, for example, is Notley in 2017 responding to the Saskatchewan budget that cut spending:

"Frankly, that's not the approach we're taking. We're maintaining a steady hand because we believe that keeping money in the economy is the way to ensure that we come out of the recession faster. And so we think our plan is the more measured approach."

It might not make for the best campaign slogan but it is honest and measured.

As the Notley government has explained, for the past three years it invested that money in infrastructure projects such as roads, schools and hospitals. It also used the money to keep public sector workers, such as nurses and teachers, employed.

All those billions of dollars have meant Albertans have continued to receive government services.

At a focus group in Edmonton Monday night run by the CBC in partnership with Janet Brown Research, a cross-section of 10 voters, disparate in party affiliation, age and gender, discussed the campaign.

Several expressed disappointment that the NDP didn't run a campaign extolling the virtues of its own record. And disappointment that Notley hasn't explained her deficit spending as a way to protect government services and build infrastructure projects.

Defending their own record

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley at a campaign stop in Calgary on Friday, April 12, 2019. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press )

"The NDP's going to lose the election because they really didn't defend why they're running a deficit. I thought they would have made an effort to say, you know, 'We're going to start trimming the deficit a little bit or show a path forward' and they really didn't," said one of the participants.

"There was a path forward, eventually, and it was prudent and the money wasn't being wasted, it was going to be spent prudently."

This election campaign could have been run differently.

The NDP could have leveraged "bozo eruptions" as a campaign tool and then concentrated far more on a positive and sympathetic message centered around its economic track record and plans for the future. This, rather than, "vote for us, because they're worse".

Even before Kenney won a seat in a byelection, the NDP government demonstrated its obsession with him. In October 2017,  Notley held a mini-rally of her caucus members in her Legislature offices, and invited in the media.

"From the start, Jason Kenney and the UCP caucus have opposed almost every change we've made," said Notley. "They insist we go backwards to the same policies Albertans rejected in the last election."

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You half expected Notley to call the election right then and there, especially when she, to the cheers of her colleagues, pledged to, "stand up against the UCP's job-killing, climate-denying, gay-outing, school-cutting, health-privatizing, backward-looking, hope-destroying divisive agenda."

And the attacks continued.

New Democrats no doubt thought they were running hard at Kenney, but it looked like they were running scared.

They have poked so often and so hard at Kenney they have apparently killed the nerve.

The message, while effective in it's own way, isn't going to be the determinant - the "Kamikaze-gate" scandal, or Kenney's socially conservative background, or his apparent softening on protection for gay-straight alliances in schools.

Aesop had the boy who cried "wolf!" We seem to have the premier who cried "Kenney!"  Eventually, people stop listening.

Outlining policies

When Albertans saw Kenney in action at last week's leaders debate, they didn't see the Grim Reaper wielding a scythe. They saw a polished politician outlining his policies.

Oh, there are days Kenney is so polished as to be slippery, and some of his promises -- to fight the federal equalization program and scuttle the federal carbon tax, to name just two -- are not based in Constitutional reality.

But he has not launched into the kind of personal attack against Notley that she's hurled at him.

Mind you, that's probably because Notley has a higher approval rating compared with Kenney, according to recent opinion polls. People tend to like Notley more than Kenney, even those who intend to vote UCP.

By going so hard and so negative against Kenney so early in the campaign, Notley may have undermined her image as a positive politician, and reinforced an image created by her opponents that she is a politician unable to defend her own record.

Yes, there are Alberta conservatives who were outraged by the NDP victory in 2015 and who have been itching to vote Notley out of office — no matter what she did the past four years. But there are many regular Albertans like the gent in the focus group, who understand that the NDP, through no fault of its own, became government at the start of a deep recession.

They were willing — even eager — to hear Notley not just defend her record, but explain why running a deficit was the most responsible action a government could have taken during a recession. Notley could have made the economy an issue on her own terms rather than having Kenney make the economy his pet cause.

Notley lost the narrative and that may now make it more difficult for her to squeeze out a few extra drops of crucial support as the campaign enters its final days.

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