OPINION | Opposition betting on Alberta premier's slumping popularity

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Alberta’s New Democrats hoped Premier Jason Kenney would not stay long in provincial politics.

NDP now sees Kenney as a political liability to the UCP, not an unbeatable asset

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney delivers remarks at the Indigenous Participation in Major Projects conference in Calgary, last month. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Alberta's New Democrats hoped Premier Jason Kenney would not stay long in provincial politics.

They longed for the day he'd use his election victory in Alberta to catapult himself back to his first love: federal politics.

But they dream of that no more.

Not because Kenney has made it clear he is not returning to the federal stage. But because the NDP now sees Kenney as a political liability to the United Conservative Party, not an unbeatable asset.

This switch in NDP thinking started late last year when Kenney's approval numbers began to sink after the provincial budget introduced unpopular cuts and the economy continued to sputter as the jobless rate continued to grow.

Last June, polling from Angus Reid indicated Kenney had an approval rating of 61 per cent. That dropped to 54 per cent in December and according to new Angus Reid numbers released this week, Kenney's approval rating fell to 47 per cent in February.

New Democrats are gleeful at Kenney's descent. As far as they're concerned, an increasing number of Albertans are beginning to realize the emperor has no clothes, that Kenney's election promise of more jobs and a strong economy was cynical political grandstanding, if not an outright lie.

Why do fewer Albertans love him?

Let me count the ways.

To mention a few: he cut funding to municipalities; unilaterally tore up the province's master agreement with physicians and imposed a leaner billing structure; told public sector workers to accept a wage freeze or face layoffs; slashed funding to post-secondary institutions; froze funding for K-12 education that, because of population growth and inflation, amounted to a cut; is chopping $72 million from seniors' drug benefits; is introducing more private delivery of publicly funded health care; is closing partially or fully 20 provincial parks to save $5 million a year; is spending $30 million a year on the butt-of-jokes energy war room.

But most importantly, perhaps, it's because the number of jobs has dropped in Alberta the past year. The NDP claims it's 50,000. Other analysis puts the number closer to 36,000. But neither number is good for a premier who promised more jobs.

Finance Minister Travis Toews, left, delivers the budget last week in the Alberta legislature as Premier Jason Kenney looks on. (Jason Franson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Kenney is projecting 2.5 per cent economic growth this year for the province but that's based on everything going right and when it comes to Alberta's economy the past five years everything has gone wrong.

Heck even the past week has been something of a nightmare as fears of the Coronavirus played havoc with world stock markets.

Finance Minister Travis Toews told a Calgary audience this week that when he was presenting the provincial budget last Thursday, "it felt like Rome was burning behind me."

But Kenney is not fiddling.

Political capital

When it comes to burning down the status quo, Kenney is busy putting more logs on the fire.

He is targeting universities, public sector unions, physicians, environmentalists, and anyone he can call a member of the ubiquitous "elite."

He talks about bringing decorum in the legislative assembly but during debate this week denigrated the NDP as "fiscally incompetent socialists."

He is proving to be as bullying and as thin-skinned as his political hero, Ralph Klein.

I don't think Kenney will take that as an insult. He loves being compared to Klein.

Kenney likes to point out that political leaders who balance their budgets, even using controversial methods, are routinely re-elected.

Klein won re-election in 1997 after spending four years running through gauntlets of angry protests, sometimes literally.

Kenney is hoping to do the same, believing that even if Albertans don't like the who, what, when and where of his cuts, they will be sympathetic to the why.

However, there is a major difference between Klein of three decades ago and Kenney today.

In the 1993 election, Albertans were choosing between the "brutal" cuts proposed by Liberal opposition leader Laurence Decore and the "massive" cuts of Premier Klein. 

But this time, Alberta's official Opposition NDP not only campaigned against slashing spending  during the election but has launched a fierce fight daily against government cuts. Kenney himself seemed to suggest this week in an interview that government spending will end up being slashed by 14 per cent not by the 2.8 per cent first projected.

The NDP has seized on that number as proof Kenney has lied about cuts.

Kenney knows his cuts will be unpopular but he is less than a year into his mandate, a time when he can spend his political capital. He is betting on better times ahead, that the economy will turn around, that energy prices will rebound and he won't need to introduce more cuts to balance the budget before the next election.

It's a gamble.

It's not accurate to say the emperor has no clothes — but it might be fair to say the emperor is playing strip poker with the price of oil.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.  

About the Author

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 cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.


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