Opinion | How will Kenney unite Albertans after divisive campaign?

Notley spent four years planting trees of social justice legislation — and Alberta just elected a lumberjack.

For Alberta conservatives, their free-enterprise knight in shining armour has arrived

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney addresses supporters in Calgary after his party sailed to victory on Tuesday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Premier Jason Kenney. A title and a man that will change the face of provincial politics.

As I write this column the UCP has won 63 seats to the NDP's 24. No other party is on the board.

This election ended the way it began: a two-way bitter fight between a pugilistic Kenney and a frustrated Rachel Notley who would have known 28 days ago she was trailing far behind and was looking at defeat.

Heck, she likely suspected she was in a fight for political survival when Kenney, two years ago, became leader of the Progressive Conservatives to begin his remarkable journey to unite forces with the Wildrose and form a united conservative front.

In that sense this campaign wasn't 28 days long or even 28 weeks but more like 28 months.
Albertans are exhausted. But they are also divided.

Kenney's UCP won an impressive 55 per cent of the vote to the NDP's 32. Kenney was virtually shut out of Edmonton. The NDP's seats are almost all in the city that rejected Kenney's campaign of anger, fear and frustration aimed at the NDP but also at the federal government and other parts of Canada.

The Capital City has already been dubbed Fortress Edmonton, an island of NDP orange in an ocean of UCP blue.
But there will be more than a few Edmontonians wondering if we'll end up being Penal Colony Edmonton if a Kenney government punishes the city, overtly or covertly.

Kenney's victory speech Tuesday night wasn't exactly dripping with conciliatory messages. To great cheers from his audience, he took aim at foreign groups that he claims are conspiring to landlock Alberta oil. 


He rattled his sabre at the federal government and other provinces. Not until the end of the speech did he tip his hat to Notley and reach out to Albertans who didn't vote for him.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley and her husband Lou Arab leave after giving a concession speech in Edmonton on Tuesday. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)
His message was one of defiance.

"Today we begin to stand up for ourselves, our jobs and our future," he said. "Today we Albertans begin to fight back."

For Alberta conservatives — for those who have spent the past four years gnashing their teeth and ripping out their hair under a "socialist" NDP government that introduced a carbon tax, revamped the labour laws, and ran up a record $60-billion debt — their free-enterprise knight in shining armour has arrived.

For Alberta progressives — those who spent the past four years basking in the light of a New Democratic government that took climate change seriously, protected the rights of workers, and invested billions in infrastructure projects — night has arrived.
United Conservative Leader Jason Kenney details the "UCP Fight Back Strategy" against foreign anti-oil special interests, in front of the Trans Mountain Edmonton Terminal in Edmonton March 22. (Candace Elliott/Reuters)

This campaign was arguably like no other in the province's history. It was vicious, personal and divisive.

It was less like your typical political horse race and more like the chariot clash in Ben-Hur but with less civility.

In her campaign kick-off speech 28 days ago, NDP leader Rachel Notley accused Kenney of cheating to win the 2017 UCP leadership race and then lying about it.

She wanted to make this a campaign about leadership and trust.

Kenney accused Notley of lying about the carbon tax during the 2015 election campaign. He blamed the carbon tax for killing jobs. He said that after four years of incompetence and scheming with her "good friend and ally" Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, she helped destroy Alberta's economy.

Kenney wanted this a campaign about the economy, jobs and pipelines. And he won.

It was the economy that drove this campaign. Not Kenney's socially conservative history or the intolerant comments from some of his candidates, or an RCMP investigation into the UCP leadership race — all issues raised repeatedly by the NDP.

This was a campaign about who could best kick-start the economy, help create jobs and get an energy pipeline to the all-important "tidewater."

It was not about Notley's social justice victories the past four years to revamp the labour code, raise the minimum wage and protect gay-straight alliances in schools.

Anger machine

This was a campaign about the anger and frustration of many Albertans who feel the province, suffering through a recession, has been forgotten or abandoned by the federal government and other parts of the country.

Kenney accused the NDP of running an "anger-machine" but he himself was something of a one-man anger juggernaut.

Among his promises: enact legislation to "turn off the [oil] taps" to British Columbia to force through a pipeline to the West Coast; hold a provincial referendum to force a change to the federal equalization program; fight the federal carbon tax in court; and begin a constitutional challenge against federal legislation deemed to interfere in Alberta's economic growth.

Never mind that constitutional experts say Kenney has little to no hope of succeeding in any of these fights, Albertans just seemed glad he is willing to try.

United Conservative Party supporters celebrate in Calgary, Tuesday. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)
In that, Kenney was channeling the spirit of former-premier Ralph Klein who at one time or another promised to fight the GST, stop same-sex marriage and withdraw from the equalization program. He didn't do any of those things but conservatives were happy he gave voice to their anger.

The difference now is that Kenney seems determined to follow through with his promises. Not the least is his pledge to destroy the "Notley-Trudeau alliance." He succeeded in defeating Notley Tuesday night and now has set his sights on helping defeat Trudeau in the October federal election.
  • Listen to The Ledge podcast, as CBC's legislative reporters bring you expert analysis and insiders' insight

But how is that going to work in Alberta's favour? How does Kenney now negotiate with Trudeau to help get the Trans Mountain expansion project built when his next stated goal is to campaign vigorously against the prime minister? How does he negotiate with BC when he has promised to proclaim the "turn off the taps" legislation the first day he becomes premier?

And how does Kenney bring Albertans together when he seems so eager to keep driving them apart?

Among Kenney's to-do list is a "summer of repeal" where he will hold a legislative session specifically to tear, down, tear up and tear through Notley's legacy.

Notley spent four years planting trees of social justice legislation — and Alberta just elected a lumberjack.

Kenney has promised, among other things, to scrap the carbon tax, remove the emissions cap on the oil sands, stop the phase out of coal-fired power plants, abolish the NDP's legislation protecting paid farm workers, remove some protections on gay-straight alliances, water down the minimum wage laws, reduce the corporate tax rate and introduce more private delivery of publicly-funded health care.

Will Kenney be healing the wounds or rubbing salt into them?

Notley, for her part, is now leader of the official Opposition — and for the first time in Alberta history we have an Opposition that was once government, a leader who was once premier, and critics who were once cabinet ministers.

They are not going to sit silently by as Kenney and the UCP dismantle the NDP's work the past four years.

"Yes, tonight's vote is not the result we had hoped or worked so hard for," said Notley. "But no matter what our role is in legislature, we will not rest."

What was arguably the most angry, fearful and divisive campaign in Alberta history ended Tuesday night — but the anger, fear and divisions remain.

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


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


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?