The right's resurgence and the NDP's pipeline push: The year in Alberta politics

As popular former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney unites Alberta's fractured political right, Rachel Notley's NDP government ties its electoral fortunes to a slowly rekindling economy and pipelines.

Province's economy is rekindling but, mid-mandate, Rachel Notley’s work is cut out for her

Jason Kenney's successful merger of Alberta's right-of-centre parties was one of the year's most significant developments for the province. (CBC)

Jason Kenney's byelection victory in Calgary-Lougheed on Dec. 14 might have been easily foreseen, but the freshly minted MLA's path to the race was anything but.

It's been a big year for the former federal Tory cabinet minister. You may be forgiven for losing track of how many times he stood up to roaring applause in a post-win reception (the answer is four).

"When we set out on this path 18 months ago," Kenney said in Calgary-Lougheed, "the pundits and the cynics said this couldn't be done. But we didn't listen to them. We just did what Albertans have always done, we dug deep and worked hard."

In a riding with a history of leaning right, nobody would have bet on him losing.

But his previous victory, just a few weeks earlier, was more of a challenge. Kenney had been running for the leadership of the United Conservative Party, where he had a serious opponent in Brian Jean, the popular leader of Alberta's now defunct Wildrose Party.

And that's to say nothing of Kenney's one-two punch earlier this year.

On July 22, his much-touted dream of "uniting the right" became a reality when 95 per cent of  Wildrose and Progressive Conservative members voted to merge as the United Conservative Party.

And March 18 marked the start of his ascent, as he easily sewed up the race for leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party, his first step toward the merger.

If, for Kenney, the magic number this year was four, for Rachel Notley, Alberta's NDP premier, the dreaded number next year could be three.

The right under Kenney is a big obstacle to Notley's re-election in 2019, but two others are not to be underestimated. They come from an unexpected place: her own party.

Same party, different playbook

The rise of Kenney and the UCP is the most significant political event of the year for Alberta. The second most important may have actually happened in neighbouring B.C.: the swearing-in of a minority NDP government propped up by the Green Party.

B.C. Premier John Horgan has made his opposition to pipelines clear, and that's a problem for Notley.

She's been presenting herself as an advocate of pipelines from the beginning of the NDP government's tenure in 2015.

Premier Rachel Notley has continued advocating for pipelines and says the province's economy is doing better, though she acknowledges many want to see it grow faster. (Colin Hall/CBC)

Notley hit the road from Ottawa to Vancouver near the end of this year, pitching pipelines.

"We risk being out-shouted  by determined advocates," she warned the Economic Club of Canada in the country's capital.

This puts Notley on an ideological collision course with not just Horgan, but yet another come-from-behind politician who entered the limelight in 2017: the federal NDP's new leader, Jagmeet Singh.

Singh has been more nuanced in his criticism of pipelines than Horgan and has praised Notley for her climate leadership, but it's clear he's no fan of fossil fuels.

"We must oppose the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline and the building of the Energy East pipeline," Singh's website reads, citing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  

In year-end interviews with the media, Notley made it clear she has no intention of backing down.

"We would go to court and we would be very aggressive in terms of supporting Kinder Morgan and probably the federal government," she told CBC News, if she thought Horgan was openly stepping in to delay construction of the federally approved Energy East project.

She refused to delve into specifics. "I'm not interested in making threats and engaging in that kind of public dynamic," she said. "I don't think it's helpful."

Jared Wesley, an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta, sees one factor that could help Notley secure B.C.'s co-operation: Horgan may find himself in an election before she does.

University of Alberta political science professor Jared Wesley says the United Conservative Party likely knows it still has a lot of work to do to win over Albertans in a 2019 election, despite leader Jason Kenney's recent victories. (Samuel Martin/CBC)

Wesley said the Alberta NDP may well choose to impose a condition on Horgan to walk back his anti-pipeline stance, in exchange for behind-the-scenes assistance from volunteers.

"Whether it's at the leadership level or whether it's at the organizational level, some folks are going to have to make that decision," he said.

And then there is next year ...

When the holiday break is over and the Alberta Legislature sits once more, Notley will face Kenney across the aisle, at the helm of an energized UCP.

Still, despite Kenney's recent victories, Wesley said, the party's not taking anything for granted.

"They've been around enough to know that there's a lot that can happen in 18 months."

At the Old Strathcona Farmers' Market in the middle of Notley's Edmonton-Strathcona riding, that was the hope among her supporters.

Patrick Green and Sheena Moore hope the NDP prevails in 2019, though they acknowledge it has a more difficult path to victory than during the last election. (Raffy Boudjikanian/CBC)

"It certainly won't be the landslide that they had last time," said Patrick Green, who sees himself switching to the NDP on election day after voting Liberal in 2015.

He thinks Notley will face an uphill battle due to the united right but is keeping fingers crossed. "They've made more progress on pushing the pipeline agenda than previous governments."

At Kenney's byelection victory night, the view, unsurprisingly, was much different.

UCP supporter Ali Elegyeb almost appeared cut whole-cloth from the Kenney public-relations apparatus. Identifying himself as a small business owner, he praised Kenney for uniting ethnic minorities and slammed the government. "The NDP has reckless economic policies," he said, and there have been "really negative" consequences to its coming to power.

Yet the figures do not seem to bear that out.

The Conference Board of Canada and ATB Financials project growth for Alberta's GDP through 2018, though at 7.8 per cent, the province's unemployment rate remains above the national average.

Perhaps a change in those numbers is ultimately what will have most significance for Notley at the ballot box in 2019, not that dreaded number of three.

About the Author

Raffy Boudjikanian is a national reporter with CBC in Edmonton. He has also worked in Calgary and Montreal for the public broadcaster.

With files from Rob Brown and Scott Dippel