Alberta’s 2023 provincial election campaign is underway, under the backdrop of raging wildfires that have displaced thousands from rural areas across the province. Debate about the climate crisis, which has fuelled the wildfires’ severity, has been mostly absent from the campaign trail thus far.

Nobody wants to be seen as politicizing a tragedy, despite the cause of the fire being fundamentally political in nature.

There are about 80 wildfires burning across Alberta, 20 of which are listed as out of control. Yellowhead County Mayor Wade Williams, whose constituents are among the wildfire evacuees, has called for the election to be postponed. “The firefighters in Yellowhead County? Very resilient. Very tired. Very, very tired,” Albert Bahri, Yellowhead County fire chief, told Global News this week. “They’re evacuated. We’re losing homes. It’s tough.”

The election is still scheduled for May 29, with the likelihood that wildfire evacuees will be able to vote at polls in their evacuation areas. Otherwise, the province could delay the election on specific constituencies impacted by the fires.

Beyond the circumstances of the fires, this election is notable for its contestation by two people who have previously been defeated in a general election.

UCP leader Danielle Smith and Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley are both vying to be the next premier. Alberta’s provincial election is scheduled for May 29. It’s unclear if the wildfires will force that date to be postponed.

Former premier Rachel Notley led the province’s first NDP government from 2015 to 2019 before losing to Jason Kenney’s upstart United Conservative Party. Kenney was in power until last year, after his tepid and belated COVID restriction regime proved too much for the party’s hard-right flank to stomach.

UCP leader Danielle Smith, who previously led the UCP’s Wildrose predecessor, was widely expected to win the 2012 election, but snatched defeat from the jaws of victory after one of her candidates, preacher Allan Hunsperger, was revealed to have written that gays and lesbians are damned to “suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire,” which Smith refused to condemn.

Smith orchestrated a mass floor crossing from the Wildrose to governing PCs in an early effort at uniting the province’s conservatives, which proved a fatal error for her, ending Smith’s political career until her 2022 comeback in the UCP leadership race following Kenney stepping down as leader.

While Kenney is no longer in politics, having taken up cushy gigs at the C.D. Howe Institute, law firm Bennett Jones and power company ATCO, the legacy of his three years in power has undeniably shaped the contours of debate during this campaign.

In order to force the Wildrose and PCs into a merger, Kenney cultivated right-wing populist forces who had separatist ambitions for Alberta and didn’t want to impose any pandemic restrictions at all, which he ultimately couldn’t satiate as a career politician from Ottawa. His failure allowed Smith to re-enter the political arena, proclaiming herself their authentic champion.

Anger and Angst

Trevor Harrison, a political scientist at the University of Lethbridge, co-edited a volume of 22 essays on Kenney’s impact on Alberta politics, titled Anger and Angst: Jason Kenney’s Legacy and Alberta’s Right.

Harrison told Ricochet that Kenney’s formation of the UCP “was very much driven by anger,” which was on display throughout the 2019 election campaign, with Kenney depicting Notley as a surrogate for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and environmentalists, who were engaged in a conspiracy to weaken the oil and gas industry, and by proxy, Alberta.

“It was just stirred up to incredible lengths,” Harrison said, recalling Kenney’s remarkably embittered, combative victory speech on election night in 2019, despite his having won a landslide with 52 per cent of the popular vote. From the stage at UCP campaign headquarters, Kenney described an Alberta supposedly under siege, and was being “blocked in and pinned down” by powerful “foreign-funded special interests.”

“It was like ‘We won, but we didn’t win. It wasn’t sufficient’,” Harrison said. “The anger continued to be stoked. Well, sometimes when you stoke that level of anger, it can turn around and bite you.”

Few of his supporters bought into Kenney’s populist shtick, but were willing to overlook his lack of authenticity for the sake of removing the NDP from power and getting tax cuts.

“It was just stirred up to incredible lengths… It was like ‘We won, but we didn’t win. It wasn’t sufficient’. The anger continued to be stoked. Well, sometimes when you stoke that level of anger, it can turn around and bite you.”

Once the pandemic hit, Kenney’s indecisiveness pleased neither the old Tory crowd, who wanted him to do more to fight the pandemic, nor the Wildrose types, who wanted a more hands-off approach. This division became insurmountable.

The party’s right flank also grew increasingly impatient with Kenney refusing to match his tough words about the federal government with actions, which Smith promised to follow through on with her Alberta Sovereignty Act — renamed the Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act, and passed by the Smith government in December — which allows the provincial government to render void federal legislation it doesn’t like.

Smith, a gifted communicator from her time as a talk radio host, “has gone even further in stoking the anger” that Kenney cultivated, Harrison noted, but she “hasn’t been forced yet, of course, to make decisions that could again annoy some of those people.”

The Sovereignty Act hasn’t been invoked since its passage and Smith said she has no intention of discussing it during the election campaign. Nor is she campaigning on privatizing public health care, which she’s consistently advocated for throughout her career.

But Smith, an acolyte of Ayn Rand who began her career as a Fraser Institute intern, is “hard-wired” in her political beliefs, even if she’s casting them aside for the election campaign, Harrison cautioned.

Would Kenney Have Won?

University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young contributed an essay on Kenney’s response to the pandemic in a recently released volume, Blue Storm: The Rise and Fall of Jason Kenney.

Had the pandemic not happened, Young told Ricochet, Kenney would have had a much easier time appealing to the more moderate swing voters in the Edmonton and Calgary suburbs, which the NDP needs to win in order to form government, far more than Smith.

Kenney certainly would have lost support from the hard-right flank that Smith appeals to, but this would have been largely confined to rural ridings, where UCP support is the highest and thus has the most “room to maneuver.”

Former premier Rachel Notley led the province’s first NDP government from 2015 to 2019 before losing to Jason Kenney’s upstart United Conservative Party.

Kenney would have also avoided Smith’s habit of making unforced errors, Young added, such as her habit of repeatedly comparing vaccine mandates to Nazi Germany, or calling up Calgary hate preacher Artur Pawlowski to discuss his mischief charge for his role in the Coutts blockade, which he’s since been convicted of.

However, Young emphasized, Smith’s challenge in appealing to urban and suburban voters is far from insurmountable. Predicting this election’s outcome would be a fool’s errand.

With oil fetching record high prices, Smith unveiled a relatively free-spending budget in February, which increased expenditures by 10 per cent since budget 2022, including a 4 per cent increase to health-care spending and 5 per cent increase to K-12 education. For this, Smith was condemned by her old colleagues at the Fraser Institute for not using surplus funds to cut taxes.

But, because of the policies that Kenney set in motion, increasing amounts of these funds are going to be spent on private surgical facilities and charter schools. Smith also announced $300 million to help the City of Calgary and Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation build a new arena for the Calgary Flames — another example of public largesse subsidizing the private sector.

Young said this brazen vote buying from Smith is a reflection of her electoral vulnerability. “I wonder if Kenney’s fiscal conservatism would have held him back from this remarkable outpouring of cash from the Alberta government in the weeks leading up to the election,” she said.

“I’m not sure that there would have been that sense of doing whatever it takes to get re-elected. Perhaps he might not have felt so vulnerable with the election coming in the way that Smith has.”

Narrowed Political Horizons

A key reason Notley’s NDP was able to form government in 2015 was vote splitting between the PCs and Wildrose in small urban and rural ridings the party would have been unable to win otherwise — places like Medicine Hat, Wetaskiwin, Whitecourt, Peace River, and Athabasca.

By eliminating this split in the conservative vote, Kenney made the prospects of the NDP forming government far more challenging. As a result, the NDP has tacked to the centre, with Notley openly attempting to cultivate disaffected conservative voters.

“Even if Danielle Smith wins a majority government, there’s going to be a lot of jockeying for power, and I don’t know if she’ll make it through four years.”

For Public Interest Alberta executive director Bradley Lafortune, a major overlooked aspect of Kenney’s legacy is the “narrowing of the political conversation” within the NDP to focus solely on how it can return to power.

“There’s been a classic slide in terms of the policies that the NDP are putting forward,” Lafortune told Ricochet. “That’s a direct result of Jason Kenney coming in and creating this United Conservative Party that now the NDP is having to respond to, as opposed to putting forward a bold vision for the province.”

He likened this dynamic to how former Conservative U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher pushed the Labour Party under Tony Blair to accept the neoliberal consensus she established.

The UCP’s weakness, however, is that Kenney rushed its creation in time for the 2019 election, something long-time conservative strategist and University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan publicly cautioned against before Kenney unveiled his plan to unite the right.

Flanagan, who was a Smith advisor back in 2012, and most notably served as former prime minister Stephen Harper’s first chief of staff, developed a “minimum winning coalition” theory, which posits that a party should aim to appeal to as many voters as possible to win, but not so many as to create conflict within the electoral coalition.

Lafortune said he suspects Kenney’s creation of an overly broad right-wing coalition will lead to instability within the UCP, regardless of who wins.

“Even if Danielle Smith wins a majority government, there’s going to be a lot of jockeying for power, and I don’t know if she’ll make it through four years,” Lafortune said.

“That’s one of Kenny’s legacies as well — he created something that was really strong but wasn’t built to last. It was built for speed but not for longevity.”

If Smith wins, the question is how much damage she can do before the knives come out for her.