What Alberta conservatives may not learn from Ford

kenney jason alberta ucp

Doug FirbyImagine a provincial premier who is wildly unpopular with voters. An election is still some time away, but pundits are already speculating the incumbent conservative party could suffer a bloodbath. As the conservative government lunges from one fumble to the next, their leader just can’t stop putting his foot in his mouth. The NDP opposition seems ready to pounce.

And yet Doug Ford pulls out not just an election victory in Ontario, but also substantially increases the size of his majority government.

Did you think, just for a minute, that I was writing about someone else?

Here in Alberta, the unpopular leader of the United Conservative Party, Jason Kenney, suffered a much crueller fate than his Ontario comrade. Tossed out – sort of, although he has managed to postpone his exit – by party members who gave him a damning 51.5 per cent approval rating, the once high-riding “saviour” of the conservative movement in Alberta has been humiliated by many of the same people who gave him his job just three short years ago.

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Keep an Eye on Alberta

And yet, the threat of an NDP government in Alberta, once held to be one of the country’s most conservative provinces, is substantially more imminent than it was in Ontario, where voters were wholly unimpressed with the uninspiring alternatives to the ruling Progressive Conservatives. Unlike Ontario, the NDP in Alberta had a solid four years of government under the popular and common-sense leader Rachel Notley just before Kenney jumped in his blue F-150 and sprinkled promises of prosperity like grains of wheat.

The natural impulse for Alberta’s conservatives is to look to Ontario for clues on how it might be able to turn its fortunes around. Yet looking east for a tried-and-true template that will reverse the party’s political fortunes is fraught with uncertainties. Here are a few reasons why:

Jason Kenney was no Doug Ford. And his replacement won’t be, either: Let’s look at the currently declared candidates. Brian Jean, former leader of the Wildrose Party, represents the right-wing of the “united” conservatives and lacks political charisma. Danielle Smith is another former Wildrose leader and a former newspaper colleague who I like very much on a personal level. She’s great until you start talking ideology, and discover that she is a disciple of the Milton Friedman school of economics, a view I think most Albertans don’t share. (Not to mention that it is still unclear whether conservatives are ready to forgive her for crossing the floor in 2014, splintering the Wildrose Party.) Travis Toews, who recently resigned as finance minister, must wear the taint of being part of the UCP government. And Todd Loewen, who was so vociferous in his campaign to unseat Kenney he got kicked out of caucus. Each of these candidates has their own potentially fatal flaws.

The ill will the current United Conservative Party earned with electors won’t soon be forgotten: Kenney waffled on critical policy issues, most notably on whether to closely follow medical advice and keep the province locked down during COVID or whether to open it up and damn the consequences. In trying to cater to the two polarized sides, he managed to infuriate both. He also appointed Tyler Shandro as health minister, a combative MLA who picked a fight with the doctors just as COVID was settling in. Then, his parks minister, Jason Nixon, tried to delist dozens of parks in the province until he was forced to back down in the face of a public backlash. There’s more, much more, and it’s not so long ago that people have forgotten these misdeeds.

Signs of incompetence are everywhere: From the pandemic to health care – the province is actually driving needed doctors out of the province – and to a controversial redraft of school curriculum, there is a sense that this government quite simply doesn’t know what it’s doing.

Nobody really believes the UCP deserves much credit for turning the economy around: The economy is – wham! – booming and a projected budget deficit is off the books. But just hold on a minute. Didn’t the price of oil just go through the roof because of geopolitical events? Very few people are willing to credit the UCP’s fiscal management for what amounts to political good luck.

There is a viable alternative: Conventional wisdom used to hold that this province would never elect a socialist government. Then 2014 came, and voters were so angry with the previous conservative government that they sent them into the political wilderness. And, to many people’s surprise, the NDP under Notley did at the very least a decent job of running the province for four years, even if a lot of people didn’t buy into all the ideology. Well-known conservatives have been heard to declare that Notley did a better job than they expected. Now, the NDP has one term in government experience and can rightly present itself as the next government in waiting. No one is scoffing anymore.

Pundits are arguing over what really led to Doug Ford’s electoral triumph, but – beyond simple good luck – a couple of things are clear. Ford recognized that jobs are on voters’ minds, and he cozied up to the unions and promised to work with them to secure a future. He also eventually figured out that most people trust the advice of medical experts, and he got behind them unequivocally. As a popular premier from Alberta’s past once said, “You figure which way the parade’s going and then you get out in front.”

Can Alberta’s UCP learn those vital lessons before next year’s trip back to the polls? Right now, with this field of candidates, it looks like a reach. If moderation will win the day, then immoderate leaders might just cost the party power.

Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media. For interview requests, click here.


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