EDMONTON — At a downtown Edmonton hotel over the weekend, the Alberta New Democrats did their level best to gird for war, stockpiling rhetorical ammunition, press-ganging every spare partisan into service and preparing for both a legislative push and an electoral strategy for through until next spring.
The tussle for the future of Alberta might have really began when Jason Kenney managed his unite-the-right feat back in October 2017, but the immediate prelude to the campaign begins Monday, as legislators return to Edmonton for the first of what legislative sessions remain.
In her speech on Sunday, delivered to a hyped-up crowd at the Westin hotel, Premier Rachel Notley said “a government that comes from everyday Alberta works for everyday Alberta.”
“The sun never sets on the Alberta dream, we are just too stubborn for that,” she said. “This century can be, will be Alberta’s century if our conviction remains, that we can achieve more working together than we can working alone, that we are our sister’s keeper, that the politics of hope always trumps the politics of division and anger.”
Notley rattled off bits of the NDP record, from job creation to increasing the minimum wage. “Now it’s true, not every Albertan is feeling the recovery at their kitchen table,” she said, “but we have come a long, long way since the depths of the worst recession in a generation.”
The convention attendees, some in black Nötley Crüe T-shirts — a play on the heavy metal band Mötley Crüe — gave standing ovations, shouted “shame” at hints of UCP-led hospital privatization and whooped at the occasional zinger throughout the weekend. Still, it was a subdued affair, with a minimum of controversy on new policy resolutions. Whether or not there should be a new provincial park between Jasper and Banff, on the eastern edge of the Rockies, generated the most debate on Saturday.
On Sunday, after a vim-filled speech from Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, and a rousing speech from Craig MacDonald of the Alberta Firefighters Association, the convention pivoted to a couple resolutions — sucking the excitement right out of the room in the lead-up to Notley’s speech.
Of course, the convention was not all about campaigning, nor, for that matter, is this legislative session entirely setting the stage for the election. The New Democrats, over the weekend, adopted some serious policy, from expanding access to $25-per-day child care to better co-ordinating rural policing. And there are things they want to get done before the election, such as Notley’s pitch for an as-yet undefined strategy “to get more value for our resources” and a larger economic diversification plan.
Yet deciding on what is serious policy also has the effect of — desirable for the NDP, less so for the Tories — dragging a certain cohort of Alberta’s right wing into the limelight, particularly on social issues. Between NDP threats of a return to austerity, the risks of looming climate change, the narrative on social issues — again, a return to the bad old days — is clearly one the NDP is settling upon.
“There’s two visions for Alberta going forward, there’s the one that me and my team have been demonstrating to Albertans in terms of creating jobs, supporting public services, supporting families or the choice that Jason Kenney is promoting around making cuts in order to support a tax cut to the top one per cent,” Notley told reporters after her speech.
During a lengthy pitch for fundraising on Saturday, ministerial staffer Garett Spelliscy said, should a woman he knows be seeking an abortion, he wouldn’t want her to walk a gauntlet of protesters to get it. “That’s what Jason Kenney wants,” Spelliscy said. “We know that.” (UCP legislators walked out of a vote on an abortion bubble zone in May.)
Speakers likened Kenney to former progressive conservative premier Ralph Klein — remembered both positively and negatively for his austerity measures — and suggested a conservative government would gut services, lower taxes on the wealthy and introduce a “Donald-Trump-style” education voucher system.
“Jason is a threat to Alberta’s future because he would cut health care, education and other public services and he would cut them savagely,” said McGowan Sunday morning.
(Kenney, for his part, has maintained there are ways to streamline government expenditures while maintaining service delivery.)
All of this is happening against the backdrop of an aggressive information campaign that is well underway. Left-wing groups are scrounging up whatever mud they can about those affiliated, however loosely, with the United Conservatives and hucking it in Kenney’s general direction. A caucus report from the gender and sexual diversity caucus, for example, had delegates say “the UCP are not allies to our community,” saying Kenney opposed same-sex marriage and saying the UCP voted to “out gay kids” when it came to gay-straight alliances in schools.
In short, the campaign is underway, whether Albertans, candidates or anyone else is ready.
The United Conservative Party, for its part, stands ready to receive what many see as their inheritance. Kenney, via Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, is introduced as “the next premier of Alberta” at his rallies.
For its part, the UCP criticized the NDP for its convention that felt like a “campaign rally,” and criticized attacks on Kenney. “It’s just basically feel good resolutions, with only people speaking in favour of them,” said MLA Jason Nixon. “The NDP seem to be very, very focused on the campaign.”
And, on that front, Notley finished her speech off, announcing — no surprise — she’d be running to be premier again.
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