Alberta’s two main provincial political party leaders are set to duel for the province’s highest office starting Monday in a campaign that for both could be a case of win or go home.
A win by United Conservative Leader Danielle Smith and her party gets a second term, defeating Rachel Notley and her NDP just like in 2019.
A loss and Smith risks being tossed out by her party, wearing the ignominy of the first Alberta conservative leader to lose in a head to head fight with the NDP, given the NDP won government in 2015 with a big boost from conservative vote-splitting.
A win by Notley and it’s two of the last three elections going orange, with a chance to cement the NDP as Alberta’s dominant party. A loss and it’s two L’s in a row and perhaps calls for renewed leadership.
Political scientist Lori Williams said both will bring baggage to the campaign trail, which begins with Monday’s expected writ drop and ends with a May 29 voting day.
Smith is shouldering multiple controversies, including an ongoing ethics investigation tied to her phone call offering to help a street preacher with his criminal trial.
Notley had to quell a messy internal party fight last year over accusations of verbal abuse of party volunteers, not to mention former caucus member Thomas Dang, who is not seeking re-election, being charged with hacking into a government website.
Williams said Notley also has to cope with residual discontent from her time as premier in 2015, when her government passed a bill to regulate employment and safety rules on farms, prompting protests on the steps of the legislature.
“Even though she did win the agreement of farmers on what the policy actually wound up being, that image of farmers driving their tractors in protest, the sense that she wasn’t listening to rural Alberta, was a point of huge sensitivity in rural Alberta,” said Williams, with Mount Royal University in Calgary.
Polling suggests Smith faces a different challenge on the doorsteps given her conflicting comments, rollbacks and clarifications on a range of policies such as COVID-19 prosecutions, restrictions for the unvaccinated and her sovereignty act.
“Danielle Smith is much more of a polarizing figure,” said Williams.
“Questions about her judgment, character, even integrity, and competence, stability, all of these things are being asked.”
Pollster Janet Brown said that with Edmonton solidly NDP and the UCP dominating the rural areas, the path to victory in the 87-seat legislature likely runs through Calgary.
The leader, she said, could be the determining factor in a head-scratcher of a city that voted solid Conservative blue in the 2021 federal election but for progressive candidates in the municipal campaign that same year.
“It’s like the tale of two Calgarys. Which Calgary is going to show up on May 29?” said Brown.
“If it’s a Calgary preoccupied with Ottawa and defending Alberta’s economic interests, it could be a good night for Danielle Smith.
“If it’s a Calgary that’s worried about social programs and honest leadership, it’ll be a good night for Rachel Notley.”
Both leaders came of age in Alberta politics over the last decade and, regardless of the outcome on May 29, will have left their mark on the political landscape.
Both have been Opposition leader. Both have been premier. Both are in the 50s. Both have prospered at the expense of the other.
In 2008, when Notley won a seat, the NDP occupied a tiny corner of the legislature chamber with four seats.
By 2015, the New Democrats under Notley won government for the first time in provincial history, then captured more than a quarter of the legislature’s seats in their 2019 loss. Polls suggest they are now poised for a narrow win or a bigger seat share in 2023.
Smith helped foment the split on the right when she became Wildrose party leader in 2009. Under her leadership, the Wildrose was poised to defeat Premier Alison Redford’s PCs in 2012, but a late polling lead evaporated after Smith refused to remove candidates for intolerant remarks and questioned the validity of climate change.
Two years later, the PCs had turfed Redford amid scandals and replaced her with Jim Prentice. When Prentice began defeating the Wildrose in a series of byelections and appeared to have recaptured momentum, Smith led a mass floor crossing of most of her Wildrose caucus to Prentice’s PCs.
The result was public outrage over the move while the Wildrose began to rejuvenate under Brian Jean, contributing to the vote split and the NDP’s breakthrough win in 2015.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press