The price of oil is way up and COVID-19 public health restrictions are gone in Alberta.
Premier Jason Kenney and United Conservative Party cabinet ministers have fled the big cities and are hopping across the province making big spending announcements.
Grande Prairie. Red Deer. Acme. Hospitals. Schools. Airports. Childcare centres.
There is almost money for everything again. Unemployment is still high but government coffers are flush with oil revenues.
It feels like election season in Alberta.
The next provincial election is supposed to be just over a year away.
Bill 81 passed last year sets the next election day for the third Monday in May. That’s May 29, 2023. The bill was signed by Lieutenant Governor Salma Lakhani in December but it hasn’t been proclaimed into law by the Kenney cabinet.
Kenney could call a Hail Mary early election this year but with Rachel Notley’s NDP leading in every poll since November 2020, it would be a big gamble. The UCP could lose big.
Notley’s NDP are recruiting good candidates and have a lot more money in the bank than Kenney’s UCP, which has struggled to fundraise over the past two years.
But an early election would take advantage of high oil prices, boosted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine that has given Kenney a chance to shift back to talking about oil and pipelines. Plus, Kenney is keen to project a sense of optimism that the COVID pandemic might actually be over (for now, at least).
And a really early election could be a way to avoid that pesky April 9 leadership review in Red Deer.
‘Give all Albertans a chance to vote in the leadership review!’, Kenney could say.
A super early election would let Kenney punt out the growing chorus of opponents in his own caucus and avoid the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche by-election (so long, Brian Jean!).
Kenney would still have a lot to answer for. He’s still sitting on an unpopular coal mining report the government was forced to write after nearly all Albertans rose up against open-pit coal mining in the Eastern Slopes.
Plus the draft education curriculum, a big fight with doctors, abandoned plans to privatize and sell provincial parks, and that $1.3 billion gambled on Donald Trump’s re-election.
New Labour Minister Kaycee Madu is still in cabinet after trying (and failing) to ‘interfere in the administration of justice’ after getting distracted driving ticket. And new Justice Minister Tyler Shandro is facing a code-of-conduct hearing at the Law Society.
While Kenney has callously used the Ukraine crisis as a pitch for Canadian oil, one big country dependent on Russian oil and gas, Germany, is talking about abandoning fossil fuels all together.
German Finance Minister Christian Lindner has referred to renewable electricity sources as “the energy of freedom.”
But Kenney’s audience isn’t Germany or investment funds in New York. His primary audience is UCP voters in Alberta.
Back to the early election talk.
Maybe that’s what Pam Livingston is already working on?
The Premier’s chief of staff is on a leave of absence to make sure he wins the leadership review, but with party nominations heating up – notably in ridings held by Kenney loyalists – shifting into election campaign mode might be a natural transition.
City UCP MLAs are worried about the NDP, and rightfully so, but rural MLAs are mostly worried about a challenge from the populist right.
An early election could catch challengers like the Wildrose Independence Party off-guard, robbing them of a full year to organize and recruit candidates.
“But Dave,” you say, an early election call didn’t go so well for Kenney’s conservative predecessor in the Premier’s office.
Premier Jim Prentice led a calcified Progressive Conservative dynasty to get trampled in the 2015 Orange Wave election that broke the mold of Alberta politics. It’s probably a warning Kenney should heed.
The NDP could win big and Notley could become the first Premier in Alberta’s history to return after being defeated. It would be a big deal.
Notice that Kenney’s language has shifted in the past month?
After years of using divide and conquer tactics on almost every issue, the most divisive and unpopular premier in Alberta’s recent history is making a desperate appeal for “unity.”
He needs a big shift – and a big shovel to dig himself out of the giant hole he has spent the past three years digging.
Whether he is actually campaigning for the April 9 leadership review or setting up Albertans for an early election, gambling might be Kenney’s only option if he wants to stay in the Premier’s office. Otherwise he might as well book the U-Haul.