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‘Alberta is open for business’ as Jason Kenney’s UCP claims majority

‘Alberta is open for business’ as Jason Kenney’s UCP claims majority
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CALGARY—After a short four years, the orange wave that swept into Alberta in 2015 was replaced Tuesday night by a sea of United Conservative Party blue.

UCP Leader Jason Kenney — a former federal cabinet minister who entered provincial politics three years ago with a plan to reunite Alberta’s conservatives — will be the province’s 18th premier. The fledgling party, created by a merger of the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose in 2017, surged toward a majority government, toppling NDP seats in just about every corner of the province.

“Hope is on the horizon,” Kenney told a crowd of cheering and whistling supporters in Calgary, adding that “Alberta is open for business.”

“There is a deep frustration in this province, a sense that we have contributed massively to the rest of Canada, but that everywhere we turn we are being blocked in and pinned down,” he said. “Today we begin to fight back.”

In his speech, Kenney lashed out against the federal government and other provinces that have made it harder for Alberta to get oil pipelines to tidewater. He vowed that his election would usher in a new era of perseverance and he would defy anyone preventing Alberta’s natural resources from reaching wider markets.

He said the UCP’s success showed that “the silent majority has spoken, not the loud and angry voices on social media.”

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A huge cheer went up in the crowd as Kenney repeated a promise to scrap the carbon tax, which he called “all economic pain, no environmental gain.” He thanked several other Canadian premiers who have resisted a carbon tax, including Ontario’s Doug Ford and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe, saying he looks forward to working with them.

But despite Kenney’s oftentimes combative rhetoric, he also said he would be willing to listen to and work with his opponents. That includes pipeline-averse Quebec, which Kenney briefly addressed in French, and Albertans who didn’t vote for the UCP.

“We will strive to be a government for all Albertans, not just those who voted for us,” he said.

Kenney also vowed to launch a public inquiry into a foreign-funded campaign against Alberta’s oilsands — something that, while apparently real, is likely not the source of the province’s economic woes, the Star reported Tuesday .

Though seat counts weren’t final Tuesday night — a few ridings in Calgary and Edmonton, along with Banff-Kananaskis, were too close to call as midnight approached — it appeared the UCP would pick up more than 60 seats and the NDP would hang on to more than 20.

A smiling Rachel Notley walked onstage in Edmonton to deliver her concession speech just before 10 p.m., greeted by a huge crowd of supporters chanting her name. At points she became emotional, saying the world sometimes feels like “two steps forward and one step back,” but lauding the NDP’s accomplishments on social issues like education, health care and child poverty.

“Tonight’s result is not the one we hoped for or worked so hard for,” she said. “Four years ago, Albertans hired us to do a very big job at a very difficult time, and we did that job with purpose.”

Notley pledged to push for ethics in the legislature in her new role as Opposition leader.

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley gives her concession speech at the Edmonton Convention Centre on Tuesday. At points she became emotional, saying the world sometimes feels like "two steps forward and one step back," but lauding the NDP s accomplishments on social issues like education, health care and child poverty.  (Codie McLachlan/For Star Edmonton)

Tuesday night’s election ends what turned out to be a brief NDP era in Alberta. Many saw the party’s surprise 2015 victory as an accident, a reaction to the entitlement and cronyism of the previous 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty and the result of vote-splitting between two solid right-wing parties.

The centre-right Alberta Party and Alberta Liberals seemed unlikely to take any seats Tuesday night, meaning the province will have just two parties in the legislature.

Alberta’s past few provincial elections have been marked by last-minute twists. But the UCP’s decisive victory shows that conservative Alberta is back — and, perhaps, that it never really left.

The UCP dominated rural Alberta as expected, taking even key northern ridings the NDP had hoped to hold. The conservatives also convincingly outpaced the NDP in most of Calgary, all but erasing the New Democrats’ hold on the city.

To the south, the city of Lethbridge ended the night divided. The UCP took the city’s eastern riding from the NDP, but former NDP environment minister Shannon Phillips won her race in the west by about 500 votes. In 2015, Phillips had a sweeping victory, with a nearly three-to-one ratio of votes.

In total, 10 former NDP cabinet members held on to their seats: Phillips of environment and parks, Joe Ceci of finance, Irfan Sabir of social services, Kathleen Ganley of justice, Deron Bilous of economic development, Sarah Hoffman of health, Marlin Schmidt of advanced education, David Eggen of education, Lori Sigurdson of seniors and housing and Richard Feehan of Indigenous relations.

Five other former NDP cabinet ministers failed to keep their seats: Danielle Larivee, who had handled children’s services and status of women; Shaye Anderson, who had been municipal affairs minister; Oneil Carlier, the former agriculture and forestry minister; former energy minister Margaret McCuaig-Boyd; and Ricardo Miranda, who had served as culture and tourism minister.

Tuesday night’s outcome was widely predicted by polls ever since the UCP’s creation. The weeks and months ahead will likely be a period of upheaval in Alberta as Kenney seeks to undo the NDP’s legacy.

“Kenney has promised a dramatic backlash … He wants to repeal much of what the NDP has done, repeal it very quickly, and he has his fight-back strategy,” said Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

“This will be a very active government. We’ll see whether he goes ahead and does everything that’s promised and whether it will be effective.”

After CTV called a majority government for the United Conservatives, the incumbent NDP MLA for Edmonton-City Centre, David Shepherd, told The Star he would wait to see some more numbers before he makes any bets.

“I’m frankly ready and willing to serve wherever Albertans should choose that we do,” Shepherd said.

Although the Alberta Party put forward a full slate of 87 candidates, the progress it made in the 2015 election appeared to be destroyed. It was poised to take zero seats.

Early poll results put Leader Stephen Mandel in a firm third-place position in his Edmonton riding. Though Mandel conceded it had been “difficult” for his party to make a mark, he said Tuesday that “we have to be very proud.”

Even the party’s sole, star MLA, Greg Clark of Calgary-Elbow, failed to hold his seat. His 8,707 votes in the 2015 provincial election totalled more than the Wildrose and PC votes combined. On Tuesday night, he said he has high hopes for the Alberta Party’s future.

“I feel we put our best foot forward,” Clark said. “I just couldn’t be more proud of our campaign team and my family.”

Meanwhile, Alberta Liberal Party candidates and supporters crowded into the party’s headquarters on Tuesday night in Calgary-Mountain View, worried about the party’s future in the province.

The party was fighting in this year’s election to hold on to their one riding, an effort that appeared to fail as Leader David Khan lost his race in Calgary-Mountain View. It’s the first time since 1982 that the party hasn’t held a seat in the legislature.

In his concession speech, Khan spoke directly to Kenney.

“With your victory comes great responsibility,” he said. “You will be the premier for all Albertans. This includes the vulnerable, those with special needs and the LGBTQ+ community. Don’t abuse your authority; be fair and inclusive in your decisions.

Liberal leader David Khan for the Calgary Mountain View riding at his campaign office with his supporters on April 16, 2019.  (Christina Ryan/For Star Calgary)

“Some of your candidates have expressed views of intolerance and bigotry. Their fear-mongering was abusive and embarrassing. I hope you will root out and remove those values from your party.”

The upstart Freedom Conservative Party also failed to get any seats. Its leader, former UCP MLA Derek Fildebrandt, lost his riding to UCP star MLA Leela Aheer.

Throughout the 2019 campaign, the vote was often framed as a choice between economic priorities and social values.

Notley had tried to sell Albertans on her ethics, pointing to several festering scandals that dogged the UCP on the campaign trail and promising spending on health care, child care and education if her party was re-elected.

Early on, several UCP candidates resigned over racist, Islamophobic or anti-LGBTQ comments. Kenney later continued to back one candidate, , who compared homosexuality to pedophilia in a 2013 sermon. Smith, who was re-elected Tuesday night, later apologized and said he never meant to equate the two. Kenney also refused to kick out candidates who questioned the science behind climate change.

Kenney’s own record of campaigning against LGBTQ rights during the 1980s AIDS crisis in San Francisco also came back to haunt him. In an interview with radio host Charles Adler, Kenney refused to apologize for supporting a push to deny spousal rights, which would prevent same-sex partners from seeing their dying loved ones in care facilities. At the time, Kenney was a post-secondary student; he has since said his views have evolved along with the rest of society.

Anti-LGBTQ comments played a central role in the in 2012. Not so this time.

Callaway denies any wrongdoing, and Kenney has said the ties between their campaigns were normal. Several Callaway donors, meanwhile, have been fined for contributing money that wasn’t theirs.

Callaway, his wife and four other donors made a failed effort to get an emergency court order to pause the election commissioner’s investigation. Affidavits filed to support their case showed Callaway himself has been ordered to return $26,500 in allegedly illegal donations and that more findings are likely on the way .

Rebecca Schulz celebrates her Calgary-Shaw riding win at the UCP party on Tuesday.  (Christina Ryan/For Star Calgary)

The RCMP also appear to be looking into allegations of voter fraud in the 2017 UCP leadership race. The UCP has said it is confident in the integrity of those results.

The allegations first arose in February after a former UCP MLA — who quit amid ballot-stuffing allegations — wrote a letter to the RCMP, saying fake emails attached to party memberships were part of a fraudulent voting scheme.

Bratt said those issues won’t be going away, and the bitter fight during this election is likely to have a lasting impact on Alberta politics.

“We often hear every election is the nastiest ever. And I always say, ‘What’s your comparison?’” he said.

“But when I look at the items — candidates having to withdraw, candidates having to apologize, defacing of signs, RCMP investigations — it has been pretty brutal.”

Bratt said having a sizable official Opposition in the legislature with experienced politicians, including former government ministers, is something new for Alberta.

The ongoing investigations will give the NDP, now moving into the role of official Opposition, much fodder for criticism in the legislature.
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