Colby Cosh: If nothing else, Notley’s election call was great timing for Alberta’s NDP

Colby Cosh: If nothing else, Notley’s election call was great timing for Alberta’s NDP
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The Alberta legislature has been dissolved, and the election candidates are pounding the mean streets of Bruderheim and Rimbey and Picture Butte. New Democratic Premier Rachel Notley ended up sticking to the schedule that had long been apparent: a March 18 Throne Speech followed by a quick election call, with April 16 as the date. Notley’s final pitch to the voters followed a week of embarrassments for Jason Kenney’s rival UCP, which has long been coasting to apparent victory in the polls. We do not yet have evidence contradicting this picture, and Alberta political polling is no condition to inspire trust even if some does appear.

The premier faces a difficult re-election struggle no matter what. In the places whose names I threw into that lead paragraph for colour, the NDP cause is probably long since dead. Notley’s New Democrats look like the strategic class of the field thanks to signs of timely meltdown in the “United Conservatives.” But it will not be enough to undo rural resentment toward carbon taxation, toward the euthanization of coal-mining, and toward a heavy-handed reform of farm labour law. (This is not, by any means, an exhaustive list.) The theatre of the election will be the suburbs of the major cities and the core of Calgary, a city in which Jason Kenney has an 8-0 electoral record.

Alberta will need time to absorb the long sequence of relevations about the UCP leadership contest which Kenney won to position himself as opposition leader. For months it was clear that something had been fishy about the longshot leadership campaign of Jeff Callaway, an important figure (and financial motor) from the early days of the Wildrose Party. The provincial Election Commissioner began to quietly zap some of Callaway’s donors with fines for illegal campaign contributions made with funds “furnished by another person.”

Meanwhile, some participants in the unity movement were beginning to talk about Callaway’s campaign having been a “kamikaze” effort. Callaway, who perhaps never acquired the leverage within the Wildrose Party that he felt his work had earned, had supposedly agreed to fight in tandem with Kenney against Brian Jean at UCP leadership debates and then drop out before the ballot. Which he did.

At the end of last week, bizarre rumours about Jean began to fill the Alberta air. Since his defeat by Kenney, Jean has stayed in Ft. McMurray, a fair slab of which he will have just inherited from his legendary mother Frances, and has kept his own counsel. Those who were never comfortable with Kenney’s victory — both inside and outside the UCP — were keeping an wistful eye on him. In January, he told social media he had a “personal announcement” to make, and there was a brief frenzy of speculation before it turned out that he was merely having another child. (Annabella Frances was born Feb. 13.)

When the grapevine began to writhe last week, Jean was initially said to be defecting from the UCP to run as a candidate for the Alberta Party — a musty, listless den of homeless Red Tories and stray Liberals, one that some people suspect of having a “kamikaze” character of its own. A little later, the story was that Jean was going to ally with the Freedom Conservatives, the fiscal-hawk splinter group formed by Wildrose veteran Derek Fildebrandt.

As this beehive was humming, Jen Gerson of Maclean’s magazine . Davies acknowledged a transfer of $60,000 from an unknown source to Callaway’s campaign so that it could be divided up unlawfully and turned into phony personal donations. Davies also said that Kenney and his staff had reached an explicit understanding with Callaway about the kamikaze campaign, and offered documentation of Kenney’s group providing videos and graphics to Callaway.

These are two separate news nuggets — subject to further investigations, including the RCMP’s — and Gerson was careful to point this out explicitly. There is no proof Kenney was involved with the illegal Callaway financing. Meanwhile, the Jean rumours seemed to peter out, although he did observe that he had “buried the hatchet” with Fildebrandt. Still, the effect of Gerson’s bombshell was to create an ethical cloud around Kenney at the exact moment the campaign began.

The evidence suggests that at a minimum Kenney was content to give his blessing and aid to Callaway’s bogus candidacy, knowing that it was bogus. As a sin this falls somewhere between helping someone pursue a vendetta that serves your own purposes (i.e., everyday politics) and actively misleading the public and the membership of one’s party (which might be considered an ethical disqualification in a leader, if you’re particular). Observers noticed that Notley’s throne speech backed off from recent campaigning nastiness — you can’t put that kind of talk in the mouth of the Lieutenant-Governor — but was careful to mention ex-premier Alison Redford’s attempt to use public funds for a secret downtown Edmonton residence, the ludicrous “Sky Palace.”

The ill-disguised goal of this was to remind Albertans of old-time Progressive Conservative corruption, hoping that the grime will rub off onto the shiny new UCP. For now, the Alberta “right” remains technically united, except for Fildebrandt’s Bernieresque spoiler effort. Math is still on Kenney’s side. In the long term the fate of the UCP will be in the hands of its rank and file: the whole affair raises the interesting philosophical question “What if you unite the right — but the union doesn’t quite take?”

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