Alberta election shaping up to be a battle royale

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This time it’s personal.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley called the provincial election on Tuesday, and signalled she will go toe to toe with her foe Jason Kenney on who is fit to be premier.

With Kenney’s UCP mired in scandal, Notley used words including ‘cheat’ and ‘lie’ in her inaugural campaign speech when discussing the current controversy over the 2017 UCP leadership.

She delivered the election call in Calgary, the UCP stronghold.  And she directly addressed conservative voters.

“A growing number of conservatives here in Calgary and across Alberta are coming to have very serious doubts about Jason Kenney as premier,” she said.

Notley’s election timing fits neatly with a stream of leaked emails and revelations about the links between Kenney’s camp in the leadership race and fellow candidate Jeff Callaway.  It is apparent that there was something beyond routine communication between camps.

The emails obtained by several media outlets indicate strategy and talking points were being fed to Callaway’s team from the Kenney camp, apparently in aid of sinking the chances of former Wildrose Leader Brian Jean to take the UCP helm.

The elections commissioner has levied fines over irregular campaign contributions and obstruction of his investigation of the leadership race.  The UCP has severed ties with some former campaign workers as it tries to distance itself, and Kenney, from the fallout.  And the RCMP is looking into possible illegal acts related to the leadership.

Kenney for months denied there was collusion between his camp and Callaway.  Now he argues that communication between candidates is perfectly normal and he was just seeking Callaway’s support in case Callaway chose not to stay in the race until the end.

Notley played up the cultural inclusiveness of the NDP at the campaign kickoff, a roundabout allusion to another controversy erupting within the UCP.  Calgary-Mountain View candidate Caylan Ford, who has been a featured star in the UCP candidate cadre, resigned this week after revelations that she had made social media comments which could be interpreted as being sympathetic to white nationalists.

Ford said the remarks were distorted by the story carried by Press Progress, a media project of the Broadbent Institute.  “I strongly denounce extremism, violence, and stand with marginalized communities everywhere,”said Ford.  But the damage had been done, reinforcing a perception that the UCP candidate vetting procedure hasn’t been as rigorous as Kenney has claimed.

Notley told reporters at the Calgary event she doesn’t believe Kenney is a racist.  “But I do believe the UCP has a problem with racism.”

Kenney has stayed the course despite the scandals, soldiering through press conference after press conference on the scandals.

After Monday’s Speech from the Throne he calmly outlined the UCP talking points on how the NDP has sunk the Alberta economy.  Even when pretty much every media question centred on the party’s woes, he kept his cool, sticking to his defence that he did nothing wrong during the leadership.

He is determined to swing attention to the economy, a losing proposition for the NDP which is presiding over a very slow recovery for the province’s oilpatch.  Kenney’s first official campaign speech after the writ dropped was staged at an oilfield service company yard in Leduc.  It was heavy on numbers and statistics, veering sharply away from social, justice or leadership issues.

Every Kenney podium is emblazoned with the words Jobs, Economy, Pipelines.  He has hammered those issues home at every appearance, declaring Alberta open for business, promising tax and red tape cuts for companies.

He is characterizing the Notley charges about his fitness to govern as “fear and smear” from the “NDP anger machine.”

Kenney is also pointedly loathe to mention Notley by name.  He would argue he is taking the high road by not resorting to personal attacks.  But he is also trying to deflect from the question of who Albertans most trust and admire.

Notley’s greatest strength is her own reputation and popularity.  While Kenney may argue she has failed to get a pipeline in the ground, there aren’t many Albertans who will argue she hasn’t at least made the effort.

The question will be whether integrity of leadership trumps Kenney’s promise to fix the economy.  Opinion polls conducted before this past week of UCP meltdown showed Kenney’s party with what appeared to be an unbeatable lead.  But there are four weeks until the April 16 vote and polls in Alberta have proven to not always be accurate.

Photo Credit: Edmonton Journal

More from Kathy Kerr.     @kathkerr1

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