The showdown between NDP Premier Rachel Notley and United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney starts in earnest when the Alberta legislature resumes March 8.
This day will start a year-long election campaign that will see historic polarization played out on the political mainstage of the province.
Notley has a record to defend.
Her government has taken the province the furthest left that it has been since 1935 when Social Credit premier William Aberhart fought the human misery of the Great Depression against the banks, big business and the federal government.
Notley’s not done and in the run-up to the next election, her ministry will continue to remake Alberta in a progressive mould. Indeed, why should she back off and play defence? What she has done and what she stands for will keep her in office, or it won’t when it is tested by the voters. Pretending to be something else is pointless.
In Kenney’s party’s inner circle and in the Calgary business community, a.k.a. the oilpatch, his victory and the return to power of “right-thinking” people is treated as a given.
They have nothing good to say about the NDP’s decisions since the May 2015 election upset in which the Progressive Conservatives were driven from government into oblivion. Alberta is, of course, bigger than the myopic and self-centred UPC base.
However, for the UPC to pretend to be something else is pointless.
Meanwhile, there is the talk of a third option, more moderate than Kenney and less ideological than the NDP.
Liberal Leader David Khan was a distant third-place finisher, behind the UPC and the NDP, in the Dec. 14 Calgary-Lougheed byelection that Kenney won.
Since then he and the Alberta Liberals have been subdued.
On Feb. 28, before the legislature resumes, the other third option, the Alberta Party, will select its leader.
The candidates are former Edmonton mayor and PC cabinet minister Stephen Mandel, former PC cabinet minister Rick Fraser and neophyte Kara Levis, whose political credentials include chair of the Liberal Party of Canada’s National Women’s Liberal Commission.
One candidate, Rick Fraser, has a seat in the legislature where the party caucus has three members, founder Greg Clark, former NDP MLA Karen McPherson and Fraser.
Unless Mandel wins, the Alberta Party will remain a Calgary party. But if he wins, the Alberta Party has a chance to broaden its geographical base.
With Mandel at the helm and Fraser in the caucus, the Alberta Party will continue to be attacked by opponents as “PC-Lite”. But “lite” is another word for “moderate” and moderation would attract homeless conservatives if Kenney remains adamantly to the right.
It’s hard to see a third option because Notley and Kenney are able politicians. Nonetheless, the year ahead could be a political lifetime.
– Frank Dabbs is a veteran political and business journalist and author.