A voter-fraud scandal in Kenney’s party, but Alberta voters may be unmoved

Jason Markusoff’s Alberta Politics Insider for April 11: Fake email accounts, Notley’s regrets about Northern Gateway, and more
Jason Kenney
Alberta United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney speaks to the media after the 2019 Alberta Leaders Debate in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday, April 4, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Codie McLachlan

A bombshell new story by CBC Calgary has established that fraudulent email accounts were used to vote in the party leadership contest that put Jason Kenney within striking distance of the premier’s chair, and that the RCMP’s fraud investigation has called people on the United Conservative membership list about whether or not they actually voted.

It’s a terrible revelation that no political leader would want in the final week of a campaign. Electorally speaking, though, it might not amount to much.

If the Alberta economy were humming, the UCP campaign would probably collapse under the combined burden of this election fraud investigation, the “kamikaze” campaign, the party’s social conservatism and candidates exposed with intolerant and racist views. The provincial economy is not humming, however. It is not the ninth day of Christmas, with nine pipelines piping. Anxiety about the economy, jobs and pipeline have formed a hard crust atop voters’ priority list—there has been erosion, particularly with increasing negative sentiment toward Kenney himself emerging in polls, many of which have ticked upward for NDP in the cities. But the ethical morass through which Kenney seems to have won the UCP crown has rarely come up at the doorstep, sources in both parties say. Many voters appear willing to let controversies slide if they believe Kenney can scrap the carbon tax, stoke corporate investment and poke Justin Trudeau in the eye.

Even some in the NDP worry the fraud allegations are too complex or arcane to affect voters. Plus, this matter has been percolating all campaign long. One pollster suggested to Maclean’s that any negative impressions of Kenney’s leadership ethics are likely already baked into the numbers, and a deepening crisis won’t have much impact unless charges are laid (there are no indications that anything like that may occur before the April 16 election).

It’s late in the campaign for new information to add to the gusher and nasty campaign news the parties are dishing out. Much of the electorate is voting early this time—276,000 ballots were cast at advance polls in the first two days, already surpassing 2015’s levels with three more days of advance voting to go. If more damaging information emerges in the final days, it’s too late for that large swath of Albertans to make up their minds.

In saying these revelations might not matter, I’m by no means asserting they shouldn’t matter. If Kenney wins, it’s possible a police investigation into whether ID fraud was perpetrated in his 2017 leadership campaign will dog him for weeks, months or years. And what might this say about how he would govern? Here’s what I wrote when documents laid bare his sham candidate scheme:

This treachery reveals Kenney’s ruthlessly competitive streak, a keenness to pulverize competition at all costs… , it’s now fair to wonder where this impulse to crush will take him as premier. He has promised such pulverizing-the-foes zeal on what’s indisputably Alberta’s most critical file: oil pipelines. He’s promised a multi-pronged “fight back” strategy… Such aggression could win a pipeline that could have been won anyway, but Kenney would risk losing the now-stronger national public support for such projects at the same time as concern rises for climate action. He could succeed on one front, but become renowned elsewhere in Canada as a pro-oil thug.

So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

Even if it’s become a closer race than it started out, the NDP knows it’s still down. But it’s not ruling out a victory. Strategists have sketched out a map that brings Notley’s party to a 44-seat majority in the 87-seat legislature, but it’s a mighty narrow map and relies on heaps of optimism, like the idea they can pick up Conservative-held seats in Calgary. (Many Conservatives, meanwhile, believe they can win 65 or more.)

Here’s how the Notleyites think it could play out:

Starting point: The New Democrats won 54 seats last election: all 19 in Edmonton; 15 of 25 in Calgary; seven in the “donut” of bedroom communities around Edmonton; five in a clean sweep of Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Red Deer; and eight in small-town and rural Alberta.

Edmonton: NDP would need to once again sweep Edmonton, which after redistricting has 20 seats. Polls show Notley’s party ahead in her hometown, but the UCP hopes to pick off seats in the west and in the southwest corner.

Around Edmonton: The party must regain seven, perhaps losing in Spruce Grove–Stony Plain but picking up in quasi-rural Morinville–St. Albert, which has a slice of the most progressive of Edmonton’s satellite cities. St. Albert is the party’s most probable hold in the area, along with Sherwood Park, and—they hope—Fort Saskatchewan–Vegreville and Leduc–Beaumont, where Municipal Affairs Minister Shaye Anderson is well-liked and well-bearded.

Calgary: A party source says they’re competitive in half of the city’s 26 seats (after boundary changes). If 13 are winnable, the party’s strength emanates from the core, with Finance Minister Joe Ceci (Calgary–Buffalo) and Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley (Calgary–Mountain View). The NDP is confident it can hang on to inner city seats Varsity, Currie and Klein, and finish strong in the city’s ethnic northeast, including McCall, the new North East and East—maybe add Falconridge, which the PCs won last time. Beyond that seems to involve magical thinking, as the northwest and south of city are stronger for the UCP.

Rest of Alberta: This orange-tinted-glasses view of Alberta’s map leaves the party needing four more seats for a majority. It has little hope in Medicine Hat, where the urban seat was split in two, or in Red Deer, whose incumbents had dismally little profile. Nearly all the rural northwest is a likely lost cause, including the seats held by the agriculture minister (Lac Ste. Anne–Parkland) and energy minister (Central Peace–Notley). The NDP like their chances of Environment Minister Shannon Phillips winning in Lethbridge–West, and a path back to majority likely requires Lethbridge–East. The UCP is expect Notley may keep Banff–Kananaskis. And the NDP covet two ridings with sizeable First Nations populations: Lesser Slave Lake and Maskwacis—Wetaskiwin. And, if the NDP dare to dream, they win the urban seat Grande Prairie in northwest Alberta. That’s four to six seats.

That’s the roadmap for the NDP, and officials concede they need a last-minute stampede away from Kenney for that to happen. Conservatives will laugh heartily at this scenario; some New Democrat campaigners will giggle nervously. But I’ll finish this point with an anecdote from the 2015 campaign trail.

In the afterglow of Notley’s 2015 debate performance, I asked one NDP contact how they were feeling. Great, came the reply. But that person looked at the ridings map and had no clue how the party could get past 30 seats. This individual has spent the last four years in cabinet.

Notley’s regret about her pipeline stance

Maclean’s contributing editor Jen Gerson interviewed an NDP premier fighting for her political survival, and trying to deflect Kenney’s assertions about a nefarious “Notley-Trudeau alliance” harming Alberta. “It’s not an alliance and it’s not a war,” Rachel Notley told Gerson. “It’s a mature intergovernmental relationship and, frankly, something that Albertans should expect from their leaders.”

Notley warns that Kenney’s climate stance and tough-guy approach could weaken the national case for the Trans Mountain pipeline. But she also acknowledges she could have done more for a different west-coast pipeline project.

Q: One of the criticisms that is lobbed against you is when you first came to power you opposed Northern Gateway. With the benefit of hindsight, do you regret opposing Northern Gateway?

A: I would say that to some degree yes. I realize now that I have a better understanding of the takeaway capacity needs and pipeline needs of our industry, and I realize now what we’re coming up against and we see what’s happened with the differential. And the degree of uncertainty when you’re dealing with Line 3 and KXL. You’re a hostage to U.S. fortune there.

Further reading

Graham Thomson on the bluster: “Alberta’s election fight has become a campaign of anger, frustration, fear and retaliation. That is a serious problem for Notley who, according to opinion polls, has a higher personal approval rating than Kenney—but that’s because she’s seen as being affable, optimistic and hopeful, things that helped her win the 2015 election. She does not do anger well. Then there’s Kenney, who is pretty much a one-man anger machine. He has spent the past two years helping stoke a sense of frustration and alienation in Alberta until it’s white hot.” (iPolitics)

Dean Bennett on Notley’s grim warning: “Asked how Kenney’s UCP would attack minorities, (Notley) said it was clear from comments made by some of Kenney’s candidates. ‘There has been a systematic problem with the UCP in terms of many of the attitudes that have been articulated by their candidates,’ she said. ‘There are many, many people within the UCP that have troubling views and I don’t believe ought to be invited into our government in Edmonton.’ The UCP has rejected or seen a number of candidates or potential candidates step down over Islamophobic or homophobic remarks. Kenney has said they represent a small number of a broad coalition and that his party believes in equality for all. He has touted its ethnically diverse slate of candidates.” (Canadian Press)

Elise von Scheel on small-town economic struggles: “Rose Klatt came to Olds, Alta., from the Philippines to fulfil a dream to open her own cafe. Her restaurant, with its bright green walls and authentic Filipino cuisine, quickly became a popular spot to catch up on local events. But the bell above her door rarely rings these days. The severe economic downturn in the province is dragging down her small community, she said, and nobody seems to have the money to eat out. A year after taking ownership of the cafe in this town an hour’s drive north of Calgary, Klatt said, she’s barely making enough to stay open.” (CBC)

Aaron Wherry on what Kenney means for Trudeau and Scheer: “There’s a dual risk here for Scheer — of being overshadowed by two premiers and of sinking his own chances by tying himself to provincial leaders courting controversy. It’s possible that, by October, many voters will be looking for a PM who is more likely to stand up to the premiers of Alberta and Ontario. The greater threat posed by Kenney and Ford is still to the prime minister’s own agenda and world view. But Kenney and Ford can at least do him the favour of clarifying the choice Trudeau wants to present to Canadians this fall.” (CBC)

Ex-NDP leader Tom Mulcair on Kenney’s Alberta-first inclinations: “It is a winning idea if that’s all you want to do, but if you realize that being connected to the rest of the country is necessary, if you do indeed want to get more access to other markets with the product that you’re making, which is of course petroleum and natural gas, you’ve got to work with the other provinces, and whatever government’s in Ottawa. Because even if Andrew Scheer were to win the next federal general election in October, there’s not question in my mind that he’d still have to work with B.C. and its current government there. Because I don’t see the army coming in and forcing the building of a pipeline.” (CTV Power Play)

Anne Francis on why Notley runs, literally: “Unlike some politicians who seem only to break out their runners for photo ops, Notley’s pretty committed. (Anyone who runs the Hypothermic Half in Edmonton in February, as Notley did in 2017, has to be.) A recent Globe and Mail story claims she credits her stamina on the campaign trail to her running, which makes sense to us. Another way you know she’s a committed runner is that, according to her campaign video (above), her best pals are her running pals… If the pundits are right, after Tuesday’s election Notley may be able to get back to training and racing with a little more frequency. And that’s never a bad thing.” (Canadian Running)