CALGARY — In a quiet Calgary neighbourhood in the city’s southeast, United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney pushes open the passenger door of the still-moving blue pickup truck and jumps out to greet a crew of volunteers.
“He loves these rolling exits,” says Rebecca Schulz, the UCP candidate for Calgary-Shaw, with an edge of motherly disapproval.
Laureen Harper, wife of former prime minister Stephen Harper, brings the truck to a complete stop but Kenney is already shaking the hand of Calgary-Peigan candidate Tanya Fir and greeting her team.
As Harper joins him on the suburban lawn, Kenney introduces her and thanks her for being the chauffeur for the Tuesday evening door-knocking blitz, designed to help get the vote out as advance polls open.
“She drives like a madwoman,” Kenney tells the volunteers. With a massive UCP logo on the truck, he jokes that “if we cut anyone off we lose voters.”
Harper doesn’t seem to mind Kenney’s running gag about her driving but, no stranger to media management, she gently pushes back a little later while she manoeuvres down the highway. She drives like someone who has driven a pickup truck before, she suggests. Not like a madwoman, but not like a grandma either.
As Harper surveys the remnants of rush-hour traffic on the Deerfoot Trail, Calgary’s main north-south artery, Kenney wonders aloud why the NDP are still putting resources into the city when they should be trying to “save the furniture” around Edmonton, the party’s one true stronghold. Recent polls continue to show Kenney’s UCP with a healthy lead, despite stronger numbers from the NDP in recent weeks.
The UCP plan was to make a series of strong challenges in ridings in Edmonton and force the NDP to play defence, making it difficult for them to push into ridings elsewhere that could go orange. The NDP has still been pushing into Calgary, however. Kenney’s theory is that, for Notley, losing by 40 seats isn’t much different than losing by one seat, so the NDP is committed to an all-or-nothing strategy.
As a red pickup truck drives by, Harper jokes that it might be the Liberals, but the driver leans on the horn and gives an enthusiastic thumbs-up as he merges onto the Deerfoot and roars past the UCP truck.
“Nope, it’s one of ours,” laughs Schulz.
Votes will be cast in the Alberta election on Tuesday, marking the culmination of a three-year journey for Kenney, who wrestled the province’s conservatives into a single, vote-split-immune machine that exists for the sole purpose of defeating Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party.
Driving through Calgary, with its endless blue signs and thumbs-ups, it would be easy for the UCP to get overconfident, but Kenney is constantly trying to fight complacency.
“We’ve gotta work hard in the last week,” he tells the volunteers in suburban south Calgary. “We didn’t see it coming in 2015. These guys could get in again.”
Maybe it’s the adrenaline from the campaign, or the rewards of his punishing Keto diet — a severely low-carb regimen — that has allowed him to slim down remarkably, but Kenney keeps finding a second, or third, or fourth wind as the campaign winds down. In contrast, weary staffers are counting the days until they can sleep in their own beds.
This election is about jobs, pipelines and the economy, Kenney says at every stop, and just about everyone agrees. For those few remaining Albertans who can be swayed and who may believe the NDP has been dealt a bad economic hand with plummeting oil prices and an impossibly complicated pipeline approval process, it’s about how much you believe in Rachel Notley.
Notley’s team, for its part, is pushing hard through the last weekend. Lethbridge on Thursday. Friday, a speech in Calgary, then off to Canmore and a series of whistle stops on the campaign trail.
Around 10 a.m., the van rolls out, through downtown Calgary, to the first stop of the day. The mood, considering the grind, is upbeat. There are Girl Guide cookies in the van, though someone’s put back the empty box of non-mint cookies. Taped to the inside of the door is a printout of Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones; it’s for inspiration on a campaign that is described, basically, as an episode of Veep.
The van pulls into an alley. Then it’s in through a back door, past a kitchen of a restaurant where the team ate recently, winding through corridors and to the green room of The Grand theatre. There’s a lot of entering through strange doors and walking through kitchens, staff say. The glamour of life on the road.
Minutes later, Notley sits with her coffee, perched atop the dressing room shelf. They’re waiting while the road crew gets everything in shape for the speech. It’s not easy finding venues for these things — people don’t want to risk alienating customers and neighbours. But, they keep track of the willing places.
Then there’s some gladhanding and an introduction by Brian Bietz, who runs a business that helps energy companies work through the regulatory process. “I’m 66 years old,” he says, “and for the first time in my life I’m voting NDP.”
Backstage, Notley stands, arms crossed or hands clasped. And then, when the intro ends, the smile snaps on and she walks out on to stage, with her stump speech, a pitch to all Albertans to vote for her party.
“If you voted PC in the past, but have concerns about Mr. Kenney and the choices he will make … then I appeal to you directly to join us,” she said.
It has been, by any measure, one of the most personally incendiary campaigns in Canadian history. Each side is talking about this election, and their vision of Alberta — and their opponents — in dystopian terms. The NDP is fighting a “phoney war” for pipelines. The UCP wants “American-style” health care.
So which Alberta will it be? And, how is each party trying to ensure that it is going to be the one that takes power? With three days left, the parties are making a major final push for votes. The polls have bobbed here and there, with the UCP generally commanding a sturdy lead, but polls are rarely reliable in Alberta anyways.
For Notley’s team, the strategy, all along, has been clear: make voters doubt Kenney’s character and they’ll doubt that his party deserves to rule.
Kenney’s team has been hammering away on the economy. This is an election about jobs, they say, and the NDP exposing candidates with retrograde views on homosexuality is merely a ploy to distract from the economic situation in Alberta. We’re a mainstream party that believes in human dignity, Kenney says. He told the Post this week that when door-knocking, he hears hardly anything about gay-straight alliances or abortion. The media, he says, are concerned about this, while voters are worried about their jobs and economic security.
To be sure, jobs and the economy are the main concern for voters, polling data has shown. That includes the carbon tax and feuds with the federal government over pipeline construction. The reality is that $75 billion in nominal GDP disappeared from the Alberta economy between 2014 and 2016, according to the government’s most recent fiscal update. And, while there was a mild recovery through 2016-17, the economy has, once again, stagnated.
Anywhere you go in the province, that’s the issue people want to talk about. Where are the jobs? How is each candidate going to help the economy? How will we get oil moving by pipeline?
For all their differences, Jason Kenney and Rachel Notley have fundamentally similar priorities on the economy. What politician doesn’t? They both want jobs, an economy that’s hot and Albertans making scads of money.
The NDP has no illusions about the fact that Notley is their best, and possibly only, asset against the UCP juggernaut. They’ve poured resources into a social media campaign about who she is — a runner, a good friend, a mom, an Albertan who, like her father Grant Notley, is a regular person fighting for regular people. For every election sign that boasts a local candidate’s name, there’s a larger one emblazoned with the NDP leader’s name.
In contrast, Kenney’s team isn’t spending a lot of time telling Albertans who Jason Kenney is. Before the campaign, reporters were told that to some voters, he was an unknown quantity. In a Tuesday interview with the Post, Kenney said he’s OK with that.
“I don’t like talking about myself, I’m in this to serve other people … we’re not running a leader-centric campaign,” Kenney says. “I am a workaholic for sure, I inherited that from my mom. And I probably inherited from my father a love of people, and he was a very gregarious, sort of Irish personality.”
But, he says he’s got some 17,000 tracks on his iTunes. “I suspect a lot of people would be surprised at how broad my interests and tastes are,” he says.
But in the end, in so many ways, this campaign is about two people: Jason Kenney and Rachel Notley.
Kenney’s arrival on the Alberta political scene has also thrown a wrench into Notley’s plan to work constructively with the federal government to get the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion built. When the Alberta government brought in its carbon tax, as part of a broader climate leadership plan, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Notley argued that it was a vital part of the sales pitch needed to get oil-bearing infrastructure built across the country.
How could Alberta expect the rest of the country to play ball, if the province didn’t show it was concerned about climate change?
Kenney has loudly argued that this “social license” is just catering to the activists who want the oilsands completely shut down. He’s not afraid to hurl insults at Trudeau and he’s memorably dubbed bill C-69, which will determine how new energy projects are assessed, the “no new pipelines” bill. Compare that to the more academic approach applied by the NDP, putting quiet pressure on the government, issuing measured criticism in the press and testifying at committees.
The NDP says Kenney’s approach may feel good, but it could put projects like the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion in even greater peril. Notley says her relationship with Trudeau is strategic, describing Kenney’s approach as a tantrum, raging at the prime minister for short-term political advantage, with dire consequences in the long-run.
A victory for Kenney will also broaden the anti-Trudeau coalition of premiers that includes Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Ontario Premier Doug Ford. A court challenge to the federal carbon tax is already underway, with the UCP as enthusiastic intervenors, and Kenney has promised to be a sharp thorn in Trudeau’s side as the federal election campaign kicks off in the fall.
At a snowy rally at a baseball diamond in south Calgary on Thursday, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer told voters that electing his friend Jason Kenney was part one in a two-part plan to get Alberta working again. Part two is electing Scheer and making Trudeau a one-term prime minister, Scheer told the crowd, to enthusiastic cheers.
Between stops on the UCP door-knocking blitz, a minor sensation breaks out in the cab of the pickup truck when UCP president Erika Barootes pulls out a bag of beef jerky she specially ordered from Turner Valley, a small town south of the city.
Initially intrigued by the Keto-friendly snack, Kenney declines when told that it’s buffalo jerky instead of beef. Harper also shakes her head.
“There’s not enough fat on buffalo,” she says. “It never tastes good. I compare it to kale.”
The conversation quickly turns back to the election and Kenney marvels at the number of doors his candidates have been knocking on. Jeremy Nixon, candidate for Calgary-Klein, said his team has knocked on about 15,000 doors, “probably half of them twice,” and was wearing a brand new pair of shoes for the homestretch. In the south, Fir also estimated they’d hit about 15,000 homes.
From the highway, Harper sees a sign that says “I Love Pipelines” and recognizes it as a junkyard she used to visit with her grandfather. For the UCP team, it’s another good omen in a city filled with them.
Harper begins to make a point about what will happen if the UCP wins the election but catches herself.
“I won’t say it because that could jinx it,” she says.
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