Alberta became the third major province in Canada over the past year to elect a conservative-leaning government in a growing front of opposition to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s liberal vision for the country.
The United Conservative Party, founded in 2017 as a merger of two right-of-center groups and led by former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney, won a majority of legislative seats in the oil-rich province. His victory over New Democratic Party Premier Rachel Notley restores the status quo in a province that until her 2015 victory had a decades-long run of conservative leaders. The UCP was leading or had won 61 seats, versus 23 for the NDP, according to preliminary results late Tuesday.
The trend, which has also seen conservatives elected in Ontario and Quebec, threatens to check Trudeau’s Liberal Party agenda just as the prime minister prepares to face the electorate himself later this year, trailing in the polls. His new rivals are pushing back on everything from Trudeau’s introduction of a nationwide carbon pricing regime to his support of immigration, globalization and a more assertive role for the federal government.
“When Justin Trudeau was first elected, he looked around the table at premiers and he saw a lot of friendly faces,” said Nik Nanos, chairman of Nanos Research Group, a polling company. “That’s all out the window.”
Liberal governments are currently in office in only three of the country’s 10 provinces, all of them small. That’s a far cry from the seven when Trudeau’s tenure began in late 2015. Canada now has six provinces with conservative-leaning governments, including the Coalition Avenir Quebec, that account for more than 80 percent of the nation’s economy.
Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government, elected last summer, is already at odds with the prime minister over climate change, refugees and infrastructure spending. The nationalist CAQ, which won power in the French-speaking province in October and is largely in line with the Trudeau on climate change, is acting as a counterweight on some of his other trademark issues centered on diversity and immigration.
For Trudeau, the most immediate impact of Kenny’s victory will be on climate change, Notley had proven to be an occasional ally of the prime minister’s environmental ambitions by implementing a provincial carbon tax and capping oil-sands emissions. The United Conservative leader has already promised to scrap the levy. That will force Trudeau to impose his own federal tax in the province. Kenney has also pledged to join other provinces fighting Trudeau’s carbon pricing plan in court.
Kenney is also a philosophical foe of Trudeau’s energy policies, which are based on the idea the nation must secure a “social license” to develop its resources by being more pro-environment and supportive of indigenous concerns. Kenney plans to create a C$30 million ($22 million) “war room” to hit back at anti-energy campaigners and investigate their sources of funding. He’s also threatening to have Alberta cease doing business with banks that boycott energy projects, cut oil shipments to provinces that fight pipeline development and press Trudeau to kill Bill C-69, which overhauls the approval process for pipelines.
“You have a conservative bloc of premiers stretching from Alberta to Quebec uninterrupted,” said Yaroslav Baran, principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and a former communications adviser under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. “The near-consensus the prime minister had on his carbon framework is — it’s safe to say — now in tatters.”
Kenney, 50, has campaigned on cutting corporate taxes and balancing the province’s budget within his first term — the meat and potatoes of conservative politics in Canada, which also advocates a limited role for the federal government. That will restrain Trudeau’s efforts to set the national economic agenda.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau even alluded to the changing political dynamics last week, at the International Monetary Fund’s spring meeting in Washington, when he noted how much more difficult it would be today for the Canadian government to negotiate the expansion of Canada’s pension system, as he did three years ago.
“In hindsight, we were lucky we did it then because now the provinces in our country are a little bit more likely to disagree with us on issues,” Morneau said.
To make matters worse for the Liberals, Trudeau heads into the October election severely weakened by accusations his office sought to interfere in a legal case involving a Montreal-based construction company. At the same time, Canadians are reluctant to give one party unchecked power at both levels of government, and Trudeau is already trying to cast himself as a foil to an all-out conservative tilt in the country in a bid to galvanize his supporters.
“The effort that is already underway to lump all conservatives politicians together and vilify them is going to be energized by the Kenney victory,” said Baran.