Alberta Politics

Ft McMurray-Lac La Biche by-election could erase Jason Kenney from Alberta history

With “super incumbent” Brian Jean easily winning a seat that was previously held by both himself and the UCP, it sets Alberta onto a path that wasn’t part of Jason Kenney’s plans.

It’s not often that a person who has won five previous elections shows up as a candidate in a by-election – unless you’re Jason Kenney, who won seven before Dave Rodney drew the short straw to give up his seat for Kenney’s 2017 entrance to the Legislature.

During a live panel on the Cross-Border podcast Tuesday night, I likened the outcome in Ft. McMurray-Lac La Biche to a question many political observers had in 2019 about Calgary-Mountainview: Does Calgary-Mountainview vote Liberal, or do they vote for David Swann?

Swann was first elected in the riding in 2004 and held it until the writ dropped in 2019. Incoming Liberal Leader David Khan fought for the seat, along with the winner, NDP Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Kathleen Ganley, leading us to believe that Calgary Mountainview returned Dr. David Swann to the legislature, not necessarily the Liberal candidate.

Brian Jean is well-known in his riding. He’s well-known in politics. And, when the northern Alberta community was reeling from the 2016 fires, Brian Jean was right there with them. He’s the closest thing to a local celebrity as one can really get. Add to that the seat was previously held by his own predecessor, Laila Goodridge, under the same banner, and it was highly unlikely that Jean would not be the successful candidate.

Many people are wondering: does this mean the NDP is in trouble?

It could.

By-elections are notoriously under-representative compared to the general elections.

For instance, if you want to compare how the NDP did in the recent by-election where the candidate received (unofficially) 1,081 votes, use the 2018 by-election where the candidate received 1,149 votes. They lost six per cent.

Comparing by-elections to general elections are like comparing oranges to grapefruits – they only sort of look similar.

Consider that in 2019, the NDP candidate in the same riding received 3, 635 votes, compared to the orange crush in 2015 where they only earned 2, 071 – an increase of 75 per cent.

It’s also a rural riding, with a “super incumbent”, yadda, yadda, yadda. That makes it difficult to gauge province-wide whether their support levels are completely offside with polling projections.

The real cause for concern is the support for the Wildrose (and I am still amazed they were able to use that name) Independence Party.

In 2015, people wanted the Progressive Conservatives out of office. Talking with a longtime NDP organizer who was on the doors that year, his face still betrays his astonishment that people were willing to vote either NDP or Wildrose – whomever had the best chance to unseat (or block) the PC candidate. Policy wasn’t the greatest concern – change was.

In 2019, there was also a “change” movement – albeit for different reasons – and again, policy was of little concern.

The Wildrose and PCs claimed the narrative early and hammered it for four straight years – “the recession exists because businesses and investors don’t trust the NDP”.

It was a simple message that spoke to voters who were also wary of the NDP. In terms of messaging, the NDP was playing defence from the day they were elected.

Good news wasn’t good enough. New jobs weren’t the right jobs. Cutbacks, savings, and wage freezes weren’t near enough to make up for a budget lacking billions in resource revenues. And raising taxes? Adding new taxes? In ALBERTA??? The conservative parties barely even had to get out of bed.

However, the NDP wasn’t the only target for distrust during their term.

Even though the PC and Wildrose membership voted overwhelmingly to merge in 2017, and there were “representatives” of both parties running for leadership of the new United Conservative Party – “New Blue” Doug Schweitzer, recently-elected PC leader Jason Kenney, recent leader of the Wildrose Brian Jean, and former Wildrose President and alleged Kamikaze Candidate Jeff Callaway – the scent of internal scandal, and alleged fraud, still plagues the first leadership race.

This distrust sparked the formation of new parties before the 2019 election, namely: one of the original Wildrose founders, Marilyn Burns, with the Alberta Advantage Party, and ousted UCP MLA and former Jean-protege-turned-pain-in-Jean’s-ass-turned-pain-in-Kenney’s-ass Derek Fildebrandt with the Freedom Conservative Party.

In 2020, Fildebrandt’s FCP merged with the unofficial Wexit movement – that rose to incredible popularity on the prairies the night of the 2019 federal election – to form the Wildrose Independence Party of Alberta, which is now led by former Alberta Alliance Party leader Paul Hinman, who was part of the merger with Marilyn Burns’ et al., Wildrose Party of Alberta (never registered) to form the Wildrose Alliance Party, which became the Wildrose Party (legally Wildrose Political Association) that Brian Jean last lead, which the UCP, for all intents and purposes, owns.

Still with me? It’s dizzying but important background because Hinman and his Wildrose Independence Party of Alberta placed a strong third with 10 per cent of the votes in the by-election.

While a by-election isn’t necessarily representative of a larger generalization, it still could be.

Rural ridings are considered “safe” seats for the UCP, mostly thanks to the demolition of the Wildrose Party.

Except… by some weird fluke at Elections Alberta that allowed them to register the same name, the Wildrose – not in its policy, vision, or basically anything other than the name and its leader Paul Hinman – may be rising from the ashes again, right before our eyes.

This potential plot twist may bring some to the conclusion that it could be good for the NDP in the next election. Wildrose and PCs split the vote in many ridings across the province in 2015, giving the NDP a majority. Maybe supporters can sleep a little easier thinking that will happen again?

Not even remotely.

Remember that NDP organizer’s astonishment at the doors? Voters were willing to consider either the NDP or the Wildrose – regardless of policy.

Wildrose has name recognition, even if they happen to be a separatist Party now. Who reads the fine print when they’re looking at ballots?

Then there’s Kenney’s “united” party.

Prior to the by-election results, the UCP could consider rural seats “safe”.

The NDP would likely take Edmonton and the “real fight” for a majority government would take place in Calgary. Unless the Wildrose shaves votes (but more importantly – seats) in rural and beyond.

And maybe that would be good for the NDP but it could also be good for the UCP.

Or, my personally favourite option, maybe it could be good for Alberta.

Just imagine a scenario where the NDP and UCP have to form a coalition government because the Wildrose Independence Party takes enough seats that neither can form government on their own?!?

It would be kind of like… a Progressive… Conservative… government…

*laughs maniacally*

This post contains opinion.

Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean is a political podcaster and commentator.
Connect: @Mitchell_AB for more, or @politicalRnD for posts

Your support is greatly appreciated – sign up for a monthly contribution on Patreon and enjoy subscriber-only content and early access to Women of ABpoli podcasts with Deirdre and Kathleen Smithor send me a coffee.