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Economy, health care, trust: Alberta election campaign hits final day before vote

EDMONTON — Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley made one final pitch to voters Sunday to upend Danielle Smith’s United Conservative Party government and deliver an upset win in the provincial election. “In this room, we share Alberta's values.
Leader of the NDP Rachel Notley, left, and Leader of the United Conservative Party Danielle Smith shake hands before a debate in Edmonton on Thursday, May 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.

EDMONTON — Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley made one final pitch to voters Sunday to upend Danielle Smith’s United Conservative Party government and deliver an upset win in the provincial election. 

“In this room, we share Alberta's values. Danielle Smith and her UCP do not,” Notley told cheering supporters at an afternoon rally in Edmonton. 

“Friends, as long as we stand together, we can and we will win this thing. Let's build a future together.” 

Voters go to the polls Monday in what is expected to be a tight race between Alberta's two dominant parties. 

Smith was not made available to reporters Sunday and made a last push to hundreds at a rally in Calgary on Thursday. 

“This election will matter for a lot of reasons. It's going to matter for the economy. It's going to matter for affordability. It's going to matter for health care. It's going to matter for public safety,” said Smith. 

“The UCP has a strong and stable plan that Albertans can rely on, one that will grow the economy, make life more affordable, make our streets safe and improve health care for all Albertans.” 

Both Smith and Notley agree the vote will be one of the most consequential in decades, featuring two leaders in their 50s who have been both premier and Opposition leader. 

The campaign has centred around the economy and health care. 

Smith says that should Notley become the first premier to lose the job then regain it, Alberta will return to the dark days of 2015-2019. During that time low oil prices — coupled with tax hikes — knocked a staggering economy to the canvas, resulting in massive multibillion-dollar deficits and soaring debt. 

Smith has promised to keep Alberta the lowest tax regime in Canada. Another term for a UCP government, she said, would see the introduction of a law to mandate a binding referendum before any personal or corporate income tax hikes. There would also be tax changes to benefit those making more than $60,000 a year, at a cost of $1 billion annually to the treasury. 

The NDP, too, is promising to keep Alberta the lowest tax regime. It would end the tax on small businesses and raise the corporate income tax to 11 per cent from eight per cent, which they say would help pay for investments while maintaining the lowest corporate rate in Canada. The NDP also promises legislation this summer to counteract UCP policies that hiked utilities, auto insurance, a range of fees and tuition. 

Both leaders have pledged to preserve the publicly funded health system while creating more primary care teams — physicians accompanied by specialists such as nurses and therapists — so more Albertans are able to access a family doctor and not clog emergency wards for care. 

The NDP has hammered Smith over past comments she made urging Albertans to pay out of pocket for medically necessary care, like physician visits, calling it fundamental to keeping the system sustainable. Smith has not disavowed those comments but has said she is committed to medicare on the direction of her caucus, and the proof of that is a long-term funding deal with the federal government. 

Polls show trust is a also key issue, with Notley viewed more favourably than her party and vice versa for Smith. 

Smith has been dogged during the campaign by other past comments — comparing those who took the COVID-19 vaccine to credulous followers of Adolf Hitler — as well as a report that came out mid-campaign from the ethics commissioner. It concluded that Smith undermined the rule of law by pressuring her justice minister to end a criminal court case of a COVID-19 protester.

Smith also had to grapple with past comments from a candidate who compared transgender students to feces. Smith has condemned the remarks and has said Lacombe-Ponoka candidate Jennifer Johnson will not sit in the UCP caucus if she wins. However, Smith has also said, when referring to Johnson, that she believes in second chances. 

The NDP has to walk a swaying tightrope to do what it has never done before: defeat a conservative party in a two-party dominated general election fight.

It won government in 2015 aided substantially by vote splitting between the governing Progressive Conservatives and the Opposition Wildrose Party. The PCs and Wildrose joined forces to create the UCP in 2017 and under Jason Kenney captured 63 seats and a majority — over Notley's 24 seats for the NDP — in 2019. 

To win this year, the NDP would have to continue its dominance in Edmonton, flip the majority in Calgary and hope for some help in smaller cities, while defeating scores of UCP incumbents — including cabinet ministers, to swing 20 seats in the 87-seat legislature. 

Polls suggest Smith’s UCP will continue its near total domination in rural areas and smaller centres, giving it a cushion of about 40 seats to reach the magic 44. 

For both leaders, it could be a case of win or go home.  

A loss by Notley would be the second in the last three elections and may invite questions on whether the daughter of former Alberta NDP leader Grant Notley has taken the party as far as it can go.

A loss by Smith and she arguably becomes the most influential Alberta conservative in the past 15 years — for the wrong reasons.  

In 2012, polls suggested Smith’s Wildrose was on track to win government, only to see its lead dissolve to the PCs after she questioned the science of climate change and refused to sanction two candidates for intolerant remarks, including one who warned gays to repent or face eternal suffering in hell’s “lake of fire.” 

Two years later, Smith nearly collapsed the Opposition Wildrose by leading a mass floor cross to the governing PCs. Many supporters of both sides, and Albertans in general, rebelled against the move and that anger, stapled to disillusionment over PC scandals and turmoil, led to the NDP coming up the middle.

Smith failed to win her own PC nomination in 2015 and returned to the private sector as a pundit and radio host until claiming the UCP leadership to replace Kenney in October.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2023.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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