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United Conservative leader's byelection win sets showdown with Alberta premier

Last Updated Dec 15, 2017 at 6:20 pm EDT

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney reacts to winning the Calgary Lougheed byelection in Calgary, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol

EDMONTON – Political analysts say United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney’s byelection victory fires the starting pistol on an unofficial 16-month election campaign that will be defined by the skills and personalities of party leaders.

“We’re dealing with two political heavyweights going head-to-head,” said Mount Royal political scientist Duane Bratt, referring to Kenney and NDP Premier Rachel Notley.

“We have a full sitting premier going up against a former federal cabinet minister. We haven’t seen that sort of dynamic ever before.

“Instead of having separate press conferences sniping at one another, they’re going to be two sword-lengths away in the legislature.”

Kenney took 72 per cent of the vote to soundly defeat all challengers in Thursday’s Calgary-Lougheed byelection. He will sit front and centre on the official Opposition benches when the spring sitting begins, likely in late February.

Lori Williams, political scientist at Mount Royal, said the dynamic of Kenney versus Notley is crucial.

The NDP has been governing for 2 1/2 years after a lifetime in opposition, while Kenney’s team is partly composed of former Wildrose members who have never been in government.

“The focus is going to be primarily on the leaders and their visions,” said Williams. “There isn’t enough to distinguish the two in terms of bench strength to lean (a voter) one way or the other.”

Kenney was a longtime Conservative MP and cabinet minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper.

His win caps an 18-month campaign that saw him successfully unite the centre-right Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties under one new United Conservative banner.

Observers say the decisive byelection win in a longtime conservative stronghold doesn’t necessarily translate into broader support for Kenney’s party or a rejection of Notley’s NDP.

Calgary pollster Janet Brown said there were different reasons to vote for Kenney in the byelection.

“Maybe because you do want him to be the next premier of Alberta. Maybe you’re not sure you want him to be the next premier of Alberta, but you think we’d have better government if he was in the house (as Opposition leader).”

Kenney declined an interview request Friday.

In his victory speech Thursday, he cited Alberta’s fragile economy as the fulcrum of the provincial election which Notley must hold sometime in March, April or May of 2019.

“We don’t want to close hospitals,” Kenney told cheering supporters. “We want to build hospitals and schools, and we know that won’t happen unless we have a dynamic and growing economy — and we understand that we cannot tax and borrow our way to prosperity.”

Notley’s NDP inherited a government heavily reliant on the swings of oil prices, which had plunged by half in and around the 2015 election she won.

Her government’s response has been to borrow heavily for building and spending while working to diversify the economy. The NDP argues that drastic budget cuts would only worsen Alberta’s precarious situation and thwart any recovery.

This year’s deficit is $10.3 billion, with the debt expected to rise past $42 billion by the spring.

But Alberta’s economy is projected to grow by four per cent this year, fastest in Canada, and other signs suggest the financial picture is rebounding.

The direction of the economy will go a long way to dictating the NDP’s fortunes in 2019, Bratt said.

“If there was an election today, the NDP is going to lose because the focus is on the economy, and the economy is still not where it should be,” he said.

“But let’s see where we are in May of 2019.”