It was a news conference about the opening of a new school in Spruce Grove, but political observers in Alberta say it signals much more — the ramping up of the campaign for next year’s provincial election.
Premier Rachel Notley, Education Minister David Eggen, the parliamentary secretary to the education minister and two MLAs were on hand for a ceremony Wednesday marking the newly built K-9 Copperhaven School west of Edmonton.
“In the past, parents have been justifiably frustrated with the state of school construction in Alberta,” Notley said.
“Schools were announced, photos were taken but nothing was ultimately funded, or not all of it anyway. Despite the worst downturn in generations, we made sure to plan ahead and keep our promises and make sure the schools we announce get built.”
Notley also touched on how the NDP have hired roughly 4,000 new teachers and educational assistants, slashed school fees and introduced a school nutrition program.
“Investing in our kids, investing in our schools, investing in quality classrooms — that is a choice we made. We could have chosen otherwise to freeze funding, cut funding — indeed in some cases we were encouraged to do that. But that would have meant no new schools like this one. It would have meant fewer teachers, larger classrooms, higher school fees, no school lunch programs,” she said.
“Those kinds of choices would have actually made life much more difficult. It would have stolen from the future of our children and our province.”
Chaldeans Mensah, a political scientist at MacEwan University, said the NDP is positioning itself as the defender of ordinary Albertans.
“In the downturn, its policy was to shelter the public sector from austerity. I think it’s going to use every opportunity it gets to say, ‘Hey, we are the defenders of the public sector. We’re building roads. We’re building highways. We’re making life affordable for ordinary Albertans,’” he said.
Lori Williams, a professor of policy studies with Mount Royal University, said the heavy NDP presence at Wednesday’s event signals how the NDP are trying to emphasize the differences between themselves and a possible UCP government.
“They’re focusing on investment in the future and managing the deficit and the economy in a way that actually helps Albertans overall,” Williams said.
Williams said the timing of the messaging, with school — and soon the legislature — back in session, is interesting.
“Everybody is going back to school thinking about some of the implications this will have, both for K-12 and even post-secondary students,” she said.
“Now is a good time to bring to mind to people, as they’re going back to school, what their choices down the road may be with respect to education. She’ll probably do the same with respect to health care and probably also on the environmental front.”
Williams said with the pipeline news front and centre in recent weeks, the job of balancing the province’s budget just got more difficult and Notley is trying to contrast herself with UCP Leader Jason Kenney.
Mensah said the NDP is likely to paint the UCP as “an extreme party on fiscal issues.”
“This has been the narrative of the NDP to say that the opposition party is a party of austerity, is going to cut back on the school openings, on infrastructure, and their party – the NDP – is the party that delivers on some of these issues. This is really the beginning of that kind of campaign strategy.”
Mensah said opposition parties will paint the NDP as the party creating a deficit for the province, but he said the NDP will use their record of building and investing to respond.
“I think this is the only strategy that is likely to work for them. They will try to divide the electorate in terms of the urban areas where their supposed base is, where there’s a lot of support in the public sector, and they will present themselves as the defender of that sector, right?”
Notley never named Kenney at Wednesday’s event, but Williams said there is much you can infer from that move.
“Notley’s style, both in opposition and in government, has been to focus on what she wants to do. Her vision for the future, the alternative she represents to people. It’s worked effectively up until this point. She’ll continue to do that as long as it’s working for her,” Williams said.
“But as the pressure starts to mount to actually gain votes going into the next election, we might see her focusing a little more on what she sees that’s negative or less desirable about a potential UCP government.”
In response to a request for comment from Global News, UCP caucus spokesperson Christine Myatt said it is “disappointing to see the NDP use public resources to stage a campaign-style event, and even more disappointing to see them use school children as props.”
“It’s clear that this is a government in panic mode, with its pipeline strategy in tatters and consistently negative polling numbers,” Myatt wrote in an email. “We are focused on developing a common-sense plan to renew the Alberta advantage and get our province back on track.”