Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has a problem — and it’s Alberta

Erin O'Toole. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin

As far as political predictions go, forecasting a federal election in 2021 seemed like a fairly safe bet. In light of more recent developments, we can upgrade the possibility of a fall federal election to “near certainty.”

For example, this past week saw farewell speeches delivered in Parliament by MPs who are not seeking re-election — something that would seem rather odd if those MPs were simply returning to the House of Commons after the summer break. The comments on Friday from Justin Trudeau about opposition parties obstructing his legislative agenda certainly seem to be setting the stage for the prime minister to seek an election and to have a ready-made excuse for why he is doing so.

Furthermore, recent polls showing the Liberals extending their lead over Conservatives will do nothing to dissuade the Liberals from seeking to turn their minority government into a majority one.

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For Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, the challenges are piling up. The country’s vaccine rollout, once seen as a political albatross for the Liberals, is now firing on all cylinders. The success of the immunization campaign bodes very well for some significant economic recovery in the second half of 2021. This is all good news for any incumbent government.

On top of all of that, though, O’Toole has an Alberta problem.

It’s unlikely that Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has any intent to undermine O’Toole, and I’m sure federal Conservative leader will have Kenney’s strong support once a federal election campaign is underway.

Moreover, I’m sure the message Kenney would have for Albertans is that a vote for the Conservatives is a vote for fairer treatment from Ottawa. Indeed, it’s unlikely that Kenney would have pressed ahead with much of his “Fair Deal” agenda — including, notably, the upcoming referendum on Equalization — had the Conservatives prevailed in the 2019 federal election.

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While that agenda — and the overall theme of standing up to Trudeau — might play well for the premier’s domestic audience, it poses a significant problem for O’Toole and potentially plays into the hands of the Trudeau Liberals.

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Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley was savvy enough to pick up on this. As Alberta’s plans for the fall vote on Equalization have firmed up, Notley has been pressing O’Toole for an answer on whether he supports the process and, more importantly, whether he would heed the result.

Not surprisingly, O’Toole has shied away from any sort of firm response. It’s hard to see how he can speak to this matter without falling into a political trap. But he can’t hide from the question forever.

For example, if O’Toole commits to renegotiating Equalization — a program that remains popular nationally — he is going to face all kinds of questions about how that would impact recipient provinces. The Liberals will no doubt play up that uncertainty.

There are certainly ways that Equalization can be streamlined and improved (mind you, no such changes would mean any money staying in or returning to Alberta), but Alberta’s premier knows full well the political realities of this issue at the federal level. Kenney was a key member of the Harper government that gave us the current Equalization formula.

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There is no way O’Toole wants to be dragged into this political morass right now. It’s probably the case that Kenney never expected his Equalization referendum might coincide with a federal election, or that it could possibly be a Conservative prime minister who’s left to deal with its aftermath.

On the other hand, if O’Toole downplays the referendum or the extent to which he’s prepared to plunge into the issue as prime minister, that’s not likely to play well with the Conservative base in Alberta.

O’Toole absolutely needs to maintain Conservative support in Alberta, and recent polls show that support has eroded. What’s worse, there’s the possibility that enough support for the upstart Maverick Party could help the Liberals squeak through in some tight races.

Ultimately, Erin O’Toole is going to be accountable for how his party performs in the next federal election, whenever that happens to occur. The Equalization referendum in Alberta, however, is not of his making and is beyond his control — but could certainly be a factor in the outcome of that election.

It’s probably too late for Kenney to blink on the referendum. There’s probably some truth to the notion that it’s politically advantageous for Alberta conservative premiers to have Liberal prime ministers as a foil, but I doubt that’s what he’s after here.

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Given the likelihood that this referendum will not bring about any meaningful change, Kenney and his advisers might find themselves wondering if it was all worth it.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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