THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 36, Season 12
Sunday, May 28, 2023
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Rachel Notley, NDP Leader
Ron Liepert, Conservative—Calgary Signal Hill
Evan Menzies, Crestview Strategies
Mercedes Stephenson: Voters in Alberta decide tomorrow whether to give Rachel Notley another chance or stay the course with Danielle Smith and it’s right here in Calgary where the race for premier is down to the wire.
I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Welcome to The West Block.
The stakes couldn’t be higher in a campaign that is being watched across the country. With rural areas supporting the UCP and Edmonton supporting the NDP, it’s Calgary and its all-important ridings where the race will be decided. Can Rachel Notley break through?
And UCP Leader Danielle Smith is no stranger to controversy, including during this campaign. But Smith says she’s learned from her mistakes. Will it be enough to keep moderate Conservatives in the UCP tent?
Rachel Notley ended decades of Conservative rule when she was elected Alberta premier in 2015. She lost the last election to Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party. Now she is locked in a tight battle with the UCP Leader Danielle Smith, who says Notley’s record speaks for itself.
Danielle Smith, UCP Leader: “This election is a choice between a United Conservative Party that’s lowered taxes, balanced the budget, and returned Alberta to its place as the economic powerhouse of Canada, or we can choose to go backward with the NDP and their recycled policies that hiked taxes and debt, drove out jobs and investment and sent Albertans fleeing elsewhere for opportunity.”
Mercedes Stephenson: So can Rachel Notley do it again? I sat down with the NDP leader in the final days of her campaign. That interview is ahead in just a moment, but we wanted to let our viewers know we did also ask for an interview with Danielle Smith, the UCP leader, repeatedly, but her campaign declined.
Here’s my interview with Rachel Notley.
Rachel Notley, thank you so much for taking the time from your campaign to sit down and talk to The West Block today.
Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP Leader: It’s a pleasure to be able to chat with you.
Mercedes Stephenson: We are here in Calgary, which is absolutely critical for the NDP. It’s your chance to try to get in there and flip ridings. How do you feel the campaign is going in this last full day of it?
Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP Leader: Well, we’re very excited. It’s been really encouraging. We just had a rally today, about 1,300 people, you know, we had people lined up outside because they couldn’t get into the building. It was like 10am and yet just huge momentum and not only sort of, you know, lots of folks who’ve been with us for a while, but also new folks who are Conservatives who are saying, you know, this time they’re going to lend us their vote and yeah, so we’re pretty optimistic.
Mercedes Stephenson: How confident are you that those people are going to turn out because sometimes people tell you at the door what they think you want to hear and then they come down to it and they go, don’t really like Danielle Smith but ah, I’ve always been a Conservative. What’s your confidence level that they’re going to tick the box for Rachel Notley and the NDP?
Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP Leader: Well, it’s pretty good. I mean, that’s sort of—that is, of course, what we’re hearing on the doorstep. I’m also hearing it from folks and, you know, like I’ve had, you know, a pretty healthy experience of folks coming up and saying hi, Rachel. I’m going to vote for you. But—but the number of people that have come to me during this campaign to say this is the first time ever that I’m going to vote NDP, but I want you to know I’m doing it. And that’s on their own volition. So it’s a pretty common message that’s out there from folks and certainly, we’re seeing it in some of the larger and more public endorsements that we’re receiving. And yeah, as I say, we’re pretty optimistic.
Mercedes Stephenson: You have campaigned saying that this election is all about trust, but some Albertans say they’re not sure if they trust you, that you introduced a carbon tax you hadn’t campaigned on, that, you know, fair or not to you, you were empowered at a time when oil and gas tanked. How do you convince people that they can trust you when you’re running against your own record, which is what they’re looking at and saying I don’t know, can we?
Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP Leader: We’ve been fairly successful at saying to people, listen, we have a clear platform that we are offering to folks and our platform reflects their priorities. And my record overall, is one of saying what I mean and meaning what I say, and delivering on the things that I’m pretty clear about. And so we’ve said back to folks listen, we have a plan for the economy. We have a plan. Todd Hirsch, former chief economist for ATB, has endorsed our fiscal plan. It’s responsibly costed and we have a plan to address the priorities of Albertans. And so, we say that and then we combine it with, you know, Alberta needs stable, predictable, capable leadership, leadership that is focused on people’s priorities as opposed to its own constant churn, internally. And that seems to be something that folks are really picking up on.
Mercedes Stephenson: I now that you’ve promised you’re not going to raise personal income tax, that you’re going to not tax small businesses, but you’ve also promised that you’re going to increase the corporate tax in Alberta from 8 to 11 per cent, and I know I’ve watched lots of your videos and press conferences and announcements. You talk about it will still be the lowest corporate tax environment in Canada, but some of what you’re competing here against in Canada is not actually other Canadian provinces, especially when it comes to oil and gas. It’s the United States. Are you concerned that introducing that increase in corporate tax will cause capital flight and that you might have lost some voters with that?
Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP Leader: You know I’m not terribly concerned. Let me say, first of all, that I’m very proud of the program that we have been offering to Albertans, to increase our support for public health care, ensuring that everybody gets access to a family doctor, to have Albertans backs when it comes to affordability issues and to incent emerging sectors of the economy here, to create targeted tax incentives to get those folks here. And as you say, we are going to take Alberta’s lowest corporate tax rate and raise it to be Alberta’s—or Canada’s lowest tax—corporate rate. And we’re going to do it and we’ll be charging less than Scott Moe and collecting less than Doug Ford in Ontario. And I think that argument that you’re making is one that the UCP have pulled out very recently in a little bit of a desperate attempt, but you know, it’s apples and oranges. We know, for instance, that in many of the states they’re talking about, employers have to pay for all of their employees’ health care. And so there’s a level of cost to investors in those other states, which is completely non-existent here and so you just can’t make that comparison at all.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think, though that maybe there’s an issue with Alberta that just hearing the word tax out here—I’m Albertan and I grew up here—it’s not popular. Is that a problem for you? I mean, are you hearing about that when you go to the doors?
Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP Leader: Well, you know, actually what we’re hearing from a lot of folks is that they are concerned about what they’re seeing in their hospitals. They’re concerned about the wait times in our emergency rooms. They’re concerned about family doctors having their contracts ripped up and then seeing them leave. They’re concerned about having the largest class sizes now in the country, in K-12. They’re concerned about seeing tuition skyrocket now, the most expensive in the country. And they understand that that is coming from a corporate handout that hasn’t produced the jobs that were promised, it has only created huge stress on the fiscal frame of the province. So we are asking folks who are very profitable, to pay just a little bit more, still within the realm of being the lowest taxed province in the country when it comes to corporations. And that way, we can help those folks, those Albertans who are worried about all these other services that are either costing them in terms of their children’s’ future education, or costing them in terms of having to reach into their pocket to pay for things that used to be provided by the government.
Mercedes Stephenson: When it comes to oil and gas, that has been a point you’ve had to defend your case on and you’ve said that you disagree with the federal government’s emissions targets. You think that not the level but the speed at which you’re trying to achieve them it too fast. Do you support further growth in the oil and gas sector? More oil fields, more oil being pumped out, is that something that you would back as premier?
Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP Leader: Absolutely, and it’s been frustrating to watch the UCP so intentionally mischaracterize what we have said. We support limiting and reducing emissions. We believe that we can do that while increasing production. We have never suggested…
Mercedes Stephenson: How do you do that?
Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP Leader: You do that by investing in the technology and the whole range of efforts that can be made to reduce the emissions in every barrel of oil. That’s always been what we do. And the UCP has historically tried to pit the environment against economic growth and by doing that, we fail on both. And what I know, and what we have seen, even from our time in government, that if you set out a plan, one that is realistic and achievable, you can actually provide the certainty to investors and you can take this into—turn it into an opportunity to create more jobs and continue to be a leader on—a world-wide leader in energy production, by being the most effective at doing it sustainably and responsibly. But that work doesn’t happen if the provincial government pretends climate change doesn’t exist and demonizes anybody who wants to find ways to innovate, to reduce our emissions.
Mercedes Stephenson: If you become premier, what does your relationship look like with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?
Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP Leader: It looks a lot like it always has, in that I will always put the interests of Albertans first. That is the job of the premier of Alberta, no matter what party they represent. And I will do that in relation to other provinces, no matter who is leading in those other provinces, and I will do that in relation to Ottawa, no matter who is in charge in Ottawa. But here’s the thing, I don’t want—I don’t—the Albertans that I talk to, do not want to leave Canada. They want to lead Canada. And the way to do that is to go and negotiate with strengths and ability and thoughtfulness for the best outcomes for the province. And that’s work that hasn’t been happening for the last three and a half years and Albertans have been losing opportunities, losing investment dollars as a result. And that has been now amplified by Danielle Smith’s Sovereignty Act and her general disrespect for the rule of law. And all of that is creating the kind of instability that undermines Alberta’s place in Confederation, in a way that hurts business, hurts investment. That is the biggest threat to investment right now in Alberta, not anything that’s in any of our policies. It’s the fact that there’s so much instability around whether investors can trust the safety of their dollars in a province where the rule of law seems to be somewhat in question.
Mercedes Stephenson: Rachel Notley, I know you’ve got lots of campaigning to do. Thank you for taking the time to sit down with us today, and best of luck.
Rachel Notley, Alberta NDP Leader: Thank you.
Stephen Harper, Former Prime Minister: “There’s only one option to protect the economic livelihoods of you and your family. That’s Danielle Smith and the United Conservative Party.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, former prime Minister Stephen Harper and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre have both endorsed Danielle Smith. But just how united are Alberta Conservatives with their leader?
Mercedes Stephenson: In a tight race, getting out the vote matters and that’s why both leaders campaigns are spending a lot of time right here in Calgary.
Rachel Notley and the NDP are trying to win over Conservatives who like the party but may not be comfortable with Danielle Smith after some of her decisions and controversial remarks. Smith admits that she’s made mistakes.
Danielle Smith, UCP Leader: “I had a different job before. Being a radio host is very different than being Alberta premier. And as Alberta premier, I know I’m not perfect, going to make mistakes. I hope people understand that when I make mistakes, I own up to them and try to make amends.”
Mercedes Stephenson: To find out if Smith’s campaign messaging is resonating, I sat down with two Calgary Conservatives: Ron Liepert, who is the retiring member of Parliament for Calgary Signal Hill. He also served in provincial Conservative governments as a cabinet minister during his long political career. Also joining us is Evan Menzies, he’s a former Wildrose and UCP communications director and he’s now a senior strategist with Crestview Strategies.
Ron Liepert and Evan Menzies, thank you both so much for joining us today. Great to see you here in Calgary.
Ron Liepert, Conservative—Calgary Signal Hill: Welcome.
Evan Menzies, Crestview Strategies: Yeah, you bet.
Mercedes Stephenson: You were both Conservatives, lots of experience. Ron, you’ve been in this game since Peter Lougheed. You have run federally and provincially. When you look at this campaign for the UCP, how do you feel it’s gone so far?
Ron Liepert, Conservative—Calgary Signal Hill: I think what happened was the bar wasn’t set very high at the outset and I think that they’ve avoided major mistakes. Everything that has been seen as controversial is stuff that’s been dragged up from the past. So I think they’ve weathered it pretty well. I think it’ll really come down, however, and we know Calgary’s going to be a battleground—and it’ll come down to whether moderate Conservatives are prepared to go out and hold their nose and vote Conservative in this election. And if they do, I think the UCP can win comfortably.
Mercedes Stephenson: Evan, is there a risk that some of those moderate Conservatives say hmm, I can’t vote for the NDP but I’m just going to stay home?
Evan Menzies, Crestview Strategies: Yeah that’s definitely a risk. I think one of the things in—and we’ll see this on election day—but I think the UCP campaign and Danielle, especially from the debate onwards have done a really good job of trying to bring everyone back home. It’s important to remember that the UCP over the last couple of years have seen some pretty contentious battles. The party’s been fractured, the leadership race. Danielle’s only been premier for seven months and so there’s been, obviously, some issues with Danielle’s past comments but the ability to bring everyone together in seven months and get them ready to vote is a large task and I think it’s happening. We’ve obviously seen some help from some federal Conservatives as well, Pierre Poilievre, Stephen Harper. They’ve been coming in to pitch in to try and get everyone home and to get them out the door.
Mercedes Stephenson: It feels like Pierre Poilievre got involved pretty late, though. It was late last week that he came in and endorsed Danielle Smith. And to what you were saying about, you know, her as a leader, she does have a record to run on, albeit a short one. So does Rachel Notley. It’s kind of interesting that way in that you have two incumbents, in a way a former incumbent and current one, who have to run against their own record as well as against each other. And you both brought up sort of some of the comments that Danielle Smith has made. They were made in the past but some of them are unfolding now in real time, including the finding from the ethics commissioner that they were concerned she’s in a legal conflict of interest, comments from candidates would appears that she is willing to allow to continue to sit in caucus when they come back in, including one that compared trans children to excrement. Do these stick to her when voters are making a decision?
Ron Liepert, Conservative—Calgary Signal Hill: Well it’s this kind of—this situation that I think has a lot of moderate Conservatives sort of scratching their head. And I talk to a lot of people, whether it’s on the street or at the gulf course or on the telephone, emails, and what I’m hearing is that their struggling. They don’t want to vote NDP, clearly. But it’s those kinds of issues that have got moderate Conservatives concerned. And so, as I say, it’s going to come down to whether or not those folks are going to come out and vote. If they stay home, it’s going to be really tough.
Mercedes Stephenson: Evan, what are your thoughts on that? Like why are some of these self-inflicted wounds continuously happening to the party and more so, it’s to the leader a lot of the time?
Evan Menzies, Crestview Strategies: Yeah, I think there’s one thing that’s important to remember is that there’s the radio talk show host version of Danielle Smith, where especially during the period of COVID, people’s emotions were elevated and some of the comments that got her in trouble were those emotionally charged comments. I think she’s shown as premier that she’s stated clearly that she’s made mistakes that it doesn’t reflect who she wants to be, doesn’t reflect how she wants to lead Alberta. So I think she’s made attempts to rectify that. And I would just for clarity, the premier has said for some of these comments—or for some of these candidates, specifically the one referenced in the Lacombe-Ponoka that Jennifer Johnson won’t be sitting with the caucus and has tried to shut that door pretty firm. So I think compared to what happened in the 2012 election when she was Wildrose leader, it’s shown an evolution and how she’s approached some of those issues.
Ron Liepert, Conservative—Calgary Signal Hill: Well and I think you mentioned the debate, I do think the debate, I believe helped her. And to get to what you asked a question about, I mean, she was pretty upfront at the very end and said, you know, I’m going to try and do better. And I think that could be the tipping point of getting moderate Conservatives to give her one more chance, if you might.
Mercedes Stephenson: What’s the difference between the Danielle Smith that you hear in the rhetoric and the comments and the way that Danielle Smith governs, because she hasn’t been in power a long time, but what we’ve seen is a lot of money going out the door in the form of cheques to individuals, which is federal Liberals like to do this too. Ralph Klein liked to do it when he was the premier of Alberta. It’s a very popular way, especially when times are tough, to try to get people onside with you. She’s talked about spending a lot of money. You could argue that’s inconsistent with sort of the public presentation, but maybe that’s benefitting her.
Evan Menzies, Crestview Strategies: Yeah, I think there’s a part of Danielle that—and she was like this as Wildrose leader, too, especially after the 2012 election loss under Wildrose where she’s willing to be a pragmatist and she’s got a bit of a—she wants to be a populist. She understands the importance of marching along with the crowd and marching in front of them as well. So right now, sort of the mood and the temperament of Alberta was we’ve had some pretty tough years. 2015 onwards, there was recession. We finally saw the price of oil surge back up and the idea of holding the spending back probably wouldn’t have been very popular and I think they were wise. And that was the Danielle pragmatist side of her coming out, where she was willing to yeah, spend that money and make sure that she caught the mood of the province.
Ron Liepert, Conservative—Calgary Signal Hill: Well I would say that when you introduce a budget a couple of months before the election and you’ve got a $12 or $15 billion surplus, it’s pretty hard not to spend money as you go into an election campaign. And, you know, we’ve got a two or three generations of Canadians who’ve had it pretty darn good and if you don’t meet those demands, or those expectations, they’re probably going to beat you up at the polls.
Mercedes Stephenson: Evan, what does the UCP have to do be able to hold onto Calgary, especially some of these downtown urban ridings that there’s a very real chance they could swing NDP?
Evan Menzies, Crestview Strategies: Yeah, the fortunate thing for the UCP is the Alberta math is they can actually afford to lose 10 seats in Calgary and they will be fine. For them, it’s important to hold a couple of blue walls in the city. One of them is sort of the more suburban ring in the city. If they can hold that, they’ll be fine on election night. But there is a challenge. Ron’s mentioned it a few times that it’s really important that they get their vote out the door. But yeah, there’s—the NDP are coalesced. They’re a united left. Alberta’s never really had a fully united left party charging the way they are now and so they’re definitely posing a major threat. So yeah, they’ve got to close the message. All Conservatives have got to come home. We’ve got to get this done and we’ve got to stop the NDP because their last term in government, Conservatives did not enjoy their time in Alberta, that’s for sure.
Ron Liepert, Conservative—Calgary Signal Hill: I think the thing—the UCP had an inherent advantage going into this election in Calgary in the fact that they held most of the seats. They’ve got incumbent MLAs running in, you know, probably three quarters of the seats. And if those incumbent MLAs were doing what they should have been doing, that’s going to the doors, working hard during this campaign, it gives them a big advantage and, you know, it could be a matter of a couple hundred votes in many of those ridings. And I think, from what I’ve heard, they have been out working. Working very hard, and so when they go to the doors, there’s a different message than what the constituent receives via the media. And we’ll see whether it pays off or not on Monday night.
Mercedes Stephenson: Ron, I know you’re leaving federal politics—politics completely. I wanted to give one last question to you. I am really curious to know your thoughts on the state of both federal and provincial Conservatives parties. Some say they’re changing. They’re veering away from the traditions of Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney. They’re concerned. Do you share any of those concerns?
Ron Liepert, Conservative—Calgary Signal Hill: I’m concerned in that I believe the political middle of the spectrum is wide open for the taking. By enlarge Conservatives have become a little more to the right. There’s clearly the Liberals have gone to the left and no one is filling that middle void. I think our leader is going to try talking about things like, you know, the cost of living and all of these sorts of things. But I’m not sure that it’s resonating yet. I’m not sure that the voter in the GTA is prepared to give them that at this stage. There’s a lot of work to be done, but it is incredibly polarized and I, you know, constituents summed it up to me very well the other day. He said that we’ve got 10 per cent of the noisy people over here, 10 per cent of the noisy people over there and 80 per cent of us are sitting in the middle watching this ping pong match going back and forth. And I think that kind of summed it up pretty well.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well Ron and Evan, thank you both very much for your time today. We’re all looking forward to seeing what happens tomorrow and we’ll find out.
Ron Liepert, Conservative—Calgary Signal Hill: Yeah, we sure are.
Evan Menzies, Crestview Strategies: Yeah, you bet.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, what does Alberta’s election mean for federal politics?
Mercedes Stephenson: And now for one last thing…
The Alberta election will have consequences far beyond this province’s boundaries, especially for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government.
A UCP win will mean an ongoing battle with Ottawa. An NDP win would mean a softer approach for the federal Liberals but not one without its challenges. Either way, that historic Alberta-Ottawa tension is set to be in the limelight.
That’s our show for today, but our special coverage of the Alberta election continues. I’ll be here on the ground in Calgary for the next few days, and Global National will be broadcasting from Edmonton. And for our Alberta friends, our Decision Alberta Election Special will be live across the province, tomorrow night.