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Alberta right now: The state of the province, its parties and its oil after one year without Stephen Harper

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Rachel Notley

It was so busy in political Alberta yesterday, those folks who were inclined to do so barely had time to celebrate the first anniversary of the defeat of the Harper government by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals in the 2015 federal election!

NDP Premier Rachel Notley gave her "state of the province” speech to a friendly, invited crowd in the lobby of the Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary, where she told Albertans that notwithstanding hard times, her government isn't about to cut health care or education funding. But spending in other areas, it was pretty clear, will be constrained -- just how constrained remains to be seen.

"We can handle the current dramatic drop in government revenue -- for a time," the premier said. "…That means we can protect health care and education … but that also means we are very unlikely to have headroom for major new spending proposals until recovery arrives."

She defended the province's carbon tax and the planned increases in the minimum wage -- which at least in theory should give voters enough time to get used to them and forget their present concerns by the time another election rolls around.

Holding the event in Calgary's concert hall -- instead of shuttling between annual bad lunches with the Chambers of Commerce in the province’s two largest cities -- ends a dreary tradition, hopefully forever, one that is seemingly designed by generations of PC leaders to reinforce the impression voters who own businesses count more than the rest of us.

Meanwhile, world oil prices surged yesterday -- the very thing the province's conservatives of various stripes hope not to have to endure just now -- on news that the Saudi Arabians were feeling upbeat. The price reached more than $53 U.S. a barrel, the highest since the summer of 2015.

If that trend holds, it's probably good news for the Notley Government and certainly good news for currently disgruntled and underemployed oil patch workers. We shall see -- resource prices have been known to be volatile, which is the key to understanding almost all of Alberta's problems, no matter who happens to be in power.

Meanwhile, the NDP government also announced another year of tuition freezes, which with any luck should shore up their student vote -- if students get out to vote again in sufficient numbers to matter.

And then there was the reaction to that poll -- the one the Calgary Herald on Tuesday called "shocking" and "a knockout." If that sounded more like a theatre review to you, perhaps it should, as the numbers, which put the Progressive Conservatives far in the lead, were being used enthusiastically by Jason Kenney’s Postmedia fan club to make the dubious case their favoured PC leadership candidate "is bringing popularity to the PC party even as he suctions cash away from it."

Well, maybe. There are some flaws with that line of reasoning, even if there's nothing wrong with the poll -- which until another survey says the same thing must remain an outlier.

Still, assuming the numbers are basically right, they cannot be reassuring for the New Democrats.

According to the telephone survey of 1,513 adult Albertans by the Citizen Society Research Lab at Lethbridge College, which was in the field from from Oct. 1 to 8, the PCs with 38.4 per cent support are 13 points ahead of the second-place Wildrose Party, at 25.7 per cent. The poll places the NDP in third place with only 19.7 per cent province wide. It even shows the PCs leading in the Edmonton area, which is supposed to be an NDP stronghold.

The Wildrose Party led by Brian Jean won't like those numbers much more than Notley's NDP. However, despite Postmedia's cheerleading for Kenney, there are problems with the corporation's narrative.

Kenney's camp has been saying for weeks Alberta's right must unite or the NDP will defeat both major right-wing parties in the next general election -- and uniting the right, they say, is a job only Kenney can do.

As for that last point, maybe so. But if the PCs are polling at more than 38 per cent now, why would they need a divisive social conservative like Kenney in the lead, when they could win with, say, Sandra Jansen, Richard Starke or even Thomas Lukaszuk as leader?

As for Herald columnist Don Braid's claim that Kenney out-fund-raised all the real political parties in the past three months, remember what Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton had to say about Republican candidate Donald Trump last night: Just as many of Trump's answers can't be verified because he hasn't released his tax returns, Kenney's can’t be tested because they don’t have to be submitted to Elections Alberta.

Anyway, it's early days. The right-wing vote in Alberta is going to be as volatile as the price of a barrel of oil for a while yet, if only because it’s not yet clear which party or parties on the right will still be standing when the next election rolls around.

What seems clearer -- assuming, again, that these latest numbers are right -- is that the left-wing coalition that got the NDP elected in May 2015 is seriously fraying.

Note that the poll puts Alberta Liberal support at nine per cent -- far above where the Liberals were in the spring of 2015 and votes the NDP needs to stay in the game.

So forget about uniting the right for the moment. Maybe it's time to start talking about uniting the left again.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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