CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The main opposition party in Alberta’s April election is using Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a proxy foe, analysts say, channeling a long-standing sense of western alienation rather than directly attacking a popular premier.
Polls suggest the United Conservative Party is on course to win power in the province, Canada’s energy center, capitalizing on voter concerns about a struggling economy and lack of progress on new oil export pipelines.
However, UCP leader Jason Kenney, a former federal cabinet minister, polls behind New Democrat Party Premier Rachel Notley on a number of personal attributes such as honesty, likeability and trustworthiness, and is embroiled in a scandal over his successful party leadership bid in 2017.
Notley, whose late father led the NDP from 1968-1984, is polling well ahead of her party and seeking to profit from that edge.
To overcome that, the UCP is focusing on Trudeau, with repeated references to “the Notley-Trudeau alliance,” emphasizing her one-time close relationship with the prime minister, while images of their own leader are less visible.
Trudeau is an unpopular figure in Alberta, where many feel he failed to support the energy industry. The prime minister also faces a political scandal on whether he unduly pressured Canada’s former justice minister.
“If you look at the signs the NDP are putting up, their logos are not very prevalent, it’s all Rachel Notley,” said Gregory Jack, vice president at polling firm Ipsos. “The UCP signs are all about the UCP and their brand, and underplaying their leader to a certain extent.”
The UCP’s focus on Justin Trudeau may be effective with older Alberta voters who remember the unpopular National Energy Program in 1980, an effort by his prime minister father, Pierre Trudeau, that sought to give Ottawa more control over the oil and gas industry and a higher share of revenues.
“(The UCP) spin on it is Alberta has been mistreated by a Liberal government and the son of another prime minister who did not treat Alberta well,” said Jared Wesley, a political science professor at the University of Alberta.
Alberta’s energy industry contributes C$80 billion a year to Canada’s economy, but opposition from other provinces has shut down new pipelines like TransCanada Corp’s Energy East project and helped stall the Trans Mountain expansion plan.
Congestion on existing pipelines out of landlocked Alberta left crude bottlenecked in storage tanks and sent prices spiraling to record lows last year, prompting the NDP to mandate temporary crude production cuts.
Alberta has posted budget deficits since global oil prices started tumbling in 2014, and more than C$20 billion in foreign capital has fled its energy sector since 2017.
Notley and Trudeau came to power in the same year and initially forged a close partnership aimed at pleasing the oil industry and environmental groups with a dual strategy that supported new pipelines and introduced a carbon tax.
They fell out last year over delays to the Trans Mountain expansion project. Notley’s camp downplays the relationship that the UCP is working so hard to highlight.
“The job of premier is to work with anyone who has a stake in projects like pipelines. I wouldn’t call it an alliance,” said NDP campaign spokeswoman Cheryl Oates. “A lot of people feel Jason Kenney is stuck in Ottawa trying to rehash a battle that his party lost.”
Kenney was part of the federal Conservative government defeated by the Liberals in 2015. The UCP campaign declined to discuss its election strategy.
Reporting by Nia Williams; Editing by Steve Orlofsky