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Conservative wave could threaten Canada’s Trudeau

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, on April 10. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The conservatives are coming for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

A right-of-center party swept to power Tuesday in the prairie province of Alberta, riding a wave of angst over the struggling oil sector and the federal government’s climate change plan.

The United Conservative Party, led by Jason Kenney, beat Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party by a good margin, largely by casting the incumbent, who opposed Trudeau on several issues, as part of a “Notley-Trudeau alliance.”

With the big win in Alberta, right-leaning parties control five of Canada’s 10 provinces, including Ontario and Quebec (Canada also has three territories). The leaders of these provinces, called premiers, constitute a growing threat to Trudeau heading into the federal election in October.

Canada is seen internationally as a bastion of progressive politics, and under Trudeau has been cast as a foil to President Trump’s United States. But Trudeau’s Liberal government finds itself fending off a conservative surge that could reshape the face of Canadian politics.

Kenney and other provincial leaders, including Ontario’s Doug Ford, have taken aim at Trudeau’s policies, particularly his government’s efforts to fight climate change by “'putting a price on pollution” (as the government calls it) or “taxing carbon” (as conservative critics like to say).

Their attack on Trudeau’s policies comes at a moment when the prime minister looks personally vulnerable.

For months, the prime minister and his team have been dogged by claims they inappropriately pressured Canada’s first indigenous attorney general to defer the prosecution of a Quebec-based engineering firm — and demoted her when she pushed back.

The controversy, known in Canada as the SNC-Lavalin affair, has hurt Trudeau’s personal brand. Though the election is still months away, polls hint that it could hurt his prospects, perhaps costing him a majority in Parliament, or if things get worse, his party’s hold on power.

A conservative win in Alberta won’t necessarily cost Trudeau’s Liberal Party seats in October; the Liberals were unlikely to win many districts in the heartland of Canadian conservatism to begin with. But the loss of a left-of-center premier in a powerhouse province is significant — as was the tenor of Kenney’s campaign.

The United Conservative Party won Alberta by channeling anger over economic woes, blaming Trudeau for the slumping oil sector and casting his Liberal government as an out-of-touch, out-to-get-Alberta villain.

“We Canadians have been had,” Kenney said in his victory speech. “In Ottawa, we have a federal government that has made a bad situation much worse.”

He suggested, without evidence, that environmental groups who have opposed building pipelines to transport oil were backed by “foreign-funded special interests.”

“Your days of pushing around Albertans with impunity just ended. We Albertans are patient and we’re fair-minded, but we’ve had enough of your campaign of defamation and double standards,” he told the crowd, according to Canadian media.

The UCP win will help make energy and the environment a central issue in the federal election. Kenney joins a group of provincial leaders — Ford, Manitoba’s Brian Pallister, New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe — who have set out to scrap Trudeau’s carbon plan.

Kenney has vowed to start his tenure by canceling the carbon tax. Though the move would be mostly symbolic — the federal government has promised to simply impose the price either way — his message seems to be finding an audience.

A key ally will be Ford, who is focused on fighting carbon pricing, and the rest of Trudeau’s progressive platform.

The question for the months ahead is whether loud, forceful opposition from Kenney, Ford and others will weaken the prime minister, or whether call-outs from the right will solidify Trudeau’s standing at the country’s political center.

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