The Opposition in Alberta hopes to build on a buoyant 2021 during which the New Democrats outpaced Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservatives in popularity polls and fundraising.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley says the goal for 2022 is to provide ideas on how to build the economy while continuing to demand answers, data and accountability from the government on how it handled the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The hole Jason Kenney has dug is deep and we need to get out of it," Notley said in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press.

"We need to get our province moving forward on economic diversification, energy transformation, ensuring we're keeping our young people here (and) restoring our post-secondary institutions."

Notley's NDP spent much of 2021 demanding information and answers from Kenney's government about its delayed response to COVID-19's fourth wave that pushed ICU capacity and health care to the breaking point in September.

Kenney had removed all but a handful of health restrictions as of July 1, announced the pandemic was over and said no contingency plan was needed in case the Delta variant took hold.

"The single biggest mistake and the breach of trust and betrayal of Albertans happened behind closed doors and Albertans didn't even see it happen," said Notley. She noted that case numbers were rising at an alarming rate in August while both Kenney and then-health minister Tyler Shandro were on vacation. They said they were in touch with staff daily.

"They did not act to make any kind of serious efforts to protect Albertans from the fourth wave until the middle of September, long after they should have," said Notley. "In so doing, they brought about the worst fourth wave in the country ... damage to our health-care system as well as ... losses to Alberta families that were entirely preventable.

"It was a profound failure."

#Alberta Opposition wants answers on how #UCP government handled #pandemic. #ABPoli

The NDP was among critics who led and rode waves of outrage that prompted Kenney’s government to reverse course on multiple files: coal mining on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, a proposed Grades K-6 education curriculum, and planned wage cuts for nurses.

Notley said the goal is to have all her party's candidates for the 2023 election in place by next fall as well as contingencies in case Kenney calls one earlier. The interest is encouraging, she said.

"It's fair to say that we will end up with more contested nominations in this election than probably the last 20 years combined — and not just contested between two people, but three and four people."

Early in 2022, Ariana Mancini will carry the NDP standard in the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche byelection. Kenney must call it by mid-February to replace former UCP legislature member Laila Goodridge, who successfully ran for the Conservatives in September's federal vote.

Brian Jean, who lost to Kenney for the UCP leadership, won the party's nomination on a promise to push Kenney out as party leader. Jean says the premier's top-down leadership and failure on key files have left the party ripe for a return to an NDP government.

Kenney had promised to sign Jean's nomination papers if he won the nomination, and Jean is stumping the province encouraging others to help him dump Kenney.

Notley said Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche is a microcosm of Alberta politics: the NDP focused on helping the constituency; the UCP focused on internal gamesmanship.

"The UCP is chronically drawn to their own internal drama. They are an organization that was built for politics, not for governance, and as a result they're failing at leading the province."

Notley, who was premier from 2015 until 2019, aims to be ready if she returns to the premier's chair. The party has begun consultations and offered proposals on building the economy through diversification and job growth. There are already policy positions on hydrogen and geothermal development, infrastructure and high-tech.

Political scientist Duane Bratt said the NDP doesn't need to change its game plan. He said Notley's strength is positioning former cabinet ministers as effective critics and letting them share the spotlight while scoring hits on government climbdowns and controversies.

"One of the things that is quite striking is Notley is not the only spokesperson of this party. Their bench strength is stronger now than when they were in government," said Bratt with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

"They (just) need to stay out of the way and look like a credible government in waiting."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 28, 2021.

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