For Alberta conservatives, Jason Kenney became yesterday’s man

In these strange times for politics in Alberta, the following two things can be true at the same time: 

  1. Jason Kenney is one of the most ideologically conservative people to ever occupy a senior federal cabinet post or the premier’s chair — let alone both — with a background that includes both firmly social conservative values and a pre-politics job with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
  2. A near-majority (48.6 per cent) of United Conservatives voted to reject Jason Kenney’s leadership, largely because he was not conservative enough for their liking.

That may sound discordant to observers from outside Alberta, and be laughed at derisively by the other sizable chunk of Albertans who are unsettled by Kenney’s right-leaning impulses and actions. But history will record that after 25 years in politics, Jason Kenney was drummed out of office by conservatives who didn’t deem him up to snuff.

“We need to put the past behind us,” the premier said in his resignation announcement. He is now a part of Alberta’s past; a future will be forged without him. Until now, perhaps he never saw himself as a yesterday’s man of western conservatism.

As we’re now seeing in the federal party as well, Alberta’s conservative activists are in the process of determining exactly how conservative they want their party and leader to be. The pandemic, convoy protests and the durability of a Trudeau Liberal government have seemed to move that needle.

It’s not the same conversation about right-wing ideals that it was when Kenney became premier in 2019, let alone where it was when he acquired a blue pickup truck and rolled into provincial politics in 2016.

Remembering Kenney the campaigner

Ah, ideals. Kenney had so many when he began this project to fuse together the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties with the shared purpose of elbowing Rachel Notley’s NDP out of power and getting Alberta into better fighting shape against Ottawa, the oil sector’s detractors and other forces holding back the province from being its best economic self. 

He’d also learned about the gritty realities and necessary compromises of governing as a top minister under Stephen Harper. A fiscal hawk who defended massive deficit spending in the 2008 financial crash wouldn’t have felt completely uneasy about being a libertarian who enacts strict civil liberty and business restrictions during a global health emergency.

Jason Kenney toured the province in a blue Dodge Ram during his campaign to fuse the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Party into a united party. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

But he’d invited into his makeshift right-wing coalition the Wildrosers, who were born out of disenchantment with the moderation and centrism of Alberta Tory governments. They tend to crave the fist-clenched verve of a rally speech, not the equivocations of a lengthy news-conference explanation. 

Kenney has had to offer more of the latter in the last couple years, as he did things like institute the mask and vaccine mandates he’d decried days earlier, or account for the failure of a freshly invested $1.3-billion in the doomed Keystone XL pipeline.

The UCP grassroots were offered a couple of different Jason Kenneys — Jasons Kenney? — and often seemed to prefer the one less tempered by the realities of Alberta’s situation, or by the fact that potentially larger shares of Albertans wished their premier would get tougher on COVID and easier on federal affairs, not the other way around. 

As the pandemic wave rolled through, partisans talked more and more about broken trust with their leader — an often fatal challenge for the person in charge. And if the desire to win against the NDP were the sinews that threaded this big tent together, surely they’ve frayed after more than a year of polls, almost all showing Notley’s party in a comfortable lead. 

With this vote, the UCP members seem to have determined that the earlier, more idealistic incarnation of Jason Kenney no longer existed, so they opted to seek somebody else to lead.

Forgetting about Kenney the premier

Danielle Smith and Brian Jean, the former Wildrose leaders, declared their candidacies before there was a leadership race to contest — and each will offer a return to those unflinching values Kenney had espoused, and perhaps delve into areas where Kenney had dared not go, like Smith’s doubting of climate science or Jean’s forays into “Great Reset” conspiracy theory.

Expect cabinet ministers to enter the fray, as well. They have kept their powder dry during the party’s regicidal offensive, lest the king’s head remain on its shoulders. The likes of Finance Minister Travis Toews or Jobs Minister Doug Schweitzer might promise to more or less continue with Kenney’s agenda, albeit with a different tone and style. They’ll be out of the running when caucus meets to appoint one of its MLAs as interim party leader and full-fledged Alberta premier — she or he would get their painted portrait on legislature walls, security detail and all that. 

The place-holding premier determined, the UCP could be thrust into the same sort of battle for its soul the federal party is in, with raging debates about how doctrinaire or pragmatic the party should be. They’ll tussle over whether the leader’s chief goal is to appeal to the conservative base, or to the broad electorate. Or, as various partisans will no doubt argue, whether the two have sufficient overlap.

United Conservatives vote during the party’s 2019 annual meeting. In a leadership review by mail-in ballot, 51.4 per cent of UCP members endorsed Kenney, but he announced he’d resign after receiving such a narrow margin. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press/CBC News illustration)

The balancing act ahead

However it goes, the next leader has to leap into that premier’s chair and manage a nearly $60-billion-a-year government, while somehow putting their own stamp on things. At the same time, that successor must get the UCP into general-election shape against a New Democrat crew that’s remained serenely united all this time, recruiting candidates, amassing funds and even running TV ads.

And this individual will be heavily preoccupied by the task of unifying this badly-fractured governing party, and preventing leakage on either the right or the centre.

Because after all, the old Tories are no less prone to rage against their own boss than the Wildrosers are. They dumped Ralph Klein before his final term ended, then Ed Stelmach, then Alison Redford. In fact, of the seven premiers Alberta has had over the last two decades, only one managed to remain in office for an entire term.

She’s the only one who isn’t a Conservative.

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