Dave Robertson: Jason Kenney is running out of ideas
After winning a historic mandate last year, the Alberta economy continues to sputter. The premier's old tricks aren't going to work in a crisis.
By: Dave Robertson
These days, whenever I see Jason Kenney give a speech, I think of Matt Damon in a space suit. Not as the industrious Mark Watney from The Martian, but as the bellicose Dr. Mann from Interstellar. Near the end, Mann delivers a lecture about how he’ll save mankind while trying to dock his spaceship. It doesn’t end well.
Meanwhile, Premier Jason Kenney is busy saving Alberta. He’s at the controls, mashing the same buttons over and over again. Tax cuts for corporations, unwavering support for the oil and gas industry, deep, deep cuts for everyone else. If anyone dares to suggest an alternative, he scolds them for their “pie in the sky ideas” or for being a “member of the radical left.”
Meanwhile, he’s losing what astronauts call “situational awareness.” That’s the ability to look out the capsule window to see the trouble that’s brewing outside. It’s not good. The global oil and gas industry is facing decline due to plummeting demand while Alberta’s economy is spinning just like Apollo 13 after the oxygen tank blew up. The inquiry into “foreign funded” environmental campaigns targeting the oil sands is poised to ask for yet another extension, even after exceeding its original budget by $1 million.
Albertans are beginning to take note: a recent poll from the Angus Reid Institute shows the United Conservative Party neck-and-neck with the New Democratic Party. The UCP's support has dropped an astonishing 17 percentage points since Kenney was elected last year.
Kenney has clearly positioned himself as the man in charge. But as more and more things go wrong, he’s also facing the perils of his distinctive command-and-control style. According to an Angus Reid, only two in five Albertans approve of his leadership.
Is Kenney about to experience a moment of explosive decompression? Not immediately. The UPC government has a solid mandate until the next election in the spring of 2023. But Alberta is light years from returning to a stable economy and the journey will be long and uncertain. The UPC only has so much oxygen in its tanks and Kenney will need to watch how much he consumes or risk being ejected from the airlock when the election comes.
That means he needs to re-examine his leadership style. While Kenney is a proven political strategist, he uses the same script for almost every problem he encounters. Find or create an opponent, lay blame and then attempt to vanquish the enemy in public view. It has all the drama of Armageddon in which Harry Stamper (played by Bruce Willis, of course) faces off against the evil-looking, planet-killing asteroid. But let’s remember, Harry blew himself up too.
The problem is Kenney still believes Alberta is at war. But this war, if it even ever existed, is over. Earlier this week, BP announced peak oil. Exxon Mobil is no longer in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Husky Energy is linking executive compensation to emissions reduction. Prominent oil and gas executives are among the “environmental radicals” that now acknowledge climate change and support carbon pricing. As the rest of the world transforms around us, Alberta’s post-COVID-19 recovery is lagging behind the rest of Canada and our provincial deficit is surging to record highs.
Alberta isn’t at war. It’s facing an emergency.
“Got any ideas?” That’s what Capt. Chesley Sullenberger asked his first officer as they prepared to land their crippled airliner in the Hudson River. Sully is a movie about a genuine crisis right here on Earth, and it follows what happened in the cockpit that day word for word. Sullenberger’s question isn’t a nicety. It’s part of how professionals like pilots, first responders, surgeons, and real-life astronauts are trained to deal with crises.
That playbook is simple and effective. Listen to what others have to say. Encourage open communication about threats and opportunities. Follow proven procedures to address the knowns. Collaborate and improvise to deal with the unknowns. Show leadership, but use consensus to build a team that’s engaged, aligned and motivated.
During the early stages of Alberta’s COVID-19 response, Kenney must have observed these practices among Alberta’s public health and emergency management professionals. He stepped back to let officials speak and supported their professional advice. More importantly, he seemed to show interest in the well-being of all Albertans, not just those among his base.
As Kenney ponders his approval levels and contemplates how to dig Alberta out of its current economic hole, he would do well to step back from striking heroic poses and look at what others are doing. By taking a more collaborative approach, the less-than-perfect Premier Doug Ford has handily secured the trust of a surprising number of Ontarians.
Kenney would also benefit from stepping beyond the circle of loyal expert panelists and staffers. As Sullenberger says in interviews, “It's not about who's right, it's about what's right.”
“Got any ideas?” Imagine if Kenney were to ask Albertans that question openly and honestly. How many more of us would step forward with our solutions if we weren’t afraid of being called out, ridiculed or sidelined?
Dave Robertson is a writer and a meeting facilitator from Calgary. He frequently writes about conflict and collaboration.
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