Jen Gerson: The Glorious Ungovernable Province of Alberta
It wasn't Jason Kenney's decision to re-open last summer that doomed his leadership: it was his arrogance.
The first time I had a proper conversation with Jason Kenney was about six years ago. The NDP were in power in Alberta; the federal Conservatives had cast about for a successor to Stephen Harper and, it was decided by silent consensus, said successor would not be Jason Kenney.
So the former federal cabinet minister and prodigal son of the conservative movement was persuaded to come home; to save the heartland from the "accidental" socialist majority, whose triumph nibbled away at the heart and soul of every True Blue Conservative Believer suddenly confronted with a province governed by the enemy.
The saviour gambit would be no easy task. Kenney would have to unite the warring conservative flanks; the entrenched Old Tory elites, whose four-decade grip on one-party power had left the province politically stultified and borderline corrupt; and the insurgent Wildrose Party, the libertarian, rural wing of the movement. The two flanks hated each other almost as much as they hated the NDP, and for many years, the prospect of a true merger seemed bizarre and impossible.
When I met Kenney, in a basement Starbucks, I expressed my doubts. The plan he proposed seemed convoluted. First, he would run for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives; then convince the parties to agree to a merger; dissolve the warring factions, create a new party, and run another leadership campaign. By uniting the right, he felt, the new conservative party would be guaranteed to beat the NDP in the 2019 election.
This seemed nuts to me. There were too many potential points of failure for the plan to work — but I was wrong. (Add it to the growing list in my permanent record.)
Kenney pulled it off.
"And now," I wrote in 2017. "I can't decide whether he stands poised to defeat Rachel Notley's government, or if the political fates are concocting an extraordinary and cruel lesson in hubris."
The answer, apparently, was both.
Perhaps Jason Kenney was the only person who could have pulled it off. As a former Harper cabinet minister, known to be a true and strident conservative, he was, perhaps, one of the few individuals on Earth who possessed the credibility and the credentials to unite these parties. To the Red Tory elect, he was an establishment figure; to the Wildrose rumblers, he was a credible conservative who committed to respect the party's grassroots.
That doesn't mean Kenney's win was inevitable. Nor was it a coronation. Many of the old PCs despised the man, and resented the accolades and federal endorsements he and his unification scheme collected. I recall one individual even making stabbing motions behind Kenney's back at a Stephen Harper fundraising event. But these, of course, were just a few disgruntled old Red Tories. They hardly mattered. After Kenney won the leadership of their party, many of them drifted out of political life and have been little seen since.
After the merger of the PCs and the Wildrose was proposed, Kenney ran his second leadership gauntlet, this time against another former MP, then-Wildrose leader Brian Jean. Although Jean never made it as far in federal politics as did Kenney, he did manage to save the Wildrose from total collapse after the previous leader, Danielle Smith, crossed the floor to the PCs ahead of the 2015 election that ended the PC's legacy of one-party rule. Jean, therefore, was not to be discounted.
And judging by the amount of skullduggery that reportedly went into that race, Kenney did not. There were accusations of questionable membership drives; Kenney's team has since been accused of running a dodgily funded kamikaze candidate to take Jean out. Kenney won, but the race left a sour aftertaste. He created an implacable enemy in Brian Jean, who now seems poised to enact his revenge. I notice that many of those Wildrose types seemed to drift away from the merged UCP party over the years, as well.
If I were to create a spin off to The Alberta Show, I might be tempted to entitle it: Kenney's Cast Offs. Over the past few years, he lost his most interesting staffers. One former chief of staff is even suing the government, alleging a toxic workplace rife with sexual harassment and drinking.
Kenney was notorious for burning out his staff, and for spending more time lecturing his caucus than actually meeting with them. Over time, his inner circle seemed to grow more insular, and I had to wonder: "Who is actually around this guy? Who is challenging him? Who is telling him what was going on inside the province?" When I heard that he was telling people only days ago that he expected to receive a respectable 60-75 per cent of the vote in the leadership review — a boast that was utterly delusional — I couldn't help but notice that not only was a vocal minority of his own caucus actively working against him, but I couldn't pinpoint anyone on those benches who seemed eager to defend him, or organize the party membership on his behalf, either.
Why did Jason Kenney fail?
Everyone is going to read their own preferred narrative into the fall. To the Conservative movement grounded in central Canada — concerned as it is with their own populist demons — Kenney will be a cautionary tale. This man, an impeccable establishment conservative beloved by the Ottawa set, was felled by the anti-COVID kooks in his own caucus. That line will be mirrored by progressives eager to tar all conservatives as a coalition of deplorables.
Kenney would be happy to adopt that answer too as it ignores his own failures of leadership and re-casts himself as a moderate, sensible conservative. From such narratives are come-back strategies forged.
I won't deny there's truth to it, either. Kenney's necessary climb down from Alberta's "Best Summer Ever," and his flip-flop on vaccine mandates undoubtedly destroyed him among the most ungovernable wing of the party.
But come on, now.
Kenney also took flak from those within and without his caucus who felt he was taking far too light a touch on pandemic management. Granted, COVID was a difficult file for all conservative premiers to navigate for broadly ideological reasons. But, Kenney's tone aside, Alberta's policies were not radically out of step with those of either British Columbia, or Saskatchewan; our per capita death rates were broadly in line with other provinces. Meanwhile, other conservative premiers may have been battered by the pandemic, but they ultimately weathered it. Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe boasts an approval rating of more than 50 per cent. And goodness' sake, even Ontario's Doug Ford is about to be re-elected.
So if we want to explain Kenney's failure, we're going to need to dig a little deeper. The question here isn't whether the COVIDdiots in his caucus did him in: it's why the COVIDiots in the caucus did him in. Why was his grasp on power so fragile?
Jason Kenney did, in fact, unite the right, and with his newly minted United Conservative Party, he did manage to defeat the NDP. But he framed that campaign on the faulty assumption that Alberta was destined to be ruled by a conservative party, and that this inevitability was thwarted only by conservative in-fighting.
Yet Alberta in 2019 was in deep shit. Oil had crashed, the economy was teetering, and the province was the public enemy of environmentalists. A Trudeau was in office, and the entire country — it seemed — had turned against us and our primary export. It was very, very easy, in this scenario, for Jason Kenney to ride in on his blue pickup truck and blame everything on the accidental socialist government ruling Alberta.
If not for the NDP and Rachel Notley, he argued, Alberta would be booming; a stronger premier could confront Trudeau, get pipelines built, and improve our economic prospects. This was ultimately the promise Jason Kenney made to the electorate: "Repent your Socialist Ways, pick me, and I'll bring back the party circa 1999."
This played to big applause, because of course it would! Everyone loves a scapegoat.
Problem was, Kenney was elected to office on a platform filled with easy, comfortable nonsense.
It wasn't Notley's fault that the global price of oil crashed; the NDP's carbon tax actually calmed much of the broader anti-Alberta environmentalist sentiment; and a more aggressive posture toward Ottawa would do nothing to fix Alberta's long standing gripes vis a vis the federal government. Kenney set himself up to fail — presumably under the assumption that the voters of this conservative province would continue to re-elect the UCP indefinitely once the civil war amongst his own ranks was quelled.
But once Kenney came to power none of his promises panned out, and if the voters soon got the sense that they were sold a false bill of goods by an Ottawa con man, well, whose fault was that?
Many of Kenney's plans failed spectacularly, early, and in an embarrassing and amateurish fashion. There was the "War Room," staffed by a former PC backroom boy that churned out some kind of bizarre fake newspaper extolling the oil industry.
There was the cancellation of the Teck Resources Frontier Mine, a terrible blow under the tenure of a premier who promised to bring the oil sands back.
Despite a $1.3 billion investment by the Alberta taxpayer, Joe Biden killed the Keystone XL pipeline.
Kicking the socialists out and reducing corporate taxes didn't magically fix the economy, which continued to stall until only recently.
The referendum on equalization — the one that was supposed to force the federal government to hold a meeting on the issue, somehow — was a bad joke.
And then we get to COVID.
Then we had ministers and staffers jetting off on holidays while the rest of the province was told to skip Christmas and quarantine. We gawked at pictures of the premier drinking hard liquor with his cabinet ministers on the roof of the Sky Palace — the very boondoggle that helped to doom one of his predecessors, Alison Redford.
I'm sure there are a few more scandalettes I am forgetting, but I think it's safe to say that Kenney tallied more losses than wins. I'm not even convinced that Kenney deserves much credit for getting Alberta's budget in line: our overall expenditures have continued to rise under his tenure, and our return to something closer to balance has as much to do with rebounding oil prices as it does with cost cutting. After three years of non-socialist rule, we're as trapped by our dependence on royalty resources as ever.
Now, I do cut Kenney some slack when it comes to pandemic management. It's not always obvious what the right answer is, and every government around the world had to make up policy on the fly. Like all governments, he had to try to balance a respect for personal freedoms, economic realities, mental health and a collapse in social cohesion against difficult policies intended to staunch the spread of the virus. And he had to do it with a caucus deeply divided among rural and urban lines. Kenney's biggest mistake — his Open for Summer strategy last year — was predicated on the assumption that a 70-per-cent-vaccination rate would be adequate to open up without overwhelming hospitals. His was hardly the only government to make that mistake, and the province's particularly recalcitrant rural areas — some of which recorded vaccination rates in the 30th percentile — ultimately doomed the province to its last vicious COVID wave.
But it wasn't the decision to re-open that doomed his leadership: it was his arrogance. He promised his electorate that Alberta was going to open up, no matter what, in order to calm his own restive caucus. It was a gamble on the end of the pandemic, and it was a bet he ultimately lost.
Conservative pundits like Carson Jerema and Sean Speer have lamented Kenney's political demise by blaming it on elements of his caucus who wanted something closer to ideological purity in his handling of COVID. Their response was to defend Kenney's Conservative bona fides.
From Speer: "Alberta’s Kenney-led government was the country’s most ambitious centre-right provincial government since the Harris government’s Common-Sense Revolution in Ontario more than a quarter-century ago."
I like both Jerema and Speer, but I think these takes miss the point.
Sure, Kenney was a great conservative.
What does that matter? Who cares?
What's the value in being an ideological conservative if your dogma doesn't produce the results you promise to the electorate?
Further, Alberta isn't a particularly ideologically conservative place. This is a point I keep on trying to make to no avail to partisans.
This province wants to be prosperous, well-run, chalk full of quality amenities and services, and it otherwise wants to be left alone to run its own business. I'm not going to pretend that Albertans don't enjoy taking pot shots at commies and socialists and central Canada. We do, and that's part of the political vibe, but no one out here is preaching the gospels of Hayek or Burke.
Alberta conservatism is more of a tribal affectation than an ideological one. This province's true-blue affiliation is an accident of geography and history, which makes it no less real or culturally entrenched.
So who really gives a shit if Jason Kenney was a really super-awesome movement conservative? Did he get stuff done? Did he treat his people well? Did he listen to his team? Did his commitment to conservative principles make him a better leader? Did they save him in the end?
Or, in the end, was he just another remote and superior pretender from the east who didn't really understand the province he was trying to lead?
I'm not the only one who keeps on coming back to Jason Kenney's stupid blue truck, because it's such a perfect symbol for the guy and his tenure. Here was a guy from Ottawa who more properly belonged in an Audi or an Escalade, and he showed up to campaign in Alberta in a blue pickup truck — one of this province's most popular vehicles among the working-class set. Because, of course, Jason Kenney was going to hit up the Home Depot to pick up lumber and tile for his kitchen reno between campaigns. I can just picture him using that truck to help his buddies move apartments.
The truck was such an absurd affectation for a man with soft hands; an ostentatiously inefficient vehicle. Of course, his base loved it back in 2019, but Albertans do not typically need to put on a such a show of their Albertan-ness. Unless you're a genuine cattle rancher, donning cowboy boots outside of Stampede season is something that urban Ontarians do after they move here. It's a tell.
Trucks are also solitary vehicles. They don't carry a lot of people. I wonder what will happen to that truck, now. Will Kenney continue to drive it?
Alberta was a politically boring place when I moved here in 2010. It got interesting just as I took a job at the National Post in 2012, ahead of the election of Alison Redford. Since then, we've had five premiers. (Is it me? Have I been too mean?)
The only premier who has served a full term since I began covering politics in earnest is Rachel Notley, the leader of that "accidental" majority government. There's no way a united right could lose to the NDP, right? Hey-oo!
This province is the graveyard of over-ambitious men and women. It is a poisoned chalice, the bane of hubris. Who is absurd and arrogant enough to lead it next? No doubt anyone worthwhile enough to consider that question ought to be asking whether this province, or this caucus, can be led. Alberta is probably, gloriously ungovernable. Any successful premier will have to come to terms with this, and learn to love it for what it is.
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This is a great line: "Further, Alberta isn't a particularly ideologically conservative place. This is a point I keep on trying to make to no avail to partisans."
I think that's true for most of Canada and moreover, it's true across the ideological specrtum. Most Canadians don't really care about political ideology. We're a fairly pragmatic people who seem to want stability, prosperity and for things to work -- peace, order and good government.
We're not getting as much of that as we probably want lately, which seems to motivate politicians to go harder on ideology. But, what matters -- what we actually care about -- is governments who deliver the stuff that actually touches our lives. A LOT of that is actually on how well the government and the public service can work together. But, ideologues (on both sides) tend to like to spout easy-sounding, difficult-to-deliver solutions that ulimately fail.
Of course, most public policy challenges that matter to people are actually complex and not easy to solve. Inflation, deficits, climate change, pandemic response, productivity -- all require pretty difficult trade-offs and defy easy solutions. Anybody that promises easy solutions is probably not being entirely honest!
An excellent piece of analysis. Gerson is a fine writer, always look forward to her material. As to Kenney - or O'Toole for that matter - always important to remember that trying to keep everyone happy is almost always a mistake. He should have had the backbone to stand up to the most divisive members of his caucus and let the chips fall where they may. As it is, I don't know who in their right mind would want to lead the federal or Alberta Conservative parties, as long as they seem bent on purging each other.