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Ken Boessenkool: Alberta isn't conservative
Figure this out now, or risk losing Alberta to the NDP for a generation
“A propensity to use and enjoy what is available, rather than to wish or look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or may be.”
— Michael Oakeshott’s definition of the conservative disposition
By: Ken Boessenkool
Jason Kenney made the most common mistake. He mistook Alberta’s conservative disposition — our propensity to delight in what is present — for conservative ideology.
Alberta has a disposition to appreciate the present while preserving traditions. We have a healthy skepticism of radical change. It’s a key reason we take so bloody long to change political parties — we like our political traditions, we like things how they are, and we are reluctant to change.
This can be a powerful and good thing. In attitude, it displays itself as gratitude. Albertans (despite our whining, which I’ll get to next) know our privileged place and are disposed to appreciate it. In the words of T.S. Elliot, our conservative disposition is due to our appreciation “not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.”
Speaking of the pastness of the past, one possible exception to gratitude — which Alberta politicians have raised to such an art that it could now be called a tradition — is to blame outsiders for our problems at home. That is perhaps forgivable because the biggest shocks to Alberta have come not from within, but as a result of global swings in the price of commodities. But “swings in the price of global commodities” isn’t a useful political opponent, so we just substitute in “Trudeau.” This works out just fine because Trudeaus (and their occasional sit-ins) display a propensity to throw, er, gasoline on our fires from time to time.
Alberta’s conservative disposition is all too often mistaken for a conservative ideology. Trouble is, and despite what you’ve heard, Alberta doesn’t really have a conservative ideology. I have been saying and writing for years that Alberta is Canada’s socialist paradise, but I’ve mostly been just yelling into a Lethbridge wind.
Which doesn’t make it false.
Alberta, alone among Canadian provinces, owns a bank. I am not making this up.
Nowhere is hostility to private health care more advanced than in Alberta. A few Raging Grannies (surely Great Grannies by now) have blocked the most modest market-based health reforms. To fend off the grannies, Ralph Klein enshrined the five principles of the federal Canada Health Act into provincial legislation.
Alberta spends, with brief interregnums, more per person for our basket of public goods than anywhere else in the country. Ralph Klein brought our per-person spending down in his first mandate, only to chase it back up for the next two. For the most part, our high-spending government delivers exceedingly generous social and health programs. (I once witnessed a very wealthy Alberta oil man refuse to retire to British Columbia because medical treatments he needed were covered in Alberta, but not in B.C.)
Jason Kenney came to Alberta to change all of these things. As Canada’s smartest policy and political observers have noted, Kenney’s platform was a veritable grab bag of conservative ideological reforms — from education to health care to taxes. I’ve written about Kenney’s conservative reforms to provincial spending.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am an ideological conservative. I favour nearly all of the reforms Kenney was proposing. I spent nearly a decade and a half supporting and working with a federal conservative leader who proposed, and implemented a broad conservative agenda. But Stephen Harper balanced — I would say prefaced — his ideological conservatism with a dispositional conservatism. For Harper this meant a “predisposition to incrementalism.”
He got a lot done. But he was prime minister for a long time.
By contrast, Jason Kenney proposed well over 100 pages of quite radical (and to my mind mostly good) reforms within a single mandate. It was so far from incremental a lot of it felt like showy busy work.
Worse, all too often he proposed these reforms in the most ideologically apocryphal ways, all the while castigating opponents in equally apocryphal ways. There was an almost religious fervour to how Kenney pursued his ideological agenda.
Kenney was about “what was” — let’s party like it’s 1999 — at least when he wasn’t about what “may be.” Largely absent was any “delight in what is present” and certainly no “propensity to use and enjoy what is available.” It was conservative ideology absent a conservative disposition.
And then the pandemic hit.
Any advice that Kenney bring a conservative disposition to pandemic management fell on deaf ears. Indeed, he seemed intent on doing the opposite. One month he was swinging for the “Best-summer-ever freedom fences” the next month he was swinging for the “Restriction-Exemption-Program lockdown fences.” Whatever the rationale for either, the public cried foul (ha!). Which was mild compared to what was going on inside his own caucus.
But this is about leadership, which, with Kenney out of the way, conservatives must now confront. And only if we properly understand what went wrong will we be able to put it right.
And to my lights, we won’t get it right until we value a conservative disposition far above conservative ideology. We need good boring government, not an exciting ideological one.
If we don’t provide this, someone else will.
For there is someone ready to ascend to the premier’s chair who, despite having not a whit of conservative ideology, nonetheless possesses a conservative disposition. Someone with deep political, public and familial roots in Alberta, someone who, in her first shot, was surprisingly skeptical of radical change. Someone who more regularly invoked the legacy of Peter Lougheed than folks in her own political lineage. Someone who is capable of demonstrating gratitude for simply being an Albertan.
And if conservatives give her the chance, Rachel Notley will convert that conservative disposition to win not just one term, but to create a template that her tribe could use to rule Alberta for 40 years more.
And we won’t recognize Alberta when they’re done.
Those are the stakes. And Albertans aren’t going to give us a third chance.
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