Ken Boessenkool: Kenney has a chance. But his strategy sure is depressing
The more I think about it, the more likely it seems that Alberta will have a new government by the end of this year.
By: Ken Boessenkool
I’ve seen some pretty depressing political strategies in my day, but Alberta United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney’s plea that party members “not compare me to the Almighty, but to the alternative”is a strong contender for top spot.
What “alternative” does Kenney want you to think he’s referring to? In a recent speech to members, he insists that this strategy is aimed at NDP leader Rachel Notley. I need your support, Kenney says, to keep “the socialists” out of power.
Now this is a highly contestable notion.
Jason Kenney is incredibly unpopular in Alberta. Some might point to a recently unauthorized leaked poll following Jason Kenney’s impressive provincial budget as a positive sign that the worst is behind him. But that poll used party identification only — UCP vs. NDP. It did not mention Kenney.
And Rachel Notley is much more popular than Jason Kenney. Her approval rating is twice what Kenney’s is, and almost twice as many people think she would make a better premier than Kenney. This has been true for a long time now, and shows little sign of changing.
What’s more, there is evidence that usurper Brian Jean would fare better against Notley than Kenney would. A Brian Jean-led UCP would draw alongside a Rachel Notley NDP, where Jason Kenney is well back.
Of course, Kenney is a wily and experienced political operator. He knows all this. He knows that political communication is less about what you say and more about what is heard. So when Jason Kenney asks party members to consider the alternative, it’s entirely possible he’s not talking about Rachel Notley.
I’m being coy.
We know what he really means because he said it out loud when he thought only a few people were listening. The alternative Kenney is worried about, the people he is up against, the people organizing to defeat him are, in Kenney’s serendipitously recorded words, “kooks.” That’s Kenney’s word, not mine. He also used a few others: “lunatics,” and people with “extreme, hateful, intolerant, bigoted and crazy views.”
These extreme, hateful, intolerant, bigoted lunatics and kooks, Kenney says “have decided they’re going to take over the government of Alberta.”
And he has a point, or two.
In the first place, assuming no impending election, whoever replaces Kenney will indeed become premier.
In the second place, the most vocal organizers of Kenney’s downfall have aligned themselves with the senior leadership of the illegal anti-mandate convoy, truck (ha!) in foolish conspiracy theories, and compare COVID restrictions to apartheid.
Which, and sorry to take so long to get to my point, raises the very important question of who, exactly, stands ready to replace Kenney? Who could hold this caucus together? Who could actually keep “the socialists” out of power?
It’s hard to see how failed retreads from recent battles could do any of this. Particularly as they have vocally picked sides in the current battle ... against Kenney. It’s much easier to see Kenney retaining a critical mass of caucus than either of those two. Particularly because those who wield a knife rarely get to wear the crown.
And it’s hard to see how any member of the current caucus, especially those at the front of the front benches will be able to shake the chaotic baggage of the past two years. Surely the lacklustre and chaotic performance of this government hangs around more than one neck. And even if it didn’t, campaigning against a government you helped lead rarely works.
And it’s even harder to see how someone outside of this sorry mess would want to leave whatever they have now to step into it. Looking at things from the outside, it’s hard to imagine how the whole thing holds together following a Kenney defeat. Rarely has a government caucus looked quite so divided. And quite so miserable. Is there a worse job in Alberta politics than leading this caucus? Hard to imagine.
And so, as depressing as it all sounds, when you lay it out like this, perhaps Kenney has actually hit upon the only political strategy that has any chance of keeping him in office and holding the government together. The alternatives at this point seem bad, very bad, or non-existent — all of which are a far, far cry from The Almighty (atheists may beg to differ on the last one).
And let me be clear: I said “chance,” not “likelihood,” that Kenney’s depressing strategy may (may!) just be enough to win the vote. That will be step one.
Step two will be retaining enough of a caucus to hold on to the government. That means retaining a big enough contingent of his current caucus. Equally important, it means rapidly expelling his vocal opponents. Failure at step two means an election, one he would almost certainly lose so soon after losing the confidence of a critical mass of his caucus.
Step three is answering the question he actually posed to party members. How will he ever keep “the socialists” out of power?
I wager that what Albertans need more than anything right now is good, boring government. Maybe that’s too much to ask given our chequered political past, but after the last two years we really need a break from the crazy. And so if this depressing political strategy works, the most important thing Jason Kenney should prepare to do is lower the temperature, lower expectations, and lower the volume.
The more I think about all this, the more likely it seems that Alberta will have an entirely new government by the end of this year, perhaps by the end of the summer.
In which case, buckle up. It's gonna be a wild ride.
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