In Alberta, the Kenney Era Draws to an End

Tom Finnerty21 May, 2022 4 Min Read
Time for a change?

Earlier this week Alberta Premier Jason Kenney stunned the Canadian political world by, first, winning a majority in a contentious leadership review and then promptly announcing his resignation as leader of the United Conservative Party.

The surprise notwithstanding, this does seem to have been the right decision. After all, Kenney had received just a bare majority of support -- only 51.4 percent, and this after he and the U.C.P. board had fiddled with the rules of the review while it was ongoing to make it more favorable to the premier. And there was precedent for his decision -- longtime Alberta premier Ralph Klein resigned in 2006 after getting 55 percent of the vote in a leadership review. It would have looked bad had Kenney insisted on staying in office after attracting less support than Klein.

It also seems like a wise move -- going in, poll after poll had Kenney's province-wide approval rating was below 30 percent and the party as a whole was polling behind the socialist N.D.P., whose win in the 2015 provincial elections was the impetus for the formation of the United Conservative Party in the first place. A return of Rachel Notley and the N.D.P. to power in Edmonton in next year's election could very well endanger the project Kenney has dedicated himself to since he left federal office in 2016, that of uniting the right in Alberta. Kenney's personal unpopularity could be temporary, a product of unfavorable circumstances, but stubbornly dragging his party to defeat would make him a pariah on the right in Alberta and beyond.

A new dawn in Calgary.

It is worth looking briefly at both the positive and negative aspects of Kenney's tenure. Sean Speer discussed the former in a piece for the National Post:

The Kenney government has cut the province’s corporate tax rate by a third, reduced regulatory requirements by about one-quarter and maintained flat or declining program spending on a sustained basis. The result is the fastest-growing economy in the country and the province’s first balanced budget in more than a decade. But its most important and lasting contribution to centre-right governance is in its policy innovation.... This includes: major curriculum reform and expanding school choice; national leadership on internal trade and labour mobility; a series of initiatives such as the first-of-its-kind Indigenous Opportunities Corporation to help Indigenous peoples fully participate in the Alberta economy; and meaningful reform to the province’s health-care system through a significant shift of surgeries to private clinics and hospitals.

He has also been an outspoken ally for the oil and gas industry, the lifeblood of Alberta and perhaps the most significant single sector of the Canadian economy. Kenney fought admirably for pipelines, especially Keystone XL, and against the Federal Carbon Tax (until the Supreme Court ruled against him), while continually pushing back on the anti-oil and gas policies of the Trudeau government in Ottawa. While he sometimes raised red flags on this file, as when he asserted that a "gradual shift from hydrocarbon-based energy to other forms of energy” would be necessary in a speech in Washington, DC, for instance, or when he appointed pro-carbon tax activist Mark Cameron as Deputy Minister of Policy Coordination, the good outweighed the bad.

Still, there are areas where the negatives dominate. Alberta's Covid restrictions in particular rankled the province's conservative base. While Speer dismisses these complaints, saying that "Alberta had the lightest restrictions in the country as well as a death rate below the national average," Albertans couldn't help but compare their restrictions to those in the United States rather than to the ones in Ontario and Quebec. What's the point of being the Texas of Canada if, when the chips are down, your government acts more like that of Massachusetts or New York?

And, relatedly, Albertans have been turned off by Kenney's kingly attitude. In 2017, he parachuted in to provincial politics from Ottawa as a self-styled savior, dazzling both right-of-center parties. He also stepped on a lot of toes. His victory seemed to many a bit too scripted, a suspicion that has been reinforced by the on-going investigations into alleged voter fraud and illegal campaign practices during his leadership campaigns. And as the actual governance of the province became difficult -- particularly during the pandemic and its economic fallout -- Kenney was quick to expel M.P.P.'s like Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes from the party for criticizing his policies in public. He also booted Culture Minister Leela Aheer from cabinet for the same offense, and he's been accused of petty acts of retribution, like seating his critics within the party in the back rows of the government benches, as far as possible from the action and the exits.

For his part, Kenney has argued that he's been "far too tolerant of public expressions of opposition" to his decisions as leader, and that the party "must be united, and unity requires a degree of discipline.”

Keep to the right, Alberta.

While Jason Kenney has announced his intention to resign as party leader, his intention is to stay on as premier until a permanent successor can be selected and he hasn't ruled out standing for leader again. Former Wildrose leaders Danielle Smith and Brian Jean have already announced their intention of replacing him, while members of Kenney's cabinet including Jobs Minister Doug Schweitzer and Finance Minister Travis Toews are said to be mulling a run.

Whoever the next leader might be, however, he will have quite the job of continuing Kenney's good work while avoiding his negatives, and holding together the two warring factions he pulled together under one banner. It will be tough, but necessary work for keeping the N.D.P. out of power in Alberta. The future of Canadian right-of-center politics, and of Canada itself depends on his success.

Tom Finnerty writes from New England and Ontario.

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