Can anything stop Jason Kenney? Alberta premier rides high approval rating as his party gathers for convention
|National Post 29 Nov 2019 at 19:48|
EDMONTON — On Monday, Premier Jason Kenney stood beside the Toronto MP and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland in his office at the Alberta legislature and warmly welcomed her, an “Alberta girl” from Peace River, Alta., back home.
That was after earlier this month, in a speech before conservative faithful, condemning the “record of assaults” of Freeland’s own Liberal government on Alberta.
This is part of Kenney’s skill as a politician. He knows his audience and can be a peacemaker behind doors while delivering a rousing barn burner of a speech in public. He, in the words of country legend Kenny Rogers, knows when to hold ‘em. So far, he hasn’t bothered with folding, walking away or running.
At this particular moment, with a week or so left in this sitting of the legislature, Kenney’s in a remarkable position of strength. While there isn’t much by way of recent polling, as of September, the Angus Reid Institute found he has 60 per cent approval among Albertans, putting him among the top-three most-popular premiers in the country, just a couple of points behind Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe and Quebec’s François Legault.
Behind closed doors, he’s really good at building consensus
Alberta’s United Conservative Party gathers in Calgary this weekend for only its second convention ever. Kenney will be there not just as the popular leader of the party, but as the man who through force of will played a key role in bringing it into being. In 2016, Kenney left federal politics to return to his home province with a mission to unite an Albertan right divided between an old, tired Progressive Conservative party and an unsteady Wildrose party. He ran for the PC leadership, won, and then negotiated a merger, all with the very explicitly stated goal of throwing out of office Rachel Notley’s NDP government, which had been unexpectedly elected due to the vote splitting between the two conservative groups. And then he did just that earlier this year, with the UCP winning a healthy majority of the popular vote and reducing the NDP to 24 seats to the UCP’s 63 seats.
For that alone, Kenney will no doubt be as popular as he’s ever been when he meets the party faithful this weekend, but he arrives having endured a relatively rough few recent weeks. He’s in the midst of implementing a budget featuring minor austerity, which has elicited howls from union groups; he’s got creeping alienation and separatist sentiment nipping at his federalist flanks in parts of the province; and he has faced down the opposition over a series of spending controversies and controversial legislation. All the while, he’s been fielding somewhat warmish overtures from emissaries like Freeland from a federal government that claims it wants to make nice after being wiped from the map of the province in the October general election — the same federal government he’s spent well over a year lambasting for its lack of concern about Alberta’s economic straits.
“If it was somebody else trying to juggle all of these balls at once, surely they’d be dropping them,” said Matt Solberg, who worked several years in the office of Alberta’s opposition with the Wildrose party, and is now a director at the government-relations firm New West Public Affairs.
To his fans, Kenney is doing what must be done to get Alberta back on track, to get the province a “fair deal” from Ottawa, to stick up for its interests against a Trudeau government hostile to the oil and gas industry and overly deferential to Central Canadian priorities.
Of course, to his critics, Kenney is a career politician, disregarding the lessons of Alberta history, arrogantly consolidating his power and avoiding transparency in his government’s dealings.
Notley, who is now opposition leader, said, “As a political operative, he is very good at staying on message… even if he’s saying things that aren’t true.”
Nothing Kenney does, said Ana Curic, a former staffer who was Kenney’s chief of staff across two ministries in Ottawa, is by accident.
“Some politicians, it’s timing,” Curic said. “With Jason my experience has always been, it’s him and his skill, he’s very good at it.”
Kenney is riding his current wave, it seems, on account of two main factors. The first is his talent as a politician and experience at two levels of government since he first entered politics in 1997 at age 29.
“I know that in things like Question Period and some of his press conferences, some people see him as coming off as cheeky or combative, but he’s actually, behind closed doors, he’s really good at building consensus and negotiating,” Curic said. “I think part of that to be honest is because he spent time in opposition so he knows what it’s like to try and convince the other guy to do something.”
“They’ve done … a good job on capitalizing on things when it comes to the charter flights, for example, and turning that into a bigger thing for people to talk about,” Solberg said.
But in each case, Kenney hasn’t apologized. Usually, he’s opted instead to double down, such as insisting the charter flight was well worth it so other premiers “could show Albertans their support for our energy sector, for our province at a time of adversity” and “they did us a solid by coming out here.” Boosting the Alberta economy, he says, is what the UCP was elected to do. He frequently uses the same general line to defend budgetary measures; that the UCP ran on a platform almost entirely about fixing Alberta’s badly damaged balance sheet, and the tough decisions are what voters hired him to make. A thumping democratic majority has provided him the defence of having a clear mandate, he is happy to remind his critics.
“If he doesn’t feel like there’s something to apologize for, he’s not going to just for the sake of quelling a storm,” said Solberg. “They’re not afraid of punching back when they feel there’s some righteousness to their position.”
It helps makes his case that he’s only doing what he must to serve the public that, for years, Kenney has cultivated a reputation as a driven and hard-working politician.
When delivering his “fair deal for Alberta” speech in Red Deer, Alta. at a Manning Centre for Democracy meeting in November (in which he announced plans to being considering how to beef up Alberta’s autonomy in the Confederation), Kenney said he’d been up all night working on his speech. Those who’ve worked for him say part of their job is convincing him to take some time off from burning the midnight oil — and they aren’t always successful.
The hands-on approach has been a partial key to his success in uniting the two conservative parties in Alberta and securing the leadership.
As for the future, Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, a polling firm, said it’s still “early days.”
“Early in a mandate there is more room, there’s more recoverable opportunity for leaders to stumble out of the gate or strike the wrong tone, to perhaps make mistakes,” Kurl said. “The question of course is the long term trend.”
There are three risks sources identified for Kenney and the United Conservatives. Fundamentally, many of the challenges facing Alberta — whether that’s commodity prices, trade and jurisdictional disputes — are fully outside the power of the Alberta government to control.
The premier of Alberta can’t on his or her own get a cross-border pipeline built or get oil prices higher. And while some argue that Trudeau in Ottawa, as an easy target over pipeline politics and the carbon tax, widely seen as attacks on the Alberta economy, helps Kenney’s image as a defender of the province, Curic says that’s not likely to make anyone’s life easier in the long term — not even Kenney’s.
“I personally think Jason’s life would be a lot easier if he had someone in Ottawa who was willing to do the things he asked of him. At some point the rhetoric runs out and people start to look at your record,” she said.
Notley, for her part, sees Kenney’s relationship with the Trudeau government as a deflection of Albertans’ frustration.
“I think he obviously is motivated by a personal dislike for Justin Trudeau,” she says. “He is now trying to find a different outlet for (Albertans) anger. It’s about Ottawa as a political tool, not Ottawa as an actual legitimate stakeholder.”
She said she thinks Kenney has burned more goodwill than he realizes, especially in the context of the growing frustration in the province, which has only grown following an election that returned Trudeau to power, albeit severely weakened.
“It’s just a function of the economic reality that is pressing down on Albertans,” says Notley. “He’s as vulnerable to that frustration as our government was and he is overestimating the amount of political room that he has to operate in and he’s overestimating his political capital.”
Meanwhile, the UCP government’s use of its clear mandate from Alberta voters as its usual defence for its actions comes with some risk, says Solberg.
“Whenever you’re leaning on your mandate like that, for as long as they have been… the biggest risk I think you see is arrogance starts creeping into the conversation or your tone,” he says.
Another risk is to what extent his caucus is willing to keep following Kenney’s direction, even if it means taking lumps. The first sign of trouble, he says, isn’t when the opposition or media raise a stink — it’s when caucus balks.
“The biggest risk will be, the premier’s pushing an agenda and he’s pushing it very quickly, it’s very aggressive, and it’s whether or not he can expect his caucus to steel themselves for this kind of opposition,” said Solberg.
Indeed, as Curic put it, his risk is promising “the moon, the sky, the stars and then not being able to give them any of that.”
“If anyone can do what has been sort of planned out, it’s Jason.”
The result is that Alberta is a magical land where rats never destroy vegetable gardens and nobody gets diseased from rat droppings in their attic
Is free speech under threat on university campuses today? Are governments right to intervene?
A blood-soaked trail of interconnected traffickers and deals ran from the RCMP s Operation Harrington to the Sinaloa Cartel
A common misconception is that influenza is the same as the stomach flu, but while influenza can lead to vomiting and diarrhoea, these are uncommon symptoms