The 2019 Alberta election is over. Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party will form the province’s next government. But who is Jason Kenney? And what might his election mean for Alberta and perhaps Canada?
Like many prominent conservative Alberta politicians, Kenney was actually born elsewhere – Oakville, Ontario in 1968 – then raised in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, where he graduated from Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, a private Catholic high school. He later attended St. Michaels University School in Victoria, BC, and still later the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution where he was attracted to the ideas of prominent neo-conservative theorists. He became a noted anti-abortionist and opponent of gay rights and free speech on campus.
Kenney left university without completing his degree, but soon found work as executive assistant to Ralph Goodale, who was the Saskatchewan Liberal party’s leader at the time. In 1989, Kenney became the first executive director of the Alberta Taxpayers Federation, and the next year was named president and chief executive of the newly minted Canadian Taxpayers Federation. As reported by journalist Don Martin, he made a name for himself in a shouting match with Alberta’s Premier Ralph Klein in 1993 when he confronted Klein over MLAs’ “goldplated pensions.” Facing election, Klein relented; days later, the pension plan was eliminated.
Kenney was elected to the House of Commons in 1997 as a member of the Reform Party for the riding of Calgary Southeast. Three years later, he became chief advisor and speech writer for Stockwell Day during Day’s successful bid for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance party. He remained a key Day supporter during the Alliance party’s much less successful federal election campaign that same year.
Day’s defeat and an internal revolt within the party paved the way for Stephen Harper to become the Alliance party leader in the spring of 2002. A yearand- a-half later, Canada’s Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties merged to form the new Conservative Party of Canada, headed also by Harper.
In the House of Commons, Kenney was a vocal supporter of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and an equally staunch supporter of Israel. Known for his dedication and hard work, it was expected that Kenney might be given a cabinet post when the Conservatives won office in 2006, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper instead assigned him the task of building party support within ethnic communities. Kenney took on the task with enthusiasm and no little success.
Except for the information that he is unmarried and a devout Catholic, Kenney’s personal life beyond politics is a black box. Don Martin describes Kenney as “brilliantly analytical,” “fiercely articulate,” “flawlessly bilingual,” and “tirelessly energetic,” noting further that he “keeps his social conservative beliefs under a kimono that’s never to be lifted.” Like his mentor, Stephen Harper, Kenney’s demeanor runs the full gamut from serious to somber; his occasional smile seems forced. As the election showed, he is a staunch ideologue.
Conservative disunity in Alberta
There are two political certainties arising from any economic downturn in Alberta. First, many Albertans will turn their anger against external enemies. These usually are the federal government, especially if it is Liberal, and central Canada, particularly Quebec.
The second certainty is that Alberta’s governing coalition will unravel. In the early 1980s, the price of oil tanked, just as the National Energy Program was coming into effect. The resultant anger was famously directed at Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals in Ottawa, but significant discontent was also registered against Peter Lougheed’s governing Progressive Conservatives. Several right-wing and separatist parties emerged during this period, notably Western Canada Concept and the Confederation of Regions party.
A few years later, as the recession continued, Preston Manning’s Reform party stuck a knife into Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives government in Ottawa. Reform’s provincial counterpart in Alberta sought likewise to transform that province’s governing Progressive Conservatives, under Premier Don Getty, into a “true” socially and economically conservative party. The internal split within the PCs, between the Reform and Lougheed-Getty wings, was healed only when Getty resigned and Ralph Klein took the reins and soon after won the election. Victory, combined with Klein’s neo-liberal policies of privatization and deregulation, along with cuts to health, education, and welfare, and favourable tax breaks and royalty incentives, healed the rift. Within a couple of years, Klein – undoubtedly the luckiest premier in recent memory – was saved from political perdition of his policies by a sudden and dramatic rise in oil and gas prices that continued largely unabated for the next decade.
Klein retired in 2006. Two years later, the Great Recession created panic in world markets, with consequences for Alberta. As the price of oil dropped, the coalition of conservative forces once more came unglued. The party’s rural Reform wing broke away, finding a home in a small rural rump party, the Wildrose. Under withering criticism, Klein’s successor as premier, Ed Stelmach, lasted five years before resigning. His successor, Alison Redford, fought off a Wildrose challenge in the 2012 provincial election only by attracting urban liberals and social democrats fearful of the Wildrose’s more antediluvian extremists. But besieged both from within and without, Redford similarly resigned two years later, and was replaced by Jim Prentice.
Like Kenney, Prentice was a prominent Ottawa Conservative. He promised new politics and, again like Kenney, sought to heal the Conservative party split. In the fall of 2014, Prentice lured much of the Wildrose party, including its leader, Danielle Smith, back into the PC fold. It seemed at first a brilliant political maneuver, but many Albertans – Wildrose supporters in particular – soon came to view it as cynical and even corrupt. When the election was held, the Wildrose faction remained standing, the PCs’ big tent still rent. The stage was thus set for the New Democrats’ victory.
Rough politics: the defeat of Brian Jean
Fast forward. Conservative forces in Alberta were stunned when the New Democrats won office. The NDP’s victory could only be the result of the split between the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties, and surely not due to Rachel Notley or anything the party offered, let alone the demographic and social changes occurring within Alberta. But conservatives had a remedy wrapped up in a blueprint: the merger that had occurred federally in 2003 between the Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties, in which Jason Kenney had played a role.
It had long been thought that Kenney might harbour ambitions of succeeding Stephen Harper as federal Conservative leader, a belief that grew after the federal party’s defeat in the fall 2015 election. Instead, Kenney announced in July 2016 that he would run for the leadership of Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives. The PC party, fresh off defeat, was devoid of any genuinely qualified candidates. Kenney – already sporting the mantle of one who could slay the socialist hordes – won the leadership easily.
Kenney made it clear that if named PC leader he would seek to reunite the two right-wing parties. After some negotiations, the Wildrose leader, Brian Jean, agreed with this plan. In July 2017, members of both the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties voted overwhelmingly to merge into the United Conservative Party (UCP). The leadership race quickly followed.
Despite Kenney’s credentials, many Wildrose supporters did not trust him, viewing him perhaps as something of a carpetbagger and insufficiently disposed to grassroots democracy. While the smart money rested with Kenney, it seemed at least possible that Brian Jean might defeat him. Jean took over as Wildrose leader after the Danielle Smith debacle, only weeks before the 2015 election He had garnered increased recognition and sympathy when, as the MLA for Fort McMurray, his house burned down during the devastating fires in the spring of 2016.
Recent media investigations have uncovered a dirty tricks campaign conducted by members of Kenney’s team to undermine Jean’s leadership drive and ensure Kenney’s victory. The plan involved a sham candidate, Jeff Callaway, who would verbally attack Jean during the race, leaving Kenney outside of the fray, and then drop out and support Kenney before the final vote – which Callaway did. The action itself is not illegal, but evidence suggests that illegal political contributions were made. Indeed, several individuals have already been fined by Elections Alberta for their actions and that office is continuing its investigations. The RCMP have also confirmed they are looking into the matter.
The dirty politics evident in the Jean story are reminiscent of two similarly shady undertakings involving the Harper Conservatives in Ottawa, of which Kenney was a part. The first involves a financial inducement allegedly offered to a dying MP, Chuck Cadman, in 2005 should he side with the Conservative party to defeat Paul Martin’s minority Liberal government on a confidence vote. The second involves a personal cheque for $90,000 paid by Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to cover Mike Duffy’s expenses as part of the Senate expenses scandal in 2013. Both stories involved the possible use of dark money to influence political outcomes.
Alberta under a Jason Kenney-UCP government
Polls have shown that Jason Kenney is not particularly well liked or trusted, even among UCP supporters. But neither this fact, nor the Jean and other scandals and missteps involving several UCP candidates, scuttled the party’s victory; such is the visceral dislike many Albertans have for the NDP brand and deep are the fears about Alberta’s economy. Having been elected, what policies will the UCP enact? What, more broadly, might Premier Jason Kenney mean for Alberta and Canada?
UCP policies reflect a fairly traditional conservative party: tough on crime, in favour of privatization, deregulation, and cuts to corporate taxes (from 12 per cent to 8 per cent over four years), while hostile to workers. (Its platform, for example, states that it would enact differential minimum wage rates for youth and will legislate that banked overtime hours need not be paid at time and a half.) On education, the party promises a “return to basics.” UCP propped up its support among social conservative supporters by proposing more “choice” in education and upholding parental rights in matters related to and gay-straight alliances in schools. On health care, the UCP says it will seek savings by cutting “administrative fat” while also outsourcing (“privatizing’) some services. On infrastructure, the party also proposes a return to public-private partnership (P3) initiatives.
Like past conservative parties in Alberta, the UCP has come out swinging against the Liberal government in Ottawa, in the current case denouncing its carbon tax and failure to approve and build pipelines. Kenney intends to fund a “war room” within Alberta’s department of energy to fight the petroleum industry’s opponents. (His election night victory speech featured a conspiracy-fueled declaration of war on environmental organizations.) Kenney’s promise to kill the carbon tax, a masterpiece of demagogic theatre, allies him with conservative governments in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario, pitting all against the Trudeau government’s climate change initiatives.
The UCP’s platform and policies seem primarily designed to erase the NDP record; for example, killing the NDP’s carbon tax and other environmental initiatives, its farm safety regulations, its efforts at revising the education curriculum and expanding workers’ rights. There is little in the UCP platform that seems forward-looking or visionary; many of its policies are cut and pasted from past Conservative party documents. The UCP is the ghost of Alberta past.
In his run-up to the party leadership, Kenney promised that the new party would be a grassroots one, but past indications suggest the UCP will be a top-down, authoritarian government. While rewarding friends, it will be hostile to its perceived political opponents, including labour unions, environmentalists, academics, and assorted social activists. He has said his government will not be bogged down in consultations, but will instead institute “100 days of change” to roll back the NDP’s policies.
UCP’s quick changes are meant to prevent the opposition from mobilizing, a tactic all too familiar from the early Klein years. But, while initially CPs were successful, opposition did then emerge, and will again. The election of a Kenney-led UCP government signals the start of another fight within Alberta for a different, more just, and more democratic future.
Trevor Harrison is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute, an Albertawide research organization. He is best known for his studies in political sociology, political economy, and public policy. He is the author, co-author, and co-editor of nine books, numerous journal articles and book chapters, and a frequent contributor to various media, including radio and television.
This article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Canadian Dimension (CD Goes Digital).