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BTL 2022

Jason Kenney, through a glass darkly

After a disastrous three-year tenure as premier, Kenney’s conservative coalition lies in shambles

Canadian Politics

Jason Kenney has long maintained an address in fantasyland.

Back in 2016 he somehow came to the now clearly erroneous conclusion that only he could fashion a robust and longstanding political dynasty out of two fractious conservative movements. Instead he resigned as United Conservative Party leader on May 18 after barely squeaking out the support of half the party’s members who bothered to vote in a leadership review process marred by divisive infighting and allegations of dirty tricks.

To be fair, he succeeded, for a time. But following what can only be described as a disastrous three-year tenure as premier, one littered with devastating political miscalculations, untrammeled arrogance, and straight-up incompetence, Kenney’s conservative coalition lies in shambles.

Like any good big top carnival show, Kenney’s premiership featured no shortage of slightly terrifying and maudlin clowns, bozo eruptions and sleights of hand, jugglers and con artists and fun-house mirrors that never quite reflected reality. At some point, of course, the discarded popcorn and half-eaten hotdogs must be swept away, the bright lights must be extinguished, the big tent with its wobbly support poles must come down. It could never last, this spectacle of superficiality, this shallow show of chicanery, this pageant of performance. What delighted at the start only makes it seem more deflated and sad at the end.

And yet, Kenney still seems to be calling fantasyland his home.

In his resignation address to a carefully curated UCP crowd assembled at Calgary’s Spruce Meadows Event Centre, Kenney insisted that COVID alone derailed his best laid plans to restore a conservative juggernaut to Alberta politics. In Kenney’s fantasy world, his government’s continued push for an amateurish and racist curriculum rewrite even in the face of nearly universal opposition to it, had nothing to do with his unpopularity. Ditto for his secretive and unsavoury plan to open the eastern slopes of the Rockies to coal mining, his ham-fisted bullying of health care workers in the middle of a pandemic, and his ridiculous pipeline to nowhere debacle that’s left Alberta taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars. And who can forget his laughable ‘war room,’ whose signal accomplishments have been attacking children’s cartoons and putting out forgettable news releases of questionable veracity that no one reads?

His much-maligned inquiry into ‘organized anti-Alberta foreign-funded activists’ supposedly determined to shut down tar sands development revealed no such thing, and his penchant for litigating loser legal challenges having no basis in reality continue to lose in both the courts of public opinion and the actual courts of law. When anyone questions his policy approaches, Kenney meets them head-on with schoolyard taunts, name-calling, and gaslighting.

Or he rejects the premise of their questions.

Opponents outside conservatism are socialist hordes bent on destroying free market capitalism. Internal opponents are “lunatics” harbouring “extreme, intolerant, bigoted, hateful, and crazy views.”

It is true that COVID has been hard on Albertans. But making a hard time more difficult has been the staggering ineptitude with which Kenney himself has handled it.

When is the best time to layoff critical health care workers and escalate a war with doctors? In the opening weeks of a deadly worldwide pandemic, of course! When is the best time to launch a splashy ‘best summer ever’ campaign, opening up the province to super-spreader events? Just as every medical expert is warning you that it’s too early to declare the COVID pandemic over and that your plan will end in disaster, natch! When is the best time to disappear on a three-week long two-week vacation, leaving no one in charge? Right at the moment that the predicted health care disaster is gathering steam, hospital admissions reach crisis levels, and health care workers are utterly burnt out, obviously!

Astute political observers may have noticed that Mr. Kenney’s resignation speech was silent on the prospect of a political comeback. He may well even be contemplating throwing his well-worn hat into the ring of the upcoming race to lead the UCP again!

The premier’s political career is done. Fantasyland carnival barker Kenney just doesn’t know it yet.

Eric Strikwerda teaches Canadian history at Athabasca University. He is the author of The Wages of Relief: Cities and the Unemployed in Prairie Canada, 1929-1939 (AU Press, 2013). At present he is working on a history of western Canada following Canada’s acquisition of the region in 1870.

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