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How Jason Kenney, once a leading light of the conservative movement, lost his spark

How Jason Kenney, once a leading light of the conservative movement, lost his spark

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks in response to the results of the United Conservative Party leadership review in Calgary on May 18.Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press

Not long after United Conservative Party volunteers started to tally ballots on an office floor near the top of Edmonton’s Manulife Place building, Rick Orman knew Alberta’s Premier wasn’t going to get the result he wanted.

The “yes” and “no” piles of leadership-review votes at many of the counting tables were virtually indistinguishable from one another. “The piles were even,” said Mr. Orman, the chief returning officer for the province’s governing party, and a former cabinet minister.

“It was quite evident then.”

In the end, just 51.4 per cent of the UCP members who voted expressed confidence in Jason Kenney’s leadership. Party president Cynthia Moore called Calgary with the count Wednesday evening, and “once we informed the Premier of the results, he needed some time to digest them,” she said.

Mr. Kenney, for many years a leading light of Canada’s conservative movement, stunned supporters and critics when he announced that night that he would resign. The Harper-era cabinet minister had held fast to Alberta’s top political job even through the worst days of the pandemic – and as the fractures in his party or missteps by his government racked up throughout last year.

Economically, 2022 saw the province turn a corner, and Mr. Kenney was hoping that this spring would allow the party to put the divisiveness of COVID-19 behind it. He and his supporters had expected that the Premier would get at least 60-per-cent support in the leadership review.

But it wasn’t to be – there wasn’t enough time or space to allow the party to recover in the polls, or to quell the open UCP criticism of both his policies and leadership. It comes as a result of both the splits in Alberta’s conservative movement and Mr. Kenney’s famously combative, sometimes reclusive political style.

Even those close to him say he too often took his own counsel rather than reaching out to caucus members or other supporters.

Mr. Kenney’s exit from Alberta politics will take place some time in the months ahead, once his party chooses a new leader.

“One day, he’s swinging for the ‘best summer ever’ freedom fences, and the next day, he’s swinging for the restriction, lockdown fences. Whatever the rationale for either of those, the public cried foul,” said Conservative strategist Ken Boessenkool.

“He was just swinging for the fences all the time.”

Mr. Kenney, he said, tried to advance his agenda while castigating his opponents, pursuing his priorities “with a religious fervour” – and then the pandemic hit.

There’s no doubt that the past two plus years have been a difficult time to govern. Mr. Kenney’s supporters say his contributions to the province have been overshadowed by the turmoil of COVID. He steered the province through a potential ruinous economic moment – a negative oil price. His government’s corporate tax cut, the fiscal restraint of his budget, and his constant beating of the drum for major investments in Alberta will pay dividends this year and next.

Ana Curic, who served as Mr. Kenney’s chief of staff when he was in the federal cabinet, said the responsibility of governing weighed heavily on him, and she found him working through nights and weekends.

“He would almost feel guilty taking time off,” Ms. Curic said. “He’s not good himself at stopping and taking a break.”

Long-time Conservative organizer Dan Nowlan, who has known Mr. Kenney dating back to his early days as an elected MP when the right was splintered federally in Canada, said the Alberta Premier “is one of the most articulate conservative voices probably we’ve ever seen.”

“It’s just a shame it’s come to this.”

But the type of conservatism that Mr. Kenney espouses didn’t always translate into workable governance on the ground in Alberta. Mr. Kenney’s adherence to ticking off campaign promises, despite the pandemic, has meant too quickly ramming through fraught and complicated coal policies or elementary-school curriculums. His attempts at getting a “Fair Deal” for Alberta with the federal government through equalization referendums and legal challenges had mixed results.

His zealous push to declare Alberta free of pandemic restrictions will forever be a part of his legacy.

“It’s time for media to stop promoting fear when it comes to COVID-19, and to start actually looking at where we’re at. With huge vaccine protection, we have crushed that third spike,” he said in July, 2021, before cases nearly overwhelmed Alberta hospitals.

On the other side, there are now those who argue that Mr. Kenney was actually too permissive with his own party dissenters. On Friday, Howard Anglin – a former senior aide to Mr. Kenney – said in a CBC column that some of the blame lies with actually holding the leadership review, or not freezing the membership lists before the leadership review. (This allowed thousands of people who had never been members of the party to have a say in the outcome).

He also said that Mr. Kenney didn’t kick out members of caucus who openly challenged pandemic rules or his leadership, and even approved Brian Jean’s by-election candidacy, despite “Jean’s open declaration of war against him.”

But this is what the Premier did to pacify party elements who didn’t believe he was battling Ottawa with enough ferocity, or didn’t believe in any of the COVID-19 measures the Premier was forced to take.

On the other hand, part of Mr. Kenney’s leadership-review campaign had him portraying himself as a mainstream-conservative bulwark against fringe-like, anti-vaccine parts of the party.

“All I can do for you, honestly, is recommend that you switch to decaf, spend less time on the internet, go out for a walk, get some fresh air,” Mr. Kenney said to someone accusing him of being in league with the World Economic Forum during a Facebook live appearance last month.

“There are no black helicopters.”

But there was a lot more going on. Mr. Kenney underestimated the power of discontent from the rural base, even as the province becomes increasingly urbanized. The 2017 UCP leadership race fostered distrust, which continues with the still running RCMP investigation into conduct during that process. And Mr. Kenney always promised to govern with the grassroots, and had sidelined that effort in favour of a more traditional, top-down structure.

“The United Conservative Party is only really united on the face of it,” said Garry Keller, who served as an early adviser and chief of staff in the party that was created from a merger of the old Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties. “It hasn’t really merged into one unified force.”

Those challenges were coupled with the fact that Mr. Kenney “clearly did not get it right all the time,” Mr. Keller said. The impact of self-induced controversies should not be underestimated, he added. For example, government staff went on vacation in December, 2020, when average citizens were being told not to.

And then there was the Sky Palace dinner, when Mr. Kenney and several cabinet ministers were photographed dining and drinking on the patio of a government office, in apparent violation of COVID rules.

Those missteps, Mr. Keller said, betrayed a “rules for thee but not for me culture, amongst some in the party.”

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