Guest Post: With friends like these … Jason Kenney’s biggest challenge may come from his political allies

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PHOTOS: Jason Kenney at the centre of a media scrum a few days before his victory in the Progressive Conservative Party leadership race. Expect to see him in this situation a lot more often now, even though he holds no formal elected political office. Below: Post author Chanchal Bhattacharya, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and the late Rob Ford, as mayor of Toronto.

Guest post by Chanchal Bhattacharya

Jason Kenney is now the elected leader of the venerable Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta. But this is only the first and easiest of several tasks he must accomplish before Rachel Notley surrenders the keys to the Premier’s Office to him.

Kenney can be a superb retail politician and media performer. He is acutely sensitive to context and contextual cues. He has consistently displayed a talent for communicating persuasively with people from diverse backgrounds. He has also demonstrated he can take his personal skills and institutionalize them more broadly.

Kenney has a talent for presenting conservative ideas within cross-cultural traditionalist frames that integrate particularist perspectives within broader right-wing partisan projects. This talent was most obviously used by Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives among Canada’s multi-cultural communities. But it can play just as well among white rural and urban communities that perceive themselves as marginalized by what they see as an urban educated elite.

In addition to his personal acumen, Kenney is an excellent political strategist and organizer. As a key player in Harper’s Conservative Party, he consistently demonstrated a remarkable talent for converting his specific skill set into institutionalized practices that were highly effective in building ethnoculturally diverse coalitions of support for the Conservatives and their right-wing policies. Like the late Rob Ford, mayor of Toronto from 2010 to 2014, Kenney understands how to present right-wing policies in ways that appeal to non-white minorities and low-income white voters alike. Unlike Ford, Kenney has demonstrated how to institutionalize these cross-cultural engagement skills to to achieve consistent party-wide appeal.

From his past record, it is unclear whether Kenney shares Stephen Harper’s talent for formulating complex “serial strategies” and successfully executing them. One of Harper’s political talents was his ability to separate complex political challenges into components that he would solve in a manner that did not limit his ability to solve subsequent problems. While Harper didn’t display this ability toward the end of his career, it was one of the primary reasons for his and the Conservative Party’s success. If Kenney acquired the same skill while apprenticing under Harper, and I strongly suspect he did, then he will be a formidable opponent not only for Notley and the Alberta New Democrats, but for a host of progressive movements across Canada.

The strategy Kenney is now implementing is a variant of the five-part strategy Harper successfully executed from 2001 to 2006. In Harper’s case, this entailed first winning the Canadian Alliance leadership, merging the Alliance with the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, building a cohesive and modern party organization, moderating the party’s image and policies to expand its appeal, and making sufficient inroads into core bastions of Liberal strength to win government. With Kenney’s victory in the Alberta PC leadership race, he has won the first of many battles on the path to power in Alberta.

On paper, Kenney’s challenges appear easier than those Harper overcame. Alberta is far more conservative than Canada as a whole, and the urban centres that form the base of the NDP support have traditionally strongly supported the old PCs. As a practical reality, the NDP’s core consists of three seats in Northwest Edmonton and Edmonton Strathcona. As someone who experienced the NDP’s breakthrough in 1986 and dismal collapse in 1993, I am acutely aware of just how tenuous the NDP’s support is even in its supposed bastion of Edmonton.

The NDP is still in the process of building riding level political associations, and lacks the essential cadre of experienced party organizers and activists outside its core ridings. The NDP faces significant challenges in developing the type of party organization needed to hold government in the face of a unified opposition led by a capable leader. In any realistic appraisal, the challenges facing Notley and the New Democrats seeking to hold power seem far greater than those facing Kenney and a united right with broad centre-right appeal.

This said, the Alberta NDP has a priceless asset in Rachel Notley. While many on the left outside Alberta are critical of the NDP’s “pipeline strategy,” it is the only realistic basis for being able to hold together sufficient support among the very large portion of the electorate who voted NDP as a means of removing the old PCs. If the NDP cannot maintain significant support among Albertans whose primary concern is the economy, then it will return to the opposition benches following the next election.

Kenney’s primary challenge lies in moderating the image and policies of the unified party he proposes to lead. His core support is among people who are the antithesis of “moderate.” He can successfully moderate the party’s public face, but only to the extent to which he can control notable far-right MLAs and activists. I suspect their expectation of victory is so strong that they will make statements and engage in activities that directly contradict Kenney’s efforts to win undecided voters. In other words, the far right currently propelling Kenney to power may indirectly subvert his efforts to win government. If this happens, then the NDP can win enough swing voters in enough swing seats to retain power.

Competitive elections are inherently dynamic and subject to many fluid influences. While Kenney’s strategy may prove successful, it faces substantial problems that derive from Kenney’s own base. No matter how large of an apparent advantage either party may amass before the election, there will be a huge proportion of soft and undecided voters in the urban ridings in Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and outer Edmonton who will make their choice in the closing hours of the campaign. This will make for an interesting election.

Chanchal Bhattacharya is an Edmonton political commentator. He holds a PhD in political science from York University. His interests include campaign dynamics and political psychology.

Categories Alberta Politics