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

Posted on March 21, 2017, 12:12 am
8 mins

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.

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

  1. jerrymacgp

    March 21st, 2017

    The future of the Notley NDP government rests on two related factors: the price of oil, and pipelines. If the price of oil increases further, not only does that increase direct government revenues from natural resource royalties, but it puts people back to work, improving the government’s balance sheet through overall economic growth as well as reducing the electorate’s anxiety over their futures.

    On pipelines, mere paper approval is not enough. But shovels in the ground would be. If, for example, construction begins on Kinder Morgan’s Trans-Mountain expansion before the next election, you can expect the NDP campaign will focus on how their climate plan was the key to breaking that logjam, versus the previous government’s and the current Wildrose opposition’s fingers-in-their ears, “la-la-la-I don’t wanna hear about global warming-la-la-la” approaches to climate change. This, combined with their KenneyCon opponents’ Neanderthal approach to social issues, could be their key to victory. (Never mind that pipelines are seen by many outside Alberta as perpetuating a fossil fuel economy and contributing to climate change; here in Alberta they are seen as essential to sustained economic growth and jobs).

    Reply
    • Sub-Boreal

      March 21st, 2017

      Well, for this British Columbian (who also lived in AB for 4 years, and has some understanding of its political culture), more pipelines DO perpetuate the fossil fuel economy and contribute to climate change. It’s magical thinking to pretend that Canada can approve these projects and still meet its international emissions commitments. And if the likely next AB government is going to remove the tiny fig leaf of the carbon tax, there’s even less reason to put our coast at risk.

      Many in the party will hate me for saying this, but as much as I admire Rachel Notley personally, I predicted in May 2015 that having an NDP government in AB was eventually going to do more harm than good to the rest of the party. This is coming to pass, I’m afraid, with the first installment being Mulcair’s contortions over Energy East during the last federal campaign.

      Reply
    • March 23rd, 2017

      Gosh if only politics and governance was so simple…everything depended on oil prices and pipelines. They are crucial but not the only two factors.

      Reply
  2. March 21st, 2017

    When Jason Kenney was elected with the minority Harper regime in 2006, after 9 years in opposition, he was made Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and not given a cabinet post. I have never seen an explanation as to why Harper denied Kenney a seat at the adult’s table.

    Anyone know why he was given apprenticeship status?

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      March 21st, 2017

      That’s easy!

      Kenney the self described “bachelor” wasn’t the kind of person Harper wanted under the glare of extreme public scrutiny that surely would have occurred had he been given a cabinet post. The result of such scrutiny would likely have displeased Harper’s precious base.

      Reply
    • Expat Albertan

      March 21st, 2017

      Word was that he was a nasty ideologue when you talked to him in person, the kind that Harper wanted to shush until they won a majority. That said, he did get his seat at the cabinet, but he did continue to be a Twitter troll long before Trump made it fashionable. I met him once during his days as a cabinet minister… he was quite smooth.

      Reply
      • Athabascan

        March 22nd, 2017

        A nasty ideologue who has no post-secondary education wants to run a multi-billion dollar enterprise called the province of Alberta.

        You have to be kidding! I wouldn’t hire him to manage a Radio Shack at the mall.

        Reply
  3. Death and Gravity

    March 21st, 2017

    Thanks for this, Chanchel. Do you think it matters that, in contrast with the Harper take-over of the federal PCs, the ex-leadership of the Alberta PCs are apparently not onboard with this. I refer to Tom Lukaszuk’s abandoning the party, and his reports on Ed Stelmach’s remarks to the effect that the recent party conference was filled with people they had never seen before. These guys (Manning and Kenney) seem to think that they can seize permanent power in Alberta with college Republican tricks. But there are powers on the centre and right that may rise up to oppose them.

    PS. I think you’re absolutely right about the NDPs energy policy….I repeatedly find myself pointing out this reality to non-Albertan leftists and environmentalists. It falls on deaf ears, I am afraid.

    Reply
  4. Farmer B

    March 21st, 2017

    After reading this article I gleaned 3 points. First that Jason Kenney is a very competent politician. Second that Premier Notley’s support of pipelines was necessary to create the positive economic growth that would get her re-elected. Third, that re-election will depend on predictable bozo eruptions from the extreme right. One part of the puzzle he neglected imo is the carbon tax. Even after the rebates started to flow over 60% of Albertan’s still disliked the carbon tax. The promised elimination of this tax can be fulfilled without affecting general revenues and it is easy to say look I have reduced your taxes. In my case living on a farm my carbon tax rebate will be used up by the end of March just on natural gas for heating even though I have a relatively small well insulated bungalow and 2 well insulated farm shops. The next election will turn into a referendum on the carbon tax imo.

    Reply
    • Maria

      March 21st, 2017

      I have no doubt that the carbon tax has a significant impact on farmers, however, for City folk it is a different matter. With gas prices going up and down like a toilet seat in the men’s washroom, who can tell the impact of the carbon tax? We’ve had $1.10/liter before the tax and I paid $.90/liter today. Tomorrow the price will be different again. The next election will be about the NDP’s impact on the economy. In my opinion they continue to be practical about where they are spending the money: to improve the life of Albertans. Fixing dilapidated infrastructure and building schools today costs much more than 10 years ago when problems were first identified. Conservatives have mismanaged Alberta’s oil revenue wealth by throwing money at expensive private schools, paying huge salaries to Government executives, leasing out crown land for pennies among other things and privatizing everything possible. Now along comes Kenney with the idea of “Making Alberta Great Again”. For whom?

      Reply
    • Expat Albertan

      March 21st, 2017

      You may be right. If it comes to that, it will depend upon where the pipelines stand; if there are no shovels in the ground, yet, the NDP could argue that Albertans are jeopardizing the pipelines, and their future, if they vote for Kenney and his repeal of the carbon levy.

      Reply
  5. Spranch

    March 21st, 2017

    Speaking of Kenney’s allies, has anybody following this flap with Rebel Media over in Israel? Gavin McInnes got drunk and defended holocaust deniers by saying “nobody said it didn’t happen”. This is something I notice them doing a lot. Whenever you hear McInnes or Ezra Levant or Sheila Gunn Reid or whoever saying “nobody’s saying [x]” it’s usually a pretty sure sign that you’ll find about five people saying [x] in the comment section. McInnes then went on to blame jews for starting WWII. In the year 2017, he is still repeating nazi propaganda about the Treaty of Versailles. Apparently when he got back to Canada he recorded an apology and correction. The usual right wing double talk. “Just jokes, guys. Just fun and games. When I said ‘I am becoming anti-semitic’ I didn’t mean that I don’t like jews. Anyways, #freespeech #godblesscanada #americafirst.”

    When Kenney was asked to comment he said something about how he had never spoken with McInnes and the last time he had contact with Rebel Media was when he was interviewed by Ezra Levant seven months ago. Of course, I could have missed it, but it doesn’t seem Kenney took this opportunity to call Ezra out for his long history of enabling and promoting fascists and holocaust deniers such as Doug Christie and Marc Lemire in the name of “””””free speech”””””. Why would he? They’re on the same side after all, Levant’s been an important part of the reformacon machine for years! Rebel Media IS a part of the Conservative Party, and it’s been one of Kenney’s greatest assets in his leadership campaign, but moving forward it could be one of his greatest liabilities as the hard right faction alienates more moderate voters. But, then, this is Alberta, how many moderate voters are there out there? Ach, we’ll see, we’ll see.

    Reply
    • Expat Albertan

      March 21st, 2017

      PressProgress has an excellent posting on this issue and the fallout. Apparently, it has gone international.

      Reply
    • Murphy

      March 22nd, 2017

      Your post and the PressProgress article about McInness are great examples of people operating with the patently silly propaganda that passes for historical understanding in the West. The Nazi ethos was an abomination, rooted in pseudo-science, pseudo-history and a degenerate submissive-authoritarian mind-set. However, the Treaty of Versailles was itself an abomination, bolstering the imperial positions of the French, British and American empires. Given that nost Jews who self-identify as such are non-religous, their identity is either rooted in fanciful racist notions about who they are or a relationsip to Israel, an Apartheid expansionist political entity, neither of which are very progressive or logical positions. The idea that “the good guys” in the Second World War were the people who exploited the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa and Oceania, and then went on to murder a few million North Koreans with aerial bombing, is just infantile. The PP article refers to the Holomodor, a fantasy created by Western Intelligence assets like Conquest. There was a reason Nazi herdsman Josef Goebells kept the works of American proapgandist Edward Bernays in his library. From my perspective, it’s a saw-off in the battle for supreme silliness between “progressive’ and “conservative” historical narratives. Remember the Maine! (And Jim Crow and Residential Schools and Suharto and the people who chopped up Patrice Lumumba and dissovled him in acid).

      Reply
      • Expat Albertan

        March 22nd, 2017

        Speaking of acid, I fear I may have to take some just to follow the logic of your post.

        Reply
        • Murphy

          March 23rd, 2017

          It’s fairly straightforward. Spranch referred to Gavin McInness’s drunken Twitter emissions, and you referred to the PressProgress article that covered them. In the article, point 1 refers to the moronic statement about becoming “anti-Semitic,” and then refers to idiot McInness’s allegations about Jews and the Holodomor. I find the entire section hilarious. I genuinely do not know what “anti-Semitic” is supposed to mean in an era in which most Jews are not adherents of the Judaic religion, but rather identify as Jews based on a phony historical narrative, or, for eighty percent or so, an affinity for the state of Israel, which is, as I mentioned, an Apartheid expansionist state. So if being a Jew means supporting an atavistic racist militarist state or believing in ridiculous notions of racial identity, I don’t see all that much wrong with being an “anti-Semite” in 2017. I don’t like racists or fascist anti-miscegenationists of any other stripe. With regard to the “false” blaming of the Jews for the Holodomor, it’s not false because the Jews didn’t do it, it’s false because it never happened. Which is the hilarious part. Conservatives think the Jews did it, “progressives” think the Russians did it. But really, nobody did it. Get it? My main point is that most people don’t know any history. They have been inculcated with an embarassingly fanciful narrative of the twentieth century, and argue about aspects of it that are as real as tallies of angels dancing on the heads of pins.

          Reply
          • Spranch

            March 24th, 2017

            ai ai ai, a while back when i criticized putin you called me a nazi, and now when i’m saying “don’t blame jews for genocides they didn’t perpetrate” you’re telling me you’re actually fine with anti-semitism (while still against “real” racism, of course). what’s there to say? are you aware that not all jews are israeli? or that not all israelis support netenyahu? i’m not going to defend israeli conscription or the settlements or the segregation because i’m against all these things. please stop making these sweeping assumptions about people you’ve never met before. please take a nap and consider dialing your whole thing back several notches. and in all honesty, uuuhhhhh, you should probably stop reading stalinist propaganda.

      • Spranch

        March 24th, 2017

        i never even mentioned the holodomor, haha, chill!

        Reply
  6. mike

    March 21st, 2017

    political machination expertise with no real humanitarian wisdom or vision
    this harper trained flying puss-monkey
    may well find a place to roost here in alberta
    and get to take the progressive out of progressive conservative
    but the trickle down of the ultra-right manna from heaven
    will be guano for the most of us
    hopefully conservatives that have had to think will see
    that the ndp policies in place now
    are exactly the peter lougheed policies they fell in love with
    back in the day

    Reply
  7. David

    March 21st, 2017

    It remains to be seen if Kenney will be as effective in bridging the conservative and other divides as Harper was. In Federal politics, Harper had two great advantages over many other western conservatives – he was born in Ontario and thus had some understanding of how the province worked politically and he was somewhat bilingual. He could also when required present a reasonable image of moderation, while neither being too extreme or moderate by conservative standards. He generally avoided divisive social issues, which I sense held much less interest for him than economic ones.

    Kenney, while a learned student of Harper seems more interested in appealing to social conservatives and has not yet mastered the tricky art of appearing moderate to the public at large which presenting a more conservative image to his more fervent supporters. His background is arguably more conservative than Harper’s and his skills may be more in organizing than strategy. Given his experience as a career politician, I have doubts that he will connect well with the more populist side of Alberta – he is no Ralph Klein. He also does not have the entrepreneurial flare or spontaneity of someone like Trump. In many ways he seems a more social conservative, angrier version of Jim Prentice.

    I think Alberta has changed over the years and it is continuing to change. It is no longer dominated by rural areas and small towns like it was in the era of Social Credit. Lougheed won election as more progressive and forward thinking than them. While not all of his PC successors were as enthusiastically progressive as him, they were for the most part also not eager to turn back the clock too much. While it may have been a shock to some, it was not an accident that when the PC dynasty eventually fell it was replaced by a party that was more, not less progressive and I think it will be difficult for Kenney to persuade voters to turn the clock back.

    Reply
  8. Val

    March 21st, 2017

    “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”

    you still looking for excuses for the falling initial success of NDP but all in wrong direction.
    a few days back i’d pointed to 2015 electoral win for NDP as incidental, unexpected luck.
    instead of reinforcing her position as first favorable NDP premier of Alberta, Ms. Notley took absolutely weird direction, which in eyes of many albertans associate more with Ontario, rather than traditional Alberta.

    carbon tax (and it’s actually huge act) was surprise, since about it during the election campaign she didn’t mention even a single word. that immediately painted her image as a cheater, who goes for anything to reach main target.

    lack of talent to form effective professional government. for cabinet’s portfolios rely on loyalty to political ideology (even if in everything else person absolute zero) rather than experience and previous success in particular fields. her deputy alone is worth to be personality of shakespeare’s stage play.

    nothing done to relief everyday life of albertans. contrary comparing to previous economic downturns, today albertans strugle for their surviving as never before.

    and list can go on.

    sorry for telling this but in our case absence of organizational skill isn’t main threat for re-election but rather disillusion and lost of trust among albertans to an abilities of NDP to effectively manage the province.

    Reply
  9. brett

    March 22nd, 2017

    I think the challenge for me is that despite the nice words from Jason Kenney and Brian Jean, there is no room in either Party for progressive conservatives like myself. Sure, we will get a nod neither party, or a new combined one, will speak to a progressive Alberta. They will be stuck in the era of social conservative politics combined with a very healthy dose of entitlement and cronyism. If you doubt the latter simply do some research on what is transpiring with the positions and salary levels in Alberta’s boards and commissions. They are finally being placed into the light of day from a salary and a value perspective.

    Reply
  10. Athabascan

    March 22nd, 2017

    Albertans regardless of their political affiliation know and recognize a competent and dedicated government when they see one, even if it is 43 years after the fact.

    Albertans know that Notley’s government has been scandal free since they won the election. That’s never happened in Alberta, and it is very refreshing. It’s OK to be a proud Albertan again!

    Albertans also know that Rachel Notley was instrumental in pushing construction of new pipelines when previous governments just talked about it.

    Albertans know it is the Notley government that is building the new cancer centre in Calgary after years of empty promises by Conservative governments.

    There are a lot of Albertans who are indeed quite happy to see a government that has integrity running the province. This is long overdue.

    Reply
    • Brett

      March 22nd, 2017

      I have to agree. It is interesting to see the Notley Government deliver on promises such as school construction and the cancer center that successive Conservative Goverments pledged year after year, election after election. From a cost of construction, from an interest rate perspective, and from a job creation perspective the timing could not be more beneficial for Alberta.

      I guess they followed the old political dictum ‘why ruin a good promise by delivering on it’.

      Reply

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