Guest Post: The time has come for a sober conversation about Jason Kenney … and his implied platform

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ILLUSTRATIONS: Jason Kenney, the victor in the PC leadership campaign now trying to create a narrative of invincibility about his ambition to lead Alberta. Below: Author Barret Weber. Charts shown are based on the Royal Bank of Canada fiscal tables, updated as of March 22, 2017, that show Alberta’s debt situation under the Alberta NDP is nothing like the scary picture Mr. Kenney has been trying to paint.

Guest post by Barret Weber

Jason Kenney is more interested in uniting Albertans against Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP Government than he is in “uniting the right.”

So it’s time for Albertans to have a sober conversation about the kind of policies he would likely implement if he won power, based on his political history and the platform implied by his successful leadership campaign.

Fresh off his first-ballot victory at the Progressive Conservative leadership convention in Calgary on March 18, Mr. Kenney and his supporters quickly pivoted to give his tarnished image a makeover.

Suddenly, Mr. Kenney was no longer the arch social conservative unafraid of being on the wrong side of history on gay marriage, LGBTQ rights, workers’ rights, women’s reproductive rights, environmental stewardship, or pretty much anything else that progressive Canadians support.

Overnight, or so we were told by Mr. Kenney’s backers, he had become as moderate as can be, especially since his bid to run the PC party began in earnest last summer.

The problem with this story is Mr. Kenney’s long track record as a Conservative Member of Parliament and the things he said in numerous social media posts and speeches he has made in in recent months.

It is no secret Mr. Kenney is a social conservative with some very unpalatable opinions that many claim would take us back to the 1950s – or at least to the 1990s when he left Alberta for Ottawa. He has voted in favour of Motion 312 in Parliament in 2012, for example, the failed attempt by Conservatives in Parliament to undermine women’s reproductive rights protected by the Criminal Code of Canada.

Wildrose Party Leader Brian Jean also supported that motion when he was a Conservative MP, by the way.

But even if we were to ignore Mr. Kenney’s voting record as an elected MP since 1997, his recent campaign for the PC leadership alone gives Albertans plenty to worry about.

The entire campaign, and especially its social media component, seems to be based on the idea Alberta is in a state of terminal decline. It implies that only a broader conservative movement led by Mr. Kenney himself can save us from an unpalatable fate.

The problem is that there is little evidence to support the idea Alberta is in an economic death spiral.

While it is true the province is undergoing an economic transition due to relatively low oil prices (in reality, what are historically average oil prices over the past 40 years), the Kenney campaign has done everything in its power to blame this situation on the “disastrous socialist” NDP Government, as he Tweeted earlier this month. Other hyperbolic and inaccurate expressions found regularly on Mr. Kenney’s Twitter feed include “drowning in debt,” “Alberta’s fiscal house is on fire,” “future mortgaged by debt,” “anti-growth policies,” and the like.

But as we can see from the two charts accompanying this story – both based on the trustworthy Royal Bank of Canada fiscal tables, updated as of March 22, 2017 – Alberta’s debt position, measured on a per capita basis or as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, is stronger than that of any other Canadian province.

Obviously, the former CEO of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation in the 1990s isn’t shy about using debt as a political weapon, even when the facts hardly warrant his hyperbole. Is Alberta really “drowning in debt”? If it is, what does this say about Canada’s other provinces?

The new PC narrative under Mr. Kenney that Alberta is a state of terminal decline serves to justify the Conservative claim a strong man is required to take severe countermeasures, much as we saw last week in Saskatchewan in Premier Brad Wall’s controversial budget.

The implied Kenney platform is that the privatization of public assets, severe cuts to public services, and downloading the lion’s share of taxation from corporations onto the backs of working people are all necessary given the current fiscal crunch.

This entire Kenney program is based on fear: Fear of debt, fear of decline, fear of fair taxation, and, above all, fear of the current provincial and federal governments.

It’s clear Mr. Kenney’s implied policies would inflict harm on Albertans, especially the most vulnerable who rely on social services. Last year, the Alberta Federation of Labour calculated austerity inherent in the Wildrose Opposition’s policies would “usher in a second recession” by shrinking the economy by $10 billion per year. The author of that report found that such measures would result in 22,000 direct job losses in the public sector, plus an additional 16,000 in indirect job losses.

The Wildrose Party’s policy boils down to this: We will solve Alberta’s unemployment, caused by the decline in oil prices, by laying off even more people!

Mr. Kenney’s implied policies – with or without a successful union with the Wildrose Party – do not seem to be much different.

Every day I hear resignation and fear from acquaintances and colleagues that Mr. Kenney will sweep to power in Alberta, just as he swept the leadership of the PCs. The goal of the Kenney campaign’s narrative is to create a sense of invincibility about his ambition to lead Alberta. But this sort of pessimism is wrong-headed and defeatist.

Not only should we resist his well-financed campaign, we can do so in the confidence he has given us the tools to resist successfully in the things he has said and stood for.

Mr. Kenney’s track record is a key vulnerability for the next step in his campaign. His alarming social media campaign during the leadership race provides plenty of ammunition.

We certainly shouldn’t buy what Mr. Kenney is selling when even many on the right for good reason do not! We should recognize the danger he poses to our health care, education and social services in Alberta.

The reason Mr. Kenney won the PC leadership wasn’t because of what he offered to Alberta. It was because he out-organized everyone else in the rag-tag band of Tory traditionalists that opposed him. He successfully implied he has all the answers without actually discussing a single aspect of public policy other than his desire to repeal the carbon levy.

It’s no accident Mr. Kenney ran on a platform of destroying the PC party itself. Destruction is what he does.

So, we need to learn from the mistakes the PC traditionalists made and not underestimate Mr. Kenney’s organizational skills, or his willingness to achieve power by whipping up fear and self-loathing among enough Albertans to persuade them to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

This is not so different from the mistake made by the Democratic Party in the United States, which underestimated Donald Trump’s ability and willingness to use pervasive notions of Western decline to his advantage.

As Franklin Foer elegantly wrote in the Atlantic, “Admiring a strongman from a distance is the window shopping that can end in the purchase of authoritarianism.”

Barret Weber is a member of the Friends of Medicare and earned a doctorate in sociology from the University of Alberta.

Categories Alberta Politics