Discomfort about UCP Leader Jason Kenney’s relationship with the truth winkles into respectable circles

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PHOTOS: Jason Kenney, leader of the United Conservative Party and, if things go as expected on Thursday, leader of the Opposition soon thereafter. Below: Alberta commentators Susan Wright, a blogger, and Graham Thomson, one of Postmedia’s political columnists, and U.S. political essayist Frank Rich (Photo: Twitter).

There’s a growing discomfort among those who pay attention to politics in Alberta about Jason Kenney’s economical relationship with the truth.

It’s not just that the leader of the United Conservative Party sometimes shades the truth a little bit – as all politicians are accused of doing and all human beings do from time to time. There’s a growing consensus that a lot of the time he just makes stuff up.

That goes for things he says about opponents who are on the same side of the ideological divide as he is, like former Wildrose Party Leader Brian Jean who also wanted to be the leader of the UCP, and those in other parties, like NDP Premier Rachel Notley, whose job Mr. Kenney covets.

Now, there’s a certain amount of discomfort about this in polite journalistic circles. Journalists, especially for those publications that still have a few shreds of respectability clinging to them, are very uncomfortable saying the L-Word out loud about the sort of person they’ve been trained to treat with kid gloves.

The tendency to untruthfulness on Mr. Kenney’s part has been obvious for quite a while, but particularly since he got into Alberta provincial politics last year.

Alberta politics is a small town. Everyone knows everyone else. This isn’t like federal politics which, despite the fact a representative is elected locally, takes place in a remote location and is reported on mostly by journalists from far away, who may have another part of this very large country in mind when they write about what the government says or does beside the Rideau Canal.

Now that Mr. Kenney is running for election to the provincial Legislature in the Calgary-Lougheed by-election, this is starting to be noticed, and written about.

What’s interesting is that knowledge of this aspect of Mr. Kenney’s character is now winkling – rather slowly, I’d say – from the blogosphere and politically partisan circles to the more respectable quarters of the mainstream media.

It may not really be surprising that a fair but unquestionably liberal blogger like Susan Wright would devote a thoughtful column to Mr. Kenney’s relationship with the truth.

His claims aren’t supported by the facts, she wrote yesterday. His supporters are abusive and shout down their opponents, she said. Together, she concluded, they refuse to respect the rules of civil discourse. This, she suggested, adds up to a threat to democracy.

“In the last few weeks Kenney and the UCP have taken civil discourse to a new Trump-like low,” she wrote. “They’ve said socialists eat dogs, marijuana leads to communism and Pinochet’s reign of terror was ‘a success story.’”

It is surprising, however, when a respectable mainstream political columnist like Postmedia’s Graham Thomson comes to essentially the same conclusions, and structures his commentary in much the same way.

“Another day, another statement from United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney that has to be run through the fact-checker,” Mr. Thomson wrote, also yesterday. He quickly made it clear that the fact-checker won’t be kind to Mr. Kenney’s claims, at least on the topic of Bill 32, the government’s legislative effort to control dark money in politics and remove probably unconstitutional residency requirements from Alberta’s voting rules.

Mr. Thomson also took issue with Mr. Kenney’s accusations the NDP “lied” about this and that – when easily verifiable facts indicate it’s not the NDP that’s doing the lying.

“Kenney is making colourful comments and tweets, but he should be careful,” Mr. Thomson concluded hopefully. “Others will be fact-checking them, and pointing out when he gets them wrong.”

I’m not so sure about this. In fact – if such a concept even exists in this supposedly post-factual age – it’s not at all clear that this matters to anyone outside the chattering classes.

The world has a powerful example before it of how far casual, habitual, consistent whoppers can take a politician in a democracy disillusioned by neoliberal economics and corrupted by dark money, foreign and domestic.

What we have seen in the United States under President Trump is, as essayist Frank Rich observed in New York magazine last month, “the systemic erosion of political, ethical, and social norms.”

“The magnitude of cultural vandalism Trump has perpetrated in so short a time is impressive. Even without carrying out (so far) such draconian threats as revoking network-television licenses, he has fully discredited the legitimate news media in the eyes of his base and no doubt other credulous Americans as well. The earnest liberal conviction that Trump voters would see the light if only they were exposed to a relentless stream of fearless journalistic investigations accompanied by fiery op-eds and MSNBC sermons was a pipe dream.”

Is it really a surprise this phenomenon has appeared in Canada too?

Mr. Kenney has clearly made a strategic decision to rip this particular page from President Trump’s playbook. No doubt Mr. Thomson’s effort, too, will be dismissed by Mr. Kenney’s ardent supporters as “fake news.”

From this vantage point, this strategy appears to be working as well here in Alberta as in the United States.

The by-election in Calgary-Lougheed is on Thursday. The NDP has fielded an excellent, highly qualified and thoughtful candidate in Dr. Phillip van der Merwe. While I have seen no polls of voter intentions in the riding, astute political observers are predicting Mr. Kenney will win with 60 to 70 per cent of the vote.

Categories Alberta Politics