Get ready for the kinder, gentler Jason Kenney as United Conservative Party leader pivots toward the rhetorical centre

Posted on December 18, 2017, 12:29 am
8 mins

PHOTOS: Get ready for the new, kinder, gentler Jason Kenney. Below: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley; Mr. Kenney, who is about to be sworn in as the leader of the Opposition, with his strategic mentor and inspiration, Stephen Harper (Photo: Jason Kenney Facebook account).

His leadership of Alberta’s conservatives, and his seat in the Legislature, now safely in hand, United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney is about to execute the pivot to the rhetorical centre long predicted in this space.

This was bound to happen sooner or later. With two successful leadership races and his victory in the Calgary-Lougheed by-election last Thursday, now is a logical time for this savvy and experienced politician to start moderating his worrisome social conservative image to woo the moderate voters he will need to defeat the NDP Government of Premier Rachel Notley.

So the harsh social conservative talk that was required for him to wrest the Wildrose Party from the faltering hands of Brian Jean will now be relegated to the Memory Hole.

This will be true for the most part, anyway. One expects these sorts of things will still be said discreetly, in private groups, as required to mollify Mr. Kenney’s base of social conservative supporters. This being the digital age, Mr. Kenney will therefore need to beware wait staff with smart phones at UCP conclaves.

And so the harsh tone of the recent past will be replaced by a more moderate note, occasional appeals to conservative women and members of the LGBTQ community (at least in Edmonton), and a commitment not to legislate on controversial social issues, his personal views notwithstanding, but focus on the economy.

If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s ripped right out of Stephen Harper’s playbook. Astute observers of Canadian politics will recall that it worked pretty well for the federal Conservatives for quite a long time, almost all of which Mr. Kenney was in Mr. Harper’s federal cabinet.

How can we be so certain this is going to happen? Because it’s already happening, of course.

In a grand platform obligingly supplied by the Globe and Mail on Friday, Mr. Kenney began to make the long-anticipated moderate noises. And while I’m sure the Globe was mainly motivated by Mr. Kenney’s imminent elevation to the formal role of Opposition Leader in seeking out this interview, it was certainly a convenient way for the UCP leader to do some damage control in the wake of the disgraceful revelations last week about House Leader Jason Nixon’s past labour relations practices – firing a young single mother who reported sexual harassment at a company Mr. Nixon once ran.

So (Mr. Kenney promised the Globe’s Calgary reporter) in 2018 he will not just be looking for talented candidates, but diverse ones as well. “In our party it doesn’t matter what God you worship or who you love, you’re more than welcome,” he said piously, possibly even sincerely, but almost certainly not very accurately.

He described the NDP emphasis on gender parity as condescending to women, dismissing it as a mere quota system. Readers will have to judge that for themselves. There certainly have always been a few “strong Alberta women,” to use Mr. Kenney’s phrase, in the province’s conservative parties, but the emphasis must be put on the few. There’s a reason for that.

As for courting the LGBTQ community, Mr. Kenney told the Globe, “I don’t accept for a second that people’s politics are determined by their sexual orientation. I think it’s insulting to suggest that people have monolithic views based on their sexual identity.”

This is fair enough as far as it goes. There is certainly no ironclad law of politics that you have to support socialist economics if you’re gay, or have to be opposed to them if you’re socially conservative. But whether Mr. Kenney’s conservative party is concerned only with economic issues and doesn’t have out-of-the-mainstream views of social ones is another matter entirely.

Mr. Kenney is counting on voter memories being short – a demonstrable fact.

He is relying on Albertans being more concerned about the state of the economy than they’re engaged by gender or LGBTQ issues, which in my estimation is probably true.

And he is counting on Albertans believing conservatives have a better handle on how to deal with the economy than social democrats or other forms of small-l liberals. This of course is a highly contentious point of view, but he’s almost certainly right that a very significant number of Albertans believe it.

This means that while’s its unlikely to be a bad thing to continue to attack Mr. Kenney’s for his social conservative views, which would be more at home in an earlier century, it would be a mistake to emphasize that. The NDP’s focus is now going to have to be on his economic ideas and the disaster they would wreak.

This is a tough row to hoe with the carefully cultivated – if utterly false – image in Canada and Alberta of conservatives as good stewards of the economy.

Future attacks on the UCP by the government will need to be mounted in the face of a full-blown campaign on Mr. Kenney’s behalf by major corporate media, which we have already seen in the coverage of his by-election victory last Thursday.

Despite the braying cheers of the media, as Susan Wright pointed out in her excellent Susan on the Soapbox blog last night, “given Kenney’s reputation in federal and provincial politics and his avowed mission to revitalize the conservative movement at the federal and provincial levels it’s shocking that a candidate with so much name recognition and conservative support failed to drum up significant voter turnout.”

“Kenney may crow about his electoral success in Calgary-Lougheed but his lacklustre performance in this diehard conservative riding is nothing to write home about,” she concluded.

This, of course, is bound to be a highly contentious argument. But it’s just not one you’re going to hear at all in the mainstream media, which is crowing just as much as Mr. Kenney about his victory, and which nowadays is failing Albertans consistently with its political coverage.

14 Comments to: Get ready for the kinder, gentler Jason Kenney as United Conservative Party leader pivots toward the rhetorical centre

  1. December 18th, 2017

    “last week about House Leader Jason Kenney’s past labour relations practices” Shouldn’t that read Jason Nixon?

    Reply
  2. CovKid

    December 18th, 2017

    I know you meant Jason Nixon but others might pillory you for than one …

    Reply
  3. David Climenhaga

    December 18th, 2017

    Thanks to both Jeri Wolf and Covkid for catching this typo immediately. It has been corrected (within 10 minutes of publication.) Apologies to Mr. Kenney. It was indeed Mr. Nixon I had in mind, as the set-up as House Leader made clear. DJC

    Reply
  4. Farmer Dave

    December 18th, 2017

    Jason Kenny and his UCP MLA’s will be taking their marching orders from Ted Byfield from the defunct Alberta Report, Preston Manning, Stephen Harper and the so called Taxpayers Federation all from the old social credit party. Peter Lougheed brought Alberta back to prosperity from those defunct days and social credit has fought Politics in Alberta since they were defeated. Looks like social credit got their guy, Jason Kenny, who is their follower and will take Alberta back to the old social credit ways with no forward prosperity for Alberta.

    Reply
  5. Farmer Brian

    December 18th, 2017

    We are expected to believe that Rachel Notley who has been decidedly anti-pipeline for most of her political career is now in favour of pipelines yet you also expect us not to believe anything Jason Kenney will say that is socially moderate because he has a record of being socially conservative. So on one hand we should believe she has changed, on the other we are told to believe he has not. Last night I watched Jagmeet Singh being interviewed on the west block. When asked about the NDP’s poor showing in the recent federal by-elections, he said he hadn’t been leader long enough to rebuild the party. When asked about running budget deficits, he said he would never run an austerity budget. When asked about taxes, he said he believed in a very progressive tax system for both personal and corporate taxes. The reason I bring this up is because Jagmeet espouses what those in the NDP truly believe, big spending and high taxes.

    Back to Alberta. The various members of the Alberta NDP who in the past have fought against pipelines are going to get their just reward in a way. One factor that will hurt Rachel Notley’s re-election is the deficit. One sizeable influence on the deficit is energy royalties. I read a CBC article last week that even though WTI crude is in the $56-57 range, Alberta is only getting $30 barrel for crude out of the oilsands because of lack of pipeline capacity, the largest differential since 2013, reducing the resulting royalties. So isn’t it ironic that the slow pace of pipeline construction due to the never ending objections by environmentalists and those on the left could end up sinking the one Premier who was most in sync with their cause. Enjoy your day

    Reply
    • Bill Malcolm

      December 18th, 2017

      Even the most basic law of supply and demand suggests that more dilbit fake oil on the market from increased pipeline capacity will decrease the price paid per barrel, not increase it. I’m sure that you as a farmer in a bumper crop year have experienced this phenomenon, as buyers realize they have many sources to choose from for the same product and offer you less for each unit as a result. It’s the old stack-’em high, sell-’em cheap routine, and going on about 2013 after the oil price crash the next year means you haven’t thought this through.

      Reply
    • anon

      December 18th, 2017

      Farmer B: “WTI” stands for ‘west texas intermediate light’ which is a grade of oil, like #1 CWRS is a grade of wheat. Dillbit (“Western Canada Select”) from the tar sands is a different, less valuable grade of oil, just like CPS wheat is a different, less valuable grade of wheat.

      So more pipeline capacity may lower the transportation cost to west Texas (basis) it will not make a substantial difference to the dillbit price Alberta producers get.

      Reply
      • Farmer Brian

        December 19th, 2017

        Anon really enjoyed your response. If you had read “Pipeline bottlenecks push Canadian oil price to deepest discount in 4 years” on CBC news on Dec. 13 or “Canadian oil collapses to three-year-low amid pipeline and rail bottleneck” in the Calgary Herald on Dec. 12 your answer might change. I believe RBC put out a longer term study looking at Alberta’s projected oil output and how lack of pipeline capacity was going to effect the price differential between Alberta select and WTI. So yes WTI is a higher grade product but lack of pipeline capacity is also having an affect on what producers recieve. Enjoy your day

        Reply
  6. December 18th, 2017

    An interesting test to David’s theory will be whether Jason Kenney marches in any Pride Parades next summer.

    That said, we already saw a bit of the kinder Kenney during the UCP leadership debate, when he advised against repealing the NDP’s minimum wage law. He acknowledged that there was no point promising thousands of minimum wage workers a pay cut. I suspect he will just do the cut after being elected.

    Reply
  7. David

    December 18th, 2017

    Yes, a pivot is exactly what the clever political strategists are probably recommending what Mr. Kenney should do for Christmas, or will he now start calling it the holiday season instead? It sounds so smart and easy, but various other conservative politicians less tied to social conservatives have tried this and failed. Yes, some like Mr. Harper, who almost only interested in economic issues and seemed to have not much interest in social conservative issues (besides getting them to show up to vote for him when needed) were more successful.

    I think it will be hard at this point for Kenney, who has been in politics for a long, long time and consistently been one of the leaders of the social conservative side of things to suddenly change his spots, or at least convincingly. Mr. Kenney got where he is by being consistent in his messaging and by being able to motivate a certain base of support. If people start to see a more opportunistic side of him (that some that claim to be close to him say exists), then I think that will not go over well with his base or the larger public who may both start to wonder what his principles really are.

    I expect he may get some token candidates to help put a kinder, gentler face on the UCP, but will their policies change? Although they technically claim to have no policies at this point, it doesn’t seem to have caused them any hesitation so far in taking a stand on the various issues of the day as they arise. I am not exactly sure who he will find in Edmonton, but I expect Kenney may parade out a newly elected Calgary councilor from his area of Calgary at some point to show how he tolerates, oops I mean supports diversity. He might even show up to his first Pride Parade in 2018, although I still sort of doubt that. I wonder if the k d lang invitation still stands?

    I remember Stockwell Day’s attempts shortly after he won the leadership of the Federal Conservatives (they called themselves something else at the time – a poor name choice sort kind of like UCP in some way, if I recall). At the time, even some newspaper writers (generally from outside Alberta) managed to write about it while trying to sound serious. In some ways, I see Kenney as the smarter, more clever version of Stockwell Day. Maybe he can pull of this trick better, but I am a bit skeptical about this.

    Reply
    • Linda Marshall

      December 20th, 2017

      Especially if those on the left make a point of contrasting what he says now with what he said then. The internet never forgets.

      Reply
  8. J.E. Molnar

    December 18th, 2017

    Politics is the art of the possible — through 2019 the NDP will need all hands on deck to brace for the onslaught of biased media and disingenuous political forces.

    When mainstream media, with its slew of tendentious right-wing scribes, positions itself as the conservative shill for the UCP that’s a tough row to hoe in and of itself. Add to that the fear-mongering, smear, dog whistle and wedge politics likely to be propagated by the UCP and other political foes; the NDP will need all hands on deck to combat the sheer lunacy of the right, who will no doubt be fully aided and abetted by corporate Alberta and biased right-wing media.

    The NDP will need to point to their robust legislative accomplishments and wrestle with a plan for reducing the debt and deficit in the long-term to ensure they snatch victory from those who are predicting defeat. Easy as Sunday morning, right?

    Reply
  9. tom in ontario

    December 18th, 2017

    The pic posted of the former Big Guy on the Rideau gives proof to the old adage, “When the cameras roll, never wear anything on your head.”

    Reply
  10. Jerrymacgp

    December 18th, 2017

    You know, I object to this whole notion of “pivoting” to the mainstream voter, in that it implies (or perhaps, states explicitly) that either you were lying to your base, meaning party members, volunteers and donors, when you pledged to do such and such—or that you plan to lie to the electorate by saying that no, you won’t do such and such, but you’ll do these other things instead. It’s dishonest, and it’s one of those cynical habits that make the general public distrust politicians.

    Why can’t we have politicians that say one thing when campaigning, and then … do it once elected? Oh, wait, isn’t that fundamentally what the Notley-led NDP did, at least in broad strokes? They said they’d place farm labour under the same rules as all other workplaces and employees in the province … and they did. They said they’d modernize Alberta’s labour laws, occupational health and safety regime, and fix WCB … and they did. They said they’d get big money out of politics, and while that’s still a work in progress, they’re working towards that goal. They said they’d preserve vital public services and critical infrastructure despite the economic downturn … and they did. And, of course, they said they’d put in place a plan to address climate change, and although their election platform didn’t explicitly advocate a carbon tax, anyone who was paying attention knew that was an option being considered.

    Has the current government been perfect? Of course not. No system governing human beings and operated by human beings can be. But they have done a lot of good, and I expect they plan to do a lot more of it before they go back to the hustings in a
    year & a half or so. Will they get a second chance? If you look at it today, probably not. But Spring 2019 is still a long way off, and if a week is a long time in politics, 18 months is an eternity. And, remember, campaigns matter. An election isn’t decided at the drop of the writ, but on E-Day.

    Reply

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