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

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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.

Categories Alberta Politics