Then-premier Jason Kenney at the peak of his success and power in Alberta politics, soon after the election of his United Conservative Party government in 2019 (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Alberta is on the cusp of a provincial election in which a United Conservative Party increasingly dominated by far-right ideologues and an ever more centrist NDP will face off to see whose vision shapes our province’s future at a crucial moment in its history. 

Mr. Kenney at the Alberta Legislature Building in Edmonton in 2017 shortly after arriving on the provincial political scene (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

In 2020, a group of political observers and academics met at the University of Alberta to discuss a collection of essays on the UCP’s first years in office. The result was Anger and Angst: Jason Kenney’s Legacy and Alberta’s Right.

Anger and Angst combines 22 essays on politics, the economy, the environment, education, housing, child care, right-wing populism, and the UCP’s relationship with the media. Authors include pollster Janet Brown, journalist Gillian Steward, and former Opposition leader Kevin Taft. I’m delighted to say I was asked to contribute a chapter on Mr. Kenney’s relationship with the media. 

Published by Black Rose Books and expected to be in Alberta bookstores next month, Anger and Angst can be pre-ordered here. More information on ordering can be found here

The passage below is an excerpt from my chapter, entitled, “We Reject the Premise of Your Question: The Media and Jason Kenney’s Government.”

The Pandemic Changes Everything – and Nothing

Then came the pandemic. 

David Climenhaga, author of Chapter 6 of Anger and Angst (Photo: Olav Rokne).

COVID-19, arriving in Year 2 of the Kenney government, changed everything, and nothing. When the virus arrived from the east — that is, Alberta’s west — it not only created some entirely predictable political problems for the Kenney government, it also handed the UCP’s strategic brain trust new opportunities to exploit.

The stresses imposed on public-sector health-care workers, surgical facilities, and intensive care units gave Kenney’s UCP the opportunity to justify a rapid privatization of health care in the name of responding to the crisis. But the excuse of COVID-19’s threat in public places could also be used as a mechanism for clamping down on media access to government officials, handing the UCP a powerful tool for media manipulation and control.

It wasn’t just the Kenney government that took advantage of this, of course. To some degree, driven by the genuine need to “bend the curve” of infection downward, the term regularly used, all governments, and not just in Canada, used COVID-19 as an excuse to restrict media access. But the Kenney government — led by a man with a natural bent for secrecy and manipulation and a party in which a distrust of media already ran deep — embraced it with gusto.

It was soon obvious that news conferences using video conferencing software, moderated by a party employee with control over media questions, were an effective way to control and direct the narrative. The political staffer moderating the news conference now had the ability to move to another question by another reporter to cut off the first reporter who had asked a question the official providing the answers didn’t like.

Anger and Angst, from Black Rose Books (Image: Black Rose Books).

People who have not worked in media, who have not had to ask questions in the room at a news conference, don’t realize how much influence the first question asked by a journalist at one of these events can have on the direction taken by the whole affair. This is why politicians of all parties have long preferred stage-managed news conferences, with a certain ritual decorum, to hallway “scrums” at which any reporter can hurl a hostile question captured by rolling media cameras. (It was just such a moment that launched Kenney in 1993 when he ambushed Klein, asking him about MLAs’ pensions.)

Most of the time, if the organizer can get a news conference moving in the right direction, the reporters in attendance can be expected to adopt the tone set at the opening. Moreover, a friendly opening question — and in a properly staged newser, the organizers usually get to choose the first questioner — also gives the spokesperson the opportunity to run out the clock on reporters who are seen as likely to have less-friendly queries.

So here’s a pro tip: If you’re a journalist and find yourself in a traditional news conference organized by people who know what they’re doing, always try to ask the first question. On days when there’s no raging controversy with every reporter chomping at the bit to ask the same question anyway, there’s usually a polite little pause right at the start of media questions when, if you have your wits about you, you can dive in and seize control of the narrative. Use it or lose it!

With COVID-19, of course, that was gone. Maybe lost forever. A political employee of the minister was acting as the moderator. Reporters were phoning in from remote locations with their questions. Like the host of a radio talk show, the moderators could pick who got to speak first and who didn’t get to ask questions at all. Reporters were immediately limited to one question, a situation unusual in live news conferences.

Later, when the normally well-behaved members of the Alberta Legislature Press Gallery complained — doubtless politely — that was upped to one question and a follow-up. This was an excellent modification from the UCP’s perspective, causing as it did no loss of control, but adding significant opportunities to run out the clock. Remember, no experienced reporter worth their salt will ever decline the opportunity in such circumstances to ask a second question. But independent reporters, bloggers and those that had built a reputation for asking the toughest questions like the CBC’s Charles Rusnell, were soon having difficulty asking any questions at all.

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  1. Kenney, who was an import from Ottawa, was always an odd choice to unite Alberta Conservatives. He had some significant skills as a political organizer, but maybe was not the most in tune with the province he supposedly represented in Ottawa for so many years. The Alberta he came back to was not quite the same as the one he left two decades earlier.

    He was also ill prepared to deal with COVID as health care issues were really not his interest or strength. So it is not totally surprising he quickly turned to clumsy and heavy handed methods to try control communications and messaging.

    For someone who supposedly led a grassroots focused party, this and his rejecting the premise of a number of questions, just came across as elitist, condescending and bumbling to many.

    So perhaps there is something for a current or future politician in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory to learn from all of this. Don’t lash out in such a defensive way against others and try to control everything. It might be hard for some politicians to check their egos, but sometimes a bit of humility and restraint is needed instead.

  2. This is the era of long-winded, softball questions from the likes of Rick Bell, Don Braid and David Staples. It’s also the era of even more long-winded answers that start with, “That’s a great question,” and meander endlessly from there. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone asks, “What’s your favorite color,” and by “someone” I mean Rick Bell, Don Braid and David Staples. The followup, naturally, would be, “Which is better: strawberry, chocolate or vanilla ice cream?”

  3. Curious that so many people are down on CBC. I watch all ‘news’ versions at the 5-7 p.m. hours, and find so very little difference in stories covered, except for fluff pieces. And advertising is the same across all of them. Disheartening for me, but a definite sense of incongruity for all the anger directed to one network.

    1. The anger is conservative, party propaganda. Check out the comments sections to see well organized brigading, and very effective. A handful of cynical, morally, corrupt professionals have mustered a new model army of outraged idiots, so as to systematically corrupt public discourse on any topic.

    2. Well, that goes back a long way. Harper persecuted a personal vendetta against the CBC though a thousand cuts and selling its buildings out from under it. He always saw it as a waste of taxpayer money. After all, an institution that reported on any sniff of Con scandal in depth must be firmly pro-Liberal. Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, really, given his divest-and-privatize Con mentality; maybe he did make enemies in the CBC.

      This has become Con dogma: the Liberals *don’t* cut the CBC, so the CBC must favour Liberals over Conservatives. “Defund the Cebe!” say the Con trolls (Con Trolled?) on its message boards.

      1. I have to add for transparency that I reserve my own disdain for outlets like Postmedia, Western Standard and The Rebel, because of their symbiosis with Canadian (and American) Conservatives. I happen to think CBC dishes it out in a reasonably even-handed manner, but maybe I’m just not seeing my bias.

        1. No, you are fine. I was a Conservative supporter for a lot of years. But I have tried time-and-time again to find the pro-Liberal bias on CBC articles that keeps being spouted by people. I think it more stems from the fact that the CBC doesn’t editorialize articles as much as the private news agencies. When all you’re used to reading is content curated to reinforce your world-view seeing an article that focuses on tangible facts can seem biased simply because of its lack of bias.

          1. Most people see themselves as centrist and reasonable, particularly the politically illiterate. When you see the world from an extreme-right perspective, right-of-center seems far-left to you. When you don’t know what words like dictator or communist or parliament mean, it is very easy to be persuaded to believe nonsense. When you don’t know logic and rhetoric, those who do can run conversational circles around you and persuade you of all manner of absurdities. When you care more about “owning the libs” than about what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow, suddenly Pierre seems like the only reasonable choice.

          2. Good observation. The comment section on CBC is usually pretty dismal, not as bad as PostMedia; but there are so many who seem to think that the PM personally vets the articles, and ‘controls’ the narrative’.

            There are few in depth CBC articles, but any that mention anything that smacks of criticism of the Con POV is immediately attacked as ‘leftist’, ‘woke’, ‘socialist’, ‘communist’ etc.

    3. Lots of voting adults are completely isolated from reality and from consequences for their actions. Anything is possible when you don’t care what’s actually real.

  4. This should be an interesting read. Pretend conservatives and Reformers that destroyed Alberta. They weren’t like the true conservatives we had like Peter Lougheed.

  5. I think modern Canadian “conservatives” are primarily driven by fear. The alt-right voter bloc seems to be afraid of everything.

  6. The Jason Kenney years in Alberta were a bizarre time indeed.

    Many many voters flocked to Kenney because for some inexplicable reason they saw him as some kind of genius/messiah/mastermind/future PM all rolled into one. The handling of COVID 19 was a shite show of epic proportions, where one side wanted adults-in-the-room type of measures, while a sizeable portion of Albertans wants FreeDUMB all day long, and let God sort out the dead later. Kenney always struck me as something of a coward: always talking up the more extreme aspects of his base, but never having the brass to go over the edge. And he wanted to be in the PMO, so don’t go full crazy.

    With Kenney’s passing into some kind of oblivion, Danielle Smith has decided that crazy is better and doubling down on it pays greater dividends. How far is she willing to go? Just watch because her weird social media post that pretty much rejected every notion of First Nations grievances, and likely all groups who have enjoyed considerable social justice as being threats to Canada has Smith defined it. She’s ready to tell them all to get over it already. STFU and be lucky the genocide didn’t work that well.

    Notley can be the voice of reason, but I’m not sure if reason has that much value in the face of FreeDUMB.

  7. “This is why politicians of all parties have long preferred stage-managed news conferences . . . ”

    “Stage managed” . . .

    . . . As in, once upon a time, “Sophists were rhetoricians who sold their service to politicians, helping them to persuade or deceive their colleagues and constituents.”

    In the current age the aspiring political hack/hustler [“Kenney, 48, is slated to receive about $121,000 per year in MP pension payments at age 55 (increasing to about $148,000 at age 60), says the CTF. Add it up and Kenney — who was first elected in 1997 and served in cabinet for nearly a decade — is in line to receive potentially $6.3 million in total MP pension payments up to age 90.” “Kenney said that if he holds a position in the public sector, such as being a member of the Canada legislature, once he’s scheduled to start receiving MP pension pay, he would contribute the full amount of any benefits received to charities focused on poverty reduction.” Funny thing how that coincidentally worked itself out.] is now well schooled in the art and science of sophistry and the attendant deliberate deceptions that accompany the entire well orchestrated charade.

    Meanwhile, the petty, mean, and venal tribal followers are apparently still desperately in need of a Father figure or Mother figure, acting as a highly influential tribal representative [i.e., Big Man/Woman], that utilizes ‘skilled persuasion’ and a concocted appearance of ‘wisdom’ in order to legitimize leadership in the eyes of the gullible disciples.

    “The notion that I would ascribe blame is absurd.”–Jason Kenney

    Of course not. Because, in the new age of post truth, personal accountability and responsibility [eg., R-Star scam] have now also become the merest of mere rhetorical devices and both the leaders and the followers apparently like it that way.

  8. “Anger and Angst” appears to be the third installment of Parkland Institute’s Trojan Horse series. Get ready for a fourth publication arising from Danielle Smith’s antics.

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