Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Photo: Government of Alberta

ANALYSIS: The myth of Kenney’s strategic genius

Faced with public wrath, he’s started to back down.

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You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run

— Kenny Rogers, The Gambler

In a bewildering press conference on New Year’s Day, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney cited his own government’s unclear rules, the viability of Calgary-based WestJet, and the safety of air travel as justifications for excusing from consequences the UCP ministers, MLAs and staffers who took pandemic holidays.

Three days later, Kenney announced that, on second thought, consequences were exactly what was needed: politicians lost their portfolios and committee positions, staffers were let go.

For any other politician, this might be chalked up as a mere tactical error, an embarrassing misread of public sentiment and not much more. But Kenney’s political identity has long been, in part, tied to the notion of him as politically brilliant.

A politician with a record like Kenney’s is often praised as savvy or skilled for so consistently succeeding on the ballot.

It’s a talent that’s been attributed to him since he was a young rising federal MP, and again when he successfully executed his elaborate plan to displace the Alberta NDP with a new, united, conservative party.

“The legend of Jason Kenney is that he’s a strategist,” said Jared Wesley, a political scientist at the University of Alberta.

But is it true? Or are Kenney’s strategic skills merely political myth?

The roots of Kenney’s political identity

A politician with a record like Kenney’s is often praised as savvy or skilled for so consistently succeeding on the ballot.

Kenney has never lost an election since entering federal politics in 1997. He defended his Calgary-Midnapore seat six times before decamping Ottawa for Alberta with a plan to unite the province’s right-wing parties. He had a notable string of victories in 2017, including elections to lead first the Progressive Conservative party, then the new United Conservative Party, a by-election in a safe seat to enter the legislature, and reelection in 2019.

No doubt such success breeds self-confidence as well. But Kenney won as a right-wing politician in a conservative riding in a conservative province.

They’re used to running elections in small constituencies with relatively homogenous interests, and you can run up quite an electoral record.

Jared Wesley,

Political scientist, U of A

This is not to say winning successive elections is not a notable feat, only that these feats don’t require political genius. Former Calgary MP Rob Anders—who dozed off during a meeting with veterans, called Nelson Mandela a terrorist and has recently been charged with tax evasion—also won six consecutive elections during the same period, and no one calls him a political mastermind.

But campaigns are only one aspect of politics.

“There’s a reason why we don’t see many people cross back from federal to provincial politics,” said Wesley. “They’re used to running elections in small constituencies with relatively homogenous interests, and you can run up quite an electoral record.”

Now, as the face of an entire party and government, Kenney has to consider a much broader and more diverse population. “I think that’s probably the biggest difference between the first part of Kenney’s career and the second part,” said Wesley.

Even though you might be better than the rest, there are certain things you can miss by surrounding yourself with yes-men.

Zain Velji,

Political strategist

Zain Velji, a political strategist who has worked for the Alberta NDP, suggested that the media narrative of Kenney might have influenced his own view of himself.

“For the longest time, his identity has been one of an individual that is incredibly hard-working, a gifted strategist and tactician. I think, on the main, those things are correct,” said Velji.

But once those labels are applied, he continued, it can be difficult or even self-defeating to try to live up to that reputation. Blind spots emerge once you start to believe your own hype—or surround yourself with people who perpetuate that narrative.

“Even though you might be better than the rest, there are certain things you can miss by surrounding yourself with yes-men.”

Velji believes Kenney wasn’t wholly “tone deaf” to the travel scandal, and attributed his response in part to not wanting to create an early precedent of consequences, as the number of travellers would soon multiply.

But as evidenced by the outrage, many believed that consequences were the order of the day. Even Kenney’s supporters and loyal defenders like Rick Bell were up in arms.

He’s only paying attention to this scandal because his right flank is ticked off.

Jared Wesley,

Political scientist, U of A

Kenney soon reversed course, something he has done rarely as UCP leader.

Even deeply conservative governments such as Ralph Klein’s were occasionally forced to change course due to public pressure. The UCP, however, has seemed impervious to the furor around their policies until now.

On Thursday, Kenney removed Lesser Slave Lake MLA Pat Rehn from his caucus. For any other leader, the move would have felt logical, even expected: Rehn was already controversial before travelling to Hawaii, and the Slave Lake town council released a remarkably fiery public letter denouncing him, his absence from the riding, and his generally disinterested performance.

But for Kenney, Rehn’s dismissal might signal that the premier has awoken to the fact that his initial read of the public reaction to this scandal might have been optimistic.

Anyone hoping that this suggests public outrage could now change government policy may be disappointed, however.

“Conservatives in Western Canada are not and haven’t been worried about progressives for a generation,” said Wesley.

“He’s only paying attention to this scandal because his right flank is ticked off.”

Conservative parties on the Prairies will likely govern so long as they are not divided.

Kenney likely sees the biggest threat to his power coming not from a strong centre-left but a fractured right. Wesley pointed out that recent history has demonstrated that conservative parties on the Prairies will likely govern so long as they are not divided.

But this focus on the right, in Wesley’s view, doesn’t mean Kenney is prioritizing those voters—more important is the support of the UCP’s major donors, who might leave their money in their pockets if they become disaffected, or worse, put it behind a breakaway insurgency.

In a way, the UCP travel scandal and Kenney’s read of the political landscape share a similar arrogance bred from success. If Kenney’s electoral record blinds him to his own vulnerabilities, the same sense of exceptionalism gives Rehn and other MLAs a belief that the rules they place on others ought not apply to them.

It’s worth noting that the NDP’s 2015 win was not only thanks to a divided right: they also benefited from a widespread sense among Albertans that the governing party was entitled, corrupt, out of touch.

Perhaps this has been on Kenney’s mind of late.

But whether due to that lesson, or plummeting poll numbers, or simply public anger, Jason Kenney has felt compelled to do what he has almost never publicly done: second-guess his own political judgement.

Taylor Lambert is the Alberta politics reporter for The Sprawl.

Now more than ever, Albertans need strong independent journalism.

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