Kenney keeps doing what can't be done, and Canada could be about to benefit


National Post, 1 May 2019

What sets Alberta's new premier apart is that he does not accept that he must advance on the current terrain

EDMONTON, ALBERTA — I rarely write about Jason Kenney, one of the most interesting phenomena in Canadian politics, due to the fact that we have been friends for 28 years, long before I was in the seminary or he was in elected office. And the testimony of friends is considered suspect in the columnist business.

But now that Alberta’s 18th premier will be introducing himself — again — to the nation in Ottawa on Thursday and in Toronto on Friday, I offer this public service for those who are interested in what he might bring to the national stage. Most media appear to be stubbornly incapable of recognizing what it is that he does, and thus they consistently insist that what he does cannot be done. And when he does it, they misunderstand how he did it.

What Premier Kenney has done since the early 1990s is to change the parameters of the possible in politics. It is true that he works harder than anyone else, and has a combination of philosophical gravitas, strategic political acumen and ability to connect on the stump. But others — not many, mind you — also have that combination. What sets Kenney apart is that he does not accept that he must advance on the current terrain; rather he moves the entire theatre to more favourable ground.

He did that in the early 1990s when, as head of the taxpayers’ association, he challenged the mighty Ralph Klein to get out of the long tax-and-spend Progressive Conservative rut and become a beacon of fiscal responsibility. He did it again as a member of the Reform Party, and then when Reform’s progress stalled, in forging the United Alternative. He did it when he opted for Stockwell Day over Preston Manning in the subsequent leadership; that Manning might lose the leadership of a movement he started was then unthinkable.

He did it when he made new Canadians comfortable with voting for the federal Conservatives, because he moved so-called “ethnic” politics off the terrain of spoils-of-power to shared values — one of the healthiest developments in Canadian politics over the past generation. He did it again when he reformed the immigration system, something previously thought foolish to even attempt to do. Kenney knew that securing popular support for mass immigration had to be done by responsible reform, which is why Canada has largely been spared the uglier elements of immigration politics in Europe and the United States.

And then he did it when he moved to provincial politics in July 2016 with a plan so bold that no one had ever tried it before. He won the Progressive Conservative leadership in March 2017, despite the best efforts of the remaining husk of that exhausted party to block him. But they were fighting on old ground, and Kenney had moved on to the new. He won the PC leadership with 75 per cent.

Then came unity with the Wildrose, a matter that the previous summer was thought to be the decision of Brian Jean, Wildrose’s leader, and the desiccated PCs. Kenney found a way to shift the decision to the grassroots members. New ground again. Unity was ratified by a 95 per cent margin in July 2017. Later that fall, Kenney won the leadership against Jean with 61 per cent on the first ballot.

Then the general election two weeks ago. The scale of the mammoth victory needs to be properly understood. Kenney won 55 per cent of the vote, the highest vote total since the Lougheed landslides of 40 years ago, with the sole exception of the 2001 election. More important, voter turnout was the highest it has been since 1935. In 2015, the PC and the Wildrose got some 640,000 votes together. In 2019, Kenney got over a million — an astonishing increase. He shifted the ground of what was possible, and earned three votes for every two that the previous parties did.

That is the past. In the short time since he has been elected, there has been no shortage of voices saying that Kenney will not be able to get Alberta’s oil and gas to international markets because of the political realities in Vancouver and Montreal and Ottawa and Paris and the UN, etc.

But that’s the current ground, upon which not even the super progressive Rachel Notley could get a pipeline built. What Kenney will do, as he always does, is to shift the terrain. This is not secret insider knowledge. Like his unity plan for Alberta conservatives, he speaks about it quite openly.

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