At the recent Conservative convention in Calgary, Employment Minister Jason Kenney was heard grousing about what he considered unnecessary restrictions on journalists trying to cover the event.
Journalists were barred from some halls, kept at the back of other rooms, muscled this way and that by security guards and generally treated as the lepers they are considered to be by some modern-day Conservatives.
According to some who spoke to him, Mr. Kenney thought this strategy counterproductive but typical of the heavy-handedness of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s approach to communications.
At the same convention, days after Mr. Harper said his former chief of staff Nigel Wright had “deceived” and was “fired” as a result, Mr. Kenney publicly defended Mr. Wright’s honour.
Mr. Kenney told the Calgary Herald: “I know Nigel Wright to be a person of good faith, of competence, with high ethical standards. And as far as I can tell, this was an uncharacteristic lapse of judgment on his part, both the decision to write a cheque and apparently the way it was handled thereafter.”
That description closely hewed to the one offered over many weeks by Mr. Harper – at least, until his story about Mr. Wright abruptly changed. Under fire in the Commons, Mr. Harper went from describing his former chief of staff as an honourable man to one who had deceived him, and from someone who had resigned to someone who had been fired.
This switch obviously bothered Mr. Kenney, who did what people in the Harper government almost never do: said something even slightly at variance with the Prime Minister’s version.
But wait. There was another example of daring from Mr. Kenney. At the height of the Rob Ford embarrassments in Toronto, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a mealy-mouthed statement that didn’t even mention the mayor by name but, predictably, took a swipe at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
Mr. Kenney, shortly thereafter, made a statement worthy of someone in high office and at variance with the PMO pap: “As an elected official, I think Mr. Ford has brought dishonour to public office, to the office of mayor and his city. I wished he had taken a leave of absence some time ago to go and deal with his personal problems. But not having done that, I personally think he should step aside and stop dragging the City of Toronto through this … terrible embarrassment.”
What is going on here? Three times – once privately and twice publicly – Mr. Kenney has deviated from the line established by his boss. This just isn’t done in a government where there is little love for the Prime Minister, but plenty of respect and a whole lot of fear.
It is widely assumed in Conservative circles (and beyond) that Mr. Kenney will seek the party leadership when that time comes. He will be a formidable candidate, although far from a sure winner. Two Albertans in a row will be a hard sell for the party. He’s on the social conservative side of the party and somewhat on the libertarian economic one. He once ran a little bucket shop called the Canadian Taxpayers Federation that then, as now, purports to speak for taxpayers but always calls for smaller government.
Still, as the government’s multicultural point man, he has collected a database of just about every person who has attended the hundreds and hundreds of ethnic events where he’s appeared. If there’s a Polish hall or a Chinese banquet room he hasn’t visited, just wait – he’ll soon be there enough.
Moreover, he’s gotten things done as minister. Big changes to the country’s immigration and refugee laws took place under his watch. Civil servants who have worked with, or watched him, admire his political smarts, drive and sense of where he wants to go, even if they disagree with him. His French is passable.
By deviating from Mr. Harper’s line, Mr. Kenney is obviously not directly challenging the Prime Minister, although the PMO cannot have been amused by these little episodes of lèse-majesté. But he has built his own base within the party and apparently feels sufficiently confident to speak his own mind in a government where such activity is usually forbidden.
Those within the party who doubt the government’s current style, as set by the Prime Minister, will have taken note.