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Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is shown in his Calgary riding on Nov. 12, 2010. (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and)
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is shown in his Calgary riding on Nov. 12, 2010. (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and)

Kenney's power in cabinet is growing Add to ...

Jason Kenney's political evolution can best be described in culinary terms.

An aficionado of junk food back in the late 1990s after he was first elected, Mr. Kenney was a member of the so-called "Snack Pack" - the troika of enthusiastic Reform Party MPs who rattled Liberal cages and were given the humorous label as an homage to the Grit "Rat Pack," which terrorized the Mulroney government.

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A decade later, Mr. Kenney is the Minister of Immigration. Serious and trusted, he has been wooing the ethnic community on behalf of Stephen Harper - and knows more about ethnic food than the Michelin Guide, jokes a friend.

This is all to say that the MP from Calgary Southeast has matured. His knowledge of how to play the political game likely rivals that of his knowledge of exotic dishes.

And now, with Jim Prentice, the former environment minister, off to Bay Street, and with speculation that Defence Minister Peter MacKay is not far behind him, Mr. Kenney is gaining even more power in the Harper cabinet.

Recently, the Prime Minister tapped him to be the political minister for southern Alberta - a job previously held by Mr. Prentice and one that will give Mr. Kenney an even higher profile.

"He has matured since he first came to Parliament, when perhaps he was more combative and reactionary," Conservative strategist and consultant Tim Powers said.

It's hardly surprising, then, that Mr. Kenney's name comes up - along with those of Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose and Heritage Minister James Moore - when the discussion turns to possible successors to Mr. Harper.

Some caucus members believe Mr. Kenney could easily win on the first ballot.

"For what it's worth, if Jason Kenney wants to seek the leadership some day, nobody will come close to defeating him," an Ontario Tory MP said. "He appeals to the party base, new Canadians love him, social conservatives know where he stands and he is a caucus favourite."

But Mr. Kenney doesn't accept any of this. First, he doesn't believe he has changed since he was first elected in 1997. Rather, his role has changed.

"I think when you're in opposition, you are called to be a little bit scrappy, that's your job. And when you're in government, you're called to make difficult decisions," he said in an interview on Friday. "Wherever you are in public service, you've got to perform based on what the job requires."

Secondly, Mr. Kenney says he doesn't want the leadership.

He gives the canned lines - he is happy where he is; Mr. Harper is doing a "phenomenal job" and he hopes the Prime Minister continues to govern.

In addition, he doesn't even have aspirations for any other position should there be a cabinet shuffle, which is expected soon because of Mr. Prentice's departure.

Immigration is tricky, a controversial post full of potential land mines. But Mr. Kenney is one of a few ministers who has found a way to make minority government work for them.

Last June, for example, he managed to make deals with the opposition parties to pass a new refugee-reform bill. He called that a "minor miracle."

"It was a rare example of co-operation actually producing a really sound outcome," he said.

It is unlikely he will do the same with his controversial human-smuggling bill, which human-rights groups say would be harmful to legitimate refugees.

Mr. Kenney said he has had to "put down some red lines" and will not allow amendments that would water down the "efforts to deter smugglers from targeting Canada."

This could be tough for him when the House returns on Monday for a sitting that will last five weeks. Tempers are sure to get frayed.

Back to his future.

A week in politics is an eternity; things change. Mr. Kenney is a young man and he is certainly building up a tremendous Rolodex full of contacts.

Single, and without the encumbrances of a family, he is ubiquitous, a "fixture," said his friend, at most cultural celebrations across the country.

This has allowed him to build up support for the Harper Conservatives across the country, but just as importantly, he is building contacts and support for himself, should he decide to seek the leadership - some day.

None of this is to suggest he has been organizing. He is not. His friends say the young minister is a team player.

Follow on Twitter: @janetaber1

 

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