Critics of conservative premiers often lump them all together in the same category. But if there ever was a moment that showed how different they can be, it could be this spring – as the clearly contrasting fates of Doug Ford and Jason Kenney play out.
Mr. Ford, the anti-establishment municipal politician who has become a more middling conservative, is likely to be re-elected as premier. The detail and policy-oriented Mr. Kenney – who wears his true-blue conservatism on his sleeve – will resign in the months ahead after a bruising leadership review result last week.
Even Mr. Kenney, who won a massive majority in Alberta’s 2019 provincial election, can’t help but make the comparisons himself. During his weekly call-in radio show, he said he has demonstrated “the greatest tolerance for internal dissent” because he believes in the parliamentary system. But he said that might have been an miscalculation. Mr. Ford, in contrast, kicked from caucus a number of his MPPs who spoke against government policy, or wouldn’t get vaccinated, Mr. Kenney said.
“Maybe one of my mistakes has been not maintaining stronger discipline like those other leaders.”
But paradoxically to what he describes as a soft touch when it comes to party discipline, Mr. Kenney has a people problem. As much as we all love to ascribe grand gamesmanship and strategy to political developments, our personality-driven world gives an advantage to Mr. Ford.
The Ontario Progressive Conservative leader elicits strong reactions, both positive and negative, but has his fans. There’s a significant contingent of non-conservatives in the province who will cast a vote for Mr. Ford on June 2 just because they judge him as sincere, or dislike him less than the other party leaders.
This is true when it comes to the party members and advisers closest to Mr. Ford, as well. On site at an Ontario election campaign press conference earlier this month, I was struck by Amin Massoudi – who has served as Mr. Ford’s principal secretary, and is chair of the Progressive Conservative campaign – watching from the sidelines as Mr. Ford spoke at a morning news conference. Mr. Massoudi nodded along as Mr. Ford hit key talking points.
I can’t think of anyone in Mr. Kenney’s inner circle like Mr. Massoudi, who has been close to Mr. Ford (and previously his brother Rob) for a dozen years. There’s no one in the Alberta Premier’s inner circle who understands his political brand and who he looks to in order to read the room.
This is not a fatal flaw on Mr. Kenney’s part. A leader doesn’t have to be viewed as warm and cuddly. The Alberta Premier’s ability to prepare himself, to speak to complex policies or answer difficult questions has always been impressive, and much different than Mr. Ford, who avoids one-on-one interviews with reporters and relies heavily on pre-prepared talking points. For example, Mr. Kenney’s performance earlier this month in making the case for Alberta oil exports and its methane regulations at the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources would be difficult for many leaders to match.
This combative, go-it-alone political personality was all well and good when the UCP was riding high. But as soon as there were questions about Mr. Kenney’s ability to win a next election, this lack of allies became a liability within the party (just as it did for then-premier Alison Redford in 2014). There were few public displays of caucus or cabinet support as the Premier went through his campaign-style leadership review this year. The lack of cohesion around the leader was shown again this week in the statement from cabinet minister Doug Schweitzer, as he announced he wouldn’t run in the UCP leadership contest. Mr. Schweitzer mentioned former premier Jim Prentice, who died in a plane crash in 2016. He didn’t mention Jason Kenney.
Like Mr. Ford, Mr. Kenney and an inexperienced cabinet made a series of unpopular decisions, even before the pandemic hit. But Mr. Kenney didn’t let up and barely slowed down during the pandemic, pushing forward with an exhausting agenda of policies in order to meet a self-imposed benchmark of “promises kept” that no regular voter was tracking.
Both Premiers, Ford and Kenney, were against a vaccine passport systems last July – a position they would eventually be forced to change. But after a disastrous spring where Mr. Ford delayed taking action on rising third wave cases, and then was forced to retract a policy of closing playgrounds and allowing indiscriminate police searches, he had already become more circumspect around declarations about how the pandemic would play out.
Mr. Kenney, on the other hand, had his worst period of governing in the summer and fall of 2021, as he pushed a major Stampede celebration and chastised those who expressed worry about pandemic variants. Then he disappeared from public view – and also left the province’s COVID plan leaderless – for weeks as intensive care units filled. Mr. Kenney’s decision to implement a proof-of-vaccination system in September, a move he says became unavoidable, hurt him with a large number of UCP supporters.
But these differences are only part of the story, as comparing governing in Ontario and Alberta is not comparing apples and apples. Mr. Ford might not have fully understood the PC party he became leader of in 2018 – which had been shaped in large part by his predecessor Patrick Brown – but compared to the nascent UCP, it was far more cohesive. Mr. Kenney also faces a much stronger political adversary in the popular Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, who has already served as premier, than Mr. Ford faces in the Liberals or the NDP in his province.
It’s also hard to overstate how angry and disillusioned many people were in Alberta at the outset of the pandemic. Ontario had an economic situation going relatively swimmingly to that point. But many Albertans were already grappling with long-term unemployment and a loss of identity, as future of the oil and gas industry became increasingly uncertain.
Yes, the picture is different now – the economy and employment are recovering. But some uncertainty about what the future will bring remains, and sentiment doesn’t turn on a dime.
Mr. Ford has had to manage political outrage in his province. But the displeasure directed at politicians in Alberta has been of a very different sort, as Mr. Kenney well knows.
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