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Jason Kenney responds to a question from the media on the final day of the summer meeting of Canada's premiers at the Fairmont Empress in Victoria on July 12, 2022.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

Jason Kenney has avoided saying much about the United Conservative Party contest that will see him replaced as leader and Premier this October. “I’m not going to get into being a colour commentator on the leadership election,” he says. But at some moments, he can’t help himself.

This was on full display as Mr. Kenney attacked a cornerstone policy of Danielle Smith’s Let’s Put Alberta First campaign on the weekend. And Ms. Smith, who many consider one of the front-runners in the contest, didn’t hesitate to tell the Premier to stay out of it, arguing how many party members support her plan. With two months to go before the leadership question is decided, it shows how stark the divisions within the UCP still are.

On Saturday, Mr. Kenney got the question he must have long been burning to answer. Speaking on his weekly Corus Radio call-in show, someone texted in to ask him about the idea of a “so-called” Sovereignty Act. The idea has become closely associated with Ms. Smith’s campaign.

There was no hedging on his part. “Alberta would become a laughingstock.” He said the idea of legislation that would allow the province the latitude to not enforce federal laws, including the Criminal Code, “is nuts.”

“The proposal is for Alberta basically to ignore and violate the Constitution in a way that is unprecedented in Canadian history,” he said. The province should be focused on realistic, practical ways to fight unfair Ottawa policies.

There’s also no doubt Mr. Kenney was prepared for this question (that he explained he would only answer because it was related to policy, not the leadership race). He had an opinion piece criticizing the idea of the Sovereignty Act, and Ms. Smith, at his fingertips to quote from.

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On Sunday, the Smith campaign responded, saying – in short – Mr. Kenney should keep out of the leadership race. Ms. Smith said she would urge Mr. Kenney “to focus on being a voice for party unity” and for the party’s leadership process to proceed without interference from the “acting” Premier.

“Respectfully, the Premier’s comments regarding the Sovereignty Act are premature, ill-informed and disrespectful to a large and growing majority of UCP members that support this important initiative,” she said in a statement.

“Albertans are tired of watching Justin Trudeau and Ottawa continuously run over the rights and freedoms of Albertans and they want a leader who will stand and defend our province without apology,” she continued.

“If elected to replace him as leader and Premier,” she will work with MLAs to ensure the Sovereignty Act is drafted, passed, and implemented “in accordance with sound constitutional language and principles.”

The clock is counting down on Mr. Kenney’s radio shows, and his time as leader. This weekend during the radio show he revealed he would like to remain as the MLA for Calgary-Lougheed, even after stepping down as Premier, and has “no intention” of ever seeking leadership of the federal Conservatives.

He also spoke to his strategy in fighting federal policy moves he believes tread into trouble for commodity producers, noting the Alberta government is battling Ottawa’s plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from synthetic nitrogen fertilizer by 30 per cent below 2020 levels by 2030. Many farmers argue placing more pressure on the country’s agriculture sector while global food systems are upended by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, droughts and COVID-19 supply shocks will lead to even higher costs and real shortages.

“I want to encourage Canadians, as regular folks, if they think that food prices are already too high, and they don’t want to see people in the developing world die of starvation, please speak out and help us to stop the madness,” Mr. Kenney said.

The difference in strategy in battling with Ottawa might be baffling to some outside the province, or non-conservatives. But there’s never a question within the UCP that federal policy decisions are often, or largely, out of step with realities on the ground of energy or food production, much of it centred in Western Canada. The debate among the UCP is what is the best way to challenge Ottawa.

While Mr. Kenney has often led the provinces in fighting federal intrusion, Ms. Smith argues Alberta governments have been too passive in fighting Ottawa’s policies. Her anti-establishment campaign has won her donations and support, even from a couple of UCP MLAs who originally supported her rival, former Alberta finance minister Travis Toews.

Mr. Toews is establishment. He has attracted endorsements from nearly half the UCP caucus and is seen as having been a part of Mr. Kenney’s inner circle. His campaign pitch is that he’s a “serious, reliable” leader and the legal uncertainty that could come of Ms. Smith’s planned legislation “has the potential to create economic chaos in the province of Alberta.” But he will still take up items such as fighting to make sure the federal equalization formula that expires in 2024 is renegotiated for fairness to Alberta, or laying the groundwork for a provincial pension plan.

The Premier hasn’t formally endorsed any leadership candidate but it’s clear he will weigh in on some of the political battles. His comments on the Sovereignty Act, and Ms. Smith’s response, show there are still deep rifts in the UCP – even as members try to present a unified front before a May provincial election.

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