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Alberta PC candidate Kenney owes a debt of gratitude to Notley

Whether it was intended or not, the budget tabled this week by Premier Rachel Notley's NDP government may have helped change the course of Alberta political history. It gave her opponents a huge stick with which to beat the New Democrats from now until the next election.

Budgets are always analyzed in terms of winners and losers, and in the case of this fiscal document, perhaps no one came out further ahead than Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Jason Kenney.

In fact, the budget dropped on Thursday may provide all the fuel Mr. Kenney needs to power the political movement he is trying to lead in the province.

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Read more: Leadership win for Kenney would only begin fight to unite Alberta's right

Mr. Kenney, 48, is one of three candidates vying for the PC leadership, which will be decided at a convention this weekend.

In real terms, it already is decided. Mr. Kenney has the leadership in his back pocket, and made it look easy in the process of securing it.

Say what you will about the man, he knows how to organize. When he was first mulling a bid last year, few gave him a chance. When he said he wanted to blow up one of the most storied political franchises in the country's history and merge with the Wildrose under a new free-enterprise banner, many people thought he was crazy.

Yes, crazy like a fox.

He quickly assembled a political machine that steamrolled other candidates, some of whom dropped out when they realized there was no hope of winning. It did not matter that the party leadership despised him, and seemingly tried to thwart his leadership ambitions at every turn; Mr. Kenney barely noticed.

The contempt his campaign team held for the PC old guard was palpable. So was its arrogance the more it smelled victory. But that is the cruel, vicious world of politics, where friendships often go to die.

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After securing a victory this weekend, the hard work truly begins for Mr. Kenney. Winning the leadership of a once-grand party is one thing. Trying to build an entirely new political institution to replace it is something else entirely.

But luckily for him, he has Ms. Notley in his corner.

Perhaps no greater issue divides the right and left in Alberta than debt; conservatives are allergic to it (in theory) and progressives believe a little of it never hurt anyone. Except, by Alberta standards, the amount of debt Ms. Notley's NDP is accumulating is almost breathtaking.

In her four short years in office, the Premier will have more than tripled the province's debt; it is projected to be $71-billion by the time the next election rolls around in 2019 (from $19.9-billion when her government took office). It goes without saying it is the highest amount of debt the province has ever known. It does not matter that there are good reasons for a lot of it – a historic crash in oil prices will certainly hurt a government's revenue line – it is still a figure that will make many Albertans uncomfortable.

For the next 24 months, that will be all you hear about. Get ready for endless analogies that involve things being driven off cliffs.

Parties such as Wildrose are obsessed with debt, believe it is evil, believe it is Armageddon-like in terms of the destruction it has the potential to sow.

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Of course, Mr. Kenney is the same. He will have locked up the Tory leadership with one of the most empty policy platforms in the history of the western world. All he needed to say was: NDP bad, conservatism good.

He has convinced people he was free-enterprise's messiah, that he and he alone could unite the right in Alberta and vanquish the political experiment that is the NDP.

Ms. Notley's budget will undoubtedly help Mr. Kenney execute the next phase of his mission. He now has to persuade Wildrose members to lay down their arms and negotiate a truce. He has to persuade them of the value of merging under a new, fresh banner in time to fight the New Democrats in the next election.

And he will have to beat Wildrose Leader Brian Jean for the job.

It is not likely to be easy. Many inside Wildrose want nothing to do with folding up their tent and joining others under a bigger one. But then, Jason Kenney seems to have a way of getting people to do things once thought unimaginable.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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