By all measures, Jason Kenney should be feeling pretty good these days.
His United Conservative Party recently won two by-elections in Alberta by whopping margins. Sure, they might have been in extra-safe seats, but still, the magnitude of the victories was notable. In one, the UCP candidate was 73 points ahead of the NDP’s sacrificial lamb. And provincial polls continue to point to a significant Kenney triumph in next year’s provincial election.
So it was somewhat surprising, then, to hear Mr. Kenney sound so grumpy when asked to comment on his party’s by-election landslides. “I think what we saw is a lot of the elite commentary in this province is being rejected by ordinary voters when they go to the polls,” he said. In May, Mr. Kenney talked about “opinion elites” and how they often “live in an echo chamber, talking to each other, re-confirming their own prejudices.”
Jason Kenney has always been a movement conservative, not predisposed to compromising his beliefs in favour of cheap, populist sentiment. But perhaps that is changing, at least as far as his relationship with the media goes. U.S. President Donald Trump’s base love and endorse the war he’s ignited with the punditry. Ontario Premier Doug Ford took a similar tack in June’s provincial election, often treating the media with utter disdain. He won big. But perhaps the person most influencing Mr. Kenney when it comes to setting up a me-versus-them dynamic with journalists is his former boss, Stephen Harper.
That the former prime minister mostly loathed the media is no secret. As with many conservatives, he believes their ranks are filled with mostly left-wing sympathizers or at least people of so-called progressive predilections. (And there is some truth to this). Still, comments Mr. Harper made during public appearances in Western Canada recently were shocking in their candour – and especially significant were the views he expressed about the treatment he expected his former cabinet lieutenant, Mr. Kenney, to receive at the hands of the media in the coming months.
“The media won the last election [in Alberta],” Mr. Harper said at one appearance, in an account published in Maclean’s magazine. “The media elected the NDP. And the media is going to go out of their way to bring Jason and the party down.” He went on to suggest that if the media decides the NDP can’t win the next election, they will throw their support behind another liberal-tinted group such as the Alberta Party.
This is a stunning commentary on so many levels. The utter free pass he gives the former Progressive Conservative party government in Alberta for its role in the debacle that was the last election is troubling in its naivety or willful blindness. As for Mr. Harper’s chimera that the media got the NDP elected in 2015, well, it’s simply not true and beneath someone of his intelligence. For the record, the media in Alberta (and nationally) did nothing more than chronicle the sad and pathetic descent of a political institution – the Progressive Conservative party – that had grown arrogant and increasingly out of touch over the course of 43 years in power. That is why the voters rebelled and did the unthinkable: elect a New Democratic Party government.
But if it’s easier to blame the media, go for it.
Perhaps Mr. Kenney, in attacking ‘opinion elites,' is already setting up some of his strategies for what will undoubtedly be a tough, bruising campaign.
While he seems to be riding aloft a comfortable majority in the court of public opinion, that cushion a year out from an election means little. He’s veteran enough a politician to know this. Premier Rachel Notley has a lot of things going in her favour at the moment. The economy is heating up. The deficit is starting to come down. And materials to build the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion are starting to arrive along the route of the project. And in the eyes of the public, the NDP premier gets most of the credit for that. A fact reflected in her latest polling numbers.
Rachel Notley’s popularity exceeds her party’s. She is the NDP brand. She’s also a formidable campaigner. Mr. Kenney knows this, too. He may relish the battle, but he’s in no way naïve about the challenge ahead of him.
And if bashing the media helps him make political inroads with a broad swath of the public, he’s setting up that campaign discussion point already.