It’s a morbid but necessary practice in journalism to write obituaries for the living. They’re often drafted when prominent figures are very sick or very old, so newsrooms have something substantial to publish when a notable person dies. That’s how The Guardian, for example, was able to circulate a print edition filled with deeply researched stories about Prince Philip just one day after his death.
The political life of Jason Kenney is not over. But if there’s an obituary to be written about his three-decade-long career – from young Liberal to Reform and Canadian Alliance MP, Conservative cabinet minister, leader of the United Conservative Party and Premier of Alberta – now would be the time to assign it.
A recent poll pegged his approval rating at an abysmal 22 per cent, which is within spitting distance of the last approval score Alison Redford received before the deeply unpopular premier left office in 2014. And while Alberta, mercifully, appears to have finally reached the peak of its fourth wave of COVID-19, Mr. Kenney’s reputation looks unsalvageable.
If there’s one thing to which his political demise can ultimately be attributed, it’s hubris. A leader needs a degree of that fustian confidence to succeed in politics, to be sure. But his proclamations were so definitive – Alberta’s oil boom is coming back! We will uncover foreign efforts to disparage Alberta’s energy sector! COVID-19 restrictions are over! The end of this terrible time is almost here! Best summer ever! – and on matters so crucial to both provincial identity and the well-being of the people of Alberta, that his failures weren’t merely the typical unrealized promises of a bumptious politician. They became a series of betrayals that wounded the province deeply.
Crude oil prices may be on the upswing at the moment, but there is clearly no going back to the heyday of Alberta oil and gas, when then-premier Ralph Klein could hoist a “Paid in Full” sign over his head after eliminating the provincial debt. Efforts to root out a vast network of foreign-funded schemes to undermine Alberta’s oil and gas sector have been clumsy, expensive and, at times, farcical. The Keystone XL pipeline, which Mr. Kenney pledged to advance once he became premier, has been cancelled. Construction on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is now going strong, but it was saved by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, not Mr. Kenney. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the federal carbon tax was constitutional, despite challenges from Mr. Kenney’s and two other provincial governments. And even the federal Conservatives got behind some sort of carbon pricing scheme in the last election campaign.
Many of these factors have been beyond Mr. Kenney’s control, but that’s all the more reason why he shouldn’t have made such a precarious promise of a coming oil and gas enlightenment. He swore to desperate Albertans that good days were coming again – and he was wrong.
The catastrophic current state of Alberta’s health care system, however, was more within the Premier’s bailiwick. To be fair, Mr. Kenney wasn’t really offside from the advice coming from Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw, who recommended ending routine testing, contact tracing and isolation this summer. But Mr. Kenney made himself the face of the province’s reopening by all but claiming Alberta had vanquished COVID-19 – which it had not, as we well know. Now masks are back, capacity restrictions are back, and contact tracing is coming back to schools. Alberta even has a vaccine passport system now, which Mr. Kenney pledged he would never implement.
The right wing of his party and libertarian factions in the province will never forgive the Premier for going back on his word and enforcing new restrictions. The rest of the province won’t forgive him for boasting about the “best summer ever” just a few months before ICU occupancy reached a record high, before 8,500 surgeries had to be delayed and before the military had to be called in to relieve pressure on the health care system. Mr. Kenney swore to desperate Albertans in the spring that freer, healthier, more prosperous days were just on the horizon. Again, he was wrong.
It’s hard to predict precisely how and when Mr. Kenney’s political career will meet its ultimate demise. The Premier is scheduled to face a leadership review at the UCP convention in April, though pressure from constituents and a few more opinion polls of Redford-level approval ratings may send him over the edge before that. And when his time in Alberta politics is finally over, it is unlikely he will be welcomed back into the cockles of the federal Conservative Party benches, since Mr. Kenney’s handling of the pandemic may have cost Erin O’Toole some support in Alberta in the recent election. In any case, a high-profile candidate who is persona non grata in Alberta is not really someone the Conservatives will be keen on come the next election.
All of which is to say: Mr. Kenney’s career in elected office is very sick and very old and appears to have reached its final days. May its memory be a blessing.
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