At this time last year, there might not have been a more popular person in Alberta than Jason Kenney.
He was riding a wave of populist anger directed at the then-NDP government of Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in Ottawa. Mr. Kenney did a masterful job whipping his province into a fervor behind the propagated notion that Ms. Notley, with help from Mr. Trudeau, was driving Alberta to financial ruin.
All would be good, Mr. Kenney promised, if Albertans returned a conservative party to power. People in the province took him at his word, handing Mr. Kenney’s United Conservative Party a massive spring majority.
But the Premier is finding that while it’s one thing to campaign against something, it’s another to give people a significantly better alternative. Because when you don’t, voters feel betrayed, they feel as if they’ve been had. A fresh series of polls indicate that Albertans are feeling precisely this way.
Mr. Kenney’s popularity has tanked. Some of the numbers are frankly shocking given the pedestal upon which he was placed when he took office in April. For instance, a poll just released by Marc Henry’s ThinkHQ company, shows that 21 per cent of people who voted for UCP now disapprove of its performance. The same survey said only 16 per cent of Albertans strongly approved of what the government is doing.
Another poll conducted by DART and Maru/Blue Voice Canada indicates Mr. Kenney’s approval rating has plummeted 15 percentage points since September. (His approval rating of 55 per cent a few months ago is now 40 per cent). He is now the third-least popular premier in the country, just a couple of spots ahead of the most despised – Ontario’s Doug Ford.
I’m sure Mr. Kenney is not overly stressed about these numbers. It’s early in his mandate. Also, his government tabled a fairly tough budget in October, one which delivered spending reductions of nearly three per cent over four years. It doesn’t sound like much but amounts to billions of dollars. And there is no way you make that kind of incision into government services without there being some pain.
Mr. Kenney had sold voters on the idea that he could restore fiscal sanity in Alberta without people noticing it much. Well, that hasn’t happened. And it’s more than just public servants who are unhappy with the government’s austerity measures, it’s also the public, which feels the cuts at the ground level.
The Premier’s bigger problem is the general state of the economy. Alberta shed 18,000 jobs in November. The unemployment rate for young men is now 20 per cent. Mr. Kenney had campaigned on job creation, on putting people to work in a way the NDP couldn’t. He said a corporate tax cut that cost the treasury $2.4-billion in revenue would generate $4-billion in investment. Well, so far there’s been little sign of that.
Mr. Kenney has largely been occupied with initiatives such as the Fair Deal panel, which is touring the province looking for feedback on ideas to create greater independence for Alberta inside Canada. He’s also launched a $30-million “war room” to combat negative stories about Alberta’s energy industry. Neither endeavour, however, does anything to help the unemployed. In fact, concepts such as having the province begin its own provincial pension plan increasingly seem like dubious ideas designed to distract people from the province’s bigger problems.
It also doesn’t help Mr. Kenney that his predecessor, Ms. Notley, has emerged as an extremely effective Opposition leader, never more so than during her prosecution of the government’s decision to fire the elections commissioner while he was investigating irregularities in the UCP leadership contest. She said it was akin to Mr. Trudeau firing the ethics commissioner amid his probe into the SNC matter – an entirely apt comparison.
I would suggest Mr. Kenney will soon need to offer the Alberta public more than just daily criticisms of the Liberals in Ottawa. It’s similar to someone who blames everyone else for their problems and doesn’t accept any personal responsibility for the dire situation in which they find themselves.
Even Alberta business leaders are suggesting it’s time the government came up with a concrete plan for creating jobs, one that doesn’t rely on pipelines, pipelines and more pipelines. It was easy for Mr. Kenney to point the finger at Mr. Trudeau during an election campaign, but that doesn’t continue to work in the months and years that follow.
If Mr. Kenney wants to see his approval numbers improve, he will need to offer Albertans more than just over-heated rhetoric.
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