Skip to main content
opinion

In life as in politics, the future always ends up becoming the past. And sometimes, tomorrow becomes yesterday sooner than anticipated.

Jason Kenney was, not so long ago, the future of the Conservative Party of Canada. Then he was the future of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, which he gave form to by merging the province’s fractured right into a new United Conservative Party. Then he become Premier in a 2019 election landslide.

And today? “Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.

Two things happened on the way to the future. One was unanticipated: COVID-19. The other was inevitable: Alberta politics. Or, more precisely, the increasingly enervated and infuriated state of conservative politics, whose prime meridian runs through Alberta.

Barely a year after Mr. Kenney become Premier, it all came together in a kind of thermonuclear reaction. Mr. Kenney’s leadership did not survive the blast, and his career in politics likely won’t survive the fallout. (Though as a group of popular poets once put it, tomorrow never knows.)

For those whose lean is to the left, Mr. Kenney’s problem was that he was too far to the right, with those tendencies exposed by the pandemic. His government was reluctant to go all-in on public-health measures, and eager to get rid of them as soon as possible – or in the case of last year’s “best summer ever,” sooner than possible.

But for others Albertans, including more than a few among the UCP caucus and membership, Mr. Kenney was not nearly right-handed enough. Their problem with his government was that it largely followed the same public-health recommendations, and imposed the same rules, as other provinces, albeit often less broadly and more reluctantly.

Alberta’s COVID-19 response wasn’t all that different from, say, New Democrat-run British Columbia’s. And for a not-insubstantial part of the UCP, that was an issue. A period of low oil prices (remember when?) threw fuel on the fire, while Mr. Kenney’s inability to magically ring-fence the province against equalization or the federal carbon tax added more gasoline to the inferno.

Mr. Kenney united two strands of conservatism in pursuit of power, but proved unable to straddle them in government. Without COVID-19, maybe things would have been different. But other conservative leaders found a path through. Ontario Premier Doug Ford had no compunction about booting MPPs who opposed health measures, and no reluctance about calling anti-vaccine protesters “a bunch of yahoos.”

But Mr. Ford has the advantage of looking and sounding like a freedom convoy-er; the truck doesn’t come across as an act. Though wealthy, he registers as blue collar, and when he called out anti-vaxxers, it was like Nixon going to China. He was criticizing his own, and it won him points from all sides.

Mr. Kenney, in contrast, become a magnet for brickbats from all sides. The Harper government’s erstwhile guru of voter outreach, who once attended hundreds of community events a year and fostered a groundswell of immigrant support for the Conservatives, found himself unable to rally all sides to his middle in Alberta.

So what comes next? A variation on the theme being played by the national scene. The federal Conservative leadership race is a fight for the soul of the party – what it stands for, and whom it hopes to appeal to. That is what’s on the table in Alberta, too. And as at the federal level, that future will be in the hands of a tiny membership, who may not be representative of the electorate. Their choices could hobble the UCP (and the Conservatives) in the next election.

Barely more than 34,000 UCP members voted in the leadership review – roughly 0.8 per cent of the provincial population. Members also tilt rural. But two-thirds of Albertans live in Calgary and Edmonton, and to win in 2023, the party has to appeal to those people.

Jason Kenney united the right and won an election, but in government he never found the formula to keep Humpty Dumpty from cracking up. His successor will need skill and luck – but blessed with high oil prices and a pandemic laid low (for now), they will also have been dealt a stronger hand.

The Kenney future ended, surprisingly and perhaps unfairly, on arrival. Alberta’s tomorrow is about to become somebody else’s challenge. But – plot twist – not just yet. He may have resigned on Wednesday, but a meeting of the UCP’s deeply divided caucus on Thursday ended with Mr. Kenney somehow still premier. He’ll remain until a successor is chosen – and that could take the better part of this year.

A premier in limbo, a governing party scheming against itself, and months of calendar occupy. If past is prologue, what’s next?

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says he will stay in the top job to maintain continuity and stability in government until a new United Conservative Party leader is chosen. Kenney says it’s important to remain focused on public priorities, including reducing wait times in the health system and growing the economy.

The Canadian Press

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.