On Thursday night, Alberta’s United Conservative Party will elect a new leader, who will subsequently be sworn in as the province’s 19th premier.
This drama is the sequel to the creation of a party in 2017 that aimed to unite the right and then found itself deeply divided. Its biggest casualty is Jason Kenney, who helped start the UCP and led it to a strong majority government in 2019, but was forced out by caucus dissent.
Mr. Kenney, a respected veteran of federal politics, ran for premier when Alberta was in the hard grasp of a long recession, pinned there by low oil prices. His platform focused on “jobs, economy, pipelines,” and to “stand up to Justin Trudeau and those who are holding us back.” Driving a blue Dodge Ram 1500, he had his hands fully on the wheel for the first time. He promised to fight. He said Albertans felt “under siege.” A Globe and Mail profile at the time began: “Jason Kenney sees enemies everywhere, both inside and outside Alberta.”
This pugilist instinct defined his three-and-a-half years as premier. Mr. Kenney leaves office with a province in solid financial shape compared with 2019 – mostly because of another commodity boom – but not necessarily in a better place overall.
His main accomplishment was holding the line on spending in a province that, buoyed by gushers of oil money, spent too much and too often didn’t get better results. In one example, the Progressive Conservative dynasty, in its last 15 years (2000 through 2015), increased health care spending by upwards of 10 per cent a year.
It was the NDP – not Mr. Kenney – that first hit the brakes. In government from 2015 to 2019, Rachel Notley dropped health spending increases to about 3 per cent a year.
Mr. Kenney went further. His first budget planned to cut total spending in 2023 by 2 per cent from 2019. That sounds small but, factoring in population growth and inflation, it meant a cut of more than 10 per cent. Then the pandemic happened and oil cratered, before shooting to the moon. Alberta today predicts a massive surplus. Even so, spending in 2022-23 is up only 2 per cent from 2019-2020; adjusted for population and inflation, it is lower than Mr. Kenney’s first day.
Where Mr. Kenney consistently failed was in the boxing ring he always sought out. The main target was Ottawa, and the Liberals that ousted the Harper government in which Mr. Kenney was a long-time minster. Mr. Kenney took Ottawa to court over national carbon pricing, and lost decisively at the Supreme Court of Canada.
There were all sorts of other fights, too. He established a public inquiry that had no public component to investigate “anti-Alberta energy campaigns.” It verged on farce when it included conspiracy theories as part of its written record, and its findings dug up nothing beyond normal democratic debate. Mr. Kenney’s ballyhooed “war room” – the Canadian Energy Centre – likewise stumbled.
There was also his pandemic mismanagement, including his premature “best summer ever” announcement in 2021 and his failure, unlike Doug Ford in Ontario, to quell dissent within his party against reasonable public health measures.
Then there were his wild bets. In April, 2020, Mr. Kenney pledged up to $7.5-billion of Albertans’ money to get the Keystone XL oil pipeline built. This page called it risky, as Mr. Kenney seemed to ignore that Joe Biden, an opponent of the idea, could win the U.S. election. Mr. Biden won, blocked the pipeline, and Albertans saw $1.3-billion vanish.
Most of all, though, Mr. Kenney sowed needless discontent. Among his gambits was a pointless referendum on equalization. The point is not that premiers shouldn’t volubly stand up for their province. Ms. Notley did. Peter Lougheed did. But Mr. Kenney’s tactics, Alberta against the world, didn’t help anyone, starting with Albertans. In late 2019, this page wondered whether Mr. Kenney’s constant stirring up of Alberta separatist sentiment would stoke a fire he couldn’t contain. That’s exactly what happened.
Now, the even-more divisive Danielle Smith and her “Sovereignty Act” may win the UCP contest and become premier, at least until next May’s election. Mr. Kenney may briefly look good in comparison.
The bottom line is his time as premier started with promise, but faltered badly. When Mr. Kenney got his hands on the wheel, he put the truck in the ditch.