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Kenney’s UCP leadership win sets up ideological battle against Notley’s NDP

It was a moment that seemed inconceivable even a year ago. But there was Jason Kenney, the former federal Conservative cabinet minister, strolling across a stage here Saturday evening to accept the leadership of a new political institution built on the smoking ruins of the province's two right wing parties.

Mr. Kenney now has the controls of the United Conservative Party, a vehicle he insists will be the death of the NDP government of Premier Rachel Notley. It will be hard to bet against him.

What Mr. Kenney accomplished in 20 short months is remarkable. It was July 2016 that he announced he would resign from federal politics to begin an odyssey to Unite the Right in Alberta – the only hope, he insisted, for beating the NDP.

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Read more: Jason Kenney wins Alberta UCP leadership race on first ballot

As long as the right remained divided in two camps – the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose – than the NDP had an easier path to remain in power. His plan? Step one: run for the leadership of the iconic Tory party that held power in Alberta for nearly 44 years running on a platform to wind the party up and resign it to the dustbin of history. Step two: win. Step three: convince the Wildrose to do the same and negotiate the terms for the establishment of a new political party based on the merger of the two. Step four: win the leadership of it.

Say what you might about Mr. Kenney's ideology – and there are many moderate conservatives who intensely dislike the man and find his views scary – what he accomplished here this weekend deserves recognition. After what he pulled off against all odds, he might consider winning a general election easy.

In choosing Mr. Kenney over his two challengers – former Wildrose leader Brian Jean, and Calgary lawyer Doug Schweitzer – members of the new UCP opted to go with a leader who holds more extreme views on a range of issues. They opted to go with a leader who offers the clearest choice between the UCP and the governing NDP.

The fact that Mr. Kenney won while offering little on the policy front speaks to just how much the members of his party believed in his often divisive rhetoric and the wars he set up throughout the campaign with Ottawa and Quebec on one side of the country and its neighbor British Columbia to the west.

Mr. Kenney, wisely, tapped into an anger that continues to percolate in the province. It is an anger rooted in the hard times the oil recession has wrought. He didn't offer ways he was going to make the good times magically return, rather he expressed rage at Ottawa and Quebec over equalization payments, suggesting he was going to launch an effort to renegotiate terms with the federal government.

It didn't matter that a number of respected economists suggested his angst over equalization was misplaced, and would never work, people in his party liked the way he was sticking up for his province. And he did it in a way that was much more convincing than his opponents.

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Mr. Kenney's victory sets up a much more pure, ideological battle with the NDP.

"It's going to be a very binary election," former Tory cabinet minister Thomas Lakaszuk told me. "Centrist Albertans are going to have to turn right or left now. Personally, I think a lot of Albertans will hold their noses and vote NDP rather than support some of the extreme views that Jason represents. Jason Kenney's Alberta isn't around anymore. The province has changed. What's that saying? 'You can't step into the same river twice.' That's Jason's dilemma. People change and provinces change. Jason doesn't understand that."

Perhaps. But polls have consistently shown Albertans are not happy with the current regime. Much of that is tied to the oil crash, and a need to blame it on whoever is in power. But also, conservatives have done a good job of suggesting Premier Notley has brought in a rash of environmental measures that will cost jobs, and take money out of the pockets of consumers, all based on the false promise Alberta would get a pipeline in return.

That is far from a certainty, even though the twinning of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline has been approved.

And then there is the state of the province's finances and the record level of debt that has accumulated under the NDP's watch. Again, it matters not that the government had few options in the face of the oil crisis, $94 billion in arrears (the amount of debt Alberta is forecast to have by 2020) in a province that is used to having very little of it makes the NDP extremely vulnerable.

In any event, the next two years should be quite a show. Ms. Notley is wickedly smart and a fierce debater. Mr. Kenney will have his hands full. But after watching what he pulled off this weekend, it's hard to imagine he's daunted by the prospect.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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