By passing on a run at the leadership of the federal Conservative Party of Canada, Kenney has completely changed the nature of that leadership contest, and the course of the federal party’s future.
The Harper years were marked by unnecessarily large cabinets built for show — where power was concentrated in the hands of a very few. Kenney undoubtedly was one of those trusted lieutenants. But with the tragic passing of Jim Flaherty, and with John Baird, James Moore and now Kenney having abandoned the field, the team assembled by whoever wins the CPC leadership next May will look nothing at all like Stephen Harper’s front bench.
That leaves Peter MacKay as the last potential heavyweight successor to the CPC crown. Given his new Bay Street law practice and young family, many believe that MacKay will decline the honour. Now that Kenney is returning to Alberta, of course, MacKay might see an easy opening and jump in. If he does not, he’ll virtually guarantee that the next federal Conservative leader is someone who, outside of political circles, is not a household name. The race would be wide open.
(Kenney’s decision to opt out also means that the social-conservative flank of the party will need to find a candidate. Expect Andrew Scheer or Brad Trost to enter the fray.)
But the deeper effect will be on conservative politics in Alberta. Kenney undoubtedly sees himself as the potential saviour of the fractured right. His decision to seek the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party may seem obvious; the Wildrose leadership, after all, isn’t vacant right now. But it’s still vexing.
A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that, ideologically, Kenney would be a far better fit for the more socially conservative Wildrose. I haven’t seen anything since to challenge that notion. Kenney’s not-so-subtle motive here is to turn the PC leadership into a platform for entering into merger negotiations with Wildrose.
It’s a plan with some serious problems.
For starters: At their AGM in May, the PC Party of Alberta overwhelmingly resolved to not enter into merger negotiations with Wildrose. They prefer to rebuild their party in the image its name suggests: a socially progressive but fiscally conservative option.
Also, the PCs resolved to choose their next leader by a delegate convention next May 18 in Calgary. Each riding association will be assigned the same number of delegates — about 15. In each constituency, each of those delegates will be elected by the members living there to be among the chosen few who will attend the convention and elect the leader.
Kenney’s outreach efforts in immigrant communities are legendary. His ability to sell memberships to new Canadians is perhaps unparalleled in Conservative politics. In a one-member, one-vote contest, he’d have an obvious advantage. But that advantage is largely neutralized in a delegate convention.
Generally speaking, most delegates selected are the workhorses of the local party — those who’ve spent years pounding signs into lawns, canvassing and raising money. Occasionally, candidate slates are presented — where a delegate applicant reveals that he or she is supporting a specific candidate. But for a candidate coming in from the outside, getting enough supporters to 87 different delegate selection meetings to ensure the right delegates are elected is — while not impossible — extremely challenging.
And Kenney will have to sell many, many memberships — because much of the party’s ‘old guard’ will not be in his corner.
Calgary PC MLA Sandra Jensen has vowed to quit the caucus if Kenney becomes leader. She considers herself a socially moderate person and feels her values would not align with those of a socially conservative boss. And PC MLAs have not forgotten that, during the Alison Redford years, Kenney and other members of the federal Conservative caucus were actively campaigning for Wildrose.
Former PC deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk went so far as to suggest that Kenney should be barred from running. He said he believes that policy differences between progressive conservatives (like him) and hardcore right-wingers (like Kenney) are irreconcilable.
I disagree with Thomas on the notion of barring candidates on ideological grounds; modern parties tend to be leader-centric anyway, and party policies tend to reflect the leader’s priorities. But I certainly agree that there’s a fundamental disconnect in Kenney’s strategy because a significant share of the traditional PC base disagrees with him on some basic points. And with talk of caucus resignations and blocking his candidacy before he’d even made it official, Kenney isn’t really looking much like a unification candidate right now.
Finally, there’s the other elephant in the room: Alberta’s business community. Kenney was minister of Immigration when the government put strict limits and quotas on unskilled Temporary Foreign Workers. Several years ago, when the Alberta economy was booming, many businesses were unable to find enough people to do the work — and nobody’s forgotten who was responsible.
So yes, I see significant obstacles to Jason Kenney’s dream of unifying the centre-right in Alberta. Of course, the whole thing could be a ruse. Perhaps Kenney is a Trojan Horse, convinced that the best way to unite the right in Alberta is to destroy (or at least weaken) one of the legacy parties to the point where it can be easily absorbed by its rival.
Danielle Smith attempted such an ill-conceived suicide mission in 2014, when she and half of her Wildrose caucus folded and joined the Jim Prentice PCs.
I doubt Jason Kenney is that magnanimous. And his name recognition, ministerial competence and work ethic notwithstanding, I seriously doubt he can persuade progressive stalwarts and Red Tories to give him the opportunity to lead, merge or destroy their party.
Author: Brent Rathgeber