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To: Premier of Alberta
From: David McLaughlin, Veteran political advisor
Subject: Jason Kenney and Unite Alberta
The campaign against the NDP government has begun. We better get ready. Jason Kenney’s Unite Alberta campaign is deadly serious. And seriously deadly, to us.
In just a few short days, he has upended our expectations that we would face a divided conservative vote in 2019. We may still, but it is nowhere guaranteed now. As former Fort McMurray expats from Atlantic Canada might say, "this changes the water on the beans."
Review the landscape. Brian Jean is leading Wildrose on sufferance. He has a restless caucus and the usual Wildrose membership sillies with which to contend. He won big in 2015 because Jim Prentice lost big. It is as simple as that (Of course, the same could be said about you, but that’s another memo, Madam Premier.).
There is real doubt among many conservatives that Jean can carry them through the next step and actually win government. That is why any Progressive Conservatives who want a merger will favour Kenney’s gambit. Equally, that is why any PCs who feel they can come back as the natural governing party will oppose him. Jean is vulnerable and Kenney knows it. But he will not bring every conservative with him.
Still, only Kenney has the political chops to pull this off. No other Alberta politician of consequence can concoct an appeal to both conservative parties. Kenney has already begun to craft a powerful narrative against our government by focusing on economic incompetence and ideological management. Neither the PCs nor the Wildrose have been able to muster that argument effectively to date. If it sticks, we will have our work cut out for us.
Actually, we do anyway. Kenney’s entrance into Alberta politics catches us at a particularly vulnerable time. The economy remains weak and the outlook dour. Government finances and credit are deteriorating. Our climate policy and carbon tax are unpopular with consumers and many businesses. And still no pipeline is any closer to being built.
Kenney is targeting this record, constructing an appeal that things were better before. No new policies, just turning back the clock on the ones the NDP government has brought in. He is the ultimate nostalgia candidate. Not so much saying ‘Let’s make Alberta great again” (like Trump might say), his slogan is more “Let’s make Alberta, Alberta again!”
Admittedly, this is a powerful argument for uniting conservatives. It gives them a common concern and a common enemy: us. It remains to be seen, though, whether it is an effective argument in uniting a majority of Albertans.
Our province has changed. We are more socially progressive and more aware of the environmental and economic interconnectedness that affects our economy and our most important industry. Kenney’s appeal is a visibly backwards one for some people. But should world oil and gas prices remain low, regulatory blockades to pipelines remain intact, and our economy suffer as a consequence, then this appeal could undo us through sheer economic frustration.
Kenney brings no provincial baggage to his quest. Accordingly, it will be difficult to tag him with the mismanagement and arrogance of the former PC government. By contrast, it will be much easier to label him as a ‘Wildroser’ in disguise, especially if they merge and form a new Conservative Party of Alberta as he proposes.
But he does bring some federal baggage. He is running with the same playbook of federal Conservative policies of tax cuts, opposition to a carbon tax, and opposing any climate policy of his own. It is an open question how popular such a platform will be three years from now.
The endorsement of Stephen Harper is significant and should not be underestimated. Federal Conservative MPs draw support from active PCs and Wildrosers. They are tired of the split and will actively encourage some form of unification. Kenney can tap into that membership to help win provincial PC delegate selection meetings, basically overpowering any visible or latent opposition to him in that party.
The question is whether the PCs and Wildrose are actually tired of the split too. Kenney is drawing upon the formation of the federal CPC as the template for unification. But there are big differences. Four elections had been fought against each other. Time and leadership changes on both sides had made each amenable and open to a merger. That may not yet be the case here in Alberta. It just may be too soon.
Even if a merger happens, there is no guarantee the prize will wind up Kenney’s. He would have to run two leaderships – first for the PCs then for the new party – before he could sit as Opposition Leader and face you in a TV debate in 2019. Is he the one Albertans will want then? Or will someone else challenge him for a prize much more glittering than now?
Jason Kenney polarizes. He attracts and repels like the poles of a magnet. His contrast politics about the economy could be countered and perhaps trumped by your contrast politics on social issues. Running a more centrist, pragmatic, and business-friendly government would blunt some of his appeal.
Underestimating Jason Kenney and the merger appeal would be a mistake. More than the economy, it has become the single biggest risk to the NDP government’s re-election.
Editor's note: David McLaughlin is not actually an NDP advisor. He has been chief of staff and deputy minister for Conservative governments at the federal and provincial levels. He was campaign manager for the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba in the 2016 election.