Always bet on chaos. If there’s one thing I’ve learned after spending more than a decade in Alberta, it’s that politics here inevitably gravitates towards the most dramatic outcome. The long-running UCP leadership review, one that saw Jason Kenney receive just 51.4 per cent support from the 34,000-plus ballots cast, is just the latest data point backing that theory. His surprise resignation, meanwhile, is only the most recent example of why Alberta punches so far above its weight when it comes to political drama in Canada.
Despite moving the location of the vote, changing the rules around it, and otherwise tilting the table in his own direction wherever possible, Kenney could barely win a plurality of the votes — and didn’t even match the 55 per cent showing that ultimately forced Ralph Klein to step down in 2006. And so, in a decision that clearly surprised the party faithful assembled to hear the results, he announced he too would step down.
When it comes to the future of his United Conservative Party, the chaos has only just begun. In the coming days it will announce a leadership race, one that Brian Jean and Danielle Smith have already said they’ll contest and which could attract a host of current cabinet ministers and other UCP members. It might even include Kenney himself, who could take a page out of Joe Clark’s book in 1983 and run for the role he just vacated. At this point, it wouldn’t be surprising to see someone like Michelle Rempel-Garner or Rona Ambrose step back into the fray.
Regardless of who throws their hat into the proverbial ring, it’s clear whatever hope Kenney and his dwindling coterie of loyalists had for a clean victory and quick pivot back to fighting the NDP is long gone. Instead, there will be a brawl to define the party he helped create, and a very real risk that it could fracture back into the two coalitions — one urban and more progressive, the other rural and more populist — that he stitched together. And while the prospect of an NDP government served as a powerful adhesive in the past, it’s not clear that it will still work after the in-fighting and internal strife of the last few years. If the NDP is smart, they’ll stay quiet and let that process play itself out.
Former Harper adviser Sean Speer wrote an eulogy for Kenney’s Alberta in a piece for The Hub, one that suggested the people who dumped him have done more harm to their own interests than good. “These people aren’t interested in incremental policy reforms. They’re looking for a fight. They want to toss a hand grenade into the cathedral of our mainstream institutions.”
Maybe they learned that from Kenney, a politician who prided himself on his willingness to attack his enemies near and far — and who lobbed plenty of his own grenades during his time as Premier. When you build your entire government’s identity around its desire to “fight back”, you shouldn’t be surprised when that energy gets turned against you. In describing the voters that cast their ballots against Kenney, Speer wrote that “I see a scared and angry minority that doesn’t define itself based on what’s good and right but rather by a sense of embattlement and opposition.” Where, exactly, does he think they learned that from?
Kenney’s mismanagement of the pandemic, and the way in which he lurched repeatedly from delusional optimism (remember the “Best Summer Ever”?) to grim pragmatism, clearly sparked the fire within his own ranks that ultimately burned his leadership to the ground. But so too did his apparent willingness to treat Albertans as subjects rather than people. As Speer wrote in an earlier Postmedia piece that made the case for keeping Kenney around, “the Kenney government has effectively turned Alberta into Canada’s conservative policy laboratory and in so doing is expanding the country’s other centre-right governments’ sense of what is possible.”
But maybe Albertans aren’t as enthusiastic about the idea of being treated like ideological lab rats as policy wonks in central Canada (or “Laurentian elites,” as Kenney might call them) seem to be. Maybe they simply want their government to steer the ship rather than rebuilding it on the fly. And maybe, after three-plus years of chaos, they will opt for the party that promises a return to calmer waters. As CBC’s Jason Markusoff pointed out on Twitter, Rachel Notley is the only Alberta premier since 2004 to finish her term in office. Jason Kenney’s political legacy in Alberta may now include her getting to start — and finish — a second term as well.