The ideals and principles that proved Jason Kenney’s undoing

This column is an opinion of Howard Anglin, a former senior aide to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. For more information on CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Well, that’s one thing settled. After winning the majority of votes in the UCP leadership review, Jason Kenney announced he would step down as premier of Alberta. At least he’s coming out on a winning streak — a perfect 13-for-13 in political contests by my count.

If anything sounds funny about a politician resigning after winning a vote, then welcome to Canadian provincial politics, where a sitting prime minister leads a majority government with the confidence of the legislature and the support of a majority of members of his own party may feel compelled to resign.

By comparison, the federal constitutions of the Conservative and Liberal parties only require leadership reviews after the party has failed to form government in a general election. The reason is obvious: a disgruntled fraction of a party’s base – a minority of a minority – should not be able to force change on the country’s prime minister.

Why did it even depend on the members of the UCP?

The same logic should apply for a prime minister. More people attended the Flames-Oilers game at the Saddledome than voted against Kenney’s leadership. This is not how democracy is supposed to work, even in a parliamentary system where voters do not directly elect the head of government.

Some of the blame lies with Kenney and the party. Because they failed to freeze the membership rolls before the review, thousands of people who had never been party members were able to decide the outcome.

Whether it was arrogance or forgetfulness, it was a tactical mistake. He encouraged would-be rivals to sign up new members, turning what is supposed to be an informal signal check by party loyalists into a full-fledged leadership campaign by the latter’s sore losers. A lesson for future leaders, but too late for this one.

Kenney will bear much of the blame for his loss, which is only fair. He was the leader and never shied away from taking responsibility for decisions. In fact, his insistence on being the face of the province’s COVID response, answering all questions through endless internal caucus meetings and frequent public briefings, has given him the kind of negative exposure that most politicians would flee.

The fatal error

There has also been much public and private recrimination about Kenney’s caucus management style and his alleged failure to seek grassroots and backbench input into government decision-making.

Some of these complaints are childish, the whining of bruised egos yearning for functions beyond their abilities. Others, like complaints about the impatience or indifference of a prime minister on mission, have some basis, but are well within the normal range of disaffection within a diverse political caucus.

But Kenney’s most dangerous challenge, and one that ultimately proved fatal, came from a threat he knew about when he founded the party, but still seems to have underestimated. This is the irascible mood of modern Alberta politics, especially in the center and on the right.

Independent MP Drew Barnes speaks to reporters outside the McDougall Center in Calgary on Thursday. Barnes, who was kicked out of caucus a year ago for speaking out against the leader in public, said he was open to joining the UCP caucus, but only after Kenney was no longer at the helm. (Charlotte Dumoulin/Radio Canada)

It wasn’t always like that. In the 71 years between 1935 and 2006, Alberta had six Premiers. In the 16 years since Ralph Klein, he’s had six more, soon to be seven. Clearly, there’s something in the ground.

I find it hard not to admire the dogged contrarianism that has caused more than one commentator to question whether Alberta is “ungovernable”. It’s easy to romanticize this populist prairie sequence with appropriate Western metaphors that invoke the spirit of the frontier, wild horses, or unpredictable prairie thunderstorms.

But a populist spirit is easier to nurture outside of government than within it.

Many of the candidates elected in the popular wave of Kenney’s landslide victory in 2019 turned out to have little understanding of government and no interest in learning. In government, instincts and intuitions must be channeled into practical policies, which means compromises, hurt feelings and disappointed interests.

It is much easier to say no without having to give a reason than to translate ideas into legislation that advances the common good. This proved to be a difficult adjustment for some MPs and party members. Unable to shift mindsets from protest to policy-making, they became a kind of internal opposition within the UCP.

Let the dissidents dissidents

On the contrary, Kenney was too soft with them. His idealized notion of Westminster politics as practiced in the parent Parliament, where members of the ruling party in the UK have far more leeway to disagree than they do in Canada, the led to tolerate dissent until fractured dissent.

When MPs publicly criticized him, Kenney did not do what any other leader would have done and dumped them. Instead, he held marathon caucus meetings in which he left the fate of the rebels to their fellow MPs.

He even endorsed Brian Jean’s candidacy for the by-elections, despite Jean’s open declaration of war against him. No other party leader in Canada would have had such stupid principles.

Now, without Kenney to focus their frustration, the egos who engineered his resignation are free to turn their guns on each other. For the sake of Alberta, I hope that when the shooting stops, a stable figure emerges who can impose internal discipline and carry on the political agenda that Kenney crafted and set in motion, which has made the province the most interesting and exciting place in Canada.

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