When I first heard about the controversy swelling around United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney‘s former domestic arrangements, I was very reluctant to write about or event comment on the issue. It even took me a few days to be convinced that it might be more than just the political pot-shot of the week.
Kenney’s past domestic arrangements ballooned into a big political issue this week when it was revealed that, for a period of time while serving in Ottawa, the former seven-term MP and senior cabinet minister designated the basement of his parents home in a Calgary retirement community as his primary residence.
During his time in Ottawa from 1997 to 2016, Kenney appears to have always designated his primary residence in Calgary, which is to be expected even if he did not spend much time in the city during his time as a senior cabinet minister. This is probably not uncommon for a lot of MPs or cabinet ministers. But it did mean he was eligible for a $900 per month subsidy to pay for the cost of his secondary residence in Ottawa.
There is no hard evidence that Kenney actual broke any House of Commons rules – rules written by MPs for MPs – but his decision to declare his primary residence as the basement of his parents house in a Calgary retirement community is… very unusual, to say the least.
Add to the controversy that a former staff member of the retirement community has told various media outlets that this type of basement lease arrangement is not allowed under the retirement community’s own rules.
Then there is also the related issue of Kenney donating $399.00 to the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party while his primary residence was in Alberta, an act he was prohibited from doing unless he was a resident of Ontario.
The controversy and its related spin-off stories are fairly wonkish. David Climenhaga did an excellent job dissecting the details of Kenney’s housing arrangements and how MPs determine where to designate their primary residence.
The only reason Albertans are talking about this controversy, and why I am writing about it, is Ottawa-based lawyer Kyle Morrow, who for the past few months has been sharing a treasure-trove of research and political criticisms of Kenney on social media. Morrow is originally from Alberta and was the Liberal Party candidate in Lacombe-Ponoka in the 2012 provincial election. But from his political perch in Ottawa, Morrow has been researching and tweeting all sorts of tidbits and information about Kenney from his 19 years as an Ottawa politician.
The UCP and the usual cast of characters, including Postmedia columnists Licia Corbella and Rick Bell, quickly leapt to Kenney’s defence, claiming that this was an unfair personal attack by Morrow against Kenney and his elderly mother, and dismissing anyone who attacks the party leader as a victim of Kenney Derangement Syndrome.
The furious response by the UCP leads me to believe that Morrow hit a very sensitive nerve by raising this issue. Despite it already being part of Kenney’s public record from his time in Ottawa, the party clearly did not like it being talked about at all. But the tone and volume of their response has only drawn more attention to the issue.
All this political ruckus does raise the question about what a young Jason Kenney, who burst onto Alberta’s political scene in the early 1990s in the form of an aggressive anti-tax crusader, would have to say about the unusual living arrangements of his senior self. There is more than a little bit of irony that Kenney made a name for himself at the start of his political career as a fierce critic of Progressive Conservative excess, including PC MLAs who were themselves twisted in knots over their own housing expense scandal before the 1993 election.
This is not the first time Kenney has faced controversy over his MP expenses. In 2001, he was criticized for spending $121,000 on taxpayer funded flights for MPs, in part, to allegedly campaign for Stockwell Day‘s bid to retain the leadership of the Canadian Alliance.
But like that controversy, I doubt this will damage Kenney’s electoral prospects to any significant extent.
Kenney’s UCP is sitting with a mighty comfortable lead over the NDP in every public poll that has been released in the past year and the party raised a whopping $3,922,950.21 in the final four months of 2018.
And it is possible that Kenney’s critics have jumped the shark.
The fairly wonkish details that surround Kenney’s unusual housing arrangements make it difficult to explain in easy and short soundbites and will likely be lost on most Alberta voters. Some political watchers have expressed the opinion that it could be seen as a witch-hunt gone too far and an issue that allows Kenney to highlight his relationship with his family, which is not a side we have seen since the career politician jumped back into provincial politics in 2017.
While this story did not originate from the New Democratic Party, it does fit with the hit-a-week the governing party has been launching at Kenney for more than the past year. And while there is hope among the NDP that the growing number of controversies will develop into a narrative around Kenney and the UCP, none of the individual controversies, even ones that are easier to explain, appear to be hitting the intended target.