There is no doubt that Jason Kenney changed the face of Alberta politics when he jumped into provincial politics in 2017.
He succeeded in leading the merger of the Wildrose opposition with the Progressive Conservatives remanent into the United Conservative Party.
And, for a period, he was able to convince the two warring factions to put aside their differences and focus on a higher goal: winning the 2019 election.
And it worked.
At least it did for a time.
The UCP won a big majority, but quickly discovered that all those things the PCs and Wildrosers didn’t like about each other still existed, but now they were in the same party.
Last night, Kenney announced his plans to step down as UCP leader after getting a weak 51.4 per cent endorsement an acrimonious, divisive and drawn-out leadership review.
How did we get here so fast?
The COVID-19 pandemic definitely derailed Kenney and his party, but that wasn’t his only mistake.
Let’s look back at the chaos of the past three years.
Kenney’s much promoted Open for Summer plan in 2021 alienated a large swath of Albertans who were uncomfortable with removing public health restrictions so quickly and haphazardly just for the Calgary Stampede.
Rachel Notley’s NDP were riding high in the polls and fundraising, and to a lot of Albertans it looked like Kenney was dropping the COVID-19 restrictions to fast to save his party’s fortunes and his own leadership.
But being forced to backtrack and reintroduce restrictions when COVID-19 cases and deaths predictably skyrocketed and hospitals and ICUs overflowed only served to alienate a growing group right-wing populists and Freedom Truckers who were then highly motivated to defeat Kenney in the leadership review.
Despite flirting with right-wing populism before the 2019 election and during his time as Premier, Kenney is not a populist.
Kenney is probably far more comfortable discussing the works of Ludwig von Mises in the salons of the Manhattan Institute than driving a big blue truck around rural Alberta.
He sold Albertans, and conservative activists, a bill of goods that he could not deliver on.
But again, it wasn’t just COVID-19 that sealed his fate in the leadership review
If Kenney had not been so deeply unpopular with Albertans and if the UCP hadn’t been trailing the NDP in almost every poll since late 2020, he would have had a stronger hand to play.
But he didn’t.
Let’s look at why.
Somewhere along the line Kenney and his ministers began to believe that the big electoral mandate they got in 2019 meant they could impose their platform with abandon and, perhaps fatally, not have to listen to Albertans who started pushing back.
While Kenney’s opponents were always going to oppose his plans to privatize health care and schools, it wasn’t just NDP partisans who pushed back.
It was normal Albertans.
And Kenney didn’t seem to realize this.
Kenney and Environment & Parks Minister Jason Nixon’s plans to close and sell more than 140 provincial parks sparked a province-wide lawn sign campaign that crossed the partisan divide.
After months of actively dismissing and attacking opponents of these plans, the UCP government was forced to back down.
The UCP’s eagerness to open the Rocky Mountains to open-pit coal mining produced a similar backlash.
Kenney and Energy Minister Sonya Savage pushed forward, again dismissing the opposition, which included dozens of southern Alberta municipal councils and country music artists like Corb Lund, Paul Brandt and Terri Clark, until they were forced to back down.
Kenney and Health Minster Tyler Shandro picked big fights with nurses and doctors during the pandemic, which almost certainly undermined public confidence in the government’s ability to handle the pandemic.
Kenney and Education Minister Adriana LaGrange were almost engaged in daily fights with teachers, even when the safety of children during the pandemic was the biggest concern for almost every Alberta parent.
Alberta can already be a notoriously difficult place to govern, but at times it looked like the UCP was actively trying to make it more difficult.
And then there were the scandals.
The kamikaze campaign.
The RCMP investigation.
Shandro yelling at a doctor in his driveway.
Justice Minister Kaycee Madu phoning the chief of police after getting a traffic ticket.
Lawsuits alleging of drinking and sexual harassment of political staff by cabinet ministers.
The Sky Palace patio party.
Betting and losing $1.3 billion on the Keystone XL Pipeline.
And the theatrics.
The Energy War Room staffed by UCP-insiders.
The late and over budget Allan Inquiry into nefarious foreign interference that found nothing illegal.
A referendum about equalization that was always going to be ignored by Ottawa, and ironically, was ignored by most Albertans.
The never ending legal challenges against the federal government.
And then there’s the curriculum.
Pledging during the 2019 campaign to take ideology and politics out of the draft K-12 curriculum, Kenney’s government injected new levels of weird and outdated ideology.
Panned by teachers, reviled by curriculum experts, and mocked internationally as age-inappropriate, outdated, Eurocentric, jargon-riddled, inaccurate, unconcerned with developing critical thinking skills, and rife with plagiarism, is how columnist David Climenhaga described it.
And then there’s that thing about Kenney’s grandfather, Mart Kenney, showing up in the curriculum, which felt like weird pandering by the programme’s authors.
We never got a glimpse into who Kenney really is or anything about his life outside of politics really.
Aside from politics, we don’t really know what makes him tick.
We know he rented a room in mother’s basement, enjoys listening to Gregorian chants and is a devout Roman Catholic, but that’s almost all we were allowed to see.
Not that we are owed any more.
Politicians deserve their privacy but Kenney’s weird blank slate outside of politics probably contributed to him being not very relatable to most Albertans.
So it becomes a trust thing.
Kenney is popular with many white collar conservatives and former staffers in Ottawa who have fond memories of his two decades as a determined opposition critic and hard-working cabinet minister.
Many of them see him a kind of Philosopher King of Canadian Conservatism.
But whatever charm worked inside the Queensway didn’t translate in the Premier’s Office.
Maybe being a trusted lieutenant to Prime Minster Stephen Harper was a quite different job than being Premier of Alberta?
Someone who has known Kenney for a long time once told me that they believed one of his biggest weaknesses is that he still saw Alberta politics through a 1990s lens.
I’m not sure I totally believe that but I think there’s a hint of truth to it.
And it might be why he has misread Albertans so badly over the past three years.
Kenney got his start in Alberta politics in the early 1990s as the founding spokesperson of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
It was a heady time for deficit hawks and social conservatives, and Kenney frequently engaged in very public quarrels with then-Premier Ralph Klein over government expenses.
The young conservative activist with a trademark Nixonian five-o’clock shadow pioneered the CTF soundbite machine with great success.
It’s where he cut his teeth in politics.
Thirty-years later, Kenney will soon be ending the latest phase of his political career in the same building where he started.
But this time he might not be coming back.
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