Kenney's great test: How the Alberta premier could pull off a political comeback

Jason Kenney may think "Alberta is back," but can the embattled leader push back the considerable forces imperiling his premiership?

Pollster, strategist and political scientist weigh in on how UCP leader may be able to hold on to power

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney faces some tough political challenges in the year ahead. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

Jason Kenney may think "Alberta is back," but can the embattled leader push back the considerable forces imperiling his premiership?

Kenney, no doubt, faces some tough political challenges in the year ahead, including a United Conservative Party (UCP) leadership review, more potential discontent from within his caucus, a frontal assault from an old political rival and grumpy Alberta voters who don't have much respect, according to at least one poll, for the premier a year and a half away from the next provincial election.  
"He is as unpopular as any leader in Alberta history has ever been," stresses Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown, who has had her finger on the pulse of Alberta voters for more than two decades. 

Making a comeback would be unprecedented, adds Brown. 

But Kenney has a reputation for tactical politics and savvy communication skills. And the UCP leader seems determined to hold onto power, saying recently he feels more confident in his leadership than he has for a "very long time." 

But will a re-tooled and re-packaged political communication strategy be enough for Kenney to overcome what polls have suggested is a looming electoral defeat for the UCP? 

UCP insider acknowledges it's bad

A UCP insider, who spoke to CBC News anonymously because they were not authorized to speak, acknowledges the governing party has not had many communication wins in the past year.

In fact, the UCPer concedes Kenney's government's communication has been too fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants since the beginning of the pandemic.
The UCP politico adds the government should look to retool its messaging and signal that it is much more understanding in the coming months in an effort to regain Albertans' trust.  
"The current premier is … in a tough spot, there's no doubt about it, '' Evan Menzies, the former Director of Communications for the United Conservative Party and current campaign strategist with Crestview Strategy, told CBC News in an interview. 
But Menzies thinks a come-from-behind rebound is possible for Kenney, who he describes as a political scrapper who "can fight back and regain some political momentum," especially if he focuses on the economy.

Putting the spotlight on the economy

Kenney has recently trumpeted Alberta's potential economic recovery amidst high energy prices. 
Menzies thinks spotlighting the potential economic green shoots sprouting in the wake of the global novel coronavirus pandemic could help the premier regain public support. 
"I personally am a big fan of the message of 'Alberta is back' when it comes to the economy," says Menzies. 
The UCP swept to power in 2019 with the bumper sticker promise of "jobs, pipelines and the economy."

Are Albertans feeling like they are back? 

In recent months, Alberta's economy revved once again on high prices for oil and gas. Still, economists continue to worry about the long-term viability of the prairie province's reliance on fossil fuels to pay the government's bills and keep fueling the economy.  

While high oil prices definitely help the provincial government's bottom line, Andrew Leach, environmental economist and associate professor with the University of Alberta's School of Business, recently opined that "it's going to take a lot more than that to make it feel like a boom again for the people of Alberta."

"The government might be giddy with the improved projections," Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams told CBC's West of Centre podcast recently.

But Williams is also skeptical that Albertans feel like they are back from the economic chaos triggered by the pandemic. 

As well, Williams thinks the range of issues Albertans care about has broadened in the wake of COVID-19. 

Could healthcare concerns overshadow Albertans' economic concerns?

The very real threat of Alberta's well-funded healthcare system collapsing during the dreary days of the fourth wave of the pandemic focused public attention on healthcare. 

Public concern lingers. The fourth wave alone forced the cancellation of as many as 15,000 surgeries. Experts say understanding the full impact of the lengthy backlog is hard.

But Lori Williams is pretty sure who Albertans blame for the current and future chaos in healthcare. 

"They know what caused that backlog was, in part, mismanagement by the government," Williams told West of Centre host Kathleen Petty

"People are really viscerally experiencing concerns about the healthcare system," she added, "and they directly connect those concerns about the healthcare system to a government that … has taken on or attacked or needlessly been combative with … frontline healthcare workers." 

A UCP insider acknowledges that Kenney needs to rebuild public trust. They think the best way to do that is for Kenney to show he understands why people are upset with him.

An empathic and caring Kenney

Evan Menzies thinks that though the UCP's messaging has improved in recent months, there's more work to do.

Menzies suggests in addition to highlighting the economy, Kenney needs to demonstrate more empathy. 

The political strategist says Kenney's November speech to the UCP's convention in Red Deer highlighted Kenney's caring side when he talked about being only "days away from having to authorize critical-care triage protocols" during the height of the fourth wave of the pandemic. 

"How that weighed on his heart and his soul, it was a genuine, authentic reflection of who he is," says Menzies, who urges the premier to show that side more often to Albertans. 

Pollster Janet Brown also thinks Kenney has to broaden his communication and speak more compassionately about issues such as healthcare and education.  

"This government is very combative," said Brown. "These are the things that make it hard for Albertans to think this is a premier who understands me, who's empathetic towards my issues, who I can respect."

Menzies also thinks Kenney needs to pick his battles more selectively, instead focusing on practical results such as the recent deal with Ottawa for $10-a-day child care.

But first Kenney needs to survive his party's internal leadership test before he faces the public. 

Fending off an internal threat 

UCP party members will decide Kenney's fate in early April. 

He also faces the peculiar potential threat from inside his caucus from former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean, who is likely to win the looming Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche byelection and return to the Legislative Assembly and Kenney's caucus. 

Menzies calls Jean "a legitimate threat," but suspects Kenney's chances of surviving his party's leadership review have improved since September when he put down a caucus revolt

He also thinks winning the leadership test in early April will bolster Kenney's power over recalcitrant caucus members.  

Time may help Kenney, too, says Menzies. The next provincial election is set for May of 2023.  

Menzies predicts internal party fighting will dissipate closer to the next election as party members and government caucus MLAs unite around Kenney in the hopes of preventing Rachel Notley and the NDP from regaining power.  


Elise von Scheel is CBC Calgary's politics reporter and the producer of the West of Centre podcast. Brooks DeCillia spent 20 years reporting and producing news at CBC. He splits his time now between researching public opinion about energy and the environment at the University of Calgary and teaching journalism at Mount Royal University.