Why Jason Kenney could be the best thing to happen to Rachel Notley
Kenney-led Conservative Party could set the stage for generation of NDP governments
Originally published July 16.
Jason Kenney joined the Alberta PC leadership last week with all of the subtlety of a tornado.
Like most such storms, we all had a pretty good idea it was coming long before it touched down. So it wasn't surprising that Kenney's opponents were already at full boil when he strode up to the podium and announced it would be "a walk in the park" to unite the right and lead a unified conservative party to victory. Reaction was instant. Detractors immediately took to the airwaves accusing him of being too conservative, too out of touch with the modern Alberta.
There was, however, one person who seemed pretty calm at the notion of a Kenney-led united right: Premier Rachel Notley.
She has good reason. By vacating the centre to unite the right, a Kenney-led Conservative Party could set the stage for a generation of NDP governments.
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Math is difficult
There's no question that on its surface, Kenney's pitch to conservatives is an appealing one — take the number of PC votes and add it to the number of Wildrose votes and voila! — the Conservatives would have won the 2015 provincial election.
The challenge is, if you're going to start adding votes together, it doesn't quite appear to be the open-and-shut case Kenney implies it is — the "left" and the "right" were fairly evenly balanced in Alberta last election – about 50 per cent each.
If you come into your leadership election with a central critique that the PCs lost their way and became too left wing, you'd better also believe moving to the right won't cost you a single vote because otherwise that leftward flank starts to look exceptionally vulnerable.
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Let's not forget, former Premier Jim Prentice tried to unite the right – admittedly with the finesse of a jackhammer – and the end product was insufficiently conservative in the eyes of Wildrose supporters – who decided not to follow their leader and majority of MLAs to Prentice's promised land.
Prentice's hands were tied. He couldn't move the party further right without risking the alienation of the centre. And as long as there were parties to his left, that was a risk he just couldn't afford.
Hard trade-offs required
The reality of not just political mergers but also politics itself is that our political affiliation is not the same as our sports team affiliation — drift costs support. If you fail to represent your constituency, they'll leave you.
The federal PC drift to the centre birthed the Reform Party, the provincial PCs birthed the Wildrose. But both of those initiatives took years to get off the ground. The bigger and more immediate problem is when somebody else wants to play on your part of the field, as Rachel Notley and the NDP are keen to do with the political centre in Alberta.
Kenney appears to be particularly vulnerable on this front. His decades of hardline conservatism provide an exceptional amount of fodder for his opponents.
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It doesn't take a lot of imagination to piece together a 2019 NDP attack ad using Kenney's own words to portray him as totally out of touch with the Alberta majority and set the election as a referendum on civility.
His blueprint is his problem
Jason Kenney the person will be a major problem for his united right's election hopes, but the frankenparty that results from his machinations might be a bigger, more foundational one.
Kenney makes a lot of his experience in uniting the right federally, and often talks of the PC-Canadian Alliance merger as a blueprint for uniting the right in Alberta. But that model should put chills down the spines of the progressive wing of the Progressive Conservatives.
Tom Flanagan is Stephen Harper's former campaign manager. In his book, Harper's Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, he laid out Harper's basic approach to merger negotiations with the PCs: "Harper just kept saying 'yes' until they ran out of reasons to say 'no.'"
Put another way, the right-wing Canadian Alliance continued to give in to the demands of the centre-right Progressive Conservatives.
But what will happen if it runs the other way? If surrender is the model, are the PCs really going to give in to every Wildrose demand? What will the priorities, policies and governance structure of such a party be? And will that party be any more palatable to the majority of Albertans than the Wildrose is? And what does that mean for the centre?
There's no question Rachel Notley would prefer to keep her opponents divided; there's certainty in that. But if the right is to be united, a united right under the Jason Kenney model is as good as it gets for the NDP – and likely better than the status quo.
Albertans, contrary to the national caricature, have a history of punishing candidates who are insufficiently progressive on social issues.
Jim Prentice also wrongly believed he could duck and weave around social issues. He wasn't the first — former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith lost the 2012 election over her views on climate change and her candidate's views on homosexuality.
In 1812, Thomas Jefferson declared invading Canada would be "a mere matter of marching." In 2016, Jason Kenney declared a new right wing government would be "a walk in the park." Both willfully ignored the realities in front of them.
It's too late for Jefferson, but the PCs might want to take a hard look at the campaign they're being asked to join.
They shouldn't, however, expect any help from the NDP. Short of making a campaign contribution, expect Rachel Notley to do everything she can to help Jason Kenney into the PC leadership.