Calgary·Analysis

A new, softer Jason Kenney emerges from the great oil collapse of 2020

With a hole in his budget that could reach several billion dollars, the usually combative Alberta premier appears before the media with the promise of an open mind and possible co-operation with the NDP.

Usually combative Alberta premier shifts tone and offers co-operation, but will it last?

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney showed a different side this week, talking of co-operation in the face of a collapse in the price of oil on which he based his recent budget. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Crises precipitate change. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that it was a very different Jason Kenney who walked up to a podium on Monday, his swagger noticeably diminished, to discuss the latest knocks to Alberta's oil-dependent economy. 

And yet, it was. 

The Alberta premier is nothing if not combative. If you don't notice the foreign-funded-urban-leftist-militant-neo-colonialist-green-radicals under the table, he's only too happy to point them out and blame them for his province's woes. He seems to pick fights as a matter of reflex. 

So to hear Kenney say that he'd reach out to former Alberta premier and NDP Leader Rachel Notley to try to figure out solutions to the one-two punch of an oil price war and dwindling demand due to the spread of COVID-19 was something new.

To hear him say he might loosen the purse strings on infrastructure spending to stimulate the economy was equally so. 

"Our priority is protecting jobs. Our priority is protecting the economy," he said. "If that means we need to borrow money to make that happen, we will do so."

It wasn't just his words. His whole demeanour seemed to have changed. He looked like a man who had peered into his tool chest and found it lacking.

  • Watch the video below to hear Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's new softer tone when he spoke Monday after a disastrous drop in global oil prices.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks about the global economic situation

CBC News Calgary

12 months ago
33:39
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney spoke about coronavirus and the drop in oil prices on March 9, 2020. 33:39

With a hole in his recently unveiled budget that could amount to several billion dollars thanks to Canadian oil trading below $20, the time is ripe for a sort of conversion, but the question remains whether that's what is happening to Kenney.

Can the United Conservative Party leader shed his ideological bearings to tackle a crisis? Is ideology even relevant as a promised economic recovery fades? Can he work with his opponents and consider their positions?

Or is this even anything new? Is this just the pragmatic behind-the-scenes Kenney coming out to make a rare public appearance?

Pressures and the 3 pillars

While Kenney is undeniably an ideological conservative, he has distilled that broader intellectual framework to focus intently on his three core economic objectives: jobs, the economy and pipelines. 

He has pursued these goals ruthlessly and not without controversy.

Now those three priorities are at greater risk than when Kenney took office, and he appears willing to do whatever it takes to improve the odds, even if that means abandoning any hope of balancing the budget by 2022-23 as promised. 

Francois Facchini, a professor of economics at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University, created a theoretical framework to examine ideological shift in politics and says major economic shocks can be a powerful driver of not just individual change, but social change as well.

"The collapse of a very large number of businesses during a crisis period, however, involves virtually everyone," he wrote in his paper Political ideological shift: A theoretical approach.

"It forces a debate to discuss the underlying reasons and ways by which to solve the issue. A major event is therefore an event that creates a social dissonance, forcing a debate and a reassessment of justification systems for ideologies in operation."

People change, societies change, when they look around and realize the costs of holding on to their beliefs are far more punitive than the costs of changing them. 

It's the same set of forces that saw Notley's former NDP government in Alberta convert to unabashed cheerleaders for the oil and gas industry. The same forces that eventually swept the New Democrats from power after one term of languishing oil prices and resulting economic doldrums. 

Deepening crisis

But the problem has deepened. In addition to the issues of pipeline capacity and reduced prices, Alberta was slammed over the weekend by global forces that cratered the price of oil just over two weeks after the UCP tabled a budget that predicted an increase to $58 for a barrel of West Texas Intermediate. 

You could almost hear investment in the oilpatch, already sparse, drying up. Stocks plummeted, wiping out billions from Calgary-based balance sheets.

That's what brought Kenney in front of the cameras on Monday, with vows to stimulate the economy and to go cap in hand to Ottawa for more help. His confidence in the ability of corporate tax cuts to bring back investment deflated. 

But does this really represent a shift?

For Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt, Kenney's appearance on Monday represented a pragmatic side that always lurks behind the facade. 

The 'fire and brimstone' vs. the private Kenney

"What it demonstrated is something that people who know Kenney very well witness all the time — that there's multiple Kenneys," said Bratt. 

"There's the Kenney who works with advisers, who works with experts, who listens, who's thoughtful. And then there's the fire and brimstone public rhetoric of Jason Kenney. And I think what we saw was a public display of what his private behaviour often is."

Kenney, who often attacks Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government, reined in his combative style in the wake of an oil price collapse. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Bratt points to the fact Kenney was at the federal cabinet table when the financial crisis struck in 2008. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper assessed its situation and established a bailout of the auto industry, diving into the world of stimulus spending. 

What we're seeing in the Alberta premier now is not some turn from a true blue conservative to a sort of neo-Marxist. 

There's no sign at this point of any shift away from spending reductions in other areas, including wages and jobs in the public sector and the closure of parks. 

Nor is there any consideration of a sales tax, long a rallying cry of those who want to see Alberta get off the oil and gas royalty roller-coaster, to which it has been strapped for decades. 

Notley held her own news conference on Monday just before Kenney. She listed her party's wishes, including a seat at the table to discuss the economy, a reconsideration of the budget, more money from Ottawa and more health worker hires, not trimming staff, to deal with the coronavirus. 

So what's to come?

The future

It seems unlikely that Kenney will look at the world around him and abandon his full throttle support of Alberta's biggest industry, or somehow reverse decades of his conservative beliefs. A wholesale change is not in the cards. 

Larger changes to the way Alberta operates, and the way it ties its fortunes to the global whims of commodity markets are also unlikely. 

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley wants the government to revisit its budget, released on Feb. 27, in light of plunging oil prices and the coronavirus. (CBC)

But there was a clear shift in tone and priorities, a softening of the wedge driven between the UCP and its supporters and everyone else, including the Opposition NDP. We could even see the two parties — which have been at each other's throats since the UCP formed from the merger of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties in 2017 — co-operating in the face of a potential crisis. 

Whether Kenney and the NDP could ever see eye to eye beyond wanting Ottawa to lift the cap on the fiscal stabilization fund remains to be seen.

But Bratt notes both Kenney and Notley have a pragmatic streak and should be able to co-operate for a short time as long as they avoid hot-button topics. 

Softer words

One thing's for sure: no one would have predicted the overtures of co-operation we're now seeing even just a week ago. 

Will it last? Will it work? By Wednesday, Kenney appeared to have a bit of his swagger back just before he boarded a plane for Ottawa for the first ministers conference.

He called for an end to "virtue signalling" by the federal government and called for them to focus on the economy. But the rest of his words were softer. Alberta needs help, he said.

Standing in the Calgary airport on a day when WestJet said it was taking action in light of its own falling finances, Kenney said the true test will come when the federal Liberals table their budget at the end of the month and show what they will do for Alberta.

If, in Kenney's eyes, they fail that test, it's safe to assume a return of the combative tone that has defined the premier over the past year.

About the Author

Drew Anderson is a web journalist at CBC Calgary. Like almost every journalist working today, he's won a few awards. He's also a third-generation Calgarian. You can follow him on Twitter @drewpanderson. Contact him in confidence at drew.anderson@cbc.ca. Signal contact upon request. CBC Secure Drop: www.cbc.ca/securedrop/

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