The ideals and principles that proved Jason Kenney's undoing

It is much easier to say no without having to provide a reason than to translate ideas into legislation that advances the common good. This proved to be a difficult adjustment for some MLAs and party members.

Jason Kenney gave caucus a free hand. He shouldn't have — they used it to take him out

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks in response to the results of the United Conservative Party leadership review in Calgary on Wednesday. Kenney has stepped down as leader of the United Conservative Party. Kenney received 51.4 per cent support from the party in a leadership vote. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Howard Anglin, a former senior aide to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Well, that's one thing settled. After winning a majority of votes in the UCP leadership review, Jason Kenney announced he will step down as Alberta premier. At least he goes out on a winning streak — a perfect 13 for 13 in political contests by my count. 

If something sounds funny about a politician resigning after winning a vote, then welcome to Canadian provincial politics, where a sitting premier leading a majority government with the confidence of the legislature and the support of a majority of members of his own party can feel compelled to resign.   

For comparison, the federal Conservative and Liberal party constitutions require leadership reviews only after the party fails to form government in a general election. The reason is obvious: a disgruntled fraction of one party's base — a minority of a minority — should not be able to force a change in the country's prime minister. 

Why was it even up to UCP members?

The same logic should apply for a premier. More people attended the Flames-Oilers game at the Saddledome than voted against Kenney's leadership. That isn't how democracy is supposed to work, even in a parliamentary system where voters do not directly elect the head of government. 

Some of the blame lies with Kenney and the party. Because they failed to freeze the membership lists before the review, thousands of people who had never been members of the party could decide the outcome. 

Whether that was arrogance or oversight, it was a tactical mistake. It encouraged potential rivals to sign up new members, turning what is supposed to be an informal signal check by party faithful into a full-blown leadership campaign by the sore losers of the last one. A lesson for future leaders, but too late for this one.

Kenney will bear much of the blame for his loss, which is only fair. He was the leader, and never shied away from taking responsibility for decisions. In fact, his insistence on being the face of the province's COVID response, on answering every question in interminable internal caucus meetings and frequent public briefings, gave him the kind of negative exposure most politicians would run from. 

The fatal mistake

There has also been much public and private grumbling about Kenney's caucus management style and his supposed failure to seek grassroots and backbench input in government decision-making.

Some of these complaints are childish, the whinging of bruised egos who aspire to office above their competence. Others, such as complaints about impatience or indifference from a premier on a mission have some foundation, but are well within the normal range of disaffection within a diverse political caucus. 

But Kenney's most dangerous challenge, and the one that ultimately proved fatal, came from a threat he knew about when he founded the party, but which he still seems to have underestimated. That is the irascible mood of modern Alberta politics, especially in the centre and on the right.

Independent MLA Drew Barnes talks to reporters outside the McDougall Centre in Calgary on Thursday. Barnes, who was booted out of caucus a year ago for public speaking against the leader, said he's open to re-joining the UCP caucus, but only after Kenney is no longer at the helm. (Charlotte Dumoulin/Radio-Canada)

It wasn't always like this. In the 71 years between 1935 and 2006, Alberta had six premiers. In the 16 years since Ralph Klein, it has had another six, soon to be seven. Clearly there is something in the soil.

I find it hard not to admire much about the stubborn contrarianism that has led more than one commentator to wonder if Alberta is "ungovernable." It is easy to romanticize this Prairie populist streak with appropriately western metaphors that invoke the frontier spirit, wild horses, or unpredictable prairie thunder storms.

But a populist spirit is easier to maintain outside government than in it.

Many of the candidates elected on the popular wave of Kenney's landslide 2019 victory turned out to have little understanding of government and no interest in learning. In government, instincts and intuitions have to be channelled into practical policies, which means compromises, hurt feelings, and disappointed interests.

It is much easier to say no without having to provide a reason than to translate ideas into legislation that advances the common good. This proved to be a difficult adjustment for some MLAs and party members. Unable to switch mindsets from protest to policy-making, they became a kind of internal opposition within the UCP. 

Letting the dissenters dissent

If anything, Kenney was too soft on them. His idealized notion of Westminster politics as practiced in the mother Parliament, where members of United Kingdom's governing party have much more leeway to disagree than they do in Canada, led him to tolerate disagreement to the point of fractious dissension. 

When MLAs criticized him publicly, Kenney didn't do what any other leader would have done and toss them. Instead, he held marathon caucus meetings in which he left the rebels' fate up to their fellow MLAs.

He even approved Brian Jean's byelection candidacy, despite Jean's open declaration of war against him. No other party leader in Canada would have been so foolishly principled.

Now, without Kenney to focus their frustration, the egos who engineered his resignation are free to turn their guns on each other. For Alberta's sake, I hope that when the shooting stops, a steady figure emerges who can impose internal discipline and carry on the policy agenda that Kenney engineered and set on track, which has made the province the most interesting and exciting place for conservatism in Canada.

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Howard Anglin is a post-graduate researcher in law at Oxford University. He previously served as deputy chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper and principal secretary to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.


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