How Jason Kenney's plan to 'fight back' helps and hurts him

'There is an internal contradiction within Jason Kenney’s ambitions.' Political scientist Duane Bratt on Jason Kenney’s strategy of fighting back, and what it means to his future.

'The Alberta energy sector is hurting and feels victimized'

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney addressed the crowd in Calgary as part of the Energy Relaunch conference. (Monty Kruger/ CBC)

Duane Bratt is the chair and a professor in the department of Policy Studies at Mount Royal University.

The Alberta energy sector is hurting and feels victimized.

When you feel victimized, you often want to lash out and fight. Now, they've found their fighter. In a passionate speech to a very conservative-friendly Energy Relaunch conference in Calgary Thursday, United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney promised that he would fight on behalf of the Alberta energy sector. 

I have no doubt that Kenney is serious about fighting. This will help him become premier of Alberta and it foreshadows his governing style.  But this same fighting impulse will also stymie his longer-term goal of becoming prime minister of Canada.

War room

Kenney was the first speaker at the Energy Relaunch conference, and he used the platform to flesh out his "fight back" strategy. 

First, he would establish a well-funded "war room" that would respond in real time to any lies or misrepresentations about Alberta's energy sector. This would replicate what political parties do during election campaigns. 

Second, Kenney would create a legal action fund to support energy development. For example, this fund could be accessed by groups who wish to sue environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) that try to block energy projects.

In Kenney's words, "we will support pro-development litigation." 

Third, he would instruct his attorney general to investigate ENGOs and their violation of charitable status. (He explicitly identified the David Suzuki Foundation as a target). 

At the conference, politicians agreed Bill C-69 needs to go back to the drawing board. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

This information would be passed on to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). And if the CRA refused to strip ENGOs of their charitable status, the Alberta government would take CRA to court, too. 

Fourth, he would boycott companies who criticized the energy sector and "hurt Alberta." (HSBC was specifically named). 

Finally, he said that a Kenney government would "fight back" against other jurisdictions in Canada that oppose Alberta's oil and gas sector. For example, shutting off the flow of oil to British Columbia and conducting a referendum in Alberta to end the federal equalization program (thereby hurting Quebec). 

Although he did not use the phrase, it is clear that Kenney has an Alberta "enemies list". One that he would target with the full weight of the Alberta government. 

The list

It seems one of the biggest enemies is what Kenney sees as an alliance between Canadian ENGOs (Pembina Institute was a frequent target) and large liberal donors in the U.S. (such as the Rockefeller Foundation). 

In Kenney's view, this alliance is working together to keep Alberta's oil landlocked and reliant on a U.S. customer that is buying that oil at a heavily discounted rate. 

But it was a long list Kenney laid out from the podium.

Other enemies included: the Alberta NDP government (carbon tax), the Trudeau government (carbon tax and Bill C-69), B.C. (blocking the Trans Mountain Pipeline), Quebec (blocked Energy East pipeline), some senior executives of major oil companies (who support the carbon tax and fund the Pembina Institute), and university professors (who proclaim the benefits of the carbon tax from faculty lounges). 

The Energy East pipeline proposed route is pictured as TransCanada officials speak during a news conference in Calgary in this file photo. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

All this was clearly red meat to Kenney's base. But, as radio talk show host Ryan Jespersen later said during a journalist's panel, the "fight back" strategy will also be very "marketable" in Alberta. 

And certainly, that strategy will play well ahead of next year's Alberta election. Kenney continues to position himself. He wants to run, and win.

Also speaking at the conference was another leader of an official opposition who wants to run and win — federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.

A disappointment 

There was a lot of anticipation in the room about Scheer's speech, but it was a disappointment. 

If Kenney was the street fighter, Scheer was milquetoast. He recited some of the same lines and same arguments as Kenney, but without the level of detail, passion, conviction, or charisma. Scheer was a pale imitation of Kenney. 

Scheer needs to win seats in Alberta if he is going to defeat Trudeau, but what he really needs is more seats in Ontario and Quebec. After all, the CPC already has 27 out of 32 seats in Alberta. 

This might explain (as well as his bland personality) why he doesn't seem as impassioned as Kenney when it comes to defending the oil sector. How will that help in him in Central Canada? 

Andrew Scheer spoke at the Energy Relaunch conference on Thursday in Calgary. (Monty Kruger/ CBC)

The other problem Scheer has is that he is overshadowed by provincial conservative premiers — Ontario's Doug Ford, Quebec's Francois Legault, and even Saskatchewan's Scott Moe (who also spoke at the conference). 

It was clear comparing these two speeches that Kenney is the real leader of the conservative movement in Canada. And it is for this reason, and others, that Kenney's federal ambitions have not been extinguished. 

After all, he was in federal politics for almost 20 years and was a senior minister in the Harper government. But Kenney declined to contest the federal Conservative leadership and instead formed the UCP and is working to become the next premier of Alberta. 

But given Kenney's travel to India and other provinces, his network of conservatives across Canada, and his frequent criticism of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (but his recently muted criticism of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley), it's not hard to imagine he's keeping the option open for a return to federal politics in the future. 

But, and it's a big but, this is where the two Kenney narratives collide. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government's policies regarding energy were the target of much many speakers at the Energy Relaunch conference in Calgary on Thursday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Delegitimize critics

Kenney can use the "fight back" strategy to win the spring 2019 provincial election here in Alberta. I don't think it's an election gimmick. 

I have no doubt that Kenney would implement that strategy he outlines on behalf of Alberta's energy sector. But if he does so, it will destroy his prime ministerial ambitions. 

How could he appeal to a cross-Canada audience by targeting other provinces and trying to delegitimize any critics of Alberta's energy sector? What may be popular in Alberta would not be popular in other parts of the country.

It might appeal to those in Saskatchewan or New Brunswick, but what about those in B.C., Quebec, or Toronto? The rhetoric of fighting the good fight, and any action based upon it, would alienate too many people. By treating too many different groups as enemies, he would surely make them his enemy.

It is no coincidence that no premier has become prime minister of Canada since the 19th century. What it takes to win provincially can hurt you nationally.

There is an internal contradiction within Jason Kenney's ambitions. 

On the one hand, he wants to become premier of Alberta, and so is forcefully defending the energy sector. On the other hand, I think he also wants to become prime minister of Canada one day. 

He can't do both. 

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Duane Bratt

Freelance contributor

Duane Bratt is a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary.


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