Kenney win of United Conservative Party leadership means clear choice for NDP

Jason Kenney’s ascension to the leadership of a newly created United Conservative Party in Alberta isn’t likely a nightmare scenario for Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and the NDP government, but it's chilling.
Jason Kenney,right, becomes the first leader of the United Conservative Party of Alberta, defeating two other candidates, including former Wildrose leader Brian Jean, left. (CBC)

Jason Kenney's ascension to the leadership of a newly created United Conservative Party in Alberta isn't likely a nightmare scenario for Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and the NDP government, even as ghosts and goblins haunt their doorway come Monday morning.

But it's chilling.

Halloween isn't until Tuesday, but the Alberta legislature resumes sitting Monday for the first time since the former Progressive Conservative (PC) party merged with the right-of-centre Wildrose to form the United Conservative Party (UCP) in July, and Jason Kenney became its first leader.

It caps a 16-month-long process which started when former Conservative MP Jason Kenney launched the idea of uniting Alberta conservatives into one party — achieving what had failed miserably in late 2014.

That's when former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith led a disastrous floor crossing of nine MLAs to join the PC government of Premier Jim Prentice.

It was a move panned by members of both parties, who felt Smith was wrong not to consult Wildrose party members about her intentions, and Prentice was wrong to accept them.

Kenney put forward a simple but strategic plan to lay the remains of the Alberta PC party to rest for good — to lock up skeletons of past mistakes forever.

Jason Kenney successfully managed the collapse of competing conservative parties in Alberta to form the United Conservative Party (UCP). (CBC)

First, he had to become leader of the Alberta PC party, which he did.

Next Kenney had to negotiate a merger agreement with the Wildrose, which he did.

Finally, he had to run for the leadership of the new UCP, and win. Which he has.

With the old Alberta PC party now just a memory, Kenney has his narrative down to a science.

The UCP is a party with a new name, new leader, and no track record.

Most importantly, it has no connection, on paper at least, to the flawed and failed PC government — which after 44 years of continuous rule, suffered a humiliating defeat to the upstart NDP led by Rachel Notley in May 2015.

Past mistakes not his problem

"I won't apologize for the mistakes of the past government," Kenney told supporters at an Edmonton rally last week.

He wasn't  there in 2015  or earlier when voters decided the PC machine had run its course.

Instead, Kenney was in Ottawa, honing his skills as an MP, cabinet minister and effective organizer.

His sound victory of 61.1 per cent of voter support Saturday night over two other candidates is testament to Kenney's savvy, his fundraising acumen and years of political polish.

It also speaks to the far reach and depth of disdain for the Notley NDP by both federal and Alberta conservatives. Kenney was endorsed by 23 sitting Conservative MPs in the last week of the campaign.

Brian Jean, former Wildrose leader, finished a distant second to Kenney in the leadership race. He, too, was a former Conservative MP, but didn't get the backing of his former colleagues.

Give NDP 'heave-ho'

Doug Main, a former Alberta PC cabinet minister and backroom veteran of Alberta and federal conservative politics, has watched Kenney's rise with awe.

"It's all very confusing and unusual," said Main, who acknowledges the UCP doesn't have a policy book or platform.

"The one unifying element though," said Main, "is the complete and utter determination that the New Democrats have to be given the heave-ho at the next election."

From the unpopular Alberta carbon tax, to the projected $45-billion debt, Kenney has no shortage of material to work with.

"Hope is on the horizon," Kenney told supporters Saturday night after winning the leadership, "and common sense is coming back."

Deputy Premier Sarah Hoffman says the NDP is not scared of Jason Kenney and the UCP. Hoffman says his win establishes a clear difference between the UCP and the NDP. (CBC)

But as Kenney was giving  his acceptance speech on the Stampede grounds near downtown Calgary, Alberta's Deputy Premier Sarah Hoffman was a guest of the Hindu Society of Calgary in northeast Calgary, with a few thoughts of her own.

She congratulated Kenney on his win, but quickly made it clear, the NDP government isn't about to concede.

Hoffman characterized Kenney's victory as a "very clear contrast, a very clear choice between the values of Jason Kenney and the values of Rachel Notley."

"He wants to recycle old debates of the past," said Hoffman, referring to Kenney's position on social issues that emerged last week.

Kenney sided with Catholic educators who want to write their own sex education curriculum emphasizing Catholic religious values.

Not scared

"I'm not scared of much," Hoffman said, vowing to keep reminding Albertans about what a Kenney government could look like if he follows through with promised spending cuts.

"It smacks of the same kind of entitled attitudes that we heard just a few years ago before the last election," said Hoffman.

"I think the plan that Jason Kenney is proposing is even more extreme" than the deep cuts imposed by former PC premier Ralph Klein in the early '90s, said Hoffman.

Powerful politician

Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt calls Kenney a "powerful politician," but he is also someone the NDP can work around.

"They believe that Kenney is polarizing, and he is divisive on social issues," says Bratt.

While successive polls have shown the Notley NDP government with diminished support outside of Edmonton, their obituary can't yet be written.

Since the halfway mark of the NDP mandate, the Notley government has taken a renewed interest in Calgary.

There's the recent appointment of new Infrastructure Minister Sandra Jansen, a former Calgary PC MLA who left the PCs and its leadership race after allegations she was bullied by the Kenney campaign.

With a focus on infrastructure spending to stimulate the economy, Jansen will spend the next 18 months cutting ribbons on completed projects and handing out cheques to begin new ones.

Taxi driver Hicham Serrar sees business picking up a bit and thinks Calgarians blame the provincial government when things aren’t going so well. (CBC)

Taxi driver Hicham Serrar, originally from Morocco, moved to Calgary five years ago from Montreal. He says business has been slow over the past two years, but things are starting to pick up.

He says Calgarians are quick to blame the provincial government when things aren't going well and the economy is slow.

But he says the public should cut the NDP government a little slack.

"They have to give them a little time if they want them to be successful," said Serrar.

Barista Megan Donahue, 24, says Calgary has a strong conservative bent, but thinks her age group sees things a little differently.

"I think a lot of the people in my generation, the so-called millennials, don't really have any problems with what the NDP is doing," said Donahue.

"I'm perfectly content," she added.

With a leader in place, the UCP is now focused on its next goal: shoring up constituency associations and recruiting candidates for the next Alberta provincial election in the spring of 2019.