Think about it: Jason Kenney is holding a rally with Doug Ford

You’ve heard of shadow boxing. Well, Friday night in Calgary there’ll be shadow wrestling — starring the tag-team duo of United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney and Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

You have to wonder about the wisdom of these two pairing up, says political analyst Graham Thomson

Jason Kenney, leader of Alberta's United Conservative Party, is holding an anti-carbon tax rally Friday in Calgary with Ontario Premier Doug Ford. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press, Chris Young/Canadian Press)

You've heard of shadow boxing.

Well, Friday night in Calgary there'll be shadow wrestling — starring the tag-team duo of United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney and Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

Their opponents, who won't be in the ring: Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

It'll just be Kenney and Ford and perhaps a thousand or so fans cheering them on at what's being billed as a "Scrap the Carbon Tax" rally.

At first glance this makes perfect sense for Kenney, who wants to turn the 2019 Alberta election into a referendum on Alberta's carbon tax.

For Kenney, the carbon tax is the perfect issue: unpopular; easy to attack; difficult to defend.

It's the kind of thing opposition politicians can demonize in 10 seconds while the government needs five minutes worth of graphs and charts to explain.

Last August, when Kenney campaigned for a few days with Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs in the New Brunswick election, Kenney offered Higgs this advice:

"Make this [election] partly a referendum on the carbon tax. That's what happened in Ontario and it resulted in a change in government. Everywhere the carbon tax is put to voters they say 'No.'"

Are Kenney's carbon-tax tactics simplistic?

It's debatable that the Ontario election was determined solely by opposition to the province's cap-and-trade system. In fact, 60 per cent of voters cast ballots for the Liberals, NDP and Greens who support a price on carbon. But Kenney knows it's easier to rally support against taxes than for them. (Sidenote: Higgs won 22 seats in the NB election compared to 21 for the Liberals.)

Are Kenney's tactics on a carbon tax cynically simplistic, especially for an issue so complex? Absolutely.

Are they sadly effective? Yep.

A rally against a carbon tax in Calgary will draw media attention and hundreds of rootin'-tootin' tax-hatin' Calgarians. (Some UCP officials are hoping as many as 1,300 people will turn up but Mother Nature doesn't appear to be co-operating. These days it's easier to get around Calgary by dog sled than by car.)

No doubt we'll have some pundits declaring Friday's rally the start to Kenney's election campaign. But, then again, we've had so many campaign starters' pistols fired since he became UCP leader — from both the UCP and NDP — it's starting to sound like a war zone.

It is not the start of the campaign — but it does give us a glimpse into where the Kenney campaign is headed.

And you have to wonder if Kenney's compass is off by a few points.

He is holding a rally with Doug Ford.

Think about it.

Ford might have won the Ontario election but he has been courting controversy at every turn as a less-than-thoughtful populist with a vindictive streak.

He has, among other things, killed Ontario's cap-and-trade program, scrapped a $100-million fund for school repair, overturned a new sex-ed curriculum, cancelled a planned raise in the minimum wage and said he was "getting rid" of labour legislation that would have provided more protection for workers.

And then there was his unilateral decision — never mentioned during the summer election campaign — to cut the size of Toronto city council from 47 members to 25, a bullying move that looked suspiciously like spite against former political rivals.

Ford threatened to use the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to force the cut on Toronto if necessary — and he has promised to use that constitutional nuclear option whenever he feels like it.

'Birds of a feather'

No doubt Alberta conservatives will cheer some of these, particularly tossing out the cap-and-trade program. That's all part of the war against a price on carbon, provincially and federally.

But moderate Albertans might be put off by Ford's sledgehammer approach to issues such as sex-ed and protecting workers' rights.

And they might wonder if Kenney will invoke a similarly brutal approach to sensitive issues.

Predictably, the Alberta Federation of Labour is already trying to connect the dots.

"Jason Kenney and Doug Ford are birds of a feather," said AFL president Gil McGowan in a news release Thursday. "Albertans would do well to pay attention to Doug Ford's Ontario — because, if we're not careful, their present could become our future."

That argument would actually sit well with Kenney's base supporters but it might not with Albertans who view with trepidation Ford's brick-through-the-window style of governance.

Bull in a china shop

UCP officials say the rally is about more than just Alberta's carbon tax, it's about Kenney building a national alliance against a federal price on carbon.

Kenney's opponents will see that admission as more evidence the former Conservative cabinet minister just wants to use Alberta politics as a springboard back into the federal arena.

But again you have to wonder at the wisdom of Kenney eagerly climbing into the ring, so to speak, with someone as problematic and controversial as Ford.

The Ontario premier is proving to be something of a bull in a china shop — and those never make the best tag-team wrestling partners.

Graham Thomson is a political analyst who has covered Alberta politics as a reporter and columnist for more than 30 years.


Graham Thomson

Freelance contributor

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.