Politics

Jason Kenney steps in for embattled cabinet colleagues as 'minister of everything'

Jason Kenney is holding news conferences for the Conservatives' national campaign and has stepped in for ministers who have underperformed or are battling it out in tight three-way races.
Conservative candidate Jason Kenney is filling in for the ministers of finance, foreign affairs and immigration on the campaign trail. 1:54

Defence Minister Jason Kenney campaigned in Toronto this week, about 2,700 kilometres away from anyone eligible to vote for the Conservative candidate in Calgary-Midnapore.

Generally, election campaigns aren't opportunities for candidates to rack up air miles. But Kenney has been called upon to do a number of news conferences for the Conservatives' national campaign and has stepped in for ministers who have underperformed or are battling it out in tight three-way races. 

"Please welcome the Honourable Jason Kenney for an important statement on the Canadian economy," is how Bernard Trottier, the Conservative candidate for Etobicoke-Lakeshore, introduced Kenney at a news conference yesterday.

In the end, his statement was an attack on Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's campaign promises, but seeing as Finance Minister Joe Oliver was a 30-minute cab ride away, reporters asked why Oliver wasn't the one talking about Canada's economy.

"He's working hard in his constituency, and in every one of the last five election campaigns I've been a national campaign spokesperson, so I'm just continuing in that role," Kenney responded.

It's not the first time Kenney has been called upon to answer questions for the finance minister, and when it happens, he sounds at ease with the file.

Jason Kenney has been deployed by the Conservative campaign to comment on issues normally handled by other ministers. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

"I'm suggesting a recession is typically defined as a widespread downturn, not a discrete sectoral downturn," he said in an interview on CBC News Power & Politics at the end of August.

Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson has also been hard to talk to as he fights tough competition in Niagara Falls. No matter, Kenney was able to answer questions about imprisoned Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy.

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said Kenney has also picked up the refugee file after Immigration Minister Chris Alexander was seen by some to have fumbled Canada's response to the Syrian crisis.  

"He's the go-to guy. We've seen this most recently on the immigration file. When we saw Chris Alexander frankly just go down in flames, who was there right away? You had Kenney there," said Dewar.

Kenney is seen as an effective communicator, someone easily briefed on almost any file.

Dewar agrees, but said Kenney deliberately takes some liberties, most recently on the issue of Syrian refugees.

"He'll talk about the fact they brought in all of these refugees," Dewar said. "When we were talking about Syria, he was actually talking about Iraq. He knew what he was doing. He tried to confuse the issue to make the government look like they were doing more than they actually were."

Conservative strategist Jason Lietaer said putting Kenney out in front of the cameras is smart.

"You need a spokesperson who can get out of their riding, is still reasonably assured of a victory there and is actually able to travel and communicate," he said. "That's what you've got with Jason Kenney."

Safe at home

Kenney concedes he doesn't have much to worry back in Calgary where he won his riding with 76 per cent of the vote in 2011. 

"My constituents are very happy to have me travelling across the country helping with the national campaign, because they want a majority Conservative government," Kenney said earlier this week.

"So perhaps that's why I pitch in a lot. I'm sort of a someone who's able to get around and address a lot of different issues."

Even so, Lietaer said Kenney is doing quadruple duty these days, covering national defence as well as the immigration, finance and foreign affairs portfolios. In 2011, when Lietaer ran the Conservative war room, the party could also rely on two other senior cabinet ministers in safe seats — John Baird and Jim Flaherty — to help spread Harper's message. 

"For sure [Kenney's] carrying a heavy load," Lietaer said. "I think what you're seeing here is three ministers who have to focus on taking care of the home front rather than travelling around."

All this exposure is a pretty good exercise for a man long-rumoured to have prime ministerial ambitions. But in the middle of an election where all three major parties are neck and neck, it's evident the man in the job right now is comfortable putting Kenney to good use.

"The fact that the prime minister has enough confidence to put Kenney out there as his spokesperson tells you everything you need to know about your question," Lietaer said.

About the Author

Alison Crawford is a senior reporter in CBC's parliamentary bureau, covering justice, public safety, the Supreme Court and Liberal Party of Canada.

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