Jason Kenney's post-Harper quest to restore conservatism in Alberta

"We cannot have a vital national conservative movement without its beating heart right here in Alberta," says Jason Kenney. Put in those terms, Kenney's move to Alberta seems nearly mythic: the boyish prince returning to restore order to the kingdom and preserve the greater cause of a conservative Canada.

Can Stephen Harper's former lieutenant unite conservatives in common cause?

MP Jason Kenney, then Canada's minister of employment and social development, at a Calgary Stampede barbecue on July 5, 2014. He was lieutenant to Stephen Harper when the Conservative leader was prime minister, but Kenney is now looking to make conservative waves in Alberta. (Reuters)

"This is bigger than us. It's frankly bigger than Alberta. It's about Canada," Jason Kenney explained, addressing an audience at the legion hall in Cochrane, Alta., last week.

"Because this precious place we call Alberta has, in so many ways, led Canada."​

The MP made a version of this appeal when he appeared on stage at the federal Conservative convention in Vancouver in May. He repeated it at an event by an organization calling itself Alberta Can't Wait, a group for those interested in seeing the province's Progressives Conservatives and Wildrose Party unite to chase away the conservative nightmare of an NDP government in Alberta.

That, as Kenney explained in Cochrane, was a matter of both industry and ideology.

"We, as a country, we cannot have a strong Canadian economy without a strong Alberta economy," Kenney said. 

"We cannot have a vital national conservative movement without its beating heart right here in Alberta."

Put in those terms, Kenney's move to Alberta, apparently to bring conservatives together and then vanquish the socialists, seems nearly mythic: the boyish prince returning to restore order to the kingdom and preserve the greater cause of a conservative Canada.

Granted, that might slightly overstate matters. But it is a compelling story. And surely, at the very least, it would be better for the conservative movement in Canada if a New Democrat were not premier of Alberta.

Jason Kenney spoke at a Cochrane unite the right meeting Wednesday

6 years ago
Duration 0:30
Kenney says maturity, compromise will be needed to bring Alberta's right together

The birthplace of Harper conservatism

Alberta is something like the birthplace of Stephen Harper's conservatism: the former prime minister was a Liberal in the late 1970s when he moved from Ontario to Alberta, where he became a conservative who rejected the policies and politics of Pierre Trudeau.

In power, some years later, Harper went about establishing decidedly conservative notions of taxation, the role of the federal government, social policy, justice and foreign affairs, all with the air of insurgency. Beside him for much of that was Kenney, another transplanted Albertan, who went about making widely noted attempts at bringing new immigrants into the Conservative fold.

Unlike the Progressive Conservative party of Brian Mulroney, Harper's Conservative Party did not fall apart on the way to losing power. Whoever eventually succeeds him as leader will have something to work with.

Kenney, left, signs his name after being sworn in as parliamentary secretary to the prime minister for multiculturalism while then Prime Minister Stephen Harper watches during a ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 7, 2006. (REUTERS)

But however much Harper's insurgency succeeded in moving conservative ideas into the mainstream of Canadian political debate, whatever the health of the party he will pass on, Harper will nonetheless leave Parliament with a member of the Trudeau family in power in Ottawa and a New Democrat in the premier's office of Alberta, each now busy implementing decidedly progressive agendas.

Either would likely qualify as a Conservative idea of hell,  but seemingly faced with a choice of trying to defeat one of them in 2019, Kenney has apparently opted to oppose Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

Uniting the right, again

Fatefully, this involves uniting the right provincially as Harper did federally. But the odds of Kenney getting to power improve with a move to Alberta: while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does not seem obviously vulnerable just yet, a single conservative party, unchallenged by a rival on the right, should have rather decent odds of winning any given election in Alberta.

And if he manages to bring Alberta's conservatives together, and if he then beats Notley's NDP in 2019, he could then put some effort toward making Trudeau's second term unpleasant.

Premier Rachel Notley was joined by Justin Trudeau when they marched in the Edmonton Pride Parade in June 2015, before Trudeau's Liberals took power federally. Each is busy implementing decidedly progressive agendas, CBC's Aaron Wherry writes. (Justin Trudeau/Twitter )

And by then, he might be joined at the provincial level by Patrick Brown, the former Conservative MP who is now in place to challenge Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Trudeau's valuable ally.

In Cochrane, Kenney posited that the Alberta NDP was "in some ways elected by accident." But however one chooses to understand Notley's success, she and her government still have another three years to make the case for their re-election.

One Conservative, Chad Rogers, a friend of Kenney's who currently works outside the party, says Kenney's primary motivation for returning to Alberta is the province's economy. But then one wonders what the argument against that NDP government might look like if the Trudeau government finds a way to approve a pipeline that gets Alberta's oil to tidewater.

Kenney has apparently opted to oppose Rachel Notley, shown here in Edmonton on May 5, 2015, after she was elected Alberta premier. (Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters)

Enter Kenney, Exit Harper

This weekend, three days after Kenny announces his intentions in Calgary, Harper is to appear in the same city at what could be a farewell event before the former prime minister leaves politics officially.

The Trudeau Liberals have, of course, already been busy restoring things the Harper Conservatives eliminated and doing away with things the Conservative government created. And Trudeau now has some chance at re-establishing the Liberal Party as the natural governing party.

Trudeau poses for a group selfie along the Canada Day Parade route through Port Credit in Mississauga, Ont., on July 1, 2015. Now prime minister, Trudeau's Liberals have been busy restoring things the Harper Conservatives eliminated and doing away with things the Tories created. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

But for Harper, an incrementalist on policy, to have a real political legacy, his version of conservatism must persist and thrive as a meaningful and mainstream force in Canadian politics. And that will conceivably depend on whether and how subsequent conservative leaders govern. 

Whether Kenney succeeds in Alberta might not be entirely pivotal to that. But this might still be the most significant event of the post-Harper era in Canadian conservatism so far.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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