The battle of Notley the oil-hater vs Kenney the bully

Both Alberta parties are adopting the old Harper Conservative strategy: define the enemy early, define often and define relentlessly
United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney (left) and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley (right). (Codie McLachlan/CP and Chris Bolin)
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley (left) and United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney. (Codie McLachlan/CP and Chris Bolin)
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley (left) and United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney. (Codie McLachlan/CP and Chris Bolin)

Deep down, Jason Kenney must admire the Alberta NDP’s quick-draw attacks against him, before the last of the leftover balloons from last weekend’s United Conservative Party leadership victory would have fully deflated. A decade ago, he was the Harper Conservative MP assigned to gleefully explain to reporters the party strategy behind the attack ads unfurled against Stéphane Dion weeks after federal Liberals crowned the former environment minister as leader.

“We want to demonstrate that the only thing green about Stéphane Dion is his inexperience as a leader,” Kenney told the media gathered on a slow-news weekend. The Conservatives, more flush with fundraising dollars than the Liberals, ran the spots during the 2007 Superbowl’s northern broadcast.

Dion’s retort was to attack the attacking: “Mr. Harper has nothing positive to say about his own record.” He predicted the ads would fail. They did not. As prophesied by Kenney’s hokey pun on greenness, the barrage of advertising and relentlessly early-and-often Conservative MP messaging successfully painted Dion as a nutty professor who wanted to carbon-tax everything and prioritize nothing.

Stephen Harper, Kenney and party repeated the trick with “just visiting” ads against Michael Ignatieff in 2009, defining the subsequent Liberal leader before he could define himself, and in so doing they pummeled their way to a majority.

Conservatives unfurled a series of “in over his head” ads against Justin Trudeau within 24 hours of his leadership win in 2013, though Canadians ultimately chose to define Trudeau as the charismatic idealistic prime ministerial type—after some handy corrective work from the Liberals’ own messaging efforts.

READ MORE: Jason Kenney wooed Alberta’s conservatives. Next, the rest of Alberta.

So Kenney knows the drill, and had more or less telegraphed the NDP’s first step, predicting that they would go negative because gosh what kind of governing party would stoop to doing that against a newly minted leader 18 months before the next general election. It came on Tuesday as an online video the Alberta NDP posted. It first waxes Ignatieffesque by stating Kenney has “come back to Alberta to be premier,” and then gets into whatever is the leftish version of red meat. (Extra-spicy tofu? Pot brownies?) The female narrator warns: “Jason Kenney’s extreme policy on GSAs (gay-straight alliances) would force teachers to out gay students… Jason Kenney. Too extreme for Alberta.”

There wasn’t time in that 15-second video for anything positive about Rachel Notley’s NDP, or anything else at all. That would come Thursday, in what amounts to attack legislation. The Alberta government’s showpiece bill this fall explicitly prohibits schools from telling parents their children have joined a peer support club for LGBT students, and clarifies that existing notification policies about discussions of sexuality and religion don’t go beyond class lessons.

Earlier this year, Kenney provided the inspirational spark for the idea by telling the Calgary Herald in March that “parents have a right to know what’s going on with their kids in the schools unless the parents are abusive.” Kenney quickly walked it back to say the law shouldn’t force schools to release information and the public shouldn’t assume parents are anything but loving, but the NDP saw their opening—no longer did they just have to go back to Kenney’s 2005 vote against same-sex marriage to attack him as a social conservative.

RELATED: For Jason Kenney and Brian Jean, it’s Alberta versus the world

Kristopher Wells, a prominent Edmonton academic on sexual minority issues, declared this Canada’s most comprehensive legislation on GSAs, and possibly the world’s. Indeed, Ontario and other jurisdictions did not bother to be so prescriptive, and even Alberta officials concede this part of the bill is largely clarification (other parts are to force religious and private schools to adopt the same LGBT-friendly policies as public schools).

Notley also kicked off the week by letting cameras into the NDP caucus meeting, where she teed off on the “UCP’s job killing, climate-denying, gay-outing, school-cutting, health-privatizing, backward-looking, hope-destroying, divisive agenda.” This was unusual behaviour for a sitting premier who doesn’t want to be perceived as auditioning for a role as opposition leader.

This was also the riposte in an apparent rap battle with Kenney, who days earlier had called the NDP a “deceptive, divisive, deficit-quadrupling, tax-hiking, accidental, socialist government.” (He’s also called the NDP job-killing, so clearly Albertans’ jobs are not safe from the murderous wrath of any major party leader.)

Both sides are taking up the maxim that Harper perfected while Conservative prime minister: define the enemy early, define often and define relentlessly. This week in the legislature, the NDP’s backbencher queries in question period were often devoted to asking NDP ministers what carnage would occur to schools, nurses and poor old granny if Jason Kenney slashed and burned the public sector.

And for their turn, Kenney’s surrogate MLAs—he’s not one himself yet—hammered away daily with scripted attacks on pipelines, and picked up Kenney’s campaign theme of equal-time bashing of Notley and Trudeau, in hopes of tying an unpopular NDP premier to an unpopular-in-Alberta Liberal PM and arguing she won’t defend Alberta’s energy sector. (Prediction: UCP campaign slogan for 2019: “Stand up for Alberta”—just like Harper’s first winning campaign in 2006.) Also in keeping with the Harper style, both leaders have shown flashes of extreme centralizing of power and messaging control.

RELATED: Why Rachel Notley will need an even bigger miracle to win again

As Trudeau showed against the Harper Tories, it’s how you defend yourself against the opposition branding that can make a difference. Notley has earnestly tried to cast herself as much of a champion of oil as any Tory premier was—she’s heading to British Columbia to talk energy and pipelines later this month, and Alberta has once again bid to intervene against a legal bid to thwart the Trans Mountain Pipeline in the westernmost province. Kenney, meanwhile, refused to take the government’s bait on the “no outing kids” legislation, but also refused to say much of anything at all, keeping his caucus quiet while it studied the new bill.

Kenney has the potential to play Lucy here and pull away the football Charlie Brown is racing towards. Having won the leadership with the help of social and religious conservatives, how much does he have to curry favour with a voter segment with no other party to vote for?

He could do as Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown did with the Kathleen Wynne Liberals’ recent trap legislation to create “safe zones” around abortion clinics—he pledged his party’s support for the bill, declared himself pro-choice, and accused the Liberals of trying to draw him into divisive social issues. The Wynne government looked silly for a spell, and got on with governing.

Kenney hasn’t chosen thus far to do that, and in his only statement raised the straw man that this gay-straight alliance legislation could affect kids as young as five—though the clubs are essentially for junior high and high schools, not kindergarteners in any context anybody imagines.

If Kenney doesn’t follow the lead of Brown, his fellow social conservative caucus colleague, it likely signals one of two things: he does want the support of voters for whom parental rights regarding their pre-adolescents and teens are a big issue; or that he’s calculated that a softening of his image would show weakness and isn’t worth it, because his party has such a comfortable edge over Notley that he can afford to lose voters wary of anything resembling social conservatism.

Perhaps the UCP leader is confident that the public will prefer his depiction of Notley as a socialist oil-hater to hers of Kenney as an extremist bully. From here to 2019, it’s nothing but these two message tracks.