Why Jason Kenney’s workaholic style may not work when he’s premier

Jason Markusoff’s Alberta Politics Insider for April 18: Dying on every hill, Kenney’s one-man Department of Micromanagement, and more
Jason Kenney_Macleans live
Jason Kenney pictured in Edmonton Alta, on Tuesday May 15, 2018. Jason Franson for Macleans Magazine

When Day One of the Kenney era came and went without the premier-designate publicly naming his transition team or chief of staff, I tweeted my curiosity about this. It was widely known, after all, that Kenney’s team had been quietly plotting for several weeks how to take power and hit the ground running. One politico replied privately: “Jason is Jason’s transition team. Jason is Jason’s executive assistant, etc.” I knew exactly what he meant: Kenney will give other people  titles, but everything will flow through him. His workaholic, controlling ways stand to be an overwhelming feature of Premier Jason Kenney’s tenure.

While Kenney’s excellence at political strategy, communication and policy is an asset, it also makes him want to get his thumbs in everything. This often came up when I interviewed former federal cabinet aides last year for a Maclean’s profile of Kenney: his often obsessive attention to detail, how he’d read all the cabinet documents on other people’s files, his tendency to work at all hours of the night in his condo—with no partner or family obligations to distract him from politics. “He really values knowing everything about everything, and you can’t do that when you’re premier,” a former chief of staff to Kenney told me. “Be an expert at what you can be an expert on, and leave the rest to (others). I think that’s going to be difficult for him.”

In this campaign, he was effectively his own communications director, deciding himself to do that brutal radio interview with Charles Adler. He was his own policy chief, whom sources said was up past 3 a.m. the night before the platform release, tinkering with the text. When it’s not one ministry, not one campaign, but the entire government of Alberta, this is a recipe for burnout and frustration—a premier spreading himself too thin, missing files, or gumming up the works while all decisions await the boss’s OK. Rachel Notley was known for centralizing decision-making, but expect Kenney to take it to a new level.

Harper had these tendencies, too. But he found he could delegate responsibilities to a few top lieutenants and even let them speak to the press all by themselves. One of them was Kenney. The incoming premier needs to find his Jason Kenneys, but shouldn’t be dismayed that nobody in his ranks seems such a font of perfection. “The internal joke in our office was that if he could clone himself, there would not be enough need for any of us,” the aide said.

Opening day

At his first press conference since winning power, Kenney’s lectern sign read “open for business.” How Doug Ford-ish. But don’t expect him to erect hokey highway-side signs with that message. The premier-designate claimed he was on the phone with business leaders who are “deeply interested in investing more” in Alberta now that the NDP is gone. He’ll swear in a cabinet on April 30, recall the legislature after Victoria Day, and set to repealing the Notley carbon tax and various regulations.

His lectern sign may as well have said “pipelines, pipelines, pipelines!” because that was mostly what he discussed. Kenney clarified that he’ll enact the “turn off the taps” legislation right away but keep wagging the threat over British Columbia’s head, hoping the neighbouring government abandons opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline so Alberta doesn’t have to exact revenge. To Quebec Premier François Legault’s statement that, no, his province still doesn’t want a pipeline, Kenney said it’s unreasonable for them to keep taking “our equalization money” and maintain that opposition. (Fact check: there is no plan on the table to revive the Energy East pipeline, despite what politicians say; and equalization is federal tax dollars from everywhere, not just Alberta—sigh, we’re going to have to repeat this a lot these next four years, aren’t we?) Kenney also reported he had a “respectable conversation” over 15 minutes with Justin Trudeau, and said the provincial-federal Showdown of the Century™ may not occur before the election.

But Kenney, and the rest of us, should circle June 18 in our calendars. Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi has revealed cabinet will decide on whether to approve Trans Mountain by then, the Globe and Mail reports.

The NDP fights on, but must everything be a fight?

New Democrats are used to losing, one candidate told me on election night. In Alberta, they’re also used to being in opposition and criticizing the right-wing government. It might be particularly painful this time, with more than 20 MLAs who will watch the Kenney UCP dismantle many initiatives and policies they fostered.

Their election campaign full of daily outrage over various things UCP candidates said or did—some legitimately outrageous; others more dubious—ought to have taught the New Democrats that if they declare everything a disaster, the public will probably conclude that nothing is a disaster. It may prove difficult for Notley’s diminished crew to hold their fire over some issues, especially given Kenney’s own flame-breathing ways, but if they never relent the public will tune them out.

The final stacks of ballots

The Markusoff Decision Desk cautiously projects that the United Conservatives will pick up a 64th seat, as candidate Nicole Williams ultimately flips Edmonton–West Henday. (UPDATE: The MDD was w-r-o-n-g. No seats changed hands after Tuesday’s counting. West Henday remains an NDP seat.)

On Wednesday afternoon, Elections Alberta began the apparently slow process of sorting and tallying the 223,000 out-of-riding votes cast through the agency’s new “vote anywhere” program; by evening, no new votes were counted. This suburban seat on Edmonton’s western edge awaits the counting of 3,969 of those ballots, while NDP incumbent Jon Carson has a 113-vote lead over Williams. Both parties figure these advance votes will shake out like the in-riding advance polls: the UCP snagged 57 per cent of them, and the NDP only 34 per cent. With that split, Carson’s the one who may have to rally from behind to keep this seat orange. In other close races, like Calgary–Falconridge (UCP ahead by 163 votes) and Lethbridge–West (NDP up by 377), the advance votes already counted are trending in the wrong direction for the winner to change. But democracy being democracy and all that, they’ll count the votes for a definitive result.

The legislature’s new look

I pointed out on Twitter that Kenney’s UCP caucus contains a record-setting five Jasons. Yet, this change of government does bring in more ethnic diversity to Alberta’s legislature, as the NDP previously struggled to recruit non-white candidates. The new MLAs include 16 visible minority candidates (five NDP, 11 UCP) up from 10 elected overall in 2015. Say what you will about the racists who were exposed in the UCP ranks throughout this long campaign—and please do, it’s an important discussion—but Kenney has clearly brought with him from Ottawa an aptitude for bringing multicultural leaders and activists into the Conservative fold.

This legislature will have one openly LGBTQ member—rookie New Democrat Janis Irwin in Edmonton—down from three in the previous term. There was nobody from the community running as a UCP candidate. Should Edmonton–West Henday flip to Williams, who self-identifies at Métis, she will be the lone Indigenous MLA.

While Canada now has no female premiers for the first time in more than a decade, the legislature’s gender makeup didn’t suffer tremendously. There stands to be 26 or 27 female MLAs, just behind the record of 28 set last election—still far from parity in the 87-seat assembly.

Regional diversity—not so much

Last election, NDP splashed orange paint across the province’s rural north, the entire capital region, Calgary and in small cities: Red Deer, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge. That was a novel reprieve from a royally blue map; it’s all blue once again. But the NDP is relieved that it wasn’t reduced to just its Edmonton base; retaining a foothold in Calgary and Lethbridge gives it a touch of cred as a party with pan-Albertan reach. Similarly, the UCP is thrilled to have at least one (and perhaps several) MLAs within the New Democrat fortress of Edmonton. Edmontonians should be somewhat grateful, too—in 1993, when the city was held exclusively by Liberals and a deficit-slashing Klein aggressively cut the public sector, the capital city’s protests fell on deaf Tory ears. In 2019, a member or two of Kenney’s caucus will be able to relay such grief to his team should the axes fall (though Kenney has stated they won’t).

Outside the two-party legislature

It’s time to throw the final shovel of dirt on the Alberta Liberals. The party’s seat total has been roughly halved in half every election since 2004 and now it has zero. It garnered only one per cent of the provincial vote, with 16,207 as of Wednesday—that’s fewer than 4,000 more than the fringey separatist Alberta Independence Party. Leader David Khan got 5.6 per cent of votes in his own riding. Byee!

The Alberta Party also got wiped out, after winning a seat last time and gaining two floor-crossers. But it still notched a respectable 9.2 per cent of the vote, roughly quadrupling its share from 2015. That signals pent-up desire among some Albertans for a centrist option. Leader Stephen Mandel, a former Edmonton mayor, was an awkwardly outdated fit as leader of a modern Third Way party—he placed a distant third in his own riding.  With a superior leader, the Alberta Party could potentially ride again—especially if a left-right spat between the two main parties tires out the public. Or, Alberta begins to look more like the other three Western provinces: one conservative party duelling with the NDP, and little-to-nothing available for other parties.

That’s all for this Jason

This is the final Alberta Politics Insider newsletter. It’s been exhausting but a deep privilege to return to my daily writing roots and interpret this election, and engaging with many of you online. Thank you so much for following along and caring about this province’s endlessly fascinating (and sometimes surprising) politics. I’ll continue to file articles regularly to—something tells me Kenney’s premiership will keep the good days coming for us in the opinion-and-analysis racket. After the long weekend, newsletter subscribers will receive Maclean’s Politics Insider: your vital daily compendium of news from Ottawa and beyond.

—Jason Markusoff

Final reading:

Michelle McCuigge on the loss of the last remaining female premier: “Observers see the string of electoral defeats as part of a larger trend rooted in negative assumptions about women’s leadership capabilities, adding their absence from high government office also has troubling implications for the country’s short-term political prospects. Melanee Thomas, a University of Calgary professor who researches the causes and consequences of gender-based political inequality, said female leaders still face a double standard regardless of their party affiliation or defining policy issue. ‘I would never say that their gender is the No. 1 factor in this. What I would say is that the way people interpret what they do is gendered,’ Thomas said in a telephone interview.” (Canadian Press)

Barrie McKenna on false hopes: “Mr. Kenney has also talked about reviving two other cancelled oil pipelines—TransCanada’s Energy East project to move crude to the East Coast and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project, linking Alberta to British Columbia’s northern coast. Both projects are even bigger long shots than Trans Mountain. By talking them up as solutions to Alberta’s near-term economic pain, Mr. Kenney is giving Albertans false hope.” (Globe and Mail)

Chantal Hebert on implications for Scheer: “On the plus side for Scheer, Kenney’s victory is a timely reminder to conservative supporters across the land that political victory rhymes with party unity, and that could help counter the siren song of Maxime Bernier’s breakaway party. But with allies such as Kenney and Ontario’s Doug Ford—who by virtue of both their positions and their strong political personalities dwarf their federal leader—Scheer will have to convince more than a few voters that he does not take his orders from Queen’s Park and/or Edmonton.” (Toronto Star)

Andrew Coyne on Trudeau’s next move: “It is understandable the prime minister would be disappointed at Alberta’s change of course. That does not justify him in punishing the province for electing a government not to his liking. For rest assured that is how it would be seen. If you really want to see a national unity crisis in this country, it won’t come from Kenneyesque stunts like equalization referendums. It would come from a federal government telling Alberta it may not bring its main source of wealth to market.” (National Post)

 Stephen Maher on Trudeau’s fall fight: “Trudeau has no choice now but to forget about “sunny ways” and start swinging, going after Kenney and Ford as remorselessly as they are going after him. The outcome of the next election depends on whether Trudeau is able to attack the hostile premiers, painting them as white supremacist, sexist knuckle draggers scheming with Andrew Scheer to turn Canada into a dystopia from The Handmaid’s Tale.” (Maclean’s)

Chris Nelson on why Alberta must fight: “No, Alberta, being the most populist of provinces, will now take the fight to the rest of Canada. Kenney’s desperate to do so, so desperate one wonders if he’s still, at heart, fighting the last federal election. Let’s hope personal animosity towards Justin Trudeau doesn’t divert his eye from the prize: that being the eventual greater good of this province. But the die is cast. We’re tired of being the outliers while remaining the breadwinners. When Notley described us as Canada’s embarrassing cousins, she stuck a dagger deep in her own heart, one ultimately causing her demise no matter how much backtracking she tried.” (Calgary Herald)

Clare Clancy on how the NDP lost: “On Day 24 of the campaign, during a stop in the mountain town of Canmore, Notley said she was pro-Trans Mountain before becoming premier, but getting shovels in the ground was harder than expected. That goal post kept moving as delays continued, with Notley recently promising construction would start in the fall under an NDP government. ‘I don’t think I understood how many road blocks we’d be dealing with,’ she said in a Friday interview.” (Edmonton Journal)

Aaron Wherry on Notley’s climate legacy: “Notley’s approach to climate and energy politics might still linger as a point of comparison with that of her successor. Watch, for example, to see whether public support for the Trans Mountain expansion is maintained with Kenney in the premier’s office. But significant forces are now aligned to pull apart the grand bargain that Notley and Trudeau struck. In British Columbia, John Horgan is challenging the pipeline, with the federal NDP’s support. In Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario, conservative premiers are challenging the carbon price, with federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer cheering them on.” (CBC)

Trevor Tombe on the economic reality: “In the short term, there’s only so much the government can do. The carbon tax may shave a few tenths of a point off GDP, while a corporate tax cut may add a few. Even pipelines, while incredibly important for Alberta’s economy and finances, will take some time to come online. The government can’t turn the province’s economy on a dime.” (Globe and Mail)

Philippe J. Fournier on (almost) nailing the prediction: “Overall it looks as though the UCP was underestimated by pollsters, even though the polling average will fall within the final projection‘s confidence intervals. Some polls were off, some polls were close. That’s why the weighted polling average is usually a safe bet. Consequently, many riding projections also underestimated the UCP, although, as you will see below, the overall record is highly satisfactory.” (Maclean’s)