The gig is up: Alberta Premier Jason Kenney set to step down from top job

EDMONTON: Don’t cry for me Alberta, I was going to leave anyway.

It’s Prime Minister Jason Kenney’s swan song message as he prepares to step down from the province’s top job, forced by the very United Conservative Party he wanted to create.

“I never intended to be at this gig for a long time,” Kenney told an audience earlier this month. He was planning another provincial election, he said.

Instead, UCP members Thursday will elect a new leader and turn to the page of a triumphant cautionary tale in which Kenney’s philosophy and management style plunged head-on into a once-in-a-generation disaster.

Kenney, whose office did not respond to interview requests for this story, was successful in the 2019 provincial election.

The former Calgary MP dismantled Rachel Notley’s NDP with a bold plan that unified two warring conservative factions.

It was a time of sorrow. Alberta’s economy was in the doldrums, its oil and gas sector in the bust phase of its traditional boom-bust cycle. Budgets bled with multibillion-dollar deficits.

Some Albertans have been angry at Ottawa over rules that impede energy projects. And they felt like idiots, paying billions in compensation and being ignored or vilified as climate criminals in return.

They were looking for a stick to hit Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Kenney was that stick. He came up with a “fight back strategy” and vowed to take on Trudeau and the other lucky hitters of the “Laurentian elite” who are hellbent on strangling Canada’s “golden goose” energy.

Oil and gas weren’t just good deals for him. It was a higher calling, a “moral cause,” to redistribute Earth’s bounty to neighboring states so they could avoid buying them from human rights-abusing dictators.

He took the reins of power and set to work.

Kenney lowered corporate taxes, scrapped the former NDP government’s carbon tax, slashed post-secondary funding, introduced more private care in the public health system, lowered the minimum wage for children, went to war with teachers, and called for wage cuts in the public sector , tore up negotiated collective agreements and attacked doctors and nurses as comparatively overpaid underperformers.

He gambled heavily and lost $1.3 billion on the failed Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Kenney’s plan for Alberta was based on “prosperity first” conservatism, said University of Alberta political scientist Jared Wesley.

Kenney, Wesley said, made this clear in his inaugural address as UCP leader in 2017, reminding supporters that “to be a compassionate and generous society, you must first be a prosperous one.”

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Wesley said such an ethos may have captured Conservative sentiment and excited others, “but when Albertans and their government were being forced (during COVID-19) between prosperity and compassion — or as Kenney put it, ‘livelihood and life’ — be.” The focus on making a living really wasn’t in line with what people were looking for.”

Political scientist Laurie Adkin said the prosperity-first doctrine is narrowly defined for the benefit of a few.

“There was really no light between the Kenney administration and the oil and gas industry, and that’s not good for democracy,” said Adkin of the University of Alberta.

“The government must represent the public interest and not a single sector of the economy at the expense of everything else.”

The math was simple, the implication obvious: if Alberta’s identity is defined by economic prosperity through oil and gas, then those who challenge that worldview are, well, anti-Albertans.

Kenney and his UCP slandered the Green Left and high-profile Oilsand critics like David Suzuki and Tzeporah Berman. When world-famous green teenager Greta Thunberg entered the legislature, Kenney left town.

Kenney derided Notley’s NDP government as a docile servant of Trudeau’s oil-killing agenda, cowering from crumbs and digging for “social license.”

Quebec was an ungrateful, fighting pipelines with one hand while accepting Alberta’s compensation money with the other. A US governor who questioned a cross-border pipeline was ‘brain dead’.

To combat oil and gas insults, Kenney spent millions to create a “war room” that delivered a parade of gaffes, including a public fight with a children’s cartoon about Bigfoot.

Kenney launched a $2.5 million public inquiry into foreign funding of indigenous green groups fighting Alberta’s tar sands. It never conducted a public inquiry, exceeded time and budget, and found funding to be relatively modest and entirely legal.

Over time, the enemy tag widened. Kenney called the NDP disloyal for its COVID-19 criticism. He combined a radio interviewer’s criticism of his government with an attack on Alberta itself. Reporters have at times been dismissed as suckers for the NDP or interest groups.

Even in good times no quarter was given. When Trudeau came to Edmonton to announce a joint $10-a-day childcare program, Kenney from the podium said the money was recycled provincial funds anyway and that Quebec got a better deal.

As COVID-19 hit full force in 2020 and decimated the economy, Kenney found himself locked in a two-front war as seething rifts erupted between himself and his caucus and party.

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Those divisions had begun before the election, when Kenney promised his UCP would be run by and for its members, but then at the party’s founding convention in 2018 told reporters, “I’ll hold the pen” about what politics will be and what not.

The UCP won in 2019 on the basis of rural votes, said political scientist Duane Bratt. But when Kenney picked his first cabinet, it was Calgary-centric, and disgruntled backbenchers simmered in silence, ready to push back if things went wrong.

“It was top-down government,” said Bratt of Mount Royal University in Calgary.

“He wasn’t on good terms with his MLAs. He hired attack dogs as employees. And they just didn’t bully the NDP and journalists and members of the public, they bullied their own MLAs as well.”

Kenney’s administration has been lauded in the first wave of COVID-19, invoking rules and closures to hold down gatherings, keep the disease at bay and keep hospitals running.

But in subsequent waves, Kenney’s promise to “balance life and livelihood” left him caught unawares by those who wanted rules to keep hospitals from cratering and by those who felt the rules were unnecessary and a violation of personal freedom.

He tried to find a magic middle ground, which resulted in shifting restrictions: regional, provincial, on for some, off for others. Each time, he waited until Alberta’s healthcare system was on the brink of collapse before acting after thousands of surgeries were canceled and waiting rooms were overcrowded.

He announced Alberta would finally open in late spring 2021 and all restrictions would be lifted earlier than the rest of Canada in a “Best Summer Ever” campaign. There were hats with this slogan and tweets to naysayers: “The pandemic is ending. Accept them.”

Within months, COVID-19 had so catastrophically overwhelmed Alberta’s hospitals that triage rules were imminent and the armed forces were called in.

Extreme measures were needed, so Kenney instituted a vaccination card of sorts, something he had promised he would never do — a policy about-face that enraged many in his party.

Then came the guilt.

Kenney said he would have acted sooner had his chief medical health officer recommended nothing. Months later, he said Alberta Health Service officials shifted its decision-making by providing figures on bed capacity.

The performance didn’t go well. The polls were in free fall. UCP backbenchers openly questioned the restrictions – and Kenney.

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And scandals piled up like cars on the Autobahn.

Alohagate: Ignoring calls to stay home over Christmas to avoid the spread of COVID-19, a group of Kenney caucus members flew to sunny climes while Albertans at home shivered under strict restrictions on gatherings.

UCP caucus chairman Todd Loewen resigned his post and was thrown out of the caucus after publicly urging Kenney to quit for botching important files, ignoring the backbench and running a top-down, toneless administration .

“We did not agree on blind loyalty to a man,” emphasized Loewen.

Kenney and some of his cabinet confidants were secretly photographed on his office balcony enjoying drinks and dinner, in apparent violation of social distancing rules.

The prime minister insisted there was no breaking of the rules. But as the outrage grew, he announced that his team had returned to the place of the meal, pulled out the tape measure, checked the chairs and concluded they had gathered too close.

Gaslighting, Notley chuckled during Question Time.

There was more: a lawsuit alleging that the Prime Minister’s Office encourages a “toxic work environment”; drinking parties in the Legislative Office of the Secretary of Agriculture; the Attorney General trying to interfere with the administration of justice by calling the Edmonton Police Commissioner about a speeding ticket.

A long-running RCMP investigation into possible criminal impersonation hummed in the background in the vote that elected Kenney UCP leader.

On top of that, Kenney’s administration passed legislation in 2019 that fired the election official investigating Kenney’s UCP for campaign violations.

As the calendar swung to 2022, the drumbeats of dissent grew louder even as COVID-19 receded and oil and gas prices soared, returning Alberta to multibillion-dollar budget surpluses.

UCP malcontents had tried to hasten a review of the party’s leadership.

This vote was postponed, changed to a special one-day vote, and then changed back to a postal referendum. Critics said Kenney’s team moved the goal posts to avoid losing.

Kenney called his critics “maniacs” and then asked their forgiveness in his speech at the start of the vote.

Doesn’t matter.

On May 18, he got 51 percent support — technically enough to survive, but he said it was time to go.

UCP members meet in Calgary on Thursday to seal his fate.

The result is beyond question. A new prime minister is elected.

The gig is coming up.


This report from The Canadian Press was first published on October 2, 2022.