Kurl: COVID, conservatism and the downfall of Alberta’s Jason Kenney

When the pandemic hit, the centre-left never forgave Kenney for tailoring his policies to the libertarian-right. The latter, meanwhile, never thanked him. This fact must give pause to every right-of-centre politician in the country.

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Jason Kenney drove his famous blue pickup truck on to the Alberta stage, and, Wednesday night, off a political cliff, thus becoming not the Conservative wunderkind, the next federal leader-in-waiting, but a cautionary tale for Conservative politicians in Alberta — and indeed across the country.

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His pivot to provincial politics, eschewing a crowded and convoluted field to replace Stephen Harper, had been triumphant. Having so skilfully and affably created the conditions to eat the federal Liberals’ lunch in the early 2000s by literally eating lunch with minority voters in every gurdwara, mosque and church to which he was sent (voraciously courting a base oft-ignored by the right), he would now unite the fractured right in Alberta, fix the province’s economic woes, restore pipeline supremacy and equally triumphantly return to Ottawa, rescuing the federal movement from its time in time-out.

But if Kenney could do little wrong in Ottawa, his time in Edmonton represented a case of reverse-Midas touch, as if every issue, everything he came into contact with turned to … well, not gold.

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It started out well enough. In an election that drew 64 per cent voter turnout, his United Conservative Party earned 55 per cent of the popular vote. Three-in-five Albertans approved of Kenney back then. But by last fall, Kenney’s approval had sunk to just 22 per cent. Pretty bad for any politician. Really bad for one facing a mutiny in his own caucus. Rachel Notley and the NDP were now finding a second wind — competing with and in some polls pulling ahead of the UCP. (She’ll miss him dreadfully, no doubt). In March, the Angus Reid Institute found Albertans dissatisfied with Kenney’s government on more than a half-dozen metrics of provincial management, including stewardship of the economy, health care and COVID-19.

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Ah, the coronavirus. Kenney’s bête noire. At the height of the troubles, while other provinces closed businesses, instituted mask mandates and insisted on vaccination, Kenney’s government resisted and resisted, infuriating massive segments of the Alberta population wanting more protection, all to protect itself from the fury of the libertarian, restriction-resisting factions of its own base. In the end, Kenney pleased no one. Then came last year’s “best summer ever,” a premature “end” to the pandemic declared in Alberta which resulted in a surge of infection.

The centre-left never forgave him. The libertarian-right never thanked him. This is the important point that must now give every right-of-centre politician in the country pause.

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Kenney’s successor in Alberta, Doug Ford in Ontario, those vying for control of the federal Conservative party — each will continue to grapple with a base that has moved if not farther to the right (after all, Kenney has arguably been one of the most hawkish among them), then to a place more stubbornly resistant to authority, rules or a sense of common care. A place of extremes, felt most keenly by people in Alberta and next door in Saskatchewan — but with pockets of growing resonance across the country.

While years of the Trudeau government have left those two western provinces, in particular, feeling profoundly alienated, this resentful disengagement has been more vociferously fed by six years of Trump and Tucker Carlson-style politics — an ugly, gaslighting brand of misinformation — combined with social media and two years of a pandemic that have legitimized all kinds of anti-government, anti-truth, conspiracy-minded kooks.

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The results? The Ottawa occupation. A front-runner for the federal Conservatives (Pierre Poilievre) who decries racism while at the same time using nativist, dog-whistle-style language in a widely shared video. And a splintering even further of the political right. If the Conservative Party of Canada doesn’t go far enough, there is the People’s Party of Canada federally, the New Blue Party in Ontario and any host of independence-minded parties in Alberta.

By no means am I suggesting all these parties or their supporters subscribe to or amplify toxicity, but some do. The more practical reality is that right-leaning parties must decide if they want to chase some voters farther and farther down a rabbit hole, or remain mainstream enough not to alienate everyone else.

It was the political problem that undid Jason Kenney. He won’t be the only one.

Shachi Kurl is President of the Angus Reid Institute, a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research foundation.

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