Crisis politics are stormy politics: An evaluation of the Kenney Years

Jason Kenney’s time leading Alberta ends in the next few days. The hope and promise he represented was expressed in the support for his United Conservative Party (UCP) government in 2019. The UCP was a considerable political achievement: against substantial odds, Kenney united bickering factions, whose fracturing ushered Rachel Notley’s socialist NDP to power. The freshly created party then swept into office with 55 percent of the popular vote, earning them 63 of 87 seats. But by February 2021, Kenney’s popularity was halved, and less than a year later he resigned after anemic support in review of his leadership.

Kenney is a formidable politician, and the most talented person to become premier of Alberta since Peter Lougheed (1971-1985). In active politics for 35 years, Kenney is powered by boundless energy and a powerful work ethic. He is a personable, affable, likeable man with strong oratory skills and a quick mind. His policy talents are as enviable as his campaigning abilities. He blossomed as a young Reform MP in opposition and helped fashion the federal Conservative Party. He went on to become secretary to then prime minister Stephen Harper and later minister of immigration, employment, and defence.

It is easy to forget that Kenney entered Alberta politics when the province faced three arduous challenges: (1) an NDP government ill-disposed to fiscal integrity and unfriendly to the province’s beleaguered energy and ranching industries; (2) a massive collapse in oil prices that crippled the economy and the already emptied coffers, and (3) a federal government openly hostile to all things Alberta, except its cash.

The UCP electoral platform directly addressed these challenges. It sought to rebuild the “Alberta Advantage,” return to fiscal balance, and help recover the energy sector’s health.

Remarkably, Kenney achieved most of his policy and legislative agenda within three years while also dealing with a pandemic. His government lowered corporate taxes, reduced red tape, promoted skilled labour, streamlined business processes, promoted growth in diversified economic fields, helped increase indigenous participation in energy projects, repealed the carbon tax, cut MLA pay, delivered a referendum on equalization, created a “war room” to defend Alberta’s energy and environmental achievements, passed legislation to curtail oil exports to B.C., engaged school curriculum reform, and tackled pay for health-care workers. Buoyed by high oil prices, the province is back to surpluses, and attracting investment.

Some policies have attracted controversy and had mixed results. Kenney drew sharp criticism for not fully grasping Alberta political culture. The proposal to open coal-mining in the Rockies or use aerial drones to surveil provincial parks, some say, resulted from too many advisers not understanding what is meaningful to Albertans, which rings true. But getting things done often includes doing the wrong things. Such bumps are par for the course. Overall, he leaves the province in better economic terms than he found it.”

Yet, despite these substantial electoral and policy successes, Kenney is out. How did his successes dissipate inside less than a single term as premier?

Kenney’s undoing was what Otto von Bismarck called “the imponderable,” what is not in the playbook: a pandemic. Abandoning established practice, and without any direct medical crisis experience, Kenney handed over the reins to doctors who had no crisis management experience. Salary conflicts with doctors before COVID ensured that doctors had no interest in Kenney succeeding, and he was stampeded into four rounds of stop-and-go medical restrictions, without any exit plan.

Kenney’s political skill was thus neutralized in the pandemic. His experience in regular politics, when compromising is a virtue, became a vice. Kenney is good at making pronouncements of principle while being flexible and effective in action. He was always excellent at adapting his sail to changes in the political winds.

But crisis politics are stormy politics, and keeping sails up in a storm will sink you. In a crisis, compromise can become vice because it can quickly turn into indecision when people expect resolve. Crisis demands decisiveness, not zigzagging or reversals.

Kenney could have survived the Christmas travels and sky palace scandals. He could have survived the broken promises about vaccine passports, or his calling people names. The flaw was the whole strategy. He tried to navigate a channel between lockdown and openness, gaining the benefit of neither. COVID scattered citizens to extremities—those in fear of infection and those preferring mitigation without excessive restrictions. There was no half-infections, half-economic ruin, or half-death compromise, so in straddling the middle, Kenney earned no benefit.

In a crisis, out of normal politics, Kenney lacked the determination to navigate without his habitual sails. But despite his failure of leadership in a time of crisis, Edmonton will miss him and his talents.

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