Premier Kenney may be down, but he’s not out

Without doubt, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is in some trouble. A recent opinion survey put Rachel Notley’s NDP opposition ahead of the United Conservative party (UCP), within reach of forming a majority if a vote were held now. His popularity has eroded during the COVID-19 crisis, despite the fact –or perhaps because of it– Alberta has had some of the least restrictive confinement rules that provincial governments have adopted to shield failing healthcare systems.

Canadian voters love the secure feeling of being in the charge of lockdown enthusiasts. That’s where Kenney started. He was stampeded into panic in March 2020. Already in a dispute with doctors at the time, he gave into the takeover of medical bureaucrats and set aside the existing provincial emergency pandemic plan. He came close to veering into a new direction when he apologised for the mistake in classifying businesses as essential and nonessential; a mistake that greatly hurt his base, only to jump right back into that harmful dichotomy a few weeks later.  And just as Albertans expected to exit the “second wave” confinement, Kenney took the province right back into greater restrictions in fear of virus mutations.

To his opponents, Kenney has been either slow or callous, and some say both. They are often from liberal professions, academics, teachers or unionized government workers who are happy to stay home, receive full pay, and get busy advocating for more draconian lockdowns on social media. No depth of locking down will turn this crew into Kenney voters.

A large swath of his once faithful supporters feels abandoned or betrayed: they are small and medium entrepreneurs, farmers and ranchers, shopkeepers, blue-collar and service industry workers. Health bureaucrats have closed their shops and businesses, barricaded their churches, pushed them into bankruptcy or unemployment, vaporizing their savings in a province that was already in recession before the virus arrived. Kenney fights for them against the harmful federal policies that are undermining the province’s economic engines, but enabled medicalised local orders to hurt their ability to support families. They are an important part of the coalition Kenney assembled from the fractured conservatives in the province. They are now bailing out of his party in search of new political vessels, and it might be difficult getting them back.

Last week, a quarter of his caucus fired a shot across his bow, expressing displeasure with the continuation of crippling health restrictions. This threat from within exposes the rift between rural and urban party members that may endanger his coalition. On the Left and on the Right, from within and from without, Kenney is threatened.

Accordingly, eager pundits are announcing a crisis of governance and some of Kenney’s opponents are sounding victory trumpets, but the gloating may be premature. Though the sands of Kenney’s popularity may be shifting, three things must be kept in mind.

First, it’s a common mistake in human affairs to assume that tomorrow will be the same as today. Sands shifting can reverse direction. There are two years to the next Alberta election and there may be plenty of opportunities for Kenney to change his fortunes (Kenney might, for instance, unexpectedly summon the apparent humility of his hero, Ralph Klein. He could apologise for the multiple COVID-19 crisis blunders and reverse policy course). Without the COVID-19 distractions, he might get back on track.

Second, Kenney’s low popularity comes from his own miscalculations and not from his opponents’ abilities. It’s always unwise to rely on the blunders of opponents to reach victory. That strategy did not work for the federal Conservatives in 2015, for instance. Justin Trudeau was unwilling to fall on his sword as expected and campaigned brilliantly. Kenney’s opponents will have to work harder and expand their circle of persuasion. The NDP still lacks depth and sufficient talent, and they remain quite short on attractive policies to Albertans. The smaller challengers have unrealized potential: they are short on imaginative leadership and some lack resources, policy depth and organizational abilities.

Third, Kenney remains, his recent mistakes notwithstanding, one of the most capable politicians in the country and has a tireless work ethic. A Trudeau Liberal hat trick in Ottawa may present him with new challenges but may also offer unique opportunities. Crucially, Jason Kenney is a persuasive communicator capable of charming even hostile gatherings, and he is a formidable political campaigner who rarely backs down from challenges.

The die for Alberta’s next election is far from cast. Kenney is down, but don’t count him out.

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