Jason Kenney, formerly a federal cabinet minister, won overwhelming support on the weekend from members of Alberta’s United Conservative Party to become its first leader. His 35,623 votes were almost double the support for his nearest rival, former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean. A UCP member of the legislature immediately offered to resign his southwest Calgary seat to give Mr. Kenney a chance to run in a byelection.
Mr. Kenney has been a large presence on the Alberta political scene since his first election to Parliament from Calgary Southwest in 1997 for the Reform Party, his re-election for the Canadian Alliance and subsequent elections for Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. He is known for reaching out to Canada’s ethnic communities and drawing their support to the Conservative Party.
In the excitement of his smashing win, Mr. Kenney exuded confidence that he and his party will defeat the ruling New Democrats of Premier Rachel Notley in the election that would ordinarily be held in the spring of 2019. As the excitement cools, he may recognize that a year and a half is a long time in politics.
Mr. Kenney will face a continuing challenge of stifling UCP activists with unorthodox views. Alberta is home to a good many people whose deeply held religious views put them well outside the Canadian mainstream on such questions as marriage equality, treatment of refugees and sex education in schools. Alberta’s tradition of rugged individualism encourages the forceful expression of minority views, but this may not be helpful to a rural-based party seeking majority support in Calgary and Edmonton. Premier Notley and her government have been scoring poorly in opinion polls for the last year. The Conservatives have been scoring well. Now that Mr. Jean has been rejected as UCP leader, some of that Conservative support may drop away.
In a recent test of Alberta’s political winds, the Calgary Tories failed to unseat incumbent Mayor Naheed Nenshi. Tory-backed mayoral candidate Bill Smith ran on a promise of making Calgary more friendly to the business community. Mayoral candidates found the voters were complaining about Premier Notley’s carbon tax and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s energy policy, which should have been good issues for Mr. Smith. Even so, Mr. Nenshi harvested 199,131 votes, giving him a margin of almost 30,000 votes over Mr. Smith. The Tories won two wards in the southwest corner of the city — Mr. Kenney’s home turf — and lost in all the other wards.
The mayoral election doesn’t necessarily predict the provincial result — but it is worth remembering that the election of Conservative Brian Bowman as mayor of Winnipeg in 2014 was swiftly followed by the implosion of the ruling Manitoba NDP and the election of Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservatives. The one election result does not cause the other, but it may show which way the wind is blowing. The Calgary mayoral election suggests that the jury is still out: Mr. Kenney and his party cannot take Calgary for granted.
Premier Notley enjoys good support in Edmonton. Mr. Kenney will have to show former Wildrose supporters the UCP is still their party, even without Mr. Jean. Calgary, meanwhile, is still making up its mind.
An editorial from the Winnipeg Free Press (distributed by The Canadian Press)