Kenney offers 'seismic change'

The Canadian media has long regarded Jason Kenney as the country's most fascinating conservative. His decisive election as premier of Alberta this week ensures that his mystique will continue to grow.

As federal immigration minister under former then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Kenney's minor office became a tool of endless myth-making. In presiding over Canada's largest immigrant intake in half a century, it was said that he had insulated the conservatives from any charge of racism or xenophobia. His omnipresence at multicultural meet-and-greets was held as proof that he had charmed the immigrant vote away from the left. When Harper won a third term in 2011, word spread that Kenney's outreach had shattered the progressive coalition beyond repair. Books were written about how he contributed to a "seismic change" in Canadian democracy.

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That little of this lore was supported by hard data was beyond the point (a Policy Options study said that its findings "do not support the hypothesis that the Conservative success in 2011 was a product of making headway with immigrants"). Kenney had proved he was creative, hard-working and a shameless self-promoter, and these are the things from which great political fortunes are made.

His subsequent parachute into the center of Albertan politics only inflated his legend. At a pace that seems dizzying in retrospect, in fewer than two years Kenney became head of the Alberta conservatives, instigated a merger with the competing Wildrose Party and has now decisively been elected head of Alberta's first United Conservative administration. That Kenney's ambition remains unsatisfied was obvious in his first speech as premier-elect, which focused largely on national issues, including overtures to Quebec - in French.

In the likely event that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is reelected in October, conservatives will heap blame on Tory leader Andrew Scheer, who seems barely tolerated as it is. Assuming Kenney proceeds to spend much of Trudeau's second term casting his province as an island of conservative competence in contrast to the prime minister's liberal misrule, by 2023 Kenney will be hyped as Scheer's self-evident successor.

Is Kenney's seemingly unstoppable rise animated by anything beyond marketing, strategy and opportunism? If he is indeed destined to be the indispensable conservative of his generation, then Kenneyism demands examination as the plausible ideology of Canada's future.

Kenney possesses remarkable skill at convincing the many factions of the Canadian right that he's "one of them." Social conservatives fixate on his Catholicism and history in the pro-life movement; fiscal conservatives point to his background as head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. He can be wonky to wonks, ideological to the ideologues and pragmatic to pragmatists. Even obscure factions of the base, including libertarians, monarchists and gay Tories, have been on the receiving end of Kenney's outreach.

Unfortunately, when you purport to share everyone's principles, you probably don't share many. As his campaign for premier proved, Kenney remains a deeply conventional conservative of late-20th-century vintage, convinced that elections are won exclusively on economic policy while eschewing anything "divisive" that might rattle the secular middle class. This includes abortion, entitlement cuts, LGBT rights and anything in the proximity of race or gender. He has been happy to contrast himself with the "nasty, negative, irresponsible populism I think the Trump phenomenon represents."

In his marquee speeches, Kenney speaks of government primarily as a conduit for economic growth and job creation - issues of considerable concern to residents of Alberta, where growth in the gross domestic product is the slowest in Canada and unemployment sits at seveb per cent. His solutions are conservative orthodoxy: a mix of tax cuts and deregulation, plus fresh help for the province's beleaguered oil and gas sector, which comprises a quarter of the provincial economy.

If Kenney possesses a philosophy prescribing appropriate limits to aboriginal power, he has never shared it. Because it involves a racialized minority, the issue probably reads to him as one of those nasty, divisive matters that's best avoided. The issue calls for principled conservative leadership, however. If Kenney can champion a coherent solution to the judiciary's existential challenge to his province's defining industry, his future ambitions will be well justified.

J.J. McCullough is a political commentator and cartoonist

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