It’s not surprising that the phrase “attack dog” crops up in an interview about Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. The Calgary MP is, after all, a hard-hitting House debater known for dropping the rhetorical gloves. What is unexpected is that Kenney applies the term to himself. Asked about his parliamentary style, he volunteers, “I think when I was in opposition I developed a reputation as an attack dog.”
Not that he’s regretful. “Even if I threw some rhetorical bombs across the aisle,” he says, “it was never personal.” Now that he’s in the Conservative cabinet on the government side, Kenney, who turns 41 later this month, claims he doesn’t mind being the target of question period salvos. “It’s an adversarial system,” he says. “We shouldn’t cringe at that fact.” He even argues that if cameras had been around since the start of the British parliamentary system, every era’s “rhetorical excesses” would have shocked outsiders as much as today’s often bitterly partisan tone in Ottawa.
That is, of course, a debatable claim. Many veteran MPs say they’ve never seen the House so uncivil as it is these days. But Kenney has more credibility than other combative Tory MPs when he makes the case that bruising debate is compatible with a healthy House. In the recent Maclean’s survey of all 308 members of Parliament—which this year saw responses from 214 MPs representing every party—he emerged triumphant with by far the highest score for best MP overall.
How does that high standing square with his tough streak? Well, many MPs know his other side. For all Kenney’s partisanship, he’s willing to see the good in his rivals. Asked about role models, he cites Bill Blaikie, the former NDP MP from Winnipeg, who retired last year after nearly 30 years in federal politics (capped by being voted top MP in the 2007 Parliamentarian of the Year Awards). “I regarded Bill Blaikie as a model parliamentarian,” Kenney says. “He managed to keep his strong convictions intact without compromising them.”
Blaikie’s convictions were rooted in the Prairie “social gospel” tradition. Kenney is, in part, a product of the contrasting Western tradition—right-wing populism. Although born in Ontario, he grew up in Winnipeg and little Wilcox, Sask. (pop. 262), where he finished high school at Notre Dame College. He went on to study philosophy at the University of San Francisco, where he picked up his neo-conservative doctrine, but not before a stint as an undergraduate Liberal volunteer in Saskatchewan. He even served briefly as executive assistant to Liberal Ralph Goodale (who was voted top MP in the 2006 Parliamentarian of the Year Awards).
He flushed Liberalism out of his system early. At only 23, he was making a name for himself in conservative circles as the firebrand president of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. He was a natural recruit for Manning’s party in the 1997 election. But Kenney says he never saw himself as a hard-core Reformer, but rather as a bridge between the Western upstarts and the old Tories.
After Harper reunited the right in 2003, however, Kenney’s place in the new Conservatives’ top tier didn’t appear assured. He was passed over for cabinet after Harper won the 2006 election, serving first as the Prime Minister’s parliamentary secretary and then as secretary of state for multiculturalism. His tireless work reaching out to traditionally Liberal-voting urban ethnic communities was a natural stepping stone to his appointment, after last fall’s election, to the citizenship and immigration portfolio.
Already he’s shaping up to be the most controversial immigration minister in recent memory, calling for newcomers to speak better English or French, and absorb Canadian values faster and more fully. Still, MPs facing him detect a shift toward restraint. “He certainly used to be very much attack-doggish,” says Liberal MP Martha Hall Findlay. “It seems to me that he has toned it down.” Respected NDP MP Joe Comartin says, “you still sometimes see ideology overwhelm him,” citing what Comartin views as Kenney’s unsubstantiated claims about ethnic groups abusing the federal refugee system. But Comartin also respects Kenney as “very bright and an extremely hard worker.”
Even by the frenetic standard set by ambitious politicians, Kenney’s work ethic is indeed astonishing. His typical weekday routine has him booked for meetings from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m, then chained to his desk to handle paperwork and emails until midnight. His weekend schedule is often packed with ethnic group events that are important both to his department and his party. (He does try to leave Sunday mornings free to attend Catholic mass.) His secret: “I can sleep any place, any time.”
Asked about their leisure hours, most politicians stress average-guy tastes—hit movies, mainstream biographies, classic rock. Not Kenney. When his briefcase was stolen in late March, it contained American author Mark Helprin’s challenging novel Winter’s Tale and Canadian poet David Manicom’s collection Theology of Swallows. He raves about the new Russian art-house film 12, a retelling of the 1957 classic 12 Angry Men. On the inevitable question about his latest iPod listening, he laughs before admitting it was “medieval Armenian music,” hastening to add that “U2 or something” was on just before.
So Kenney is personally idiosyncratic, politically intense. All the more surprising, then, that he’s also won the respect of so many of his peers. In a cabinet short on stars, his name is one of the few kicked around as a possible Harper successor, but he won’t speculate about next steps. “I’ve always wanted to avoid being one of those politicians who maps out an entire career,” he says. But even if he’s not looking down the road, now that Kenney has made an impression on Parliament, the question is what sort of mark he will leave on politics beyond Parliament Hill.