For Jason Kenney and Brian Jean, it’s Alberta versus the world

The would-be leaders of Alberta's new conservative party envision a province preoccupied with its own interests, powers and identity. Where could they have gotten an idea like that?

Jason Kenny during the United Conservative Party’s second leadership debate in Edmonton on Thursday (John Lehmann)

There was much surprise in political Canada when Jason Kenney, long seen as Stephen Harper’s likely successor at the helm of the federal Conservative Party, decamped to Alberta to pursue a mere provincial leadership. But after spending nearly two decades enmeshed in Ottawa affairs, it’s proven a hard habit for Kenney to kick. Federal Liberal-bashing, he can’t quit you.

Wrapping up a United Conservative Party leadership debate Thursday night, Kenney got some of his wildest applause when he branded himself “somebody who can stand up to Justin Trudeau and defend our province.” It came at the end of a string of other declarations to the effect that he’s somebody who can govern the province, too—wrestling the deficit and all that. But Kenney almost forgot to deliver this Trudeau punchline and had to stop in the middle of his next sentence, doubling back to make sure he hit it.

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At last week’s debate, he threatened to war with Ottawa over the equalization formula, in a way that would have no net effect on the amount Alberta receives (zero) but limit the transfers to seven “have-not” provinces. He’s sent social media-missives against Trudeau’s proposed business tax crackdown, decrying Rachel Notley’s NDP government for not doing the same. And as if to make room for more foes in the federation, Kenney also hinted he could cut off oil exports to B.C. if Premier John Horgan, another New Democrat, takes action to block the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

The former federal minister is the perceived frontrunner to lead this new party fusing Alberta’s Wildrose and Tory oppositions, but no matter which candidate succeeds, UCP will have a leader prone to jousting outside the provincial lines. It’s not enough just to topple Notley, which polls suggest any of them would do in the 2019 election; others who defy must be dealt with. Lawyer Doug Schweitzer, the supposed moderate of the bunch, has threatened to kick anti-pipeline B.C. out of the western provinces’ trade and labour accord, even though that would be detrimental to Alberta, too. Brian Jean, the former Wildrose leader, was banging pots and pans on equalization months before Kenney joined the fight. Jean also turned crudely offensive against Philippe Couillard this week, telling a reporter it was “ridiculous, retarded” that the Quebec premier was resisting the Energy East pipeline while bemoaning slights to his province’s own Bombardier. Jean apologized the next day, telling reporters he was angry and frustrated. In other words, when he’s fed up, he’s prone to wield archaic slurs about people with disabilities.

RELATED: Jason Kenney, Brian Jean and the war to define Alberta conservatism

In the same angry riff, unleashed during a small-town stop, Jean went on to declare to all jurisdictions: you’re either with us, or we’re against you. “I will not stand with the premier of Quebec or any other leader of any other place in Canada including the Prime Minister unless they stand with Albertans.”

The leadership contestants intend this sabre-thrusting to hearken back to Alberta’s pre-NDP glory days, when former premier Peter Lougheed declared unholy war against a different Trudeau’s National Energy Program, and throttled oil shipments to eastern Canada; and when Ralph Klein routinely clashed with Ottawa and other provinces, including on same-sex marriage and limits to private health care.

These days, Albertans are in the middle of a prolonged interjurisdictional peacetime, and not just because Notley has opted to be less confrontational with fellow premiers and the federal Liberals (she does get into spats with her right-leaning neighbour, Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall, but he’s been goading). The four Tory premiers who preceded Notley were also less pugnacious—in large part because a Conservative slept at 24 Sussex. Jean and other Wildrosers never fussed about equalization until after Trudeau won. Kenney, of course, was in the cabinet that approved the current have-not funding program. It’s different now that Alberta’s been hit with recession, Kenney told Maclean’s on Thursday: “I’m not running for the national government here; I’m running to be premier of Alberta.”

He’s running to be premier of a province where many residents miss the familiar embrace of conservative leaders in Ottawa, Edmonton and their city halls—Kenney has even taken to campaigning against mayors, most notably Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, over the cities’ demands for greater taxation powers. And though economic recovery has begun, Albertans still feel the scars of the deep recession and oil-price plunge. Playing the snarling caged animal will resonate well, especially among the partisans Kenney and Jean are courting. The part of Captain Alberta is one Lougheed and Klein both used to great effect, marginalizing their more conciliatory political opponents. Yet the United Conservatives must themselves climb out of opposition before they can do anything about their external grievances; for now, some of the rhetoric seems oddly misplaced, as if Kenney longs to fulfill an old dream of being federal opposition leader.

RELATED: The NDP’s great pipeline divide

Misplaced or not, it’s a key plank of Kenney’s leadership bid. This week, he sent recipients on his mailing list a note attacking Jean for saying it was premature to threaten a B.C. oil blockade. This email linked to a supporter survey focused exclusively on what other jurisdictions are doing: equalization, federal business taxes, and whether Alberta should work more with “friendly free-enterprise” Saskatchewan and Manitoba—Canada’s only conservative-ruled jurisdictions at present. Kenney also invited supporters to endorse one of his slogans, “more Alberta and less Ottawa.” That’s the old rallying cry of Alberta’s firewall movement of the early 2000s, which urged the province to establish its own police force, pension fund and income tax collection, and to retreat from other areas of federal influence. Harper was a co-author of the original firewall letter, but had distanced himself from it by the time he took federal leadership. Klein never warmed to firewallism, save the occasional vague threat. He also forged occasional alliances and friendships with Prairie NDP premiers he served alongside, Lorne Calvert and occasionally Gary Doer, the sort of thing Alberta’s would-be conservative premiers seem to suggest is betrayal of the true-blue Alberta brand.

Nobody’s demanding the Alberta Provincial Police just yet. But Kenney and Jean seem on a path to lead Alberta into a Quebec-like focus on its own interests—a kind of Partí Albertois era. The method by which Kenney proposes to wage his equalization battle is based on the Supreme Court’s 1998 Quebec secession reference, which states the federal government must negotiate with the province if there’s a “clear answer on a clear question.” Under Kenney’s rationale, that judgment extends to other constitutional matters too, like equalization; or after a referendum Alberta launches over, say, National Energy Board pipeline approval rules or a federal carbon tax. It’s not his own argument; he borrowed it from a recent paper by academic Ted Morton, another of the firewall letter’s signatories.

All of which is to say that, for the next one and a half years until the next provincial election, you can expect the noisiest chirping in the country to emanate from Alberta—much of it from the next opposition leader’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. Then, if UCP wins in 2019, we find out what the tough-guy approach accomplishes on pipelines, and the rest of Alberta’s agenda.