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

A vote to merge will formally kick off the race to lead Alberta’s United Conservative Party. That’s where things get weird.

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Alberta Wildrose leader Brian Jean and Alberta PC leader Jason Kenney announce a unity deal between the two in Edmonton on Thursday, May 18, 2017. (Jason Franson/CP)

Alberta Wildrose leader Brian Jean and Alberta PC leader Jason Kenney announce a unity deal between the two in Edmonton on Thursday, May 18, 2017. (Jason Franson/CP)
Jean, left, and Kenney announcing their unity deal in May (Jason Franson/CP)

On Saturday, members of the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties will vote to unite by probably overwhelming margins—not too far south, presumably, of the 96 per cent and 90 per cent support with which the Canadian Alliance and Tories respectively blessed the Conservative Party of Canada merger in 2003. Sure, there are brand diehards on either side who will resist and may even pursue their own splinters after the merger. But nobody has been more effective or compelling in bringing about the creation of the United Conservative Party than its chief rallier: NDP Premier Rachel Notley, whose interloping, democratically endorsed mandate cannot, in the eyes of many Albertans, end soon enough.

Saturday also signals the formal kickoff of the UCP leadership race. And here’s where things get weird, as PC Leader Jason Kenney and Wildrose Leader Brian Jean both run as fast as they can into the embrace of their rival’s party members. In the days after the merger vote, senior Wildrosers (and probably a few of Jean’s caucus mates) will rally behind Kenney, the former federal Conservative cabinet minister, while the Red Tories who haven’t bolted the PCs out of disgust with Kenney’s takeover plan will begin saying really nice things about Jean. There are probably more apt square-dancing analogies than dosey-do, but I’m not well-versed enough to know them.

If the conservative insiders and pundits are wrong, and the merger vote fails—hey, strange things can happen; Donald Trump can beat Hillary Clinton while journalists busily pick Clinton’s cabinet—things reach a whole different level of topsy-turvy. The structure of the anti-NDP movement will take longer to settle, but essentially, Jean and Kenney will wage the same battle to expand their support base among the broad pool of Alberta conservatives and Notley-haters.

READ MORE: Now the fight to lead Alberta’s right really begins

Jean, the MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin, has raised eyebrows lately by starting his quest for United Conservative moderates before the push is done. After two years of leading the most hard-right, grumpy and ideological faction in Alberta’s legislature, he recently told the Calgary Sun that “hard-right governments” offering harsh budget slashes will no longer succeed in Alberta. “I think most Albertans want a common-sense, middle-of-the-road government.” He’s playing not only for Red Tories [with this sort of push], but also rural Wildrosers with a pragmatic streak. A Jean political action committee simultaneously market-tested and marketed this approach with a push-poll question blasted out this week to every Wildrose member: would you rather have a moderate non-ideological leader, or an ideological leader who might lose in the next election?

This Jean-for-premier PAC has been using affiliates of Campaign Research for voter ID and polling. Fans of foes of Kellie Leitch’s federal Tory leadership campaign will recognize the names of that firm and its founders, Richard Ciano and Nick Kouvalis, who were the brains behind Leitch’s divisive and  unsuccessful “Canadian values test” pitch. To this Alberta voter pool, and with this aw-shucks candidate, perhaps they’re trying out a less polarizing pitch—at least publicly.

Jean has also hired on Hamish Marshall, the campaign manager behind Andrew Scheer’s winning Conservative leadership run. This Alberta contest, like the federal one, has a preferential-choice ballot, and if the field gets crowded, it might come down to a race for second choices; that’s where Scheer eventually edged out Maxime Bernier. Depicting Jean as the likeable, less ideological candidate helps position him as the compromise or “electable” candidate.

That will only work if Kenney gets cast as the ideologue and hardliner, a role for which he’s ably auditioned. Kenney talks about forming a big tent, says he doesn’t want to “unite the right” but merely “unite Albertans.” But he has made few gestures thus far that speak the Tories’ centrist tradition; its adherents have bolted toward the smaller, centrist Alberta Party, while Kenney himself has been eager to bolt from the word “progressive.” When Kenney responded to Jean’s denouncement of hard-right politics, he accused the Wildrose leader of adopting the language of the left, and told CBC Calgary that he doesn’t think Alberta has had hard-right government (some context here: when Ralph Klein cut department budgets and front-line staff in the mid-1990s, Kenney was needling him from the right as Canadian Taxpayers Federation head.

READ MORE: The Alberta PCs are burning. That’s fine by Jason Kenney.

Kenney’s social media team pushes further toward the edges. His Unite Alberta account on Twitter called the Omar Khadr settlement a “bounty on U.S. soldiers” (a tweet later deleted). His campaign spokesman downplayed concerns that some of the Tories’ own elected MLAs might not join Kenney’s United Conservatives by suggesting their relative insignificance in a party with tens of thousands of members.

Jason Kenney was an attentive student and loyal acoloyte as Stephen Harper took the incremental approach toward a more conservative Canada. Perhaps, once the united party is in place, he will pivot. Or perhaps he will assume that, in Alberta, there’s a whole lot more conservative ideological space to play with. Some of that will depend on how poor the Alberta economy and its fiscal situation remains as the end of this NDP term approaches in 2019.

The desire for both Kenney and Jean to merge their parties goes beyond ending the threat of vote-splitting. Each leader wants to get away from much of his current party’s base. Kenney didn’t want much to do with Red Tories when former prime minister Joe Clark and his ilk decried the 2003 merger; Kenney’s historical retelling of of Alberta Toryism includes Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein while ignoring Klein’s more progressive successors, Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford. Meanwhile, Jean has long tried with little luck to shake off the social-conservative fringe of the Wildrose, the same ones that so bedevilled his predecessor Danielle Smith that she ultimately crossed over to the Tories.

What happens after Saturday is a floor-crossing of another sort; the intramural kind. Once the Wildrose and PC parties officially dissolve into one group, watch all the odd new alliances that form. Notley and her NDP certainly will be doing so, as the opponent with the winning alliance will almost certainly become the instant odds-on favourite to replace her in 2019.