Near the end of September, Alberta MP Jason Kenney resigned the seat he held for 19 years and bid farewell to the House of Commons. In his valedictory address, he said he hadn’t lost the wonder and awe with which he first approached the House of Commons as a 29-year-old rookie MP. “I appeal to all my colleagues, from all partisan traditions, first and foremost, to respect this institution and this chamber as a place of deliberation,” he said. Kenney is now pursuing the leadership of Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives, with broader designs on a marriage with the Wildrose party that could unite the right in his province. He spoke with Maclean’s about stage fright in his Parliament debut, how the loudest and angriest draw the attention in Ottawa and what he’s learned driving around Alberta in a pickup truck on his “Unity Tour.”
Q: How has the first week of post-Parliament life been?
A: It’s been busy and pretty normal because I’m still doing the kind of political work I’ve been doing for 20 years, but just in a different context. One of the reasons I really like what I’ve chosen to do is it allows me to stay involved in public service and to take on a challenge that I think is hugely important, but to actually be able to sleep in my own bed most nights and not live on an airplane.
Q: You’ve traded the flights and hotel rooms for people’s spare rooms and the truck?
A: Exactly. I’m staying in basements and guest rooms, and getting from A to B in my blue Dodge Ram pickup. It’s a blast.
Q: In your farewell speech in the House of Commons, you talked about the wonder and awe you still felt for the place. Over your 19 years there, did that kind of idealism ever falter?
A: Of course. I mean, in my speech I quoted John Diefenbaker saying that one moment the House of Commons seems like a cathedral, and the next moment it can be degrading. Like any institution, it has its ups and downs, but it’s ultimately made up of the people who inhabit it. Many, many times I would shake my head in dismay at the goings-on in the House of Commons, but that never caused me to lose my fundamental faith in the values of our parliamentary institutions.
Q: What do you remember of your first days on the Hill as a rookie MP?
A: The first time I stood up and spoke, I was incredibly nervous to be standing up in the House of Commons, on live national television in front of nearly 300 MPs, the prime minister and the cabinet and the entire national press gallery. It occurred to me that any slip of the tongue or any slight mistake was going to potentially bring ridicule on me. I remember my heart thumping so heavily that it was going to pop out of my chest. But I quickly got into the pattern, and I think I developed a reputation as a pretty scrappy young opposition member in that first term.
Q: Over your two decades on the Hill, what was your read on decorum in the House? Do you agree with people who say it declined in recent years?
A: I really think that’s nonsense. People get that impression probably because the media and spectators of Parliament tend to draw most of their inferences from the loudest clashes in question period. What they don’t see are the hundreds of hours of quiet collaborative work done in committees, in all-party issue groups, in personal time. I would say most MPs take a position of conviviality with their fellow parliamentarians—the noisy conflicts are the exception and not the rule.
Q: In your speech, you got a good laugh when you said tough questioning from the opposition doesn’t mean they’re bad people, but rather good parliamentarians. Is that dynamic difficult for people who are new to the Hill?
A: MPs who have only sat on one side sometimes have a skewed perspective because it’s easier for them to objectify or even demonize people on the other side if they never walked in their shoes. It’s easier for opposition members to condemn the government at the drop of a hat if they don’t understand. Sometimes there are no good choices for government. Sometimes the government has to answer questions with ambiguous language. For members who have only ever been in government, the negativity and aggressiveness of the opposition is easy to caricature. But the truth is the opposition MPs are just trying to do their job most of the time.
Q: Within the Conservative party, you were known as someone who connected with multicultural voters. But most recently, support for the party has melted away in those communities. What do you think is going on there?
A: I would challenge that assertion: it has not melted away. When we started this project in the 2004 election, the Conservative party was at just over 20 per cent of support of new Canadians, and by the 2011 election we were at about 42 per cent—a higher share of the vote than of native-born Canadians. We are the only centre-right party in the world of whom that is true. But I never had the hubris to imagine that we would have a kind of permanent lock on the plurality of that share of Canadian electors. I think what we’ve done through our hard work in cultural communities is to create a competitive political environment. No longer can any party, such as the Liberals, take for granted the support of new Canadians or cultural communities, as though they are some kind of a passive vote-bank.
Q: With the federal Conservative leadership race, you’ve made a few critical comments about Kellie Leitch’s immigrant-values test proposal. What’s your take on the screening people have to go through?
A: I have an enormous amount of experience in this area as multiculturalism minister for 10 years, then being minister of immigration responsible for screening and selection, and minister of citizenship. I find her approach to be disingenuous. I don’t think she’s ever thought deeply about these questions. She never raised these questions in Parliament, in public, in caucus or in cabinet. She seemed only to latch on to this as a theme after her campaign was circulating some questions on an online poll that was probably designed to generate email addresses. I just find the whole approach a bit slapdash. What concerns me is that these are extraordinarily sensitive questions that must be addressed with a great deal of nuance and prudence. Having said that, I do believe there is absolutely space for legitimate debate in a liberal democracy about immigration selection, screening and integration.
Q: You previously spent a lot of your time touring and campaigning with multicultural groups, and now you’re visiting smaller, rural areas in Alberta that must be a lot more homogeneous. What are you taking from those communities and hearing from people?
A: Rural Alberta is a lot less homogeneous than it used to be, partly because of my immigration policies. You go to a lot of small communities in rural Alberta and you’ll find a degree of diversity that probably hasn’t existed in terms of immigration for a century—you’ll find the Filipino grocery store, and the African Pentecostal church and maybe a mosque. Albertans are pro-immigration; they’re also pro-integration. In my years in this province I cannot recall more than a handful of expressions of xenophobia or nativism that I’ve encountered. It’s the land of new beginnings and fresh starts—it is rare Albertans who trace their roots here back more than a generation or two. It’s extraordinarily welcoming.
Q: You’ve said that uniting the two remaining parties in Alberta is inevitable. Why do you believe that?
A: The division between the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties is remarkably analogous to the division between the Reform and PC parties. It’s similar in terms of the cultural differences between the parties—rural vs. urban, Reform and Wildrose both having a kind of populist character focused on democratic reform. Having gone through the federal merger, it was difficult and it took years, but in retrospect, it was always going to happen. Every Wildrose voter and activist and MLA were supporters of the PC party for decades—virtually everybody who’s now supporting Wildrose was part of that coalition. So it just seems to me it’s natural and inevitable that coalition will come together, especially given the gravity of the common threat faced by the NDP.
Q: Between your time with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and Parliament, you’ve spent your whole adult life in political activism or electoral politics. Does it ever seem like it might be healthy to get outside that perspective?
A: I’ll be honest, I thought very seriously since the last federal election about leaving public life, having something more like a normal life where I might have my weekends and evenings off, and be able to read and have a more robust personal life. But I ultimately saw how grave the situation is in Alberta. I didn’t see anybody else stepping up, offering a plan to bring together the free-enterprise coalition in Alberta, and I concluded I was pretty well qualified for that task. I really felt compelled to do it. Otherwise I might very well have chosen in a year or so to leave Parliament and to seek other alternatives in the private sector. I’ve watched former colleagues of mine—Peter MacKay and James Moore and John Baird and Stockwell Day and others—do very well in the private sector, and have much more balanced lives, and in some respects, I envy them. But I think I’ve chosen the right path.