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Jason Kenney's Guardian Role

A number of years ago, I wrote a book about how to become a premier of Alberta.  In it, I suggested one of the keys was to cast oneself as the Guardian of the province's interests.  The findings were based on a study of over 70 years worth of premier speeches and campaign materials.  I found that the most successful premiers (from Bible Bill Aberhart to Ralph Klein) had spoken in a distinct "code" of Alberta politics that defended the freedom of the province - freedom for individuals to pursue happiness and businesses to pursue profits, but also freedom from foes outside Alberta's borders.  Most frequently, this meant casting prime ministers and other premiers as antagonists. Peter Lougheed chose Pierre Trudeau, just as Ralph Klein villified Jean Chretien. (The plot seems most convincing when Liberals are in power in Ottawa. Less successful PC premiers Don Getty, Ed Stelmach, Alison Redford, and Jim Prentice lacked a suitable foils in Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper.)


Standing up to Ottawa - or more recently Quebec, Saskatchewan, and BC - is a proven formula.  Premiers portray themselves as the champions, even saviours, of Albertans as a means of externalizing their opposition. Opponents within the province, like other party leaders, union leaders, academics, environmentalists, are forced to play cheerleaders or traitors in the Premier's grand narrative.


This is what makes Jason Kenney's rise to prominence on the provincial and national stage so rare, yet predictable. No other opposition leader in Alberta history - indeed, perhaps no other provincial opposition leader outside Quebec - has been as successful in asserting himself in the Guardian role.  Until now, that place has been reserved for premiers alone (including premiers-in waiting within the governing party, a la Klein).


How has Kenney done it?  Put simply, he has never considered himself an opposition leader and doesn't pretend to be one.  Opposition leaders focus on domestic politics, while Guardians look beyond their borders. Opposition leaders are parochial, while Guardians are statesmen.  Opposition leaders seldom rise to power in Alberta, while Guardians command it. In today's permanent campaign, Kenney has employed a bold and persistent strategy to provoke his targets into legitimizing him by responding as if he were the Guardian he professes to be.   

Consider the following three tactics, which to my knowledge, have never been employed (at least as successfully) by a provincial opposition leader in Canada.  In doing so, he has successfully cast himself in premier-like roles in the courts, in parliament, and in the national media.


On the first count, Kenney is likely the only provincial opposition party leader ever to apply for intervenor status to support the Saskatchewan's constitutional challenge of the proposed federal carbon tax. In doing so, he established himself as Premier Scott Moe's peer - and Moe reinforced the notion by publicly acknowledging and supporting his application to appear before the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal. Were Kenney to succeed in this request, it would be a rarer feat still for a party on the opposition benches of another province.


Second, Kenney returned to Parliament Hill to appear before the Commons Finance committee examining federal carbon pricing.  Such a role is usually but not exclusively reserved for subject matter experts, but the federal Conservatives, sensing Kenney's reputation as one of Canada's fiercest opponents of the carbon tax, invited him to testify. This, too, lent credibility to his Guardian status (although an old unwritten rule suggests premiers ought not lower themselves to engaging with federal committees instead of the prime ministers, themselves).  


Third, Kenney goaded the federal government into breaking a related rule of intergovernmental relations by engaging a provincial opposition leader by name. Kenney's persistent and at times bombastic attacks on the Trudeau Liberals appear to have struck a nerve in recent weeks, with a senior minister engaging directly with him on Twitter over his record on pipelines, and the Prime Minister responding directly to reporter's questions about Kenney's personal attacks on his intelligence.  Questions remain as to whether the latter move went one step over the line of political civility.  But the reaction, not the insult, was the intended result.

While Trudeau deflected the attention by claiming to be above character assaults, the mere recognition that Kenney's words had drawn his attention lent national stature to the UCP leader.  What’s more the Liberal government’s reaction has made it more likely that they will have to respond to him in a more formal fashion, should he parlay this reputation into a successful provincial election campaign in Spring 2019.  Indeed, the Trudeau government has given the Alberta opposition leader more personal mentions in six months than Ralph Klein gave to anyone across the Alberta Legislature aisle in his 14 years in office. (Legend has it Klein had a commitment never to mention an opposition leader by name.)


Through these and other moves, and the unwitting assistance of his opponents, Jason Kenney has assumed a prominent Guardian role in Alberta.  While it may be too early to assert he's taken the lead part away from Premier Rachel Notley, he's making a strong case to move out of the supporting actor category.  


Notley is certainly no slouch in the Guardian role.  She has played a similar game of Code Politics, as well, identifying outside threats in a host of unlikely places.  Picking fights with Saskatchewan over procurement policy (the "license plate spat" ) was somewhat predictable given the age-old animosity between the Saskatchewan Party and the NDP.  Yet her ability to make an ally of Premier Moe and enemies of her New Democratic counterparts in BC and Ottawa on the pipeline issue is a master stroke.  Like many leading women in Hollywood, her success in these instances is all the more remarkable given society's general perceptions about women in leading roles where the projection of masculine power is paramount. Kenney’s privileged position as a white, male, conservative leader in a historically conservative province gives him a sizeable advantage, in this regard.  Nonetheless, Notley's strong Guardian performance to date has inoculated her against mainstream criticism that she puts other things (like her party or ideological commitments) ahead of Albertans' own economic interests.    


Yet, if recent public opinion polls are any indication, Premier Notley's efforts may not be enough to stall Jason Kenney's ascension to her office.  Few opposition party leaders have carried such credibility or notoriety within Alberta, let alone the rest of Canada.


In the end, perhaps Kenney's greatest feat to date is unrelated to his unique status among other provincial opposition leaders, past and present. Rather it lies in convincing everyone he's not one of them.


Jared Wesley is an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta, and author of Code Politics: Campaigns and Cultures on the Canadian Prairies (UBC Press, 2011).


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