Looking back over the Alberta political stories of 2022, one theme dominates all others: the fall of Jason Kenney.
Kenney, the former federal cabinet minister who had united Alberta’s fractious right and seemingly restored the Tory Dynasty to power in 2019, may have entered the year with serious political problems caused principally by his own mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his tendency to pick fights with everyone, but his cause was far from lost.
Indeed, notwithstanding the rumblings from the anti-vaccine crusaders in the United Conservative Party’s rural base and the then mostly marginalized rural MLAs who supported them, it was hard to believe in January 2022 that Kenney wouldn’t still be leader and premier a year later with a better-than-decent shot at winning the election scheduled for the following spring.
Now nobody even knows where he is, let alone cares. Danielle Smith is the premier and the real crazies, by and large, seem to be in charge.
Yet it remains in my opinion that had Kenney stayed on as premier after the underwhelming 51.4 per cent support he received in the party’s leadership review last May, he could not only have beaten the NDP opposition, but might well have done so handily.
At the time, the prevailing opinion in the UCP’s legislative caucus was thought to be that Kenney had a real chance of losing to the NDP’s Rachel Notley in the provincial election scheduled for May 29, 2023.
But while cause for concern among UCP MLAs was justified, last spring’s conventional wisdom did not account for the fact that a virtual palace coup of the party by the Q-adjacent Take Back Alberta anti-vaccine political action committee was underway, as it continues to be at the riding-association level.
With benefit of hindsight, the UCP would have been better off if Kenney had stuck to his guns and insisted that a vote of 50 per cent plus one was good enough for him to remain on the job. Instead, he threw up his hands and immediately announced he would resign.
Take Back Alberta then successfully engineered the second stage of its coup and imposed Smith, long a vaccine skeptic and enthusiastic conspiracy theorist during her career as a right-wing talk show host, as its most ideologically acceptable choice to run the UCP.
Any of cabinet minister Travis Toews (Kenney’s obvious first choice), minister Rebecca Schulz, or party rebel Brian Jean, who won a byelection in March by campaigning to dump Kenney and like Smith was a former Wildrose party leader, would have done better against Notley and the NDP than Smith is likely to do.
The decline of Kenney’s control of his caucus and party can be tracked through the months.
In January, he all but gave up trying to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 — too late to weaken the rabid anti-vaccine faction in caucus.
In February, anti-vaxers, emboldened by the stumbles by then federal Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and the occupation of Ottawa and border blockades by the so-called Freedom Convoy, set their sights on unseating the premier.
In March, Jean won his byelection, campaigning to replace Kenney; Smith announced she’d run to lead the UCP if Kenney was rejected by party members in the leadership vote; and Kenney, in an accurate but unfortunate Basket of Deplorables Moment, dismissed the UCP’s anti-vax fringe as “lunatics.”
In April, in a sign of weakness and fear of the anti-vaxers, Kenney sacked Alberta Health Services’ capable president and CEO, Dr. Verna Yiu. That same month, in the year’s funniest Alberta political moment, Kenney, a former Ottawa bigshot, was caught on video not knowing how to gas up the big blue Dodge pickup he drove around in to demonstrate his Albertan credentials.
In May, setting himself up for the 60-plus per cent leadership review victory he is said to have expected, Kenney went to Washington, hobnobbed with Democrat-in-Name-Only Sen. Joe Manchin (now also irrelevant, as predicted in this space), and returned to that 51.4-per cent vote. He announced he would quit, sealing his own fate. Smith announced her intention to run for the UCP leadership.
In June, while the government was obviously transitioning to something, the belligerent communications style Kenney brought to Alberta politics continued. UCP social media “issues managers,” and press secretaries — always inappropriately aggressive in their responses to anyone who dared to criticize the government for any reason, ordinary citizens and political partisans alike — seemed to get worse. True to form, ignoring his new lame duck status, Kenney took personal credit for the sudden surge in world petroleum prices.
In July, with the premier having clearly established his own irrelevance, Smith took the UCP leadership campaign down a dark Trumpian road — from which, really, the party has never returned. She promoted conspiracy theories about Alberta Health Services management conspiring against the government. Other candidates shamelessly jumped on her vaccine denial bandwagon.
In August, Smith’s ridiculous Sovereignty Act idea was picked by on the provincial political radar. Kenney dismissed the idea as “nuts” — but few paid attention to him. By the end of the month he was rambling on about subjects that really mattered to him — John A. Macdonald’s and Winston Churchill’s historical legacies.
In September, in what had to be the year’s weirdest political moment, Kenney went to London and lined up to pay obeisance at Queen Elizabeth’s coffin, live tweeting all the while. If it hadn’t been so strange, no one would have paid attention. He also went to Toronto, stood in a subway station, and touted Alberta as a great place for yuppies to move, a pitch greeted by passersby with yawns.
In October, with Smith sworn in as premier, Kenney became a garden variety MLA again. Premier Smith appointed every candidate who ran against her for the leadership but one to her massive cabinet. Kenney fell silent.
In November, he resigned his seat in Calgary-Lougheed.
In December, about all we heard from him was crickets. It is not known if anyone has filed a missing-person report or sent out a search party.
But fear not, Alberta, he’s bound to resurface one of these days, if only in an unsatisfying role as the member of a corporate board or two, or the author of a pious op-ed.
But for a man who once stood astride Alberta in triumph, Jason Kenney has become utterly irrelevant, and all but invisible.
Who saw that coming?
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