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Jason Kenney: Conservative saviour or a guy with the appeal of a trip to the dentist?

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Jason Kenney

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"There is an end to our line of credit. Canada may be 12 to 24 months away from a total fiscal collapse!"
-- Jason Kenney, President, Association of Alberta Taxpayers, May 9, 1993

Yesterday, tout le monde political Alberta was abuzz with word Jason Kenney, Conservative MP for Calgary Midnapore and former Harper government cabinet heavyweight, is about to abandon federal politics and make big waves here in landlocked Alberta.

The media punditocracy apparently unanimously agrees: Kenney, 48, is about to embark on a career in Alberta politics, uniting the discombobulated provincial right with the snap of his fingers and swiftly sweeping the province's New Democratic government from the field.

"Kenney’s decision will be huge, not only in Alberta where the fractured right-of-centre vote contributed to the NDP's stunning majority win last year, but in federal politics," Chris Hall, the CBC's National Affairs Editor, hyperventilated yesterday. (Emphasis added, of course.)

The general consensus appears to be that Kenney, who served as prime minister Stephen Harper's defence minister and multiculturalism maven, will be an unstoppable juggernaut, crushing anything that wanders into his path as he steams majestically toward inevitable power.

Given the burgeoning excitement on the political right and among its journalistic auxiliary, it is fair for us to ask: Are Alberta's conservatives about to make the same mistake with Jason Kenney their hapless Progressive Conservative wing made in 2014 when it chose Jim Prentice?

Call it Saviour Syndrome. In 2014, Prentice, a former banker and federal Conservative cabinet minister, looked like the guy who could work the miracle necessary to make the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, then creakily approaching the 43rd year of dynastic rule in this province, whole again. Mighty Hosannas rang throughout the land.

And -- oh boy! -- were they ever wrong.

Not only did Prentice turn out not to be very likeable at all, he was politically tone deaf -- deaf to what Albertans were saying and, worse for his political prospects, deaf to what they heard him saying, for example, when he famously told us to look in the mirror.

The results -- combined with the undeniable political talents of Rachel Notley, then the four-member NDP caucus's new leader -- were spectacular to say the least.

On May 5, 2015, the Tories were swept out of power and didn't even get enough seats to form the Opposition. The Opposition Wildrose Party, which had expected to become the government, remained disgruntled in Opposition. Prentice promptly quit, and presumably drove off into the sunset in that sweet little $54,000 T-Bird convertible he'd just bought, blind to why that would bother anyone.

Now Kenney is being touted as the saviour of Alberta's disunited conservative movement, the next sure thing, the deadbolt cinch who will fix everything. Judging from the CBC's story, Kenney appears to have reached this conclusion himself.

I am not so sure. I first met Kenney in May 1993, when I interviewed him for the Calgary Herald. At the time he was president of an entity called the Association of Alberta Taxpayers, another Proposition 13 spinoff like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Who knows. Maybe I just had an irrational Dr. Fell thing about him, but Kenney struck me then as a callow youth, and I don't see much difference now, except that I suppose no one except an old wheeze like me is likely to think he's very youthful any more. Still, Jason Kenney seems to me to be the kind of fellow of whom it can be properly said, "no shirt too young to stuff."

In fact, if you ask me -- and I know many of you aren't asking me -- Kenney had very little political appeal then and nothing has changed. In some ways, he makes Prentice look positively warm and cuddly. He's a fellow who couldn't have gotten elected anywhere but a place like Alberta, which in those days reflexively voted Conservative.

As I wrote back in '93:

"His complexion is chalky, his five-o'clock shadow positively Nixonian, his smart blue suit rumpled, and his tummy, a victim of too many quick and greasy restaurant meals, creeping over his belt. ... The 24-year-old Ontario-born, Saskatchewan-raised anti-tax crusader snaps up headlines daily in Alberta's newspapers. His pronouncements on fiscal matters are treated with reverence by pundits. And he even gets invited to Premier Ralph Klein's office for private tête-à-têtes."

(That said, Klein is on record as not having liked him very much. And it still strikes me as a small miracle this article made it into the fusty old Herald.)

Kenney's sloganeering was, to say the least, derivative: "No taxation without representation!" His economic analysis was hilariously out to lunch: "Canada may be 12 to 24 months away from a total fiscal collapse!" His political intentions, then well known, were couched by claims he had no personal agenda beyond cutting taxes. "I'm able to have greater impact on some major policy decisions than a whole lot of backbench MPs and MLAs." Not much later, he ran as expected.

Well, that was then and this is now. Now Kenney seems the kind of callow oldster who wouldn't appeal to very many young people who get their news from social media to vote for him on a bet. Not unless, perhaps, he lets his hair down like he did at Toronto's Caribbean Fest last August.

What's more, Alberta has changed since 1993 -- as Notley proved with a vengeance last year -- and I doubt Kenney's recent pronouncements on the niqab and "people like" Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, or his federal department's vile policy of denying health care to refugees, will play much better in urban Alberta than they did elsewhere in the country.

Speaking of which, if you believe the CBC's analysis, Kenney decided not to vie for Harper's old job because "the path and time frame for a return to power in the province is shorter than rebuilding the federal party as an alternative to Justin Trudeau's Liberals."

Could be, I suppose. Could also be that Kenney is smart enough to realize he has about as much appeal as a trip to the dentist for most voters outside Alberta.

Maybe it'll be different here in Alberta. I could easily be wrong about Kenney's appeal. But from Notley's perspective, it's said here there are far more challenging conservative candidates she could have to face than Jason Kenney.

If you're laughing at that, just remember what most of us were saying about Jim Prentice on this date in 2014.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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