Jason Kenney and Erin O'Toole converse at the UCP's virtual 2020 AGM. Image: United Conservative Party/Twitter

Jason Kenney may have missed it, but Lyndon Johnson’s famous comment about how certain people weren’t up to walking and chewing gum at the same time was an observation about their lack of intelligence, not their ability to get away with saying contradictory things at the same time.

Alberta’s premier is said to be a pretty bright guy, so presumably he understands what the Democrat from Texas had in mind when he pithily observed that Republican congressman Gerald Ford was “so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time.”

It was a different time, so the press kindly laundered Johnson’s observation to make it suitable for family newspapers. Both Johnson and Ford later served as presidents of the United States, and the kinder gentler version of LBJ’s crack was the one that went down in history.

But Kenney, the current United Conservative Party premier of Alberta and a man very much cut from the climate-change cloth of the contemporary U.S. Republican party, seemed to have something rather different in mind when he used the phrase.

In an online question-and-answer session during the UCP’s virtual annual general meeting Saturday, Kenney admitted, rather startlingly, that governments like his are going to have to be seen to be taking action on the environment if they expect bankers to loan any money to the oil and gas industry to build new projects. Needless to say, this was a big change from the days when he used to rail against NDP premier Rachel Notley for saying the same kind of thing.

So, Kenney continued, “we have got to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time when it comes to the energy and environment dynamic.”

Given the backstory of the question — about whether Kenney should have supported Erin O’Toole when the new federal Conservative leader said that he would commit to meeting Canada’s target for greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris climate agreement — it seems Kenney had in mind the idea both he and O’Toole could say that and not really mean it.

“I don’t think Erin is wrong to say that we have to find a way forward for our industry where we don’t stick our head in the ground and pretend that the aspirations behind the Paris thing are not hugely influential in how capital is allocated and how market access decisions are made,” Kenney said. (Emphasis added.)

Further evidence was presented when Kenney answered another question about the so-called energy “war room,” the taxpayer-supported private company run by three cabinet ministers and known officially as the Canadian Energy Centre, saying it will soon be fully back in business after a short COVID-19 lockdown hiatus, ramping up its pro-oilsands advertising effort again.

“I do expect that in the weeks and months to come, the CEC will go back to Plan A, which was to launch a number of large advertising campaigns,” the premier said.

AGM delegates, voting from their home computers, passed a variety of controversial resolutions, including the hardy perennial call to adopt an unconstitutional “right-to-work” law in Alberta.

Likely to scare the bejeepers out of larger numbers of voters, though, was the approval by the delegates of a resolution calling on the government to create a parallel, private, for-profit health-care system.

This is a long way from Kenney’s signed pre-election pledge in February 2019 that he would maintain health-care funding and “a universally accessible, publicly funded health-care system.”

In the Westminster parliamentary system, of course, a governing party has no obligation to enact nutty policies just because rank and file members have voted in favour of them — “I’m the leader and I get to interpret the resolution and its relevance to party policy,” Kenney said sharply back in 2018 when convention delegates passed an ill-timed resolution demanding that schoolkids who join gay-straight alliances be outed to their parents.

But as the Calgary Herald‘s Don Braid pointed out last night, the premier’s response to the AGM health-care resolution was as clear as mud, sounding a lot like the musings of a man who hadn’t quite figured out how to say two completely contradictory things at the same time in a way that would fool all of the people all of the time.

What president Johnson, who died in 1973, would have said about Kenney’s use of his witticism and the premier’s habit of promising different strokes for different blokes is hard to say, but I can guarantee you it would have been worth quoting.

Kenney was joined by O’Toole for part of the Q&A session. The two Conservative leaders sat close together, facing one another, not wearing masks.

Well, having recently been afflicted by COVID-19, O’Toole presumably has some antibodies to the disease, whatever one may think of the example the gruesome twosome was setting for the rest of us.

For his part, Kenney wore brightly striped socks, which looked as if they might have been borrowed from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s sock drawer.

The PM’s socks often seem to provoke near apoplexy among Kenney’s supporters and their media echo chamber. For some reason, however, the premier’s similar choice of hosiery seems to have passed without comment.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: United Conservative Party/Twitter

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...