A screenshot of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney addresses a carefully curated crowd of about 100 supporters at yesterday’s UCP “Special General Meeting” in Red Deer. Kenney's leadership review has divided the party (Photo: Screenshot of United Conservative Party video).
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney addresses a carefully curated crowd of about 100 supporters at a UCP “Special General Meeting” in Red Deer April 11 (Photo: Screenshot of United Conservative Party video). Credit: Twitter screenshot / United Conservative Party

If he is to survive politically, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney must thread a needle—appeasing enough of his United Conservative Party’s base to keep his job without frightening so much of the electorate he loses the next election.

That work commenced seriously with Kenney’s recent speech to a small and carefully curated crowd of supporters, many members of his own political staff, at the Red Deer hotel where his leadership review was supposed to have been held in a single day of voting at the party’s annual general meeting. 

Despite clever lighting designed to leave the impression a vast throng stretched far off into the darkness, reports from the Cambridge Hotel in the central Alberta city indicated there were only about 100 people in the room. 

Judging from the images on the video posted by the party on social media, no one who opposed Kenney’s continued leadership was admitted to the renamed “special general meeting.” 

Kenney’s remarks were clearly aimed beyond the room at the hearts and minds of enough of the UCP base to survive the challenge by party rebels nominally led by former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean, now sworn in as a UCP MLA after a four-year hiatus from politics.

Jean and his supporters are encouraging UCP members to deny Kenney their support in his performance review by voting for a leadership election in balloting that will now stretch into mid-May after the party board changed the voting procedure to tilt the field in favour of Kenney.

The premier proudly described himself as a “movement conservative,” carefully pushing the buttons such ideologues demand in the Republicanized, Trumpified modern Canadian conservative movement. 

So, for example, he defended the UCP’s nearly universally reviled kindergarten-to-grade-12 curriculum as a reasonable response to an effort by the previous NDP government to ideologically rewrite the school curriculum. 

This is a false interpretation of what happened to the curriculum review started under Progressive Conservative governments well before the NDP came to power, but it illustrates Kenney’s likely narrative leading into the election expected next year.

“We ended their war on faith-based education,” Kenney began, tendentiously spinning the NDP’s support for public education. 

“We did shred the NDP’s ideological rewrite, and we did begin carefully developing a modernized curriculum that gets back to basics in math and reading, with balanced content on our history and institutions, instead of divisive woke-left ideology like critical race theory, cancel culture and age-inappropriate sex education.”

Clearly the culture war virus, like the one that causes COVID-19, has had no trouble crossing the 49th Parallel into Alberta, where “critical race theory” has never been an issue. 

Unsurprisingly, Kenney also falsely portrayed the NDP’s response to the pandemic as a wish for endless lockdowns and use of COVID-19 “as an opportunity to divide.” 

NDP Leader Rachel Notley, he said, “wanted hard Australian-style lockdowns for most of the past two years … Quebec-style curfews.” (If anyone can recall Notley advocating either of those things, drop me a line.)

Kenney had nothing at all to say about the Albertans who died in the pandemic, their relatives, or the health care workers who struggled to save their patients’ lives. 

But Kenney did renew his call for a takeover of Albertans’ Canada Pension Plan assets, and for the creation of his own provincial police force. He repeated the usual folderal about the ethical superiority of Alberta’s oil over the dictator-conflict version of that fungible commodity from “Vladimir Putin’s Russia and OPEC dictatorships.” 

He elevated the late premier Ralph Klein to near sainthood. I heard no mention of Peter Lougheed.

People noticed that Kenney, or whoever wrote his speech for him, got a lot of dates wrong.

Given the nature of the small audience, it is unsurprising no guffaws, or even restrained snickers, could be heard at the premier’s assertion that “socialists are experts at tearing things down; we Conservatives build things up.” Just ask any medical professional in Alberta about that—if you can find one. 

Cleverly, though, Kenney made these comments in a mostly rational voice, presumably to ensure any stray Albertan voter who accidentally tuned into the speech or stumbled across a short clip on a newscast was reassured nothing too bonkers was going on.

Presented in print on a page, his message can be read more accurately: often over the top and intentionally misleading.

Really, a 45-minute speech like this, rife with misstatements, misinterpretations, and downright fibs demands a detailed analysis by a professional fact-checker like those to which former U.S. President Donald Trump’s public statements were subjected. 

Naturally, a significant portion of the speech was devoted to the choice now faced by the UCP, which Kenney framed as continued success under his leadership or the road to perdition—or at least an NDP government, which is presumably much the same thing—if the party is led by anyone else. 

“We can go into a deeply divisive leadership election later this year, where the principle to debate will be looking through the rear-view mirror and arguing over COVID policy with incredible division in our party … between urban and rural, and likely along legacy party lines on an issue that passionately divides people.”

“It will drive a wedge right down the middle of our party and there’s only one person who wins from that—and her name is Rachel Notley.”

Now, many of us might argue that more Albertans than just Notley would benefit from such a state of affairs, but we understand the point the premier was trying to make. 

Naturally, Kenney advocated “the path of unity.”

“Friends,” he said to the cheers of his carefully pruned audience, “I choose the future. I choose unity. I choose to go forward together!”

Well, we’ll see soon enough if the party’s members choose the same thing. The party board has done what it can to ensure that’s easy for members to do. 

In his peroration, Kenney pledged to honour the results of the leadership review vote. 

“I will fully respect it, in all humility,” he said. “If the members decide they want to have a leadership election, I will step aside.”

Is it just me, or do these sound like the words of a politician who knows victory is already a done deal?

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...