Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is in some trouble.
A recent opinion survey put the Opposition NDP and its leader Rachel Notley ahead of the United Conservative Party (UCP), within reach of forming a majority if a vote were held now.
Kenney’s popularity has eroded during the COVID-19 crisis, even though – or perhaps because of it – Alberta has had some of the least restrictive confinement rules that provincial governments have adopted to shield failing health-care systems.
The premier listens to Alberta’s chief medical officer, Deena Hinshaw.
Canadian voters love the secure feeling of being in the charge of lockdown enthusiasts. That’s where Kenney started. He was stampeded into panicking in March 2020.
Already in a dispute with doctors at the time, he gave in to the takeover of medical bureaucrats and set aside the existing provincial emergency pandemic plan. He came close to veering into a new direction when he apologized for the mistake in classifying businesses as essential and non-essential – a mistake that greatly hurt his base, only to jump right back into that harmful dichotomy a few weeks later.
And just as Albertans expected to exit the second wave confinement, Kenney took the province right back into greater restrictions in fear of virus mutations.
To his opponents, Kenney has been either slow or callous, and some say both. Those criticisms are often from liberal professions, academics, teachers or unionized government workers who are happy to work from home, receive full pay and get busy advocating for more draconian lockdowns on social media. No depth of locking down will turn this crew into UCP voters.
A large swath of his once faithful supporters feels abandoned or betrayed: they’re small and medium entrepreneurs, farmers and ranchers, shopkeepers, blue-collar and service industry workers. Health bureaucrats have closed their shops and businesses, barricaded their churches, pushed them into bankruptcy or unemployment, vapourizing their savings in a province that was already in a recession before the virus arrived.
Kenney fights for them against the harmful federal policies that are undermining the province’s economic engines, but he enabled medicalized local orders to hurt their ability to support their families.
They’re an important part of the coalition the premier assembled from the fractured conservatives in the province. They’re now bailing out of his party in search of new political vessels, and it might be difficult getting them back.
Recently, a quarter of his caucus fired a shot across his bow, expressing displeasure with the continuation of crippling health restrictions. This threat from within exposes the rift between rural and urban party members that may endanger his coalition.
On both the left and right, from within and from without, the premier is threatened.
Accordingly, eager pundits are announcing a crisis of governance, with some of Kenney’s opponents sounding victory trumpets.
But the gloating may be premature. Though the sands of his popularity may be shifting, three things must be kept in mind.
First, it’s a common mistake in human affairs to assume that tomorrow will be the same as today. Sands shifting can reverse direction. The next Alberta election is still two years away, so there may be plenty of opportunities for Kenney to change his fortunes.
He might, for instance, unexpectedly summon the apparent humility of his hero, Ralph Klein. He could apologize for the multiple COVID-19 crisis blunders and reverse policy course. Without the COVID-19 distractions, he might get back on track.
Second, Kenney’s low popularity comes from his miscalculations and not from his opponents’ abilities. It’s always unwise to rely on the blunders of opponents to reach victory. That strategy didn’t work for the federal Conservatives in 2015, for instance. Stephen Harper was unwilling to fall on his sword as expected and campaigned brilliantly.
Kenney’s opponents will have to work harder and expand their circle of persuasion. The NDP still lacks depth and sufficient talent, and they remain quite short on attractive policies to Albertans.
The smaller challengers have unrealized potential: they’re short on imaginative leadership and some lack resources, policy depth and organizational abilities.
Third, his recent mistakes notwithstanding, Kenney remains one of the most capable politicians in the country and has a tireless work ethic. A third Liberal victory at the federal level may present him with new challenges but may also offer unique opportunities.
Crucially, Kenney is both a persuasive communicator capable of charming even hostile gatherings and a formidable political campaigner who rarely backs down from challenges.
The die for Alberta’s next election is far from cast. Kenney is down but don’t count him out.
Marco Navarro-Génie is a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and president of the Haultain Research Institute. He is co-author, with Barry Cooper, of COVID-19: The Politics of a Pandemic Moral Panic (2020).
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