Kenney immediately announced he was stepping down. Within 24 hours, he emerged from caucus with a letter clarifying that he’ll officially resign “upon the election of a new leader. ”
On Friday, Kenney welcomed reporters into the Cabinet room for a brief statement on the government’s spring agenda. His tone suggested business as usual, but politics in Alberta these days is anything but.
“Mr. Kenney was pushed out of his party because he was not extreme enough, ”Cabinet Minister Randy Boissonnault, a Trudeau Cabinet minister from Alberta, observed on the morning after the vote. “It’s time for the moderates and Conservative movements in this country to step up and ask themselves, ‘Where is this train going and where is it going to stop?’ ”
Kenney’s downfall caps a long period of relentless political drama. His hold on his own caucus started unraveling at the height of a deadly Covid wave in the spring of 2021, when he asked Albertans to clamp down amid spiking cases and hospitalizations.
Those restrictions might have followed the advice of the province’s top doctors, but it misjudged a widespread sentiment that the people who lived there had done their part – and they should not be forced to obey unpredictable rules handed down from on high.
Even as he wound down public health measures on Canada Day last year and heralded the “best summer ever” on the Canadian prairies, his approval ratings sank like a stone.
He never recovered. The public had soured on him and the voters followed suit.
Slow death of a salesman
The timing of Kenney’s resignation announcement was also dramatic.
Just a day earlier, the premier was in Washington, selling Alberta’s energy market to influential senators at a US Senate committee meeting chaired by maverick Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.).
It was a friendly hearing. The pair had hit it off last month after Kenney hosted Manchin on a two-day tour of Alberta, a high-profile visit clinched as a result of the province’s stepped up stateside lobbying efforts led by former Conservative MP James Rajotte. Alberta is aspiring to match Quebec’s influence stateside and emulate its success inking major deals.
Kenney swished into the Capitol Hill committee room Tuesday, greeted with bipartisan warmth.
Manchin and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the highest-ranking Republican on the committee, shared Kenney’s irritation over President Job Biden’s decision to kill the Keystone XL pipeline.
Kenney brought stats. He pointed out that 60 percent of American oil imports came from Alberta. Only 13 percent was shipped from OPEC countries, including a measly 6 percent from Saudi Arabia. He did the math. That’s 10 times as much Albertan oil as Saudi oil.
Funding for Saudi Arabia’s influence campaigns in Washington is not so measly. More math: Rajotte told reporters the day before the Saudis spend $ 300 million annually just on PR. “My budget’s a little less,” he joked.
The premier told senators Tuesday he wanted to team up on a new pipeline. Alberta has the supply, he said, we just need infrastructure.
“If the United States wants to get off its addiction to OPEC conflict oil, if it wants to stop financing barrel bombs being used by Saudis against civilians in Yemen,” Kenney said Tuesday, “then the United States should make a strategic decision.”
Canada, he said, is the fix for spiking US gas prices.
“The invasion of Ukraine is obviously a game changer in geopolitics and global energy markets,” Kenney told the POLITICO Energy podcast this week after he spent the hearing going hard on the message the US can no longer abet petrostates that fuel conflict and war.
“We hope and believe that the administration will change their policy to address the new reality of energy scarcity, energy inflation, energy poverty, but also the realization that we can not allow hostile dictatorships to destabilize global energy markets.”
The charm offensive worked. At the meeting’s end, senators invited themselves to visit Kenney to see Alberta with their own eyes.
It’s a feat, considering Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to lure Biden to Ottawa for a bilat – not even after border restrictions were relaxed late last year.
Nor has Canadian-born Jennifer Granholm crossed the border to visit Canada in any official capacity as Biden’s Energy secretary. Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson is the one who regularly hops down to Washington for their meetings.
Kenney’s goal was to get more attention from the Biden administration. He’s got it. But he will not be there to see the fruits of his labor.
For now, Kenney is still Alberta’s top salesperson, but he’s turned into something of a lame duck.
When Alberta loses its star pitchman sometime in the next several months, the door will be open to an even more zealous defender of Canada’s oil and gas industry or perhaps a leader more amenable to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s climate policies that focus more on a future without oil than one that depends on it.
Early election game theory
Alberta’s energy future is mixed up with its electoral future, which is a buffet of choose-your-own-adventure scenarios.
Officially, the legislated date of the next election is May 29, 2023. But provincial and federal fixed-date law typically gives governments an escape valve – in this case, a clause that allows Alberta’s lieutenant governor, Salma Lakhani, to formally dissolve the legislature whenever she wants.
Convention dictates that lieutenant governors take that step only on the advice of premiers. In a minority government, Lakhani could invite one or more opposition parties to test the confidence of the legislature. But the UCP has a majority, so they hold all the cards.
It’s unclear exactly when the party will elect a new leader, though the timeline will be measured in months, not weeks. A pair of fierce Kenney critics who both once led the defunct Wildrose Party, Brian Jean and Danielle Smith, have announced interest in the top job.
Prominent members are likely to consider their own bids, including Finance Minister Travis Toews and Jobs Minister Doug Schweitzer. The Ottawa rumor mill has floated the prospect of Calgary MP Michelle Rempel Garner throwing her hat into the ring, too.
Many Conservatives in the province are whispering that the next permanent prime minister should not call an early election. The more time they have to reunite a fractured party, the better chance they have at trouncing New Democrats (NDP) who have been leading in the polls for months.
When he announced his intention to step down on Wednesday, Kenney urged his province’s people to mend fences after a pandemic that left a pile of bad vibes in its wake.
“It’s clear that the past two years were deeply divisive for our province, our party and our caucus,” he said. “But it is my fervent hope that in the months to come, we all move on past the Covid division.”
Patient voices on the right make the case that waiting until spring would allow the economy more time to rebound from Covid woes, and opens the door to a budget with lots of black ink thanks to surging oil prices.
The Alberta government expects oil and gas to generate C $ 62.6 billion in revenue in fiscal year 2022-23, a far cry from the negative crude prices in the first months of the pandemic – and a boon to boosters of the oil patch on both sides of the aisle in the legislature.
Then again, a new prime minister could call a snap election and seek a new mandate for the post-Kenney era.
Or the new premier could fail to unite the party and it could split in two, offering an opportunity to the province’s left-wingers who are licking their chops. Alberta is a rare province where the New Democratic Party cheers on oil and gas, though the party’s railing against corporate profits leaves big business feeling sour.
Rematch in the battle of Alberta
Cue the NDP and this week’s unveiling of the party’s newest tagline: “United.”
The party’s leader, former Premier Rachel Notley, has been more popular than Kenney in polls for more than a year.
She is pitching her candidates as savvy veterans who know how to run the province.
“Our team is ready to form a government that acts with integrity, full of experienced and capable Albertans who will work day and night on what matters to you,” she said Thursday. “And we are united in this purpose.”
Notley, like Manchin, is also something of a political maverick.
Her support of both the Keystone XL and Trans Mountain pipeline bucks the archetype of an NDP leader and distinguishes the provincial party from its federal cousin.
If an orange wave returns to Alberta, there’s simply too much money coming in from oil and gas for Notley to flip the province’s policies around.
The NDP is keen on a fall election. The party’s coffers are full, and they’re running TV ads in the National Hockey League playoffs between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers – the first “Battle of Alberta” since 1991.
The electoral math is difficult for Notley’s NDP. She won in 2015 in large part because two now-defunct parties, the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose, split the conservative vote. That meant no-chance NDP candidates came up the middle in mid-size cities, like Red Deer where Kenney’s United Conservatives (UCP) – which formed a winning coalition from warring Progressive Conservative and Wildrose factions – soundly beat them in 2019.
Notley would also have to retake a wide swath of Calgary ridings she narrowly won in 2015 that handed comfortable victories to Kenney’s UCP four years later.
It’s an uphill climb for a former premier whose approval ratings in office sank as low as 28 percent – higher than Kenney’s personal worst of 22 percent, but a signal of her own deep unpopularity with the electorate.
By the time Notley lost power in May 2019, the Angus Reid Institute’s polling showed her approval rating had improved to 40 percent – but not nearly enough to retain power. She could offer the most stable alternative if a fire-breathing populist who tells moderates to shove it takes over the governing party.
When the next election rolls around, Albertans who’ve proved themselves fickle with their leaders will watch their seventh premier since 2011 go to the polls. If Notley wins again, she’d be the first ever Albertan leader to win non-consecutive terms.
The only thing certain is that Alberta’s next budget will be swimming in black ink, thanks to oil prices that offer at least the illusion of boom times. Everything else is impossible to predict.