Jason Kenney is not quite gone as premier, and not quite forgotten. He proved to be long on tactical scheming and centralized control, but short on leadership ability and strategic vision.
His mistakes included mushy decision-making on COVID-19, enthusiasm for coal development, and failed relations with urban and rural municipal leaders, who have long been important as supporters of Conservative governments and as a talent pool for prospective MLAs. He encouraged fights with teachers and health professionals, engaged in fruitless showy exercises like the inquiry into funding of environmental groups, supported cabinet ministers another premier would have dropped, and..well, there was more. His biggest achievements were proving a premier does not have to engage in “progressive” virtue signalling, and happily watching oil and gas prices soar.
He leaves behind a mess for his United Conservative Party.
The problems were magnified a few days after Kenney reluctantly conceded it was time to quit.
Economy Minister Doug Schweitzer announced he will not run for re-election. That inevitably looked like a calculation the party may lose next year’s election.
The most interesting thing about Schweitzer’s announcement was his declaration the UCP has done its job: “Simply put, Alberta is back.” You could read that as a statement it’s okay if the New Democrats win the next election because now even they can’t wreck the province.
Any government should have at least four or five cabinet ministers who could plausibly run for the top job. Schweitzer’s decision left only two with any measure of credibility and perceived competence. By the time this column reaches print, they may or may not still be available.
Finance Minister Travis Toews has kept out of the party’s internal squabbles and has handled the government’s central ministry without big mistakes. He has a solid background in accounting and in the agriculture industry. It’s not clear whether he sees a way to unite the nominally “United” party, and whether he can show strong skill as a retail politician.
Health Minister Jason Copping has a solid legal background. His career in labour relations suggests some ability to bring conflicting sides together. There’s no sign he inspires enthusiasm.
The other cabinet ministers are relatively unknown, stodgy, or tainted by controversies and ethical issues. Many are expressing interest. They are all like car buyers shopping on a used Toyota Corolla budget and kicking tires on a fully loaded Lexus.
People will press Toews to run. The main alternatives will be a wild-card outsider, Brian Jean, and former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith.
Jean and Smith come with their own question marks.
Smith doesn’t even seem to be fully aware of some things she says. She offered a curious lament while announcing her leadership run: “We need to stop dividing people along identity lines — vaxed, unvaxed, or any of the various identity politics we’ve seen play out over the past couple of years.”
That was reasonable in the limited terms she set out. But Alberta politics have largely been identity politics for decades. Many ordinary voters have said for decades that they are Albertans, so they are “conservative.”
Any candidate will have to figure out what to offer beyond hope for continued high energy prices and a call to keep any other party out of power.
But two factors will decide the leadership.
One will be control of the party’s general orientation. A win for Jean or Smith would clinch the dominance of a partly rural anti-establishment faction, possibly sprinkled with separatist rhetoric. A win for Toews or a reasonable facsimile of him would be seen as more mainstream. Neither option would finally establish party unity.
The other big question will be whether any candidate looks able to lead the UCP to four more years in power. Winning an election was the entire rationale for the party’s creation. Is that still the members’ top concern?
Mark Lisac watches politics for Alberta Prime Times. He writes novels too, including the recently published Red Hill Creek