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Why do our political leaders make dumb decisions?

Post mortem on decisions around federal election and Kenney's mishandling of COVID-19: time will tell, says columnist.
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Columnist Mark Lisac takes a hard look at provincial and federal politics for Alberta Prime Times. Photo submitted.

The underwhelming federal election and the tribulations of Premier Jason Kenney pose a question: what drives political leaders to make apparently dumb decisions?

The case of the election seems straightforward. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his closest advisers thought the Liberal party had a shot at winning a majority. They thought they were smarter than anyone else, and/or put too much trust in someone’s polling.

Another minority was always the most likely outcome. There was no reason to think Trudeau or his government had gained much support among voters, or that they had managed to make the other parties look really bad. The country is not polarized like the U.S., but elections still tend to be determined by fixed opinions and fractious regionalism. The political environment remains stable.

A look at individual riding results suggests a second reason for the outcome. The winners in many ridings finished well ahead of the second-place finishers. That suggests few seats are likely to shift to another party.

Coming up short makes it more likely that Trudeau will step aside in a couple of years — if a strong successor is at hand. But the Liberals made some subtle gains.

They increased their presence in Alberta, which is steadily becoming more urbanized and diverse than the other Prairie provinces. And it’s a safe bet that voters would not look kindly on the opposition parties forcing another election anytime soon. The Liberals did not advance, but neither did the Conservatives or New Democrats.

As for Kenney, the botched management of the COVID-19 outbreak resulted from putting political manipulation ahead of public health policy. Like Trudeau and the federal Liberals, Kenney and his closest advisers seem to think they are really smart and don’t need to check with outside reality.

Now Kenney’s hold on the party that he moulded is weak.

He survived a long meeting with United Conservative MLAs on Sept. 22. That only showed how difficult it is to generate a revolt against a party leader who is also the head of government.

The compromise decision to hold a leadership review earlier than the one automatically scheduled for next fall has pros and cons.

It buys Kenney time to recover. It leaves his critics less time to organize an effort to push him out and shortens the period of internal strife. On the other hand, it leaves him no margin for further mistakes.

He will fight because he has few other job prospects. He has followed a classic career path from baby politician to career politician. His only visible skills are in political organizing and perhaps in the media. He cannot look forward to invitations to sit on corporate boards, or to work with any other organization carefully tending its public image.

If he survives, he will still have to work with a disunited party. The UCP has always reflected a rural-urban split, and a split between the old Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties. The factions were never really united, just bolted together by a desire to win an election. Now the party is also divided over masking and vaccinations.

If Kenney does stay on, he will still have to deal with carping and occasional public challenges.

If the disappointed and the worried get rid of Kenney, who replaces him? The UCP inherits political forces that have spent the last half-century looking for the second coming of Ernest Manning.

Finance Minister Travis Toews is the competent cabinet voice. Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver has an established Calgary base and could be a middle-ground compromise.

But the crucial issue is that all the UCP members fretting over Kenney’s leadership are ignoring their own complicity. He made poor decisions because he was trying to keep all his MLAs and most of his voters onside. They are as responsible as the premier, and they could force another premier into the same kinds of bad choices.

Mark Lisac watches the political scene for Alberta Prime Times