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What Jason Kenney's election in Alberta means for Justin Trudeau
April 25, 2019
John Ivison

Jason Kenney saved his vitriolic interventions in the Alberta election campaign for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rather than his opponent, NDP Premier Rachel Notley.

This made sense -- political attacks rarely work when the target is more popular than source and many voters held Notley in greater esteem than Kenney.

But there was an edge to the United Conservative Party leader’s attacks on Trudeau that went beyond campaign strategy. The Liberal leader was citizenship and immigration critic while Kenney was the minister for the file in his early days in Stephen Harper’s government, and it would be fair to say Alberta’s premier-designate didn’t hold his counterpart in high regard. “The guy was my critic in opposition for three years. I don’t think he has the foggiest idea what’s going on,” Kenney told a reporter in one particularly caustic put-down. “This guy is an empty trust-fund millionaire who has the political depth of a finger-bowl.”

For all Trudeau’s Rotarian optimism about working together to “address issues of importance to Albertans and all Canadians,” including “taking decisive action on climate change, while getting our natural resources to market,” it promises to be a testing time for the loose confederation of warring tribes that we call Canada.

A new era of unfriendly federalism has been fully realized, with provincial governments hostile to the federal Liberals presiding in legislatures across the country, with the exception, at least for now, of three small provinces in Atlantic Canada. When Justin Trudeau came to power, 29 million Canadians lived in provinces run by provincial Liberals. That number currently stands at 1.6 million. And while Alberta was run by Notley’s NDP, she was an ally in Trudeau’s grand design to introduce a carbon tax while building a pipeline to new markets for the province’s oil. That alliance died with Kenney’s election Tuesday.

There was an edge to the United Conservative Party leader's attacks on Trudeau that went beyond campaign strategy

Alberta’s voters were not in a happy place going into this campaign, fizzing and popping like sausages in a pan. There was a sense they’ve been on the receiving end of a sustained assault on their interests. There were legitimate grounds for grievance -- the governments of B.C. and Quebec went out of their way to oppose pipeline expansion, while the citizens of Quebec in particular benefitted from the equalization program, funded in large measure by the taxpayers of Alberta. The oilpatch has experienced an almost existential crisis, as jobs and investment have gone elsewhere.

Fully one-third of the United Conservative Party platform is devoted to “standing up for Alberta” -- scrapping the NDP’s carbon tax and launching a court challenge to any federally imposed replacement; filing a constitutional challenge against the federal government’s environmental assessment bill, C-69; fighting “foreign-funded special interests” that oppose resource development; holding a referendum on the federal government’s equalization program, unless there is progress made toward building a new pipeline; pressing Ottawa to convert Canada health and social transfers to tax points for the province to give Alberta more control over how revenues are raised and spent; resistance to the housing stress test imposed by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation; introducing “turn off the taps” legislation to cut gasoline shipments to the Lower Mainland of B.C; and on and on.

Kenney charged that Trudeau’s policies on the Northern Gateway, Energy East and Trans Mountain pipelines are responsible for high rates of unemployment, insolvencies and reduced take-home pay for Albertans. The lure to “fight back” against the forces stabbing the province in the back proved powerful. Kenney successfully mobilized that frustration against the “Trudeau-Notley alliance.”

But he is a proud and loyal Canadian -- an alternative to, rather than an ally of, the bubbling anger of Alberta separatism that has been dormant for 40 years. He is clearly grandstanding. He knows how the system works and that a number of his proposals to take on the federal government are doomed.

He claims section 92 of the Constitution, which says revenues raised for provincial purposes are the exclusive preserve of provincial legislatures, invalidates federal moves on the carbon tax and C-69. But provincial challenges to federal environmental laws have not triumphed before, and few expect them to in this case.

It hardly helps that Kenney claims Ottawa has constitutional primacy on pipelines when it comes to imposing a solution on British Columbia.

On equalization, Kenney wants to exclude non-renewable resource revenues from the formula, even though calculations by economist Trevor Tombe suggest doing so would not benefit Alberta, and could even see Quebec receive more.

Yet, while his campaign promises may be hollow, he will work toward changing the balance of power in confederation.

Kenney is not someone who views politics as a zero-sum game.

Back in 2010 as immigration minister, he and his Liberal critic ofd the day, Maurizio Bevilacqua, struck a deal on refugee reform to deter fraudsters from filing claims. Kenney accepted opposition amendments and said he didn’t mind the Liberals claiming victory, as long as his bill was passed.

It was typical of his time in the immigration portfolio -- even his critics admitted he was a rare minister who could implement more restrictive immigration and refugee policy while reassuring individual communities about their concerns. His extensive outreach struck a balance between the majority culture and the integration of minorities, while his “curry in a hurry” tours also made the Conservatives the natural party for new Canadians.

Trudeau would be a fool to dismiss Kenney as just another tub-thumping populist blowhard with rigidly dogmatic views.

The UCP platform quotes academic Donald Savoie in pointing out that when Ottawa speaks about national unity, it means Quebec’s place in the federation and the economic interests of Ontario and Quebec. Savoie argued Canada’s institutional arrangements need to be a “two-way mirror” that reflect the economic interests of Western and Atlantic Canada too. “Policymakers in Ottawa should take note before it’s too late,” he said.

Kenney could be a partner for any prime minister in building a more robust federation. For example, the suggestion on transferring tax points on health and social spending to the provinces is worth discussing at more length. Equalization reform to include hydro revenues is long overdue. The attempt should not be to make the program more generous to Alberta but to make it less bountiful to others.

It would be too much to expect reconciliation ahead of October’s election between the new Alberta premier and the man he believes has the depth of a finger-bowl.

But if Trudeau wins, it will be incumbent on the two men to meet over a pint of Guinness and attempt to repair the broad disillusionment felt in the West