By Trevor Busch
As part of his Unite Alberta tour, designed to help revitalize the ailing fortunes of Alberta’s divided conservative right, PC leadership candidate Jason Kenney made a whistle stop in Taber last week to meet constituents from the Cardston-Taber-Warner riding.
“We launched our province-wide Unite Alberta tour in Edmonton 10 days ago (Aug. 1), and we’ve been all the way up to High Level and all the way down to Coutts, and had a really good couple of stops in Taber yesterday (Wednesday Aug. 10),” said Kenney, in an interview with The Times on Thursday. “We had a meeting Tuesday night in Lethbridge with many of the long-time members of both the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose association boards in the Cardston-Taber-Warner constituency, and then at lunchtime yesterday we had a good meeting — kind of a whistle-stop at the A&W. About 35 people came out on short notice, just to meet with me and chat, and I gave a bit of talk and took questions. Between the two events, we probably met about 60 people from Taber.”
One of the key campaign points Kenney has already outlined — should he win the PC leadership in 2017 — will be efforts to unite Alberta’s two prominent conservative parties, the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance, into a single entity as a challenge to the NDP.
“I think I might be the right kind of person to advance the cause of unity in Alberta politics, because I’m not carrying any of the difficult baggage of the past few years,” said Kenney. “We all know the Wildrose Party came into being because many people felt like the PCs were no longer reflecting their values or fighting for their interests, and had become out of touch. There’s a lot of resentment and bruised egos there. I think it’s important that somebody who has not been part of that opera is a catalyst for unity.”
A long-time federal Conservative MP and cabinet minister, first elected in the riding of Calgary Midnapore in 1997, Kenney has served as Parliamentary Secretary for the Prime Minister of Canada in 2006, Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity in 2007, Minister for Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism in 2008, Minister for Employment and Social Development and Minister for Multiculturalism in 2013 and, most recently, as Minister of National Defence.
“I think it’s also useful that I have a strong track record in positions of responsibility in the federal government, as Minister of Immigration, Minister of Employment, and Minister of National Defence. And finally, I think I have a pretty good track record of reaching out to people who are not traditional conservative voters, which is an important part of this Unite Alberta project. For 10 years I was Minister of Multiculturalism, and reached out to new Canadians on behalf of the Conservative Party of Canada, and within that period we doubled our support amongst immigrants voting for the federal Conservative Party of Canada,” said Kenney.
One of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s hell for leather campaigners and a go-to cabinet minister, Kenney was considered to be front runner for the leadership of the federal Conservative Party until making the announcement that he would be leaving federal politics to enter the provincial arena.
“Most importantly, I was very involved in the successful effort to unite conservatives at the national level,” said Kenney. “I ran to do that back in 1997 as an MP, I wanted to see unity amongst conservatives so that we didn’t end up with permanent Liberal governments due to vote splitting, so I had a lot of practical experience in bringing people together from different partisan backgrounds. Ultimately that came together in the Conservative Party of Canada in 2003, thanks to the leadership of Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay.”
Kenney has sometimes been criticized for harbouring strong socially-conservative opinions and viewpoints on a number of controversial issues, such as immigration, abortion, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. soldiers seeking asylum in Canada, changes to the social assistance program for refugee claimants, the Sun News citizenship ceremony in 2011, and Canadian military participation in the campaign against ISIS militants in Syria, among other issues.
“We’re still on the first stage of our tour — which will go on for months, the PC leadership convention will be in mid-March of next year — so it’s really more of a marathon than a sprint, but in August I wanted to get around to as many rural areas as possible before the harvest season sets in, so I can meet with people in agriculture and rural communities. I’ll be back around in the future, probably doing larger public events,” said Kenney.
On the flip side, Kenney has been praised by colleagues for his strong work ethic, indispensable in reaching out to and securing ethnic minority voters for the Conservative camp, playing an effective role as one of Harper’s right-hand men, and throughout his political career for implementing a series of often successful reforms and initiatives in multiple portfolios.
“I just have a grassroots approach to politics,” said Kenney. “I helped start the Canadian Taxpayers Federation in Alberta 25 years ago in 1992, and we had a lot of support for that movement down in the Taber-Cardston area. It was always a hotbed of support for fiscal responsibility. So I have a very strong sense in politics of taking the grassroots, democratic approach. That’s why I’m going around the province in my own blue Ram 1500 pickup truck, that’s why I’m staying at people’s homes, we’re running a low-budget campaign. I want to be at the kitchen tables of hundreds of Albertans in the next eight months, listening to their concerns and their hopes for the future. I’d like to think my approach is on some ways similar to that of Ralph Klein, who was deeply in touch with the common sense of the common people.”
Some moderates in the PC party have already come out against Kenney seeking the leadership, suggesting his views on many issues do not align with the more progressive elements of the party but are more closely in sympathy with the Wildrose Party’s more strongly conservative ideology.
Kenney gave a scathing appraisal of the current Notley NDP government, suggesting a series of ill-considered decisions and ill-fated policy choices are contributing to the recession still gripping the province.
“I think they’re catastrophic. I think they’re wrecking our economy, they’re taking a bad situation with oil prices and making it much worse than it needs to be, they’re driving Alberta deeper into recession. In the midst of a recession, they’ve increased taxes on everything that moves — income taxes, business taxes, property taxes, now they’re going to help Justin Trudeau double CPP payroll taxes, they even increased taxes on Alberta beer last week, and now they’re about to impose a multi-billion tax on everything, the carbon tax, which will make it more expensive to fill up your gas tank, heat your home, or buy your groceries. It’s going to hurt seniors on fixed incomes, and single moms. It’s something they didn’t even run on in the last election, because they knew Albertans would be opposed to it. Basically they’re imposing a sales tax on the province through the back door.”
Raising the minimum wage to an unprecedented new level is poor financial planning, according to Kenney.
“On top of all that, they’re raising the minimum wage during a recession that’s going to kill entry level jobs for young people. Unemployment for young Albertans is now at 24 per cent. We’ve gone from one of the lowest unemployment levels to one of the highest in the country. Over 100,000 full time jobs have been lost since the NDP came to power. We’re at almost record levels of insolvencies and bankruptcies, and many small businesses are barely holding on, and they’re attacking and driving away investors, through their unnecessary royalty review, now by shredding the contracts with the power producers — for these and other reasons I think they’re making a bad economic situation a whole lot worse than it needs to be.”
Kenney promised to fight hard to usher in a new era for the “Alberta Advantage” and bring prosperity back to province.
“My mission is to restore the Alberta Advantage. When we were once a magnet for weath creators and risk takers and hard workers. When we had the lowest taxes in Canada, and one of the only balanced budgets in the country. When we were a natural home for investment. Because to our province, the Alberta Advantage meant that we have the resources to provide quality public services and a high standard of living for everybody. I want us to restore that idea of the Alberta Advantage, with this province proud of its resource industry, proud of agriculture not attacking it through things like Bill 6, and proud of free enterprise — I want a government that doesn’t think profit or business are dirty words, that believes hard work and risk taking should be rewarded and not punished.”