Thursday, June 23, 2016

Oh My God - They Killed Kenney!

Nation, as has been widely reported in the press over the past few days, Jason Kenney - prolific cabinet minister in the governments of Stephen Harper and Member of Parliament for Calgary Midnapore - is testing the waters for a run for the vacant leadership of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta.

The thought here is that if Kenney can come home to Alberta and win the leadership of the PC's - which will be decided by next summer - then the schism on the centre-right of Alberta politics would be healed by an exodus of Wildrose members who would either join the Kenney PC's, or would be willing to leave Wildrose for an entirely new party. Leaving a united right to cruise to power in an expected 2019 provincial election.

Pundits and party rank-and-file from both sides of Alberta's conservative "family feud" have weighed in, talking about how it could be done, why it does or doesn't make sense, and whether Kenney should actually make the jump to provincial politics or run for the leadership of the federal Conservatives.

So, let's ask the important questions:

1. CAN Jason Kenney win the leadership of the PCAA?

Yes, he can.

The new leadership selection process for the PCAA is a delegated convention - which is exactly the type of convention they're been using for years to vote on issues like the party's executive board, policies, and constitutional amendments. So it's not like this is an entirely new process that nobody has any insight into the inner workings of. If Kenney can gain the support of a majority of the voting delegates in the leadership race - roughly 700 people - he can win the leadership.

2. HOW can he win?

No one's quite sure at this point whether the voting delegates are going to be selected by a vote of the local PC members in each constituency, or whether they'll be appointed by the local CA Boards. If it's the former, Kenney has the organizational chops to make sure he's got enough members signed up in enough ridings to tip the scales in his favour when the local vote is held. If it's the latter, Kenney would need to move quickly to have his supporters gain control of enough CA Boards to get friendly delegates appointed. The local Annual General Meeting is the most likely place for such a move, but how many CAs are having AGM's between now and when the delegates would be chosen?

3. What could go wrong?

The PC Party has the right to refuse or revoke the membership of anyone whose membership is deemed "not in the best interests of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta". This is not a common occurrence by any means, but it's a tool they have at their disposal.

So, just like the NDP did with the "Kudatah" gang who tried to sign up as members in order to take over the governing party from within, the PCAA has the ability to deny membership to anyone who they know isn't joining to help the PC cause.

And while this might be an overwhelmingly difficult task - there's no blood test for motives, after all - it's also conspicuously easy, in that there's only one membership you'd need to revoke or refuse in order to torpedo Kenney's chances of winning the PC leadership:

Jason Kenney.

If you're not a member-in-good-standing of the Party, you can't run for its leadership. All stop. And if Kenney is being up-front and public (he's not, yet - this is conjecture that's been bandied about in the press) about his desire to win the leadership of PCAA in order to start another party and get Wildrose supporters and PC supporters to meet on new terms, without either having to surrender to the other (the approach many argue would be the ONLY palatable or legal option available for a "merger"), then it's not a hard argument to make that Jason Kenney would therefore NOT be acting in the best interests of the PCAA - because he'd be advocating for its destruction.

I know, a lot of you think that doesn't sound like a bad idea, and that it would be in the best interest of Alberta, but the PCAA Board isn't bound by what you or I or the local mechanic think is best for Alberta. They're bound by what's best for the PCAA. When the 2 line up, decisions are easy. When they don't, decisions are a lot harder. This would be one of those times. If Kenney was declared ineligible to run for the leadership on account of his not being a member-in-good-standing, the effort would die right then and there.

4. What are the reasons for caution?

There are many. The first, and most obvious one, is money. Kenney is a fundraising machine - as was Jim Prentice before him - but the rules are different in Alberta now, and fundraising requires a broader stroke than it used to. But that's not what I'm talking about.

If the PCAA and Wildrose ceased to exist, the money in their central and local CA accounts would go buh-bye. Opinions on the accuracy of that statement vary, but the only interpretation that really matters is the interpretation of the organization that governs the finances of Alberta's political parties. And they say, in effect: If you cease to exist as a party, your money goes away. It cannot be transferred to a different party. It pays off party debt, then it sits for a year in case you change your mind, and then it goes into General Revenue. Both the PCAA and Wildrose are in the black when assets are weighed against liabilities, so that's a lot of money that goes off the table. Kenney could find more for the new party, to be sure, but fiscal conservatives hate to see money wasted - particularly money that was fundraised for conservative candidates, and ends up in the General Revenue fund to be spent by Rachel Notley.

The second is further vote-splitting. If Kenney is successful in winning the PCAA leadership, some of the party's moderate voices are going to leave, and either disengage or find new homes in the Alberta Party or the Liberals. How that number would compare to the number of Wildrose supporters who would join the Kenney PC's no one can say for certain. But there will be some in the Wildrose who steadfastly refuse to ever work with anyone who was involved in the PCAA, regardless of who their current leader is. And if those folks stay in the Wildrose, join the Alberta Reform Party, or start up another party entirely, it creates yet another vote-split on the right.

The third is tricky: Victory is not assured - either short-term OR long-term. When Jim Prentice rode in on his white horse to save the PCAA and Alberta as a whole, he did it with almost unanimous endorsement from the massive PC Caucus. As it turned out, the judgement of elected MLAs on issues of politics isn't completely unassailable after all, because a year later most of them were unemployed and Prentice was persona non grata.

Likewise is the possible case with Jason Kenney. Even if he got the support of most of the current PC Caucus (there's at least one member whose endorsement he shouldn't be counting on), and many of the former MLA's, those opinions carry a LOT less weight with rank-and-file PC members than they used to. Having been very recently burned by the judgement of their local "kingmakers", grassroots PC members have taken a more active and independent stance on issues like constitutional amendments and the election of a new provincial board. The question of the Party Leadership would likely fall into that category as well. If Kenney wants to win the leadership, he may have to do it DESPITE these present members, and that means signing up new members all across Alberta. He can likely count on the support of some of his federal Conservative allies, but can he count on all of them? Would the ones in Northern Alberta help him out, if it meant creating a headache for their pal and former caucus-mate Brian Jean? A smart strategy would be to target the constituencies with the smallest membership numbers, because you'd have less work to do - and under the delegated system, all constituencies top out at the same number of votes in a leadership contest, whether they have 20 party members in the riding, or 2000.

But even if Kenney DOES win the leadership, can he win the province? It would be a HUGE step backwards for him to leave federal politics, win the leadership of the Alberta PC's, and then achieve (at best) Leader of the Official Opposition status. He can have that in Ottawa, in a heartbeat.

In order for Kenney to win the Premier's Office and avoid the ignominious fate described above, he'd have to convince 2 of Alberta's 3 voting blocs that he and his party (whatever that party would be called or look like in 3 years) were the best choice to lead Alberta. The traditional 3 blocs in Alberta are Edmonton, Calgary, and Rural Alberta - if you can dominate 2 of those 3, you can win a majority government. Under Klein, the Tories dominated Calgary and Rural Alberta. Under Stelmach and Redford, they had great success in Calgary and Edmonton, but lost a lot of the rural south in the later years. Under Prentice, they lost all of Edmonton and much of Calgary - making overall defeat inevitable.

Can Jason Kenney win Edmonton? It would be a hard sell. His provincial policy positions aren't well known, but it's safe to say that fiscal restraint would be a big emphasis for the former head of the Canadian Taxpayer's Federation. Edmonton is an AUPE town, and preaching "fiscal restraint" in a union town sounds a lot like "salary freezes and layoffs".  Which doesn't make the policy WRONG, mind you - it just makes it unlikely to help win you the popularity contest we call "an election".

Can Jason Kenney win Calgary? Absolutely he can. He's well-known in the city, his contacts run deep, and his pro-business message would be very popular. The only potential stumbling block for him in Calgary would be pipelines: If a pipeline getting Alberta oil to tidewater gets approved with the Trudeau Liberals in power in Ottawa and the Notley NDP in power in Edmonton, it makes the job of convincing Albertans that "only a conservative government can get our product to market" a lot harder.

Can Jason Kenney win Rural Alberta? Who the hell knows? He's not necessarily the best-known politician in rural Alberta, particularly as you get further away from Calgary, but the support of fellow Conservative MP's would go a long way to bridging that gap. But would Rural Alberta - particularly in the south - give another chance to a party that had a large plurality of former Progressive Conservatives in it? Would they elect a local candidate who had been a PC? Would they vote for a shiny, new 3rd party if half of their province-wide candidates had run as PC's in previous elections?

Kenney might do well to thank former PC candidates and MLAs (and Wildrose ones too, for that matter) for their support, and then make it clear he wouldn't sign nomination papers for any of them in the interest of giving Albertans something "clearly new" to vote for. You lose a lot of institutional and political wisdom from your potential caucus in that move, but you also permanently jettison a LOT of baggage.

Adding to the uncertainty, is the fact that with redistribution on the horizon, most pundits expect the overall weight of the rural constituencies to diminish in favour of more weight for the major cities.

So, after almost 2,000 words:

  • Can Kenney win the PC Leadership? Yes.
  • Can he be stopped? Yes.
  • Is running for the leadership in the best interests of Alberta? That's up to you to decide your opinion on.
  • Is it in the best interest of Jason Kenney? A soft MAYBE. He might be the next Brad Wall (presumably without the deficits). He might be the next Jim Prentice.

What do YOU think, Nation? Will he? SHOULD he? And if he does, will it work out the way he HOPES it will? Sound off below!

- Savage out.