EDMONTON — Fresh off uniting Alberta's feuding, floundering centre-right to forge a unified opposition, Jason Kenney begins work in 2018 to build on those gains ahead of a provincial election.
Regardless of the outcome, says Calgary pollster Janet Brown, Kenney's audacious unity plan galvanized Alberta politics in 2017 and reordered its landscape.
"He hit four home runs and there were lots of naysayers that said he couldn't do it," Brown says. "He laid out a five-point plan and he has just effortlessly been ticking off (the boxes) one at a time."
Kenney, a former Conservative Calgary MP and Stephen Harper lieutenant, won the Progressive Conservative leadership in early 2017, arranged a merger with the Wildrose Opposition and its leader Brian Jean, and got that merger ratified by both parties.
He then beat Jean to become leader of the new United Conservative Party and, on Dec. 14, won a seat in a Calgary byelection.
Kenney has made it clear he will campaign on fixing an economy that has been decimated by low oil prices.
Premier Rachel Notley has responded by saying she won't make things worse by slamming spending into reverse. Her government has continued to borrow billions of dollars for day-to-day operations and capital projects, while increasing the minimum wage and imposing a carbon tax.
The economy is rebounding, but Notley faces criticism that it isn't going fast enough, or that her efforts have saved the present at the cost of a future debilitated by debt payments.
Kenney, in his UCP victory speech, laid down the gauntlet on the core issue, saying his party seeks, "people who understand the creative power of a free economy, that we cannot mortgage the future of the next generation through fiscal irresponsibility."
Brown, along with Calgary political scientist Duane Bratt, says jobs and the economy are uppermost in Albertans' minds and the unifying force for Kenney's party.
"The unifying theme is anger at the NDP and the desire to throw the NDP out," says Bratt of Mount Royal University.
Adds Brown: "The economy is the thing. He's had some missteps on social issues, but as uncomfortable as Albertans may be on individual social policies, their concern about the economy and their desire to get the economy on track is outweighing all of those things."
Social issues are what Notley's NDP believes could ultimately be Kenney's Achilles heel.
He has taken a laissez-faire approach to social issues, tying institutional compassion to the economy while broadly urging tolerance for all.
"We are one step closer to a government focused on prosperity so that we have the means to be a compassionate and generous society," he told supporters after he won the leadership. "We don't care in this party what god you worship or who you love."
Kenney, however, has been criticized over the issue of gay-straight alliances in schools.
The clubs are designed as safe havens for kids who may not turn to anyone else, or can't look for help at home. Nevertheless, Kenney has said that teachers need to have the authority to tell parents when their children join an alliance — unless that could bring a child to harm.
Advocates and the NDP say that threatens to out children to their parents and could lead to kids avoiding the groups altogether. Kenney says teachers have the tools to handle it.
The Alberta Teachers' Association says it doesn't want the responsibility and instead endorses a bill passed this fall by the NDP that makes it illegal for anyone to tell parents when a child joins a ga-straight-alliance.
The bill was opposed by the UCP.
Brown says Kenney is taking a pragmatic approach.
"He's smart enough to know that he's never going to be the choice among people who are highly preoccupied with social issues," she says.
"But if he can just assure those people who are only moderately concerned about social issues that they don't need to fear him, then that's just really what he's got to do."
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press
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