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Bulldog willpower and work ethic: Jason Kenney guided Alberta through COVID, the oil crash

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said at his United Conservative Party’s inaugural convention in 2018 that he would consider members’ contribution to politics, but the bottom line was simple: “I’m holding the pen.

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said at his United Conservative Party’s inaugural convention in 2018 that he would consider members’ contributions to politics, but the bottom line was simple: “I’m holding the pen.”

Four years later, the membership took back the pin, making it clear to the driving force behind Alberta’s Conservative reunion that the writing was on the wall and it was time for him to go.

Jason Kenney, the 18thth Prime Minister, on Wednesday, told a shocked audience of invited guests and cabinet ministers that 51 percent of the party’s grassroots support in his leadership review was not enough to quell internal dissent that was rocking his party.

He announced he was stepping down from the top spot, saying that while his team had achieved many things, a lack of unity put everything in jeopardy.

“We reunited the free enterprise movement in Alberta politics and we won the largest electoral mandate in our province’s history,” Kenney said.

“We have inherited profound tax and economic challenges. And then we went through three crises of the century: the biggest public health crisis in a century, the biggest global economic meltdown in almost a century, and for the first time ever we saw negative oil prices.

“Nevertheless, we got the job done.”

During his three years as prime minister, Kenney steered the province through the COVID-19 pandemic while seeking to expand the oil and gas sector, further diversify the economy, and reshape the public health system. Due to soaring oil and gas prices, he balanced the budget for the first time in years.

His trademark was Bulldog willpower combined with a work ethic and tenacity that few could match.

His days often started early with a press conference, then meetings, Question Time, a house speech, party events, fundraisers, and more phone calls late into the evening. There were Facebook town halls and a radio show.

It was an outspoken, combative populist style that often sought to rally support by dividing Albertans against real and perceived opponents.

His favorite target was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal government. He accused it of crippling the oil and gas industry with criminal laws and a consumer carbon tax, but often ignored the fact that Ottawa paid for the TransMountain pipeline’s freight to BC’s coast.

He once publicly dismissed Trudeau as an “empty trust fund millionaire with the political depth of a fingercup.” He called an anti-pipeline US governor “brain dead.”

He picked fights with doctors and tore up their master contract when the 2020 pandemic hit with full force. His government also tried to cut nurses’ wages.

He condemned the folly of fixing the economy by “picking winners and losers” through targeted investments, only to lose $1.3 billion trying to revive the transcontinental Keystone XL pipeline.

His administration battled with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and still implements a controversial school curriculum that almost all school boards have declined to test.

He created what he called an energy war room designed to fight oil and gas enemies. Instead, it stumbled into a series of gaffes, including a public battle with a children’s cartoon about Bigfoot.

His leadership uncovered inconsistencies, particularly during the pandemic, that contributed to low poll numbers even as the economy began to recover.

He called for courtesy in public debate and then handed out earplugs around the house so his members didn’t have to listen to the opposition NDP.

During COVID-19, Kenney sought to steer the province through middle ground, waiting until the last moment — when hospitals reached dangerous capacity — before imposing new health restrictions.

When the province reached dangerous levels last fall, to the point where patient triage would have been required, he accepted responsibility for not acting and then said he would have acted if the chief medical health officer did would have recommended.

When he took over the health system, he blamed the former NDP government for problems he inherited. In recent weeks, as the system continued to strain amid COVID-19, he blamed Alberta Health Services, the frontline care provider.

The end did not come from outside, but from within the faction.

Backbenchers said Kenney promised to bring her to the decision table but froze her instead. Decisions, they said, would be made by Kenney and a group of close advisers. Some dissidents were thrown out of the caucus.

There was controversy with Kenney. Always fight.

He defeated Brian Jean in the first race for party leadership in 2017. It was later revealed that his team had colluded with another candidate to try to thwart Jean’s chances. Kenney said he didn’t know anything about it.

With the commissioner of elections investigating possible wrongdoing in that race, while Kenney was in Texas, Kenney’s government introduced and passed legislation to fire him. The RCMP continues to investigate allegations of voter impersonation at the race.

That year, when it was discovered that Kenney’s attorney general Kaycee Madu had attempted to interfere in the administration of justice by calling the Edmonton police chief to argue about a speeding ticket, Kenney simply reassigned him to another post in the cabinet.

Kenney, 53, has spent much of his adult life in the public eye and is famous for being unable to help but march to the sound of rhetorical gunfire.

He has fought for conservative principles and the concept of ordered liberty, first as an anti-tax crusader and later as a key lieutenant in former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet on portfolios that included immigration, employment and defense.

He is Catholic and has opposed gay marriage and abortion in the past but has not addressed these issues as Prime Minister.

He is known for his zest for action, his populist instincts and his flair for the political jugular.

To win the UCP leadership, he cruised back and forth across Alberta in a blue pickup truck to meet and greet thousands of supporters and onlookers. In less than two years he got 87 constituency associations and candidates up and running.

The blue pickup has become part of his personality.

Perhaps as a harbinger of what was to come, Kenney recently had the same truck at a press conference to announce a gas tax cut.

As cameras rolled, Kenney filled up his tank, pulled, yanked, yanked, and yanked — once with two hands — in a failed attempt to pull the hose out.

Eventually he gave up, turned and looked embarrassed at the crowd.

The pickup got stuck.

And this time it was nobody’s fault.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 18, 2022.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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