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Kurl: COVID, Conservatism, and the Fall of Alberta’s Jason Kenney

When the pandemic struck, the centre-left never forgave Kenney for adapting his policies to the libertarian right. The latter, meanwhile, never thanked him. This fact must give every right-of-centre politician in the country pause for thought.

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Jason Kenney drove his famous blue pickup truck onto the Alberta stage and off a political cliff on Wednesday night, becoming not the conservative prodigy, the next federal leader-in-waiting, but a cautionary tale for conservative politicians in Alberta — and in the whole country.

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His turn to provincial politics, avoiding a crowded and confused field to replace Stephen Harper, had been triumphant. After so adeptly and kindly creating the conditions in the early 2000s to take the Federal Liberals’ luncheon, literally lunching with minority voters in every gurdwara, mosque and church he was sent to (greedy for one of courting the often ignored base of the right). , he would now unite the broken Right in Alberta, fix the province’s economic woes, restore supremacy over the pipeline, and return to Ottawa just as triumphantly, saving the federal movement from its time on hiatus.

But if Kenney could do little wrong in Ottawa, his time in Edmonton was a case of reverse Midas touch, as if every issue, everything he came in contact with, turned into…well, not gold.

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It started well enough. In an election with a turnout of 64 percent, his United Conservative Party received 55 percent of the vote. Three out of five Albertans agreed with Kenney at the time. But by last fall, Kenney’s approval rating had dropped to just 22 percent. Pretty bad for any politician. Really bad for someone facing a mutiny in their own caucus. Rachel Notley and the NDP now found a second wind – they competed with and finished ahead of the UCP in some polls. (She will no doubt miss him terribly). In March, the Angus Reid Institute found that Albertans were unhappy with Kenney’s government on more than half a dozen provincial management metrics, including management of the economy, health care and COVID-19.

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Ah, the coronavirus. Kenney’s Bête Noire. At the height of the riots, while other provinces were shutting down businesses, enacting mask requirements and insisting on vaccinations, Kenney’s government resisted and resisted, infuriating massive sections of Alberta’s population who wanted more protection, all around from the fury of libertarian restrictions to protect -Resisting factions of your base. In the end, Kenney didn’t please anyone. Then came last year’s “best summer ever,” an untimely “end” to Alberta’s declared pandemic that led to a spike in infections.

The centre-left party has never forgiven him for that. The libertarian right never thanked him. This is the important point that must now give every right-of-centre politician in the country a break.

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Kenney’s successor in Alberta, Doug Ford in Ontario, those vying for control of the Conservative federal party – each will continue to contend with a base that has shifted, if not further, to the right (after all, Kenney was arguably one of the most combative) . among them), then to a place more adamant against authority, rules, or a sense of shared caring. A place of extremes felt most strongly by people in Alberta and next door in Saskatchewan – but with niches of growing resonance across the country.

While the years of the Trudeau administration have felt deeply alienated, particularly in these two western provinces, this resentful detachment has been vociferously fueled by six years of Trump-Tucker Carlson-style politics — an ugly breed of misinformation — on social media and two years of the pandemic, who have legitimized all manner of anti-government, anti-truth, and conspiracy-oriented lunatics.

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The results? The Ottawa occupation. A front-runner for the Federal Conservatives (Pierre Poilievre) who denounces racism while using dog-whistle-style nativist language in a widely shared video. And a further fragmentation of the political right. If the Conservative Party of Canada doesn’t go far enough, there’s the federal People’s Party of Canada, Ontario’s New Blue Party, and plenty of pro-independence parties in Alberta.

I am by no means suggesting that all of these parties or their supporters subscribe to or reinforce toxicity, but some do. The more practical reality is that right-wing parties must decide whether to keep some voters down the rabbit hole or remain mainstream enough not to alienate everyone else.

It was the political issue that brought down Jason Kenney. He won’t be the only one.

Shachi Kurl is President of Angus Reid Institute, a national, non-profit, non-partisan public opinion research foundation.

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