There is something positively electrifying about Jason Kenney's leadership bid for the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. Canada is a wildly boring country but in Calgary this week we witnessed the opening aria of the greatest political opera of our time. Bear with me here.
Kenney is one of the country's great conservative champions. He first went to Ottawa as a scrappy Reform MP 20 years ago and helped build the Conservative Party of Canada, fulfilling his people's dream of putting a principled Albertan conservative in the Prime Minister's Office. If Stephen Harper was the visionary and the cold, calculating brain behind the Conservative operation, Kenney was its heart and soul (or, at least, its mouth). He is the longest-serving Minister of Citizenship and Immigration in Canadian history. He is Harperism with a human face.
Although his federal comrades still need him in their fight against tyrannical sexpot Justin Trudeau, Jason Kenney is going home. His homeland has fallen on hard times. Alberta, Canada's shining conservative city on a hill, has been plunged into darkness. As the rightful heirs of King Ralph Klein squabble with each other over table scraps, Rachel Notley and her roguish band of NDP Sex Marxists have usurped and profaned his throne.
Now, Alberta is tumbling towards genderqueer socialist hell. Conservatives are powerless to stop it as long as they are torn between Tory blue and Wildrose green. Everything under heaven is in chaos. But now—at last!—Jason Kenney is riding to the rescue. He united the right before and now he will do it again. He will succeed where Jim Prentice failed and restore order to the cosmos.
It's a good story. It's epic drama. But unfortunately for Kenney, the actual political reality in Alberta is slightly more complicated.
"Uniting conservatives" is easier said than done. While egos, personality conflicts, and all the other petty pathologies of partisan politics no doubt shaped and drove the initial PC/Wildrose split, there are genuine (and arguably irreconcilable) ideological differences keeping them apart.
A lot of card-carrying PCs take the "progressive" part of the name seriously, and they're the ones who have been driving the party since Ed Stelmach. Alison Redford snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in 2012 by playing up her progressive bona fides against stodgy Wildrose social conservatism. The NDP successfully tapped into that impulse in 2015 after the Tories collapsed under four decades of political baggage. Alberta's NDP government is very fucking weird on a number of registers, but it's more than just an accident.
Contrary to what Kenney and his enthusiasts would like to believe, the demographic of Albertans who genuinely think Notley and the NDP are radical socialists trying to abolish private property and/or turn their children trans is pretty limited in size (if not in noise).
Which is the other weird thing about this: Kenney is a much better fit for the Wildrose than the Alberta Tories. This is a man who has recently been warning people that communist hipsters are making gulags cool and that the province's effort to make the school system less nightmarish for LGBTQ kids is "radical social engineering." He has been vocally pro-life in the past, defying Harper's desire to keep that shit on the down-low. As Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, Kenney was responsible for slashing health benefits for refugees and helping whip the country into a frenzy last fall over niqabs, barbaric cultural practices, and the jihadi fifth column in our midst.
Basically, what I'm saying is that this guy is really right-wing. Even by Alberta standards.
The key to bringing the extended family of Albertan conservatives together into one big tent is the economic pitch; you won't get everyone to agree about the Gay Agenda or the Mohammedan Peril but you can probably get everyone to agree that the government should back off business. Kenney laid this out in his leadership opener when he came out swinging against the NDP's carbon tax and by wrapping himself in the words "free enterprise," which in Alberta is code for making the provincial state the handmaiden of the petroleum industry above all else.
But the more he says and does things that suggest he can't tell the difference between Rachel Notley and Naomi Klein, or that he's not cool with LGBTQ rights in schools or abortion, the more he risks alienating as many potential supporters as he'd bring together. Even Stephen Harper had that much figured out.
It also doesn't help that the PC party, as a certifiable political dinosaur, will be choosing its next leader through a delegated convention as opposed to having the grassroots vote directly. And if Calgary MLA Sandra Jansen is any indication, there are more than enough progressive-minded people in the party apparatus to put the kibosh on Kenney's kamikaze run—even with his campaign spending advantage and his lucrative federal salary. Not all Tories are excited at the prospect of melting the party down and recasting it as Wildrose Plus: The Jason Kenney & DerekFildebrandt Show.
The stakes are obviously very high for conservatives in Alberta right now. You can tell from the absolute hysteria they've been going through since May 2015, from George Clark's #kudatah to all the upstart protest parties and citizens' coalitions and think-tanks desperately seeking to Unite The Right.
For almost 80 years, "Alberta" was synonymous with "conservative." For many, it still is. But that association is in danger the longer Rachel Notley holds court in Edmonton. That's why Kenney's return is so important. A conservative win in 2019 needs to retroactively prove that the 2015 election really was an accident, that an NDP government is some hideous fluke made possibly only because conservatives—Alberta's silent majority, the real masters of the province—couldn't get their shit together. The alternative is unthinkable: that the province really has changed, and that social conservatism in Alberta is dead as a political force.
The Jason Kenney leadership campaign and the cause it hopes to champion isn't asking us to Make Alberta Great Again; not really. It's actually giving voice to a deeper, more desperate and existential question: where have all the cowboys gone?