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‘Panicking never helps:’ Conservatives contemplate the polarized politics that cost Jason Kenney his job


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‘Panicking never helps:’ Conservatives contemplate the polarized politics that cost Jason Kenney his job

OTTAWA — As they navigate what some have called the “dumpster fire” that is the federal Conservative leadership race, Tory MPs Thursday were grappling with a burning question of whether Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s resignation tosses another log onto the pile or not.

Some were quick to dismiss any implications. “I’m not even from Alberta,” said one Tory as they deftly scurried up the stairs of Parliament and away from reporters on Thursday.

Sure, Kenney’s latest political roller coaster ride came to a stop in his home province with his resignation as United Conservative Party leader late Wednesday night.

But that ride only began after decades in national conservative politics, where he rose to become — if not the king — then certainly the kingmaker for the party.

“Jason Kenney has tirelessly dedicated the last three decades of his life to the people of Alberta, Canada, and the broader conservative movement,” said former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper on social media late Thursday.

That Kenney is now walking away means it’s a time for reflection, said one Calgary MP Thursday.

“This is also a time not to panic, not to get excited, not to fight each other, but to stay focused on the principles and values which have allowed us to win before and to govern effectively before,” said Stephanie Kusie, who took over Kenney’s riding when he left national politics in 2016.

“Panicking never helps.”

The force of politics that is Kenney is woven through the party’s federal leadership race, now nearly at the halfway point and one that’s been marked by vicious fights between the candidates over who gets to be called a conservative and where the party ought to go.

It was at Kenney’s knee as an intern that current leadership contender and MP Pierre Poilievre began to hone the political instincts that have now made him a national political force.

It was from Kenney’s hustle that another leadership contender, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, would come to learn the need and value of outreach to ethnic communities.

It was thanks to a personal relationship with Kenney that a third, Leslyn Lewis, would get her first crack at elected political life in 2015 when she was a last-minute candidate for the Tories in Scarborough-Rouge River.

And what drew a fourth into the contest were the very issues that forced Kenney out.

Roman Baber was an Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP until leader Doug Ford turfed him over his opposition to COVID-19 lockdowns.

That Ford made it clear he’d brook no dissent on COVID-19 issues is why his team told the Star Thursday he survived where Kenney faltered.

Kenney resigned Wednesday night after he won a leadership review with only 51 per cent of the vote.

The review was triggered after two years of private and public conflict between him and his party, largely over COVID-19 and how, when and why he implemented public health measures.

But the complaints from Alberta UCP elected officials and grassroots members are the same that Baber is now harnessing to run his national campaign: the damage done by lockdowns, a perception that democracy is broken and a need to stand on political principle above all else.

Some saw Kenney’s resignation as a judgment on the state of Canadian conservatism: if one of Canada’s long-standing conservative leaders can be kicked out because they’re not perceived as “conservative enough,” it raises questions about the movement as a whole — questions being asked by both Tories and Liberals alike on Thursday.

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“Mr. Kenney was tracking to the centre trying to do what he could to keep people alive,” said Liberal MP and cabinet minister Randy Boissonnault.

“He didn’t do enough for the extreme people, he didn’t do enough for the progressives.”

Boissonnault is among the Liberals who managed to retake ridings in Alberta in last year’s federal election because Kenney’s brand at that point had become toxic to the federal Tories.

But some Conservatives say Liberals also won the ridings because their leader at the time, Erin O’Toole, wasn’t “conservative” enough either, a theme Boissonnault picked up.

“Mr. O’Toole was also pushed out because he was tacking to the centre,” he said.

“And so if we can’t have one of the major parties in this country being able to hold the centre, what does it say about where one of the major parties in this country is heading?”

Kusie saw it differently.

“Mr. Kenney was put in an incredibly difficult position,” she said, citing his work unifying the party in Alberta, winning a leadership race, a general election and then being plunged into the pandemic.

“I don’t believe that conservatism is flawed, of course, or the conservative movement is flawed. I think he was put in an impossible position.”

It was a position he’d often complain about to Ottawa conservatives, saying they weren’t helping his cause as they railed against vaccine mandates or lockdowns because most of those restrictions fell to him to implement.

The pandemic placed a political strain on all levels of politics, said longtime Tory MP Michael Chong, among the few left in the Conservative caucus who actually served with Kenney in the House of Commons.

“We’ve gone through a difficult two years and there’s been a lot of debate and a lot of frustration and I think that’s just reflected in both of our parties and it’s difficult for leaders to navigate,” he said.

“I know that full well here in Ottawa: we just went through a leadership review of our own leader that ended up with the leader being removed, and now we’re going through a leadership race.”

MP Garnett Genuis, from the Alberta riding of Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, said the political divides created by the pandemic are now resolving, so the issues plaguing parties are also resolving.

But others saw Kenney’s ouster as the latest signal of a realignment of the political spectrum that began with the U.K.’s exit from the European Union, got Donald Trump elected U.S. president and now drives the anti-elite messaging in Poilievre’s populist leadership campaign.

In a widely-circulated piece in conservative circles Thursday, Sean Speer, a former adviser to Harper, said what he took from Kenney’s departure was a warning sign.

“I see a scared and angry minority that doesn’t define itself based on what’s good and right but rather by a sense of embattlement and opposition,” he wrote in The Hub, where he’s now editor-at-large.

“The short-term cost of their political paroxysm is the best conservative premier in the country. The longer-term cost may be to the character of Canadian conservatism itself.”

Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz

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