Corbella: Jason Kenney's plan to leave UCP policy to members can lead to a trap or treasure

Jason Kenney Jason Kenney, former leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservative party, announces his run for leadership of Alberta's new United Conservative Party in Calgary on Saturday July 29, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal ORG XMIT: LMD101 Larry MacDougal, Larry MacDougal / THE CANADIAN PRESS

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How deep a role should the grassroots have in establishing the policies of a seedling party? It’s a complicated question and is one that former federal Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney is being asked to explain ever since he officially launched his leadership campaign for Alberta’s new United Conservative Party on Saturday.

On Sunday, Kenney released his five-point Grassroots Guarantee which, when boiled down, promises to listen to the residents of Alberta before establishing policy objectives for the UCP.

Kenney’s lack of definitive policies, however — other than to generally say he’s going to “restore investor confidence and fiscal balance in Alberta” — doesn’t seem to be hurting him. Two Alberta MLAs — Grant Hunter for Cardston-Taber-Warner and Drew Barnes for Cypress-Medicine Hat — endorsed Kenney on Tuesday in his bid to lead the new United Conservative Party.

Giving too much weight to populism over political leadership, however, has caused discord in Alberta politics in the past. The most famous, of course, was the rift between Stephen Harper and Reform Party founder Preston Manning in the early 1990s.

As Manning wrote in his 2002 autobiography, Think Big: “While Stephen was a strong Reformer with respect to our economic, fiscal, and constitutional positions, he had serious reservations about Reform’s and my belief in the value of grassroots consultation and participation in key decisions….” 

With a master’s degree in economics, Harper, who studied every topic extensively before offering an opinion, objected to less informed people setting policy. He did not seek re-election in 1997 as a result.

One of the biggest downsides to the populist approach is something most Reformers learned the hard way. If you let anyone walk up to a microphone at a policy convention, inevitably some loon and/or bigot with an axe to grind is going to grab some headlines and unfairly taint the entire membership with the gore from their flailing blade. 

Kenney is unconcerned. “The provincial election is scheduled for May 2019. We don’t need to rush around improvising policy and I think it’s imprudent to do so. Some of my competitors in this race are coming out with very specific policy commitments and budget figures for 2020,” says Kenney. “That lacks credibility.” Many Albertans would tend to agree.

“One of the reasons that the whole unity project has succeeded is because we did it in a deliberate and democratic way. Yes, it took a year to get the PCs democratically on the path to unity, but the improvised 2014 floor crossings were a total failure,” he explained, referring to when then Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and other Wildrose MLAs joined PC Premier Jim Prentice’s short-lived government.

Kenney is correct when he says that the “decade of division” in Alberta’s conservative movement happened after “top-down leadership” decisions did not reflect the province at all — including Ed Stelmach’s decision while premier to hold a review into oil and gas royalties. His ill thought-out plan caused capital to flee Alberta, and the seeds of discontent from that top-down decision led to the sprouting and rapid growth of the Wildrose Party.

Kenney relates an incredible story of a meeting he had with the small Progressive Conservative caucus after he won the leadership of the party in order to unite the right.

The caucus was discussing daylight savings. “I said, ‘Don’t you guys recall that the party membership has voted on this twice?’ But they just sort of shrugged their shoulders and carried on. There was no regard for that process. So there was a growing gap between the PC leadership and the activist-based membership of the party, that led to the rupture of PC members and voters migrating to the Wildrose … because the party was run out of the premier’s office and there wasn’t a proper policy development process.”

Kenney insists he is not proposing an abdication of the role of leader. “What I’m proposing is a different kind of leadership. I call it servant leadership, a leadership characterized more by humility than arrogance.

“This is not a foil to avoid talking and expressing my own views,” he adds. After all, in the past year Kenney says he’s had more than 700 meetings in every part of the province where he’s met tens of thousands of Albertans and he has told people what he thinks is the best plan forward, such as scrapping the NDP’s carbon tax, restoring investor confidence and fighting to defend school choice.

In other words, if the membership wants to keep the carbon tax, it will stay.

If he wins the UCP leadership, Kenney says he will hope to hold a policy convention in late spring.

Kenney says he agrees with U.S. conservative writer William F. Buckley Jr., quoting the late icon’s famous aphorism: “I’d rather be governed by the first 4,000 people listed in the Boston phone directory than by the faculty of Harvard University.”

“There is a certain wisdom and common sense that emerges,” says Kenney, “when large numbers of people are engaged in the policy process.”

He contends that he has plenty of great ideas on how to restore the Alberta Advantage and the best of those is to let the grassroots establish the way forward.

Time will tell if Kenney’s servant leadership plan turns into a trap or treasure.

Licia Corbella is a Calgary Herald columnist.


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