Can an expected boom in Alberta save Jason Kenney’s political career?

EDMONTON—While Alberta seems poised to ride the resource roller-coaster into another boom period, Premier Jason Kenney is gripping tight amid his own political ride.

Surging oil prices — coveted by incumbent Alberta politicians of all stripes for their ability to help at the polls — are taking off just four weeks out from when Kenney’s political fate could well be decided.

“The Alberta government seems to be going from success to success,” said Moshe Lander, an economist at Concordia University, “but mostly because of nothing of their doing.”

Budget surpluses, feelings of hope, a booming oil industry — these are all potentially on the horizon as oil prices skyrocket for the province with the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine sent shock waves through the global energy market, resulting in fear and uncertainty over sanctions being imposed on Russia, a leading oil-exporting nation. The United States and Canada, meanwhile, have announced they will no longer import Russian oil. It’s all culminated in high oil prices, which can strain consumer wallets, but also signal growth in Alberta’s energy industry.

Kenney’s been seizing at the moment, advocating in news conferences and on a recent trip to Houston for Alberta oil to take the place of “dictator oil” from places such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela.

The price for a barrel of West Texas Intermediate oil — the benchmark in North America — on Wednesday was hovering around $110 (US), a price practically screaming that good times are ahead in this part of the world. The Alberta government’s most recent surplus budget, for reference, relies on the relatively cautious price of $70 per barrel (US) over the upcoming year and slightly lower prices in the years after.

This, after oil prices literally went into the negative in 2020 at the outset of the pandemic.

“What Alberta has always said, is true,” said Kenney this week. “The world needs more reliable, responsibly produced democratic energy from Alberta, from Canada, as opposed to relying on dictator/conflict oil from the world’s worst regimes.”

Alberta’s economy has long been pegged to the boom-and-bust cycle of its largest natural resource. From the dire fallout of the National Energy Program in the 1980s, to the strong oil prices seen through the early 2000s, to the 2014 crash that saw thousands of jobs disappear. Now, hope is springing again.

“I can imagine that this year’s (Calgary Stampede) is going to be a real party like we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Lander. “Partly because COVID is now being thought of as a done deal in Alberta, and partly because there’s an optimism that comes with high oil prices.”

Whether the ruling United Conservative Party (UCP) — founded by Kenney through merging the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties in 2017, and then led to victory over Rachel Notley’s New Democrats — joins in with festivities of its own remains to be seen.

Political observers in Alberta will often say that a strong economy means good news for incumbent politicians. But casting a shadow over it all, at least for Kenney, is the April 9 leadership review in Red Deer, where thousands of UCP members are expected to vote on whether they approve of him still.

It’s a review that was demanded by members of his party and supported by some in his own caucus after many long pandemic months and numerous perceived missteps by the government. Some say he didn’t act quickly enough to stop COVID-19 from spreading; others say he put too many restrictions in place.

Kenney goes into it with a reputation as a nimble political organizer, a strong budget, and the potential for a booming economy, yet some say his chances at holding onto power aren’t necessarily promising.

Lisa Young, a University of Calgary political scientist, said Kenney is in “dire trouble” with his own party and the broader electorate. Recent polls have pegged his percentage approval rating in the low- to mid-20s.

“The best thing he could have hoped for was oil trading at over $100 a barrel. He’s got that. Can he translate it into a change in his political fortunes? You know, that’s the million-dollar question,” she said.

“I’m not sure it’ll help him with his internal party problems,” Young added, “and if anything, you know, the people who would like to replace him as leader probably see this as a great opportunity for themselves.”

Vitor Marciano, an adviser to Brian Jean, the former Wildrose leader who ran against Kenney for the UCP leadership in 2017 — and so far, only real declared alternative for leader at the moment — says the review will come down to one thing: “trust .”

“People don’t see the good things that are happening right now as having anything to do with Jason Kenney,” he said. “They’re just kind of…lucky of circumstances.”

Marciano said the flip-flops on public health decisions — declaring that Alberta was “open for summer” in 2021 and then bringing back restrictions; promising never to bring in vaccine passports and then launching them — have resulted in “broken trust.”

“The premier hasn’t been able to build a connection with Albertans and his personal trust, his personal approval levels, are still really low,” he said. “Ultimately, lots of conservative voters know that if Jason Kenney is around next year (for the 2023 provincial election), Rachel Notley wins.”

Matt Solberg, who has worked for both Jean and Kenney as a political operative but who now sits on the political sidelines, says Kenney still has a chance in April. The recent provincial budget “could not have been a better news budget at a better time for the premier,” he said.

In February, the budget was released projecting a $500-million surplus for the year ahead, which came as a surprise after the province last year projected a $18-billion deficit for the budget year ending on March 31. That deficit is now expected to be just $3.2 billion.

“We saw … a miraculous recovery in the province’s finances,” said Solberg.

Last year, Kenney faced public calls from members of his own caucus to resign and had to fend off all-out revolts from a segment that felt he hadn’t handled the pandemic properly. “It very much did feel like he may be on the ropes,” Solberg said.

Kenney didn’t win past elections in Alberta based on his likability, said Solberg: He won because he convinced people that he was the most competent for the job of taking down Notley’s NDP government and leading the province.

The UCP has members with widely varied viewpoints and it’s not easy to say what will be the ballot-box question, so to speak, at the forefront for members who attend the leadership review, said Solberg.

Kenney has appeared to suggest that success in the review could require only a 50-per-cent-plus-one margin of victory. The suggestion flies in the face of something resembling political convention in this province that if a party leader receives fails to exceed 65 per cent, or even 75 per cent, they have a unity problem on their hands and are expected to at least consider resigning.

Several conservative leaders in the past have seemingly followed this unwritten rule in Alberta. Before a 2006 leadership review, for example, Ralph Klein said he’d need 75 per cent support from Progressive Conservative delegates in order to continue; after receiving just 55 per cent, he announced his resignation.

On April 10, after the votes are counted in Red Deer, Solberg believes it will be obvious whether Kenney comes out stronger or weaker.

“It’s the line between art and pornography where no one’s able to define it, but you’ll know it when you see it,” he said. “That’s the feeling I get with April 10. If the perception coming out of it is that the premier is stronger as a result of the vote, then I think that bodes well for his long-term chances of him.”


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