Jason Kenney speaks to the media at his first convention as leader of the United Conservative Party in Red Deer, Alta., Sunday, May 6, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

Fought to unite the Alberta right: Jason Kenney to become premier

The United Conservative Party has defeated Rachel Notley’s NDP

Jason Kenney’s fight is over. Let the fight begin.

The 50-year-old United Conservative Party leader, known for saying he can’t help but march to the sound of rhetorical gunfire, soundly defeated Rachel Notley’s NDP with a majority in Tuesday’s Alberta election.

Orange peeled: Jason Kenney’s UCP defeats NDP with majority in Alberta

The former federal cabinet minister now takes his fight to Ottawa as Alberta’s 18th premier. He has promised to challenge the federal government on everything from the carbon tax to proposed energy regulations and equalization payments.

It’s a new to-do list for Kenney after checking off the final box on a plan he announced three years ago to unite Alberta’s warring right-of-centre Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Party and take them to the summit.

“I had zero inkling to do it,” Kenney said in a pre-campaign interview.

“But as I got further into the spring and then summer of 2016, I just realized that somebody with the relevant profile, network and experience had to step forward with a plan.”

Kenney was born in Oakville, Ont., raised in Saskatchewan, and spent his adult years based in Alberta.

He said he was just 10 years old, sitting on a couch and minding his own business at a Saskatchewan school fundraiser, when politics first found him.

John Diefenbaker, well over a decade removed from being prime minister, came up to young Kenney, asked him his name, and struck up a conversation: Do you know the mythical story of Jason and the Argonauts? What’s your favourite subject at school? What are your future plans?

“That 10-minute conversation made an indelible impression on me,” remembered Kenney.

“That a former prime minister would spend 10 minutes talking to a 10-year-old boy was remarkable to me. I never forgot the kindness that he showed. And that maybe gave me sort of my initial interest in politics and public service.”

He has lived much in the public eye as he has fought for conservative principles and the concept of ordered liberty, first as an anti-tax crusader and later as a key lieutenant in former prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet in portfolios that included immigration, employment and defence.

He is not married and happily recounts a life committed to public service. A day’s politicking is followed by late-night reading from a stack of philosophy books at the bedside. He is partial to Aristotle and Edmund Burke.

He is schooled in the ground game of politics and had legendary campaign war chests as a Calgary MP.

Some credit him with moving Harper’s government into majority territory by reaching out to ethnic newcomers, breaking the shibboleth that they vote Liberal, so much so he gained the nickname “minister for curry in a hurry.”

He is a Catholic and has spoken out against gay marriage and abortion in the past, but promises not to act on those issues if he becomes premier.

Critics say he can’t be trusted. They note he has promised, as premier, to roll back some protections for students in gay-straight alliances in schools.

He won the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives, then the new United Conservatives and finally the provincial election, illuminating his drive, populist instincts, and nose for the political jugular.

In a province where the unemployment rate is above seven per cent in Edmonton and Calgary, he campaigned against Notley on “jobs, jobs, jobs,” tapping into latent discontent over the federal government’s failure to get the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project underway.

To win the UCP leadership, he drove back and forth across Alberta in a blue pickup truck to meet and greet thousands of supporters and fence-sitters. Then, in less than two years, he got 87 constituency associations and candidates running.

It was also about doing whatever it takes. When Kenney ran for the PC leadership, he was fined by the party for setting up a hospitality booth beside a voting station.

Last month, campaign documents and emails revealed that his UCP leadership team worked in lockstep with another candidate to have him attack Kenney’s chief rival while Kenney stayed above the fray.

Mounties are investigating the UCP leadership race for possible fraud.

Kenney has said his next step is to get back on the campaign trail, this time to get the federal Liberals defeated in the fall.

“It is in the vital economic interests of Alberta that the Trudeau government be replaced this October,” he said earlier this week.

For Kenney, one campaign is over. Let another campaign begin.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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