Jason Kenney announced he would be stepping down on a stage at a swank showjumping facility outside of Calgary.
In 2015, Jim Prentice announced he was leaving the job at a subdued post-election rally; 2014 saw Alison Redford announcing in the rotunda underneath the dome at the Alberta legislature; while in 2011, Ed Stelmach dropped the bomb at a surprise mid-week morning news conference.
In choosing to walk away from the party leadership, if not sail into the political sunset quite yet, Kenney has joined a long list of recent, Conservative premiers who have been sent packing before their time was officially up.
“Either this is all a bunch of one-offs — or there’s a pattern here,” says Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“I would argue there’s a pattern.”
There’s no questioning how unpopular Kenney had become by the end, with even some members of his own government calling for his ouster over a controversial response to COVID-19 and a condescending, combative approach to criticism.
Still, according to political watchers, when Kenney returned to Alberta to unite the province’s right wing five years ago, he plunged into the moving current of a conservative movement that is prone to diverging, increasingly inclined to fight and, occasionally, out of step with a changing Alberta that is no longer the ideological heartland of right-leaning politics.
The trend is perhaps most jarring when laid out in numbers. According to Paul Fairie, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, this province’s first 12 premiers served a collective 101 years in office. The next six? Not quite 15 and a half.
It’s not so much that Alberta is ungovernable, but rather that Conservatives increasingly might be, Bratt argues. Particularly on the Prairies, there is a tendency for right-wing parties to come together, only to splinter once again. Leaders tend to get tossed out in the political churn.
When you’re talking about Alberta’s political history, leadership upsets are not typically the first thing that come to mind.
For 44 years — until Rachel Notley’s shocking NDP victory in 2015 — the province was governed by a single party: the Progressive Conservatives.
This is a big part of the reason Alberta has always been considered inherently conservative, yet observers point out that party managed to stay in power for a generation in no small part due to its ability to change with the times.
“It’s important to say that it adapted and changed significantly; it was very much pragmatically focused and moved left or right. When people became dissatisfied with one direction, they change leaders, win another election,” says Lori Williams, another political scientist at Calgary’s Mount Royal.
The party managed to unite everyone from libertarians to social conservatives to progressives under the same banner, linked by the idea that theirs was the natural governing party.
It didn’t hurt that the PCs had generally overseen a time when the province was flush with oil revenue, so didn’t have to rock the boat too much with things such as increases to taxation, says Keith Brownsey, one of the editors, along with Bratt, of Orange Chinook, which examined politics in the wake of Notley’s historic win.
(There’s a video of fiscal conservative Ted Morton and Dave Hancock, who was briefly premier himself and who would later be named a judge by the NDP, singing Kumbaya at a 2011 policy convention.)
Over the years, many Albertans began to see voting for other parties as risky, because it would mean ushering in a group of people with zero experience running a government, she adds.
That is, until the sense began to settle in that the party had become a little too accustomed to power.
Things started to unravel under Ralph Klein, the one-time Calgary mayor known for his folksy charm, Williams says. He was the last Conservative premier to successfully keep everyone moving in the same direction, and won election four times.
But by the end, his famous charm and references to the fictitious Albertans known as Martha and Henry had been offset by concerns about slashed budgets and his own behaviour — he infamously once turned up to a homeless shelter drunk and berated residents for not having jobs. He got just 55 per cent in a 2006 leadership review and stepped down months later.
His successor was Ed Stelmach, who won in a come-from-behind victory to replace Klein. He, too, stepped down after his finance minister and rival reportedly found his deficit budget unacceptable.
Then came Alison Redford, the province’s first female premier, who won an election and 77 per cent in a leadership review, only to be felled by concerns about, among other things, her spending. The suite she was building was dubbed the Sky Palace, a term which endures as Albertan shorthand for government excess.
The last PC premier would be Jim Prentice, who was left holding the proverbial bag when the party suffered a historic defeat to the NDP in 2015. He stepped down as leader and would die in a plane crash the next year.
When the PC party lost power, the province lost a stabilizing force in its politics, Williams says.
The only premier to have served a full term since the Klein era is Rachel Notley, who led for four years before being defeated by Kenney.
Kenney’s newly formed United Conservative Party, an amalgam of the PCs and the Wildrose parties, pushed politics further to the right in the province, and in the years since, people have become angrier and more dissatisfied on a number of issues, she says.
“That became much worse during the pandemic: The demands and expectations of voters have increased significantly, maybe to the point where it’s difficult within a single party to respond to all of the different demands that are being raised.”
A particular source of angst in Alberta, particularly in rural Alberta, is the sense of being disrespected or dismissed by the rest of the country, she says.
But politicians run the risk of fanning those flames without a way to extinguish them, she adds.
“Jason Kenney fed those expectations when he ran; he stoked that anger. And eventually the anger turned on him.”
Kenney’s ouster — he announced he would be stepping down Wednesday night after barely surviving a leadership review — is particularly jarring, given the fact that he’d come to Alberta explicitly to bring conservatism back, says Brownsey.
“Look at it like this: Here comes Jason Kenney in 2016. He decides he’s quitting federal politics, and he’s going to rebuild the conservative movement in Alberta. And he works hard and he does exactly that by 2017. He wins an election,” Brownsey says.
“And then his party decides that is just not good enough? Where’s the ethics?”
But it’s the fact that Kenney was new to Alberta — and perhaps over reliant on an outdated view of its politics — that may have sped his downfall.
“I think he had a very dated version of vision of what Alberta society was,” says University of Alberta-based political scientist Jared Wesley. As the lead researcher for a project called Common Ground, which studies political culture in Western Canada, he points out that the majority of Albertans actually identify as centrist.
“His references to Martha and Henry, trying to conjure up Ralph Klein’s vision of Alberta was telling, in that he had a knowledge of broader Alberta society that dated back to the mid-1990s,” Wesley says. “And the province has moved on.”
Alberta’s population has grown significantly since the Klein era, drawing people from the rest of Canada and the world. Four out of five people live in a city, and both Edmonton and Calgary elected mayors who are progressive-leaning people of colour in the most recent municipal election.
While the issue of Conservatives breaking apart is not unique to Alberta, Bratt argues that the ideology has been baked into provincial institutions for so long that there are more factions and animosity here than in most places.
“Alberta, historically, has seen the dominance of conservative ideology. And so, as a result, you don’t see your opponents as Liberals or as NDP. You see your opponents as other conservatives, who aren’t as conservative as they should be.”
That conservative history can also tempt politicians into misreading the current political climate, some experts say.
One could make the argument that these days there are bigger divisions between downtown Calgary and Didsbury, a rail town of about 5,000 people in central Alberta, than there are between Calgary and Toronto, Bratt adds.
“I think his vision of Alberta remains up in the 1990s, when he was last really here.”
As party leadership now looks ahead to trying to keep the right wing together, it may just be that “conservative” is a blanket term that’s too broad to hold together, Wesley adds.
“I think when political historians write about this in 10 or 20 years time, they’re going to look back at the united right in Alberta, and perhaps in Canada, as an anomaly,” he says.
But if there’s anything that holds a political party together, he adds, it’s the pursuit of power.
“I think the leader will probably emerge as the person who’s able to not necessarily craft a unique new vision for Alberta that unites these forces, but rather, puts the fear of Notley into these folks,” he says.
“That says, basically: ‘I’m the only person standing between Rachel Notley and the premiership again.’”
With files from The Canadian Press