Alberta election hands useful political bogeyman to Horgan and Trudeau

Yes, indeed, Jason Kenney is a political nightmare for Justin Trudeau and John Horgan. But he is also their dream.

Sure enough, the newly elected Alberta premier stands to be the foil that neither Rachel Notley could be nor that Doug Ford can be – an experienced and informed right-of-centre leader who will push and shove harder on the pipeline file than his predecessor and be more coherent as an enemy of the carbon tax than his Ontario counterpart.

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But, to use a second meaning of the word foil: within it there is wrapped a splendid opportunity for the prime minister and the B.C. premier.

If in every story there needs to be a villain, and if in every pre-election period there needs to be a manufactured issue, Kenney provides Trudeau an impeccably timed black-hat adversary from a province in which there is practically nothing politically for the Liberals to lose.

And for Horgan, Kenney represents an even more formidable possible foe. Might Kenney be the bringer of brinksmanship? Might he let the western bastards freeze in the dark? Might he be a unifying force for Albertans and British Columbians alike – tribally angry at each other, fully invested in their positions, and politically benefiting their leaders’ brands?

On reflection, the way this has played out has not been linear.

A year ago, Trudeau wanted to avoid Kenney the way Elias Pettersson wants to avoid a bodycheck. His government was ahead in the polls, had a puny Alberta base, and concluded the buttressing of Notley might at worst be a marginally good move – if for no other reason than to keep Kenney at bay. Trudeau did not want any anchor for antipathy in the West and Notley was by far the lesser of the possible problems.

But along has come the tire fire of SNC-Lavalin, and three months into misery Trudeau is desperate for deflection of attention spans.

Bingo! Short-term political gold.

Kenney is not only a convenient nemesis on fossil fuel and climate change, but more maliciously, a perceived purveyor of intolerance on race and sexual orientation. Trudeau can paint him with the same brush he wields against the man he must now suddenly defeat, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer – not to mention the premier he must tame, Ford – and reprise his image as a progressive, feminist, inclusive environmentalist, sleeves rolled appropriately over the raised elbows, a 21st century leader against 20th century throwbacks. The last few days of rhetoric about Nazi sympathizers and planet destroyers are but a taste.

Another non-linear development was the odd incompatibility of Notley and Horgan, the only two NDP leaders who could have built a western alliance but might as well have been in different parties.

Horgan could not – or, more precisely, would not – assist in the Alberta premier’s forlorn restorative plan for her economy that required progress on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Trudeau bought the pipeline, Horgan devalued it, and when Notley could only predict and not provide shovels in the ground, she was one and done politically. She can thank Horgan for absolutely bloody-well nothing.

Now Horgan has Kenney as his neighbouring first minister, and he must know he has not seen anything like him. The premier-elect is canny, cunning, quick on his feet, Ottawa-savvy. He is to the right what Horgan is to the left. His first big move is to decide if he will truly unleash his enormously threatening campaign dark cloud: to restrict oil and gas shipments to British Columbia if Horgan’s Trans Mountain opposition persists. The constitutionally shaky law to do so isn’t his – he inherited it from Notley, who never exercised it – and he will frankly appear weak if he does not proceed.

The procession of a ruthlessly punitive law may, in the words of pitcher Satchel Paige, angry up the blood for Albertans, but it also carries with it political dividends for Horgan. While the British Columbian premier will bear some blame for precipitating the measure, the Albertan premier will be the provocateur. Lawyer up, everyone.

On balance, Horgan benefits because few in this province and beyond the Albertan borders will see Kenney as anything other than a nation-breaker. And if he doesn’t proceed, then Horgan will be seen as someone who can mollify the most oppositional of political forces.

In a way, he can’t truly lose, even if many of us might. As for Trudeau, well, he is not out of the woods and Kenney will joyfully mess with his compass.

Kirk LaPointe is the editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.

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