It’s being called “the Kenney effect”: a political phenomenon whereby Premier Jason Kenney has become so disliked in Alberta, he’s tainting anything associated with his name.
We saw the effects of the phenomenon in last month’s federal election. Pundits, pollsters, and even disgruntled Conservatives believe Kenney’s unpopularity helped to drive down the vote for the Conservative Party of Canada by 14 points in Alberta compared to the 2019 election — and thus helped the Liberals and NDP win four of the 34 federal seats in the province.
That might not sound like much, but keep in mind Alberta routinely elects a complete slate of conservative-minded candidates to the House of Commons, and the Liberals rarely win any seats if they’re headed to defeat or to a minority government. And yet they won one seat in Calgary and another in Edmonton when their leader, Justin Trudeau, was headed to a minority government, according to a litany of opinion polls.
Now there’s speculation the Kenney effect is about to strike again, this time in a provincial referendum to scrap the federal equalization program. The vote is being held in conjunction with Alberta’s municipal elections on Oct. 18 and asks Albertans this question: “Should Section 36(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 — Parliament and the Government of Canada’s commitment to the principle of making equalization payments — be removed from the Constitution?”
The referendum is Kenney’s idea, a promise made during his campaign to win Alberta’s 2019 provincial election. It was a cynical promise made as part of Kenney’s “fight back” strategy that blamed the federal Liberals in general and Trudeau in particular for pretty much every problem facing Alberta.
Never mind that Trudeau and the Liberals came to Alberta’s rescue in 2018 by spending $4.5 billion to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline and committed another $12 billion to expand the project; Kenney has spun a narrative that Trudeau is anti-oil, anti-pipeline, and anti-Alberta.
Another inconvenient reality Kenney faces is that equalization is a federal program protected by the Constitution and supported by federal tax dollars collected from all Canadians. Not only that, but Kenney is also railing against an equalization formula that was last modified a decade ago by the Stephen Harper government, of which Kenney was a senior cabinet minister.
That hasn’t stopped Kenney’s supporters from falsely implying the federal government uses the program to raid the Alberta treasury to support supposedly ne’er-do-well provinces like Quebec.
Kenney knows one province can’t scrap a federal program, so he’s promoted the referendum to force Ottawa to listen to him and “elevate Alberta’s fight for fairness in the federation to the top of the national agenda.”
But something funny happened on the way to the referendum.
Kenney has stopped talking about it unless he’s questioned by reporters. It would seem even Kenney is aware of the Kenney effect, and how the upcoming referendum is becoming a vote not so much against equalization, but as a proxy vote against him and how he’s handled the pandemic. Alberta is suffering through a catastrophic fourth wave of COVID that has swamped hospitals and forced the government to call in the military to help, a mess made all the more tragic because Kenney helped set up the province for failure by lifting most pandemic restrictions on July 1 as he declared Alberta was “open for good.”
Kenney is now being much more cautious, both in predicting what will happen next with COVID and what will happen in Monday’s equalization vote.
During a news conference on Tuesday, Kenney said he’d be happy if a simple majority — 50 per cent plus one — voted “yes.” That seems a far cry from his argument that the vast majority of Albertans are angry enough with Ottawa to demand an end to equalization.
Kenney also says his referendum strategy is based on a 1998 Supreme Court of Canada ruling on Quebec secession that said Canada would have to open up Constitutional negotiations with the province if Quebecers voted to separate.
Yes, but that court ruling was based on a “clear majority” voting on a clear question.
Is 50 per cent plus one a clear majority?
The Supreme Court didn’t say, but in Kenney’s mind, it is. At this point in his mandate, the embattled premier will cling to anything that bobs above the surface as his own unpopularity continues to drag him down.
An Angus Reid poll released Wednesday, for example, indicates Kenney is once again the least popular premier in the country, as ranked by each province’s residents. Kenney’s approval rating stands at a dismal 22 per cent. That’s nine percentage points below his June rating and almost 40 points below his 61-point zenith in 2019.
Kenney’s conservative political enemies are ready to pounce, should the referendum backfire. Independent MLA Drew Barnes, who was kicked out of the United Conservative Party caucus in May after publicly criticizing Kenney, wants Albertans to vote “yes” in the equalization referendum. But Barnes is afraid a majority of people are angry enough with Kenney, they’ll use the referendum as a proxy to vent their angst at the premier. “The top threat to the success of this referendum has become the premier himself,” said Barnes in a news release last week.
The anti-Kenney vultures will be circling on Monday night, waiting for the referendum results to be announced. They might have a long wait, though.
The referendum votes will be handled by Elections Alberta, not the municipalities, and we might not know if the Kenney effect had any effect until the following week.
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