Fought to unite Alberta conservatives: Former MP Kenney ready to run for premier

Kenney, 50, was born in Oakville, Ont., raised in Saskatchewan, and spent his adult years in Alberta

Alberta Opposition Leader Jason Kenney finally gets his title shot.

It’s not a chance the former federal Conservative cabinet minister saw coming until he put together a plan in the summer of 2016 to unite the province’s feuding right-of-centre Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Party into what would become the United Conservatives.

“If you had talked to me in March of 2016 and said I’m going to be the leader of a merged conservative party and leader of the Opposition and heading into an Alberta election now, I would have said you’re nuts. I had zero inkling to do it,” Kenney said in an 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, 50, was born in Oakville, Ont., raised in Saskatchewan, and spent his adult years based in Alberta.

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 one of the key lieutenants in former prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet.

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

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 of “the 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.

He has been dogged in recent months by allegations he secretly pulled the strings on a fellow candidate during the United Conservative leadership race to have him attack Kenney’s main opponent, former Wildrose leader Brian Jean, before dropping out and supporting Kenney. Both deny any collusion.

“The NDP is going to throw that stuff at me and at us. I don’t get fazed by it. I just mute the crazies on Twitter and carry on,” said Kenney.

“(Voters) want to see a very serious sober debate on the economic future of the province, how we’re going to fight for Alberta’s place in the federation. And I think parties that engage in nasty, negative campaigns will be penalized by the voters.”

In the weeks leading up to the election, Kenney outlined the broad strokes of a policy platform that begins and ends with jobs and the economy.

He has promised to balance Alberta’s multibillion-dollar budget deficits within four years by freezing current spending and cutting regulations, taxes and red tape to free up entrepreneurs to grow the economy by what he says would be three per cent a year.

Kenney was just 10 years old, sitting on a couch 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,” said 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.”

Forty years later, even if he doesn’t win the Golden Fleece, this Jason hopes he has Alberta’s conservatives all rowing in the same direction again.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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