It’s standing room only in a Calgary convention centre when Ontario Premier Doug Ford rushes in from stage right to be ushered onto the platform by United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney with a high-five and a hearty backslap before the two thrust their clasped hands skyward and the crowd cheers.
The anti-carbon-tax rally in fall of 2018 was perhaps the peak of what, once upon a time, was dubbed the “bromance” of Ford and Kenney, when they marched arm in arm against the Liberals in defence of provincial jurisdiction and the imposition of a federal carbon tax.
Back then, the newly elected populist leader of Ontario and the former federal politician who’d gone west to champion Alberta — Kenney would become premier in April 2019 — were the vanguard of a cross-provincial conservative movement going full tilt against Justin Trudeau in Ottawa ahead of last year’s federal vote.
But as reality sets in after that election, times are a-changing.
“It looked for a while like one of those hot spring flings. They were very, very close and couldn’t leave each other’s company,” said conservative columnist and commentator Tim Powers.
“But now it looks like summer, fall and winter have set in.”
After Andrew Scheer and the Conservative party failed to take down Trudeau, who won a minority government in October, political analysts say Ford and Kenney now must focus on the problems at home and look at working with the federal government.
The realities of running a province are creeping in, Powers said. That means the close political alliance may be starting to take a back seat to the demands of two very different jurisdictions that have their own problems to deal with.
“Both of them are not as high in the polls as they once were. They’ve been in office a little longer than they once were … Being cuddly cosy and kissy maybe isn’t the best strategy for the moment.”
Part of it, he added, is that the constant railing against Trudeau has been dialed back — the “Trudeau pinata” has been taken down, at least for now — as both provincial leaders realize that maintaining a cordial relationship with Ottawa is required to get a lot of their own work done.
It may have been an unlikely match. Ford was a populist, riding a wave of anti-establishment support all the way to Queen’s Park in 2018, while some see Kenney as an establishment Conservative, who spent many years in Ottawa as an MP before swapping out suits for jeans to campaign for premier across Alberta in a dark blue pickup.
But according to one former Ontario Progressive Conservative staffer, the bromance — a term Postmedia reported that Kenney used himself at the national Conservative convention in 2018 — was more than just politically expedient for the two premiers.
“They really balanced themselves out with Doug being that more regular, for lack of a better term, ‘for the people’ kind of politician, versus Jason who has that significant career experience — I think something there clicked,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“It did genuinely seem like there was a positive relationship between the two, not just a political narrative.”
In the beginning, Ford and Kenney deployed similar-looking policies. They both tied post-secondary funding to performance, and asked universities to conform to the Chicago Principles, a set of controversial free speech guidelines. Both provinces relaxed liquor laws and both declared themselves “open for business” after being elected. Of course, they also both scrapped their respective consumer carbon programs, had a federal carbon tax imposed on them at the beginning of this year and are challenging the federal tax in court.
University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young says pulling from the same playbook is a staple in the modern conservative movement, with organizations like the Manning Centre, a non-profit aimed at bolstering conservatives, influencing political operatives.
Despite all they have in common, their political futures seem to be diverging, she said.
Young says Ford must try to capture moderates in the centre of the political spectrum at home and Kenney will have to deal with a separatist movement on his right, which could prove dangerous for him in the next provincial election.
“For Kenney, the real challenge in the next election is keeping from having a Wexit party that is siphoning off 20 per cent of his vote.”
At the outset of their mandates they “looked at each other’s notes,” she said, but as priorities for getting re-elected become more visible in their respective jurisdictions, that will change.
Along with the re-election of the Liberals came an eruption of western angst in Canada. Saskatchewan and Alberta have significant blocks of the population considering separating from the country (around a quarter each). Ford, along with his fellow conservative premiers in the East, Manitoba’s Brian Pallister and New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs, isn’t likely to cosy up to Kenney if he continues flirting with separatists, according to Young.
“Politicians like having solidarity with each other, but fundamentally, they like getting elected,” she said.
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So Kenney may have to find a way to keep the Wexiteers onside if he wants his United Conservative Party to win another election. Too many separatist votes could go elsewhere and allow another party to drive up the middle. Already, Kenney has struck a “Fair Deal Panel” to look at ways Alberta could get more autonomy in the country, including a provincial police force and an Alberta Pension Plan. The premier has also spoke about holding a referendum on the Canadian Constitution and writing the concept of equalization payments out of it.
The federal Conservative party is also undergoing an identity crisis, says Lori Williams, a policy studies professor at Mount Royal University. Since Scheer announced he was stepping down, prominent Conservatives like former Nova Scotia MP Peter MacKay and current Ontario MP Erin O’Toole have put their names forward to lead the party.
Williams said the leadership race, which is set to conclude in June, has underscored divisions in the party along regional, ideological and linguistic lines. Much will depend on the outcome of that contest when conservatives consider a cross-provincial alliance of premiers trying once again to take down the Liberal government, said Williams.
“We don’t have a Conservative leader who’s really effective in Opposition in Ottawa, and each of the provincial leaders are advocating for their own interests,” she said.
Powers, the conservative strategist, says Kenney and Ford are both likely taking a wait-and-see approach to the Conservative leadership race. Although the two are friendly and able to work together, there’s always competition in politics: “Everyone wants to be seen as the big leader, the big dog, so to speak.”
In the absence of a federal Conservative leader, Kenney is probably the biggest conservative voice on the block, he said. Kenney wanted Rona Ambrose to run, but now that she’s decided not to, he “doesn’t have a natural pony in this race.”
Still, Kenney will be an important ally for any future Conservative leader, given the party’s evergreen popularity in Alberta.
Williams also said that voters signalled in polling throughout the last federal election campaign that they wanted both provincial and federal governments to address big problems affecting all Canadians, like the economy and climate change.
Kenney and Ford will have to work hand in hand with Trudeau to accomplish their goals, like getting pipelines built and having viable plans for the environment, she said.
“(Voters) don’t care about the disputes, the differences between levels of government or between parties,” she said. “They care about finding solutions to the problems they’re facing on a day-to-day basis.”
The division between the Alberta and Ontario premiers may be somewhat personal now, too, going beyond the simple need to get re-elected.
During the election, the federal Conservatives asked Ford to stay away from the campaign trail because he was seen as a liability with his support tanking in Ontario — a province where the federal party desperately needed seats.
Meanwhile, Kenney attended Conservative events and stumped for Scheer. The Alberta premier is known for his ability to drum up support during elections, a reputation stemming from his time as a federal MP under Stephen Harper.
But the two provinces still have some common ground. Both likely still want Trudeau out of power and the courts are still dealing with both provinces challenging the federal carbon tax.
“As you get further into your mandate, there’s greater propensity to go your own way,” said Young.
“Governing becomes more reactive … economically, Ontario and Alberta are in very different places.”
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