Trudeau and Kenney: The Best of Enemies?

If current polling trends hold for the Alberta election, we are likely to see a Premier Jason Kenney go toe-to-toe with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In a bizarre way, it could be a faceoff that serves the political interest of both men.

On the face of it, the defeat of the Rachel Notley would be a defeat for Trudeau and his self-described progressive vision for Canada.  She is his closest ally among the premiers.  Both leaders – months apart – catapulted their parties from third place to majority mandates in 2015.  In the halcyon early days of the Trudeau government, Notley was one of the most prominent premiers accompanying the PM to the UN Climate Change conference in Paris.  Her own government was an early advocate of carbon pricing.

As the last remaining female provincial premier, Notley’s defeat would also be a powerful symbolic setback for the “sunny ways” politics espoused by the PM.

But the truth is that Trudeau and Notley have been increasingly at odds.  The obstacles facing the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline have put the premier in a difficult position in Alberta.  The province’s economy has been pummelled by low oil prices.  And, citing Bill C-69, large numbers of Albertans believe that Ottawa has tilted toward environmental action at the expense of the oil sector.  As a result, the anti-Ottawa – and specifically anti-Trudeau – fervor in Alberta has reached record highs.

This is the tiger that Jason Kenney is riding to what he hopes will be a smashing majority victory.  If that does happen, what comes next?

Trudeau and Kenney couldn’t be more different.

The PM is a big-picture type of leader, not known to get mired in the details, keen on broad gestures and with an EQ that is the envy of political leaders not just in Canada, but around the world.

Kenney, on the other hand, is a disciplined, detail-oriented tactician who has spent his entire adult life in politics.  He is said to eat, drink and sleep politics, as comfortable with the machinations of the game as with the spotlight.

Trudeau achieved the highest elected office in Canada without ever having been a minister – a first for a Liberal PM.  Kenney served as a federal MP for two decades and was a respected and powerful minister in Stephen Harper’s government for almost a decade – one of the only ministers in that notoriously centrally-run government, who was trusted off a short PMO leash.

Politically, they couldn’t be further apart.  Trudeau is arguably the most left-of-centre PM the country has had.  Kenney is strictly and unapologetically, conservative.

Kenney also seems to cordially detest Trudeau, often using him as the butt of jokes and putdowns – for which he has had to apologize on occasion.

And he has co-opted some of the most strident anti-Trudeau rhetoric in Alberta – among the province’s so-called “yellow vests,” for example – in his drive for power.

The question is, if Kenney is elected premier, can he and Trudeau work out a modus vivendi?

Previous federal Liberal/Alberta PC leaders were able to.

Under Pierre Trudeau and Peter Lougheed, Ottawa-Edmonton relations were often at a loggerhead – particularly during the National Energy Program in the early 1980s.  But Lougheed was a moderate and a supremely confident avatar of the Alberta – and Canadian – establishment.  Lougheed and Trudeau were able to put rhetoric behind and negotiate a climbdown from the NEP.  Lougheed also negotiated the patriation of the Constitution and the Charter of Rights in 1981, moving from outright opposition to common ground with Trudeau and eight of the other nine provincial premiers.

Jean Chretien and Ralph Klein had a personal friendship that preceded their times as first ministers.  They shared a common bond in their plain-speaking rapport with voters and their blue-collar roots.  That cordial relationship continued through much of their shared time in office – though it was tested by federal cuts to transfers.  It helped that Chretien was able to destigmatize the Liberal brand in Alberta to a small degree by dramatically sweetening the accelerated capital cost allowance, paving the way for oil sands development.

It’s hard to see Justin Trudeau and Jason Kenney working out a similar partnership.

In fact, there’s every indication that each will step up the demonization of the other in order to fire up their political base.

As noted, Kenney has already done so over the last year.  During the election campaign, he’s been running at least as much against Trudeau, who is not on the ballot, as Premier Notley, who is.  Part of the reason is that Notley, despite the unpopularity of her government and some of its policies, is a largely sympathetic figure with many Albertans.  Trudeau, despite a solid Alberta foothold established in 2015, is routinely pilloried in in the province.

But just as Trudeau is the politician Kenney’s supporters love to hate, the reverse can also turn out to be true.  Liberals will see in Kenney someone who uses angry rhetoric for political ends. He’ll be portrayed as a right-wing bogeyman. They’ll target some of his more questionable supporters on the right fringes and they’ll accuse him flirting with Alberta separatists.

And just as Trudeau’s style is what irks many on the right, Kenney – who is only three years older than the PM but seems from an earlier generation – will also be an irresistible target for federal Liberals.  Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to think that he, along with Ontario Premier Doug Ford, will make much more effective foils in the coming federal election the actual leader of the federal Conservatives, Andrew Scheer.

The risk in all this, of course, is rising tensions can escalate out of control. And cause serious damage.  We’ve seen that before in Canada. And these days, the last thing our political climate seems to encourage is restraint and reasonableness.

For all these reasons, it’s a good bet that both Trudeau and Kenney will become indispensable to each other – for all the wrong reasons. They could follow the examples of previous leaders and try to put the interests of their country and their province ahead of the politics. Alternately, they could have a long and mutually beneficial relationship, not as the best of friends – but as the best of enemies.