THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 4, Season 12
Sunday, October 9, 2022
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Jason Kenney, Outgoing Alberta Premier
Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier-Designate
Location: Calgary, AB
Mercedes Stephenson: From the political wilderness to the premier’s office, Danielle Smith wins the UCP leadership, and outgoing Alberta Premier Jason Kenney gets candid about his party.
I’m Mercedes Stephenson in Calgary. Welcome to The West Block.
Danielle Smith gets ready to take over the premier’s job. But with the provincial election next year, will she tone down the rhetoric that helped her win the leadership?
And, an exclusive interview with outgoing premier Jason Kenney after 25 years in politics. He has a lot to say about Ottawa, Donald Trump and the future of the Conservative Party.
Danielle Smith’s victory as leader of the UCP signals a new direction for the party and the province after three challenging years for outgoing Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.
Kenney has spent 25 years in political life, rising from Reform MP to a senior Harper cabinet minister, to premier of Alberta.
I sat down with the outgoing premier on the eve of Danielle Smith’s victory.
Premier Jason Kenney, thank you so much for sitting down with us.
Jason Kenney, Outgoing Alberta Premier: Great to be with you.
Mercedes Stephenson: You have spent your whole life in politics. It has been all-consuming for you, from your time as a young man in the young Liberals, up to being a Stephen Harper federal cabinet minister, the premier of the province of Alberta. What is the biggest lesson that you take away from politics?
Jason Kenney, Outgoing Alberta Premier: One thing that—an idea that inspired me to get into politics, came from John Turner, believe it or not, who I was a big supporter of and was somewhat close to. He always used to say that after the calling to a religious ministry, the most important form of service was in elective office. I mean the experiences I’ve been able to have over the past 25 years in elected office are just vast from my time as minister of immigration, encountering new Canadians and their heroic stories of overcoming adversity, to getting real depth on complex policy files being minister of defence, and now, I think having the best job in Canada is premier of the best place and the best country in the world. It’s a great privilege, but it’s also huge, hard work and there are sacrifices involved in that.
Mercedes Stephenson: I want to ask you about the state of the Conservative movement: federally, provincially around the world. It has become angrier. It has become more populist. What is your view on the state of the movement now and what its future is? Are you concerned?
Jason Kenney, Outgoing Alberta Premier: Yeah, I am very concerned. Some of what I see now, what I call it populism with a snarl, is not conservatism. It’s about tearing things down and blowing things up and that concerns me. You know I think that social media has played a factor—a role in that. Donald Trump has legitimized a lot of anger and even kind of conspiracy theories. COVID put that on steroids. And so I think there is a small but very energized faction of the public, here in Alberta and elsewhere, who right now are frankly, looking for recrimination on COVID, on vaccines, on issues like that, these globalist conspiracy theories that are circulating. If the Conservative movement or parties become characterized by those kinds of deeply angry and destructive views, then I think the movement will lose any right to be a governing party.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that Pierre Poilievre is doing enough to deal with that?
Jason Kenney, Outgoing Alberta Premier: You know, I think that Pierre has—since the moment he was elected leader, he’s demonstrated great discipline and focusing on the kitchen table issues that matter to ordinary Canadian families. I’ve known Pierre since he was a teenager working on my first campaign when he was 15 or 16. He’s a brilliant young man, and I think he’s also wise beyond his years. And I think he’s in that wisdom, he understands that to become prime minister, he needs to speak to the aspirations of regular Canadians not to fringe issues. And I think he’s doing that. You know, I think he’s really in his wheelhouse, focusing on the cost of living, inflation, irresponsible federal fiscal and monetary…
Mercedes Stephenson: But is he doing enough to deal with the angry? I understand those are things you see he’s doing are positive, but is he doing enough to deal with what you’re calling fringe elements, people who’ve you called lunatics, who you say you’re worried they’re going to take over the Conservative movement?
Jason Kenney, Outgoing Alberta Premier: Well, look, Pierre does not have those views. I think he’s—but one thing he’s not doing is falling into the media trap of somehow the idea that the federal Conservative leader has to take personal responsibility for every nut bar on Twitter or everybody who shows up at an event with marginal views. You know, for some reason parties to the left are never held to that standard by your colleagues in the media and I think Pierre…
Mercedes Stephenson: I would disagree with that.
Jason Kenney, Outgoing Alberta Premier: Generally speaking. I think Pierre is saying that—stating his views and those of the Conservative Party focusing on core issues and I think that’s the right path.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that you did enough in your time as premier when you reflect back, to deal with this rising tide? Is there something that you wish you’d done differently?
Jason Kenney, Outgoing Alberta Premier: You know, Mercedes, I recall during COVID, if I used to have—if I stood up at a microphone to say that we’re going to have to bring in restrictions that I really didn’t like because we were running out of hospital beds, I found that there was a cohort of the population who never heard that because they were watching some alt right anger machine telling them that the hospitals were empty and the nurses were just doing TikTok videos, or they were just circulating conspiracies on the internet. So I have found through COVID, an inability to communicate basic facts to a certain element of the population and I don’t know how to remedy that.
Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve said that you believe COVID is essentially what derailed you. You are a politician who has never been defeated electorally, but you’ve been defeated by your own party. Why do you believe that COVID had that effect for you but it didn’t for Doug Ford or Scott Moe?
Jason Kenney, Outgoing Alberta Premier: Well, may I challenge that? I think 52 per cent is a win and not a loss. But I—Mercedes, I was, in my own mind, planning to leave public life in a couple of years anyway, and I thought given all that we’ve been through, the division—obviously division in my party and caucus and that number, that to continue to slog it out just didn’t make any sense since I have achieved what I set out to do in Alberta politics, to reunite the free enterprise forces, win a large mandate, implement 95 per cent of a huge ambitious platform, have an Alberta economic renaissance, incredible diversification, leading the country in economic and population, grow deep reforms in education and so much else. I thought, look, I don’t have anything to prove. I’ve paid my dues. I’ve done my service. So maybe this is the right time to move on and let other people serve. I don’t regard that as a failure, to be honest with you. But I do—there is something in…
Mercedes Stephenson: So you don’t think you were pushed out? You saw that as a moment that you were ready to leave.
Jason Kenney, Outgoing Alberta Premier: Oh, I think it was definitely—I mean, obviously, a very difficult division that would have made—that would have probably continued in some form. But on your point, I will admit that I took a bit of a naïve idealistic view about caucus and in a Westminster parliamentary tradition. I kind of took a textbook, old school British approach to that. And I now think in retrospect that was wrong, particularly in the crisis of COVID. I mean you—I was in the caucus of Stephen Harper, where everybody understood the indispensability of loyalty, of discipline, of teamwork, of keeping it inside the caucus room. And that characterized the other Conservative governments in this province of Doug Ford. He kicked out six MPPs for going off side government policy and COVID and the vaccines. They started two alt right parties that between them got 2 per cent of the vote. And he won a historic second mandate. Scott Moe had some of the turbulence that we had internally, but the discipline that it never became a divisive factor for his party. So, you know, if I were to go back, I would—I think I would have taken a more traditional Harper or Ford approach to managing those internal issues.
Mercedes Stephenson: I’d love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between Alberta and Ottawa. You are a rare politician who has been on both sides of this. You’ve been yelled at by the premiers when you were on the federal side and you’ve been one of the premiers with, I believe, one of your former staff told me you didn’t like the begging bowl politics of going to Ottawa and asking for money. What do you believe that relationship needs to look like for Alberta going forward?
Jason Kenney, Outgoing Alberta Premier: Well, it has to start with respect. Why has this prime minister never come out here and said, you know, Albertans, I, and Canadians, appreciate the fact that you have carried a hugely disproportionate share of the national economy for decades. You are 11 per cent of the population, but 20 per cent of the economy, that your oil and gas sector has been one of the great engines of social mobility for people who have moved from poverty to opportunity in this province from across the country moving here, from the unemployed fisherman of Newfoundland, to unemployed B.C. forestry workers and central Canadian manufacturing workers, who came here to this—when did the prime minister ever say that Alberta’s energy sector is the greatest engine of employment and income for First Nations in Canada? So, how about starting with an acknowledgement of the oversized role that this province has played? I believe the vast majority of Albertans, I know that they are proud Canadians, but sometimes they feel like that’s not recognized from our national leadership, which is, let’s face it, in a couple of his campaigns, Justin Trudeau openly campaigned against this province and its largest industry.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that Justin Trudeau is who Albertans wanted to hear from?
Jason Kenney, Outgoing Alberta Premier: Well, it wouldn’t hurt. But the reality is that it also has to be expressed in policy. You know, here we have the situation—we’ve been—I’ve been calling this for years, Mercedes. You know that there was going—there was a pending energy security crisis. The invasion of Ukraine has highlighted that. I’ve always said the world needs more Canadian energy to compete with and displace dictator oil that is used to—that is weaponized to fuel conflict around the world. And now we see that in stark relief. We see it with energy scarcity. We see it with the energy security crisis, and Alberta, Canada is a key part of the solution. When I asked the prime minister to pick up the phone and call President-elect Biden, to say please don’t cancel the Keystone XL pipeline. Talk to us first about how we’re reducing emissions in the oil sands, about how we’re engaging First Nations, about how we can be partners in continental energy security. He basically told me to get lost. No call was made, absolute abject surrender. That’s not, I think, what people expect of a national leader to defend our national interests.
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Mercedes Stephenson: Do you believe that a Danielle Smith led UCP party can win an election?
Jason Kenney, Outgoing Alberta Premier: I believe that a Conservative Party focused on the ordinary concerns of regular people, a mainstream Conservative Party, will defeat the NDP. I think a Conservative Party or government that is focused on a campaign of recrimination over COVID, politicizing science, entertaining conspiracy theories, campaigning with QAnon is a party that can’t form government and shouldn’t.
Mercedes Stephenson: What are you going to do next?
Jason Kenney, Outgoing Alberta Premier: Well, time will tell. I will take some time—some stock, hopefully catch up on rest. And I’m looking forward to new challenging, hopefully some new opportunities in the private sector. But I’d—you haven’t heard the last of me yet.
Mercedes Stephenson: The final time we’ll talk to you as Premier Jason Kenney on The West Block. Thank you for making time for us over the years and we’ll keep in touch.
Jason Kenney, Outgoing Alberta Premier: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, I sit down with the UCP’s new leader and Alberta’s next Premier Danielle Smith.
Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier-Designate: “And Ottawa should be treating us with the same respect that they treat Quebec. That’s all we’re asking for.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Danielle Smith is back on the political stage after winning the UCP leadership. It took until the 6th ballot, but Smith won with almost 54 per cent support.
Smith appealed for party unity in her victory speech last week, making it clear that her real target is Ottawa.
Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier-Designate: “No longer will Alberta ask permission from Ottawa to be prosperous and free.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Danielle Smith will be Alberta’s third premier in four years. I sat down with her at a Calgary landmark, the Petroleum Club, to find out what her leadership will mean for Alberta and the country.
Danielle Smith, thank you so much for making time for The West Block today.
Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier-Designate: My pleasure.
Mercedes Stephenson: Congratulations on your win. Not an unexpected victory, maybe a little tighter than you would have liked. And now you have to pivot from winning the UCP base to winning over Albertans. How are you going to do that? And does it mean that you have to moderate on some of your platform?
Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier-Designate: Well I’m very mindful that the other candidates ran very strong campaigns and they had a lot of great ideas that came forward. So part of the process we’ll go through now is having the caucus come together, put all those ideas on the table and choose the ones that we want to move forward with in the fall, as well as in the spring session and then also for the general election. Remember the general election’s not that far away. So there are some great ideas that came forward. I only ran on three big issues and I think there was widespread consensus in our party and among the candidates that we need to reform our Alberta Health Services. We need to put—we need to change the legislation on the Human Rights Act to make sure that we’re not discriminating against people on medical choice and not having lockdowns again. And then also we need to pursue greater autonomy and pushback against Ottawa. We all had different ideas about how we want to do that, but I think there’s widespread consensus that those are the three priorities for the fall.
Mercedes Stephenson: Are you concerned at all that you’ve been one of the most unpopular frontrunners for the UCP candidacy across Alberta when that’s exactly you have to win in a vote and you only have until May to do that.
Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier-Designate: You know, I think what happens in a campaign is that everybody has a first choice, but then they’re also perfectly happy with whoever the second or third choice might be. And I got a lot of that feedback from people that especially among the MLA’s who were supporting other candidates, I had long conversations with all of them. Many of them came and introduced me at speeches and they had the same message that whoever wins, we’re going to get behind the leader. And I think that that’s the case for our members as well that they just want to be united. They want us to win.
Mercedes Stephenson: But what about the rest of Alberta, because that’s who you have to convince.
Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier-Designate: There is always a conversation that you have with your members, 125 thousand. And now there’s the broader conversation that we have to have with the general public. But I think that they’ll see with the way that we govern that we have heard that the issues that mattered to our members, matter to everybody. Everybody is concerned about affordability issues, the spike of electricity and natural gas, home heating bills, the cost of gasoline and diesel, groceries, concern about mortgage going up. People are concerned as well about the learning loss that their kids had over these last two and a half years of constant open and close shutdowns, as well as we have to make sure we deal with the severe mental health crisis that we have, especially among our young people. And so those are going to be the issues that I think are everybody issues. Those are not partisan issues, and you’ll see us talking about that a lot.
Mercedes Stephenson: So does that mean kind of a Pierre Poilievre like pivot away from things like the Alberta Sovereignty Act and vaccination status towards affordability and pocketbook issues?
Janet Brown, Alberta Pollster: Well, you know, the NDP has been kind of quiet and they’re probably—I think they’re using the give them enough rope strategy. I think there’s enough going on in the UCP and the UCP has frustrated the average Albertan enough. But, you know, this race is leaving the NDP in a pretty good position. I would guess if an election were held today, and of course that’s a hypothetical, we’re not having an election today. But if we were, I think the NDP would be poised to win a majority government.
Mercedes Stephenson: Wow.
Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier-Designate: It’s not instead of, it’s in addition to. It always has been. I mean, I know that there was a lot of attention paid to a couple of the policies that I ran on, but I talked about all of these things in every campaign stop that we made as well. So, I think it’s really maybe just more a matter of emphasis. In this first month, we’re going to have to start tackling Alberta health reforms so people will see that we are serious about fixing the problem that we have with rural ambulance, as well as the long waiting lists happening in emergency rooms.
Mercedes Stephenson: Alberta health care is in a really, really dire situation and one of the things you talked about in your victory speech is more front line workers, which sounds great in theory. Where are you getting them from?
Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier-Designate: There’s a couple places that we would get them from. One, we have all of these restrictions in recognizing certification, not only from health professionals coming from across the country, but from around the world. So I have a good group of people that I’ve—had been advising me about how we could fast-track that process so that we would be able to recognize credentials and get people in our system faster. We also have bottlenecks in graduating kids from all of the different programs and so I want to work with the universities to understand how we can increase those numbers of spaces. And we also have to make it a welcoming environment. So much of what happens is our front line workers get burnt out. If you have to work too much mandatory overtime, if you’ve got terrible working conditions, if you don’t feel like you’re ideas are being respected, if you’ve got too many managers standing in your way, I think that we can attract a lot of people back into the system, who I think got frustrated with how things have unrolled over the last two and a half years.
Mercedes Stephenson: It sounded, listening to you on Thursday night, like Ottawa is almost more your target than the provincial NDP. Is that true?
Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier-Designate: We are Ottawa’s target and have been. The gravest disappointment that I had after Alberta gave an equalization referendum and a mandate for us to renegotiate the relationship with Canada, the first thing that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did is appoint Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, who has done nothing but attack our industries since he’s been in that position and now he’s expanded to attacking our food producers. I think that that was exactly the wrong message for Ottawa to send to us. And so we are going to make sure that we push back against their invasion of our jurisdiction which they do all the time. I think you saw an early example of that last week when Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said that we are not going to be implementing or enforcing the federal government’s gun confiscation scheme. We have much higher priorities for policing, which includes stopping guns coming in across the border and getting into the hands of criminals in Calgary and Edmonton. It is not going after those who purchase guns legally. And it was interesting by pushing back, we heard Saskatchewan say we’re not going to enforce it either. Then Manitoba say we’re not going to enforce it either. And the public safety minister said well if the provinces aren’t going to do this for us, we can’t do it then. So I think the provinces are now beginning to realize that we are not a subordinate level of government to Ottawa and Ottawa should be treating us with the same respect that they treat Quebec. That’s all we’re asking for.
Mercedes Stephenson: I thought it was interesting listening to some of the targets that you had or some of the promises you made speaking of jurisdiction. I’m looking at your speech from Thursday night and part of what you said is we will not be told what we must put in our bodies in order to work or travel, and we will not have our resources landlocked or our energy phased out of existence by virtue signalling prime ministers. Those are both federal jurisdictions. You don’t control borders. You don’t control air travel and you definitely can’t run a natural pipeline without the federal government. Do you think you’re at risk of making promises that you don’t actually have an ability to implement?
Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier-Designate: Health care is provincial jurisdiction. And the pressure that the public health agency at the federal level put on our administrations here was inappropriate. And we are not going to be enforcing federal lockdown measures or federal restrictions. Remember, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been suggesting that he may bring in new restrictions in the fall if we don’t get to a 90 per cent level of booster shots.
Mercedes Stephenson: But how would you stop him from doing that?
Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier-Designate: Well we certainly won’t be enforcing that here. And I think…
Mercedes Stephenson: But you don’t have control over the aviation and security border.
Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier-Designate: We have control over our own provincially regulated industries and we, unfortunately, walked in lockstep on the issue of that restriction exemption program. They piggybacked on our system to be able to enforce QR codes. If they want to enforce QR codes, they’re going to have to do it themselves. They’re not going to have us do this work for them. So that would be one way that we would push back against them.
Mercedes Stephenson: But these promises that you’re making are still—they’re outside your jurisdiction.
Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier-Designate: I haven’t seen that he’s—he, in fact, ended the travel mandate, which is good. But he’s still trying to bring in mandates on federally regulated workers. And we’ll watch and we’ll see what happens there. Yes, banking is federally regulated, but credit unions are provincially regulated. Yes, cross border trucking is federally regulated, but provincial trucking is provincially regulated. We’re going to make sure that there is no worker who gets fired from their job because they have made a medical choice about being vaccinated, and we can do that in our jurisdiction. We can protect people and take care of them and that’s what we will—that’s what we intend to do.
As for getting our products to market, Section 92A gives us the exclusive right to develop our resources, conserve our resources and export our resources. And so I’m going to not wait any longer for the federal government to create economic corridors for us. We have Crown lands under our jurisdiction. We have treaties in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta. We have a willing partner in our First Nations communities to develop those economic corridors and we’re going to develop them. And if they want to stop us, I’ll be prepared to have the court decide on that, because I think we will win. If we enforce our right to get our products to market, if we work in collaboration with our First Nations on economic reconciliation, the trade and commerce provision of the constitution was given to the federal government so that they would clear away any restrictions to us getting our goods to market. It was not given to them so that they could block our goods getting to market. And you bet I’m ready to have that fight if they’re going to challenge us on that. But we’re going to move forward.
Mercedes Stephenson: Is tabling the Alberta Sovereignty Act still going to be your first priority as premier?
Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier-Designate: First priority just from a timing point of view, I won’t be in the legislature until later in the year. So the first priority is going to be addressing the crisis that we have in health care. And I hope that we can make some really quick changes to help getting more local decision-making, more local control, more support for our front line that would be our first priority. But in the legislature, yeah, my intension would be to change the Human Rights Code, as well as to also bring in the Sovereignty Act.
Mercedes Stephenson: Danielle Smith, that’s all the time we have. Thank you so much for joining us and congratulations again on your win.
Danielle Smith, Alberta Premier-Designate: Thank you. My pleasure.
Mercedes Stephenson: We’ll be back with more from Calgary after the break.
Mercedes Stephenson: Danielle Smith doesn’t have a lot of time to put her stamp on the province before an expected election in May. We’ll be watching closely. What happens here has implications for the whole country.
From Calgary, I’m Mercedes Stephenson for The West Block. We’ll be back in Ottawa next week. Happy Thanksgiving and thanks for watching.
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