I have always tried to avoid getting into arguments with Alberta premiers. After all, as a journalist it’s my job to question politicians, not quarrel with them. But sometimes premiers seem to want to get into arguments with journalists.
In 2006, for example, I got into a verbal tussle with then-premier Ralph Klein, who had suggested he might withdraw Alberta from the equalization program. I pointed out it’s a federal program paid for by federal tax dollars and Klein was either ignorant or playing a cynical political game. Klein, I added, might as well threaten to remove Alberta from the armed forces for all the good it would do.
Klein announced he would never speak to me again. He never did (outside of news conferences).
A few years later I scuffled with then-premier Ed Stelmach at a news conference when I said his plan to significantly reduce Alberta’s greenhouse gas emissions through carbon capture and sequestration was doomed to fail. My argument was based on a research paper I’d written for the University of Toronto. Stelmach pointed out I wasn’t a scientist and therefore didn’t know what I was talking about. (If you’re wondering what happened to Stelmach’s $2-billion scheme to make Alberta an international headquarters for CCS technology, go to Alberta Views’s online archives for my July 2015 story “Pipe Dream: The failure of Alberta’s carbon-capture experiment”).
But in my 30 years of covering Alberta politics I’ve never seen an Alberta politician as keen to get into arguments with journalists as Jason Kenney.
In 2017, after members of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservatives voted to join the new United Conservative Party, Kenney boasted that 95 per cent of PC members voted for unity. When I pointed out that he was inflating the numbers, that only 55 per cent of registered members had bothered to cast a vote, he took a run at me on Twitter in a 10-part tweet.
In December of 2018 I innocently asked UCP leader Kenney when we’d see his party’s environmental platform in advance of the 2019 provincial election. Rather than answer the question, Kenney took a shot at me: “I don’t recall you being quite so excited about this when the NDP released their platform 17 days into the last election, Graham.”
I was completely caught off guard and decided to push back. I pointed out that in 2015, “no one thought the NDP was going to win the election. This time around, we’re expecting you to win the election. It’s a bit of a difference between them back in 2015 and you.” Kenney fired back: “Oh, I see, so there’s a double standard. Interesting.”
I said we in the media had asked the NDP about their environmental plan the first week of the 2015 campaign but they’d been scrambling to cobble together a platform. Running through my mind was the fact the PC government under Jim Prentice had called the 2015 election a year early, catching everyone off guard. I also wanted to mention that I didn’t recall seeing Kenney anywhere near the 2015 campaign.
But at that point I realized I was knee-deep in an argument with a politician, and I didn’t want to become part of the news. Too late. The story hit the wires under the headline: “Alberta Party MLA criticizes Kenney for ‘picking fights’ with reporters.”
Kenney would no doubt deny he was picking a fight. But he was picking a fight. He’s done this with other journalists too, at times dismissing questions he doesn’t like as “fake Twitter outrage.”
It’s all part of his “fight back” strategy. While in opposition, he was chief pugilist. Now, as premier, he has hired a whole tag-team of bruisers in the form of an Orwellian “war room” and a secretive public inquiry.
It’s a troubling sign for democracy in Alberta.
The $30-million war room is Kenney’s Ministry of Truth, designed to “rebut every lie told by the green left.” In a September speech Kenney made it clear he was not just targeting environmentalists but “opinion leaders,” including politicians and the media. The $2.5-million “public inquiry into the foreign funding of anti-Alberta energy campaigns” smacks of McCarthyism. And as inquiries go, it’s not particularly public. It may never hold open hearings and the government has made sure the inquiry’s closed-door “evidence” collecting will remain secret and not liable to freedom-of-information requests.
Kenney might say he’s “fighting back” against Alberta’s enemies, but in fact he’s using public dollars to investigate and attack his political opponents. It’s part of a strategy that allows him to play the victim while actually being the bully.
Klein did the same thing as premier when dealing with his opponents. But even in his most thin-skinned moments, he rarely turned his guns on journalists. Kenney’s fight back strategy doesn’t seem to be so discriminating.