We were expecting a brawl. When Premier Rachel Notley and United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney faced off for the first time in the legislature on March 12, 2018, we were ready for plenty of eye gouging, hair pulling and gut punching, politically speaking.
The two had been enthusiastically on the attack for months. Kenney had called the NDP a “deceptive, divisive, debt-quadrupling, tax-hiking, job-killing, accidental socialist government.” Mimicking Kenney’s adjectival pile-up of insults, Notley had responded by accusing the UCP of promoting “a job-killing, climate-denying, gay-outing, school-cutting, health-privatizing, backward-looking, hope-destroying divisive agenda.”
And here they were finally, literally, face-to-face. And what happens?
Just before question period begins, Kenney gets up from his seat and starts walking across the aisle towards Notley. His startled caucus members erupt with muted cries calling him back. “I intended to actually go over and shake her hand, but then all of my guys started shouting at me,” Kenney told journalists afterward. “Apparently, you can’t cross the floor, metaphorically speaking, here. I just wanted to salute her. At the end of the day, we’re going to disagree on a lot of things, agree on some, but we don’t have to be nasty about it.”
This was pure Kenney, say his supporters. A hail-fellow-well-met politician with a finely tuned respect for all things parliamentary.
To Notley and her supporters, though, it smacked of political theatre. Kenney might act the gentleman inside the Assembly but as has been demonstrated the past two or so years he has a small army of proxies outside ready, willing and able to get nasty.
Notley went on the attack. “We’re not going to take lessons… from the leader of the UCP on our energy future. We had Conservatives in Ottawa, we had Conservatives in Edmonton, and we had conservatives in Victoria for nine years, and they couldn’t get a pipeline built, Mr. Speaker. …No pipeline, no diversification. They had their chance and they blew it. That won’t happen again. We will get that pipeline built.”
Notley let her MLAs run riot. They pounded on their desks, broke into raucous applause and at one point gave her a gratuitous standing ovation.
Remarkably, Kenney and the official Opposition MLAs reacted with silence. No heckling and no jeering of the government, not even a desk thump when Kenney stood to speak. We had expected a political brawl and instead we got something more like a high school debate club.
That was due largely to Kenney, not only because he tends to carry himself as if he’s in a perpetual high school debate competition, but because he had demanded from his caucus a “business-like question period” without “drama” or “fireworks.” Kenney even had them watch videos of question periods in other jurisdictions to show how out of control he thought Alberta’s legislature had become.
The subdued—Kenney would call it civil—behaviour aptly illustrated the iron control he has over his caucus. It also demonstrated the self-discipline and single-mindedness that served Kenney well as he elevated himself from outsider to leader of Alberta’s official Opposition.
Notley, though, wasn’t in the mood to metaphorically shake hands. She even turned question period on its head; instead of giving answers, she began asking the questions. “Albertans deserve to know: Does the member opposite believe that human activity is causing climate change? Yes or no?” demanded Notley of Kenney.
“I am a carbon tax skeptic,” replied Kenney, ducking the question. “Of course there’s climate change. I’ve never denied that.” She asked again: “Does the member opposite believe human activity is the primary cause of climate change? Yes or no?” Kenney ignored the question and stuck to his carbon tax script. And so it went until Kenney shot back, “I see the honourable premier is auditioning to be Opposition leader.”
On that day in the assembly we saw two remarkably different leadership styles: Notley was combative; Kenney, restrained. But they were also strikingly similar. Each was the undisputed alpha leader of their own caucus.
Question period gave a glimpse of the two leaders, but it was merely the tip of the iceberg. Lurking beneath the surface were the years of experience and toil that had shaped them and had brought them together at a critical moment in Alberta history.
For most Albertans the next election will be a battle between two very different leaders.
They are each largely responsible for the success of their own party: Notley by winning the 2015 provincial election; Kenney by unifying the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose into the UCP. As leaders they share common traits but as politicians they are poles apart.
To Notley’s friends, she is fiercely intelligent, funny, loyal, dogged and exceptionally focused. To her critics she is an ideologue who is trying to impose decades worth of social engineering in one term because she knows she won’t win the next election.
As far as Kenney’s friends are concerned, he is smart, exceptionally hard-working, committed to parliamentary ideals and has a great sense of humour. To his critics he is slippery, hypocritical, Machiavellian and prone to using surrogates to do his dirty work.
They are formidable opponents. An irresistible force meets an immovable object.
Rachel Anne Notley was born in 1964 with, for lack of a better term, a union-made spoon in her mouth. Her father was an icon of the Alberta Left, NDP leader Grant Notley, who was first elected as an MLA in 1971, coincidentally the same year the PC dynasty began. “My dad was known back in the day as a very pragmatic New Democrat, and as much as people sometimes perceive me as on the left, I actually see myself as having a very pragmatic approach,” Notley told the Edmonton Journal in 2014 shortly before becoming NDP leader herself.
But she isn’t simply a product of her father’s influence. She was practically weaned on social justice politics by her US-born mother, Sandra Wilkinson, who had been a social activist with leaders of the day such as Abbie Hoffman. Notley herself would attend protest marches before she had turned 10.
Through her father, Notley met some of the greats of Canadian socialism, including federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent. Relating the story years later, Notley couldn’t help but poke fun at herself: “I met him at some event; he smiled and introduced himself and shook my hand and I said, ‘Oh, you have that same fake politician smile as my father.’ Just horrible, right? I was just your standard obnoxious 12- or 13-year-old.”
Notley learned the crucial art of dogged perseverance from watching her father sit as the lone NDP MLA in the assembly for 11 years. Then, in 1982, the party won a second seat. Two years later Grant Notley died in a plane crash when Rachel was a 20-year-old political science student at the University of Alberta. She later received a degree from Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto and returned to Edmonton, where she worked for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.
In 1994 she moved to Vancouver to work for the Health Sciences Association of BC as an occupational health and safety officer. She began dipping her toe back into politics when she took a year-long leave from work to become an assistant to provincial attorney general Ujjal Dosanjh. The files she worked on—including safe communities, family relations law for same-sex couples, and improving how police and courts handle domestic abuse cases—would influence her political policies years later. She was eventually appointed by the BC government to help rewrite its health and safety legislation.
Meanwhile, in Alberta the NDP had become the official Opposition, with 16 seats from 1986 to 1993 before being wiped out. It eked out a comeback in 1997 and see-sawed between two and four seats for a decade. Reluctant to run for office, because she now had two young children, Notley took the leap in 2008, becoming MLA for Edmonton-Strathcona. She quickly proved herself one of the Legislature’s most accomplished politicians—and one of the biggest thorns in the government’s side.
After becoming party leader in fall 2014, she set her sights on doubling, maybe even tripling the size of the two-person NDP caucus in the 2015 election. Then things fell apart for the governing PCs when Premier Jim Prentice helped orchestrate a cynical floor-crossing by Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and most of her caucus. He called an early election with a message of cuts and deficits. Notley countered with optimism and hope, sprinkled with humour, topped by a bold statement: “My name is Rachel Notley, and I’m running to be your premier.”
It worked. Voters warmed to a Notley-centred campaign. Her party won 40.6 per cent of the vote and 54 of 87 seats. Brian Topp ran Notley’s war room and went on to become her first chief of staff. “You don’t get a win like that because somebody came up with a good (joke) on Twitter,” he says in an interview. “You come up with a victory like that because people look at her and say: ‘I trust you.’ We didn’t make that happen. She did.”
Unlike Notley, who was born into politics, Jason Thomas Kenney is a self-made politician whose ideology is steeped in devout Catholicism. Born in Oakville, Ontario, in 1968, he moved at age 8 with his family to Wilcox, Saskatchewan. His father was a fighter pilot and teacher; his grandfather, Mart Kenney, a renowned dance-band leader.
He attended Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, a private Catholic high school, before studying philosophy at the Jesuit-led University of San Francisco in the late 1980s. There Kenney became something of a celebrity. CNN referred to him as “Jason Kenney—Anti-Abortion Activist” in a story about pro-choice students wanting to organize. A February 1990 San Francisco Chronicle article quoted him as saying: “Organizations whose objectives are antithetical to the Gospel, including racist, pro-abortion and homosexual groups, could soon be using facilities and resources that have been consecrated to the promotion of justice and human dignity.”
Notley is unusual; the person you see behind the scenes is the person you see in public. She seems to have little artifice about her.
He quit the university without graduating and despite his socially conservative leanings became an aide to Ralph Goodale, leader of the Saskatchewan Liberal Party at the time. (Goodale has never commented publicly on what it was like to have Kenney as an employee.) Kenney then moved to Edmonton to lead the Alberta wing of the new Canadian Taxpayers Federation, where he made headlines as a fiscal-conservative burr under Premier Ralph Klein’s saddle.
The peak of their stormy relationship came in April 1993 when Kenney launched a prolonged attack against MLAs’ “gold-plated” pensions. The two famously argued in front of reporters outside the legislature cafeteria. Kenney’s relentless and pointed criticisms, though, created a public outcry and Klein responded by scrapping the pension completely.
Later Kenney moved to Calgary and in 1997 won a federal seat for Preston Manning’s Reform Party. He would serve for 19 years, making a name for himself as a socially conservative and hard working MP who rose from obscure backbencher to cabinet minister in several portfolios in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.
Touted as a potential successor to Harper after 2015’s loss to the Liberals, Kenney in 2016 instead tossed his hat into the smaller Alberta political ring.
Ask Notley how she has changed as a leader since becoming premier and she’ll say with a straight face, “I’ve learned to delegate more.” And then she and her staff will erupt in laughter. “As I describe my leadership style, I can see them roll their eyes behind me.”
It’d be more accurate to say Notley is trying to delegate more. “I’ve always been a bit of a control freak, a bit of a policy wonk, and so I was much more hands-on at the very beginning.”
At first Notley didn’t have the luxury of delegating. Not only, as Topp points out, was she largely responsible for the NDP victory, she had almost no one to delegate to. Nobody among the 54 victorious NDP candidates had served in a governing party. Only four—Notley, Brian Mason, Deron Bilous and David Eggen—had experience in the legislature.
Her first cabinet, sworn in on the Legislature steps before a crowd of thousands, had just 12 members, a pared-down body almost unheard of under PC governments. But it was out of necessity, not choice. Notley simply didn’t know who of her group of neophytes she could trust with a cabinet post: “As much as we’re a very centralized operation, we had to be when we first got elected. We had to figure out how to be government very quickly.”
Notley is not a government of one, but there’s no denying she is in charge. “She’s a hero to the people who work for her,” says Topp. That sounds self-serving but it’s also one of the universal themes among people who work closely with Notley: she’s keenly intelligent, reads every file thoroughly, peppers her staff with questions and has a propensity to laugh easily and to use profanity just as easily when angered. When the Federal Court of Appeal ruled against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion last August, a furious Notley unleashed a torrent of expletives behind closed doors before spending the day with advisers crafting a measured speech that took aim at the federal government to get construction back on track.
The Trans Mountain file has been a roller coaster ride for Notley, allowing her to demonstrate a steely, pragmatic side that put her at odds with one-time friend and fellow NDP premier John Horgan in BC. Senior staff say she is responsible for strong-arming the federal government into buying the pipeline project. Polls routinely demonstrate many Albertans appreciate her dogged championing of Alberta’s natural resources.
But the on-again, off-again nature of the project demonstrated a major strategic problem: Notley had staked much of her leadership credibility on an issue that was largely beyond her control and instead lay in the hands of Ottawa and the courts. That wasn’t the way it began. When Prime Minister Trudeau approved the pipeline project in 2016, he praised Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan in general and Notley in particular.
Kenney had to impose a top-down leadership strategy because he built a new party almost single-handedly.
She has been at the centre of every major and minor policy issue ever since. She is both the wheel’s hub and the lightning’s rod. “I think that politics in today’s world and the way we communicate and the way messages are delivered, it’s very personality-based,” she says. “It’s leader-driven and you can’t get away from it.”
Notley has relied on a close-knit, trusted group: Topp, Bilous, Eggen, Mason and, as they gained experience, Health Minister Sarah Hoffman (also deputy premier) and, in one of the most crucial and difficult portfolios, Environment Minister Shannon Phillips. Early on she also relied heavily on the province’s top civil servant, Richard Dicerni, who had been hired just months before by Prentice. Besides being the consummate non-partisan bureaucrat, Dicerni was one of the few people close to Notley who’d ever worked for an actual government in power.
“Over time you learn who’s got the file and who knows the file, then I’m much more inclined to say, ‘Oh, that person is on it, then,’ as opposed to when I first got in,” remembers Notley. “I had a lot of late nights wanting to really dig into things to make sure I was comfortable with the information I was getting.”
Notley didn’t just dig into things, she tore them down, rebuilt them. Topp calls her one of Alberta’s great reforming premiers. Ask Notley about her accomplishments and her office will hand you a list eight pages long. After years as a social justice champion, Notley became a social justice premier. As far as she was concerned, she was fixing things broken or ignored by 44 years of PC governments. Her government banned political donations from unions and corporations, raised the minimum wage, instituted an Alberta Child Benefit, reduced school fees, protected gay–straight alliances in schools and introduced workplace protection for farm workers.
Probably no NDP policy other than the carbon tax has created as much controversy as Bill 6, the government’s farm safety legislation. To Notley, the former occupational health and safety officer, giving paid farm workers the same basic protection afforded every other paid farm worker in Canada—including access to workers compensation and the right to refuse unsafe work—was a “no-brainer.”
The government introduced Bill 6 in fall 2015. The reaction was immediate and heated. Rural conservative voters, already disposed to dislike and distrust an NDP government, staged rallies at the legislature, some literally bringing pitchforks. They said the legislation had been rushed and they hadn’t been consulted. For the more conspiratorially minded, this was proof the NDP wanted to kill the family farm.
“It totally blew up,” said Notley of the reaction. And it put her leadership to the test. She was in Paris at the international climate change conference when protests began to shake the government’s confidence. Many in her neophyte caucus thought they should perhaps pull the bill. “We set up a conference call and I phoned in to the whole caucus and gave them a little pep talk on why we were going to carry through,” said Notley. The legislation was passed, but the government spent the next two and a half years doing damage control and consulting with representatives of farmers and ranchers on the regulations.
Notley certainly has her critics. One even popped up from within her own caucus last fall when backbench MLA Robyn Luff complained about being bullied by the premier’s office and NDP officials. Within hours of going public, Luff found herself disowned by Notley and booted out of caucus by a unanimous vote of NDP MLAs, who said Luff simply didn’t understand the nature of party discipline. If nothing else, the altercation demonstrated that out of necessity Notley is as much a disciplinarian over her caucus as any political leader in Canada.
But even the premier’s political foes are careful not to attack her personally. Notley is perhaps unusual in that the person you see behind the scenes is pretty much the person you see in public. She seems to have little artifice about her.
Her opponents praised as swift and decisive her reaction to the devastating Fort McMurray wildfire. Notley made a point of personally keeping Brian Jean (then leader of the official opposition Wildrose as well as MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin) informed. She did not want a repeat of the very personal and very bitter fight between then-Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and then-Premier Alison Redford during the great flood of southern Alberta in 2013 that destroyed part of Smith’s riding in High River.
“I was in the legislature during the debacle post-flood in Calgary when you saw Smith and Redford completely lose their minds with each other,” says Notley. “It was vicious ridiculousness. So we decided… to work very hard to keep those guys included and listen to what they had to say.”
As a self made politician, Kenney had to elbow his way into federal politics. He did so again in 2016 with a creative shtick at his first news conference as a provincial politician.
As Kenney laid out his ambitious plan (to become leader of the PCs, unite them with the Wildrose to form a new party, and then become leader of that new party) he presented his “Grassroots Guarantee.” “I’m offering this grassroots guarantee to make it absolutely clear that a new, united party will only be created if approved by a clear majority of grassroots party members in a fair, open referendum. This grassroots democracy is absolutely non-negotiable,” Kenney said, signing a large green poster board as if that would make it legally binding.
The following year—after impressively fulfilling his original plan that led to the formation of the UCP—he offered another “Grassroots Guarantee,” this one saying that policy in the new party “must be developed democratically by its grassroots members, not imposed by the leader.”
Both “guarantees” were more than a bit cynical. But there was guile in his gimmickry. Even though Kenney had spent 18 years as an Alberta MP in Ottawa, he was an outsider to provincial politics (something he would awkwardly prove first-hand in his thwarted “floor-crossing” to shake the premier’s hand). PCs worried his track record against same-sex marriage and abortion meant he was too conservative, and Wildrosers worried that because he had spent his political career at the federal level he was too “Ottawa.”
Kenney needed a way to demonstrate he was not a political deus ex machina arriving to lecture the Alberta rubes on how to do politics. He’d show them he would take marching orders, not give them. His “guarantees” served two purposes: They allowed Kenney to portray himself as a “servant-leader,” and also conveniently allowed him to refuse to discuss his views on policy in any detail (other than to promise to scrap the provincial carbon tax).
This drew the ire of his main opponent in the UCP leadership race, Brian Jean. “Albertans deserve to know what the leadership candidates stand for,” said Jean, who accused Kenney of fostering “personality-based politics.” For Jean, the leadership race devolved into a frustrating shadowboxing match where he couldn’t seem to lay a glove on his rival. Instead, Jean found himself under attack from various quarters but rarely from Kenney directly. An online screed from a Christian commentator, for example, attacked Jean over his support for gay rights and questioned his Christian bona fides.
Kenney’s team denied any involvement, but Jean’s supporters suspected they were under attack from Kenney surrogates including MLA Derek Fildebrandt and leadership contender Jeff Callaway. Callaway’s sudden entry into the race meant someone could strike Jean while Kenney could float above the fray. Callaway denied he was a proxy for Kenney—but after criticizing Jean for months, Callaway suddenly dropped out of the race just one day before he had to pay $37,500 as the final instalment of his entry fee.
Callaway’s campaign has since been dubbed “kamikaze-gate” thanks to a taped conversation from 2017. It surfaced in December 2018 and was apparently between Wendy Adam, a campaign organizer for Callaway, and an unidentified man. “Jeff is going to run a serious campaign but the reason that we’re running Jeff as a serious campaign is because Jeff will be able to say things about Brian Jean that Jason Kenney cannot,” says the voice identified as Adam’s. The other voice on the tape chimes in, “It’s a kamikaze mission.”
“Exactly,” comes the response.
(Adam and Callaway refused to directly respond to media questions about the tape. UCP officials also refused comment.)
Kenney handily won the UCP leadership—and he maintained the “grassroots guarantee” right up until he didn’t need it. Just two days before the UCP’s founding convention in May, Kenney’s grassrootsguarantee.ca webpage—which included the promise that “the policies of the United Conservative Party must be developed democratically by its grassroots members, not imposed by its leader”—abruptly went dark.
When party delegates passed some contentious resolutions, including one that essentially called for students to be “outed” to their parents for joining a gay–straight alliance, Kenney said he’d ignore it. “Guess what: I’m the leader,” he told journalists. “I get to interpret the resolution and its relevance to party policy.”
Kenney’s critics immediately labelled him a hypocrite. Chief among them was one-time ally Fildebrandt, who had by now been barred from the party by Kenney after a string of small scandals. “He wouldn’t be the first leader in Alberta to run a dictatorial party,” says Fildebrandt. “But to wrap yourself in the language of the grassroots, to sign a giant blown-up billboard with your signature for a grassroots guarantee and then turn around and be the complete opposite, takes some gall.”
However, Kenney’s supporters say he is merely being pragmatic, that as leader he has to balance what party members want and what will be palatable to the general public. They’ll say that Kenney’s views on social issues—such as abortion and same-sex marriage—have evolved over time just as they evolved among the general public.
Notley was combative; Kenney, restrained. But they were also strikingly similar.
Neither Kenney nor his inner circle would agree to an interview for this story. But friends and former colleagues are happy to shed light on a man they deeply respect. Former MP and cabinet minister Monte Solberg says of Kenney: “As much as anyone I know, he’s devoted himself completely to politics. I think primarily because he thinks [he] can change things and make things better. So, he is idealistic and that’s very admirable.”
Solberg says Kenney’s skills as an administrator largely go unreported, but his experience as a federal minister building support amongst ethnic voters in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver has helped him build the UCP across Alberta. “It’s not very sexy work, but it’s super important,” says Solberg. “The poor Alberta Party’s been around for awhile but they’ve never succeeded at that. Even the New Democrats, although they’re better, they’ve really struggled to get out of Edmonton and Calgary. That’s something Jason has been very good at.”
One word continually pops up when talking about Kenney: discipline. He’s a remarkably self-disciplined individual and has no trouble promoting, even demanding, discipline in others. In a July rally celebrating his party’s formation, Kenney mentioned “discipline” often. He appealed for discipline in UCP nomination battles. Some of the contests had become bitter fights where some would-be candidates had a history of posting hateful or otherwise contentious comments to social media. “So much is riding on this next election and we cannot allow the extreme remarks of one individual to jeopardize the future of this province,” said Kenney. “So, that is why discipline is terribly important. Discipline in all that we do as MLAs, as candidates, as party activists.”
Kenney demonstrated discipline—and drew criticism—by having his entire caucus walk out of the Legislative Assembly 14 times last spring rather than participate in a debate on a bill enlarging anti-protest zones around abortion clinics. The NDP accused Kenney of ignoring women’s reproductive rights and abandoning his role as Opposition leader. The UCP saw the bill as a cynical trap designed to make social conservative MLAs air their personal views against abortion.
That is why Kenney is seen by some as “dictatorial,” say his supporters. He has to impose a top-down leadership strategy at times because he has built a new party almost single-handedly and it is bound to have growing pains. “In the old days you could say something in Foremost, Alberta, and it would stay in Foremost, Alberta,” says Solberg. “It doesn’t stay there anymore in the age of Facebook and Twitter and people shooting videos with their phones. You do have to be careful.”
The next election will be a battle of competing principles and policies, but for most Albertans it will be a battle between two very different leaders: Rachel Notley and Jason Kenney. Two formidable opponents, two disparate leaders, two very different visions for the province. An irresistible force has met an immovable object. It’s now up to Alberta voters to determine which is not invincible.
Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.