Kenney's premiership to pose challenges, opportunities for Trudeau

OTTAWA — Jason Kenney's newly secured perch as premier of Alberta poses both a threat and a potential boon to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's re-election chances this fall, political observers said Wednesday in the wake of the United Conservative Party's resounding win in Alberta.

Kenney — an outspoken and articulate former cabinet minister under ex-prime minister Stephen Harper — has made it clear he plans to oppose Trudeau on issues including the carbon tax and equalization payments, and so far has made good on his word, said fellow former Tory front-bencher Stockwell Day.

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"He is clearly ringing their bell right now," said Day. "He's saying he's going to fight hard for those provincial areas of jurisdiction that can help a province determine its destiny."

Kenney's proven skills as a communicator and his experience in the political arena are sure to make him a thorn in the prime minister's side, said Abacus Data chief executive David Coletto. But his history as a Harper lieutenant is another matter.

"I think anytime you have someone who is as articulate and compelling a storyteller as Jason Kenney, who commands the stage and can communicate as well as he does, you can't not say he's a threat," Coletto said.

"I just don't know yet ... whether the threat outweighs the opportunity from the prime minister's perspective."

Kenney's victory, coupled with Doug Ford's win last year in Ontario, gives Trudeau a custom-made narrative: elect a federal Liberal majority as a counterweight to the proliferation of provincial Conservative governments, Coletto said.

Former Liberal leader Bob Rae said Kenney may end up playing a role in helping Trudeau shape a particular narrative against certain populist policies around the environment and immigration in particular.

"Sometimes it's convenient to have a foil," but at the end of the day, voters want more than that, Rae said: "I don't think it's enough to say what you're against."

It's not uncommon in Canada for provincial premiers to find it politically helpful to be seen doing battle with Ottawa, since voters often view provincial and federal politics differently, he added.

Trudeau was keeping a low profile Wednesday, issuing little more than pro-forma congratulations to Kenney — words later echoed by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who did little to disguise her lack of enthusiasm.

"The citizens of Alberta have spoken," she said during an event in Vancouver.

McKenna would not say what her government will do if Kenney makes good on his threat to scrap the Alberta carbon tax, or cut off the flow of oil to B.C. if that province doesn't back off its opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline. Without a carbon tax, a federal backstop measure would presumably kick in — but the minister didn't want to discuss it.

"I'm not going to speculate on any action that may be taken," she said.

Trudeau, for his part, isn't shying away from doing battle with Conservatives over the environment.

In an early-morning speech Wednesday to Liberal party faithful in Waterloo, Ont., Trudeau didn't mention Kenney by name, but he did frame the October vote as a choice between scary-but-necessary change and deciding instead to "hunker down in fear."

"The choice Canadians will be facing is one about striving forward confidently into the future and knowing that if we work together we can solve these big problems," he said.

One of those problems for Trudeau will be some uncomfortable discussions with the incoming Alberta premier, predicted deputy federal Conservative leader Lisa Raitt.

"Whether or not that's going to be a thorn in the side of the prime minister, I don't know," she said. "I know there's going to be very difficult conversations and meetings to be had."

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's connections to Kenney, who served as a Harper minister while Scheer spent much of his tenure in the Speaker's chair, could appeal to western voters, particularly on issues like pipelines and the carbon tax, said Jared Wesley, a political science professor at the University of Alberta.

Other Kenney cornerstones, like a promise to hold a referendum on equalization, could be more problematic outside of Alberta: in places like Quebec and Atlantic Canada, going after equalization can be a "third rail" for federal leaders, he warned.

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