Keith Gerein: Kenney faces conundrum on whether to stand by flawed campaign promises

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (middle) and Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews (right) announced at Lafarge Infrastructure in Edmonton on Monday May 13, 2019 that their government plans to create jobs in the province by having the lowest corporate business tax rate in Canada. (PHOTO BY LARRY WONG/POSTMEDIA)

In the world of politics, there is an art to making promises, and an art to keeping them.

Generally speaking, the more detail a politician can paint with, the better, while abstractness is undesirable.

Brushstrokes of specificity help to engender trust, giving voters a clear sense of what a leader intends to accomplish. Later on, it’s easier to hold them to account.

But that tends to work only if a promise is a good idea.

For more questionable policies, a highly precise promise can turn into a highly problematic promise. The flaws are more easily detected, yet the pressure remains to deliver.

Which brings me to Premier Jason Kenney.

By his own count, Alberta’s new leader made a whopping 375 promises during the election, many of them of the detailed variety. The UCP policy book was so thick, it would’ve acted as a trip hazard if left on the floor.

Now 16 days into learning the ropes of government, the UCP is starting to get a better sense of where those ideas really stand. In some cases, pledges that were useful tools to get elected make for awkward or unwise government policy.

That leaves Kenney in something of a quandary, and he is already starting to hedge.

Take a news conference on Monday, when Kenney was asked point-blank whether he would make good on his brash campaign vow to fire the board of the Alberta Energy Regulator.

The premier stumbled over his response, before finally saying: “Stay tuned for announcements to come, but we intend to keep our campaign promises of course generally.”

The reply was curious, indicating Kenney is now trying to carve out wiggle room he didn’t allow himself on the campaign. Whether that applies only to the AER pledge, or includes other promises, remains to be seen.

As for the AER, it’s fair to say the UCP has legitimate beefs with the agency’s timelines for making approval decisions.

Yet some part of Kenney must question if removing the entire board in a single breath might be counter-productive, since having some continuity of expertise tends to be helpful during a transition period.

Besides, Kenney’s favourite whipping boy on the AER, former Pembina Institute director Ed Whittingham, has already quit.

Of the remaining members, at least some appear eminently capable of working with the new government. This includes chairwoman Sheila O’Brien, who is a long-serving executive in the energy sector, and Jack Royal, chairman of the Indian Business Corporation.

Still, should the premier backtrack even a little from his promise to fire everyone, it could get him in hot water with supporters. And therein lies the conundrum.

In one sense we want politicians to keep their word, otherwise the whole exercise of designing a platform is rendered meaningless. And we want those platforms to be at least somewhat detailed.

On the other hand, it serves no positive purpose if a government implements bad ideas just for the sake of consistency.

And Kenney in particular has really boxed himself into a corner — in part by releasing such a long list of explicit vows that offer no flexibility, but also in part through his over-the-top rhetoric against the NDP’s carbon tax.

Remember that Kenney has regularly blasted the levy as “the biggest lie in Alberta history,” because there was no specific mention of it in the NDP’s 2015 platform.

Should the new premier now begin to stray from his own platform, the resulting howls of hypocrisy would be swift and justified.

Ultimately where I come down is that the best ideas need to win out, but for that to happen there needs to be political sacrifices.

Parties must ensure their promises are as well studied as possible before they make them, and certainly before they act on them.

On the other side, opposition leaders and advocates should offer some slack to new governments, recognizing the opportunity to get a closer look at the books and get briefed by provincial experts who can change a party’s views.

Scrapping or altering an ill-advised plan should be applauded, assuming the plan was initially made in good faith.

I suspect I’m naïve to suggest this could happen in today’s political climate. But I do see at least a couple of positive signs.

Kenney promised during the campaign to launch an immediate challenge of the federal carbon tax, but said this week that his government is now holding off to review the challenges launched by Saskatchewan and Ontario. That is the right and prudent choice.

Likewise, Kenney has said his government plans to wait for the recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel on provincial spending before making any big decisions on public services.

Other tests of the UCP policy book may come in short order, such as promises to have a lot more free votes, ban floor crossings and hold a referendum on equalization — all of which need rethinking.

No party’s campaign platform will ever be a masterpiece. But allowing leaders a little freedom to use both a brush and chisel after the fact can help ensure something worthy emerges.