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Sean Speer: What Jason Kenney’s critics on the Left and Right get wrong

Commentary

This week marks Jason Kenney’s last as United Conservative Party leader and in turn Alberta premier. Party members will choose his successor next week on October 6. 

Kenney’s inevitable, if not immediate, exit from politics after more than a quarter century is a natural moment for reflection on his accomplishments, lessons, and legacy. 

I traveled to Red Deer last week to interview him at the Canada Strong and Free Network’s regional conference. Our on-stage exchange was before about 250 conference attendees as well as journalists from alternative and traditional media outlets. 

I didn’t speak to the premier or his staff about the interview in advance. As I said in my opening comments, this was the conversation that I wanted to have with Jason Kenney. 

It was a wide-ranging discussion that covered immigration and identity, the rise of so-called “woke politics”, his government’s policy record, the state of Canadian conservatism, and his own mark on Canadian life. 

Kenney demonstrated his strong command of conservative ideas and public policy as well as his deep attachment to Canadian institutions and values. He also displayed a bit of personal reflection about his maturation from a self-described “ideological firebrand” to seeing his conservatism as a disposition more than a dogma. 

There were plenty of interesting insights. His observations about the intersection between immigration, culture, and national identity were especially sagacious. As one of the most successful federal immigration ministers in modern Canadian history and someone who has been lauded by conservatives across the Anglosphere as a model on these issues, Kenney certainly has a lot of experience and knowledge to draw from. 

His chief point was that a successful immigration policy must combine a firm commitment to cultural and religious pluralism, economic inclusion, and a shared sense of citizenship. These elements are ultimately critical for attracting immigrants, enabling their integration within the economy and society, and maintaining broad public support. 

Kenney’s comments about the growing agitation within Canadian conservatism were also notable. He described a shift from the “friendly populism” of Ralph Klein to a “populism with a snarl” in the present political moment. He cited the role of social media as well as the growing detachment of legacy media and the rise of alternative media as key factors in this trend. The upshot was his warning that conservatism must avoid becoming a “caricature of a kind of nasty, angry populism that will lose consistently at the polls.”

As part of this particular exchange, Kenney issued a broadly-reported call for civility on both sides of the political spectrum. As he put it: “I know this is an old-fashioned sentiment, but I actually believe civility is a conservative value. And there is a growing sense of profound incivility. And it concerns me greatly.”

The polarized reaction to our conversation from the Left and Right speaks to Kenney’s point. His comments have been criticized by both sides in a way that seems detached from his ideas or record. The real caricature, in other words, is Kenney himself in the minds of his critics. 

The Left’s hostility reflects a common trend in which it rhetorically asks, “Where are all the reasonable conservatives?” while treating a completely conventional, centre-right politician like Kenney as if he’s some radical ideologue because he lowered taxes, cut spending, and believes kids should learn facts in school. The predictable protests and outrage are frankly a bit tiresome. They generally amount to expressions of intolerance made oxymoronically in the name of tolerance. 

The negativity from the Right is a bit more surprising. The Kenney government may not have been perfect from a conservative point of view but that seems like an odd measuring stick for conservatives who, if anything, ought to be committed to a basic realism. Conservatism, after all, is about seeing the world as it is as opposed to through a utopian lens. 

As I’ve written elsewhere, Kenney’s record is, by any reasonable measure, one of significant conservative reform. His government lowered taxes, cut regulations, reduced spending and balanced the budget, expanded school choice and introduced a new, sensible curriculum, and significantly expanded private health-care delivery. These are ideas and reforms that many of the premier’s right-wing critics previously championed for years. They can’t seem to take “yes” for an answer. 

Consider a thought experiment: if you removed Kenney’s name and just put his government’s record to conservatives in hypothetical terms, how do you think they’d respond? I’d bet that they’d be overwhelmingly positive. And for good reason. As I wrote for The Hub in the immediate aftermath of the premier’s resignation: “[this] was the country’s most ambitious centre-right provincial government since the Harris government’s Common-Sense Revolution in Ontario more than a quarter-century ago.”

The main point of tension of course was the government’s pandemic response. My sense is that this essentially involved two groups of Alberta conservatives. The first had legitimate yet debatable criticisms of the government’s messaging and policy choices. It comes down to questions of information asymmetry, trade-offs, and the benefits of hindsight. One suspects that Kenney might even agree with some of these points. 

The second group became less reachable over the course of the pandemic. Their opposition to the government’s pandemic policies hardened into an angry obstinance that came to trump facts or debate. Some were understandably agitated by the costs and consequences of extraordinary government restrictions including the loss of family businesses, the temporary closure of places of worship, and the inability to be with aging or dying relatives. Others succumbed to conspiracy theories about the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates, and the vaccines. The point though is that this second group, which ultimately played a key role in the UCP leadership review, became increasingly and irrevocably alienated from the premier and his leadership.  

The political problem, as one of Kenney’s chief critics explained to me at the conference, is that this left him inauspiciously wedged between those on his Left who favoured more stringent COVID restrictions and those on his Right who wanted none. It became an unsustainable political position that ultimately cost the premier his job. 

There’s no point in relitigating these questions as Kenney’s tenure officially comes to an end. But as he gets set to exit public life, it’s worth recognizing his immense contribution to the country in general and Canadian conservatism in particular. He has left a profound mark as a key architect of the modern Conservative Party and its nearly decade in office, and more recently as the founding leader of the United Conservative Party and a reform-oriented premier. As I said in my concluding remarks, the next generation of conservatives will invariably stand on his shoulders.

Patrick Luciani: What do we owe the future?

Commentary

Review of What We Owe the Future
Author: William MacAskill
Publisher: Basic Books, 2022

Life is full of problems. Enough of them to occupy all our time. From a looming worldwide recession and the environment to raising families and world conflicts. We now have another obligation: to worry about future generations. Not the immediate future that affects our kids and grandkids, but the distant future, hundreds of thousands of years from now. 

That’s the message from What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill, a bright young ethics professor at Oxford University. Professor MacAskill has already earned considerable fame as a scholar; he’s also co-founder of the Centre for Effective Altruism and raised over $200 million for “effective” charities.“Effective altruism (EA) is a philosophical and social movement that advocates ‘using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis’.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effective_altruism MacAskill makes a case for “longertermism,” a somewhat awkward word that stretches the meaning of the long-term out of all proportion. 

He believes that the future is hugely important not only because future people matter, but what we do today can have a profound effect on those yet to come. And because we can make their lives better, we must help “steer the future onto a better course.” If future generations don’t have a vote on what we do now, MacAskill argues we should at least give our far-off descendants more consideration and stop over-discounting the future. 

MacAskill asks us to consider how young our species is. Homo sapiens started 300,000 years ago. For every human alive today, ten have gone before. If humans should live to the average of typical mammalian species, 100 million years give or take, over the next 700,000, 80 trillion children are yet to be born. Wrap your head around that. We are the pioneers, the primitives at the very, very, very, very beginning of human history. 

What can we do to make that inconceivable future better, given all the unimaginable directions it could take? First, we must reduce the odds of destroying ourselves by nuclear annihilation, environmental disaster, or pandemics. Second, we can attempt to ensure that correct “values” are embedded in future generations. 

No one would disagree with the first point since it’s not a matter of protecting the future but a selfish desire to keep ourselves alive. The second is more interesting. MacAskill makes the interesting point that the values we’ve inherited and hold dear about individual rights, freedom of expression, and racial and gender equality aren’t necessarily guaranteed. He makes that case for what he calls “moments of plasticity.” These moments or occasions usually arise after times of social stress or wars where people come together to prevent past harmful behaviour. 

MacAskill gives an example of the U.S. Constitution. It was written in a mere four months, yet the Bill of Rights was amended eleven times in the first six years. This is the moment of plasticity when things could change and improve. Amendments slowed considerably after that, making change harder. The last change was 50 years ago with the 27th Amendment. MacAskill’s point is that laws and norms are easier to change in the early stages. Wait too long, and our laws and moral codes solidify like molten glass.  

Another case in point was slavery. Abolished more than 200 years ago, some argue slavery would have inevitably disappeared. Not so, according to MacAskill. Dominant wrong values often get “locked in,” persisting for long periods. The history of the twentieth century is a period where moral progress not only stopped but regressed, leading to Nazism and Stalinism, proving there’s nothing inevitable about moral progress. According to MacAskill, it’s vital that we “lock in” good moral values and pass them on before it’s too late. I assume he means encoding these values into law for later generations. 

But are these arguments persuasive? We worry about future problems that await our children, grandchildren, and perhaps great-grandchildren, but our bandwidth for compassion is limited to only a few generations before it dissipates completely. 

I admire MacAskill’s compassion for future generations, and he’s correct that we put too much emphasis on our immediate needs while undervaluing the needs of generations to follow. Small and good moral changes today could have profound benefits in the long term. But what does it mean for those living today to worry and sacrifice for homo sapiens hundreds, thousands, or millions of years in the future?

Philosopher Peter Singer has taught, and we’ve accepted, that saving a child on the other side of the world is just as valuable as saving a child in our own neighbourhood. That we understand. Aren’t we asking too much of our feeble goodwill to put the same value on lives still on the inconceivably distant horizon? And what makes us think our moral values are the ones future generations will want? Isn’t that imposing our form of “presentism” beyond our time? 

Imagine the incomprehensible turns and twists of fate that could and will one day distort our notion of morality beyond our recognition. Our values are not set in stone. The future truly is a strange country. 

Professor MacAskill ends with the cheery thought that if we get things right, our grandchildren’s grandchildren will thank us. If human nature is a guide—and most parents know this—the last thing we’ll get is gratitude.