Jason Kenney didn’t know when to stop talking. Doug Ford did

There he was, a re-elected and relaxed-looking Premier Doug Ford on the morning after his win in Ontario. He parried media questions about future cabinet-making, proportional representation and more, his every pivot back to his own talking points punctuated by applause from the assembled Progressive Conservatives somewhere off-camera. Flashing those pearlies, lightly joshing with reporters.

Victors do this. 

In Alberta, meanwhile, Jason Kenney waited nearly two weeks after he got the results of his career-ending leadership review to take questions from journalists, at an Edmonton hospital expansion announcement.

When asked this week to reflect on his own poor popularity ratings, Kenney remarked upon the imminent success of “my friend Doug Ford,” who had overcome low approval numbers to trounce his election rivals. It could have come across as wistful. The soon-to-be-former Alberta premier would never get an attempt at such redemption himself.

An open-and-shut case

In this game of comparative politics we tend to play when one prominent Conservative triumphs and another collapses, let’s reflect upon how aberrant from recent trends this was — Ford rushing to the news conference lectern, and Kenney shying away from it.

There’s an art to political communication, and its dimensions include quality and quantity. History will record that Ford grew his majority by staying away from microphones, while Kenney perhaps talked his way out of a job.

But it’s more nuanced than that. Ford proved to have cannier timing with all this.

He’s learned when it made sense to talk and when he should talk less, and how to heed advice. Kenney appeared to have one track. This two-week absence from the spotlight was his longest in a while, and came only after it was too late.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announces he’ll step down as United Conservative Party leader after 48.6 per cent of United Conservatives voted against his leadership. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

During his years in the federal government, Kenney became the minister who was comfortable and confident in front of cameras, and served routinely as the designated explainer of policies for Stephen Harper, a more media-wary prime minister. When the head of government serves as chief explainer, as Kenney would whenever Alberta toggled its variously controversial COVID policies, terms like “Professor Kenney” can get bandied around.

This tendency changed little over the course of Kenney’s premiership. Not all parties put the leader front and centre when the leader’s popularity is underwater, but the premier’s instincts to stay out front held firm. With his leadership hanging in the balance this year, Kenney dug in with more airtime, taking on a regular talk radio show.

It had shades of Ford, actually. When he was a city councillor and his brother Rob was Toronto mayor, they had a weekend Toronto call-in show. When their horizons got awfully cloudy, the Fords left the airwaves. One decade on, Doug Ford was minimally exposed to reporters throughout this campaign.

This bubble scheme means that Ontarians really heard only what Ford and his team wanted them to hear from him, and much of the traditional stress-test of a campaign was not applied to the province’s most important politician. But, his advisers may say, it also means he won.

“Keeping Doug Ford away from the media and the public during the campaign may have been the right call, because respondents had a strongly negative reaction any time they heard, saw or read anything about Ford,” observed the Queen’s Park Today newsletter, citing an Innovative Research Group survey. 

“According to the data, 73 per cent said that anytime they got information about Ford, it made them view him less favourably, 27 per cent said it made no difference, while zero per cent said it made them see him in a more favourable light.”

Ford, when left to his own devices in public, can get combative with media and pugnacious with opponents. But the last several weeks weren’t Ford left to his own devices — it was a carefully refined version of the PC leader the public saw.

This was an image crafted in the campaign shop. He hewed closely to his advisers’ lines, even hauling a binder into the leader’s debate to help him stay on talking point.

Ontario PC Party Leader Doug Ford and wife Karla react after he was projected to have been re-elected as premier. He now wins the right to serve until at least 2026. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

In Alberta, outside of the blue pickup truck, there seemed to be little outside image-making around Kenney. He’d readily veer off-script with his own asides. In speeches or lengthy answers, “Oh, by the way” is his idiosyncratic way of alerting the world of a message-track detour.

When more gab was a gift

There was a point at which Ford was on a much looser communications leash, with daily news conferences during the first year of the pandemic. It was a time for leaders to comfort and reassure the public, and Ford handled the sort of daily briefings that would seem alien to Queen’s Park reporters today.

Kenney let chief public health officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw become the face of daily reassurance in Alberta; for whatever reason, he could never do the “Premier Dad” thing. He’d instead come in to be the face of COVID policy, and wind up disliked by those who wanted more action and less.

Nobody in the field to replace Kenney has his reputation for loquaciousness, even if one of them spent years as a talk radio host. Much of Travis Toews’s early campaign materials stress his willingness to listen to folks, a sort of response to one of Kenney’s most-criticized traits.

There may have been a time four or five years ago when everyone in conservative politics wanted to come across as clever-seeming as Kenney and not as unpolished as Ford. Four or five years is a long time in politics.

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