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OPINION | Jason Kenney's pugilistic approach to governing means finding enemies everywhere

When 1,000 protesters staged a massive rally outside Alberta's United Conservative Party meeting in Calgary on Saturday, the UCP couldn't have been happier.

Any other political leader and political party would be horrified to have an army of angry opponents turn up at their annual general meeting.

But not Jason Kenney. And not his UCP.

For Alberta Conservatives, having hundreds of public sector workers chanting "Jason Kenney has got to go!" was a badge of honour, proof that the Kenney government is on the right track with policies that cut spending and slash public sector jobs.

"Some of this will be controversial, some of it will invite protests — saw one today," said Kenney in his hour-long speech to conventioneers Saturday night, as he managed to make a joke of the protest. "I'm reminded of what Premier Ralph Klein used to say: 'If a day goes by and there's not a protest, I'm wondering what I'm doing wrong.'"

People protest outside of the Alberta UCP's annual general meeting in Calgary on Saturday. (Lauren Krugel/The Canadian Press)

In fact, it looked as if Kenney had gone out of his way to make sure there would be a massive protest on the front steps of his convention. On Friday, the government sent letters to public sector unions, notifying them that as many as 6,000 jobs will be cut over the next three years.

Any other premier and any other government would want to keep that sobering news secret until after their annual convention.

But not Kenney. And not his UCP government.

They seemed to deliberately poking a stick in the hornets' nest that is Alberta's beleaguered public sector, which is not only facing job cuts, but also wage reductions and losing control of their pension plans.

'Poking sticks in all directions'

The Friday morning bad-news letters were practically an invitation to the unions to set up Saturday morning's protest.

Kenney insists his cuts are moderate and simply fulfil an election promise — and he says most job cuts will be achieved through attrition. The unions, though, say he has declared war on public sector workers. There are now rumblings of a provincewide strike as a show of defiance.

Kenney has said such a massive labour shutdown would "not be well-received" by Albertans. But the government has also changed a provincial law to give itself the power to hire replacement workers in the event of a public sector strike.

These days, the Kenney government is unapologetically poking sticks in all directions. His speech Saturday took aim at Alberta's NDP, the NDP's "special interest allies," "media pundits," "Laurentian elites," and the one-size-fits-all accusation against unnamed forces whose "destructive economy agenda is hurting working men and women here in Alberta."

It is an us-versus-them narrative that has proven remarkably successful by keeping not only the UCP, but the entire province on a kind of war footing.

And Kenney is the undisputed wartime leader, with a firm grip on his party and government.

Because this weekend's convention was the UCP's first convention since winning a majority government in April's election, his 60-minute address managed to be celebratory, braggadocious, cocky and at times so pugilistic he should have presented it wearing boxing gloves.

The audience of more than 1,200 loved it. They jumped to their feet so many times you'd think there were springs attached to the seats.

Kenney embraces a supporter Saturday at the Alberta UCP annual general meeting. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

The Alberta election is over, but Kenney is still on the campaign trail with a slogan that could be summed up as: Speak loudly and carry lots of big sticks to poke at your enemies.

The largest — metaphorically, the size of a telephone pole — is aimed squarely at the federal Liberal government.

In the UCP's version of reality, the Liberals are no friend of Alberta and are in fact conspiring to undermine the province's economy via policies such as Bill C-48 and C-69 (dubbed by Kenney as "the tanker ban bill" and "the no-more-pipelines bill" respectively). Never mind that Prime Minister Trudeau bought the Trans Mountain pipeline for $4.5 billion and construction work has already begun on the pipeline's multibillion-dollar expansion project.

An Alberta under siege

Kenney has promulgated a narrative that Alberta is under siege by its enemies — just as the UCP convention was under siege for a few hours Saturday afternoon.

The premier has created a $30-million war room to fight back against anti-Alberta elements and set up a public inquiry into "foreign-funded" organizations he claims are trying to landlock Alberta energy.

It's a narrative that helps him justify a "fair deal" for Alberta through loosening its ties with Ottawa by collecting its own personal income taxes, creating its own provincial police force, and withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan to set up an Alberta plan.

During a "Fair Deal for Alberta" session Saturday afternoon, four cabinet ministers spoke glowingly of the proposals. And a straw poll of the audience sparked a near-unanimous show of hands.

The UCP is solidly behind Kenney, and during a Sunday morning session, a party pollster said Kenney's popularity has increased since the election.

Kenny's next target is a meeting next week with Trudeau in Ottawa.

Among the list of demands Kenney shared with excited UCP members: 

Ottawa has already committed to the pipeline but that doesn't fit Kenney's siege narrative. His list is part petition, part fantasy, part extortion — and pure politics.

Kenney is determined to shake things up as much as he can, at home and in Ottawa.

"You ain't seen nothing yet," he told cheering UCP members. "We're just getting started."

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

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