OTTAWA – Raising a future leadership race with Conservatives is like having the sex talk with teenaged kids.
Ewwwwww . . . no way! Can we talk about this some other time?
But who might replace Stephen Harper once he leaves is the stuff of constant speculation behind the scenes – and the chatter is getting louder about one rising star in particular: Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.
Kenney is whispered about as the potential dark horse in a race that might one day include Defence Minister Peter MacKay, Environment Minister Jim Prentice and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, to name a few of the names often bandied about.
The 41-year-old workaholic has attracted attention for taking a pain-in-the-butt portfolio like immigration and making it seem like a tier-one department.
“What I like about Jason is he’s working very hard, and he’s earning people’s respect, I think, by doing a lot of things very well,” said one caucus colleague.
“And what is a leader? A person who can do a lot of things very well.”
One of the things Kenney seems to do very well is carry the government’s message with minimal handholding from Harper’s office. Kenney doesn’t cower before the news media, he barrels head first into them.
Earlier in the year, he steadfastly refused to let controversial British MP George Galloway into the country despite an outcry from free-speech advocates.
Most recently, he was on the airwaves and telephone lines defending the decision to slap visas on Mexican and Czech citizens in the middle of Canada’s summer tourist season.
He also declared last month that immigrants should speak English or French before they’re granted citizenship.
“We don’t want to create a bunch of silo communities, where kids grow up in a community that more resembles their parents’ country of origin than Canada,” he said.
On other issues, from anti-Semitism to Chinese human rights, and his personal beliefs in traditional marriage and against abortion, Kenney lays it all out on the table.
The zest with which he debates such thorny issues might well be a throwback to his days at the University of San Francisco’s St. Ignatius College, a Jesuit-run liberal arts program that encouraged debate and introduced him to the conservative thinkers he was to embrace.
His strong convictions impress some, and worry others who aren’t fans of his positions and policies.
“He’s not a wishy-washy guy,” says Charles McVety, president of the Canada Christian College and someone who’s worked with Kenney in the past.
“That also bodes well for him.”
“He’s a person of strong belief, the jury is still out on whether he gets stuff done or not,” says New Democrat MP Olivia Chow, who worked with Kenney on the House of Commons human-rights committee.
“We used to call him the Energizer bunny going in the wrong direction.”
Part of what makes Kenney’s rise so interesting is that not so long ago he was written off.
He was rapidly climbing the ranks after joining the party in 1997, the young turk who helped found the influential Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
A few years later, he was instrumental in the United Alternative process that gave birth to the Canadian Alliance party from the coming together of Reformers and blue Tories.
But then came the 2000 election, and new Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day’s bumpy campaign that Kenney advised.
Day was eventually forced to call another leadership race when he had a caucus mutiny on his hands, and Kenney was part of the collateral damage.
But like Day, Kenney has made a comeback.
Harper seemed to trust Kenney from the outset, making him one of the top, bilingual spokespeople in opposition and then in government. Kenney is often Harper’s enforcer in the Commons, smiling sarcasm now more his bag than angry spit-spraying across the aisle.
“I think he’s one of the best communicators in the party by far,” says friend and fellow Alberta MP James Rajotte.
“He was certainly one of our best questioners on the opposition side, but also in terms of responding in the House, he’s one of the best ministers at responding. He answers questions intelligently and makes an effort to respond as directly to the question as possible.”
Kenney has not said anything publicly about designs on the leadership, or given any hints he is actively organizing – a career-limiting move for politicians in any party. He remains one of Harper’s most loyal ministers.
But Kenney has a perceived advantage that is already making him a player in the imaginary field.
“The leadership will be decided on who can sign up the most members and get those members to vote. It’s more of a membership drive than a popularity contest,” says McVety.
“Can Jason organize – and it takes organization and troops on the ground to sign up members – can he organize and sign up a lot of members? I think he can.
“That will make him a force to be reckoned with.”
McVety said Kenney will probably be able to count on important pockets of Canada’s Christian community, because of his strongly held views on issues of importance to that segment of the population.
And Kenney’s also worked extensively with Canada’s various ethnic communities, first for party outreach and later as part of his roles as junior multiculturalism minister and finally immigration minister.
Google Kenney’s name and any ethnic group in Canada and you’ll likely stumble upon a picture of Kenney at a barbecue or banquet.
The work helped the Tories pick up 12 seats in the last election, and some argue will help him with a leadership contest.
“If he asked my advice, I’d tell him that he probably has support of the communities he’s worked with. . . . He’s got a hell of a lot of following,” said one caucus member.
“What do you need to win a leadership? To win a leadership it’s a mug’s game, it’s called numbers. And yeah, I think he would certainly be considered someone who could have a good strong foundation going into a leadership race.”
But others in the party are more circumspect about how much pull he’d actually have, should he one day decide to run.
Kenney’s social conservatism will probably wind up being a liability in a party that is trying to appear centrist, says one Tory.
“I think when it comes to leadership, you’ve got to sign up more than the right-wingers,” said the Conservative.
“It’s the old story. Governments are formed from the centre, and leadership wins are formed from the centre. How many right-wingers are there in the country?”
Rajotte, who roomed with Kenney for a while near Parliament Hill, says his friend is much more complex than the hardworking, social-conservative storyline would have one believe.
“For a lot of people, he’s seen as a very serious, intelligent young man and policy-maker, who takes a lot of issues very seriously and to heart,” Rajotte said.
“I’ve seen the other side. He’s an awful lot of fun. He loves a good laugh, a good story, a great sense of humour.”