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

There he was, a re-elected Premier Doug Ford and looking relaxed the morning after his victory in Ontario. He media questions parried on the future of cabinetmaking, proportional representation and more, each of its pivots returning to its own talking points punctuated by applause from the Progressive Conservatives gathered somewhere offscreen. Flashing these pearls, lightly joking with reporters.

Winners do that.

Meanwhile, in Alberta, Jason Kenney waited almost two weeks after getting the results of his end of career leadership review to answer questions from reporters, during an announcement of an Edmonton hospital expansion.

When asked this week to reflect on his own low ratings, Kenney remarked on the impending success of “my friend Doug Ford,” who overcame low endorsement numbers to beat his electoral rivals. It might have sounded melancholy. The future premier of Alberta would never have attempted such redemption himself.

An open and closed case

In that game of comparative politics we tend to play when one prominent conservative triumphs and another falls, let’s reflect on how outrageous that was compared to recent trends – Ford rushing to the lecture lectern of press and Kenney turning away from it.

There is an art to political communication, and its dimensions include quality and quantity. History will remember that Ford increased its majority in stay away microphones, while perhaps Kenney was talking about his work.

But it’s more nuanced than that. Ford turned out to have better timing with it all.

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

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

During his years in federal government, Kenney became the minister who was comfortable and confident in front of the cameras, and regularly served as the designated policy explainer for Stephen Harper, a prime minister more wary of the media. When the head of government serves as the chief explainer, as Kenney would every time Alberta flipped its variously controversial COVID policies, terms like “Professor Kenney” can become strip around.

This trend changed little during Kenney’s premiership. Not all parties put the leader front and center when his popularity is underwater, but the prime minister’s instinct to stay ahead has held. With his leadership on the line this year, Kenney has dug in with more airtime, steadily taking talk radio show.

He had Ford undertones, actually. When he was a city councilor and his brother Rob was the mayor of Toronto, they had a weekend phone show in Toronto. When their horizons became terribly cloudy, the Fords left the airwaves. A decade later, Doug Ford has had little exposure to reporters throughout this campaign.

This bubble system means Ontarians really only heard 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 politician on largest in the province. But, his advisers may say, it also means he has won.

“Keeping Doug Ford away from the media and the public during the campaign might have been the right decision, as respondents had a strongly negative reaction whenever they heard, saw or read anything about him. Ford,” observed Queen’s Park Today. newsletterciting a survey by the Innovative Research Group.

“According to the data, 73% said each time they got information about Ford it made them view it less favorably, 27% said it made no difference, while 0% said it made them see it in a more favorable light.”

Ford, when left to his own devices in public, can become combative with the media and pugnacious with his opponents. But the past few weeks Ford hasn’t been left to its own devices – it’s been a carefully polished version of the PC leader that the public has seen.

This was an image created in the campaign store. He followed the lines of his advisers closely, even carrying a binder into the leader’s debate to help him stay on point to speak.

Ontario PC Party Leader Doug Ford and his wife Karla react after he was reportedly re-elected Premier. He now earns the right to serve until at least 2026. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

In Alberta, outside of the blue van, there seemed to be little outward image-making around Kenney. He easily deviated from the script with his own asides. In speeches or long replies, “Oh, by the way” is his idiosyncratic way of alerting the world to a detour down the message path.

When more talk was a gift

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

Kenney let Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw become the face of everyday reassurance in Alberta; for some reason, he could never do the “First Dad” thing. He would instead have come to be the face of COVID politics and would end up being hated by those who wanted more action and less.

No one in the field to replace Kenney has his reputation for talkativeness, even though one of them has spent years as talking radio host. Much of Travis Toews’ early campaign materials emphasize his willingness to listen to people, a sort of response to one of Kenney’s most criticized traits.

Maybe four or five years ago, four or five years ago, everyone in Conservative politics wanted to appear as smart as Kenney and not as crass as Ford. Four or five years is a long time in politics.